Chapter 37

Thunder was waiting for her when she made her way down on the lift – Erasmus had gone ahead of her to retrieve him, as promised – and she was glad to see that the horse didn't look any worse for wear, considering how the Tunnel-dwellers seemed to feel about animals. She popped Monarch into one of the saddlebags, before mounting him. Erasmus waited patiently, passing the map to her – the only place he could hold it would be in his mouth – and the two of them headed to the outskirts of the city.

Erasmus seemed to have studied the map enough to commit the general area of their tunnel to memory, for he showed no signs of hesitation as they began climbing one of the spiraling paths of the bowl upwards. The tunnel he stopped in front of seemed well-traveled, judging from the footprints in the dust.

(The one we are looking for was holed up some time ago, after it was deemed unsafe, but has been surveyed a bit more recently,) he informed her as the two of them headed inside. He created another fire for her, and she cradled it between her hands, the map spread out on Thunder's shoulders. She frowned down at the gray line, tracing the tunnel they were going down to where the special one split off. It seemed like they had a ways to go, but that made sense; the fourth task wouldn't be somewhere commonly traversed, after all.

(Could you play the violin while on horseback?) Erasmus asked, breaking her train of thought.

She laughed. "I can't play the violin while I'm off a horse. You want to try your hand at it, I assume?"

(Yes…but it seems like it would be difficult to keep myself walking forward while attempting to hover in your body to play it, and you'd have to try to remain balanced, which would throw me off further. It can wait, I suppose.)

"Do you know how to play?"

He gave her a dry look. (Obviously I have never had the opportunity.)

"Obviously I know that. I meant to ask if you had studied it. I didn't think the other races cared for violins." She tried picturing Moss playing one, but ended up imagining the little green-haired creature gnawing at it instead, or plucking the strings off to experiment with the sounds.

(I have observed a few humans, now and then.) There was an odd note in his voice, and she arched one eyebrow.

"What does that mean?"

His eyes slid away from hers.

"Please tell me you didn't kidnap some poor violinist."

His answer was silence, and she slapped her forehead. "Erasmus! No wonder you had to move all the time, if you were doing things like that. Those poor people."

(The locals disliked me already, it was no real loss. It was a last-ditch effort, really. I was merely curious, after having hovered around the village a few times and seeing her play.)

"So it was some innocent woman. That makes it even better." She sighed. "You didn't hurt her, did you?"

(No. I brought her back to my cave and kept her for a few days, trying to get her to play. I tried all number of things – guile, rewards, promising her favors, - but none of that worked.)

"And death threats, I assume. Or did you back her into an impossible deal and drag her over several countries to collect a bunch of dusty old relics, getting her swept up in some creepy, prophetic thing in the process?"

(Sarcasm does not become you, little princess,) he chided. (Anyway, I did not threaten her. I was young then. I did not properly understand the power of a decent threat. I assure you, if I was to do the same now, I would have her playing within the hour.)

"So what did you do with her, then, if she wouldn't play for you?"

(I returned her to her home, and then fled to another cave before the villagers could get up-in-arms about the little incident.) He tilted his head to the left as he spoke. There was bitterness dripping from each word, and she felt sympathy despite herself.

"It was good of you to let her go – not that I condone kidnapping her in the first place."

(It mattered very little, in the end. I could have eaten her, the village's response would have been the same. 'Good' is not a word used to describe my kind, as I have discovered both through personal experience and reading.)

She had to admit he had a point there; she couldn't recall ever having heard a story in which the dragon was a kind or misunderstood soul.

Truth in fiction, though, really, she thought. Erasmus isn't exactly a cuddly kitten.

"Did you get anything out of her at all, or did she just try to hide the entire time?" she asked, against her better judgment.

(The first day had her mostly hiding, but hunger drew her out by the second. I fed her, and she wasn't so frightened then…that only lasted until I began to talk again, though.) He winced. (Talking does display an awful lot of teeth, you know.)

"I have some idea of that, yes," she said wryly, remembering how intimidating he had been at first – and still could be, when he was angry.

