Some stories start with 'long, long ago...' Others begin with 'In a land, far, far away.' Some would even, in an effort to be particularly dramatic, venture a 'Long, long ago, in a land far, far away...' This, of course, is utter nonsense. To begin with, what is 'long, long ago'? When the Neanderthals still roamed the earth? When the Australopiticus still mucked about the pre-historic landscape? If so, which one? Or could it perhaps be a mere 1200 years ago, which in the grand scale of things is not very long ago at all. And even then, even then, how can we know anything about that time? Scholars of archeology and history tend to be thrilled to discover such things as that back then mugs had ears too, as evidenced by the Kaisertal Discovery of one mugless ear. How are whole stories to survive such length of time?
No, a long, long time ago is no time for a story to take place. Far, far away then? Well, how far exactly? As far as the tip of Africa perhaps? The Indonesian islands? Japan? Australia? How far away is a land we can see and hear from daily on TV, radio and internet? Far, far away is not so far away anymore. To be far away, one would have to be in another galaxy.
And frankly, that's been done.
No, stories do not take place long ago, nor do they take place far away. They take place elsewhere. They take place in perhaps a single thought. And sometimes, they rebel, and jump thoughts. That is what happened with this story.
But this does not take away the problem: how do you begin a story. The answer is deceptively simple. You start it like this:
This is a story...
Our story begins in a medium sized town. It had cobblestone roads on which gentle brown horses pull carts of merchandise. Stands had been erected around the edges of the town's widest road. Here salesman yelled over each other to praise their merchandise and lower their prices. At the end of the street lay the town square, where rows of stands are pressed together so tightly the average citizen could not cross the square without being treated to the sights and smells of Alverian perfume, Gorandian fish and Kwatsian sulfur sticks. Among the hollering merchants the experience truly was once-in-a-lifetime. That is, no one in their right minds would ever go through this again.
The market of Saghotha was famous. From far and wide people flocked towards it like moths to a light bulb, except that moths are not likely to flock in any way at all. Through its nearby port goods arrived from all over the known world, some of which were sold for high prices before anyone even figured out what they were good for. Many a flower bulb has been worth a fortune as a specially prepared delicacy before finally finding its place in the gardens of the town's inhabitants.
And yet, things were not as they once were, long ago. A dark presence loomed over the land. As we all know, looming presences pose quite a bit of danger, especially if they loom over lands, and especially if they are dark. The stalls, on closer inspection, show to be half empty, a fact only partially masked by clever spacing out of the produce. The merchants look poor and the streets, while certainly not empty, were not as packed as they once were.
A change was at hand, though, a change which began with a small, bright green dot, appearing right in the center of the Saghotha town square. At first, only a few people took note of it. They stared at it with some curiosity as it steadily grew larger to the size of a fist. Then it simply ripped open and barfed four travelers onto the cobblestone ground.
Remarkably quickly the towners and out-of-towners gathered around the location of the curious incident. There, on the pavement, lay a heap of... Creatures would best describe them. Three pairs of eyes blinked confusedly back at the crowd.
"Muah!" A voice finally proclaimed. It belonged to a green creature, with wings and, assuming the green tip sticking out at the other side of the heap belonged to it, a tail too. It had long blond hair which it moved away from its eyes with a claw. Its voice sounded remarkably female.
"Where'd you say you got that thing, Dubble?" the creature on top of her asked. It sounded female too, though it looked remarkably like a wolf. What parts of the body were visible were covered in either clothing or hair, and a distinctive wolf's tail stuck out somewhere.
"Er... Mommy gave it to me?" Dubble spoke innocently. She sat in top of the pile, holding a medallion in one hand. She was a pretty young woman, with long blonde hair holding some flowers in a deadly stranglehold. She wore a blue dress and, remarkably, no shoes. This was, so most spectators felt, not half as remarkable as the fact that a pair of large, fluffy wings protruded from her back. "Erm, hi," she greeted the onlookers. Some could not help but raise an uncertain hand in greeting. Someone mumbled hi back.
"Erg. What for?" The wolf creature asked. She pushed herself up, and as a result, Dubble promptly tumbled down the slope of bodies onto the ground.
"EEP!" she exclaimed. "Ow."
"Jessie! Gettof me!" the green creature commanded in turn. As she pushed herself up the wolf creature Jessie slid off her back and landed crouched down on the ground. As she got back up she too took note of the increasing crowd of gawking onlookers.
"Er... Think we're making a scene?" she asked.
"You think?" Dubble asked, sitting on the floor. It was not entirely clear whether this was actual sarcasm or innocence, particularly with the angel-like appearance.
"Of course we'se making a scene!" the green creature huffed as she climbed onto her feet. She looked down at her feet with her arms on her hips. "Get up Onar!" she commanded. "Yer making a scene." She grabbed the human lying on the floor by the back of his shirt and dragged him up onto his feet with a single claw. "Onar, yer embarrassing us," she scolded him as she started patting the dirt from his clothes. "Look. Everyone's staring!"
"What just happened?" the human asked.
"I dunno," Jessie shrugged. "Dubble was just showing us the medallion is all I know."
"Dubble!" the human started. He took a step forward and was promptly pulled back in place.
"Keep still Onar!"
"MAui!" the human complained. The creature continued regardless, finishing off her work by giving both her claws a lick and reaching up to run them through the human's dark brown hair.
"We should find out where we are," Jessie decided.
"Yeah!" Dubble agreed, having climbed back on her feet. She turned towards the crowd in particular. "Hey, anyone know where we are?" she asked with a friendly smile. Mutters rose from the crowd.
"Er... Saghotha," someone ventured.
"'s west of Klier," another muttered uncertainly.
"Town square," another added, rather superfluously. The four travelers each looked silently at a different part of the crowd.
"Okay..." the wolf creature said uncertainly.
"I'm Dubble," Dubble introduced herself. Inaudible murmurs again rose from the crowd, presumably some people who somehow felt the need to introduce themselves in return.
"And I'se MAui!" the green creature promptly beamed. "And that's Jessie and this is Onar!" she continued, lifting the human up by the arm for all to see.
"Erm," Dubble corrected her, "he's Arno, really."
"No, he's Onar," MAui insisted, dropping the human again.
"We're just..." Jessie announced, then paused. "Erm... Why are we here?" she asked, looking at Dubble.
"Oh!" the winged girl perked up. "We're just, erm... Here! Yeah!"
"Dubble's got this magic trinket that wooshed us to here!" MAui clarified the situation. "It was spiffy!" she beamed.
"Yeah, so, er..." Dubble concluded. "We're just going to go... Erm..." She looked around and examined her surroundings. As she did so she trailed off while her jaw dropped. "Eeee!" she squeeled. "A market!" She turned towards the green winged creature known as Maui. "Maummy, can we go shopping!?"
"'Course were-child," she answered, stepping towards the young girl with an outstretched arm. She took her by the arm and led her into the crowd with not as much as a care in the world. "Onar!" she yelled back without actually looking back, "Ye have money, right?"
As they disappeared into the baffled crowd, Arno quickly stepped towards the wolf creature.
"So what do we do?" he asked nervously, aware of several dozens of stares piercing his back.
"Dunno," Jessie shrugged. Suddenly one of the stands caught her eye. "Cool!" she exclaimed, rushing away from the human. "Swords!"
Arno sighed, and followed.
Little gasps emerged from the left of MAui. They came from Dubble, absolutely drowning in a stall full of little trinkets, cute hoblin shaped pottery and other such delightful items. MAui herself was preoccupied with a large fish, which she was holding by the tail with one claw, while resting it in the other. She eyed it critically, and raised it by the tail to slap it into her claw a few times.
"Hmmm..." she judged. "'s it sturdy enough?" she asked the woman behind the stall.
"It's... Trout, ma'am," she answered.
"Well, wrap it in, will ye, hon?" the green creature requested. "'s a gift," she added. She handed the baffled woman the trout while turning back to Dubble, who was sitting in her knees gazing at all the cute little statuettes. "Dubble hon," she asked.
"You still have that trinket thingy?"
"Can I have it for a moment?"
Dubble looked up from her busy work being star struck.
"What for?" she asked. MAui reached a claw out at her.
Dubble obediently placed the medallion into the Maui's claw and looked up as she held it up against the light. She peered at it with one eye, peered at it in another direction, and finally tapped it with a talon.
"Dubble!" she suddenly exclaimed. "Dude! It has a displacement spell!" she concluded. "Nifty..."
"Displayc'ment?" Dubble tried, standing back up.
"It, like, you know, poofs ye from one place to another," Maui explained importantly.
"Oooooh," the young girl says, her eyes lighting up in understanding. "Mommy said I would learn more magic if I traveled more. So it makes more sense now. Cuz' we're traveling."
"Erm... Ma'am?" a nervous voice asks behind Maui's back. She turns around to see the market lady holding out the trout, neatly wrapped in at least three layers of paper.
"Ah!" she exclaimed as she took the fish from the woman's hands. "Onar's paying," she said, helpfully pointing out the one human in their party, standing next to the wolf creature. Before the poor woman could say another word the green creature already rushed off, Dubble in tow.
"What's in the package, Maummy?" she asked curious.
"'s a present," Maui beamed proudly. "Fer yer uncle Robby."
In the mean time the two other visitors had been focussing on other things.
"Jessie," Arno had said worriedly in hushed tones, "we need to stay together. We have no idea where we are."
"Sure we do," Jessie had answered. "We're at a market." She picked up a sword and immediately but carefully unsheathed it to admire the blade.
"Jessie!" Arno warned through clenched teeth. "People are staring at us. I think I know why too..."
"Well, at least they're not scared of us," the wolf creature answered absentmindedly, holding the blade straight up and striking a few tentative poses. "How much is this?" she asked the burly, bald man behind the stall.
"Hundred'n'fifty Saghs," the man answered, straightening into the seemingly undisturbed stance of a professional merchant.
"I think MAui frightened them out of being scared."
"Aw c'mon," Jessie said. "Er... You don't have any Saghs on you, right?"
Arno gave her a flat look.
"Maaaaaan..." she said dolefully, looking lovingly at the sword, running her fingers along the flat surface. The human opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a cough behind their backs. A kind of shy, urgent cough, the type usually made by people who know they are going to have to attract a kind of attention they don't really want. The human and the wolf simultaneously look over their shoulder.
"Pardon me," A blond, fairly tall man in what seems to be a uniform and light armor stood behind them, making a valiant attempt to add some authority to these words. Behind him three other soldiers stood, carrying long pikes sticking straight up into the air.
"Er..." Arno said.
"Yes, officer?" Jessie very quickly replied, swinging around. The apparent leader of the group quickly stepped back from her sword, literally rattling his men as armor hit armor and pikes started pointing in more random directions. Arno slowly turned around and watched the spectacle with a mixture of quiet disbelief and dread.
"Now look here," he spoke. "Now look here." He straightened his helmet and stood proud, though further away. Most of the crowd by now had already lost most of its interest in the newcomers and did little more than casually passing the area about five times per minute, leaving the soldier plenty of room to do his job. "Now look here," he mumbled, mentally gathering his lines in his head. Frankly, Arno felt, it looked like he was trying to count without using his fingers.
"We here at Sagotha are an open minded lot, we are," the soldier began, bravely backed by his colleagues.
"See? We're at Sagotha!" Jessie told Arno. He looked at her but kept silent.
"And... And we don't take unkindly to things new," the soldier continued. "Lord knows 't got us where we are today. And, and..." He started to look more firm, more proud. "And when we see a girl with wings, we're fine with that, basically. And when she's with a... A... Green... Thing..."
"A gargoyle," Arno said helpfully.
"Oh," the sweating soldier spoke. "A gargoyle," he continued as if he had never stopped, "we may blink, and some may frown, even, it's their right, after all, but anyway, we're basically okay with that too." The poor man's face was beat red by now.
"And when they're accompanied by their... Erm..." He looked desperately at Arno, vaguely gesturing in the wolf creature's direction.
"Anthro-wolf," Arno cleared up.
"Anthro-w-..." the leader paused and then, in unison with his tiny garrison, stumbled back until the rear soldier's armor hit the stand behind them. "W-wolf..." he muttered.
"ANTHRO-wolf!" Jessie snapped at them, waving her sword around randomly. "Anthropomorphic," she articulated carefully, "wolf..."
"Jessie, Jessie," Arno said soothingly, grabbing her arm before she manages to stab an eye out, "I think you're scaring them," he warned, looking down at the 5'3" creature of terror.
"Huh," she huffed disdainfully.
"Anfromoporfic!" the soldier yelled out. "Anprofomorpic! Anprofomorpic wolves. Got no problem with those either!" he hurriedly said.
"Good," Jessie said, sheathing the sword.
"But?" Arno asked, strengthened by the apparent respect for his companion.
"Buuuut..." the soldier started, rubbing his hands together nervously, "We... Get a bit nervous when they start dropping from the sky, really," he admitted, eyeing the anthro-wolf carefully.
"Oh," Jessie said, dropping the tip of the sheethed sword on the cobblestones. "That."
"We're... Not here to make trouble, sir," Arno said as kindly and reassuringly as he could, measnwhile glancing around for any approaching MAuis.
"'Ere," a voice sounded behind him. The burly salesman spoke up. "That mean yer gonna pay for that then?" he asked, nodding at the sword over Jessie's shoulder, arms crossed. Jessie cast a not very hopeful look in Arno's direction.
"No," he said clearly.
"Aw geez..." the anthro-wolf gave the sword a disappointed, longing look as she stalled on returning it.
"You... Have no money?" the soldier asked carefully.
"Erm..." Arno asked, "Is that a problem?"
"Well... No," the soldier answered, looking away. "Nnnot really. Just, er, stay out of trouble, okay?"
"ONAR!" MAui's voice tore through the market. There she approached, running enthusiastically with Dubble behind her and a fish shaped package over her head. She enthusiastically pressed the wrapped trout into his face. "Look what I got for Wobbie!"
"And look what Maummy got me!" Dubble panted as she held a little statuette of a rearing horse up before his eyes.
"Ooooh, horsey!" Jessie exclaimed. Dubble squealed with joy.
"A sword!" she happily exclaimed in return.
"No," the anthro-wolf spoke sadly, "I can't keep it."
"Awwww," Dubble shared her disappointment.
Arno cast a look over the fish to look at the baffled soldier and found it was time to push the wrapped trout out of his face.
"This is, like, the coolest place, Onar!" MAui felt. "We so have to come back some time!"
Arno looked at the fish, then at the horse statuette, then, finally at MAui, with open mouth.
"How... Where'd you get the money for that!?" he asked, utterly baffled.
"Oh yeah," the green gargoyle answered, "Onar, go pay the nice people, 'kay? We'll wait here."
Arno cast a look at the soldier, who was biting his lip. Then he dropped his head into his hands and groaned.
It was for this reason that he did not see the first shadow pass by. Others did, however. In the space of a second the entire marketplace fell silent. By the time he looked up to see what went on a second shadow already flashed across the cobblestones and stalls, quickly followed by a third.
"Rabids!" someone yelled in the distance. The words were immediately echoed by the rest of the crowd. The screamed the name out in fear as all around him people started running. Merchants grabbed what wares they could save and took off like the devil himself was chasing them. Women dragged their crying children into whatever open door they could find. The soldiers, only a moment ago so fearfully watching their little traveling party, were now directing human traffic as much as they could. In three seconds the entire marketplace had become a cauldron of panic and fear.
"Rabbits?" MAui wondered out loud.
High up in the sky, though not as high as the locals would have liked it, a flock of creatures soared through the sky. Balls of fur, large bat wings and a rat's tail. The circled high up and watched as the populace ran for cover. When the streets had cleared enough, they swooped down in unison, each screaming a terrifying shriek.
"What the-?" Jessie wondered, craning her head up.
Before anyone else could comment the creatures literally bombed the marketplace. They crashed through the roofs and tables of the stalls, the dropped onto the cobblestones, they slammed into the roofs of the surrounding houses. Jessie dove at Arno and threw the stunned human to the ground in an attempt to make him take cover.
"EEEEEEE!" Dubble screamed, hiding under her wings, as if they would somehow withstand a bombardment of rabid creatures. MAui stood straight up and watched the bombardment with her hands on her hips.
"Well!" she proclaimed loudly, "They'se the stupidest rabbits I'se ever seen!"
All around them the creatures rose on their hind legs. They really were large furballs. Four foot tall, they stood, with a long tail and a great wingspan. Their hind legs seemed nothing but muscle, designed to withstand the impact of the bombardment. Their claws were sharp, their mouths were huge and their eyes nothing more than black, vicious marbles.
Here and there a slow human tried desperately to escape from the ravaged town square, finding rabids everywhere he went. Aside from these panicked footsteps, a total and utter silence had fallen over the surroundings. The party of four stood right in the center of it all.
"I think we were supposed to run," Arno said fearfully, looking at the creatures from down in the floor. Some looked back at him or the others, others examined the surviving wares in the wreckage of the stalls. They seemed to take an explicit interest in anything that shimmered and shone.
"Uh-huh," Jessie breathed, lying on top of him. She carefully reached for the sword, lying on the cobblestones next to her.
"Maummyyyy..." Dubble cried fearfully from under her trembling wings.
"Huh?" MAui replied. "Oh. Right." She placed her fish onto the table of the stall behind her. The roofing had been torn off, and she used this rather useful situation to leap up beside the fish and look out over the remains.
"Hey rabbit things!" she announced. Every monstrous, furry head on the marketplace turned to look at her. Some had drool liberally flowing from their oversized jaws. "Yer scaring were-child!" MAui continued, "so, like, go graze somewhere else or whatever it is rabbits do!"
Taking advantage of the distraction, Jessie made a quick grab for the sword. She rolled off Arno and jumped at, swishing the sword around in wide random patterns.
