Conjunction

© 2020 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: fingering, vaginal, light bondage, boobjob, size difference, large breasts, blowjob, oral, scales, muscle, forked tongue, kissing, deepthroat, creampie.

CHAPTER 1: ENDLESS SUMMER

The sun beat down on Caden as he made his way through the narrow, winding alleys, its harsh light baking the paved streets enough that he could feel it through the soles of his boots. He wrapped his cloak more tightly about his shoulders, its drooping hood casting a dark shadow over his face. There were few who would brave the streets these days, he only encountered a handful of people who were going about their business, all of them sticking to the shadows of the buildings as they skirted the glare. The white and beige facades of the timber-framed structures seemed to glow such that he found himself averting his eyes, their narrow windows protected by wooden shutters in the vain hope of keeping out the pervasive heat, their towering brick chimneys long idle. He could see the heat haze coming off their sloping, tiled roofs, making the air above them shimmer like a mirage. They had been fashioned to ward off rain and snow, not to endure these temperatures.

Where once the city had been overflowing with greenery, now the patches of grass were yellow and sickly, the once-proud trees wilting. Caden remembered a time when each and every home had sported window boxes that overflowed with lush flowers, their bright colors, and their wonderful scents raising the spirits of the townsfolk. Now, they lay empty, the gardens left untended. There were no bees buzzing from blossom to blossom anymore, no butterflies fluttering on the breeze.

It was noon, but that term was slowly losing its meaning. The days grew ever longer, the sun lingering in the heavens, the cloudless sky as deep a blue as he had ever seen it. How long had it been since he had felt the rain on his face? When exactly had the seasons ground to a halt, plunging the world into an unending summer? He had become accustomed to this such that it was starting to feel normal, and that thought worried him. To adapt was also to forget, to become complacent.

He crossed a small bridge, the burbling stream that used to course beneath its stone arches long dry. He leaned over the side, seeing its parched, cracked bed. It wasn’t too long ago that a chorus of croaking frogs would have greeted him here, the cool night air rustling the reeds on the shores, but he found that he could scarcely recall the sound.

His destination loomed ahead of him, the twisted tower rising above the city’s slanted rooftops. It was a far older edifice than the buildings that surrounded it, the aging stonework held together more by the creeping plant life that had woven between the bricks than by its own ancient mortar. At its base were several gnarled trees, their stout trunks sprouting from the structure’s foundations, their winding branches serving to brace it. They had also suffered as of late, but they still retained some green leaves here and there, kept alive by the arcane power that resided within the crumbling walls. At its peak was a thatched roof that framed a large clock, its bronze hands slowly ticking away in spite of the fact that the twenty-four-hour day no longer held much meaning for the people who lived beneath it.

Caden walked up a snaking path that was lined with old cobblestone, the grass to either side of it slowly growing healthier as it neared the base of the structure, leeching off the aura that it exuded. Caden was attuned to its magic. He could feel it on his skin, in his very bones, an entirely different kind of warmth washing over him. If he strained, he could almost hear it on the air, a kind of musical hum with no obvious source. As he reached the old oaken door and turned the handle, the oppressive heat seemed to fade, as though a bubble of cool air had settled around the tower. It was relieving, but it did little to put him at ease.

It swung open on creaking hinges, and he stepped over the threshold, emerging into a grand library. From the outside, no one would have guessed that such a wealth of knowledge could have been contained within, shelves packed with dusty tomes extending high into the air as they spiraled up the center of the tower. A winding staircase led up to the top level, corkscrewing its way up the length of the structure, its banister carved with flowing floral patterns. No matter how many times Caden set foot inside, the disconnect between its outward appearance and its interior always made him do a double-take. The space within was somehow larger than the structure should allow, a powerful spell that had been cast long ago bending reality like a bowed branch, keeping it from springing back into shape.

In the center was a large wooden table, its surface strewn with yellowed manuscripts and leather-bound books. The Master was hunched over it, poring over a scroll, holding up an eyeglass as he scanned the faded text. He looked up from his work as he heard the door close behind Caden, his bushy brows furrowing. He was wearing a long robe that was fastened about his waist with an ornate belt, the fabric a slate grey in color, patterned with arcane runes woven from threads of shining gold. His bushy, grey beard was almost long enough to reach his stomach, his face wrinkled by age. As old as he was, he remained spry, his blue eyes bright and alert.

Oh, it’s you, Caden. Come, come,” he said as he waved him over with a liver-spotted hand.

You summoned me, Master?” Caden asked as he walked around the table. “If this is about the books on cryomancy, I’m still sorting through them.”

He stopped beside the old man, eyeing the scroll that he had been examining. The yellow parchment was stretched taut between two wooden rollers, each one topped by ornate finials cast from sterling silver. There were notes strewn around it haphazardly, it seemed that the Master was in the process of translating the rows of odd pictograms. It was no language that Caden recognized, nor did he see any common runes or symbols. Whatever it was, it was obviously very old.

I knew that it was somewhere in the library,” the Master began, picking up his eyeglass again. “There was some...vague recollection in the back of my mind, a feeling of deja-vu, as if I had lived this moment before. When one reaches such an advanced age as I, one’s memory tends to get...patchy.”

What is it?” Caden asked, pulling back his hood and shaking out his mop of brown hair.

This has all happened before,” the Master replied, sifting through his stacks of notes with a frantic urgency. “It is cyclical, at least...that’s what these accounts have led me to believe. I must have read this scroll in passing long ago, or perhaps it was referenced by another scholar, but it tells of a great calamity that befell a long-dead civilization.”

Read it in passing?” Caden asked, cocking his head. “It looks like you’re translating it to me.”

I can hardly be expected to memorize every damned language that has ever passed beneath my nose, boy,” the Master grumbled. “There are thousands of them, and my memory is finite. I’m sure there must be a book of old notes hidden somewhere in the tower, but I found this first, and time is not our ally.”

He snatched one of the pieces of paper, his eyes scanning the looping handwriting that he had scrawled upon it with his quill.

It was five thousand years ago that an identical event took place, though this scroll is not nearly that old. It is simply a record of an account passed down to a historian during the fourth age. Thank the Gods he saw fit to make a record of it, or we might never have come across this crucial piece of information.”

Are you going to tell me what it is?” Caden asked, the Master grumbling under his breath.

Would that I had been granted an apprentice with some measure of patience,” he complained, rolling the scroll across the table to expose more of the parchment. “The account tells of an age when the days grew ever longer, and the people began to pine for winter’s release. The sun lingered in the sky, scorching the land, bringing drought and famine. The rivers dried up, the crops failed, and hope that the calamity would pass began to fade. I have been able to find myths and oral histories from other cultures that corroborate this. The sorcerers of the time, known as the Magi, devised a plan. They found a way to correct the celestial imbalance that they saw as the source of the problem.”

Who were these people?” Caden asked, leaning on the table as he glanced over the faded pictograms.

Their name has been lost to the ages, none still live who remember what they called themselves, but they constructed great monuments and temples in the far East. Those edifices still stand to this day, if the reports of explorers and traders are to be believed. Their kingdom spanned the shores of an ocean in a land that was once green, but has long since given way to barren desert. It appears that they were very knowledgeable in the ways of magic, because whatever secrets they used to perform this feat are not known to the sorcerers of our age. The scroll speaks of an object that they created, an artifact that shone with dark light, though I cannot discern what the author meant by that. I know of no such devices.”

I don’t suppose they made a record of a recipe or a blueprint?” Caden muttered, already knowing the answer.

Caden,” the Master began, turning to glance up at him. “You know as well as I do that there will be no end to this summer unless we make it so. How long has it been since the last winter, since the last rainfall? Five years? More? The King has sought my council in private, and he has spoken of how the stores of grain are diminishing by the day, how rivers that once overflowed with fish are now little more than mud puddles. I explained to him that controlling the weather and directing the movements of the planets was beyond the power of any living sorcerer, there are none among our number who possess such knowledge. At this rate, our people will face starvation. This may be our only chance to save the kingdom, to save the world, but this scroll alone is not enough. I need someone to travel East, to find the ancient city spoken of in this text, and to uncover the relic hidden within.”

Hang on a minute,” Caden stammered, taking a step away from the table as he raised his hands defensively. “Are you suggesting that I make this journey? Why not go to the King, have him hire an army of mercenaries and explorers to go there in my stead? What about sorcerers from other lands? I’m just an apprentice, little more than a scribe. You have taught me some magic, yes, but my time is spent stacking books and dusting shelves. What makes you think that I could do this?”

It is precisely because you are my apprentice that I wish for you to go,” the Master insisted. “If the Magi who helped build that city were worth their salt, then they will have protected their treasures. There will be ancient curses put upon its ruins that will have endured long after their deaths, and those without knowledge of the mystic arts will stand no chance of surviving them.”

But...”

This artifact holds an arcane power, Caden,” the Master warned. “Each kingdom has its Master, and each Master has their apprentices and students, this is true. But what might a Kingdom that obtains this power do with it once the task is complete? No, we must not let it fall into the wrong hands, I cannot even trust my fellow Masters with such a temptation. You are my protege, Caden, and there is no greed in your heart. You devote yourself to study and practice, you are honest, loyal. I place my trust in you alone.”

I’ve never even ventured beyond the borders of the kingdom,” Caden protested, “and my knowledge pales in comparison to yours.”

I cannot leave this tower, I am far too old,” the Master lamented. “You know that well, Caden. I have accrued a debt to the Universe that will be collected the moment I set foot outside, and all my hundreds of years will catch up with me in an instant. Only the beating heart of this building sustains me, prolonging my existence, keeping me isolated from the stream of time. Even if I wanted it, I could not go.”

This is madness,” Caden replied, shaking his head.

You must also go alone,” the Master added, giving his confused apprentice a solemn glance. “None can know of your quest. You cannot travel with an entourage, nor can you employ a guide. This power is too great a temptation, the wealth that it represents may drive your companions to murder and treachery. You must trust nobody but yourself.”

You expect me to travel across the world, and brave the dangers of this cursed city, entirely alone? Master, you know that I have the greatest respect for you, but what you ask cannot be done! I won’t make it ten steps outside the city walls! What about bandits on the roads? The dangerous beasts that haunt the wilds? Would you have me take up a sword, too?”

No,” the Master replied, shaking his head. “It is time to accelerate your training, Caden.”

What do you mean?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow as the Master stepped away from the table. He gripped the winding banister and began to climb the spiral staircase, Caden following behind him, the aged steps creaking underfoot. They made their way up past hundreds of shelves that were piled high with dusty old books and rolls of parchment, the height of the tower extending far above what physics should have allowed. At its peak was another level, the staircase emerging onto a round floor made from crooked planks, the pointed spire of the tower rising above their heads. This was where the Master kept all of his magical artifacts. The room was packed with glass display cabinets, racks of staffs and rusted weapons, tables that were strewn with all manner of items. Everything was coated in a fine layer of dust, as many of these objects hadn’t been touched in decades, maybe hundreds of years. There were four narrow windows, one for each cardinal direction, bright beams of sunlight bleeding through the grimy glass to illuminate the floating motes of dust. One of them was open, a large telescope that was standing on a tripod pointing through it.

The Master waded through the clutter, making his way over to one of the racks, beginning to sift through the many staffs that occupied it. They looked like walking canes to Caden, some more elaborately carved than others. Some were encrusted with jewels, or overlaid with precious metals, while the rest were little more than polished branches.

Ideally, I would have waited far longer before introducing you to this kind of magic,” the Master began. He stroked his long beard pensively, running his bony fingers across the staffs as though somehow testing them. “It is our custom to first instill a great respect for magic in our apprentices, to teach them to be studious and patient before ever allowing them access to something with such a great potential for...destruction.”

Master?” Caden asked warily.

You have studied our history, you know that sorcerers once fought wars, wielded terrible power against their fellow man. Long ago, we put a stop to that. We decided that only the most senior and trusted among our ranks would be taught these skills. I was a hundred and ten years old before my Master saw fit to entrust me with my own staff.”

He pulled one of the staffs from the rack, balancing it in his hand, weighing it as he scrutinized it.

I don’t understand,” Caden said, the Master turning to face him. “Are staffs and wands not merely conduits? A way to better direct and focus magical energy? I have studied runes and incantations, simple enchantments, my duties have mostly been academic in nature thus far. What would I do with a staff such as this?”

The Master blew some off the dust from the stave, then thrust it into Caden’s hands. As his fingers wrapped around it, he felt an energy coursing through him, a tingling sensation assailing his skin. His eyes wandered up its length, lingering on the precious ruby that sat at its tip, held in place by a spiral that had been hewn from the dark wood.

What do you feel?” the Master demanded, watching him intently.

I feel...pins in my fingertips,” Caden replied, grimacing with discomfort.

Don’t feel with your fingers, fool,” the Master snapped. “You know better than that.”

Caden closed his eyes and exhaled, beginning to concentrate on the staff. In his mind’s eye, with a sense beyond sight or touch, he saw magic coursing into it. Like the winding streams of a river delta, he watched the glowing energy making its way down his arms and through his fingers, as bright and as brilliant as starlight. It poured into the stave, focusing there, roiling within its confines.

It feels...wrong,” he grumbled.

How so?” the Master demanded.

It’s...dissonant.”

Good,” the Master replied, snatching the staff from his hands. Caden’s eyes jolted open, the connection that he had felt to the object interrupted in a way that felt oddly jarring. “Then this one is not for you.”

What are we doing?” Caden demanded.

Stop asking so many questions, and use a little deductive reasoning,” the Master muttered. “You will not be able to rely on my knowledge for much longer, you will have to make your own way.” He picked out another stave and handed it off to Caden. “Your magic is like music, and your staff is a tuning fork. You must match the tone, the frequency, the two must resonate harmoniously.”

This one was even more ornate, the pale birchwood overlaid with silver and gold, intricate reliefs spiraling their way up towards a pointed crown at its tip. Its handle was wrapped with fine, tightly-bound leather, its weight far greater than that of its predecessor.

This one looks a little expensive for the likes of me,” he grumbled, but the Master’s only response was a dismissive wave of his hand. He closed his eyes again, concentrating on the feeling of the leather against his skin, the blazing image of the staff seeming to burn itself into his retinas. He felt it siphoning the energy from his very body, drawing on it with a palpable thirst, his arms starting to tremble.

It was snatched from his grasp just like the last, jolting him out of his trance. He blinked at the Master as he returned the staff to its place on the rack, the old man shaking his head as he muttered to himself.

Not that one, not that one...” Once more, he lifted another stave, this one far more modest than the prior two. Its design was simple enough that it could have been mistaken for a mere walking stick, an unimpressive rod of polished rosewood that was topped with a bronze hook in the shape of a falcon’s beak. As soon as his fingers touched it, he felt the air around it begin to vibrate, as if a low hum was emanating from it. His energy poured into it, the staff becoming an extension of his own body, as though he was being reunited with a lost limb. Where the other staffs had leeched away the magic that coursed through his body, this one circulated it, amplified it. What he gave was returned fivefold. It was intoxicating, he could feel its strength welling within him.

What do you feel, Caden?”

It’s...powerful,” he gasped, unable to stop himself from grinning.

Be wary, apprentice,” the Master warned as he watched him turn the staff over in his hands. “This is a power that corrupts. It can make you brash, overconfident, it will seduce you into using it for unnecessary purposes.”

Does it possess a will of its own?” Caden asked.

No,” he replied with a shake of his head. “It is no more conscious than a rock or a tree, but the power that it bestows upon its wielder preys upon many human failings. Greed, ambition, vanity. It can be used to accrue wealth, to take that which does not belong to you, to elevate you beyond the station of common folk. But it must never be abused in such ways, Caden. Promise me.”

Caden struggled to get a hold of himself, willing that burning sensation of power to recede, his breathing becoming more regular as the feedback of amplified energy faded.

You have my word, Master.”

And I know that you will keep it,” he replied, breathing a sigh of relief. “To be granted a staff at the age of twenty-two has been unheard of for generations, but our need is extreme. You must always remain conscious of this danger, Caden, keep it in the forefront of your mind.”

You still haven’t told me why I need this,” he replied.

To defend yourself, of course,” the Master explained. “Wands are used merely as an aid to direct energy during spells and incantations, they are tools that help one focus. A staff is a weapon, it amplifies that energy, draws on it to destructive effect. Just as a knight wields a sword, so too does a sorcerer wield his staff. Before you venture out into the world, you must learn to harness its power, you must memorize the relevant spells.”

Wait just a moment,” Caden protested, the staff still clutched in his hand. “I became your apprentice because I wanted to learn, not because I wanted to hurt people.”

I realize that, but there are people out there who may wish to hurt you,” the Master replied. “You will have to learn how to protect yourself if you are to succeed in your mission. If you should die, then all of our hopes would die with you.”

I don’t know about this...”

The time for doubt is long past, Caden,” the Master chided. “The path that you must walk is clear now, do not shy away from it. Will you refuse this burden?”

No,” he replied after a moment of hesitation. “You’re right, as always. Only I can see this through.”

Then we must make haste,” the Master said, giving him an encouraging pat on the arm as he passed by him. “Follow me.”

They made their way back down the staircase, the Master leading Caden to a door at the rear of the tower. It opened into a room that he had never seen before, so vast that there was no way it could have existed through natural means, there wouldn’t have been space for it. The great stone chamber was full of mannequins made from sackcloth and stuffed with straw, like scarecrows in a wheat field. They were lined up in rows, illuminated by the wavering candlelight of dangling chandeliers.

What is this place?” Caden wondered, following the Master inside. “You’ve never shown it to me before.”

It exists when I wish it,” he replied cryptically. “This will provide a safe environment for you to practice and hone your skills. You won’t be able to accidentally harm anyone in here, nor set any fires...”

I do not yet know what I am to be practicing,” Caden replied.

You’ve always learned well through reading. Perhaps we should fetch you some relevant books.”

***

Caden held his staff in both hands, aiming the falcon’s head at one of the sackcloth dummies, chanting an incantation under his breath. He was good at remembering things, always had been, so the concept of committing spells to memory was already familiar to him. It had been the main focus of his studies up until now, poring over books in the library, expanding his knowledge of history and the mystic arts.

As the words left his lips, he felt the energy begin to flow down his arms and through his hands, into the carved wood of the stave. It began to hum louder, the almost musical frequency that he had felt when he had first laid hands on it resonating, growing ever more powerful. If he concentrated, he could almost see it, like strands of liquid starlight weaving their way from his fingertips.

Yes, good!” the Master exclaimed. “Listen to its song, it must be in perfect harmony with your own.”

The staff seemed to shake in his hands, and he tightened his grip, feeling that raw power welling inside him again. It was like adrenaline coursing through his veins, but so much stronger, as though an electrical charge was building up inside of his very being.

With a crescendo, the energy was released, a bright flash of light emanating from the bronze tip of the staff. When his eyes adjusted, Caden beheld a burning dummy, the straw within catching aflame. The spell had conjured a bolt of fire, directing it towards his target like an arrow from a bow.

Good, Caden!” the Master exclaimed. “With these spells, you will be able to harness the very elements themselves. You can create fire, conjure water from thin air, summon a bolt of lightning. They harness simple physical and alchemic principles, manipulating matter, and energy.”

Then...it isn’t just a weapon,” he replied, lowering his staff. “I could start a campfire, fill a cup with water.”

Precisely!” the Master replied, clapping his bony hands together gleefully. “Where a lesser man would only see a weapon, you see a tool, and that is exactly why I feel I can trust you with this responsibility. The staff is not a mere cudgel, it has many potential uses. If you possess the necessary knowledge, you can conjure light to illuminate a dark path, or freeze water to make an ice bridge across a river.”

What are the limits?” he asked breathlessly, his hands still trembling as he gripped the wooden shaft. He was still growing accustomed to the bizarre sensations that assailed him whenever he drew upon this power. It was invigorating, and a little frightening.

Only your knowledge and your wisdom,” the Master replied. “Always remember that just because you can do something, does not mean that you should. You are studious, and you have a great knowledge of the natural laws, Caden. I am confident that you will make good use of this gift.”

***

The Master circled around Caden in the center of the stone chamber, the scarecrows pushed up against the walls on their heavy, iron pedestals. He was wielding his own staff, an unassuming oak walking stick that was engraved with patterns resembling creeping vines, culminating in an ivory handle at the tip. Caden had seen him make use of it on many occasions, the Master was very old and sometimes needed a little extra support. But until now, he would never have guessed at the secret power it held.

I will now demonstrate another way that you can use your staff to defend yourself,” he began, making a point of leaning on it as he hunched over. “We sorcerers are few, and on a quest such as yours, it may be prudent to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Revealing your power may inspire fear and suspicion, or it may alert more dangerous forces to your presence. Let us imagine a scenario where you are accosted by ruffians, and you must protect yourself without calling upon thunder or flame.”

Yes, Master,” Caden replied as he waited attentively.

Strike me with your staff, boy.”

W-what?” Caden stammered, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Are you joking?”

Do you think me too frail to withstand it?”

Master...I would never dream of raising a hand against an old man, never mind my mentor. I could never...”

Appearances can be deceiving,” the Master warned with a wag of his finger. “Very well, if your conscience will not allow it, I shall strike you instead. Prepare yourself.”

Caden watched as he hobbled closer, the sound of his walking stick clicking against the stone floor echoing through the cavernous chamber. He wasn’t sure what to do. Should he raise his staff and attempt to defend himself? Calling the Master old was an understatement. His body was haggard beneath his robe, and he had not the strength to lift a heavy book, never mind strike his young apprentice.

The old sorcerer steadied himself, gripping his walking stick like a quarterstaff, Caden watching in confusion. He raised it, then struck with the speed and agility of a man a fraction of his age, the blow catching Caden on his upper arm. It was like being hit by a mailed fist, Caden losing his balance, thrown to the ground by the force of the impact. His staff clattered across the floor as it fell from his hands, the apprentice grunting in pain as his back hit the stone.

Only a fool would think that one’s physical properties were relevant in matters of sorcery,” the Master chided. Caden climbed to his feet and stooped to retrieve his staff, bruised, and more than a little embarrassed.

How did you do that?” he asked.

I used magic to amplify the force of my strike. Imagine a swinging pendulum, the inertia of it, the way that gravity acts upon its mass. Now, imagine that you can change those properties, concentrate on that thought.”

Don’t I need to learn an incantation?” Caden asked, rubbing his arm.

For something as simple as this? No. In time, even more complex spells may come to you just as naturally. As in all things, study and practice are key. Now, strike me.”

Caden gripped his staff, still hesitant. Although he knew better than to judge his Master on appearances alone, he was still faced with a diminutive old man, his instincts fighting against him as he raised the weapon.

Concentrate, Caden. See the weight of the staff in your mind’s eye, feel the swiftness of its swing. Direct your energy into amplifying those properties.”

He swung the far end of his stave, but there was no conviction behind it, the Master easily batting it away. He swung his walking stick into Caden’s shin, a muffled yelp of pain escaping his lips as he began to hop on one foot.

Do you think that a brigand on the road will show you mercy? A cutthroat will live up to his namesake for a handful of coins, he will not lose a moment of sleep over leaving you bleeding in a ditch.”

Caden steadied himself, his fingers tightening around his staff. Just like with the incantations, he focused his mind, pouring his will into the implement. There was no complex spell to recite this time. It was more about feeling, intuition. He swung the staff again, and this time, the energy that flowed from his hands acted upon it. It sang through the air as he willed it to strike with more force, feeling its weight increase in his very grasp, as though there was a lead hammer at its tip. There was a tremendous crack as the Master blocked the blow, echoing off the stone walls like thunder.

Good,” he said, nodding approvingly. “With a little training in how to properly handle a quarterstaff, you will become a force to be reckoned with.”

***

What followed was three days of intensive training. It seemed too little to prepare Caden for the monumental task that stood before him, but time was not on their side. He learned what he could, devoting himself to study and practice, honing his new skills as much as he was able. He was little more than a novice, but even a novice sorcerer was a potent force when compared to the average person.

When the Master deemed that he was ready, he led him up the spiral staircase again, and into the room at the top of the crooked tower that housed its hoard of magical artifacts. Their destination today was one of the many display cabinets, rusted hinges that had not seen use in an age creaking as he opened the glass doors.

The Master reached inside with a tentative hand, withdrawing an unassuming, wooden box. He set it on a nearby table, brushing aside more faded notes and maps, Caden hovering over his shoulder as he watched him open the lid. The interior was lined with red velvet, and sat upon its cushion was a dagger. Its handle was ornate, made from what looked like silver, adorned with intricate geometric carvings of impressive complexity. At its tip was a glittering sapphire, Caden immediately aware of its magical hum, sensing the power that was imbued within it. The weapon was sheathed in an elegant, leather scabbard, equally ornate. More patterns had been pressed into it, and there were gold studs where it was intended to be joined to a belt.

What is it?” Caden asked, in awe of the object. Despite the dust that caked the box, the dagger itself was spotless, as clean and as brilliant as the day it had been forged.

This dagger is known as the Blade of Umorath,” he replied, gingerly lifting it from its case. “These walls house many artifacts that have been entrusted to our order over the millennia. They were given to us for safekeeping, or because they were too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the possession of the uninitiated.”

He set the weapon down on the table, gripping it by the handle and slowly withdrawing it from its scabbard with a sound like metal scraping on metal. The curved blade shone under the harsh light that bled in through the windows, a long groove running down its length, filled in with what looked like a vein of blue ore. There were wavering patterns in the steel, if that was indeed the material used, its razor-sharp edge glinting as the Master turned it over.

If you are to set out on this quest alone, I must arm you as best I can. There are many tools here that may help you on your journey.”

Caden reached out to touch the knife, but the Master swiftly batted his hand away.

Careful, fool! The power of this blade lies in its ability to cleave through anything.”

Anything?” Caden repeated.

Yes,” the Master grumbled, “and that includes your fingers. Neither steel nor stone can prevail before its edge. If you take it with you, you must always keep it inside its scabbard unless you intend to use it, as any material that it comes into contact with shall be cut.”

Can I really be entrusted with such rare and powerful artifacts?”

If the world ends, then they shall be of no use to anyone,” the Master replied with a shrug. “Might as well use them while we can, it’s better than letting them gather dust.”

Next, the Master stooped to rummage inside a large chest, grumbling to himself for a few minutes as he sifted through its myriad contents. He reemerged with a rather plain spool of rope that would be right at home mooring a ship to a dock.

This artifact is known as the Infinite Strand,” he said, extending some of its twisted length. “You will find that no matter how much of it you unspool, you will never reach its end. It will always be as long as the given situation requires. No weight can snap it, nor can any force untie it once knotted, save for the will of its owner.”

Could it be cut with the enchanted dagger?” Caden asked. The Master started to reply, then stopped, twirling the tip of his long beard pensively for a few moments.

That is an experiment best avoided, I think,” he replied.

The next item that he handed to Caden was a simple leather coin purse with a drawstring.

This purse may not look like much,” he began, Caden pulling it open to peer inside and finding nothing out of the ordinary. “But it holds an enchantment that will conceal its contents to any who open it with ill intent, and any pickpocket who attempts to steal it will find it far too heavy to lift.”

It can sense one’s intent?” Caden asked, glancing up at his mentor.

Indeed. I will provide you with coin enough to pay for lodging and provisions during your travels, it will be no small sum. This artifact should make stealing it from you quite impossible.”

This is all well and good, but how will I find this city?” Caden wondered. “I am no cartographer, I know nothing of map reading or navigation. How far East will I have to travel, exactly? Do you know the precise location of the ruined city?”

I have...some idea,” the Master replied somewhat hesitantly. He turned to a glass display case and opened the lid, retrieving a circular, brass tool that fit neatly in the palm of his hand. There was a hinged cap protecting it, and he unfastened the clasp, opening it up like a clam shell. Beneath it was a glass lens that protected a needle within, mounted atop a white disk that was surrounded by numbered symbols. It took Caden a moment to recognize it. It was a compass, a device sometimes used by mariners to find their way at sea. The needle was magnetized, like a lodestone, and always pointed in a Northernly direction.

What enchantment does this one possess?” Caden asked.

None, it is an ordinary navigation tool that you will need to familiarize yourself with if you are to stand any chance of finding your way. Coupled with the map that was included in the scroll, you should be able to reach your destination.”

Did you not say that the scroll was penned during the fourth age?” Caden asked skeptically. “That was nearly a thousand years ago. How can you know that the lay of the land is even remotely the same as it was when the map was made?”

I cannot,” the Master replied with a shrug, “but what choice do we have? This is all the information that is available to us. Come, let us go over the map.”

***

Caden leaned over the yellowed parchment as the Master gestured to the map that had been drawn onto the aged scroll. It showed the world as it had been known at the time, the continents and landmasses oddly shaped, not quite true to their real-world dimensions. They were still recognizable, but it didn’t exactly fill Caden with confidence. The Master had placed a more modern map beside it and was using it as a reference to make better sense of what they were seeing, turning to his mountain of notes as he translated the place names.

Our kingdom did not exist during the fourth age,” he began. “The territory that we now inhabit was home to several smaller city-states. It is hard to say whether these coastlines have changed significantly over time, or if the cartographers of the era simply did a poor job of reproducing them. The borders of our kingdom end here,” he said, gesturing to the old map with his bony finger. “Although we are on good terms with neighboring powers, the roads can be treacherous. In these trying times, banditry is on the rise, and the more remote areas are reported to be plagued by highwaymen.”

That is why you thought it necessary to arm me,” Caden muttered, his mentor replying with a solemn nod.

Avoid the cities and large towns as you head East. Follow the roads, the more well-trodden, the better. There are many small villages and hamlets along the route where you might seek shelter in taverns and inns. Remember, you must not advertise the nature of your quest. Tell no one who you are or where you are headed. Assume a new identity if you must.”

He slowly dragged his finger to the right, referencing the modern map as he went.

This land bridge connects our continent to the Eastern peninsula. From there, our knowledge grows spotty.”

Caden looked over the parchment, the depictions of green forests and hills gradually giving way to sandy deserts and barren wilderness.

There are other kingdoms even further East that are said to be civilized,” he continued, “but this expanse of desert is oft-rumored to be inhabited by tribes of savages and feral beasts that have made establishing trade routes over land impossible. None now venture there, save for a few brave explorers who have brought back word of harsh conditions and hostile natives.”

And...my destination is right in the middle of that?”

Naturally,” the Master replied. “Bandits and beasts of the forest are one thing, but tell me, what do you know of monsters?”

Monsters?” Caden repeated, swallowing the lump in his throat. “Beasts that take the shape of a man, lacking in intellect, aggressive. They are sometimes imbued with a primal magic of their own, derived from shamanistic rites, far removed from the sophistication of spells and incantations. They have fallen into myth, none have been sighted in civilized lands since the dawning of the age of men.”

They are very real,” the Master replied. “They once inhabited the forests and mountains of our continent, but they were expelled centuries ago. In modern times, they persist where the land is remote and inhospitable, thriving where men dare not tread. Merchants and explorers have spoken of encountering them in this area,” he added, pointing to another part of the yellowed map. “This is known as the great Coral Sea, and the ruined city lies on the far side of it. These accounts are old, ranging from decades to hundreds of years, and so it is difficult to predict exactly what you might encounter.”

It doesn’t look like a sea to me,” Caden said, comparing the two maps. “There’s no water.”

It dried up long before our ancestors walked the earth,” the Master replied. “In a way, we should be thankful. It is mostly due to this natural barrier that the ancient city has remained largely untouched.”

So...I should expect to encounter monsters during my trek across it?” Caden asked.

Are you afraid?” the Master demanded, narrowing his eyes at his apprentice.

Yes,” he replied.

You would be foolish not to be. Fear is a healthy sentiment, Caden. Now, fetch your things while I transcribe this map as best I can. You set out in the morning.”

So soon?” Caden lamented. “Master...you know that I am not ready. I’ve barely learned how to use my staff, I have almost no idea of what I’m even supposed to be looking for!”

Few who must shoulder such burdens ever are,” he replied, “but that does not change our situation. Bring everything that you think you might need, but do not weigh yourself down unduly. I would have you make the journey to the Coral Sea on horseback, but you know not how to ride, and we do not have the time to teach you.”

I make a rather poor adventurer,” Caden muttered.

You will do fine, I am sure of it,” the Master replied. “If you can read a book, then you can read a map. You may not know how to ride a horse or swing a sword, but your mind can be sharper than any blade, and it is upon that which you must rely.”

Sharper than the Blade of Umorath?”

Not quite,” the Master replied with a chuckle.

***

Caden slung his pack over his shoulders, the straps cutting into his skin through his robes as he adjusted its weight. He was traveling light, but even so, it was unwieldy.

What do you have in here?” the Master grumbled, Caden feeling him rummage through the bag. “What the...a guide to outdoorsmanship? A wilderness cookbook? I told you not to weigh yourself down unduly, Caden. Surely you do not need step by step instructions for making a campfire, or filleting a fish?”

I must keep the spellbook, at least,” he protested as the Master set the leather-bound tomes on a nearby table.

That you may, but you need to start thinking about solving problems with your wits alone. Ever since your family entrusted me with your education, you have spent almost every waking moment with your nose buried in the pages of a book. When faced with a problem, it has become second-nature for you to look it up, to pluck your solutions from a shelf. You cannot rely upon that knowledge in the real world, you must learn to get by on your own judgment.”

Must everything be a lesson?” he complained.

Every experience in life is a lesson,” the Master chided. “Now, turn around and let me have a look at you.”

Caden was wearing a tunic and a pair of loose pants that would give him some reprieve from the heat, a hooded robe draped over his shoulders to protect him from the lingering sun. It was all dull shades of brown and green, made from linen, nothing out of the ordinary. Wool had traditionally been the preferred fabric in the region, favored for its warmth, but there had been no winters for many years. On his feet, he wore a tough pair of leather boots that would hopefully survive the journey.

The belt around his waist was laden with several items, including a large waterskin, as hydration would be of the utmost importance. With the knowledge that he had recently gained, he would be able to use his staff to conjure water from the very air, meaning that he could drink as much as he pleased without having to worry about finding a river or a stream from which to refill it.

The enchanted dagger hung from his hip in its ornate scabbard, Caden careful to keep it concealed beneath his cloak lest it draw attention to him, as it was so lavish as to be out of place on his more mundane outfit. The magic coin purse was now heavy with gold, tied to his belt by its drawstring. He had questioned whether the Master could afford to give him so much, but as he had said, money would be of no use if the world came to an end.

You have enough provisions to take you to the nearest town once you leave the city?” he asked, Caden nodding his head.

I can make it at least that far on my own, you needn’t worry.”

He was unaccustomed to seeing the Master fret over him like this, and it was rather endearing. He was not a callous person, but he rarely showed any overt affection towards his charge. The man had served as his surrogate father since the age of ten, when his parents had handed him over to the Sorcerer’s Guild for training. One of their scouts had sensed a magical potential in him, and his family had decided that sending him away to become an apprentice would give him a better life than that of a simple farmhand. Caden missed them sometimes, but he understood that the decision had been made with his future in mind and that it didn’t mean they loved him any less. His training and studies had afforded him no time to visit them, but perhaps one day, he would make his grand return. Assuming that the world didn’t burn to a cinder before then…

All that I have left to give you now is my blessing,” the Master said, reaching up to rest his hands on Caden’s shoulders. “I know all too well the burden that I have placed upon you, boy, but I would not do so unless I was certain that you had the strength to carry it. You have more potential than you know.”

Thank you, Master,” Caden replied. “For everything.”

There was no more that needed to be said, the two sharing one last farewell before Caden turned to the door, stepping out into a wall of sweltering heat. He turned to look back at the crooked tower as he made his way down the winding path, feeling the sun beating down on him. He raised his hood over his head, gripping one of the leather straps of his pack as he continued on his way.

CHAPTER 2: DUSTY TRAILS

The city was as deserted as ever, the sun baking the paving stones to create a shimmering heat haze between the timber-framed facades of the buildings. It was like midday in the heart of a hot summer, despite the calendar’s insistence that it should have been a cool autumn evening. The way that the days lingered threw Caden’s internal clock off-kilter. There was no twenty-four-hour schedule anymore, the nights were short and hot, resulting in people going about their business in a kind of confused trance. He came across a few of them here and there, tightly wrapped in shawls and cloaks as they ran errands. They clung to the dark shadows as though they were the shores of a river, the light pooling in the street, so bright that it was hard to look at.

He knew the way out of the city, there was no need to bring out the map or the compass yet, and he would be able to make his way to the border of the kingdom without too much trouble. Civilized lands were well signposted, and the roads were properly maintained. Or at least, they had been until recently. With the world slowly grinding to a halt, there were more pressing matters to concern oneself with than filling in potholes and trimming hedges.

Like many older settlements in the kingdom, this one had once been fortified, but the city limits had expanded far beyond the old battlements over time. The castle keep rose up in the distance, the great stone walls draped with the king’s heraldry, the ramparts towering over the squat dwellings that surrounded it. The wall of the outer bailey was visible in places where it rose above the slanted rooftops, the crenelated bastions that had once served as watch towers keeping their silent vigil. He passed through one of the gateways in the old stone wall on his way out, a rusted portcullis that hadn’t been lowered in an age hanging high above his head. There was a city guard sitting on a stool in the shadow of the arched passageway, but he was too hot and tired to do much more than glance at Caden as he passed by. Beyond it was a bridge that led over a moat, now little more than a trench with a puddle of muddy water at the bottom.

The claustrophobic city streets gradually gave way to more sparse hamlets as he made his way into the surrounding countryside. He followed winding roads that snaked their way through the rolling hills, passing by thatched cottages and small farmhouses. The meadows and pockets of forest had once overflowed with lush greenery, but now they were yellowed and sickly, suffering in the oppressive heat. The trees were shedding their dead leaves, their branches naked and skeletal, only the weeds that grew in their shade seeming to cling stubbornly to life. Even the hardy patches of grass and wildflowers that sprouted in the middle of the rocky paths were wilting these days. The rolling fields were separated by wild hedgerows and crumbling stone walls, but what was once an ocean of golden wheat and barley was now decaying. The growing seasons had been scrambled by the calamity, and the seedlings were mostly dying before ever reaching maturity, making harvesting crops next to impossible. The flocks of sheep that would usually be scattered about as they grazed were huddled beneath the shelter of whatever trees they could find, the herds of dairy cows crowding their water troughs.

Caden made his way up one of the dirt tracks, stopping at the top of a hill, turning to look back the way he had come. He could make out the city in the distance, perhaps ten miles away now. It had been a long time since he had seen his home in its entirety like this. He could see the keep, and the Master’s tower, along with the town square. He paused there a few minutes longer, knowing that it might be months or even years before he would lay eyes on it again. If he survived his journey at all…

He turned back to the road, finding himself longing for the shade of the forest.

***

It wasn’t long before Caden’s waterskin ran dry. He had been walking for the better part of a day beneath the blazing sun, and the speed at which he had drained it took him by surprise. He was making his way along a woodland path, what had once been dense forest rising up to either side of the dirt road, forming a kind of tunnel above his head. Most of the leaves were dead, bright rays of sunlight bleeding through the sparse canopy, but the gnarled branches still provided some reprieve from the heat.

Damn it,” he muttered to himself, putting his lips to its mouth as he upended it. After taking a moment to look around, making sure that he was alone, he slunk off the path and into the brush. Bone-dry leaves and desiccated ferns crunched underfoot as he trudged deeper, finding a small clearing with a large boulder rising from the ground in its center. He would have expected to hear the chirping of birds, to see a skittish deer or a curious rabbit rush by, but there was only the sound of the branches creaking in the breeze.

He walked up to the rock and set the waterskin down on top of its mossy surface, hesitating before screwing the cap back on. The water would just pour out of it otherwise, and it wasn’t as though he was filling it from any tangible source. After setting his pack down beside it, he fished inside for the book on magic that he had brought with him, opening it at the index. He leafed through the dusty pages until he came across the passage that interested him, hydromancy.

As with all magic, performing a predefined ritual was not enough. Knowledge of the subject was required. One could not command fire without having a deep understanding of its properties, how it behaved, and how one’s magic acted upon it.

Let’s see,” Caden muttered, licking his thumb before turning another page. Water was not only found in wells and rivers, nor in lakes and oceans. It could be found in the very air itself, in humidity, taking the form of vapors and mists. This spell required that he focus on the invisible droplets that surrounded him, calling on them to coalesce.

Caden set the open book down on the dry grass, taking a step back and raising his staff. He exhaled, letting his power flow through its haft as the Master had taught him, the wood seeming to come alive in his hands in response. It pulsed with magic like a beating heart, that familiar hum seeming to fill the clearing with its silent song, the hairs on his arms standing on end.

He opened his eyes, glancing down at the incantation, mouthing the words quietly as he read them off. After memorizing the short passage, he began to cast the spell, lifting the falcon’s beak into the air as he chanted. With a sense beyond sight, he watched the shimmering strands pour from his fingers like streams of quicksilver, winding their way through the shaft. They concentrated at its bronze tip, Caden feeling a swell of pride as he watched what looked like droplets of morning dew collect on the metal. They began to merge together, water dripping from the carving, running down the polished shaft to wet his fingers.

Success! He was conjuring water from nothing. Now, he just had to concentrate on directing it into the waterskin. His brow furrowing as he concentrated, he willed the moisture to collect within the leather receptacle, seeing those sparkling droplets clinging to its interior in his mind’s eye. Still whispering the incantation under his breath, he brought the bronze tip of the staff to the waterskin, hovering over it. Before his eyes, it began to fill, slowly expanding on the rock until it was stretched taut. As he stopped his chanting and lowered his stave, the energy that was coursing through his veins faded, the hum abating. Caden took a moment to collect himself, that intoxicating feeling of adrenaline gradually receding.

The water sloshed around in the waterskin as he raised it, its weight suggesting that it was indeed full to the brim. Caden opened the cap and lifted it to his lips tentatively. Cool, fresh water poured into his mouth, its taste that of a mountain spring. He couldn’t help but grin as he drank his fill, feeling the cold liquid settle in his belly. One of the greatest dangers that faced him was crossing the Coral Sea, but now that he had an infinite supply of water, that task seemed far less daunting.

Satisfied with this small victory, he returned the waterskin to his belt and turned back towards the road.

***

Night had finally fallen, the stars twinkling in the cloudless sky as Caden marched, the cracked earth crunching beneath his boots. The days now lasted thirty hours or more, and after sunset, there were only a scant few hours before the cycle began anew. People tended to sleep whenever they became tired, even if their every instinct told them that it was the middle of the day, resulting in no small measure of disorientation. He always found himself sleeping either too much or too little.

He paused to glance up at the mercifully dark sky, noting that the constellations that he had learned to recognize during his studies had either vanished entirely, or had strayed far from their usual positions in the heavens. It was as though the entire sky had moved in relation to the world, or perhaps the world had moved in relation to it

In the distance, he spotted the inviting glow of a building, the yellow light of oil lamps spilling out onto the road. It was one of the many inns that would provide a warm meal and a safe bed for weary travelers. Caden’s feet were starting to blister, he had never done this much walking, and the idea of a soft mattress was irresistible. At least while he was still journeying through civilized lands, he needn’t spend the night in the wilderness with only the light of his campfire to ward off hungry predators. Even if the monsters had been driven out long ago, the more remote forests were still home to bears and wolves that occasionally preyed on the unwary.

The inn came into view, illuminated by the golden glow of a solitary oil lamp that hung above its entrance, and the light that escaped through its many windows. Its crooked, timber frames were visible between the white plaster infill of its facades, the wood stained a dark brown that bordered on black. The second storey was jettied, projecting further out than the floor beneath it, supported by rows of decorative wooden brackets. The thatched roof drooped low over the building, extending to the dormers on the upper level that likely denoted where the guest rooms were. The whole building had a very top-heavy look, as though it was slowly collapsing in on itself. He was surprised to see smoke billowing from the brick chimney, but that probably originated from ovens rather than hearths.

Caden passed the adjoining stable that would provide shelter for the horses, making his way to the large, oaken door. He had never been to a tavern before, but he had read about them. After reaching down to brush his hand against his coin purse, reassuring himself that it was still present, he pushed open the heavy door. It creaked on its old hinges, Caden stepping over the threshold, the smells of home-cooked food immediately setting his stomach gurgling.

He emerged into an expansive common room, the floor beneath his feet lined with wooden planks, the ceiling crisscrossed by exposed beams from which more oil lamps dangled on chains. On the wall to his far left was an ornate brick fireplace, the hearth presently empty due to the heat, its mantle lined with partially melted candles. The majority of the space was taken up by large wooden dining tables, their polished surfaces laden with pitchers and loaves of bread, the places set ready for guests. Only a few of the seats were occupied, the strangers turning their heads to glance at the newcomer.

Caden felt quite out of his element as he made his way over to a counter at the other end of the room, behind which a portly old man was standing, his attention focused on a mug that he was cleaning with a rag. He wore a dirty apron over his tunic, his head shaved bald, the beginnings of a beard failing to conceal his second chin. Behind him were barrels of what was presumably ale, along with a few dusty bottles of spirits with faded labels that were impossible to make out. There was a door to his left that probably led to a kitchen, and to the right of the counter was a staircase that led up to the second storey, where the rooms must be.

As Caden approached, the man glanced up from his work, setting the mug down on the countertop with a clunk. He looked him up and down, not suspicious, but curious. Judging by the number of tables and places, the staff must be accustomed to more visitors, but the calamity had likely reduced the number of travelers who passed through these parts to a trickle.

What’ll it be?” the innkeeper asked.

A room for the night, please,” Caden replied. “Or rather...a room for eight hours. Do you have much in the way of food?”

Stores are low, but I’ll see what I can come up,” he replied. “What’s your pleasure? Breakfast, lunch, or dinner? These days, there’s not much of a difference.”

As hearty a meal as you can manage,” Caden said, leaning on the counter. “The road has been long and arduous.”

In this heat, I’m surprised you didn’t collapse,” the innkeeper remarked. “Very well, young sir. That’ll be six crowns.”

Caden lifted his purse from his belt, opening the drawstring and fishing inside, setting a stack of six gold coins on the counter. The innkeeper scooped them up, pausing to bite one of them, making sure that it wasn’t gold-plated lead.

Take a seat at one of the tables,” he said, “and I’ll have your meal brought to you when it’s ready.”

Caden thanked him, the man exiting through the door to the kitchen. He turned and made his way to one of the tables near the far wall, choosing a seat that put him as far away as possible from the other patrons, pulling up a chair as he shed his pack. He set it by the wall, leaning his staff beside it, sighing with relief as the weight was finally taken off his blistered feet. He raised his waterskin and took a generous swig, then reached into his bag, rummaging for his book on magic. He slapped it down on the table, beginning to leaf through the pages as he waited for his meal, brushing up on his incantations. Unless one of the patrons was a fellow sorcerer, which was extremely unlikely, it shouldn’t draw any undue attention.

It was a good half-hour before Caden’s meal arrived, brought to him by a rather fetching blonde whose age suggested that she might be the innkeeper’s daughter. She set the tray down on the table beside him, reaching over to place a large bowl of stew in front of him, wisps of steam rising from the broth. He could see chunks of floating vegetables, mostly potatoes and carrots, its scent inspiring a fresh wave of hunger. On a small plate beside it were a pair of spiced sausages and some butter for the loaf of bread that had already been waiting for him at the table. It was probably a little stale after sitting out in the open, but if he soaked it in the stew, it would make a fine addition to his meal.

She was wearing a low-cut blouse that showed off her cleavage, sparsely dressed on account of the heat, Caden keeping his nose buried in his book to save from accidentally catching an eyeful. It might appear rude of him to avoid her attention so, but having spent the majority of his life in the confines of the tower’s library, he had next to no experience when it came to the fairer sex. One could learn almost anything from the pages of a book, but confidence and the ability to woo a lady were not among them. A sorcerer should not concern himself with such matters anyway. Romantic entanglements would distract him from his studies, as the Master had always told him. Celibacy was not enforced by the guild, merely encouraged.

Thank you,” he muttered as she left his table. She responded with a polite smile but was swift to turn her back on him, carrying her tray over to one of the other patrons. This man was stout and broad-shouldered, the sharp edge of his chin peppered with beard stubble, a faded scar on his cheek suggesting that he was no stranger to violence. He wore a padded gambeson of the kind usually worn alongside chain mail or beneath plate armor, identifying him as some manner of warrior or sellsword. The Master had told Caden that highwaymen and bandits were setting upon travelers with greater frequency as of late, and so it was not unexpected to come across mercenaries and bodyguards on the road. Perhaps his profession was guarding supply caravans or protecting wealthy travelers.

The woman’s reaction to him was markedly different, the smile that she gave him far warmer and more sincere. She lingered beside the brute of a man as he plunged a chunk of bread into his broth and began to eat noisily, the two of them chatting as she twirled her golden hair flirtatiously.

Caden glanced over at them as he speared a sausage on his fork and bit into it, feeling an unwelcome pang of jealousy. For all of the man’s brawn, his strength paled in comparison to what Caden could bring to bear. The power of swords and spears was insignificant next to the magic wielded by a sorcerer. With a few spoken words and a wave of his staff, even a knight’s shining steel could be melted to slag.

He turned his attention back to his book, chiding himself for allowing such ill-humored thoughts to fester. It was as the Master had warned him, this newly discovered power had the potential to corrupt, to turn his mind to ideas of cruelty and supremacy. It was not to be wielded for reasons of self-aggrandizement or petty jealously, he had to remain humble in all things.

Ignoring the woman’s exaggerated laughter, he turned his attention back to his spellbook, contenting himself with enjoying his sausages.

***

When Caden was done with his meal, he packed away his book, heading towards the stairs that led to the second floor. As he stopped by the counter to collect the large, iron key to his room, he felt someone’s gaze on his back. He turned his head to see a man staring at him from a shadowy corner of the room. The stranger was sitting on a stool beside a small, round table, the hood of his cloak hiding his face from view beneath the dim light of the oil lamps. Although Caden couldn’t make out any of his features save for a few strands of long, dark hair, his instincts warned him that the man was fixing him with an intense gaze. He was smoking a long pipe, nursing a tankard of ale between puffs, a haze of wispy smoke hanging over him like a cloud. If Caden had to guess, he was likely a fellow traveler, judging by the pack at his feet. There was a short sword in a scabbard hanging from his belt, but his attire was not that of a mercenary. His clothes were worn, not those of a vagrant, but certainly someone of modest means.

Caden suddenly realized that his knife was showing, its ornate handle glittering as it caught the light. He hastily covered it up with his cloak, chalking up the stranger’s interest to mere curiosity. The innkeeper handed him his key, and he mounted the stairs, emerging onto a carpeted landing. There were two dozen rooms, and it took him a moment to find his own, Caden careful to lock the door behind him after his mildly unnerving encounter with the hooded stranger.

Inside was a bed and a washbasin, nothing lavish, but more than enough to satisfy a weary traveler’s needs. After walking so far, being able to lie down on a soft mattress was a small taste of heaven, Caden quickly letting his fatigue overcome him as he drifted off to sleep.

***

Caden awoke feeling refreshed and ate a hearty breakfast before setting out again. The Master had been wise to give him as much money as he had, because the prices of food and board were rising as resources dwindled. By the time he was leaving the inn, he had spent eight gold crowns, which would have been considered extortionate just a couple of years ago. Famine was not yet upon the kingdom, but the threat was looming ever closer. Still, the feast of eggs and bacon almost seemed worth the price.

As he left the tavern behind him, making his way along another winding path, he noticed that he was not alone. There was a figure following him at a distance, keeping to the shadows of the trees that lined the road. It wasn’t until Caden reached the top of a hill and paused to take a nonchalant draw from his canteen that he took the opportunity to glance back at them, realizing with no small measure of concern that it was the hooded man from the night before. He reminded himself that there were only two routes to take from the tavern, and that another traveler setting out in what now passed for the morning was not anything to be worried about.

When he eventually came to a fork in the road, he paused to read the weatherbeaten signposts for a moment, then continued on his way. The stranger followed, his tattered cloak wrapped tightly around him. Another coincidence? Caden was starting to become nervous. The winding path led through a patch of dense forest, Caden waiting until a bend put the trees between him and his pursuer before slinking off the road, concealing himself between their gnarled trunks. As he peered out from the shadows, he began to feel rather foolish. Maybe he was just overreacting, and the man meant him no harm at all? He waited with bated breath as the stranger rounded the same corner, Caden’s heart starting to beat faster as he watched him pause, glancing from left to right beneath his cowl. His body language was confused, surprised, he was searching for his quarry.

Caden’s instincts had been right, he really was being followed, but to what end? Could this man somehow know about his quest? Could he be a sorcerer from a rival kingdom out to steal the artifact for themselves?

The hooded figure reached a gloved hand down to touch the hilt of his short sword, then crouched low to the ground, brushing the dusty earth with his fingers. With a start, Caden realized that he was searching for tracks. He considered moving deeper into the forest, he was only a hundred feet from the road, but the sound of the desiccated plant life crunching underfoot would certainly give him away.

His breath caught in his throat as the man found his footprints, the stranger’s hand resting on the leather-bound hilt of his blade as he began to make his way closer, Caden finding himself paralyzed by fear. Only the day before, he had imagined himself besting an experienced sellsword, but now, he couldn’t lift a finger. He was rooted to the spot, just like the trees that surrounded him. What should he do? Stay hidden, and hope for the best? Leap out and confront the man? His well of courage had run dry.

The snapping of twigs and the rustling of desiccated foliage alerted him that the stranger was drawing closer, Caden holding his breath as he pressed up with his back against the trunk of a tree.

Show yerself!” the man shouted, Caden almost jumping out of his skin. “I know you’re ‘ere, you little whelp. You can’t hide from the likes of me.”

Slowly, Caden emerged from behind his tree, gripping the shaft of his staff tightly in his trembling hands.

W-what do you want with me?” he demanded, his voice wavering. The man drew his sword, the sharp blade glinting in the sunlight that made it through the sparse canopy, Caden recoiling at the sight of it.

That fancy knife on yer hip,” he replied in a rasping voice, the beginnings of his angular face visible beneath his shadowy cowl. “Throw it on the ground. Yer coin purse, too. Drop it. Empty yer pack and turn out yer pockets.”

Caden was too afraid to move, the man brandishing the sword angrily.

Are ye hard of hearin’? Hand over all of yer possessions, or I’ll take yer life as well, savvy?”

Alright, alright!” Caden exclaimed. He began to reach for the knife, then hesitated. What was he doing? This was precisely what the Master had prepared him for, he couldn’t roll over and give up the moment a common brigand flashed a sword at him. A plan began to formulate in his mind, and he moved his hand to the coin purse. What was it the Master had said about the enchantment that lay upon it? Those who tried to steal it would find it far too heavy to lift...

Don’t try any funny stuff,” the thief warned, waving his blade.

Okay, just...don’t hurt me,” Caden pleaded as he unfastened its drawstring from his belt. He tossed the purse to the man with an underhanded throw, his hooded assailant faltering as he snatched it out of the air. He weighed it in his hand, a grin spreading across his face beneath the shadow of his hood.

What are ye, some rich merchant’s son? I saw ye throwin’ gold around back at the inn, but there must be a hundred crowns here. My luck must be turnin’.”

His smile faltered as his arm began to droop, the purse growing heavier as it sat in his palm. His momentary confusion turned to panic as it pulled him off-balance, his sword still tightly clutched in his right hand as the left was suddenly brought to the ground with an audible thud. A yell of alarm and pain echoed through the trees as it pinned him to the forest floor, dragging him to his knees, the brigand fighting to free himself from the ever-increasing burden.

M-my hand!” he wailed, the enchanted coin purse driving it deeper into the soil. It was as though an invisible anvil had been dropped on him. He finally managed to pull himself free, toppling over backwards onto the carpet of dead leaves, scrambling to his feet. His hood had fallen off, revealing a mop of long, dark hair that fell about his shoulders. His stubbly cheeks were gaunt, his piercing, green eyes full of fear as they stared out from beneath a furrowed brow.

He pointed the tip of his blade at Caden as the young sorcerer took a step forward, the man scooting away as he leaned down to pick up the purse. The brigand’s eyes widened in confusion as he lifted it effortlessly, stowing it in one of his pockets.

What the hell is that?” the stranger demanded, his injured hand shaking as he held it by his side. “What did you do?”

Caden was still terrified, adrenaline coursing through him, but he mustered the courage to brandish his staff.

Leave me be,” he replied, his tone a little more panicked than he had intended.

You little wretch,” the brigand snarled, his fear turning to anger. “Think you can play tricks on me!?”

He lunged, his sword flashing as he stepped in to drive it towards Caden’s belly with a violent thrust. Caden reacted reflexively, deflecting the blow with a quick swipe of his staff, wood clattering against steel. The brigand stumbled, but quickly overcame his surprise, raising his blade above his head with a frustrated growl. It whistled through the air as he brought it down, Caden blocking it with the haft of his stave. Rather than biting into the wood, the blade bounced off it as though it were as hard as stone.