(Well, that sent her scurrying away again. Then I began offering rewards, but it was to little avail. By the third, I had grown tired of her company, and I let her go.) His head was still tilted to the side, and his thoughts seemed elsewhere.

Something subtle flickered in his eyes, then, and she could feel that he was holding something back, something large, but she decided not to press him about it. Erasmus was just as entitled to hold secrets as she was, especially since the encounter had probably happened centuries ago.

They continued on in silence for some time, and Seralynn traced their progress on the map as the tunnel turned and twisted.

"Won't be long now," she said finally, although there was no real way of telling time within the twisted path.

(I can feel it.)

She frowned, not able to feel anything herself, but decided to take his word for it. "Do you think the Tunnel-dwellers could too?"

(Powerful though they are, my senses are superior. They would have to be fairly deep within the tunnel before it came to their attention, I would think.)

"Do you have any idea of what's waiting for us?"

(No. Nothing substantial, at any rate. Something about twisted words.)

"That's not very helpful."

(I didn't design the tasks, now did I?)

"No, but I thought you did all this research about them, what with the Pointed's memories and all?"

(Research was done, yes, but much of it was unhelpful. This is an old mirror, you know. Quite a bit has simply been lost to time. It happens. I shudder to think of the other valuables that lie unclaimed somewhere, all because they were buried in the memories of the living.)

That made her pause for a moment; she hadn't considered all of the priceless relics that might never be rediscovered, because everyone had forgotten about them.

If only there was something out there that could mend wars, she thought with a sigh, or ease grieving hearts.

The tunnel turned then, and she blinked as she saw another opening in the wall. Rocks were strewn about it, freshly moved, and she knew it had to be the path they were looking for.

It was somewhat narrower than the other tunnel, so she was forced to walk ahead of Erasmus instead of in front of him. The walls were darker than the main tunnel's, like her stone, but she couldn't see any silver streaks within it.

(The moon's blood is probably rather deep, since the Pihekir haven't discovered it,) he said, as if echoing her thoughts. (We still have a ways to go.)

She sighed. "Walking for another hour sounds torturous."

(It doesn't have to be an hour, if your horse wasn't so impossibly slow. I should have been in front, you know. That would have made more sense.)

"You would have only gone ahead and then gotten impatient. Thunder has put in an awful lot of work for us, and he's been very good about the whole thing." She twisted around to frown at him. "Don't try intimidating him, either."

(I would not dream of it,) he said with a roll of his eyes.

They continued on for some time, until Thunder abruptly stopped, throwing his head up. Seralynn was so surprised that she nearly fell off of him. Erasmus let out a low growl.

(Get it to move again, or I will.)

She squeezed Thunder gently with her legs, but he only responded by bucking his head again, eyes rolling. She felt a prickle of apprehension, and looked back to Erasmus, only to find that his head was raised as well as he sensed whatever Thunder was feeling.

He moved forward suddenly, knocking Thunder to the ground, sending Seralynn tumbling off. She opened her mouth to protest, but Erasmus crouched over them both, sweeping them underneath of his belly. His scales were warm against her face, and she could feel Thunder trembling next to her.

Then, without warning, the earth gave a heave underneath of them, as if some great creature was waking up, and there was a crackling above them, then a roar, as the parts of the ceiling gave way. She could see nothing from her position underneath Erasmus, could only listen with horror as huge chunks of earth rained down on them, striking Erasmus, their weight pushing him downwards until he was nearly crushing them.

And then, within an instant, it was over. The fire that Erasmus had given her had gone out during her fall, and she could see nothing but inky blackness, but from Erasmus's labored breathing, it was clear he was in pain.

"What happened?" she whispered. "Did it cave in? Are we trapped? Are you hurt?"

(Be still,) he warned, before slowly rising. She could hear the earth shifting, and dirt trickled past her face as he moved positions. Thunder snorted, his calm demeanor shattered, and she could hear him trying to rise, but because Erasmus was still standing over them, he could not.

Erasmus reached around with one hand, pawing around until he felt her. He gently pushed her forwards, in front of him, before doing the same with Thunder. Thunder was on his feet again immediately, and she could hear his hoofs clapping against the earth, muffled by the new dirt.

