Jan 28th, 2016
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  1. Black Dragon. A cruel and foul beast native to the hellish crags of the deep earth and the fetid mires where few dare to tread. In far flung reaches under demon hazed skies far below the roots of a cursed mountain range constantly brimming with furious black clouds of smoke and thunder, surrounded by bogs steeped in corpses of man and beast and things… else… one was born, upon the precipice of time itself. A baby girl.
  3. For a century it incubated in a pool of foul bubbling, acrid acid. Upon the rupturing of the egg, wise beings woke screaming, as in dreams, a yawning horror shambled forth. Yawn it did and shamble forth it did, but then yawn it did again and then it sat down. For its cavern was unimaginably long, deep and vast. There was a bottomless underground lake to the side, brimming with great leviathans and aquatic monstrosities, hidden to mortal knowledge. Immortal knowledge too for that matter. There were mountains along another side, teeming with primordial creatures, ants the size of large horses. Long many-legged creatures that when they moved seemed less like bug, but massive rivers. Pale white, eyeless creatures that jumped savagely for their prey. Great crystals upon the roof bled light into the cavern, so high up the dragon would have to fly for a day and a night to reach it.
  5. Yet the dragon was both far sighted and quick witted and had already resided within this place for a century within her egg. She had already seen the extent of the gut of the earth, and had surmised that that was all there is to it. She had no idea how she got there, but she knew that there was no escaping this place. Not for a being of her size at the least. So sit is all the dragon did, and occasionally reach for something to eat. For what else was a dragon to do? Create a hoard? Of what? This cavern was already her territory, the only things of worth, the glistening crystals on the ceiling, already hers.
  7. Being so spectacularly unaware, having no concept of time, the dragon decided to lie down. Subconsciously, instinctively, it relied on its species innate abilities to hide and act silently to hunt, snatching food that came within arm’s reach unknowingly. As countless years past, and countless critters crossed her path, none so powerful as to warrant any real effort, corpses piled around the dragon as it ate so very seldom, and over unimaginable spans of time, the corpses decomposed into carbon materials, a mound formed around the dragon and soon the dragon was forgotten to the very cavern it was born in.
  9. The dragon continued to slumber, soon forgetting the cavern in turn.
  11. Being a magical creature as it were, long before its isolation, the dragon did not require physical sustenance, not unless it expended vast amounts of energy, and even so, for the dragon, hunting amounted to ambush and lying in wait. Effectively stockpiling energy, no hunger spurred it to activity. It had never done anything so it was not aware of the state of doing nothing. Boredom did not come to the dragon. Though certainly there were moments in the dragon’s life, where things had happened.
  13. When it still hunted, it experienced mouth-watering hunger. Her maw salivated and a single drop slipped past her teeth and fell to the ground where it fizzled and sizzled and bore a hole into the earth. The dragon learned that its saliva were acidic, and was fascinated in the sights and sounds as the acid ate at the rock and turned into vapours. Deeper she watched the acid eat, until at the very depths of the lengthy tunnel, a bright orange glow flooded it, magma. She watched in idle curiosity as the earth bled, as it’s blood congealed one more into solid stone, when the lava cooled. She let more acid drop from her maw and watched the process repeat itself an infinite number of times.
  15. In the occasional spurt of magma, along with the splutter of molten earth out popped a small, perfectly spherical gem of an infinite number of facets. So pretty was the gem in fact, that with a single eye, the dragon would take to simply watching it, its vague countenance reflected in fractured swirls within.
  17. Prone to idleness, the dragon focused only on the stone, something precious to it, and the satisfaction of watching the earth bleed. But soon the dragon tired of even that. Leaving only gazing at the stone to be her past time. And so she hadn’t budged a muscle in over a thousand years. She didn’t even really realize when her form turned from that of a dragon, into that of a woman. She continued to lie there, beautiful purple-black ass-length hair splayed about on the stone floor, a bevy of well-defined muscles, only slightly softened with inactivity. Large, round soft breasts, a slim waist and a trim flat belly, the pretty gem from so long ago now nestled to her bosom.
  19. The only things about her that didn’t change were her claws, though her hard purplish-black scales did fade to unblemished, soft white skin just above the elbow and knew respectively; her tail, now sprouting from the base of her spine just above her round, plush butt; her wings, now growing from between her human shoulder-blades; the finned ears on her head wreathed in her silky lush hair, the horns that grow and fan back from just behind her hairline, her teeth and her eyes.
  21. Framed on the beautiful face of a young woman, perfect enough to make an artisan weep, her teeth were almost the same set she had in her draconic form, now a single row and scaled down to fit a human jaw with lush, full faintly pink lips. Eyebrows, long and thin, and fine, slightly angular cheekbones that gave her a serious, pensive look. Quite the irony for a girl who didn’t have a concept of what thinking was.
  23. All these changes were inconsequential at any rate, as she had never seen her own reflection before, bar the precious gemstone she holds to her chest, but then the most striking thing reflected in that were her eyes, her eyes remained slitted with a black sclera, no iris, and a faintly glowing purple pupil, which remained the same as it did when she was more draconic. One could question if when looking down at herself she truly realised it was herself that she were looking at. It wouldn’t be surprising if she didn’t.
  25. In truth, she wasn’t even aware of her own death.
  27. It was a peaceful death. Having done absolutely nothing for her two millenniums of life asides from sit and watch her acidic drool eat away at the earth, and have a priceless gem roll into her lap, the natural lifespan of the dragon had run its length, though her body remained in prime condition, her age showed itself in her once lustrous pitch black scales, now dull with hints of purple, her hair highlighted in streaks of purple much the same way grey comes to humans. As she gazed into the depths of her sphere, the light of life left her eyes.
  29. Unfortunately, she didn’t know that death meant that the spirit had to leave the body.
  31. Before any kind of transition to the afterlife, her soul split. She herself wasn’t even aware of it as the core of her spirit dove into the precious gemstone, imbuing it with the fearsome and monumental power of an ancient dragon that never did a thing to expend its power. Not even conscious of the all too precious phylactery she must now protect upon pains of death, she continued to lie there. Alas even though she didn’t know of them, the laws of probability decreed that she wouldn’t lie slumbering forever, for even if she wouldn’t, the great earth would still heave and shift, and passages would begin to open, like pores upon the skin of a great behemoth.
  34. * * * *
  36. The Oomukade scuttles along the ground, instincts driving her in her primal fear, clutching at the bleeding stump of her own arm. Sweat beads and collects then runs down her back as the pale spectres of death haunt her, the click of chitin on stone the only sign of their pursuit. She should have told her older sister, she should have heeded her elder’s words and not provoked and attacked them so brazenly. A stone drops to the path before her, and a pale shadow drops from above, scythes glinting in the crystal light. As on edge as she is, her reaction time is nigh instantaneous. With a cry, she thrusts upwards the weapon closest to hand, the bleeding stump of her own right arm, flesh torn and tattered, bone protruding and jagged. The bone-shiv pierces the mantis’ throat, her insectile eyes going wide in surprise. The Oomukade grimaces in pain and discomfort as the bug’s blood runs down to mix with the marrow on the inside of her own arm. With a pained gasp, she wrenches the stump from the dying insect’s throat, and lurches to the left, into a small opening in the ground, myriad of legs pumping madly. She prays to the gods it leads somewhere or at the least lets her hide her length.
  38. Blindly she charges onwards as the crack opens to a large interior, the insides of some kind of mound. The hole is a good few meters off the ground, and she gives a yelp as her long body twists as it tries to land. She faceplants, and groans, the low moan cut short as she hears something shift. She holds her breath and listens. No pursuit. Sighing in deep relief, the tides of curiosity wash away a now forgotten fear, and she wanders out into the open of this large mound. By no means was it massive, but it was a bigger interior that she had expected to stumble across, easily the size of the great hall thrice over.
  40. In the cool depths of the earth she becomes aware of a certain light in the centre of the mound. She wanders closer, curious, ears picking up on a quiet mystic chiming, like some kind of high vibration not at all unpleasant to listen to.
  42. The dragon subconsciously registers the new presence and the ancient, long since forgotten instincts alight in her, a deep seated hunger rearing in her bosom, and a jealous possessiveness over the gem at her chest, as though this new presence alone were an affront to it. Then another wave of mouth-watering need crashes through the dragon. Saliva passes through her lips and fizzles on the ground, filling the air with a tense hissing. This was hunger. It hadn’t felt this since it was young. The food approaches from behind, not noticing the dragon in the dark, blending into her surroundings, wings moulding with the floor, covered in dust and sediment. She thinks to reach for her prey when it is close enough. The dragon didn’t realise that this prey was different from the old prey. It had no concept of millenniums, or evolution, or even the change wrought upon its own body. Had it been the same, undoubtedly, the dragon would have continued to have existed in a state of half-slumber, and waited for the end of eternity as one of the many unspoken things that slumber beneath the earth. But things weren’t the same.
  44. It reached for the arm of its prey, and the prey screamed, noticing the dragon for the first time, as the dust and dirt cascade off its back and wings in rivulets. “KYAAA! D-don’t eat me!”
  46. For the first time, the dragon heard ‘language’. It freezes, brain awash in this new information. This new awareness. It looks at the creature, hard plates, soft, tasty looking skin and a face for some reason easy to look at. The dragon, at this point, did not understand the quality of ‘beauty’.
