“I trust your first time went well?”
“What’chu talking about?”
Aerin grabs my forearm, a childish grin on her face.
“Well princess, you’re glowing far more than usual, no?”
“I’m always ‘glowing’, ‘Rin.” I reply, my fingers drawing air quotes.
The elf rolls her eyes playfully and coughs before continuing.
“The act of pleasure that you humans call reproduction?”
Oh, that. I forgot that elves preferred to call it ‘bonding‘.
“You know, I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s one thing to be lovingly fingered, but having him work me is something that our fingers can’t compare to.” Normally I’d never utter such things, but between the both of us there were hardly any secrets.
“Bonding with your first love is wonderful indeed, no?” She offers solemnly, and I can’t help but contrast the moment with my emotional mess this afternoon.
“Yeah, though the initial bit was real weird. It’s like being impaled an unbelievably rigid, unyielding shaft, without the pointy bit, and damn, I didn’t expect it to fill me up that much-” I reply.
The elf’s laughter turns into coughing, and motions for me to continue.
“I can’t say much because it’s a new experience for the both of us. But I love that he takes it slow, savoring the fact that we’re inside each other…”
I stare into the fire, reminiscing how comfy he felt.
A loud cough interrupts my warm thoughts, and I see Aerin hacking violently, clammy hands frantically clawing at her throat. I rush to her side and pat her back, tying to ease her distress while searching for one of the two healing potions in my pouch. I pop it open and reassure: “This will help you feel better, ‘Rin.” Aerin nods, tilts her head back and sips some. For a second the elf stops, only to continue up a mixture of phlegm, blood, and healing potion into the fire. The fire turns crimson for a brief second, but thank the gods that was the last of it as Aerin stabilizes, though a shade paler than usual.
“You alright?” I ask, wrapping my arm around my best friend.
“I am fine, thank you.” Aerin croaks hoarsely, resting her head on my shoulder. The elf gestures to the rest of the potion. I nod, running my hand through her hair as she chugs the potion, and add: “I can get you some herbs for that, you know.”
“I am fine. Though the same goes for your right ankle first, no?”
“Nah, it only hurts if I stress it too much. Might as well let it run its course.”
“Being a lazy princess as usual? Check.”
I bonk the elf on the head.
“Regarding the mini-Sashas popping out of you, I have a say in the names, yes?”
“What? No! We’re not having kids right now silly!”
Aerin chuckles softly, her enjoyment of my exasperation seeming to perk her up despite what happened three seconds ago.
“While I’d love to start a family in the future, right now it’s the high life for us.”
“I for one can’t wait to play with your offspring.”
“You have all the time in the world.” I concur, poking my elf in the cheek.
“Not if you keep poking me like that, you don’t.” she chuckles.
“Speaking of kids, I think the relationship that Al and I had since we were kids up till today kinda feels like a giant act of foreplay. And things turning out this way… I don’t want to let him go again.”
“For one, you’re admitting that you have loved him unknowingly, but his leaving made you realize it.” Aerin asks, clearing her throat.
I sink into silence as I rack my brain, my eyes trailing the sparks as they soared into the night sky. Shared memories from a darker time fill my mind, a time when all seemed bleak and hopeless.
“If I had to say, I think I fell for him back when we were in Barovia*.”
“That was three years ago.”
“Strahd throwing you off the high tower?”
“Well… no, though Al pulling off what he did was a pretty cool stunt.”
“The priest with a vampire-child?”
I nod in response, and continue:
“I love how Al didn’t hesitate to feed the poor kid his blood, then reconciling father and son one last time before we did what had to be done. How he was constantly giving the kids there candy despite how bleak their existence was. Or how he rallied the people against their dumb leaders AND Strahd made me realize the boy I knew just wanted people to be happy no matter how hopeless it was. And I’ve wanted nothing but happiness for him ever since.”
“Sounds like someone familiar, indeed”, replies Aerin, a lazy smile on her face as she turns behind.
