In Opposition - Act 1

Feb 28th, 2020
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  1. I recommend the sofurry version in the following link, as some of the formatting works far better there. Anyone can access it by verifying their age -
  2. Alternatively, an FA version;
  4. In Opposition
  5. Act 1
  7. Part 1: Decoy
  9. 4th Season, 1561
  11. Pain and panic, black and white all around him. His lungs burned from exertion. His heart hammered in his chest and adrenaline surged through his veins, but it was waning fast and exhaustion loomed higher than the black wood trees around him of the forest's namesake.
  12. This was Blackfinger forest, miles from civilisation, and not a single soul stirred, even the animals as they wisely hibernated. The endless crunch of snow beneath his thin, soaked slippers was both repetitive and a constant source of pain and he had to find a place to stop; his clothes were thick enough for the daylight, but night was approaching and blizzards were both common and fierce.
  13. He stumbled and halted, sucked in a lungful cold air and cursed at himself in a grumble; he had no provisions and no plan, but as naïve and short sighted as this was, he doubted he would have had another chance.
  15. He rubbed a fur cuffed sleeve against the soft fuzz on his chin and finally dared to look behind him as he continued to stagger on. Besides his trail, there was no sign of pursuit but he knew they were just biding their time; they were as wolves, reading his trail, watching for every stumble and trip, waiting for his stamina to wane to catch him when he had no fight left. He wondered for a moment whether to make a stand and hope it was just his cohorts, but he knew who would be leading the pursuit and the thought made his blood run colder than the air.
  16. It was snowing, but he could count the flakes as they fell; a gentle tribute to an already generous winter. It really was beautiful, despite his blurring vision and he wanted to stop, enjoy the scenery, catch his breath and take it in, maybe even study the lay of the land.
  17. He didn't want to trip and fall down a steep bank, but he didn't see the lip of the sudden drop. He gasped and tumbled and rolled down the white hill, broken by the blur of thin strips of black.
  19. “Shi-” he managed before he slammed shoulder first into a tree. He stifled a scream as he felt his whole arm go numb and stumbled from the trunk before dizziness caused him to fall onto his back, then clutched his arm and moaned, rolling side to side on his back and desperately trying to keep quiet, and as the pain began to subside, he stared skyward as he caught his breath.
  20. The criss-crossing branches of his 'attacker' were stark against the pale skies and thick cloud filtered the faintest hint of sun as a solitary aura of white. He extended his aching arm and winced as he watched the snowflakes drift about as if in a gentle dance.
  21. He saw something else, though. Something that stood out amidst the colourless skies. A large, rectangular silhouette moving with the stiff wind, a kite he realised, and as he focused on it, he could see it was strung together from its corners to a single cord that dipped behind the skeletal trees and out of view, but not before guiding his eyes to a tall, snow-capped hill.
  23. He had no idea where else to go so he struggled to his feet and marched on once more, on the approach to the white mound and used the kite as a guide. The black trees began to thin out and he left the forest proper, and found himself sinking into increasingly deep snow, now up to his waist, and as he reached the crest, he able to see more of the same hills and distant mountains, he also found where the rope connected to; the stump of a gnarled root. He looked around, hoping for a sign of life, but all was still, then at the multitude of mountains in the distance for a new heading.
  24. The white around him flared brighter and his head throbbed and sparked like a storm had swollen inside his brain. Lightning pinpricks crackled throughout his head and sent the world spinning, and even with every shred of effort to resist, he couldn't help but fall to his knees and wait out the growing pulse of his heartbeat in rhythm with the stabbing pain. He clutched his gloved fingers against his head, his hair too short to grab as he almost tried to tear open his head to relieve the pressure.
  26. -“You can't escape. You need me and I need you. Too much promise to squander. Too much time and effort on both our parts!”-
  28. “Get out of my fucking head!!” He hissed through his teeth.
  29. This wasn't the first time he'd felt this. Far from it, but it had never been so intense. He finally hit his threshold and cried out in pain, leaving him sobbing and covering his eyes, his legs thrashing. As before, the episode left his vision both a blur and sensitive to light, like an intense, violent migraine.
  30. No sooner than it faded, a voice punched through the hollow feeling in his head.
  32. “Remain still and quiet or I'll cut out your throat, man-kin.” A female voice that spoke in oddly accented Vlieden, hushed and confident. He forced his eyes open and squinted across at a white mass standing above the snow, far shorter than a human and covered in thick furs, all smothered in some sort of clumpy white mass that made her silhouette unclear. No face was visible, but she clearly had a long snout, covered in a cloth mask and her eyes were likewise covered in goggles, the black lenses clear against the otherwise white surroundings but speckled with flecks of snow.
  33. She held a spear in her hands, tip poised at him. It wasn't a typical spear either, as it appeared to have a thick crosspiece; at one end a dagger-like blade and the other a blunt edged round rod with a wicked spike at the tip. The main blade was long and broad at the base but tapered to a fine point, clearly suited for swinging as well as thrusting and the shaft was made from a vibrant green wood that had tiny, leafy sprouts on its length that he swore moved against the wind. She held it with three clawed fingers and a thumb, each ending with pale grey claws poking through stitched furred gloves that revealed little else.
  35. He kept his hands still, but open, and hoped the submissive gesture would save his life and said, “I mean you no harm! I'll leave you in peace.”
  36. She was silent and the spear remained dead still, with no signs of shivering from the cold, tension or fear. He would have presumed she was a kobold by her size and claws, but her grip was precise and her stance balanced, he doubted this creature was one; they were notorious cowards, undisciplined and barely able to function alone.
  38. “Who's following you?” she asked.
  39. He wondered if he could grab the spear, overpower her and escape, but before he could form a plan of attack, she thrust the spear so close he felt the ice cold metal against his throat and patted him down, searched his pockets, then insisted,“who is following you!?”
  41. “N-nobody! Just let me go.”
  43. “You're alone, poorly equipped and many miles from the nearest man-kin settlement, not to mention it's just mountains this way. Nobody flees in such a petty state without being desperate. Now answer the question or I'll put an end to you myself.”
  45. He sucked air through his teeth and resumed nursing his arm. Despite the exhaustive ache of his body, his mind had calmed and sharpened, so he responded, “no you won't. If you kill me, there's no way my pursuers won't search for you next when they find my body, and I doubt you'll be able to get rid of the evidence in time either; I'm too heavy to move and you'd need time to carve me up, or dig up a lot of snow to bury me and cover your tracks. Besides, even if they weren't going to investigate your kite, they will now since my trail leads here. Your best bet is to let me go and lead them away.”
  47. The spear-wielder growled under her breath, then countered, “and you won't get far in your condition, not with your lack of supplies or equipment. Do you even know how to hunt? Or build a shelter?”
  49. “It doesn't matter, I can't go back. Look, this isn't getting us anywhere. Just let me go and I'll at least lead them away from your... I assume you've got a camp here or something?”
  51. She looked about, then shook her head. “Fine,” she sighed and backed away, taking slow strides but keeping the spear at the ready.
  53. He tried to stand, but he could barely move and just the basic act of even sitting up was taxing, let alone pulling himself from the pit in the snow he'd formed from his thrashing. He noticed the creature was standing on the snow, leaving not even a depression from her three toed and clawed feet.
  54. It took him a moment to wrap his head around that she must be using magic, then cleared his throat, saying “this is going to sound ridiculous, but I could use a hand. I've been running for hours and... my arm isn't working too well.”
  56. “Oh, All-Dragon's teeth... fine, here!” She reached forward and held her spear near his good arm. He held the spike at the base and moved to stand as the short woman grunted and pulled, and even when upright, he struggled to walk. “This is foolish,” she grumbled, “you're going to die out here in this state. At least rest. I have a safe place nearby.”
  58. “I'll be fine.” He stumbled on, pushing against the piled snow, only to feel the flat of her spear press against his chest.
  60. “I insist. Follow me, human, and try to be quick,” she muttered and began walking downhill.
  62. He couldn't help but feel jealous at her ease of movement on the powder, but decided to try and be civil to get on her good graces, announcing, “I'm Irven.”
  64. “What?” she said, her tail wagged and she tilted her head.
  66. “My name. It's Irven.”
  68. “Kayl. Now hurry up.”
  70. Kayl lead the way down hill, and Irven realised she really was a kobold. Her tail, while also covered in a shawl, had the tip exposed, revealing a pale blue scales with just a hint of a darker tone underneath. The thick limb swayed about, looking to be about as long as she was tall not including her legs. She had to be about three and half feet tall, using her spear as a walking stick and occasionally looking behind her, both at Irven and for any pursuit.
  71. As the slope levelled out, Kayl crouched down and Irven swore she pulled the snow away; a thick leather sheet covered with the same clumped white material that she had on her clothes.
  73. “Inside,” Kayl said and pointed to a hole with the haft of her spear. “I'll go and try to conceal your trail. Don't touch anything, and be quiet!”
  75. “Yes, miss,” Irven said and down a short distance. The passage was more of a narrow crevice, he noted, only the top was supported with wooden boards and beams, more like a mining tunnel than a cave. Moreover, he was just glad to be out of the cold air, and he had barely begun to walk farther in before the cover was thrown back on top and he was left in the dark.
  76. Irven guided himself by running a hand on the roughly cut walls and soon he felt heat to pull him on, then the presence of light and the gentle popping and crackle of a campfire. He almost wept at such a simple luxury and fell to his knees as the warmth hit him and resisted the urge to plunge his hands in the flames just to be rid of the cold.
  77. A copper pot hung over the fire and an aromatic, savoury smell wafted from within that tickled his nose with pungent spices and he couldn't help but salivate as he peered into the thick, simmering fare within, even if he resisted the urge to help himself. A kettle rested on the edge of the fire and steam rose from the spout, and there was a a wide, wooden cylindrical tub beside the kettle with a lid, but he had no clear idea of its function.
  79. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw it was a full camp; a little bedroll that had been repaired with off-coloured patches and a stack of blankets beside it sat in one corner and a large, sturdy chest in another, both beneath a thin leather canopy suspended by metal pegs embedded into the cave walls. On top of the chest was a sheathed sword, a straight blade around two feet in length with a narrow, round hand-guard. Near where Irven sat were a three poles, two embedded in the ground with the third suspended between them, with a number of clothes designed for a kobold hung over it to dry.
  80. Beyond the fire he could just see a two tunnels. One was high up and he assumed was letting the smoke travel through it from the angled cave ceiling. The other, at ground level, had a few sheets hanging from wires to partially cover the tunnel, though these ones were damaged, notably several had squares cut from them for patch repairs. Both tunnels had wooden struts around the sides and ceilings, much like the entrance.
  82. With his coat and slippers still soaked through, he removed them and placed them near the fire, which left him in a thin tunic and breeches as well as exposing his compact but well muscled frame. Irven winced as he massaged his feet, the ache of his constant march seeping in as the chill abated and his skin was bright red and blistered.
  83. Basking in the glorious warmth and given a sense of safety, Irven couldn't help but settle further down to the floor. His eyes were heavy, there was an ache that set in from all the relentless bright white outside, so he closed them. He felt both leaden and weightless, the hard rock floor was somehow comforting and welcoming, so he splayed out.
  84. Time slipped away, just the crackle of the fire and the simmer of the pot and his muscles relaxed. It was bliss.
  86. Almost like hearing a distant sound but he heard nothing, or seeing something at the corner of his vision that faded when he turned to look.
  87. Irven felt a presence.
  88. It wasn't anything he'd experienced before, but he knew something was approaching. He stirred and turned towards the entrance, and spotted the white-clad figure of Kayl enter into the light.
  90. “I've done what I can,” Kayl said, walking to her bedroll and leaning her spear against the wall, then continued, “we should remain vigilant for a time and your pursuers will still locate the area by your trail unless the snow comes first, but we should be safe for now. Are you hungry, Irven?”
  92. “Starved, but I'm imposing enough as it is. At this point I'm more surprised you're helping me at all.”
  94. “Imposing? You're not scary. Wait...” Kayl paused in thought, then continued, “oh, you mean being... rude, overstaying a welcome, yes? I'm well aware that man-kin are crude and have bad manners, but where I'm from, politeness is crucial. It's what separates us from our western kin and is one of the four teachings that elevate our spirit to drakedom. I've accepted you into my lair, so you are my guest.” Kayl took up a tall metal lid, upturned it and placed it over the cooking pot, then poured some water from the kettle in and finally placed the wooden cylinder on top.
  96. “Wait, you live here? So this is a clan mine?”
  98. “Yes and no. This was a kobold mine a long time ago but it has been abandoned for decades. I live here now, alone,” she replied and pulled off her mask and goggles, then her hood, revealing a pair of pale grey horns half the length of her head that blended well with her pale blue scales in the dim light, and four tiny stubby horns down the back of her head. She rubbed her eyes before opening them, revealing they were radiant gold in colour, even reflecting the firelight as she looked at Irven for a moment. He couldn't help but stare back; she was a kobold, a short lizard woman that townsfolk would often spin tales of their vicious, evil deeds, but he was captivated.
  99. Kayl gave him a funny look, a pointed purple tongue briefly flicking out to lick her muzzle and exposing her sharp teeth. She then removed her thick coat, revealing a tight vest made of a shimmering blue fabric and woven with metal rings over green wood interwoven as a thin suit of armour, and similar design around her forearms as bracers, although her exposed upper arms revealed corded, firm and muscular biceps beneath a pattern of solid, interlocking natural scales. Her chin was a shade darker and trailed beneath her vest.
  100. As she removed her furred legwear, Irven was further shocked at how curvy Kayl was. Her flat chest and narrow waist that all kobolds had, making them hard to sex, but it gave way to broad, womanly hips and, as impressive as her arms were, her thighs were thick and shapely, standing out even beneath the tight leggings she wore in the same deep blue colour and more armour around them and her calves. She flexed her three toed feet, even the fourth dewclaw clenching a little as Kayl stretched, sighing with relief and gathered a couple of bowls and spoons, handing one to Irven.
  101. She knelt opposite him, and after a moment of staring into the flame, said, “I ask again; who's following you? They must be quite a terrible to have you flee so far. Please, it would help us both.”
  103. Irven wanted to dismiss the question again, but she was helping him, even feeding him, so he sighed and shrugged, asking “are you familiar with Castle Jorsviek?”
  105. Kayl frowned, then nodded. “I am. A prison disguised as a... school, I believe? It has a bloody reputation.” She stared into the flame again, nibbling on her scaled lip, then said, “I suddenly both understand why you've fled and I'm very curious as to what you're willing to tell me about the place.”