  48. “P-Please don’t eat me, I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude!” The purple pupils of the dragon slowly crawl along the girl’s chest towards her bleeding stump of an arm. For all its obliviousness, the dragon was still a dragon, and smart and quick witted. The thing was hurt. She watches the oomukade’s lips move, and moves her own in perfect imitation. No sound comes out, because she doesn’t breathe anymore.
  50. The oomukade, for her part, senses curiosity override the hunger in the black dragon. She watches its lips imitate her words silently. “C-Can you not speak?” The dragon feels trembling vibration in the creature’s chest, vocalisation. The woman shakes her head as she begins to talk, “Don’t eat,” The oomukade opens her mouth exaggeratedly and mimics biting down, an action the dragon understands well. She points to herself. “Me”
  52. The dragon frowns, and works muscles, as she moves her lips in imitation. It takes a second try but she finds her vocal cords, and speaks for the first time. “Don’t eat.” Elated, the oomukade lights up, nodding, “Y-Yes! Don’t eat!” Other sounds come to the two of them. “Shit! They must have heard me.” As soon as she says it, a team of three purely white mantis girls enter the dome, looking straight at the oomukade and the dragon. Dispassionately, they observe their prey and the sitting dragon who seems to have stolen it.
  54. The dragon turns to the insect in her grips, “Eat?” It nods,
  56. “Eat.” The oomukade gasps as it suddenly drops, the dragon previously holding her having disappeared what seems to be instantly. Turning to the white mantises, she sees the dragon holding one of them in the air, claw in its throat, a strange essence filtering from the mantis to the dragon. The mantis, already deathly white, seems to go translucent as it stops struggling and goes limp.
  58. The two straight faced insect girls remaining take steps back, fear showing everywhere but their faces. The dragon walks up to the two of them, and they freeze in terror, not moving when she reaches for their faces, not moving once she grabs on and definitely not moving once she’s drained their souls and all their energy. They drop.
  60. The spooked centipede inches closer, “W-what did you do?” She points towards the corpses. The dragon doesn’t understand the words, but the question is obvious.
  62. “Eat.”
  64. “O-oh. Um… anyway, I’m Mirai. Uh…” She points to herself, “Me Mirai. You?” She points to the Dragon.
  66. The dragon points back to her, “Me, Mirai?” She shakes her head, “You Mirai?” She nods, happy. The dragon frowns. “Me?... Me.”
  68. “Mirai is my ‘name’. You,” she shakes her head as she talks, a loud ‘no’ with her body language, “Have no name?”
  70. The dragon thinks back as far as she can think. “No name.”
  72. “Huh. Well anyway, we could really use your help. With these guys.” She points to the dead mantises. The dragon just looks incomprehensively. Sighing, the oomukade takes the dragon’s claw in hand, and smiles, “Please don’t eat me.”
  74. The dragon replicates her smile, “No eat.” She retrieves her Gemstone phylactery and lets the centipede lead her out of the mound, and the dragon sees in the crystalline sky, a familiar sight for the first time in a long time. Mirai leads her away, chatting one-sidedly as she does, pointing out and naming things as she walks, hoping the dragon is a quick learner and able to understand, because they need an ally like this dearly.
  76. The walk takes half a day when it should have taken half one, frequent stops made by the dragon who ‘eats’ everything in sight. Through broken speech Mirai managed to understand that she were hungry, and had been in that cave for a long time. But what she’s eating, Mirai isn’t so sure. It could be life itself, but that’s insane, right? After a day to walking and talking, Mirai finally arrives back home.
  78. There’s a large, muscled Oomukade waiting, who instantly takes note of the returning centipede’s missing arm. “Oh gods, Mirai I’m so sorry!” She all but tackles Mirai into the ground with a powerful hug, barely gentle enough to not hurt anything major. The dragon looks at all the gathered people.
  80. “Can eat?”
  82. Mirai’s head whips around, “No! Can’t eat!” The dragon pouts, using expressions learned from the Oomukade.
  84. Threat dealt with, Mirai releases her tension, “Ahh, don’t worry sis. We chose this, all of us. Anyway, this dragon saved my life. She um, doesn’t have a name.” She turns to the black dragon, and gestures to her older sister, “This is Mab.” The older sister disentangles herself, and approaches the dragon somewhat wearily, before grabbing the dragon’s claw in thanks,
  86. “Thank you for saving my sister.”
  88. “It’s good.” Mirai speaks up from the side,
  90. “You mean okay.”
  92. “It’s okay.”
  94. More interested faces gather for the newcomer in town, weary but intrigued. Soon the elder, her husband and her guards approach. The elder for the most part just looks sadly at her younger daughter’s missing arm, before welcoming her home with a hug, and turning to thank the dragon. They quickly begin discussing plans for the coming retaliation after attempting to ransack the white mantis tribe, the talks relocating to a large tent in the middle of the village made from the exoskeletons of massive creatures. The dragon is silent and listens throughout it all, quickly learning the language, taking silent joy in the hoarding of all this new information.
  96. Food is handed around, things the dragon had never seen before. She sees those offered nod in appreciation, and does the same, eating though their scent instils no hunger in her. She gets more than a few surprised gazes as she opens her mouth to eat and a soft purple glow fills it, issuing forth from deep within her. They talk long about the tribe they attacked, their forces, why their raiding party failed, the reasons for the raid in the first place; men and supplies, as the dragon learns. Mab apologises profusely for the loss her arrogance caused, then they discuss chances of retaliation, and the best way to defend, routs of defence, where they are most likely to attack from.
  98. All the while the dragon watches, watches lips move, watches body language, watches emotional response, and slowly, the dragon gleans meaning. She stands, wings unfurling slightly, “Their village, where is it?” All eyes turn to her in surprise.
  100. The elder speaks up, pointing into the distance, “A days march that way. Why?”
  102. “These things I have learned from you. I like them. I want to repay the favour.”
  104. “…How?”
  106. “I will eat them all.” The room goes quiet. Mab stirs as if to say something, spurred by the guilt that this altercation lay solely on her shoulders and because of mere circumstance, this black dragon were about to wipe out their entire village. But the elder puts a hand on her shoulder, shushing her.
  108. “I-if you do, we will be in your debt.”
  110. “Debt?” Mirai speaks up,
  112. “That word means we will have to give you something again.” The dragon thinks for a moment.
  114. “Do you have anything else like ‘Language’?”
  115. The Elder lights up, “Yes, we can give you written word, and teach you how to read, to write.”
  117. “Write… I like it. It sounds good. Then, I will return.” The dragon leaves the tent, wings unfurling to their full length as soon as she enters the open, faint purple glow alighting them. With a mighty gust, she leaps into the air, wings pushing her high into the subterranean sky.
  119. The last two hours of preparation made worthless by the whim of a dragon. The Elder sighs, exhausted, and pulls her husband to her chest, coiling around him protectively. The man leans back into her embrace and strokes her hard coils. He turns to his eldest daughter, shamefaced, her eyes cast down.
  121. “Do you understand now, Mab? Maybe you didn’t expect it to truly end in bloodshed. Maybe your intentions weren’t bad. They had men. We do not. They had an abundance of supplies. We did not. Regardless, by heading in with desperate bravado, this is the consequence of your actions. That entire village is doomed now.” His hard gaze on his eldest daughter softens as he sees she’s on the verge of tears. “Come here.”
  123. The disheartened Oomukade slides over to her father and buries her face in his chest. “I won’t lie. It’s better us than them. The dragon can take the blame, and this whole incident will be forgotten. And we will grow stronger for it. But just because you’re the strongest here doesn’t make you entitled to step on others.” He runs his hand through her hair soothingly. “Besides. It’s not all bad. She saved Mirai.” He smiles towards his other daughter, “And at the end of the day, how were you supposed to know there was a dragon sleeping nearby?” He leans his head into his wife’s breast, and looks up at her curiously, “Did she move in recently? I had no idea.”
  125. The elder frowns and shakes her head. “No. We would have known if a dragon made its nest here recently. It has to have been here for a while now.”
  127. “Newborn, then?”
  129. Her frown deepens, then she sighs, releasing the tension in her face. “No. That dragon is dead. Chances are it’s older than our entire species.”
  131. The husband is the first to break its silence. “Then, I wonder what it was doing all this time?”
  133. “What I said just now doesn’t leave this room. If anyone on the surface finds out about this, there’s no end to what could happen. A lone, unaffiliated black dragon is a powerful weapon.”
  136. ***
  138. Far in the air, the dragon did not hear the conversation, though if it did, maybe some years back it would look upon it with a twinge of embarrassment. How was she to know there were other things to do other than sit, and merely exist? Her lips tug in satisfaction, feeling good as the air brushes against her naked body, revelling in the strength of her powerful wings. Had she an ounce of self-awareness, she’d regret not doing it sooner.
  140. She considers the precious gem in her claw, unwilling to see it harmed even the smallest amount, yet realizing she can’t very well hold it all battle. She needs to put it somewhere safe. Somewhere precious. She knows very little of these things, but her instincts tell her of one such place. She places the round globe to her abdomen, and pushes it in. It glows where it contacts her cool skin, and sinks into her flesh slowly, its entire mass disappearing. The glow ceases as the phylactery lands in her womb with a solid, satisfying and quite pleasant plop that almost makes her falter mid-flight, undead wings fluttering, their purple glow flaring for a brief instant.
  142. Everything more or less accounted for; she casts her gaze downward towards a group of the pale spectres rushing along the ground, following them back to their home with her eyes. They marshal and prepare, disposing of the fallen, gathering for the counter strike. One that would never come.