My question goes unanswered as Nika and Aldor show up, the latter standing atop the shoulders of the former. The dwarf leaps off gracefully, a pleased look on her face as she announces:
“Arrite ladies, no feedback tonight because we’re celebrating. We just got invited to the Lords’ Alliance** Spring Gala in Baldur’s Gate, thanks to Aldor’s good work in Ravenfall.” The man bows, a smug look on his face as he winks at me. I blow him a raspberry as Aerin asks: “I for one appreciate your visiting instead of sending for us from Baldur’s Gate. Though how were you certain that we’d be here anyway?” He chuckles heartily, “A wise lady once taught me: miss your first date, and a certain someone will feel like choking you. As for the latter, you can thank our fellow Harpers for that.”
Given that Nika was an honorary High Harper and Eldath’s*** chosen, it made sense that the local (Berdusk) branch knew of our little camp on the outskirts of their city. I scan Nika’s face for any signs of hesitation, but discern only a calm, pleased demeanor. Though the Harpers were known for being elusive, sometimes shady do-gooders across the continent, I can’t help but wonder if Nika was still welcome at an event hosted by the Lords’ Alliance, given her history with some of their dwarven members.
“My guess is Sasha choked you real good.” My elf asks my man.
“You’re one to talk about consent. Why does that not surprise me?” Aldor laughs.
“For one, your princess sure became real feisty in your absence.” Aerin chuckles hoarsely.
“Given how interesting ze trenches were back zere, I’m all EARS.” He points at his ears, and the elf bursts out laughing, having forgotten what happened a minute ago.
“For starters, there are the quirks and fetishes.” She purrs.
“Color me interested.” He gestures dramatically, doing that thing with his eyebrows. Aerin clears her throat and continues, but I ignore them. Nika rolls her eyes, probably thinking something along the lines of: ‘what did I do ter’ end up with a bunch of horny kids?’
My senses are glued to the campfire as Nika prepares dinner. Setting the marinated chicken by the fire and adding some of Al’s fae spice on top, the blaze shifts from orange to green to purple and back to normal as the spices worked their magic. The beautiful aroma becomes irresistible as the effects take hold, the bird turning a beautiful shade of orange/brown/red as the cooking process accelerates. Nika turns the skewer gently, whispering a prayer of peace and camaraderie while lovingly performing taste tests. Minutes later, we’re laughing by the fire as Aldor recounts tales of his harrowing experiences in Ravenfall, spoiled by Nika’s fantastic cooking. Aerin and I take turns serenading our company (without coughing). Filling the night air with silly songs concocted from recollections of gibberish, silly encounters, of love, friendship and reunion into the night, grateful for all the things our party went through together. The dread dimension of Barovia couldn’t dampen our spirits, and tonight was proof of it!
A silken, deep voice skirts the periphery of my mind: “Enjoying yourself?”
“Yeah, it’s good to have Al back, uncle. Care to join us for once?” I reply telepathically.
“I’ll pass as always, my dear. Cherish your loved ones and make your wishes, for the skies are in motion.” he whispers, retreating into the lamp, leaving me with a gentle urge to look up.
My eyes are greeted with a sky full of shooting stars, and with everything in the world right once more, I wish for Aerin to get better. And for the night to never end.
But the night did come to an end, and I feel it before anything else. A gentle rumbling that rocks me awake, opening my eyes up to a tangle of my own hair, the first rays of dawn, and the sound of Aldor’s gentle breathing. Apparently he’s undisturbed by whatever it was that woke me up. I untangle myself from Aldor’s arms, wrapping myself in a blanket and stepping outside the wagon. It goes off again, a deep, guttural roar that shakes the foundations of the land.
It takes me a full second to realize that the roar belongs to a dragon… ah fuck.
Aerin steps out into the center of our camp, decked in her set of armor (I forget that elves don’t need sleep). She fights off a cough, shoots me a knowing look, and goes to get our resident chef while I get the deep-sleeper in my wagon.
Though Berdusk was no stranger to combating dragons, the massive breach in the outer wall indicates otherwise. It takes us fifteen minutes to arrive, and in that span of time who knows how much destruction could have been caused?