  107. “Uh...” Irven cleared his throat, bit his lip then changed the subject, “so, what are we having?”
  109. Kayl's eyeridges knitted as she tried to read his expression, before she relented, saying, “curried hare with mushrooms and rice, which is just steaming now,” Kayl said, briefly lifting the wooden rice steamer, inserting a ladle and giving the curry a vigorous stir.
  111. “Sounds wonderful,” Irven said, sniffing the air, then continuing, “smells like it too. They kept me on a strict diet where I'm from. All basic stuff, no stimulants or anything branded 'at risk of over saturating the palette'.”
  113. “For what reason?”
  115. “I-” A shocking pain exploded through his head and forced him to wince and mutter, “I can't say.”
  117. Kayl and stared at him, musing, “just like when I found you... are you alright?”
  119. “I-I'm...” Irven continued to screw his face up as the migraine shot through again. He wanted to respond, but all that came out was a ragged breathing as once more he clutched his head and tears ran down his cheeks. He didn't even notice as Kayl hopped to her feet and rounded the fire and gently placed her hands over his.
  121. “Please, allow me. I think I can help,” she said. Irven couldn't help but let her try, as the pain continued to pulse, shooting down his spine and causing him to arch his back and his hands came away beyond his control.
  122. Her palms were soft and cool, the finest texture to them of tiny scales, and her claws danced over his temples and she began pressing her fingers into his head, the firm pressure at first an annoyance, but the pain dulled to a faint tickle as she pushed in little circles. The lightning storm inside acting as if being wrangled under control and swept on a firm breeze and now a distant and soothing rumble on a faraway horizon, a pleasant backdrop instead of a violent threat.
  124. “Oh... oh Saints that's... amazing.” he sighed and settled down. Kayl continued for a few more moments, then with a final squeeze against the top of his neck, she released him and sat back down opposite. Irven rubbed his neck and asked, “what was that?”
  126. “It's a magic disruption technique, usually used to stop mages casting for capture, although far gentler and slower. You were demonstrating the signs of magic poisoning so I forced the build-up to abate, parts of your brain are absorbing the... what is it called? Kren? Uh, mane?” She tutted to herself, then seemed to come to the answer and continued, “the mana energy and flaring up when certain thoughts come to mind. That should help for a short time, but I fear you may need a healer. Have you studied magic? Eaten draconic flesh or partaken of any blood? Your life may be at stake, Irven. Please, tell me.”
  128. “I have studied magic theory, but I can't cast spells. This has to be because of what's been done to me,” Irven said and nodded then stared into her golden eyes. “I was a servant at Castle Jorsviek as far back as I can remember. Maybe ten years ago the Provost, Brevshket, took an interest in me and made me his personal assistant. He would force me to live by a strict plan of exercises, study, diet, meditation. Always demanding, always a new threshold to reach, physically or mentally. It was succeed or be subjected to the lash, or less food or sleeping outside during bad weather. I just didn't know any better, and failing became less and less common as I got better and better.
  129. “For a while I thought maybe I had succeeded, that I'd overcome his trials and earned his respect, but in the last few years I've been blacking out, waking up with cuts and scars on my body, feeling random aches and pains all over and increasingly intense headaches. I found out he was drugging me, cutting me open and toying with my body thanks to one of the kinder servants. I had to escape.”
  131. Kayl muttered, “Brevshket,” under her breath before tapping a claw against her teeth, deep in thought and her tail snaked along the ground.
  133. “You know him?”
  135. Kayl was silent for a few more seconds, before nodding to him.
  136. “Yes. You have been honest with me, so allow me to return the favour. I am in exile for failing to kill him.”
  138. “I don't suppose I could ask why?”
  140. “He's an... um … aweka...” Kayl snapped her fingers and bared her teeth in frustration before huffing. “Do you speak draconic? I don't know the Vlieden word for his kind, but he's a mage given power from dragon flesh.”
  142. “Scalecaster?”
  144. The outer edges of Kayl's lips opened and her eyes softened. It looked like a soft smile, but it faded quickly as she nodded and said, “yes, that's the term, crude as it is. He killed my master's mate and implanted some of it within himself a century and a half ago. I've been here, observing and awaiting the perfect moment to strike since, trying to restore my worth.”
  145. Kayl's eyes were staring into the flames, and her pupils enlarged. Irven recalled reading about how kobolds eyes were a bizarre phenomenon, responding to traces of magic in the air to see in the dark and treating natural light as an obstruction, thinning the ambient magic and forcing them to develop a crude light sensitivity. It rendered them blind to sunlight, and even a campfire would stun them at sudden exposure as their eyes adjusted.
  147. Irven couldn't help but smile and once more got lost in her brilliant, shining golden eyes, even if she quickly caught on to his stare and cocked her head.
  148. “You keep staring. What is it?”
  150. “It's... y-you're,” he stammered and thought of an excuse, finally reaching, “I've never seen a kobold up close, that's all. Everything I've read hasn't exactly been kind.”
  152. Kayl chuckled softly and responded, “I'm sure it's much the same from what I've heard about man-kin. If I'm being honest, I've been a bit lonely here. It's been a while since I've had company. My people are used to working in great numbers, and I was trained to act alone, but it has been too long without any sort of contact. It's nice. I've missed just having another soul around, except for my companion.” She gestured to her bedroll or spear and Irven couldn't tell what she meant, so he steered the questions back to her.
  154. “You said you were exiled. Will they let you go home if you succeed?”
  156. Kayl's expression turned dour and she didn't reply, instead removing the steamer and piled up rice into each bowl, then ladled in the curry. Irven's curiosity gave way to his more basic need as Kayl handed the bowl across to him with a spoon, then settled down, taking her bowl, slapping her tail on the floor twice and bowing her head before beginning to eat.
  157. The pair grew silent and simply enjoyed the spicy fare to further banish the cold from their minds. Irven ate his meal with voracity, finishing his before Kayl had even eaten a quarter of hers. She silently put her bowl down, holding her hand out to take his bowl. He did so, and she refilled it and handed it back to him.
  159. “Are you sure?” Irven asked.
  161. “Of course. You'll need your strength if you're to survive out there. Did you have any idea where you planned to go? I fear you may be alone again before long.” Kayl resumed eating as Irven pondered her question, taking the time to mull over the food. It was a complicated flavour in the best way, with spices he'd never tasted before assaulting his senses, clearing the stuffiness of his nose and verging on unpleasant with how it tickled his tongue with heat, but more than anything, his mind kept wandering back to Kayl's massage.
  162. He'd never felt that sort of contact before and realised she was the kindest person he'd ever met, despite knowing her for hours at most and that she wasn't even a human. She was intriguing to look at as well, even if he hated how clinical that sounded to him, but that was how he was trained to observe the world by his teacher, Brevshket.
  163. It gave him a clarity though, an appreciation of her anatomy; he looked at the even and smooth proportions of her snout and face, the brilliant gold eyes sparkling with intelligence, but a sadness as well. In a more biological way, he couldn't deny that her athletic body and feminine curves made him blush.
  164. For an entity branded as a 'monster' by humans, he couldn't help but feel conflicted by his studies and preconceptions, pushed aside as he felt attracted to her. Considering his much maligned master, he supposed he wasn't surprised he found draconic traits somewhat normal. He remembered she had asked him a question. He never had a plan or a destination. He just figured it would be better away from Castle Jorsviek.
  165. Irven opened his mouth to speak, only for both of them to shudder, as if the earth itself had shook. A presence, like when Kayl approached Irven in the camp, but while it felt further away it was absolute in its potency, as if a cloud of smoke had enshrouded them, both oppressive and menacing. It was horrifically familiar to him. They looked up at the darkness at the same time, but Irven's eyes went wide. Kayl's own narrowed and focused.
  167. -“Where are you? Come quietly and I'll spare the lash, boy, but make me search all day and we'll both regret it!”-
  169. “What is that?” asked Kayl.
  171. “It's him!!” Irven babbled and dropped his bowl. It clattered on the floor and he trembled as his hands covered his face. “I c-can't... I won't go back!!” He jumped to his feet and ran to Kayl's spear, picking it up and brandishing it towards the entrance as he bared his teeth, hissing through them in panicked breaths.
  173. -“Who is that you're talking to? Oh, it would seem you've found help. A pity. I was hoping to not have to shed blood. How trite.”-
  175. “Calm, Irven!” Kayl hissed, “keep your voice down and drop Paet.” She growled as Irven continued snivelling, his knuckles turning white as he continued to clench the short spear, and Kayl snapped her fingers, saying, “please, drop my spear. Oh, urhux! Paet, wiyte!”
  177. Thorns sprouted along the spears shaft, and Irven finally released the spear, gasping in pain as he looked at the pinpricks on his hands, then down at the weapon, which writhed like a snake, albeit slower. Kayl ran up and grabbed it, the thorns retracting a split second before she did, and she pointed to the covered lower tunnel.
  179. “Listen, Irven. Hide in there, stay silent and I will deal with this. If something happens, my possessions are yours. Live well.”
  180. Kayl opened the chest again, producing a small cloth bundle, which she unfurled and revealed a pair of wooden orbs and a number of spikes, each painted in a similar colour to her eyes, claws and horns, respectively. She then removed the armour on her limbs before she stopped and stared at Irven.
  181. He couldn't move, and after a frustrated snarl, Kayl snatched Irven's hand and pulled him towards the tunnel. As much as she struggled against his far greater weight, his mindless panic made him pliable enough to make him stagger along, and once behind the hanging blankets, she coaxed him into sitting, and returned to the camp, leaving him alone in the near pitch black, sobbing quietly as he heard Kayl move things around the camp; the squeak of metal hinges, the clop of wooden bowls, a vile, wet snapping sound... it meant nothing to him.
  182. All Irven could understand was terror.
  184. * *
  186. Kayl analysed the camp. It had been a few minutes since they detected Brevshket and she made sure everything was where it needed to be.
  187. She first looked at the cave where she hid Irven; the blankets covering the mining tunnel were there to muffle the sound from deeper into the caves, but the human seemed beyond the ability to talk or even move and he remained still and whimpering. Clearly Brevshket had some hold over him, but she couldn't discern exactly what and while she felt bad for him, she had a task to fulfil for both of their sakes.
  188. It felt strange, weighing her tactics in what was her home, something usually reserved for long planned ambushes both on overcave roads or man-kin settlements. It made no difference; this was an arena like any other, and with time to prepare, she would succeed. Kayl always knew she could, until her past failure to slay Brevshket seeded doubts, but she wouldn't make the same mistake again. Not now that she had a shadow. A decoy. A spell invoked that her target, she hoped, had never seen before. Nobody she knew had ever seen it before.
  189. Her eyes glanced about for one last check.
  190. The setting looked like a kobold resting at her camp in peace, a trap without the usual components.
  191. A trailing rope hung from the rock wall, the dark hemp dripping a thick, sticky substance, ready for success or failure. A clever magic chemical that she had mixed with her blood, designed to combust when the magic inherent to a kobold faded.
  192. Then she looked at the upturned bowls, placed next to each other with a spoon pinned beneath the rim to ease flipping the right one to trigger the ambush.
  193. This was it. An opportunity Kayl had waited so long for. She would succeed. Kayl distanced herself from such thoughts and focused on the task, and only the task. She engaged the decoy so it was just her and her shadow.
  195. -*-
  197. The kobold tended to the fire, pushing the black wood logs around with a sturdy branch and sniffed the smoke.
  198. She took one last deep breath near the flames and watched as the fire danced. Icy air wafted from the entrance tunnel; the cover had been pulled free. Her prey approached; the scraping of metal on stone. Armoured foes, numbering five. Kayl winced. Not insurmountable for her task as she considered her life forfeit either way. All she needed was one certain kill and she could go to the Final Sleep proud, her honour restored. She patted the sword at her waist and remained on her knees and stared at the fire.
  199. Then they entered, clad in suits of steel and bear fur armour. Three men first, wearing iron masks, each a horned figure with four eyes, two real and two vertically slit ones painted on the cheeks, and a mouth opened in a huge, fanged smile. The faces beneath them were covered in black greasepaint to make them look more frightening, but the true fear came with the fourth figure.
  201. A scalecaster who cared little for disguising his abuse of drake-kin. A green scaled dragon in humanoid form with a only his human shaped face betraying his original race besides his sharp teeth. While most of him was covered in a dense, protective robe of flax padding and lengths of steel rings, his hands were likewise covered in scales, with claws, as were his large, clawed, digitigrade feet. He was closely followed by a woman, dressed in a more elaborate form of armour to the other men and six eyes on her mask. Her form was shrouded with cloaks and two swords rested at her hips, long, thin and curved.
  203. Brevshket snorted wisps of smoke as he stared at the naked, gaunt looking kobold who remained kneeling but stared at him, and he grinned at her dull, placid looking yellow eyes.
  204. “And here I was expecting actual resistance. Still, I thought I detected magic down here,” he said in draconic, “that said, you shouldn't reveal your location with that kite. It makes you a rather obvious target.”
  206. “I am simply maintaining the tradition of my clan, corrupted one,” the kobold by the fire replied, “at the time I have atoned, I shall cast my dishonour to the skies. At the moment of my death, it shall burn it to signal my spirit returning to the All-Dragon, father to all who bear scales...” Kayl scowled at the man, “my present company not included.”
  208. “You wound me, kobold,” Brevshket chuckled and nodded, then continued, “oh, and that kite would mean you hail from clan Star-Sail, no? How are those reclusive imbeciles? Still hiding atop Havsglas Mountain with that decrepit dragon? What's her name? Praevadi, right?”
  210. Kayl grimaced.
  212. The scalecaster didn't notice as he glanced about, then puffed out his chest and spread his arms wide, both as a shrug and a show of pride.
  213. "So much for the wise 'Dowager of the East'. She outlasted her potent mate, although he's in a better place now,” he said as he admired his scaly hands and laughed again, “but you realise dragons are a dying breed. Human weapons continue to grow more mighty by the day, and no drake alive will withstand them. Unless, of course, they become subjugated by them instead. At least in us, they shall survive as a new breed, a hybrid of dragon and man. My kin, the enlightened few who understand that no feral, animalistic giant will outlast the drive of the Vliechov Oligarchy.”
  215. Kayl shifted her position. Again, the scalecaster failed to notice, nor did his entourage. It was almost time.
  216. “Be that as it may, corrupted one,” the kobold said, “I must ask; why have you come here? There is nothing this way but the seldom travelled path to my clan, and they would not endure your presence as I have. State your intent.”