  144. She tucks her deathly wings in, and plummets towards their home. Credit to the creatures, a few eyes turn, as she spreads her black wings at the last moment, and lands before one of them, in a graceful movement, kicking up dust and pebbles. The mantis stares at her, impassive face barely registering shock before the dragon’s claw lances out to grip the thing’s throat and lift it high. The soul is syphoned, and the dragon releases it, but far from drop dead, with eyes more sightless than usual, the mantis turns, leaping for the nearest form with preternatural speed, the scythes affixed to its arms slicing through the air, leaving in its wake a splatter of blood upon the ground, and a gaping wound in the throat of her now-falling comrade.
  146. It twitches, then rises.
  148. Like puppets they spread the chaos whilst the dragon remains rooted in the same spot that it landed, sating itself on souls, for the promise of a debt.
  150. ***
  152. Mirai frowns, deep in thought, her loose robe fluttering in a breeze blown in from gods know where. The only thing stopping it from opening and revealing her pale, milky flesh, generously large breasts and strikingly purple envenomed markings, is a sword belt tying the robes closed around the hips. A scabbard hanging empty, the only real reason for it to be there being the smaller knife hilted behind her back. Her right antennae flicks and she goes to tuck her fringe behind an ear with her right arm. An old habit. It falls flat, and the phantom limb dissolves, making her do it with her left hand, an awkward and self-conscious movement. She sighs and looks to the limp, flapping sleeve covering her bandaged limb, half-healed by herbs and magic, but incapable of becoming whole again.
  154. “Do you feel it still?”
  156. “Ah?” Her antennae flick, “Oh, Mab. Yeah its… kinda weird.” The older sister scuttles up the rock to the younger sister’s perch, overlooking the path to the village, and a good stretch of land. Mirai’s eyes bore into the rising craggy hills as if she could truly see through them, and what transpires in the village beyond. Mab looks down, antennae drooping, a crestfallen shame resting heavy on her shoulders.
  158. The sight brings a half smile to Mirai’s lips. “Hey. I chose to follow you into there, we all did. If anyone is to blame we all are.”
  160. “Can she really deal with…all of them?”
  162. Mirai grimaces, “Uh… yeah. Yeah she can.”
  164. There’s a minute silence, as if to pay respects. “I want you to have this.” Mab undoes her swordbelt, and hands her weapon to Mirai. “You lost yours, right?”
  166. “Are you sure?” She takes it as the other girl nods, and pulls the blade out, long, thin and slightly curved, an exotic blade from faraway.
  168. “You’ll need it more than me, if you do this. Have you thought about it?”
  170. “What, going adventuring with the dragon? Do you really think I’ll have to?”
  172. “I don’t really know much about them, but I’m still going to agree with mum. Give the dragon books, and she’ll want to know where and how to find more. Probably.”
  174. “Well, if she does, she does. I don’t really mind. I do owe her my life after all…” She sighs, “It’s been a while since I ventured up.”
  176. A bright purple light shoots up over the hills, and stays in the air a moment, before heading towards Mirai. The blazing form of the dragon descends upon them, her wings alight with recently claimed souls, their restless stirring dying bit by bit. With a graceful gust, she lands.
  178. “That was fast. Is something wrong? Could you not find them?”
  180. The dragon shakes her head. “I fed well.”
  182. “O-oh. Already? Should we head back, then?”
  184. Mab shakes her head, “You two head back, I need to organise a party to see what’s left. I’ll stay here for a bit. Think about how I’m going to ask everyone to pick at the bones of the enemy.”
  186. Unable to find anything to say to that, Mirai simply nods, and the two begin to head back. “She seems upset.”
  188. “We messed up, but instead of facing the consequences, I found you. Now it’s all over and there’s nothing those white ghosts can do. Because... well, you made them ghosts.”
  190. “Ghosts?”
  192. “Ah, like, a living spirit… or something.”
  194. “Hmm. There won’t be any of those.”
  196. “.... Well, yeah. So she’s filling the absence of consequence with guilt.”
  198. The dragon says nothing in response, her thoughts kept close to her chest. But then, with that blank, beautiful face, it’s hard to tell. Perhaps she simply doesn’t care enough to spend any more effort on considering the situation. Regardless, Mirai feels comfortable enough in her company to not feel the need to force a topic of conversation. In this vaguely amicable silence, they return to the village.
  200. There’s a fair bit of activity as they return, centipedes rushing about, caring for those who came back injured from the raid, others preparing for a communal feast in celebration of the eradication of their long-time adversaries, a tiny footnote of tribal enmity in the long and many pages of history. There’s a very sombre undercurrent to the celebration, however, as the prime reason for the raid in the first place was wiped out along with the rest of the tribe.
  202. The dragon looks about with a sense of interest, as the few men of the village do domestic chores, in the midst of a busy civilisation for the first time. But still, there is a sense of distance, as people step back to let her pass, or bow, lowering their eyes. They head towards the largest hut, and one of the sentries, nods to their approach, dipping inside to warn the elder. Moments later, the elder and her husband emerge, smiling a little sadly.
  204. “The foolish actions of my children, and my inability to guide them down the right path.” The older centipede bows deep, “You have saved my people from both. Thank you.”
  206. The dragon nods in reply, “It’s okay. The debt?”
  208. “Of course. Follow me.” She leads them into the large tent, and into one of the side rooms. It’s small and circular, just enough for a couple to curl up in. Pillows litter the ground, and the walls are covered in shelves of books. “I said I would teach you to read and write, but once you have these books before you, a creature as great as you should grasp the concept of writing fairly quickly. But still, if you have problems, you need but ask. Unfortunately, I’m needed elsewhere, but Mirai knows the words as well as I. She’ll teach you.”
  210. With that, the dragon nods, and all but her and the one armed centipede leave. Mirai takes off her sword belt, drops it by the wall and frowns to herself in contemplation, “Hmmm, what to start with…” As she stands there, pondering, the dragon takes a random book from the shelves with one arm, collects Mirai with the other, and pulls the girl’s torso down to the ground to sit in her lap, the bug letting out a very indignant squeak, legs skittering futilely.
  212. “U-uh, wait!”
  214. “What?”
  216. “There’s something you need to know first. U-um…” She shifts her many segments around in the dragon’s embrace, a moving sea of chitin. Finally, she brings the toxicognath at the end of her tail before the two of them, and points one of the tips to the book. She flips the hard cover book open to its last page, and places a tip against the back of the cover, carving into it the runes of the alphabet, staining the gouge in her deep purple venom, and beginning the long explanation.
  218. ***
  220. “And see? This is a ‘book’. The word for it is made up of these letters.” She jabs a finger at different runes, and the dragon nods. “And this is just for this language. There are many out there, with different alphabets, but must use the same system even if the runes are different. The structure does change though.” She opens the book, and sighs “Well, now that that’s done, Lets begin.”
  222. ***
  224. Hours had passed, the one-armed bug having passed out on the spot long ago, mid-sentence. Yet quickly still, the books began to pile, as the dragon learned word after word, understanding meaning on an instinctual level, glossing over words she didn’t understand, until through context, the began to learn of even the most complex concepts. Ghostly purple dragonflame wrapped around book after book, pulling them off the shelves, opening and holding them suspended as she devoured the words, rune by rune.
  226. And with the mounting knowledge surged an emotion with each digested work. Embarrassment. As she read of all that there was in this world, as contained within the precious few works here, perspective came unto the dragon, and her face grew redder and redder. But she learned a great many things about herself through reading, and knew she couldn’t very well scream out her frustrations here. So it bottled inside her until she began to shake and her eyes began to mist with tears of impotent frustration, lips pursed desperately as to not release a fry of anguish. Instead, she buried her face in Mirai’s chest, and held her tight, like a babe would cling to a blanket. What a truly ridiculous existence she had led until now.
  228. The bug gasps awake, and squirms before registering the dragon burying herself into her sizeable chest, “W-wh-what? What’s going on?” Realizing the dragon woke her, she releases the bewildered centipede, expression neutral.
  230. “Ah. Nothing. I’m fine, don’t worry about it.” Miria studies her still flushed cheeks, and her wet messy face, and sighs, wiping it clean with the low-drooping hem of her robe. Pointedly ignoring the sizzle as it begins to eat at the thread.
  232. “Right. Well, sorry I fell asleep. How did you…” She looks around, “manage…” takes stock of the empty shelves and pyramids of read books “… Without me. Pretty well, I guess.”
  234. “I had no idea there was so much out there. Of everything I have read here, there are… no words for just how… blind, I have been to the world around me.” A passion begins to burn away at the embarrassment, “I want to see more. Mirai. You will take me to see more.” The centipede laughs softly, and rolls her eyes, “What?”
  236. “One of these days, mother will stop being so right about everything. Yeah. I’ll show you around.” Mirai yawns and stretches, legs flicking around errantly, “But first we should prepare.” Her stomach growls, “And any good adventure begins with a good meal.” The sea of chitin blanketing the dragon begins to heave and shift as Mirai untangles herself and straightens her robes before heading out, “Also, we should get you some clothes.”
  238. Mirai exits, the dragon following after, and the two join the elder, her husband and Mab who are sitting together, enjoying a meal. Already, there are two plates laid aside, and resting against the wall is a large pack and Mab’s sword leaning against it. The elder turns, “Ah, you’re up. We saved the last of the beans for you and…” The elder frowns, “The dragon?”
  240. “Safkhet.” All heads turn. “That’s what I have decided to name myself.” The elder smiles, and nods,
  242. “It is a pleasure, Safkhet. It is good to finally know the name of the one who saved us.”