"Are you hurt?" she said again, as Erasmus shook himself, sending more earth tumbling to the ground.

(Mildly. It's nothing. Are you alright?)

"Y-yes." A tremor entered her voice as she realized what might have happened, had Erasmus not been there to weather the blows for her. "What happened?"

(The tunnel was unstable. We knew that. It has caved behind us, where you were standing previously, but that does not matter now. We were not going to exit that way anyway. Come over here. I have need of your hands again.)

She walked towards him hesitantly, holding out her hands so that she did not walk into him. She touched his scaly hide, and paused, taking a moment to realize that it was his foreleg. "Where do you want me to go?"

(Down, a bit. Back leg.)

She carefully walked down towards where she thought his back leg rested, and her eyes widened as she felt the edge of something torn and jagged. The coppery smell of blood filled her nose, and she sucked in a sharp breath.


(You might want to close your eyes. The flash will be bright.)

She did so, and even then stars danced behind her eyes for several minutes after the flash had passed. The hide she touched was whole again, but she could still feel the slightest tremor of pain underneath the skin.

"Erasmus," she said again, more softly this time, but he ignored her.

(Find the horse. Knocking him down is dangerous for their kind. They're surprisingly delicate creatures, considering their size.) She hesitated, and he gave her a mental nudged. (Now, princess. I am fine. Here, have your fire.)

He blew out a small flame and balanced it on one claw, before passing it down to her. Her eyes immediately went to his leg, but in the flickering light she could not see the wound that had once existed. She held it up further, surveying the mound of stone that now covered their exit.

He nudged her towards Thunder again, and she reached out to touch the horse's nose. There was another flash, and she was thrown back, but landed in Erasmus's palm. He lifted her back up, and she mounted Thunder once more.

"Do think there will be another cave-in?" she asked with a worried glance towards the ceiling.

He shrugged. (Whether there will be or not, we have no choice but to go forward, unless you wish to turn back now.)

She bit her lower lip, thinking that she'd rather they teleported out of the tunnel entirely, but knew they had to continue on until the fourth task, or else their journey thus far would have been for nothing. As he had said, they were too deep in the quest now to turn back.

"Let's keep going, then," she said quietly, and Erasmus nodded.

. . .

The passage of time gnawed at her incessantly as they went; it was impossible to say whether they had been walking for minutes or hours, or even an entire day; sometimes it felt as though even her thoughts were dragging on, while at other times they zipped past at the speed of light. It was disconcerting, to say the least, but there was nothing she could do about it but distract herself, and the easiest way to do so was with Erasmus.

She began quizzing him, with silly things at first – his favorite color (it had been red before, but after he had seen the true force of green through her eyes, he had decided he liked it best), his favorite piece of art (The Plight of Incendinaria, although she had never heard of it), and other such topics – before moving onto larger ones – his feelings on the Pointed versus the Tunnel-dwellers, for example (while he felt they both had their own merits and enjoyed the scientific work that the Pihekir were able to produce, for some reason he enjoyed the wilder, more fierce magic of the Pointed). He, in turn, began asking her questions, although she suspected it was mostly to take his mind off of whatever injury had sustained.

She answered them as truthfully as she could – her favorite color was blue, her favorite food was a special Hondian pastry, and she too liked the Pointed better, despite their mischievous natures – but shied away from deeper topics, like her relationship with Auber, just as he deflected any question about his past that was too probing. Neither of them were learning anything substantial, but it was comforting, somehow, to exchange such trivial information. It was the sort of thing she might have talked with Dubin about, on a slow day.

"You should paint the violinist," she said abruptly, after he had avoided yet another question about her.

(Excuse me?)

"Well, I mean, she obviously had some sort of impact on you, if you remember her so clearly."

(There is little I do not remember clearly. I remember a great many things. That does not mean they are of consequence.)

"But she was, wasn't she?"

He blew a gust of warm wind at her, although thankfully it was devoid of harsh smoke. (You're far too nosy for your own good.)

