(A/N) This story is rated to be safe, and despite appearances, will have additional chapters. I would appriciat any feedback, as I am trying out new elements in this particular piece of fiction. And now, without further ado:
Enter the Dragon
The eagle soared over the valley, watching the evening sun sparkle in the river below. The mountains on either side were covered in pines, giving them a soft blanket of green. High above this the eagle soared, all the way to the Academy that lay nestled halfway up one side of a mountain, the city that lived to serve it stretching down to the river. Docks stretched far into the water, and many ships and boats went to and fro, even at this late hour. The city itself sparkled, used as it was to cater for the best, but the Academy…
It shone like a jewel, it sparkled like a jewel smith's masterpiece. Thin towers and twisting turrets made a forest over the many courtyards, houses and amphitheatres inside the walls, all surrounding one massive domed building. The eagle flew above the stone gate to the inner courtyard, big enough to let in a horde of rampaging elephants and with doors powerful enough to hold them out. Only two figures were there today, and the bird gave a cry that echoed through the valley. The tallest of the figures, dressed from head to toe in shinning white armour, turned his helmeted head to follow the path of the bird with his gaze, and lifted his sword in recognition of this royal bird, a bird he felt kinship with.
He turned again, and sheathed his sword. The servant that had politely inquired for his attention bowed deeply, and signalled that they should be getting on. The armoured figure nodded, and strolled through the gates with the uttermost confidence. A large gargoyle-head was set above the door to intimidate new students, but he did cast it a glance. Even as the last rays of the sun was blocked by the high walls, he entered the academy.
The foyer was large with a fountain in the middle, around which strangely dressed men and women walked or talked. Uniformed servants scurried to and fro, doing their best to blend in with the woodwork. Everyone stopped and stared when he entered, yet he seemed neither bothered by this nor impressed with the luxury presented to him. Whispers began to emerge, yet he ignored those too.
"You must be William" came a voice suddenly, and the whispering stopped. Addressed thusly the young man identified as William turned to see a handsome young man head towards him, a careless smile seemingly permanently fixed on his face. The newcomer bowed.
"I am Sion the Sly. I was sent to welcome you to our fair Academy."
He straightened up in time to see the servant merge with his equals, and briefly studied the newcomer.
He was nearly seven feet tall, and broad over the shoulders. Yet little else could be learnt from a casual glance, for he was covered in armour from head to foot. But it was obviously not normal armour, for it was white as bone. The torso seemed to have been made from the ribs of some large creature, the gloves ended in claws at every finger. Each plate of the armour was made from smooth bone, from the greaves to the shoulder pieces. The helmet was perhaps the most disturbing artefact, for it had been crafted from the skull of some great beast.
It was reptilian in nature, a short, crocodile like mouth filled with teeth. The occupant presumably looked out through the eye-sockets, for Sion could see faint glimmer in there as the eyes looked him over. Without a word, the figure bowed stiffly, seemingly not hampered by the plate-mail. As he straightened up again, something very strange happened.
The firm bone of the helmet seemed to shimmer, then flow like mercury into the back of the neck, leaving his head bare. Noble features adorned a strong face, and locks of chestnut hair fell at the sides. Sion nodded approvingly.
"Magic armour, eh? That'll come in handy, you can be sure of it. Shall we begin the tour?"
"Yes" said William, the first word he had uttered so far.
He had a pleasant enough voice, if a bit sombre. Sion took no notice of the short answer, and chatted willingly away as they walked.
"You look like a perfect candidate to this place, if you don't mind me saying so. Not like some, scared shitless after the gargoyle outside. And you have magic armour, which is definitely a plus, it should get you an advantage, especially in the lower levels. We divide the fights into levels," he said in answer to a quizzical look. "It makes it fairer, and interesting."
"What do you mean by fighting? I believed this to be an academy for heroes?"
"Oh yes, it is, but the education is mostly practical. We fight against each other in great tournaments, and learn new skills that way. There are classes, of course, but they are mostly voluntary. Most of the actual activity happens in the arenas… We're at one now."
They had entered a large, cave-like room filled with people. Looking around, William realised that there were stalls and shops around the edges selling goods. As they went farther in, a giant pit in the floor became visible, surrounded by a fence just high enough to lean your arms on. Sion beckoned him closer, and they entered the chattering crowd, in which he seemed to hear bets being made.
"It's the way people make money here," Sion explained. "Everyone had some money, right? But they wager it and bet it, so that when they grow better they get more money, which can then be used for equipment, better lodgings, pleasant company…" he winked knowingly.
William paid little attention, but was focused on the battle going on. It was an impressive show of magic between six people, four against one. Despite the unfair numbers, the duo appeared to be the strongest ones. A black-robed mage with an unpleasant expression seemed in the lead, while a beautiful woman stood some way behind, throwing spells of her own.
While the wizard was clearly dangerous, it was the woman he fell into study off.
She was beautiful, with long black hair and soft features. She was dressed in a purple robe that allowed her much room for movement. Sion was saying something, but he couldn't quite catch it.
Eventually the fight ended with an unnecessarily nasty spell thrown by the wizard. The crowd burst into applause, although he noticed that more than a few looked sour. Clearly, the mage wasn't popular.
"That was Maugrim" Sion explained. "One of the more powerful mages. Don't worry, you won't have to face him anytime soon."
"Who is she? She seems oddly subservient."
Sion followed his gaze and his smile faltered.
"That's Seona, she's a henchman. It happens when people get beaten badly, they are bound as servants to the winner. Its usually just an arrangement in fighting, and they often get part of the loot, but…" he lowered his voice, "I doubt Seona lost anything, just look at that power! And as if that isn't enough, I hear her masters, and mistresses I suppose, use her in demeaning ways. It's shameful, but who will tell them to stop?"
