A surprised pterodactyl falls in much the same way as a dropped dart. They are gliding creatures by nature, streamlined around their dense, wind-shearing beaks. This means that when they haven't managed to get their wings fanned out underneath them, their faces behave like boat anchors. Snapping, angry boat anchors.
Fadi wriggled as he fell, fully aware that in a moment or two the rising ground was going to make the point moot, but not wanting to travel headfirst down a saurian gullet just yet. In between the clap-clap-clapping of Fluffums' closing jaws, he could see little glimpses of the long, dark tunnel that he was probably destined for. It wasn't exactly inviting.
As a testament to either Fadi's inspiration or his desperation, Fluffums missed four times before they hit the bottom of the enclosure. Darkness reached up and slapped the world, wiping it from existence. Then, as if that wasn't enough, a squadron of blind fireworks rocketed across Fadi's vision. Ringing numbness filled his ears. His body collapsed in on itself like a kicked accordion, and time slowed down on its highway to gawk at the accident.
Don't pass out don't pass out don't pass out good.
The fireworks cleared, taking the darkness with them. In their place was a hazy, washed out world full of churning wings and glinting eyes. Fadi spasmed, sat up, and stuck both hands wrist-deep into something thick and wet—steadying himself as the ground beneath him rolled.
Swiveling his head to the left, he found Fluffums had landed a few feet away. The creature was snorting furiously and hobbling around in a circle, taking berserk swings at its passing kin whenever they swooped too close. This wasn't doing much to help it shake off the fall, but it was certainly creating a little bubble of clear airspace around Fadi. And that was frustrating the other pterodactyls like nobody's business.
One of them swept its beak at Fluffums, who parried like a fencer with his face, scoring a long red streak down the side of the other's wing. The rest took the hint and began to gather on the ground, claw-walking over the muck in squawking phalanxes to where their prey sat breathing in hurried gulps of air and hardly daring to believe that he was still alive.
The leather-winged legion advanced and Fadi scrambled back, fumbling hands against the slick floor until one of them fetched up against something solid. It was the hapless solicitor's briefcase. Without even thinking, he hauled it out of the muck with a sickening slurp and swung it in front of him, just in time to catch the tip of a darting beak.
Improperly fastened, the briefcase flew open, spraying a dazzling array of decorative cutlery out over the closest pterodactyls. Gold embossed forks, steak knives with mahogany handles, and silver salad tongs all hit home to an agonized opera in the key of wark. Regaining his feet, Fadi sprinted through the confusion towards the ladder.
Admittedly, this wasn't a particularly well thought through move, but it made sense in the context of aaaaahhhh flying murder machines aaaaahhhh. Ducking, shoving, and tumbling when there was no clear path to run, he got his hands on the first metal rung and was off the ground before he even bothered to look up. When he did, it was into the business end of a gnarled teak staff.
"Don't stop. Keep climbing. You will almost certainly give the birds indigestion if you hesitate. However, when you get to the top, I strongly advise against making any sudden movements." The staff withdrew, giving Fadi just enough space to climb through the feeding hatch. He complied. Uncertain punishment was leagues better than certain digestion.
"I take it that thing shoots fireballs?" Fadi inclined his head at the staff as he shut the hatch behind him. The platform felt wobbly under his feet and blood pounded in his ears.
"This? Heavens no. Mr. Watts doesn't want to kill you. He wants to press charges for assault. Much more lucrative, that." Renaldo allowed himself a slight smile. "This staff is used for compulsion, and apparently it is a bit of a nuisance to construct, so I have been ordered not to expend any charges on it unless I have to. Don't make me have to."
"I won't. Trust me." Fadi swayed on his feet. "Can I sit down?"
"No. You will be coming with m-" Renaldo's voice was drowned out by the clamor of point blank church bells. The sound just spontaneously exploded out of the air, and Fadi would have clapped his hands to his ears if he hadn't been acutely conscious of what they were covered in. "Oh, what now?" Renaldo groaned as his eyes rolled heavenward.