"Alright!" she yelled out. "Don't come any closer!" Some of the rabids indeed edged back.
Having said her piece, MAui meanwhile jumps off the table to face the creatures with a smug look on her face, with the rest of the group behind her. In between her and Jessie, Dubble and Arno find themselves crawling back until their backs are pressed against each other, an event that was accompanied with a slight "eep" from one of them.
"Shoo!" they heard MAui say. All hell broke loose.
It was, mostly, as if someone fired a starting shot in the creatures' minds. Simultaneously and quite abruptly the nearest bunch threw themselves at the travelers. A terrified scream emerged from between Jessie and MAui's backs, and Dubble shrieked in shock.
"Argh!" Jessie exclaimed, stumbling back while catching one of them on her sword.
"MUAH!" MAui exclaimed, leaping forward, arms spread to grab as many as she could get in one go.
As the battle raged, the rest of the pack ran and flew around madly, looking for other unfortunate victims, or ravaging what was left to ravage of the marketplace, tearing apart anything that was not even vaguely shiny. All the other items they snatched in their arms, be they coins, metal plates or teapots, before running around trying to find more, or flying off with their prizes.
Meanwhile other rabids flew closely over Arno and Dubble's head as they ducked and dodges as best they could. Most of them came from MAui's direction and were either upside down, flying backwards, or passing in several pieces. The screeches from her end of the battle were deafening.
"I could use some help here!" Jessie yelled out, circling her two friends, swishing and stabbing her blade at any rabids closing in. As if on cue, one rabid soared backwards into a group of three in front of her, hurtling then into a pile of stall debris.
"Thanks!" she yelled out.
"Welcome!" MAui yelled back cheerfully from the side.
"Arno look!" Dubble exclaimed. She thrust a pointing finger at an older man and a younger blonde woman, hurriedly making their way along the walls of the buildings around the square. Instantly two rabids perked up, followed her directions and immediately took off after the two humans, viciously snarling and eeking.
"Oops," she mumbled. Yet another rabid rose up onto the wrecked stall behind her, grinning with extatic joy at the sight of two turned backs. A drop of saliva dripped from the corner of its mouth and dropped into Arno's head.
"Dubble! Watch out!" he yelled as he pressed her back onto the cobblestones. The rabid narrowly missed. It swiftly swung around as it hit the floor and immediately prepared for another strike. Arno reached back, grabbed a piece of wood, and then it exploded, leaving its skeleton to tumble to the ground before them.
MAui blew the smoke of her pointing talon. "No touching were-child," she spoke sternly, surrounded by motionless rabids and parts thereof.
Dubble's gaze instantly searched for the two people she saw earlier.
"MAUMMY!" she yelled out as she found them, surrounded by the two terrible creatures.
"What!?" MAui responded. She followed Dubble's arm right to the wall where the two cowering humans were huddled close together. "Oh, all RIGHT," she chagrinned. With two leaps and a battle cry she landed onto the back of one of the creatures, sending the other scurrying away in fear.
"MAUI!" Jessie yelled after her in a panic. She suddenly stood very alone with only a sword between herself and the creatures. Heartened by this new opportunity, the terrible things began to approach slowly. Arno slowly climbed back up on his feet and pulled Dubble up by the arm, holding a piece of a plank in his other hand.
"A little help would be nice..." Jessie said, watching the approaching creatures with wide-open eyes. Either she backed into the others, or the others backed into her, it was not quite clear. Arno hid defensively behind his piece of wood, while Dubble tried to squeeze in behind him.
Suddenly he was thrown forward. He was thrown forward by the momentum of a large, black tail tearing through his pants.
Meanwhile MAui finally remembered something. Under the gaze of the two baffled humans she produced a pair of short daggers. She rose them over the maimed and mangled creature she was sitting on, then paused as she realized it was quite and sincerely dead. She leaned forward and angrily looked the creature in the face.
"Oh poo!" she scolded him. "Yer no fun, ye know that!?"
"Take cover!" a voice suddenly yelled. Jessie the anthro-wolf approached, leaping over the splintered remains of the stalls, dragging Dubble along by the hand who was deftly attempting to dodge all the splinters on the ground with her bare feet. "He's gonna blow!"
"Wha?" MAui responded, looking up from her work. Two giant, growing wings shot straight up out from the wreckage. Jessie took one final leap at the relative safety of the wall, dragging Dubble through the air with spread wings. As she did so, it seemed as though the entire market exploded. A giant black mass tore through the wreckage. It crushed rabids in between, it sent them catapulted through the air over the houses or splattered against the walls. MAui dropped off her carcass by the sheer force of it all and was narrowly missed by a giant black foot crushing wood and rabids into the wall.
A cloud of wood dust and splinters settled around a great black dragon, sitting on its knees in the town square. It was not merely in the middle of it, no, it filled nearly every inch of it. Nearly every square inch of it was filled with dragon, or in the shadow of the two huge wings protruding from its back.
In the brief silence that followed, only interrupted by the increasingly distant shrieks of fleeing rabids and the occasional thud of a rabid body dropping on a rooftop, MAui was the first to get up. She surveyed the damage for a moment, then turned an angry glare at the giant dragon's hind claw, inches away from her.
"Onar!" she yelled, giving it a good kick.
Slowly Jessie got up on her feet. She rested the sword against the wall and started patting the splinters from her fur. Dubble remained sitting on the ground, brushing the dirt and debris off her once tidy blue dress.
"He should just stay like this," she felt. "At least we wouldn't need to run all the time."
"Yeah," Dubble agreed. "Plus he would have been more useful, what with being huge and all."
The great beast carefully turned around, seemingly habitually avoiding even crushing the crushed remains of the market. As the dragon turned, Jessie grabbed the hand of the older man and gently pulled him back on his feet. "You okay?" she asked. He did not answer, but instead stared at the great dragon's head approaching.
"Erm..." it said embarrassedly. "Are you all alright?" Arno spotted the two humans and instinctively lowered his head in an attempt to make himself look 'small'.
"Yeah, sure," Jessie answered, patting some dirt off the bewildered man's clothes. The younger woman stood up beside him.
"Th-... Thank you," she said quietly, almost inaudibly.
"Arno," Dubble asked sternly, "did you forget your pills again?"
"Well," the great black dragon answered defensively, pulling his head back, "what with falling through that portal and Jessie wanting a sword, and then there was the soldier..."
Dubble sighed with a smile as she rolled her eyes.
"Be right back," she said cheerfully.
"... And then these things attacked..." Arno continued, following her with his head as she ran under his legs, hopping over the debris as she did so.
"Don't worry 'bout him," Jessie reassured the two humans. "He's harmless. Well, relatively."
"Who... Are you?" the man asked, slowly regaining his self-control again. He stood pressed against the wall and did not take his eyes off the dragon, even though it now seemed to be preoccupied looking between its front legs, its manes brushing the debris off the cobblestones.
"We're, erm... Visitors," Jessie tried to explain. "I'm Jessie," she introduced herself. "Anthro-wolf," she thought to add.
"And I'se MAui!" MAui presented herself with a flourish. She finally put her daggers away again. "Oh, and that's Onar," she practically added as an afterthought, with a dismissive wave in the enormous dragon's general direction.
"It's got to be here somewhere," the dragon muttered between his legs.
"Yeah, but it's tiny, you know," Dubble's voice responded. "And it's dark here."
"Did you come to save us?" The young woman asked with the tight voice of a person who just squeezed all her bravery into one single sentence.
"Erm..." Jessie answered. "Well..."
"Found it!" Dubble exclaimed loudly from between Arno's legs. She ran out into the relative open again, holding a small bottle triumphantly up in the air. The great dragon's head follows it with great interest.
"Look, I got it!" she panted as she came to a halt before MAui. In her hands she held a small pill bottle, half full with small, quite generic looking pills.
"Oooh!" MAui exclaimed, making a grab for it. Dubble quickly held it back out of the gargoyle's reach.
"Maummy!" she exclaimed.
"Hey!" Arno protested.
"Come on, were-child, they'se yummy!"
"No," Dubble spoke defiantly. "They'd be bad for you and you could get all sorts of things from them." She beckoned the dragon to lower its head, which it obediently did. "Besides," she continued, "they're not for you, they're for big ol' dragons."
"They're a bit weird," Jessie reassured the two humans as they watched Dubble hop onto the dragon's beak.
"Open up wide!" Dubble commanded happily. "Woot!" she added as she was promptly lifted up.
"Careful ye don't eat were-child, Onar!" MAui warned. Dubble dropped one of the pills in the dragon's mouth.
"I'm Desiree," the woman introduced herself nervously. "... Des..." she added uncertainly. "This is my father, he-"
"Stanton," the man interrupted her. "We... Run a small inn. It's not much, but if you and your friends would like a drink... Erm..." He carefully raised a finger and allowed it to generally point in the direction of the great dragon. "Except..."
In no more than a fraction of a second the great dragon was compressed back into its human shape.
"Eep!" Dubble reacted, before dropping to the floor. The father and his daughter stared silently and motionlessly at where only a moment ago a great black dragon had stood.
"HEY ONAR!" MAui yelled at the center of the square. "WE'SE GETTING FREE DRINKS!"
"You have some clothes we can borrow?" Jessie asked.
The inn was, true to the innkeeper's words, small by any definition of the word. It could not have any more than two rooms for the guests, and sparsely room below to feed half a family. Nevertheless, so the innkeeper explained, it kept him and his daughter fed well enough.
Though the inn was remarkably empty inside, outside a large crowd had gathered to elbow each other as they tried to ogle through the tiny crack between the closed curtains. They had, in fact, been part of an increasingly large procession following them through the streets practically from the moment they left the town square. Though it made Dubble and Jessie merely uneasy, it was mostly Arno that complained. Even when Dubble started walking in front of him to obscure his most embarrassing bits from direct sight, he barely lightened up at all. Clothed in the innkeeper's spare clothes though, slightly too short and slightly too wide, his mood seemed to improve somewhat as he enjoyed his mug of milk. MAui enjoyed a glass of wine herself, while Jessie tried hard to find any drink she would like on the menu.
"No Code Red?" she asked.
"No, miss," the innkeeper explained respectfully. "We have many fine brews..." he suggested kindly. His suggestion was ignored as Jessie glanced at Dubble for a moment. She tried again.
"You have Pepsi?" she tried. The innkeeper and his daughter look at each other.
"I don't think they have drinks like with us," Dubble said.
"They have wine," Jessie argued.
"Yeah, but I think they have wine everywhere," Dubble pondered. "It's just one of those things."
"Mountain Dew?" she tried in desperation. "Do you have that?"
"Mountains are a fair bit away from here, miss," the innkeeper explained respectfully. "Besides, no one'd go there."
"Is that what they drink in Yuria?" Desiree asked, seemingly remembering a pointless fact. Her face lit up. "Are you travelers from Yuria!?" she asked. Jessie pressed the tips of her fingers against her forehead and shook her head.
"No no no no no no," she said.
"We're from... Farther away," Arno explained kindly, leaning forward to look past the anthro-wolf.
"Farther?" the innkeeper asked in a mixture of disbelief and awe.
"That's why I've never seen creatures like you!" Desiree realized. Arno took a sip from his milk.
"They're rather rare where we come from too," he admitted.
"Yus!" MAui chimed in. "I'se not weird, I'se rare!" She beamed with pride.
"I'm not rare!" Dubble corrected Arno. "Mommy just gave me wings."
"Mommy," Desiree repeated. She turned her gaze towards MAui. "That's..."
"No, that's Maummy," Dubble explained to her. Father and daughter looked uncertainly at each other.
"Here, I'll explain," Arno began kindly.
"Don't leave anything out Onar!" MAui told him. "Tell him about were-child!"
"Look," Arno started. "This here is MAui." The green gargoyle looked up at the two humans and smiled impossibly broadly. "She's a gargoyle. Gargoyles normally turn to stone at day, but she doesn't. In fact," he considers, "most gargoyles I know don't do that."
"Yeah!" Dubble realized. "It's like they're all too lazy or something."
"Onar!" MAui interrupted. "Tell them I'm immortal."
"Now," Arno continued undeterred, "This is Dubble. Dubble's normal, only her adoptive mommy isn't, so she made her grow wings."
"Hi," Dubble squeaked, waving two fingers.
"They call each other Maummy and were-child. It's an affection thing."
"Is not!" said MAui. "I bit her and now she's a were-MAui!"
"And Jessie's an anthro-wolf," he told the highly interested pair. They both looked at the wolf creature leaning on the table on her elbows.
"Do you have anything caffeineated?" she asked them desperately.
"We have some fine ale..." the innkeeper tried uncertainly. The anthro-wolf groaned.
"I'll have what Dubble's having," she decided. Dubble took a sip from her lemonade and put the glass back down on the table.
"Hey! Why'd these things attack you?" she asked, changing the topic of conversation to something a little more urgent..
"You... Could say they are tax collectors." The innkeeper explained.
"Tax collectors?" Jessie asked. The man nodded gravely.
"The rabids always come to collect anything shiny they can get their grubby claws on," Desiree clarified from behind the bar. "And then take it to Argor. They're terribly fast..."
"You're just out of luck when you happen to end up in the middle," the innkeeper continued while Desiree returned from the bar. "If you hadn't shown up..." The thought alone seemed to make him sweat enough to wipe his forehead with his cleaning cloth.
"Wait. Who's Argor?" Jessie asked, gratefully accepting her drink.
"He sends them," the innkeeper spoke. He seemed to sweat even more now. "To collect things..."
"The jerk!" Jessie huffed, subconsciously grabbing the heft of her sword. "Someone ought to sort him out..."
"He is a great golden dragon," Desiree explained without blinking.
"The innkeeper and his daughter now cast a hopeful gaze on Arno, who was just finishing the last of his milk.
"Hm?" he reacted, muffled by the glass. He put the empty glass down on the table and wiped away a milk mustache. "What?"
"You're a dragon too," Desiree spoke respectfully, nervously squeezing one hand with the other.
"Er..." Arno looked away uncertainly. "I'm not," he said, and looked back at them again. "I'm human."
"But you were a dragon," the innkeeper insisted.
"Yus, Onar's a dragon!" MAui agreed. "It's really neat and funny when he falls through the floor!"
"I'm not!" he insisted.
"Oh come on Arno!" Jessie said. "You practically are a dragon these days."
Arno raised his hands defensively.
"Look..." he said, buying himself some time to think. "Look... It's just a practical joke by some friends that went a bit, well, wrong. It's just temporary, I am not a dragon."
"You need pills just to be human," Dubble reminded him.
"So!?" he snapped. Then he sighed as he calmed down again before looking back at the innkeeper and his daughter. "Look, I'm really sorry about the rabids and about the dragon... But we need to go back to our own... Land, and..."
"Dubble? Something wrong?" Jessie interrupted him. From one moment to the next Dubble had turned beat red, and her face had filled with dread.
"The medallion?" she squealed.
"I just realized. I don't have it any more."
A dead silence descended on the table. Even MAui seemed to be affected.
"Er... Were-child is joking," she tried, "right were-child?"
Dubble shook her head, all afluster.
"If you lost a trinket at the market," the innkeeper told them, "then most likely they're taking it to Argor as we speak."
More dead silence.
That evening, the four travelers found themselves in a small room on the first floor of the inn. It was, in fact, one of two, and rather small at that. Though the innkeeper was grateful, he was also well aware of the cost of turning a potential guest down for lack of rooms. The night was quiet, finally; after a long evening of profitable, not to mention loud, business their hosts had finally taken into consideration the need for their guests to rest and sent the curious crowd on its way.
There were two beds.
"Right, so..." MAui wondered, "who's sleeping on the floor?"
There was a moment's silence.
"Erm... Maummy?" Dubble said carefully. "Can't we put two people in one bed?"
MAui considered this.
"But, like, where'd the fourth people sleep then?" she asked.
"No, you see," Dubble explained, "We can, say, put Jessie and Arno in one bed, and me and you in another." She smiled hopefully.
"But..." MAui protested, "You'll hog all the blankets!"
"I gotta sleep with Arno?" Jessie realized. "Do I have to?"
"Hey!" Arno responded.
Dubble sighed. "Okay, fine, I'll sleep with Arno, and MAui can sleep with Jessie." She paused for at most a fraction of a second. "And that sounds very wrong but I'm not gonna correct it cause you're all old enough to know what I mean."
"Hey, what's wrong with sleeping in the same bed as me?" Arno demanded with hurt pride.
"Nothing at all," Dubble said soothingly.
"Only when you turn into a dragon they'll be the first to get crushed," Jessie added pragmatically.
"Oh come on!"
"Erm... You're not gonna do that, are you?" Dubble asked carefully.
"No!" Arno sighed with agitation as he lifted the blanket off the nearest bed. "Come on... We've got a long way to go tomorrow..."
"Doesn't have to be," Jessie felt, lifting the blanket of the other bed. Arno slipped under the blankets.
"What do you mean?" he asked, fumbling through the pockets of his discarded trousers before producing the bottle of pills.
"Well," Jessie reasoned, "It's not so far if you're a dragon."
"Yeah Onar!" MAui agreed enthusiastically, "you can, like, fly us there!"
"Oh!" Dubble exclaimed, clutching her blankets with joy as she looked at MAui and Jessie. "That'd be neat!"
"No," Arno grumbled. He finally managed to unscrew the childproof cap off the bottle and started shaking pills into his cupped hand.
"Aw come on," Jessie tried, "you practically are a dragon. Er..." She watched in disbelief as he continued to shake pills out of his bottle. "How many of those are you taking?"
"Seven!" Dubble quickly counted, pushing herself up from the bed to have a peek.
"Geez, no wonder he always runs out before the end of the week."
"You don't want me turning dragon in my sleep, do you?" Arno explained without looking up. He put the pills in his mouth, all at once, and swallowed with some difficulty.