Only now did Caden’s mind catch up, and he remembered his training, how the Master had taught him to amplify the power of his strikes. It was so difficult to concentrate in the heat of a fight, but he willed that energy to flow from his fingers, pouring it into the staff. His grip on it tightened as he swung it again, but this time, he felt it grow heavier. He could feel its mass shifting towards one end, as though a lead weight had been fastened to it. The blow connected with the thief’s wrist with a crack, sending the blade toppling from his hand, Caden following up with another swift strike to his ribs that sent him reeling.

I yield, I yield!” the brigand wailed as he scurried clear. He clutched his bruised ribs, his eyes wide. After making to retrieve his sword, he thought better of it, slowly backing off as Caden aimed the bronze falcon beak at him. How easy it would have been to set him aflame, or strike him with a bolt of lightning, but the confrontation was over. He willed himself to calm down, letting the impulse pass, breathing hard as he stared down his would-be assailant.

Off with you!” Caden shouted, jabbing his staff at the man. The thief turned tail, stumbling through the underbrush in his haste. When he reached the road, he headed back in the direction of the inn, quickly rounding the corner and vanishing from sight.

Caden took a few moments to catch his breath, composing himself as he lowered his staff. He had known that he would face challenges, but he hadn’t expected to be tested so soon, he was barely out of the city. Even so, he had prevailed, the Master’s training had paid off. As frightened as he had been, he now felt the warmth of pride filling his belly, a kind of elation overcoming him. For the first time since leaving the tower, he felt as though he might actually succeed in this endeavor.

He checked that he still had all of his belongings, walking past the discarded sword as he made for the road. After checking that the brigand had indeed fled, he continued on his way, feeling a little more sure of himself.

***

It had taken several long days of walking, but Caden had finally reached the border of the kingdom. The grassy fields and patches of woodland were now giving way to heath, the hills becoming rockier as they transitioned to more mountainous terrain. Boulders protruded from the hardy vegetation, covered in furry mosses and patches of lichen, surrounded by tough grasses and squat bushes. The violet of thistles and clusters of heather contrasted against the greens of the grass and the yellow flowers of the blooming shrubs, not one of them rising above three or four feet. What few trees persisted here were twisted bristlecones, their gnarled trunks bleached the color of bone by the sun. He would have assumed that they were long-dead, had it not been for a few clusters of green leaves clinging to their skeletal branches here and there. They fared well in harsh climes, and they seemed relatively unfazed by the drought compared to some of the yellowing plant life that surrounded them.

This was the last natural obstacle that stood between Caden and the desert. He set down his pack and retrieved the leather tube that held the map that his mentor had transcribed for him, rolled up inside its container like a scroll. He unfurled it, holding the parchment up as he compared it to what lay before him. There would be no more carefully signposted roads traveled by trade caravans and wandering merchants beyond this point, he was heading into the wilderness. His kingdom was one of the Easternmost on the continent, and most of the trade flowed in from the West.

After his encounter with the brigand, he was more confident in his ability to defend himself, but the thought of meeting a more organized band of outlaws or tribals worried him greatly. Not to mention the feral beasts that might be roaming these plains, starved and desperate enough to set upon a person.

Although the delineation between the wilderness and the kingdom that he had always known existed only as a line on a map, and there was no physical indication that he was about to leave it, he still felt a powerful swell of nostalgia. He turned to look back at the hills and forests, the city far beyond his sight now, then stepped over that imaginary boundary.

***

Caden paused to sit in the shadow of one of the gnarled trees, taking a long draw from his waterskin. He was doubly glad of the ability to refill it using magic, as there wasn’t a river or a spring in sight. This part of the world had been dry and harsh long before the endless summer.

Wincing, he began to remove one of his boots, finding that his sock was stained with blood. Blisters had been plaguing him ever since he had set out, and his feet were killing him. The furthest he ever walked under normal circumstances was to and from the library, his body was not built to hike across hundreds of miles of rough terrain.

Fortunately, he had a solution for that, too.

He pulled the spellbook from his pack and opened it in his lap, leafing through the pages until he reached the chapter on healing magic. The incantations were more complex, harder to master, but he wouldn’t be able to proceed much further if he didn’t deal with his injuries. His eyes scanned the text as he memorized the spells, relieved to be able to immerse himself in study once again. It was oddly comforting, and the scent of the library was still imbued in the old tome’s pages, reminding him of home.

When he was ready to give it a try, he took off his boots and socks, and was alarmed to see the extent of his wounds. Especially around the ankles and the balls of his feet, the skin almost seemed to be peeling away, leaving them red and raw. He stopped to pour some water over them briefly, washing away the sweat and dirt, the cool liquid soothing him.

Alright,” he muttered to himself, “let’s see if this works...”

He reached over and gripped his staff, which had been leaning up against the tree, remaining seated due to his soreness as he began to chant under his breath. Healing was a more difficult task than conjuring fire or water. Not only were the incantations themselves longer and more complex, but the knowledge required to truly understand what one’s magic was acting upon was far greater. Caden was no apothecary, and so the workings of the human body were somewhat of a mystery to him beyond what he had read in passing. The spellbook contained the necessary reference material, he just had to hope that it would be enough.

The staff began to pulse with magic as he imbued it with his will, his lips moving ceaselessly as he whispered the incantations under his breath, his eyes slowly closing. The energy that he relinquished was returned to him amplified, he could feel it coursing through his body, its power growing within him. Once again, he saw those silver strands with a sense that transcended sight, joining his body to the staff as though they were being sewn together by ethereal threads. Like the string of a harp being plucked, they seemed to vibrate in harmony, a sensation that he could only compare to being moved by a beautiful orchestra overwhelming him.

Healing magic was different from that which manipulated the elements. One could create a static charge to form a bolt of lightning or ignite the air to conjure flame, but the way that one’s body repaired itself was quite different. If that natural process was to be accelerated and enhanced, then the nutrients and energies required had to come from some external source. In this case, it was the nature that surrounded him.

More of the silver filaments began to rise from the grass at his feet, the nearby shrubs wilting, the petals of their flowers falling to the dusty ground as he drew upon their vital energy. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was stealing from them, but his cause was a noble one. If he did not succeed in his task, then there might be no bushes or flowers ever again...

As the nearby plant life shriveled, he sensed those weaving streams of magic coalesce in his feet, gravitating towards his injuries. His staff still tightly clutched in his trembling hands, he watched as the torn flesh began to knit, fresh skin growing over the sores before his very eyes. Healing that would have taken days or weeks under normal circumstances took place in mere seconds, a feeling of wellness driving away the pain and discomfort that had been plaguing him for the last few miles.

This spell took more out of him than the previous ones had, and he leaned against the trunk of the twisted tree for a few minutes while he rested, wiggling his toes as he marveled at the miraculous recovery. He was but a novice, but he found himself wondering to what extent wounds could be repaired in this manner. Blisters were one thing, but what about a broken leg? What of a sword wound, or a severed arm? It was a shame that the Master was so far away, or Caden would have asked him whether sorcerers had served as healers in the wars that he so often described. In any case, there was still much for him to learn. His journey towards mastering magic was still in its first faltering steps.

He pulled a fresh pair of socks from his pack, then put his boots back on, rising to his feet. Feeling refreshed, he hoisted his rucksack onto his back, using his staff as a walking stick as he continued on his journey.

***

Another night was finally falling, granting some brief reprieve from the heat, the unfamiliar stars lighting up the dark sky. This far from civilization, there was no shelter, certainly no cushy taverns with soft beds waiting for weary travelers. At least the consistent weather made camping more tolerable. There was no chance of a sudden downpour catching him off-guard, or a frigid wind uprooting his tent.

After searching around for a suitable place to make camp, Caden found a pile of boulders that formed a sort of protective ring that should provide some cover, and he set his pack down between them. He unfurled a straw-filled bedroll and laid it on the dry grass, then set off to find some firewood. It was plentiful thanks to the bristlecones. Many of the dead trees had shed sticks and branches, the lack of moisture drying them out to create the perfect kindling. Caden arranged a few stones in a circle, and stacked the wood inside it, using his staff to conjure a licking flame that quickly took hold. Before long, he had a crackling campfire going. It wasn’t that he needed its warmth, the nights were scarcely cooler than the days, but some cooked food would raise his spirits.

He had departed the Master’s tower with enough salted pork and stale bread to see him through a good few days, but he had stocked up on some more appetizing rations before leaving the inn. He reached into his pack and produced a small, portable cooking pot that he balanced on top of the burning embers, filling it from his waterskin. There was no reason to be conservative, there was plenty more where that came from. As the water began to boil, he withdrew some strips of dried and salted mutton from his pack, dropping them into the bubbling pot. He seasoned them with a few conservative pinches of salt and pepper from the glass vials of spices that he had brought along, stirring as he waited patiently for the meat to boil.

When the time was right, he withdrew a small, paper parcel that was tied up with a piece of hairy string. Within it were firm, leathery strips that almost resembled flakes of tree sap, but were actually pieces of dried gelatin made from beef broth. It was a kind of portable soup that, when placed in water, would rapidly regain its consistency and flavor. It kept for months and took up very little space. He placed three or four of the flakes in the pot, watching them dissolve, stirring the concoction with a ladle. The final ingredient was some pieces of stale bread, Caden tearing off some chunks and tossing them into the soup to thicken it.

Cooking was not too far removed from alchemy, and he had grown rather proficient ever since he had been sent to live in the city. The Master was often too busy to deal with household chores, and so cooking had become one of his responsibilities, and he had accrued a lot of experience over the years.

As he stirred his pot over the open flame, he heard the far-off howl of a wolf, the sound penetrating him to the core. He reached for his staff, reassuring himself that it was nearby, then returned to his cooking as he glanced around warily. They could be miles away, the sound would carry a great distance over this open terrain. There was probably nothing to fear. Even so, he doubted that he would sleep soundly now…

The soup turned out great. Caden had developed a healthy appetite after a day of walking, and he wolfed it down in only a few minutes, using more bread to soak up the broth. When he was finished, he lay down on his bedroll, the fading embers of his campfire casting his surroundings in their orange glow. There was no need for a blanket, he just balled up his cloak and used it as a pillow, gazing up at the scrambled constellations above. What could have happened to make them so askew? Why had they drifted so far from their usual positions?

He had read many books on astronomy, it was a subject that had always interested him greatly. It was known that the world stood at the center of the Universe and that the heavenly bodies such as the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets orbited around it. One could plot their trajectories with a telescope, calculate their motions with great reliability. Their orbits were once thought to be flawless, untouchable, like the endless ticking of an intricate clockwork timepiece. When one gazed at the night sky, they saw perfection, as pristine as the moment of its creation.

But that could not be true, something had gone awry. Had the world somehow shifted on its foundations, or were the heavens themselves broken? How could the artifact that the Master had sent him to find possibly correct that?

His mind continued to wander as he drifted off to sleep, but he was soon awoken by the sound of another howling wolf. This one was closer, jolting him awake, Caden reaching for his staff groggily as he sat up on his bedroll. The lichen-covered boulders that surrounded him were still lit by the fading glow of his campfire, its dim light casting deep shadows, his vision slowly adjusting to the gloom.

A pair of eyes appeared between two of the rocks, seeming to glow like burning coals as they reflected the firelight. A long, furrowed snout slowly emerged from the shadows, its jowls pulled back to expose rows of sharp fangs as it loosed a rumbling growl that shook Caden to the bone. It was a wolf. Despite its considerable size, it was gaunt, its bones clearly visible as they moved beneath its coat of matted, grey fur. There was almost no fat on the thing, it must be starving, which made it all the more dangerous. Wolves usually avoided people, they wouldn’t attack like this unless they were truly desperate.

Caden’s attention was drawn to his left, where another of the creatures lurked in the darkness, its pointed ears flattening against its skull as it snarled. It fixed him with its intense stare, unwavering, unblinking. A primal terror that bordered on blind panic overtook Caden as he realized that a whole pack was surrounding him. He could heart their growling, he could see more of them emerging from the gloom to peer at him, stalking between the boulders and climbing over the rocks.

He lifted his staff, moving as slowly as he could manage, struggling to suppress the fear that was turning his legs to jelly. He was moments away from being torn apart by ravenous beasts, his gaze lingering on their pearly teeth, strands of drool hanging from their maws as they anticipated their next meal. Magic could not be practiced with a clouded mind, he had to clear his head, as impossible as that seemed. It was his only hope of avoiding a grisly fate.

One of the wolves snapped its jaws at him as he rose to his feet, the growling intensifying, coming from all directions. His addled mind raced as he tried to formulate a plan. If he could conjure fire, then he could scare the wolves away. His terror made it doubly difficult, but he tried to focus on the incantation, his lips moving silently as he gripped the shaft of his staff with white knuckles. His roiling emotions were interfering with the spell, he could sense it, his lack of concentration making the flow of energy erratic. The glittering strands of quicksilver were fluctuating, what should have been a calm stream now a churning rapid. Caden aimed the bronze beak at the wolf directly ahead of him, the beast now close enough that he could have jabbed it on the nose, its rancid breath lingering on the air as it panted.

A shower of sparks shot from the tip of the staff, like a smith’s hammer striking a hot iron, the wolf recoiling in alarm. It did not flee, however, those piercing eyes staring him down as it began to creep forward again. The rest of the pack were slowly closing in, waiting for the signal that would spur them into action.

Caden cursed under his breath, cold sweat pouring down his face. Was that all he could muster? Under normal circumstances, he had no difficulty producing a ball of burning flame, but terror held him captive in its paralyzing grip. He had but a scant few seconds before they struck...

He closed his eyes, exhaling slowly, willing his trembling hands to be still. Driving the wolves from his mind, he concentrated on those beautiful, shining strands of magical energy. They looked like liquid starlight, like sterling silver that had been smelted down, flowing in winding channels like a forest stream. Their otherworldly beauty calmed him, the adrenaline that flowed through his veins giving way to something more powerful, the crackling energies seeming to leap from his fingers to his staff like arcs of electricity. Fear gave way to a kind of exhilaration, courage warming his belly, making him feel like he could move the very mountains themselves if he so desired. It was intoxicating, invigorating.

As he opened his eyes, bellowing the final verse of the incantation, a jet of white-hot fire belched from the end of his staff. It was so bright that it lit up the surrounding boulders and shrubs like the rays of the rising sun, the hissing flames spitting bright sparks. He could feel its heat on his face, igniting the air around it, so intense that it could have melted steel.

The pack recoiled in confusion and alarm, yelps of surprise echoing across the heath, the blinding light forcing them to turn their heads away from it. Caden loosed a wordless yell, lunging at the nearest wolf. He didn’t make contact with it, but he didn’t need to, the smell of singed fur reaching his nose as the creature loosed a wail of pain. It scrambled to escape, scurrying between the boulders, Caden spinning his staff in a wide circle to ward off its companions.

He couldn’t see anything other than the blinding flames, but he could hear their dull claws scrabbling on the rocks as they turned tail, their cries of alarm rising above the roar. When the fire abated, he found himself alone once again, the bright afterimage fading as his eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. He began to laugh, the sound surprising him, a blend of triumph and relief overcoming him.

Caden sat down on his bedroll, still shaky, but less from fear now. As he lay back, he doubted that he was going to sleep much after all the commotion, but the distant baying of the wolves was no longer a concern to him.

***

It took almost fifteen days to reach his destination on foot, Caden stopping only to eat, sleep, and to heal his blistered feet. The heath became more arid and rocky as he went, the dusty earth giving way to sand, greenery becoming even less common. The twisted bristlecone trees were replaced with large cacti that bloomed with purple flowers, tall enough to tower over a man, growing in strange clusters. They were not the only variety. Everywhere he looked, he found a cactus with a radically different shape. Some were spherical and squat, while others grew like small trees with fleshy pads that branched off from a central trunk, covered in wicked needles. Still more sprouted in little clusters that almost resembled soap bubbles, each one sporting a colorful flower at its peak. Some were so covered in spines that they took on the appearance of fur. There were no more grasses or leafy shrubs. In their place were plants more adapted to the dry climate. The pointed leaves of agaves and aloes jutted in all directions, succulents sporting paddle-shaped leaves, desert sage adding more splashes of color as it protruded between the rocks. It was so far removed from the environment that he was accustomed to, but it had an undeniable exotic beauty about it.

For the first time in days, he came across signs of civilization in the distance. It looked like a trading post, its architecture far removed from the timber and plaster that he was used to. The structure was made from blocks of stone that had been overlaid with mortar that matched the tone of the desert around it, wooden supports protruding from it at intervals. There was no gabled roof, nor was there any thatching or tiles. This far East, there was scarcely any rainfall, and the people who lived in these parts might never have seen snow in their lives. It was tiered, two storeys tall, with more wooden beams jutting from the facade where the floor would be. The roof was simply flat, as it had no other purpose than to provide shade for the occupants. The windows were small and thin, covered up by wooden shutters, and there was a stone staircase leading up to the second level.

As he made his way closer, he could also make out hitching posts for horses that were in the shade of a large, fabric awning. There were a couple of them standing in the shade, drinking noisily from a water trough as they batted at clouds of swarming flies with their tails. There was a well nearby, too, where the occupants presumably drew their water. It could be the only source for miles, it was no wonder that the owners had set up their business in such a seemingly random location. Outside were signs hanging from chains, offering trade and supplies in several languages, including his own. It seemed that they welcomed visitors.

Caden walked up to the front door and pushed it open, emerging into a large room. It was cooler than the desert outside, and pleasantly gloomy. The only light bled in through the gaps in the shutters, providing just enough illumination to see by. The interior was much the same as the exterior, the walls packed with mortar, exposed structural beams visible above his head. At the far end of the room was a large counter, and behind it were shelves stacked high with all manner of food and supplies. He could see dusty crates, racks of weapons and what must be mining tools, along with parcels of non-perishable food. Beans, jerked meat, dried fruit, hard biscuits. His supplies had started to run low over the last few days, and he had been rationing, the sight of such a wealth of food making his stomach growl.

The trading post was far from deserted. There were a few tables and chairs scattered about the stone floor, some of them occupied by merchants from distant lands sporting capes and shawls. Caden was surprised to see a party of Dweorh crowded around one of the circular tables, nursing oversized mugs of ale. They were squatter than the average man at maybe four feet and change, but they were a robust, broad-shouldered people. Their arms were heavily muscled, each one of them sporting the physique of a circus strongman, their faces adorned with bushy beards in spite of the heat. The hairs were carefully braided, decorated with shiny beads and precious stones, clearly a source of great pride for their wearers. Their clothing was just as elaborate, their tunics decorated with geometric patterns woven from golden threads, the fabric dyed shades of vermilion and magenta. Their thick, hairy fingers were adorned with golden rings, each one of them wearing some kind of pendant or necklace.

It wasn’t the first time that Caden had come across their kind, they sometimes traveled to the city to barter, and the Master had dealt with Dweorh merchants who traded in rare artifacts. They were a civilized race, known for the quality of their metalwork and their shrewdness when it came to business. They were said to live beneath the earth in vast, underground vaults where they mined ores and jewels. What business could they have out in the desert?

He was greeted by a man who was standing behind the counter, his skin a darker tone than the people of Caden’s homeland. Around his head and shoulders was wrapped a long, colorful scarf, presumably to shield him from the sun. His clothing was made up of a linen tunic, not unlike the ones that had come into fashion back in the kingdom. The material was light and breezy, perfect for this sweltering weather.

Welcome, traveler,” he said with a rolling accent. “Come, come.”

It’s nice to see a friendly face,” Caden replied, walking up to the counter and shedding his pack. “I’ve been traveling the wilderness for weeks.”

You want food, supplies?” the man asked eagerly. “We have everything you could need.”

Caden began to point to items on the shelves, the shopkeeper making conversation as he placed them on the counter one by one.

So, you’re a Westerner?” he asked as he set a parcel of dried dates down in front of Caden. “We don’t see many of your kind in these parts, they rarely venture so far East. What’s your business, if I might ask?”

Certainly,” Caden replied. “I’m...a botanist, my guild sent me here to conduct research on desert plants.”

Is that so?” the man replied as he placed a bundle of salted pork on the counter, looking him up and down. “Then, you’re a scholar? Where are you headed next?”

Further East, my destination is the Coral Sea.”

The Coral Sea?” the shopkeeper repeated, his brow furrowing beneath his colorful headscarf. “Take my advice, sir, and travel no further than this outpost. The only thing that awaits you in the Coral Sea is death...”

Death?” Caden asked skeptically. “Why do you say that?”

Our well is the last sure source of drinking water until you reach the other side,” he replied, “and you won’t. There are oases, but there are no maps of that place, no cartographer has ever lasted long enough to make one.”

Why wouldn’t I survive?” Caden asked. “I have ample supplies, and I’ve made it this far. What makes the Coral Sea so different from the desert that lies behind me?”

There are worse fates than dehydration that await you in the Coral Sea,” he replied ominously, tying up a parcel with a piece of hairy string. “If the land doesn’t kill you, its inhabitants will. There are tribes of monsters living amongst the ancient reefs and crumbling spires who will murder any trespassers they come across.”

Murder them? Why?”

Who can say?” the man replied with a shrug. “Maybe they eat them. Maybe they capture them for use in their shamanistic rituals. Whatever their motive, it’s not worth risking your life over some flowers.”

I appreciate the advice,” Caden said, the shopkeeper dropping the subject when he realized that he had no intention of following it.

When Caden was stocked up with supplies, he added a tankard of ale to his bill and made his way over to the table beside the Dweorh. If they were so far East, it was likely because they were prospecting, maybe even operating a mine in the mineral-rich desert. If anyone knew anything about the ruined city, it would be them. The allure of rare artifacts and ancient tombs would be irresistible.

He had only taken a few sips of his drink by the time one of the Dweorh leaned over and cleared his throat.

Pardon me,” he began, his voice far deeper than seemed fitting for someone of his stature. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the shopkeep. Is it true that you’re headed into the Coral Sea?”

That’s my intention, sir,” Caden replied as he took another draw from his cup.

Then you’re braver than you look,” he added, his companions chuckling. “I’d heed the warnings if I were you, lad.”

May I ask what you’re doing all the way out here?” Caden asked. “It was my understanding that the Dweorh people were mountain folk.” “Aye, that we are,” the man replied. He lifted his tankard to his lips, spilling some of its contents down his bushy beard as he took a greedy draw. He slammed it back on the table, suppressing a belch before continuing. “We’re surveyors representing a mining concern, we’ve come in search of riches. This desert is full of mineral deposits that nobody has been able to exploit until now.”

Don’t you go giving away all of our secrets, Alberich,” one of his companions warned as he nudged him with his elbow.

It’s quite alright,” Caden said, “my business here is purely academic. Speaking of which, has your prospecting taken you very far into the Coral Sea?”

Aye, once,” the one called Alberich replied. He turned back to his drink, taking another noisy swig. “We know better than to set foot beyond this trading post now.” He gestured to one of his friends, who pulled back a mop of tangled hair to show Caden an ugly scar that trailed from his forehead to his cheek. It was recent, disfiguring, but the flesh had knitted well enough. He might have offered to heal him under different circumstances, but he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to do much to help.

Monsters?” he asked, grimacing at the sight.

We lost two members of our company,” Alberich replied, staring into his cup for a moment. “They attacked while we slept. The sun was still up, always is these days, and Osgar was on watch. They moved so fast that by the time the sound of his cries roused us, he was already dead. Ludek took up his sword and tried to fight them off, but they fell upon him like a pack of wild dogs. Heimrad here hit one of them with his pickaxe, the brave old sod, but he got a blade to the face for his trouble.”

How did you escape?” Caden asked, both horrified and captivated by the tale.

We were carrying black powder charges,” he explained, “we use them in our mining operations. Before stopping to rest, we had rigged them to destroy one of the spires, hoping that it would expose a vein of ore. Robrecht detonated them. The noise and subsequent collapse created enough of a diversion that we were able to flee Westward. We won’t go back, not even to recover the bodies.”

What are these spires you speak of?” Caden asked.

There are stone pillars all over the Coral Sea,” Alberich explained. “They must have formed when everything was still underwater, because none of us have ever seen structures like those anywhere else. They’re made from minerals that were deposited over time, we think, they’re too irregular to have been carved by masons.”

I think they’re volcanic,” another of the Dweorh added, “like miniature volcanoes.”

These monsters,” Caden added, “did you get a good look at them? What are they like?”

They were tall,” Alberich began, quickly realizing that the term had a different meaning to Caden. “Taller than your folk, maybe seven feet. They had the shape of a man, more or less, but in place of skin, they had the scales of a serpent. Hard as chain mail it was, tough like leather. Their faces were like nothing I’ve ever beheld. They had snouts like lizards, and their mouths were full of razor-sharp fangs. They fought with the ferocity of a wild animal. We were attacked with spears and axes, so they have sense enough to make tools, at least.”

Not from iron or steel,” another added, “they were fashioned from stone.”

Aye,” Alberich replied with a nod. “Flint, or maybe obsidian. We didn’t linger long enough to find out the details. They didn’t wear much in the way of clothing, either. Savages never do.”

Their description filled Caden with dread, but as tough as these Dweorh were, they weren’t sorcerers. Still, could he really face off against monsters that had sent a party of half a dozen armed men packing? What’s more, they were said to practice magic themselves. Both the Master and the shopkeeper had mentioned their shamanistic rites. As primitive as they must be, what powers did such rituals bestow upon their practitioners? Was it anything like the magic that he knew?

When did all of this happen?” Caden asked. “Maybe two weeks ago,” he replied. “If you’re wondering whether they might have moved on by now, I wouldn’t put money on it.”

During my travels, I heard rumors of ancient ruins that lay beyond the Coral Sea,” Caden said as he leaned closer to his neighbors. “A long-abandoned city that lies on its far shore. Those who built it have no name, but scant records of its existence remain. Is this something that is known to the Dweorh?”

Alberich exchanged glances with his companions, reaching up to stroke his braided beard as he considered.

We’ve heard rumors,” he replied, lowering his voice. “Some speak of a grand city that was lost to the desert eons ago, of long-abandoned vaults packed to the ceiling with riches, just waiting to be claimed. That is, if you can reach it. I don’t pay it much mind, myself. I’ve heard such talk before. Lost cities of gold, uncharted islands where pirate lords buried their ill-gotten gains, hidden tombs where mummified kings still preside over their worldly possessions. It always ends up being nonsense.” He took another long drink from his cup, pausing to wipe the foam from his mouth. “Me, I prefer to dig my riches out of the ground. It’s far more reliable.”

Say, you look like the scholarly type,” another of the Dweorh interjected. “Any idea when this summer might come to an end?”

Hopefully soon,” Caden replied, relieved to be able to take his mind off the monsters for a moment. “I have it on good authority that the guild of sorcerers is working on a solution. The problem has something to do with a misalignment of the heavenly bodies, so I heard.”

How are they able to correct something of that magnitude?” the Dweorh asked. “It’s not as though they can reach up and put everything back into its proper place...can they?”

They’re sorcerers,” the one with the scar replied, “they spend all of their time cooped in their towers staring at the sky. If anyone can work it out, it’s them.”

Caden wanted to tell them more, but the Master had warned him of spreading word of his mission. He couldn’t let them know of his true purpose here, or of the treasure that the ruined city held.

How are your people faring?” he asked, changing the subject.

We build our cities deep beneath the mountains,” Alberich explained. “It’s always cooler underground than above, you’d be shocked by how cold a cave can get just a few feet below the surface. The heat is no concern of ours, but the crops have been unreliable. I fear that the grain stores will start to run low.”

They talked for a while longer until Caden had finished his drink, then he lifted his pack, bidding the Dweorh farewell as he headed for the door.

Do you still intend to enter the Coral Sea?” Alberich called after him, Caden nodding in reply. “Won’t you even take a sword with you?”

What difference would that make?” the scarred Dweorh scoffed, taking another draw from his tankard.

CHAPTER 3: CORAL SEA

Caden stood at the edge of the Coral Sea, what had once been a sloping shore giving way to a vast expanse of desert that resembled a canyon. It extended as far as the eye could see. The far side must be over the horizon, whatever it looked like. He unfurled his map and checked it, making sure that he was indeed where he was supposed to be.

From this vantage point, he could make out the spires that the Dweorh had described. They looked like chimneys of stone, their surfaces covered in what resembled colorful moss, but was actually discoloration in the minerals. They were uneven, bulbous, no two of them exactly alike. They sprouted from the ground in clusters, many of them seeming to emerge from the same formation of rock. They were far higher than he had imagined, some of them looked to be skirting a hundred feet. Many had collapsed under their own weight, but there were plenty still standing tall.

Surrounding them was the coral that gave this place its name. It was so abundant that the Coral Sea could scarcely be referred to as a desert, the ancient growths creating massive shelves where they had built atop one another over eons, like a petrified botanical garden. They took on such varied shapes. Some bore a close resemblance to fungi, like giant mushrooms that sprouted from the rock, while others were more plant-like in their appearance. There were even corals that had taken on an uncanny resemblance to trees, rising from the ground on stout trunks, branch-like formations creating a sort of table that cast shadows on the land beneath then. Unfortunately, the vibrant colors that they must have sported in life were long gone, time having made them as lifeless as the stone that surrounded them.

Between the clusters of spires and outcrops of coral, paths formed in what had once been the seabed, filled in with sand that bore a striking rust-red color. Caden began to descend the sandy incline, dropping down into the maze of spires and reefs. It would be easy to get turned around in here, and although he might have an infinite supply of water, the same was not true of his food. He would have to make sure his path remained straight.

His heart began to race as he walked between the towers, the jagged formations casting deep shadows in the harsh sunlight. He was glad of the shade, but his mind played tricks on him, insisting that monsters could be lurking wherever the darkness pooled. The story told by the Dweorh had rattled him, but he couldn’t turn back now, he had no choice but to press on.

He marveled at the strange structures as he made his way along the path that had been carved out by the sand, like a red river that snaked between the rock formations. A sudden movement caught his eye, startling him, but he quickly realized that it was just a snake. The creature had been basking on the hot stone beside a cluster of bulb-shaped corals, its orange scales patterned with black diamonds that ran down its long spine. When it saw him, it darted into the corals, winding its way into the holes in their sponge-like surfaces. There must be all kinds of wildlife down here that had made their homes in the rocks.

Caden proceeded ever deeper, craning his neck to admire the tall towers that surrounded him. The colors that stained their uneven surfaces were quite beautiful, streaks of greens, reds, and oranges discoloring the mottled stone. As he rounded a corner, he faltered, coming across a grisly sight. There was a relatively flat outcrop of rock, creating a sheer wall directly ahead of him, its surface stained with some kind of red pigment. It was clearly man-made, or at least, made by something with intelligence approaching that of men. It had been painted over with some kind of white, chalky substance, crude figures and strange runes adorning it. The figures stood upright, with two arms and two legs, but their features were decidedly bestial. Although they lacked any real detail, little more than stick figures, he could make out their winding tails and their elongated faces. In their hands were clutched spears and axes, and at their feet lay the bodies of what were obviously supposed to represent people, broken and dismembered.

That wasn’t what turned Caden’s stomach, however. Arranged in a neat row at its base were five spears that had been driven deep into the sand, and at the tip of each one was a head in varying stages of decomposition. The oldest was little more than sun-bleached bone, its lower jaw missing, the tip of an obsidian spearhead jutting from a crack in its crown. The others were covered in desiccated flesh, their sunken eye sockets empty, jaws that were only connected by rotted strands of muscle and sinew hanging agape as though they were screaming silently. Clouds of insects buzzed around them, crawling across their flaking skin, and inside their…

Caden turned away, covering his mouth with his hand as he gagged. The warning was obvious enough. These creatures did not want anyone trespassing in their domain, and the fate of those who ignored the gruesome display was death. Had the party of Dweorh prospectors come across such warnings and ignored them?

He looked back at the shore, doubt overwhelming him. He should be sitting in the tower library with his nose buried in a book right now, he had no business being out here, no business fighting off wolves and savages. What had the Master been thinking, assigning him this task? Even a company of the King’s most seasoned knights would be hard-pressed to make it through this unscathed. A monster could be lurking behind every rock, waiting for the right moment to chop off his head and impale it on a pike as a warning to others.

This is folly,” Caden muttered to himself. He turned his back on the severed heads, trudging his way through the sand, following his own footprints as he returned the way he had come. It was a struggle to suppress the urge to run, his imagination conjuring monsters on his heels. The Master would have to find another candidate to make the perilous journey, as he should have done from the beginning. He hadn’t known the extent of the danger, he needed to employ a company of sellswords, or maybe petition the King for an entourage of guards. A single traveler would never make it through this place alive. So what if time was running out? If Caden went home, or if he died, the outcome would be the same. He would still fail to retrieve the artifact. Even if it meant that he had come all of this way for nothing, he would at least return home with his life.

He eventually reached the shore, starting to climb his way back up the incline, digging his staff into the ground for purchase. With every step, his boots seem to grow heavier, a new tension rising up inside of him as he neared the top. It wasn’t fear, it was shame…

Caden stopped again, bowing his head as he leaned his weight on his staff, the sweat that dripped from his brow sizzling as it hit the hot sand. He collected himself, catching his breath, glancing over his shoulder at the expanse of eerie towers.

There was nobody else. That was the only reason he was out here to begin with. Either he completed this task, or the world would die, along with all of its inhabitants. The green hills and forests of his homeland would look just like this place, the dead trees surrounded by sand dunes, the merciless sun beating down on a lifeless hellscape. Going back was just as much a death sentence as going forward.

Cursing under his breath, he began to slide back down the slope, resolving to see his quest through to its end.

***

Caden walked until the sun began to set, then took shelter beneath the shade of one of the large table corals, its branches spreading above his head like those of a strange tree. If it had endured this long, he surmised, then there was little chance of it suddenly collapsing on his head.

He hadn’t come across any more of the gruesome warnings since the one that he had encountered at the shore. The monsters probably placed them near its border to dissuade trespassers, there would be no reason for more grisly displays deeper inside.

So far, he had come across no lizards in the shape of men, merely a few small reptiles that had been basking in the sun, quickly dashing into cover when he had disturbed them. This place was not completely devoid of plant life. There were cacti and succulents that sprouted amongst the petrified corals, creating an odd contrast between ancient and modern, land and sea. They were scarce, however, clinging to what patches of soil they could find. An ecosystem existed here, albeit a desperate one.

The food that he had bought at the trading post provided no small measure of comfort, Caden enjoying some salted pork as he took in the alien landscape that surrounded him. As he ate, he heard what sounded like loose stones rolling down a rock face, echoing between the spires. He reached out to grip his staff, pausing his chewing so that he could hear more clearly. After a good few moments, he set it back down, glancing around suspiciously as he continued his meal. There were animals out here, it could have been a snake or a rat, but he wasn’t about to let his guard down after seeing those decapitated travelers.

When he was done eating, he set down his bedroll on the rock beneath the coral, keeping his staff close by as he lay down. He felt so exposed, but without a campfire, he could hopefully avoid drawing attention to himself. If the savage inhabitants of this place randomly stumbled upon him while he slept, then he could only conclude that the Gods wanted him dead, there wasn’t anything to be done about it.

Come to think of it…

Caden sat up, pulling the heavy, leather-bound spellbook from his pack. He searched the index, glad that the setting sun was still providing enough light to read by, locating a likely page. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? Had his mind been so clouded by fear?

There, a concealment spell. He read through the incantation, poring over the instructions as his eyes scanned the looping text. This spell could bend light around the sorcerer or an object in his possession, making him functionally invisible to onlookers, and it seemed to block the transmission of sound as well. The only way to discover him would be physical contact.

It wasn’t an especially complex spell, and before long, there was a small pocket of invisibility shrouding his hiding place. Wanting to see how effective it was, he rose to his feet, stepping off the rock and onto the warm sand. After a few paces, he turned to see that his campsite had vanished. He should have been able to see his bedroll lying on the rock beneath the shadow of the towering table corral, his pack and staff sitting beside it, but the rock was bare. There was a slight shimmering in the air if he looked closely, but it would be unnoticeable to someone who wasn’t looking for it. He reached out a hand and pushed it through the bubble, watching it vanish up to the wrist, strange reflections glittering like the shards of a broken mirror around the breach.

Satisfied that he could sleep in relative safety, he stepped back inside, his possessions reappearing. Pleased with himself, he lay down on the bed, draping his cloak over his eyes to shield them from the sunset.

***

Caden was roused by the sound of something large shuffling around nearby. He opened his eyes groggily, his vision slowly adapting to the darkness. It was night, the stars twinkling above the splayed branches of the table coral, the crescent Moon providing just enough light to see by. He turned his head, and had to cover his mouth to stifle a gasp of alarm.

Lurking at the foot of the rock, not ten feet away from him, were two figures. They were hunched over, appearing to examine the red sand. Their features were hard to make out in the twilight, but he could be certain that they were not human. Their long, winding bodies were coated in a layer of fine scales that reflected the moonlight, like the tiny tiles in a mosaic. They were patterned with blotches of orange, black, and yellow that camouflaged them against the desert backdrop. Long tails trailed behind them, as though giant serpents had joined to their bodies at the rump, as thick around as a human thigh at their base.

One of the beasts lifted its head, perched atop a long, slender neck. The sight reminded Caden of a cobra rearing up as it prepared to strike, filling him with primal dread. There was something leathery wrapped around its throat, clinging to its contours, but he couldn’t make out what it was. Some manner of protective collar, maybe?

As its face caught the moonlight, he saw that it was elongated, ending in a dull, rounded snout. Its eyes were set wider apart than those of a man, their color that of amber, its slitted pupils scanning its surroundings with a palpable malice. It had no ears that he could see, its lips made up of tiny scales instead of flesh, a forked tongue the color of blueberries flicking past them to taste the air.

The reptile rose up to its full height, Caden examining its seven-foot frame in silent terror. Its long legs had two joints, more like those of a dog or a horse than a person, the thighs and calves packed with muscles that shifted beneath its smooth hide as it moved. The toes were long and uneven, splayed wide across the sand, each one ending in a claw. Its midsection was lean and muscular, proportionally slimmer than that of a human, its shoulders comparatively narrow. The creature had arms that were longer than those of a man, its four fingered-hands sporting blunt claws. It was brandishing a spear, the same as those that been used to impale the severed heads, the obsidian tip glinting in the starlight.

They wore little in the way of clothing, this one’s modesty preserved only by a loincloth that had been dyed to approximate the tone of its scales. He noted that there were no nipples on its chest, no navel on its belly, its scaly body completely devoid of hair. There were elaborate patterns painted onto its skin with some kind of colorful paste, adorning its torso and face in shades of red, blue, and white.

It spoke to its companion in a language that sounded like the hissing of a viper, the other creature brushing its fingers across the sand. With a start, he realized that they were investigating the footprints that he had left the night before. The tracks had led them straight to him! If it hadn’t been for the invisibility spell that he had cast, he would probably be missing a head by now.

The second creature stood up, its tongue flicking at the air as it looked right at his hiding place. Oh Gods, could it smell him? It seemed confused, narrowing its eyes, even their lids covered in scales.

This one was much like the first, if not a little taller, its figure just as lean and athletic. Its stout thighs were dimpled with muscle, its wide hips tapering into a powerful core, so toned that he could see the chiseled muscles in its belly flexing as it moved. Its hourglass waist and the pair of breasts that were obviously contained within the sling across its chest suggested that it was a female. Their tribal body paint was different, too. This one sported pigment in a striking shade of red that circled its eyes, trailing down its cheeks like tears.

The two appeared to argue, alarming Caden with their hissing and snapping. The female suddenly lunged at the male, that leathery structure that he had noticed around their necks flaring, opening up like a parasol to frame her head. It flushed with blood to take on a crimson hue, revealing a pair of intimidating eyespots. The male recoiled, seeming to give in, following behind her meekly as she stalked off into the spires.

Caden realized that he was holding his breath, slowly lowering his hand from his mouth, his eyes as wide as saucers. Monster was an apt name, they were like nothing he had ever seen. They had the features of a lizard or a snake, yet they retained an uncanny resemblance to mankind that had taken him off-guard.

Again, the desire to flee reared its head, but he forced it back down again. They hadn’t been able to find him, he could rely upon his magic to see him through this. He must be meticulous, always on his guard, because a single mistake could cost him his life.

Did they only hunt at night? No, Alberich had said that the sun was still up when he and his party had been attacked. There must be a way to get through his…

He sat up, scratching his chin as he mulled over his options. The invisibility spell could not be cast fast enough to shield him from a pursuer, and it was a purely stationary affair. Could he stay on the rocks, avoiding the sand altogether? No, many of them were too far apart. He might be able to blow away his footprints by conjuring wind, but it wasn’t practical to do that for every step that he took, it was far too time-consuming.

There must be more spells that could give him the upper hand, he would have to do some research when the sun rose.

***

Armed with a new repertoire of spells, Caden made his way through the sand, following the weaving path as it led him between the spires. He knew that he would be found. Confrontation was inevitable, these beasts probably spent their every waking hour hunting and tracking, but he had to trust in his magic. Misdirection, illusion, those were his best options now. Caden’s affinity for study and academia had allowed him to memorize a handful of the spells, meaning that he could cast them without having to reference the book, which would save precious time.

Before setting out, he had cast a spell that allowed him to sense the presence of living beings so that he might be forewarned of their presence this time. All things that were alive were imbued with some measure of magical energy, from a mouse to a flower. Those who had more than the average person might find themselves sensitive to its currents, they might experience it as intuition, as a kind of sixth sense. Those who possessed it in great abundance had the potential to become sorcerers, to understand and harness that energy, while the average person might be ignorant of its existence altogether. But if he could sense its presence, amplified by the spell, then he would know if anyone was near.

As he walked, he examined the rocks and corals that surrounded him, the presence of small lizards and hardy plants betrayed by wisps of those silver strands, seen through a sense beyond mere sight. The sun beat down on him as he marched, Caden pausing only to take draws from his waterskin, every mouthful a relief. He was losing so much water through sweat that he had to refill it three or four times a day. With so much practice, he was becoming quite proficient, able to recite the relevant spell by heart.

It wasn’t long before his prediction came to pass. He had been walking for a few hours when he was alerted to the presence of something behind him. Two large lifeforms were making their way towards him, their line of sight blocked by the corals. They shone as bright as beacons, brimming with magical energy, the swirling currents flowing through them. They were no sorcerers, but they were more attuned to magic than an average person. Whether that was because of their nature, or a result of their purported shamanistic practices, he couldn’t be sure.

Caden quickly slipped into a crevice in a nearby reef, hiding amongst the corals as he watched them emerge into view. It was the same two hunters from the night before, a male and a female, their eyes scanning the ground at their feet as they followed his tracks. They would pause to examine the surrounding terrain as they went, their forked, lizard-like tongues darting forth to taste the air.

He gripped his staff, whispering an incantation, bringing his lips close to the bronze figurehead as he poured his magic into a spell.

Over here,” he breathed, as quietly as he could muster. His voice rang out as loud as a shout, but from a far-off location beyond the spires, thrown by magic.

Over here!”

The hunters snapped their heads around as they heard its echo, their eyes wide, the strange frills around their necks flushing red with blood as they flared. They abandoned the footprints, darting off into the rocks with alarming swiftness, their snaking bodies vanishing from sight.

Caden waited a few minutes longer, then emerged from his hiding place, hurrying off in the opposite direction. It would not do to underestimate these creatures, to assume that they were stupid. The same trick might not work twice, but he had plenty of tricks…

***

Caden made camp again, not to sleep this time, but to refill his canteen and soothe his blistered feet. He cast a spell of invisibility first, making a habit of concealing himself whenever he stopped. When that was done, he performed another spell from within its confines, conjuring a breeze strong enough to blow away the footprints that led up to the rocky outcrop. He imbued the air with his magic, channeling its currents, directing them down towards the sand as he pointed his staff at the tracks. The fine particles blew away in the sudden rush of wind, the footprints seeming to stop abruptly, as though the person who had left them had levitated into the air. That should confuse his pursuers.

Healing was becoming more difficult in this wasteland. While the Coral Sea was not devoid of life, it was certainly harder to come by than it had been during the earlier legs of his journey. He felt guilty draining energy from what few plants eked out an existence in this harsh environment, but he had little choice.

He lay back against the rock, taking a drink from his waterskin and letting his newly healed feet get some air before he put his boots back on. His perception spell had worn off after a time, and so he renewed it, finding that he was once again being followed. From the safety of his invisible bubble, he watched the two reptiles slink closer, keeping low to the sand as they traced his tracks up to the place where they abruptly ended.

The pair began to search around in confusion, hissing at one another, gesturing to the nearby rocks. Perhaps they were wondering if he had jumped? Their tongues flicked forth, they were definitely using them to take in his scent, but he felt relatively safe behind his concealment spell. He could get a better look at them in daylight now, their blotchy, patterned scales reflecting the sunlight like varnished wood. They were smooth, streamlined creatures, and he imagined that their leathery hides would be flush to the touch. The way that the light reflected off them almost made them look slimy, but he knew from experience that reptiles had dry skin, and these creatures were likely no different.

It was no wonder that they were such fearsome warriors, considering their size and strength. They stood seven feet tall or more, but the length of their bodies was near twice that if one included the winding tail that trailed on the sand behind them. Caden had thought the Dweorh uncommonly strong, but that was nothing in comparison to the developed muscles that rippled beneath their scaly hides, the physical demands placed on their bodies by the life of a savage honing them in ways that civilized men could scarcely imagine.

When the female snapped at her male companion, he noted that her jaws were full of sharp teeth, the inside of her mouth the same dull blue color as her tongue. How unusual…

They scoured the nearby rocks for a few minutes, but found no trace of him, eventually deciding to continue on ahead. He watched them leave from the safety of his bubble, making a mental note of which path they had taken. The intense fear that he had felt the night before was waning, giving way to a more reasoned caution. Would he be able to keep this up until he reached his destination, or would they eventually figure out what they were dealing with?

***

Another day passed without incident, Caden seeing neither head nor tail of his pursuers. He ate and slept under the cover of his invisibility spell, erasing his footprints only when he stopped for an extended period of time. He ate his rations cold, avoiding making fires for cooking, and leaving as little evidence of his presence as possible.

As he made his way along the winding paths between the spires, his augmented perception warned him of an impending ambush. The magical energy of what must be a dozen of the creatures lay ahead of him, their different elevations suggesting that they were hidden in the fossilized reefs. They had locked down all of the branching paths that weaved between the corals ahead of him, cutting off his advance. Far from abandoning their hunt, they were calling in more of their kin, trying to lure him into a trap. Even if they couldn’t work out his precise location, they had a general idea of where he might be, and what direction he was traveling in.

Caden immediately stopped in his tracks, scanning his surroundings to make sure that no more of them were hidden nearby, then turned about. He probably wouldn’t be able to wait them out, but as long as he could sense their energy, he could find ways to get around their blockade. Avoiding them was merely an inconvenience, but their determination had him worried. Why was it so important that they stop him? What harm did they imagine him doing?

He took a long detour to their North, giving them a wide berth. He almost wished that he could see their reactions. How frustrated must they be by now? The pair that he had seen were especially short-tempered, they would be pulling their hair out if they had any…

When he was safely cloaked beneath a spell of invisibility once more, he checked his map, making sure that he was still on the right course. There were no landmarks in this labyrinth, everything looked the same. Wherever he ventured, there was nothing but towering spires and ancient reefs, each sandy pathway identical to the last.

The compass that the Master had given him, that was the only way to keep track of his position with any measure of reliability. As long as he kept heading East, he would eventually reach the far shore. He reached into one of the pockets of his pack and retrieved it, popping open the protective, brass cap. A knot formed in his stomach as he watched the needle spin erratically, stopping to point in one direction for a moment, before returning to its wild dance.

Damn it,” he muttered to himself, giving the glass lens a gentle tap with his finger. “Why isn’t it working anymore?”

He unfurled his map and lay it flat on the rock, placing the compass atop it, watching the needle whirl around. Could it be that there were lodestones in the Coral Sea? Magnetic rock that was interfering with it?

What am I supposed to do now?” he demanded of nobody in particular, frustration getting the better of him. He couldn’t use the stars to navigate, not with the heavens askew the way they were. His only option now was to rely on the sun to find his way. Although it still rose in the East and set in the West, it could be as much as thirty hours between dawn and dusk, making its movements far less reliable than usual.

What was he thinking? There must be a spell for navigation, surely? He rummaged inside his pack for his spellbook, reading through the index. He found it, flipping through the pages frantically, his eyes scanning the arcane incantations.

Gods damn it!” he grumbled, realizing that it wasn’t going to work. The spell in question would pinpoint the position of the North star in the sky, even in daylight, but the North star had drifted far from its normal position along with all of the constellations. The authors of this book could never have foreseen such an eventuality, the heavens had always been thought of as pristine, unmovable.

Caden forced back the panic that was threatening to rise up inside him. He could still do this, he just had to keep going straight, he’d reach the far shore eventually. Besides, it wasn’t as if he could turn back. He rolled up his map and returned it to its tube, resolving to keep going.

***

The sun bathed Kadal in its warmth as she basked on her favorite rock, shifting her weight occasionally to expose more of her winding body to its invigorating heat. The lethargy of the morning was slowly leaving her, she could feel herself becoming more alert, hot blood coursing through her veins. She rolled over into her back, enjoying the feel of the baking rock against her scales as she stretched out, her eyes shut tightly against the glare.

So you are here, Kadal?”

The voice roused her, Kadal rising to sit on her boulder, covering her bosom with one arm to preserve her modesty as the frill around her neck fluttered with irritation. She opened her eyes to see another female standing on the red sand at the foot of the rock, peering up at her.

Is that you, Nyoka?” she muttered. “What do you want from me? Can you not see that I am basking?”

Interrupting the morning ritual was considered rude at best. Something unusual must be happening if Nyoka’s business couldn’t wait until later in the day.

The Shaman wishes to speak with you,” Nyoka replied. “She says that it is urgent.”

Very well,” Kadal sighed, sliding down off the warm rock. She donned her sling and loincloth while Nyoka waited expectantly, the young female following after her as she made her way back in the direction of the settlement. The sand was pleasantly hot between her toes as she strode between the spires, her long tail dragging behind her.

Kadal had the highest standing of any huntress in her tribe, and the elaborate body paint that adorned her scales reflected that. She was the largest, the strongest, the most accomplished of her kin. As such, it often fell upon her to deal with the problems that arose.

Did the Shaman mention why she wanted to see me?” Kadal asked, the pair rounding the coral-covered base of one of the towering chimneys that dominated the landscape.

No,” Nyoka replied. “She only said that I was to fetch you.”

After a few minutes, the settlement came into view. Her people lived in the shelter of shallow caves formed by the ancient reefs, taking refuge there at night, or when they needed to escape the midday sun. The perimeter of the settlement was protected by wooden palisades, sharpened to a point to deter attackers, the walls painted with runes declaring a warning to any who might seek entry. That threat was redoubled by the presence of stakes that were topped with the skulls of their enemies, the bone bleached white by years of harsh sunlight, most devoid of any remnants of flesh or hair. The different tribes that inhabited the Coral Sea were usually at peace with one another, but one never knew when trespassers from beyond the shore would make an incursion into their territory. Their fate was to defend this land, and they would never allow themselves to grow idle.

Kadal made her way through one of the openings in the palisade, emerging into the village proper. There were several large reefs scattered about, covered in the petrified remnants of corals, red sand filling in the spaces between them. Generations ago, the tribe had chosen this location for its abundance of caves, settling here permanently. Their jagged mouths were covered over with colorful fabric curtains that served both to keep out the heat, and to provide some privacy for their occupants. Some of the caves could better be described as tunnels or simple dugouts in the rock, but they were still highly valued.

In the center of the settlement was a large fire pit that was filled with heavy stones, the licking flames tended by a handful of older females who were clustered around it, one of them stoking it with a long stick. There was a spit sitting atop it, the roasting carcass of a large prey animal slowly rotating as its skin began to char, the smells making Kadal’s mouth water as she passed by.

She could see a few other villagers going about their business, some of them stopping to greet her. A couple of males were tending to a tanning rack, the hides drying in the hot sun, the gleeful cries of a pair of small hatchlings who were playing in the sand outside their dwelling drawing her attention. Most of the settlement’s inhabitants would have found a private place to bask at this time of the day, warming themselves in the sun before their hunting and foraging duties began.

The Shaman’s cave was at the far end of the roughly circular village, carved into the base of one of the ever-present spires, its mouth covered by a colorful curtain. Nyoka waited outside as Kadal pushed through, stepping into the cool interior, lowering her head to avoid scraping her scales on the uneven ceiling. These formations were all natural products of the coral, her people had no means of hollowing them out by hand. The tunnel led a few feet deeper into the rock, the floor covered in a carpet of sand, eventually leading to a larger chamber.

The roughly dome-shaped interior was high enough that Kadal no longer had to crouch, the dark chamber lit by a small, smokeless fire pit that burned in its center. The crackling flames cast dancing shadows, picking out the sharp corals that lined the walls. It was surrounded by three-legged stools, and there was a low table nearby made from wood that had been lashed together with strips of leather. At the back of the room were some shelves that were lined with rows of glass jars and wooden pots that contained everything from medicinal plants and herbs, to the substances that the shamans consumed before their vision quests. Towards the right side of the room was the bed, a hammock that was strung between two wooden frames, keeping it clear of the pervasive sand.

As Kadal entered, she saw that the Shaman was kneeling at the low table, hunched over a clay mug. She lifted it to her lips and took a drink, glancing up at her guest. Her skin had been made loose and leathery by age, her back crooked, but her wisdom was valued by the tribe. They had no leader in the true sense of the word, but the Shaman’s judgment was trusted, and her magic was strong.

You summoned me, Shaman?” Kadal asked as she made her way over to the table. She knelt beside it respectfully, coiling her tail up beside her as the old woman took another sip from her drink.

I am sorry to disturb your morning basking,” she began, setting her cup down and wetting her scaly lips with her forked tongue. “But the hunters have come to me for advice, and I find myself in need of your council.”

The hunters?” Kadal asked, cocking her head. “What has happened?”

You recall the trespassers who entered our territory some days ago?” she asked.

The small, furred men who destroyed one of the spires? Yes. We killed two, and the others fled.”

There has been another invasion, this time, by a strange presence that our hunters are unable to track.”

How so?” Kadal replied, concern furrowing her brow.

It leaves footprints in the sand,” the Shaman explained, rising to her feet with some effort. “They appear to be those of a man, nothing out of the ordinary. It would not be the first to wander into the Coral Sea.” She walked over to her fire pit as Kadal watched, leaning over to stir the contents of a clay cooking pot that was sitting atop it, wisps of steam slowly rising towards the ceiling. “Yet the tracks vanish in seemingly impossible places, as though whoever left them had simply disappeared. This creature is able to speak from one location while hiding in another, and although it has a scent that can be followed, it always manages to remain out of sight. Our hunters have been certain that they were about to corner it, only to find nothing...”

She lifted a wooden spoon to her lips, tasting the concoction and nodding approvingly. Kadal sat with her hands clasped in her lap, listening intently as the Shaman continued her story.

It appears to have entered our lands from the Western shore and is slowly heading Eastward. Yesterday, a hunting party was sent out to lay a trap for this creature, confident that they could cut off its advance. It somehow knew of their presence, even from a distance, and successfully evaded them. It was as though it could see through solid rock, so they said.”

What is it doing?” Kadal wondered. “Has it attacked anyone?”

Not so far,” the Shaman replied. She turned to her shelves, selecting a glass jar, and upending it into her hand. After sprinkling some flakes of dried herbs into her pot, she began to stir again, Kadal finding herself wondering how she could remain so calm in this situation. “It seems intent on crossing the Coral Sea, and there is only one destination East of it.”

The sacred city,” Kadal replied, the Shaman giving her a solemn nod.

It is the will of the Gods that we preserve its sanctity, this holy duty was entrusted to our ancestors at the dawn of time. This entity cannot be permitted to desecrate it. My visions have grown dark as of late,” the Shaman added. “I see the end of the world creeping ever closer, I see a man wielding an ancient power, I see the crumbling towers of the sacred city. I believe that this intruder must be brought to heel if we are to avert disaster.”

Kadal did not need to ask what she must do, the task ahead of her was obvious enough.

Then it falls upon me to stop the human,” she said.

I think the hunting party would appreciate your guidance,” the Shaman replied. She tasted her brew one more time, then nodded to herself, lifting a clay mug and dipping it into the pot. She returned to the table and set the cup down in front of Kadal, who eyed the off-green liquid within curiously.

What’s this?” she asked.

Drink it,” the Shaman insisted, Kadal raising the vessel. She pressed her lips against the brim, her tongue flicking out to taste it. It was bitter, the Shaman chuckling as she grimaced. “Go on...”

Kadal took a drink, struggling to swallow the unpleasant concoction. She set the cup down, glancing over at the Shaman, wondering what was supposed to happen next. As she watched, the Shaman began to glow, as though a soft, diffuse light was emanating from her scales. Kadal blinked her eyes, but the glow remained. When she looked down at her own hands, the same fuzzy light was coming from them.