"Can she not leave?"
"That's the worst part," Sion said miserably. "She's under a powerful spell, so she can't refuse in any way. It's sick. When I become a hero, I pledge myself to fight people like that…"
"Masters? In plural?"
"Oh yes. If you win against the one who holds a henchman, the henchman is transferred as spoils. But no one is going to take her from Maugrim though, he's too- where are you going!?"
But his shouts were far too late. William had ploughed his way through the crowd and jumped catlike unto the rail. The helmet flowed back over his head, and he jumped into the pit. The sword, made from one long, sharpened bone, grew from his hand like a bamboo on steroids.
"Maugrim the Dark!" he thundered. "I challenge you!"
The hall went silent, all save the echoes. This rash action had surprised everyone, Maugrim most of all. The only one who did not seem in any way disturbed was Seona, her blue eyes empty and void.
Maugrim, who had been halfway up the ramp, returned to the pit. He looked William over. Seona followed him as obediently as a dog, but he took no notice of her.
"That's dragon bone, isn't it?" he said quietly.
William nodded, Maugrim shrugged.
"I do not know where you got such large amounts, but you are about to loose it. It will not help you in this fight, and I will claim it when I win, even if most likely most peel it off your corpse."
"And if I win" said William. "I will aid that poor creature you have abused!"
For a moment, Maugrim looked confused, possibly unsure as to which of the many entities he had abused that William was referring to. Then the white knight pointed at Seona, and he began to laugh.
"The knight in shinning armour saving the damsel in distress? Grow up. But I take that wager, and why should I not? You will lose, painfully and spectacularly."
They fought, but the mage soon realised he had spoken too soon. William charged him quite openly, not ducking and weaving as he had expected. The spells that should have turned him to ash slid of the armour like water, and before Maugrim could think of a plan that did not require magic, something he had never had to do before, William was upon him. His only blessing was the fact that the knight seemed to have lost his sword, or possibly just drawn it into himself once more. In either case, Maugrim was pushed down, William straddling him. He saw Seona readying a spell not far away, and with a sickening realisation he foresaw what would happen if she threw it, for he was the least protected of the two men at the moment.
He waved frantically at her to stop, and managed to get the message across a split second before the first punch hit, straight in his face. The next one in his side. And then in his stomach…
Not until he was unconscious did the man stop hitting him, and rose from the still form as carelessly as if he had sat down for a break. The whole hall was silent, and all eyes were on him.
No, not him, he realised. Maugrim.
He walked over to Seona, and spoke as quietly as he could.
"Things will be better now."
"Yes master. They will" was the reply, cold, emotionless, yet not unfriendly.
But it was a fake friendliness, trained into her.
He gently took her by the arm and led her from the pit.
"How could he do that?" Maugrim demanded. Boris the Blackhearted handed him a cool, damp cloth, which the mage snatched and pressed to his sore eye. "My spells just slid off!"
"It is a warriors dream," Boris said, without much tact. "I would use it, had I the armour, for it is clear to me that it is that which grants him such resistance."
"It would be clear to sea urchins!" Maugrim snapped. "But yes, mentally they do resemble you."
"There is no need to be hostile to me. You will need all the allies you can get now, for I do believe the balance of power just changed."
Maugrim said nothing, but thought all the more.
"So, this is our new home" William said, looking around him.
It was customary for the fighter to get a share of the profit, and through the many and complex rules concerning arena combat, he had somehow become a very rich man, although no one had gotten time to bet anything. The odds against him had been astronomical.
He had invested it in a room, although a room outside the dorms did not come cheap. This one was four meters square, with a small fireplace on one wall, the bed against the other, facing it, and the door against the third. A small window, a feature that alone cost a mint, sat in the fourth. The only piece of furniture in the room was a plush chair and a clap-bed, carried in this evening on his request.
He turned his eyes on Seona, who seemed as unresponsive to this piece of information as to everything else. As he closed the door behind them, she merely walked over to the bed.
"Shall I begin pleasuring you now, master?"
"What? No! No no no! None of that, I won you to help you" he said, mildly disgusted at the offer. Did she think he was like that?
Of course, she had no reason not too…
He made the helmet go away, so he could look her in the eye.
"You will never have to do anything to please me. I swear, by all the gods there is, that I will never force you to do anything."
A very convincing, very fake look of surprise slid over her face in cue, trained in as well.
"Oh, you need not force me. Unless you want to, master. I wish to please, that is my goal in life!"
He leaned against the wall and rubbed his temples. "You need not act either," he said.
She hung her head. "I am sorry I have displeased you, master."
"Stop calling me master. It's William.
"As you wish, William."
That was even worse. The way she talked, the difference in 'master' and 'William' was merely a matter of letters. In her eyes, he saw no hope, no fire, no recognition of anything he said. He suddenly felt very tired.
"Go to sleep. Your bed is by the fireplace."
She nodded, and crawled under the blankets without undressing. Of course not, he though sourly. I didn't order her to…
He sat down on his own bed, a solid double one, and looked at her still face. She was truly beautiful, an angle made flesh. Had she not been under a spell, he would most likely have fought for her attention, but all thoughts of romantic or erotic matters fled his mind as soon as he looked or thought about her. She was an angle, perhaps, but one stripped of her wings, chained with heavy chains to a lot in life she was never meant for…
He knew what it was like to be enslaved, albeit not in the same manner.
The armour slid like water around him, seemingly drawn into the spine. The ribs retracted separately, the armour of his legs sliding upwards. In the end, he was sitting on his bed dressed in the loose wooden garments he had been wearing underneath. He crawled under the sheets, and dreamt of mountains.
