A Hoard of Problems
The rock formation the girl had indicated was certainly not what she thought it was and he could tell by one look at it. The towers were not actually rock, but a petrified, hive like conglomeration that had, a long time ago, been built and inhabited by wyvern. One of the oldest, most primitive forms of his people, that had inhabited every part of Arcaria long before the dragons had evolved properly and had formed the first semblances of culture in this world. Over time, and by survival of the fittest, the wyvern had gone almost completely extinct and only remained in very few, very hostile regions. They preferred hot, dry climate, so the deserts of Palaaren nowadays saw the largest numbers of these creatures. There, they were revered as desertlions, the apex predator of the desert.
The conglomeration here had to have been abandoned millennia ago, perhaps long before the Adarre even arrived in these lands. It was larger than the average, and riddled with ancient tunnels. Some of them had been utilised by the shortears as mining accesses, but he was not surprised to see they had collapsed. Everything here was rather unstable and would likely collapse in on itself within the next century or two.
He had no intentions of staying here that long.
Eraiyo found a tunnel large enough for him to fit through and he made his way inside, scoping out the area, only to find a hidden gem at the heart of the conglomeration. Surrounded by the bizarre, organic structures, he stumbled upon an open space with a small pond, high grass, an overgrown ruin that seemed to have been a chapel or temple a long time ago, only few stone arches left standing. There was something aesthetically pleasing about it all, a serene, tragic memory of days long passed when both the Adarre and the Dragons had been a great people.
Protective, high walls, only one access, water, shelter – in a way… This was a good place. He could work with t his. He flattened the long grass near the pond and curled up on the soft ground. With one eye half open he watched the long blades of yellowed grass singe at the edges. He would have to find some heat resistant material. Gold. He needed gold. He needed a hoard. It sounded primitive, it felt degrading, to think he was reduced to hoarding treasure to be comfortable. But that was what happened to a dragon in the wild. So as soon as he was able to fly again, he would find some of his treasure and bring it-
His thoughts did a double take.
No. Why would he even want to come back here? Once he was recovered enough to fly, there was no reason for him to return to this backwind town. He could fly to Par’cuan, join the other refugees there and start leading his people, preparing them to take back their home from the invaders. There was no point in staying here, it would only get him killed. She would only get him killed.
Or would she?
The girl with the mad kings eyes… He did not even know her name, only that she was out of place here, like him. A thing from an old world, thrown into a new one where she did not belong. This world had no more room for the likes of them – for Dragons, for elvar, for forest spirits, for Adarre. This was the world of the mongrels now, the shortears and dwarves. Maybe the invasion of the Great North was the right thing, maybe their time was done, maybe he should not try to drag them into a new age, maybe the dynasty his family had built was over and it was his destiny to be the last Drakyrioth, just like this girl was possibly the last of a thinning legacy, the ancient blood of her people so watered down in her veins that she could not even understand his words anymore. What a strange pair they made. A Dragon desperately clinging to what had been, and an Adarre so far removed from her people she did not even realize what she had lost, what this world deprived her of.
He had no reason to come back here other than to satisfy his curiosity about the strange hand of fate that had made him crash here, of all the places, where she would be. No coincidence, he had not doubt about that.
As he lay there, letting his healing magic course through his body, he drifted into a light slumber, replaying memories in his mind.
The long pale fingers of the Mother were closing around his throat, his life draining from him. Calligo’s claws came striking down, tearing the limb from the Mother’s body. He felt the grip loosen, the hand dropping to the frozen ground. He coughed, air filling his lungs anew, feeling returning into his own limbs as the severed arm turned to dust.
“Flee!!” Calligo had called as he pushed between him and the enemy, defending, protecting, fulfilling his age old destiny as Champion of the Drakyrioth dynasty. Eraiyo had protested, though he did not even remember the arguments he had chosen. It had not mattered in the end, Calligo had just pushed him away. “Run! Find your siblings and flee!! The dynasty must be protected!”
He had run. He had run away, and left his oldest friend – possibly his only friend – behind to die. There was no chance Calligo could have made it out of Dracoraieon alive. Not when all the others had fallen, not when he had faced the Mother herself. The Champion had given his life so that he and his siblings may escape. And now Eraiyo was the only one left What a shameful way to honour Calligo’s sacrifice.