This potion will allow you to sense the life force present in all creatures,” the Shaman explained, smiling as Kadal wiggled her fingers in awe. “There’s enough for the whole hunting party. If your quarry has some way of hiding from your sight, then this will surely reveal its presence.”

I will stop this intruder,” Kadal declared, rising to her feet with renewed determination. “I will protect the sacred city.”

CHAPTER 4: WARRIOR-SHAMAN

Caden wandered between the spires, his boots sinking into the red sand as he trudged along, sweat stinging his eyes. He had set out in what he knew was an Easterly direction that morning, marching towards the sunrise, but he had a far less accurate idea of where he was going now that it was hanging directly above his head. All that he could do was keep heading straight, but the lay of the land meant that he couldn’t help but take a twisting, winding path through the reefs.

The reptiles hadn’t resurfaced since he had avoided their blockade the day before, but he knew that they were regrouping, trying to find some way to get to him. Maybe he was becoming paranoid, but he imagined them lurking behind every reef, and he kept his perception spell constantly renewed.

As he navigated around a large outcrop of rock that was covered in table corals, he saw the now-familiar glow of magical energy in the distance. It was his pursuers, had to be, they were arranged in a uniform semi-circle ahead of him at the limits of his vision. They were trying the same trick again, hoping to block off his advance so that he would walk right into them.

He turned to the right, intending to take another long detour, but stopped when he saw that there were more of them in that direction. When he looked to the left, they were there too, slowly closing in as they made their way towards him. Fine, he would have to double back. As he turned about, his heart skipped a beat, Caden seeing that he was surrounded on all sides. There must have been two dozen of them, the reptiles encircling him, slowly closing their net around him.

Trying to suppress his panic, he reasoned that they still had no real idea of where he was. They could follow his tracks in the sand, figure out what direction he was traveling in and get a vague idea of his location, but they had no way to pinpoint it exactly.

If he couldn’t escape, he would have to hide.

With little time to spare, Caden found a suitable crevice in the rocks, lifting his staff and beginning to recite one of the incantations that he had memorized. Energy poured into it, the wood seeming to vibrate in his hands, light curving as he bent it around himself. After that spell was complete, he proceeded directly to the next one in his repertoire, whispering to the wind as he commanded the air currents to sweep away as many of his footprints as possible. Confident that he had done all he could to conceal his presence, Caden waited, watching those glowing figures draw ever nearer.

Like the tightening of a noose, they closed in around him, two of them finally coming into view around the corner. Just like before, they were following his tracks in the sand, their tongues darting forth as they sought out his scent. These were not the same lizards who he had encountered previously, these were both males, long spears clutched in their hands as they hunted him. They would occasionally raise their heads, loosing warbling cries that carried across the desert, calling their companions to them.

Before long, more of them came leaping over the corals, a small army of the creatures grouping up where his tracks ended. They pointed to the sand, chittering and hissing to one another, the parasol-like frills on their necks rising to frame their heads in the same way that a man might gesture with his hands while speaking. They huddled for a moment, then began to spread out. Caden let slip a sigh of relief, assuming that they were giving up, but his breath caught in his throat as he watched them turn their attention to the surrounding rocks. They were searching intently, their yellow eyes scanning the corals.

He tried to calm himself, sinking a little deeper into his crevice. As long as his invisibility spell was active, it was impossible for them to find him. Unless they started jabbing every man-sized opening with their spears, he would be safe.

One of the creatures passed by his hiding spot, pausing to glance around. He felt its eyes lock onto him, watching them narrow, its pupils slitted like those of a snake. He gripped his staff tighter, reminding himself that it couldn’t see him.

The creature lifted its head and called out to its fellows, raising its spear, pointing the obsidian tip directly at him. Caden loosed a wail of alarm as it jabbed at him, his reflexes kicking in, the crack of wood on wood echoing between the spires as he batted it aside. The tip of the spear sparked against the rock as it was deflected, Caden abandoning his cover, following up with a vicious swipe to the lizard’s head that sent it reeling. He landed on the sand, turning to see a whole army of the things hissing and gesturing at him, the frills around their necks flushed red with blood to reveal frightening eyespots.

The time for fear had passed, he had to act now, he had to trust his instincts.

The reptile that he had hit recovered, coming at him again, its frill flaring with rage as it drove its spear towards his chest. Caden let the magic flow through him, giving in to its seductive power, feeling his blood begin to boil with energy. It felt like electricity was coursing through his veins, what could only be described as a desire to dominate driving away his terror. The Master had warned against surrendering to these impulses, but right now, fighting like the battlemages of yore was his only chance to survive.

With reflexes that surprised even himself, Caden swiped at the spear, pouring his will into the strike. Like hitting a dry twig with an iron bar, the wooden haft splintered, a loud snap ringing out as his staff whistled through the air. The reptile’s alarm made it falter, Caden gritting his teeth as he stepped in, delivering an equally powerful blow to its sinewy midsection. He was acutely aware of the mass of his weapon, of its weight in his hands, of its momentum. With all the force of a swinging war hammer, the staff made contact, the reptile doubling over as it was lifted clear off the sand. It sailed through the air, slamming into the coral with enough force to send fragments of rock and dust showering.

The rest of its party, who had been rushing in to join the fray, skidded to a halt as they stared at the bizarre scene. Caden gave them no time to react, turning to face them, planting his staff in the sand as he began to chant an incantation. The wind obeyed his command, whipping at his cloak as it surged towards them, raising a wall of airborne sand. They shielded their eyes as the gale tore at them, stumbling as they were buffeted.

That alone wasn’t going to deter them. Caden closed the gap between him and the group of reptiles, taking advantage of their disorientation. Yells of pain and surprise rang out as he knocked their feet out from under them, moving through the cloud of obscuring sand like a ghost. One of them swung an axe at him, but he blocked it, the stone blade bouncing off his staff as though it were made of tempered steel. The creature’s surprise gave him an opening, Caden increasing the mass at the end of his stave, swinging up to catch the reptile beneath its chin. It was lifted off its feet, collapsing back to the sand in a listless heap.

One of them seemed to have recovered its faculties enough to mount an attack, the screeching female whirling an axe as she charged him, ignoring the sand that pounded against her scales. Caden was ready for her, muttering another incantation under his breath, static electricity making the bronze carving on the end of his staff crackle as it coalesced around it. When the reptile came into range, he aimed the figurehead, releasing the charge. There was a bright flash like a miniature bolt of lighting, the sound of it making his ears ring, the charging female going as stiff as a board. The monster fell to the ground face-first, still twitching as electricity arced across her prone form.

Those that Caden had not dispatched were getting their bearings, the cloud of dust beginning to clear. It was time to make his exit. He resumed his chanting, waving his hand over the tip of his staff, raising it towards the sky. His whispering became a loud verse, the nearby reptiles faltering. They stepped back, eyeing him cautiously, not knowing what he was going to conjure next. As he slammed his stave into the ground, a wind like a small tornado surrounded him, sending a wall of sand swirling into the air. His aggressors were driven back, protecting their faces with their arms, knocked off-balance by the force of the howling gale.

Caden took the opportunity to escape, scrambling up a nearby reef to avoid leaving any footprints, gripping the clasp on his cloak with one hand to save it from being torn loose by the wind. He winced as he cut his calf on a piece of jagged coral, feeling its sting as it cut deep, blood wetting his trousers. No matter, he would heal later. Right now, he needed to get as far from the reptiles as possible while they were still distracted.

***

Kadal watched from her vantage point atop one of the spires as the intruder disappeared in a vortex of swirling sand, the hunting party left defeated and scattered. She could see the glow of its life force through the obscuring, sepia haze, but it vanished from view as the man fled beyond her sight. As the sand began to rain back to the ground, the unnatural winds abating, her warriors struggled to their feet. They shook themselves, dislodging the red dust from their scales, some of them nursing their injuries.

The hunter who was clinging to the rock beside her hurried to give chase, but Kadal stayed him, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Not yet,” she warned, the hunter turning to cock his head at her. “We are here to learn,” she explained, “to observe. We cannot hunt that which we do not yet understand.”

She slowly climbed back down the rocky spire, making her way to the sand below, joining her warriors as they brushed themselves off. Fortunately, their egos had suffered more bruises than their bodies, and nobody was seriously hurt. Odd, the intruder had completely overpowered them, killing them would have been trivial. Why had it not finished them off?

Kadal helped one of the hunters to his feet, glancing at the rocks where their quarry had fled. She made her way over to the reef, climbing through the corals, her tongue tasting iron on the air as it darted between her lips. Scattered droplets of crimson caught her eye, and she crouched, running her fingers through the still-wet blood. It seemed that the intruder had cut itself deep on one of the jagged corals during its escape.

Should we not pursue?” one of the warriors asked, joining her on the rock. She touched a finger against the blood and brought it to her lips, sampling it. “It is wounded, weakened.” “If we engage the intruder again without proper preparation, the result will be the same,” Kadal replied. “It seems that this creature has no interest in fighting, it fought only as a means to cover its retreat. Why is it so intent on reaching the ruined city? What evil does it intend to unleash there?”

Then, how should we proceed?” the hunter added. Kadal was not their leader, but her status as the most accomplished warrior of her tribe afforded her a great deal of respect, and they would not act in such a sensitive matter without her guidance.

Follow it,” she replied, “but keep your distance. I want to know where it is, but I don’t want anyone to attack it. My belief is that it will not harm you unless provoked. In the meantime, I will return to the settlement to visit the Shaman. We are ill-equipped for this task.”

Understood,” the warrior replied, Kadal giving her an encouraging pat on the back. She turned, making her way back to the village.

***

It is a battlemage that you face,” the Shaman said, her croaking voice echoing in the dome-shaped chamber of coral. Kadal sat at the low table, her eyes following the old woman as she shambled about the room, her listless tail dragging in the red sand. She paused at one of her shelves, sorting through her collection of clay pots as she told her tale. “The kingdoms of the West practice a very different kind of magic than we do. Our connection to nature is strong, we borrow from its power during our shamanistic rites. We eat of the substances that it provides to us, expanding our minds, and fortifying our bodies in the process.”

What makes their power so different?” Kadal asked.

They call themselves civilized,” the Shaman scoffed, “yet they know only how to take. They harness magic, wielding it like a cudgel, interpreting the currents and energies of the world in the most literal and bone-headed of ways. They lack all intuition and understanding, but that does not mean to say that their methods are not effective. According to the oral histories passed down by my predecessor, and her predecessor before her, we have warred with them in the past. The battlemages were their vanguard, the equivalent of a warrior-shaman, a conjurer who wields magic as a weapon in battle. Their power was only rivaled by their cruelty and their lust for bloodshed.”

A warrior-shaman?” Kadal replied, her frill fluttering with concern. She had never heard of such a thing before.

Have you never wondered why our people were chosen to guard the sacred city above all others?” the Shaman replied. “How we have kept it safe for so many generations? We are strong of body and pure of heart, yes, but there is more to our legacy. A warrior-shaman, much like a battlemage, is a warrior who has been imbued with magical powers that they wield against their foes in combat. Their order dates back to the founding of the sacred city itself, so the legends tell, when the Gods entrusted us with protecting these lands.”

Where would we find such a person?” Kadal wondered. “Should we send word to the other tribes?”

We have not needed to call upon a warrior-shaman for a generation,” the old woman replied, turning her head to glance at Kadal as she rummaged through her shelves. “But the rites and rituals that can forge a hunter into a magic-bearer are not lost to us. That, too, was passed down by our ancestors.”

Then...a warrior-shaman can be made?” Kadal asked.

The Shaman began to set some of the containers on the table, then opened a large, wooden chest on the far side of the room. Kadal couldn’t see what was inside it, but the Shaman soon retrieved a large box, also made from aged wood. Kadal began to rise, intending to help her carry it, but the Shaman waved her away.

I am not yet so old,” she chuckled, heaving the box onto the table with some difficulty. She opened the lid with a creak, Kadal craning her long neck to peer inside. It was full of charms and fetishes. There were necklaces made from colorful beads that were adorned with precious stones and pieces of carved bone, small tokens, and sculptures. She began to remove some of them, setting them down on the table beside the clay vessels.

Jewelry?” Kadal asked, cocking her head curiously.

Not quite,” the Shaman replied. “These are blessed objects, each one the product of a ritual designed to imbue it with power. By wearing them, one can become stronger, swifter, a fiercer opponent in battle.”

It is your wish that I become a warrior-shaman?” Kadal asked, her frill flaring in disbelief. “B-but I am no shaman! I’ve never been on a vision quest, I’ve never taken part in any rituals. What do I know of such things?”

You do not need to know anything that I cannot teach you,” the Shaman replied. She reached out and took Kadal’s hand, placing one of the necklaces in her palm. It was made from woven rope, decorated with colorful glass beads and ancient shells that must have been unearthed in the Coral Sea. There was a large pendant made from a piece of carved bone, ivory from one of the whale graveyards, no doubt. The Shaman closed her fingers around it, Kadal taking in a deep breath, feeling a strange sensation wash over her. It almost seemed to vibrate in her grasp, resonating with her being like a kind of strange music.

Do you feel it?” the Shaman whispered, Kadal glancing up at her.

Yes.”

Are you ready to wield nature itself as a shield?”

She nodded, the Shaman smiling.

***

Kadal stood in the center of the room as the Shaman walked around her, dipping her fingers into different clay pots, and painting their contents onto her scales. They were viscous pastes made from sacred herbs and plants that were found in the Coral Sea, staining her hide with shades of blue, red, and white. The tribe used body paints for ceremonial purposes, and as decoration, but these were different. As the Shaman applied them, she could feel their power starting to flow through her, as though the substances were seeping through her skin. Her heartbeat quickened, her pupils dilating, the coral walls of the chamber seeming to shift and move in the light of the fire.

Do not fight it,” the Shaman whispered, “this is but the beginning of your spiritual journey.”

She dipped her hand into another clay vessel, tossing some kind of powder into the fire. The flames erupted suddenly, rising up to lick at the ceiling, their orange glow taking on an ethereal, green hue. Kadal recoiled in alarm, feeling its heat on her scales, but found herself transfixed by the sight all the same.

The Shaman thrust a cup into her hands, encouraging her to raise it to her lips, the bitter taste making her gag.

Drink deeply,” the Shaman insisted, “and prepare yourself. You are about to walk the path of a shaman. You will commune with spirits, the world as it truly exists will unfold before your eyes. Do not be afraid. You are a warrior, and fear has no place in this chamber.”

Kadal began to feel dizzy, the room seeming to spin around her, but she focused on the fire. The green flames appeared to sparkle as she watched them dance, as though a myriad of tiny stars had taken the place of its floating embers. The walls were melting, running together like colored pigments, her perception of time slowing such that every second lasted for what felt like minutes.

The Shaman walked in front of her, raising a hand filled with some kind of fine, white powder. She blew it into Kadal’s face, then stepped clear, the hunter’s perception of the world around her warping even further as she inhaled. It was as though the everyday world as she knew it was being peeled away before her eyes, replaced by a realm of ever-shifting, rainbow-colored shards of glass. At its epicenter was the fire, beating like a heart, its roaring flames seeming to pulse in time with the rhythm of the Universe.

She looked down at her own hands, feeling a sense of disconnect, as though they were no longer her own. Her sense of self was dissolving, her nerves seeming to extend beyond the limits of her own body, interweaving with the living world that she was becoming immersed in. There was no barrier between her and the roiling, magical energies of nature, not anymore. She was exposed, naked before its power, but she could not help but welcome the feeling of oneness.

In the depths of the fire, she saw moving shapes, gradually becoming more defined as she concentrated on them. She saw the battlemage, the power that he commanded. She felt his determination as he trekked into the unknown as though his emotions were her own. A pang of dread disturbed the peaceful ocean of sensation that was washing through her, her perspective shifting. Kadal suddenly beheld the sun as she had never seen it, a burning ball of roiling flame that seemed to occupy the entire sky, the land beneath it scorched barren by its unforgiving heat. On the horizon, she saw ruined spires made from glass and stone, far larger and grander than those of the Coral Sea. They twisted towards the sky like beautiful, glittering corkscrews, catching the glare of the sun in their many windows. Could this be the sacred city? She had spent her entire life protecting it, but she had never gazed upon its magnificence with her own eyes.

There was something nestled at its center, buried deep within its hallowed halls, an orb that was blacker than black. It almost seemed to absorb light, bending reality around itself, Kadal unable to tear her eyes away from it. She understood what it was intuitively, as though the void had answered her question before the thought to ask it had even entered her mind. It was a piece of a dead star, the corpse of a God.

Overwhelmed, she dropped to her knees, digging her fingers into the sand as she panted. She was vaguely aware of something being forced into her mouth, her eyes opening after a few moments more to see that reality was mending itself like a wound. The Shaman knelt at her side, a now-empty clay vessel in her hand.

What did you see?” she whispered.

I saw...the city,” Kadal gasped. “The world was burning. There was...a black orb...like a ball hewn from the darkest obsidian. The mage seeks it, he is so determined to possess it...” “I saw the same dark vision,” the Shaman replied. “The Gods have spoken to you, Kadal, they have given you their blessing. Rise as a warrior-shaman. Don the charms, wear the paint, and stop your enemy before he can lay a hand on that orb.”

***

Caden rolled up the leg of his pants, wincing as he exposed the jagged tear in his calf. It went deep enough that the sight of it made him light-headed, dark blood still seeping from it. It hadn’t hurt at first, but the longer he had walked, the more it had begun to ache. He kept reminding himself that he could fix it, trying not to look at the wound for too long as he raised his staff, beginning to recite the incantation.

It had taken some time to find a place where he felt safe, and where there was enough plant life to heal himself. A nearby cactus and a few desert flowers began to wilt as he drew upon their energy, those silver strands coalescing around his injury, his flesh knitting back together before his eyes. This was a greater task than a few blisters, the flowers beginning to shed their dead petals, the cactus seeming to deflate. When it was done, he washed away the blood with his waterskin, allowing himself a moment of relief.

He glanced back in the direction that he had come, sensing that the reptiles were still tracking him. They had to know where he was, but they were only following him, never getting close enough that he could see them. They were persistent, they wouldn’t hold back forever. It wouldn’t be long before they figured out some new angle of attack.

How had they seen through his invisibility spell? Was he a worse magician than he had assumed, or did they have magic of their own? They were shamans, that much he knew, but he had no idea what form their primitive magic might take.

In any case, he couldn’t hide anymore. If they attacked him again, he might have to kill some of them. The idea didn’t appeal to him. Even as a young child living on his parent’s farm, years before he had joined the Sorcerer’s Guild, the slaughter of livestock had always upset him. He vividly recalled his father thrusting an axe into his hands, and demanding that he kill a sheep, the animal cocking its head at him and blinking stupidly. His tears had made his father relent, and that might have been one of the reasons that his family had given him up to the guild so readily. He didn’t have the temperament of a farmer, let alone that of a killer...

Remembering the previous fight frightened him. He had given in to the violent impulses that the magic inspired in him, and it had felt...good, liberating. It was a feeling akin to running at full tilt, feeling the pounding of one’s heart, the wind in one’s hair, the sense of freedom. As much as he wanted to tell himself that it had been necessary, he would be lying if he said that he hadn’t enjoyed it. It had come so naturally to him, like something that he was supposed to do. Was it coming from the staff, or was it awakening something that had always been lurking inside him?

He took a drink from his waterskin, mulling over what to do next. If hiding was no longer an option, then he would have to keep moving. But what about rest? What about food? What about the stops that he had to make to replenish his water supply and heal his blistered feet? The reptiles were certainly faster than him, stronger, they had more endurance. There was no chance that he could outpace them.

Something appeared at the periphery of his senses, shining as bright as a beacon, an entity more imbued with magic than he had ever seen striding towards him. He rose to his feet, gripping his staff in his hands. So this was their plan, they were sending a champion after him. Judging by the magical aura that emanated from them, this must be one of their shamans. There was so much...life in them, those sparkling strands of magical energy swirling inside their body, bright and vibrant.

There was no escape, he would have to face this challenger.

Caden stepped down onto the sand, his staff clutched in his hand, planting it in the ground defiantly as he waited for the figure to round the nearby reef. The other reptiles were drawing nearer, but they were still holding back, perhaps only wanting to observe what happened next. He could see a few of them poking their heads over the corals that rose up to either side of him, ducking in and out of cover for fear of catching a lightning bolt to the face.

His opponent came into view, jogging around the reef, eyes like a pair of gold coins fixing on him. It was a female, the largest that he had seen so far, a good seven and a half feet tall. His head would only just reach her shoulders if they were to stand side by side. He could see her developed muscles moving beneath her shining scales as she walked, a subtle layer of fat that clung to her thighs, and the bosom that was contained within her sling quivering with each step due to her immense weight. Despite her size and her brawn, she was still lean and streamlined, her mottled hide so smooth that it looked waxed.

Her garb was different from the rest. While she still wore a sling and loincloth to preserve her modesty, she was also adorned with decorative jewelry. About her neck was a large pendant, the hairy rope decorated with colorful beads made from glass, and seashells of all shapes and sizes. Just above her scaly cleavage hung a charm carved from ivory, made to resemble what must be the skull of one of the reptiles. There were similar decorations around her wrists and ankles, colorful feathers, and precious gemstones contrasting with the oranges and browns of her scales.

Her body paint, too, was far more elaborate than that of her counterparts. His eyes were drawn to her long torso, where her muscular midriff had been painted with runes and swirling patterns in shades of blue and white, extending all the way down to her steely thighs. There were patterns that spiraled around her arms, climbing her neck to frame her jaw. Her eyes were outlined in a shade of red that seemed to seep down her scaly cheeks like tears of blood, the dark crimson of the pigment framing her yellow irises, giving them a hypnotic quality.

In one of her hands was clasped an axe of intimidating proportions. Its haft was as long as his leg, carved from a solid piece of white ivory, more runic symbols etched into its surface. It was tipped with an obsidian axe head that must have weighed as much as a cannonball. He could see the tool marks on it as it reflected the sun, how the reptiles had chiseled the stone into a razor’s edge.

As he met her furious gaze, the reptile’s frill opened up, framing her lizard-like head. Blood rushed into it, turning the membranous material a shade of blushing red, the two eyespots growing clearer to stare back at him.

The other reptiles cheered her on, a chorus of hissing and warbling echoing between the spires. Who was she? Their Chieftain? Their Shaman? The leader of their tribe? She raised the axe above her head, loosing a feral yell, its challenge not lost on Caden.

Fine,” he snarled in response, shifting his weight as he pointed his staff in her direction. “You want to do this? Let’s do it. I’m done running.”

His adversary loosed another bestial roar, beginning to charge across the sand, moving far faster than anything of that size should have been able to. Caden stood his ground, his lips moving as he began to chant, invigorating energy pulsing through his body. By the time she came within ten feet of him, his spell was complete, a powerful gust of wind whipping at his cloak as it kicked up a wall of obscuring sand. The reptile faltered, Caden darting in, using his magic to give his stave the power and weight of a swinging hammer. He felt it connect, the impact powerful enough to displace the air around it, clearing a hole in the airborne dust for the moment.

What Caden saw chilled his blood. The reptile had blocked the blow with her forearm, her scales taking on the quality of chain mail, his staff merely bouncing off her. Now it was his turn to be taken off-guard, the air knocked from his lungs as his opponent delivered a swift kick to his belly, lifting him off the ground. He was tossed away like a toy, his fall cushioned by the sand, rolling for a few feet before he came to a stop. Leaning his weight on his staff, he struggled to his feet, spitting out a mouthful of sand as he watched her stride out of the dust cloud. She pumped her axe in the air, eliciting a roar from her audience, the reptiles going crazy as they watched from the reefs.

Caden was no warrior, he had never been hit like that before. He stumbled as he tried to regain his footing, a hand moving to his stomach reflexively. He couldn’t take many more blows like that…

Wanting to put on a show of his own, he spun his staff, whirling it around in the way that the Master had taught him. He called upon its magic as it whistled through the air, kicking up sand at his feet, arcs of electricity beginning to crackle around the bronze figurehead. The reptile realized that he was casting a spell, starting to run at him again, but Caden intercepted her with a bright flash of lightning. It arced through the air, its forked fingers seeking her out, the reptile raising her axe. There was a shower of sparks as the bolt magnetized to its obsidian blade, the weapon seeming to absorb its energy, rendering it inert.

Caden ducked as she swung the weapon at his head, feeling it cut through the air an inch above his skull, scrambling clear of a follow-up swing as the reptile gave chase. He blocked the next strike with the haft of his stave, sagging under the weight of her blow, the magic-infused wood able to withstand the force. Pouring his will into enhancing its momentum and weight, he batted the weapon aside, a crack ringing out as he slammed his staff into her midsection. Again, he found her scales as hard as steel, but the impact was enough to make her stumble.

He called upon that power once again, that seductive rage, magic burning through his veins like adrenaline as he swung his staff. Swirling strands of starlight collected in its tip, piling on the weight, Caden’s muscles burning as he drove what felt like an anvil on a stick at her. This time, it had more of an effect, the reptile doubling over as it impacted her stomach. It knocked her onto her back, Caden loosing a wordless yell as he heaved the weapon into the air again, magic giving him the strength that he required to lift it. His adversary rolled out of the way as it impacted the ground where she had been lying a moment ago, creating a splash in the red sand.

She leapt to her feet, beginning to circle him, keeping her distance this time. Her pupils were so wide, she looked crazed, her scaly lips pulling back to reveal rows of sharp teeth. She lunged suddenly, as fast as a striking cobra, Caden only just able to react in time to block a vicious swipe from her axe. A normal staff would have been cleaved in two by that thing like a piece of firewood, but magic made it as strong as steel, Caden deflecting another overhead strike. If she actually managed to hit him with that thing, it would go through his flesh like butter.

With a hiss of frustration, she stepped in to deliver a punch to his face, taking him by surprise. His head snapped back, Caden grunting as he felt his nose break, one of his teeth coming loose. He stumbled away, feeling the warmth of blood as it began to pour from his nostrils. The pain was intense, blinding, Caden hearing the monster huff with satisfaction as she watched him sway.

Without missing a beat, he began to recite a spell, the reptile cocking her head at him. The nearby desert flowers that sprouted between the corals started to wilt, her eyes darting about, almost as though she could see the shimmering filaments that he was drawing from them. The pain faded, his nose returning to its original shape, stemming the flow of blood. When he prodded at his teeth with his tongue, he was relieved to find them all in their places, his lips curling into a smile as if to demonstrate that fact to her.

You shall have to hit me harder than that,” he muttered.

She couldn’t have understood his words, but her frill flared again, what seemed like two pairs of furious eyes staring back at him.

The reptile lunged, swinging her heavy axe, Caden blocking its chiseled blade with his staff. They exchanged blows, Caden letting the magic flow through his body, moving faster than he would ever have imagined possible. It was like he was more awake than he had ever been, so acutely conscious of his surroundings, the soreness in his muscles seeming to fade as the roiling energy coursed through them. The more he surrendered to its power, the stronger he became. He felt the wood quake in his hands each time her massive weapon impacted it, his feet skidding in the sand as he weathered her blows.

She pushed him back against the rocks, Caden dodging out of the path of her axe as she brought it down, its head smashing the corals like they were made of chalk. Shattered pieces of rock flew through the air, Caden feeling the sharp fragments graze his cheek. He whirled around to her right, commanding the wind to kick up another obscuring cloud of sand, the reptile covering her eyes reflexively.

He hadn’t even needed to recite the spell that time. It had just...happened, as though the staff could sense his intent. Was this what the Master had meant when he had talked of magicians not needing to speak incantations to use their spells?

He darted in to take advantage of her disorientation, wood cracking against scale, the force of his blow sending her reeling. Something was wrong, however. He could sense filaments of magic bending to her will, as though she was casting a spell of her own. The airborne sand suddenly cleared as another gust of wind tore at Caden’s clothes, this one coming from the opposite direction. He scurried back as she advanced, whirling her axe, her jaws open to expose her sharp fangs in a battle cry.

The next blow knocked him off-balance, the reptile moving ever faster, hitting harder. Her muscles bulged beneath her scaly, painted skin as she pressed the attack, her swiftness at odds with her immense size. It might have confused him, had he not been able to sense those magical strands flowing through her, seemingly drawn from the very world around her. The plants that clung to rocks and corals bloomed as she passed by them, their buds sprouting colorful flowers, their green leaves spreading. Carpets of colorful mosses and lichens coated the naked stone in her wake, small lizards and crawling insects emerging from their hiding places as though drawn to her.

She fought so ferociously, putting him on the defensive, her audience cheering her on as they watched from their vantage points on the reefs above. She lunged, but rather than hitting him with her axe this time, she swung her hips with all the finesse of a dancer. Her thick, powerful tail cracked like a whip as it caught him in the chest, packed with enough muscle that it felt as hard as iron. It was like being kicked by a horse, the strike lifting Caden into the air, depositing him on the sand a good ten feet away. He landed hard, the impact knocking the wind out of him, stars dancing before his eyes as he lay there dazed.

As his vision came back into focus, he saw that his adversary was stalking towards him, the ivory handle of her axe clutched tightly in her hand. His pang of fear was chased by a fresh rush of determination, and he reached for his staff, feeling his fingers magnetize to its wood. He leaned his weight on it as he climbed to his feet, the rush of energy dulling his pain, Caden taking a gulp of air.

The bronze falcon on the tip of his weapon began to glow with heat as he whispered, his lips moving rapidly, the grains of sand around his feet starting to vibrate. His opponent noticed, the reptile glancing down at the ground, her yellow eyes narrowing.

Caden pointed the red-hot figurehead at her, the sand becoming hazy as it heated, the warm air rising to make his cape flutter. His voice rose as he finished his incantation, Caden yelling the final verse, a cloud of projectiles flying at his target. He had melted the sand, turning it into wickedly sharp shards of black glass, sending them speeding towards her like a volley of arrows.

The reptile spun her axe, using it as a shield to deflecting them, shattered fragments impacting the sand all around her. Some of them found their mark, smashing into her scales, the reptile shuddering under the impacts. As the dust cleared, Caden saw her standing there, breathing heavily as she lowered her weapon. Her hide was remarkably strong, and most of them had scarcely scuffed her scales, but one of them had embedded itself deep in her shoulder. Dark blood seeped forth, the female reaching up to grip it in her hand. With a snarl, she pulled it free, tossing it to the ground.

The injury barely gave her pause, the beast loosing a cry of challenge as she charged back into the fray, Caden grunting as he struggled to ward off another strike from her axe that could have shattered granite. His figurehead sparked with electricity as he uttered another spell, scarcely needing to speak the words, imbuing his staff with its crackling energies. The next time that his stave met the blade of her axe, a loud thunderclap echoed across the desert, a bright flash of lightning throwing her back. Her weapon seemed to absorb most of it, electricity arcing across the obsidian blade, the familiar smell that preceded a rainstorm carrying on the air.

Her frill fluttered as she glared at him, snarling something in a language that he had no hope of understanding, raising her axe to point it at him. He waited, not sure what she was doing, his extra-sensory perception alerting him of the arcane energies roiling within the ivory handle.

A sudden buzzing sound distracted him, Caden glancing around, trying to figure out where it was coming from. Something cast him into shadow, and he shielded his eyes, looking up at the sky as a dark cloud amassed. It was a swarm of insects, dense enough to blot out the blazing sun. They descended behind the reptile, flooding past her like one coordinated organism, their uncountable numbers forming curling tendrils as they raced towards him. Caden raised his arms to cover his face as they surrounded him, flying into him at full-tilt, hitting him hard enough that it hurt. They were large, fat locusts, the sound of their fluttering wings drowning out his cries of alarm. There was no end to them, they just kept coming, harrying him with surprising force. He couldn’t even open his mouth without the insects trying to fill it.

In a panic, he clutched his staff, willing a ball of flame to engulf him. Its heat singed his clothes, surrounding him in a roiling storm of fire, Caden throwing his arms wide as he pushed it outwards. Scorched locusts rained to the sand all around him, the flames dissipating into the air. More of the bugs rushed to replace the fallen, but he was ready for them this time, a jet of fire spewing from the end of his staff as he waved it back and forth like a standard-bearer.

The reptile lunged at him through the haze of acrid smoke, the way that her red war paint framed her wild eyes mimicking the coloration of the eyespots on her frill, Caden reacting with only a moment to spare. The flames petered out as he used the haft of his stave to block her, his feet skidding in the sand as he weathered the blow, his knees buckling.

She never seemed to tire, it was like she was drawing her energy from the earth itself. With a yell, he pushed back, the two exchanging another flurry of violent blows, dueling amongst the sand and dead insects.

She was a force of nature, more akin to a hurricane than a woman. Her sinewy body moved with such grace, like she was dancing as much as fighting, her muscles flowing beneath her painted hide like liquid. For all his tricks, she was ten times the fighter that he was. He had to find a way to end this bout soon, or she would overpower him simply by virtue of her boundless stamina. He could not prevail by hitting her with a stick.

Concentrating on spells was next to impossible while she was trying to beat him into the ground like a tent peg, but Caden tried to focus his mind, deflecting another blow as he began to chant. Just like when he wanted to refill his waterskin, he summoned water vapor from the air around him, feeling droplets of it start to collect on his skin like dew.

The reptile swung at him again, missing him by a hair’s breadth, Caden sidestepping the blow to send it smashing into the coral behind him. With a wave of his staff, he began to heat the vapor, combining the elements of fire and water. The reptile seemed to sense that something was amiss, abandoning her ruthless attack to leap backwards, a cloud of boiling steam suddenly filling the air. Caden heard a hiss of alarm and pain as she retreated, and he took the opportunity to catch his breath, preparing his next attack.

As the cloud of boiling vapor cleared, he aimed his staff at his enemy, but a sudden rumble of thunder interrupted him. She had raised her axe above her head, pointing it towards the sky, which was now full of roiling storm clouds. Impossible, there had been no rain for so many long months. He glanced up, seeing the dark mass shifting, bright rays of sunlight piercing it here and there. It was localized directly above them, the sky was still a deep azure beyond its bounds.

A fork of lightning burned itself into his retinas as it jumped down to the reptile’s axe, the creature moving as if to throw the weapon at him, but keeping her fist closed tightly around its ivory handle. A bolt of electricity leapt towards him like a spear, far too fast for him to stand any chance of avoiding it. Not knowing what else to do, he planted his staff in the ground, the lightning drawn to its bronze figurehead. It coursed through the wood, pain like he had never felt burning through his hands as the electricity jumped to them, a white-hot knife piercing his every nerve. He smelled charred flesh as he dropped to his knees, his bleary eyes opening to see that his hands were blackened and blistered, wisps of smoke rising from his stiff fingers as they cooked.

The skies opened up, cool rain beginning to pour, dampening the sand around him. He felt it on his skin, hearing its gentle patter against the rocks, the droplets washing away the sweat and grime. It might have been pleasant under different circumstances, but he could only focus on the blinding pain in his hands.

The reptile lowered her axe, striding towards him as her long tail dragged behind her, the cheering from her audience growing riotous. He saw her clawed feet come to a halt in front of him, lifting his eyes to see her raising her axe like an executioner, intending to cleave his head from his shoulders.

No, he wasn’t going to end up impaled on one of those spikes…

His stiff, unmoving fingers still had a death-grip on his staff, Caden raising it above his head as she brought her blade down. It bounced off the wood, another flood of pain making him wail, but he fought through it.

The reptile had filled the nearby reefs with verdant plants when she had called upon her magic, the corals overflowing with greenery, with life. Caden drew upon it, draining it, the scorched skin on the backs of his hands gradually regaining its pink hue. Blisters healed, burnt skin repairing itself, the stiffness abating as the garden wilted. By the time she had brought her axe around for another attack, his hands were almost healed, Caden calling upon one last burst of energy to power his aching muscles.

He swung his stave, forcing her to block it with the haft of her axe, his hand darting to his belt as she reeled from the powerful blow. His newly-healed fingers wrapped around the hilt of his enchanted dagger, sliding it out of its scabbard, Caden holding it blade-down as it whistled towards her. It cleaved through the engraved ivory with so little resistance that he overshot, almost as if it wasn’t there at all, the ornate blade flashing as the axe was split in two. She stood there in disbelief for a split second, her eyes widening as the two halves parted in her grasp, the raindrops splashing against her scales. The two pieces suddenly shattered in her hands like a glass sculpture, even the obsidian axe head crumbled into dust. There was a blast like a black powder charge going off, knocking both her and Caden off their feet, the enchantment that had been placed on it violently dispelled.

She landed on her back in the sand, rising to her hands and knees, her chest heaving as she stared at what remained of her weapon. It was scarcely recognizable now, little more than scattered fragments on the wet sand. She scarcely reacted as her opponent climbed to his feet, stumbling his way back over to her.

Caden swiped her across the face with his staff, and this time, her scales hardly provided any more resistance than skin. She toppled onto her side, blood seeping from her split lip, her yellow eyes glaring up at him as he stood over her defiantly. Even as he raised his staff above his head, imbuing it with the weight of an anvil, he saw no fear in her expression.

Conflict wracked him, his hands trembling, Caden fighting back the rage that had carried him this far. His instincts demanded that he finish this duel, the staff growing ever heavier as though it were making a conscious attempt to fall, but his opponent was soundly defeated. Killing her now would serve no other purpose than to satisfy his bloodlust, she could not hurt him anymore, but the urge was overpowering...

With a yell, he brought it down, a thud shaking the ground as its impact threw up a cloud of sand. The reptile opened her eyes in confusion, blinking up at him, seeing that his staff had landed two inches from her head. Caden leaned down, gripping the pendant that she wore around her neck, his knuckles brushing the wet scales just above her cleavage. He tore it loose, certain that it was another enchanted artifact, the string snapping to scatter the colorful beads and shells. Her eyes tracked it as he tossed it aside, strands of his wet hair sticking to his face, soaked by the rain. Raising his staff again, he used it to crush the pendant, another small explosion confirming its destruction.

I wield this staff,” he panted, the reptile gazing up at him without understanding. “I will not allow it to rule me...”

He turned his back on her, the rain beating down on his shoulders as he walked away. The other reptiles remained hidden, too afraid to challenge him, the female propping herself up on an elbow as she watched him disappear from view around one of the reefs.

CHAPTER 5: FRIEND OR FOE

Keep still,” the Shaman complained, rubbing the ointment on Kadal’s injured shoulder as she wriggled on her stool.

I have failed,” the hunter muttered, her eyes fixed on the ground dejectedly.

You did,” the Shaman replied with a nod, Kadal wincing as she pushed more of the white paste into her wound. “But failure is one step on the road to success, is it not? When we fall, we get back up, we don’t lie in the sand and sulk.”

Why didn’t he kill me?” Kadal wondered. “There was nothing stopping him, he could have smashed my head like a ripe fruit, but he didn’t...”

Who can say what goes through the minds of such creatures?” the Shaman replied, beginning to dress the wound with a cloth bandage.

Kadal did not want to argue with the Shaman, she had great respect for her, but her prediction had not come to pass. She had described the battlemage as cruel and bloodthirsty, yet when the opportunity to kill her had presented itself, he had stayed his hand. Why? What possible reason could the creature have for sparing her life? She had tried to kill him, she had shown him no quarter, so why would he show her any mercy in return?

He was like a walking contradiction. He had been so powerful in spite of his small stature, hitting with a strength that rivaled her own, able to weather blows that had toppled males twice his size in sparring matches. Where the Shaman had spoken of cruelty and malice, she had found sympathy, restraint. Kadal had seen the conflict in those strange, round eyes as he had raised his stave above his head. They had been such a strange color, as blue as the sky…

The Shaman finished dressing her wound, Kadal rising to her feet, the old woman batting away her hand as she began to fiddle with the bandage.

Leave it alone, or it won’t heal,” she chided.

What are we to do now?” Kadal asked. “The axe and the pendant were destroyed. Because of me, the ancient relics of our tribe are lost. How can we hope to challenge the mage now?”

Do not think that the fate of our world rests upon your shoulders alone,” the Shaman chuckled, returning her bundle of bandages to its place on a shelf. “There are other tribes, with other relics. The time has come to send word to the other settlements. Where one warrior-shaman failed, others may yet prevail.”

But...what am I to do?” Kadal asked, rubbing her shoulder.

You have done more than enough. Rest, heal. You must recover your strength.”

Do you have no more tasks for me?” she protested. “What of the vision quest, the prophesy that I foresaw, the battlemage?”

Enough, Kadal,” the Shaman sighed as she turned to glance back at her. “You are not the village’s sole protector. Being the most accomplished warrior in the tribe does not mean that you must solve every problem yourself, the other hunters can get along without you. Now, do as I ask, and rest up. Eat, bask, let your wounds mend.”

Kadal hung her head, making her way through the coral tunnel that led to the village. She stepped through the curtain and into the harsh sunlight, feeling it warm her scales, watching as the old women tended the fire pit. There were still hatchlings screeching with glee as they chased one another through the sand, there were still males carrying pots of water that they had brought up from the nearest oasis, society had not ground to a halt because of her failure.

The problem was, Kadal’s entire identity was wrapped up in her role as the village’s protector, as their problem-solver. The Shaman had all but commanded her to sit out this fight, so what did that make of her? What good was a protector who could not be relied upon to protect?

Not knowing what else to do with herself, she made her way out through the palisades, heading to her favorite basking rock on the outskirts of the settlement. As she felt the sun’s warmth energize her, and she closed her eyes, she couldn’t stop her mind from wandering to thoughts of the strange battlemage. Her curiosity was even more of a preoccupation than the shame of her defeat.

Why was he not as the Shaman had described? Why had he spared her? Why would someone who could not bring himself to slay a subjugated foe be set on ending the world, and all of its inhabitants along with it? Nothing made sense, nothing was as she had been told.

Kadal sat up on the rock, some of her prior resolve returning to her. If her people no longer had need of her, then she was free to find the answers for herself. The only way to do that was to track down the mage, shadow him, learn more about him and his intentions in the sacred city. Without her relics, she could no longer stand against him if he decided to attack her, but it was a risk that she had to take. She could not sit idle, not after what she had seen in her vision.

The Shaman would never sanction her plan, she would have to slip away in secret. Kadal would wait until nightfall, when most of the village was asleep, then she would continue her pursuit of the mage.

***

Caden sat in the shade of one of the petrified table corals, his wet clothes drying in the sun as he took the opportunity to eat some of his rations. The fight was still fresh in his mind, even hours later, and he found himself mulling over the events as he ate a piece of jerked meat.

He had won, yes, but barely. Without the enchanted knife that the Master had given him, the outcome might have been very different. It was hard to feel pride in his victory. He looked at his hands, now as good as new, remembering the horrific burns that the lightning had caused them. It was amazing what his magic could repair, they had been charred to a crisp, the pain had been incredible. Caden had never gotten into a fight since setting out on this journey. He had never been one for scrapping as a boy, he had never been involved in a drunken tavern brawl. When he imagined knights in their shining armor engaging the enemies of the kingdom, he thought of chivalry, of bravery and glory. The reality was far less glamorous. It was terrifying, painful, dirty. He never wanted to do it again if it could be avoided.

He glanced over at his staff as it lay propped up against a nearby rock, remembering the feeling of surrendering to its power, the unwelcome emotions that had flooded into him. There was strength in rage, in the desire to see one’s enemy crushed before them, in the resolve to kill without mercy. Even though he had triumphed over those impulses, regaining control before he had done something terrible, the fact that he could be driven to such lengths disturbed him. He was learning new things about himself that he didn’t necessarily like.

His thoughts turned to his opponent, the towering reptile woman who had come so close to separating his head from his shoulders. She was a champion, that much was obvious, selected by her people to do battle on their behalf. It was their primitive equivalent of a knight. While Caden had known that the reptiles practiced shamanism, he hadn’t known what form their magic would take. She had been outfitted with an arsenal of enchanted items just as he had. Her axe had been like his staff, a tool that allowed her to manipulate magic as much as a weapon, and her pendant had also housed some manner of arcane enchantment. The power of her magic had alarmed him, she had been able to make herself nigh-invulnerable, she could call down lightning from the heavens just as he commanded electricity. But while his magic drained life, hers seemed to encourage its growth. That was an oddity that would require more study when he had the time.

Then there was her sheer physicality. She was so tall, so strong, her stamina and vigor dwarfing his own. Caden hadn’t been around many women, there were no female sorcerers, and the Master had no family of his own. The only women he had known were his mother, his sisters, and a few shopkeepers. They were generally expected to be meek, to defer to their husbands, to nurture their families. These reptiles had a very different society, that much was certain. Their females were wild, ferocious, and they seemed to outgrow their males.

He quickly turned his mind back to the task at hand. He might have defeated the reptiles and vanquished their champion, but that didn’t mean that they had given up. Their intent to stop him was clear, he had to assume that they would try again.

Knowing that it might not provide him with any real protection, he began to cast his invisibility spell, settling in to sleep as the sun finally began to dip beneath the horizon.

***

The desert heat baked Caden as he marched, his sweat stinging his eyes. As the sun rose ever higher, navigation became more and more difficult, and he was starting to worry that he was losing his way. His compass had been rendered useless, and there were no landmarks to reference against his map. Everything looked the same in this Godsforsaken place.

As he trudged through the sand, rounding a large outcrop of rock, he came across something that wasn’t a coral reef or a spire. The glint of blue water greeted him as he stumbled upon an oasis that was nestled between the rocks, surrounded by a thick band of greenery that clung to its sandy shore. It couldn’t have been much more than fifty feet across, but there was a veritable forest of palm trees surrounding it, their fronds blowing as they swayed gently in the breeze. They were growing from a carpet of greenery, ferns and desert succulents sprouting in abundance to create a dense carpet of plant life. There were flowers, too, adding a splash of color to the undergrowth. It was such an odd sight, but a welcome one. Water must be rising up from beneath the ground, as there hadn’t been enough rainfall to account for something like this.

He had to shield his eyes as he approached, the glare of the sun reflecting off the water’s calm surface, a few desert birds fluttering from their hiding places in the fronds of the trees as he passed. The ring of plant life was deep enough that he could pretend that he was standing in a forest, if only for a moment, Caden running his fingers through the ferns as he made his way to the water’s edge.

How long had it been since he’d bathed properly? Not since leaving the tavern all the way back at the outskirts of the city. He couldn’t be sure that the reptiles wouldn’t mount some kind of sneak attack on him while he was vulnerable, but it wouldn’t be any more or less dangerous than sleeping. He renewed his perception spell for good measure, keeping his staff on the shore nearby as he began to disrobe, then stepped into the cool water.

***

Kadal crawled through the corals, keeping low to the rocks, raising her head over the crest of the reef. She had tracked the mage this far, she had found his footprints, caught his scent on the air. He could sense her from a distance, she knew that much, though she wasn’t sure how far that sense extended. It was best to be cautious, to keep her distance and stay in cover lest she be discovered.

Before her was an oasis, the sun reflected in its blue water, the palm trees swaying in the wind. It seemed that the mage was bathing. He had removed his abundance of clothing and was waist-deep in the shimmering pool. Her immediate thought was to take him unawares, her hand wandering down to the obsidian knife on her hip, but she noticed that his staff was resting by the water’s edge. She didn’t dare approach him while it was in reach.

Instead, she decided to observe him, watching as he cupped some of the clear water in his hands and poured it over his brown hair. His body was so strange, she had never seen one of his kind disrobed before. At least, not while it was still alive. For being able to hit her so hard with that staff, his small frame was only lightly muscled, certainly far less so than any of the males in her village. Could all of that strength have come from magic alone? His torso was rather short, but his shoulders were broad, she could see some of the muscles shifting beneath his skin as he washed himself.

His hide was smooth and scaleless, pinkish in hue, like no animal that she knew of. All of the creatures that slithered or scurried in the desert had either scales or fur, none of them were so...naked. The water made it lustrous, glistening in the light of the sun, Kadal watching curiously as he ran his hands across it. He turned towards the shore, her eyes sliding down his torso. There was a dimple or some kind of hole just above his waistline, what was that for?

He began to make his way up the bank, Kadal letting her curiosity get the better of her, her gaze wandering between his thighs as his hips rose from the water. She darted out of sight as he glanced in her direction, putting her back to the corals, covering her mouth with one hand to stifle a yelp. Had he seen her? She slowly lifted her head to glance down at him again, seeing that he was rummaging through his pack, his modesty now protected by the thick carpet of underbrush. She was safe.

With a start, she realized that her frill was standing up, flushed a shade of embarrassed red. She hastily pushed it back down around her neck with her hands, glad that nobody could see her. Was she really more afraid of being caught peeking than being roasted alive by an angry battlemage? What was wrong with her?

Turning her mind back to her mission, she continued her observations, watching him withdraw an item from his pack. It was a piece of parchment rolled up in a tube. Could it be a map? Instructions? There was a large, leather-bound book, too. She wanted a closer look, both at him and at the contents of his pack. It seemed as though he was settling in to stay for a while, he was unfurling some kind of blanket to sleep on. Was he going to bask? Did his people do that?

She watched him lie down in the foliage, vanishing from view, then waited a few minutes more to ensure that he was sleeping. Surely whatever spell had let him sense his adversaries through solid rock would not work if he was unconscious?

Confident in her ability to move silently, if not to evade his magic, she crept down from her vantage point and began to make her way towards him. She clung to the corals, then darted across the open sand, diving into the cover of the ferns. Keeping low to the ground, she slowly made her way to the mage’s campsite, only the gentle rustling of the undergrowth giving her away. Her forked tongue flicked out to taste the air, Kadal picking up his scent, giving her a good idea of where he was. Dropping to all-fours, she slunk up to the trunk of a nearby tree, resting a hand on its rough bark as she rose to peer at her quarry.

He was lying on his side, facing away from her, clothed only in some manner of loincloth now. His chest rose and fell gently, he was indeed asleep. Once again, her hand crept down to her obsidian dagger, but she resisted the impulse. Had this creature not spared her life? She had no right to slit his throat while he slept, that was not the victory that she desired.

After watching him for a few moments more, she slithered over to his pack, opening the drawstring and peering inside. She glanced at him again, making sure he was still asleep, then began to rummage through its contents. The book was heavy, and she opened it, leafing through a handful of pages before realizing that she had no hope of reading the foreign text. There was a smaller pouch made from leather, which contained tiny, round pieces of gold. She lifted it, weighing it in her hand, holding up one of the strange artifacts to examine the engravings on it. Having no idea what they were for, she put it back, turning her attention to a disk-shaped object made from brass. It had a lid, which she managed to pry open with her claw, her eyes tracking a spinning arrow that was contained beneath a piece of glass. She gave it a tap, then lifted it to her ear and shook it, giving the sleeping mage another cautious glance.

The smell of food rose to her nose, and she fished out a paper parcel, opening it up to reveal some manner of dried meat. She flicked her tongue across it, finding it salty, then took a small bite. It was tough and chewy, like eating a strip of leather, but its unfamiliar taste enticed her.

She was alerted by the sound of rustling leaves, snapping her head around to see the mage rapidly rising to his feet, his staff clutched in his hand.

***

Caden lay still as he listened to the creature open his pack and begin to inspect its contents, his heart pounding as he clutched his staff in his hand. He was facing away from it, and his eyes were closed, but his enhanced perception allowed him to sense its presence as clearly as if he were staring right at it. He had seen it watching him from atop a reef that overlooked the oasis some time ago, and he had pretended to go to sleep, hoping that it would lure the reptile into a trap. He had expected it to try to attack him while he was vulnerable, and he’d been ready to spin around and blast it with a fireball, but it hadn’t done that. After watching him for a moment, it had moved over to his pack, and now it was eating his salted pork…

He wasn’t sure what it was planning, but he should probably stop it. Fortunately, he had prepared a spell for just such an occasion.

Caden leapt to his feet, his staff in hand, spinning around to point it at the reptile. The creature’s jaw went slack in alarm, a piece of half-chewed pork falling from its mouth. It began to move, wheeling towards the cover of the ferns, but Caden was already finishing his incantation. A flash of light leapt from the end of his staff, hitting the reptile in the back, every muscle in its body going slack as it toppled over onto the sand. Not wasting a second, as the curse would only last for a couple of minutes, he ran over to his pack and retrieved the spool of enchanted rope.

He tossed his staff aside and knelt over the thing, which was currently lying on its face in the ferns, pulling its long arms behind its back and binding its wrists tightly. When that was done, he moved down its long body, pushing its heavy tail out of his way so that he could reach its legs. He tied its ankles together with the other end of the rope, then struggled to pull it taut, crudely hogtying the thing. It was so damned heavy, just bending its knees was a struggle. Was it his imagination, or had the rope shrunken down to assist him? It was enchanted, after all.

When he was done, he stepped back, confident that the beast couldn’t escape. Even if it might have been strong enough to snap a normal rope, the Infinite Strand was unbreakable. He waited as it slowly recovered from his spell, the tip of its long tail starting to wind back and forth like a snake. Should he have found a way to bind that too? Oh well, it was too late now. Clutching his staff in his hand protectively, he watched it begin to struggle, rolling over onto its side as it fought against its bonds.

As it turned to glare at him, he realized that it was female, his cheeks starting to warm as he saw its ample bust wobble in its cloth sling. Was it appropriate to bind a lady in such a way, even if it was a killer reptile?

His eyes met hers, a pair of yellow irises with slitted pupils staring back at him angrily, ringed by crimson pigment. Come to think of it, he recognized her. This was the champion who he had fought the day before. What was she doing here? She hadn’t come seeking revenge, or she would have tried to put the stone knife on her hip through his back, surely?

Caden watched her wriggle in the ferns for a few moments, her muscles flexing beneath her mottled scales as she tried to break loose. The tip of her winding tail began to move, the appendage feeling its way around the rope that bound her, trying to undo the knots. He felt a pang of fear, then remembered what the Master had said about the artifact. No weight can snap it, nor can any force untie it once knotted, save for the will of its owner.

She eventually relaxed when she realized that it was no use, hissing something at him in her native tongue, baring her sharp teeth as the frill around her neck fluttered.

Behave yourself,” he replied, not knowing if she would understand. He brandished his staff, a gesture that needed no translation, her eyes tracking it warily. “I knocked you out once, and I can do it again.”

Now that she was incapacitated, he didn’t really know what to do with her. He wanted to interrogate her, to ask her what she was doing and why her people were so intent on killing him, but they spoke no common language. Was there a spell for this? She watched him, craning her serpent-like neck as he retrieved his book, starting to search through its index. Lead Tongue, prevent a person from speaking. No, that wasn’t it. Commune with Fey? He had no idea what that meant. Throw Voice, he had used that once already. Amplify Voice, nope. There, a promising entry. Comprehend Tongues, a spell that would allow its caster to understand another’s speech for its duration.

She struggled more ardently as he began to recite the incantation, perhaps assuming that he was about to roast her alive or something of the sort. When he aimed the staff at her, she tried to roll out of the way, the frill of skin around her neck fluttering angrily.

There was no flash of light when the spell was complete, and Caden felt no different from when he had started, but her furious hissing gradually took on a more recognizable quality. Distinct words began to emerge from the incoherent warbling and snapping, slowly forming sentences.

...your fleshless skull on a pike!”

Do you understand me?” Caden asked, keeping his staff at the ready. Was this creature even intelligent enough to hold a conversation? Her yellow eyes watched him suspiciously, her blue tongue darting out to flick at the air.

Yes,” she replied reluctantly. Now that she wasn’t uttering a series of bestial snarls and hisses, her voice took on a distinctly womanly quality. It was deeper than what he was used to, husky, as befitted her size.

Good,” he sighed, glad that he was making some kind of progress. “Stop your struggling, you cannot escape. That rope holds a powerful enchantment.”

She lay still, glowering at him, Caden watching her warily.

What do you plan to do with me?” she hissed.

With you?” he repeated indignantly, pointing an accusing finger at her. “Now you listen here, you people are the ones who have been trying to murder me since I set foot in the Coral Sea. You should be glad I didn’t return the favor. I’ve done nothing to you, so why are you so intent on seeing me dead?”

You seek the black stone!” the reptile replied, as belligerent as ever. “You wish to wield the dead star!”

I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Caden snapped. “Dead star? Black stone? I know of no such thing.”

He was starting to wonder if the spell was even working properly, if this creature possessed reason enough to make any sense in the first place.

You trespass on hallowed ground,” she added, “you will violate the sanctity of the sacred city!”

Sacred city?” he asked. “I’m headed to the ruins on the Eastern shore of the Coral Sea, is that what you mean? Does that place hold some significance to you?”

It is a holy place,” she replied, her voice dripping with malice. “It is my tribe’s duty to protect it, to prevent intruders from reaching it, as was ordained by the Gods.”

So, that’s your justification for attacking anyone who sets foot here?” he scoffed. “Some kind of primitive superstition? I would expect even savages to have some concept of law and justice.”

She hissed at him in reply, Caden rolling his eyes at her impotent display of aggression.