The next day he spent a whole lot of money. First of all, he took Seona to the best priests, doctors and mages he could find; yet none could lift the spells. The mage told him flatly that it was the strongest wards he had ever seen in his life, and refused to touch them. Any hope he had of a quick recovery were crushed in an instant, but the priest suggested a they might be weakened with the right stimulants, and William began immediately.
He bought the best potion of Clarity money could buy, a potion specially made to clear enchantments of the mind. Alas, he could not afford to give her a bottle a day, for it was very expensive. He settled for giving her a spoonful each morning, to clear her mind, and one each evening, so that she might dream freely. He talked to her about high and low, but she replied only when asked, and then in short, single-syllable words.
He took her to battle, but realised quickly he had to give her clear orders for her to do anything, even defend herself. She was void of initiative.
He fought with great success, even though he never made as much on a single match as he had on his first. He used the money for food, new clothes for them both, but mostly on cultural events.
He took her dancing, yet she did so mechanically.
He took her to a comedy, yet she laughed only dutifully, and only when he did.
He even sprung for a flying trip, yet she showed no sign of acknowledgements.
He fed her the potion each day and each night, and there, at least, he saw some glimmer of hope. He watched her as she slept, and saw that she turned a bit more, as if she dreamt. She always denied this when she woke up, however. There was still no sign of a soul in her eyes, dead as they were, but they seemed to have cleared some, as if she listened on deeper levels than simple acceptance.
Then one day he bought tickets for the Shakti-philharmonics, an orchestra that was renowned for their music. Rumours had it there was a phoenix living in one of the horns and sang at each concert. They had a name for being highly touching; truly soul-searching musicians, and he felt that this might very well be it.
He gave her three spoons that day, one just before she entered. Whether it affected her or not was up for debate, but the music certainly did. She seemed… giddy, that was the only word for it, as they entered, even though she walked calmly and betrayed no emotion, he saw something he had never seen before: a slight eagerness.
The music did not disappoint, it was truly divine, and he felt touched by the heavens as they exited. It was scheduled early, so even when it was finished it was barely passed noon. The sun was out, bathing the two of them in light, and William was humming as he went along, unable to get the sweet tones out of his head. She followed him, and there was something strange about her expression, he was pleased to see. He led them to the park, seeking the peaceful greenery to meditate on the music he had just heard. It was quite abandoned, for this was a prime day to train or fight, and all the people of the town had work to do. He led them to the artificial lake, gently leading her by the arm, and helping her sit down on the ground.
They sat in silence for a moment.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked kindly.
"The music" she replied. "It- it was beautiful, wasn't it?"
She seemed unsure, but he was delighted. This was the first opinion, certainly the first question, she had ever spoken while he was there. "Yes, Seona, it was."
She closed her eyes and tilted her head up towards the sun. He couldn't help but wish things had been different, that she had been well, that they were simply two young lovers enjoying the sunshine after the concert.
But the notion passed, and did not reappear for a long, long time.
"I think I like music," she said simply.
"I like it too" he said reassuringly.
"Can we- can we listen to some more?" her eyes went up, and a genuine confused look adorned her face, as if she couldn't believe she had just made an inquiry. A slight red rose in her cheeks. He smiled at her.
"As often as you'd like" he said.
And for the first time, he saw a glimmer, just a glimmer, of a soul in her eyes, and she closed her eyes again.
"I think I would like that… William."
The therapy went better after that, although it was clear there still was quite a way to go. Though he initiative seemed to be limited to that one moment in the park, she now began to answer in full sentences when he spoke to her, on a rare occasion volunteering a comment unasked for. Each time she did this, he felt a pang of pride and joy, and took it as a sign she was getting better. He took her to every Philharmonics concert arranged, and when they stopped he took her to others. Every time her eyes glowed a bit more, and those were the moments he treasured the most. Yes, her therapy was working, and the spells that bound her seemed to gain a network of cracks.
But William was a warrior, and not a trained mage, and thus he could do no direct work on the wards. He tried taking her to experts once more, but got only the reply that if he had come so far, he could do more than they. In truth, the mage he inquired at demanded to know what William had done, refusing to believe it was only potion and music. Angry and disappointed, he stormed out of the door with a firm grip on Seona's arm. His thunderous appearance scared the living daylight out of those they met, who jumped out of the way.
It was only when he saw the fear in Seona's eyes that he realised the effect he had, and tried to calm down.
Her arm was bruised from his grip.
After this, she suffered a relapse, became more withdrawn from him. Her newfound independence was based mostly on the fact that something akin to trust had grown between them, and he was pretty sure she realised he was not like her former masters. But now, hurt and afraid, she drew within herself once more. He cursed himself for a fool, and did his best to coax her back into her former state, something he succeeded only partly in.
Sion the Sly, who occasionally popped in to see how the therapy was working, suggested a few books in the library that discussed how best to build trust. He thanked him gratefully and ploughed through the books, making good use of them. It was in this fashion he became aware of the vast amount of knowledge and wisdom available in a public library, and he eagerly sought out books that might help him. He was disappointed to find that most of them where advanced books on magic, and he was no mage. He managed to get his hands on a few that dealt with trauma and suchlike, and set to work with renewed energy. Rebuilding trust was difficult, and it did not fully resurface, yet he comforted himself with the thought that this might mean she now had a more complex view of him, and eventually evolve even greater independence. He bad her read literature written by masters in the hopes that new impulses might stimulate her, and fed her the Clarity potion so that she might take them to heart. It was painstakingly slow, and once or twice he even fancied himself tempted to give up, but there would always be that extra glimmer that spurred him on to work even harder.
And slowly, ever so slowly, Seona was coaxed from the prison of her own mind, but the speed of it was killing him.
The heat was killing him.
