“Are you really going to leave me here with a bunch of demihumans?” Eileen clings to my back, occasionally throwing glances at Gurk who is keeping a distance out of respect for our newcomer.
I grab the vial of purple smoke that was a result of Gurk dunking an entire mandrake. A minor increase to temperature turns it into liquid, and adding heat returns it to a gaseous state. It shouldn’t be toxic. The mandrake’s stabilizing component made sure of that. I’m just unsure what adding an excessive amount of it has done, and what effects it will cause.
“I understand that you’re not used to demihumans yet, but Gurk is one of the kinder ones. He won’t do anything unless you allow it. I hope.”
“You hope?!” Eileen clutches onto my robes even tighter.
“El, we’re coming in!”
There’s a knock at the door. Ana and Liz come in with Cammy barreling through. She races towards me, but sees Eileen and tackles her instead.
“Oh, Cammy!” The familiar face instantly erases Eileen’s worry. “Wait, Leenleen…?”
Liz drops off a batch of bread on the table and plops down on the couch. “Ana’s been a real slavedriver working us to the bone.”
“Here. Drink this.” I uncork a stamina drought for her.
“Holy crap, this is amazing.” Liz wipes her lips and stares at the vial in disbelief. “I feel like I can take on the world.”
“Does that mean you’re ready to go back to digging?” Ana asks, crossing her arms.
“No! Mercy, let me rest.”
“Anyway…” Ana turns to me. “We’ve dug a trench around the wall facing west and started filling it with water from the tank. It’s no moat, but it’ll give footsoldiers a second thought.”
“You guys really went all out,” I remark, impressed by their tenacity.
The residents of Shallowglade never demonstrated this level of precaution against the centaurs. But their experience with sieges and having lost their first home strengthened their resolve to protect this one.
Ana plucks out a piece of bread from the basket and smears honey over it. They’re large enough for her to break a piece off for each of us. It’s not like the honeybread the villagers at Durai baked me, but the sweet flavor is giving me a huge dose of nostalgia of a more peaceful time.
“While you guys are here, I was hoping you can keep Eileen company. Having humans around her will ease her around demihumans,” I explain.
Liz shrugs. “No problem. Everyone’s working at intervals so it’s not like we’re dying out there.”
“Liz and I can take turns making visits, and Cammy goes where she wants so no biggie,” Ana adds.
“Thank you all so much! I’ll be back in a few days.”
Rio hops onto my shoulders, and the both of us head right out.
The location of the reclusive dragon as well as its tower of residence is imprinted in my mind. Finding it is the easy part, fighting it is where the real problem lies. Rio may be much stronger now, and my magic more potent as a result of consuming a soul stone and my living robes, but dragons are still nothing to scoff at.
My main concern is their breath of fire. I’m fortunate that ranching bicorn hares has yielded plenty of horns to make resistance potions out of, but the intensity of a dragon’s breath is proportional to their age and magic pool.
Ancient dragons are especially dangerous. No amount of resistance potions will save me from their flames. I’d have to dodge and hope my robes don’t catch fire. Though, I highly doubt Mira would send me to the location of a dragon she didn’t think I could handle.
As we’re soaring above the canopy towards the designated tower, a barrage of spikes shoot right at us. A simple ventus spell deflects the projectiles, but more are launched from the forest. To make matters worse, a pack of wyverns unhinge themselves from the tower and dive in our direction.
I launch a series of fireballs that hit their marks, knocking the wyverns from the sky. Meanwhile, spikes continue to pelt us from below.
“Take us down, Rio.”
We descend below the canopy to find a trio of manticores clinging to the trunks of the trees. One of them pushes off and lunges. I conjure a human-sized icicle that impales him back onto the tree he leapt from. The other two, having seen one of their own killed, abandons the hunt and dives down to the forest below to escape.
We pull back up towards the top of the tower, but keep distance so as to not come too close to the anti-magic field around it. Just like the other, there are runes running along the surface leading to the center. A distinct glimmer telling me that there is another soul stone at the top.
But I’m not here for a soul stone. I’m looking for a dragon that should be around here somewhere. When Mira mentioned reclusive, it could mean the dragon is hiding within the tower itself. It may be worth checking the forged world within. Plucking the soulstone wouldn’t be a good idea since it would annihilate everything inside, and I don’t want to give Eudora cause to show up again.
Rio descends a second time and makes landfall at the foot of the tower. However, as we approach the teleportation circle, a low growl keeps me from moving any further. My familiar hisses quietly.
“Do you see it?”
I follow Rio’s eyes. His gaze appears to be fixed on something moving back and forth in front of the tower. I hijack Rio’s sight in time to see a large feline beast with spiked tentacles charging right at me.
I release my sight and blast loose lightning at my feet. Whatever is charging a moment ago changes course. Now that it recognizes me as a threat, it is making a circle around us to size us up. The creature is invisible and takes the form of a black feline— a displacer beast.
What a creature to go up against unprepared. If I had a cat’s eyes elixir, I would be able to see as Rio would. Approaching it with caution is vital. A displacer beast’s reach is much longer than a regular feline thanks to its appendages. One wrong move and I lose my head.
One option is to let Rio go wild since he can see. But if it escapes past him and goes for me, I have nothing to defend myself with other than to blindly cast magic. That’s a recipe for disaster.