I know you,” he continued, “we fought yesterday, didn’t we? I recognize your, uh...” He gestured to the runes and patterns that were painted on her scales, the words escaping him. “Your body paint. Why did you track me here? Was it to take revenge? What were you looking for in my pack?”

She didn’t reply, baring her teeth at him.

Alright,” he muttered, “let’s try something else. What do you know of this sacred city? Why is it so important that you prevent travelers from reaching it?”

It has always been my kin’s sacred duty to guard it, and only now do I understand why. Its secrets cannot be permitted to fall into the hands of those who would use them to do evil.”

Evil?” he scoffed. “My quest is a noble one.”

Lies,” she snarled. “I drank of the Shaman’s potion, I saw the world scorched at your hands as the visions overtook me.”

Again, no idea what you’re babbling about,” he grumbled. “The question now is what to do with you?”

The reptile froze up, her eyes widening, Caden tapping the end of his staff in the palm of his hand as he looked her up and down. It was rather dramatic, but she deserved a bit of a fright after all the trouble she had caused him.

If I let you go, you might just come back and kill me in my sleep,” he mused, walking around her prone form as her head swiveled on her flexible neck to track him. “You’re too heavy to drag around, I cannot take you with me.”

Lay a hand on me, and I shall...I shall...” The reptile couldn’t think of a retort, resuming her ardent wriggling in the ferns.

You’ll what?” Caden asked. “It seems to me that you’re in no position to make threats. Perhaps I’ll give you a taste of your own medicine and put your head on a pike, see how you like it.”

Her frightened reaction made him feel a little guilty, and he decided to stop toying with her. “Alright,” he sighed. “What guarantee can you give me that if I untie you, you’ll leave me be? I’ll only set you loose if you promise to go back to wherever you came from and leave me alone. Tell your kin to do the same.”

She hesitated, Caden awaiting her reply.

I...cannot,” she admitted. “Even if I were to abandon my sworn duty, others will take my place.”

Damn,” he grumbled, running a hand through his still-damp hair. At the very least, she wasn’t lying to save her own hide. She seemed trustworthy in that regard.

Why would you let me go?” she demanded, narrowing her eyes at him. “Yesterday, when you defeated me in battle, you spared my life. I was at your mercy, yet you let me live. Why?”

That surprises you?” he replied, the reptile fixing him with her unwavering stare. “Killing someone who no longer poses any threat to me would be wrong, immoral. I won’t do harm to anyone if it can be avoided.”

Yet you seek entry into the sacred city,” she replied, his statement seeming to confound her.

We’re clearly talking at crossed purposes,” Caden added with an exasperated sigh. “These concepts don’t mean the same thing to me as they do to you. Listen, just...I’ll undo those binds, and you can go free. Leave me alone,” he pleaded. “Believe me when I tell you that I mean you no harm, nor anybody else. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but if I see you again, you may leave me no other choice.”

He reached down towards her loincloth, the reptile whipping the back of his hand with her tail. He recoiled, dancing on the spot as he waved his hand, wincing.

What did I just say!?” he snapped. “Behave yourself, or I’ll paralyze you again.”

Caden reached for her waist, and she remained still this time, realizing that he wanted to relieve her of her dagger. He withdrew it from a loop that was attached to a leather belt, a kind of primitive scabbard, and tossed the weapon into the oasis. It landed in the water with a splash, quickly sinking out of sight. Only now did he notice the cloth bandage on her shoulder, pausing to glance at it for a moment. That was where he had pierced her scales with a glass arrow the day before, a pang of guilt welling up inside him.

He aimed his staff at her and began to recite the healing incantation, the bound reptile starting to writhe on the sand once again as her eyes widened in alarm. He couldn’t tell her what he was doing without interrupting the spell, so he retreated to a safe distance, getting clear of her thrashing tail. She soon stopped her struggled when she felt her injury begin to mend, torn flesh knitting together again, Caden watching the silvery strands do their work beneath the fabric. The nearby ferns began to wilt and brown, which seemed to alarm her. When it was done, he lowered his staff, the reptile watching him curiously.

Obeying his will, the ropes that had her so tightly bound loosened, all of the knots coming undone without him having to lift a finger. Now freed, she climbed to her feet, keeping a wary eye on him as she began to rub her wrists. Once again, her size impressed him. She was so tall...

See?” he said, spreading his arms. “I’m not going to hurt you. And I was joking, by the way, when I told you that I’d put your head on a pike. I mean, it wasn’t funny, I was just trying to give you a fright. Anyway, uh...off you go.”

She glanced at him again, then began to unbind her shoulder, letting the length of cloth bandage fall to the ground. Her scales were covered in some kind of white paste, and she wiped it away, giving what had once been her injury an experimental prod with a clawed finger. It was as good as new, as though she had never been hurt at all.

You are not as you should be,” she said, Caden unsure of how to respond to such a statement.

How do you mean?” he asked.

A battlemage is cruel, vicious, they desire only to sate their bloodlust. You take from life as they are said to do,” she added as she gestured to the dead ferns that lay at her feet, “and you fight with the strength of a demon. Yet you spare your enemies. You heal their wounds. Why?”

You think that I’m a battlemage,” he said with a nod, her skewed perception of him starting to make more sense. “I’m not. At least...Gods, how do I explain this? You have no cause to know about guilds and kingdoms. I may wield the magic and weapons of a battlemage,” he began, not exactly confident in his own argument. “I may look like one and fight like one, but I am no battlemage. There haven’t been any battlemages for a very long time.”

Unconvincing,” the reptile muttered.

What about you?” he shot back, the reptile cocking her head at him. “You tried to cut off my head with a giant axe yesterday, and you could have tried to stab me in my sleep today, but you didn’t. Why? If you thought me so evil, why wouldn’t you try to stop me?”

She rubbed her shoulder, looking away as her frill fluttered, its leathery surface flushing red.

Must I repeat myself?” she grumbled. “I told you already, you are not as I expected. I...wanted to know why.”

It didn’t seem like she was going anywhere right now, and Caden wasn’t sure what she wanted from him.

Well?” he asked, “are you not leaving?”

She seemed hesitant as she glanced at the reefs beyond the palm trees, but when she faced him again, it was with a newfound resolve.

I cannot let you wander our lands freely, not without knowing your true purpose here. I do not trust you, battlemage, and so I will not let you leave my sight.”

What?” Caden replied, baffled by her response. “I don’t trust you either, you crazy...whatever you are. You tried to kill me yesterday!”

You tried to kill me yesterday,” she replied.

Only because you tried to kill me first!”

She crossed her arms, staring him down as he glared back at her. He wanted to threaten her, scare her away, but she would never take him seriously after the show he had just made of being harmless. He had sabotaged himself. Perhaps he could turn this situation to his advantage? Her talk of dead stars in the ruined city worried him, he had no real idea of what awaited him there. If he let her tag along, perhaps he could get some information out of her. He didn’t believe that she posed any real threat. She had been presented with the perfect opportunity to kill him in his sleep, and she hadn’t taken it.

Fine,” he said with a shrug, “do as you will.”

She uncrossed her arms, seeming surprised, watching him as he made his way over to his pack. He returned the items that she had removed, then rolled up his bedroll and began to get dressed, the reptile watching him all the while with those yellow eyes.

What should I call you?” he asked, pulling on his trousers.

An outsider is not fit to speak my name,” she replied tersely.

You can either tell me your name, or I can refer to you as lizard. Your choice.”

Very well,” she grumbled, “it is Kadal.”

Kadal?” he repeated. “Mine is Caden. I’d tell you that I was pleased to make your acquaintance, but that would be a lie.”

She watched him as he pulled on his tunic and fastened his cape around his shoulders, keeping her distance like a curious wolf stalking the outskirts of a campfire’s glow.

What’s all that for?” she demanded.

Civilized people clothe themselves,” he replied, kneeling to tie his laces.

Do civilized people also trespass where they are not wanted?” she chided.

Caden hoisted his pack onto his back, then looked up at the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun. It was almost directly overhead, he had no clue which direction he was going in now, save for a vague idea of the path that he had taken to get here. Wanting to appear confident before his unwelcome traveling companion, he set off, leaving the shade of the palm trees behind him. Kadal was far faster than him, he had seen her inhuman speed, but she slowed her loping stride so that she could match pace with him. She was still wary of him, staying a good ten feet away.

***

The reptile continued to follow him doggedly as he wound his way through the reefs, staying true to her promise not to let him out of her sight. They had been walking for a half-hour now, and she was still lagging behind him, never coming too close. He felt those yellow eyes on his back all the while, like she was evaluating him, her curiosity matched only by her suspicion.

Caden stopped to sit on a boulder, retrieving his waterskin from his hip, and unscrewing the cap. Kadal flinched away, taking cover behind a cluster of corals as he paused to watch her, her head rising from her hiding place on her long neck to peer over the rocks. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head before lifting it to his lips, taking a long draw.

It’s just water,” he called out to her, “it’s not going to hurt you.”

She slowly emerged from her hiding place, crawling up onto the rocks to perch there like a gargoyle on a battlement, watching him as he drank. Her head would sway back and forth like a serpent dancing to a snake charmer’s flute as she scrutinized him, almost like a cat preparing to pounce.

You can have some if you want,” he suggested. “I know a spell that can refill it.”

The appeal of a cool drink seemed to overcome her suspicion, the creature slinking down the reef, slowly creeping her way across the sand. She remained low to the ground, practically crawling her way over to him. Caden held out his waterskin to her, and she slowly extended an arm, snatching it from his grasp. She scurried back to her hiding place, sitting on the warm rocks as she began to turn the item over in her hands.

Did her people not have waterskins? How did they find water in the desert? He watched as she fiddled with the cap, taking a moment to figure out how to turn it, letting it hang from its string as the eyed the container’s open mouth. After probing it with an experimental flick of her tongue, she upended it, spilling a good mouthful onto the rocks.

Hey!” Caden complained. “Just because it’s easy for me to make more doesn’t mean you should waste it.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, then spilled a little more in a gesture of defiance, Caden crossing his arms. Now, she put her scaly lips to it, Caden watching the mouthfuls slide down her slender neck. Her eyes widened, she seemed to be enjoying the taste, her frill fluttering like a parasol in the wind.

Steady on, don’t drink it all!” Caden protested. He rose to his feet, Kadal quickly covering the mouth of the waterskin with the palm of her hand to prevent its contents from spilling, darting off into the corals. There was no hope of catching her, so he sat back down on his boulder, grumbling under his breath.

After a few minutes, he was starting to worry that she might have made off with it, but she eventually reemerged. She tossed the waterskin on the sand at his feet, resuming her silent vigil. Caden picked it up and weighed it in his hand, finding that it was empty, scowling at her. He reached for his staff, the reptile’s frill flaring in alarm as she dove back into cover.

Caden wasn’t about to set her on fire, as much as she was asking for it. Instead, he set his waterskin on the rock and began to recite the spell, calling on the moisture that was present in the air to coalesce inside it. The spell was still effective despite how arid the environment was, but markedly less so. He had to concentrate harder, and the spell took longer to complete, but the waterskin slowly began to inflate.

Kadal peeked over the corals, watching the odd sight, slowly emerging from between the rocks as he whispered his incantation. He found himself wondering what her level of magic was. She had wielded powerful artifacts, and she had known how to summon locusts and lightning, but how similar were her shamanistic practices to those of the sorcerers? Did she have any understanding of what he was doing right now, or was it all new to her?

When it was full, he wiped the mouth with his cloak, then took a drink to show her that everything was fine. She was so skittish, he had encountered deer more confident around him than she was.

What do you call that?” she finally asked. It was the first time that she had spoken to him since leaving the oasis.

This?” he asked. “It’s called a waterskin.”

Water...skin?” she repeated.

It’s made from a sheep’s bladder,” he explained.

Sheep?” she repeated, rolling the unfamiliar word across her forked tongue. Odd. Perhaps the magic that was allowing them to understand one another could not translate words and concepts that had no equivalent in their language.

Never mind,” he sighed, returning the waterskin to its place on his belt.

***

Night was falling, the rays of the setting sun bleaching the cloudless sky in shades of pink and orange. Caden’s feet were becoming sore again, and his stomach was starting to rumble. It was time to make camp.

He glanced over his shoulder, seeing that the creature who called herself Kadal was still following him at a distance, keeping pace easily with her immense stamina. She hadn’t grown bored and turned back yet, as he had expected. She was so stubborn.

Caden found a likely place to sleep for the night, a cave-like dugout in one of the reefs. It was only a few feet deep, the floor covered in red sand, but it would do. He debated whether to cast an invisibility spell, as the reptiles seemed to have overcome it. There were surely more of them pursuing him, they seemed far too determined to give up so easily. He elected to perform the incantation anyway, as it was better to be safe than sorry.

Kadal was less wary of his staff this time, watching curiously as he performed the spell. When it was done, he stepped through the barrier that he had created, vanishing from sight from her perspective. He turned once he was inside the mouth of the shallow cave, smirking at her bemusement, the reptile creeping closer. She cocked her head, her tongue flicking out to taste the air, her long fingers brushing the footprints that he had left in the sand.

Caden extended an arm through the shroud, the magical barrier taking on the quality of broken glass around it, the limb seeming to appear from thin air from where she was standing. She leapt back, hissing as he wiggled his fingers at her.

Getting over her initial surprise, she crept closer, crouching by the barrier as she extended her clawed fingers. She watched in awe as they vanished, the shimmering shards reflected in her wide eyes. Caden watched her play with it, waving her hand through the magical shroud in the same way that someone might run their fingers through a stream. When she wasn’t trying to cut his head off with a giant, enchanted axe, she could almost be described as cute…

You can come in, you know,” he said. The sound of his voice seemed to startle her for a moment, as though she had expected the barrier to muffle it. She slowly pushed her head through, anticipating some kind of resistance, blinking at him as she emerged into the dugout.

Caden made his way over to the far wall and set down his pack, pulling out his bedroll, and laying it on the sand. Kadal didn’t have much choice other than to come closer in the confines of the coral cave, as she wouldn’t be able to see what he was doing from the other side of the barrier. Reluctantly, she sat down a few feet away, bringing her knees up close to her chest as her tail coiled around her feet protectively.

The rustle of paper drew her attention, Caden lifting a parcel from his pack, tied together with a piece of hairy string. Her tongue darted out as he unwrapped it, starting to chew on a piece of salted pork.

You went straight for this when you were rifling through my pack, didn’t you?” he asked as he waved the morsel of dried meat at her. Her eyes followed its every movement, the end of her long tail starting to twitch indecisively. “How about you and I make a deal?” he asked. “You answer one of my questions truthfully, and I’ll give you a tasty treat. How about it?”

He could see the conflict in her, but the allure of salted pork eventually won out, and she nodded her lizard-like head.

Why are you really here?” Caden asked. “If protecting your sacred city is so important to you, why didn’t you try to kill me earlier? You thought I was asleep, my back was turned, so why not take that chance?”

He waited as she fretted, like she was struggling to formulate a reply.

There would be...no honor in that,” she grumbled. “I came back because...I want to know how you defeated me. Why you spared me my fate.”

And what fate is that?” Caden asked, the morsel of meat still clutched in his hand.

We fought,” she replied, as though it should be obvious to him. “We held nothing back in our attempts to slay one another, but when I was laid low, you stayed your hand. My death was assured, yet here I am.”

Do you feel as though our fight is incomplete?” Caden joked. “I can finish the job if that will give you the closure you seek.”

That isn’t what I meant,” she grumbled. “My kin show no such mercy, to let a challenger live is...not our way.”

I gathered that from all the skulls,” Caden muttered. “If I were in your position, I’d be grateful to be alive after a fight like that. You came close to killing me, too, and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have been afforded the same courtesy if our roles had been reversed. We’re both alive, unharmed. That’s as good an outcome as we could hope for.”

The Shaman told me of your kind, battlemage,” she continued. “She spoke of their cruelty, of their lust for conflict. I saw that fury in you, that power, but you are not as she described.”

Don’t call me battlemage,” he grumbled, sparing a glance at his staff as it leaned against the cave wall at his side. “I told you my name, it’s Caden.”

How did you come to wield the powers of a battlemage if you are not one?” Kadal demanded. He could hear the frustration that was creeping into her voice. It wasn’t mere curiosity that motivated her, she burned with the desire to understand, to know how this wound to her pride had been inflicted.

There were battlemages once,” he replied, “a long time ago. In ages past, they were used as soldiers, and they fought in great wars between the Western kingdoms. Long before I was born, the Sorcerer’s Guild was formed, and it was decreed that only those of sufficient knowledge and responsibility would be permitted to learn such magic. I wield their weapons, and I have mastered some of their techniques, but I am no warrior.”

That reply didn’t seem to satisfy her. If anything, she seemed angrier, her frill taking on a red hue as it rose to frame her head.

Do you mock me?” she snapped.

In what way?”

I was chosen to fight on behalf of my people because I am the foremost warrior of my tribe,” she hissed. “I am the largest, the strongest, the most accomplished. I was sent on a vision quest, I was anointed by the Gods. Yet you expect me to believe that you are no warrior? That I was defeated by a mere...what do you claim to be?”

A scholar,” he chuckled, her furious stare leaving him unfazed.

You are no mere scholar,” she snarled, baring her sharp teeth. “What secrets are you hiding from me?”

There is no secret,” he replied with a shrug. “I never claimed to be some great warrior, that was just your assumption.”

She scowled at him, clearly unsatisfied. It sounded like her whole self-image was tied up in this idea of being the biggest and strongest warrior of her tribe, but she had been dethroned by a skinny librarian. No wonder she was so confused.

Here,” he added, tossing the piece of pork to her. She snatched it out of the air, holding it in her palm as she glanced across the cave at him. “I’m true to my word, you answered my question.”

She hesitated for a moment, then began to tear off small chunks with her sharp teeth, chewing on it. As angry and as confused as she was, its flavor seemed to lift her spirits, her frill fluttering in a way that almost seemed content as she ate.

There are other ways to be strong besides the physical, you know,” Caden added. “Do you not wield a primitive kind of magic yourself? That obsidian axe, your pendant, I saw how they empowered you. Your hide became as stone, you could call down lightning and summon swarms of insects, I watched flowers grow where you tread.”

Those were the relics of my tribe,” she replied over a mouthful of pork. “Presented to me by the Shaman so that I might arm myself against you. She instructed me, taught me how to use them, but I know little of their magic beyond that. She also fed me fortifying potions, painted my scales with runes of power, and used her rituals to bless me.”

Oh,” Caden replied. “Sorry about the relics...”

It was hard to say whether primitive practices like body painting, shamanistic rituals, and magic potions actually provided her any benefits at all or if it was all just tribal superstition. The relics were enchanted, he could be certain of that, but was that the only source of her power? Even stripped of her weapons, she remained inhumanly strong by simple virtue of her monstrous nature.

The Master had always taught him that magic could only be wielded effectively by those who understood its underlying properties, the elements and forces upon which it acted, but the same was not true of enchanted items. Could her trinkets have more in common with his knife or his rope than his staff? Maybe, maybe not. The axe seemed to operate just as his staff did, the way that those strands of magical energy had coalesced within its ivory handle…

A stab of pain interrupted the thought, and he remembered that he had neglected to heal his feet. He was reluctant to take off his boots with Kadal so close, but he had little choice. If he left them untreated, he would soon be unable to walk much at all.

The reptile watched as he began to untie his laces, cocking her head as she swallowed the last of her salted pork. She didn’t wear shoes, and so the sight of them might be strange to her.

His boots came off, then his socks, Kadal grimacing as he revealed his blisters. He washed his feet with some clean water from his waterskin, watching it soak into the red sand.

What has injured you so?” Kadal asked.

Walking,” he sighed.

How could walking do that?”

I told you, I’m a scholar,” he replied as he reached over to grip his staff. “I must have walked hundreds of miles over the last few weeks, my body isn’t built for this kind of thing. I’ve spent most of my life sat at a desk in a library.”

She probably didn’t know what a library was, or a desk for that matter, but she remained quiet as he began his incantation. There were plants on the outside of the reef that they had taken refuge in, enough to heal his wounds, Kadal watching them mend miraculously.

Merely walking injures you so, yet you press on?” she asked. “Why?”

I have no choice,” he said, setting his staff down as he flexed his toes. “My task is too important.”

He lay down on his bedroll, shifting his weight to get comfortable as he felt the contours of the sand through the material.

I need some shut-eye,” he announced, sparing her a glance. “If you refuse to leave me in peace, will you at least behave yourself? Do not think me vulnerable just because I am asleep.”

His words seemed to give her pause, Kadal watching him warily. He was lying, of course, but she had no way of knowing what his true capabilities were. He would sleep a little more soundly if he knew that she was uncertain.

The reptile didn’t reply, settling in to lie on her side beside the entrance, about as far away from him as she could get in such a confined space. She curled her long body up like a cat sitting beside a hearth, her serpentine neck and her winding tail forming a kind of ring around her body. Caden felt a little guilty, he had no comfort to offer her, but she was probably used to sleeping in the wilds.

CHAPTER 6: COMMON GROUND

When Caden awoke, his companion was missing. With a start, he leapt to his feet, expecting his pack to be raided and his waterskin to be missing. Instead, he found everything exactly as he had left it. If she hadn’t robbed him, then had she finally seen fit to head home?

As much as he had urged her to do just that, he felt an unexpected pang of disappointment. Kadal wasn’t exactly the most desirable traveling companion, but he had been alone for so long that he welcomed even bad conversation. It made for better company than his own thoughts, which tuned increasingly darker the longer he dwelt on them.

He gathered up his affairs, then exited the cave through the shimmering barrier, noting that her tracks led away from its mouth. He could see the trail that her dragging tail had left in the sand, and it looked recent. He was no hunter, but after erasing so many of his own tracks, he had learned to recognize their age. Curious, he decided to follow it for a little while, her footprints weaving between the rocks. The sun had already risen fairly high, he had slept through the dawn. It would have been nearing nine or ten in the morning under normal circumstances, but such distinctions meant little as of late.

As he rounded one of the reefs, he came across his companion, Caden quickly darting back into the cover of the rocks when he realized that he was intruding. Kadal was draped over a large boulder, stretched out to her full length, the heat of the sun beating down on her. She was completely naked, her sling and loincloth lying beside her, clear of the sand.

Slowly, Caden peeked around the corner, his cheeks starting to warm as he beheld her nude form. She was so lean and sleek, the delicate mosaic of her scales reflecting the bright sunlight, making them shine like her skin had been coated in lamp oil. Caden had never seen a woman so exposed before, and if he had, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. There were parts of her that were so familiar, so human, her feminine curves drawing his gaze with an almost magnetic power. At the same time, so much of her strange anatomy was unfamiliar, the conflict making his heart pound and his head spin.

He had already seen much of her body, she was sparsely clothed even when fully dressed, but he had never been able to examine her in such intimate detail before. Suddenly, the term female seemed an inadequate way to describe her. Kadal was a woman. His eyes roamed up her body, drinking in the details.

Caden had seen her run and leap with such ease, she was alarmingly agile for her size, and these slender legs were the source of that athleticism. They were so incredibly long, ending in strange feet with irregular, clawed toes. So much strength was packed into her stout thighs, the contours of her developed muscles clearly visible beneath her shining hide, dimpling its surface. The scales were so smooth that they looked more like glass than anything living. Why did the sight of them ignite such a fire in his belly? If only he could see what lay between them...

They were joined to her torso by wide hips, made doubly so by the presence of her tail, which emerged from somewhere out of view to trail down the side of the boulder. Those broad hips tapered into a narrow waist, giving her a figure like an hourglass, the muscles of her lean abdomen clearly visible as they bulged from beneath her skin. Caden would never have imagined that a woman could be so strong, her flat stomach interrupted by two perfect rows of muscle that looked like they had been chiseled from stone, each one almost as large as his fist. They flexed and shifted beautifully with her every subtle motion, catching the light, her scales making them gleam.

There was an odd dryness in his mouth as he gazed upon her bare chest, a pair of full, heavy breasts on display in the absence of her sling. Gravity was spreading them apart, yet they were pert enough to keep their round shape, her soft flesh molding around her biceps like balls of melting wax. Blue nipples protruded from between her scales, Caden’s eyes lingering on them, his blood pounding in his ears. What was she doing? Why was she just lying there? He remembered seeing snakes and lizards basking on rocks, warming themselves in the morning sunlight. Kadal must be doing the same.

Her senses were far more attuned than his own, but even a clumsy scholar could walk quietly on sand, so she hadn’t noticed his presence yet. Caden turned back, intending to slink away, but quickly realized that his footprints would betray him. It was probably better to announce himself rather than to let her think that he had been spying on her in secret.

He cleared his throat, Kadal jolting awake, gathering up her ample bosom in her arms to preserve her modesty. Caden averted his eyes, his face burning.

I-I wasn’t looking,” he stammered. “I just wondered where you had gotten to. I’m heading off now, are you coming?”

It is rude to intrude on someone when they are basking,” she replied tersely, reaching for her sling. Caden turned his back to her politely, staring off into the corals as she put her clothes back on.

Well, my kind don’t bask,” he said.

How do you warm yourselves enough to shake off your morning lethargy?” she asked.

A pot of tea, maybe some fried eggs,” he replied with a nervous chuckle.

I am surprised that you did not try to flee when you realized I was gone,” she said, Caden risking a glance over his shoulder to see her drop down off her boulder. She was dressed now, or at least, as dressed as one could be in only a sling and a loincloth. She cocked her head at him, perhaps sensing that he was flustered, but the redness in his cheeks likely meant nothing to her. “I would have found you again in short order, of course.”

Considering that I haven’t done anything wrong, I have no reason to evade you,” he replied. He set off at a brisk pace, waving for her to follow him, almost as though he could physically outrun his embarrassment.Come, the end of the world will not wait for us.”

***

If only my mission here was a scholarly one,” Caden said, pausing to admire some of the coral formations on his way past one of the reefs. “There is so much of interest here, the Coral Sea is truly remarkable, a wonder of the world. Look at these table corals, do you know how long it must have taken them to petrify like this?”

Kadal was trailing behind him, still maintaining a healthy distance between the two of them, but she seemed less wary of him than she had been the day before. She watched him curiously as he knelt down, sifting the sand through his fingers.

This red sand must have once made up the seafloor,” he explained. “I wish I could catalog all of this, the Master would have loved it. Look, there are shell fragments, shark teeth, tiny fossils. How I wish I had the time to take notes, there must be so many discoveries to be made here.

Why does it fascinate you so?” Kadal asked. “Do you not have these things where you come from?”

Not at all,” he replied, rising to his feet and brushing some of the sand from his trousers. “If you have never ventured beyond the Western shore, you might assume that the whole world looks like this, but that could not be further from the truth.” He started to walk again, the reptile hurrying to catch up, intrigued by his tales of foreign lands. “My homeland is wet and verdant, it rains almost every day. Or at least, it used to, before the endless summer. The rolling hills are covered in great fields of grain, and green pastures where our livestock graze. There are forests of trees near as tall as these spires, their canopies so thick that one can scarcely see the sun beneath them, and the undergrowth is so dense as to obscure the ground completely. I might have told you that I disliked the wind and drizzle once, but now I long for the feeling of rain on my skin, for the bite of winter frost.

How can it rain every day?” Kadal wondered. “Surely it would drown you?”

Desert regions only get rain on a seasonal basis,” he explained. “Where I hail from, there are great, roaring rivers snaking their way through the landscape. You could scarcely go a mile without encountering a burbling brook, or a pond full of frogs and fish. These days, the rivers are running dry, and the trees are wilting. My land is becoming a desert not unlike this one.”

Does our home displease you so?”

It’s not that it displeases me,” he replied hurriedly. “On the contrary, I think it’s beautiful, fascinating. But my kingdom becoming a desert means death. Death of the plant life, death of the animals, death of the people who can no longer sustain themselves as they once did. That’s why I’m here.

The noble quest that you spoke of?” she asked, hopping deftly over a rock that was in her path. “Tell me what has driven you to march until your feet bled.”

Should he tell her the true nature of his quest? The Master had warned him against revealing information about his mission to strangers, but the reptiles already knew of his destination, so what did it matter?

I came here to save the world,” he announced, Kadal giving him an incredulous glance. “This summer shows no sign of ending, the days will grow ever longer, and the sun will burn ever hotter until nothing can survive. My Master devoted his every waking hour to finding a solution, and he discovered that an identical calamity was averted thousands of years ago. The sorcerers of the time were able to correct the celestial imbalance using an artifact, and that artifact is said to reside in the ruined city that you consider sacred. That is what I seek.”

Kadal stopped, Caden turning to glance back at her. He was met with her furious stare, but there was conflict behind those yellow eyes, indecision making her hesitate.

When I drank of the Shaman’s potion,” she began, “the world before me melted away. I was shown a vision, a prophecy, one that I revisit every night in dreams so vivid that I awake unsure of what is real. I saw the world scorched by a sun that engulfed the entire sky, I saw the glass spires of the sacred city, and you were at the center of it all. I felt your will as if it were my own, your desire to possess the secrets that the city holds. The Shaman saw something similar, and she believes that you will be the architect of the world’s demise.”

Architect of the world’s demise, eh?” Caden muttered. “No wonder you wanted to kill me so badly.”

You told me that your quest was a noble one, yet you freely admit that your goal is to violate the sanctity of the sacred city,” she continued.You talk of plundering its secrets without shame. Everything that you say only confirms my fears, and duty would have me strike you down where you stand, but I do not...I do not understand...”

Your Shaman also claimed that I was a bloodthirsty battlemage,” he replied. “If she was wrong about that, then maybe she’s wrong about other things, too. Did you consider that?”

This may yet be a deception,” she hissed. “You are fond of tricks and subterfuge, I know this to be true. No, I felt your desire to possess the black stone. Surely nothing good can come of wielding a dead star.”

I want to know more about this ‘vision quest’ of yours,” Caden said, continuing on his way. Kadal followed, keeping her eyes locked on him. “The Guild looks down on shamanism as a primitive and inferior form of magic, and as far as I know, there is no known way to predict the future. Yet, you somehow know of my quest, you know that I have to reach the ruined city at all costs. A traveler heading East across the Coral Sea could only have one destination in mind, even a savage could deduce that much, but talk of this black stone disturbs me. What exactly is it that you saw?

Do you not even know what you seek?” she asked. “How can that be?”

I know not what the artifact looks like, not exactly,” he admitted. “But in the ancient scroll that told of its existence, it was said to shine with a dark light. Is that what you saw in your vision?”

That day, I learned that Gods can die and that stars can fall,” she lamented. She wasn’t lying. Whatever she had seen had deeply affected her, be it the product of magic, or that of some hallucinogenic concoction of desert herbs. “It was blacker than black, perfectly round, like the full Moon. There was a sense of...weight to it, I got the impression that lifting it would be impossible. It was as though it was absorbing the very light itself.”

Sounds like a likely candidate,” Caden said.

What do you intend to do with it if you find it?” Kadal demanded.

I have no idea,” he admitted with a shrug. “I’ll have to learn how the ancients used it, and try to replicate the process as best I can, assuming there’s no way to take it back to my Master.

There was silence for a minute, Kadal lost in thought as she followed behind him.

What if by interfering, you somehow make things worse?” she posited. “You do not have to be evil for your actions to bring about catastrophe.”

What choice do I have?” he replied, climbing over a small sand dune. “If I do nothing, the world will surely burn. This is my only chance to set things right.”

***

Kadal watched as her companion stopped to examine one of the corals, his strange, blue eyes full of wonder. He reminded her of a hatchling in a way, seeming to find joy in the most mundane of things.

What the battlemage had told Kadal disturbed her. He had confirmed all of her fears, that his intention was to enter the city, that he sought to possess the dead star. It was everything that the Shaman had warned of, everything that she had seen in her vision. So why was he being so kind to her? He had healed her, fed her, spared her life on more than one occasion. No matter how hard she tried, she could not imagine this little creature dooming the world. Perhaps by accident, but not with malice.

Still, she had seen that bloodlust in him during their fight, the fury that the Shaman had described. She had seen his magic drain the life from the desert with her own eyes. There was a duality to him that confounded her, and there were things that he was unwilling to reveal.

Despite the dangers, she could not return to her tribe, not yet. She had to learn more about this man and his intentions. She had never beheld a male so small, there was no meat on his bones, he hadn’t the muscle to wield that stave in the way that he had. If that was some kind of magic, then she must learn of it.

As they made their way through the corals, they came across an impasse. Before them was a great wall of stone, towering thrice as high as Kadal’s people could leap. It seemed to bridge the spires, creating an insurmountable barrier between them, the massive blocks cut so perfectly as to fit together without leaving so much as a crack. She turned her head first to the right, then to the left, seeing that it extended out of view in both directions. It became obscured by the reefs beyond a point, she couldn’t tell how long it truly was.

Well, what do we have here?” the battlemage mused as he walked up to the foot of the wall. No, Caden, that was what he had asked her to call him. “Kadal, have you ever seen anything like this before?”

These barriers were erected by the Gods to prevent their enemies from reaching the sacred city,” she replied. “There are several of them in the Coral Sea.”

I don’t suppose you’d tell me how to get around it?” he asked.

They are too tall to leap, and too smooth to climb,” she replied. “When hunters range this far East, we take the long way around, until we find a break.”

And how long does that usually take?”

It depends on the distance of the nearest breach,” she replied. “If this is the wall that I think it is, the nearest breach is about a day’s walk North.”

I can’t afford to waste that kind of time,” he said, running one of his five-fingered hands across the stone. “This construction is amazing, not even our stonemasons could cut rock so precisely. You couldn’t slide the blade of a knife between them. I think these blocks are made from limestone, has to be. Some of these have to weigh twenty or thirty tons...

You speak as though you have a choice,” Kadal scoffed, crossing her arms as she watched him inspect the wall. “Fire and thunder cannot rend rock.”

That’s not entirely correct,” he replied. “If I had a black powder charge, I bet I could create a breach. They’ve been used to assault fortresses in a similar way. Looks like there’s no mortar. This structure is entirely self-supporting. If I could just pop out one of these blocks, I don’t think it would collapse...

And how do you intend to do that?” Kadal asked skeptically. “Do you have a spell that can bring down a mountain?”

Perhaps,” he replied, shrugging off his pack. He fished inside it, retrieving that massive, leather-bound book, setting it on the ground as he began to leaf through its yellowed pages. Kadal waited as he prepared his ritual, her tail batting against the sand as she grew increasingly impatient.

Take a few steps back, would you?” he said as he waved her clear. “If this whole thing comes tumbling down, I don’t want you to be in its path.”

You are serious?” she asked, uncrossing her arms and retreating a short distance as she glanced up at the wall warily. Surely he couldn’t really bring it down? Calling down lightning was something that she could understand, even stealing life to heal one’s injuries, but what force could breach a barrier that had been erected by the Gods themselves?

He lifted that stave of his, gripping it tightly with both hands, beginning to whisper under his breath. It looked like such an innocuous weapon. It had no sharp blade, it was not a club or a hammer, it was more akin to the sticks that young warriors used to spar. In spite of its appearance, she had felt its bite, she had seen what terrible forces it could call upon.

As she watched, something odd began to happen. Water started to drip from one of the stone blocks, forming rivulets across its pocked surface. It was one of the lesser blocks, but that wasn’t to say that it was in any way small. It was almost as tall as she was and just as wide, cut into a vaguely rectangular shape. Before long, its every pore was bleeding, as though a freshwater spring was burbling inside it. After a minute, the flow suddenly stopped, Kadal watching the moisture begin to evaporate as the sun baked the wall. Caden did not break his intense concentration even for a moment, a sparkling layer of frost beginning to spread across the bronze figurehead on the end of his stave as he chanted, covering it entirely. It extended to the stone, too, icy fingers slowly covering its surface. There was a tremendous cracking sound, fissures appearing in the immense block, spreading through it like a cracked eggshell.

What are you doing?” she wondered aloud, risking a step closer to take a better look.

A sorcerer must have an intimate understanding of the forces that he wields if he is to make effective use of them,” he began, waving the staff as he kept his eyes fixed on the stone. “Let me tell you something about this type of rock. It might appear unbreakable, but limestone is porous, like a giant sponge. It’s full of tiny holes that let water pass through it. Using hydromancy, I can summon water from the moisture in the air, and fill every last one of those little pores.”

But how can water crack stone?” she demanded.

Do you know what happens when water freezes? It expands,” Caden explained.Using cryomancy, I can turn the water in the rock to ice, which creatures pressure enough that...”

He gave the wall an experimental tap with the end of his staff, then drew it back, his feet sliding in the red sand as he braced himself. With a startling yell, he swung with all his might, the impact shaking a shower of dust from the ancient structure. The fissures spread further, fragments of stone falling to the sand below. He hit it again, and again, his blows striking with the force of a hammer. The wood should have splintered in his hands, the staff shouldn’t have the weight or momentum to hit so hard, it defied all logic.

Kadal watched in awe, both impressed and frightened by his show of strength. His furry head barely reached her chest, and he claimed to be no warrior, but he had strength enough to outdo any male in the tribe. Strength enough to outdo even her. It had to be some kind of magic, surely, but that made the sight no less impressive.

The block crumbled into fist-sized fragments, the structure around the shattered stone holding the wall aloft, resulting in a perfect hole that led through to the other side. Caden planted his staff in the sand triumphantly, wiping his brow before gesturing to the breach.

After you,he said breathlessly.

She stared at him for a moment, then snapped out of her stupor, making her way over to the hole. She had to crouch a little to fit through, brushing some more errant fragments out of her path, but she quickly emerged onto the other side. Kadal turned to look back at the towering megalith, watching her companion stoop to retrieve his book before following after her.

You look rather pleased with yourself,” she muttered.

What can I say? I find the practical application of the natural laws to be very satisfying.”

He passed her by, marching off into the corals, Kadal cocking her head at him. The longer she spent with this strange creature, the more he seemed to surprise her. She had never met someone who was stronger than her, least of all a male. As the weaker sex, they were generally smaller and weaker than the females, less capable. While he was certainly short, nothing about him was weak.

She had to know more...

***

How did you learn to do these things?” Kadal asked, Caden sitting on a reef as he took a drink from his waterskin. He offered it to her, and after hesitating for a moment, she shuffled closer to take it from his hand. She didn’t retreat this time, leaning against the rocks beside him as she drank.

Magic, you mean?” he asked. She swallowed a mouthful, then nodded, returning the waterskin to him. “Years of study,” he continued. “I was chosen to become a sorcerer by a guild scout when I was just a child, and my family sent me to live with my Master, where I began my training.”

Your family sent you away?” she asked, her frill fluttering with surprise. “Did they not want you anymore?”

No, it’s not like that,” he replied hastily. “I was born into a simple farming family, they produced food for the kingdom. Becoming a sorcerer would afford me far more opportunities than continuing the family business, so they made the decision that they thought would most benefit me.”

How long have you been away from your family?” she asked.

A long time,” he sighed, fastening the cap of his waterskin. “I’m not alone, though. The Master has taken good care of me, he taught me everything that I know.”

He is like...a Shaman?”

I suppose you could say that,” Caden replied with a nod. “He’s very old, very wise, and he’s a prestigious member of the guild. It takes decades, maybe hundreds of years to forge a sorcerer. The amount of knowledge and wisdom required is astronomical. I’ve read thousands of books from cover to cover, I’ve pored over incantations and spells, I’ve memorized the histories of entire kingdoms. Even so, I’m barely considered a novice.”

How can you say that after the feats I have witnessed?” Kadal asked, her scaly brow furrowing.

Magic isn’t just about blowing things up,” he chided. “It’s the pursuit of knowledge, of understanding the world and its processes so that they might be harnessed and controlled. Believe me, my Master can do things that I can’t even imagine.”

And how did you learn to fight?” she asked eagerly, leaning closer.

Oh, is that what interests you the most?” he chuckled. “Very well. I hadn’t picked up a staff until about a month ago, when I set out on my journey. Before then, I had never even seen an offensive spell, and I knew little of the battlemages. Such weapons are only granted to sorcerers when they have demonstrated the restraint and wisdom to wield them, but my case was somewhat...different. My Master was too old to undertake this journey, I had to go in his stead. It was a matter of utmost urgency and secrecy. As such, I was armed with a staff, and trained as much as time would allow. That’s why I keep telling you that I’m no warrior, I had never been in a real fight before I met you.”

I-impossible!” Kadal snapped, rising to her feet. He flinched away from her as she spun around to face him, alarmed by the red frill that had erupted to frame her angry face. “I have trained to be a warrior all my life, I devoted my every waking hour to hunting and sparring, and you mean to tell me that you had never even been in a scrap before!?

Not until we crossed paths, at least,” he said apologetically. “Tell me about it,” he added, trying to keep her talking in an attempt to diffuse the tension. “Life in your tribe, I mean.”

She seemed to calm somewhat, averting her eyes as her frill flattened back down against her slender neck.

I was the largest of my clutch, even when we were hatchlings,” she began. “I was already participating in hunts by the time I was old enough to wield a spear. I loved the thrill of the chase, I loved the praise that my tribe heaped upon me when I returned with enough meat for everyone to share. I liked nothing better than seeing them fed and happy.” She sat back down on the rock beside him, her tail trailing off into the sand. “In my tribe, the more accomplished one becomes, the more responsibilities they are afforded. I am...was responsible for organizing the hunts, for protecting the village, and for carrying out the will of the Gods if need be.”

By will of the Gods you mean killing travelers?” Caden asked.

You speak as though it is something to regret,” she shot back. “If you must know, intruders are rare, and my skills have only been called upon a handful of times. Usually when a more organized force attempts to penetrate the Coral Sea.”

Sounds like you have a lot of responsibilities,” Caden said. “Isn’t there anyone to help you?”

I shoulder those burdens willingly,” she insisted. “It is an honor to be sought out in times of need, to be relied upon.”

Why did you say was?” he asked. “You used the past tense when you talked about your responsibilities. Did you get demoted for losing that fight or something to that effect?”

No,” she replied, rubbing her upper arm as she glanced back at the towering wall in the distance. “But how can I be relied upon after such a failure? Defeating you was to be my greatest accomplishment, I was chosen by the Gods themselves, but the culmination of a lifetime of dedication resulted in...nothing.”

Come now,” Caden said, his tone reassuring. He wanted to place a comforting hand on her shoulder, but he was afraid that he might lose it. “One cannot go through life expecting to never fail, that would be absurd. Not even the Gods can attain perfection. If they could, I would have no need to come here in the first place.”

Why would they ever trust me again?” she lamented, her head drooping.

Because making one mistake doesn’t invalidate all of the things you’ve done right,” he replied. “You’re probably imagining that they’re as disappointed in you as you are in yourself, but I’m willing to bet that’s not true. You might think me some kind of powerful battlemage, but I still make mistakes all the time. I used to lie awake at night worrying that my Master would send me back to my family, that he wouldn’t want me to study under him anymore, but he never wavered. He always judged me by my potential, he didn’t keep a tally of every time I forgot an incantation or melted a hole in a desk by mixing the wrong chemicals.”

And what if all of my achievements up until now were nothing but chance?” she demanded, glaring down at the sand.

You can’t lose confidence because of one failure,” he sighed. “When you fall, you pick yourself up, and you keep going. You learn, you adapt, and you try again.” He realized what he had just said, hastily correcting himself. “Not that you should try this particular thing again, that is. Maybe just take the loss on this one...”

Why would you try to comfort me?” she asked, turning her head to glance at him. “I am your enemy.”

You’re not my enemy,” he replied, shaking his head. “Enemies have cause to hate one another. I don’t hate you, and I don’t get the impression that you hate me. Circumstance pitted us against one another, that’s all.”

Maybe you are right,” she muttered, “but that does not make us friends.”

Yet you keep tagging along,” he replied, Kadal shooting him an angry look.

Purely because I do not trust you,” she snarled. “I am still uncertain of your intentions, and if I cannot stop you, then I must keep you in my sight.”

And what would you do if I turned out to be as evil as you fear?” he wondered, pressing her as she shifted her weight uncomfortably. She didn’t have an answer for him.

Hey,” he added, changing the subject. “We haven’t stopped all day, we should find a place to rest and eat. I have more salted pork.”

I can feed myself,” she snapped, rising from her place on the rock beside him.

I don’t doubt that,” he said, watching her tail draw furrows in the sand as it whipped back and forth in a way that came across distinctly angry. It seemed that he had touched a nerve, as if all this talk of failure had made her feel rather helpless.

She stalked off into the corals, Caden calling after her.

I can’t wait around for you!”

Do you think I cannot follow your tracks, clumsy creature that you are?” she called back as she vanished around a reef. “I will find you later!”

Caden hoisted his pack onto his back and lifted his staff, shrugging his shoulders.

***

It took a few hours for Caden to find a suitable place to make camp, another shallow cave in one of the reefs that provided shelter from the harsh sun. He wasn’t sure why, but he was starting to miss Kadal’s company already, as surly as she was. Maybe it was just because he had been traveling alone for so many weeks. He had left ample footprints, so if she was a hunter worth her salt, she shouldn’t have any trouble finding him again.

He took the opportunity to heal his feet and refill his canteen while he waited, brushing up on some of his spells. As much as his stomach was growling, he wanted to wait for his companion to return before he started eating. There was no small measure of comfort to be found in sharing a meal, and it might help temper her sour mood.

With his renewed perception spell, he sensed a life form approaching, his hand moving to his staff as he saw that it had humanoid in shape. Although he hadn’t encountered any more hunting parties since his fight with Kadal, he couldn’t be too careful…

He was relieved to see that it was indeed her as she appeared at the mouth of the cave, lowering his weapon, Kadal sparing it a wary glance. When she was certain that he wasn’t about to throw a bolt of lightning at her, she tossed something on the ground. It created a splash as it landed heavily in the red sand, its lifeless flesh wobbling, Caden grimacing at the sight of the thing. It was an animal that must be native to the Coral Sea, and he could only have described it as a turtle with no shell. It wasn’t the most appetizing thing that he had ever seen.

Kadal seemed pleased with herself, chirping something at him, her voice nothing but hisses and snapping teeth.

What was that?” he asked, the reptile cocking her head at him in confusion.

Oh, the translation spell must have run its course. They were hearing one another’s language as it truly was once again. He gestured for her to wait, then turned to his spellbook, locating the right incantation again. It didn’t take long to cast, Kadal seeming to understand what he was trying to do, as she didn’t flinch away when he pointed his staff at her.

Better?” he asked.

Much,” she replied. “I was afraid that something had gone awry for a moment.”

It lasted almost three days, not bad. So, tell me what this horrible thing that you’ve brought me is,” he said as he pointed to the dead animal.

Horrible!” she repeatedly dismissively. “Let me tell you, outsider, you are lucky to be presented with such a catch. Besides, who said that I intended to share its meat? Wait,” she added, glancing around the cave. “Where is your fire?”

I can’t make a campfire out here,” he scoffed, “the smoke would serve as a beacon to draw your friends straight to me.”

You really must be a novice,” she laughed, her frill fluttering. “Do you not know how to make smokeless fire?”

Considering that I’m a scholar and not an outdoorsman, I feel no shame in admitting that,” he replied. “Can I assume that you’re about to show me how it’s done?”

You are as helpless as a hatchling,” she sighed. “Wait here.”

Caden shuffled over to the mouth of the cave, watching as she crouched, beginning to dig in the sand just outside of it. Using nothing but her scaly hands, she excavated a hole that was maybe a foot wide and a foot deep, lining it with rocks so that the loose sand wouldn’t fill it in. She vanished to collect some more suitable stones, returning with an armful, examining them before placing them in her hole. She began to dig a second, smaller pit a foot away from it, Caden watching with interest as she repeated the process. Finally, she pushed her arm into it, bridging the two openings and using more rocks to create a small channel between them. The structure looked relatively stable, Caden giving her a quizzical look.

Next, she went off to find some kindling, which took the form of bundles of desiccated plant life rather than dead wood. They looked like clumps of dry moss, or some kind of small sagebrush, Kadal placing them inside one of the pits that she had dug.

I can light it,” Caden volunteered, lifting his staff. She gave him a staunch shake of her head, producing two pieces of flint. She began to strike them together, creating a spark that took root in the bundles of dry brush, quickly blossoming into a bright flame. Kadal crouched by the empty hole, blowing into it, Caden seeing the fire intensify with each puff. To his surprise, there was almost no smoke coming from it, just a few white wisps that were quickly carried away by the breeze.

There,” she declared, standing back up and dusting off her hands. “Fire without smoke. Now, fetch me the prey.”

Caden hesitated, not knowing where to grab the thing. He reached down gingerly to grip its stumpy rear legs, grimacing at the texture of its cold, leathery skin. It was far heavier than Kadal had made it look, and he had to drag it through the sand, his companion watching him with a disdainful expression on her face.

I watched you destroy a block of stone with naught but a stick, yet you can’t lift that?” she chided as she watched him struggle.

This thing weighs as much as a good-sized sheep,” he huffed, finally succeeding in dragging it to the edge of the pit. He released it, watching the thing wobble for a moment, its glassy eyes staring out above a beaked mouth.

Kadal leaned down and lifted it by the leg with one hand, her bicep bulging from beneath her scales as she dangled it in front of him.

How did you even kill that thing?” he asked. “I took your knife.”

With a sharp rock,” she replied. “They burrow to escape the sun when it gets too hot, and that makes them sluggish. They’re easy prey if you know how to find their dens.”

Now that I know you have access to sharp rocks, I might as well give you a knife to butcher that thing with,” he muttered. He made his way back over to his pack, rummaging through its contents.

What of the one on your hip?” Kadal asked.

You can’t use that one,” he said, glancing back at her. “This is the Blade of Umorath. It’s an enchanted item, very dangerous.”

You used that one to cleave my axe in two,” she mused as he returned with a more mundane blade, Caden handing it to her. “What makes it so special?”

It can cut through anything,” he explained, “including your fingers if you don’t know how to handle it. Seriously, it’s not something to trifle with.”

She began to butcher the animal with practiced speed and precision, Caden watching as she speared the choice cuts of pale meat on sticks, driving them into the sand so that they roasted over the flames. He had to admit, as much as the sight of the creature had repulsed him, the scent of cooking meat was enticing. He chewed on a piece of salted pork stubbornly as he watched Kadal stoke the flames, turning the sticks occasionally to ensure that they cooked evenly.

When they were ready, she pulled one of the skewers from the sand, starting to tear off chunks of meat with her sharp teeth. She glanced over at him, seeing that he was watching her, Caden averting his eyes as he took a pointed bite of his pork ration.

Perhaps we should pool our resources,” she suggested, a smile brightening Caden’s face. He retrieved his pack and hauled it to the entrance, sitting on the sand near the firepit. He began to stack parcels, Kadal’s blue tongue flicking out as he opened one of them to reveal its contents.

Do your people eat fruit?” he asked, Kadal nodding. “Try these, they’re dried dates.”

He held out the paper parcel to her, and she plucked one of them from the pile, flicking her forked across it as though tasting it. She seemed to like it, popping it into her mouth and starting to chew, her yellow eyes lighting up.

Good?” he chuckled, Kadal nodding her head excitedly. She leaned over to grab another skewer from beside the fire, driving it into the sand at his side. He opened a few more of the parcels and let her take her pick, lifting the skewer and taking a cautious bite of the still-warm meat. To his surprise, it tasted as good as it smelled. It was very tender, and somewhat dry, reminding him of boiled chicken.

Alright,” he mumbled over a mouthful, pausing to swallow. “I admit, you’re better at cooking than I gave you credit for. Though, after all those dried rations, any warm meal is going to be appealing.”

Kadal, meanwhile, was helping herself to treats from the various parcels. She particularly enjoyed the salted pork and the jerked mutton, tearing at the strips of spiced meat with her sharp teeth, chewing laboriously. She didn’t seem to care for the hard biscuits or the stale bread, Caden laughing as she extended her blue tongue in disgust, brushing the crumbs off it.

They sat by the fire, trading food and making small-talk for a little while. Even as the sun began to set, he noted that the fire wasn’t visible. It was below-ground, even its glow contained within the hole so as not to alert anyone to their presence.

What do you call this?” Kadal asked, brandishing a piece of mutton.

That’s mutton,” he explained, “it comes from an animal called a sheep. My family used to rear them back on our farm.”

What does it look like?”

It has four legs, hooves, and it’s covered in white wool. They look a little like clouds with legs.”

She laughed at the visual, reaching over to take another dried date from the parcel.

It is rather strange, spending time with someone who has no expectations of me,” she said as she popped it into her mouth.

Oh?” Caden asked, prompting her to elaborate.

When my kin seek me out, it is usually because they need something from me, or they require my help in some way. I must go out and find a lost hunter, or investigate the sighting of an intruder, or the Shaman requires rare herbs for her potions. When so many look up to you, it can be...difficult to interact with them on equal footing. Yet you, you ask nothing of me.”

He was about to remind her that she had followed him against his will, but quickly remembered how he had missed her company when she had gone hunting. He was glad of her persistence, in a way. The idea of being out here all alone was not an appealing one, even if his companion’s true intentions might be questionable.

I guess I don’t really need anything from you,” he replied with a shrug. “You’re free to stay or go, it’s up to you.”

Then I will stay,” she replied with a smile. “For the moment...”

CHAPTER 7: SPELUNKING

Caden was asleep. Kadal watched the slow rise and fall of his chest as he lay upon his straw-filled blanket, his staff always within reach. She slowly rose from her prone position, slinking out of the mouth of the cave and into the moonlight beyond.

The firepit was still warm, its embers glowing, only visible from above. She walked past it, her footsteps silent on the sand, taking one last glance at the sleeping intruder before she set off into the reefs. Moving at night was always more difficult than in the day, she missed the heat of the sun, the energy that it provided her. For what must have been three hours, she made her way through the spires and corals, heading back in the direction of the wall. It soon loomed in the distance, Kadal keeping low to the ground, her senses perfectly attuned to her environment.

A sudden movement caught her eye, and she dropped to the sand, lying completely motionless. It was just a nocturnal desert mouse, the startled little creature hopping away across the dunes.

Kadal pressed on, climbing one of the reefs to get a better view of the foot of the towering megalith, its immaculate construction no less impressive. Under the light of the Moon, she could see movement near the heavy blocks at its base, Kadal slithering a little closer to peer between two petrified corals.

It was as she had suspected, there was a hunting party on their tail. They had followed the tracks to the breach that Caden had made in the wall, and tonight, they were making camp in its shadow. Without the Shaman’s magic that would imbue her with the ability to sense their auras, she could only rely on her naked eyes, but a lifetime of experience had made them uncommonly keen. Keeping out of their range, as they had probably been given potions of their own, she observed them as they slept. There were a dozen of them in sight, the moonlight reflecting off their scales, revealing markings that she didn’t recognize. These were not warriors from her village, they must hail from one of the tribes that the Shaman had called upon for help.

Conflict wracked her.

Should she climb down and alert them to the battlemage’s location? They could be upon him before he awoke if they moved with purpose, he wouldn’t be able to stop them all. They had been following the tracks of two people, however. One was an intruder, a battlemage, while the other was one of their own kind. These hunters were not members of her tribe, they didn’t know her, and they didn’t know her purpose here. Would they think that she had betrayed her kind, that she was helping the enemy reach his destination? What other conclusion could they come to? It was forbidden to interact with outsiders, and she had violated that taboo. The only mercy that she might find would be in return for Caden’s head.

That was her duty, it was the will of the Shaman, the decree of the Gods that had been upheld for untold eons. Yet something kept her from following through. What if he was telling the truth? What if his kindness was genuine, and not merely an act designed to deceive her? Her conviction had been so strong when she had set out, but now, she was wracked with doubt.

She was sure of one thing, at least. She did not wish to die by the blades of these headhunters, nor did she wish Caden to suffer that fate. There was time yet to find another solution. Maybe she could confirm that he was telling her the truth, or else find a way to deter him from his quest. If all else failed, then she would have to take responsibility, find another way to stop him if she could not defeat him in battle. The idea frustrated her, she wanted no victory over the battlemage that was not earned, or she would never regain her pride. Yet she had no other choice. If he was truly destined to destroy the world, then her petty pride mattered little, she must do her duty.

An idea came to her, an underhanded, but necessary contingency. Kadal might not have been able to defeat the battlemage, but the Eater of Bones certainly could. What if she were to lead him through the beast’s territory by posing as a guide? She did not wish such a grisly end upon Caden, but if she was not convinced that his motives were as noble as he claimed by the time they reached the creature’s lair, it might be her final chance to avert the catastrophe that she had seen in her vision.

Careful not to dislodge any loose rocks, she turned back, disappearing into the night.

***

Caden ate a light breakfast, noting that Kadal had gone off somewhere, probably to warm herself in the sun. It seemed to be a necessary part of her daily routine, she likely couldn’t function properly without it. He remembered the sight of her naked body splayed out on the rock, her curves burned into his mind like an afterimage, Caden catching himself daydreaming about her as he polished off a ration of beans and salted pork. He tried to drive the intrusive thoughts from his mind, he had far more pressing concerns right now than his confusing feelings toward the reptile.