Primal instincts honed by his near-dactyl experience kicked back in. Fadi lunged, seized the staff, and hip-checked like his life depended on it. "Freeze!" roared the extreme gardener, and a blast of coruscating energy washed so close by Fadi's cheek that it singed his hair before passing unhindered through the wire mesh and striking a pterodactyl outside. The bird-thing's muscles locked mid-flap and it vanished from sight. Meanwhile, inside the enclosure, the staff popped out of Renaldo's hands and Fadi clumsily spun it to bear on him.
"Stay put, for, like, a little bit." Fadi rattled the staff menacingly, unsure how to activate it. Another blast lanced from its tip and stopped Renaldo in an awkward half-crouch. "Good. Now, tell me where the dragon went."
"Why would that matter to you? You can't honestly believe that you're going to slip away from a sorcerer on foot?" The sound of bells was almost deafening. Fadi had to strain his ears against it to make out the words.
High above the two of them, the ceiling made a grating noise and began to slide away. In its place were the stars. "I won't go on foot, then." One last surge of energy exited the staff. It struck something on the floor beneath the covered dome which let loose with an aggrieved wark. "Fluffums, get over here."
Joseph's head rang. His middle finger bled. His eyes smarted from smoke exposure and the overpowering reek of sulfur clung to him in a cloak so tight that his nose had long since shut down in self defense. To make matters worse, he was standing center stage in a small, poorly illuminated club next to a singer in a slinky dress whose feather boa did not quite disguise the fact that she had gills. Said singer had been reaching for a high note when he arrived, and surprise had driven her voice about an octave higher. The result was excruciating.
Chickens, he reflected, were the root of the problem, although they certainly weren't the only culpable party. Also to blame was Joseph's inexperience with magic and the second, hidden enchantment his father had apparently laid on him. The moment he tried to leave the manor, it had been keyed to activate all the local alarms. This should have been merely annoying, but it spooked the chicken.
Holding an agitated hen perfectly still while chanting arcane nonsense from memory at the top of his lungs had not been an experience that he would care to repeat. The bird had swiveled its head and started going after fingers midway through the first syllable, but by then it had been too late to stop.
Unlike complicated science, complicated magic had a will of its own. If you were interrupted while you were casting it, the spell would usually take advantage of the pause to complete itself. So, while a researcher could spend weeks of intermittent tinkering to develop a tastier toaster pastry, a sorcerer working on the very same project who nodded off for the night might awaken to find a sentient golem made of bread had barricaded itself in his kitchen and was holding the refrigerator hostage. Joseph had been lucky in that he'd completed his spell—wringing the bird's neck at exactly the same time as he roared the last phrase—but he'd been too distracted by all the clanging and the pecking to get it letter perfect. Which explained why he was in the club, wherever that was.
"Uh, where am I?" he hazarded.
An empty beer bottle rocketed by his head. "Get off the stage!"
Joseph's gaze played out over the crowd. Regardless of which corner of the world it came from, it seemed about the emotional average for a dive: listless and quick to anger when the routine it knew was interrupted. Another beer bottle missed him by a few feet, but he continued standing and squinting. From where he stood he couldn't make out much more than silhouettes, but those seemed to be blessed with the usual compliment of arms and legs plus a few extra.
"Is this Ry'lantis?"
"Are you a bleedin' tourist? Get off the stage!" It was the same voice as before. The crowd murmured agreement. One or two—they could only be described as tendrils—waved in discontent. Joseph decided to err on the side of not starting a brawl and hopped down onto the floor. It squeaked beneath his feet. The singer, whose face had been slowly turning blue from the sustained note, gave a little shiver and resumed her song.
Down at ground level, Joseph's view of the tables and their occupants was less obstructed by the house lights. This wasn't exactly a blessing. He fought the urge to crawl back up on stage.