He was walking through the desert, not quite sure how he had ended up there. He had been planning to go somewhere pleasant… but this had seemed more right… in fact, it did feel more right, it was just that the heat was killing him…
He squinted at the sky, but the sun was too radiant to be inspected, and as such he was at a loss for what time it was and what direction he was going. He kept a pot-plant under his arm, a plant he was growing increasingly concerned about. It was wilting in the oppressive heat, and he was almost out of Clarity potion to water it with. He trudged on, mostly because he knew that the heat was nothing compared to the darkness behind him. And if he succumbed to that, what would happen to his plant?
Just as he was about to truly give in to self-pity, there was a shimmering shape before it. It looked like a huge building, a square fortress surrounded by towers and with a large dome on the top. It was the Academy.
"Mirage" he mumble. It had to be. How could something so grand appear out of the desert? He felt the ground moving beneath him and he rose, higher and higher, until he was level with the dome, which somehow didn't seem so big up here. There was a woman, not very large, sitting on it. She was naked and holding a harp, but that made as much sense as anything else did right now.
She began to play on the harp, and sing as well, and he had to admit that it was quite beautiful. The he realised that his plant was no longer withering, but straightening up, growing strong. Its petals were unfolding. He smiled, and the naked woman smiled as well. Then she looked at his feet, and her expression changed. It wasn't fear or joy, or anything like that, but… disappointment?
It occurred to him to wonder what he was standing on. He looked down, and saw that he was standing on the skull of a dragon, its long neck keeping him elevated. He looked into one of the reptile's empty eye sockets-- And woke up.
The sun was shinning through the small window, its path across the floor indicating that it was before noon but some time after sunset. With the fragile logic of one who has just woken up, he looked around the room. It was pretty much as he had left it last night, except that Seona was awake.
He noticed that she had managed to pick a dress and put it on without asking him for permission and guidance, but had grown used to it. She was staring at the wall. He yawned, and swung his legs out of bed. His chest and feet were bare but he wore a pair of pants.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
"A flower" she said, in that distant voice of hers.
"Really?" he briefly wondered if she had shared his dream (there had been a flower in it, and it had seemed important at the time), but dismissed the notion as ridiculous.
He put on a shirt from a rack of identical looking shirts by his bed, and put it on unhurriedly.
"What's today's schedule?"
"Breakfast, walk in the park, lunch, fight with the Minion Queen, dinner and then bed" she said promptly. She had a good memory these days, a combination of the fact that she actually took an interest, and that her higher brain functions had nothing better to do than plan the day.
"That's it? The whole day?"
"It is all that you have informed me off, William," she said, not at all offended.
"Improvising, my dear, improvising. We need to learn you to be more spontaneous, and that's why we didn't plan the rest of today."
She nodded, and he waited hopefully for anything else, but that appeared to be it. She rose however and walked to the door, spontaneously enough to satisfy anyone. He grinned and stood up, the armour sliding into place around him.
It was time for breakfast.
The Minion queen was tough to beat, probably the worst one yet. His sword could cleave practically anything, and Seona's magic fry anything that twitched afterwards, but the problem was that their opponent seemed able to pull creatures both alive and undead from thin air. The exhaustion of beating her had put a damper on the rest of the afternoon, but at least their continuous winning streak was intact.
Of course, any day now they would be facing teams, and that would require planning. As it was, they had only met the Queen's minions and henchman.
They had retired to their room and lit the fire, then laid down on their respective beds to read. Engrossed as he was in Slugger's 'Of the Human Mind', he nevertheless pondered the future.
Having Seona sleep so close was handy to keep an eye on her, but as things progressed she would eventually be entitled to her own room. Money was never in short supply, it was simply that rooms were expensive, and so was her therapy. He would have to prioritise, but she would probably move out when cured anyway.
This set of a small pang of regret, mostly because Seona was the only person he so far had found time to socialise with, and he didn't want to loose her. He returned to the book he was reading, struggling with the old-fashioned writing.
''tis the greatest of lies to speak of illness upon the sooul, when nary ai placee can be helt more pure than this. Nay, speak thee off-'
There was a knock on the door.
He sighed and marked his place, then put down the book. Seona had looked up briefly from her book, but upon seeing that he got the door, she returned to it as if nothing was happening. William was mildly curios as to who would knock on his door, and found himself dreading it was another challenge for tonight. He had hoped for a quite evening, but opened the door.
"I won't stand for it!"
William blinked, unsure of what to do. The last thing he had expected to see when he opened the door was a small, blond haired woman wearing a blue dress and a furious expression. Her glare made it very clear that William, in her opinion, was the lowest form of life on earth.
She looked vaguely familiar.
"I want to make it clear from the start, touch me and your armour will be insufficient."
"Are you sure you've come to the right room?"
"This is the room of the winner of the today's match, William the Perverted?"
"Yes. I mean no! Do people call me that?"
"They will if I have anything to say about it," she said darkly. "Now are you going to invite me in or do I have to sleep in the corridor?"
William leaned against the doorway and rubbed his temple, a habit he had when he felt his brain go on overload. This was because his hand covered his eyes, and he held the small hope that whatever bothered him would be gone when he lifted it.
No such luck. The angry blond was still there.
A light went on in his head.
"You're the Minion Queens henchman, aren't you?"
"Was. Until you won me today, probably looking to enlarge your harem. But if you think I will join that poor Seona in-" she caught a glance beyond William, and her voice faltered for a bit. "Stay fully dressed and sleep in a separate bed?"
William turned and looked behind him. Sure enough, Seona had ignored the whole conversation and crawled under the covers. Short, even breathing suggested sleep.
"I really should teach her to undress before going to bed," he said to no one in particular. "Her clothes are getting wrinkled."