He remembered the agonising roar of Eradin in the distance, the last flash of golden scales as he had fallen to his death off the Empiretower. Stone dead body crumbling as he crashed through the roofs and walls of the palace, shattering the most powerful dragon who ever lived to pieces, to stone dust, wiping out their legacy. That last roar would haunt his nightmares forever, Eraiyo was sure of it, every time he would look back it would be there. The last moments of his eldest brother, dying a warrior’s death. And that moment on the tower, when Eradin had placed that small, fragile little vial in his paws.
“Take the Essence. Don’t let them kill us. You are the Raaiy now,” he had commanded.
This was not what he had wanted, not how he had wanted it. He had not wanted the crown over his families broken bodies. But that was who he was now, when he startled awake from the memories.The Raaiy of a broken Imperium.
He looked up into the sky above his newfound hideout. It was the afternoon, and he stretched under the mild autumn sun. His wings spread, the wounds that had left them useless the night before almost completely healed. He could leave, right now, for good, forever. All it would take was two beats of these wings to catapult him high above the forest and far away with the next.
But he was reluctant. Not because he wanted to stay, but because part of him knew this place was important. Something was special, here, to bring him and the Mad King’s legacy together after a thousand years. It was not something he could just ignore. He would mark this place, so he would find it again if need came. For all he knew, he would have to return one day soon and kill this girl, for all he knew he could not allow her to live with these eyes. For all he knew, she may be a child now but she could grow into the most terrible thing this world had ever known. For all he knew, she could be the new Mad King. Or worse, she could be ‘the one who conquers empires’ his sister had warned them all about. The Imperodraet the Adarre had spoken of, the bane, the beast at the end of the book.
The magic within him was burning, was shaping a singular word, branded on his tongue where he held it for a few heartbeats, eyes closed, visualising its lines and curves and letting it draw the fire from within.
As the word rolled over his voice, the lines flew out of his mouth, shooting around him, filling the air in an echo of whispers and shouts, slamming into the stone, into the earth, the water, the grass, sending more sparks flying in the air.
Something was wrong. The words did not take. He frowned. The magic should burn into every surface in this area, should be woven into the very fabric of matter here. It should be in the air, on every blade of grass, on every grain of dirt, bright like a beacon for him to find again. But they just… bounced off, like raindrops on a coat of scales.
Eraiyo’s frown deepened. There was only one reason why a marker spell would not take hold in a place. It meant older, more powerful magic was already in place, had already taken a hold of this place. The sort of magic that would prevent a marking, the sort of magic that was designed to keep something shielded, protected, invisible even.
The spell of revelation was a simple one, a whisper just, made to bring up dormant magic in an enchanted object or place. But when he used it here, he had not been prepared for the magnitude of the spell it revealed.
At first, it was just a small, faint glow of green on the grass, one he mistook for fireflies first. But it grew. And grew. And grew! Until he was surrounded by it. Whirls and whirls of moving, living, breathing magic, words so complex and refined, he got dizzy just looking at them. This magic was not just ancient. This magic was beautiful and terrifying and…
And he knew exactly who had put it here. He knew this signature, knew this colour, this tone, this poetry in words, the kind only one creature in all of Arcaria had ever wielded.
A growl escaped him. Of course. Of course the Jester had to be involved. He should not even be surprised. A strange, secluded forest and small village harbouring a girl with the eyes of the Mad King? That had Jester written all over it – literally. But why? Why such an enormous protection spell, a spell the nature of which he could not quite decipher. Eraiyo was a gifted sorcerer himself, but nowhere near what the Jester could manifest. All he could identify was that this spell essentially wiped this area from existence. No one would ever come across this forest or this town and consider them in any way, shape, or form, significant. It was quite possible the Mother herself could walk through those streets and never know a legacy child lived there.
This changed everything.
He had not been too keen on returning here, but the knowledge that the Jester had their fingers in this pie made him reconsider. If they considered this place – and this girl – important enough to protect to such an extent, he needed to understand. He would be returning here, and he would be returning soon. But in that case, he did need gold after all. It was time to find his treasure.