Directly in front of him sat a trio of businessmen, head to toe in their company's suits. The oldest of them, who was talking animatedly around his beer, had a face like a melted candle. It just sort of ran diagonally downwards until it formed another partial face, complete with a nose and mouth of its own. Every so often the second mouth would open and interject something into the monologue, whereupon it would promptly be shut up by a swig of beer.
The two other businessmen were no less distinct. One of them, who was nodding along enthusiastically to every other word, had to take care that his head didn't stray too much to either side when he did so. Black, chitinous spines protruded from both his shoulders. The third man was sitting right next to him, but kept shifting uncomfortably in his chair to accommodate the scorpion tail emerging from his lower back. It sashayed from side to side as he moved.
At other tables there were women with camouflaged moth wings, men with sucker cups on their fingertips, and college students with the mottled blue-green antennae or claws of deep sea lobsters. Hunched, dorsal-finned retail workers shared a pitcher of something inky as they commiserated. A young lady dressed in business casual who just so happened to have the limbs of the cuttlefish jutting from her chin passed a scribbled on napkin to a man sitting across from her. He accepted it as best he could, clasping it between broad frog-hands and smiling back at her with a mouthful of serrated teeth.
Joseph felt a creeping unease steal over him. At about the same time he felt a slight tap on the side of his arm and he whirled, nearly upsetting the tray held by the waitress behind him. She leaned quickly back out of reach. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"Don't sweat it. It's a busy night." She combed a free hand through her hair, which was chestnut with streaks of peroxide blond. "Can I bring you something to drink? Show you somewhere to sit? You look a little confused."
"Er," was all he could manage. She didn't have feet.
"Stay right here. I'll be back in a second. And do try not to block the stage. Miss Greene is the only regular performer we have. Some of the patrons can get a little possessive." And with that she squelched off, traveling on a thick bundle of snake's tails that tapered together into a thick, scaly trunk and eventually vanished beneath her knee-length skirt. They seemed to propel her forward by expanding and contracting in sinuous waves. Joseph tried not to stare.
Up on stage, the singer was warbling something about love lost and found. Her gills fluttered slightly with every breath she took. I'm in Ry'lantis, the words came to him in an anesthetic haze, I have to be.
This wasn't exactly a happy realization. As a child, Joseph had learned about the world through movies. And, while Scheheran cinema had been romantic and exciting with rooftop sword fights aplenty, Ry'lantian flicks tended to be the kind that kept you up until four in the morning with the covers pulled over your head, your nightlight going full force, and one of your father's golf clubs hidden under your pillow. You know, just in case something eldritch slithered in through a window.
The inhabitants of the little club didn't seem poised to tear him limb from limb, but Joseph started edging away all the same. He got two steps before his legs struck something solid. The stage. He sighed, turned, and promptly ran into something else.
"Whoah." Leaning over, the waitress retrieved her tray from the floor. It had just been unloaded, fortunately. "You really need to learn to look and walk in the same direction."
Joseph tried not to stare at her tail. At its end, all the little sub-tails were twitching like living dreadlocks. "I'm sorry, really. I'm just disoriented."
"I'd expect you would be, popping in like that. Big puff of smoke, loud crack as reality gets torn asunder. Flashy stuff, but it can be kind of draining." She made a you-know-how-it-is kind of wave.
"Um, actually, I didn't mean to come here. It just sort of happened."
"Miscast, then? You're pretty lucky. Edge of the dome is about a ten minute walk from here and you don't look like you can breathe water."
Her expression softened. "You're totally lost, aren't you?"
Joseph nodded. "Yeah."
"Okay. See the booth over there? Go have a seat. Maybe order some food. It's not half bad here. I have a break in," she consulted her wrist, "oh, half an hour or so. Hopefully I can explain how to get to where you're supposed to be then."