He turned to the woman outside, who seemed to have calmed down a bit, and now looked more curios than angry, which was an improvement. William went inside and beckoned for her to follow him, which she did.
Well inside, he sat on his bed and offered her the only chair. She took it, looked at Seona and then at William.
"What's with the extra bed?"
"That's where Seona sleep" he replied.
"I thought she was, you know, your…" she trailed off.
"Don't offend me."
She looked around for a minute, and then gave a small laugh. It was a melodious laugh. She had the voice for it.
"This really isn't what I had expected when I came here," she admitted.
"You thought I was like Maugrim, perhaps?"
"The thought had crossed my mind" she said, and leaned over to pick the book of Seona's bed.
"The Heroes of Honour" she read aloud. "Classic." She glanced at him.
"I was in the hall when you entered, and when you challenged Maugrim. You looked like you wanted her pretty badly."
"I did, I wanted to help her, and that's what I've been doing all the while."
"You haven't slept with her?"
"No. Never, and I don't plan to."
"But why not? I thought she had a spell on her to do as her master or mistress wanted?"
"That she agree when she is not free is irrelevant. Anything she is told to do now would be forced, and making love to her would be forced sexual intercourse, however you look at it. And I am not that kind of person."
"I doubt if everyone saw it that way" the woman remarked.
"Yes, well, it's sometimes tempting not to consider such matters. Besides, I saw her 'I want to' routine, and I'm sure it's clinched the deal for some…"
"But not you."
They sat in silence for a moment.
"Miss… I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"Skip the miss, just call me Dori."
"Alright. Well, what are you doing here?"
She shrugged. "You won against the Queen, she didn't have money, and you got the henchman. Simple."
"I see. Look, miss- Dori, I am not sure if I need another henchman. Seona is doing excellent, far too good to be a henchman, and well…"
"You think I'll intrude?" she said slowly.
"Something like that."
"How long have you been trying to help her?"
"Two months, give or take."
"Well then" she said business-like. "You can use an extra set of brains, can't you? What kind of hero would I grow to be if I didn't help when I could? What have you been using to aid her?"
"Potions mostly, twice a day. And music-"
He was cut off by the sound of one hand slapping into the other, and saw a great big grin spread across her face. Mystified as to what could have caused such a reaction, the dragon-bone knight looked at the petit figure before him, who seem to change emotional pathways on the drop of a hat.
"Do you know what I am?"
But the smile had triggered a memory within him, a memory of the dream he had woken from only this morning. He recognized her.
"You're a bard" he said, nearly speechless. "Playing an enchanted harp and channelling magic through your song!"
She grinned even wider and nodded.
"If the girl gets better with music" she said. "Then we'll give her music!"
And music was what she got. True, Dori was not the Shakti-philharmonics, but she played with heart and with soul, and Seona seemed to be improving daily. The addition of music to the evening was also a welcome one for William, for while he had never felt regret at spending time with what was in effect a walking talking coma patient, the witty and cheerful Dori brightened both their days considerably. She was, after having come to terms with the fact that William was not a twisted freak, very good company, and the atmosphere turned a lot less sombre when she was around. She attacked the problem of the domination spells with the same zeal as William, although she was less inclined to read up on the problem in the library. Her greatest achievement was to merge a song that seemed to affect Seona with a spell meant to strengthen and clear the mind, a combination of which did wonders. Within a week, Seona was able to carry a conversation quite unprompted, although she clammed up whenever they approached the subject of who had put the spell on her and how, thus eliminating the advantage they would have gotten from this piece of information. Nor did she reveal anything about her former masters, seemingly unable to do so.
Although disgusted with the twisted turns the human could turn to, the depths they could sink to and still dare to call themselves human, William had to give a grudging respect for their spell work. It was airtight.
It was a similar attitude he held towards Maugrim, the dark mage. Whenever he would pass the man in corridors or in the few lectures he attended, a sneer or a mocking comment would pass from one to the other. While he did despise the man, he was nevertheless on his guard. The fights Maugrim entered, fewer and fewer these days, were won with frightening ease, and it was clear that the man was developing. It wasn't just Maugrim either, for sometimes it seemed as if every despicable individual in the Academy was skulking around the corridors, whispering to each other. Twice he had caught someone trying to listen at the door of his chambers, and he felt sure he was being followed. It grated on his nerves, but as Sion said, winners were bound to have enemies.
The two girls were growing close, and on more than one occasion had they stopped their conversation abruptly when he entered, and refused to restart it before he had left. This concerned him somewhat, since he hadn't known Dori that long, but he nevertheless found himself trusting the woman. Besides, Sion said this perfectly natural female behaviour and a sign of a healthy relationship growing. William's past had not left him with a good idea as to what signs to look for, but Sion was more than happy to help. Trusting in what friends he had, William let time take its toll.
"Toss a coin into the air
Will it show dragon or Reaper?
Toss a coin into the air
Will I be saved or sink deeper?"
Dori's memory-jogging song rang clear and strong through the room, gaining harmonics as it bounced around the skull of the listener. It was a peaceful evening, with the fire crackling merrily in the fireplace and the sky outside the window like velvet. Dori was sitting on her bed, singing and playing. She had insisted on a bed here so that she, too, might supervise Seona's improvements, and had brushed of his objections with the argument that if Seona could safely sleep here, then so could she. So she had moved in a bed, even if this meant the room got rather crowded. Seona was lying on her bed with her eyes closed, trying to remember, while William was lying on his own bed reading."Climb, sweet child, into the light
Through the fire, through the rainClimb, sweet child, into the light
In darkness lies a lonely pain."
