“Would you just look at these guys?” Saito said, nudging one of the fresh corpses with his boot toe. Instead of the normal lobstershelled armor, they all wore whole plates of curved, beaten iron and steel, replete with colorful tabards. But their couture wasn’t nearly as strange as the wearers themselves: tall men with milky skin and long noses. Their unnaturally wide eyes were now stretched even wider, and to a man they stared listlessly up at the guard tower ceiling.
“Good job, everyone,” Kai said. “Except for you, Hskori.”
“Yeah,” Kyo whispered. “You’re the worst, Hskori.”
Hskori Blackblood hung her scaly head. It was true.
“We can talk about how Hskori’s the worst later,” said Saito. “First thing’s first: we kill all these assholes. And then free the dragon, I guess,” he added as an afterthought. Not too long ago, he’d succeeded in sending the dragon Knarix off to the Bakeo Seal, to give the Shub-Niggurath cultists there the inferno treatment, or die in the attempt. Part two of his glorious sneaky plan had been to send these dragon-slaying fanatics after Knarix in turn, resulting in a pile-up of everyone dangerous on the island. But these outlanders had thwarted his plan by virtue of being too stupid to even see his trap. They’d eventually agreed to head for the Bakeo Seal…but only after killing their captive, Niogami.
Which, as one could imagine, didn’t really fly for the group that had been tasked with her safe return to her incredibly ancient and unspeakably powerful father.
A rickety bridge jutted out from the guard tower, inviting them further up into the complex. They took it carefully, and only two of them at a time. The place’s new occupants didn’t seem to have taken any great care to preserve its integrity. Hardly surprising, considering their disdain for dragonish things made them go beserk at the sight of anything remotely reptilian. It was a fact in great evidence when they reached the next chamber.
In a past life—but not too far past—it had been some kind of dormitory. A row of cots lined each wall, with thin curtains providing the only privacy between bunks. But there was nothing left for any occupants to hide, nor any occupants to hide things. Instead there were only smears of crusted blood that the foreigners hadn’t even had the decency to scrub from the walls. They’d even left one of the dead, a naga-ji, chained up like a sacrifice.
No. Not dead. He was twitching. Which either meant he was undead (which wouldn’t have been out of step with their personal experiences), or…
“Cut him down,” Kai said, funneling positive energy into his palms. Saito obliged him, severing the chains with two quick swipes of his cold iron blade.
Kyo eyed the sword, wreathed as it was in ever-burning magical flame. “Did you have to use the fire one?”
Saito scowled. “It looks cool, okay?” he said, sheathing it.
Kai had taken the hulking naga-ji in hand, and began to channel energy into him. “Rest easy,” he said. “You’ve been badly hurt.”
Hskori approached, scaly palms glowing with her own positive energy. “I can help—”
“Hskori, you’re like a me that’s bad at being me,” Kai said, and the naga-ji withdrew her hands.
A moment later, the bigger, more useful naga-ji came to and ran his claws along his brow. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m Iltame.”
Saito shot him a sharp look. “Not Ketzal?”
Iltame frowned—or whatever the snake-person equivalent of a frown was. “No,” he said. “Iltame.”
It was Saito’s turn to frown. “Weird,” he said. “Why did I think it was Ketzal…?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Iltame,” Kai said. “I’m Rin Kai. That’s Kyo…”
The kitsune bowed.
Saito nodded upwards. “How you doin’?”
Iltame leaned around Kai. “And who’s that?” he said, pointing to the party’s other naga-ji.
“Never mind her,” Kai said. “We seek to kill those who’ve wronged you. Will you lend your sword—”
“—nodachi to our cause?”
But Iltame had already raced past him out the door, blade held high, ready to return every favor the outlanders had been kind enough to extend him.
Hskori came to on the floor of a tower just in time to see the two halves of a wizard’s corpse hit the ground. Both halves burned like kindling, his elegant robes only feeding the flames. She looked up and saw a bloodied and singed Saito floating in midair, his fiery sword in hand. There was still fresh blood on the blade, but it was in the process of evaporating away before her eyes.
She looked around to see the other outlanders all lying dead. In particular, she focused on the porcelain-masked man who had felled her with a single blow. A mighty warrior had bested her, but now he was a mess of blood, innards, and ruined armor on the stairs. She’d traveled with this group long enough to recognize the handiwork of Kyo’s exploding arrows—the only thing they had capable of reducing a strong man to the consistency of stew.
Iltame looked as though he’d dived into a pool of outlander blood, and set world swimming records along the way. He and Kyo were now busy looting the bodies, a task Saito was now descending to join them in.
She realized that Kai had been the one to heal her back to consciousness. “What happened? she said.
“Well, we managed to slice our way through all those anti-dragon people,” said the oracle. “A lot of us were pretty hurt—Iltame actually got knocked out for a while, Kyo kept getting chased around, and Saito basically took the sun to the face. We got through it okay. Though we probably would’ve been better off if we’d had another person on our team. You know,” he added. “Someone who could fight.” And after a meaningful pause, he elaborated: “Someone who wouldn’t get taken out, like, right away.”
She blinked her reptilian eyes, waiting for him to finish.
“…Like a chump.”
As he limped off, she took stock of the room. The young dragon was gone. Their enemies were dead. So few matters remained unresolved now before balance on the island of Byakku was restored. In her cold-blooded heart, Hskori knew that if anyone could do it, it would be her companions. And she’d be with them to the end.