  244. “Nice name, Saf.”
  246. “It’s Safkhet.”
  248. “Is that a name you read?”
  250. “No, it just came to me.” The dragon takes a seat, attentions diverted by a certain aroma in the air, “Beans?”
  252. Mirai nods. “Ah, yeah. There’s this guy I met while travelling around. He travels himself, a merchant. Sells these roasted beans. If you crush them into powder and pour in hot water, it flavours the water. It’s a special type too. Once it’s completely infused, the sediment rises to the top. Scoop it out, and drink.” Mirai prepares a cup as she talks, scoops out the soggy powder with a spoon, and hands the brew to the dragon. “Here, Saf. Have a taste.”
  254. “It’s Sa… nevermind. Thank you.” She takes the cup and downs it, swallowing it all and grimacing afterwards. “Bitter.”
  256. “Aha, yeah, sorry. We ran out of sugar. I’ll just grab something to eat and then we’ll get you dressed and geared up and then we’ll go. Oh, I have a cool trick to teach you, too.”
  258. “Trick?”
  260. “Later, later. Lemme eat first.” The centipede grabs her fork and digs in, satiating her appetite, Safkhet eating her own portion at a much more measured rate, eating to taste rather than to fill her stomach, yawning and hungering for souls and spirits as it is. So she contents herself in watching Mirai scoff down her own food. Mushrooms and strange insects and meat from creatures hidden in the yawning depths of the world, glowing fruits and...moving things, cutting the things too large to eat whole with the side of her utensil. The gathering devolves into small, separate conversations. And Safkhet turns her thoughts back to the stories she’d read.
  262. Her jagged, light brown fringe drops across her face, and she hesitates, as if expecting something to happen. With a little sigh, she puts the fork down, and pushes the hair back behind an ear, then continues eating, slightly less enthusiastically. After a few more minutes of indistinct, barely-listened to conversation, Mirai puts her fork in the centre of her cleared plate and turns to Safkhet. “I should teach you that trick, before we get you clothes and a weapon.” She raises herself from her ‘seated’ position, and takes Safkhet’s claw, tugging her up too, turning address the rest. “We’ll be back later to say goodbye.”
  264. The elder nods, “Have fun.”
  266. Mirai takes the dragon around the back of the large hut, and onto a narrow path walled in by boulder-like rocks that leads behind it. She releases the dragon’s claw, “This path will take us to the lake.”
  268. “Why do I need a weapon?”
  270. Mirai grins, “Handycap. You’ll raise too much suspicion if you just drain souls from things up on the surface.”
  272. “…Why not just use my claws?”
  274. “You won’t have them. That would be even more obvious than the soul eating.”
  276. “What?”
  278. “You’ll see. You’ll see. I don’t mean to be all mysterious but only my mum and I can do it, and I think it’s really cool. Here we are.” The path opens to a shore lining a turquoise blue lake, a small pier leading a few meters into it. “Dad likes to come here to fish.” She slips her top from around her shoulders, now as naked as the dragon, baring the seal place upon her nethers like so many other Oomukade of the village. Her toned muscles are highlighted in the crystal-light, her long, spiky light brown hair framing her shoulders and face, and flowing down her back, her intricate tattoos throbbing with a deep purple light, the glaring absence of her right arm painting a more than memorable silhouette. “A-apparently its different for different races. M-mum only showed me to do it like this…” A heavy blush spreads across her cheeks, as venom begins to seep out from under the plates of her chitin, and her antennae appear to melt into her hair, seemingly dissolving into a rich deep purple liquid that runs down the side of her face, down her throat and through the valley of her cleavage.
  280. “I-I don’t know how to teach you, s-so… pay attention” She sinks down onto the ground with a shaky moan, and holds an arm out for the dragon, “I-I need to pull myself forwards. Easier to do with two arms, h-help please.” Curiously, the dragon takes the offered hand and pulls, making the girl moan. A surge in magical energies floods through the dragon as she assists in what is obviously now a transformation and the chitinous half of the oomukade begins to lose its structure. She pulls at the girl even further and her hips separate from her tail, producing thighs, knees, calves then feet, completely slick in purple venom. Two entirely human legs.
  282. Panting, she stands shakily, resting her one arm on a knee, “O-ooh man. Two legs will never not feel weird.” Standing before a very bewildered dragon is a now perfectly human Mirai, two normal, if athletically muscled thighs, wide womanly hips, and the slender curve of her waist, which hasn’t changed overmuch. The only abnormalities being the purple venom covering her everything, hips down and the still vaguely throbbing tattoos scrawled across her torso. “If we want to get anywhere up there, we need to look the part. Did you… get that?”
  284. “…More or less.” The dragon steps back, and sits down, “Give me a moment to figure it out.”
  286. Mirai nods, and takes a step towards the lake, “I’m going to wash up then.” The blue waters turn purple as she wades in and sits, turning back around to watch the dragon.
  288. Safkhet crosses her legs. Her eyes stay open, but anyone looking into them would see that they stare out into nothing. The constant purple glow emitting from her insides, the whirring souls in her wings, her blazing eyes all intensify as bright, nearly translucent purple fire begins to spurt out of the gaps in her scales like a split kiln. Her brows furrow in concentration before she is engulfed entirely in her undead flame.
  290. It begins to devour her. Bit by bit, scales flake off and the dragon grimaces, before crying out in pain.
  292. “SAF!”
  294. “I’m fine!” The dragon barks back, as the flames splutter and die. “Nearly had it…. Nearly….” She draws in a shaky breath for no other reason than to calm herself and slowly she begins to ignite again. The fire appears hotter this time, as if she approached it with the same mentality of a wounded man peeling stained bandages off himself, caked and sticky with clinging blood. She conflagrates, and the scales begin to evaporate into the air as her arms, legs, wings and reptilian ears are devoured in purple flame. The flames intensify to a point where it becomes hard to watch, growing darker and blacker, obscuring her body, leaving only a wavering vague silhouette.
  296. Then the fire begins to fade, and Safkhet reappears, wingless, clawless. Cute round ears. Retaining a stunning, nearly monstrous beauty, much like Mirai, yet now entirely human. She sighs and stands, stretching. “Are you alright?”
  298. “Yeah.”
  300. “Don’t worry, I messed it up a few times at first, too. I’m a little surprised you got it only on your second go but… I guess I shouldn’t be.”
  302. “It was… definitely a new experience.”
  304. Mirai stands up out of the lake, cleaned of the inky purple, and picks up her robes, throwing them over her shoulders and covering her naked form. “Well, now we’re ready to get you geared up.” She grins, “One step closer to beginning our adventure, now that you’ll blend in with the humans on the surface, and if you focus well enough, you might be able to transform just your wings. Fly through the sky for the first time.”
  306. Safkhet smiles, “I’d like that.”
  308. They head back into the village to find it mostly empty, a few men and women performing tasks here and there.
  310. “Ah, Mab must have already left. There.” She points towards a large hut that has various tools, tables and racks lying about. A rather thick centipede tail is seen slinking from here to there as the owner rushes around out of sight and then stills. As they head in, they hear the grating sound of steel on stone. It spreads throughout the area to add another dash of sound to the village’s backdrop, joined soon after by a gentle humming. “She’ll have something you can use.”
  312. “She?”
  314. “Rana, she handles the tribe’s equipment.”
  316. “Ah, so she’s the quartermaster?”
  318. “Quartermaster?”
  320. “I read the term in one of the books.”
  322. “Something like that.” The tent is made from stretched hide, held aloft by a mixed skeleton of bone and chitin. Along the walls are shelves storing various kinds of materials; cloths, metals, furs and stone. On racks rest a mixed assortment of arms and armor, weapons legitimate, prototype and practice. A craftsmanship mixed of more primitive chitins and more traditional metalworking. A small kiln rests in the corner.
  324. Rana turns as the two enter, a brief second of wary surprise until she recognises the owners of the human guises, “Ah, Mirai and…”
  326. “Saf.”
  328. “Safkhet.”
  330. Rana nods, “I guess you two aren’t here just to give me a show?”
  332. Mirai grins and swings her hips, striking a pose, “We’ll be gone for a while, don’t you want something to remember us by?” She thrusts her bare chest out, her perky breasts perfectly eye-catching. Rana observes her for a split second before turning back to her work, leaving the humi-pede to deflate.
  334. The quartermaster tips her head back towards one of the shelves lined with cloth, “Have a look around, there should be some clothes that fit. In fact I think there are still some clothes from that eastern man your sister visited. You know, the one who made her this sword. They might be the right size.”
  336. Saf nods and heads over, padding quietly, the lacking click of claw on stone throwing her off more than she would have thought. An array of vibrant colour greets her, earthy browns, viridian greens and ocean blues. What draws her eye though is a purple robe so deep it’s almost black. It’s a smooth silk that’s pleasant enough she has to actively refrain from rubbing her cheek against it. She pulls it out and spots an accompanying sash hiding amidst the cloth.
  338. “That one?” Rana frowns, “Not a lot of the armor that I have will look good with that colour…”
  340. “Ah… I don’t think she’ll really need armor.” Saf turns,
  342. “This one. May I have it?”
  344. Rana scratches her head then sighs, “Sure. I’d rather you use my armor, but sure.”
  346. The dragon smiles, “I’m in your debt.” The fabric begins to smoulder where she holds it and before long purple flame flicks out, devouring it. The two centipedes watched open-mouthed, protestations frozen in their throats as the flame spreads to cover the woman and leaves an imitation of the robes in its wake, wreathing her in the deep purple. She tilts her head, “What?” The robes in her hand remain whole and she tucks it back in with the other fabrics. Along with the robes grew gauntlets and boots of a dark plate which would reflect the barest purple in the right light, a scale motif belying her truer nature.