"Not turning, no," Dubble said.
Arno laid back and rested his head on a pillow that turned out to be more comfortable than it looked. MAui blew out the candle. From then on, only the light of the stars and the near-full moon outside lit up the room.
"Your feet are cold," Arno remarked after a while.
"Sorry," Dubble whispered.
"You should wear shoes, you know," he advised her.
"MAui doesn't wear shoes," Jessie whispered. "And her feet aren't cold."
"Yeah, but you've got fur."
Finally, the conversation fell entirely silent. Slowly the weary travelers began to doze off in their unfamiliar beds.
A pair of eyes watched them. They were round, and black, like vicious black marbles. Outside the window a single rabid hung from the wall. Its wings slowly trembled with the rabid excitement that coursed through its body. With nothing more to spy on, it pushed itself away from the wall and spread its wings to soar of, screeching into the night.
A single shoe soared after it and knocked it out of the sky.
"Hey, my shoe!" Jessie's distant voice exclaimed.
On the foot of the distant mountains stood, only if the term were used loosely, what could be described as a castle; a gigantic clump of rock, rising up into the cold sky. It had an entrance that would dwarf a giant, with great metal doors hung with great metal hinges. Its walls were as thick as many a small alley, and its towers rose up to fizzle out in spire-less stumps.
Outside, it was cold, hard and foreboding. Inside its corridors and rooms teemed with rabid life. Here the mountain dwellers spent their days. In the rooms they were born, and in the corridors they grew old. Where they died, they'd rather not talk about.
And under all this, in a large, open room under the castle, slumbered their lord and master. He lay on a pile of treasures so large that his legs no longer even touched the ground. Every once in a while, he demanded more.
This day, he was overseeing the splitting of the proceeds. Several more trusted rabids stood hunched over a small pile of treasure, which they split into two smaller piles. One was for the gold, the gems, the bronze statuettes and the silver necklaces. The other was for the rabids; pots, pans, metal plates and copper coins. This was their reward. No one ever tried to shortchange the dragon; at least, no one that lived long enough to matter.
Another rabid entered the dragon's lair. It stumbled from a frantic run to something of a respectful slow walk as it respectfully moved towards the dragon. Argor followed the creature with his eyes only, until it was right under the dragon's snout. There it halted and looked up with the greatest respect and awe.
"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!" it screeched in the dragon's face. Argor grunted as his gaze hardened. "EEK EEEEEE EK EEEEEEEEEK!" it continued. "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!"
"They are coming?" the dragon repeated, somewhat surprised.
"EEEK!" the creature confirmed.
"Well, well," the dragon placed one claw against his chin and looked up thoughtfully. "The human dragon..."
"It has been so long since I've been challenged..." Argor mused. He placed his claw down in his pile of valuables again and looked down at the rabid at his feet. With two talons he shoved a minute part of his treasure down at the rabid's oversized feet.
"Let's keep it that way," he decided. "Take this, find your friends," he instructed calmly, "and visit every city, every town, every village and every farm between here and Saghotha. Be sure they understand fully the price of resistance and the benefits of cooperation..."
Not too long afterwards a swarm of rabids took off from the castle's battlements. A seemingly never ending stream fanning out slightly as they delivered Argor's message to the world.
Below, Argor pondered the situation. It had been a long time since he had been challenged. He should be careful, he felt, not to underestimate these strangers. They had foiled an entire raid; they obviously were crafty little creatures.
Surveying the work before him, he saw with approval how a simple bronze medallion was carefully examined, evaluated, and placed onto his pile.
"Okay, does anyone know where we are?" Dubble summarized the situation.
"We'se in a forest!" MAui proclaimed, taking note of the surrounding trees.
"Okay, maps can't be THIS hard," Dubble decided. She held it out in front of her and studied it closely. Then she turned it sideways. She looked at it, turned it sideways again, and again, and again.
"Erm... We need Kess," she decided.
"We need lunch," Jessie felt.
"Well, you should have had breakfast," Arno remarked.
"I don't have breakfast," said the anthro-wolf.
"Okay, guys?" Dubble interrupted. "If this is Saghotha, and all the green bits are forest... Then... There's a lot of forest around Saghotha, isn't there?"
"Is this pond on the map?" Arno asked, pushing one of Dubble's wings away and peering over her shoulder. Jessie pushed away the other wing and cast a look herself. Meanwhile MAui led the horses to the water.
"There's a river here we didn't cross," she noted, running a hairy finger along the map.
"There was that creek," Dubble remembered. "You know, with the rickety bridge that Arno thought we'd fall through?
"What's the scale of this map?" Arno wondered.
"Come on, stupid horses! Drink!" All three looked up simultaneously to see MAui standing at the pond, trying to push the protesting horses' heads into the water.
"MAUI!" Jessie exclaimed.
"Don't make them drink water just after running!" The anthro-wolf paced towards the two horses and pulled them away from the pond by the reigns. "It'll kill them."
MAui stared at her.
"Huh!" she proclaimed. "They gave us defective horses."
Jessie held one of the horses' heads, closely cradling it against her chest to calm it a little.
"You shouldn't have had them running so much," she defended the poor creatures.
"But they are slow!" the gargoyle whined. The anthro-wolf ignored her as she took the horses by the reigns again and led them back to the make-shift camp.
"Hey, how do you know so much about horses?" Arno asked, respectfully stepping out of the way of the body mass of one small anthro-wolf and two larger horses.
"I've been that age too, you know," Jessie answered, coming to a halt to pet the other horse over the head.
"Well," Arno decided for himself, "I say we just point them at the mountains and see what we find on our way."
"Can I ride this time!?" Dubble quickly requested, lest it was a matter of dibs.
"I suppose," Jessie answered. "But first I wanna eat."
Only by the time night had fallen the weary travelers found themselves walking through the empty streets of a town that they hoped was the one known by the name of Clelland. Clelland was a fair sized town, founded nearly 200 years ago on the land acquired by the highly successful merchant Clel. At the time it had been a center of trade, and this historical fact still showed in the elaborate designs of the houses and street lanterns that lit up the road. These days it was a quiet town though, its position as local economic center long since taken over by the prosperous city of Saghotha.
In fact, it was a very quiet town. The clopping sound of the horses' hooves led through the streets echoed back at them from all sides.
"Sheesh," Jessie commented. "Like a ghost town."
"There are people here," Arno reasoned. This much was true; the street lanterns were lit, and light shone from many a window, mostly through the cracks of closed curtains. "They're all inside."
"'s like, the most boring place on Earth," MAui felt, clearly in awe. Somewhere ahead of them a hatch slammed shut, its echo bouncing back and forth through the empty street. Subconsciously they all stopped in their tracks and looked at each other.
"Erm..." Dubble said.
"Friendly place," MAui noted.
"Maybe we should just go find some inn or something," Arno offered. Dubble shivered in the cold night air.
"Yeah," she agreed. "This place probably has werewolves or something else nasty." She briefly considered her words, then glanced at Jessie. "No offense."
"Hmpf," she responded. "We can't even ask anyone for directions."
"HELLO NICE PEOPLES!" a voice behind them instantly hollered. "WE'SE, LIKE, LOOKING FOR AN INN!" MAui stood silent, waiting for a reply as her words echoed out of existence.
"Maummy!" Dubble hushed.
"Geez!" Arno groaned. Nevertheless, they waited with baited breath for any reply. It did not come.
"Maybe they didn't hear me," MAui offered bemusedly.
"I think they did," said Dubble. "See? There's all these lights going out now..."
"I think maybe we should go find one ourselves," Arno said. He gave the others an expectant look, waiting for some kind of leadership.
"Er, yeah," Dubble agreed. "With more than two beds."
"Yeah, and cheap," MAui added. "Cuz' we're poor."
An indecisive silence descended upon the little group. They all looked at each other. Finally, Jessie sighed.
"Okay, we... Split up in two groups?" she suggested.
"I'll go with Arno!" Dubble immediately exclaimed, practically dancing joyfully towards him.
"Okay, fine," Jessie responded. "So... We meet back here?"
Dubble nodded enthusiastically. Arno made the sort of grunt of agreement that only a male can make.
"Come on," Dubble shivered, taking the lead. "It's cold." Arno followed, taking one of the horses along.
"Bye were-child! Bye Onar!" MAui yelled after them.
Slowly the two humans moved through the streets. Arno's head swayed from left to right as he took in his surroundings as best as he could. Each of these houses looked like they could be an inn, or a pub, or some other public gathering place. He looked closer for any signs of, well, signs. Then he took note of the shadows. No matter how many lamps were lit in a street, there were always shadows. Long shadows; they were always long for some reason. And always big enough to hide a person...
"Isn't that cold?" he asked, eyeing a shadow large enough to hide at least one large person, or two small ones.
"Huh? Is what cold?" Dubble asked. Arno looked down at her bare feet treading over the cold stone street.
"That," he said with a nod.
"Oh!" she responded. "Nah. It's okay."
"What's wrong with shoes anyway?" Arno wondered at her.
"I just like bare feet," Dubble said happily. "Hey, Arno?"
"Could you please stop looking like we're gonna get mugged?"
Arno caught himself eyeing a street lantern with deep suspicion. He quickly looked away, though managed to sneak in one last glance, just in case.
"Aren't guys supposed to be protecting us girls or something?" Dubble teased. Arno snorted.
"Like any of you need my help," he said, not without some amusement.
"Nuh-huh!" Dubble responded. "You're stronger than me," she pointed out.
"Yeah, but you know magic," Arno reminded her. "So if we're getting mugged I'm gonna hide behind you."
"Is that a good idea?" Dubble asked. "Seeing as that's where half my spells end up."
Arno considered this.
"Fine. I'll stand at a distance then," he amended his plan.
"Oh, you're very gallant," Dubble remarked. She looked up at him. "Come on! You're a whole head bigger than me!"
"Yeah, but you probably have some spell to save us or something anyway."
"Um," Dubble pondered. "Not really. I don't want to learn offensive spells. Mommy says I'm too shy. Well, she doesn't call it shy, but that's what she means I'm sure."
"There must be something you could do, right?" Arno insisted.
"Erm... I can..." Dubble thought hard. "Turn them into kitties?" she decided.
There was a silence that really was a bit too long.
"Well, see?" Arno then spoke encouragingly. "There you go..."
"See why mommy wanted me to practice?" Dubble smiled.
"Yeah," he admitted. "Remind me to thank her for that when we get back?"
Gently Jessie knocked on the door.
"Erm, hellooo!" she yelled, with a barely raised voice.
"Good folk!" MAui added. "Sort off..." They waited in silence.
"Knock again," she suggested after a while. Jessie knocked again, louder this time.
"Well, I think this is technically a pub," she decided after more serious lack of response.
"The people here are not nice," the gargoyle felt. She turned around to survey the street. A few curtains here and there were quickly closed. The light behind one window went out.
"Not like we did anything wrong," Jessie argued at the world at large.
"Maybe the nice peoples are scared of us," MAui reasoned. "Onar says we scare people."
"You maybe," said the anthro-wolf.
"No, like, you too!" MAui explained as if this were an entirely new concept to her. "Cause ye'se hairy and stuff and have all these teeth and big ears..."
Jessie looked at MAui.
"Arno said that?" she asked in a tone of voice that in other situations has been a prelude to daggers, or poison, or cement shoes.
MAui nodded exuberantly.
"Hmpf." Jessie placed her hands on her hips. "Arno's sleeping on the floor tonight," she decided there and then. She stepped back and gave the door one last glare before stepping away from it entirely. MAui followed.
"Not like they'se afraid of us in Sagotha," MAui huffed proudly as the continued their way through the streets of Clelland.
"Yeah!" Jessie agreed, though not too vehemently, remembering her experiences with the poor soldier. "Not like there's just humans in this world anyway."
"Right," MAui remembered. "There's dragons and these... Rabbit-things too, you know."
"Course," the gargoyle continued somewhat thoughtfully, "they kill the human peoples."
"Well, yeah, but we're not rabids!" Jessie stated proudly. "I don't even have the creepy wings!"
"Exactly!" MAui continued, full of righteous indignation. "Not like I have icky fur!"
Jessie breathed in sharply and opened her mouth to speak some more. In the middle of that, her expression froze for a moment, jaws wide open. After a second or two she shut her mouth again and turned her head to look at MAui, who seemed to be going through a somewhat similar experience.
"Well, anyway," she muttered, "He's still sleeping on the floor."
The Wooden Shoe was what the sign said. It was written over the fake aged painted image of a wooden shoe. Under it, in neat, smaller letters, the words bed & breakfast were written.
"Look Arno," Dubble said, pointing at the sign. "You'll feel right at home."
Arno looked at the sign for a moment. Being of Dutch heritage he was naturally expected to enjoy anything even remotely to wooden shoes. To him, though, the image of a wooden shoe was as romantic as that of a muddy boot. Wooden shoes used to be worn in The Netherlands; in these soaked bits of land at the edge of Europe foot-ware that could float and would not sink half a foot onto the ground was no doubt of great importance. That did not make them romantic though; it made them practical, not to mention uncomfortable and ugly.
"Okay," Dubble said, motioning at the door. "You knock." She stepped back to let him do his work.
"We'll need to ask about their prices," the Dutchman remarked, finding no price list on display. He stepped forward, hessitated for a moment with his fist raised, then knocked on the door with short, firm strokes.
They waited. Behind the door they heard some hushed voices, followed by footsteps approaching the door. A bolt was shifted, and Arno stepped back beside Dubble as the door was opened. In the door opening stood a young man, perhaps only 23 years old. He was tall and freckled, and had hair that would not quite fit any description; it was either like a fire alarm, or like a fire.
"Er, hello," Arno greeted.
"Hi," Dubble smiled shyly, raising a meek hand in greeting. "Weary travelers."
The young man's gaze very quickly moved from her smiling face, to her left wing, then to her right wing, and finally back to her face. Arno was deemed worthy of some attention too, only considerably less so.
"Excuse me," he excused himself. The door closed again. Dubble and Arno looked at each other as more hushed discussion ensued.
"Maybe it's cause you didn't shave," Dubble suggested.
"I'd have slit my throat with that knife," Arno excused himself.
The door opened again, this time revealing a smaller, balder man, wearing a semi-clean apron. The young man was standing behind him, watching with great interest.
"Ah!" he proclaimed, stepping back in welcoming fashion. "Weary travelers. Do come in!"
"Thank you," Dubble squeaked. Immediately she hopped off the cold street and into the warm room. A small fire spread a cozy warmth in the open space, which reached up all the way to the thatched roof. Wooden stairs led up to a boardwalk against the far wall. On the other side of the boardwalk another set of stair led up to a second level right under the roof. On each level three doors suggested rooms for rent. The general atmosphere was, well, lovely really.
Dubble swung around, and would have slapped the young red-haired man in the face with a wing had he not leaned back .
"Oh Arno, can we stay here!?" she pleaded.
Arno looked around too.
"What does it cost?" he asked pragmatically. "We really don't have much," he forewarned. The smaller man closed the door and absentmindedly wiped his hands on his apron.
"Oh, we can be very reasonable," he spoke in good-natured fashion. "Roger!" he suddenly exclaimed, startling poor Dubble. "Go make some tea for the weary travelers."
"Er, how reasonable?" Arno asked, not unkindly.
"First let's see you to your rooms, shall we?"
Like a steamroller the innkeeper took charge, ushering them both to the corner of the room and up the first flight of stairs.
"We have two other friends who need a room," Dubble informed him, looking down over the railing into the main room.
"We split up to look for a room, you see," Arno explained. The man stomped across the boardwalk so fast even he with his long legs had to put in some effort to keep up with him.
"Oh, they can stay here too, no problem," he kindly offered.
"They're a bit strange," Arno warned, following the innkeeper with his eyes as he climbed up the second flight of stairs.
"Like your winged friend here!" he yelled down. "'s no problem. We all deserve a good sleep in a good bed, don't we?" His strides thumped back to the other side of the top boardwalk. When Arno climbed up there himself he found the innkeeper was already standing at the far door, picking through the keys on his key chain.
"Well, here it is!" he spoke loudly in Arno's direction. By the time they had caught up with the innkeeper, he had found the desired key and inserted it into the lock of the door.
"You'll get your own key, of course," he assured them as he opened the door. He actually appeared to be out of breath, and sweating slightly. With appropriate dramatics he stepped out of the way to present the room.
Arno stepped into the room, to allow Dubble a look for herself. She followed him in and looked around. The room was small, though well furnished. It contained one bed, a mirror, a single chair, and a wash basin on a cupboard. On the floor a simple rug covered the wooden floor, and there was even a shelf over the bed, though it was currently empty. Above them, a few mere inches over Arno's head, was the thatched roof, running down diagonally towards a far window.
"Like sleeping in the top bunk!" Dubble squealed joyously.
"Yeah," said Arno, turning back to the innkeeper. "We can't all fit in here," he told him.
"Ah, 's no problem sir," the innkeeper said. "I can spare two rooms for one night."
"We can't afford-"
"Free of charge!" the innkeeper added.
"One free room?" Arno asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Ah, the lady's at home already, I see," the innkeeper noted. Drawn by the mirror like a fly to syrup Dubble was currently yanking her slightly wilted flowers from her hair, pinning them back in at strategic places.
"Hee," she beamed.
"So we get one room free?" Arno double-checked.
"Aye sir," the innkeeper assured him. "All deserve a good bed we do."
Double leaned back from the mirror and turned her upper torso to Arno.
"What about the horses?" she asked.
"Er, yeah," Arno repeated. "We have two horses."
"One's outside," Dubble added, taking out a recently moved flower while critically examining her mirror image.
"I'll take care of that right now!" The innkeeper immediately decided. Before either of them could say another word he rushed out and closed the door behind him.
Then he locked it.