"Really?" He couldn't imagine that she knew a good express route to the wandering bazaar, but it seemed wrong to turn down the kindness. "Thank you, um, ah,"
"Medu," she supplied. "You can probably guess what it's short for." And with that she bustled away.
Ashe backwinged hard, throwing plumes of stars away from him on rolling waves of air. His body had been flying on automatic for the last couple hours after he finished sneezing all the feathers out and it didn't want to stop now. Nonetheless, below him—far below him—were the turgid waters of the Umbrian sea, and beneath them was his destination. Ry'lantis glimmered like a jewel in the depths.
According to legend (which was nearly always accurate when it came to matters of magic swords or lost cities,) in the ages before Ashe had been born, Ry'lantis had been little more than a humble coastal town. Its residents had enjoyed gloomy weather, pulling wriggling things out of the sea to make into stew, and desperate alcoholism. This hadn't made for particularly exciting lives, but they had more important things to worry about than boredom.
As the stories went, there had been something ancient and sinister dwelling beneath the waters off their shore. Every so often, massive translucent arms would stretch out of the ocean deep and pull down a bite-sized schooner or five. The residents of old Ry'lantis were a hardy bunch, but they thought that this was just unfair. It was all well and good for them to snatch up sea creatures for dinner. That was the natural order of things. What was not okay was when the roles got reversed and men started washing up on shore, drenched and babbling about how their crew had been taken by some cyclopean beast. The villagers did not know what a cyclopean was, but they resolved to find it and give it a solid kick in the eye.
After a quick examination of the bottoms of a lot of bottles, the villagers found their courage in a big oak barrel labeled "old man peter's whiskey dregs. Don't ye touch this or ye will be sorry." It was heady stuff, courage, and after partaking they made their ways in swaying lines to their boats and set off… straight into the worst storm that year would see.
What followed was a lot of cursing and masts breaking and frantic rowing in circles while huge swells threatened to swamp them. The terror from beneath the waves sensed this commotion and came up for a better look (and perhaps a late snack.) To its total surprise, it was promptly set upon by a mob of frustrated drunken fishermen and had the tar kicked out of it.
After the storm subsided, the villagers limped home in broken boats, dragging along behind them the biggest catch they had ever seen. Although harpooned and subdued, the terror was far from dead. It knew that it was destined to become several months worth of unwanted leftovers if things didn't improve, and so it offered to cut a deal with the community that had bested it. In exchange for its freedom, it would build for them a floating city out where the freshest fish swam.
It wasn't every day that a large piece of homicidal calamari offered you real estate, and so the villagers accepted. Unfortunately, as a consequence of agreeing to a bargain with such an unnatural creature, their bloodline had been warped by its influence. As time passed, each generation of children born on the floating city emerged from their mothers stranger than the last. This unnerved their trading partners—the nations that would become Arturia and Schere—who began to avoid them. Or, at least, to make hastily mumbled excuses about why they couldn't stay for dinner with their mutant buddies.
In a fit of pique, after another long night of drinking, the Ry'lantians decided that they didn't need contact with outsiders after all, domed over their city, and sank it beneath the waters. Later on in the afternoon, miserably hung over, they remembered how they needed little commodities like food and oxygen and enchanted a massive whirlpool to form over the top of the city so that they could let the occasional visitor in. Although this was widely regarded at the time as making the best of the bad situation, it would later become a matter of regional pride. Your city doesn't have its own whirlpool now, does it?
I didn't think so.
It was into this storied vortex that Ashe descended, sweeping down from the sky in tight circles so that the edges of his wing tips almost brushed the whirling water. The funnel became progressively narrower and narrower as he dropped, until he was wheeling through a fine mist of salty spray. At the end he was forced to fold his wings and freefall, hitting the steel entrance platform to the dome so hard that it vibrated.
For the most part, visitors to Ry'lantis arrived on magic carpets. The whirlpool made ships unfeasible and not everybody was endowed with a nice pair of wings. Carpets settled down gently, and the customs agent on duty was evidently used to this. When Ashe landed, he was nearly thrown from his feet.