"Well, you obviously kidnapped her for a reason," she pressed, "and that seems like a lot of work to go through, for someone who could only play the violin…especially since you were able to hear it before you captured her. Really, it seems like you should have known that snatching her up would only mean she wouldn't play for you."

(I told you, I was young. Young dragons make mistakes.)

"Is that why you didn't just go and grab me?" She turned around to face him again, finally able to ask the question that had been dwelling in the back of her mind for some time. "I mean, if this mirror is important enough for you to go through all this trouble, why didn't you just break into the castle and steal me?"

His eyes narrowed. (You think too much,) he said, but she waited patiently.

(Fine,) he scowled. (The reason I did not 'break into the castle,' as you so eloquently put it, is because doing so would have been impossibly foolish. As you said, stealing the violinist would not make her play, any more than grabbing you would have made you help me. You would have refused, knowing that your father's army would soon be on my doorstep, for nothing attracts the attention of a kingdom more than grabbing a princess. The way you presented yourself to me was rather convenient, really.) He tilted his head to the left. (Although, as I have said, the mirror itself is not such an issue. It's only that I enjoy taking opportunities when they appear, and once I have begun something, I am reluctant to stop.)

"It is too 'an issue.' Or have you already forgotten that creepy room, and those paintings?"

(Magic works in strange ways, is all. The figures and images would have adjusted themselves accordingly, had I picked another princess.)

"But what about how most of them take place in nations that I have connections to? The fourth test is here, in Lapidae, but the first were in Hondae, where my mother was from."

(Perhaps it has more to do with your family than you in particular. I wonder what would have happened if you had a sister?)

"I'm sure if I did, she wouldn't have been stupid enough to try and fight a dragon in the first place." She turned back to stare at her hands, eyes tracing the slim scar that ran across one palm.

(Perhaps not. But then you would be trapped still, would you not? Caught between your father's authority and your feelings for the prince, no more free than you are now. I know you do not enjoy interacting with me, and that is all well and fine, but would you really be happier, trapped in your prison of stone and destiny?)

"You should be a poet, not an artist," she replied, smiling despite herself. "You do have a point, I suppose…but at least with my father, I would have the chance to make my own decisions, if I was brave enough to ask…he couldn't really marry me off to whoever could slay you, not if I put my foot down, but it's just so intimidating sometimes, dealing with the king. Even when he is your father."

She felt a spark of surprise emanate from him. (Really? He was going to marry you off to whoever could slay me? I am not sure whether to be flattered about being involved in such an affair, or indignant because he underestimated me so.)

She laughed. "You have to give him a bit of a break. It isn't as though anyone had seen a dragon recently. We had forgotten how powerful your kind could be, I think." Then, her face darkened as she thought of how many hapless knights Erasmus had faced, how many had marched willingly to their deaths thinking they had a shadow of a hope of becoming king.

(They did not feel anything either, you know,) he said, as if sensing her thoughts. (The knights, I mean. They did not suffer unnecessary pain.)

She almost remarked that it was rather kind of him, objectively speaking, to ensure they didn't suffer, before he continued, (Pain makes the meat tougher, you know. The body tenses up, and I dislike that immensely.)

Her brief moment of goodwill quickly faded. She had been able to blot out the fact that Erasmus had eaten most of the poor men that he had killed, but he had brought that imagery rushing back. Again, she thought of Gordon Gideon, and her heart sank.

And then, she thought of the way he had thrown himself over her to protect her before the tunnel had collapsed, knowing that he would suffer pain in return. It had been a selfless act, she thought, for if the mirror was not 'an issue' to him, he would not need her alive, and would have rather seen her crushed rather than place himself in harm's way. But he had already done so, before, with the lake, and she believed that he had done it again, acting without rationalizing, without thinking of what would be most beneficial to him. And that, at least, was an improvement.

"You're not horrible," she said quietly. "To talk to, I mean. Not all the time, at least."

(Such high praise,) he replied, wryness in his voice. (I am honored.)