Daryl Baggins, innkeeper, after locking the door, leaned back against it and took a deep, nervous breath. Slowly exhaling he dabbed his sweaty forehead with the tip of his apron and dropped his head back against the door.
"Sir?" Roger asked shyly. The innkeeper's head jerked to the left, after which his entire body stumbled to the right in shock. Roger stood surrounded by three rabids. A fourth one was watching from further away. He forced himself to look down, where two more were waiting, one standing on the table and staring straight at him.
"I brought them, sir," Roger said uncertainly.
"Good," the innkeeper said, trying to swallow at the same time. "Good, boy." He nodded tiny little nods.
One of the rabids stepped closer. Terrible creatures, they were. Legs so thick and strong they could carry a giant; grinning mouths so wide they could probably fit it around your head, should they be so merciful to leave it in one piece. That big, neckless head, and those eyes...
The creature stepped closer and stared up at the innkeeper. He pressed himself back against the wall.
"Hey!" A muffled voice came from the other side of the door. "Hey! What's going on!?"
The rabid's head turned and looked at the door, as if to see right through it. Then he looked up at the innkeeper again.
"T-they're in there," he said, aiming a shakey thumb at the door. The creature stared a little bit longer for good measure, then turned around and returned to his comrades.
"There was a matter of a reward!" the innkeeper blurted out in a high-pitched tone of voice. The rabid turned around in due time, as if nothing was said at all. It slowly craned its neck and looked the innkeeper straight in the face.
He pulled back a wing and pointed a claw. It pointed down and back, at the inn's door. It never took its gaze off the innkeeper's face.
"S-sir?" Roger uttered, on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
"Let's, let's go, Roger," the innkeeper said. There was not a part of his body that did not tremble by now. He gingerly stepped forward and edged past the group of rabids, grabbing the young man by the shoulder as he went along. The rabids seemed to have lost interest. As quickly as they could without running, Roger and Mr. Baggins hurried down the stairs and out the door.
"Maybe we should go sleep in a stable or something," MAui suggested dejectedly.
"Sounds cold," Jessie remarked.
"Nuh-uh," MAui corrected her. "They do it every christmas!"
"Uh-huh. And I suppose you'll want to sleep in the crib?"
"No!" MAui quickly asserted. "There'd be... Cows and critters breathing on me. Me and were-child are gonna crash on the floor."
"So I get the crib?" the anthro-wolf asks.
"And where'll Arno be then?"
MAui gave this some careful consideration. After a few seconds, she had decided.
"He can be the ass breathing down yer neck."
"I can't believe this!" Arno exclaimed. He kicked the door, with all his might. Dubble watched him with great interest.
"You know," she ventured, "I think it'd go better if you used the bottom of your foot. Instead of the tip of your toes, I mean."
"I know, I know, I was just trying, you know." Arno lifted his leg and slammed his foot into the door. Actually, a light tap would be a better description. The problem with Arno was, he's too meek. Part of his mind kept telling him that perhaps this is all a mistake, and perhaps this was a rare door, and perhaps, if he would use his full strength, he'd look like a fool if the darn thing stayed closed.
"Come on Arno" Dubble encouraged him. "You break stuff all the time."
"I do not!" he replied indignantly. "There were just a few accidents."
"Like Sagotha's market?"
"That was broken anyway." He stepped back and braced himself. Despite himself, he pulled back his leg and slammed his foot into the door as hard as he could manage. The sheer force, coupled with the unwillingness of the door to budge, sent him flailing his arms and tumbling to the floor with a painful thud.
"You know," he said, looking up at Dubble, "it just occurred to me that this door opens to the inside."
"Oh, yeah," she responded. "I knew that."
Arno pushed himself back on his feet and patted the dust off his back.
"Can't you use magic or something?" he asked.
"Er..." Dubble looked down uncertainly at her hands. "I don't know. Hey, maybe I can pick the lock?"
"Nana taught me to pick locks, remember?" Dubble smiled. Arno sat down on the bed, or rather, dropped down.
"You have a very dysfunctional family, you know that?" he told her as she peered through the keyhole.
"I know," she answered. She carefully sat down on her knees and examined the lock closely. After a while, she said: "You know, I forgot how this works."
"But you said..."
"Yeah, but normally mommy opens the closed doors. Come to think of it, she mostly just blew them up. I complained, cause you know, it wasn't her door..."
"Er," Arno interrupted her, "Do you smell something?" He sniffed a few more times, looking around critically.
"Um..." She sniffed a few times, and frowned. Before she could reply, swift, crunching footsteps ran across the thatched roof above them. They both looked up at the source of the sound as it stopped, for about five seconds, then disappeared past the door.
"I have misgivings," Arno said quietly. He stared silently at the roof, almost with bated breath. Dubble, after some time, turned her attention back to the lock.
"Maybe I can..." she said carefully. She reached back and, wincing slightly, pulled a feather from her left wing. Concentrating deeply, she inserted the sharp end into the lock and fiddled with it.
"Not that it'll work of course," she added. She coughed.
"Dubble?" Arno's voice sounded like it was forced through his windpipe by force. Dubble turned around. Arno stood in the middle of the room, stiff with fear. A faint fog was filling the room; wisps of smoke seeped through the roof all around them.
"EEP!" she exclaimed. Dubble jumped up and backed into Arno, fearfully looking up.
Fire began to emerge through the roof. Here and there smoldering pieces of straw dropped down. One dropped into Arno's hair.
"WAAGH!" He jerked forward, fell over Dubble and hit the floor. This both yanked them from their initial state of shock.
"ARNO!" Dubble shouted at him, flailing her arms wildly, her mind racing, but still catching up. "FIRE!"
He took in a deep breath as he caught up with the situation and promptly coughed it out again.
"Dubble..." He managed between coughs. "... The door..."
"I don't know how!" she squealed.
"Blast it then!"
"That's what mommy did! I just watched!"
She stepped back, smoldering cinders raining down around her. Arno crawled behind her.
"Um. Er. Erm..."
"EEE!" She threw back her arms, squeezed her eyes shut and threw them at thew door. In perhaps only two seconds the floor boards before the door began to sprout twigs and branches, and a quite lovely bush lusciously carrying a myriad of colorful flowers emerged before the door.
"Flowers!?" Arno exclaimed. Cinders dropped into the bush.
"Well I don't know!" Dubble yelled out, crying, "I never asked mommy how she did it!"
"CAUSE YOU DON'T GO ROUND BLOWING UP PEOPLES DOORS!" she screamed back. She coughed violently as she took a deep breath. The bush had by now already caught fire and was burning merrily, blocking the way to the door. Arno still lay with his face close to the floor, where most of the breathable air was.
"The window!" he yelled out. While Dubble dropped to the floor for fresh air, he swiftly crawled towards the window and pushed against the sill in an attempt to open it. Dubble crawled beside him and pulled herself up by the ledge.
"There's no latch!" she found.
Arno looked around. The smoke had become so thick that he could hardly see, let alone breath. At least there was plenty of light; most of it rained down in small fragments. Recognizing a familiar shape, he reached out and grabbed a chair. In a single motion, he stood up and blindly swung it against the window. This disappointed him greatly, as the plan was, in fact, to go through the window, like in the movies. He gave the matter some careful consideration, grabbed the chair around the seat and, supported by his weight, slammed one of the legs into the window. With a slight tinkle the glass shattered into the alley below. Cold fresh air rushed into his face.
"Dubble!" he yelled between coughs as he reached down and grabbed her by the back of her dress, lifting her up into the small space of fresh air. She coughed and wheezed gratefully in the relatively fresh air.
"It's high," she suddenly obeserved.
"You go first!" Arno told her. "You have wings." Using the leg of the chair he swiftly snapped off the sharp remaining shards of glass. Just like in the movies. Then he dropped the chair and lifted her till she was teetering on the windowsill.
"Go on!" with a firm shove he pushed her out the window. Dubble screamed as she dropped down, her descend slowed by the wind under her wings. She gingerly dropped down between the glass shards, narrowly avoiding landing on them with her bare feet, then looked up.
Three rabids stood before her. Two behind her.
And boy did they look excited.
Being two floors up, Arno realized, the drop down could very well kill him. He took a deep breath and turned around to peer through the thick smoke. The heat of the fire already was nearly unbearable as he squinted at the room's furniture.
The idea hit him. He could climb down the bed sheets! Just like in the movies.
He turned his gaze towards the bed.
... Damn movies...
Dubble turned looked back and forth between the rabids, nervously clutching at her stained blue dress.
"Erm... Er... Arno?" she squeaked. Over the roar of the fire she heard no reply. The nearest rabids took a slow, menacing step towards her.
Dubble took a small step back.
It trembled with anticipation. It drooled with delight. It leaned back slightly, preparing to leap at her with ferocious intent...
It was covered completely by a bed sheet dropped from above, which, as it turned out, happened to be ablaze. The rabid screeched in terror and began running around blindly, slamming into the walls several times. The other rabids leapt out of the way as the ball of fire ran past them and out the alley, screaming as it went.
Then they looked up; for one of them just in time to see the bottom of a chair approach at great speed. One of the legs hit it between the eyes and slammed its head into the wall and as it slumped to the floor, Dubble bolted. Two of the remaining creatures gave chase; the third halted and aimed its gaze back at the window above. From it the human hung like dead weight, flat against the wall.
The plan, formulated in Arno's head, had been to bravely leap down and land on top of one of the vile creatures, in the hopes if crushing it under his weight. The flaw had been, of course, that a brave leap required bravery, and so, instead, he found himself dangling from the windowsill of a burning room, muttering 'Damn, damn, damn, damn,' while a rabid patiently waited below. It was licking its teeth and seemed to be enjoying itself immensely.
Just as the two rabids leapt at Dubble she reached the far end of the alley. With their full weight they slammed her down onto the cobblestone road and for a moment there was a flurry of black and white wings and a cacophony of screams and screeches. Before the bundle of bodies even came to a halt, they took off, Dubble's screams drowned out by the triumphant screeches that echoed through the empty, uncaring streets as the creatures carried her away over the rooftops.
A horse came to a galloping halt in front of the burning inn. MAui knocked into Jessie who in turn nearly fell off the horse.
"Dude!" MAui exclaimed, pointing at the building. "It's an inn! And we were looking for one!"
"Look!" Jessie yelled back at her. She thrust a finger at a familiar looking horse, barely more than a silhouette against the blazing inn behind it. Its reigns were tied to a convenient wooden pole, and it yanked at it in blind terror.
"Where's were-child?" MAui wondered, swiftly looking around. Jessie leapt down onto the street and rushed towards the poor creature, unsheathing her sword in the process. Quickly, but with care, she circled the panic-stricken animal as it threw its body away from the fire over and over again. The intense heat slightly singed the fur on her arm. In a single, fluid motion inspired by a tendency to flee quickly if nothing else, she rose her sword over the head and hew right through the reigns. As the horse instantly ran away, so did she, away from the searing heat of the fire.
"I don't see were-child!" MAui yelled down from the anxious horse. "Whoah," she added as it turned away from the fire and carried her further away from the anthro-wolf.
"I'm gonna run around the building!" Jessie yelled up. "You stay here!"
"Erm. Okay." MAui watched Jessie's back as the anthro-wolf took off back towards the building. Only then did she become aware of a slightly familiar sound coming towards her from the sky, barely audible over the roar of the fire. She looked up just in time to see the razor sharp rabid teeth come down on her, glistening in the fire's light.
Arno looked down at the creature below him. For such hyperactive creatures, he was amazed at the patience this one could afford. It just sat there, grinning up at him, which would be nice if the grin wasn't so gleeful and the teeth not so obviously murderous. Of course, it could just jump up and grab him, but apparently that's not half as fun as watching him dangle. Arno quietly reflected on the fact that an amazing amount of people seemed to enjoy seeing him in discomfort. At least such idle thoughts kept his mind off how warm his hands were getting.
Jessie skidded to a halt bumping into the wall of the opposing building as she turned the corner. She saw the rabid. She looked up, and saw Arno. She looked back down and saw the rabid now look at her.
"EEK!" it screeched at her, flaring its wings threateningly.
Jessie raised her sword and hid behind it, bracing herself for attack. The long hair in the back of her neck made a valiant attempt to stand on edge and she found herself trying an intimidating growl.
The rabid braced itself too. Its hair stuck out unevenly from all sides and its lips curled back even further to allow a growl to emerge from the debts of its guts that sounded the most like someone scraping a pit-bull across a blackboard.
Jessie straightened herself and bit her lip.
"He'd better be grateful for a looong time," she muttered.
Like an arrow shot from a bow, she charged at the creature, fiercely swinging her sword. It bounced and scraped off the walls with bright sparks. With a final leap she heaved it over her head and swung down at the rabid.
Panting heavily, she watched it run. If people were going to be intimidated by her, at least she'd get some damn use out of it.
"Jessie?" Arno asked from above. The anthro-wolf looked up into the human's trouser legs.
"Jump!" she advised him.
"I'll catch you!" she spread out her arms and gave him an urgent look.
"Arno! I chased away the scary thing. Jump already!"
"First put the sword away!"
Jessie looked at her sword, still clutched tightly in her right hand.
Jessie sheathed the sword and spread her arms once again. Promptly Arno dropped into her arms like a particularly heavy bag of straw and potatoes. She stumbled back into the wall behind her and dropped him on the floor.
"Ow!" he complained.
"Well, you're heavy!" Jessie complained in return.
"I'm skin and bones!" Arno countered incredulously. "Besides," he added. "You're stronger than me."
MAui rushed into the alley, absentmindedly dragging behind her the remains of what bore some faint resemblance to a rabid. A single wing tumbled straight on and out of sight, in fact, as she turned the corner.
"Pesky vermin," Jessie muttered, helping Arno back up on his feet. "We need a can of Raid or something."
MAui leapt at Arno and threw him to the floor.
"Hey! I just picked him up!"
"Onar! Where's were-child!?" she demanded nervously in a loud tone of voice, shaking him back and forth violently.
"I-I don't know!" he managed. "They took her!"
The gargoyle let go of the human, who dropped back onto the alley's stone floor for a change.
"Dude!" She proclaimed. "We have to... Go save her!"
"Get the horse," Jessie instructed her as she bent down to once again pick Arno off the floor.
"Right!" MAui agreed. "Er, only it ran away."
The full moon shone bright in the evening sky. It was strange, really; when the city was this quiet, it was disconcerting. But in the forest, it was soothing. A calm breeze gently rustled the green leafs through which the moonlight shone in thin straight beams. All was calm, and quiet. One could close ones eyes and imagine nothing was the matter at all.
Jessie sat on the ground, watching her sleeping friends. She sat cross-legged, while leaning her chin on the heft of her sword. It stuck at least a foot deep into the ground. Another breeze blew in her face and gently tugged at her hair, keeping her awake for just a little while longer.
Jessie sat on guard. With her ears open and her eyes mostly closed, she concentrated on her surroundings. In the silence of the night, her hearing could pick up anything. Somewhere to her right a rabbit foraged through the grass. To her left and in front of her a large bird stepped sideways across a branch, invisible behind the thick foliage.
Of course, had anyone wanted to attack them, now would be the perfect opportunity. Sitting cross-legged, this lone guard would never be able to get on her feet in time. With her sword pressed deeper and deeper into the ground over the course of hours, one could hardly call her armed anymore. And yet, through countless of realities countless of heroes, great and small, have sat guard in exactly the same position. Because it is something you just do, when you have a sword; because somewhere, in the deepest levels of subconsciousness, they all know the same basic truth:
it just looks so unbearably cool!
Another cool breeze blew along her snout, tugging at the tufts. Jessie's eyes jerked open, and she quickly looked around.
She forced herself back up on her feet and stretched elaborately. Then she grabbed the heft of her sword with both hands and pulled it out of the ground with a slight grunt that seemed to fill the whole of the silence around her. Dragging it behind her, she wandered over to MAui, where she crouched back down.
"MAui," she whispered, shaking the gargoyle lightly by the shoulder. "Mau..."
"Muaaah?" MAui answered softly. She opened her eyes and looked up over her shoulder, in the anthro-wolf's face.
"Your turn to stand guard," it told her.
MAui rolled on her back and gave Jessie an empty look, as if her mind was still happily off dreaming.
"But it's early," she whined.
"Can't keep my eyes open," Jessie said, half groaning as she sat down on the cold soil. "Besides," she added, "I have ta sleep some time tonight."
"Let Onar do it," MAui decided sleepily. She turned back on her side.
"MAui," Jessie insisted, rolling the gargoyle back towards her by the shoulder. "Come on..."
"Oh alright," MAui gave in. She sat back up, rubbed her eyes, and seemed introspective for a moment.
"Hey Jessie?" she asked.
"How are we gonna safe Dubble? I mean, it's like, on the other side of the world."
Jessie rested her arms on her knees, and her chin on her arms. Like this, she turned her head slightly to eye the human third of their party of three, still sleeping quietly.
"We'd be there in a day if he'd just be a dragon," she grumbled.
"Yeah, but," MAui reminded her, "Onar doesn't want to."
"So? He's gonna run out of pills anyway." Jessie watched him. "I don't see what the big deal is."
"Bah," MAui answered. "Onar's denying his own evilness," she remarked with clear disapproval. Jessie's face turned towards her.
"Evil?" she asked flatly. "Arno?"
MAui nodded. "All dragons are evil," she stated with great certainty. "That's why they're so cool."
Jessie took another long look at the peacefully sleeping human, finishing it off with a wide, elongated yawn.
"No wonder he's so bad at being one then," she finally decided.
"It's fun when he breaks stuff, though," MAui reminisced.
"He doesn't mean to."
"But it's still fun!"
"I suppose," Jessie admitted. "And his manes are nice and fluffy."