“We got ourselves a colossal red, very pissed off. Ancient, definitely not beauty pageant material”, came Aldor’s quasi-whimsical assessment as a ball of fire erupts into the sky. “Watch yourselves out there, kids. Reds outmatch other chromatic dragons in sheer brutality.” Nika warns, a throwback to our earlier adventuring days. “Aye aye, ma’am!” I chuckle playfully, slipping on my pair of lucky gloves. Cloak of greater evasion? Check. Uncle’s ring with a charge of true polymorph spell? Ready. Leather armor? Snug. Hair? Perfect. I’m ready.
“I assume our game plan is the same as back in Dojyu****?” Aerin asks as she dons her war-helm. The dwarf nods and adds: “Same old. Al keeps it busy, we bait it outta town. Sasha locks it down, we finish it.” The elf nods as she unwraps a package on her lap, freeing an artifact of the holy shroud that contained it. “Damn, Aerin, are you really going to use that?” I ask apprehensively. “These are desperate times, no?” she replies reluctantly, unravelling the final layer. A crimson light floods the wagon, and a wave of terror courses through me just by basking in its presence. “Yer right, Aerin, but let’s only use Hjärnel to kill it as a last resort”, Nika warns, clearly uncomfortable being in the artifact’s presence. “Noted, ma’am”, she affirms, carefully wrapping the holy shroud over her left gauntlet. The elf winces as her hand wraps over the spear, only to break into a fit of coughing. I see a brief flicker of agony cross her determined countenance, and a stain of dark red on her right gauntlet as she recovers.
“We’re here, ladies!” yells Aldor as he guides our past the wreckage of what I think was the west gate. Nika doesn’t wait, bounding ahead with the grace of a cat. Aerin follows suit, but takes a completely divergent path to avoid contact with any living soul. It’s worse than I thought. Smoke fills the sky, the eastern part of the city goes up further in flames as the dragon prowls on. From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem to be actively destroying things, but rather… searching for something. “Keep an eye on Aerin for us, will you?” Aldor cautions. He caresses my face, and flash a loving smile in as I return the gesture. “Love you, Red. Stay outta trouble”, he cautions me cheerfully. “Right back at you, dum-dum”, I reply as Aldor flickers, replaced by a ghostly echo of himself (clone), and I turn to see him already running to battle. Rolling my eyes at his audacity to pull that trick on me again, I run after my party, ignoring the tiny pricks that of annoyance in my right ankle.
Seeing the city in panic fills me with many emotions. It angers me because many good folk will have lost something, if not everything. It saddens me because they are hurting, and outside of taking down the dragon, there’s not much else we can do to help them. It fills me with adrenaline because this encounter was a fresh experience despite the plethora of perilous foes that our party overcame. And it doesn’t help that the same people that we’re trying to save are getting in our way to battle, so we take to the rooftops.
“Change of plans, kids! Kill zone’s by der’ cathedral next der’ river, draw it there! I’ll coordinate our efforts with der’ High Lady.” Nika yells as she leaps off toward the nearest section of the wall. Aldor pauses, yelling at folks to make haste as he conjures a second arcane blade to compliment his trusty rapier. Satisfied, he leaps forth, his rapier slashing the empty air below him. “Cya Red, don’t let me have all the fun!” he laughs, cleaving a hole in space and bounding through to whatever lay beyond, leaving his echo with me.
Below us, the crowd grows thinner as local Harper agents break cover to assist the evacuation, and I am joined by a pack of battle-ready adventurers below. Clearly eager to take down their first dragon, the rag-tag bunch rush forward, only to be met with a tide of flaming debris as the dragon hurls the remnants of a building at us. Mana surges through me as I point my hands at the ground in front of them, willing the earth rise. In a heartbeat, a bulk wall of earth explodes from the ground in front of them and absorbs the brunt of the fireball. Some cower, probably regretting life decisions, and others wave their weapons frantically, clearly impatient for a fight. “Listen up!” I yell at them. “I know you’re either feeling brave or scared, but you better stay the fuck away from that thing! Find a rooftop and hit it from afar-” Only to be drowned out by an ear-splitting roar.