  218. “Yes, enough frivolities. I'm here for the boy.”
  219. She tilted her head, and Brevshket sneered.
  220. “I know he's here,” he continued, “I can sense him. He's my property, and rest assured, it would take but a thought to have you exterminated, kobold, so do yourself a favour and tell me where he is.”
  222. “So that's what you're after. You should have arrived sooner,” the kobold said, and slowly stood with a chuckle. “I fear you won't find him as you remember, but you can help yourself.” She gestured to the cooling curry pot beside the fire, then giggled, “he was quite delicious.”
  224. “Well, aren't you precious,” he growled with a grim smile, then waved his clawed hand, gesturing to the kobold.
  226. Kayl clenched her jaw and watched the masked men approach the fire.
  228. The kobold drew her blade, holding it with firm resolve as she measured her approaching foes as they drew their swords. Each alone would be a dangerous foe, let alone three at once. The pale blue kobold planted a clawed foot on one of the bowls, and kicked it into the fire as she retreated, the wooden vessel flipping and rolling way, leaving an egg-like object covered in shards of metal and a nest of tiny fuses, that caught and hissed.
  229. The female guard stood in front of the scalecaster in the blink of an eye, arms and cloak, woven with dark steel lining, raised. Brevshket raised a hand and a shimmering sphere surrounded him.
  231. “Get bac-” one of the men started but it exploded with a violent thud. It was strangely muted, a heavy thud rather than an explosion. The metal fragments and burning wood were flung around the room, earning grunts of pain from the nearby guards as flames licked at their armour. Several splinters and fragments nicked the kobold, causing her to gasp as smoke spat from each wound, but she wasn't deterred, instead rushing at and leapt high at one of the masked men as the blankets and bedding caught alight.
  232. The man had no chance, as his instincts had turned him away from the blast and his mask, designed to intimidate, blocked his peripheral vision. The chisel tipped sword ran through his neck and out the other side with a cough and a gurgle and she finished by ripping the blade free as she stood on his shoulders.
  233. The dying man fell to his knees, but before he hit the ground, the kobold pounced over the remnant campfire and plunged her sword into the back of the second masked figure's neck, lodging it into his spine and his body went limp.
  234. Magic flared in the cave as the kobold was gripped in the air by an unseen force, holding her aloft and still as the scalecaster's other hand glowed. With a hissed utterance, a floating, transparent blade formed near the airborne kobold, and with a flick of Brevshket's wrist, it punched through her skull and sprayed black ichor as her body fell to the ground.
  236. “Impressive, but futile.” Brevshket looked at the remaining bodyguard as his barrier faded. He said, in Vlieden, “make sure she's dead and search the camp for Irven.”
  237. The masked man turned his sword over, holding the blade point down as the kobold flopped onto her back. She grunted as she stared at the man, one of her eyes falling free from its socket. The eye made of polished wood and painted yellow on one side, stained black on the other from the seeping socket, the same substance that oozed from her wounds as she stopped moving.
  238. A layer of freshly peeled scales, as a snake's cast off skin, filled with magic and smoke and decorated with wooden horns and eyes. A facsimile of a kobold. A shadow. A decoy.
  239. Brevshket gasped.
  240. “What trickery is th-”
  242. -*-
  244. Kayl ceased control of her shadow and dropped from her perch above the entrance tunnel.
  245. “What trickery is th-” Brevshket was struck silent as Paet, her faithful spear, punched through his skull like a knife plunged into a raw egg, even earning a similar, but far louder crack and wet splat. The scalecaster's eyes rolled back and he loosed an awkward moan.
  246. “Kraerivan... you are avenged,” Kayl whispered and twisted the blade with a squirt of blood. Her scales and the wood of her armour, both coloured and patterned like the grey rock of the cave, shifted and returned to the normal pale blue and green.
  248. “Master!!” The masked woman screamed. Furious, spinning and unleashing a curved blade that chopped Paet in two, leaving the blade embedded in the dead mage's head, and raked a bloody line across the kobold's chest, cutting through her armour as if it were paper.
  249. Kayl cried out a hiss of pain, back-flipped off of the falling scalecaster's shoulders, dropped the spear shaft and darted between Brevshket's legs just as he collapsed. Before her attacker could take another swing, Kayl rolled over the campfire embers, retrieved her sword and brought her guard up as bright red blood trickled from her wound.
  250. She grunted with pain but but she kept her calm and focused on them, watching their movements, and barked, “you call yourselves protectors? Failures!” Kayl laughed, then snarled as the humans approached. “I may die here, but I die fulfilled and redeemed!”
  252. * *
  254. Irven gasped with relief, as if he'd been under relentless pressure his whole life that had suddenly relented. He knew it, even if he hadn't truly been listening to the camp, but Brevshket was dead. The torture, the punishments, the ceaseless demand to study and condition himself under threat of being flogged; gone. He was free, but as his mind became his once more, he realised Kayl was in danger.
  255. He stood, unburdened and unafraid for the first time in years, and ran back to camp. Irven barged through the hanging cloths as the sound of clashing metal and exertive grunts, and saw Kayl fending off two of Brevshket's followers, a recruit and his dreaded personal second and bodyguard. Irven knew it was a losing battle, and he picked up one of the other guard's swords to join the fight the only way he could think of; a distraction.
  256. “Caeris!” he shouted.
  258. The armoured woman turned her head to him and Kayl sprung, dipping beneath the other guards sword and rushing in for a thrust at Caeris' back as the woman pirouetted in a flurry of steel and cloth. A chiselled sword point emerged from the whirlwind of armoured fabric, held by a confused Kayl, then a second sword darted at the kobold's back.
  259. She mouthed a silent gasp and looked down at the curved steel sticking out of her belly as Caeris' blade slowly withdrew, yet the kobold remained on her feet with a grimace and tried to stagger away.
  260. Caeris stepped forward to finish her, raising her other blade.
  262. “Kayl!” Irven called out and felt something spark inside his head, an otherworldly force merging with his rage, like his nemesis migraine only he could direct it, control it, as if he had been given the reigns of a horse after a lifetime of only being a passenger. It was like the sensation that let him feel Kayl earlier, where before only Brevshket's overwhelming presence could be felt. It was at once ephemeral then tangible, as both real and invisible as sound, light or heat, fleeting yet overwhelming, deep inside him and pushing its way out like a savage roar.
  263. He felt it rush to his reaching arm, flowing with his intent to save Kayl, to harm Caeris and he gave it a final push. With a deafening, thunderous crack that rattled his skull, a burst of light appeared in front of his palm with a blast of sound that rippled the air, all directed at Brevshket's followers, shattering the wall behind them and the shockwave sending much of the loose items of the camp, already engulfed in flame, shredding into a scatter of floating embers.
  264. Caeris and the masked man were slammed against the wall from the force. Irven's ears rang from the sound, but he resisted the worst, as if he somehow knew and had braced for the effect, even if it made no sense that he could. He rushed in with his blade, swinging at Caeris but the attempt was clumsy and her armoured cloaks absorbed the blow. The impact sent her fleeing, guided by the wall to the exit tunnel in a rapid escape.
  265. Irven snarled and turned his focus to the last man and thrust the blade through him so hard, armour be damned, that he wedged the blade into the cracked wall and the man sagged, held in place, a grim monument to the strength Irven was forced to accrue.
  267. Kayl staggered over to her lockbox, and Irven ran up to her.
  268. “Kayl, are you alright?”
  270. “I'll be fine,” she grunted. The lockbox had a number of buttons on it, which Kayl started pushing the buttons in a slow sequence, “I just need... nngh...” she stopped and held herself upright, swaying and unsteady.
  271. There was silence for a moment, but all too brief.
  272. A sound. A scuttle. A tearing of fabric, and as the final flames around the camp died down, Irven watched as the glistening of many eyes stared from the tunnel, before the thing pounced and pinned him on his back in a flurry of limbs and dripping fangs. A vast spider, covered in black, rock-like carapace all over its front half.
  274. “Eraxhe! Irven! Hold on!” Kayl barked. She struggled to a stand and brandished her sword even as she continued to bleed. She was slow and staggered at her approach, and even as Irven tried to fight off the spider on him, another emerged from the tunnel and a rock-like spike, a weaponised foreleg, impaled her through her shoulder and pulled her into the blackness beyond with barely a gasp of pain as her sword clattered on the floor.
  276. “No!!” Irven yelled and felt the power surge again. He pushed a hand against the slathering fangs of the monster and a bright light burst from his palm. The spider's eyes sizzled and smouldered as it gave out a horrific squeal and retreated into the dark, which left Irven alone in the dark beside the burning bedroll and blankets and he stood, taking in the carnage, and at the tunnel they had taken Kayl. He picked up a sword and took a deep breath, but hesitated as he tried to work up the nerve to pursue.
  278. “Wait.” Kayl's voice, but behind him? Irven spun about and looked at the broken and partially flattened form of the kobold decoy. “It's alright,” she said, her voice rasping.
  280. “What... but...” Irven stammered. Kayl smiled, pained.
  282. “Listen to me, before I'm too far from my shadow... or what you're talking to, my decoy. I'm being taken as food for the crag-biters, but please, the chest, push the bottom left button. There's some supplies and coin I'd stolen from travellers. I'm sorry to leave you alone.”
  284. “No. I can't leave you. You saved me!” Irven knelt beside the decoy. It- no, she (she insisted) could hear, but her lone eye stared at the ceiling.
  286. Kayl's decoy shook her head and her smile grew sad, and said “I never planned to return, I knew this was the most likely outcome with slaying Brevshket. It's alright, Irven, forget about me; I am but a servant of the All-Dragon, who saw fit to guide you to me, and I'm grateful to him and to you. Thank you for letting me restore my honour, but don't throw your life away. It gladdens my heart to know I could at least serve one of draconic blood in my final act.”
  287. Kayl's head slumped, and she whispered, “I am but a servant, so e'er shall it be, purpose served so I can go to rest with-”
  288. She went silent, and the decoy was still.
  290. Irven looked at the exit tunnel, then back at Kayl's decoy, and again to the exit. He couldn't just leave, could he? Not after what she had done for him. But how many of those spiders could there be? Surely it was suicidal to go in.
  291. He nearly yelped out as he saw movement; Kayl's bifurcated spear's parts were crawling, small tendrils reached for each other and the split shaft pulled itself together. He stared at the living weapon for a moment and approached it. It wasn't just alive, but it it seemed intelligent as one of its sprouts 'licked' the blade clean of Brevshket's blood and brain matter, as if it was absorbing it.
  292. “You're... Paet, right? That's what she called you,” Irven asked.
  293. The spear finished connecting together, the split seamlessly fixing itself. He gingerly reached for it, picking it up and expecting it to react; he hadn't realised before in his panic, but it was warm to the touch and almost vibrated in his hand before, with a soft creak, Paet pointed to the crag-biter tunnel with its blade, and Irven stared at the foreboding passage.
  295. “... you're right. I... we can't leave her! Let's go!”
  296. Irven retrieved his coat, spared from the flames and blast by virtue of it still being wet and thick, and wrapped up; it had to be better than his bedwear. He pointed Paet ahead and sucking in a final calming breath, he jogged down the tunnel.
  298. * * *
  300. Part 2: Flames
  302. Irven knew a little about these spiders. He'd studied them as part of his forceful education. Kobolds called them crag-biters, but to humans, they were stone-shell tarantulas and a regular miner hazard, as they were attracted to vibrations through the rock, to the point mining teams had soldiers and mercenaries if they had any degree of sense. Apparently kobold miners sang, using musical rhythm to mask their swings into heavier beats. Some said this was nonsense, and the 'scale-swine' simply had so many miners that the occasional spider eating their numbers was little more than an inconvenience, whilst others insisted the timed swings fooled the spiders into believing the heavier impacts were a dragon moving about.
  303. Either way, with no miners, songs or mercenaries at hand, Irven thought more critically, they were difficult to harm from the front; the stone-like carapace required something more akin to an axe or a pick to break through, but their backs were vulnerable. They struck with impressive force, able to chop stone much like a miners pick, and they used this to punch through steel armour with ease.
  304. Most critical of all, however, was the fact they were deathly afraid and even harmed by light; something about extreme photosensitivity to allow them to avoid certain bioluminescent plants or minerals or some-such; he'd forgotten some of the deeper details, but even if he didn't believe the rest of what he had read, Irven saw the spider react to his budding magic.
  306. He was walking blind, following the tunnel by feel, and decided to slay two drakes with one bolt. He could still feel the lingering energy within him and focusing in his hand. Irven tried to coax his new power to the fore, and it felt more of a natural extension of himself, although requiring greater effort than his panicked flailing back at Kayl's camp.
  307. Irven's hand glowed red, like staring at his hand while blocking the sunlight through the tiny window of his old room, and he grunted with pain as he tried to force the growing energy beyond his digits, making him squint as the tiny sphere illuminated the cave. He let his eyes adjust, then experimented by moving the sphere, making it dance around his hand. It was a silly bit of magic, but invoking it by will instead of desperation, he felt incredibly powerful.
  308. Irven couldn't help but laugh and said, “there we go, Paet! We'll have Kayl rescued in no time! We just need to find... her...” he trailed off. Before him, the tunnel split, coiled, banked and twisted in a dizzying way. He stared but couldn't even begin to wonder how to start.
  309. Paet suddenly stabbed a thorn in his hand, and Irven winced and dropped the temperamental spear.
  310. “What 'neath the Six is wrong with you?” he growled and went to pick it up, only to see the spear head once more point at something; a small patch of blood. Irven brought the sphere of light near to it, then looked further along the tunnel and spotted another; he had a destination, so he picked Paet up and followed along. The tunnels were varied in size, some large enough for him to pass and others he had to crawl through, and he had to stop0 at each frustrating knot of an intersection to relocate the trail. It was slow going, but he soon heard it; the scuttling from before and movement at the edge of his light.
  311. The power he felt waned somewhat, but he kept his focus; the light wasn't as much of a drain on him as he'd expected it to be, but he felt like he could expand the power of it as well, as if the more he used it, the more he could draw into it. The ease he found in this magic was a worry, but he kept his focus on the task at hand and kept his calm.
  313. The droplets of blood, helpful as they were, worried Irven greatly; Kayl had been impaled twice and time was against him. He wished he could hurry, but every time he stopped to find the trail, he worried it would be too late. Even so, the presence of webs was a good indication he was on the right path. The thick strands were weaved into long cones that stretched the wider passages, and he experimented by trying to cut them with Paet, which worked but he soon heard a clatter of stone on stone.