It took him almost a full ten count to get his balance back, and another few seconds to come to grips with the dragon that was now standing in front of him, meticulously licking the seawater off its scales. However, once he got his composure to boot back up, his brain unconsciously switched into hospitality mode. "Welcome to the fair city of Ry'lantis," he hazarded, "is this your first time visiting us?"
Ashe gazed smugly at the customs agent, who still wore a look of worried awe on his face. He also had the polyps of a sea anemone in place of his hair, waving weirdly in some ethereal breeze, but this didn't interest the dragon half as much. Finally, some respect, he mused, maybe the universe has finally realized what I have to put up with. "It is my first time here," Ashe told the agent with a gracious nod, "do I win some sort of prize?"
The customs agent shook his head. His polyps stayed still. The effect was unsettling. "We used to give out this little book of coupons for fish and fish-related products," he admitted. "It wasn't very popular. I think I might still have one, though, if you'd like."
You didn't get to be a successful dragon after only a handful of centuries by passing up opportunities to add to your hoard. "…what kinds of fish-related products?"
"Little figurines shaped like smelt, herring earrings, trout stationary, recordings of songs about swordfish," the customs agent reeled off a list that he was apparently very familiar with.
Ashe imagined himself sleeping atop a mound of piscine key chains and commemorative plates. "Uh, no thanks. I'll pass."
"Suit yourself. We also have a little guidebook for the affordable price of-"
Ashe yawned. Filtered green water-lights played over his dentures.
"—free," the customs official smoothly interjected. "it's courtesy of Strange Aeons Fisheries, Inc., Ltd., etc. It'll tell you how to find the best sightseeing spots under the dome and the tastiest little eateries that Ry'lantis can offer. All company-approved, of course. And, as an added bonus, it comes with a voucher for a free tour of Strange Aeons' central plant. Would you like one, sir?" Webbed hands did something mysterious and pulled a slim, slightly soggy booklet from midair.
"Don't mind if I do." Reaching out with a delicate claw, the dragon seized it by the spine…and effortlessly tore it in half. "Blast. Just read me the highlights."
"Certainly, sir," called the official from the floor, scooping up the shredded papers and doing his best to reassemble them into something book-like. "In the first ring of town alone, there are-"
"We live under a dome, sir. It wouldn't make much sense to organize everything into quarters and districts. Instead we have rings and a core. The core is used for administration, immigration, and trade. Meanwhile, the rings are dedicated to business, leisure, and the accommodations of those not fortunate enough to be guaranteed company housing. The closer to the edge of the dome they get, the less, uh, amenable to tourists they become. I can't imagine an individual of your, er, stature would encounter any difficulties there, but they hold little of interest." The man made a slightly dismissive gesture, directed at no one in particular and very carefully aimed away from the dragon. "Now, the first ring, that's a sight to behold. It sits directly above the lambent kelp beds; the very same ones that local fishermen harvest, and that go into the glowing salads our chefs are famous for. The streets of the first ring have been enchanted to partial transparency, and at night they glow so brightly that there's no need for street lamps.
Of course, if you should be wandering in the first ring at night and find the streets beneath you going dark, there is no cause for alarm. Sometimes locals and tourists alike are graced with a fleeting glimpse of Ry'lantis' patron as he moves about in the dusky waters beneath the city. Be sure to wave to him. He's awfully vain for a squid, and can get into quite a sulk if you don't."
Ashe felt his eyes begin to cross from the steady flow of useless information. This wasn't getting him any closer to his elusive treasure. "Skip ahead. Give me the cliff notes on the highlights."
Looking puzzled, the official did his best to oblige. "Ry'lantis is great."
"You asked for the shortened version of the shortened version, sir."
"Well, how about the annotated cliff notes of the highlights?"
"Never mind. Just give me that voucher. I'll find Strange Aeons on my own."