After setting out again, she caught up to him after a couple of hours, just as he had expected. She was like a cat, coming and going as she pleased. Her ability to track him through the desert was truly remarkable. If he were tasked with accomplishing the same feat, he would probably lose all trace of her after about twenty feet.

There you are,” he said, raising a hand in greeting as she appeared from between two reefs. “I was starting to wonder if you were coming back. What kept you?”

I was merely...basking,” she replied, matching pace as she walked along beside him. It seemed that she was no longer keeping her distance, perhaps their shared meal the night before had convinced her that he posed no threat.

Not much of a breakfast person, are you?” he asked.

I ate my fill last night,” she replied.

I’ll say, you practically polished off that whole turtle by yourself.” “There is something I have been wondering,” she began, Caden using his staff as a walking stick as he navigated a steep dune. “You must know that you are being tracked. What is your plan if your pursuers should catch up with you?”

I figured as much,” he replied, his boots sliding a little in the red sand as he descended the other side. “Your people were far too determined to give up after just one fight. But let me ask you a question in return. Earlier, you told me that others would take your place when you failed to kill me. What did you mean by that, exactly?”

There are other tribes besides my own,” she replied, clearing the obstacle with far more grace. “There are other villages, with other warrior-shamans. When I failed in my task, the Shaman sent word to them, asking them for help.”

Hang on,” Caden said, his blood running cold. “You mean to tell me that there may be more like you coming after me? More warriors armed with enchanted weapons and magic?”

Certainly,” she replied. “There are likely several hunting parties from different villages tracking you.”

More hunting parties, I can probably evade,” he grumbled. “I haven’t run out of tricks just yet. But fighting one of you was hard enough, I don’t plan to make a habit of it.”

You had a head-start,” she continued. “But they can move faster than you, and they know the terrain well. They cannot be more than a day behind you by now.”

Why are you suddenly so concerned about me getting caught?” he wondered, giving her a sideways glance. “Isn’t that exactly what you wanted?”

She looked away from him, her body language somehow colder than it had been the night before. They had shared a meal, they had even laughed together, but he got the distinct impression that something had changed. Before he could ask her what was on her mind, she interrupted the thought.

I have come to the decision that...perhaps you do not deserve to die,” she replied reluctantly.

Oh. Well, thank you for giving me your permission to keep living,” he muttered, hoping that the translation magic would convey his sarcasm. “What about you? If they catch up to me while you’re here, what would happen to you? Would they consider you a traitor?”

She cocked her head at him, Caden wondering what about his question had confused her.

I just mean, maybe you should think about hiding if they’re so close,” he added. “I’ll bet you know all kinds of ways to conceal yourself.”

I warn you that headhunters are on your heels, and your first thought is about my safety?” she asked.

Hey, you’re the one who’s following me,” he shot back. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

I might be more inclined to believe you if you had not been walking in the wrong direction for three days,” she added, Caden turning to glare at her.

Wait, what do you mean? I’ve been following the sun!”

You may start off following the sun when you wake, but by midday, you start to stray North as you lose track of its arc. It may not seem like it to you, but you will probably have walked so far North that by the time you find the far shore, you would have to trek South for miles before you reach the sacred city. It may add days to your journey.”

Gods damn it, why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he demanded.

I thought that you might give up and turn back if you arrived at the shore, and found no city,” she admitted. “But you will never make it that far at this rate.”

How do you even know that?” he continued, scowling at her from beneath the shadow of his cowl. “It’s not like you have a working compass, and I doubt that your tribe has somehow invented sextants before shoes.”

The lichens,” she replied, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Lichens?” Caden repeated, spreading his arms in frustration. He had no idea what she was talking about.

Have you not noticed the colorful lichens that grow on the rocks in the Coral Sea? They prefer shadow, and so they cling to the crevices where the sun does not reach them. Find a suitable boulder, and you will see that they grow only on its North and South faces, leaving a band of bare stone from East to West where the sun passes overhead.”

So I have hunters chasing me, and I have no idea where I’m going,” he grumbled. “That’s just great.”

I may have a solution to both problems,” Kadal said, Caden waiting for her to elaborate. “I know a passage to the East where my people will not follow, but it is...dangerous.”

You would lead me there?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at her. “Why?”

She looked away again, as though it pained her to speak the words. Was it embarrassment? Was her pride so wounded, or was something else on her mind?

As I said, I do not believe that you deserve to die.”

You said it was dangerous, why is that? What makes your people so wary of going there?”

If we continue in this direction, we shall encounter an impassable barrier,” she explained. “There is a ridge, a natural obstacle that would have cut off your advance. The headhunters know this, and were no doubt hoping to drive you towards it with the intention of cornering you.”

Couldn’t I just have gone around it?” Caden asked, Kadal shaking her head.

The headhunters would catch up to you, they are already close.”

I don’t suppose we could climb it without the appropriate equipment? It may come as a surprise to you, but I’m no mountaineer.”

Unless you have some spell that will allow us to walk up its face, I doubt it. There is a pass in the ridge to the South where we might make our way through, but we cannot outrun our pursuers. There...may be another way, however.”

Great!” Caden said, quickly noticing her hesitation. “What’s the issue?”

There is a cave system that leads beneath the ridge and appears to emerge on the far side.”

Appears to emerge?” Caden repeated, giving her a skeptical look.

Nobody has ever been deep enough to find out, it is darker than night in there, and as cold as the grave.”

I guess your tribe doesn’t have torches or illumination spells,” Caden mused. “So, our choices are to face the hunting party and probably take on another warrior-shaman,” he grumbled as he flipped back his cowl and ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “Or, we can enter a completely uncharted cave system and hope that we don’t get hopelessly lost.”

It is a risk,” she conceded, “but the hunters will not follow us into those tunnels. It is the only sure way to evade them.”

Indeed,” he replied cheerfully, “there’s no reason to hesitate! Of course, it has occurred to me that you might be deceiving me. This could be some kind of trap or an attempt to lead me astray.” The comment set Kadal’s frill fluttering, and he worried that he had offended her, quickly continuing. “The alternative is to stay the course and likely be butchered by a pack of giant lizards with axes, however, so I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.”

I am glad to see that trust blossoms between us,” Kadal added sarcastically. “Come,” she said, changing direction. “This time, it is you who will be following me.”

***

Well, that’s a big hill,” Caden mused. He was standing at the foot of a small chain of mountains that jutted like a giant row of teeth from what had once been the seafloor. Its size might have been unimpressive compared to an actual mountain, but it was still at least a thousand feet high in places, maybe more. That wasn’t high enough for there to be snow capping its jagged peaks, but it was enough to make climbing it an ordeal. It was so vertical, the slope was incredibly steep and uneven, covered with impressive coral formations that almost resembled the shelves of a library. Time and exposure to the elements had weathered its face, but it still struck him as a structure that could not have formed outside of the ocean depths. It seemed to extend into the distance in both directions, forming a natural barrier.

Curses,” Kadal hissed. “I did not think that we had strayed so far North.”

I don’t think I can knock a hole in this,” Caden muttered, turning to glance up at her. “Where is the cave you spoke of? Don’t tell me that we’ve cornered ourselves?”

She glanced over her shoulder, her head swiveling on her flexible neck, uncertainty creeping into her voice.

We should make haste,” she urged, growing impatient as they stood out in the open. She kept glancing back at the nearby reefs as though afraid that the headhunters would be upon them at any moment. “Come, the caves are not far.”

***

They soon reached the yawning maw that led into the cave system. It was made of corals, much like the others that they had come across, but it was far deeper. The tunnel of jagged rock extended beneath the earth until shadow shrouded it.

That is possibly the least inviting thing I’ve ever seen,” Caden muttered, leaning in to look down the passage. He could hear his voice echoing, bouncing off the walls, slowly fading in the dark depths.

Might your magic be of help to us?” Kadal asked. She was shifting her weight from foot to foot nervously, looking even less enthusiastic about going down there than he was.

I can light our way, certainly,” he replied. “Perhaps there are other spells that could help us navigate. I would really prefer not to end my days lost in the bowels of the earth.”

There is another problem,” Kadal added, Caden turning back to see the concern in her yellow eyes. “My kind cannot function without sunlight. If we are exposed to darkness and cold for too long, we become ill, and can even perish if we do not find a source of heat in time.”

There may be spells that could help,” he considered, “I’d have to check my book. I know that I can create fire without kindling or fuel. Still, I’m not sure that-”

He stopped, sensing something at the limits of his perception. A sudden bestial cry rang out across the desert, Caden and Kadal spinning around to see a figure atop one of the reefs maybe two hundred feet from them. It was a reptile, a female, her arm raised in the air as she brandished a spear with an obsidian tip. She repeated the cry, her braying chilling Caden’s blood. From behind her emerged a dozen more, clambering up over the corals, primitive weapons clutched in their scaly hands. They began to charge down towards the sand, moving with such speed and grace that they almost seemed to flow through the rocks like water.

Too late!” Caden yelled, starting to run. “The decision was just made for us!”

They will not follow us into the caves!” Kadal replied, quickly outpacing him on her long legs as she raced into the tunnel. “Hurry, Caden! We must get as deep as we can!”

He glanced over his shoulder to see that the reptiles had already covered half the distance, their sharp fangs bared, their litany of stone blades raised in challenge. A fresh burst of adrenaline sent him practically flying into the darkness, his boots pounding on the sand. As he ran, he lifted his staff, his heavy breathing making reciting an incantation twice as difficult. He had to cast an illumination spell, or they wouldn’t be able to see a damned thing. It was a simple one that had been easy to memorize, one of the first that the Master had taught him, but he had never tried to cast magic while running for his life before.

Caden!” Kadal pleaded, beckoning to him as she stood beside a bend in the uneven passageway. They couldn’t be more than ten feet beneath the surface, but he could already feel the bite of the cold wind that was blowing up from the depths.

She shielded her eyes, blinking at him as the bronze figurehead on the end of his staff lit up like an oil lamp, a glow that seemed as pure and as bright as starlight pushing back the inky darkness. He blazed past her, and she followed behind him, glancing back as the sound of reptilian hissing filled the tunnel. They took a few more twisting turns, their pursuers holding back, too afraid to brave the depths without a light source of their own. It wasn’t cowardice that kept them back, however. Nor was it courage that drove the pair down into those winding tunnels.

They ventured ever deeper into the cave, not stopping to rest until they could be sure that they had evaded their pursuers. The tunnel had opened up quite a bit, affording Kadal ample headroom, Caden waving his staff around to illuminate the uneven walls as he caught his breath. They were damp with moisture in stark contrast to the dry desert above, their shine picking out the finer details as they reflected the bright glow.

The curved walls and ceiling of the tunnel were covered in a dazzling variety of corals. Their diverse shapes ranged from sponge-like structures that were pocked with tiny holes, to intricate patterns that almost looked like brains, to tubular and branched formations that still retained their shapes. There were fossils embedded in the rock, too, visible between the corals in places. He could make out seashells, some of them impressively large, many of them forming beautiful spirals. The ground beneath his feet was more silt than sand now, it likely hadn’t been disturbed since these tunnels were submerged untold eons ago.

Are you alright?” he asked, turning to Kadal. She already looked cold, her arms tightly wrapped around her torso, as though the very air itself was sapping the heat from her body.

For the moment,” she replied. “We should move quickly.”

We’ll need to stop for a while so that I can check my book for spells that might be of use to us,” he replied, setting down his pack on the silt. “I had hoped to take some time to prepare before even setting foot in the caves, but it looks like our hand has been forced.”

He pushed his staff into the ground, standing it upright, fishing in his pack for his leather-bound spellbook. He sat down cross-legged, opening it in his lap, angling the pages towards the light as he pored over them.

There are a thousand spells in this book,” he mumbled, licking his thumb before turning another yellowed page. “There has to be something in here that can help us make it through the caves. I couldn’t find any navigation spells that didn’t depend on the alignment of the stars, and my compass doesn’t work in the Coral Sea, but there must be a way around that...”

As he searched, Kadal sat down beside him, her head drooping as she closed her eyes. Was she conserving energy, perhaps? Preferring not to disturb her, he continued to flip through the pages, intent on finding them a way out of their predicament.

***

Caden was starting to despair, he hadn’t been able to find anything in his book so far that would help them. The most that he could do was leave a glowing trail on the ground to mark the path that they had taken, which would at least prevent them from unwittingly doubling back on themselves.

He glanced over at Kadal, seeing that she was still sitting there, motionless. She hadn’t moved a muscle in all the time that he had been reading, and he was relieved to see that she was still breathing. He was about to ask her if she was alright, but thought better of it, letting her rest.

He turned back to his book, scouring the index once more for something that might lead them to safety.

Yes!” he exclaimed, jolting Kadal awake.

I hope you have found what you were looking for if you are disturbing my meditation,” she grumbled.

Dweorh’s Boon,” Caden announced, reading from the passage. “A spell that will lead its caster through mines and underground labyrinths by following the imperceptible air currents that circulate through the passages. It looks like this will lead us to an exit.”

Thank the Gods,” Kadal grumbled, struggling to her feet. She already looked stiff and awkward, the grace that he had so admired now absent. She waited as he began to recite the incantation, gripping his staff in his hands, its figurehead still shining brightly. It was a rather complex spell, Caden referencing the book every so often, his voice echoing through the caverns. After a few minutes, it was complete, and something began to happen. From the glow at the tip of his staff emerged a small, shimmering shape. Threads of magic weaved together to form a little butterfly that fluttered away into the air, the two of them watching, mesmerized as it flapped its shimmering wings. It seemed to float on a breeze that only it could feel, flapping against the current. As they watched, it turned around, fluttering back up the tunnel the way they had come.

They stood there in silence for a moment, then Caden lay his face in his palm.

Right,” he sighed, “it leads us to the nearest exit. Of course it would take us back the way we came, Gods damn it...”

Then...it will not work?” Kadal asked.

No, no,” he replied with a shake of his head. “It should still work, we just need to venture deep enough that a different exit is closer to us. I guess we should just...start walking.”

Their footsteps echoed off the stone walls as they made their way deeper into the earth, the winding passage guiding them far beneath the ridge. It was like stepping into a different world, the heat of the desert left far behind them. These tunnels were downright chilly, it was a welcome reprieve from the blistering heat of the sun. Gone, too, was the dry climate. Down here, every surface was slick with moisture, dripping from the ceiling to form dangling stalactites that resembled icicles of rock.

Eventually, the tunnel widened, emerging into a vast underground chamber. It was like stepping into a cathedral made from flowstone. The ceiling was so high above their heads that the light from Caden’s staff could barely reach it, the far walls so distant that they were shrouded in shadow. The whole chamber must have been fifty feet across at least. The stalactites here had joined with the stalagmites to create towering pillars of stone that seemed to hold the ceiling aloft, the endless dripping of mineral-rich water making them slick and bulbous. It was beautiful in a way, if a little eerie.

This chamber is so huge!” Caden marveled, spinning on the spot as he looked up to admire the rock formations. “To think that all of this was once underwater!”

What are those...growths?” Kadal asked, her scaly face twisting into an expression of disgust.

Those are stalactites,” he explained. “Water carries minerals with it, and when it drips from the ceiling, it deposits those minerals. Over eons, they form those long, spindly fingers. Sometimes, they build up on the cave floor, too. You can see where those formations have joined together to create pillars. Gods, they’re as thick around as the trunk of a stout oak!”

I don’t like this place,” Kadal complained, her teeth starting to chatter.

Keep moving,” he suggested, urging her forward. “It will help you stay warm. Watch your footing, the ground is uneven here.”

He raised his staff to light their way as they weaved between the towering columns of wet rock. There were so many different formations, and once again, Caden lamented that he wasn’t undertaking this journey in a purely academic capacity. How he would love to sit and sketch the vista before him, the Master would have relished the opportunity to pore over his drawings.

As they passed by one of the round pillars, its uneven surface reminding Caden of a melting candle, he caught something strange out of the corner of his eye. He paused, Kadal watching curiously as he took a few steps back, waving his staff. There was something in the shadow that it cast, something that glowed with an odd, blue luminescence.

What is it?” Kadal asked, Caden peering around the pillar.

Don’t be alarmed, I want to try something,” he replied as he lifted his hand. He encompassed the bronze figurehead, blotting out its glow, plunging the cavern into absolute darkness. It was the most total blackness that he had ever experienced, going beyond closing one’s eyes, beyond the most overcast night. Without the light of the moon, or even a solitary star, he couldn’t see his own hand if he held it in front of his face. It was akin to blindness, the absence of sight.

Caden!” Kadal wailed, her voice conveying her fright even if he couldn’t see her expression. Before he could reassure her that everything was fine, something began to shine on the ceiling above them, drawing his eye. It was as though obscuring clouds were pulling back to reveal constellations of faint, glowing stars. There were clusters of luminescent dots all over the rock, their off-blue glow seeming to pool between the stalactites, the pair turning on the spot as they took in the sight.

What...are they?” Kadal whispered, their beauty taking her breath away.

Bioluminescence,” he gasped, “like a firefly! They’re all over the walls and ceiling, we just couldn’t see them in the glare of the staff.”

Are they insects?” Kadal wondered.

I think so, it’s hard to tell at a distance. They look like they’re moving.”

They stood there for a few minutes more, gazing up at the ceiling, only the sound of their own breathing punctuating the silence.

They don’t provide quite enough light to see by, I’m afraid,” Caden whispered. He slowly removed his hand from the end of his staff, its glow bleeding between his fingers, the two companions blinking their eyes as they adjusted to the light.

How are you doing?” he added, glancing over at Kadal. She was shivering, her arms wrapped around her torso protectively.

Cold,” she grumbled.

Caden set down his pack and began to remove his cloak, Kadal cocking her head at him as he shrugged it off. He presented it to her, the reptile hesitating for a moment before reaching out to take it. She wrapped it around her shoulders tightly, the garment so small that it only just covered her torso, barely reaching her lower back.

Thank you,” she mumbled, “but will you not suffer in its absence?”

This is nothing,” he chuckled, jogging on the spot for a moment to illustrate his point. “I can withstand a lot more cold than this. I used to love playing in the snow when I was a child.” He stooped to pick up his pack again, gesturing with his staff. “Let’s keep at it.”

They walked across the chamber, soon locating passages that led deeper into the caves. There was some debate over which one to take, as there were three, and they seemed to veer off in wildly different directions. Caden suggested that they should keep going as straight as they could manage unless they encountered some kind of obstacle or impasse, and he cast a spell that would let him leave glowing marks on the ground at the touch of his staff, ensuring that they could find their way back if there was a need.

***

The winding cave system eventually led them into another chamber, this one sporting a pool of water in its center, so crystal clear that Caden could easily see the rocky bottom.

This seems as good a place to stop as any,” he said, shrugging off his pack. “We should take some time to eat and sleep.”

Kadal was still shivering, even the abundance of walking seemed to do little to warm her up. She was clinging to his cape like a shipwrecked mariner to a piece of floating debris, her sharp teeth chattering as she exhaled clouds of condensation.

I’ll start a fire,” he said, pulling his bedroll from his pack. He set it on the ground, then gestured for Kadal to sit on it, hoping that it would provide a buffer between her and the cold floor. As she slowly lowered herself to the straw-filled bed, he began to recite an incantation, soon summoning a ball of roaring flames. It didn’t need any kindling or fuel, and he set it on the naked rock nearby, the magical campfire spitting embers as it flared.

Its intense heat seemed to soothe Kadal, and she exhaled a sigh of relief as its flickering glow reflected off her scales.

Don’t worry,” he said, passing her his waterskin. “I’m sure we’ll be out of here soon. It’s practically impossible for us to lose our way.”

I think my people made the right decision when they decided never to enter these caves,” she chuckled wearily.

What can I do for you?” he asked. “Will food help?”

Maybe,” she replied, Caden leaning over to fish inside his pack for more paper parcels. He handed her some salted pork, and she began to chew on it. She even ate sluggishly, it was as though her entire body was slowly turning to ice. Caden raised his hands and warmed them before the fire, staring into the crackling flames.

Does it get this cold where you come from?” Kadal asked, making conversation.

It used to,” he replied. “Before the endless summer, we would have snow every winter. It would coat the fields in a fine, white powder, like the frosting on a cake.” He quickly realized that she likely had no idea what cake or frosting was, but he continued anyway, wanting to keep her talking. “Have you ever seen snow, living in the desert?”

Only once or twice, when I was a hatchling,” she replied. “I remember it well. I awoke one morning intending to chase mice in the dunes, only to find that they were covered in a fine, white dust.” She paused a moment, shuffling closer to the fire, pulling the bedroll along with her. “It frightened me, so I ran to the Shaman, and she explained that it was frost. When cold winds blow from the West during the rainy season, the water can freeze and fall to earth as snow. I remember thinking that it was beautiful once I understood what it was, but I never saw it as an adult. It almost feels like a dream when I remember it now.”

You might see it again if I complete my task.”

Do your people truly suffer so?” she asked, glancing over at him with her yellow eyes. The firelight reflected off them, making them seem to burn like hot coals.

My home isn’t like yours,” he explained. “We depend on crops and livestock for our food, and if the rains do not come, then our crops fail.”

Crops?” she asked, not recognizing the word.

You know, agriculture,” he replied. “Wheat, barley? Do your people not cultivate plants of any kind?”

Oh,” she said, nodding her head. “The Shaman grows certain kinds of flowers that she uses in her potions.”

Well, we feed our people primarily with grains. We use them to make bread, beer, that kind of thing. Without water and fresh grass, the cows and sheep will die, too. This endless summer threatens my kingdom, and others like it, with famines the likes of which we have never seen.”

I do not understand,” Kadal muttered as she stared into the crackling flames. “Can they not forage for their food as we do? Even the desert is bountiful if one knows where to look, it is full of edible plants and easy prey.”

Foraging cannot feed a population of sixty-thousand,” Caden replied. “We depend on our farms and herds to provide us with food. When the stores of grain run dry, I know not what will happen. Starvation makes people desperate, there will likely be unrest as people are driven to steal what they need to survive from others.”

I had not realized that the situation where you come from was already so dire,” Kadal admitted. “In my vision, I saw the world burn. I imagined that it would happen in an instant, spreading across the land like a wildfire, not that it would kill so slowly.”

It’s already happening in the lands to your West,” Caden lamented. “Rivers have become but a trickle, the lakes are drying up, and the greenery that once dominated the landscape wilts.” He wrung his hands, wishing that he had something to occupy them with. Magical fires required no stoking, and there was no need to collect wood. “I try not to think about it too much, but if I fail, everyone that I’ve ever known will die. Gods, it would drive me mad if I let it...”

I am all too familiar with the feeling,” she muttered, Caden glancing up at her. “To feel as if you must shoulder all of that responsibility alone. I think you must be the only person I have ever met who has asked nothing of me so far.”

Well, you did show me the cave, and you told me that I was going in the wrong direction.”

Those are things that I volunteered,” she replied. “You did not set out with the expectation that I would guide you, that I would provide some help or useful service.”

Are those the only interactions you ever have with your tribe?” he wondered, feeling a pang of pity. She was so strong, so self-sufficient, it was a quality that he admired in her. Yet to be so competent was to distance herself from others, to be seen almost as a tool for solving problems rather than as a person who might have their own needs and desires.

For the most part,” she sighed. “I have to say, it has been strange having to rely on someone else for the first time. I’m so used to doing everything on my own, it’s all I’ve ever known, so it makes me feel a little like my feet have been kicked out from under me.”

You mean...me?” Caden asked, pointing to himself.

Of course,” she replied, her frill fluttering. “In these tunnels, I am relying on you for my very sight, for warmth, for food. Perhaps that kind of situation is normal for you, but it is not for me. It makes me feel...vulnerable.”

Is that bad?”

In some ways,” she said, not elaborating further.

Kadal opened her mouth in a yawn, exposing its blue lining, her sharp teeth glinting in the light from the staff.

We should sleep,” Caden suggested, his companion nodding in reply. “You can take the bedroll, and I’ll, uh...”

Nonsense,” she replied groggily. “You cannot sleep on freezing rock. Come, there is room enough for us both.”

Are you...sure?” Caden asked, his cheeks starting to flush. “There was a time you wouldn’t come within five feet of me.”

Kadal lay down on her side, spreading out on the bedroll, the light from the staff making her scales shine in the gloom. It reminded him of the time he had seen her basking on the rocks, her nude body glistening beneath the sun, Caden trying to force those memories to the back of his mind. She shuffled across the bedroll, giving him just enough room to squeeze in, patting the furs in invitation. She didn’t look too comfortable stretched out like that, her stature meaning that her feet and her long tail trailed off the end of the bed, exposing them to the cold stone floor.

Caden lay down beside her, putting his back to her, keeping as much distance between them as he could on the cramped bedroll out of respect. Kadal was so close to him, he could feel her breath blowing his hair from somewhere above his head.

He had never shared a bed with a woman before, and even if there was no deeper meaning than simply wanting to stay warm, it still made him feel oddly awkward. He was so aware of her presence, he couldn’t take his mind off her, even as he stared into the flickering flames.

Should I snuff out my light?” he asked, glancing at the staff as it lay on the ground beside the magical campfire.

No, leave it be,” Kadal replied with a low whisper that sent an odd shiver up his spine. “The darkness of this place troubles me.”

He flinched as she draped the cape over him, using it as a rather insubstantial blanket, but it was better than nothing. After a few moments, he felt her draw closer to him, Caden keeping as still as a statue. If he turned to look back at her, his face would be level with her chest. The ladies back home would have been mortified to be seen in such a state of undress, but his prudishness seemed lost on the reptile.

You are so warm,” she murmured in his ear, Caden tensing as he felt one of her clawed hands reach around his chest. He could feel how cold it was, even through his clothes, like she had been soaking her fingers in ice water. As soon as she touched him, all notions of keeping a respectful distance were abandoned, the reptile drawing him in. The soft mounds of her breasts pressed up against his shoulders, their cool scales brushing against the skin of his neck where they weren’t covered by her sling, cradling his head like a pair of pillows as she gripped him tightly. Her other arm wrapped around his stomach, and he felt her icy tail begin to climb his legs, winding around them like a vine creeping up the trunk of a tree. Suddenly, it was as though she wanted to be as close to him as possible, every part of him was in contact with her body. Even fully clothed, it made his heart beat like a drum.

Uh...what are you doing...exactly?” Caden murmured as she hugged him like a little girl with a doll. She lay her jaw on his head, the sound of her breathing filling his ears.

I had no idea that you could put out so much heat,” she sighed, sounding relieved for the first time since entering the caves. “Apologies, am I disturbing you?”

N-no,” he replied hastily. “I just...I didn’t realize you were this cold. If it helps, then by all means...”

The coils of her tail tightened around his limbs, her muscles flowing beneath her scales like a liquid, a subtle layer of fat making the appendage unexpectedly soft. After the savagery that he had seen her display during their fight, he was surprised that she could be so gentle when she wanted to be. Her hide was far softer than it had looked, too. Where her bare chest was pushing against the back of his neck, he couldn’t distinguish the individual scales, it just felt like cool skin to him. He tried not to think about the way that those ample breasts were spilling over his shoulders through her sling, the way that the steady rise and fall of her chest pressed him deeper into her cushiony bosom.

Am I too heavy?” she asked, sensing that he had tensed up.

You’re fine,” he mumbled. “I mean, it’s alright, you’re not too heavy.”

He felt her shuffled again, her breathing growing more regular, Caden willing his muscles to relax. It was hypnotic, in a way. The gentle rhythms of her body seemed to ensnare him, quickly lulling him into a peaceful sleep.

***

Caden opened his eyes, finding that Kadal’s arms were still wrapped around him. It felt good to get some sleep without fear of a pack of feral tribesmen dragging him from his bed. He tried to shuffle out of her grasp without waking her, but found that she had too tight a hold of him.

Hey,” he whispered, “time to get up. We need to keep moving.” She didn’t react, so he gave her a gentle nudge with his elbow. “Kadal?”

He tried to move the arm that was still wrapped around his chest, finding it stiff, and cold. His heart seemed to stop in his chest, and he struggled free, escaping from her frigid grasp. He managed to pull his legs from the coils of her tail, then spun around, kneeling on the bedroll beside her as he shook her frantically. She wasn’t responding, her head lolling on her limp neck.

No no no no no,” he hissed, pressing his ear against her scaly chest. She was almost as cold as the stone floor, but he could hear the slow, plodding beat of her heart. It was weak, sluggish. He leapt to his feet, running his fingers through his hair as panic began to overtake him. She wasn’t dead, but the cold had been too much for her, even with his body heat and the fire. She was a reptile, she couldn’t survive without the sun, without warmth. The freezing cave had put her in a state of torpor from which there was no guarantee that she would wake.

I have to do something!” he mumbled to himself, slipping on the damp stone as he lunged for his staff. He lifted it off the floor, its light still shining. His first instinct was to recite the healing spell, but Kadal was not injured, she was not sick. He could not use a healing spell to treat hunger or thirst, so why would he be able to treat her torpor? Should he bring her closer to the still-crackling fire?

The light from his staff reflected off the surface of the nearby pool, and a better idea occurred to him. Caden rushed back to Kadal’s side, gripping her beneath the arms, heaving as he struggled to move her.

Damn it!” he groaned, tears of frustration welling in his eyes as he fought to drag her from the bedroll. She was too heavy, too large, and he was too weak. A lifetime spent reading books and mixing potions had robbed him of the strength that he so desperately needed right now. As he silently cursed his limitations, he felt a familiar sensation come over him. The frustration, the anger at his own weakness, it was imbuing him with a new energy. He glanced over at his staff where it lay on the cave floor a few feet away, feeling its influence, the wood seeming to vibrate against the rock. He wasn’t even touching it, yet it was reaching out to him, reacting to his emotional state.

His muscles coursed with magical energy, his blood boiling with it, and Kadal shifted. As alarmed as he was by the staff being able to influence him without having to be in direct contact with him, it was no time to look a gift horse in the mouth. He dragged Kadal’s stiff body off the bedroll, freezing water quickly filling his boots and soaking the legs of his trousers as he pulled her into the pool.

He needed his staff, and somehow, it seemed to know that. The sound of wood clattering against stone reached his ears, and he lifted his head to see that the staff was shaking. As if thrown by an invisible force, it leapt into the air, Caden extending a hand to catch it. As soon as the wood touched his skin, he felt a fresh rush of magic, the same sensation overcoming him that he had felt during his fight with Kadal. It was dark, violent, but oh so motivating...

Boil, damn you!” Caden snarled, starting to recite an incantation. Pyromancy came so naturally to him now, it was second-nature, the bronze falcon on the end of his stave beginning to heat up. It was soon glowing red-hot, as though it had just been pulled from a forge, Caden stabbing it into the water with all the savagery of a warrior thrusting a spear into a felled adversary. Steam billowed, a loud hissing filling the chamber as the pool began to warm, the water bubbling around the figurehead.

It wasn’t enough, he needed more, Caden stirring the water with his staff as though he was tending a giant pot of broth. He felt the water around his ankles warming, it was starting to work! He waited until the water became so hot that it was almost unbearable, the steam drenching him in sweat, then he cast his staff aside. With another loud grunt, he dragged Kadal all the way into the pool, submerging her as much as he could. Waves lapped at the shore as he dropped into the water beside her, cradling her head in his lap, keeping it above the surface. She was breathing, but it was shallow, weak.

Please,” he whispered, his voice cracking as he rocked her in the water. “Please let this work. You can’t die because of me...”

He lay there with her in the hot water, tears joining the sweat and humidity on his cheeks, the anger and frustration that had overwhelmed him slowly giving way to exhaustion. It was emotional as much as it was physical, a kind of numbness overcoming him that left him feeling hollow.

After what must have been two or three hours – he had no way of keeping track of the time – he felt Kadal stir. He was jolted from his stupor, glancing down to see her scaly eyelids slowly open, those yellow pupils peering up at him.

Caden?” she murmured. “Why am I wet?”

He began to laugh, the wave of relief that washed over him bringing fresh tears, Kadal looking no less confused as he hugged her large head against his chest.

You wouldn’t wake up,” he explained, trying to collect himself as she peered up at him. He released her, and she looked around the cave, finally realizing where she was. She seemed groggy, disoriented, like someone who had been awoken from a deep sleep.

You...dragged me all the way over here?” she marveled. “And you heated the water?”

I had to do something,” he replied, “I couldn’t just let you die.”

But you don’t need me,” she whispered. “I am nothing but a burden in these caves, all I have done is slow you down. Why are you so intent on seeing me survive?”

Kadal,” he chuckled, wiping a tear from his eye. “Your value isn’t determined by what you can offer me, when are you going to realize that?”

She exhaled, letting herself float in the water, staring up at the dancing reflections that the light cast on the ceiling above.

I have done nothing to earn your compassion,” she muttered, Caden following her gaze as he watched the shimmering reflections. “You have only ever raised your weapon in self-defense, but I hunted you, I tried to kill you. Every time you were presented with an opportunity to kill me, or to kill one of my kin, you let it pass you by. Even as I accuse you of the worst things imaginable, you just smile at me, you never waver...”

Compassion isn’t something that has to be earned,” he replied.

I wanted to learn what made you stronger than me,” she continued. “I imagined it to be some magic spell, or an exotic fighting technique. Maybe the answer lies in you as much as it lies in your abilities. I thought that your mercy was a weakness, but I see now that it is a principle from which no force can compel you to stray. Killing is convenient, leaving me here to die would be easy, but you always choose the hardest path.”

Is that a compliment?” he chuckled.

She pushed her snout into the nape of his neck, Caden tensing up as she nuzzled affectionately.

Thank you...for saving me again,” she murmured. He felt her scaly lips brush his skin as she spoke, the sensation sending a pleasant shiver crawling up his spine. He wanted to tell her that what he had done wasn’t special, that it was something that anyone with a conscience would have done, that it was what people should do. Instead, he decided to remain silent, enjoying this newfound closeness. It made him feel...elated, like his heart might leap right out of his chest. He didn’t want to move, he just wanted to lie there in the balmy water with her for as long as he could get away with, and it seemed that Kadal wasn’t planning on moving any time soon either. That was more due to her close brush with death, but still…

What was this feeling? Was it the relief of knowing that she was going to be alright? Was it that she was finally accepting him as a friend? He had gone through so many emotional highs and lows in such a short span of time that it was hard to quantify, so he elected to simply enjoy it.

I am holding you back,” Kadal muttered, starting to rise from the pool. “You must continue your journey, Caden.”

Her limbs were weak and shaky, and the attempt was quickly abandoned, Kadal sinking back into the water as she loosed a pained groan.

Nonsense,” he replied, guiding her head into his lap again as he sat in the shallows. “We shall stay here until your strength has returned, I don’t care how long it takes.”

Will you not even dry your clothes?” she grumbled. “You’re soaked to the bone.”

There will be time enough for that later.”

She gave in, closing her eyes as he cradled her head, letting herself relax in his arms.

***

Kadal had finally warmed enough that she was able to leave the pool, some of her prior vigor returning to her as she rose from the water, climbing up the rocky bank.

We should get out of these wet clothes,” Caden suggested, beginning to conjure another magical campfire. “All of this will have been for nothing when they start to cool.” He aimed the staff at the ground near their makeshift camp, reciting the incantation, bright flames flaring to life on the damp stone floor. “I’ll fetch you the cloak so that you can cover yourse-”

He turned to see that Kadal was already in the process of sliding off her sling, Caden almost dropping his staff in surprise. He quickly spun around to face the cave wall, his cheeks burning, his head swimming as he heard the wet slap of her clothes hitting the ground beside the fire. When he mustered the courage to turn around again, he saw that she was sitting on the bedroll nearby, her forearm just barely covering her ample chest, her thighs pressed tightly together.

The licking flames reflected off her shining scales, still wet from the pool, light and shadow conspiring to accentuate every sculpted contour of her body. His eyes tracked droplets of water as they rolled down her toned belly, following the channels of her abdominal muscles, so perfect that they might well have been hewn from marble. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from her, the way that her forearm sank deep into the yielding flesh of her ample bosom as she made a half-hearted attempt to preserve her modesty, the shadow of her cleavage as she pressed the two supple globes together. Her stout thighs were dimpled by firm muscle, the deep shadow that lay between them drawing his eyes, enticing him.

He quickly looked away, not wanting to offend his companion by staring too conspicuously, Kadal peering back at him with irises the color of amber. Her gaze was quizzical, but not confused, as though she was gauging his reaction to her nakedness.

Come,” she said, “I can see you trembling.”

Caden swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, turning to glance at her.

W-what?”

Your clothes,” she added, “you must be freezing.”

He began to strip, Kadal affording him no such privacy, her yellow eyes scrutinizing him as he shed his tunic. He, too, was still damp from the pool. It made his skin shine, the fire reflecting off his torso as he set the garment down beside it, Caden feeling her gaze roaming across his body. He must look so alien to her, but was curiosity her only motivation?

He took off his waterlogged boots, setting them beside the roaring campfire, then removed his trousers. He hesitated, now wearing nothing but his undergarments, not wanting to be completely nude in front of Kadal. The alternative was sitting in cold, wet underwear, and so he elected to take those off too. Caden slouched, covering his loins with his hands as he began to look for a place to sit, but Kadal invited him to join her on the bedroll.

The floor is cold,” she protested, patting the furs beside her with her free hand. “Come, sit with me.”

Caden shuffled over to her and sat down at her side, staring intently ahead, watching the fire burn as the clothes that he had neatly arranged around it slowly dried in its heat. She was so much taller than him that he would have had to crane his neck to look her in the eye. It was a challenge to keep his eyes off her chest, which was level with his face due to her stature. He could sense that Kadal was still watching him, but his sense of modesty mandated that he not return her gaze. Noticing that his cape was lying on the ground nearby, he reached for it, feeling a little less exposed as he draped it over his lap.

I thought you naked when I saw you bathing in the oasis,” Kadal began, “but you are actually covered in tiny hairs.” She reached out a hand and ran her fingers along his forearm, her dull claws leaving trails on his skin as she moved down to his wrist. Her touch was not unwelcome, Caden’s heart starting to pound as he opened his hand for her, turning his palm up so that she could interlock her long fingers with his own. They were all different lengths, not unlike those of a human, but more exaggerated. He felt her cool hide, finding it far smoother than he had anticipated, the individual scales just barely distinguishable beneath his fingertips. Its texture was like leather that had somehow been made as fine and as slick as satin, the strange contradiction making it no less pleasing. The gentleness of her grasp surprised him. She could be so careful when she wasn’t swinging an axe around.

She turned her hand so that Caden’s was lying atop it, her head drawing closer to him on her flexible neck, winding down to examine their difference in size more closely. He was as a child to her, the desert tones of her hide contrasting with his rosy skin, her fingers near twice the length of his own.

Are your women as large as I am?” she wondered, those yellow eyes blinking at him expectantly. Her face was so close to his that he could feel the warmth of her breath on his cheek. Despite her covering of scales, and her razor teeth, he felt no impulse to pull away from her.

N-no,” he replied, “our women are usually shorter than I am. Why do you say that?”

I wondered if the reason for your diminutive stature was because you were a male, or if your people are just shorter than my own. Our men are smaller than our women, and I have never encountered a woman from beyond the Western shore.”

No, you’re just...big,” he mumbled. Her head rose up on her slender neck as if to illustrate that point, seeming to fly away from him, a smile curling her scaly lips when he had to tilt his head to follow her gaze.

You are a curious little thing,” she said, her frill slowly rising to frame her face with a blushing ring. “So small for one so mighty.”

That’s pretty much all the magic’s doing,” he insisted, shifting his weight on the bedroll.

Were those concepts so easily separated,” she chuckled. “May I ask you a...personal question?” she continued, Caden’s heart starting to race.

Of course,” he replied, hoping she wouldn’t notice that his hand was sweating.

May I...touch your hair?”

Oh,” he chuckled, not wanting to appear too relieved. “I suppose, if that’s what you want.”

She released his hand from her grasp, reaching for his head, another of the pleasant shivers that Caden had come to associate with her touch sliding down his spine. He felt her fingers delve into his still-damp hair, her dull claws pricking his scalp in a way that he found oddly enjoyable, like the teeth of a comb.

It is soft, like mouse fur,” she giggled. It was an oddly girlish sound to come from such an intimidating warrior, one that was made stranger by the husky quality of her voice, but he welcomed it all the same. His eyelids drooped as she stroked him like one might pet a dog, his shoulders sagging, Caden subconsciously leaning into her. Having spent the majority of his life cooped up in a library, he was not accustomed to such shows of affection, and it was a struggle to maintain his composure. Why did such a simple act make him feel as though he might melt into a puddle on the floor?

When she drew her hand back, Caden was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling that lingered long after her fingers had left the dark tangle of his hair.

I never thanked you,” she began, “not properly. You have shown me nothing but kindness, and I have offered you only suspicion in return.”

If you’re about to tell me that you owe me a debt of honor or something of the sort, I warn you that my people do not believe in such things,” he insisted. “You don’t have to offer me anything.”

Perhaps not,” she replied, giving his hand a squeeze. “But I can offer you my friendship.”

That’s something that I will happily accept,” he said, sparing her an appreciative glance. “Then...you don’t think I’m going to end the world anymore?”

I cannot be certain of anything anymore,” she replied, turning her amber eyes back to the fire. She peered deep into the crackling flames, seeming to become lost in thought for a moment. “The Shaman’s predictions are imperfect. You are not as she said you would be, and there is more going on here than a clear-cut battle between good and evil. I do not know what she saw in her visions, and I no longer trust my own muddled dreams to tell me what the future holds.”

You were so adamant that your vision foretold the destruction of the world at my hands,” he muttered, the implied question not lost on her.

I saw the world scorched, and I saw you at the center of it. I felt your desire to possess the black stone. The Shaman told me of your kind, she warned me that you were cruel, bloodthirsty. Maybe I misinterpreted what I saw, novice that I am,” she admitted. “Perhaps I let my biases influence me, the idea that a battlemage must be an agent of evil, that there could be no noble reason to reach the city.”

So...what do you intend to do now?” Caden asked.

I will go with you to the sacred city, and I will discover the truth of these things for myself. No more legends, no more visions. I want to see what transpires there with my own two eyes.”

Spoken like a true sorcerer,” he said cheerfully.

CHAPTER 8: THE GRAVEYARD

Caden finished his incantation, the swirling strands of energy coalescing to form the shape of a tiny butterfly. The magical construct emerged from the light at the end of his staff, fluttering as though blown by a breeze as it flew off down the tunnel ahead of them.

We did it!” he exclaimed, pumping his fist in the air triumphantly. “We must be near another exit! All we have to do now is follow the butterfly, and we should come out on the other side of the ridge.” He turned to look at Kadal, his wide smile faltering as he saw that she wasn’t joining him in his celebration. “What’s wrong?”

I...have not been truthful,” she replied, her tail flicking back and forth on the cave floor. “After all that has happened, you deserve to know what awaits you.”

What are you talking about?” he asked warily.

I make no excuses for my behavior,” she continued, avoiding looking him in the eye as she examined the far wall intently. “When it became clear that I could not defeat you by my own hand, and that I could not return home without your head, I devised a plan to trap you. You must understand,” she added hurriedly, “I felt that I had no other choice. The headhunters who are tracking us are not from my tribe, they do not know me. They have been following the trails of two people, a battlemage, and a hunter who has been traveling in his company. What other conclusion could they come to other than betrayal? The only way for me to find safe passage back to my village would be to present them with your head, to prove my loyalty beyond any doubt.”

She looked miserable, Caden could see that she deeply regretted her decision, but he waited for her to elaborate before offering his forgiveness. What exactly had she done?

Beyond this ridge lies the Whale Graveyard,” she continued. “It is a sacred place to my people, where our ancestors sourced the ivory for their blessed weapons. The land is inhabited by a savage beast of immense strength, a fiend that we call The Eater of Bones. It was my intention to lead you into its lair so that you might meet your fate at its hands.”

You were going to feed me to a monster?” he asked, raising an eyebrow incredulously. “Is it some kind of animal? What does it look like? Why would you imagine that an animal would be able to stop me when organized hunting parties and a magic-wielder couldn’t?”

I have never seen it with my own eyes,” she admitted, “but I have heard tell of its immensity. It is said to be covered in a carapace of bone so thick that no spear can pierce it, and it feeds on the bones of both the living and the dead.”

Wait a second,” Caden said, scratching his stubbly chin pensively. “I think I know what you’re talking about. I read about it somewhere, in an old bestiary that I found in the library. You’re describing a Borophage, a cousin of the dragon family. How old is this legend, exactly?”

Old,” she replied. “My people dare not go there anymore.”

Then, I take it nobody has been to check on it for a good long while? Dragons are extinct, Kadal. There hasn’t been one sighted for centuries. They were purged by a knightly order that was formed for that very purpose.”

Maybe where you come from,” she replied, “but no knights have ventured so deep into the Coral Sea. My ancestors made sure of that.”

Even so, I think it highly unlikely that a dragon subspecies has survived for so long in such a remote location. It would need a viable population to keep reproducing,” he began, counting off on his fingers. “Enough food to sustain it, enough territory for hunting. I can’t imagine that.”

It is a magical creature,” she insisted, “they live for hundreds of years.”

Let me tell you, while life-sustaining magic exists, the process required to create and maintain it is an extremely complicated and technical one. No thoughtless beast would be capable of such a feat.”

Your knowledge of magic is more limited than you know,” Kadal chided, her frill fluttering with what might be irritation. “All magic draws from the same well, and I have felt its power. When I drank of the Shaman’s potion and went on my vision quest, I felt the barrier that separates me from its influence melt away, until the two of us were as one. It is life, it is nature, and its breadth is beyond comprehension. If your sorcerers have found a way to draw from this power through guile and study, then why should a product of nature not tap into it?”

If you want to debate magical theory, I could go on about it all day,” Caden said. “But I can tell you with the utmost certainty that no dragon has ever performed an enchantment that takes an entire team of master sorcerers to pull off.”

You must take the threat seriously,” she pleaded. “Do you think that I would wager my future, my very life, on nothing but a myth? You should take me at my word when it comes to matters of the Coral Sea, Caden. I have spent my life here, my very survival has depended on my intimate knowledge of this land.”

Caden felt like he should be angrier with her, that he should feel more betrayed than he did. Kadal was certainly behaving as though she expected him to be outraged by her admission, he could see the guilt in her eyes, the fear that their shaky friendship would be ended by her treachery. She believed the Borophage to be real with all her heart, even if they had been made extinct long before either of them were born, and maybe her intent was all that mattered.

Very well,” he conceded. “I will treat the threat as though it were a real one. Preparing to fight a Borophage will be an interesting exercise, even if I don’t believe it to be necessary.”

Then...you are not angry with me?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

I don’t know, Kadal,” he sighed, starting to follow the ethereal butterfly down the tunnel. She walked behind him, wringing her hands nervously, her frill fluttering around her neck. “If you’d told me that you were planning to push me into a mine shaft, I might take it a little more personally. I suppose the important thing is that you told me.”

She seemed relieved by his reaction, but she remained uneasy, trailing a couple of feet behind him as he made his way up the tunnel.

***

Sunlight bled in through the cave mouth ahead, Caden feeling the warm breeze on his face as he climbed towards the opening. The cold and damp of the tunnels was finally giving way to the dry heat of the desert, and Kadal’s relief was palpable.

I cannot wait to feel the sun’s warmth on my scales again,” she said, matching pace with him as he made his way up the coral passage. “Only in its absence have I come to truly appreciate it.”

They emerged at the base of the ridge, the magical butterfly seeming to dissolve into the sunlight, Caden blinking his eyes against the glare. He turned to glance up at the sheer rock face, covered in great shelves of fossilized coral beds. It had really worked, they had traveled beneath the obstacle, and there was no sign of their pursuers.

The headhunters,” Caden began, turning back to Kadal. “Will they go around?”

They will make their way down to the Southern pass,” she explained, setting off into the desert. “It will take them many days to make the journey, they will not be able to catch up to us before we reach the city.”

That’s a relief,” he said, watching her clamber up one of the reefs. “It seems that your shortcut paid off, I would never have made it this far without your help.”

Caden!” she called to him, waving from atop the reef. “You must see this!”

He made his way up the rocks to join her, his pace far slower and more cautious, taking a good couple of minutes before he arrived at her side. From these heights, he could see the reefs laid out in a labyrinthine pattern in the red sand ahead, broken up by the occasional towering spire. It was much the same as the terrain that they had left behind. In the distance, at the limits of his vision, the land began to slope upwards. That must be the far shore, it was finally in sight. More than that, he could make out something that was glittering above the haze, reflecting the sunlight as it rose high above ground level. What could that be?

You look upon the spires of the sacred city,” Kadal marveled, shielding her eyes from the sun. “I saw them in my vision, great towers made from twisted glass that shone across the desert like beacons. We are but a few days’ walk from our destination.”

Finally,” he sighed, following her gaze. She might have better vision than him, she seemed to be able to see them more clearly. “I should feel relieved, but the most difficult task still lies ahead. Decoding the secrets of an ancient relic is going to be no small task. I wish the result was as certain as simply walking from point A to point B...”

The Graveyard lies between us and the shore,” Kadal added, starting to look guilty again as her head drooped. “We could attempt to skirt its borders, go around, but it would add days to our journey.”

Days that we cannot afford,” Caden replied. “No, we go through. If this Borophage actually exists as you claim, then I will deal with it.”

You sound confident,” Kadal mused, looking him up and down as he stood on the reef beside her. “Are you so sure that you could handle it?”

Dragons were just animals,” he explained. “Magical animals, but animals, none the less. If I remember correctly, the Borophage was a species that hunted primarily using scent and magiception, the sense that makes one sensitive to the auras of living things. I’ve imbued myself with a similar sense using a spell, that was how I was able to sense the presence of you and your hunters from such a distance.”

And how we were able to penetrate your invisible shroud,” Kadal added. “Our Shamans know of this enchantment also.”

I should cast that spell on the both of us before we proceed,” he said, “just in case. When we stop to rest for the night, I’ll brush up on some combat spells that might help us if we should encounter...resistance.”

***

The pair made their way through the corals, leaving the shadow of the ridge far behind them. It towered above the reefs and spires, always visible in the distance, forming a natural barrier to their backs. Eventually, strange structures started to come into view, Caden pausing to marvel at them. This must be the Whale Graveyard that Kadal had described. Eons ago, the corpses of whales must have fallen to the seafloor in this area. Like elephants, perhaps something had compelled them to journey to the same location when they sensed that their time was near, some deeply ingrained instinct or primitive ritual that might be proof of rudimentary culture in the majestic animals.

Their titanic skeletons were draped over the corals, filling the clearings between them, partially-intact spinal cords and jutting ribs peppering the landscape. Their bones had not been petrified as the corals had, there must be some kind of magic in them, likely the same reason that the reptiles sought them out for their enchanted weapons. The sun had bleached them a pale white, making them stand out against the red sand and worn rock. Caden had read about whales, he had seen depictions of them in his books, but he had never seen one with his own eyes before. The stories did not do their size justice. They were immense, even their ribs were taller than Kadal, their strange skulls larger than dining tables. There must have been hundreds of skeletons, he couldn’t turn his head without seeing one.

He glanced over at Kadal, seeing that her eyes were darting about nervously, her head on a swivel. She really believed that the Borophage was lurking out here, but Caden would eat his staff if they didn’t come across similar carcasses left by the beasts themselves. With such an abundance of bones, this would indeed have made an admiral stalking ground for the bone-eating dragons, but there was no way that they could have survived for so long.

As soon as they found a suitable place to rest, the first thing that Kadal wanted to do was bask, lying atop a nearby rock. She seemed less concerned about privacy this time, staying close to Caden. At first, he thought that it might be fear of the fabled Bone Eater that motivated her, but she seemed comfortable enough around him now that she felt no need to clothe herself. He didn’t take advantage of the situation, focusing on his book as she lay splayed on a boulder, trying to occupy his mind with learning new incantations. He kept his word to Kadal, preparing as though he might actually be faced with a Borophage. There were many protective and offensive spells to memorize. They differed from his usual fare in that one could not take ten minutes to leaf through a book and read off a spell in the heat of battle. They had to be committed to memory, and they seemed to have been designed with that in mind. They were shorter, somehow harsher, making him feel like he was speaking curses in a language that he didn’t understand.

His concentration was eventually broken by a scaly hand that pushed the book down, Caden turning his head to see Kadal looming over his shoulder, crouching low on her long legs to reach him. She was fully clothed again, much to his relief, or at least as clothed as she usually was. He turned his eyes back to his page again, avoiding looking straight down her cleavage.

You are always so engrossed in your book,” she teased, “have you nothing else to occupy yourself with?”

You seem to be feeling energized,” he replied, raising the old tome again and turning a page.

I feel so much better now,” she sighed, lying down on the sand beside him. Her body was so long and sinewy, Kadal stretching her arms above her head, her spine arching off the ground as she stretched, the motion pushing her ample chest into the air. Her amber eyes flashed in the sunlight, her scaly lips curling into a smile as he buried his face between the yellowed pages.

Are you hungry?” he asked. “I have more salted pork if you’d like some.”

I think that my people eat far less than yours do,” she chuckled, her tail winding on the sand like a snake. “I would call you greedy, but you’re so small. If anything, you should be eating more.”

In one smooth motion, she pushed herself off the ground, leaping to her feet in a display of strength and flexibility that left Caden in awe of her.

Shall we continue?” she asked, Caden nodding his head silently as he watched the sun reflect off her scales.

***

Kadal!” Caden called, “I think I’ve found your Bone Eater!”

She leapt down from the reef that she had been climbing, darting over to his side, her eyes wide. As she turned a corner in the maze of rocks and corals, she saw what he had found, her feet skidding in the sand as she came to a halt.

Is it...”

Long dead,” he announced, making no attempt to conceal his satisfaction at being proven right.

Ahead of them, nestled between two large reefs, was the skeleton of a massive creature. This was no whale, however. Its body was perfectly preserved, all but mummified by the arid environment, the remnants of sunken, scaly skin clinging to its bleached bones. Its shape was that of a giant lizard, or perhaps a crocodile, a good thirty feet from nose to tail. Its forelimbs were the same length as its hindlimbs, suggesting that it had walked on all-fours in life, their position revealing that its gait had been more like that of a bear than a belly-dragging reptile. It had wicked talons like a bird of prey, curved into cruel hooks that must have been used to rend the flesh of its living victims.

Its skull was large in proportion to its body, flatter and broader than that of a crocodile, a robust jaw full of intimidating teeth lying partially buried in the sand. It had serrated, upward-facing tusks that jutted from its mouth, fangs like butcher’s knives on display. They were not all sharpened to a point, however. Towards the back of its jaws were flat molars that were covered in odd grooves, likely used to crush the bones from which it got its namesake. Those jaw muscles must have bulged from its cheeks before they had decayed into dust. The bite force required to crush a whale’s vertebra was beyond any surviving animal.

Even that was not its most striking feature. Just as Kadal had described, its body was covered in a layer of overlapping, bony plates that made it looks as though it was clad in a suit of natural armor. It protected the head with a helmet-like covering of pale bone, the armor extending down the back of its neck. It draped over the beast’s back and shoulders, almost like the shell of a giant turtle, but articulated so as not to hinder its movement. It covered the tops of the thighs, too, running all the way down to the tip of its tail. Some of the plates had sloughed off during its decomposition, and they looked far too heavy for a single man to move.

Here’s your monster,” Caden said, gesturing to the desiccated corpse. Kadal edged closer, hesitating as though wary that it might somehow spring back to life. “Looks like it died a long time ago, a dry environment like this could have preserved it for hundreds of years.”

Perhaps...you were right,” Kadal conceded as she walked along the length of the remains. “I cannot believe its size. How powerful it must have been in life. No wonder my ancestors feared it so.”

Caden made his way over to its skull, then lifted his staff, beginning to jab at one of its fangs with the tip.

What are you doing?” Kadal asked, cocking her head quizzically.

Taking back a souvenir,” he grunted, succeeding in dislodging one of the teeth. He stooped to pick it up, turning it over in his hand. It was huge, so large that it could have been used as a knife in its own right, one side serrated like a saw. “My Master will love this, maybe it has some alchemic or magical application.”

It seems strange that in such a vast territory, we should come across its body so quickly,” Kadal muttered.

There was likely a late-surviving population living here until relatively recently,” Caden posited, appraising the skull. “I’m sure there are more carcasses scattered about the area. I wish we could stop and examine the beast further. What a rare opportunity, to find one in such good condition. Maybe on the way back...”

They left the carcass behind them, continuing on their way, weaving through reefs and bones as they went. Caden noted that some of the whale skeletons had been gnawed on. There were tooth marks on the jutting ribs, some of them snapped to expose the nutritious bone marrow that had once been contained within.

As he had predicted, it wasn’t long before they came across another example. This one was considerably smaller, a juvenile, by the looks of it. It had not lived to adulthood, likely due to competition and dwindling resources in the region.

It’s almost sad,” Caden mused, stepping around the partially-buried remains. “These creatures must have been magnificent in their prime.”