  348. “Why don’t you just put that one on?”
  350. She smiles elusively and grabs a section, tearing it, “This way I won’t have to worry about damage.” The tear ignites and spreads across the damaged section, leaving it whole once more. “This one is made from my own magic.”
  352. Rana gives up any attempts to understand and shrugs, “Well that’s one way of doing it I guess. Go pick a weapon that suits you from the wall over there.”
  354. The dragon frowns, “Weapon?”
  356. Mirai hops in in answer, “You’ll need a real weapon to blend in. It would draw too much attention if you could just materialise a weapon, or just beat something to death with your fists.”
  358. “I have… read a little but I don’t really know how to use anything…”
  360. Rana smiles as she raises herself and hands the sharpened sword to Mirai. She plants a hand on the dragon’s shoulder and walks, or scuttles, over to the weapons, “Don’t worry, it isn’t for you to decide anyway.”
  362. “What do you mean?”
  364. “Dad always said a weapon choses its wielder and I haven’t experienced any different.” Lined up, laying, hanging, resting, is a wide array; from swords, to spears, to glaives, to hammers, to greathammers, to maces, to daggers, to axes, to great axes, each of a different size and shape. Rana pulls out a sword first, a man’s longsword, a razor blade of forty inches. She hands it hilt first to the dragon and steps back. “Give it a few swings, see how it feels.
  366. Saf nods and takes the blade, stepping back to account for her reach. She rolls her wrist, spinning the sword around, and takes a few slashes. She draws back a last time and swings, almost flicking the blade, the tip lashing out and slicing the air. She twists her wrist and the sword is halted, point poised. “So?”
  368. “Feels… small.” She shakes her head and Rana puts the sword back.
  370. “Well, if one extreme isn’t enough let’s try the other. I might have something for you.” She heads over to a pole resting against the wall, its base wreathed in a dusted and moth-bitten cloth. She wraps her fingers around it and grunts, straining to lift it with both hands. The cloth slips free amidst a cloud of dust. Metal grinds against the stone floor with a piercing grate as the overall shape comes into view, knocking over a few weapons along its way.
  372. It was too big, too thick, too heavy and too rough to be called an axe. It was more like a large slab of steel. The handle alone stood as tall as a man, more befitting a long, sleek halberd if not for its thickness. Odd patterns were carved into the near-petrified wood, dark enough as to be iron. The eye was hidden, encased in the head of the axe, the top of it imperfectly blunt, no toe hook to speak of. The edge was rugged in a way that implied it would mince and tear flesh before slicing into it. And that was if it didn’t crush and obliterate it first. The beard was unnaturally elongated and ended in a wicked heel hook, the butt blunted like the face of a warhammer.
  374. “I can’t remember how long this has been here. I honestly thought it was a joke my father crafted, but it was here long before my mother was even born. I’d only seen it used once and it split a boulder in two. And it was less swung than lifted and dropped.”
  376. Safkhet’s eyes widen and seem to glimmer with a barely hidden excitement and anticipation. “This. This is it.” She holds her hand out, “Gimme.”
  378. With the weight still far too much for Rana to lift she angles the handle towards Saf, whose thin delicate fingers wrap around it and lift the thing one handed. “Let’s head outside, to give you more room to swing it around.” The dragon nods and takes the axe out with her, finding a clear spot to give it an experimental swing with a single hand, wide and low. Then she switches to a twohanded grip and swings it a little quicker, following up with a flurry of blows against her shadow adversary.
  380. The look couldn’t be more disjointed, an unnatural beauty in sleek purple robes swinging around a goliath instrument of carnage. “At least she looks happy.”
  382. Rana nods in agreeance, “Like it?”
  384. Saf turns and offers the faintest smile, “I do.”
  386. “Perfect. Mirai, do you need anything?”
  388. She nods “It’s been a while since I was in this form, I just want to make sure all my armor… you know.”
  390. Rana smiles playfully, “You certainly look thicker.”
  392. “It’s muscle, I swear.”
  394. “Hmm, come here.” Mirai steps up to Rana, blushing slightly as the bug-woman’s hands begin to wander. They sink into the bare woman’s thighs as she strokes them, “You’re a bit softer on the inside but,” her fingers dance along the muscular lines of her rectus femoris, “your muscles have grown a little larger and more solid.” They slip around to dig into her rear, “Mmm, this is just bigger and…” she grabs the girl’s hips “wider. Not by too much though.” She only spares her ripped abs a glance, “Belly is just as trim, breasts just as large…” Rana straightens up, arms crossed under her bust, fingers tapping on her bicep, “Your chest should be fine but if it’s a little tight let me know. I’ll need to make some changes on your lower equipment. It’ll take a bit.”
  396. “That’s alright, I have something to discuss with Saf anyway. Thanks Rana.”
  398. She smiles widely, “No problem. Nice meeting you Safkhet.”
  400. “Likewise.” She bows slightly as they leave and turns to Mirai who grabs two practice swords before heading out, “What would you like to discuss?”
  402. “It’s about fighting. You’ll need to blend in when we head up. Ah, maybe this is less applicable since you picked up that ridiculous weapon, but you’ll need to limit your strength. For two reasons.”
  404. “I’m supposed to be “human” right?” the two of them head around to the back of the hut where there is a small clearing by a large outcropping of jagged rock.
  406. “Yeah. And exceptional strength will make eyebrows raise. Secondly, the weapon may not handle it. No matter how strong you are, if your weapon cannot handle your own strength, it’ll break. So I wanted to do a little sparring to see how you do.”
  408. “With what?”
  410. “I’m pretty hardy, so some wood would be fine. You lose when it breaks.” She hands the sword to Saf, who takes it by the handle and stands there while Mirai takes her stance. “Sorry, I might be a bit wonky. It’s been a while since I had to get used to two legs.”
  412. She lashes out with the sword in a wide and obvious arc. Saf barely moves to intercept the blade, but rather than meeting it with a more stable part of the weapon, Mirai changes the angle at the last moment, focusing all her force at the tip of Saf’s sword. The dragon’s grip is strong and solid. The sword doesn’t budge and the force of the inhuman blow can only flow to the weakest point of the blade and a crack splits open. Saf takes a quick, large step back and gawks at her sword, the first signs of a break clear and evident.
  414. “How…”
  416. “You’re quicker than me and react faster. Stronger too. But you don’t move nearly as well. Keep that in mind and watch me a little closer. Also don’t hold your sword so rigidly. That only happened because you didn’t knock my sword away. Come at me and I’ll show you.”
  418. Mirai steps back with a food, facing the dragon side on, making it harder to land a blow on her. The dragon lunges in with a thrust that the centipede deflects, leaving her wide open. But for now she doesn’t counter, simply backing up and letting the dragon take another swing.
  420. The speed of the flurrying exchange increases, but the strength of Saf’s blows doesn’t, like she’d already figured out how much power the weapon can handle. In all aspects but technique, the dragon is naturally leagues ahead of Mirai, but she is shown first hand just how deep a divide technique can create.
  422. “There are many styles of martial art. Humans wield and invent the best. Why?”
  424. She tilts her head at the word, “Humans? The men in the village didn’t look strong.”
  426. “They aren’t. So why is their style the best?”
  428. Saf takes the sword in two hands and swings with all her strength and speed, the mere act of slicing through the air already sending the split blade to its limits. The blow aims down at Mirai’s throat and the girl hops back, lightly striking the dragon’s sword with her own, carrying it down and into the stone, the blade erupting in a burst of splinters.
  430. “Because it uses my own strength against me.”
  432. “Exactly. So if we’re going to head up there and fight; and we will because it’s the easiest way to earn money up there, then you need to fight with that in mind. That is, if you want to blend in. Only one of their heroes could come close to rivalling our strength. And they are far from inconspicuous.”
  434. “I think I get it.”
  436. “It’s okay if you slip up. We’ll pretend to be adventurers and those are stronger than normal humans. They do the tasks that are too hard or too costly for town guards to do, but not dangerous enough to require a hero. But if you want to experience and learn more in return for saving us, you’ll find its best to do so without making waves.”
  438. “I see…”
  440. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. Sooner rather than later perhaps.”
  442. “What do you mean?”
  444. “Lately there has been a Hunter haunting the passages a little higher up.”
  446. “Hunter?”
  448. “It’s our word for a type of giant centipede that roams, hunting Lurkers, a type of giant spider.”
  450. “Like you?”
  452. “Ah, no. According to my mother, these things are older than us and they didn’t… change all those aeons ago when my kind did. Humans refer to us as ‘monsters’ but these are sheer forces of nature. They are to us what we are to men I suppose.”
  454. “Do they move along the cracks in the ground like rivers?”
  456. “Have you seen them, then? They are rare these days.”
  458. “They are an old food. How nostalgic.”
  460. “You used to e-eat those huge things?!”
  462. “They weren’t that big. A-ah. I guess now that I look back, it wasn’t that they weren’t big… I was just bigger.”
  464. “… Right. Well we might meet it. The earth shifts every now and then, creating new chasms and reopening old ones. The earth here is particularly unruly. Lately, there has been Lurker activity. Mother thinks its nest has opened up once more, bringing the Hunter with it. If we meet it, I’ll have you fight it like a human would. So, no soul stealing.” The dragon opens her mouth to pose a question, but hesitates. “What is it?”