  314. “Oh no,” Irven gasped as a swarm of spiders ran at him. The feeling of power be damned, he panicked and started swinging Paet around as the arachnids approached. While he saw and heard the same hissing, they seemed undeterred; he was an intruder in their lair, of course they were bolder here.
  315. Irven drew deep from within, and with a thrust of his hand, he urged the power inside him harder and the sphere of light swelled, growing brighter and forcing the spiders back, but it also felt like he was tensing a weak muscle; he could maintain it, but doubted he could do so for long. He pushed forward, still regretting every pause to find his way as it became more and more difficult with each moment as more webbing got in the way until he was finally at a loss.
  317. “No! Come one, where are you?” Irven gnashed his teeth and scoured the ground for any sign of blood, but there was nothing to find. His arm ached and his power faded, the light flickering. Paet vibrated in his hand and brought his attention back as a spider charged at him, and with a wide swing, he struck the terrifying thing with the spike of the crosspiece, which took a chunk of shell with it and the spider backed up and sidled around, wary of further harm. Irven clenched his jaw and forced the light back to full strength again, but he was losing the battle against time and mental fortitude; he'd soon be joining her unwillingly, lost in a maze and his magic failing as the spiders descended upon him.
  318. Unless...
  320. “Kayl!!” He screamed at the top of his lungs. He expected an echo, but none emerged, just the constant skittering around him.
  322. “I-Irven?” Her voice, weak but clear amidst the ambience.
  324. There! He rushed through a tunnel, brandishing the light as the weapon more than Paet, forcing the countless fiends to move aside as a ship's wake, and swinging the spear at any that lingered. “Kayl, keep talking! I'm nearly there!” He called again.
  326. “Here! I can see your light!”
  327. A corner turned, and there she was, shrouded in thick webbing; her light blue scales and tattered armour were unmistakable, stained red with her blood, but once more Irven couldn't help but admire her golden eyes and how the light in his hand reflected off of them. Her slitted pupils enlarged from the brightness and she winced.
  329. “You complete fool!” Kayl growled, but she couldn't hide the joy in her eyes, but she masked it beneath anger and continued, “why did you ignore me? I'm not worth it!”
  331. “I've spent too long listening to instructions,” Irven started, keeping his light pointed at the cave entrance and the spiders keeping a wary distance as he hacked at the webs with Paet. “I figured it was time to assert myself. I'm saving you and that's damned final.”
  333. Kayl, once freed, clutched her wounds. While they weren't seeping as badly, it was obvious she had lost a lot of blood as she staggered to her feet, slow and unsteady. Irven held Paet to her, and she took it, using the spear to support herself before she picked up some of the torn webbing and stuck pieces of it over her wounds. Paet even used its retractable thorns to snag the strands to help wrap a longer strand around her to reinforce the patches.
  334. “Do you remember the way out?” she asked.
  336. “Not exactly, but we'll make do.” He turned to the exit tunnel and the wall of eyes looking at them. “Come on! I'm full on St. Vanterre's blood, and you aren't going to stop me!” he bellowed and the light in his hand pulsed, forcing the gnashing jaws and raised, spiked legs further away, granting them some time for Kayl to brandish her spear properly, still shaky but her breathing growing firmer.
  338. “You lead, I'll protect you.” Kayl patted Irven on the small of his back and he felt a surge of strength.
  340. The sphere of light grew, but he hadn't tried any harder to maintain it. He looked down at her, smiled and said, “we'll protect each other.”
  341. Irven started heading for the exit, but watched for Kayl following, letting her set the pace with her weak strides. Despite her obvious pain, and how she struggled against the lost blood, she still had a focus that told him she could fight. With luck, he hoped, she wouldn't have to as the crag-biters parted for them.
  342. With a partner, or perhaps two if he included Paet, he was able to think clearly and be more analytical. The webs were much like any other. He recalled taking candles to them while bored, watching the strands streak with light and panicking as they set fire to the bookcases they were strung to. Or using a spyglass, usually used to study the infamously tiny text of the Itheric monastery's holy books, to burn ants in the courtyard of the castle.
  344. “Irven, focus!” Kayl grunted, tapping his thigh with her tail as he realised the light was waning. The beasts of instinct lunged from the side at the opening and Paet flickered in the dull glow in Irven's hand as blade met spider's eye, eliciting a screech and a spout of blue gunk and Kayl spun about Irven, swinging with precise, wide, defensive arcs around him but she winced and hissed in pain as the web bandages, already showing red spots, peeled and frayed from the movement.
  346. “Let's get some distance; I've got an idea,” Irven said and bit his lip as he focused the light, using his free hand to feel how warm it was. He expected it to be like putting his hand near a candle flame, but it felt more akin to tea almost not worth drinking; tepid at best. He still had reserves of power, but his earlier exhaustion once more clawed at his spirit; they were both on borrowed time.
  347. While Irven remembered the last few twists and turns, several of the intersections looked the same, especially with the webbing. Kayl gasped and Irven spun in time to see her fend off another spider that lunged at them by using Irven's shadow for cover. She swung with expert precision and cut off one of its legs by hacking through the knuckle of its join, where the carapace with thinner.
  349. “They're getting bolder or growing used to the light,” Kayl said, “I've never seen them get this aggressive. Which way?”
  351. “I... I don't know. Maybe...” Irven spun about, trying to get his bearings. Each tunnel looked familiar, then strange and unusual as the abundant spindly legs plucked and tapped on web and rock, bombarding his senses and adding to the confusion.
  353. “Irven! Which way!?” Kayl yelled.
  355. There was one tunnel that seemed bereft of them, even having older, sagging webs.
  356. “Wait, there, le-”
  357. A red hot searing pain shot through his thigh as a crag-biter punched through the his thigh but narrowly missed the bone. He stumbled, the light flickering and dimming as he fell, landing face to face with the poised fangs. A blue spray covered the floor as Paet's keen blade carved through a mandible, and Kayl's feet filled Irven's view as she impaled the spider's head with three hammering thrusts, chipping, breaking and gouging into it with a loud, visceral squelch as its many legs twitched and seemed to shrink in on itself.
  359. “On your feet! Come, up, up!” she said and offered a hand despite her ever-weakening state. He would have admired her iron will if it weren't for the compounding focus needed to sustain his light. He struggled to a stand, and while Kayl tried to help him, her fading strength didn't give much support, even if contact was refreshing. He needed to stop and let his mind recover, and relocating the poorly webbed tunnel, he hobbled towards it.
  361. “This way! Okay, cover your eyes!” Irven watched Kayl stare at him for a moment, then nod with a grimace, keeping Paet pointed back at the spider horde and shut her eyes as Irven put the sphere of light between his hands and pushed the energy within him into it, like crushing paper into a ball, compressing it, intensifying it. The light swelled until it struck his hands, but rather than hurting, he felt it give, relenting to his touch as he kept pumping more magic into it, kneading it smaller, a dense ball of power. The light grew painfully bright, even to him, then brighter still. He felt the heat, and with a savage cry, he hurled the light into the intersection.
  362. It wasn't just light. It crackled and flickered, the sphere's shell, if he could call it that, shattered and expanded in all directions in a chaotic pattern like fireworks he'd seen Brevshket experiment with. The spiders didn't stand a chance; the webs caught and the room filled with a deep, bass thump, but the fire was spreading with chaotic speed.
  363. Irven realised he'd not quite thought this through, so he grabbed Kayl and ran down the tunnel, only to trip and stumble. Heat washed over him as the flames poured through the narrow passage and the blanket of webs gave and small wisps of flame singed his hands, and they tumbled together down a pit as the webs, once a welcoming cushion from the fall, vanished into flame.
  365. For the second time that day, he couldn't make head nor tail of what was happening, just falling like a clumsy fool and after a second of freefall, he landed on his back. He gasped in pain from the impact and Kayl fell from his arms and tumbled across the floor, then lay slack. Beyond his breathing, at last, silence.
  366. Grateful silence.
  367. Worrying silence.
  369. “Are you alright?” Irven whispered. There was an extended pause. “K-Kayl?”
  370. The kobold whimpered and sucked in a breath, as if awakening from sleep. Irven summoned a new light and he saw her makeshift bandages had also burned away, blackening and singeing her wounds. Despite this, she slowly crawled towards him and grabbed Paet. Kayl got to her knees and tried to stand, but slumped back down.
  371. “Keep still. I've got you.” Irven dimmed the light, crawled to her and picked her up. She looked at him and opened her mouth to talk but she just slumped and her breathing grew faint.
  372. Irven hissed in surprise as he felt something crawl around his leg, only to realise it was Paet, coiling its way up like a serpent and wrapping itself around his waist like a belt.
  373. “Stay with me, Kayl,” he whispered, and limped out of the only tunnel beyond the opening above them.
  375. The nest was a graveyard of blackened husks and charred rock, yet while it felt like the nest was devastated, Irven could still hear the distant scuttling; they weren't likely an active threat any more but he didn't want to linger. The smell was atrocious, similar to burnt flesh but with a distinct, acrid tang strong enough that he could taste it. The light diffused from above his hand over Kayl's legs into the fog-like haze from the smoke, the remnant of his plan, and while he was glad to be done with the crag-biters, he felt sickened that he may have hurt Kayl even more by the act.
  376. Irven realised at least a fringe benefit of burning the nest; as he moved through the tunnels, air was flowing from some of the tunnels to fill the space, and he followed the breeze. He even managed a smile as he recognised the simplifying layout; he was nearing where he'd entered the nest, and even saw the blood drops.
  378. “We're almost out, Kayl.”
  380. “I-Irven.” Kayl wriggled a little but was limp in his arms. She mumbled, “... in the chest, push the bottom left button and look... for red labels... pour it in my wounds and it-” She passed out and Irven couldn't help but break into a run, then a sprint, clutching her as hard as he dared and ignored the puncture to his thigh; he could suffer later. She was cool to the touch before, now she felt cold.
  382. The camp was as they had left it; burnt and broken, but the chest was heavy and thickly built. The buttons, a puzzle by the looks of it, was already solved besides the one Kayl had mentioned. He placed her down with reverence and care, then pushed the button. The lid clicked and lifted apart from the body, and inside was a staggering array of bottles, flasks and devices. The Brevshket in him wanted to study them, but he sought out the tincture. Two jars with red labels, written in draconic.
  383. He felt it was strange that a prevalent language like the drake-tongue hadn't been part of his studies, but it clicked now; his late master wanted a way to communicate, and often did, with others around without telling Irven what was happening. He hoped to learn it, to be closer to Kayl.
  384. Opening the jar, the strong smell made Irven's eyes water. He could detect a few herbs he recognised but was focused on saving Kayl. He unstrapped Kayl's armour and began pouring the sweet, sickly smelling brown syrup into her wounds.
  386. It ran off of her scales but clung to her damaged flesh, no doubt by design. He poured a generous amount into each wounds, front and back, then he watched and waited.
  387. Should it visibly do anything? Was he too late? How quickly was it supposed to work!? He could sense it was infused with magic, but he wasn't sensing any reaction. He put his wrist by her muzzle, feeling for breath. If it was there, he was either too impatient or it was too weak, so he listened to her chest and also heard nothing.
  388. A flame sparked near him. A rope by the wall caught alight and lit the room and trailed all the way into and through a small crack in the ceiling. He felt like the strange occurrence was significant, but he didn't care.
  389. She couldn't be dead. He wouldn't let her die. She deserved better.
  390. “Come on! Kayl!?” he felt his eyes grow wet and he opened the second jar, pouring more into her injuries and held her close. He struggled to stop himself from sobbing and his head pulsed and throbbed again, the lightning in his mind sparked and he clenched his teeth so hard he swore they would break.
  392. “You'll learn someday, Irven. Despite all I've taught you, there's always some ignorance. Some lacking aspect. It will make you fail, just like now. It will be your undoing. You balk at what I've done? You think me a monster? My attempts to make you as good as you can be?”
  394. It was like he was still alive. He looked over to Brevshket's corpse and slarned, “you were a fucking monster! You were!! Shut up and fucking die!!” he roared as the pain stabbed down his spine.
  396. “Then you've learned nothing. I will carry on in you, boy. My flame is within you! We are bound! WE ARE ETERNAL!”
  398. “NO!!” His fingers crackled and sparked. He felt the migraine force from him, down his arms and into Kayl, who twitched violently, writhed and sucked in a ragged breath, then sat up and screamed. Her body seemed to drink the lingering tincture and she sat up, panting rapidly. The wounds shrank, flesh growing and throbbing together, fresh and vibrant scales forming around as if nothing had happened to her.
  399. “K-Kayl? Oh, thank the Six!” He held her tightly.
  401. “Irven...” she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him for a time before jabbing him in the side with a thumb claw and huffing, “I eraxhem told you to leave me! You're a fool!” She maintained a funny expression, that Irven assumed was an angry pout, for perhaps four seconds before hugging him back again. All was well. Irven could have remained like this for hours.
  402. “You're bleeding!” Kayl suddenly gasped and pulled free from his hold, inspecting his injured leg.
  404. “It's nothing, just a scratch.” It hurt, but the adrenaline that was wearing off had been supplanted with relief at saving Kayl's life.
  406. “Sit back and hold still. I'll tend to it.” Kayl looked at the jar of tincture and scratched her cheek. “This should work. You clearly have dragon blood in you; humans simply can't cast magic as readily as you obviously can.”
  408. “Like I said, I couldn't. I guess whatever Brevshket did to me changed that, they're linked to my headaches, and he was somehow suppressing it within me with the medication and just being near me. Now that he's dead, it's like I've awoken to it. I still don't know what I'm doing, though. It's like trying to use a new limb or something. Speaking of limbs...” Irven winced as he stretched his leg out, and Kayl retrieved some other supplies, then seemed to panic and dig around the chest.
  410. “Wait, there was two jars of...” she stopped and saw the discarded, empty jar of tincture. “Oh no.”
  412. “What? What's wrong? Oh, St. Gareg's breath, don't tell me I overdosed you!”
  414. Kayl looked herself over, inspecting her sealed wounds, then seemed to shrug.
  415. “I was told to never use more than half a jar... maybe it's nothing. I'm not feeling anything unusual. Never mind, let's see to that leg. You'll need to take off your clothes.”
  417. Paet, still wrapped around Irven, loosened and fell to the ground then snaked away as Irven took his coat off. He winced again as he shuffled about and tried to keep his leg straight.
  419. “Your leggings too.” Kayl couldn't suppress a smirk.
  421. “A-are you sure?”