“THIEF! RETURN WHAT YOU STOLE!”
Theft? Well that explains a lot, and I make a point to find and give that thief a piece of my mind after the fight. The wall crumbles as I drop focus, and the rag-tag bunch begins to comprehend what we’re up against. Even from afar, the colossal dragon dwarfs the burning city, a literal force of nature unleashed as it punily grounds buildings to dust. Aldor’s lips move as appears in front of the dragon, but between his acrobatics, I cannot make out the sound.
“THAT MASK IS MINE! MINE!!”
The dragon’s open maw tracks Aldor’s movements, a roaring blaze barely missing him as he reappears above its left wing. Digging both his weapons in, gravity does the rest as Al tears a large chunk of the wing off and disappears through another hole in space. Ichor gushes from the gaping wound, spewing on to surrounding rooftops and worsening the existing conflagration. My stomach knots, hoping that nobody got caught in that. Surely there’s no way Al would steal from an ancient red dragon, right? Though I wouldn’t put it past him to pull off such a stunt as part of some obscure job, but if it was… I hesitate to think of that.
On the bright side, my man had the dragon’s undivided attention.
“What a resplendent specimen. Shame its temper is that short.” My uncle’s amused voice fills my head, snapping me back to reality. I ignore him and take a deep breath. The surge of mana invigorates me as I point at the creature’s left wing, willing the damn thing to freeze solid. A battle cry escapes my lips and a torrent of cold air surges past me as a thick block of ice coalesces on the wing and freezing the wound. Undeterred, the monster continues with its ravenous intent to kill Aldor, shrugging off both physical and arcane projectiles like toys. To Al’s credit, nobody’s better at the job than him, because the dragon’s approaching the kill-zone.
“DAMNED LITTLE THIEF! DIE ALREADY!”
“Tick tock.” Whispers my uncle. “Alright people! I need all available mages to bind the dragon however we can!” I yell at my nearby comrades. The nearby Harper agents assent, some leaping away to spread the news.
The dragon tears into the cathedral as Al makes his way up the spire.
“ON MY MARK!”
A faerie fire coats the dragon in green light, highlighting our quarry for all to see.
A hoard of vines and rock pillars sprout from the earth as we channel our arcane power into the earth. Trapped and bound, we unleash hell on the creature. Upon realizing its predicament, the creature clips Al with a desperate blast of fire as he disappears through another hole in space.
Trusting Aldor to be okay, I take another deep breath and focus. All thoughts fall away as the world hyper-focuses, and I feel more alive than ever as the mana within me blossoms. Uncle William’s deep, silken voice blooms mentally as we chant:
“Know that I have no beginning.”
We feel the universe pouring through our right arm, a radiant ball of light manifesting on our fingertips.
“Nor I any end.”
With the single thought, the light splits into seven motes, forming lances of pure starlight orbiting behind us.
“For I am the infinite dream and the eternal dreamer.”
Warmth floods my chest as we behold brave souls putting their differences aside for a common goal in the spirit of life, a radiant display of our mortal defiance. “Show ’em how it’s done, Sasha!” cheer the locals perched nearby, and we cannot help but feel happy, at peace even.
“And knowing is my truth.”
“LET’S DO THIS!!” a choral war-cry erupts from the folks as we finish the final verse.
Bright as the sun as just as powerful, seven blinding streaks of light arc across the landscape, striking the dragon’s side in a mighty explosion. I don’t hesitate, following up with a volley of my own arcane bolts as sky begins to fill with our third volley.
Having absorbed the brunt of two volleys, the enraged dragon bleeds profusely from its sides, but breaks free of its bindings even as our projectiles disintegrate its left wing. Wild with madness and pain, the dragon faces us, for now we were the ones had its attention. On the bright side, Al doesn’t have to be bait anymore.
Speaking of which, where’s he anyway?