"Uh-huh," MAui agreed with increasing enthusiasm. "And he's good fer cleaning cuz' he eats all the garbage."
"You mean, you like put it in his hoard or something?" Jessie guessed, giving the gargoyle and uncertain look.
"No no!" MAui corrected her. "I make him eat it when he's asleep."
Jessie felt too tired to stare incredulously. Instead, she continued on.
"How do you do that then?" she asked.
"Oh, I just throw it all in his mouth," MAui explained with a dismissive hand wave.
"And then he eats it," the anthro-wolf concluded skeptically.
"No," MAui corrected her, "ye have to rub his throat, see?"
"What, and then he eats it?" Jessie turned her head back toward Arno. He would probably be happiest if he were none the wiser about this, she decided there and then.
"Yusyus," MAui said, proud at her inside knowledge. "Then he swallows."
Jessie was silent for a moment.
"Anything?" she wondered incredulously.
"Dunno." MAui said with a short shrug. "Never tried."
Jessie stifled a yawn until she had sheathed her sword.
"I'm gonna pass out now," she said.
"Ye go to sleep," Maui assured her. "MAui'll look after Jessie and Onar."
"There's a comfortable thought," the anthro-wolf mumbled. She crawled on over to the vicinity of the one warm body still sleeping in the grass and curled up as far as she could. In less than a minute, the exhausted anthro-wolf had dozed off.
MAui sat guard. For the first few minutes she watched her friends like a hen guarding her chicks. After a while, though, she wound down and sat back, leaning on her claws. Finally, she got back up on her feet.
As quietly as she could, she stalked on over to the sleeping human. Wings and tail raised high in the air for fear of them giving her away, she knelt down and picked Arno's pockets.
The dragon's castle was huge; at least, Dubble had assumed it was a castle. As they flew in from above she observe see its curious form; it was no more than an enormous square, with a great big center court. As she was dragged through the wide open halls, she discovered that the castle had, in fact, many different levels, and she could imagine that somehow the insides of a beehive would not be entirely dissimilar. The greatest surprise, however, came when the floor abruptly ended. It was as if someone had neatly sliced a chunk out of the building, leaving in its place only a gaping hole. Rickety wooden bridges crossed the gap seemingly randomly, sometimes not even connecting at the same level as where it began. To her right daylight seeped in through the cracks around an enormous wooden door, and below, well, below, past the crowded bridges, below the gliding rabids, was darkness.
She did not have much of a chance to take in her surroundings. After only a moment's pause, her two captors grabbed her by the wrists and leapt down.
"EEEE!" Dubble screamed as they soared past the wooden bridges. And then there was, quite suddenly, ground. She would have stumbled had the rabids not held her so firmly, as the ground slanted downwards at a steep angle. From the base of the door it disappeared into underground depths. There, she saw through the specks of hundreds of flickering torches, was the greatest underground hall she had ever seen. Not that she'd seen many, of course.
"Erm, ow. Hey! Not so fast..." Without pause the rabids dragged her downwards into the depths. The place was full of quiet activity, she could hear. Rabids working frantically, but quietly. It crossed her mind that they would be right under the center court now. And had anyone ever built anything there, it would probably have dropped right into the ground, so it was a good thing they hadn't, all things considered.
As she was dragged deeper down, she became aware of something huge lumbering in the center of the great hall.
"Is this where Argor lives?" she asked, having some grave suspicions of her own.
"ek!" one of the rabids responded curtly.
"Ah," said Dubble. Not that she had actually understood what it had said, but it was always polite to at least acknowledge a reply, she felt.
A figure became visible. Not your average run-of-the-mill figure, but a large one. A huge one, in fact. Looming up in her vision was a great golden dragon, with under it the largest pile of treasure she had ever encountered.
Dutifully, the two rabids took her to the dragon. From the carnivorous looks on the beasts' faces, she deducted that, most likely, he was the only reason why she was still not torn to shreds so they could play with the bits.
Argor watched her approach.
"A human child," he concluded. He slanted his head ever so slightly and observed her critically. For the last few steps, rather than drag her behind them, Dubble's two guards pushed her in front of them, as if using her as some sort of shield. Or perhaps presenting her, as a gift.
Dubble gazed up at the dragon, and caught herself gawking. He did not seem as she suspected. The great golden beast looked down from his mountain of gold with a calm demeanor; in fact, he seemed almost reasonable.
The dragon raised a single claw and extended a talon. Instantly, the two rabids backed away, leaving her to fend for herself. Dubble watched the talon as it slowly came towards her, and it took all her courage to not simply flee. But fleeing would be a bad idea, she feared. They already had her.
Almost gently the talon pressed against her right wing, and stroked its way up to the top. It then moved to the left wing and repeated the process. Dubble watched with fascination and dread.
"Curious," the dragon concluded.
"I... Got them from my mommy," she explained nervously. "As a gift," she added, lest someone might think it had been a hereditary trait.
"Hm..." Argor spoke thoughtfully. He lowered his claw back into the pile of treasure and gazed down at her.
"A human child with wings," he told her. "A wolf that speaks," he then said. "A green winged demon, and finally... The human dragon..."
"That's us," Dubble said, not sure where this was going. "Yes?"
"You are not from here," the dragon said with sudden sharpness in his voice. "Why do you mettle in my affairs?"
"Cuz'... We're crunchy and we taste good with ketchup?" Dubble gave the baffled dragon a shy smile. "Sorry, that's a joke."
"There is nothing humorous about the situation," Argor said.
"Oh, I know," Dubble hastened to assure him. "This sucks."
Argor's face came closer. Dubble leaned back, as if this would make much of a difference.
"How do humans change into dragons!?" he snarled at her, making a big show of bearing his teeth.
"Er..." Dubble dropped on her butt. "That's... Well... We're not sure."
The great dragon pulled its head back again and watched the girl intently.
"I mean, erm..." Dubble explained. "Well, you see, there's this other dragon, you know. Beedoo!..."
"Yes?" Argor asked patiently.
"And, well, she made him drink something as a joke, only it went wrong and she turned him into a whopping big dragon..."
"A gift, from another dragon?"
"Er... I suppose," Dubble replied, considering this particular interpretation of events. "It was more like a practical joke, really," she added. She took note of the look on the dragon's face. She was used to that.
"You don't know Beedoo!," she said with an encouraging little smile.
Argor said nothing. He simply stared at her with morbid fascination.
"Er, anyway, she... She gives him this medication now so he can stay human. Only when he doesn't take it he... Well... Yeah... Could you stop staring at me like that please? I'm feeling a little nervous."
The dragon lowered his head and looked pensively at his hoard. One claw absentmindedly ran through it, picking up a fortune in valuables and letting them drop out in small amounts, producing a pleasing tinkling sound.
"And now the human dragon has come to destroy me..." he mused darkly.
"Er, he didn't, really," Dubble ventured. The dragon looked up at her again, or rather, down at her again.
"Then why did you come?" he demanded. There seemed to be a slight sense of exasperation in the great beast's voice.
"Oh, well, that's kind of my fault I suppose," she admitted shyly. The dragon slanted its head at her.
"You see, erm, mommy gave me this medallion and then I accidentally zapped us here with it and then I lost it," she summarized their predicament.
The dragon's head rose. It seemed some sort of realization came over him.
"Human child," he asked, "where do you believe it can be found?"
"Erm..." Dubble pointed a careful finger at the gigantic pile of treasure. "In there?" she tried.
Argor closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. It seemed that, just for a moment, there was a short flash of teeth, but other than that, he remained entirely calm.
"It's funny really, isn't it?" Dubble remarked, forgetting herself for a moment. "I mean, here you were thinking we started it but if your rabids hadn't attacked us..." she stopped the very moment the dragon opened its eyes and looked ahead of him. It was also funny, she noticed, how the busy silence of dozens of rabids around her had sort of become a silent silence. It seemed to linger for ages, in fact.
"Human child," Argor sighed, before turning his head down to look at her. "Find your medallion," he conceded.
"Er, what, you mean like, in there?" Dubble asked, looking uncertainly at the huge pile under the dragon.
Argor gave her a slow, regal nod.
"Okay," Dubble agreed, in a tone of voice that suggested she did not have much faith in her chances. Without taking her eyes off the enormous creature, she sat down before it and reached out to pick up the first piece. It was, she found, a silver pot. She put it aside and looked up at the dragon again. He was looking at a distant rabid.
"You," he ordered, "watch her. Feed her."
Argor let out a deep sigh and lowered his head onto his hoard, staring darkly into the distance as the rabid approached.
"Humans should not have the gift of being dragon," he complained, seemingly to himself.
"I... Think Arno'd agree with you," Dubble comforted the dragon with a careful smile
"The noble blood and strength of a dragon for so base a creature," he continued. It began to occur to Dubble that perhaps Argor was afraid of Arno the dragon. She would not push her luck, though.
"You really haven't met Beedoo!," she said instead, meanwhile trying to untangle a clump of gold, silver and bronze entangled in a long, twisted silver necklace. She gave it to the rabid guard that had by now joined her at her side.
"Here, can you untangle this?" she asked kindly as she reached for the next bit of jewelry.
It probably was a good thing Argor didn't know Arno the way she did, she thought. Then he'd know that being afraid of Arno was like being afraid of a little puppy.
Arno sat down before the largest tree in the surroundings. Gently he reached out for the tree's trunk and clutched his claws around it. Then he shook it, gingerly at first, but then more violently.
It was amazing the amount of animals that lived in the foliage of a single tree, he had discovered long ago. Well, they'd have to get out now. At least eight birds flew away, screaming bloody murder. Two squirrels ran down the trunk and paused fearfully before the dragon's mighty claws. Arno let go and watched the little creatures flee in terror.
With the tree evacuated, he opened his mighty jaws. Huge sharp teeth snapped down around two branches under the foliage. He pulled his head back and in doing so tore some of the bark and every last leaf off the branches, all the way from the base of the branches to the very ends of their twigs. Then he chewed, slowly, on his mouth full of leaves.
"Onar's a sick dragon," MAui noted, sitting at a campfire at some distance.
"Can't be healthy, no," Jessie agreed. "Aren't dragons carnivores?"
"Mostly," MAui said, chewing on a mouth full of half-roasted flesh. "He probably goes around stealing cattle when we'se not looking or something."
"Then why bother being a vegetarian dragon?" Jessie complained. "Not like it's even possible, and we haven't had a nice green garden since he became one."
"Bah," the gargoyle said. "Like, we'se eating meat!"
"Yeah!" Jessie agreed. She sank her teeth at the clump of roasted flesh in her hands and tore another strip off the bone. "Mwhat if it amyway?" she asked, chewing on her lunch. "'s good."
MAui perked up.
"You know what's weird!?" she replied. "People always say 'this is yummy MAui, what is it?' and then I tell them and they go 'Eeeew! I don't want it anymore.'" She took another big bite and chewed happily. "And then I eat it myself..."
"Er..." the anthro-wolf said, staring down at her lunch. "Never mind then..."
Meanwhile Arno forced down another mouthful of leaves. It was hard. It was always hard. Eating grass and leaves would be difficult for a human, but as a dragon these meals generally went against every instinct that was coursing through his dragon body. Still, what alternative did he have? Occasionally, at night, when no one was watching, he would sneak towards some herd of cows he had found earlier, and the next morning the farmer would find there were less than there were when he went to bed. And that is where he drew the line. Arno felt bad enough about that already; he felt bad for the cows, and he felt bad for the farmer, but he just couldn't help himself. He was not proud of it, but he did always take care to pick what he thought would be the worst specimen of the herd. At least, those times when he could manage to control himself anyway. And he told himself that the farmer wouldn't miss this cow, and that that particular cow probably wouldn't mind being mauled as much as the other cows would...
He wondered how much a cow would be missed anyway. How much could a cow cost? After all, it just stands there and moos. Grass goes in, it's not like grass is in short supply, so they can't cost much in the upkeep. Perhaps these farmers never even noticed they missed the occasional cow. The dragon found himself wondering about the farmers.
Like, what would they taste like?
Arno paused. He gave the tree a doleful look, then attacked it again, stripping it of even more of its leaves and bark. What alternative did he have, after all? He chewed slowly and swallowed.
And so, hours passed. As the remaining trio headed for the mountains, Dubble searched...
Argor's eyelid twitched.
Random muscles under the mighty dragon's golden skin twitched.
A lot is said about dragons and their hoards. It is claimed they sleep on it, which would, in Argor's case, be true were he able to sleep at all. It is said they guard it jealously which, by and large, is also true. The implication is also that they do so to the death; preferably someone else's.
This is a falsehood.
Most dragons are capable of rational thought. They can understand morality, and the true value of their hoard in relation to it, if they really want to. But even moral issues aside, the days where a dragon could simply maul anything that touched their stuff are long gone, if they ever even existed at all. If you kill someone, there will be consequences. Consequences that may not be worth paying.
But the twitch is still there. It is always there.
He had always been a rational creature, Argor. It got him where he was this day, practically on the throne of his own kingdom. A combination of terror, consistency and patience had made him the undisputed ruler of the humans' minds. The humans may have had their own leaders, but they all knew where the power was. Argor did not lead them, he owned them.
But now these others were here. Not even human, for the most part.
Argor was being rational about that too. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose in a fight with this little group. Already they had cost him dearly in rabids; the merest eeked mention of the green one seemed to suffice to send a collective shudder up the castle and back down again.
But she did not concern him. Not really. Her he knew he could handle. The human dragon though... Up until now the thought that any human could be capable of challenging him had seemed ludicrous at best. Up until now...
But what would he have amounted to if he had allowed himself to be led by emotions and pride? He had always been in control. Ask any human... No, this matter would be predictably resolved when the-
-when the bloody human child finds her bloody trinket!
He squeezed his eyelids shut and gritted his massive teeth. Regally, of course. Rather than the expected following clink, there was a slight metallic rattle, and perhaps a tinkle, followed by a few moments of silence.
Ah, she must have-
"Hee!" the human child squealed joyously. "I feel pretty for once!"
Argor opened his eyes. He turned his head, his precious hoard tinkling under the shifting weight, and saw something that practically froze his heart.
That the human child would of course have been trying on half the trinkets she found came as a belated realization, one of those moments where you realize you knew this would happen, you just didn't know it yet.
That the rabid would join her was, however, rather more disconcerting.
Argor twitched out of his initial shock. He bore his teeth and growled ferociously.
"EEP!" the human child exclaimed. She stumbled back, though not quite as far as the rabid did. Crowns, large bracelets, necklaces, they clattered onto the floor, a trail like and accusing talon pointing at the guilty parties.
"Um. Morning." The human child wrung her hands and smiled up at him, her wings hovering protectively over her head. "Did... We wake you?"
Argor brought his lips back together and shot the human a warning look. First, he dealt with her guard. He looked at the creature and narrowed his eyes. It seemed to him that he had just located his next meal.
The rabid seemed to pick up on the message. Hastily throwing off his master's possessions, it eeked out a suggestion. Argor listened to it thoughtfully, then turned his gaze back to the human child, who meekly removed one remaining diadem from her hair. Of course, who knew what she was hiding under all that.
"No," he spoke slowly. "I would think I wouldn't want feathers stuck between my teeth."
"Er... Sorry?" Dubble tried. Argor followed her with his gaze as she kneeled down and quietly picked up all the things to place them back onto the enormous pile.
"But that's what they're for, you know," she said kindly.
"They are to stay on the pile," Argor articulated very clearly.
"Bah," she muttered under her breath. "Shinypretties."
Argor shot her a sharp look.
"Oh, erm... Shinypretties," she repeated, more cheerfully this time. "It's, erm, it's a word I learned from auntie Beedoo!."
"Auntie?" Argor wondered to himself.
"'s just the name of everything that's shiny and sparkly. She collects them too."
Argor raised his head proudly and looked down on the little human child. Disdain practically dripped down all around her.
"Do you think that is what this is for?" he asked, rather rhetorically. He smirked at her and came closer. "No, human child," he said, "You must understand, I know what drives you humans. Wealth drives you. Whoever holds wealth, holds power. This is power."
He lowered himself back onto his hoard with a satisfied smile.
"Um, but, isn't wealth only power when you spend it?" The human child asked innocently. "I mean," she continued in Argor's silence, "It's a really big pile and all but it's only lying here doing nothing..."
"Many humans would give another human's life for wealth like this," Argor answered, narrowing his eyes at the uncooperative little creature.
"Yeah, but..." she answered, every so respectfully, "When they have it they don't go sit on it in a cellar or something, really." She sounded almost apologetic about it.
Argor could not help himself any longer.
"Among this hoard," he snarled, "are many items of magic, not merely your own. Their combined power would go beyond the furthest reaches of your human imagination..."
He watched her quietly, measuring her reaction.
"And... You're lying on them..." she said, as if trying to grasp the point he was trying to make.
Argor growled a deep sigh before resting his head back down onto the layer of bronze, silver and gold. He would never have gotten where he was today if he had allowed himself to be led by emotions and pride.
"Find your medallion," he muttered as he closed his eyes.
Clink... Sounded the familiar sound.
The large orange evening sun cast a bright orange glow over a small, seemingly nameless village. As carefully as he could possibly manage, Arno stepped through its widest street, carefully planting his large claws where he hoped they would do the least damage. This did, in fact, take up so much of his concentration that he had yet to notice how his wings tore the occasional string if shingles from the rooftops.
MAui and Jessie led the way in front of him, stretching their legs at a safe distance. As they walked, they peered through the dust-encrusted windows of the deserted houses.
"Everyone left?" MAui wondered.
"Seems like it," Jessie said. "This is giving me the creeps..."
"Maybe they saw us coming and ran," Arno suggested. He lowered his head and helpfully looked through a dirty window. Had anyone been there, they would almost certainly have had a heart attack from the sight of a giant eyeball behind the window.