If he was to be fully honest (something he seldom was) he didn't really like that song. He had his own memories, memories he preferred to keep in locked rooms of his mind. Luckily, or so he assume, he seemed quite immune to the effects of the song. There is little that can breach through dragon bone, and so despite her most genuine effort, the song was nothing more than a fly beating against a windowpane of his mind. But Dori was not attempting to breach the many walls he had set up, willingly set up, focusing fully on their common friend.
Just like it should be.
"Break the shackles, break the lock
Leave your prison of shadows.
Break the shackles, break the lockTriumph over your sorrows…"
There was a knock on the door. William looked up, marking his place in the book. The scene reminded him of one little over a week ago, but Dori was sitting here, not standing out there planning to bite his head off. The girl had stopped playing, and he felt the magic draining from the room as the words of the song dispersed. Seona had opened her eyes and sat up on her bed, showing signs of curiosity. William rose fully, making his way across the crowded room, and made a mental note to invest their money in a larger room. Sharing a room as a sign of trust was all very well, but this was growing ridiculous. They should at least get a bathroom or something, to wash and change in…
He opened the door and the servant who had been politely waiting bowed deeply. He held out an envelope with 'William Dragonbone' written on it with a free, curvy handwriting.
Beats William the Perverted, I suppose, he thought absently as he tore open the envelope, recalling the words Dori had later taken back. The servant disappeared down the hall, and William returned to the room, closing the door behind him. The other occupants of the room watched him, but his expression revealed nothing but mild surprise.
"What? What is it?" Dori said impatiently.
"I've, we've, been invited to a feast tomorrow evening." He turned the card over. "Ah. From the Equalizer, I see. Didn't I beat him?"
The equalizer was one of the rare individuals that refused to take side between good and evil.
"You broke his nose and snapped his staff in two" Seona supplied vaguely. She shared a look with Dori.
"Oh yes, I remember. Why would he invite me?"
"Well, these parties tend to be a way of forging alliances, William. Expensive of course, like everything is, but the host has a much better chance of gaining companions. The more parties someone organise, the more cemented his position on top of the food pile."
"What happens if I refuse?"
"Then he will think you're looking for other alliances, and people will try to win you over. Playing hard to get, you know" Dori supplied before Seona could say anything.
William looked lost in thought. Dori winked at Seona, clearly not whishing to loose a good party opportunity. She turned to William with her most earnest face.
"Considering your far from social manner this party is just what you need!"
He looked uncertain for a moment, and then nodded.
"Alright, we'll go. But no drinking" he said, raising his voice above Dori's happy shriek. "I don't want anything stupid to happen."
"Oh, but doing stupid things is what partying is about!" Dori protested. "And drinking helps, it lubricates the mind. Don't you want to be lubricated?"
"I like mind the way it is, thank you" William said testily. He dropped the letter. Truth to be told, he was not a very social person, and never had been. He preferred the genuine connection you got from a one-on-one talk rather than a large group of people. But it might do them all some good.
And yet, there was a very heavy feeling hanging over the pit of his stomach, a sixth sense telling him that tomorrow might be more than he bargained for.
Morning passed without much interest, and as they had a lax schedule for the day they slept in late. Having no competitions themselves they stayed to watch a few others battling it out, taking private bets amongst themselves. William ended up loosing repeatedly to Dori and, surprisingly, Seona, who both seemed delighted at the chance to beat him in every bet. The stakes were not high, but he grew increasingly annoyed, eventually refusing to bet altogether.
They ate lunch, after which the girls claimed it was time to get ready. At his protest, they reminded him that it took quite a while to become ready, and refused to give in. Knowing this was a day of defeat, a notion that did not appeal to him, he gave up and they went their separate ways to the baths. He scrubbed well, even though he had taken a bath only last week, enjoying the soaking feeling of the warm water. He wished vaguely for some refreshment, yet alcohol was forbidden in the baths, for good reason.
He eventually got up and dried himself, putting in the loose garments he always wore. He wondered briefly if he was supposed to dress nice, but discarded the notion in favour of his armour. It slid perfectly into place, and he gazed critically at the mirror. The dragon bone seemed to shine more than usual today.
Having finished his preparations thusly, and with hours to spare, he returned to the main arena to watch the games without much interest. In each fight he privately picked out who he thought would win, and was disappointed each time. It was just as well that he did not gamble.
But as time went on he grew increasingly jittery, not used to such a long wait. He headed down to the female baths, hoping the door guard could check up on his friends, and left the crowded hall for a corridor.
The baths were far down, and as walked he became aware that the hall was growing increasingly empty. He looked around himself watchfully, the helmet sliding over his head without him asking for it. The torches flickered, and his sword grew in to his hand, ready for action.
"Come out" he said, turning his head from side to side. "Come out, come out wherever you are…"
There was a brief chuckle, echoing back and forth in the corridor.
"Playing games, William Dragonbone?"
He recognised the voice.
"I wonder if you are, Maugrim. A bit old for hide and seek aren't you?"
"True, true. Mayhap the civilised course would be too… Reveal myself?"
Shadows that had previously flickered on the wall emerged and gathered, forming the figure of Maugrim, who tilted his head at William with a mocking smile.
"Is this better?"
"Hardly. Your face is no improvement."
Other figures emerged from niches in the wall; Boris the Blackhearted, Von Gothicus, Domin… People he had fought and defeated, defeated easily. They were also the crème of darkness in the Academy. He tried to keep them in the corner of his eyes as he watched Maugrim's every move.
"An ambush? How cowardly of you, Maugrim. But what else can I expect from a rat?"
If Maugrim was offended by the mocking words, he did not show it. In fact, a small smirk spread across his face.
"Is that supposed to irk me, your accusation of cowardice? What a fool you are. There is no such thing as 'fair' or 'honest' fighting, and bravery is merely another word for stupidity. What matters are results."