As the dragon rears its head for another fire breath, a crimson gleam on the far left catches my eye. I spot Aerin on a rooftop, isolated from any nearby living soul, wielding Hjärnel like a crimson star. Snapping the javelin forward with the practice of a seasoned warrior, a cry of agony splits the sky as the spear pierces the dragon’s neck. Soaring out from the other freaking side of its neck like a grotesque needle, ichor trails its path as the weapon continues flying, only for it to abruptly change course and return to its owner just as quickly. The dragon falls as the city guard rally on the rooftops, contributing their firepower to ours. And Nika who appears on top of the snout with a misty step.
The dragon’s words get cut off as Nika channels a flurry of blows into its left eye, only to find herself barely hanging on as the beast thrashes about. A flash of crimson streaks across the landscape as Hjärnel impales the dragon’s arm from claw to elbow, foiling its attempt to dislodge the pint-sized-annoyance on its head. “Good shot, kiddo!” yells Nika from atop the dragon’s head as she wrestles the poor creature head-first into the city moat.
With that, a slim, beautiful half-elf appears next to me in a puff of smoke. Straight, long white hair, held back by ornaments frame a gracefully aged face, with deep green eyes that ooze reassurance and a voice said to be from the heavens itself. Though she rarely performs, those who do hear her angelic voice leave having sweeter dreams; but if anything, her timing was impeccable as ever.
“Lady Cylyriaaaaa~” I sing.
“Good to see you too, Sasha”, She flashes me a smile, drawing a wand from her robes.
“You’re doing that thing again, aren’t you?”
The High Lady nods, twirling the wand as she prepares to take our foe prisoner.
A beam fires from the wand of paralysis, bathing the dragon in its blue light. The monster crawls agonizingly to shore, only to clumsily tumble into the cathedral and have the building fall on top of it. Right on cue, Nika appears next to Cylyria, shooting the High Lady a bemused look. Cylyria smiles warmly, and fist bumps the dwarf before trapping her in a warm embrace.
“Always a pleasure, ‘Lyria”, whispers Nika as she pulls away.
“To all our valiant comrades today, I cannot thank you enough for your efforts. How may we repay our debt, or show our gratitude?”
“First round tonight’s on you,” Nika suggests.
“And a performance from yourself, milady!” yells a nearby Harper agent.
“Then let us adjourn at Twilight Hall by sundown,” the High Lady assents solemnly.
Nika, Cylyria and a few others make for the dragon even as the others start searching for survivors. I survey the surroundings and my heart sinks. With its ties to the Lords’ Alliance, the city was bound to rebuild. Even with clerics helping out, it would be a while before those who could be saved were resurrected, and I know for a fact that too many will never see the light of day again.
None of them had to suffer, or die.
And if the dragon was right… I didn’t want to think about that.
My face feels moist, but then again it could be the drizzle.
Aerin stabs Hjärnel into a rooftop as she crumples into a heap. Going into violent convulsions as she coughs up more blood. Her hands grab onto the crimson spear to steady herself as she almost falls off the roof. It has to be from last nigh-
Aldor’s echo flickers then disappears, only for him fall in front of me, cursing. Of all people, he was the last person I expected to be injured at all. Propping himself on the roof, Aldor leans on his good arm as the drizzle turns into a downpour. There’s no way.
“You have a lot to answer for, you-“
Expecting him to be fake a bruise or a boil, what I see mortifies me; a black, twisted, charred amalgamation of flesh, clothing, bone, and metal where his right arm used to be.
Fuck. Dear gods, not him too-
“Hey…got… healn potion?” he croaks through a bloody grin.
My trembling hands make for the last healing potion, for it to slip out of my grasp. It spills everywhere, mixing with the rain-
*Barovia was once a land trapped in a pocket dimension ruled by Count Zarovich von Strahd, upon whose defeat was released back into the world.
**Lord’s Alliance is a political and economic coalition of cities spread throughout the North and the Sword Coast.
***Eldath is the Faerunian God of Peace, and Nika happens to be her chosen.
****Dojyu is a province in Kozakura, an island chain to the far east of Faerun (where the present events of this story take place).