She only rolled her eyes. "You see, stuff like that is probably what makes you seem unpleasant to talk to. Maybe turn down the holier-than-thou-because-I-am-an-enormously-powerful-and-sophisticated-dragon thing down a bit."

(I think what you just said is exactly why I should be superior, no?)

"You're impossible."

(Impossibly charming?)

She could only shake her head. "If humans ever find the secret to immortality, I think even then we'd be less conceited with you."

(That secret is very simple; do not anger dragons.)

"I'll be sure to inform everyone of this stunning discovery."

They continued on, and gradually she felt herself growing weary, getting closer and closer to nodding off. Several times, she dipped forward enough that her nose brushed against Thunder's mane, jerking herself awake for a few minutes, before the cycle began again.

Finally, Erasmus stopped. (We might as well take a break now. I need to rest for a bit.)

Her eyes flicked to his leg again, but she nodded, grateful for the rest. "What if the tunnel collapses again?"

(I am sure your horse will alert us to any impending doom, and I can protect you again, if that is what it takes.)

She yawned, sleepy despite her misgivings, and dismounted from Thunder. Erasmus lied down, slightly on his side, wings folded against his body. He motioned towards his stomach, inviting her to lay against him, and after a moment's hesitation, she did so, knowing that she would be quite cold otherwise. His stomach was pleasantly warm against her back, and she let out a quiet, contented sigh, letting the fire she had been holding drop to the ground, where it disappeared with a gentle hiss.

She was just beginning to drift off when she felt him probe her mind. (Princess?)

(Is this important?) she asked, too tired to bother with actually speaking.

(To you, no exactly….)

(But to you, yes?)

She took his silence as an affirmative, and opened her eyes with a grumble. (What?)

He was still quiet, and she realized his intentions. (Really? Painting? Now?)

(If you don't mind.)

(I do mind,) she scowled. He was quiet again, but she could feel his hope gnawing at her. She threw up her hands. (Fine, fine. But just one. I mean it this time.)

(Agreed. One it is. If I do go over, you have the right to stop me. But I do not think that will be an issue, if all goes well.) There was the slightest note of trepidation in his voice, and she smiled to herself; it was refreshing to see him being the nervous one, for once, the one bracing for failure rather than thinking of his own success.

(If you find something that really means something to you, you'll do fine,) she said. (Good luck.)

(Thank you.)

His mind swelled against hers, and he held her arms out, summoning a canvas and paints, while at the same time breathing out small puffs of fire with his own body, and causing them to hover above her head like an eerie halo.

And he set to work.

She tried not to pay attention, not wanting to intrude on his creative process further than she had to, but considering that it was her eyes he was in control of, it was difficult.

She was able to distract herself with thoughts of Auber for a short time – remembering the time he had smuggled in one of Ursdae's rarest flowers into the garden, and planting it in her name in a secluded area of the little space, thinking of how he had spent weeks amassing all the seashells he could gather and using them to spell her name one night ,– he had only managed to get as far as 'Seraly,' but that had been enough to get him at least one kiss – of the hundreds of letters they had sent one another, and how his script had always seemed so perfect when it had formed her name – but even those thoughts weren't enough to distract her once the painting truly began taking shape.

The outlines were vague at first – a faintly feminine form, some odd shapes around her – but as Erasmus worked, they began taking on more detail, more life. She watched her hands move with precision and methodical slowness, as something different from his past paintings began to appear.

His mind was caught up in the painting, as he concentrated his entire being on what he was creating, blocking out everything else but her. The intensity of it was almost awe-inspiring, as if he had taken all of the crackling power present during his fight with the bounty hunters and was channeling it through her, rather than using it to destroy, as he so often had in the past. It boggled her mind to think of what he could do with such power, if he wasn't content to snipe at humans when he could, and spend his time writing dusty volumes and snatching up coins whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Finally, after some indeterminate amount of time – an hour? Two? More? – his paintbrush dropped to the side, and he looked down at his work. Seralynn's eyes traced over the piece, and she felt a strange fluttering in her stomach.