A displacer beast does exude mana. Though I can’t sense, maybe my robes can.
The sound of its steps go silent, Rio glances up— it’s above me.
Rio unleashes an inferno into the sky. Dust is kicked up as the beast lands on the ground behind me. I whistle loud. My robes instantly detach from my body and entangle itself around the unseen creature. It wrestles in vain with my living clothes on the ground.
I use this chance to rain fire down on the displacer beast, incinerating it into roast cat. A second whistle returns the robes to my body, no warmer than when it left me despite being engulfed in flames.
“Whew! What a rush. Alright, Rio. Time to head into the forged world— Rio?”
I turn around to see my familiar dining on the charred displacer beast, tearing its tentacle appendage from the body and slurping it down like noodles.
“Eugh… you’re such a glutton— er, what am I saying? Of course, you are.”
Both of us step onto the runes of the teleportation circle. It hums with life as each inscription begins to glow with energy. A pillar of light consumes our bodies just like before.
“Here’s hoping we don’t get separated again…”
I’m sucked through and in the next moment my lungs fill with freezing cold air. I can see my breath in front of me being peppered with flecks of white. An expansive landscape blanketed in white.
“Okay, Rio. Let’s—” My familiar is not with me. I try to hijack his vision but my sight remains my own. “Not again! Ugh.”
I pop a resistance potion and feed a few magic crystals to my robes. They take effect immediately. The frigid weather becomes nothing more than a slight chill, and my robes warm me up the rest of the way.
There’s no point in complaining. I’ll do this alone if I have to. I trek on through the snow, trudging my way until I come across a large cavern opening that leads into the earth. If a dragon is somewhere in this forged world, this would probably be where it made its home.
Alright. I can do this. I chug a few elixirs to raise my combat potential and head in.
The cavern is much larger inside than the opening made it appear to be. Halfway down the slope, the light from outside no longer reaches this far in. I conjure a floating ball of fire to light my surroundings.
I’m surprised I haven’t seen any other creature yet. Not even a swarm of bats. Aside from water dripping from the stalactites, my footsteps are all that echoes down the enormous tunnel.
If the forged worlds are similar and this cavern is leading me in the right direction, I should be coming into a chamber soon. Within that chamber should be another teleportation that will serve as my exit. I just hope I don’t have to answer anymore dumb riddles again.
I clench my staff as I hear something other than myself in the caverns.
Help… help… help…
A young voice echoes pleading for help. Did someone enter the tower by mistake? No human should be this far in.
I race down the cavern, readying a spell on both my staff and in my hands. A large man-made wall painted with familiar hieroglyphics comes into view. Two towering statues frame the wall, and a dragon’s rear rests at the center—
A dragon’s rear…?
The tail comes to life, whipping violently and stopping me in my tracks. “Oh, thank goodness!”
“D-Dragon?!” I conjure as powerful of a thundra spell as I can, ready to zap it when the dragon begins panicking.
“Don’t hurt me! I need help, please!”
My spell fizzles away as I realize the voice calling for help is none other than this dragon before me. A hundred different scenarios run through my mind.
“A… a talking… dragon…?” I stare at the dragon’s behind, baffled at the sight. Now that I’m close enough to see, half its body is stuck in the wall. Claw marks on the cavern floor indicates the dragon’s hopeless struggle to free itself.
“I— yes, I can talk… I’m sensitive about it, so please don’t make fun of me…”
“Why would I… never mind. How did you get stuck?”
“I tried to crawl in, but the opening was too small. I’ve been trying to unstuck myself, but I just can’t break through.” The desperation in its voice is evidence that it has probably been here for some time.
This is… my chance, isn’t it? The dragon is a sitting duck. I can kill it now, take its heart, and be over with this.
“Heeyyy! Are you still there? I just want to get out… please!”
My heart goes out to this poor creature.
Damn it. If it didn’t talk, I would have just outright killed it.
“If I help, you need to promise you won’t hurt me.”
“I swear,” it exclaims excitedly. Even from here, I can tell it’s not that large. At best, this dragon is an adolescent— a drake.
“Hold on. I’ll try and push from the outside,” I tell the dragon.
No matter where I put my hands on, I can’t get a good hold anywhere to push it through. Try as I might, even with the dragon clawing at the ground, it doesn’t budge an inch.
The elixir of strength must have run out. I go to drink another one, but as soon as it slides down my throat, a strange taste spreads across my mouth. I take a look at the vial, and notice the remaining purple liquid turning into gas as the vial warms up in my hand.
I drank the wrong one.
My body suddenly swells in size. My field of vision is much higher than it was previously, and the ceiling is a lot closer now.
“It enlarged me?!” The robes on my body haven’t ripped due to its elasticity, but my satchel and belt have broken off. “Aw, but I just replaced those!”
I gingerly pick up my staff and the satchel so as to not accidentally crush either of them, and slip them into my pocket. This is a blessing in disguise. I’m larger now— though not as large as the dragon, I’m able to get a grip on his tail and leg. My strength also seems to have increased in proportion to my size.
Cracks form along the wall as I push the dragon through a foot— then another, until finally…
Both of us crash through to the other side. The wall and debris crumble behind us, ceiling the entrance back out the cavern.
The dragon lunges at me and licks my face. Since it is still larger than me, it’s got me firmly pinned on the ground.
“Thank you! Thank you so much!”