You said that your people hunted dragons,” Kadal said. “Why did they do that?”

They were too dangerous to be allowed to exist,” he replied as he trudged through the red sand. “They would kill livestock and travelers, and their magical properties made them far harder to deal with than a rogue bear or a pack of wolves. The kingdoms eventually formed a knightly order to end their reign of terror, and the battlemages were involved, of course. I’m actually surprised by how many anti-dragon spells were recorded in my book, they had developed quite the repertoire.”

***

After walking for a while longer, Kadal stopped in her tracks, gesturing for Caden to do the same as her forked tongue flicking out to taste the air.

I sense it too,” Caden said, gripping his staff with both hands. There was something at the limits of his magical perception, a large aura, which indicated an abundance of life. It lay somewhere ahead of them, but it was impossible to tell exactly what the aura originated from.

Can you...tell if it’s moving?” she whispered, as though she might somehow be overheard.

I don’t think so,” he replied.

Should we double back? Try to go around it?”

If it were a Borophage, it would be able to see us as clearly as we can see it,” he explained. “They hunted through magiception. I say we stay the course.”

Are you mad?” Kadal hissed. “For all you know, we could be walking straight into the maw of a Bone Eater!”

And for all you know, it could be a simple oasis where we might rest,” he replied. “Look around you, Kadal, the Borophages are all dead. What else could create such a large concentration of magical energy if not a thriving oasis?”

She looked like she wanted to argue, but thought better of it, following behind Caden as he continued on. It didn’t take long for them to close in on the troubling aura, which quickly grew beyond what could have been possible for a Borophage. As they climbed up a reef to get a look at the land ahead of them, they came upon a verdant ring of dense foliage that overflowed from the bounds of what must be an oasis, the plant life obscuring the water from view.

See? What did I tell you?” Caden gloated, carefully climbing back down to the sand as Kadal waited for him with a less than pleased expression on her face. They made their way towards the ring of ferns and palm trees, the allure of sitting in the shade for a while putting a spring in Caden’s step. “With the simple application of logic, we can overcome the fear wrought by myths and superstitions.”

I should be relieved,” she replied with a flutter of her frill that matched the sarcastic tone of her voice, “but your smugness almost makes me wish that you were wrong.”

All I’m saying is that we live in a world based on natural principles,” he continued, pushing through the trees. They entered the shadow of the sparse canopy, the leafy fronds waving in the breeze above their heads, the carpet of ferns rising to Caden’s knees. “When we understand and apply those principles, we can-”

As they emerged from the cover of the palms, they stopped dead in their tracks. Crouched at the opposite bank of the oasis was a massive shape, an armored head rising to peer at them as water sloughed from its tusked maw. It was a Borophage, just as alive as they were, its thick layers of natural armor catching the glare of the sun. It must have been thirty feet long, powerful muscles rippling beneath its black scales as it shifted its weight on four stout legs, its clawed toes digging into the red sand. From beneath the bony plate that protected its skull, a pair of beady eyes looked out at them, tiny when compared to the immensity of its wide head.

Caden and Kadal stood frozen for a moment, then the thing loosed a growl, a low rumble that had more in common with the sound of an earthquake than anything produced by an animal. They unfroze, bolting back the way they had come, dashing into the trees as though death itself was on their heels. Caden caught a glimpse of the beast as it waded into the pool, giving chase, its enormous mass displacing the water like the launching of a ship. It was fast, far moreso than its size would have suggested.

All that Caden could hear was his blood rushing in his ears and the rustling of the ferns as he ran, his boots pounding on the sand. Facing off against another person had been frightening enough, but this was something else entirely, a distinctly primal fear filling his blood with adrenaline.

Kadal was flying, far faster and more agile than he was, her winding tail vanishing through the trunks of the palms ahead of him. She waited for him on the sand beyond the oasis, her eyes wide with fear as she took cover in the corals.

Caden!” she wailed, “we have to find a place to hide!”

There has to be a cave around here, some kind of gap that thing can’t fit through. Don’t worry about me, Kadal, just run!”

He could see the conflict in her. Although she was far faster than he was, she didn’t want to leave him, her tail whipping through the air indecisively. The decision was soon made for them as the Borophage came crashing through the trees behind them, snapping their sturdy trunks as if they were toothpicks, splintered wood flying through the air. It kicked up a spray of sand as it skidded, struggling to change direction, its claws tearing up the earth like the blades of a plow. It was so clumsy, moving like a giant bulldog, great slabs of muscle quivering beneath its leathery hide. Those beady eyes locked onto its quarry, their unthinking stare conveying a dull, primitive violence.

Kadal bolted first, winding between the rocks like a frightened snake, something about the way that she moved seeming to attract it. Caden leapt into the cover of some nearby corals as it wheeled about, kicking up great torrents of sand, its footsteps shaking the ground beneath his feet as it gave chase. His first reaction was a kind of guilty relief, but he quickly overcame it, gripping his staff in hand as he left the safety of his hiding place to follow behind it.

It barreled through the reefs, smashing into them as it threw its immense weight around, the collisions posing no threat to the armored beast. Its ferocity was palpable, the Bone Eater pursuing Kadal like a cat with a mouse, leaving fragments of broken coral scattered in its wake.

Caden glimpsed the end of its armored tail as it turned another corner, the sound of Kadal’s terrified cries filling him with a kind of frantic desperation. What if he turned the corner and she was already…

He emerged into a small clearing, a bowl of red sand surrounded by reefs, finding the thing tearing at the corals with its claws. Kadal had slipped into a crevice between the rocks, a space barely wide enough to accommodate her, and the Borophage was scrabbling to get at her. Like a dog digging for a field mouse, it tore at the obstacle with its powerful forelimbs, its wicked talons scoring the stone. Caden had never heard someone scream in terror before, and he never wanted to hear it again.

No!” he bellowed, his fingers wrapping around his staff. The artifact reacted to his emotions, creating a blast of wind that sent the red sand swirling through the air, its energy pouring into him. He could feel those silvery strands coursing through his blood, boiling it, his heart pumping magma through his veins.

The beast abandoned its hunt, slowly turning to face him, its thirty-foot body seeming to quiver with every step that it took. It could sense magic just as he could, and right now, Caden was a wellspring of surging energy. Everything that he gave his staff was amplified, returned to him tenfold, the very air around him seeming to crackle with magic.

He could see Kadal behind it, her eyes wide with terror as she pressed herself into the crack in the rock. The Borophage was standing between them, its attention now completely focused on him, the creature bellowing a challenge as it stamped its feet.

More than energy, his staff was feeding him something else. That familiar bloodlust returned, an almost irresistible impulse to inflict violence, a willingness to fight that bordered on glee. He embraced that seething rage, letting it flow through him, consuming him. There was no hiding from this thing, no outrunning it. It was going to take a monster to kill another monster.

The Borophage launched into a run, quickly covering the fifty feet between them in a few steps, racing towards him like an avalanche of bone and scale. Caden stood firm, spitting a short, harsh incantation as he drove his staff into the ground.

There was a flash of light as bright as the sun, emanating from the end of his stave, the creature bellowing in pain and alarm as he blinded it. Caden leapt out of its path, the monster’s momentum carrying it into the reef behind him, the sound of bone impacting stone echoing across the desert. The thing drew back, sending crumbling pieces of rock falling to the sand beneath its forelimbs, shaking its head like a bull that had just run into a tree. It barely seemed dazed, turning to face him again, its jaws opening to reveal rows of pearly teeth.

Caden was vaguely aware of Kadal calling out to him from what seemed like miles away, but his mind was focused on the fight, on the pair of reptilian eyes that were peering back at him. He was no knight, he had no sword, no pike. If he was going to fell this thing, then magic was his only weapon.

Swirling flame coalesced around the bronze figurehead, the metal glowing red-hot, the fire reflecting in the beast’s eyes as it lunged at him. Caden loosed a jet of flame, sending them washing over the Borophage’s armored head, dark smoke billowing. The Borophage didn’t falter, its open maw emerging through the swirling smoke, its tusks glinting in the sunlight. Caden scarcely had time to react, but his body almost seemed to move of its own accord, muscles imbued with magic swinging his staff with enough force to shatter rock. It connected with the thing’s scaly jaw, the impact enough to knock it aside as though it had been punched by a being of its own size and power. He felt the wood in his hands vibrate, the weight and momentum that he had created pulling him along with it, making him stumble.

The Borophage recovered quickly, loosing a roar of frustration that shook the earth, swiping at him with one of its clawed forelimbs. Caden dodged the blow, the speed of his reactions seeming to increase the more he surrendered to the staff’s powers, his muscles becoming as hard as iron as they flexed to send him leaping clear.

Those claws would have torn him to ribbons, he could not block a blow from this thing as he had Kadal. He regained his footing in the sand, watching the Borophage shake its head again, the flames having done little more than dirty its bony head plate with black soot. Its hide was thicker than any gambeson, its armor nigh impenetrable.

It seemed warier now, beginning to circle him, its length even more intimidating as it put its flank to him. It was so large that it had more in common with the facade of a building than any animal Caden had ever seen, the slabs of muscle that held it aloft bulging from beneath its loose, leathery hide. Its tail dragged behind it, the overlapping plates of pale bone clattering together with its every step. If he could not penetrate its defenses, perhaps he could find a way to bypass them. The Borophage was evaluating him, too, its primitive intelligence searching for a way to sate its hunger.

Caden had almost finished his next incantation, the static electricity that he was drawing from the air making the hairs on his arms stand on end as it collected around his staff. He concentrated it into a bolt of lightning, sending it arcing towards the beast, a bright flash burning an afterimage into his eyes as it found its mark.

The Borophage reared up on its hind legs like a startled horse, its maw open wide as it loosed a bellow of pain, a puff of smoke obscuring the point of contact. When it cleared, Caden could make out a circle of charred flesh the size of a dinner plate, burnt meat the color of roast beef exposed where the scales had been seared away. It was a severe burn, undoubtedly painful, but it was superficial at best. That was all of the power that Caden could muster, but it hadn’t penetrated more than an inch. There was no way that it could do damage enough to be fatal.

The agony sending it into a blind rage, the Bone Eater charged him, lowering its head to bring its serrated tusks to bear. It churned up the sand as it raced towards him, foam dripping from its mouth, what must be twenty tons of pure muscle bearing down on him. Caden tried to hit it with another flash of light, but it was to no avail, the Borophage’s momentum carrying it forward. He tried to get out of its way, but there wasn’t time, the creature clipping him with its scaly shoulder on its way past. That alone was enough to knock him to the ground, the air forced from Caden’s lungs by the blow. He felt like he had been hit by a war hammer, struggling to his feet, wheezing as he tried to take a breath. Without the magic protecting him, his body would probably have been pulverized.

The monster slammed its head into the corals, coming to an abrupt halt, shaking more fragments of shattered rock from its bony plates as it began to turn around. Caden wasn’t going to let it dictate the pace of their fight, he had to go on the offensive. With a war cry of his own, he raised his staff and ran at the thing. There was a sound like the crack of a whip, the beast swinging its tail like a flail, catching him in the side. His feet left the sand, the blow sending him sailing through the air, Caden landing hard a good ten paces away.

As he climbed to his feet, leaning on his staff for support, he was vaguely aware of Kadal calling out to him. She was pleading for him to flee, to save himself, but there was no way that he was going to let that thing devour her. So what if the fate of the world rested on his shoulders? What good was he as a savior if he couldn't do this one thing, save this one person?

He took up a defensive stance, wiping away the blood that was leaking from the corner of his mouth. The taste of metal was on his tongue, something inside him was broken, ruptured. There was nothing that he could do about it now, he would have to try healing his injuries later. For now, he felt those strands of magical energy fortifying him, driving back the stabbing pain in his torso. It was as though the staff could sense that he was hurt, doing what it could to keep him fighting. As much as the idea of a weapon that could compel its wielder to fight disturbed him, he needed that power if he and Kadal were going to survive.

The Borophage charged again, and Caden decided that if he couldn’t block it, he was going to counter it. The magic helped to focus his mind as he slid his hands towards the far end of his staff, holding it like a battle axe, the bronze figurehead slamming down on the sand behind him with far more weight than it should have had. He needed more, the falcon sinking deeper, its mass increasing as the beast bore down on him.

With a yell, he tried to lift it off the ground, finding a weight like a blacksmith’s anvil fighting against him. His biceps bulged as they were imbued with energy, the silvery threads intertwining with his muscle fibers, his mind racing as he visualized the necessary calculations. The weight, the momentum, the angle that he wanted it to travel. Wielding physics itself as a weapon, the staff began to swing, the Borophage looming in front of him like a sheer wall of teeth and scales.

The staff flew so fast that it made a loud crack as it displaced the air around it, its upward arc catching the charging monster in the face, even the magically-imbued wood of the haft bending under the stress. The monster reacted as though it had been hit by the fist of a God, one of its tusks shattering as the figurehead made contact, its head snapping to the left. The blow was enough to change its course, making it stumble, the creature narrowly missing him as it plowed into the sand face-first. The staff had so much momentum that it carried Caden along with it, the figurehead digging a crater in the sand, so large that it looked like a ten-ton boulder had been dropped there.

As the mass decreased, he raised the staff again, turning to see the Borophage climbing to its feet. It loosed a low rumble of what might have been frustration, shaking its head, the motion making its muscular shoulders quiver. It reached up with a forelimb, clawing at its face as though trying to dislodge something. When it turned to look at him again, he saw that its right tusk was little more than a shattered stump, blood giving the foam that was leaking from its maw a pink hue. He had hurt it…

Come on!” he bellowed, spinning his staff in a challenge. If the beast possessed reason enough to understand him or not, it began to approach, more cautiously this time. When it came into range, it raised one of its clawed forelegs, bringing it down in an attempt to crush him. He dodged out of its path, red sand showering him as its powerful blow created another crater. Like a cat playing with a toy, it swiped at him, Caden resisting the impulse to block it. Instead, he summoned more strength, more mass as he swung his staff to intercept it. The impact was enough to rock the beast, knocking aside a foot the size of a cartwheel, making the creature falter.

Caden followed through with another strike that caught it across the face from the left, not enough to break the other tusk, but enough to send it reeling. It fell onto its side, the impact shaking the foundations of the world, scrambling to right itself as its tiny opponent advanced on it. He lifted his staff again, its weight such that he could feel the stress fracturing the bones in his arms, but he was seeing red. The artifact propelled him onward, dulling his pain, pushing him beyond his physical limits. The consequences of his actions weren’t even a factor. All that he wanted to do was defeat his opponent, to feel the satisfaction of the kill.

The staff came down on its armored flank, the impact cracking the thick plating, sending fragments of bone flying through the air. Caden could feel his own ligaments tearing as he continued his attack, harrying the beast with blows as though trying to hammer a tent peg into the ground. The rage was taking hold of him, silencing the voice of reason that was warning him to back off, that he was going to do more damage to himself than the beast if he kept this up. The staff held sway, it demanded violence, and what happened to him was irrelevant.

Shattered pieces of its plating sloughing off, the beast lashed out at him, claws the size of daggers slicing through the air. Caden had his staff raised in preparation for another strike, its mass slowing him as he tried to leap clear, those curved blades catching him across the chest. The wounds weren’t deep enough to cause mortal damage, but they cut through fat and muscle, blood quickly soaking the front of his tunic. It dripped down onto the sand, its crimson color lost in the sea of red.

He heard Kadal wail from somewhere behind him, and he realized that he was standing between her and the Bone Eater now. A new sensation began to override the bloodlust, an urge strong enough to overpower it. Caden was not here to kill, to maim, he was here to protect. If he let the dark urges that flowed from the staff rule him, he would not be able to accomplish that goal.

Almost as if it was consciously fighting him, he felt its violent energies flow into him, roiling in his veins. It was so hard to concentrate, to wrest back control of his faculties. Caden had so little experience of rage, there was so little malice in him, it was like trying to fight off a fever through willpower alone.

The Borophage scraped at the sand, preparing to charge again, lowering its skull to bring its one remaining tusk to bear. Brute force could not win this fight, he had to harness the energies of the staff, direct them into something more creative and refined.

The words of the Master echoed in his mind, Caden remembering the moment that he had been presented with the staff in that dusty room at the top of the tower. It seemed like half a world away now, half a lifetime.

Where a lesser man would only see a weapon, you see a tool, and that is exactly why I feel I can trust you with this responsibility. The staff is not a mere cudgel, it has many potential uses. If you possess the necessary knowledge, you can conjure light to illuminate a dark path, or freeze water to make an ice bridge across a river.

A weapon could only do harm, but a tool could protect, it could create. He finally understood now, why possession of these artifacts was only entrusted to the most learned and responsible sorcerers. The staff had a will of its own, not a consciousness, but a drive that it transferred to its wielder. Like a wild horse, it had to be tamed, brought to heel so that it could serve a constructive purpose. So far, Caden had been driven by a selfish desire to survive, and by a mission of such a grand scale that it was intangible. But no longer. Now, he had a person to protect, a friend who urgently needed his help.

The will of the staff began to bend to his own, he could sense it, the boiling rage that had overtaken him slowly subsiding until he began to feel like himself again. With purpose as clear as crystal, he forced back its influence, reigning it in. From now on, he would wield it, and not the other way around. It would never get any easier, his constant vigilance would be required to prevent it from taking hold again, but that was the cost of harnessing such terrible power. In a way, he welcomed that burden. It would serve as a constant reminder to never let it run unchecked.

His conflict and subsequent realization had taken but a moment, and he was snapped back to the present by the snorting of the Borophage. Caden began to back away, his mind racing as he started an incantation, uttering the words under his breath. He waved his hands over the bronze figurehead, shaping the magic strands, trying to quieten his racing heart. Concentration was key, visualizing what he wanted to happen…

The Bone Eater afforded him little time to prepare, loosing a grunting roar as it began to run, the ground shaking beneath Caden’s feet. As his eyes wandered down to the sand, he could see the individual grains vibrating with its every step, as though dancing to the beat of a drum. Rather than try to escape, he merely stood in its path, making no attempt to save himself. Time seemed to slow as the thing bore down on him, its armored mass filling his field of view, Caden waiting for the perfect moment to enact his plan.

As the monster reared up, intending to crush him beneath its immense weight, Caden struck. He recited the final words of his incantation, slamming his staff into the ground, the beast’s shadow enveloping him as Kadal’s cries rang out.

A great bolt of lightning was discharged into the sand, its incredible heat melting it in a flash. Fulgurites sprouted from the ground around him like the petrified branches of trees, formations of black glass twisting and winding their way from the red sand, without purpose or direction. One of the glass sculptures had a purpose, however. Directly in the path of the charging Borophage rose a spear of molten sand, electricity arcing across its uneven surface as Caden directed it to form, its tip like the point of a great lance. In the blink of an eye, it had grown to be nine or ten feet long, its base as stout as the trunk of a tree. If the Borophage had any understanding of what was happening, it was too late to change course, too late to stop.

The beast’s own weight and momentum was its undoing, the sharp tip of the spear piercing through the dark scales of its underbelly, puncturing its hide. It carved through flesh and muscle, glancing off bone, impaling the thirty-foot monster like a rabbit on a skewer. It loosed a bellow of agony and surprise that quickly morphed into a wet gurgle, its organs breached, dark blood beginning to seep from its mouth and nostrils. The glass lance held it upright as it raked the sand with its claws, fighting for purchase, its struggling sending it sliding further down the widening spear.

After a few more moments, its movements slowed, its powerful muscles going limp. Though it was not yet dead, the wound was a mortal one, the rasping breath of the fading beast blowing Caden’s cloak as he lay on the sand before it. Its snout was but a foot away from him, he had cut it close…

As he stumbled to his feet, pain overwhelmed him, his slashed chest and his self-inflicted wounds driving him back to his knees. Kadal quickly rushed to his side, leaving her crevice in the reefs, her concern for him stronger than her fear of the dying Bone Eater.

A yelp of pain made her recoil as she tried to help him. Even touching his arm sent a stab of agony coursing through him. His bones were covered in small fractures, his muscles and ligaments shredded. The battle had put too much stress on his body, he could scarcely hold his staff.

Caden!” Kadal gasped, crouching beside him. Her hands hovered over him, she was too afraid to touch him for fear of hurting him again. “You are wounded! Are you alright? Gods, why did you not run? I told you to run!”

I couldn’t let that thing eat you,” he replied, wincing as another stab of pain rocked him. He couldn’t even breathe without pain, had that tail strike broken his ribs? “Are you alright?”

Am I alright!?” she exclaimed, her frill flaring. “What about you? I thought I was going to have to watch you die,” she said, her voice starting to crack as tears welled in her amber eyes. “This is all my fault. If I had not tried to...”

There will be time for blame later,” Caden grumbled, “help me to my feet.”

She did her best to support him, but he was so covered in injuries that it was practically impossible to touch him without hurting something. He was a mess. His arms were ruined, something inside him had been damaged such that he kept spitting up blood, and he could feel the dull ache where the Borophage’s claws had raked across his chest. Some part of him knew that he was done for, as though his body was warning him that he didn’t have much time left on an instinctive level. He was starting to get dizzy, his mind growing hazy. If he was going to do something, it had to be done fast.

Y-you can heal, right?” Kadal asked. There was a desperation in her voice, as though she was trying to convince herself more than him. “You can use your magic?”

I...I don’t know,” he wheezed, holding his injured side as he leaned on his staff. Kadal did her best to prop him up, his eyes scanning the surrounding reefs. “My healing magic draws from life, there are no plants here, no animals. Unless...”

He eyed the dying Borophage, its blood streaming down the black glass to pool on the sand beneath it. The Bone Eater was related to dragons, a magical creature, imbued with vital energies far greater than that of any shrub or snake. The silver strands were slowly leaving it, leaking out of it along with its lifeblood. Although the beast was unresponsive, at death’s door, its heart had not yet stopped beating.

Step back,” he said, struggling to stand on his own as Kadal released him. She waited nearby, wringing her hands, her tail flicking back and forth nervously. He understood how she felt all too well. It was a terrible feeling to be powerless to help someone.

What are you doing?” she asked.

If I am going to take this creature’s life, I may as well put it to good use,” he explained, starting to mutter the incantation. As he spoke the words, he felt the threads of its vital energy start to rise from the dying beast, Caden willing those silver strands to mend his wounds. Despite its vast abundance, drawing out the energy was far harder than taking from a flower or an insect, it required more concentration. The creature had a rudimentary intelligence, a will that resisted him in its primal bid to survive at any cost. That resistance was short-lived, however, Caden hastening its demise as the glittering strands reinvigorated him.

He felt his organs shifting, returning to their proper places, hairline fractures in his bones mending. Ligaments and tendons that had been torn were repaired, sliced fat and muscle closing up, the parted skin knitting together. His body was heating up as its natural processes were accelerated, he was starting to feel feverish, sweat beginning to pour down his face. This wasn’t like before, his injuries were too severe, just the mental fortitude required to direct the energy was exhausting. It was a race to repair enough of the damage that if he passed out, he would stand some chance of waking again.

The Borophage exhaled its last breath, its barrel chest going still, the life contained within its limp body starting to dissipate into the air like smoke from a fire. Caden needed more, just a little more…

Kadal caught him in her arms as he fell over backwards, his staff landing on the sand beside him.

***

Kadal lunged to catch Caden as he fell, grabbing him before he hit the ground. Panic wracked her for a moment, but she brought her emotions to heel. Caden had almost died in his bid to save her life, and now, she had a chance to repay the favor. After sparing the Bone Eater a wary glance, she brought her hand to Caden’s mouth, fighting back tears as she checked that he was still breathing.

She loosed a sigh of relief. He was alive, but for how long? Had his spell worked? She needed to get him to shelter so that he could recover his strength, his kind were averse to the desert’s heat. Fortunately, he was small enough that she could lift him with one arm, pack and all. As she reached down to retrieve his staff, she hesitated, her outstretched fingers slowly curling into a fist as she reconsidered.

Like the ivory axe that had been presented to her by the Shaman, this artifact was imbued with powerful magic that might pose a risk to the uninitiated. It exuded an aura that she could sense like a foul odor lingering in the air, a kind of malice that gave her pause. She couldn’t just leave it here, Caden needed it. Thinking on her feet, she tore Caden’s blood-stained cape from his shoulders, wrapping it around her hand as though she were preparing to pick up a hot coal. Gingerly, she reached down and lifted it, careful not to come into contact with the varnished wood. It was oddly heavy, moreso than it looked, but not enough to be a problem.

She turned her head to glance at the Bone Eater one last time. Now that her fear of it had faded, she was left in awe both of its immensity, and of Caden’s fighting prowess. He professed not to be a battlemage, not to be a warrior of any kind, but he had fought like a demon to protect her. A man who was scarcely larger than an adolescent of her own kind had felled a beast that inspired such fear in her people that they no longer dared set foot here. He had outwitted a hunting party, he had bested a warrior-shaman, and he had slain a Bone Eater. She was starting to believe that there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish, no obstacle that he couldn’t overcome. Maybe he really was destined to save the world…

With Caden cradled in her arm and his staff in hand, she made her way back in the direction of the oasis, figuring that it was a suitable place for them to rest. If the Bone Eater was as territorial as the legends claimed, then the safest place to be was in the heart of its lair.

It didn’t take long for her to carry him back to the ring of greenery, as they hadn’t fled far. Kadal took off his pack, then lay his limp body down on a bed of ferns in the shade of the palm trees. She hovered over him, wanting to help, but not knowing how. He was breathing, his chest rising and falling gently, a peaceful expression on his face.

If nothing else, she should remove his blood-soaked clothes, make sure that his wounds had healed. She carefully pulled off his tunic, raising his limp arms above his head, the quantity of blood turning her stomach. The fabric was soaked, three large cuts trailing across its chest. She prepared herself to find mortal wounds beneath it, but although Caden’s smooth skin was drenched with drying blood, nothing remained of his injuries save for a trio of pink trails that couldn’t even be described as scars. She had known that he possessed the power to heal, but this was miraculous, even for him.

It took her a moment of fiddling to figure out how his boots worked, sliding them off, then pulling down the coverings that he wore over his legs. The belt impeded her, and she had to remove that first, taking special care with the enchanted knife that hung from it. When it was done, she set the bloodied clothes to one side in a pile. She would clean them in the oasis once she was sure that Caden was alright, she could leave them to dry on the rocks in the sun. As for him…

Her eyes played across his strange anatomy, his white skin caked with congealing blood. She couldn’t leave him like this, it would turn foul if he spent more than a few hours in this state, make him sick. Kadal turned her head, her frill fluttering with indecision as she eyed the pool of sparkling water.

He was a modest creature, but his health was more important than his sensibilities. She lifted him again, carrying him to the edge of the water, gently placing him in the pool until his entire body was submerged save for his face. She slid in beside him, feeling the wet sand against her scales, lying on her side. The cool water hadn’t roused him, he was still unconscious.

Her frill starting to flush red, she began to run a hand across his bare chest. She was washing off the blood, or so she told herself, her fingers tracing the unfamiliar contours of his body as she went. A crimson cloud obscured him for a moment as it dissolved in the water, Kadal running her hand across his belly, feeling his muscles flex beneath his skin. There was that strange hole that she had remarked, just above the hem of his loincloth.

Scales could be smooth, but this was something else entirely, doubly slick when it was wet. She could feel a scant few tiny hairs beneath her fingertips, but that was the only imperfection. His hide was so flush, far softer than the finest fabrics that her people produced, like nothing she had ever felt.

She found herself wondering how old he was. Young for his kind, certainly. He had described himself as an apprentice, a novice, yet his body was as developed as any of the males in her village. He was not as strong as they were in a purely physical sense, but his shoulders were broad in the way that she liked, and he had muscle enough that it was visible in places. She prodded his chest, enjoying the feeling of the firm tissue resisting her finger. He was so warm, making her cool hand feel even colder in comparison, his heart beating beneath her scaly palm like a drum.

Why was her own heart quickening so? Why was her frill flushed red, her eyespots clear and vibrant? Caden was so strange, so unlike her own males. Despite his diminutive stature, he was not submissive as they were, he did not vie for her favor and attention as prospective mates did. So many of the males in the village had tried to court her, and she had rejected them all, one after the other. They had brought her gifts, rare flowers found in the desert, tokens of their admiration carved from wood and shells. They had heaped their praises upon her, and although many of them would have made for fine partners who would have sired a strong brood, she had never felt what she was feeling now.

Caden had no expectations of her, he put his own life at risk for her sake, yet asked nothing in return. He didn’t see her as a warrior, as someone who could elevate his standing. The affection that he showed for her was completely separated from that. It was refreshing, so much more genuine than the fawning of her fellow tribesmen.

She raised her hand, daring to run her fingers through his mop of brown hair, watching the wet strands float in the water.

What was she thinking? Was it just adrenaline, fear, relief? She was so unfamiliar with these emotions, and so much had happened over the last few days that it was so hard to tell if what she was feeling for Caden was real. It was foolish, she knew that. He was an outsider, he was as different from her as a mouse was from a snake, but logic played no part in matters of the heart.

Her breath caught in her throat as Caden opened his eyes, blinking up at her as he lay in the water, her frill flushing an even deeper shade of red.

CHAPTER 9: COMING TOGETHER

Caden awoke to see Kadal peering down at him, the frill that framed her head flushed a vibrant shade of crimson, outlining her eyespots. He felt like he had been sleeping for days, and he couldn’t remember where he was. The blue sky was above him, but he was in the shade, and he was immersed in cool water.

Hey,” he said, giving her a groggy smile. “Why am I all wet?”

C-Caden! You are awake!” she stammered, a blend of relief and what might be embarrassment flashing across her scaly face. “You collapsed, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I carried you back to the oasis.”

You carried me here all on your own?” he asked. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, you’re as strong as a carthorse. Hang on, my staff!”

Be still,” she said, placing a hand on his chest to prevent him from sitting up. “I brought all of your belongings, they are safe.”

He relaxed back into the water, letting slip a sigh of relief.

Good, I’d be lost without it. You didn’t touch it, did you? How did you get it here?”

I know better than to touch your artifacts,” she replied. “I wrapped my hand in cloth before picking it up.”

Clever,” he chuckled. “Where are my clothes, by the way?” he asked as he glanced down at his naked body. He was nude save for his underwear, and it looked like he had successfully healed his wounds before passing out. “Somehow, one of us always seems to end up unconscious and in the water...”

Oh,” Kadal mumbled, averting her eyes. “Your clothes were soaked with blood, as were you. I was going to wash them, I wasn’t sure when you might wake up again.”

He reached up to grip her scaly forearm, her hand still on his chest, his touch seeming to surprise her.

I might have healed my injuries, but without shelter, I would have succumbed to the heat in my weakened state. Thank you.”

I owe you that much,” she stammered, making no attempt to pull away from him. “Saving my life is becoming a habit of yours.”

You don’t owe me anything,” he insisted, but that only seemed to agitate her.

I just watched you duel the Eater of Bones into submission!” she exclaimed, her frill fluttering. “Even after I begged for you to flee! Caden, if you had been killed, then what would become of your quest? What would become of your people?”

I can’t bring myself to think that way,” he replied, shaking his head. “To weigh the life of one person against the many, to trade one life for another. I didn’t want to persist in a world where I had let you die, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Maybe that was selfish of me in hindsight...”

Only you could call self-sacrifice selfishness,” Kadal giggled, running her fingers through his hair. He didn’t object, her affection was welcome.

What about you?” he continued. “You could have left me there to die. I was at your mercy, but you saved me. Your plan to feed me to the Borophage very nearly worked.”

After everything that I have seen, I could not possibly think so little of you,” she replied. “I...I cannot apologize enough for what I did, for what I planned to do...”

She glanced down at the water dejectedly, her frill drooping around her slender neck.

I’m only teasing,” he said, giving her forearm a reassuring squeeze. “We’re both guilty of misjudging one another.”

Then let us leave the people that we were behind,” she said, her voice full of fresh determination. Kadal gently cradled his head in her hand as she looked down at him with those amber eyes, Caden’s blood rushing in his ears. How could someone so strong, so ferocious, be so tender and gentle? To think that if he had killed her there on the sand, he would never have come to know her, never had the opportunity to see this side of her.

As Caden lay there in the shimmering pool, a kind of tension began to rise up inside of him. It was unbearable, all-consuming, overwhelming his mind until he could concentrate on nothing else. He had admired Kadal’s strange beauty and her inhuman grace from afar, never daring to hope that she might come to see him in the same light, that he would ever be more to her than an unwelcome intruder from beyond her shores. But now, he could see the concern that she had for him in her expression, he could feel her affection in the way that she lay his head in her cool palm.

He had no experience with women, and he couldn’t even be sure that Kadal saw him as a man and not as some exotic animal. Perhaps he might even sully their burgeoning friendship by overreaching. Even so, his close brush with death had filled him with a new kind of reckless courage, it had put his life into a brand new context. Who knew what the next day might bring when every step that they took seemed to invite ever greater dangers? It was impossible to say how fleeting their time together might be, how quickly this opportunity would pass. He could no longer stand it, he felt like he was about to burst.

Forgive my impertinence,” he said, reaching up to cup her scaly cheek in his hand. Kadal blinked her eyes at him in surprise, yet she did not pull away. “I feel as though if I let this moment pass me by, I will forever regret it.”

He rose from the water, guiding her closer, Kadal’s frill erupting in a display of red as she followed his lead. Caden didn’t really know what he was doing, this wasn’t something that one could learn from poring over books in a dusty library, so he let instinct guide him. His heart felt like it was about to leap out of his chest as his lips met hers, her touch cool and scaly, yet more inviting than he could have imagined. Just as her harsh, predatory exterior belied her capacity for gentleness, so too did it make the softness of her touch a surprise. She returned his kiss, pulling him closer, her fingers stroking his hair as they embraced in the shallow water.

Elation washed over him like a tide, his eyes closing of their own accord, the world around him melting away like paint being washed from a canvas until she was all that remained. When they broke away, his face was just as red as her frill, the two staring at each other for a few moments.

The first kiss was followed up by a second, more urgent one, the two traveling companions abandoning all pretense of modesty as they set upon one another with a newfound hunger. Caden didn’t even have time to ponder his good fortune, to appreciate that his feelings were being requited. He was too consumed by desire to spare a thought for anything besides her frenzied embrace. It burned inside him like a fire, growing ever hotter the longer they remained joined.

Their lips were so mismatched, hers were far larger, plumper. They struggled to lock in a way that felt natural, but they kept trying, defying their biology. His warmth contrasted with the coolness of her delicate scales, he could feel them brushing against his skin, smooth and inviting. Her low body temperature was far from unpleasant, it was as refreshing as a cold drink on a summer’s day. As she parted her lips, he noted that even her breath was cooler than his own, her forked tongue darting forth to taste him. He felt it flick across the flat of his tongue, tickling him, the unexpected taste and sensation sending a wonderful shiver rolling over him.

They began to explore one another, Caden’s tongue brushing her sharp teeth, feeling their wicked points as she drew him closer. In return, her questing organ brushed the roof of his mouth, glancing his cheeks as it darted about. It was so unlike his own, longer and slimmer, the two points able to move independently of one another as they mapped him out. His heart skipped a beat every time her wet, cool flesh glanced his own, their organs intertwining in a display of desire that somehow felt right to him.

A thought rose above the haze of his passion, his analytical mind managing to surface for a brief moment, like a drowning man gasping for air. Was this what a kiss felt like? Wet flesh joined, the vaguely metallic flavor of her saliva pricking his taste buds, her leather scent invading his nose. He was closer to her than he had ever been to anyone, both in a literal and a figurative sense. Gods, how he yearned to taste her, to touch her. He had to have more. Caden rose higher, the water sloughing off his torso as he propped himself up on an elbow, stroking her cheek with his thumb as their kiss dragged on.

Was this how her people kissed, or was she just following his example?

Their lips parted once more to leave them gasping for breath, linked by a glittering strand of their shared saliva. Caden was in a fugue, he couldn’t think straight. It was almost like being under the thumb of his staff, but the emotions that assailed him were ones of passion and yearning, rather than violence and rage. He didn’t know what to do with himself, what to do with her. He only knew that he wanted to touch her, to kiss her, to take whatever was happening here further.

I-I feared that you might see me as nothing more than a monster,” Kadal stammered, “I had no idea that you felt this way...”

How could I not?” he demanded, rising to kneel beside her in the shallow water. “You’re so beautiful and strong, the way you move, the way your scales reflect the light. I’ve never met anyone like you before. You can be so tender when you want to be, it makes me crazy.”

Then...when you were watching me bask that time, it was not mere curiosity that motivated you,” she said. Some of her uncertainty seemed to slip away, a wry smile brightening her face. “Every time that I have thought you weak or incapable, you have proven me wrong. Nobody has ever cared for me as you do, not without wanting something in exchange. Everything that you do is so genuine, unfiltered by pride or ambition. It makes me feel...something that I have never felt before.”

Kadal,” Caden began, struggling to find the words. “Would you...like to...” “I-I don’t want to be asked!” she blurted. “I like this side of you, assertive, fearless. Don’t stop now.”

That was all the encouragement that Caden needed, and he shuffled closer to her on the wet sand, bringing a hand up to her slender neck. Her frill was raised, almost as if to grant him easier access, an appreciative tremor rocking her as he stroked the smooth scales with his fingers. He leaned in, burying his face in the nape of her neck, reveling in the sensation of her smooth hide against his hot cheek. He couldn’t keep his hands off her, the fine mosaic of her scales was so enticing, its texture beyond compare.

Her frill fluttered as he brought his lips to her shoulder, crawling them up to the base of her neck, Kadal sighing as his tongue flicked out to graze her throat. She seemed to enjoy his mouthing, one of her clawed hands delving into his hair, drawing his head closer as he peppered her delicate scales with kisses. He couldn’t reach much higher, she was far too tall.

Is this how your kin usually go about this?” she murmured, Caden pausing to glance up at her. He had to crane his neck, her head seemed so far away.

I must admit that I don’t know,” he replied, his face flushing a deeper shade of crimson. “I just feel like...I want to kiss you. Am I doing it wrong?”

Gods, no,” she replied hurriedly. “I like the way it feels. You’re so...affectionate.”

He pressed his lips against her throat again, Kadal pushing her chest out towards him reflexively, her ample breasts bumping against him through the fabric of her sling. He glanced down at them, admiring the way that the two scaly globes pressed together to create her deep cleavage, quickly realizing that his member was straining against his clothes. A few minutes ago, he would never have dared imagine such a scenario, to do so would be the height of self-indulgence. He felt like he was lost in a dream.

I thought that we might be too different,” Kadal said, pausing to let slip a low moan as he gave her a gentle bite where her neck met her shoulder. He followed it up with a doting kiss that made her grip his hair ever tighter, as though afraid that he might pull away. It stung a little, but it was an oddly enjoyable sensation. “What is it that you find so appealing about me?”

Caden leaned away from her, his eyes wandering down her torso, brazen now that he had no fear of offending her. Beneath her muscled shoulders were those sumptuous breasts, orbs of impossibly soft flesh that rivaled the size of his head straining against their bonds, swaying with her every motion. They hadn’t looked so large in the context of her lean, athletic build, but they seemed monstrous now that he was but an inch away from them.

Below the shadow that they cast was the toned belly that he had so admired, the twin rows of her abdominal muscles seeming to jump out at him from beneath the glassy scales of her developed midriff. How harsh her life must have been to have sculpted such an impressive core, how much physical demand it must have placed on her, honing her body into what seemed to him an otherworldly work of art. Had someone described her figure to him, the way that her narrow waist flared into hips the breadth of a strongman’s shoulders, the way that her muscles flowed like a stream beneath her immaculate hide, he would have told them that only an artisan’s chisel could produce such beauty.

I am a scholar, not a poet,” he began as she gazed down at him with eyes the color of honey. “I might speak of how your scales reflect the sunlight like a thousand tiny panes of stained glass, how your eyes sparkle like cut gems, if I thought that I could do you justice.”

Flatterer,” she giggled. “Say more...”

He slid a hand down the hourglass curve of her waist, tracing the fist-sized mounds of her abs with his thumb, delighting in the way that they tensed at his touch. Unable to resist, he lay his palm on her belly, Kadal’s breathing growing heavier as muscles that felt like stones smoothed by the flow of a river flexed. She could not sweat, she was a reptile, yet her scales were damp with water from the oasis. Beads of it clung to her, sparkling as they caught the sun, making her look like she had been misted with morning dew. Why did it set his mouth watering so?

I never thought that a woman could be so strong,” he muttered, “yet so lovely.”

As he had told her, he was no poet, and he felt a rush of embarrassment even uttering such things. If he had tried to win a girl’s heart with such talk back in the city, they would have laughed in his face, but Kadal had never been wooed in this way. Her smile seemed to widen at his every word, one of her hands reaching up to fiddle with her frill as a normal woman might fluff her hair.

I might doubt your sincerity if you had any reason to lie,” she purred, Caden’s eyelids fluttering as she gently ran her claws across his scalp. “But you no longer have any need to sway me.”

She drew him closer, guiding his head towards her chest, pressing his face deep into the shelf of her bosom. Her satin scales glided against his cheeks as her bountiful flesh enveloped him, softer than the most luxurious of down pillows. Caden couldn’t avoid filling his lungs with her sweet scent. It was like wet leather, but somehow womanly, enticing. He felt as though if he had remained there for long enough, he would have been lulled to sleep, so comfortable was her bosom.

Instead, it ignited a fire in him, one of his hands rising to delve into the meat of her chest from below. Kadal gasped in a blend of surprise and delight as he slipped a hand beneath her sling, lifting her breast, its weight sinking his fingers deep into her yielding tissue. It was as soft as melting candle wax, spilling between his digits, draping itself over his hand as it was engulfed up to the wrist. As he squeezed, he felt her fat fill his palm, Kadal loosing a comely gasp as if to encourage him.

W-where is this aggression coming from?” she cooed, her spine arching as he kneaded her tender flesh like a baker shaping a ball of fresh dough. “You are usually so mild-mannered...at least, when you aren’t fighting.”

I just survived a battle with a Borophage,” he replied, his voice muffled by her cleavage. “I am done with hesitation, with uncertainty.”

Caden released her breast, admiring the way that it bounced as it lost its support, his face rising from Kadal’s chest. He placed a hand on her shoulder, easing her into a prone position, Kadal lying down in the sand beside him. The water was shallow enough on the bank of the oasis that it left her only partially submerged, most of her scaly body rising from the pool. She stretched out, just as she did while basking in the sun, making a deliberate show of her inhuman flexibility. Caden found himself transfixed as he watched her raise her arms above her head, her spine creating a beautiful arch as it rose from the water.

Unable to resist, he brought his lips to her belly, feeling those iron muscles tense as he planted a lingering kiss. She writhed in the sand as he moved back up to her bosom, pausing to trace the contours of her abs with the tip of his tongue as he went. There was some base, bestial part of him that wanted to cover her entire body in kisses, to taste every inch of her skin. Why he felt that way, he could not articulate, but the desire was so overpowering that he couldn’t help but indulge it.

He arrived at her chest, not knowing how to untie her cloth sling, resisting the urge to simply tear it off. Kadal began to undo it as he watched, his eyes following the bundles of fabric as they slowly unwrapped like a bandage, revealing more and more of her desert-patterned scales. The moment that her breasts were free of it, they began to spill over her torso, Kadal gathering up the wobbling flesh. Caden watched as her forearms sank into her ample boobs, her biceps squashing them together. If she was trying to be modest, then it was having quite the opposite effect.

It looks like you have me on my back again,” she cooed, her blue tongue emerging to wet her lips. Caden swung a leg over her torso, straddling her stomach, feeling her lift him a few inches from the sand as she arched her back again in surprise. He was so much shorter than her that it was the only way for him to reach her head. He brought a hand to her shoulder, running it up the length of her neck, cupping her cheek. She pushed her face into his palm, nuzzling contentedly.

You’re so warm,” she murmured, “it makes me want to be closer to you.”

Caden drew back, Kadal relinquishing her hold on her breasts. He watched as they spilled from her grasp, gravity parting them, the soft globes quivering as she shifted her weight. He didn’t really know what to do with them, so he just sat there for a moment, staring at them as she waited expectantly. They were so full and round, just firm enough to maintain their shape, a pair of nipples peeking out from between her scales that were the same shade of blue as her tongue.

Caden brought a hand down to one of her boobs, watching his fingers sink up to the knuckle in its yielding surface, her scales providing no more resistance than skin. He took a generous handful of her flesh, feeling her squirm beneath him, a jolt of pleasure rocking her. She had once enduring blows that would have killed a man, but now, she trembled at his merest touch. It was a beautiful contrast.

He began to knead gently, bringing his other hand into play, wrestling with the heavy globe. Her fat was so supple that it slipped through his fingers, molding around his hand, Caden shaping it like a ball of wet clay. One of his fingers glanced her nipple, and he felt her body tense between his thighs, Kadal lifting his knees from the wet sand again as she bucked.

Encouraged, he leaned closer, wrangling her breast to bring her nipple to his lips. He pressed them around it, drawing on it gently, feeling the firm muscles of Kadal’s belly flex against his groin in response. Her tail whipped through the water, making splashing sounds behind him, the squirming reptile digging her claws into the sand above her head.

Like that, but harder,” she murmured. Caden did as she bade, sealing the nub of flesh between his lips, circling it with his tongue. Her yellow eyes rolled back into her head, her frill flushing with blood, her nipple seeming to grow firmer in his mouth. He lashed it with teasing flurries, pinching it gently between his lips and teeth, her reactions only growing stronger. Her long, sinewy body seemed to wind in the shallow water like a snake, her stout thighs pressing together as her clawed fingers carved furrows in the sand. He squeezed and stroked all the while, reveling in the way that her satin flesh bulged between his fingers, springing back to its original shape when he relinquished his grip. He had never felt anything so soft, so malleable, her scales were as smooth as silk.

He released her nipple with a wet smack, and she brought her head down level with his on her flexible neck, hooking her hand behind his head as she pulled him in for another kiss. This one was even more ravenous than the last, her agile tongue flicking out to stroke the inside of his mouth, its twin prongs crawling their way across his palate. Her full, puffy lips fought to lock with his own, mismatched as they were. Caden brought his hands to her cheeks, and she did the same, cupping his burning face in her scaly palms as their tongues braided together. While his was a slab of pink muscle, hers was a delicate rope of azure flesh, slender and quick. She directed it with such finesse, he could feel her painting his inner cheeks, coiling around his organ like a snake. Their differences should have made things more difficult, more awkward, but the frustration only made Kadal’s embrace more ardent. Caden felt like he was melting into her, her every tender stroke sapping his strength. Ropes of their saliva linked their lips when they broke contact to take brief, gasping breaths, before plunging back in.

She crawled her lips down to his neck, Caden tensing as he felt her sharp teeth graze his throat, followed by a placating kiss that sent sparks flying in his head. It was too much stimulation, too intense, he was so acutely aware of his member straining against the fabric of his underwear as he felt her tongue flick out to sample his skin. She pushed her dull snout into the nape of his neck, nuzzling, nipping at his shoulder.

I hope you’re not developing a taste for me,” he sighed, Kadal chuckling as she drew on his skin to leave a pink mark.

Do not tempt me, I’ve eaten larger things than you...”

She gave him another gentle bite as if to illustrate her point, his laughter tapering into a low moan. Caden gripped her wrists in his hands, Kadal batting her eyes at him, enjoying his newfound assertiveness. He wanted to pin them to the sand above her head, then lean in for a kiss, but something strange began to happen. He was suddenly aware of his staff, even as it lay in the ferns a good ten feet away from him, its familiar influence creeping into the back of his mind. Just as it reacted to emotions of fear and desperation, so too was its power drawn to his lust, imbuing him with a fresh surge of energy.

Kadal yelped in surprise as her wrists were driven into the sand, creating splashes in the shallow water, his strength far outstripping hers. At the same moment as his muscles were fortified by the staff’s magic, so too did his weight increase to pin her beneath him, her reflexive squirming doing nothing to dislodge him. In an instant, he had completely overpowered her.

He immediately released her, willing his mass to return to normal, already preparing an apology.

W-what was that?” she stammered.

I’m sorry!” he began, drawing his hands back, afraid to touch her. “When you were passed out in the cave, and I was trying to drag you to the pool to warm you, my staff reacted without me touching it. It seems...drawn to powerful emotions, regardless of whether I’m holding it or not.”

There was no fear in Kadal’s eyes, she did not try to wriggle out from beneath him, she merely gazed up at him with a newfound appreciation.

Is it safe?” she asked. “I mean...you will not hurt me by accident?”

He reached down and took a handful of wet sand, Kadal’s eyes following it as he brought it back up, her breath catching in her throat as a ball of flame engulfed his fist. Even without his staff in hand, his control over its powers was more precise than ever, the flames barely warming his skin as he protected himself with a thin sheen of water vapor. When he opened his fingers, there was a small, irregular clump of black glass resting in his steaming palm.

During my fight with the Borophage, something changed,” he began. “I feel...different. Before, I was always wrestling for control, fighting the staff at every turn. It was like my emotions weren’t even my own. But now, I feel more in control than ever. Its overpowering voice has become but a murmur.”

He let the still-hot lump of glass fall, hearing it hiss as it hit the water.

You have become even stronger than when we fought,” she marveled, “and who can say how much stronger you might yet become? I never imagined that I would ever meet someone who could overpower me,” she added, chewing on her lower lip lasciviously.

Huh?” Caden asked, confused by her response.

She sat up, bringing her scaly lips to his ear, her comely whispers filling his head.

I like it,” she hissed.

Her words stripped him of his uncertainty. He no longer feared this power, it was his to control, as much a part of him now as his own hands.

He gripped her shoulders, commanding the glittering strands of magic, his weight increasing. Kadal resisted him, reveling in the chance to pit her strength against his own, but he soon overwhelmed her. There was another splash as her back hit the sand, Caden pinning her beneath him, the way that her sinewy body writhed and twisted in a mock attempt to escape fueling the fire that was burning inside him. Her squirming mesmerizing, her breasts wobbling, the muscles beneath her gleaming scales shifting and bulging.

He reached down to grip her wrists again, pinning them against the ground, their lips meeting in another frantic kiss. Caden quickly realized that she was trembling, not out of fear, but rather excitement. Was the prospect of being overpowered by him really so alluring to her?

He wanted to explore more of her body, sliding down her torso, pausing to weigh her ample breasts in his hands before proceeding lower. Her head rose up on her long neck, watching him covetously as he planted kisses on her toned stomach, her spine rising from the oasis. Caden noted that she had no navel. The area between her abs and her loincloth was made up of smooth muscle, completely flat.

He moved down between her legs, placing his hands on her inner thighs to push them apart. They were just as firm as they had looked, muscle like iron tensing beneath his fingers, her scales making their surface as smooth as brushed steel. There was a subtle layer of fat that engulfed his fingers up to the first joint as he applied more pressure, Kadal fighting him again. She could probably have crushed a normal man’s head between those thighs such was her strength, they were as thick around as his torso, so packed with dense tissue that his hands would only just meet if he were to wrap his arms around one of them.

Caden was no normal man, however. Strands of glittering magic weaving around his muscle fibers, he gently pried them open, Kadal blinking down at him in surprise. Brute strength was no longer his only option, he could apply exactly as much force as he wanted, and not an ounce more.

The reptile loosed another gleeful trill as he gripped her wide hips, lifting her lower body off the sand, repositioning her to his liking. It made his knees sink deeper into the sand, but her considerable weight could be as light as a feather if he so desired it.

Curiosity burned inside him. He wanted to know what she was hiding beneath that loincloth, and there was still a lingering uncertainty lurking at the back of his mind. What if they really weren’t compatible? He might not know anything about love or courtship, but he knew how reproduction worked, how different separate species could be from one another.

Her thighs were irresistible, quickly capturing his attention again. The muscle that allowed her eight-foot frame to leap and dance as it did made them feel like they had been hewn from slabs of marble, her glittering scales just as smooth, the doughy flesh that clung to them making them even more inviting. Caden slid one of his hands from her knee to her groin, the droplets of water that clung to her flush hide making his palm glide, the individual scales barely perceptible.

Her loincloth rode low on hips that easily exceeded the breadth of his shoulders, the brown fabric blending with the desert patterning of her scales, draped over her mound to preserve her modesty. He had thought it to be a simple piece of cloth that hung from a leather belt, but it actually came up from below, doing a better job of covering her that he had imagined.

Her thighs rising up to either side of him like a pair of pillars, he leaned down to plant a kiss just above her belt, feeling her muscles flex beneath her silky hide in response. Caden wasn’t sure how to unfasten the garment, but Kadal wasted no time reaching down to help him, unwrapping the length of cloth. She tossed it into the ferns somewhere above her head, Caden glancing down at her nakedness, his cheeks flushing pink as he beheld her womanhood for the first time.

He hadn’t the experience to compare her to a woman of his own kind, but the sight of it set his mouth watering, a fresh wave of lust dizzying him with its intensity. Before him was a pair of puffy lips that were covered in minute scales the color of peaches, the sunlight reflecting off them to make them shine. They were raised just above the waterline, her rump and the base of her tail submerged in the pool. Nestled between them was a thin sliver of azure flesh, the same color as her tongue.

W-why are you just staring at it?” Kadal stammered, peering down at him as her frill matched the color of his face. She reached up to try to force the leathery skin back down around her neck, as though the display embarrassed her.

It’s beautiful,” he replied, glancing up at her. She averted her gaze, her frill erupting again, defying her attempts to conceal it. “It makes me think of...blue water surrounded by sand.”

You embarrass me, saying such things,” she mumbled. He could see that her protests weren’t genuine, she reveled in his clumsy flattery, hanging on his every word.

He brushed his fingers across her smooth mound, feeling her massive body tremble, the gentlest touch enough to make her lift her wide hips from the pool. Caden pressed his cheek against her thigh, unable to resist its silky texture, then drew in for a closer look. His reptilian partner propped herself up on her elbows, peering down at him as he gently pulled aside one of her soft lips with his thumb. It was so squishy, slightly elastic, his eyes playing across her strange organ as he exposed her blue flesh. He knew the anatomical terms, labia, vulva. He had studied human anatomy in the library. There was nothing out of place here, save for its exaggerated size, but this was quite a different experience from looking at sketches in a medical book.

Her delicate flesh was folded like pleated silk, a sheen of moisture catching the light to make her glisten, a solitary bead of her juices leaking from her loins to cling to her scales. Caden parted her labia wider to reveal her opening, watching it twitch in anticipation.

What are you doing now?” Kadal wondered, Caden hesitating as he leaned closer.

I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he admitted. “I only know that I want to kiss you, to make you happy.”

Caden...you may not want to-”

He brought his lips to within an inch of hers, naught but the sensation of his warm breath on her tender womanhood enough to silence her, Caden admiring the developed muscles of her belly as they flexed in response. He decided to tease her a little more, kissing her inner thigh, delighting in the way that it made her shiver. Her reservations quickly melted away under the assault, and it wasn’t long before she was begging him to take things further.

Gods,” she snarled, a blend of lust and frustration breaking her resolve. “If you so wish to kiss me, then get on with it!”

With a knowing smirk, he pressed his lips against her blue vulva experimentally, his member throbbing against his damp underclothes. Her body temperature was a lot lower than his own, it was noticeable whenever he touched her, yet he could feel the heat radiating from her sex. She seemed swollen, almost sore, more of that clear fluid seeping from her winking opening. It was incredibly slippery, its consistency that of syrup. He extended his tongue, dragging it between her labia, feeling its satin texture. A sharp gasp made him pause, and he lifted his head to peer up over her scaly mound, strands of her fluids joining his lips to her nethers.

Did I hurt you?” he asked frantically, wondering if he had done something wrong. Kadal’s head rose up on her sinewy neck, her eyes unfocused and half-lidded as she glanced down at him over the twin mounds of her breasts.

You would know if you had hurt me,” she grumbled, seeming almost disappointed that he had stopped. “But...” She began to fret with her frill again, looking away conspicuously. “Do you not find me...unappetizing?”

You taste like a kiss,” he replied without missing a beat, his words piercing her veil of stoicism like a knife. She folded, her hands rising to cover her frill, pressing it back down around her neck. It reminded him of the way a human might hide their face in embarrassment, but her people’s frills were how they expressed their emotions.

Before she could come up with a retort, he plunged his face back down between her legs, another of her tremors sending a ripple through the calm water. She placed a hand over her mouth to stifle a whine of pleasure that was unbecoming of a warrior as he mouthed, crawling his lips across her most intimate anatomy, pausing to trace its satin folds with the tip of his tongue. Unsure of where she was most receptive, he painted her loins, every passionate lick and teasing flurry driving another comely gasp or impassioned trill from his squirming partner. Her legs closed around his head, sinking his cheeks into the cool, yielding flesh of her burnished thighs. After a moment of alarm, he realized that she was holding back, maintaining enough control over her faculties to save from crushing his skull like an eggshell. Not that he wouldn’t have been able to endure her strength using magic.