"Nah," Jessie said. "This place isn't even on the map anymore."
Arno raised a front claw and licked a talon with an intent to clean the window.
"Dude, this is freaky!" MAui proclaimed loudly. "We haven't seen anyone since like noon or something."
Behind her there was the tinkle of broken glass.
"Whoops," said Arno.
"Yeah, creepy," Jessie agreed. "Notice how everything seems more quiet?"
"You mean with the birds not tweeting and the cows not frolicking and stuff?"
By unspoken consensus all three fell silent and listened. Arno's ears visibly perked up, though his head stayed down. There where precious few sounds around them, really. There was wind, a cool evening breeze. And the grating sound of scraping glass as Arno surreptitiously tried to remove the remains of the broken window.
There was not much tweeting of birds, and certainly no frolicking of cows. Some distance away, though, two crows screamed at each other as they took off into the skies.
But there was mostly silence.
"'tis a ghost town..." MAui summarised.
A few hours later the sun had set, and under a cold blanket of stars the great black dragon lay curled up peacefully in the village square, its great wings draped over the rooftops. MAui and Jessie slept somewhere inside, in abandoned beds in an abandoned house at a safe distance from their massive and, so they had to admit, rather dangerously clumsy friend.
Silence lay draped over the village like a thick blanket. One that was slowly but surely torn high above, where large dark grey wings cut through the night air like knifes. Stealthily the assembling swarm of rabids circled over the village. The last few joined, circling the outer edges of the swarm as they too picked their targets, and then the swarm broke up and tore the silence to shreds. In an explosion of shrieks they hailed down on the village.
Jessie jerked up from an uneasy sleep.
"Whowah!?" she exclaimed. Suddenly rotten splinters exploded around her as a rabid crashed through the roof and straight further down through the wooden floor. In a blur she liberated herself from her cocoon of old blankets and randomly searched for her sword in the half dark. The piercing shrieks soaring down onto the village as the rabids crashed through the houses beat on her sensitive eardrums, until even those sounds were dwarfed by an unnerved scream that could probably be heard from two miles away. It narrowly drowned out the screeches coming from below. Clearly, Arno had woken up too.
"Damnit!" she exclaimed in extreme frustration. She stumbled around and promptly tripped over her sword, just as MAui burst into her room.
"They'se below!" she informed the anthro-wolf. She spotted the holes in floor and roof. "Oh. You know."
Jessie winced as she got back up on her feet, her sword in one hand, while she had her free arm wrapped around her sensitive ears as best she could.
"Why aren't they coming up here!?" she yelled out.
"Dunno!" MAui answered. "Maybe they don't like being maimed, like Onar..."
Jessie peered down the hole in the floor, at the assembling mass of rabids below.
"Must be," she said. "We have to get out of here!" The shrieks outside had died down to an almost bearable level, at least. She carefully removed her arm from around her head, tucked her sword under her belt and turned her gaze to the hole in the roof.
The anthro-wolf leapt up and swiftly hoisted herself through the hole onto the roof.
When MAui climbed out after her, Jessie already stood with her sword drawn, surveying their surroundings. The streets were littered with rabbits which seemed to be tearing the place apart. The rooftops looked like Swiss cheese, and here and there sagged dangerously.
"Hey, where's Onar!?" MAui wondered.
MAui turned to see the great dragon Arno rampaging through the village, covered in rabids as if they were leaches, one even hanging from his ear by the teeth. It was actually a rather interesting sight to see Arno rampage. It had to be said that he rampaged very carefully. In fact, he pretty much stayed within the streets, neatly slowing down at every corner and generally taking great care not to step on anything. The pathetic 130-decibel whimper was merely the icing on the cake.
MAui slapped a claw against her face and shook her head.
"Good grief..." she said, before taking a deep breath. "HEY ONAR!" she yelled out through cupped claws. Then she watched with satisfaction and approval as the great dragon looked over his shoulder, missed the next turn and plowed into the opposing building, rabid and all. He disappeared from sight as he promptly tripped to the ground, and only a trail of rising cement dust betrayed his location as he apparently tripped through several more homes before sliding to a complete halt.
"I wonder if we should have him insured," Jessie idly wondered, watching the sides of the rooftop, sword at the ready.
Rubble tumbled off Arno's beak as his perplexed face rose up from behind a building that was actually still standing.
"OOOOONAAAAAR!" MAui yelled at him, waving enthusiastically. The great dragon shook his head clear and leapt back into the streets to race towards them. Rabids scattered into the air before him like oversized pigeons. At the last moment he dug his claws into the road, dug up long thick strips of cobblestones as he skid around and came to a halt with his side pressed firmly against the side of the house. The wall cracked.
"I think we have got to get out of here!" he panted down at them. It was something to say. MAui instantly leapt up onto his beak and then on into his manes.
"Good Onar," she said as she patted him between the eyes.
"Let's go already!" Jessie yelled up, clambering up the manes along the dragon's neck.
"Erm, er, where?" he asked nervously, turning his head back and forth indecisively. Jessie clutched the manes as hard as she could as she was swung around in opposite directions.
"ARGH! Just GO ALREADY!"
It had often been observed by Arno's friends, and even by random bystanders, that his mental abilities somehow seemed to suffer from being the size of a small Jumbo Jet. Not that he was stupid; he was merely slow to catch up on seemingly everything. The best guess they could venture was that his brain had grown to such enormous size to fill his head that it took much longer for one thought to reach its destination. Luckily, the worst of it seemed to fade away after a little while. Until then, though, one would have to be prepared to hold the dragon's proverbial claw from time to time.
"Thataway!" MAui decided, leaning forward over the dragon's forehead and stretching out an arm in the direction of the mountains.
"Right," Arno confirmed. He leaned back, braced himself, and launched himself through the streets of the nameless village.
"WEEEEEEE!" MAui cheered, clutching the manes tightly as she rode the dragon. Jessie climbed up beside her, panting desperately.
"He's gonna kill us before the rabids do," she complained.
"Bah, this is fun!" MAui felt. "Hey Onar!" she yelled at the dragon's ear beside her. "Run through a house!"
"They're catching up!"
Arno looked back over his shoulder as he thundered through the landscape, veering slightly to the right as he did so. They had already left the village behind them; it was hidden behind a thick flock of rabids soaring low over the ground in pursuit.
"Arno! Watch where you're going will ya!"
"They'se fast!" MAui observed, already flexing her talons.
"Yeah. Go faster Arno!"
"C'moooooon!" Jessie tugged at the manes in her hand in a nervous panic.
Arno gritted his teeth and looked down at the ground zipping past under his thundering feet. After taking in a sharp breath he gave everything he had and hoped nothing would stand in his way, because he certainly wasn't looking where he was going anymore.
Something in the corner of Jessie's eye drew her attention. She turned her head and looked straight into the murderous grin of a rabid, coming up along the side.
In a single reflexive motion the anthro-wolf reached for her sword, pulled it from its scabbard and lashed out. Long bits of mane flying in her face suggested that she missed her target and gave Arno a free haircut instead.
"Stupid, STUPID rabids!" she complained loudly.
"Muah!" MAui's battle cry rung simultaneously as she reached up and plucked another passing rabid from the sky by the tail.
"ARNO!" Jessie yelled. Long strands of greyish white hair blew into her mouth. "DO SOMETHING!" She forced out before she gagged.
"What!?" The dragon yelled back, still concentrating solely on running.
"Well you're a big dragon!" she yelled back at him through clenched teeth. "THINK OF SOMETHING!" As she screamed out the words she took another swipe at the creature by her side. She missed again, rolled on her back and barely managed to grab hold of a pluck of manes with her free hand, bouncing up and down on the dragon's neck with her back.
"WHAT!?" Arno screamed back, entirely drowning out her startled scream. A high-pitched shriek rung in Jessie's ear as MAui settled down to meticulously dissect her prey, and facing back now, the anthro-wolf had a perfect view of the swarm of rabids coming up behind them. In fact, she could see the white of their teeth.
The dragon's huge black wings twitched as he yelled it out. Then they shot out, obscuring their surroundings almost entirely as they unfurled themselves high up into the air. For a fraction of a second he slowed down sharply and all around them rabids shot past like furry bullets; then they took off, up into the night sky.
"Wooh!" Maui exclaimed "Go Onar!" She held on tightly to her screaming prize as the world seemed to tilt. A sharp, freezing wind blew past them and through Jessie's clothes as she slowly began to lose her grip. Now she had a good view of the ground below as it dropped away from them at an alarming rate. With her one hand she held on so tightly that it hurt.
Beside her hung the unfortunate rabid, desperately clawing at the dragon's neck for freedom. For a moment they both looked at each other, each with the fear of death in their eyes, before going back to their own problem.
Just as Jessie's hand slipped towards the end of the pluck of hair, the world tilted back into place, only a lot lower. She did not waste any time. Quickly she swung her other hand over her head and grabbed as much mane as she could while still holding her sword.
"Oh yes Arno!" She yelled up with an uneven voice. "This is much better!"
"Don't complain," he answered with a tight voice. "You're not afraid of heights..."
With all the strength left in her body she pulled herself back up alongside MAui, panting heavily. Under her fur she was probably as pale as a sheet. She took some quiet time for herself to calm down, while wordlessly looking at MAui and the unfortunate rabid, still hopelessly caught by the tail.
"You gonna keep that?" the anthro-wolf asked.
"Hmm," MAui pondered, "Think it'd make a neat pet?"
"Aw, yer no fun. Hey, is Onar really afraid of heights?"
Jessie leaned over the side, holding on tightly, and looked down. The dragon's legs randomly kicked the air, as if trying to run on it by sheer force of will.
"Afraid so," she said.
The ground was a long way down now, and in between them and it she spotted small, fluttering specks moving up towards them.
"Erm," she said. "Arno? They're still coming."
"I know," the dragon said.
"Well!? What are you gonna do about it!?"
"I don't know," the dragon said.
Jessie stared quietly at the top of Arno's head. He couldn't be that forgetful.
"I think fire-breathing would help us a lot right now," she suggested.
"Yeah Onar!" MAui chimed in. "Flame them!"
"Er..." said Arno.
"Oh come on Arno!" she yelled at his ear, making wild gestures with her sword. "They're rabids! They're going to kill us!"
"Well, yeah," he answered uncertainly. "But they're still sentient beings. Sort of..."
"They'se really fast, aren't they?" Maui casually remarked, looking down past the dragon's neck.
"Sentient KILLER beings," Jessie corrected the dragon. "Aw come on Arno. Fry them!"
"No, I really shouldn't..."
"Onar," MAui said reasonably, "They'se stolen were-child."
"Er... Well..." Arno looked down uncertainly. And just as he did so, dozens of rabids rose up beside them, grinning menacingly in the pale moonlight.
"Argh!" Jessie exclaimed.
"Hey! We'se not done yet!" MAui yelled at them. Remembering her unfortunate new pet she swung it over the head by the tail and slammed it down onto the nearest rabid. As it toppled back down towards the ground, the rest closed in for attack.
"Er, guys?" Arno warned nervously.
"Yes arno, we know." Jessie raised her sword and fiercely swung it back and forth. "Stay back! Back I say!" she yelled at the rabids. "Back! I've got a sword here!"
"Yus!" MAui backed her up. "And I'se got a rabbit!" She fearsomely flung the poor creature around over her head, which seemed to be quite an effective deterent for the moment. The unfortunate creature shrieked and wailed, flapping its wings as fast as it could.
And then it escaped.
It broke free and randomly dove onto Arno's head.
"Hey yer mine!" MAui yelled as she ran after it. Blatantly disobeying her it scratched its way across the dragons beak and dove off at the end.
"Agh!" Arno yelled.
"Come here!" MAui exclaimed. She leapt after the rabid and was promptly blown back into Arno's face.
"AAH!" he exclaimed as a pair of green wings obscured his sight completely.
"Ow," she complained.
Almost instantly the dragon's flight began to falter. Actually, it did not falter so much as it simply broke off. Wings and legs flailing with little or no coordination, the dragon almost immediately broke off into a steep descend.
"Ah! Hey!" Jessie barely managed to keep her balance as she found her dragon ride soaring back towards the ground.
"Get off! Get off!" Arno yelled.
"Onar! Like, go up!" MAui told him, pressed tightly against his face by the wind.
"I can't see!" the dragon panicked.
Above, the swarm of rabids flew around in collective confusion. Had this been a strategy, it would have been a brilliant one as it left their collective minds in utter confusion about just what was going on.
Still, when confused, do as you always do. The rabids eeked out their battle cries and dove after the fleeing dragon.
Jessie pulled herself down until she could see over the dragon's head.
"Why're we going down!?" she exclaimed in MAui's face. Taking a second to take in the situation, she answered the question for herself. "Oh."
"Hey Onar," MAui asked conversationally, "Ye know the rabits are falling after us, right?" She pushed herself away from the dragon's forehead.
"Onar?" she asked. She looked him in the eyes and stared, for just a few moments. She cocked her head, and then her eyes widened.
"Abandon Onar!" she exclaimed. She pushed herself up and shot up along the back of the dragon, grabbing Jessie as she passed.
Inside Arno's head, the following went on:
The moment he had woken up, his mind tried to work out what was going on and why. Thoughts shot back and forth from one side of his brain to the other. And as events unfolded, they piled up on each other. Fear for his life, fear for his friends, fear of heights, fear of ghastly little creatures with jaws like can openers and even moral dilemmas all jammed up his rational thinking. And then, when he started falling, with the ground coming towards him on one side and the rabids on the other, his mind gave way and he panicked.
The mind he was using was never intended to carry human thought. It sought desperately to reassert itself from under the jumbled mess of human thoughts and fears.
Fortunately, there were thoughts this mind could handle, very well even.
MAui had only just snatched Jessie from Arno's manes when the dragon's mind snapped back into action. Before him the ground came up at him at great speed. Behind him sounded the aggressive shrieks of possibly hundreds of angry rabids. The situation, of course, seemed quite clear.
Arno spread his wings wide. He caught the wind head on, and adjusted them slightly for a more horizontal descent. As the rabids followed, he took a deep breath, swung around on his back and pulled back his head.
He threw it forward and blasted out a sea of flames that would melt rock. The nearest rabids never even stood a chance as the flames shot through the entire scattering swarm all the way to the back. Instant panic broke out among the survivors; they scattered in all directions, dropping to the ground or soaring high up into the air screaming bloody murder. Then they fled, with their lives still intact.
The great black dragon braced himself just in time as his back impacted with the ground. Several trees were crushed under his weight, breaking his fall, he bounced up one time, came down again and slid to an eventual halt at the end of a trail of devastation.
At a distance, a gargoyle and an anthro-wolf stood watching the final results.
"Holy crap," Jessie said.
"Dude, I didn't know you could singe air!"
Arno's eyes were closed as he lay motionlessly on the ground. Though he did not see his friends, he could hear them just fine.
Footsteps around his head.
"... This one's closed too!"
"Hey MAui. How'd you know he would do that?"
"Oh, 'twas in his eyes."
"Yus. They were evil eyes. He went, like, snap!"
"Cuz dragons are evil remember?"
"Frying rabids isn't evil!"
"'s not what Onar says tho. Good evil Onar."
A few pats on his shoulder.
"I suppose we'd better keep going now. Only, er... MAui?"
"Do you know anything about dragon fetusses?"
"Er... Dunno. They're in these big eggs. Why?"
"Just wondering if this is what a dragon's fetal position is..."
The dragon's castle, while at the foot of a mountain, stood near the edge of a small chasm. Chasms don't need to be deep, really. They do not need to be bottomless pits, they do not need crocodile infested rapids at the bottom, and they don't even need to be all that steep. There is really only one thing a chasm needs to be: hard at the bottom. The castle stood near the edge of just such a chasm. If it was not poetic, it was at least pragmatic.
A pair of shifty eyes peeked over the edge of said chasm. They were set in a green face, and located under blond, curly hair. They surveyed the castle, in all its immensity.
"'tis... Huge..." MAui whispered.
"What is?" Jessie's voice whispered back from somewhere below. "I can't see..."
MAui looked down.
"Onar," she whispered, "a bit higher."
Now Jessie's eyes too came into view.
"I hate being small," she grumbled. Then she set eyes on the enormous building before her. "Alright, now I really hate being small," she said.
"What is it?" a rather loud voice whispered from below. "What do you see?"
"Ssssh!" MAui urged down.
"Yeah, quiet Arno," Jessie said almost absentmindedly, still gazing at the great castle.
"And keep yer head still," MAui added, wobbling slightly.
"Right, right, but what do you see?" Arno asked, as quietly as he could.
"A castle," Jessie said.
"Dragons live in castles?"
"Apparently this one does."
"I thought that he'd, like, live inna big cave or something," MAui admitted.
"I thought you knew everything about dragons," Jessie said.
"Yeah, but, they never took me home with them," said MAui. "Probably cuz' they didn't want me stealing from their hoard."
"You'd steal from a dragon?" the anthro-wolf asked incredulously.
"I steal from Onar, right?"
"What?" the ground under their feet asked.
"What do you mean nothing? What did you steal from me?"
"Onar, keep yer head still!"
"She stole your pills," Jessie said, since he had rather more moral grounding than her green friend. "Well, he was going to figure it out anyway," she defended herself to MAui.
"What!? Well give them back!" their footing whispered irately.
"They'se mine!" MAui said defensively. "I stole them fair and square."
"Now look what you've done," Jessie scolded as she crouched down on her knees. "You've made him mad."
"Pfft." MAui crossed her arms and leaned back against the chasm wall. "Onar's always mad at me. Cuz he never likes my maiming and stealing stuff."
Jessie meanwhile carefully slid down onto the dragon's beak. She crawled near the end and turned around to look Arno in the eye. Literally in the eye, in fact, as she failed to look at both at the same time.