  423. “Oh, excuse me. Of course, keep them on while I stand here without my armoured vest.” She patted her freshly healed ventral chest scales and belly, then said, “leggings. Off. Now. I'll even help.”
  424. Irven grunted and started pulling his legwear down, with Kayl tugging them down to his ankles, leaving him in only his tunic, which thankfully trailed down to just above the wound but he could feel the cooling air on his nethers.
  425. Kayl inspected the wound, then took a dark bottle, popping the cork with her teeth and applied it to a cloth. Irven could smell strong alcohol and braced himself as she wiped around the wound, then poured a little over the site itself. She might as well have applied a branding iron, and he yelped and flinched, his light flickering as he did.
  426. “Stop being such a child and hold still,” Kayl scolded. She wasn't smiling but he could tell she was on the inside, and Irven was both glad to share in the relief, but the pain was making him short tempered.
  428. “Why can't we just use the damn tincture? Pour it in and be done with it!”
  430. “First, we don't yet know if it will help the same way by stera-uh... aweka... clean the wound or heal fast enough to prevent later infection. Second, we only have a small amount left and I want to be frugal. Third, hush and let me concentrate.” Kayl finished with the bloody rag and discarded it, then looked closer at the crag-biter injury. She mumbled to herself in draconic before saying, in Vlieden, “looks clean, no debris. We'll try a little of the tincture, and even if it doesn't take then I should be able to stitch the wound together and bandage your leg.”
  432. Irven nodded as she took the jar and, tilting his leg around so the wound was facing up, poured at little of the thick liquid inside. He instantly felt the area turn numb yet warm, and both watched in amazement as his flesh started regrowing itself, although far slower than it had for Kayl. She pulled a needle and a spool of thread from the box and stitched the wound. Irven grunted with each pass but held his tongue. Her hands were steady and precise, and once the wound was pulled together, she bit the thread off and wrapped his leg with a clean bundle of gauze.
  434. “We'll let it work its magic and, with luck, you'll be good to walk by sunrise,” Kayl said, kneeling down and redressing in her damaged armoured vest.
  435. They sat quietly for a time, just listening to the whistle of wind above, before she put a hand on his shin and said, “I-I'm sorry if I've seemed ungrateful, Irven. I've spent so long expecting the end that I had planned it all out in my mind. I had defeated myself, in a sense, in dedication of succeeding with slaying Brevshket, and I was sure I would die alone and not cause more suffering like I had already. Thank you. I owe you my life.” She bowed, low and long, so close to his knee he could feel her breath on it.
  437. He put a hand on her shoulder, intrigued by the feel of the hard scales, and she raised her gaze, their eyes locked and he responded, “we saved each other. I couldn't have escaped Brevshket, I couldn't have fought off his men and I certainly doubted I really stood a chance in the Crag-biter lair by myself, even with Paet's help. I have my freedom and my life, and it's all thanks to you.”
  438. They smiled at each other, and Kayl's hands encircled his wrist. He expected her palms to be cool to the touch, or perhaps still cold and recovering, but they felt warm. He was transfixed on the flecks and patterns of her eyes, the eight little spikes that pointed away from each vertically slitted pupil, each an imperfect distance from one another, and the countless flowing lines of her iris that intensified the gold colour and spread thinner to a less concentrated and smoother, darker yellow at the outer edge. There was almost no visible sclera, or white around her eye. Thinking back, he'd seen some when she was looking far to the side but otherwise, just pools of liquid gold surrounding an exotic, remarkable black pupil.
  439. Both of them realised they had been staring and holding each other for far longer than was comfortable, and they broke away, clearing their throats in unison.
  441. “I-it's getting cold,” Kayl stammered, “the trapped heat's seeping out and I suspect the blizzard has rolled in. Let me see what hasn't been damaged. You rest your leg and keep still.”
  442. She gave another little bow, then stood, walking around the camp with an energy she lacked before, when they first settled in the camp, her tail swaying as she examined the ruins of her camp. The enthusiasm waned and soon she returned with one large blanket.
  444. “We'll be alright! This is intact, but the wood is almost spent but if we huddle together and spark a small fire, we should be able to-”
  445. The world mocked them as a low, earthen rumble forced Kayl into silence and the ceiling of the cave cracked, large rocks falling and covering the area with soil. Irven and Kayl scrambled to the sanctity of the crag-biter tunnel, the kobold snatching up Paet and the human with his leggings in the process, as several more chunks of cavern ceiling fell with a flurry of snow and freezing air, the winds like an angry shout above, echoing down the tunnel.
  447. “Kayl? What are we-” Irven stopped when he saw her.
  449. Kayl sighed at the final death of her camp and her expression was deeply sour. Irven decided against pressing the issue. They just watched the snow reflect the light back from Irven's magic for a time, and Kayl huddled herself in the blanket, and then leaned her head against Irven.
  451. * * *
  453. Part 3: Hearts
  455. With the blizzard in full force and still unwilling to brave the crag-biter lair again, Irven and Kayl had climbed to the upper tunnel, which was now within reach thanks to the fallen rubble forming a platform to climb to it. They had scavenged the camp; Irven was now wearing boots from one of the dead guards, far better than his slippers, and the scalecasters armoured coat; it was dryer, warmer and better protection compared to his old one, which he carried for extra warmth when they found a place to settle. His pockets were loaded with several bottles and tinctures from Kayl's lockbox, and she said she would retrieve it later when she had the means.
  456. Kayl had also chopped off Brevshket's horns and plucked some of his teeth, then strung them to Paet as a trophy and proof of her success.
  458. They walked in silence for a few minutes before Kayl suddenly said, “what part of this is a good idea again? How do we even know there's an exit up here?”
  460. She sounded anxious, Irven noted.
  461. “You would have been smoked out a long time ago if this tunnel didn't have another way out,” Irven said. He still had a limp, but it eased as he grew used to the pain. “Also, if we find any chambers, with luck they will have trapped in some of the rising heat, and hopefully long enough to keep us alive for the night. That reminds me; Provost... that arsehole Brevshket once demonstrated a vast bag made of lightweight, water-sealed materials that he could trap hot air inside to a warlord. The principle worked, it could fly and carry a man and some equipment high into the sky, but he couldn't find a way to guide it, as he wanted to use it to bombard settlements with bombs, poisons, diseased material, etcetera.”
  463. “What's an et setera?” Kayl asked.
  465. “Oh, sorry. It's an old Ardentiphic term for stopping a list whilst implying it's not exhaustive.”
  467. “Why would a list get tired?”
  469. Irven chuckled, then responded, “I'm sorry. I mean the list could continue, but without going on and on about it. I'm surprised you believe me. Most folk who'd heard about his flight-bladder thought it the dreams of a madman.”
  471. “Dragons fly, and we believe all creatures should emulate them however they can so it doesn't surprise me a pretender like Brevshket would do the same. Our clan has also taken to replicating them with specially designed kites that can carry kobolds for transport and ambushes, granting us temporary flight for minutes, if not hours if the conditions are right. It's part of our training and why it's called clan Star-Sail.”
  473. “That sounds amazing... I can't wait to see it.” Irven smiled to her, and she looked back before her eyes went wide.
  475. “All-Dragon's blood... you're right. I'd almost forgotten that I might be welcomed back now that my honour is restored. Have you-” Kayl went silent and her pace slowed.
  477. “What's wrong?”
  479. “I-I feel a bit strange, that's all.”
  481. “An illness? Injury?” Irven slowed and looked at her as she licked her lips and stared off to the side.
  483. “I... ahh!” she shuddered and barely caught herself from falling over with Paet's help.
  485. “Shit, do you need me to carry you?” He knelt down and put a hand on her back; she was very warm.
  487. “Don't! It's fine! I'll be alright!” Kayl snapped and pulled away and burst into something of a jog down the tunnel.
  489. “Could be an affect of the healing tincture. You did say I gave you too much,” Irven said as he caught up and matched pace with her. “Do you know what's in it?”
  491. “No idea. I wasn't an alchemist and I only studied poisons and-haah!” She stopped again and clenched up. She was doing something beneath the blanket she was wearing like a cloak, but he couldn't tell what, but her tail was swaying in a fast rhythm as if agitated.
  492. Or excited.
  494. Irven cocked an eyebrow and listened to her panting. He took out the jar and popped the lid again, taking another sniff. Without worrying about Kayl being on deaths door, he tried to identify the herbs he detected before.
  495. Yarrow, certainly. And calendula. If it had magic within it, odds are it was from drakesmould fungus, but that was nigh undetectable in flavour and aroma. St. Gareg's root was unmistakable, a potent toxin that only had a citrusy odour when it reacted to calendula which both weakened its heart-stopping properties and left only its more useful effect of clotting blood. There was something else, though. He dabbed his pinkie in the syrup and patted it on his tongue.
  496. St. Phoebe's weed! That was it. Sickly sweet, and when dried and powdered, it was exceptional at perking up the sick and infirmed, often used in measured doses to help soldiers get back into the fight or return for treatment from wounds. It had to be carefully measured because in high doses, it was an infamous...
  497. Irven blushed.
  499. “S-so... Kayl?”
  500. The kobold turned, her eyes lidded, her tongue lolling and dripping with saliva as her breath poured with steam.
  501. “Yeah... you've been given a heavy dose of an aphrodisiac,” Irven finished. She tilted her head and he clarified, “it makes the user... aroused.”
  503. She shook her head, spittle flicking off her muzzle and her eyes focused again, even if her tail continued to wave and wag, and barked, “I'll be alright! I just... hnn... I just need to meditate.”
  505. “We can just settle here. It's nowhere near as cold and if we huddle together, I'm sure we'll be fine.”
  507. “No!” Kayl almost screamed. “i-if we do that I might...” she let go of Paet, who coiled its haft on the floor to keep upright, and the kobold slapped herself on the face with both hands.
  509. “... is there anything I can do?” Irven, blushing as he was, still felt awful for once again being the cause of her distress.
  511. She snapped, “just be quiet and let me try and suppress this!”
  512. Kayl knelt down and covered her head with the blanket, blocking all sight of her and groaned.
  514. Irven racked his brain for a solution. While the tunnel wasn't as cold as being near the camp, it was still freezing cold. They would likely need all their layers and his body-heat, since kobolds were mostly cold blooded. He needed to be able to help her.
  515. Even then, overdoses of St. Phoebe's weed were notorious for driving people to the edge of insanity, but thankfully users became so promiscuous they could use sex to ride out the worst of it, Saints willing with a consenting participant. Otherwise, it was hours of non-stop torture as the brain simply wouldn't reach an apex without enough stimulation.
  517. “I can help...” Irven finally said.
  519. “I can't... I won't degrade you.... It's wrong!” Kayl gasped.
  521. Irven caught a scent on the air; it was strong, earthy. He knew, somewhere deep down, she was dripping from her arousal, probably trying to pleasure herself as her meditation failed. He also felt, in the same deep pit of himself, the part of him he was aware was draconic, that he wanted her on an animal level, just as his logical mind found her intriguing and kind and just as his emotions knew he cared for her despite what little time they had known each other but he was willing to put his life on the line for her, and she had for him. He felt himself grow erect and his dick tented his leggings beneath the coat.
  523. He gulped and took a deep breath.
  524. “I want to help you, Kayl. Because you're special. I don't care if we've known each other for an hour, a day, or whatever. I know you don't care either, because even if you tried to help me because it coincided with your mission, you didn't need to take me in, or feed me, or help with my migraines. You did that because you're kind, and I... I care about you. I don't want you to suffer.”
  526. Kayl pulled the blanket from her head, wrapping it around her shoulders and looking at him. Her eyes were watering and she gritted her teeth.
  527. “A...are you sure? You're a human and I'm...” she asked, almost pleading.
  529. “Yes. I am. And I know what we are, it doesn't matter.” Irven said.
  531. “Okay. Please. No matter what happens... thank you.” she said.
  532. Irven undid his coat and pulled her into it, her aroma filled the bestial, draconic part of his mind with such force that however little apprehension he felt, it was crushed as he ran his hands over her neck and shoulders, and then pulled her armour off and felt her hard scales. She was still warm to the touch, so he unfurled her blanket and shrouded both of them and let his light wink out. They were a bundled fire against the chill, and feeling her breath on his face, he leaned forward and placed his lips against her muzzle and gently pushed his tongue against hers. Kayl's pressed back, then she licked around his lips and chin and her little hands cradled his face.
  533. Her hind legs hooked around the sides of his waist and pulled at him, and he ran his hands over her body and his fingertips traced the fine lines of each scale and the tight muscles beneath. Then his hands moved lower, to her soft belly and she wriggled at his touch, her heightened sensitivity making her gasp a sing-song moan as he stroked lower, then lower still.
  534. He felt her parted, horizontal lips. His fading logic found it strange, but everything else wanted it; the exotic feel, the heady scent, a decadent taste to be sampled and tasted. He knew what they looked like despite seeing nothing; the deep, luscious purple flesh, thick with her fluids, eager for a mate to make her gravid. He may not be able to do that for her, but he didn't want her to wait any longer; a merciful dance of the fingers on the ventral scales around the edge made her squeal.
  535. Irven dipped his fingers in and explored her by touch; small openings within as her muscles clenched around her hand and he pushed with more force. Her claws scratched and raked his shoulders as she lapped at his face, yet he found the pain easy to ignore and supped on her tongue and pushed his fingers deeper inside her, up to the middle knuckle. There were little openings inside, and brushing the first didn't seem to entice her too much, but the moment he touched the second one, Kayl groaned and shivered and her scales flexed outward, giving her a spiky appearance; an primal show of her draconic arousal.
  536. A crackle of magic awoke in him, but rather than building into a storm, it found its way to his eyes and suddenly the dark abated; he could see. He now saw how one of her eyes was closed, how the other was unfocused and flickering, her sharp teeth exposed as he breathed hard and heavy as with one last stroke inside her cloaca, right inside that sensitive spot, she screamed violently and her warm, sticky fluids gushed over his arm.
  537. Irven's digits were held inside her, but there was something inside he hadn't expected. Far from just a muscular passage, he felt a hardened ring of flesh that bit on his fingertips, toothless but firm, and it to grip him as the surrounding muscle flexed and undulated, in an attempt to pull him deeper. He watched her recover from her climax, but where he expected some abatement or relenting of her vicious arousal, she locked her eyes on him.
  539. “M-more! Irven! More!” she panted and smiled.