  466. “Nothing.” She shakes her head. Inquiring about the Lurkers and how she’d never met any would only highlight her own sedentary past.
  468. Rana pokes her head around the side of the hut, hand bracing her weight on the coarse and weathered hide. “Your gear is ready, Mirai. The adjustments didn’t take as long as I thought they would. Safkhet, I sharpened up the axe too, and refitted the handle with a new leather grip. Let me know how it feels. “
  470. “Thanks Rana.”
  471. “I’m in your debt”
  473. “Ah, not at all.” They head back in and retrieve their gear, the humi-pede finally getting dressed. Her wear is a dress similar to Saf’s, a gift from her sister, which was a gift from the same easterner who gave her the sword. It was augmented in places with leather armor and outfitted with leather boots and leather bracers. Only one of which was being used, the sleeve with the absent arm hanging limply.
  475. She sucks a deep breath in then exhales and moves around a bit. “Fits perfectly. You’re the best, Rana.”
  477. Rana’s lips twist into a half-smile “They’ll stay perfect too, so long as those thighs don’t grow thicker.”
  479. “It’s muscle, it’s muscle.”
  481. “Yeah I’m sure. Anyway, your mother should have your packs ready. See you in a bit I guess.”
  483. Mirai nods with a smile and rests her hand on the hilt of her sheathed sword, striking a daring figure. “Yeah. See you in a bit. Let’s go Saf and pick up our stuff.”
  485. “Lets.” The dragon grabs her axe just below the head and follow after Mirai using it like a walking stick, its weight leaving gouges where it strikes earth.
  487. Mirai’s mother was waiting by the entrance, two large packs by her side. She lifts an eyebrow at Saf’s new appearance then smiles wryly, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Did you pull it off alright?”
  489. “It was difficult. I messed up once.”
  491. “Only once?” She twists her face, “I guess that’s a dragon for you. I see you’ve taken that ridiculous thing off Rana’s hands, too.”
  493. “The axe? It shall serve me well, I think.” Saf nods to the Elder’s husband as he emerges.
  495. “For all you’ve done for us, I would be supremely ashamed if it did not. It and anything else we can offer are but small tokens,” They bow, emitting a seriousness and sincerity that makes Saf want to consider going back into her mound-cave. “You have our utmost gratitude.”
  497. Her first instinct would be to shirk from the face of it, but she read in one of the tomes that it was better to treat this kind of situation earnestly, even with a slight measure of arrogance. “A small token may not be much, but its worth doubles each time I make use of it. Words to communicate, clothes to cover myself with and a tool to defend myself with, these things are more than enough.”
  499. The elder’s face lights up and a certain relief washes over her. Her antennae flick as she straightens from her bow with a smile, “Thank you. I’ve prepared a month of supplies, more than enough for you to comfortably reach Alvmaki,” She turns to Mirai and approaches the girl, pulling her into a hug, her various legs clinging. “And a little extra if you get homesick.” She brings her cheek up to her daughter’s and her feelers move about, involuntarily tapping over the girl’s hair as if in an effort to consign the sensation to memory. “Stay safe. I’ll be waiting for you to come back home.”
  501. Mirai returns the hug with the one arm she has, “I will.” The embrace lingers, until the older woman’s shoulders begin to shake and her husband steps up to pull her into his own arms. He kisses her forehead as her lower body wraps around him. He turns to his daughter as his wife wipes her tears on his shirt,
  503. “Have a good time out there. Just…” He grimaces as if recalling a dull throb of concern, “Don’t take so many years in returning this time, okay?”
  505. She smiles in return, “Sure thing dad. I’ll bring back some souvenirs.”
  507. “Bring back a daughter.” The elder interjects with her face buried. She lets go of her husband and sniffs once before turning around, face dry and bearing a small amused smile. “You’ve been around for far too long to not have given me one already.”
  509. Mirai scrunches her face up and whines, “Muuuum.”
  511. “I’m just saying, sweetie.”
  513. “I’ll try. Say goodbye to Mab for me.”
  515. Her father nods as he bends down to pick up the packs, handing one to Saf and the other to Mirai, “Will do. And Safkhet, thank you again. But I have a favour to ask. Look after my daughter, yeah?”
  517. Mirai pulls a face as she slings her pack over her shoulder “Dad, I can look after myself.”
  519. “Don’t worry. Dead or alive, she’ll definitely return to you.”
  521. “Uh, no. I’d rather return alive, thanks.”
  523. The man nods, “Thank you.”
  525. He holds his hand out for Saf to shake and she takes it firmly, “No problem.” He lets her metal-clad gauntlet go and turns to hug his daughter.
  527. “Good luck.”
  529. “You too, dad.” She returns the hug with her single arm again and steps back as they separate, a brave grin on her lips. She takes a breath and waves goodbye, “I’ll see you guys later then.”
  531. Saf slings her pack over a shoulder in imitation of Mirai and waves with her free hand, “Goodbye.”
  533. The elder and her husband bow once more before they part ways, “It’s been our pleasure. We hope you visit again.”
  535. Mirai is the first to take a step back, turn around and begin walking, Saf following behind.
  537. “You have very caring parents.”
  539. The centipede smiles sadly “I do.” She sighs, “It’s why goodbyes are always so hard.”
  541. “… You don’t have to come with me.”
  543. “No. I want to. A debt is a debt and besides,” She turns to smile and wave at a handful of faces Saf doesn’t recognise, “It’s been a while since I last ventured up.”
  545. They both smile and wave to Rana who stands just outside her work-hut, “How long?”
  547. “Oh, about… half a century or so.”
  549. “Is that a long time?”
  551. “Well, I’ll be two hundred and thirty this year, so I suppose it’s a long time.”
  553. “How old are your parents?”
  555. “Dad’s four hundred, mum is coming close to five.”
  557. “Is that old?”
  559. “Well, it’s old to us. The human life span is a hundred maximum if we discount the special ones.”
  561. “Special?”
  563. “Those who magically or physically went beyond human limitations. Either through talent, will, or what kind of monster they shack up with - like my father.”
  565. “Ah, I read about that. Something like the two spirit energies mixing with a long and deep enough connection.” They set down along the path out of the village and take a right where it forks.
  567. “Yeah. And, I mean, mum and dad sort of just ‘feel’ the same, so there’s probably something to it. Like, if one of them were to sneak up behind me, I wouldn’t be able to tell which was which.”
  569. Saf nods, a vague line of questioning as to her own heritage flitting about in her mind for a brief moment.
  571. They walk in silence for a few hours, the terrain high reaching with black-grey jagged rock on all sides. Then the left cliff lowers in height until it barely reaches the hip, the path turning a sharp right into yet another ascending ravine. Mirai stops and turns back.
  573. “What is it?”
  575. “Oh, nothing. It’s just that this is the last I’ll see of this place. Any further and the view will be blocked by cliffs as we begin to climb up.”
  577. Saf turns and true enough, the spot they stand at the moment is at just the right elevation and has just the right angle to look out across the valley Mirai calls home. Her own mound is just out of sight but in the distance she can see some of the village and further along yet, her keen eyes spot Mab’s party returning. Just past one outcropping of jagged earth, the shore of one of the subterranean lakes can be seen glittering faintly.
  579. “I always thought they were pretty. The ocean is impressive and so are the rivers and lakes up above, but nothing beats the glimmer of those still waters as they reflect the crystal light.”
  581. “Where exactly are we?”
  583. “Hm? In what sense?”
  585. “A global one.”
  587. “These are caverns under Rokkr. Mother thinks that there is a vast stretch of these deep caverns that reaches all the way north. But to my knowledge these caverns only stretch as far as the shadow of Rokkr.”
  589. “Ah, the mountain? I read of that. Then Alvmaki isn’t the closest, Dimm-Baldr is.”
  591. “No, this particular path will put us on the outside of the mountains to the northeast.”
  593. Saf rolls her eyes upwards, searching through the maps in her mind, “Ah. I see.”
  595. Their conversation trails to a natural end as the two stand there and overlook the vast depths of the earth, or at least the swathes of it they can see. “Should we rest here for a moment? I’m hungry. I forgot how much of a pain two legs were.”
  597. Saf nods and drops her pack, finding somewhere relatively flat to sit. She plants herself down on the faux-seat of stone and puts her axe between her legs, letting the head hang over her shoulder. Mirai takes a seat next to her and fishes through her pack for one of the bundles of food. She pulls it out and holds it up for the dragon. “Want some, Saf?”
  599. “I’m fine.” They sit together, Mirai quietly munching away. The dragon holds her gauntleted hand out and moves it around, making small purple flames flick out.
  601. “Whatcha doing?”
  603. “Trying to figure out the partial transformation thing you mentioned.” The flames take on the form of a scaled claw, but flicker out back into the gauntlet soon after.
  605. “It’s a hundred times harder. Not even mum can do it.”
  607. “Yes, it’s quite difficult.” She opens and closes her fist, letting the flame flicker and die. She leans back against the wall, tips her head back and closes her eyes. Asides from the centipede next to her rustling about and eating, the gut of the earth is dead quiet. Quiet to human ears at the least. Her undead mind wanders as the earth settles like a wooden hall, infrasonic vibrations flowing through her and tremoring in the stagnant air. Under an almost trance-like tranquillity she thinks back to the instant she concluded that this cavern was all that there was for her.
  609. “You okay?” She stirs,
  611. “Hm? You finished eating?”