His wings spread, and with a push of his knees he leapt into the air. The wings caught the air currents, billowing out and letting him be pulled up into the sky above the conglomeration. The small, secret garden fell away beneath him, turning small and insignificant as he rose higher, returning to where he truly felt at home. The sky was his again, forgotten the shame of being brought down in the first place. He drew a wide circle, high above the peninsula, hidden by rainy clouds as he was soaring over the town and then turned west to leave this mysterious place behind. It was a long journey and he could not afford to look back just yet.
It was deep in the night when he spotted the familiar marker he had placed over his treasure all those centuries ago. A mountain, surrounded by many like it, reaching out of the wastelands upstream from Par’fost – the great shortear city. He saw the city itself in the distance – the sharp towers, the banners, the lights and smoke pillars, the railway tracks of the steam trains connecting the city districts, the never ending construction sites that were meant to connect the remaining settlements with these steam trains as well. And… there was something hovering above the city now, two large, oval shaped contraptions.
So the shortears were taking to the skies at last? Conquering that final frontier that had been denied them since the fall of the Adarre. It would be fascinating to watch, were it not just another marker for the downfall of his own people. He remembered well the ages when the land-dwelling creatures had dreaded the skies too much to dare anything like this, for fear of summoning the wrath of the dragons. Now, with the dragons gone, that fear had become nothing but a fairy tale.
He turned away from Par’fost in the distance and followed the river up to where it vanished underneath the mountains. There, he landed in the protection of sharp rocks, shielding him from view as he dived down towards the water. He crashed into the clear surface reflecting the dark night sky, dipping down into the cool waters and cutting through it like a blade as he followed the stream, gliding over its surface towards the hole in the mountain, a crack just narrow enough for an agile dragon to manoeuvre through it. He pulled in his wings with one last bout of speed and threaded through the opening like a piece of yarn through a needle, into the darkness of the cave behind.
Once through the rock, his wings spread again and he pulled to an abrupt glide inside the dome underneath the mountain, where the river was part of an enormous, black lake. Only fine rays of moonlight fell in through cracks in the hollow mountain, shimmering on the surface and highlighting the singular island in the heart of the mountain. He flew to the shores of that island and landed, claws digging into the stone beneath him. His wings folded in and he sat there for a moment, appreciating the wonders before him.
old piled as high as he could look, towering even over him, filling the entire islands. Old, ruined stone chambers were filled to burst and the slightest disruption could quite well cause an avalanche of gold cascading into the pitch black abyss of the lake. Between the unanimous mesh of gold, there were spots of sparkling colour – precious gems, some finely polished and cut into shape, others left raw and rich. Some were part of intricate jewellery, others just raw stones the size of children’s heads. There was old furniture, beautifully crafted handiwork of expensive, polished woods, fine paintings in enormous, rich frames, some of the most magnificent weapons to ever be crafted – daggers and rapiers, swords and crossbows, guns and rifles, beautiful shields with ancient coats on them, some still splattered with the blood of the slain. It was just as breath taking as he remembered it to be.
Dragons had – officially – given up on the tradition of hoarding treasure, but the reality was that every self-respecting dragon out there would have a hoard somewhere. Not in the city, obviously, but hidden away, secret. A place, the location of which every dragon would take to their grave. A treasure for future generations to find, should the dragon it belonged to die. Thinking that, he considered how many vacant treasures the invasion had to have left behind.
He shook the thought and focused on the task at hand, gathering enough gold to keep him company in the hidden garden on the peninsula until he had solved that mystery surrounding the Jester’s spell and the green-eyed girl. He was just about to begin gathering when rivulets in the water made him frown. He was not alone. He glanced back at the lake and saw the small boat approach, a hooded figure standing in it, not using any tools to move the vessel. Magic. Under any other circumstances, a reason to worry. But he knew exactly who that was. He turned fully towards the boat, wings spread, fire roaring between his teeth.
The hooded figure looked up, brushing back the heavy velvet cape to bow her head.