Her long, svelte body writhed in the water, creating waves that lapped against the shore. Despite her strength, Caden was able to keep her still enough that he could continue his work, extending his arms to wrap them around her thighs. As he had suspected, they were too stout for him to get much further than halfway, but it gave him enough purchase that he could hold her lower body in place as she bucked and wriggled in the wet sand.

Her erratic movements eventually found some semblance of rhythm, Kadal thrusting, grinding her sopping loins against his face like she was in a trance. How he adored the way that her movements made her abs flex and undulate, a wave passing along her toned stomach with every sway of her hips. Her thighs, too, tensed against his cheeks as she cradled his head between them. He could feel the steely muscle rising up from beneath the layer of cushiony fat and silky scale, rippling as she continued her mesmerizing dance.

She was so wet, her viscous emissions coating her velvet folds in a slippery sheen, ropes of it dangling from his chin. It made his tongue glide, blending with his saliva, the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears as her taste inflamed his passion. There was also the water from the sparkling oasis, droplets of it clinging to her scales, making her whole body damp and shiny.

His lips brushed something firm, and he heard another stifled yelp emanate from high above him, her twisting form seeming to freeze in place for a brief moment before sinking back into the pool. There was a little bud of flesh peeking out from beneath a hood of azure skin, and he pursed his lips around it, drawing on the engorged protrusion. Like she had been struck by a bolt of lightning, Kadal locked up, Caden having to increase his mass to prevent her from bucking him off like a startled horse.

Oh, Caden,” she moaned, her voice cracking as pleasure got the better of her. “Touch me there, but...be gentle with me.”

Hearing her plead like that inspired a new surge of desire in him. Her husky, comely voice, the way that she trembled with every glance of his tongue. The idea that a warrior who had once challenged him on the battlefield, who was stronger and stouter than anyone that he had ever met, would beg for tenderness in such a way. It was almost too much, he felt like his heart might burst in his chest, like the fog of arousal that had fallen over him might transform him into a feral beast.

One of her hands reached down towards his head as he began to circle her bud with his tongue, swirling it around the organ, feeling it pulse against his tongue in time with the beating of her heart. He lashed it, stroked it, doted on it as her cries of delight rang out across the oasis. Her claws pricked his scalp as she took a handful of his hair, tugging on it in gentle encouragement, Caden all too happy to oblige.

His jaw was starting to ache, but he didn’t want to pull away, not when he could feel how close she was to release. He could sense it in every tremor of her thighs as they pressed against his cheeks, in every thrust of her hips, he could hear it in every lustful moan that escaped her lips. As he pushed her ever higher, he felt her tail coiling around his waist like a snake constricting its prey, the strength of the appendage surprising him. Just like her legs, he could feel a layer of smooth scales and doughy fat, which gave way to flowing, iron muscle when she flexed.

Oh, please,” she whined, her voice tapering off into a breathy whine. “Please, do not stop!”

With one last stroke of his tongue, all of the tension that had been building inside her was suddenly released, her body almost bending double as her spine arched out of the water. Her clawed toes dug into the sand as she loosed a growl that brought him right back to their duel in the desert, the intimidating sound now given an entirely new context as her orgasm wracked her. He kept his mouth locked to her loins, not relenting for a moment, clinging to her thighs for dear life as her frantic thrusting sought to throw him off. She tugged at his hair, her tail gripping him like the fist of a God, but she had no way to hurt him as long as the staff’s magic flowed through him.

Her breath came in ragged gasps, more of her viscous juices leaking down Caden’s chin, his every lick sending another tremor rolling through her lean body. Muscles bulged from beneath her shining hide, every droplet of water that misted her scales reflecting the sun as she moved, giving the impression that she was covered in a thousand tiny diamonds. He finally released her, letting her fall back into the pool with a splash, Caden catching his breath as his eyes played over her prone form.

She lay there before him, splayed out in all her glory, her every panting breath making the meat of her bust wobble. He felt a surge of yearning for her as she slowly recovered from her climax, Caden transfixed by those yellow eyes as they rose up to peer back at him.

He wiped her juices from his lips with the back of his hand, not really sure what to do or say now. She had obviously enjoyed his attentions, she looked like she had run a marathon, another shiver of pleasure rocking her as she lay there in the balmy water.

What you lack in stature, you make up for with the agility of your tongue,” she muttered. She almost seemed annoyed, even in spite of the afterglow that was sapping her focus. “You always seem to get the better of me,” she added with another flutter of her blushing frill.

Still sore about our first encounter?” he asked, taking no small measure of satisfaction in the quivering mess that he had made of her.

Perhaps a rematch is in order,” she replied, flashing him a toothy grin.

Like a striking cobra, she was on him in a flash, springing up to grapple with him. They splashed in the water as they rolled around together, playfighting in the shallows, his surprised laughter joining Kadal’s excited giggling. She rolled him onto his back, partially submerging him, her scaly hands resting on his shoulders as she straddled him. His member rose to press against her loins through the fabric of his underwear, the two of them separated by only a scant layer of wet cloth. She gripped him with her thighs, so stout that they were more like the leather armrests of the Master’s favorite chair, so long that her knees almost reached his armpits. Droplets of water rained down from her mottled scales, dripping onto his chest and stomach as he lay beneath her in the wet sand, his reptilian partner peering down at him from well beyond arm’s reach. His eyes wandered down to her chest, her hanging breasts swaying as she shifted her weight, just firm enough to maintain their wonderful shape.

I feel as though you are allowing this,” she mused, cocking her head as her tail flicked through the water behind her. “If you wanted to have me on my back again, I suspect there is little that I could do about it.”

Perhaps,” he replied with a grin.

She brought her head down on her long neck, pressing her scaly lips against his, her darting tongue sliding into his mouth as she locked him in a placating kiss. It was slower than before, every stroke imbued with her affection, Caden finding himself bewitched by her agile flurries. Kadal could probably have written her name on his palate if she had so desired. It seemed that she had been sated by her climax, her passion cooling like the breaking of a fever. As she leaned in, her impressive bust came to rest on his chest, her flesh spilling over him in an avalanche of satin scales and supple fat. Like batter being poured into a baking pan, they spilled over his sides, Caden not wasting an opportunity to cup one in his palm. Her flesh draped itself over his hand, engulfing it up to the wrist as he lifted it, giving it a gentle squeeze that provoked an appreciative shiver.

I no longer have to wonder about you from afar,” she cooed, breaking off to nibble at his neck. It was now his turn to lift his hips from the pool, his back arching as her sharp teeth grazed his skin, followed by the softness of her plump lips. She was such a blend of violence and tenderness, at once harsh and gentle, her reptilian features married to the feminine allure of her lithe figure. “Lie still, and let me repay your generosity.”

He realized that she meant to return the favor, his erection straining against its bonds as she began to crawl those puffy lips down to his chest, the weight of her bosom lifting off him. She raised a hand, supporting herself with the other as she loomed over him, gently brushing his skin with her dull claws. Her touch was as light as a feather when she wanted it to be, the sensation making his skin tingle. It was as though the expectation of a pain that she would never visit upon him was heightening his senses.

Wet scale glided against damp skin as she roamed lower, seeming to enjoy its texture, pressing down on his muscles as if to test their firmness. The males that he had seen had been almost as developed as Kadal, even if they were a head shorter than she was, and he wondered what she made of him. The body of a scholar who spent his time reading dusty old tomes paled in comparison to that of a seasoned warrior, but she didn’t seem disappointed, her amber eyes playing across his prone form with a palpable hunger. He felt her tongue flick out to tickle him, its twin prongs exploring him, tasting him as she neared his belly.

Your skin is softer than any thread woven by my people,” she cooed, chewing on her lower lip covetously as she caressed his stomach with her long fingers. “Yet, there is a pleasant firmness beneath it. One that entices me to...lurid imaginings, I must admit.”

He reached down to stroke her cheek, Kadal placing her hand atop his own to keep it there, pushing her face into his palm. She exhaled a long sigh as she nuzzled contentedly, Caden feeling her breath on his skin. “So fragile, yet so fierce,” she muttered. “Gods, it makes my head spin...”

He lurched as he felt her hand roam down to his groin, cupping his bulge, the unexpected pulse of pleasure making him inhale sharply. She began to make slow circles, rubbing him, teasing him through the damp garment. His legs started to shake, Kadal’s lips curling into a smirk as she watched him, drinking in his every twitch and gasp.

You can just...um...pull those down,” he muttered as she examined his tented underwear. She knelt over his thighs, Caden feeling the soft cushion of her rump come to rest on his legs. He winced as she hooked her fingers around the fabric and began to pull, Kadal cocking her head as she revealed a sparse nest of curly hair, her eyes widening in surprise as his member bounced free. It bobbed in the air for a moment, standing erect, pulsing in time with the rapid beating of his heart.

Perhaps you are not so small after all,” she muttered, her eyes lingering on his member.

Is this what you expected?” he asked, his confidence faltering for a moment as she scrutinized him. He wanted so badly to please her, and he was afraid that she might not like what she was seeing. Maybe he was too strange, too different to reconcile.

One of her fingers came down to trace the vein that ran along its length, her touch making him swell. She was so distracted that he wasn’t sure if she had even heard his question. She didn’t hesitate to wrap her fingers around his shaft, Caden pushing up into her fist, his stifled groan only serving to encourage her.

By the Gods,” she marveled, “it’s like a hot ember fresh from the fire. Does it...hurt you?”

N-no,” he stammered, wincing as she gave him an experimental squeeze. She wasn’t entirely wrong, he was so swollen, an ache permeating his loins. After seeing her squirming in the shallow water, her beautiful body undulating as waves of pleasure wracked her, his need was nigh unbearable. Her palm was soothing, the coolness of her smooth scales seeming to sap the heat from his member, easing his discomfort.

I can feel it swelling between my fingers,” she whispered, enraptured by the sight of it as she began to stroke. Her hand slid all the way from the base of his member to its tip, his damp skin making her touch slippery, the sensation of her digits gliding across his glans making him grit his teeth. He had pleasured himself before, late at night when the Master was asleep, and the door to his quarters was safely locked. How could Kadal’s hand feel so different from his own? It was as though every throb of his heart, every staggered breath, his very being was somehow slaved to the slow rhythm of her fist.

Are my scales too rough?” she asked, tearing her eyes away from his loins for a moment to glance up at him.

How can you say that?” he asked. “It feels like you’re wearing a silk glove...”

What is silk?” she chuckled.

His reply was interrupted by a moan as she pulled back his foreskin, circling his exposed glans with her thumb, wetting it with the bead of excitement that welled at his tip. The sensation was beyond compare, her delicate massage ensnaring him, Caden unable to utter so much as a word as he wallowed in the surge of pleasure.

How tender you are,” Kadal murmured, her scaly eyelids drooping as she watched him writhe. “When we first met, I imagined that your skin must be as stone to have endured my blows as you did, but you are so delightfully sensitive...”

She brought her other hand to bear, the two of them enough to encompass him completely, her cool scales sliding against his skin as she began to twist them in different directions. Caden’s toes curled, and he found himself digging his fingers into the wet sand to either side of him, her deft hands swirling around his length. She alternated her stroking, keeping him guessing, reveling in the way that she made him squirm.

As he looked down at her, he saw her head snake closer on her long neck, her lips hovering a hair’s breadth above his member. She extended her tongue experimentally, Caden feeling it dart across his pink flesh, making him lurch. Emboldened by his strong reaction, she extended it again, more slowly this time. The back of his head hit the sand as she began to lick, only the weight that she was putting on his hips preventing him from thrusting into the air as this new pleasure assailed him. She slid her flexible, damp organ across his glans, feeling her way along with its forked tip. She could not lick as a human would, her tongue was too slim, scarcely the width of his finger. Yet the organ was inhumanly quick, the azure muscle slick with her saliva, the reptile harrying him with teasing glances.

She slipped it beneath his foreskin, swirling it around his tender head, her coiling tongue painting his manhood with all the finesse of an artist’s brush. He bucked as she tickled the underside of his glans with her prong, Kadal having to pull back a little to prevent him from bumping against her snout, the sudden rush of pleasure proving too much for him to bear.

People from beyond the Western shore are not so different,” she cooed, “once one grows accustomed to them...”

She brought her lips to his member, giving his leaking tip a gentle peck, watching him carefully to gauge his reaction. When he didn’t protest, she slid them lower, pursing them around his glans. The warmth of her mouth was so inviting, her puffy lips sealing around the head of his erection, her slick scales giving way to the fleshy lining of her cheeks as they pressed around him like a pair of silk pillows.

Damn it,” he gasped, doubling over as she began to suck. She glanced up at him, batting her yellow eyes, her forked tongue flicking around inside her mouth. “Watch...watch the teeth,” he added, struggling to formulate a coherent sentence as her licking distracted him. There was a wet pop as she released him, letting his member slide free, his glans shining with her drool.

My teeth may be sharp, but I won’t bite,” she replied. Her lips returned to his loins, Kadal crawling them from the base of his staff back up to the tip, her every lingering kiss making him throb as she braced him against her hand. She slipped him back into her mouth, drawing on him, doting on him with her skilled tongue. It was all that he could do to collapse back into the sand, pleasure washing over him like a tide.

Those soft lips began to slide lower, Kadal taking him deeper into her mouth, keeping her pointed teeth mercifully clear. All that he could feel was warm flesh akin to wet velvet, the inner lining of her cheeks pressing around him, the suction making them cling to his every contour like a second skin. Her saliva made his shaft slippery enough that it was almost frictionless, his scaly partner starting to bob her head in his lap, taking him a little deeper each time. He could feel the roof of her mouth brushing against his glans, its texture ribbed, each bump sending a spark of delight coursing up through his body.

Her long neck gave her so much flexibility, Kadal twisting her mouth around his member, changing the angle of her attack with each thrust. It created a whirlwind of sensation, his every nerve alight with a pleasure so raw and harsh that it made him wince. Her teasing tongue spiraled around his length all the while, her bubbling drool clinging to his skin when she pulled back, only to push him deep into her throat again.

It was almost like she was attempting to eat him. He could feel her swallowing around him, muscles as soft as velvet undulating along his length, massaging his glans in cruel waves. With every gulp, a new surge of ecstasy rocked him, her lips sealing around the base of his erection to encompass it completely. It was like she didn’t even need to breathe, she never paused, never relented.

Caden doubled over again, reaching down to place his hands on her head. What had begun as mere reflex turned to affection as he began to pet her, running his fingers across her glassy scales, stroking her cheeks. She peered up at him with her honey-colored eyes, her adoring gaze meeting his own as she buried her face between his thighs, making his heart leap.

Her sucking and licking became even more devoted as he caressed her, a shiver passing down her long spine as his fingertips brushed her frill. It seemed sensitive, Caden rolling the leathery skin between his thumb and forefinger, her steady pace faltering. She moaned into his lap, the sound making her throat vibrate around his member, provoking Caden to utter a curse that he hoped the translation spell could not interpret.

There was another wet pop as she let him slide from her mouth, Kadal wetting her lips as she glanced down at his throbbing shaft, coated in a sheen of her bubbling saliva. She pressed it against his belly with her palm, stroking him, keeping him on edge as she spoke.

Push my head down,” she insisted, a flash of mischief in her eyes. “I won’t choke, I promise.”

W-what?” Caden stammered, the request setting his heart pumping. She felt him swell beneath her hand, smiling as his erection betrayed his lust.

Take my head in your hands and set the pace,” she added, biting her lip lasciviously. She stroked his thigh with her other hand, laying her jaw on his belly, blinking up at him. Her gaze was so comely, expectant, inviting him to do with her as he pleased. It fanned the flames of his passion, Caden’s blood starting to boil.

The staff responded to his emotions again, its magic creeping into his veins, its winding strands of energy empowering him. The desire to dominate was there once more, but not through violence this time. It was a new kind of lust, assertive, possessive. He quickly realized that the emotion was not due to the staff’s influence, it was coming from him, the artifact was merely reacting to it. Rarely had he ever felt so...masculine, like a beast of the forest seeking to rut.

The sensitive scholar in Caden had already proven his worth when it came to matters of love, but now, it was the battlemage’s vigor that Kadal sought. There was a time when he had found the title almost offensive, an affront to his gentle nature. But since his battle with the Borophage, he had embraced that side of himself, he had mastered it.

Snorting like a bull, he reached down and took her head in his hands, cupping her scaly cheeks. A shiver of anticipation traveled along the length of her winding body as he guided her mouth to his loins, the reptile offering him no resistance at all, pursing her lips obediently. He slid past them, placing a hand on the top of her smooth skull as he pushed her down, her dull snout pressing against his stomach. He could feel the satin lining of her cheeks parting, his glans rubbing against the uneven roof of her mouth, her throat spasming around his length as she swallowed him to the hilt.

She lay her hands on his thighs as he began to thrust into her mouth, dangling ropes of her saliva hanging from her chin, coating his member in a bubbling sheen every time he withdrew from its warm confines. His pace grew more aggressive as his pleasure began to mount, confident in Kadal’s ability to endure his rutting, the reptile showing no signs of discomfort as he plunged in and out of her gullet. Her neck was so long that she could probably have swallowed his entire arm up to the shoulder, his member hardly giving her pause. She merely gazed up at him with eyes full of desire, her willingness only encouraging him.

He could hear the lurid, wet sounds of her sucking and gulping, Kadal twisting her head as she let his member slide deep into her throat. Her puffy lips kissed his hilt, her tongue dancing along his shaft as though mapping its every contour, walls of smooth muscle stroking him in maddening waves as they tried to drag him deeper. Every time she swallowed the warm drool that was pooling in her mouth, he felt her throat constrict around him, milking him relentlessly.

He took her cheeks in his hands again, slowing his frantic pace. The familiar ache of a welling orgasm threatened to cut his fun short, and he wanted to enjoy this for as long as he possibly could. He wanted to enjoy Kadal.

Her lips slowly slid up his shaft as he eased her head back, gliding on a sheen of her own drool, Kadal’s half-lidded eyes sapping his resolve as she glanced up at him. She drew on his glans for a moment, the suction making him wince, nursing at the tip of his organ as she smirked at his reaction.

After a momentary pause, he gently pushed her back down again, savoring the myriad sensations that assailed him with every inch that she swallowed. She was so relaxed, letting her tongue loll from her mouth, barely reacting as the tender head of his cock pressed against the back of her throat. Globs of her saliva rolled down his length, dampening his curly hairs, Kadal loosing a contented purr as her lips touched his base.

Doing it slowly was just as maddening as doing it quickly, there was no way that he could hold out much longer. His erection throbbed against her tongue as she held him in her mouth, leaning her head to the left slightly, pushing his glans into her cheek. He could see it bulging from beneath her scales, his toes curling as what felt like slimy satin slid against him.

Are you close?” she mumbled, her voice muffled by his pulsing organ. “Do not hold back...”

She didn’t need to tell him twice, Caden gripping her head more roughly, starting to push into her waiting mouth. He found a quicker, more aggressive rhythm, Kadal placing her hands on the sand to either side of his hips as she braced herself. The less considerate he was, the more she seemed to enjoy his attentions, letting her drool flow freely as he pulled her face into his lap. Her frill was standing erect, flushed with blood, only a sliver of her yellow irises visible as her scaly lids drooped.

Caden held nothing back now, taking every advantage, plunging into the depths of her clenching throat as he impaled her on his manhood. Even as he rutted in her mouth, Kadal did all that she could to please him, never the passive participant. He could feel that agile tongue circling his glans whenever the opportunity arose, his willing partner sucking and swallowing around him, the smooth cushions of her lips pursing as he pushed between them.

It was like nothing that Caden had ever felt before, blinding pleasure overwhelming him, every thrust more exciting than the last. He couldn’t even think straight, it was as if his conscious mind was giving way to an animal lust, one that knew nothing of shame or restraint. The fires of his passion threatened to consume him, each stroke of her tongue pushing him closer to the brink, as inexorable as the rising of the sun.

With a pained groan, he erupted between her lips, a stab of ecstasy stopping him dead in his tracks. Kadal had been anticipating this moment, gripping his hips with hands still coated in wet sand as she took him as deep as she could manage. She held him there, putting her weight on him to stop him from bucking, drinking down a thick wad of his ejaculate as he pumped it into her waiting mouth. Another gelatinous rope of his seed hit the back of her throat, Kadal swallowing it as it came, the sensation of her slippery gullet kneading his aching cock provoking another dizzying emission. Small points of light danced before his eyes like stars as she dragged out his climax, his mind fizzing and popping, as though his very brain was being fried in hot oil. With another grunt, his member pulsed against her tongue again, a moan of satisfaction emanating from her as she welcomed another mouthful with a teasing stroke of her velvet muscles.

The raw, seething pleasure was fleeting, but euphoria soon rolled over him like an obscuring fog. He felt drunk, his extremities tingling as though he had slept on them wrong, a bliss more complete than he had ever known draping itself over him like a warm blanket.

He gritted his teeth as Kadal slid back up his shaft, pursing her lips to clean away every drop of their shared fluids, leaving him almost completely clean. He watched her swallow conspicuously, a noticeable bulge making its way down her slender neck. She wiped a dangling strand of her saliva from her chin, watching him as he caught his breath in the shallow pool, her warm smile infectious.

We should get out of the water,” Caden finally suggested, “my fingers are starting to prune.”

Kadal stood, extending a hand to him, helping Caden to his feet. His back was covered in damp sand, but he could hardly care. She made to pull her hand away, but he kept his hold on it, Kadal’s frill flushing red as he guided her into the ferns. The undergrowth rustled as he led her to the base of a nearby palm tree, where he sat, leaning back against its trunk with his legs crossed. Kadal joined him, kneeling by his side, hesitating for a moment. She lowered herself down into the ferns, stretching out on her side, her knees tucked up near her belly. She could not lean her head on his shoulder, her neck was too long. Instead, she reclined a little more, laying her head in his lap. With a nudge from her scaly snout, she encouraged him to stroke her, relaxing into a scaly puddle as he ran his fingers across the top of her skull. The tip of her long tail twitched as he roamed down to her frill, the appendage seeming so far away, Kadal exhaling sighs of satisfaction as he rubbed the leathery skin.

His afterglow still smoldered, all of his troubles seeming so far away. He glanced up at the cloudless sky, as deep a blue as he had ever seen it, the oasis reflecting it like a perfect mirror. The green fronds above him swayed gently in the breeze, casting the bed of ferns into shadow, shielding him from the sun’s burning heat. There were a few desert flowers clinging to life here and there, scattered through the brush, petals of red and yellow adding a welcome splash of color to the sea of green. It was like a paradise, untouched by civilization, without anyone to disturb their peace for miles in any direction.

Not a day had gone by that Caden had not felt homesick, that he had not pined for a bed with a wooden frame and pillows stuffed with down. How he had longed for a real kitchen with shelves stocked with spices, where he might cook a meal more filling than morsels of salted meat and stale bread. He missed the comforting stone walls of the city, the musty smell of the Master’s tower, the clutter of books overflowing from their shelves. But in that moment, sitting beneath the tree with Kadal as they wallowed in their post-coital bliss, he would have been content to remain there forever.

He felt Kadal breathe warm air onto his thigh, rustling the ferns as she shifted her weight, turning over onto her back. Her slender neck exposed to him, he turned his attention to her throat, running his hand from her jaw to her shoulders. Her scales were pleasantly cool to the touch, their smoothness alluring, his slow massage leaving her as relaxed as he had ever seen her.

They were both as nude as the day they were born, or hatched in Kadal’s case, his eyes wandering down the length of her beautiful body. His gaze lingered on her ample breasts as their weight parted them, the defined muscles of her sculpted midriff shifting subtly with her every breath, her powerful thighs partially obscured by the ferns. He remembered the feeling of his fingers delving into flesh as soft as melting butter, muscles as firm as stone tensing beneath his hands, the taste of her loins on his lips.

He wanted more. Gods, how he wanted more. A surge of excitement rose up within him as he considered that this might only be an intermission, that they might make love again before the day was through, continue their explorations of one another. But for now, they rested, simply enjoying one another’s company.

Are you thirsty?” Caden asked, Kadal opening one yellow eye to peer up at him. “I could fetch you the waterskin.”

No,” she replied, her voice low and husky. “Stay here a while, stroke me. We can drink our fill later, before our next bout.”

N-next bout?” he asked, his heart starting to beat faster.

You want me again, do you not?” she asked. Caden swallowed, nodding his head in reply. She reached up a hand to cup his cheek, Caden leaning into her palm. “We may never get this chance again, let us not leave here until we have satisfied one another’s every curiosity.”

She raised her head on her long neck, the two of them sharing an embrace for a few moments.

Have you...done this before?” Caden asked. “Been with someone, I mean.”

Not someone like you,” she began. “Finding a mate and reproducing is a duty, something that is expected of us. A strong female must find a strong male and produce a brood that strengthens the tribe. I have had several suitors,” she added, the tone of her voice suggesting that they had displeased her in some way. “I will not feign ignorance of what attracted them to me. I am the foremost warrior of my village, my strength and status have made me something to be coveted. I spurned their advances, much to the annoyance of the Shaman,” she added with a chuckle. “They were all lacking in one way or another. I lay with two of them, out of season, of course. But it didn’t feel like it does with you,” she continued, her frill rising to frame her head in blushing crimson. “I did it because it was what was expected of me, because I thought it was what I was supposed to do, not because it was what I truly wanted...”

And now?” Caden asked.

I am exactly where I want to be,” she replied with a grin. “What about you? You have never lain with a female, have you?”

Is it that obvious?” he asked, his cheeks warming. “A sorcerer’s apprentice doesn’t have much time for courtship, you know.”

I would have it no other way,” she replied, raising her arms above her head as she stretched. “This is like where we first spoke, is it not?” she added.

You’re right,” Caden said, glancing at the oasis that surrounded them. “It was only a few days ago, but it feels like forever.”

You had me on my back in the ferns, restrained, completely at your mercy.” Her frill fluttered as her eyes glazed over, Kadal sucking her lower lip into her mouth, chewing on it as her mind raced with sordid imaginings. “I would be lying if I said that it was not a little exciting in retrospect.”

You talk as though I have run out of rope,” he replied, watching her rub her thighs together at the prospect.

Have you recovered your strength?” she added, giving him a sly smirk. “I can feel you pressing into the back of my head.”

Sorry,” he stammered, Kadal giggling as she felt his member prod her. He was ready for another bout, as she had put it.

I want to feel that way again,” she insisted, springing up from his lap. She knelt there in front of him, her hands planted in the ferns, pressing her breasts together with her biceps in a bid to entice him. “Whenever there is quiet, my mind wanders to thoughts that I would never have entertained before our meeting. The defeat that I have tasted at your hands has not been bitter, but sweet, and I have come to crave it. Take me, subdue me, as only you can.”

Caden could not refuse such a comely plea, Kadal igniting a fresh fire inside of him. He rose to his feet, standing in front of her, her exaggerated stature putting her chest at about waist-height to him. If she was going to present her bosom to him like that, then he was going to make good use of it. He placed a hand on her shoulder, Kadal blinking up at him, those yellow eyes brimming with anticipation. Obedient as ever, she lowered her head on her winding neck, preparing to part her lips.

Instead, Caden pushed his hips forward, thrusting his member into her cleavage. Her head rose up in surprise, Kadal peering down at her chest, his erection completely buried between the heavy globes. She quickly understood what he wanted, a delightful pressure surrounding him as she used her biceps to press her boobs together, lifting them with her arms. He began to rock into her chest, Kadal steadying the wobbling mounds of her breasts, every impact of his hips sending a ripple through her doughy fat like a pebble disturbing the calm surface of a lake.

You sorcerers are certainly creative,” she cooed, her eyes lingering on his shaft as it slid in and out of her bosom. He reached down with his free hand and delved his fingers into her flesh, giving it a teasing squeeze, feeling the firm breast tissue beneath the copious fat resist him. She loosed a low moan, pushing out her chest in invitation as he kneaded, her erect nipples pressing into his hips.

He hadn’t expected her cleavage to feel this good, his legs were already starting to get shaky, his knees going weak. The weight of her breasts bore down on him, pressing together tightly as they engulfed him. Doughy flesh molded around his shaft as he pushed deeper, like hot wax pouring into a mold. Her fat parted before him, creating a narrow channel that quickly closed up again when he withdrew, her boobs wobbling like mounds of gelatin with his every thrust. Their mass provided a wonderful resistance, something to push against, the sound of his hips clapping against them rising to his ears.

The delicate mosaic of her scales slid against his glans, the novel sensation making him groan. The head of his cock was so sensitive that he could just about feel the individual bumps of her hide, each one as smooth as satin in its own right, pleasantly cool against his burning loins. They were so flush that his skin glided against them almost without friction, even when dry.

She struggled to contain them as his pace grew more aggressive, her assets spilling from her grasp, her forearms only sinking deeper into their yielding surfaces when she squeezed. She tried to cup them, but her hands suffered the same fate, vanishing into the heaving mounds. It was like trying to carry two balls of melting butter on a hot day, a fool’s errand.

Caden admired the waves that he created with each thrust, the way that her breasts returned to their original position as soon as he drew back, flowing like molasses. He would finish in her cleavage if he kept up this pace, and as much as the idea of watching his seed dribble down her taut belly appealed to him, there was so much more that he wanted to do.

He took a step back, Kadal’s eyes following his member as it slid out from between her boobs. She released her hold on them, letting them fall from her arms, slapping against her torso as gravity took hold of them. They bounced as they settled, taking on that perfect teacup shape that he had first admired from the cover of the reef that day, when she had been splayed out on a rock beneath the sun’s glare.

She looked up at him, cocking her head as if to ask what he intended to do next. Caden had something mischievous in mind, he wanted to make good on his prior threat.

He called out to the staff, and it responded with silvery strands of starlight, magic flooding into his body. They coursed through his veins like blood, empowering his muscles, Kadal’s eyes widening as his grip on her shoulder tightened. Her weight was rendered moot by the flowing energy, Caden reaching beneath her arms to lift her, spinning her around to put her back against the tree. He sat her on the ground, leaning her back against its trunk, Kadal able to do little more than blink sheepishly at his sudden show of strength.

He gripped her wrists in his hands, bringing them together above her head, slamming them back against the tree to pin them there. His partner loosed an excited gasp, her breasts bouncing as his sudden aggression startled her. With one hand gripping both of her wrists, he extended the other towards his pack, which was sitting in the ferns a few feet away. Kadal’s eyes wandered over to it as it began to move, cocking her head in confusion. A coil of rope suddenly erupted from the bag, flying towards Caden as though thrown by an invisible hand. He snatched it from the air, the rope moving with a life of its own as he guided it, pouring his magic into the artifact.

It wrapped around the trunk of the tree, winding between Kadal’s wrists, knotting them together as it pulled itself taut. Kadal quickly found herself completely bound, her arms tied above her head. She tried to free herself, twisting her lithe body, her bare breasts swaying as her chiseled abdominal muscles bulged from beneath her shining scales. She soon realized that escape was impossible, the magic rope would remain as tight as Caden desired it to be. Her alarm quickly turned to arousal, her wide eyes now conveying a palpable excitement, her stout thighs rubbing together as she sat in the ferns. Caden stood there before her, his member so hard that it was almost painful, his eyes playing over her bound form. Something about her playful writhing inspired another surge of desire in him, like a cat enticed by a dangling piece of yarn.

Her long tail rose up from the ferns like a snake rearing to strike, the tapered tip of the long appendage sliding up his thigh. It wrapped around his shaft, her cool scales encompassing him. Her coils were softer than they had looked, a layer of chubby fat making his member sink into them, muscle like liquid steel shifting beneath it when she squeezed. Even with her hands bound, she could still find ways to tease him, her yellow eyes peering up at him gleefully as she began to stroke. Her tail wound around his length, sliding from the base to the tip, Caden faltering as her fleshy coils slid across his glans. Her scales were so impossibly flush that no lubrication was needed, Kadal beginning to spiral the appendage around his member, alternating its pressure with all the finesse of a hand.

She tugged, drawing him closer, extending her head on her flexible neck. She guided his member into her mouth, sliding her lips over its tender tip, her tongue darting across it as she began to nurse. Her tail relinquished its hold inch by inch as she took him deeper, plunging him into the warm reaches of her throat, her velvet muscles greeting him as she swallowed. Caden’s hand came down to rest on the top of her skull, pushing her down until her lips were wrapped around his base, his brow furrowing as a throb of pleasure wracked him.

Her attentions were almost too much for him to resist, but there was more that he yet wanted to do. He remembered the heat of her loins on his tongue, how she had opened up like a blue rose, its blooming petals coated in droplets of dew. He eased her head back, watching those scaly lips slide up his shaft, a strand of her saliva linking them as she gazed up at him. “I want more,” he growled.

Then take it,” she insisted, making a show of struggling against her bonds.

He took a knee in front of her, reaching out to run his hand down her slender neck, feeling her tremble with excitement as his fingers reached her bust. He cupped one of her ample breasts on his way down, weighing it, giving it a squeeze that made her toes curl. He slid his palm across her taut abs, feeling them tense beneath her gleaming scales, her belly tightening reflexively as he roamed lower. The scales of her midriff were so sensitive, a shiver passing through her body as he traced the curve of her hip, admiring the way that it flared outwards.

Kadal’s thighs were closed tightly, her knees pointing away from him. She was making a game of resisting him, a grin splitting her face as he reached for them, and she evaded him. He tried again, wrapping his arms around her lower legs and pulling them straight. He parted her thighs, even Kadal’s powerful muscles unable to prevent it, his fingers pressing deep into the cushion of her fat as she fought to close them again. He took a moment to stroke the flush scales of their inner surface, his partner twitching, rocking her hips as he admired their smoothness. They were long enough to reach his shoulders when he was kneeling like this, the tensing of her muscles outlining them beautifully against her mottled scales.

She finally relaxed, exposing herself to him willingly, her straining thighs opening of their own accord. He only realized exactly how much pressure she had been exerting when he saw that she was panting, her blue tongue flicking out to wet her lips as he slid a hand closer to her nethers.

He shuffled a little nearer, putting himself between her legs, reaching up to grip her throat in his hand. Her long, lithe body tensed up as she felt his fingers close around her neck, her back arching towards him. Caden pressed her against the tree trunk, not applying enough pressure to stand any chance of choking her, merely keeping her still as his fingers brushed her loins.

Kadal’s mouth opened in a silent moan of pleasure as he brushed her flushed lips, her tail curling in the ferns. She tried to look down, but found herself unable to break his grip. Caden felt her swallow beneath his hand, her eyes seeming to glaze over as she reveled in the sensation of being immobilized in such a way, rendered helpless by his magically-enhanced strength.

You can be rough with me, if you want to,” she whispered in a thinly-veiled invitation. “I know you won’t hurt me.”

He spread her scaly labia with his fingers, feeling her warmth, her desert-colored scales already slick with her anticipation. He glanced down between her trembling thighs, the blue tint of her flesh contrasting with her sandy hide, a sparkling droplet of her juices dripping to the ground below.

Her throat vibrated beneath his hand, Kadal moaning as he slid his fingers between her swollen lips, wetting them with her fluids. They glided against her burning vulva, Caden beginning to rub, the taut muscles of her belly flexing beautifully as he made teasing circles. They roamed down towards her opening, Kadal flinching as he pressed the tip of his finger against a ring of muscle, feeling it twitch at his touch.

There was a moment of resistance, and then he slid his digit inside her, watching it disappear up to the first joint. Walls of cushiony flesh welcomed him, similar in texture to the inside of her mouth, pressing around his finger as the firm muscles beyond them clenched tightly. It felt like a fist gloved in wet velvet was gripping him, squeezing relentlessly, her slippery fluids coating his skin in a viscous sheen. Her insides moved and shifted ceaselessly, stroking him as though trying to ease him inside, inviting him deeper. She was so hot, in stark contrast to her cool scales, as though all of the blood in her body was rushing to her loins.

Caden pushed a little further, sinking up to the knuckle, reveling in the way that her undulating passage rippled around him in response. Gods, she was so tight. The tunnel of slimy flesh seemed to cling to his digit, refusing to relinquish its hold on him, these muscles no less developed than the rest.

Kadal loosed a low growl of pleasure as he stroked her from within, those colorless, slippery emissions leaking around his buried finger as she bucked against it. Her throat had been wonderfully warm and narrow, slick with her saliva, the sensation of her swallowing around his member downright heavenly. But this was something else, his heart raced at the very idea of sliding his manhood in there.

She shivered as he pulled back, her muscles refusing to relinquish their grip on him, drawing on him with a palpable hunger. When he finally broke free, he remained linked to her by a sagging web of fluid, the thick strands of her desire drooping to the ferns below.

He couldn’t hold back any longer, the allure was too great. Releasing his hold around Kadal’s neck, he brought both hands to rest on her thighs, shuffling closer in the ferns as he prepared to mount her. She leaned in, her scaly forehead pressing against his as they both peered down, her hide cool against his burning face. She wet her lips in anticipation as his glans neared her drooling opening, the two of them breathing more heavily, pausing to share a lingering glance. The longing in those amber eyes was all the permission that he required, Caden thrusting forward.

They winced in unison as he rubbed his member between her puffy lips, wetting his glans with her lust, her blue vulva shining with moisture. He pressed the tip of his cock against her winking hole, feeling that ring of muscle widen to encompass him as he pressed into her, what felt like overlapping folds of the finest silk wrapping around his glans. He gritted his teeth as they raked across his most sensitive anatomy, their every texture and imperfection leaping to the forefront of his mind, his nerves alight with wonderful sensation. Beyond those pillowy walls, he could feel her muscles tensing, squeezing with sordid intent.

Kadal groaned as he buried himself up to the base, Caden pausing to glance at her, wondering if he had hurt her. She sensed his concern, answering it by burying her scaly snout in the nape of his neck, her loins seizing around his member as a tremor rocked her.

K-keep going,” she breathed.

As he withdrew, even more intense sensations assailed him, her clenching muscles tightening their hold on him. Her passage seemed to narrow even further, sucking on him like a mouth, teasing spasms sending jolts of tingling pleasure coursing up his spine. He looked down between her parted thighs to see his pale skin contrasting with her azure flesh, her loins fitting him like a glove, as though her body was molding itself to accommodate him. It was only thanks to the glaze of slippery fluid that clung to him that he felt able to withdraw at all, the two of them panting together as he paused with only his tip still inside her.

I can wait no longer,” she growled, a hint of frustration creeping into her voice. “Make me yours.”

He gripped her wide hips for leverage, his fingers pressing into her scales as he began to thrust, bottoming out inside her roiling depths. She shuddered with the impact, every soft part of her body wobbling enticingly as she tensed, the satin muscles in her most intimate reaches kneading him in a way that made his vision blur. Gods, her strength was palpable, even in what should be the softest and most feminine part of her. He got the impression that without his magic, she would have ridden over him roughshod, exhausting him easily with her superior strength and stamina. There was a certain allure to the idea, but having her bound and helpless like this had awakened something entirely new inside of him.

He began to fuck her against the tree, quickly finding a slow, heavy pace that made her rock back against its trunk. With every thrust came a sordid gasp, a comely whine, Kadal seemingly unable to stifle her moaning. Her body was so...alive. Each time he slammed into her depths, her ample breasts would shake, the meat of her thighs and her shapely rump quivering. The sculpted abs that he so adored flexed and bulged from beneath her flat belly, the shine of her fine scales accentuating every twisting motion of her body as she writhed, undulating in mesmerizing waves. She rolled her hips, pushing back against him in a desperate bid to take him deeper, locked in a sensuous dance that exaggerated her hourglass figure. Those steely thighs snapped shut around his hips, her legs crossing behind his rear to prevent him from pulling away, as though he could have brought himself to do such a thing.

Her burning, sodden loins wrung him with intent, waves of muscle rolling from his base to his tip like the fist of a farmhand milking a cow. She was so vigorous, tireless, every powerful contraction of her pillowy walls rewarding him with a fresh surge of ecstasy.

Kadal struggled against her bonds as he delivered another powerful thrust, her silken passage seething, her wet flesh caressing him as she loosed a frustrated growl. She had only to ask, and he would have loosened the rope, but he got the impression that she preferred things this way. She wanted to be frustrated, she wanted to be subdued. There was something about being at his mercy that made the towering warrior as receptive as a giggling parlor maid.

D-do it harder,” she pleaded, the flaring of her crimson frill letting him know exactly what she was feeling. He found the blend of lust and embarrassment adorable, delivering a more punishing thrust that made them both reel, his member flexing inside of her like a muscle.

How I love the way that you burn within me,” she gasped, her neck going slack to leave her head lolling as he plunged into her. “I can feel you throbbing in places that I did not expect you to reach. Gods, give me strength...”

Are you alright?” he asked, reaching up to steady her head. He placed a hand beneath her jaw, Kadal smiling drunkenly as she endured another thrust, her scaly eyelids fluttering.

I want more,” she hissed, her blue tongue flicking out to taste the air. “Leave me sore, aching. I want your boiling seed leaking out of me by the time we are through.”

Now, it was Caden’s turn to blush. She was growing more brazen by the minute.

He moved his hand up to her cheek, cupping it the way that she liked, stroking her as their frenzied lovemaking continued. He brushed her lips with his thumb, testing their softness, finding them as plump as a ripe fruit. She parted them, drawing his digit into her mouth, sucking on it obediently as she lashed it with her tongue. It was more than Caden could take, his heart throbbing as he watched her bat her eyes at him, tickling his thumb with her prong. He withdrew his hand, then slammed it against her throat, forcing her back against the trunk. She loosed a gleeful yelp of surprise that he quickly choked off, calling upon his magic, applying more force. She reveled in the sensation, her body squirming as he pinned her to the tree, her loins tightening as her muscles flexed.

His magic empowering him, he slid his other hand behind her back, tracing the long channel that her muscles carved into her spine with his fingers. He felt the two perfect dimples just above the base of her thick tail, moving past it, arriving at her rump. It was packed with muscle, filling it out, and giving it a shape that would be the envy of any woman. When he delved his fingers into it, he felt springy tissue resisting him, Kadal flexing at his touch. As well as the brawn that he had come to expect, there was also a layer of plump fat, its texture irresistible. He cupped one of her pert cheeks in his palm, squeezing it, feeling her flesh spill between his fingers like he was trying to hold a handful of butter. Her scales were as luxuriant as ever, as smooth as polished stone.

She wriggled as he gave her another cruel squeeze, Caden reveling in the way that her every motion was reflected inside her as well as out, her nethers kneading his shaft with renewed urgency. Every flutter of her eyelids seemed to go hand in hand with a spasm of her soaking passage, her walls bearing down on him with every gasp and twitch.

Kadal took in a shuddering breath as he released his hold on her neck, increasing his pace, pouring a little more magic into his thrusts. He was pounding her like a hammer, pressing her up against the tree, the green fronds above their heads letting rays of light bleed through as they shook with his rutting. Their hips slammed together with an audible clap, joined by the lurid, wet sounds of their coupling. Kadal still wanted more, she was insatiable, pulling him into her with her powerful thighs.

Her ample bust shook in time with their frantic lovemaking, Caden watching the heavy globes knock together, her wobbling flesh irresistible to him. He plunged both hands into her breasts, Kadal arching her back, a lustful cry escaping her lips as he dug his fingers into her velutinous flesh. The way that her fat yielded before his probing digits reminded him of a waterskin full to bursting, the doughy tissue pouring around his hands like molten metal fresh from a forge. He drew one hand back, giving her boob a gentle tap, watching a ripple spread through it.

Another whine of pleasure emanated from his scaly lover as he caught one of her hard nipples between his fingers, pressing them together as he massaged her, giving it a gentle squeeze. They were so sensitive, every muscle in her body stiffening when he applied pressure, Kadal’s broad hips gyrating as he pressed down on the firm little nub with his thumb.

Can you not keep your hands off me, even for a moment?” she gasped. There was no annoyance in her voice, it was a thought that filled her with desire, the huntress pushing out her bust as if to encourage him.

If I want to slide my hands across every inch of your body, I shall,” he replied. He dragged his hand from her chest to her belly to illustrate his point, feeling the bumps of her washboard abs rise to meet him, his fingers tracing the channels that they cut into her hide. “If I want to taste your every scale, I shall,” he added as he leaned closer. He planted a kiss on her clavicle, his lips crawling up her slender throat, feeling the mosaic of her scales beneath his tongue. She shivered with delight as he reached her jaw, Kadal straining against the rope.

Do not stop until you have had your fill of me,” she breathed, “until your every desire has been satisfied.”

As if I needed your permission,” he replied, Kadal biting her lower lip, her excitement making her tail wind through the ferns like a snake. She opened her mouth to speak, be he filled it with his tongue, Kadal quickly returning his affections. It was a frantic, messy embrace, all thoughts of restraint long since abandoned. Their tongues wound around one another, their shared saliva dripping from their joined lips, droplets of it falling down to wet the scales of her bosom.

He had such hunger for her, and it was only increasing the longer they spent together. He kissed her as though her very breath could sustain him, his hands roaming across her lithe body, always wanting more. She felt the same way, he could see the yearning in her amber eyes, he could feel it in the way that her body responded to his own. It was like they were in sync, both of them dancing to the beat of a drum that neither of them could hear, but were somehow instinctively aware of.

Are you close?” she whispered, her voice wavering. “I can feel you swelling inside me.”

He nodded his head, gritting his teeth as he slid his hands back down to rest about her hips.

Hold nothing back,” she continued, watching him intently as sweat dripped from his brow.

The pace of their union began to grow erratic, the suction of her writhing depths making Caden wince each time he plunged into them. Her muscles seemed to spiral around his length from beyond the barrier of her slimy, silky walls, as though a dozen tongues were coiling around his shaft. It was a prison of wet velvet from which he could not bring himself to escape.

Their ruthless pace pushed them higher and higher, their bodies joined together, each subtle flex and twitch felt by both partners. Every throb of his member made Kadal tighten in response, which made him drive himself deeper in turn, the two of them feeding into one another in an inexorable spiral of bliss. Time seemed to lose its meaning, all that Caden could focus on was the way that Kadal’s body writhed beneath him, the way that her velvet insides stroked him with their merciless contractions.

The wonderful friction became too much for him to bear, the pressure that had been building up inside him releasing. All reason left him as he doubled over, pressing his face into the soft cushion of Kadal’s bust, his moan of pleasure stifled by her wobbling flesh. His body seemed to move of its own accord, continuing its desperate thrusting, even as the first flood of his seed splashed against her spasming depths. A sweet ache permeated him the likes of which he had never experienced before, his ecstasy growing more intense with each rope of his hot seed that was swallowed by her seizing passage. Kadal wailed as she felt his heat spreading through her, flooding her, her tremors making her shake against the tree trunk as he painted her reaches with his emission.

She soon joined him in his climax, her steely thighs closing around his hips, pulling him as deep as he could reach. Her tail rose up from the ferns, coiling around his midriff like the tentacle of a sea monster from a mariner’s shanty, trapping him in its firm grasp. She held him there, preventing him from pulling away, ensuring that every drop of his seed found its home in her quivering depths.

Caden wrapped his arms around her waist, feeling the taut muscles of her belly bulge and tighten as the waves of her orgasm washed over her, her breasts rocking against his face. Her lithe, sinewy body was in constant motion, her scales reflecting the sunlight as she danced. Her spine arched, her hips gyrating, driving his pulsing member against her satin walls as though trying to scratch a maddening itch.

There was no end in sight, their bodies locked together as they rode out their shared orgasm, clinging to one another like sailors to the rigging of a ship in a storm. Hands wandered across skin drenched with sweat and scales the texture of silk. Fingers delved into yielding flesh and flexing muscles, lips and tongues seeking out whatever was in reach. Kadal’s wet leather scent blended with Caden’s exertion, her panting breath filling his ears, his partner letting slip the most enticing yelps and trills each time his member slid against her tender passage.

Deeper, harder, faster. Those were the only thoughts that his animal brain could conjure, the two of them reduced to panting, drooling beasts by their pleasure. A satisfaction deeper and more permeating than any that Caden had ever felt came over him, one last surge of rapturous sensation forcing a bestial grunt from him, as though he had been punched in the stomach. He was so acutely aware of the last viscous, warm wad of his ejaculate as he pumped it into Kadal’s trembling womanhood, the searing pleasure slowly giving way to a powerful afterglow.

Kadal was coming down from her high, her tensing muscles slowly relaxing, the two of them wincing together as her soaking tunnel wrung him one last time. Exhausted, he relaxed into her bosom as she leaned back against the tree, her breasts making for admirable pillows, his own sweat clinging to her scales to make them glisten. Her cool body temperature was a welcome oddity, soothing him in the desert heat, her breath blowing the damp strands of his hair as she recovered.

He willed the magic rope to come loose, freeing her hands, and she wasted no time wrapping her arms around him possessively. They remained like that for a while, basking in their euphoria beneath the fronds of the palm trees, simply enjoying their newfound closeness.

You are all wet again,” Kadal chuckled, breaking the silence. She ran her clawed fingers down his back, her scaly digits gliding in a sheen of his sudor.

That’s how my kind cool themselves down,” he explained, lifting his face from her inviting cleavage to peer up at her. “Guess I’ll need to take another bath in the oasis before we leave.”

She opened her legs to release him as he rose off her, the spent lovers wincing in tandem as his still erect member slid out of her. It had been plugging a sordid blend of their love, which began to seep out, its pearly color contrasting with her blue vulva. A drooping web of it joined them together, Kadal’s frill flushing with blood as she watched it break, draping itself over the fronds of the ferns below. His heart throbbed as he remembered her lurid statement from earlier, how she had wanted his boiling seed leaking out of her. It seemed as though he had fulfilled her request.

It looks like I may need to join you,” she said, her amber eyes lingering on his glistening member.

We can afford to stay here a while longer,” he suggested, Kadal lifting her gaze to meet his own. “With everything that’s happened, I think we could both use it.”

Her scaly lips broke into a smile, and she pressed her breasts together with her biceps, leaning forward as if to entice him.

Then, let us see which of us has the most stamina...”

CHAPTER 10: SACRED SECRETS

Kadal upended Caden’s waterskin into the ferns as he watched from his seat beneath one of the palm trees, a skeptical expression etched onto his face.

Is that really necessary?” he asked, crossing his arms.

Trust me,” Kadal replied, wading into the shallow water. She filled the vessel from the oasis, bubbles rising to the surface, then lifted it to her lips. She took a long draw, Caden watching each gulp slide down her long neck, taking a deep breath when her thirst was sated. He extended his hand as she climbed back up onto the bank, and she passed the waterskin to him, Caden taking a tentative sip.

Alright,” he conceded, taking a longer drink. “It does taste better. I conjure my water from the air, it’s purer than anything that comes out of the ground, but I suppose it must be lacking in mineral content.”

Not that there is anything wrong with your method,” Kadal replied, “but we should drink our fill while we are here.”

The sun was rising, and Kadal had finished her morning basking. Memories of their romp the night before still lingered, flashing through his mind whenever he looked at his reptilian companion. They had made love several more times on the banks of the oasis, only sleeping once the stars were twinkling above the palm fronds, and they were too exhausted to continue. It had been the most wonderful night of his life, and it still felt more like a dream than reality. Kadal seemed to feel the same way. She was as cheerful as he had ever seen her, all of the prior tension that had existed between them melted away by the fires of their passion. He felt so...comfortable around her now, in a way that he had never felt before. Knowing someone’s body so intimately, knowing their desires, and having them know you in the same way was such a marvelous thing.

You are staring off into the distance again,” Kadal said, snapping him out of his stupor as she swiped the waterskin from his hand.

Sorry,” he chuckled, watching her take another drink. She leaned over and ruffled his hair before tossing the vessel into his lap, Caden smiling up at her as he tried to straighten it.

We should press on,” she said, planting her hands on her wide hips as she glanced out across the sparkling oasis. “We cannot be more than a day’s walk from the Eastern shore.”

I’ll renew our spells before we leave,” Caden said, rising to his feet. He extended a hand, and his staff leapt into it. His control over it was so complete now that it felt like an extension of his own body. “The last thing we need is the translation spell wearing off while we’re in a pinch.”

***

Kadal scaled one of the reefs, leaping between the rocks, as agile as ever. She perched at the top, shielding her eyes from the sun as she peered out over the desert.

I see it!” she shouted, “the far shore!”

Finally,” Caden muttered, climbing up the corals to join her. Beyond were the towering glass spires of the sacred city, which had been visible on the horizon for some time now, growing ever clearer as they neared. The twisting towers were made from reflective glass and silver metal, shining like beacons, the means of their construction violating all architectural principles that he knew of. They were too thin, too tall to be made from any known material. Perhaps that was also the reason they had endured for all these thousands of years.

As Kadal had said, the shore was also in view now. Far away, beyond the reefs and spires, the land began to slope upwards. There were far fewer whale bones here, just a few skeletons scattered between the corals, their pale color reflecting the sunlight. They had left the graveyard behind them and had thankfully encountered no more Borophages.

I was starting to think I might never reach it,” Caden marveled, peering out at the welcome sight from beneath the shadow of his cowl. “Are we home free? I don’t see any Bone Eaters, and there’s been no sign of our pursuers since we left the caves.”

Assuming that they went around the wall, they will be days behind us,” she replied confidently. “Nothing now stands between us and the city.”

What about you?” he asked, turning to glance at her. “Do you still have any reservations about this?”

I am about to break my people’s most sacred taboo by violating the sanctity of our holiest place,” she began. “All for an outsider who I was never supposed to speak with, let alone lie with. Yes, I have many reservations, but none that will make me forsake you. Whatever happens, we shall face it together.”

He reached over and gave her an appreciative pat on the back.

Then we have no time to waste. Stay close to me, Kadal, and touch nothing. My Master warned me that this place might be booby-trapped, that its builders would not have left their treasures unguarded. I cannot say what form such traps might take, they may be magical in nature.”

***

As they neared, the city came into clearer view, emerging from the blue haze. It was surrounded by a tall wall, not unlike the one that they had encountered in the Coral Sea, watchtowers made from the same twisting glass and metal as the spires spaced out along its length. It looked like it encircled the whole city, which might make getting inside difficult. If they couldn’t find a breach, they would have to make one.

They arrived at the sloping shore, beginning to climb, eventually arriving at what would once have been water level. Caden turned to glance back the way that they had come, the ocean ridge that they had traveled beneath barely visible. He had come so far, he almost couldn’t believe that he had finally reached his destination. Setting off from the tower, he would never have imagined that his journey would have turned out this way.

He turned back to the face the wall that loomed above them, Kadal craning her long neck as she peered up at it. It was made from enormous blocks of limestone, exactly like the previous wall, cut into such precise shapes that he wouldn’t have been able to slip the blade of a knife into the gaps. These blocks were even larger and heavier, to the point that he found himself questioning how they could have been moved at all. Perhaps the architects had used magic to make them lighter.

What now?” Kadal asked. “I climb well, but not this well...”

I could try breaking through again,” he replied, turning to glance off to the right. The wall curved off into the distance, seeming to extend along the entire shoreline. “But I’d rather find a different way inside. This place is a city, there have to be gates, ways that the inhabitants would have come in and out. Back home, we have huge portcullises and drawbridges that let people pass, but can be used to close off the city in the case it comes under attack.”

This...is the first time that I have ever left the Coral Sea,” she said, turning to look out over the desert. She seemed wistful, almost homesick, perhaps reflecting on her journey in the same way that he had. “I know not what awaits us, we step out of my domain, and into yours. I will follow you.”

They walked along the base of the wall, eventually coming across an entrance. It was a monumental gate, at least thirty feet tall, and just as wide. The opening was flanked by two pillars of cracked marble that would have put even the tallest tree to shame. More walls rose up to either side to create a passageway with a stone floor that was maybe a hundred feet deep, with a large, iron portcullis at either end. The exterior gate was raised, while the interior was still lowered, what lay beyond it too shadowy to make out. There was a roof over the whole thing, bright shafts of light bleeding through openings in the ceiling to create golden pools on the ground below.

Kadal took a step forward, but Caden extended an arm to block her, his eyes darting about the gatehouse.

Wait,” he hissed, his brow furrowing. “Murder hole.”

Is your magic waning, or did I understand that correctly?” Kadal asked. “What in the name of the Gods is a murder hole?”

See those openings in the ceiling?” he asked, pointing to the shafts of sunlight. “When an invading army breached the first gate, they would enter into this passageway, where the defenders would spring their trap. They would fire arrows, or pour boiling oil through those holes, slaughtering the soldiers inside.”

That sounds ghastly,” Kadal said, grimacing at the thought. “Is that how your kind make war?”

It has been known to happen, yes,” he admitted.

But what does it matter now?” she continued. “There are no defenders left to trap us.”

Defenders, no, but perhaps the spells that they left behind. Remember, Kadal, these people were master sorcerers. Imagine a weapon that can continue to kill long after its wielder has been slain.” He shrugged off his pack and knelt to rummage inside it, Kadal hovering nearby as she watched him pull out his spellbook. “Fortunately, I came prepared.”