  541. It was amazing to see that despite her ailing mind, she was enjoying this. Enjoying him.
  542. Irven wanted to indulge, both himself and her, so he grabbed her waist and lifted her up, his nose brushing against her belly until the scent of her cloaca filled his mind and he sniffed deeply, then ran his tongue across her. The ventral scales nipped at his tongue, pinching it but the flavour was enticing enough for him to risk a deeper probe, a kiss. His hands helped hold the harder outer lips apart as he pressed his mouth against the outer walls of her inner passages as Kayl's claws once more dug into him, scratching the back of his head and her thighs pressed against his temples.
  543. It was nothing like he had tasted before; earthy, both a little bitter and sweet. He couldn't help but murmur a low chuckle as Kayl squealed and he pushed his tongue in as far as it would go, licking at the passage with the ring inside; it was still hard, giving him a target to focus on, each pass earning a wriggle and a tense of her powerful thighs as they clenched around his head. With a hard scratch that he knew drew blood, Irven stroked his tongue all the way around the ring inside her, and got a gush of her fluids up his nose that made him cough as she let out a huge, throaty cry.
  544. Kayl went slack and Irven pulled her down to face level, rolling over so she could lay flat on her back. She caught her breath once more and licked her juices from his face and he couldn't help but kiss her back. She was amazing, and the smile on her muzzle made he effort worth every bit of discomfort.
  546. The fact Kayl still had a longing in her eyes made him worry she was still too afflicted by the drug, but there was also a clarity there, and the gentle stroke of her hands on his face told him this was just Kayl, and not the lust within, and she purred, “it's still not enough, Irven. I need you. I need you in me, like a true mate.”
  548. Doubts clouded his enjoyment. Some instinct had guided him so far, but the logic was fighting back; it was one thing to touch her, feel her, taste her, have her enjoy him, but to commit everything? Irven had never been with human of either sex, apparently to maintain his 'purity' as his master told him. But with how small she was to him, would it even work? Would he hurt her? He had to admit, “I... I don't know if I can...”
  550. Kayl pushed herself from the ground, mighty and ravenous. Little pockets of cold air flowed into the covers as she wrenched his arm and turned him onto his back, then stared at him. He almost feared for his life; there was rage and hunger beyond the lust, but Irven felt a little safer as she wrapped her pointed tongue around his fingers and suckled on them, then crawled lower on his body.
  551. “I wasn't asking.” she breathed. He gulped, but complied, letting her make the first move.
  552. Once more, she removed his leggings, his pre trailing with them, and with a deep moan, her warm hands gripped his dick; taking both to wrap it from base to tip.
  553. The little teases of her clawtips as she stroked him, then the lapping of her tongue on the end as she supped on his pre-cum, then Irven groaned and writhed as Kayl rubbed her body against his cock, her tight muscles and ventral scales of her neck, then chest, a little too rough for pure pleasure but then gave way to the soft, fine texture of her belly, then the warm slickness of her juices from her previous climax still covering around her vent, then she stood. Her clawed feet had to dig into him to keep her balance, but he didn't care about a little pain; he was used to it.
  554. He looked down, his new dark vision allowing him to watch her as she lowered herself, guiding her spread cloacal vent as her knees bent outward and her hands kept him upright, as if he wasn't hard enough for the task. He wanted to prove otherwise, reached down, and held her wide, powerful hips. His thumbs roamed around the hard scales and little dimples on her upper thighs which earned him a throaty purr, a little reward as her easing arousal allowed her to enjoy a more tender display of his affection.
  556. Their eyes met again, and Kayl smiled at Irven as she realised he could see her, and that they were both beyond ready as her scales flexed away from her body once more. She let him pull her down, slowly and carefully, and his cock was slowly wrapped in her strong inner muscles, inch by intimate inch. Irven expected the tightness, but just when he thought she had hit a limit, she exhaled and relaxed, taking more and more of Irven in her. Kayl had such amazing control of her muscles, the flow of her insides pulling on him and he bucked, earning an adorable squeak from her as he caught her off guard.
  557. Finally, about two thirds of him inside her, they seemed to reach an impasse and Kayl wriggled about, panting and whimpering with a huge, pointy toothed smile.
  559. Irven couldn't help but give a staggered laugh. “That's... amazing! Almost got all of meEEEE!!” he cried out as with a heavy shove, she popped all the way in, landing on his hips and screaming again, a long howl as her eyes boggled and she bit her lip so hard it cut through the scales, then a low moan that evolved into a laugh of her own.
  561. “By the blood!” Kayl screamed, and felt her lower belly. There was a noticeable bulge on her soft underbelly. The already over-tight sensation of her cladding his dick took even more pressure as she pushed her hands against the shape and drooled as a huge smile flashed on her face and her eyes looked unfocused but blissful.
  563. “H-how... aah!” Irven babbled as she pushed her feet against his hips, tugging his length as she tried to pull herself free, and the slow, shifting tightness warped and clenched all over him. Irven wondered if he could ever take a human woman after knowing such pleasurable tightness or raw pleasure from a kobold who adored him as much as he adored her. She rode his length, bobbing up and down but not quite reaching his full length again but moving with a fervent tempo.
  564. Irven felt the pressure inside him peaking, but it came with something more than human as his energy spiked once more, his eyes glowed and magic poured from his fingers and into her body. She vibrated from the power filling her, her own eyes pulsed with golden light, and having pulled free from him, once more slammed down on him at full speed, his cock squeezed with almost unbearable pressure and she once more took him, full hilt, and both screamed so hard he swore the cave shook.
  565. They left the floor, hovering feet off the hard rock. The air crackled with energy and sparked, loose rocks floating as their joined climax. Her inner muscles pumped and almost suckled on him as he filled her insides with his cum and his length was smothered in a mix of his and her own ejaculate as the harder ring inside her milked him for all he was worth.
  567. Irven's power faded but let them fall to the floor with graceful, calm and gentle speed. Kayl placed her hands on his belly as they once more touched the ground, leaning forward and breathing hard for long while, before she looked at him with a calm smile, bereft of the lust as before, just sheer bliss.
  568. “That was amazing!” she giggled, still breathless.
  570. “I... Saints be...” Irven winced as Kayl slowly pulled off of his tender, softening dick, and she crawled up him to nuzzle against his chin and neck. “I-I've never been with... another before,” he confessed.
  572. “Really? You could have fooled me.” Kayl whispered. “I've mated for passing on my lineage and for pleasure, but I've never experienced that before!”
  573. Their hearts still hammered in their chests. Irven could feel her own energy mingling with his, as if bonded far deeper than any connection he'd seen other people share, and he could feel her pulse slowing as the excitement waned, now taken by a warmth that comforted his unnatural senses.
  575. “I'm just surprised you could-could uh... you know...” Irven pinched his finger and thumb together and slowly brought them apart, and Kayl laughed.
  577. “Do you know how big a kobold egg is?” Kayl giggled, “I've laid nine. I will admit I didn't know if I could take the length, but width? Don't underestimate me, Irven.”
  579. “Nine? Damn... just how old are you, anyway?”
  581. “Seventy two.”
  583. Irven coughed as he choked on his spittle. As his intelligence flowed back, he remembered kobolds live a good two centuries and even then weren't considered 'old' until a hundred and fifty.
  585. “Why? How old are you? You look fully grown.”
  587. “I-I'm considered an adult,” he said, but then mumbled, “in most circles.”
  589. “And one so smart... and strong,” Kayl cooed, rubbing a hand over his muscular chest, and while he loathed how he was raised, Irven now felt all the forced exercise felt justified for the longing look in her eyes as she drank his physique in, then looked at him and continued, “if you were a kobold, you'd be prime mating material. I suppose with your blood, you're as draconic as a kobold is to a true dragon, and I must say; you seem to have the stamina of my kin.” She licked his neck and mounted his chest, looking down at him with not just clarity, but adoration.
  591. “Guess there's nothing to do but wait until dawn and head out when it's warmer. We should get to the exit and see what the time is.”
  593. “It's five hours until sun-rise and the blizzard should abate an hour before then.”
  595. “How did you- never mind, I forgot kobolds always know the time of day. You're weird little things, aren't you?”
  597. “We're weird?” Kayl smirked but snorted, “oh, don't get me started on humans. Fighting over lands that have no value? Expecting to be given tiny disks of soft metals for essential jobs and pointless tasks? There's whole philosophy debates that take all day on how stupid man-kin are.” Kayl huffed, then wiggled her pointed tongue at him and once more just smiled softly. “If more of them were like you, though, maybe things could be better.”
  599. “Alright. Guess I'll have to take part as a representative of my people,” Irven said, then yawned, “right now, I need some sleep. I've probably been awake for twenty hours...”
  601. “Not a bad idea, I'm still feeling drained from my injuries. Let me just cast something now that I have my focus back.”
  602. Kayl put her hands together, rubbing the edge of one against the palm of the other, and blew on it. Irven realised he could pick up a little of Kayl's mind as she did; she was imitating starting a fire, her stroking hand was the bow and her palm was the kindling and socketed wood. After a few seconds of the motion, she clenched the rubbing hand into a fist and punched it into her palm. Kayl's body seeped with warmth, just as it had when she was affected by the tincture.
  604. “A little magic of your own, eh? That, standing on snow, the decoy thing... anything else?” Irven said as he settled down, his eyes growing heavy.
  606. “I'm full of little tricks, but I'll let you discover them in time. Right now, I just want to enjoy this. It's been so long since I've had a partner,” Kayl said, and curled up on his body, her tail coiling around his thigh, then whispered, “or a mate.”
  607. He wrapped his arms around her and she purred, and they found easy sleep and easier dreams.
  609. * * *
  611. Part 4: Home
  613. Kayl was used to sleeping with disruptions; talking and shouting was the typical as kobolds not only expected the bustle, but thrived on it. Amidst the chaos of the clan, a sense of well-being flourished, because a lively clan was a healthy clan. She had forgotten how much she missed the sound of another living being near her. She had Paet but he was silent except the occasional creak, as he liked to keep limber.
  614. Irven slept deep and snored as Kayl watched him from the comfort of his chest and his arms still around her. She had already slept enough, as she usually had a routine three hours and remembered how humans would get anywhere from six to ten, depending on who it was, how old they were, what their state of health was and a number of other factors. Likewise, they didn't always sleep in a single block, often breaking it up, taking 'naps' or whatever they were called. Kayl found this behaviour ludicrous, there was so much they could be doing in the hours they wasted, but she supposed it powered their massive strength with their lack of rejuvenating magic.
  616. Either way, she had a responsibility to this human. Irven was the first person she had ever felt this way about; he had saved her, despite her resignation to passing to the Final Sleep, to be spun back into the All-Dragon's magic to be born again as another kobold, or in failure, she would have been spent to sustain a dragon's life, or be spent as a kobold's spell. Kayl had given her eggs to the clan before being disgraced, so she was content to just recover her honour. To both be given another chance and to indulge in such pleasures was more than she had dared hope or dream of.
  617. The mates that fertilised her eggs were selected by their strengths and their honour; she felt nothing for them. The sex she had with a few more partners was typical of her kin as a way to reduce stress and remind kobolds of their earthly place in the world, compared to the true worship of of the All-Dragon that their masters indulged in, creating even more dragons. Sex, to kobolds, was also just a way to interact, albeit one that was very enjoyable.
  618. What happened with Irven, though, had a deeper meaning. Humans had strange assumptions about mating that made them stronger and more fragile depending on the context. Kayl had seen weak people without a smidgeon of experience take up a weapon to defend themselves in the presence of a mate, or in that of their offspring. At the same time it made them foolhardy, or made them susceptible to being coerced or lured into traps. It meant so much to them that humans, seen as selfish by her kin, would throw their lives away for that special kind of mating and friendship.
  619. Kayl wondered what this all meant for her, but couldn't come to any conclusions; humans and kobolds never mingled like they had, at least none that she had heard of. Until Irven woke up and they could discuss what happened a few hours ago.
  621. Kayl didn't know what it meant to him, and what he thought mattered a great deal to her. They had saved each other, but would he feel the same now?
  622. She realised she was getting anxious about the answer, and decided to do something practical to occupy the next couple of hours before she would wake Irven up; they needed to move once the blizzard had passed and the morning had arrived. Kayl had lost her overcave goggles, glass lenses painted with a dark resin, in the battle and would need him to guide her, and her armour was damaged, which was something she could rectify.
  623. Kayl slithered from Irven's grasp, knowing the trapped heat in the bundle their clothes and blankets had made would keep Irven warm for now, and wrapped herself in his old coat as she crawled out, back into the long, cold mine shaft. Paet was coiled up, and as she emerged, he straightened, flexing the haft back and forth like a wagging tail.
  625. “Fair sun-up, old friend,” Kayl whispered as she stroked him. “Do you have enough sustenance for a few strips of bark?”
  626. Paet tapped the floor twice and a part of his length peeled away. Kayl eased it off as the bare wood beneath began to grow back, and the section next to the first allowed her to take a good five strips of Paet's 'skin'.
  627. “Thank you, Paet. “ Kayl lifted the spear and gave him an affectionate hug, the spear shaft curving to fit her form before she removed her armour, huddling inside Irven's old coat, and set about making repairs.
  628. Kayl inspected the holes, and ran a hand over the sites of her wounds. She hadn't mentioned it at the time, but she had never seen anyone heal that quickly before. She also realised she had likely died back there, if for a moment, before Irven's power had revived her. She had felt her magic simply vanish, instead of being an ever-present force, a core part of being a kobold. Her heart had stopped and his magic forced it to pump again. What were the limits, if any, to his astounding magic?
  629. Stripping the damaged parts of the bark armour and retrieving the fabric cords used to keep it together, Kayl settled into a rhythm of her work, still listening to Irven as he slumbered.
  632. * *
  634. Brevshket paced around Irven's desk. He did this a lot as a way to intimidate him, disrupt his focus. A question was coming.
  635. “The six forms of arcane energy!” Brevshket demanded.
  637. “Celestial gravity, temporary matter transference and/or dispersal, thermodynamic concentration, stoichiometric mana-air coefficient, both raw-form and channel-form, and...”
  639. Brevshket stopped pacing, his scaled brow knitting and he moved his face closer to Irven, his sharp teeth peeking through his narrow lips as he scowled.
  641. “A-and...” Irven stammered and closed his eyes in fear. It didn't help. The hard knuckles and tough scales of Brevshket's hand cracked across Irven's face as he clenched his jaw, his mind racing before it finally came to him, “stellar/planar bond-cohesion!”
  643. “Good. We got there.” Brevshket stepped away, and after a painful moment, ended with, “eventually. Describe the fundamentals of each.”