  613. Mirai smiles, “Yeah about an hour ago. What, were you tired or something? We can stop soon if you like.”
  615. Saf tilts her head, “No. I was just lost in thought.”
  617. “You looked pretty asleep.”
  619. “Do the dead sleep?”
  621. Mirai’s eyebrows shoot up, “You never mentioned it, so I didn’t think you had realized.”
  623. “Are you insulting my intelligence?” She stands, using her axe like a crutch to pull herself up with one hand, the other scooping up her pack.
  625. Mirai follows suit, slinging her own pack over her shoulder “Your knowledge maybe.”
  627. The dragon turns to hide the ghost of a smile and starts walking, “The logical leap wasn’t too large once I read that fable about the girl who turned into a zombie.”
  629. Mirai gives a smile rooted in a warm and fuzzy kind of nostalgia. “I like that one. So, how did it happen? How did you turn?”
  631. Saf stiffens almost indiscernibly, “Secret.”
  633. ***
  635. They trudge along the path tirelessly, tantalised by the odd hint of a breeze. The caverns below were long since obscured by mountains of stone and if not for the carved path, they would have lost their way hours ago. A ceiling descends, the light from the crystals has given away to darkness and Mirai bears a torch from one of the packs. The road forks countless times and only a line gouged in the wall along the correct path keeps them steady. The line was cut with implements and evident care, a certain level of artistry that keeps them for falling for the deceitful rends in the stone by claws seeking to lead travellers astray.
  637. “Another one.”
  639. “Where do you think it leads?” Mirai hands her torch to Saf, picks up a small stone along the path and winds back to peg it through the darkness. It bounces off the floor, strikes a wall and then there’s a long silence until a faint click rings out of the dark.
  641. “Whatever carved this line has it lead to a pitfall.”
  643. Saf shifts her weight, leaning it on the axe, “Do you think anyone fell for it?”
  645. Mirai shakes her head and crouches low, a finger on the floor at the entrance of the divergent path, “This way hasn’t been tread in a long time. Most know to stick to the beaten path. It’s a shame marking this path would be useless.”
  647. “How so?” The dragon hands the torch back.
  649. “Whatever did this will just put marks on the right path, defeating the purpose.”
  651. “Mm,” With a small vocalisation of understanding, the dragon turns and continues. Mirai straightens and trots to catch up.
  653. “If I recall, we should come up to an opening in a few hours. Let’s stop there for the night.”
  655. The flickering torch and the sound of footfall plus the rhythmic beat of the axe handle on stone precedes them and before long the bouncing echoes spread out into an open space, the radius of their torchlight expanding almost twofold.
  657. “Ah. Here we are. Now there should be…” Mirai looks around, before spotting something in the dark to the left. “Ah ha! Here’s where we’ll set up.” She heads over to a cleared area with a ring of stones in the centre and a large chest. They drop their bags around the ring of stones and Mirai opens the chest, disturbing a large spider that scuttles off into the dark. On the inside are large blocks for dry and ancient wood. “We keep these chests stocked along the way. Makes travelling so much easier.”
  659. She scoops out an armful and turns to Saf, “Could you do the honours?”
  661. “What?”
  663. “You know, breathe fire into the pit.”
  665. “I can melt it and the next league down with acid, if you like.”
  667. “That… won’t help.”
  669. “It might tap into a stream of magma.”
  671. “I’d rather fire. What about those purple flames of yours?”
  673. “I could probably burn things with it but… it doesn’t really give off heat.” She holds her hand out and purple flames lick as the surface of two fingers. Mirai puts the bundle of wood aside by the stones and waves her hand through the flames.
  675. “Oh. You’re right. Um… light should be enough then, I think I saw a blanket in my pack somewhere.” She stacks the wood by placing two down parallel and then two perpendicular, building a small tower of wood. She chooses large, thick and slow burning chunks of wood, the matter of kindling and starting the fire completely circumvented.
  677. The dragon squats down, puts her axe aside and places a hand on one of the chunks of wood. In a burst, the entire fire pit is lit in conflagration. Mirai puts her torch out and the remaining area for a good few meters is lit in a light purple. “Spooky.”
  679. Saf smiles, paying little heed to the commentary, “Really? I find it kind of soothing.” She falls back from her crouch into a sit and breathes a small sigh. She picks her axe up and fits it between her legs, hugging the handle to her chest and folding her arms over her knees. Her companion pulls a large, thick blanket from the bottom of the large pack and sets it aside as she twists and squirms to rest against the pack like a pillow. With a comfy smile, she pulls the blanket over her and up to her neck.
  681. “Oh! Do you mind if I sleep first?”
  683. Saf shrugs, “Sleep as much as you want, I’ll keep watch.”
  685. “Are you sure?”
  687. “I’m sure.” Mirai nods and snuggles further under the blanket. Saf watches her for a moment before going back to staring at the fire. For hours, she sits in silence and plays with trying to partially transform a claw or horn.
  690. ***
  692. “You awake?” Mirai moans and shifts before giving a yawn. “I guess so.”
  694. “Hauwong wa I ahlee?”
  696. “What?”
  698. She finishes her yawn and rubs her face on her blanket. “How long was I asleep?”
  700. “Five or so hours.”
  702. “Not bad.” She rolls up the blanket and stretches before putting it away and standing.
  704. “You aren’t going to eat?”
  706. “In a bit.” She reaches for the torch and lights it again using a piece of flint and the back of a knife. She puts the flint to the head of the torch and holds it there with two fingers, using the other three to scrape the knife against the stone. A spark catches and she plucks the stone off the torch, putting both away and holding it aloft. Saf extinguishes the purple flame, the eerie light giving way to a fiery red. “Let’s do a bit of walking first. Work up an appetite.” She tips her head to the darkness and Saf stands, shouldering her pack.
  708. “Lead the way.”
  710. ***
  712. The hall of stone stretches on. It’s not until an hour has passed that the end and the next section of tunnels begin to show through the gloom.
  714. “…I don’t like this.”
  716. Saf moves her huge axe to a more ready position, “It’s an unpleasant feeling.”
  718. “Aaah. That reaction is no good, Saf.” Mirai shakes her head with an uneasy smile and a bead of sweat rolls from her scalp and down her jawline, “There’s not an ounce of tension in you. If you want to act human, you have to pretend your life is in actual danger.”
  720. “Ah. You’re good at this.”
  722. “No. My life is in actual danger.”
  724. They step a little closer together and a small stone falls from the high reaches of the cavern ceiling. It strikes the ground, announcing its presence with a short spark that shoots an inch before the heated glint vanishes. The dragon is the first to move, stepping off the ground and barrelling into Mirai, making her drop the torch. Saf wraps an arm around the centipede and carries her off for a good few meters. Just barely do the twin venom-tipped scythes evade her back. An odd mix between the tearing of fabric and a bundle of tinder being lit fills the surroundings. The fangs snag the hem of her robe and the purple fabric on her back tears asunder.
  726. They drop their packs and Mirai draws her sword with a faintly metallic hiss. “Hunter.” Hanging from the looming dark, venom drips from its pitch black mandibles as if salivating. The huge creature regains its poise after the gloom-piercing lunge. Countless legs click in a familiar yet twisted way and the black segmented river drops from the ceiling to land upon the ground in a writhing twist of a puddle. Its form is oddly lit in the dark, as if it gave off its own light. Or perhaps it isn’t light, but presence that lets the two ‘feel’ its outline. The cavern is again draped in a pitch black now that the dropped torch is extinguished, yet both can clearly sense the looming horror.
  728. Saf straightens, her silhouette lit by the mending flames of her torn clothes. The creature’s head rears up from the chitinous mass, its eyes crimson and smouldering. “Limit your strength and no soul stealing. Let’s do this like some adventurers would.” Mirai puts strength into her legs and leaps to the side as the large head of the beast lunges forward for Saf.
  730. The dragon stands her ground until the last possible moment. As the fangs bear down on her she steps back, turns to a side and swings her axe. The fierce uppercut to the underside of the beast’s chitin bounces off after a grinding screech and she uses the momentum of her axe bouncing off to bring it back down in a stone sundering slam. The plate splits and fluids burst out, the axe biting deep into flesh. A rent is torn into the thing’s hide as it carries forth on its own momentum and Saf is forced to wrench the axe out before it slips from her hands. She watches as Mirai dashes past, running on the creature’s back. She turns and gives the dragon a grin, “Nice one!”
  732. The huge centipede writhes and twists, but Mirai’s balance remains unbroken, remarkably for one who only recently lost an arm. She clamps down on the hilt of her blade with her teeth and runs along the monster’s length with a steadying hand placed on its back. She leaps as its tail whips around to collect her legs but is left woefully open as it flicks around for a return. She looks between it and the head of the beast preparing for a pincer strike, a flash of panic striking her before Saf appears to her right. She puts her axe up, ready to receive the tail blow for Mirai.
  734. The sword wielding woman twists her airborne body so that the giant monster’s head passes under. She turns, taking the sword from her mouth and drives it deep into the joint between its head and the next segment. The beast writhes and reaches high up into the air, Mirai dangling from the hilt until she manages to plant both feet against the monster’s head. With a powerful push, the sword comes free and she leaps from the flailing mass of chitin plate, flipping over to land on her feet lightly. “Saf! The head.”
  736. The dragon turns to Mirai’s cry, evading another thrust of the beast’s tail and nods. She leaps from the ground and steps off a section of tail, launching herself high enough to come eye level with the giant beast. She grits her teeth, eyes locking on the weeping gash torn in the thing’s armor. She summons her strength and with a herculean swing of her monolithic axe, she strikes right where the sword had already wounded the Hunter.