What are you going to do?” she asked, leaning over his shoulder as he began to leaf through the yellowed pages.

I have a spell that can reveal hidden traps and mechanisms,” he explained, “as well as enchantments that are not too powerful. If there’s anything untoward waiting for us in there, I should be able to spot it.”

He raised his staff, balancing the book in his other hand as he began to read off the incantation, commanding the strands of magical energy to carry out his will. It was a more complex spell than most that he had cast so far, and it took a good fifteen minutes for him to go through the steps, Kadal knowing to stay quiet so as not to break his concentration. He set the book down, taking a few steps closer, waving his stave as he examined the walls. In its wake, it left a glittering cloud, as though sparkling dust was pouring from the bronze figurehead. The cloud lingered in the air, and through it, he could see the traces left by the structure’s architects. Behind the stone blocks were glowing patterns, some of them easily recognizable, others less so.

He could make out the mechanism that raised and lowered the portcullis, as though the walls had become transparent, the gears and chains leading to a lever in the guardhouse on the battlements above them. There were drains concealed beneath the stone floor, probably for the blood, and whatever caustic substances they would pour from those holes in the ceiling.

What are these pipes for?” he wondered, approaching the threshold as he peered at the nearest wall. There were small, metal tubes spaced along it at intervals, curving into the floor where they extended beyond his sight. They must be connected to something far below them.

I do not see any pipes,” Kadal said, keeping her distance.

There are pressure plates built into the floor,” he mused, kneeling just beyond the gate. “Kadal, fetch me the largest rock you can find.”

She hesitated for a moment, then did as he bade, returning with a large stone hoisted over her shoulder like a sack of grain. After pausing to marvel at her bulging bicep for a moment, he told her to toss it into the passageway.

It landed on one of the pressure plates with a thud, a bright, roaring flame filling the chamber. It was as hot as a forge, Caden shielding his face from the heat as jets of flame spewed from the pipes, Kadal leaping back in alarm. Smoke billowed from the holes in the ceiling as the inferno began to clear, Caden glancing back at his frightened companion.

It’s a fire trap of some kind,” he explained. “An intruder steps on a pressure plate, and if it’s armed, they’re greeted with a blast from those pipes. I’m surprised that it still works, there must be some kind of alchemic source, maybe a mechanism that mixes substances to create flame on command. I can’t imagine that any other method would still be functional after so long.”

Will there be...more traps like that?” she asked warily, glancing up at the towering gate.

I expect so, but don’t worry. As long as we remain vigilant, we can preempt them. Now,” he added, raising his staff. “Time to make sure that these pipes never hurt anyone again.”

He willed the strands of magic to pass beneath the stone floor, targeting the mechanisms that would activate the pressure plates, conjuring heat. Like an iron in a forge, the gears began to glow red-hot, eventually starting to soften. It wasn’t long before all of the mechanisms had melted, slagged metal cooling in the small shafts that had once housed the ancient machinery.

Whoever had built this place had been advanced indeed, with an extensive knowledge of both alchemy and engineering. Such elaborate machines were not beyond the capabilities of modern smiths, the Dweorh certainly possessed the skills to forge things like this, but calling them uncommon would be an understatement. As much as he wanted to reassure Kadal, it was an ill omen. He would have to be extra careful going forward.

Caden stepped through the gate, hearing Kadal gasp as he made a point of stamping on one of the now inert plates.

See?” he said, spreading his arms. “It’s perfectly safe. I destroyed the mechanisms, they can’t activate anymore.”

She crept in behind him warily, glancing up at the ceiling, which was now covered in black soot. They made their way over to the interior gate, Caden leaning against the portcullis as he tried to get a view inside, finding it far too dark. He gripped the bars and gave the metal lattice a shake, but it was firmly rooted to the floor.

This is something more familiar, at least,” he muttered. “This is made from iron, and there will be teeth on the bottom that slot into grooves in the ground to make it harder to breach with a battering ram.” He waved his staff again, creating another cloud of glittering particles. “Looks like it uses a pulley system, it would require two men to raise it.”

Is there any way through?” Kadal asked.

With magic, anything is possible,” he replied. He lifted his staff, closing his eyes as he concentrated, the portcullis creaking. His companion took a step back, glancing up at the gate with a concerned expression, perhaps fearing that it was about to collapse.

What are you doing?” she asked.

There are two chains that would normally be pulled to raise the gate,” he explained. “Since we cannot reach them, I am making their links heavier, as though a great weight were being attached to each one.”

He could see the metal links in his mind’s eye, their mass increasing as his magic did its work, the gate slowly rising from the ground as they grew heavy enough to counterbalance it. The sound of screeching metal filled the murder hole as the obstacle began to rise, sliding along grooves in the walls to either side of it, the clattering of the chains audible from the other side. When there was enough of a gap for him to get through, he crouched under it, Kadal waiting a moment longer before following after him. Once they were on the far side, he released his enchantment, the gate slamming into the floor behind them with a monumental crash that nearly made Kadal jump out of her skin.

And that is how you breach a city,” he declared with an exaggerated bow.

Caden,” Kadal whispered, pointing behind him.

He followed her gaze, turning to see the city. Before them was a long, straight road that led off into the distance, paved with great slabs of stone. They had shifted over the eons, the gaps revealing soil where desert plants had taken root. To either side of it rose tall buildings, easily larger than anything back in Caden’s kingdom. They were four, sometimes five stories tall, supported by rows of ornate pillars that held up their facades. Many had balconies that projected out over the street with marble balustrades, some of them partially collapsed to leave piles of broken rock on the road below, the ancient stonework not quite as sturdy as the city’s fortifications. Belvederes jutted from their sloping roofs, towers and turrets built for seemingly no other purpose than to give their occupants a view, the wooden shutters that had once covered their windows now rotted away to almost nothing.

They began to walk forward in silence, passing beneath crumbling archways, taking in the strange scenery. There was no pillar that wasn’t carved with elaborate reliefs, floral patterns winding their way up the masonry, no facade that wasn’t intricately decorated with statues and etchings. Every building was a work of art in its own right, the product of a master craftsman who had poured his entire being into every strike of his chisel. The inhabitants of this place must have been wealthy indeed to have enjoyed such luxuries.

Have you ever seen anything like this?” Kadal asked, her head on a swivel.

This isn’t too dissimilar from my home,” he replied, stopping to admire a building that had sculptures of men holding up its arches in place of pillars. “There’s a fortified wall, a gate, dwellings where the inhabitants would have lived. That said, the architecture here is fantastic, it’s so elaborate. Every inch of stone seems to have some kind of decoration. One might find such fineries in a king’s keep where I come from, but not on the walls of a commoner’s house. Everything here is so...big...”

Do your people live in dwellings like these?” she added, glancing over at the entrance to one of the structures. Two marble pillars flanked a large double door, the aged wood too decayed to make out the reliefs that had once adorned it. The surrounding stonework had survived, carvings of grapevines winding their way around it.

Smaller, and far less impressive dwellings,” he replied. “If only we had time to stop and take notes. These buildings look like they’ve been untouched for thousands of years, imagine what could be learned.”

We call this place the sacred city,” Kadal began, staring up at a sculpture of a lion’s head that snarled down at them from a corner of the building. “But I never really knew what a city was, I could never have conceived anything like this in my wildest dreams. What are we, a people who live in caves in the reefs, compared to those who can command stone to take any shape they desire? We truly walk in the footsteps of Gods...”

Not Gods,” Caden chided, Kadal turning to glance down at him. “Skilled stonemasons and architects, certainly, but I see nothing that cannot be explained through the application of the physical sciences.”

Hoping that Kadal wasn’t about to have some kind of religious experience, he led her down the street, moving into a large square that must have once housed a bustling market. At its center was a twenty-foot statue perched atop a fountain that had run dry millennia ago, a figure of a man in an elaborate raiment raising a staff towards the heavens in triumph. He looked like a sorcerer to Caden, but perhaps that was just his bias talking. One feature stood out to him, however. The man had long, pointed ears.

Hang on a minute,” he muttered, Kadal following behind him as he made his way over to the rim of the stone basin. There were runes on a brass plaque, but even if age hadn’t caked it in a layer of verdigris over the years, the language was unknown to him. He shielded his eyes from the sun as he peered up at the figure, examining it more closely.

What is it?” Kadal asked.

This man was an Alfar,” Caden replied, “There’s no doubt.” Knowing that she likely had no idea what he was talking about, he elaborated. “They were an ancient race of people who inhabited the forests and valleys of my homeland long ago, their overgrown ruins are scattered all over the kingdom. We know a fair bit about them. They were a highly magical people, and their culture held a deep reverence for nature. I had no idea that they had ranged so far East. This city is beyond anything that our scholars and explorers have uncovered until now.” “So...these Alfar built this place?” Kadal mused as she glanced up at the effigy.

It’s starting to look that way,” Caden replied. “Come on, let’s keep moving.”

Do you know where you are going?” she asked skeptically.

No, but my guess is that the most important civic buildings will be situated in the city center. Libraries, museums, seats of governance, that manner of thing. The object that we seek, this black stone, is unlikely to be sitting atop some random inhabitant’s mantle. Keep an eye out for any buildings that seem...especially impressive.”

At least, that was his hope. In reality, the city could be made up of hundreds, even thousands of buildings. He had no idea what he was even looking for, or where it might be. This quest was going to take far longer than anticipated if they had to start scouring random structures.

As they made their way deeper into the maze of ruins, passing beneath more ornate arches as they went, Caden began to get a better idea of the city’s layout. Everything seemed to have been arranged in a grid pattern, with dwellings clustered in orderly blocks, surrounded by perfectly straight roads that intersected at right angles. It was all very carefully planned, very deliberate.

Above the rooftops, those crystalline spires jutted, glass and silver metal reflecting the sunlight. Up close, they were even more impressive, their intricate spirals seeming to defy everything that he knew about architecture. They were too tall, too thin to support themselves. They must be made from a material far strong than any stone, or perhaps there was a magical element to their construction.

Look,” Caden said, pointing into the distance. “There are larger buildings ahead, those seem as good a place as any to start our search.”

As they neared the structures, they loomed ever larger, standing tall above the tiled roofs of the surrounding houses. One of them was an elaborate, domed building made from white marble that shone under the sun like a beacon, the entire exterior lined with stacks of ornate pillars. It certainly looked worthy of housing a king to Caden, perhaps it was the Alfar equivalent of a castle. It was surrounded by more of those pointed spires, corkscrewing their way into the azure sky, glittering like starlight. Beside it was a pyramidal structure made from what might be sandstone, almost as tall as the dome at its point. Its sloping walls must have been polished to a mirror-like sheen in their prime, but time had worn them down, the vestiges of what they once were still visible in places.

So, your people have been protecting this city?” Caden asked as they walked down one of the deserted streets, some of the houses to either side of them little more than piles of rubble. “Do you know for how long?”

I cannot say,” she replied. “It has always been that way. Generations ago, the Gods entrusted our people with guarding this place, and we have done so ever since. It is our most sacred duty, it is why we attack outsiders who enter the Coral Sea.” “Well, you’ve done a good job,” he muttered. “This place should have been a goldmine for explorers and scholars throughout the ages, it should have been looted down to the foundations, yet it doesn’t look like a single person has ever set foot here. Regrettably, the fate of Alfar ruins is often to be pillaged for any valuable metals or gemstones, then dismantled by locals in search of good stone. I once read the account of a scholar who had sought out a magnificent ruined watchtower recorded by his predecessor, only to discover upon arriving that it had been dismantled by a local shepherd who wanted to build a wall to keep his flock from wandering.”

They passed beneath a massive arch that served as a gateway to the city center, likely a monument to some kind of war or conflict. It must have been sixty feet tall and almost as wide, propped up by two square pillars the size of buildings in their own right. There were intricate sculptures adorning each one, the statues seeming to extrude from the blocks of stone, while every flat surface was covered in a decorative relief of some kind. They showed scenes of battle, carvings of what looked like Alfar fighting against one another, horses and chariots stampeding over their adversaries.

As they passed beneath the curved ceiling, itself adorned with geometric patterns, he felt Kadal’s hand on his shoulder. He turned his head to see that she was staring at one of the statues, and it took a moment for him to realize what she had discovered.

One of the statues on the interior of the support pillar depicted an Alfar, clad in a flowing raiment like the one they had seen atop the fountain in the town square. He was presenting a sword to a kneeling figure, almost like a king knighting one of his soldiers, the person in question raising their hands to receive this blessing. The kneeling figure was not an Alfar, however. It was a reptile.

Caden took a step towards it, pulling back his cowl as though that might give him a better view. The aged stone was cracked in places, eons of weathering eroding some of the finer details, but there was no mistake. The kneeling person had the long, clawed fingers of a reptile, the winding tail, the dull snout, the frilled neck. It took Caden a second to see that the reptile was wearing a robe. He had always known their kind to be sparsely clothed, so seeing one fully dressed had thrown him off.

What is this?” Kadal gasped. She approached the statue, reaching up to place a hand on the stone, her frill rising. “It looks like...me.”

Caden turned on the spot as he examined more of the sculptures that adorned the interior of the arch. There, another one. Where the leftmost support pillar joined to the curved ceiling, there was a relief depicting another battle. These Alfar were not fighting alone, they had reptiles among their ranks, the fearsome creatures charging their enemies with spear and sword in hand. He found another statue, a masterfully carved depiction of a reptile warrior sitting upon a pedestal, some kind of banner or standard draped across its broad shoulders as it knelt with its spear clutched in its claws. It was so lifelike, every scale carefully chiseled from the rock, every crease in the fabric lovingly depicted.

Kadal,” he whispered, “could it be that your Gods were the Alfar?”

If you have some insight into these mysteries, then do not hold your tongue,” she replied. “I do not understand what I am seeing.”

Your ancestors were tasked with protecting this city by your Gods,” he continued. “Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’d say it’s safe to assume that the Alfar built this place. Their statues are everywhere, the pointed ears are unmistakable. These sculptures depict your people accepting weapons from them, fighting alongside them, being honored by them. If this arch is some kind of war memorial, then your people seem to have played a very large role in their history.”

But...how would such a thing be forgotten?” she asked, gazing up at another of the statues. “We know nothing of the sacred city save for that we were tasked with protecting it. We have dwelt in the Coral Sea since the dawn of time, we never lived in giant towers of stone.”

Maybe you didn’t forget it,” Caden replied. “At least, not entirely. Maybe the Alfar found you living in the Coral Sea when they arrived here, maybe they recognized your natural strengths, and sought to leverage them. They made of you auxiliaries, warriors, guards. Could it be that your people still carry on that tradition long after your former masters have disappeared? Their orders to defend the city have passed into myth, the original context lost to the ages.”

Kadal was steeped in thought, her scaly brow furrowing as she stood in the shadow of the arch. Caden had never seen her so contemplative before. He had to wonder if these revelations were undermining her faith, or whether it was being vindicated. After all, few religions could claim to have physical evidence of their Gods, proof of their favor.

All my life, I have obeyed the will of the Gods,” she finally said. “I never questioned the words of the Shaman, I never doubted our history, I merely did my duty. What cause did I have to do otherwise?”

Caden prepared to console her, but she was not yet finished.

Now, I discover that our Gods were as real as you or I, divine or not. That they really did entrust us with their protection, that the order to defend the sacred city came from their lips. My kin have been keeping this tradition for untold generations, doggedly carrying out our duties, even in their absence.”

Are you...alright?” he asked, still struggling to gauge her reaction.

I feel as though the Gods have descended from the sky to stand before me,” she replied, gazing up at the statue again, her yellow eyes full of wonder. “To learn that a people capable of creating such wonders once honored us so, that we have remained loyal to them after all this time...” She glanced down at him, a wave of relief washing over Caden as he saw a smile brighten her face. “If they were divine or not, it changes little. They chose us to be their protectors.”

I wonder what happened to them?” Caden mused, a sudden dark thought coming over him. “Could it be that...the last time this calamity happened, they were able to correct the problem, but too late to save themselves?”

What do you mean?” Kadal asked.

The scroll that my Master discovered tells of a calamity identical to the one that we now face,” Caden said, scratching his stubbly chin. “Of an age when the sun grew ever brighter in the sky, when the crops failed, and the land grew parched. The magi of this city, the Alfar sorcerers, were able to create some kind of artifact that somehow corrected the problem. The black stone from your vision must be that same artifact. But what if they were too late?” he added, his tone dour. “What if they were able to correct the problem and save the world, but not themselves? All over the known world, we find Alfar ruins abandoned, deserted, with no sign of what happened to their occupants. Could it be that their entire civilization collapsed?”

And my people endured long after,” Kadal added, her frill fluttering. “We do not fear the sun, the desert is our home.”

Your ancestors may still have been affected if they left the city and forgot huge swathes of their history,” he replied. “A population bottleneck, maybe. But yes, you are certainly here while the Alfar are not because of your affinity for dry climates. While the Alfar succumbed, perhaps your people returned to a tribal lifestyle of subsistence living, one sustainable enough to see you through the calamity.”

What if we are too late?” she asked, tearing her eyes away from the mural. “What if it happens again?”

There’s no way to know,” Caden replied, “we can only do what we can.”

She nodded her head in agreement, the two of them continuing on through the arch.

***

That is a large pyramid,” Caden muttered, standing beside Kadal at the base of the massive structure. The blocks of polished sandstone that made up its face must have weighed two or three tons each, and their number was uncountable. Its peak was four hundred feet high, maybe more, towering above them like an artificial mountain.

What makes you think that this is the resting place of the black stone?” Kadal asked.

It’s the biggest structure after that dome over there,” he said, gesturing to the castle surrounded by glass spires. “The other buildings that we passed on the way here were bathhouses, open-air theaters, nothing of importance. In my kingdom, sorcerers reside in towers, so maybe this is the magi equivalent of that. It certainly looks like it was built using magic, I don’t see how else they could have shifted blocks of this size.

Look,” she added, pointing to the arched entrance. It was held up by a pair of sandstone pillars, decorated in the ways that Caden had come to expect of the Alfar. There were runes chiseled into the stonework, perhaps denoting the name of the building or its purpose. “Can you read them?”

Well, they’re not caked in verdigris like the plaque on the fountain,” he muttered as he took a step closer to get a better look. “We have a pretty good understanding of the Alfar writing system, but this...doesn’t look familiar. Some of these runes are recognizable, but as for the rest, I cannot say. If only I had a book on Alfar runes and symbology with me, maybe I could make some sense of this.”

Which ones do you recognize?” Kadal added.

It’s hard to say,” he began, examining the strange symbols. “This could be a language closely related to those of the Alfar who once made my kingdom their home, or the resemblance could be completely coincidental. There’s no way for me to be sure without some kind of cipher.”

Can you use magic to translate it?”

Not that I know of,” he replied, shaking his head. “The spell that lets you and I communicate works by conveying our intent, it requires a mind to draw from, but the people who left these marks are long dead. Only study can reveal the meaning of their words.”

What of the statues?” she asked, gesturing to one of the sculptures that had been carved into a pillar. “Could they convey a meaning that transcends language?”

Caden faltered for a moment, embarrassed that he hadn’t thought of that first.

That’s...a very logical assessment,” he said, Kadal giving him a grin. He walked up to the carving, examining the oversized depiction of a robed figure in sandals. His head was shaved bald, his pointed ears all the more prominent because of it, and he seemed to be wearing some kind of eyeglass. In his outstretched hand was clutched a collection of measuring tools. There was some kind of ruler with numbered notches, a set of scales hanging from small chains, what looked to be some kind of sundial or compass. The natural sciences were this man’s domain, that much was obvious, but he might be an architect or a physicist as much as he might be a magi. Every society’s professions overlapped in different ways.

This is the only lead we have, so we should at least check,” Caden said. He moved over to the towering doors between the pillars, these ones hewn from heavy slabs of white marble, so large that he doubted whether a normal person would have been able to open them on their own. They were engraved with more Alfar symbology, a series of concentric rings projecting from a large ball in the center that had been recessed into the stone, its meaning unclear.

He waved for Kadal to stand back, then braced his hands against the doors as he prepared to push them ajar. To his surprise, they opened easily, swinging on their hinges with scarcely a push. He gave his companion a shrug, then raised his staff, preparing another spell as he stepped over the threshold.

Beyond the marble doors was a short passageway, the walls, floor, and ceiling all lined with the same white marble sporting veins of grey and gold. Hanging from the ceiling like some kind of chandelier was a sculpture in shining silver, suspended from a slim chain, another depiction of concentric circles arranged around an orb. Could this be the symbol of their order, or something more?

Before taking another step, he waved his staff, a shower of glittering particles revealing what lay behind the slabs of stone. After how heavily defended the gate had been, he would take no chances. More pipes in the walls gave him pause, but they were different from the ones that had spewed flame in the murder hole, they seemed to be carrying fresh air into the chamber from outside. There were no pressure plates, nothing under the floor, no obvious enchantments.

It seems safe,” he said, continuing into the passage. Kadal followed after him, her claws clicking on the polished marble, the ceiling high enough that she only had to duck to avoid the hanging sculpture. They came upon a second set of marble doors that led deeper into the building, these ones barred by a mechanical locking mechanism. In its center was a lock with the complexity of a timepiece, about the size of a man’s clenched fist, intricate clockwork visible between the gaps in its metal housing. It was attached to a pair of thick steel bars that slotted into deep grooves in the walls to either side of the doors, creating a formidable barrier.

He examined the mechanism for a moment, Kadal peering over his shoulder.

It seems that once this lock is opened, these two bars will slide out of those grooves,” he mused. “It can’t be forced, this machinery looks far too delicate to be subjected to any stress. It’s quite clever, really, combining the subtlety of fragile clockwork with the strength of these bars. Any attempt to destroy or dislodge them would certainly damage the lock in the process.”

How will we get inside?” Kadal asked.

There’s no lock that magic cannot pick,” he replied confidently. He set down his pack and fished for his spellbook, taking a moment to flick through the index until he found the incantation that he required. This spell would gauge the wear on the lock’s pins, determining which ones had seen the most use, thus allowing it to raise them. The mechanism could be as complex and as elaborate as its designer wanted to make it, but if it had been used at least once or twice, it could be breached.

After a fairly long incantation, Caden holding his leather-bound tome in one hand for reference, he gave his staff a final wave. He snapped the book shut, walking up to the doors.

That should do it,” he said, giving Kadal a triumphant smile. He waited, but nothing was happening. Perhaps there was some way to activate it manually? He set his book down on the floor, then began to prod at the lock, reaching over to see if he could move one of the bars. Nothing.

Caden stepped back, feeling a little embarrassed, turning to give his audience a shrug.

That should have done it,” he said, reaching up to scratch his head in confusion. “Did I...perform the incantation wrong?”

Before trying again, he performed another spell, more glittering dust filling the air with a wave of his staff. It revealed the intricate inner workings of the lock, along with the swirling strands of magic that wound through it, tangled in its gears.

That explains it,” he grumbled. “This lock holds a powerful enchantment, one far more potent than anything that I can conjure. This is the work of the magi, there can be no doubt.”

Does that mean we are on the right path?” Kadal asked.

Possibly,” he replied, “but any building important enough to require this level of security could likely have called upon a magi. We might be breaking into the king’s treasury, or maybe a tomb. The symbols on the doors and the statue outside give me hope, however. No mathematician needs to lock away his abacus behind a mechanism like this. Maybe...

With a wave of his staff, he commanded his magic to concentrate in one of the steel bars, beginning to heat it. The metal soon started to glow a dull red, but before it could start to warp, the enchanted lock reacted. From the mechanism emanated strands of its own, counteracting his spell, the hot steel quickly cooling again.

It’s no use,” he sighed, shaking his head. “The magic of a novice isn’t strong enough to overcome this enchantment. Perhaps if the Master were here...or maybe several masters...”

You cannot have come so far only to give up now!” Kadal insisted, her raised frill flushing crimson to outline her eyespots. “You have never faltered, I have seen you break through every obstacle that fate has placed in your path, including me. There must be some way through, some other way to get inside.”

Her words of encouragement reached him, and he straightened up, gripping his staff with renewed determination.

You’re right,” he said, “there’s always a way. Maybe I’m thinking about this all wrong. Complex problems often have simple solutions.”

If the lock was impervious to magic, then maybe he could find another way to breach it. After all, magic was only one of the tools in his arsenal. His eyes widened as an idea occurred to him. The lock could seemingly detect and counter hostile spells, but what of other enchanted items? They were very rare and powerful artifacts, at least in the modern era, and their creation was not a straightforward process in the least. His hand wandered down to his hip, where the enchanted knife that the Master had entrusted him with was still sheathed.

Take a few steps back, Kadal,” he warned, leaning his staff against the nearby wall. “I don’t know what might happen if this doesn’t work.”

She did as he asked, Caden drawing the blade from its leather scabbard with all of the caution that it warranted. If he was careless with it, he could slice his own fingers off as easily as chopping a carrot. It had severed an enchanted artifact before, Kadal’s axe, so why should it not be able to do the same again? The weapon shone in the sunlight that bled in from the entrance behind them, the vein of blue ore that ran down the groove in its curved blade glittering like sapphire.

Holding it in both hands, he stepped closer to the door, poising with the blade hovering an inch above the rightmost steel bar. He aimed it a few inches from the lock, then slowly brought it down. As soon as its razor edge touched the metal, it began to part, the knife gliding through it as though it had the consistency of warm butter. There was almost no resistance, Caden stepping back as the piece of severed steel slid out of the groove in the wall to his right, clattering to the marble floor below.

You did it!” Kadal exclaimed, Caden catching the rest of the lock as it fell. It was almost too heavy to lift, but his staff responded to his needs, strengthening his muscles. It seemed that the entire assembly was a single unit that could be removed when not in use, the bars attached directly to the locking mechanism.

After lowering it to the floor, he carefully sheathed the knife, retrieving his staff and his pack. With a nod to Kadal, Caden swung the heavy doors open, revealing a shadowy space beyond.

You know what to do,” he said, glancing back at his companion. “Follow behind me, and touch nothing.”

They emerged into total darkness, the only illumination spilling in from the open doors to their backs. Caden could only see their long shadows as they extended across a stone floor, a few indiscernible objects glinting in the distance. It was a cavernous, open space, that much was obvious from the way that their footsteps echoed. It was like standing in a pitch-black mausoleum.

As he raised his staff and began to whisper the same incantation that he had used to light their way in the caves beneath the ridge, something started to happen. As though responding to their presence, a great, echoing noise began to fill the room. It sounded like the grinding of gears, the shifting of long-dormant machinery, Kadal gripping Caden by the hood as she made for the door.

Wait, wait,” he said as he fought her off. “I think it’s alright...”

She stopped by the threshold, releasing his cloak, the two of them watching as a blinding shaft of sunlight bled in from the ceiling. His eyes adjusting to its brightness, Caden lifted his gaze, seeing that the cap of the pyramid was opening up. Like a music box the size of a building, its lid lifted away, the whirring gears and giant support beams powered through unseen means. It revealed a square hole perhaps thirty feet wide, the azure sky visible beyond.

What...is this place?” Kadal whispered, her awe overpowering her fear.

The chamber was vast, far larger than Caden had anticipated. He had expected to enter a series of rooms, maybe a library or a museum. Instead, almost the entire interior of the pyramid was hollow, the slanted walls meeting high above their heads. Motes of dust that had not been disturbed in an age floated through the beam of light as it illuminated the space, revealing a sight that set the scholar in him salivating.

At the base of the four walls were wooden shelves stacked twenty feet high, overflowing with books and scrolls. It was a library of immense size, dwarfing the one contained within the Master’s tower, wrapping all the way around the chamber. There were dozens of tables strewn with all manner of scientific and magical tools, sitting exactly where their owners must have left them, as though they had abandoned the pyramid in a hurry. It was a workspace that could have accommodated an entire guild of magi, Caden had never seen its like. Each table held something new and exciting, artifacts that were in the process of being examined, brass implements and measuring devices that he didn’t recognize.

The library wasn’t the most impressive feature, however. Occupying the space in the middle of the chamber was a sculpture of immense proportions. The sunbeam that poured in from the hole in the pyramid illuminated it, what looked like polished gold shining brightly, the light bouncing off it to cast shimmering reflections on the sloped walls. The symbol that he had seen on the doors made sense now. They were a depiction of this...mechanism. A ball of shining gold almost as wide as a man was tall stood at its center, supported by a single gilded column that held it high in the air, paradoxically thinner than something that could support that kind of weight should be.

Arranged around the giant ball was a series of concentric rings, scarcely half an inch thick, each one leaning at a slightly different angle relative to it. There was nothing connecting them to the sculpture, they just hung there in the air, suspended by unknown means. Upon each of these rings was a smaller orb, not one of them the same size. A few of those orbs had their own concentric rings, with their own even smaller balls, floating about their parent orb in much the same way. The result was an intricate, beautiful work of art, bathed in the light of the sun.

Kadal’s eyes reflected the golden glow as she peered up at it, making them glitter, her jaw hanging agape as she beheld the sight. Caden was no less impressed, he couldn’t take his eyes off the thing.

I have never seen anything so...divine,” she whispered. “What do you think it is?”

Before Caden could muster an answer, another grinding, creaking cacophony filled the pyramid. The mechanism slowly came to life, the rings beginning to rotate around the central ball. Caden suppressed his wonder long enough to check for more traps, then approached it, standing beneath the rings as they slowly turned above him.

I think it’s a model of the planets,” he said, Kadal cocking her head at him. “This is the world at the center,” he continued, pointing to the golden orb atop the pedestal. “The moon, sun, and planets rotate around it. Something is...wrong,” he added as he narrowed his eyes at the spinning orbs. “I see what must be Freyja, Jord, Tyr, Borr, but there are more planets than there should be. They’re not in the right places, either.”

I know nothing of planets and moons,” Kadal muttered, captivated by the sight. Like a cat watching a bird from a window, her eyes locked onto the moving spheres, her head swiveling on her slender neck to track them.

There are four planets, excluding the sun and moon,” he explained, “celestial spheres that orbit around our own. Yet here, I see ten. Some of them have smaller objects orbiting around them, too. This is not the celestial model that I studied...”

Maybe the secret could be found somewhere in this room,” Kadal suggested, gesturing to the tables strewn with papers and equipment that surrounded them.

I cannot read this Alfar dialect,” he replied with a sigh of frustration, “but what other choice is there? We already know that this calamity relates to the heavens somehow, I have seen the stars fall out of alignment, the days grow ever longer. If these people knew things that we do not, then I must find a way to learn. I cannot help but feel that some clue lies in this sculpture.”

***

It was many hours before Caden made a breakthrough. He had been poring over what Alfar scrolls he could find, trying to come up with some way to decipher them. Their language and writing system had more in common with those of the Alfar native to the Western regions that he had anticipated. His years of study meant that he could make out a few words here and there, usually enough to glean some meaning from them. Mathematics, on the other hand, was a language universal to all peoples. Their method of recording numbers and expressing calculations might vary, but at their core, the concept of mathematics and geometry remained constant. Two plus two would always equal four, and the angle of an equilateral triangle’s corners would invariably be sixty degrees. It wasn’t long before he had worked out the Alfar symbols for one through nine, largely thanks to some numbered tomes on the library shelves, and he was able to start making sense of some of the notes scattered about the tables.

It seemed that this place was an observatory, dedicated first and foremost to the study of the heavens, a pursuit that the Alfar clearly held in the highest regard. He had been able to find complex star charts that mapped the constellations, telescopes of incredible craftsmanship, and intricate calculations recorded onto pieces of yellowed parchment that plotted the movements of the planets. It was all a little patchy, inferred from snippets of text rather than fully understood, but he had formulated an idea of what the sculpture represented. More, he was beginning to decode the nature of the calamity that had befallen them.

He made his way back over to where Kadal was sitting, the reptile chewing on a piece of salted pork, her eyes tracking the rotating spheres. She had been content to just watch the mechanism for hours, it seemed to captivate her.

Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked, her head swiveling to face him as he approached.

I think so,” he replied, rubbing his itchy eyes. There was something so disorienting about these long days, as though his body insisted that it was night, but his waking mind could not accept it. “The Alfar had a completely different orbital model than we do. Our scholars believe that the world is at the center of the universe, and that all other heavenly bodies orbit around it. The Alfar believed that the sun was at the center of the universe, and that the world was just one of many bodies caught in its influence. Their model accounts for some of the discrepancies found in our own, so I am inclined to accept it as truth.”

He gestured to the rotating rings, Kadal watching as he elaborated.

At the center is the sun, and each of these rings plots the orbit of a planet or a moon. Our world is here,” he added, pointing to the third-most sphere from the center as it rotated past. “The little ring around it is our moon. The Alfar knew of more planets than we do, probably because of the superior craftsmanship of their telescopes, but that isn’t important. What matters is this,” he said, unfurling a roll of cracked parchment. “I keep finding this calculation all over the place. It was being studied by dozens of magi, it was an obsession for them.”

Kadal cocked her head at the parchment as he brandished it, not understanding the series of rings and lines, nor the symbols and numbers that accompanied them.

These shapes plot the orbit of our planet,” he continued, “the angle and distance that it rotates around the sun. The magi here had discovered that its orbit is degrading,” he added breathlessly, Kadal waiting for him to elaborate. “It means that the sun is not growing larger, but that we are getting closer and closer to it. If something is not done, we will collide with it, falling into it like a pebble into a lake.”

That got her attention, her eyes widening.

That is what I saw in my vision quest,” she gasped. “A sun large enough to fill the entire sky, a world scorched to a cinder.”

These notes are thousands of years old,” Caden continued. “We already know that the magi found a way to correct the celestial imbalance of their time, but the same thing is happening again. With every year that passes, our world spirals closer and closer to ruin.”

The black stone,” Kadal added, peering up at the spinning orbs again. “Are you any closer to uncovering its resting place?”

Maybe,” he replied, leafing through his collection of papers. “I found what I believe to be a map of the pyramid, what they referred to as the window of heaven. Look at this,” he continued as he unrolled an ancient scroll. “It shows a vault beneath the observatory, hidden deep underground. Inside it, the artist has drawn a black sphere sitting atop a pedestal, cradled in some kind of...claw-like mechanism. I believe that the runes associated with it are the Alfar words for star, and sinking or sunken. The chamber of the sunken star is my best guess. What else could that be if not the black stone from your vision?”

Kadal swallowed the last of her dried meat, hopping to her feet.

Then we must find a way to reach it.”

Listen,” Caden began, peering up into her amber eyes. “I don’t know what we’re going to find in that vault. Certainly more traps, but once we locate the Alfar artifact, who knows what could happen? A power great enough to move the heavens is one that I may not be able to control. I have to try, it’s the only hope left, but I can’t guarantee that anyone who enters that vault will ever leave it. If you wanted to stay behind...”

She reached down and ruffled his hair affectionately, giving him a toothy grin.

Where you go, I will follow.”

As much as he worried for her safety, he could not deny the comfort that her presence gave him. He nodded, returning her smile.

Very well. We shall see this through together.”

CHAPTER 11: THE YAWNING ABYSS

Here it is,” Caden said, “the same symbol as on the map.”

They had left the main chamber of the observatory, heading into a series of backrooms towards the rear in search of the door that was shown on the parchment. It wasn’t exactly hidden, it was clearly marked on maps that had been left lying around the pyramid, and no attempt had been made to conceal it. It was a simple marble door in a nondescript hallway, engraved with the sigil that Caden had come to associate with the sunken star, a snake that was in the process of devouring its own tail. Still, he suspected that the magi had no need for secrecy. If they didn’t want trespassers, then they had far more potent means to ensure that no visitors ventured where they were not wanted.

Another lock,” Kadal said, directing Caden’s attention to a second clockwork mechanism. This one was holding a sliding bolt shut.

Good thing we came prepared,” he said, sliding his dagger out of its sheath. It cut through the metal with ease, Caden pushing open the door on creaking hinges to reveal stone steps that extended far below ground, steeped in shadow.

He raised his staff, preparing to perform the incantation that would light up the figurehead, but he was once again preempted by the ingenuity of the Alfar. Beams of sunlight illuminated the stairs, filtering in through shafts in the ceiling that opened automatically, motes of floating dust reflecting the glow. The two companions shared a glance, then began to descend.

The staircase led them deeper into the earth, the air cooling somewhat, just as it had in the caves. Their footsteps echoed off the stone walls, the pair eventually arriving on level ground again, Caden holding up his map as he tried to work out where they should head next. Before them was a narrow corridor hewn from the solid bedrock, illuminated by those same light shafts that poured through open holes in the ceiling at regular intervals. There were stone doors leading to vaults on either side of the passageway, identifying runes engraved into them, each one potentially housing more secrets and arcane artifacts that had been squirreled away by the magi. Now was not the time for exploration, however. Caden was here for a single, solemn purpose.

Stay behind me,” he said, Kadal having to duck to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling as she followed after him. “The vault should be at the end of this corridor. Look out for that same symbol, the snake eating its own tail.”

They proceeded cautiously, Caden scanning for pressure plates and enchantments as they went, but it seemed that the corridor was free of any traps. They soon arrived at the right door, this one barred by a locking mechanism identical to the one that had been used on the entrance to the observatory. With the use of his enchanted dagger, the way was soon clear, Caden preparing himself for what lay beyond.

Over the threshold was another long corridor, lit by more light shafts. It was suspiciously devoid of any features, the walls, ceiling, and floor made from bedrock that had been polished flat. He cast another cloud of glittering particles into the air, his suspicions confirmed. Hidden in the floor were trap doors, pitfalls that would plunge the unwary into a deep shaft, where they would suffer a painful and lonely death. Drawing moisture from the air, and cooling it, Caden was able to form an ice sheet over the trap doors that would let them walk right across without triggering the mechanism.

It worries me that there have been no magical traps or challenges so far,” he muttered as they slowly made their way to the door at the other end of the passage. “If the magi were such skilled sorcerers, surely they would have devised some magical means to prevent their secrets from being stolen? This feels...too easy.”

He stopped again as he noticed another trap, the shimmering cloud of silvery particles revealing a section of the ceiling that would be dropped to crush those who walked beneath it. The crack between it and the true ceiling was so slim as to be imperceptible, more proof of the Alfar’s mastery over masonry. There was a pressure plate in the floor that would trigger it to fall, Caden melting the clockwork mechanism with a wave of his staff.

As they approached the door, Caden extended an arm to stop Kadal, his eyes scanning the barrier. This one was more elaborate than the rest, hewn from a block of black marble, veins of white trailing through it. It almost looked like the night sky, in a way. There was that sigil again, the snake devouring its own tail, chiseled into the stone.

A series of glowing symbols appeared on the marble, shining blood red, Caden recognizing them as Alfar runes.

Can you read it?” Kadal asked.

This is the rune for pass, and this one is speak,” he mused as he examined the shimmering text. “It seems that some kind of password is expected of us.” He pulled some pieces of folded parchment from his pocket, beginning to leaf through them. “Come on,” he grumbled, “there has to be something here...”

Uh, Caden?” Kadal asked, pointing to the door. The glow was becoming brighter, somehow angrier. “Something is happening...”

Damn it,” he grumbled, dropping one of the scrolls in his haste. “I don’t think we can break through. Marble is a brittle stone, but this door is imbued with a powerful magic.”

The runes on the door vanished, the two companions sharing a worried glance. Was that it?

The hallway soon filled with the sound of mechanical grinding, Caden taking a few steps away from the door. Some kind of Alfar mechanism had been activated by their failure to provide a password. Before he could raise his staff in an attempt to find out what manner of trap had been triggered, there appeared small gaps in the stone walls to either side of them. As they began to retreat, the gaps formed a series of doors, three on each side of the passage. The Alfar had hidden them well, ever the skilled stonemasons.

The six doors slid into recesses, opening to reveal shallow, shadowy compartments. Inside each one was what looked at first to be a suit of armor made from shining steel, like those that one might see displayed in a blacksmith’s shop, or hanging in an armory. They were taller and wider than a man, more akin to the stature of a reptile, but distinctly human in their shape.

Their helmets had a visor that was molded into the grimacing visage of a man, covering the face completely save for two holes for the eyes, the cheeks protected by two hanging guards. Atop each one was a brush dyed blood red, perhaps made from horsehair. The cuirass was similarly designed to resemble the musculature of a man, tapering into a skirt made from studded leather that came down to the knees. The arms and legs were encased in metal, flexible bands on the shoulders, knees, and elbows providing some range of motion. They ended in sabatons at the feet, the finely-crafted gauntlets that encased the hands allowing each of the fingers to move independently.

It wasn’t until one of them began to twitch that Caden realized something was terribly wrong. It lifted its helmet, a pair of red eyes smoldering like hot coals through its empty sockets, turning to peer at him from the shadows. With an unnatural, jerking gait, it stumbled out of the compartment and into the passageway proper. Through the gaps in its armor, Caden could see innumerable gears and mechanisms turning, its clockwork innards animated by some ancient Alfar enchantment. As the other five sprung to life, stepping out to join their comrade, Caden saw that they were clutching weapons in their hands. Short swords of strange craftsmanship, two-handed axes, polearms.

C-Caden?” Kadal stammered, her eyes darting between them. “What should we do?”

Stand behind me!” he barked, raising his staff defensively. These things were awash with magic, but their weapons were not enchanted, and he doubted whether they could cast spells. They were not alive, they had no souls, they were merely mechanical constructs.

The six golems began to approach, Kadal hissing to him as they backed away.

Give me a weapon!” she insisted. “Let me fight by your side!”

Gods damn it,” he grumbled, reaching for his belt. Slowly, hoping that it would not spur the machines to attack, he unsheathed his enchanted knife. “I need not remind you how dangerous this weapon is,” he added, gingerly handing it off to Kadal.

I know how to handle a knife!” she snapped. “Do not worry about me, worry about them.”

The first of the golems stepped forward, its clockwork guts whirring and clicking as it raised its sword above its head, the motion far more fluid than Caden had expected.

Look out!” he yelled, raising the haft of his staff to block the blow as the construct brought the blade down towards his face. It was far stronger than a man, only a rush of energy from Caden’s staff preventing his knees from buckling under the strain, the creature cocking its helmeted head as it seemed to reconsider. Jerking and twitching, it pulled its sword back, its entire torso rotating at the waist as it whirled the blade through the air like a windmill. Caden blocked it again, the strike knocking him off-balance. As he recovered, taking up a defensive stance, the six golems began to advance.

Kadal took up position to his right, holding the enchanted knife blade-down, her frill rising to expose her eyespots.

I am glad to be fighting by your side this time,” she said, sparing him an appreciative glance.

I could say the same,” he replied. “These things are not truly alive, Kadal, show them no quarter. I fear that they will not stop until they are utterly dismantled.”

He would have to be careful with his magic in these close quarters, he might inadvertently injure Kadal if he did not remain focused. This fight was different, however. Ever since his battle with the Borophage, his mastery over the staff’s dark influences had been complete, and its power now felt like an extension of his very being more than something to be wrestled with.

Using his stave as a quarterstaff, he parried another blow from his mechanical assailant, its swiftness and strength once again surprising him. Its hide was made from steel, not skin. He would need to devise a way to penetrate it, as though he were dueling a knight from his own kingdom.

There was room enough for three of the things to stand shoulder to armored shoulder, Caden narrowly avoiding a strike from a polearm as a second construct pressed the attack. To his right, Kadal was contending with an axe-wielding adversary, the heavy blade cracking the stone at her feet as she leapt clear of the strike. She was as agile as ever, moving faster than any human could have hoped to, muscles like liquid iron flowing beneath her shining scales.

With a mechanical grinding, her opponent lifted the weapon, sending it whistling through the air. She ducked under the blow as the blade embedded itself deep in the rock wall to her right, the reptile lunging forward. She brought the enchanted dagger to bear, the vein of sapphire glinting as she slashed the golem across its belly. The blade sliced through its steel plating with the ease that Caden had come to expect. It would have been a killing blow had her enemy been made of flesh and blood, but it had no entrails to spill. It barely reacted, pulling its battleaxe free of the wall, and knocking Kadal back with a vicious strike from its haft.

Don’t slash. Sever!” Caden shouted as he parried another sword swing. “They can’t fight if they don’t have arms!”

He modulated the mass of his staff, swinging it like a club, intercepting the next of his opponent’s attacks. The blow knocked its gauntleted hand aside, and he followed up with another crushing strike that caught it in the face, snapping its head back in a way that would have broken the neck of a normal person. It stood there for a moment, twitching as the gears that made up its innards whirred, its head slowly returning to its normal position. The sculpted steel that made up its visor was dented, but it seemed none the worse for wear. Caden was going to have to hit them harder than that if he wanted to bring them down.

The one wielding the polearm lunged at him again, the blade grazing Caden’s cheek, missing him by a hair’s breadth. The constructs were always marching forward in lockstep, slowly pushing the intruders back down the corridor, away from the marble door. Their gait was so strange, like clockwork toys, their sudden, jerking motions making them hard to predict.

The sword whistled through the air, the flared blade striking the wall to Caden’s left with enough force to chip the chiseled stone, forcing him to take another step back. They had to go on the offensive, or these things would corner them in the stairwell.

Caden hooked the beaked figurehead on the end of his staff behind his assailant’s leg, pulling it off-balance, sending it toppling to the floor. It was far heavier than it looked, the impact shaking the stone beneath his feet. Without missing a beat, he raised his staff above his head, the muscles in his arms and chest bulging as he imbued them with magic. His staff grew heavier, its mass increasing to that of a war hammer, Caden bringing it down on the felled construct’s chest. The armored plate that made up its torso dented inward as though an anvil had been dropped on it, the sound of metal on metal reverberating through the corridor. The thing began to rise again regardless, starting to climb to its feet. It felt no pain, he hadn’t even dazed it.

With a roar of frustration, he lifted his staff again, but two more of the constructs moved to take its place. One stepped over its prone companion, swinging a hammer at him, the steel head bouncing off the stone floor as it narrowly missed him. Caden was forced to retreat, already muttering a spell under his breath.

To his right, Kadal danced out of reach of her opponent, the sound of grinding metal echoing as it lunged at her with its axe. This time, she struck at its weapon, the magic-imbued blade cleaving the leather-bound haft in twain. The heavy axe head clattered to the ground, the construct examining the severed pole with its crimson eyes, whatever simple intelligence the Alfar had given it struggling to decide on a course of action.

Kadal moved quickly, severing the arm that held the haft at the elbow, the steel armor and clockwork providing no resistance against the enchanted blade. The limb dropped to join the axe head on the floor, Caden glimpsing the complex gears and rods that allowed it to move. Undeterred, the thing reached for Kadal with its remaining hand, its metal fingers outstretched. She chopped them off with another whirling strike, removing its hand with the next, then stepping in to drive the knife towards its neck. Only when its helmeted head was sent toppling from its shoulders did the thing finally relent, the red glow of its eyes dimming beneath its visor, its body slumping to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Kadal’s victory was short-lived as its companions stepped over it, forcing her back with more flashing steel. One of them swung a sword, and her reflex was to block it with her blade, the enchanted knife slicing through the metal like butter. The construct didn’t seem to care that its sword was broken, continuing to swing it regardless.

Caden finished his incantation, sending a bolt of lightning flashing towards the nearest golem. It shuddered as the electricity melted a glowing hole in its chest piece, arcing between its internal workings. He could see the spinning gears through the breach, glowing red with heat, but it was not enough to stop the thing. It rewarded him with another sword strike, this one glancing his upper arm as he dodged out of its path, blood soaking his tunic.

More of them turned their red eyes in his direction, drawn either by his blood or his magic, he couldn’t be sure of which.

The head, that was the key. The one that Kadal had killed had stopped moving when its head had been removed. Preparing another swing, Caden willed strands of magic to weave between his muscles, his staff growing so heavy that he could scarcely hold it aloft. The staff’s power dulled the pain in his arm as the nearest clockwork creature advanced, Caden waiting for the right moment…

As the golem with the molten hole in its chest raised its sword, he swung, pouring momentum into the strike. He could feel his bones fracturing under the impact as the bronze figurehead made contact with the construct’s helmet, tearing it from its shoulders with such force that it bounced off the wall on the other side of the passage, narrowly missing another of the golems. The headless body ceased its movement, the sword falling from its grasp as its fingers went slack. Before it even had time to slump to the floor, one of its companions roughly shouldered it out of its path, sending it crashing into the wall.

He heard a cry of alarm from Kadal, turning his head to see her grappling with her opponent. Its broken sword had been knocked out of its hand, and it had caught Kadal’s arm, its metal fingers tightening around her wrist to prevent her from using her knife. As she brought up her other hand in an attempt to pull it away, it grabbed that too, a yelp of anger and pain escaping her lips as the two wrestled. For all of her inhuman strength, she could do little against this mechanical beast, it was like trying to fight off a siege engine with one’s bare hands.

Caden rushed to her aid, lifting his staff over his head, increasing its mass and momentum as he swung it. It impacted the top of the golem’s helmet, crushing the ornate brush and collapsing its head into its torso like a turtle retracting into its shell. Its body ground to a halt as shattered metal was forced into the gears in its chest, jamming them, the red glow of its eyes fading. It released its grip on Kadal, and she darted clear just as it was pushed to the floor by the construct behind it. They just kept coming, they were incapable of feeling fear or doubt.

In his bid to save Kadal, Caden was opened up to an attack, the golem with the war hammer swinging the weapon into his side. Even with magic fortifying his body far beyond human limits, he felt his ribs crack as he was lifted off his feet, sent tumbling across the floor. He heard Kadal’s yell of anger, but she was locked in a duel with another opponent, she could do nothing to help him.

Fortunately, the golems were not swift, and Caden had time to get his bearings before the hammer-wielding construct got close enough for another strike. He rose to his knees, blocking the next blow with his stave, very nearly buckling under its weight. Not even Kadal had been this strong when she had challenged him in the desert.

He deflected the next strike, the hammer cratering into the floor beside him, sending pieces of shattered stone flying through the air. As it raised the weapon again, unrelenting, he focused his magic into its steel head. The weapon grew heavier and heavier, the golem starting to tilt backwards, seemingly unable to account for the change in weight. It staggered back, bumping into its companion, its arms swiveling in their sockets as the hammer impacted the ground behind it.

Taking advantage of the opening, Caden rose to his feet, the bronze falcon at the end of his staff glowing like molten metal. He commanded heat, focusing it on the inner workings of the golem, the metal starting to soften. Now that the weight of its hammer had returned to normal, the construct resumed its attack, but it soon faltered as the gears that powered it turned to slag. It was only a matter of melting enough machinery that it could no longer fight, its body seizing up as though it had been frozen in place.

Beside him, Kadal was still dueling with her opponent, which was leveraging the long reach of its polearm to keep her at bay. Before he could help, the next golem stepped around its disabled friend, its sword flashing. He only just had time to deflect it, the thing pressing the attack as it advanced on him. Wood clashed with metal, the golem moving in ways that no human could, able to completely rotate at the waist and shoulders. He couldn’t predict where the next attack would come from, and so he was kept on the defensive, forced to react.

He suddenly slipped on something, his stomach turning as he fell to the ground. It was one of the patches of ice that he had created to cover the pitfall traps. In all the commotion, he had completely forgotten about them. The golem took full advantage, beginning to harry him with blows, Caden doing his best to block them. On his back like this, he had no leverage, he couldn’t get clear.

The blade of its sword glanced off the haft of his staff, embedding itself in his shoulder, Caden loosing a growl of pain even as he numbed his nerves with magic. It had gone deep enough to chip bone, another stab of agony rocking him as the golem withdrew the blade, now slick with his blood. It felt no triumph, no satisfaction, it merely prepared its next strike with all the callousness of a trebuchet launching its payload. He couldn’t concentrate on his magic with this thing pummeling him, he couldn’t do anything other than try to stop that blade from finding its mark again.

The golem planted its sabaton on his belly, crushing him beneath its weight, holding him there. Caden tried to bat at its leg with his staff, but he had no leverage, he couldn’t do anything besides annoy it. Muttering an incantation frantically, he aimed his staff at the thing, gritting his teeth as it put what felt like the weight of a carthorse on his midsection. Recognizing what he was trying to do, it batted the staff aside, only magic saving it from flying from his hand.

His eyes widened as it drew back its blade, intending to drive its sharp point into his throat. There was a blur of mottled scales as Kadal darted in from his right, pulling her blade from the helmet of her opponent, who was now slumped against the wall. She crossed the distance in the space of a moment, the enchanted dagger whistling as she extended her arm, severing the construct’s right hand at the wrist. It caught her in the face with a back-handed blow from the left, sending her staggering backwards. Her long tail wound its way around the thing’s ankle, Kadal swinging her hips, pulling its leg out from under it.

Caden rolled out of its way as it stumbled, its foot lifting off his belly, feeling the cold ice beneath his hands as he scrambled clear. Kadal leapt through the air, launching herself onto the thing’s back, hissing a war cry as she grappled with it. She wrapped one arm around its neck, her tail coiling around its waist for purchase, clinging to the golem as it reached back in an attempt to grab her. The furious reptile dodged its one remaining hand, her frill flaring as she drove the blade of her dagger into the side of its helmet, burying it up to its ornate hilt.

The construct slowed its struggling, its limbs jerking to a stop, the crimson glow that emanated from the empty sockets of its visor going dark. Kadal jumped down from its back as it fell, slamming face-first into the floor, shattering the ice. The impact triggered the pitfall, the trap door opening, Kadal dancing away as the heavy suit of armor was sent crashing into the depths.

Caden rose to his feet, leaning on his staff, one hand clutching his bloody shoulder.

Are you alright!?” she demanded, skidding a little on another sheet of ice as she rushed to his side. She began to hug him, then thought better of it, looking him up and down. “You are hurt!”

Nothing...a little magic...can’t fix,” he grunted. He was already starting to heal, drawing energy from the felled golems. While they weren’t alive, the magic that animated them was no different from that of a plant or a beast, he could use it to power his spell. Torn flesh knitted back together, fractured bone healing, his mind becoming sharper as the fog of pain began to abate.

You didn’t come out of that fight unscathed either,” he said, the spell letting him see that her wrist was fractured.

It is nothing,” she insisted, watching as he took his weight off his staff.

Nonsense,” he continued, reaching out to take her arm in his hand. She winced as he began to mend the breaks, Caden pouring his energy into the bones, willing them to set. When it was done, he released her hand, Kadal flexing her fingers as she rubbed her forearm.

Thanks for saving my skin again,” he added, Kadal’s frill fluttering. She was either relieved, or pleased with herself. Maybe a little of both. “I’m starting to lose count of how many times this quest would have failed without your help.”

What kind of guard would I be if I abandoned my charge?” she replied, exposing her pointed teeth in a grin. They shared an embrace for a few moments, Caden wrapping his arms around her midriff, the coolness of her scales on his cheek calming the racing of his heart. Kadal responded in kind, nestling her clawed fingers in his hair, her tail coiling around him possessively.

Are you sure they are dead?” she asked, turning to glance at the fallen constructs that still clogged the passageway.

I’m sure,” he replied, releasing her from his grasp. He straightened his tunic, reminding himself that their ordeal was not yet over. “Their magic is leaving them, whatever enchantment that was cast on them has been dispelled.”

Kadal handed his knife back to him, Caden sliding it back into its sheath, wary of its sharp edge. He had been wrong to doubt her, she hadn’t even nicked herself with it.

Come on,” he said, stepping over one of the lifeless suits of armor as he made his way back down the passage. He skirted the open pit, leaning over to see a glint of steel in its depths. “Let’s see if we can find a way through that door.”

They approached the black marble, Caden waving his staff to create another shower of shining dust, his attention drawn to its gilded handle.

This handle is false,” he announced. “It holds a dangerous enchantment, one that would kill whoever touches it by conjuring a flash of electricity. There must be some other way to open it...”

He examined the door’s inner workings, finding that all was not as it seemed. There was indeed a lock hidden within the marble, the keyhole so small as to be imperceptible, located at the center of the block. Speaking the right password was not the only way to gain entry. Unlocking it would retract a series of bolts that extended deep into grooves in the wall, allowing it to swing open.

I can’t get at this lock with my knife,” Caden muttered, “it won’t fit in the gap.”

Can you smash through, as you did with the wall?” Kadal suggested.

Maybe. Marble is a pretty brittle rock, but the enchantment that it holds might be too powerful for me to break. It seems to negate magic, as the lock on the first door that we encountered did. The surrounding stone is not enchanted, however. If I can break it, the bolts will come loose. This isn’t made from limestone, though, looks like granite. This is going to take a lot of force to break.”

He targeted the area where the steel bolts extended into the wall, calling upon his staff’s power, drawing it back like a woodsman preparing to cut down a tree. He slammed it into the rock, then drew it back again, repeating the strike. Over and over, he struck the doorframe, his muscles starting to burn, strands of energy enhancing his strength. Chips of rock began to fall from it, fractures slowly forming, Kadal watching in awe as it began to break. He exposed one of the metal rods, then another, Caden finally lowering his staff as the last bolt was revealed.

That did it,” he panted, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Stand back, I’m going to open it.”