  645. “Celestial Gravity is the process by which magic draws all objects towards those of a sufficient size and/or motion. Matter transference is the means by which objects can be made larger or smaller despite all physical matter being a constant, and thus how matter is transformed into and from bound-energy. Thermodynamic concentration is the form by which supernatural cold and fire can exist despite an absence or abundance of fuel, breathable air or energy, even in hyper-agitated states like electricity and plasma.
  646. “Stoichiometric mana-air coefficient is the process by which magic is always an environmental constant and yet can become manipulated in a way by mental command to 'bunch or stretch' into other forms of energy manipulation not applicable to thermodynamic concentration, in forms both naturally through worldly phenomena and by active, channelled forms such as from dragons or kobolds.
  647. “Stellar/planar bond-cohesion is the realised theory that there are entities beyond our scope, even that of dragons and other magically enriched beings, often called Gods or Saints and yet they are constantly at the whims of mortal forms; to believe is to enable the power, to disbelieve is to remove its power.” Irven took a deep breath and watched the Provost for a reaction.
  649. Brevshket nodded to himself and walked back towards the boy.
  650. “You see? You know it, you simply need the proper motivation. Stand, walk with me.”
  652. “Yes, Provost Brevshket.” Irven responded and complied. The dragon-scaled man lead him to a window, the sun dipping in the west and long shadows casting from the battlements, leaving a field of plants being harvested for the lab in the shade. Flowers, fungi, weeds and more were all sectioned off, sheltered or potted as needed, and boys and girls of various ages all helped gather them, then process them in smokers, boiling pots, drying racks and more apparatus. It was a job Irven once had to help with, until Brevshket took a liking to him.
  654. Brevshket pointed to them and asked, “in terms of the people; what do you see?”
  656. “I see servants working the garden, Provost.”
  658. “Do you remember being amongst them?”
  660. “Yes, Provost.”
  662. Brevshket held Irven's shoulder hard enough to make him wince; he knew the man, imbued with draconic traits and their prodigious strength, was fully capable of lifting a horse-carriage off the ground with ease. The fact Irven's face hurt and wasn't completely shattered was a testament to his master's skill and control.
  664. “Would you rather be one of them again? Toiling in the dirt and not even understanding the simplest mysteries of the world?” Brevshket's blue eyes narrowed, the slit pupil staring through Irven so hard he couldn't help but shiver.
  666. “N-no, Provost.”
  668. “Good. I'm glad. Ignorance and stupidity will undo the greatest of men and women, and you are destined for greatness, my boy,” Brevshket said and once more wrapped his arm around Irven's shoulders in a disturbing show of affection. “You just need to keep learning, keep working. I will make you magnificent, Irven. I won't let you fail.
  669. “Or you'll die trying.”
  671. * *
  673. Irven stirred, snorting and coughing, turning onto his side and blinding, wondering what was wrong with his vision. There was no sun, no candle, lantern or torch, yet he could see a fine linen fabric, sewn with thin thread in diamond patterns, with inner pockets of silk. The smell was earthy and sweet as well. It was familiar and exciting, but his mind was still numb from sleep.
  675. “Good sun-rise, Irven!” chirped a high, cheerful female voice.
  677. “Whabba? Ugn.”
  679. The female voice giggled. “Come on, get up! It's the first day of your freedom. The first day of my new life, and by sundown, hopefully your first day in my old home.” Her voice turned sultry. “Or perhaps you need a little more attention?”
  681. The sanctity of Irven's warm cocoon Irven was breeched, and a cute faced and curvy, well toned blue kobold crawled in and suddenly everything came back to him. He responded by grabbing her and holding her in a tight hug as he stroked around her horns.
  682. “Good morning, Kayl. How are you feeling?”
  684. “I feel...” she started to say, but paused and pushed herself away just enough so that she could look into his eyes. They stared at each other, a slow smile spread on her face like the brightest morning sun after a year of rain, refreshing and impossible to fathom.
  685. It hit Irven in his heart with such force that he reflexively kissed her on the muzzle, enjoying the feel of her smooth, softer scales before she licked his lips back and finally answered, “I feel at peace, like I have truly been reborn and the world is fresh and new. I can feel my heart beat as if nothing that came before mattered, hatched from a new egg and ready to grow again, and I have you to thank for that.”
  687. “I can share that sentiment. Perhaps I have no point of reference of hatching from an egg, mind you,” he chuckled, “but I feel it as well. I'm a different person than I was yesterday, but I know one thing. You saved me first, and I owe you everything.”
  688. They held their gazes and the hug shifted, arms intertwining as Irven's larger hands surrounded Kayl's completely and she rubbed her cheek against them.
  689. Irven grunted and gritted his teeth; once more, the sting of magic forced its way through his mind, and Kayl pulled her hands free and pressed her palms against the sides of his head, massaging it like before. Irven sighed with relief and stared into Kayl's large, golden eyes.
  690. “Thank you. I feel like we'll be doing this a lot, eh?” Irven sighed in relief.
  692. “As many times as you need it, Irven. Now until the end,” Kayl smiled back.
  694. They held the gaze for longer, and once Kayl's massage finished, their hands met again, her little fingers wrapping around his index and middle ones, and lips once more met muzzle.
  696. * * *
  698. The morning sun did little to cut through the biting cold. Dense snow covered everything as far as the eye could see, with only small lines of black trees in the distance down the slope a mile away. A snow fox skulked on an outcrop, trails of powder fell from the rock as each of his little steps pushed enough off for his paws to grip the stone beneath as he listened and sniffed the air, ears and nose twitching. Mice were sneaking beneath the sea of white, and the fox was hungry.
  699. He stepped from the rock and onto the powder proper, and could hear the light taps of littler paws in tunnels burrowed in the mantle. He hunkered down, compressing himself, then the moment the pattering stopped, he leapt, arching and tucking his forelegs in, landing face first into the snow as his head punched into the tunnel.
  700. The fox snapped his jaws shut and his caught a mouse.
  702. The calm was shattered by a nearby blast that made the fox drop his prey, and the wounded rodent scurried off as he pulled himself free from the snow. Clumps of powder and stone broke the smooth landscape and a dark figure stood clear from the vast white scenery. The fox then fled.
  704. A thickly clothed figure rose from the epicentre of the blast.
  705. “I think that might have been a bit too much force.” Irven looked around, wincing as his eyes adjusted to the bright sun reflecting off of the millions of crystalline reflections in the snow. He was wrapped in the thick coat of his late and detested master and shook his hand, hissing in pain before staring at the crater he had made breaking out of the cave.
  707. “Well, we're out, at least,” a muffled voice said from inside his clothes, “what do you see?”
  709. “Besides a lot of snow? The mountains are to the east but the sun's peeking between the tallest peak and the second highest just north of it, and a bunch of smaller ones in row either side them. The big one's Havsglas Mountain, right? Next to Mane-Reach?”
  711. “That's the one. Just head towards it, but when you reach the plateau, keep to the north ridge and don't deviate! We want them to see us and that path will make them meet us rather than attack,” Kayl said and adjusted her position, wrapped in a bundle made from the blanket on Irven's back as a mother would carry a child. He tucked a hand into his furred collar, giving her hand a light squeeze, and begun trudging on.
  712. The heavier boots were Saint-sent blessing; he wasn't forced to feel the individual stones on the ground, or the harder, crystallised pockets in the snow with every step, hurting and twisting his footfalls, and the fact the footwear ran up to his shin rather than stopping around the ankle meant that he was more than happy to press himself harder. The location really was beautiful as well, helping alleviate the boredom, and he wished Kayl could appreciate it beside him, but with many miles to go, he decided to make the best of the good weather and move as quick as his stamina would allow.
  713. Irven settled into a good pace and controlled his breathing, inhaling long and steady in through his nose and out through his mouth, watching the vapour of his breath and imagining, more than he had ever done before, that he was a fire breathing dragon.
  715. Kayl's occasional adjustments aside it was easy going. He looked behind on occasion, just in case Caeris was in pursuit, but the the gradual uphill gradient of the slope made it easy to spot anything out of place; a hawk swooped and plucked a hare from what looked like nowhere, a fox skulked near a tree and watched Irven for a time before going about in search of food and a shadow from a single wisp of cloud against the sun lurked on the ground, a phantom gliding from one edge of the wide open space to the other.
  716. The long, smooth hill looked and felt endless, but after a few hours, it suddenly gave way to a large plateau that would take them straight to the mountain itself. It was now midday, and with the sun directly above, Irven could glimpse what appeared to be birds circling the upper reaches of Havsglas mountain. He studied the terrain and noticed the high ridges on the north and south ends of the plateau, and headed north. It seemed counterproductive; the southern ridge was far deeper and would allow a greater amount of cover from anyone watching for intruders, although above the north ridge, there was a sheer cliff compared to the gentler southern slope.
  718. “North ridge, right?” Irven asked.
  720. “No, it should be to the left,” Kayl responded and Irven snickered before she continued, “the south is filled with wolves and noise-maker traps. We conditioned them to respond to the tone, so a single misplaced step and we'll be set upon by wolves whilst the clan moves in to finish the job. The main approach is trapped with mines all year round, as well as crossbo- wait, no... aweka...” Kayl grumbled and tutted to herself, before asking, “what do you man-kin call those giant crossbows?”
  722. “Arbalests.”
  724. Kayl wriggled and bounced before she chirped, “that's it! They likely won't even waste the time or bolts on us, so we'll just get loosed at by archers for target practice. Now, the north edge is patrolled by scouts who will want to question you. When that happens, I'll talk to them. We'll be fine; I've got my honour back and my trophy from Brevshket.” Kayl poked her muzzle out from Irven's collar and licked him on the cheek, and reiterated, “we'll be fine!”
  726. “Alright. Sure. Nothing to worry about,” Irven mumbled as Kayl once more tucked herself beneath his coat and he started the trek to the north ridge.
  727. Knowing that wolves and bolts as big as a man were likely being trained on them, and even being accosted by scouts who could strike first and ask questions later, Irven pulled up the hood, glad for the stiffness in the lining and hoped it would prevent him from losing his head. He knew the coat was special; Brevshket wore it everywhere since it was made from some secret metal alloy, the same materials as Caeris' cloak in fact, so he hoped it was up to the task of warding off kobold weapons.
  729. Irven felt a little safer once he was against the snow-caked natural wall, and even a little warmth being reflected from it, as if it welcomed his presence. He kept his eyes up and to the side, and tried to keep his pace, but he could feel something again. A presence beyond the kobold braced against his back. Irven tried not to slow, but despite his victories since escaping his old life, the old nerves caused him to bite his lip.
  730. A thump and a crunch of snow behind him, and as he reflexively turned, another from the side and front. Three kobolds, dressed almost exactly as Kayl had when Irven met her in thick, furred outfits and smothered in fake snow, all poised with spears, with swords strapped to their sides.
  732. “Halt, man-kin! Put up your arms and get down on your knees!” Said a male voice.
  734. * *
  736. As Irven raised his arms, Kayl used her tail to push a gap in the blanket 'saddle' she had been resting in, let herself drop down and landed in the snow behind her partner, dressed loosely in Irven's old coat, and grunted in pain as she was overwhelmed by the light, but she recognised the voice and responded in draconic, “Roat, we come in peace and I bring news; the Corrupted one, Brevshket, is dead.”
  738. “Mother? What- wait, Brevshket's dead!?” All three kobolds gasped. “Y-you have proof, right?”
  740. “Give me a pair of overcave goggles and we can talk properly,” Kayl said, trying to block the brightness with her hands but it was futile; everything was so bright she swore it was effecting her other senses.
  742. “I-I can't! You're still an exile.”
  744. “Oh, fine. Here!” Kayl felt at her side and pulled the string of Brevshket's horns and teeth, throwing them a short distance towards her son. A crunch of snow as he drew nearer, a scrape as he plucked it from the powder and another gasp.
  746. “It's true!” Roat laughed and said, “guys, it's true! Kraerivan, may he be spun anew... his murderer is dead! Forgive me, mother, you know the rules. I had to be sure.” Kayl heard the sound of Roat rummaging in his coat and she held her hand out.
  748. “All too well, my son,” she said, feeling the thick cloth strap in her hand. She wrapped the goggles around her head, securing the lenses over her eyes, and sighed with relief as the goggles let her see her eldest child. Although only his muzzle was visible, she knew he was a sky blue kobold with the green eyes of his father. A good, strong child. Kayl felt her eyes go damp and she wrapped her arms around him, already feeling like she was home.
  749. “How has the clan fared since my exile? How is The Most Enlightened Praevadi?”
  751. While hesitant at first, Roat finally returned the gesture, holding her back and said, “Her Magnificence sleeps most days. She is planning to go to the Final Sleep soon, but she held out hope that Brevshket would be slain before she does. The clan still thrives, though, and I'm sure hearing this news will give us cause to celebrate!”
  753. Kayl sighed, broke the hug, then patted her son on the shoulder before she shivered and returned to Irven's side.
  754. “Then I'm glad I succeeded when I did. Ah, but let me introduce you to the man-kin. This is Irven,” she said, and the human looked down at her as she said his name, then Kayl continued, “he is a friend and ally. He assisted me greatly in slaying Brevshket and saved my life as well. We seek audience with the council, to reinstate my place in the clan and I wish to offer Irven a place with us too; he has nowhere else to go. We may also have been pursued; I recommend upping patrols for the time being.”
  756. “Of course, mother.” Roat turned to his companions, and announced, “guys! I'm going to escort them and return with all haste. Cover their trail to the passage up to the crest, then get yourselves hidden!”
  758. “Yes, Scout-Master!”
  760. * *
  762. Irven, arms still raised, sighed with relief as Kayl climbed up the back of his coat, although she pushed her head out of the collar and rested it beside his.
  764. Kayl nuzzled his neck and said, in Vlieden, “come on. Let's go home.”
  766. Roat lead the pair all the way to the foot of the mountain. Defensive positions, invisible on the approach, became clear; small, snow covered huts with curved, back-swept rooftops blended into the natural slopes and banks with arrowslits dotted throughout, and Irven could sense more kobolds hiding in them. With the sun moving further behind them, Irven could now see that the birds were actually more kites, some similar to Kayl's, but many others were of different shapes, sizes and colours.
  768. After an hour of walking, they reached the foot of the mountain, passing through a narrow trench that looked like a solid wall until they were right next to it, and Roat took a small flute or whistle that let out a shrill tone in three short bursts. Ahead, the tunnel shifted; a rough, natural looking wall swung away, revealing a smoother hewn passage that Roat stood beside.
  769. “Kowan, jur traxa vraetaz.” Roat said, and held out Brevshket's remains.