  738. The monster lets lose its first and final deliberate noise, a stridulating screech as the axe splits the head from its body. A fountain of fluids arc high into the air and Saf kicks off against the thing’s flailing corpse, propelling herself far from the splashing gunk. She lands in a crouch and dusts herself off as she stands. Mirai sidesteps the huge corpse and walks up to the dragon, sheathing her sword.
  740. She gives a lopsided, slightly rebuking smile. “That last blow wasn’t something a human could have done.”
  742. “It’s fine for an adventurer to be a little outstanding, isn’t it?”
  744. Mirai gives a short laugh, “I suppose so.”
  746. “Are we done pretending? Souls taste the best fresh as possible.”
  748. “Ah? Oh. Right, yeah. Go ahead.” The dragon lays her gauntlet upon the carapace and an ethereal glow siphons from the creature to Saf. It clouds about her like an aura before sinking into her clothes, armor and weapon, the pale purple light fading.
  750. She turns to Mirai, “Is there anything worth harvesting from the corpse?”
  752. “The plate would be useful back home but chitin isn’t that handy to the humans above, they don’t really know how to work with it. I know an alchemist in Alvmaki who might pay for the head. Though it is a little too big to carry all the way up to the surface.”
  754. Saf pats the chitin, “We’ll get this guy to carry it.”
  756. “Wha-? Oh. You can do that? I guess it would help us get to the surface quicker.”
  758. “Mh. Give me a moment.” The dracolich closes her eyes and forms the image of a willing doll in her mind. She’d already devoured its soul, but dredging it out from deep within would be a pain, so she focuses instead on the image of a puppet, a figurine to be filled with purpose. Instinctually, she casts the basest of necromancies. Power fills the corpse and it rises. A mindless, soulless construct.
  760. “Oooh. Creepy. Wonder what it’s like to ride it.” Mirai flashes an energetic and playful grin, “I’ll go get the bags. You look for the head, I think it flew off that way.” She points into the darkness and the dragon nods. She rests her axe against the carcass and leaves, nurturing a purple flame in the palm of her hand in place of a torch. She heads off into the dark and Mirai goes to where they left the packs, searching through the dark. She may lack her superior sensory organs, but even without her antennae, the correspondent senses are bolstered beyond those of a man’s. She quickly locates the packs and the fallen torch.
  762. She lays them a little hesitatingly on the headless Hunter. It doesn’t move, standing at the ready in the same position it died. She rifles around for some rope and ties the pack to its body. Nervously, she crouches down to feed the rope under the belly of the creature. It was dead and controlled but all the same she couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. She gets down on her belly and pushes the rope through, avoiding the legs and guiding it across to the other side. Just as she goes to wiggle out from under it, she hears a step from behind. Tense as she was, being so close to the beast, the small sound makes her jump and smack her head against the hard chitin.
  764. Saf watches as the girl wiggles out from under her thrall, rubbing her head. She nearly jumps again as she straightens to come face to face with the huge Hunter’s head, venom still dripping from its mandibles, hate still smouldering in its crimson eyes.
  766. “G-Gods!” The dragon watches Mirai tense and hiss a breath inward through her teeth, “Don’t point that thing at me.”
  768. “What are you doing?” Mirai plants a hand on the carapace and vaults over to the other side. She disappears from view for a moment, then reappears holding an end of rope.
  770. “Help me tie the packs down.” Saf nods and places the decapitated head to a side. She crouches and grabs the loops of rope, handing them to Mirai for her to thread them through the handles of the packs and tie them down. “What about the head?”
  772. Saf shrugs, “I’ll just hold onto it. Is that going to be enough?” she looks to the bindings with a sceptic eye which the centipede waves off,
  774. “They won’t go anywhere. C’mon, lets go. I wanna see what kinda speed this thing has.” She plants her hand on the beast and vaults into a sit, legs to either side of its broad back. Saf picks the head up and places it on the Hunter’s back before taking a seat behind it. She looks back to see Mirai quivering in anticipation. She hides a smile and reaches for the handle of her axe, still resting against the beast’s side. She settles its weight in her lap and focuses her attentions ahead of her.
  776. “Alright then. Hold on.” Mentally, she gives the order and is almost thrown off by the speed with which it shoots into the black, her long hair billowing behind her.
  778. Mirai grins wide for a full second before realization hits her. “Uh, Saf. We can’t see where we’re going.”
  780. “Oh. Right. One moment.” She holds her hand out and an intense purple fire spurts to life. It begins with a roar the size of a man’s torso but she moulds the flame until it grows as small as the flame of a candle, with all the lumens of a thousand. The light floods forth with barely time enough to adjust for the black rock wall rapidly approaching. The undead beast twists sharply to the right to run parallel to the wall. “Where are we going?”
  782. “We lost the path when we were fighting. It’s impossible to find again in the dark, so let’s follow the wall. The cavern should be vaguely rectangular. We’ll come across the exi- Oh. There it is. T-this… this thing is fast.”
  784. A large gaping hole opens up along the wall of stone, the tip so tall that the Hunter could stand along it and still not span more than half its height. Barely had it appeared before they were barrelling though it, their undead beast of burden adjusting for the turn by scrabbling against the side of the wall, making Saf hold its head so it doesn’t roll off.
  786. Black rocks and crags speed past a blur as Mirai shouts directions from behind the dracolich.
  788. “We need to take the right! Under that huge boulder! At this speed, we’ll get there in no time.”
  790. ***
  792. “Look! Li-” Mirai’s words are cut off abruptly as the Hunter crumbles to a jarring, crashing halt. She instinctively brings her tongue back as to not bite it off and grabs the closest pack so it doesn’t go flying. A cloud of dust is kicked up as its mass comes to a grinding stop. “What happened?”
  794. Saf looks around, her axe and the creature’s head kept stable in all the ruckus. “Looks like its legs gave out.”
  796. “Its legs gave out?”
  798. “Seems that this was its limit.” Looking around, many legs are twisted and broken with a scant few still working, not nearly enough to lift its weight. She quashes that magic sustaining it. “But more importantly. Is that… sunlight?” she stares straight ahead to where the tunnel takes a right. Just before it disappears before an outcropping is the glow of sunlight smeared all over the walls, floor and ceiling of the passage.
  800. “You’ll get more of it than you can bear in a moment. After all, I did hear that direct sunlight wasn’t too comfortable to the undead. For now, help me with these packs. The rope got all tangled.”
  802. “Cut it.”
  804. “What, and waste good rope?” Saf sighs and gives Mirai a hand, navigating the tangled mess of knots. With a haul, Mirai pulls the rope free from under the fallen beast, rolls it up and puts it back in her pack. She hands the other to Saf, “Alright, let’s get out of here.”
  806. The dragon nods and slings the pack over her shoulders. She retrieves her axe and the giant centipede’s head and follows after Mirai. Every so often, a gust of wind would flow through the passage, carrying on it scents unfamiliar to the Dragon. Her heart doesn’t beat but she could almost feel it tremble. Her eyes lock on the warm light stretched across the stone. Saf stops just before the passage turns to the right and her gauntlet fades away in a fire of purple. She puts her fingers to the bare stone and shivers as the warmth of sunlight spreads through her skin.
  808. As she turns her head to the right, a powerful gust of wind blows in through the passage, momentarily blinding her. She twists her head away and waits for the wind to stop throwing her hair about. When she opens her eyes next, it’s to the blinding sight of a cloud streaked sky and the setting sun. Far in the distance is a vast stretch of glittering blue, ragged cliffs, leagues of grassland and a river below surrounded by a swampy delta.
  810. Her eyes go wide a she beholds it, her mouth opens but she can’t think of anything to say. She keeps walking, until she passes the mouth of the cave. Below is a cliff, a path down to the left. From this height, the breeze is powerful and bears that same strange scent although much stronger. “That’s salt coming off the ocean in the distance. Why don’t we take a break here?”
  812. Saf nods and drops her stuff. She places the head by the wall and rests her axe up aside it. “So this is Rokkr?”
  814. “No, this is the range of mountains surrounding it. Rokkr is a large volcano in the centre. You can’t see it now, but you can see the tip of it over the mountain ranges from Thule, that city in the distance.” She points across to tiny walls upon a huge cliff that drops into the ocean.
  816. “How long will we rest here?”
  818. “I’d say… an hour.”
  820. The dragon nods. “Alright. Then, excuse me.” Mirai watches as the dragon catches alight, the flames bending and twisting in the image of a pair of immense wings, claws, a tail and horns, erasing the armor and robes.
  822. “Still can’t partially transform?”
  824. The fire dies down, leaving flesh and bone in its wake. “No. To only do it part way seems difficult.”
  826. “So why are you naked?” Saf turns to the centipede, her flowing hair obscuring her breasts,
  828. “I want to feel the wind and sunlight on my bare skin. I’ll return shortly.” Mirai nods her understanding and takes a seat, searching through her pack for a snack to eat. Saf walks to the edge of the cliff and her powerful back muscles tense. Tiny devils of dust are roused as her wings splay out magnificently, casting long shadows before the setting sun.
  830. “Have fun.”
  832. Her huge and powerful wings push, making Mirai hold an arm before her face to stave off the dusty onslaught. They easily lift the dragon’s weight and send her a meter into the air before she plummets down the cliff. Mirai watches her disappear and re-appear a moment later, soaring on an updraught.
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