"You seek to teach me rodent philosophy? By all means, I can beat the lot of you anyway."
Truth to be told, he wasn't sure he could. He had only faced them one on one, or with henchmen. "Where is the honour in an ambush?"
"Honour? My dear, confused, little boy. Honour is a myth, something they tell children. It's an old fashioned idea, but admitably one that has much support in these halls, run by that old fool of a Headmaster. Its time for a new order around here, one with less scruples and less senile old men."
"Ah, the good old 'young men knows best' idea? And just when I thought my respect for you could sink no lower. And I suppose your new 'logic' makes you think you can beat me?"
"Oh we can't" Maugrim admitted openly. "Most mages are lucky to have a claw of a dragon, set in their staffs. A whole armour is priceless. I would love to know where you got it… But that is neither here nor there. The point is that there are things out there that can fight dragons!"
"You wouldn't dare" William whispered, hearing his voice quaver for the first time in years. The ground shook.
Maugrim's grin widened, and the shapes that surrounded them disappeared. Eventually even Maugrim dissolved, as if he had never been there, and William was looking down the corridor to the gates of the Woman's baths. There was a noise from behind him, as off heavy breathing.
He turned around and was looking straight into a nightmare.
Dori and Seona were relaxing.
The baths were divided into male, female and unisex (the last one coming after much pressure from some of the Academies better groups), and the two young women were relaxing in the female part. The areas where divided by walls.
This area consisted of one large pool in a large cavern, heated by natural springs in the bedrock. There was a general good feeling in the room, and the two of them stayed as much for the atmosphere as for anything else.
"I don't suppose you have any perfume?" Dori asked, supporting her arms on the edge of the pool. Seona shook her head, and Dori sighed.
"Honestly, if William is going to stay in charge of the finances, he's going to have to start broadening his mind. Does he only think that it's supposed to be used for fighting?"
"Yes" Seona said honestly, sitting on the edge of the pool quite unconcerned of her nakedness. Dori looked at her slyly.
"Want to head into the unisex section?"
"Come on, we might meet Sion there! Or even William, if we're lucky, probably red as a tomato."
"I do not wish to leave here just yet."
"Fair enough" said the blond, pushing away from the edge with her feet and swimming a few strokes. She started threading water about three meters from the edge, and looked at Seona thoughtfully. Her smile faded a bit.
"Seona, I've been meaning to ask you something."
The other girl slid into the pool as well and listened attentively.
"You're pretty free now, I can tell. Can you honestly say that William hasn't tried anything?"
"Yes. With full honesty."
"Oh" Dori started cleaning out her nails, not looking at Seona. "Did you ever want him to?"
She cast a look as her friend, who was in turn looking puzzled. She sighed.
"What I meant was that if I- me and him- you know, took a night out or, well, I don't know… The thing I'm trying to ask is-"
The ground shook.
The water splashed over the edge of the pool, and all conversations stopped. Dori cast a quick look at her friend, but Seona's gaze was fixed on the double doors, and any reaction to the bards question had disappeared from her face. The ground shook again, and this time they could see red light flashing under the door.
The double doors blew of their hinges, accompanied on their airy flight by a figure in white armour. The figure hit the ground and skidded across the tiled floor to the very edge of the pool. Loud talking turned to screams as the second figure appeared, this one nearly two stories tall and looked like it had been dredged from the very depths of Hell, which was not far from the truth.
The Pit Fiend was gigantic, with a grotesque and triangular head, two large and curved horns rising from where its ears should be. Its body, humanoid and muscular, was covered by bits of leather and natural, if such a word could describe any part of the thing, fur. The doorway was not large enough, and it knocked large chunks of the wall with its horns as it entered. In the spacious cavern it straightened up and gave a deafening roar, raising its flaming scimitar above its head.
Meanwhile, the figure on the floor was getting unsteadily to his feet, and managed to get his sword up before the scimitar cleaved him in two. With a feat of incredible strength, William managed to parry the thrust, but was brought to his knees with a grunt. It looked like a toothpick stopping an axe.
He dodged the next one and charge the beast, although what he planned to do against the thing was uncertain. Nor would it ever be known, for he was caught by one large, clawed hand and thrown straight across the room until he struck the wall. He fell limply into the pool.
He floated there, unmoving, face down.
He looked unnaturally still. Although his armour was intact, blood began to spread around him, suggesting that something inside had burst.
The thing roared again, this time in triumph, and why should it not? It had beaten what seemed to be the greatest of the Academy, and more importantly: an ally of the hated dragons. It bore down on William.
Dori had been too shocked to move, an in any event hadn't had time to do everything else. But the sight of her newfound friend wounded, unconscious, maybe even… She was at the edge of the pool in a split second, climbing out with a mixture of anger and panic. She didn't have her harp- hell, she didn't have her clothes!- but if ever there was a need for heroes it was now.
Another bright light interrupted her, and to her horror she saw that it was coming from Seona, still in the pool. It was a bright, concentrated light that pushed the water away from the woman, and she could barely make out her form hanging suspended in the air. The water began to flow over the sides of the pool as the orb of light grew, and the Fiend stopped mid-swing to look at her.
Long after, it was quite impossible for Dori to remember what Seona had said. She was very sure she had said something, but couldn't make it out. She had the good sense to shield her eyes thought, and thus saved herself a large amount of damage as a brighter light still erupted from the flaming ball of rage that was Seona, erupted and flew towards the Fiend with a force of a thousand lightning bolts.
Then it was quiet.