"Come on Arno," she said. "I'll make MAui give your pills back afterwards."
"You knew about this?" Arno asked, clearly hurt.
"Well..." Jessie squirmed slightly. "You just made such a good ride," she said encouragingly.
"I want them back," Arno stated. The eye narrowed at her. So did the other one, incidentally.
"Aw come on Arno..."
"I'm human." Jessie bopped up and down on the dragon's beak while he spoke. "I want to be human."
MAui dropped on her knees and peeked her head through the space between two of the six horns protruding from the dragon's brow ridges, rather like a fan. She leaned forward to look him in the other eye.
"Yer a dragon, Onar!" she said. "Just... Look in a mirror!"
"No, I'm, well, I look like one now, but..."
"Arno, you're a dragon," Jessie said reasonably. "And... Look, we have a plan, right?"
The dragon sighed an already defeated sigh.
"Yes," he said testily.
"Would you rather be a dragon or a naked human in this plan?" she asked.
Arno inhaled deeply and rolled his eyes to look away.
"Onar's naked now too, you know," MAui contributed. Jessie petted the dragon on the beak.
"Look, you do this and we'll give you a big salad afterwards, okay?" she said in a tone and type of reasoning usually employed for unhappy children.
"And..." Arno started.
"And your pills."
Arno stayed silent for a moment. For show, really.
"Alright," he muttered.
"There ya go," Jessie said with a smile.
"Yay!" MAui cheered. "Is Onar gonna massacre something again?"
"Boo!" the gargoyle promptly changed her disposition. "Ah well..."
On the parapets of the castle, or the lumps that passed for them anyway, dozens of rabids stood guard. It had not been like this for a long time; only two days earlier one would have soon only three or four guards at most. Most likely it would also have been the last thing one would have seen. Now there were dozens, spent up there to spot any suspicious activity, to take note of the smallest details around them and sound alarm when anything seemed amiss.
Just then, such a detail presented itself:
first there was a slightly familiar flapping sound, then a gentle rushing of air, coupled with the view of the massive body of a great black dragon rushing up into the air from behind the ledge.
The rabids took note.
They screamed and shrieked their alarm as the great dragon soared towards them. As he flew between the four towers the rabid guards scattered like, well, rabbits, desperately trying to escape the deadly claws of a bird of prey. Some of them scattered as far as beyond the ledge, or up nearby deadly slopes; they fled.
Meanwhile, Arno banked sharply in the air for a second run on the castle, while the panicked alarm made its way from the top of the castle to its very foundations. Rabids shrieked in fear. Some ran for the great door, behind which the mighty Argor lay to protect them. Others were more pragmatic and leapt out the windows to take wing, putting as much distance between themselves and the castle as they could. Still others merely stood or ran around, with no idea where to go but their own home, where they already were.
The rabid eeks echoed through the building from top to bottom, from front to back and from left to right. It drowned out all other sounds, and all reason with it.
Argor perked up and growled at the sudden burst of hysteria.
"Silence!" he boomed. This seemed to have a momentary effect on the frightened masses. The momentum of panic, however, was too strong. When everyone else panics, do you want to be the odd one out?
"SILENCE!" the dragon roared. Without waiting for any effects he immediately turned his head sharply towards Dubble, who was looking around with a perplexed look on her face.
"Did you find your medallion!?" he demanded.
"Er, no!" she squealed, shaking her head. "No, really! I tried but its so much and it wasn't easy on account of you lying on it and-"
A loud boom shook the castle on its foundations. Not much, granted, but still, it shook. Tiny bits of stone and dust came drifting and falling down from the ceiling. Argor glared up at the roof and bore his teeth prominently at it.
"How DARE he!?" he roared.
"How could he not miss that tower?" Jessie wondered. Peeking over the edge of the chasm she watched with MAui as Arno peeled himself off the nearest tower on the right.
"Bah, he's Onar," MAui dismissed the question. She had something else on her mind.
"All the yummie rabbits are leaving," she pouted.
"Enough!" Argor decided. He stood up sharply and raised on his hind legs, standing crouched under the roof of his lair. His hind claws sank deep into the pile of valuables. He waded furiously through the hoard.
"Eep!" Dubble exclaimed, ducking as coins, amulets, bracelets and other trinkets were sprayed around with great force.
For a moment the great golden dragon stopped. He had left his hoard. Bits of it still dislodged from his skin and tinkled to the ground in a soft rain of riches. Then he walked on, with firm, determined steps. He headed for the door, long ago hidden behind a myriad of simple wooden bridges. The most loyal rabids fled their positions on them as the unstoppable dragon pulled back a claw. With full fledged dragon fury he slammed his arms through the wooden structures from bottom to top. Sharp pieces of wood and splinters were scattered as the nearby rabids fled further back.
Argor stood before the door. He placed his front claws against it and pushed it open.
"Look!" MAui exclaimed as the door swung open. It was a fairly futile remark, as the event would have been hard to miss. In the door opening stood a massive golden dragon, at least as large as Arno himself.
Arno himself, he still hung from the tower. In fact, he had just managed to gather the courage to let go. Pushing himself back, he spread his wings, forced his eyes to stay open as he plummeted to the ground and spread his wings wide.
Argor reflexively hid behind a huge golden wing as the black mass came down from the sky and swooped right past him, soaring dangerously close to the ground as it moved away from him and towards the chasm.
"Taunt me, human dragon?" Argor said, an evil grin forming on his beak. He dropped onto his front legs and ran after his nemesis, spreading his wings wide.
"WATCH OUT!" Jessie yelled. She let go of the ledge and slid down about 15 feet. Several tons of great black dragon thundered over them, shaking the ear with its sheer mass. Jessie hung on with all she had, while MAui flew like a flag above, her sharp claws deeply embedded in the mountain rock. Another massive shape followed only seconds later, golden this time.
Then the world calmed down again. The anthro-wolf took a few seconds to catch her breath, then looked up at MAui, the state of who's hair was remarkably fitting with the state of the rest of her body.
"Muah," she said to no one in particular, in no particular direction.
"That's our cue," Jessie reminded her. She braced herself and climbed up as fast as she could. By the time she had reached the top a tattered MAui was still climbing up herself with a far away look on her face.
"C'mon MAui! Hurry!" She grabbed the gargoyle under the arm and hoisted her up on her feet.
"Mrrr," the gargoyle said. "Yusyus!" she then nodded, catching up with the present. She cheerfully drew her daggers and ran for the open door. Jessie drew her sword and followed.
Dubble's guard looked around anxiously. He was now, in a sense, very alone. The great dragon had not left his hoard for years, and the empty spot on where dragon should be was enough to unnerve any rabid. The fact that he had an increasing notion of the fact that his chances for survival were probably shrinking by the second did not help much either.
Dubble noticed the creatures uncertain anxiety.
"Well, go on then," she helped him along. "Go! Shoo!"
The rabid looked blankly at her. Dubble waved her hands at him.
"Shoo! Go on! You'll just get hurt silly..."
This seemed to be the decisive factor. The creature turned tail and ran.
Dubble breathed out sharply and looked around. Her eyes fell on the dragon's hoard, still lying there, unprotected. They couldn't leave without her medallion, she realized. Taking care not to run into any stray rabids, she skipped onto the pile of riches and climbed it to the top.
MAui leapt onto the splintered remains of the bridges, which were in a way barricading the huge door for anything not Argor's size.
"WEEEERE-CHILD!" she yelled out, in the meantime keeping an eye out for any stray rabids to maim. Jessie leapt up after her, nearly losing her footing on a lose board shifting away underneath her.
"Agh!" she exclaimed. "Agh!" she exclaimed even more passionately as she noticed the rows of rabids staring down at them from every floor, rows that reached up all the way to the top of the castle.
"Maummy!" She picked Dubble's voice up loud and clear, somewhere out from the depths before them.
"Yay!" MAui cheered. Waving her daggers around happily she leapt off the other side of the pile of wood and headed for the source of the voice.
"MAui!" Jessie yelled after her, suddenly standing very alone. "Wait! Stick together MAui!" She ran after the gargoyle.
Arno looked around frantically, losing height with every turn oh his head. He knew Argor was after him. He had heard the flap of his wings and caught a glimpse of something golden in the corner of his eye. The dragon was enormous, he was distraught to spot. Stubbornly insisting, even to himself, that he was a human, it did not actively cross his mind at any moment that he himself was equally enormous. Anywhere where Argor wasn't suggested countless of places where Argor could be. As a result, Arno's search was more frantic than it was methodic.
There was a mighty roar as Argor quite unexpectedly slammed into the great black dragon's back from above.
"Yaaagh!" Arno panicked.
At this point tradition dictated that the two dragons would struggle high up in the air. Claws would lash out at each other, jaws would snap at heads and limbs, while wings would flap so furiously that be a curious consensus the fearsome battle would remain airborn, while under them the force of the resulting wind would ravage the immediate surroundings...
Arno, however, thrashed about wildly in a panic-stricken way as he dragged the golden dragon into an uncontrolled plummet towards the ground.
Dubble rushed down the dragon's hoard and half walked, one third stumbled and one sixth fell towards MAui's open arms.
"Hi were-child!" MAui greeted happily. Dubble dropped into the gargoyle's open arms. Outside the two dragons hit the ground; there was a loud, fleshy thud or crunch that vibrated the floor under their feet.
"Were-child," MAui said in awe, "ye need to lose weight..."
Argor painfully slid across the rocky underground, the stone chaving at his thick dragon hide. With admirable presence of mind he pushed himself back onto his feet before he even came to a halt and swung around on the remaining momentum. He saw the human dragon. He was just picking himself off the ground and stood up. He stood up on his hind legs, like, like... Like a human...
Wasting little time on reflection Argor launched himself at his adversary. The great black dragon looked up in shock and immediately turned around to run before several tons of golden dragon slammed him into the ground. Argor quickly pinned the wings down with his front claws, trapping the human dragon's claws under them. Then he sat down onto the back and looked down at his struggling catch almost pensively, almost reflectively.
Then he chortled.
Then he laughed. He positively boomed with laughter.
"You're..." he said. He paused to lean forward to look down at Arno's eyes. They were, not unexpectedly, quite filled with fear.
"You're a human!" Argor exclaimed incredulously.
"I know," Arno's tiny little voice answered.
The remaining loyal rabids watched the spectacle from their positions behind the door. They had seen the two dragons from the sky. They had seen their master force the human dragon to the ground. They had heard their master's laughter. And they took heart.
A few hundred pairs of eyes now turned malignantly towards the heart of the castle, where they stared down on the three reunited friends.
Dubble was climbing back onto the hoard, holding MAui's claw as she guided her to the top.
"It's got to be here somewhere," she said, searching the pile randomly with her eyes. "Argor said it'd be here."
"It's... Warm," MAui noted with some disgust as she trod in the riches with her bare feet.
"Uh-huh," Dubble answered. "'s icky."
Jessie was still crouched at the base of the somewhat scattered pile, examining several necklaces, coins, seals and other medallion-like objects.
Perhaps it was the way the rabids were quiet in a different way.
Perhaps it was the way their breathing synchronized.
Perhaps it was even instinct.
The fact remains that Jessie was the first to turn around and gaze up into row upon row of vicious, murderous pairs of eyes, looking down on her.
Under the right angle, some grinning collections of teeth glistened in the moonlight.
"Er... Guys?" she said.
"That is it, isn't it?" Argor asked with a small measure of glee. "You're not a dragon. You're not even a human dragon..."
Arno struggled. He tried to break free, tried to lift his arms, if only his wings weren't in the way. Every time he tried to push them up the golden dragon's claws pierced them like daggers.
Argor leaned forward further and grinned in his face.
"You are a human," the dragon told him.
Arno swallowed. As far as he was concerned, he had always been human.
"To think you actually worried me," the golden dragon continued. "You must think it absurd, no?" The grin turned into a very broad smile. A chill ran down Arno's spine all the way to the tip of his tail.
"I-I didn't want to..." he blurted out. It was as if his brain was purposefully staying out of the conversation.
Argor actually paid no mind to the human at all. He pressed the tip of his beak all the way down into his manes and pressed his head against the rocky underground.
"To think of the grief you've caused me!" he suddenly snapped. "You miserable little creature!"
The great dragon dug his claws in further, for good measure. Arno squirmed in pain, his hind legs desperately kicking for freedom.
Argor spoke slowly.
"And you... Will... Suffer..."
Against the backdrop of the dark blue night sky hundreds of large bat-like creatures flitted down into the dragon's lair.
"Eep!" Dubble squealed, hiding behind her maummy. Jessie stormed up the golden hill of the hoard and slid to a tinkling halt.
"MAui!" she exclaimed. "Scare them off or something!"
MAui looked at the approaching army of rabids.
She raised her arms and waved her daggers in the air. The rabids stopped in their tracks.
"Muah!" she yelled at them.
She picked up a clump of gold and threw it violently into the mass of rabids.
Finally she surveyed the results of her actions with dejected disappointment. The rabids advanced again, slowly.
"They're, like, not scared of Mau Mau," she said. "There's hundreds of them and only one little MAui..."
"Awwww," comforted Dubble.
"Stupid, stupid rabids," Jessie grumbled, raising her sword protectively.
"I'se rare," MAui decided, and felt better.
"Did you know," Argor said conversationally, "that this is precisely why you humans deserve what you get?"
He looked the dragon-shaped human in the eyes until he was satisfied that the creature was paying attention.
"You may have the body of a dragon," he explained, "but you do not have the mind... Oh, I have dealt with humans, I know what your little minds are like." He leaned closer towards the human's dragon ear.
"Your minds," he said softly, "are riddled with little fears. Little nonsense fears of no consequence. It holds you back, you see. Let me ask you... When you saw me, what did you see?"
He waited politely for a response. All he received were some quiet whimpers.
"You saw a dragon, didn't you?" Argor mocked. "You saw a predator. And your little mind told you 'flee!'"
The great golden dragon rose his head and spoke loudly to the world.
"The powers of the noble dragon at your disposal and you fled!" he laughed. He bent over again, to the other ear. "Like a human..." The dragon's voice became something of a half-growl now.
"Well let me tell you human, let me tell you what I have done. I came down and I destroyed your farms. I burnt down your villages and I ravaged your towns, and you, what did you do, human? You fled. You watched your neighbors go down and hid. You spoke that someone should do something, but no one did anything, did they?"
His head moved to the other ear again.
"You could have banded together, but you did not, did you? Because greater than your fear of the inconsequential, greater than your fear of the dragon, is the fear of yourselves, isn't it? Isn't it? How can you be certain that your neighbors will fight alongside you? How can you be certain that they do not betray you?"
Argor raised his head and smirked.
"So you hide from the dragon, and you betray your neighbors, your only hope, just so you do not have to be next..."
"... You are not a dragon, you are another frightened little human mind in the body of one. And you will die like all these other little frightened minds because of this... Because the human mind simply does not have the strength to fight a dragon..."
Argor smiled, satisfied with his little speech. In the course of it the human had stopped struggling. Now he lay silently on the floor, staring ahead of him.
"All those people..." he finally spoke after all his silence.
Argor leaned forward and smiled at the human as he looked him in the eyes. The eyes about which something seemed... Different, actually.
"... What did they taste like?" Arno asked.
Argor blinked, which was just before the great black dragon rammed his horns up into his face.
Hundreds of rabids slowly and patiently circled the pile of valuables. It was as if somewhere in the shadows a large spoon was stirring the mass of creatures. Each and every one of them watched the three women on top of the hoard. It seemed as though the usual sadistic joy had left their sustem; it seemed as tough this time, they were serious.
MAui, Jessie and Dubble stood with their backs pressed against each other and watched the never-ending colon of rabids below them. They looked back; each and every pair of eyes in the mass of rabids was trained at them.
"Er... Any ideas?" Dubble whispered over the noise of the tromping feet.
"I think they're waiting for something," Jessie said quietly, hiding behind her sword.,
"Think they're scared?" Dubble asked.
"Maybe. Do you have any ideas?"
"Yusyus," MAui chimed in. "We'll make'em go boom."
"Er..." Jessie asked uncertainly, "We?"
"Were-child and I," MAui stated proudly. "Were-child's been learning from Ithy!"
"But maummy," Dubble said, "I don't know any offensive spells..."
MAui stared incredulously at Dubble from over her shoulder.
"Poor neglected were-child," she said, full of sympathy.
"No, no, I didn't want to learn, see?" Dubble kindly explained.
"That was smart," Jessie remarked.
"But..." MAui mused, as if her world came down around her ears, "Why know magic if ye can't maim something with it?"
"I can turn people into cats," Dubble remembered helpfully. "And grow flowers," she added after some thought. "But no fireballs and stuff."
"Bah, 's easy," MAui scoffed. She raised her claws over her head and cupped them. They both simultaneously burst into flames and formed a ball of fire. Jessie's eyes widened at the sudden light and warmth over her head.
"MAui no! "
The gargoyle tossed the ball into the stream of rabids. It exploded quite violently and excessively, sending the surrounding creatures hurling through the lair or scurrying for cover.
"Moo!" she stated with supreme satisfaction. Then every last rabid attacked.
Meanwhile, outside, the battle between the two dragons raged. Arno had quickly thrown Argor off his back, and only narrowly missed slashing him a few times in the face. Then they faced each other. Each dropped back on all fours and the great beasts circled each other slowly, growling quietly at each other. Each sized the other up in the tense pause before the inevitable battle.
Given the size of the beasts it all happened rather suddenly and quickly. Breaking orbit around Argor Arno leapt at him, jaws wide open and claws ready to strike. Argor on the other hand leapt straight up, kicked the black dragon down onto the ground as it sailed underneath him and spread his wings to fly up on the momentum this produced. He landed on top of the nearest side of the castle and looked back over his shoulder. The human dragon had already picked itself off the ground marvelously. One would think he fell down on a daily basis.