  771. Kayl hopped back down, took the trophy and lead Irven further in with a gentle tap on his leg.
  773. The darkness once more took over and it was like walking into a black fog, swirling and formless, yet he kept seeing glances of stone walls and Kayl herself, but it was fleeting glances at best.
  774. “Wait, Kayl. I need a minute,” Irven said, wincing as his eyes tickled, little pockets of visible space mingling with pitch blackness. “I'm still getting used to this dark vision thing.”
  776. “That's fine. I should probably tell you now; we're going to be presented to the council.”
  778. “Council? I thought kobolds followed a dragon and an Underboss.”
  780. “Maybe those savages from south-west Vliechov and Goshev do, where their dragons rule all with no concern of their people, but here in the East we respect dragons as being our rulers, and in turn, they expect the clan itself to make decisions befitting the clan, from everyday decisions to who is elected as section heads like my son, Roat, who's the current Master-Scout. We each have a vote on civil matters, and our specialist heads have twenty votes, and our equivalent of an Underboss, the Speaker, has fifty.
  781. “If she so chooses to, our dragon has a hundred votes, but Our Mightiness can overturn a decision as well, yet has only done so once in recorded history, such is her trust in our judgement. My exile will no doubt only be considered by the heads, the speaker and Our Mightiness herself.”
  783. Irven blinked as his vision cleared some more, then asked, “I take it your exile was subject to a vote as well.”
  785. Kayl nodded and said, “yes, that's right. I failed in my mission and I accepted the blame. That has been corrected, so now we will see if my clan will accept me back.”
  787. “And you're not worried at all? You think they'll forgive and forget?”
  789. “Well, of course they won't forget! It's only been a couple of years,” Kayl said and smirked, “and there's nothing to forgive either. Like I said, I made the mistake, and I've corrected it. Even if I join the clan as a normal kobold, I'll be happy so long as you're with me.” The smirk grew to a full smile.
  791. “I guess I keep expecting there to be votes exchanged and favour currying. Most places have been subjected to it from what I've read.”
  793. Kayl tilted her head and chided, “don't be silly, you can't cook favours, Irven, much less curry them. We haven't eaten in nearly a day so it's understandable you're a bit distracted.”
  795. Irven snorted and laughed, and Kayl cocked an eyeridge at his response, before he finally said, “it's fine, never mind. I guess I'm just being paranoid. These are your people, and if you believe things will be alright, then I trust you.”
  797. Irven's vision settled into a comfortable level of clarity in the dark, so they carried on through the passage, which lead to a long, upward slope that finally revealed civilisation; an ornately carved stairway and the distant chatter of many voices, even the presence of light, however faint.
  798. A few minutes of rapid ascension later, and they were there; in Clan Star-Sail.
  800. The halls were long and winded and intersected like streets, complete with doors and windows for individual buildings carved into the stone walls and braziers, collared with high rims, lined the streets, although Irven was tall enough to see the flames which left the ground level in almost total darkness but the ceiling was lit by them, decorated with vibrant banners of a purple dragon, reared up on its hind legs and wings unfurled, reaching for the moon and surrounded by stars.
  801. The kobolds were all dressed in simple robes or vests and breeches went about their business business for a time but stopped and turned to face Irven and Kayl in a growing mass, like ripples from a dropped stone in a placid lake. There was a painful silence.
  803. “Grek wasta!” A gruff voice called, and the crowds parted for a brawny, broad shouldered kobold who had to be a good four feet tall. His cerulean scales reminded Irven of Kayl's own, if a little darker, although his eyes were a dark red. He was clad in thick metal and wooden armour and held a sword with a long, bare wood grip as long as the blade. The wood of both was much like Paet, green and vibrant.
  805. Kayl bowed, clasping her hands before her, and announced, “I return, egg-brother, with my honour restored and with proof of my victory over our sworn enemy, the Corrupted One, Brevshket. I ask that we speak in the overcaver tongue for the sake of my partner.”
  807. The powerful kobold scowled at Kayl, then up at Irven, then back at his sister and barked, “fine. Present the proof of your victory or you'll both be executed!”
  809. “Master-General Kayd,” Kayl said and dropped to her knees and bowed low as she held Brevshket's remains in her hands before her. “I offer these so as to restore my honour. All my glory, I dedicate to Clan Star-Sail. All that I am, I devote to Her Most Majestic Praevadi!”
  811. The general sheathed his sword, the living wood coiling up and around his waist, and he inspected the horns and teeth.
  812. Kayd's expression softened and he said, “come, the council awaits.”
  814. Kayd lead a hasty rush through the streets. They passed what looked like temples and even some sort of theatre stage, and then through several chambers filled with marble stands and each held some unusual trinket and cordoned off with armed kobolds standing watch before they reached a vast, circular hall.
  815. There, at the far end, was Praevadi, The Dowager of the East. A slumbering dragon, coiled around herself, of dark purple. Her scales, while vast and thick, were fractured and looked brittle, and her long, antler like horns were likewise chipped and damaged and even her wings, while tucked in, looked in poor shape. Irven could only estimate, but she had to be some eighty feet long from nose to tail tip.
  816. In front of the dragon stood an old kobold, holding a bone white staff and clad in purple silk, pale yellow scales and green eyes. She watched Irven and Kayl with a firm gaze, then at a number of other kobolds knelt upon a ring of cushions. Kayd pointed them to the middle, handed the trophy to the elder kobold, then likewise took a position with the others.
  818. The old kobold, which Irven remembered Kayl calling the Speaker, approached.
  819. “We shall speak in the overcaver tongue; our time is important, and we shall not repeat ourselves. Exile Kayl, exiled no longer! Clan Star-Sail welcomes you back into the fold, unless there are objections? Her flesh and blood, Master-Scout Roat, shall be considered to vote in her favour by his absence.”
  820. The council, numbering seven with an empty seat, remained silent.
  821. The Speaker nodded and examined the trophy, then said, reverently, “our clan's greatest foe, vanquished at last.”
  823. A mighty thrumming sounded behind the speaker, and Praevadi's eyes opened, revealing them to be a milky white. She stood, her bones crunching and popping as she did, and everyone in the chamber bowed to her. Irven followed suit; the sheer size alone would have felled him anyway, but the strength of her magic was pervasive, overwhelming, as if a waterfall had washed over him.
  825. “My subjects... I sense an evil within the hall. Who is present?” Her voice filled the hall as much as her presence, but it was deceptively soothing to listen to. Irven felt a building urge to be deeply afraid or enamoured. Possibly both.
  827. The Speaker, face still pressed to the floor, responded, “the council has formed and accepted former Master-Scout Kayl back into the clan, Oh Wise One! She came bearing a trophy of Brevshket's horns and teeth! No doubt his foulness lurks within the totem still!”
  829. Praevadi's nostrils flickered and she lowered her head, a returned bow.
  830. “Kayl. It gladdens me to welcome you back. I offer my most erstwhile appreciation to your deed and honouring my mate. It could not have been easy to vanquish the fiend.”
  832. Kayl, again not raising her head, replied, “I did not accomplish it alone, Oh Great One. The human I have brought before you assisted me greatly. I can't accept full honour for the task.”
  834. “Is that so.” Praevadi whispered. There was a silence, long enough that Irven couldn't help but peak at the dragon, who despite her blindness was staring at him. Not just in direction, but he could feel her aura enveloping his, as if tasting it; a curious onlooker or a circling predator. She smirked, then sighed, “has there been an appropriate reward for Kayl's deed?”
  836. “That was on the agenda, Oh Great One,” The Speaker said. “Is it your wish to provide a vote, Master?”
  838. “I shall invoke an overturn.”
  839. While nobody spoke, Irven saw several of the council look at each other.
  840. “Grant Kayl the rank of Exemplar.”
  842. “I object!” Kayd slammed his hands on the ground and stood, “we were preparing trials to grant that position to one of the proven number! You can't just-”
  844. “*I can and I have, so be silent!*” Praevadi's voice rattled in Irven's skull and brought Kayd face first onto the ground before he huddled up to resume kneeling. A draconic command; the great drake imposing her will on her people, forcing them to think or act as commanded, and if Irven needed further proof that he had dragon blood, that her words could be felt that strongly was all he needed.
  846. “Forgive the Master-General, Oh Great One!” The Speaker chimed in, “but he speaks truthfully; it would be of greater benefit to the clan if-”
  848. “I have made my decision. I am still weary and must rest, but I leave the fate of the human to you. I shall say this, however... he is a scalecaster. One trained by Brevshket.” A pulse of energy emitted from her, and Irven could feel the effect immediately; his magic had been suppressed, washed away as if struck by a great tidal wave and he felt the spark no longer, even if it was slowly budding back into existence, it would likely take hours to restore.
  849. A gasping ensued as Praevadi once more coiled in on herself, settling down and closing her eyes. Irven began to shiver; being branded as an enemy to a kobold clan in the middle of their number? What was the meaning of this?
  851. The Speaker immediately stood, and declared, “then the course is clear! We shall hold a vote to the fate of this scalecaster filth!”
  853. “Spare him!” Kayl shouted, leaping to her feet. “He helped me defeat Brevshket and saved my life! As Exemplar, I demand-”
  855. “Your votes are counted, Exemplar,” The Speaker said, matter-of-factly, then turned to the others. “That's seventy votes to spare, including Roat's.”
  857. “Execution!” Kayd shouted.
  858. “I concur! We cannot suffer another scalecaster!”
  859. “Here here!”
  860. The din of calls for Irven's death made him stand but he felt weak as armed guards entered the chamber, blocking the exit. He looked at Kayl, who was bordering on panic as she looked between him and the council members.
  862. “The clan has spoken!” The Speaker announced, “A vote of seventy to spare against two hundred and ten to execute! Cut him down before he can summon his magic!”
  864. The guards approached, along with Kayd. Kayl snarled and Paet, still hidden inside Irven's coat, snaked to her and leapt into her hands as she put herself between him and the approaching kobolds.
  866. “Invoke the rite of mating.”
  868. Irven felt the words, much the same as Brevshket's own, but they were so different; he felt the words relax his taut muscles, rather than his late masters panic inducing tone. He looked at Praevadi, who slept soundly with a slight smile on her lips.
  870. “Mating?” Irven whispered.
  872. “What?” Kayl looked up at him, then her brother.
  874. “Invoke the rite of mating.” Irven said.
  876. “I...” Kayl's eyes went wide and she stood to attention and bellowed, “I invoke the rite to claim a mate, as Exemplar! I cannot be denied this!”
  877. The crowd stopped and looked confused, one or two bit snarled in realisation.
  878. “I claim Irven as my mate! Beneath the All-Dragon's name, I dare you to refute it!”
  880. The Speaker sighed and rested heavy on her staff, then announced “as Exemplar Kayl says... as her mate, the man-kin named Irven is protected until an open crime is committed against the clan or until she revokes her claim.”
  882. The silence was palpable after the tremendous call for death, but Irven could have sworn he heard an airy chuckle from the dragoness, and looked at her just as her smile at first widened, then faded as if it was never there.
  884. * * *
  886. Epilogue
  888. There was surprisingly little ceremony for Kayl becoming Exemplar. She and Irven were pulled to the scribe halls to have their names put on the list; Kayl as both a restored clan member and Exemplar, and Irven as a resident and mate of Kayl. He needed an occupation as well, so he decided to join the scribes. If nothing else, it was a little home away from home, only he could study in his own time rather than being forced, even if he would need to learn draconic quickly.
  889. Beyond that was Kayl showing Irven where everything was while under the constant scrutiny of the residents. After spending most of his life beneath the oppressive thumb of Brevshket, this still seemed an improvement. The clan numbered just over a thousand, and he could get lost in the numerous streets that formed clan Star-Sail.
  891. It all culminated in them being given a home near Praevadi's lair. A large, single room which had several kobolds still moving the furnishings around, including pushing single five beds together to accommodate Irven's great, by comparison, size.
  892. After the last few hours, at long last, Irven and Kayl were alone.
  894. “I've got a serious headache.” Irven grumbled and ran his fingers through his short hair. Before he could finish the motion, Kayl's little hands pushed in and began their massage. “I didn't mean like that but... you're really good at that, you know?”
  896. She gave a little giggle and said, “I know. I just wanted to do it. After the way everyone was treating you, I feel bad for telling you to expect the clan would welcome us. And besides, you're my mate.”
  898. “It's not your fault and I can't blame them. A human, living amongst kobolds? An exile, bringing a scalecaster into their midst?”
  900. “You're not a scalecaster. No matter what they say,” Kayl said and climbed around Irven, standing on his knees and hugging him, “you didn't do this to yourself and I know you'll never hurt me, or the clan.”
  902. “I'll do my best, Kayl,” Irven said and held her tight, “but I don't even know what's happening to me. I'm changing; I've started casting magic, I've gained dark vision, I can sense magic and even hear voices.”
  904. Kayl sat on Irven's knees and took his hands in hers, looking him in the eyes and said, “I'll help you, and hopefully in time, the others will too, when they realise how you can help the clan. No matter what, I won't leave you alone in this.”
  906. “I'll try and be worthy of you, Exemplar.” Irven chuckled and leaned forward, kissing Kayl on the top of her head. Her tail wriggled, slapping against his legs and she responded by licking his neck, then forced her head up, pressing her muzzle against his lips and they kissed in earnest.
  907. Irven released her hands, lifting her and rolling onto the bed, putting Kayl on her back and continued kissing her and staring into those glorious golden eyes. She was his freedom, his protector, his safe haven and his reason to improve himself. He would have thought that maybe he could spite Brevshket by neglecting his training, but looking into Kayl's eyes and learning she wanted to help her, and that it was clear Praevadi wanted this as well, gave him reason to grow stronger, more powerful.
  908. Irven wanted to show his strength right now.
  909. Kayl purred as he threw his clothing aside and did the same for Kayl. He kissed the tight muscles on her chest then dragged his tongue up to her neck, then her chin, then back to her mouth again, as she pushed her tongue into his mouth. He savoured it, the dancing purple flesh of her, this little warrior, this saviour, a woman, a kobold, a hero, a lover.
  910. Irven stopped for a moment and mulled over the word. He loved her? They had known each other for only two days now, but he couldn't deny it. She was brave and kind, dangerous and caring, a woman of strength and softness.
  911. By happenstance they were all but married in kobold law. She was older than him by decades and a species a million miles apart, but it didn't matter. The look in her eyes was all he needed. She wanted him, so Irven climbed over Kayl, and once more made her his.
  913. Act 1 End
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