“Eraiyo Drakyrioth. You are the last person I thought I would see tonight.”
She climbed off the boat and walked up the nearly hidden stone steps to the hoard. He dropped onto the gold, folded his front paws and leaned down.
“Czeliya,” he greeted. Czeliya Dragisrae, the spider of Par’fost, was a myth, a legend. One of the last witches, some said, but she had given no one a reason to hunt her down, so carefully did she hide her gift. One did not get as old as Czeliya was by being careless. But Eraiyo knew. He knew her true face, knew what really hid behind the pretty façade of silver hair and red lips and black velvet dresses over well formed breasts. Not a witch, not even a true shortear, but something far older and far more powerful, dressed in a pretty costume.
Her bright red lips pulled up into a wickedly charming smile and she bowed dramatically.
“Have you come for your gold? You will find I have kept a good eye on it, not a single piece is amiss.”
“I can see that. Your effort is most appreciated.”
“Appreciated enough to grant me my status back?” she inquired.
“You know I cannot do that.”
She sighed and shook her head.
“You cannot fool me. I know what changed, I know what you carry around your neck, what burden you carry on your shoulders. I know you have become the Raaiy and that means you indeed do have the power to restore me,” she said as she came closer. She drew in a deep breath, trembling. “Eraiyo, I need it. I need to fly. I need my wings back. Please. It’s been centuries...”
He moved away, puffing flames between them to make her step back.
“You seem to misunderstand my nature, Czeliya. I do have the power to restore you. But I have no intention to. You were made this for a reason.”
Her smile died.
“Then why are you here, Eraiyo? Should you not be warming some throne in the Great North?”
“You have not heard?” he asked.
“The Great North has fallen. Dracoraeion has been overrun, Eradin and the Agraaiy are dead.”
Czeliya seemed truly startled for a moment, he watched her reaction carefully just to be sure. The shock was genuine. He saw it shimmer through the cracks of her flawless mask, the moment of terror before she regained her composure. She really had not known.
“How?… who could be powerful enough?”
“We don’t know. A sorceress, she calls herself the ‘The Mother’. It happened less than a fortnight ago, I don’t know how many survived.”
“Don’t you have an evacuation protocol for this?” she asked flippantly.
“We do. But I was being pursued; I had no chance to get to the other refugees yet, I don’t know how many made it out of the city.”
The spider nodded knowingly.
“And you need gold to buy you safe passage.”
“What I need my gold for is none of your concern.”
He turned away and with a whisper of magic gathered up coins in a large sack. There was a long silence from the witch behind him. Then:
“I have served you for over a thousand years, Eraiyo. The least you could do is show me a little respect, instead of treating me like an outcast!” she declared, her voice a little too loud for his taste. He turned towards her abruptly, eyes burning gold, flames roaring under his scales.
“You are an outcast, trickster! You betrayed your own kin, and playing nice with me now is too little, too late. House Drakyrioth never forgets those who stab them in the back, we have not forgotten your deeds. Me allowing you to be here is a courtesy you do not deserve! If it is not to your liking, you are free to return to the Jester and tell them I found their spells!”
He watched Czeliya flinch back, her hands clenched to shaking fists. And he knew he had won. He knew she had no means to return to her ‘people’ – if one could call them that – anymore. Not after a thousand years of solitude. She dropped her gaze and did not respond anymore, while he gathered more gold. Only when he was done did she look up again.
“If what you say is true… then you do not have the luxury of picking your allies, Eraiyo. Or to alienate the few you have.”
“I am acutely aware of that, spider. But you are a trickster. Tricksters are not allies.”
She swallowed the insult. Good. He was done with the company anyways.
“Where will you go?” she asked, when he took the gold and spread his wings.
“That, too, is none of your concern.”
“You could stop being an insufferable prat for once!” she yelled after him when he took the leap back to shore. He turned around with a thundering roar that shook the cave, rocks fell from the ceiling, forced Czeliya to evade, made her stumble. Gold was rolling into the lake. She was annoyed, he could tell, but she should be grateful he considered killing her on the spot too much of an effort right now, and a waste of energy.
He left the cave and without looking back he took to the sky.