It was a girl – the girl, the violinist – sitting on the ground in what appeared to be a dusty cave. Her head was tilted back to look up at him – for it was obviously Erasmus's point of view that he was portraying – with wide, pale brown eyes. Her hair was long, and fell in dark curls around her shoulders. Dirt smudged her face, and her clothes were torn in several places – even singed, around the edges – but she was smiling. On her lap rested her violin, well-worn and chipped in places, but clearly dear from the way it was cradled against her chest.

There was treasure within the painting – coins, helmets, gems, even several books – but they were not the focus of the picture. The focus was her; the light fell perfectly on her face, making her pale skin glow, and her eyes were positively captivating, radiating shy kindness.

It took a moment to Seralynn to realize that only one hand was resting on the violin; the other was slightly uplifted, towards Erasmus himself, like an olive branch. And that, in itself, captured the entire essence of the girl he had painted; hesitant, but willing to try for peace.

(Well?) Erasmus prompted, and there was doubt in his voice, despite his best attempt to hide it, along with a note of what was almost vulnerability.

She did not answer for some time, still staring into the girl's brown eyes. Then, she smiled.

(That's it, Erasmus. That's it exactly. She's beautiful.)

(Yes. She was.)

She bit her lower lip as reality thrust its nose where it didn't belong; the girl was a part of Erasmus's past, his distant past. She was probably dead, and had been for centuries.

(They do not make very many humans like that,) he said, and pushed the canvas to the side so that it could dry. (There are certain molds that humans fit, I think, and some are cast more than others. And some are cast rarely.)

(What happened, exactly? Obviously it was more than you just snatching her up and then dropping her off again. There's more to it.)

(Have I pried into everything you have tried to keep from me?)

(No. But I have never painted anything like that. She clearly meant something to you, as much as you dislike humans.)

(She was an exception to the rule. Like you.)

That made her flush for some reason, as strange as the compliment was.

(You can tell me, you know,) she said, not wanting to press him too hard, but still intensely curious. (It isn't as though I have anyone to spill your secrets to.)

(Not your beloved prince?)

Again, she flushed. (Do you really think so lowly, of me? I love Auber, but that doesn't mean I'm going to tell him my friends' secrets. I won't tell anyone.)

(Do you promise?)

(Of course.)

She could feel his mind working, and sat back, relaxing against his stomach, fully expecting him to decline to speak further, only to be jolted by surprise as he began to speak.

(It was not three days,) he began, silvery voice soft. (It was closer to a week. She was a beggar, you see. At one point in time she had been higher up in the world, but had fallen on harder times, and only had the clothes on her back and her violin to her name. She had settled in a town near my cave in order to play for tips. It was a wealthy town despite its small size, and she made a decent bundle. Because of her status, she was all but invisible to the townsmen, and it took them a great deal of time to notice her absence.

(The first two days passed as I said. She was terrified of me, until the third, when I was able to coax her back out of hiding with more food. And then I created a link between us, as I did you.)

(You said you hadn't done that before!)

(I lied.)

She was burning with even more questions – and a touch of righteous anger – but bit it all back, forcing herself to take a deep breath. (We'll talk about that later. Go on.)

(Well. She was not pleased with that, as you can imagine.)

(Yeah, I think I can imagine being cross with you, if I try really hard.)

(Again, the sarcasm does not meld well with your demeanor. Anyway, she went off and hid again. She was quite persistent about that. But, it did not last long, for she could feel that I meant her no harm through our bond, and could feel I was only curious. I told her I had no intentions of eating her – I might have made a few jokes, that might or might not have gone over well—)

(I think I'm experiencing déjà vu.)

(Hush. It took some coaxing, but she finally crept out and promised not to hide again, so long as I did not try to harm her. And, of course, I did not.)

(And then what?)

(We talked.)

That piqued her curiosity more than anything so far. (You just talked? No deals? No play-your-violin-or-I'll-start-a-war-just-to-spite-you?)

(We just talked.)

(I guess you really were young.)

(Yes. It was the first time I had made any sort of major effort at such a thing, and I was a bit…anxious about the possibility of it going wrong. But she was kind, although shy and hesitant to open up, and for her it was not difficult to look past my rather unpleasant appearance – in the eyes of humans, of course – and to partake in a discussion.