Dori risked a peak and saw that the cave had not collapsed, as she had feared. Seona was sitting on the edge of the pool, and her heart sank when she saw that the woman once more wore a befuddled, uncertain expression like she had worn when they first met. Dori followed her gaze, and her heart sank a bit more when she saw the figure that defied the laws of nature as it floated in full armour.
She saw it lying there in a pool of expanding blood.
"…Nasty business, nasty business…"
"… A pit fiend… Haven't seen one of those since…"
The voices floated around Seona, flowing around her like water around a stone, making no deep impact. They were Masters, her superiors, speaking of important things. Nothing to do with Seona…
"I can't imagine what went through his mind…"
Mind… What was in her mind? She seemed to recall someone worry about that, so long ago… or so near?
She sat there staring at the wall, not sure whether she had to think or if someone would do it for her. She wanted the later. Pain. Hurt. A tear trickled down her check; why was she crying?
"… It's preposterous! Summoning a Pit Fiend just to impress? The man was clearly insane."
"That is often the effect when small minds are foolishly given much power" said an oily voice. She shivered, for that voice remained. It had haunted her sleep when dreams returned, had made days into nightmares, once…
"He simply bit over more than he could chew" said the hated voice again, nonchalantly. "Not all can handle these things."
"But by golly, you can sir! That was one impressive piece of magic, banishing that Fiend. It is clear to us that if anyone is capable of handling such vast amount of dragon bone… well, then it's you, Maugrim! We will hand it over as soon as we figure out a way to get it off him."
"Killing him might help" Maugrim suggested softly, but this was met with denial.
"No, great though his sins be, young William will live."
She looked up, something blossoming in her head. It took her a while to recognise her own mind, rising from mental depths. The bonds that had held it snapped one after one…
William was alive?
"Maugrim, you have done our town a great service. How may we ever repay you?
"My desires are not for me, it is for the good of others: Give me his henchmen, whom I believe he has tormented greatly. I will give them the treatment… they so richly deserve."
Seona stood up, and anger flared in her. They looked at her surprised, and the look of fury on her face stopped any comment short. She lifted a hand and snakes of fire shot from her fingertips, wrapping themselves around Maugrim's neck. He chocked.
"Deserve? DESERVE? You wish to turn Dori into another plaything, you snivelling little rat? It was you who summoned that Fiend, out of jealousy against William. And it was I who vanquished it, when even he came short!"
He was brought to his knees, his face turning blue, but no one lifted a finger to stop it. They saw now the power in Seona, a power so great that mages many years her senior had seen it necessary to bind her with the strongest spells. Her eyes flickered and her magic dissolved, and Maugrim fell to the floor drawing a rattling breath. She started for the door. One man was foolish enough to try and stop her.
"Where do you think your going? You're a henchman, you can't-"
She grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him easily over her head, his feet dangling a foot over the ground.
"I was a slave! A slave for every twisted individual in the establishment! Now if you will excuse me, the sole excuse for the male half of the human race might be dying. And if he do-" she said, looking him straight in the eye. "-Then this place will see some changes!"
She stalked out.
The events of the day took a long time to cool down. William shifted gingerly in the chair, still sore in many places. His armour had taken the worst blow, but there had still been need for some emergency healing. Happily, he was in an academy that could afford the best, and except for a few critical moments, everything went smoothly. He leaned back, pleased with the day, only to winces as this put pressure on yet another sore spot.
"Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is?"
He looked across at Dori, who was looking annoyed. Any hopes that his damages might result in any sort of fuss had been dashed pretty soon.
"What is, Dori?"
"A hero is supposed to be in the right place, at the right time. I was neither! I am the Hero That Came Too Late!" she huffed, and William couldn't help but smile.
"Had you been there, you would most likely be a wet spot on the wall," he said kindly. "You don't have armour, remember?"
She still looked grumpy, and he tried to lighten the mood.
"Hey, can't you spare some sympathy for me? I'm the one who just got tossed around by a Pit Fiend you know."
Her expression grew quiet, and she looked at him briefly, then looked away.
"I was very worried about you. If Seona hadn't-"
"Yes, isn't it wonderful" he said, ecstatic. "She's actually cured, everyone says so! Months of work has paid of!"
Dori bit her lip. She was happy that Seona was well again, of course, but that wasn't what she had wanted to talk about. Luckily, she was not here at the moment.
"Actually William, there was something I wanted to talk to you about. Have you, I mean, we could, if you want-"
She was cut off by the door opening, and saw Seona entering. Anger flared in her, but it was easily drowned out by relief of seeing her alright. She was close to the poor woman, after all.
"Seona! You're alright?" William said, half gleeful, half concerned.
"As alright as can be" replied the black-haired sorceress. She walked over to his chair and sat down next to Dori on her bed. She looked from one to the other.
"I would like to thank you, both of you, for helping me. You have no idea how much it means to me."
"It was nothing" William shrugged, telling his biggest lie to date. Seona met his gaze head on, and he felt himself looking away from the diamond-hard gaze. Seona unbound was a far cry from subservient. He could not himself remember what had happened in the baths, but her magic had been described as 'epic', and the confidence this brought gave her a formidable personality.
"You two helped me when everyone else wrote it off as pointless and got on with their lives. That is as far from nothing as you can ever hope to achieve."
William and Dori nodded.
"And now I suppose you'll want to move out" he said, trying to mask the regret in his voice. This took the two quite by surprise.
"Well, you're healthy now; there is no need for you two to stay here. I'm sure you'll want rooms of your own, better than these."
Dori looked from one to the other, and then turned to William kindly.
"William, you know what I said about trust? That hasn't changed since the spell gave out, and I doubt you suddenly had a personality change. I'm staying, at least."
She looked at Seona, not sure what she was looking for, whether she hoped the girl who stay or leave. Seona did not look at her, however.
"Yes" was what she said. "So am I."