Argor leapt towards the opposing wall as Arno came charging towards the castle. He turned around to see the black dragon land predictably onto the other side, nearly overshooting his mark and as a result teetering dangerously over the edge for a moment, and then glare at him.
For a little while the two dragons sat perched opposite to each other, and watched... Slowly their wings unfurled.
"EEEEE!" Dubble shrieked.
"MAUI!" Jessie yelled.
"Whaaat!?" MAui exclaimed.
Like a flood coming upstream the rabids stormed at their prey, clambering up the lose sides of Argor's hoard. In fact, they fell over each other, they stepped onto each other in their fury as they came to rip these trespassers to pieces. The first line stopped before Jessie and MAui as they waved their weapons madly at the advancing creatures.
Dubble had no weapon. As the most enthusiastic rabid leapt at her with its terrible scream she could do nothing but fall back, hold out her hand and cast a spell...
One thing was no lie: Argor's hoard indeed held items and trinkets of magic, collected over the years by the ever-greedy rabids. Though they were sparse and lay spaced far apart, they were there. Through Dubble's other hand, pressed against the vast pile of riches, the spell flowed into the hoard. It was conducted through the bronze and silver, and it raced through the gold. And every time it passed through even the weakest magical item it was magnified. They focussed the magic, they strengthened it with their own. Power was not simply added, it was multiplied countless times, before, finally, it sedated the hoard and had nowhere else to go but where it came from.
Like lightning through a lightning rod the magic blasted back through Dubble, where it exploded with a bright blue flash.
High above them the two dragons charged at each other in the air. They slammed into each other over the center court and for a few seconds there was nothing but a flurry of wings and claws before the fight settled down into a struggle high up in the air. They rotated slowly, their front claws locked into each others grip, all the while staying airborn, as if by mutual consensus.
Arno's mind started wondering why that was happening.
Of course, it said, we don't want to fall down now, do we? Boy it's high up here...
Very high, actually...
Dubble sat on the hoard. Her wings looked frayed and her hair sizzled. A very peculiar smell rose from her hair because, in fact, the flowers in it had been cooked. There was a blank expression on her face and a black cat in her lap. It seemed to be in a somewhat similar state.
"Whoah," said Jessie, blinking firmly to clear away the blue and purple spots. "Did someone take a picture or something?"
"Hey!" MAui wondered. "Where's the rabits?"
"Erm... Behind the flowers?"
Dubble woke up. She found that she had a cat on her lap. She also found that the up till then rather dark and foreboding lair was now, in fact, a dark and flowery lair. Sprouting through cracks in the floor thick, lush flower bushes rose up. It gave the whole place a far more pleasant feel, she felt with some satisfaction. Oh, and her hair smelled weird.
"Hey were-child," MAui asked behind her. "Where'd ye put the icky monsters?"
"Erm..." Dubble answered, still slightly dazed. "Dunno?" She gently moved the cat off her lap and got up on her feet to show it to her friends. "Here?"
"You've turned them all into one cat," Jessie concluded skeptically.
As if on cue, other cats now very shyly emerged from the forest of flowers. Each looked dazed and confused and uncomfortable. They began to mew pitifully.
"Er..." Dubble grinned.
"Good were-child!" MAui complimented. She patted Dubble on the head.
"Ee!" Dubble eeped cheerfully at the audible static zap this produced, though MAui did not so much as twitch.
"So... Now we dig fer were-child's necklace and go home, yus?" she suggested.
"Yes!" Dubble agreed leading the way down the hoard. "I wanna go home. I miss mommy..."
"But aren't we forgetting something?" Jessie remembered.
With a tremendous crash the ceiling did not simply collapse, no, it exploded out as a great mass shot through and slammed into the hoard. The ground shook with the sheer force of the impact, the hoard was scattered, bits of ceiling came down even in the outer edges of the lair. Cats fled.
When things had more or less calmed down. Dubble was the first to raise her head out of the layer of valuables. She shook some of them from her hair, peered through the clouds of dust around the site of the impact and saw the great black dragon lie unconscious in the light of the full moon.
Argor landed into the center court and took a step towards the gaping hole in the ground. It was strange, he reflected, how the human dragon after a few minutes of admirable fury suddenly seemed to revert back to its frightened human state again. He peered down the hole at the limp creature below. If it was a trick, it sure was a good one...
MAui was actually the last to find her way out of the thick flower bushes. She took some personal time to regroom her hair, then surveyed the situation. A broken roof and a fallen Onar. So far, nothing seemed too much out of the ordinary.
Then a golden claw reached inside and placed itself on the limp dragon's back. The claw was followed by the giant head of the great golden dragon Argor, who growled triumphantly in Arno's ear.
MAui twitched. The fearsome growl meanwhile seemed to trail off. Argor had stopped bothering with Arno's ear and was now casting a dumbfounded look at the flowery state of his lair.
MAui rose up.
"HEY!" she yelled at the dragon as she waded towards him through the flowers and valuables. "YE TOUCHED MY ONAR!"
Taking advantage of the element of weirdness she made it all the way to Arno's limp body, where she jumped onto the head, put her claws on her hips and looked Argor sternly in the eyes.
"Ye hurt ONAR!" she snarled at him, stomping once on Arno's head for effect.
"Yes," Argor said slowly, "Yes I have." He leaned closer to MAui. So close that the tip of his beak prodded into her chest. "That leaves... Only... Three..."
MAui looked down at the beak.
"You... Hurt... Onar..." She reiterated, and followed this up with a swift kick in the dragon's teeth. He growled as he quickly pulled back his head and swiped his other claw at her. MAui quickly dove out of the way. Two rows of massive teeth rushed towards her. She back-flipped out of the way, then leaned back just in time to dodge another claw taking a swipe at her head.
"Meh, yer too big," she decided. She reached into her pocket as she jumped straight up as the dragon's jaws came in for another attack. She landed neatly with her butt on the dragon's beak as it slammed closed.
"Open wide!" she commanded. Argor growled furiously; his downfall.
Swiftly MAui rolled off the side of the beak, popped the cap of Arno's pill bottle, tossed the pills in bottle and all in passing and grabbed hold of the great beast's collarbone.
There she rubbed his throat. Argor swallowed.
"Haha!" MAui taunted, before gliding down into the flowers cackling madly.
Argor seemed unimpressed. The rest of his massive body dropped inside as he came after her in pursuit. Then his tail disappeared.
He perked up with an alarmed expression, looked back at his wings crawling back into his body and then disappeared from view entirely.
The human Argor stood among the scattered remains of his hoard. In fact, he stood crouched down with his hands placed on the ground, not really knowing any other way to stand. His jaw had dropped and he was shivering, partially from shock, partially from cold. He was, after all, naked as the day he was born, or, in his case, as naked as he was five minutes ago.
MAui's head popped out of the flower bushes.
"Hiiiii Argooooor!" she said sweetly.
Argor tried to step back but stumbled over unfamiliar limbs. He stood up; that is, he stood crouched and stooped and looked down at MAui's green feet as she emerged from the bushes entirely.
She looked him over critically. His hair was nearly pitch black, with some beginnings of gray around the temples. His skin was slightly tanned, in accordance with his golden dragon hide and he seemed well-built, though it was hard to say for sure with him standing crouched like that.
What really made him look like an idiot though was the way he kept looking down, like the possibility of ever looking up at someone did not even occur to him.
"Mrowr," said MAui nonetheless.
A sound of merciless swishing and chopping made its way towards the clearing. Behind her, a sword swished out from the flowery bushes and cut them to pieces with firm, slightly frustrated strokes, eventually revealing the anthro-wolf wielding it.
"MAui," she asked. "What did y-- Oh..." The wolf laid eyes on the human Argor. He looked back at her, or rather, back at her hips, and stumbled back further.
A pair of angel wings now came up behind the anthro-wolf. They slid to the side and Dubble came up beside her.
"Oooooh..." she said as she saw the human Argor. "'Course, it figures that he's still bigger than us." She gave a thoughtful pause. "Or would be if he'd be standing right."
"Bah," MAui said. She grabbed the befuddled human under the armpit and hoisted him in the proper upright position. "That's how humans stand," she informed him.
Yes, he was very well built.
There was a complete and utter silence that lasted for about a second. Then Jessie turned away and placed a hand before Dubble's eyes.
"Hey!" she complained. "Whaaaaat!?"
"Not till you're older."
"I already have three mommy's, you know," Dubble sulked. "What's going on?"
"Right, sure." Dubble crossed her arms in theatrically. "You know, I've seen Arno like that dozens of times."
"And that's frightening enough all in itself," Jessie countered. MAui meanwhile examined Argor closely. She then flicked a talon at his cheek.
"How do ye like us now, huh?" she grinned. "Serves ye right fer being mean to were-child."
"I would have let you go..." the human grumbled, still looking down at the ground.
"Yeah, right," Jessie said. Dubble pulled herself up by the anthro-wolf's arm and peeked over the hand.
"Oh, he would have, actually."
"Uh-huh. But he's still evil."
"Ah, that's alright then," Jessie decided with a satisfied nod. MAui, on the other hand, sagged and gave the human a wistful look. He stooped back down with a great sense of relief.
"Bah," MAui suddenly decided. "Maybe ye's evil, but ye still stole were-child." She gave the human a scolding look. "Oh, and he threw Onar through the roof," she added as an afterthought with half a nod in the unconscious dragon's direction.
"And Maummy," Dubble added, "he's so mean and evil and he's just going to hurt and kill people again like Desiree and her dad who were so nice to us. We've got to make him stop so people can be safe and such now..."
There was a moment's worth of reflective silence.
"She's got a point," Jessie admitted.
"Please?" Dubble pleaded. MAui looked back from Dubble at the human Argon again and considered.
"Oh, alright," she decided. She grabbed Argor by the arm and spoke clearly in his face. "Were-child says ye cannot hurt people no more," she explained.
Argor looked down into the gargoyle's face like a deer into headlights. He shivered and looked terribly uncomfortable and unhappy. In short, he looked like he would promise anything.
"S-Sure," he promised. "I-"
"Ye upset were-child and ye hurt Onar and yer a liar too," MAui summarized the list of charges, and she dragged him towards Arno's great black dragon beak.
Very slowly Arno opened one of his eyes. There were dreams, he knew, where it took you ages to realize it all had been a dream, and you didn't really, say, fight an actual dragon somewhere over a castle. That sort of thing. That sort of dream. Sure took a long time for the realization to hit this time though... Hurts a lot too...
"Hey, he's waking up!"
Through the haze before his eyes a figure ran up to him. Well, skipped up to him, maybe, he wasn't quite sure. The figure had wings, which narrowed the possibilities down to about only half the people he knew.
"Is he alright!?" another voice yelled, approaching from afar.
"Dunno. He's staring at me though."
"Hiiiiiii Onaaaaar!" Another figure jumped into view and greeted him cheerfully.
Now where's that realization?
Arno opened his eyes and blinked a few times at MAui and Dubble who were standing before him. Dubble was wearing a silver diadem set with some sort of small gems. Around her neck were two necklaces, and a lone golden bracelet far wider than her own wrist hung dangling from her arm. She stood bent forward towards him, eyeing him with great concern.
MAui was well decorated too. She wore a crown, a whole bundle of necklaces of various types of metal, several bracelets -one even was worn around her ankle- and a pair of mismatched earrings.
"How you feelin' Onar?" MAui asked, incredibly sweetly.
"I fell..." Arno remembered.
"Yusyus," MAui said. "But how do ye feel?"
"The dragon hit me," Arno remembered even further back. "We were very high..."
Finally Jessie appeared. She stepped out of the... Bushes? She stepped out of the flowery bushes which he was very willing to take for granted as something harmless for now, wearing only a beat up golden chest plate in addition to her usual attire. She was carrying something silvery.
"Hey Arno," she said encouragingly, "How you doing?"
"Besides from being hit by big old dragons and falling through the roof," MAui added. Arno kept silent for a moment. His brain felt like it needed to be jump-started still.
"Fine..." he decided.
MAui briskly turned towards the others.
"See?" she beamed. "'s good fer him."
"I'm not saying that..." Jessie began, without finishing her sentence. It felt like there had been a long discussion that he'd missed. It probably involved him in some way.
"What's good for me?" he asked.
"Nothing Onar." MAui smiled kindly and gently petted him on the beak. He was about to insist when a thought came to him which seemed more urgent.
"Where's Argor?" he asked. He raised his head a bit, dragging his mind deeper into the land of the waking and conscious.
"Nothing, I said!" MAui claimed irritably. Clearly his mind wasn't all there yet.
"Hey Arno!" Dubble distracted him. He rolled his eyes towards her and turned his head slightly. "Look what we got!" She crouched down beside a disorderly pile of valuables and beamed proudly.
Arno had a response.
"They're gifts!" Jessie explained, stepping forward. She crouched down beside Dubble and thrust her left arm in the small pile. "Look!" She pulled out a ruby almost the size of her fist. "See? This one's for Kess."
"Yeah!" Dubble said enthusiastically. "She can do all sorts of geology stuff with it. Oh, and look!" She picked up a small, smooth golden ball, which clearly took her some effort. "See? Cams can play with this. Or hoard it I guess."
Arno watched it all with a vague notion that he was somehow not involved in any of this. Because if he was, he'd have to be very surprised.
"Oh," Jessie said to the group at large, "I got something for Zoe, see?" She showed off a small silver statue that she'd been holding in her hand.
"Oooooooh," Dubble admired it. "... What is it?"
"It's a fox," the anthro-wolf said. "See?" She turned the statue around. "Sitting up."
"Nifty," MAui remarked, peering over her shoulder.
"Well, I don't think they have any trains here," Jessie explained. "So... She likes foxes too."
Arno's brain reasserted itself, and kicked him into doing the same. He closed his eyes and shook his head a little first.
"Where did this all come from!?" he asked, looking at each of his friends in turn.
"It's Argor's hoard!" Dubble explained happily. "It's fun!"
"Argor's hoard..." Arno repeated. "Where is Argor?"
"Oh, maummy took care of him," she said vaguely.
"Bad old Argor won't be hurting any more Onars," MAui kindly assured him.
Then there were a few seconds of silence.
"Oh, hey Arno!" Jessie suddenly remembered. She stood up and moved her hand behind her back. From under her belt she whipped out a short dagger with a steel blade and a golden heft. "Lookit!" she said as she held it out at him.
Arno's mind was now treading at a fair pace. He knew how to respond.
"That probably belongs to someone," he pointed out.
"Aw come on..." Jessie pulled the dagger closer to her body and seemed to hold it protectively.
"Well, shouldn't they get it back or something?"
"And how were you going to do that?" the anthro-wolf asked. Arno shook his head.
"I don't know..." he admitted, "But you can't just... Take it, can you?"
"Oh boo," MAui sulked, "Onar's being boring again."
"I don't think the owners are coming back, Arno," Dubble gently broke the news. Arno sagged. If even Dubble was in on it, he was truly outnumbered.
"Awww..." Dubble said. "Hey, this'll cheer you up!" She took one of the necklaces and held it up at him. It was not a necklace at all, he now saw. It was... A medallion. Arno's lower jaw dropped.
"We can go home now?" he asked gratefully.
"Uh-huh!" Dubble nodded.
"We were just waiting for you, really," Jessie said.
"Wait!" MAui interrupted. "Are we done with the souvenirs?"
"Who's left? Dubble asked.
"Delphine?" MAui remembered.
"We found one of Argors scales for her," Jessie answered.
"Cuz' she's always asking for tissue samples," Dubble expanded. "And it's sort-of-gold..."
"Kiva?" Jessie Asked.
"Ummmmm..." Dubble, pile manager, said. "Oh yeah! Yeah, got her too."
"That's it then, huh?" Jessie asked.
"Uh-huh." Dubble smiled kindly at Arno, who'd been watching all of this quietly while giving his brain a rest. "Could you hold up a claw please, Arno?"
The loot, or rather, the souvenirs as most of them called it, was loaded into Arno's open claw. Then Jessie and MAui huddled closely around Dubble, who in turn pressed herself tightly against Arno's shoulder.
"Of course, it would be funny if this didn't work, huh?" she joked nervously as she fumbled for the medallion.
"Uh-huh," Jessie said. Dubble raised the medallion up in the air.
"Hey!" Arno remembered. "You never said what did happen to Argor."
"Oh!" MAui perked up. "Hey Onar! Did ye know if ye rub a dragon's throat he'll swallow anything!?"
A bright green flash emerged from the medallion and engulfed the travelers.
"No," Arno said, somewhat puzzled.
As the flash vanished, so did they.
And this is how the story ends. With the evil dragon Argor gone, and the rabbids scattered, away from his corrupting influence, the people that once lived under the dragon's bane could finally live their lives in safety in freedom. For this, Jessie, Dubble, MAui and the human dragon would forever be remembered.
In the Town Square of Saghotha its inhabitants erected four statues, which soon became affectionately knows far and wide as "the heroes". Three life sized statues in a circle, with names engraved in their base with large, clear letters: Maui. Jessie. Dubble. And in the center stood one statue which dwarfed them all, a triumph of engineering. It was reconstructed from witness accounts and random sightings. It was a statue of a great dragon. It was not quite as great as the original had been, and perhaps not all the details were correct, but it stood there nonetheless.
To the locals the massive statue was simply known as 'the greatest hero'. His name, however, stood carved in the base to be remembered for all time. It said:
Please note: The following characters used or mentioned in this story belong to their respective owners: Beedoo!, Cams, Delphine, Dubble, Ithica, Jess, Jessie, Kessalia (Kess), Kiva, MAui, Renn (Nana), Robert, Shinga, Zoe. Not all have been used or mentioned with explicit permission. All other characters (including the rabids) are owned by myself, Arno Jacobs.