(She did eventually play her violin, at my request, and it was…lovely. I still remember every note.) He sounded wistful (She had a gift, one that should have placed her far above her peers, but of course humans value profit over culture.)

She considered commenting on how in his own hoard he had displayed gold over books or art, but thought better of it, merely nodding.

(So why did she leave, then, if you two were having a pleasant time and all?)

(They came.)


(The villagers. They had finally noticed her absence, and were up in arms – not out of concern for her, of course, but because they were worried about their homes, their crops, their wealth. They sent for mages, as many as they could with what money they were willing to spend, and they invaded my cave.

(There was little I could do against so many, for I was not as proficient or experienced with magic as I am today. The only thing I could do was teleport what I could carry, and flee. But I miscalculated. And she was left behind.)

Seralynn winced. (Surely they wouldn't have hurt her?)

(Yo would not think so, considering that I was the focus of their anger…but humans do not make much sense when they are angry,) he replied, unconsciously echoing Mary. (Through our bond, I felt them capture her despite her protests, despite her pleas. The mages dragged her back to the town and delivered her as a trussed-up prize. And they did not hesitate to call her a witch, to say that she was in league with me, that we were planning the downfall of their town. And she was executed that very night.) A tremor ran through his body.

(Wasn't there anything you could do?) Seralynn asked, reeling with horror. (Couldn't you have gone back for her?)

(I tried. But as I said, I was not as powerful as I am now…I attempted to teleport back, but barely made it halfway before my magic faltered. And I tried again and again to reach her, but I covered less and less ground with each spell, and grew more and more weary…when I finally gave it up and took to the sky with desperation, it was too late.)

And he felt every moment of it…her fear, her horror, her pain, Seralynn realized. He was a captive audience to the death of his friend.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered aloud. He brushed her feelings aside.

(It doesn't matter.)

(No, it does. If the painting doesn't prove it, then the fact that you've buried this so deeply definitely does. You lost a friend, Erasmus, and there was nothing you could do about it….) She almost said I know exactly how you felt, but swallowed the words, because it wasn't true, not really. Erasmus hadn't been responsible for the violinist's death, it had been the wrath of other humans that had caused it. She didn't have that defense to hide behind, and the one she killed had not seen someone she had known for only a week.

(It wasn't your fault, you know,) she said, echoing the words she had craved for years. (You can't blame yourself. You had no idea what would happen.)

(I should have. I knew it was risky. I just never thought….)

(That it would be her at risk, not you.)


(There's no way you could have known that. You just wanted to make a connection. That's perfectly normal.)

(Not for us. Not for dragons.) He shifted away from her. (Can you think of a single tale in which a dragon befriended a human?)

She didn't have to think about the answer, and he knew it.

(Of course not. It doesn't happen, not even in fantasy. It never happened. And that is exactly why I should not have done it. Have you ever heard of a dragon collecting art? Music? Literature? No. That never happened either. We dragons are possessed by endless greed, and we fill it with baubles, things that gleam and sparkle and shine. But that is not enough for me. It never has been. And I do not know why.)

She had no answer to that. Dragons had been largely forgotten in modern times, for to her knowledge there had not been an appearance of one in centuries. Humans barely remembered how to kill them – their area of expertise – let alone what their personalities and desires were like.

He blew out a puff of contemplative smoke. (You are tired. You should rest.)

(I'm not that tired,) she protested, but she was lying; even her mental tongue felt heavy.

(Go to sleep. My problems are not yours. There is no reason for you to dwell on them, when you should be resting, and I apologize for that.) He extinguished the lights above her head, plunging them into darkness. Despite the heaviness of her eyelids, she struggled to stay awake.

(That's exactly what friends do,) she said, (and whether we like it or not – whether or not it's right – we are friends now. And that means if there's anything I can do to help, I must.)

He only shifted again so that she might be more comfortable as she rested against his stomach. (Go to sleep.)

And, finally, she succumbed, with a bit of help.