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Alternate Lives - by Crazto

Hoarse, rasping breaths echoed throughout the woods as several shadows weaved across, stumbling in their haste to escape the nameless terror that chased after them. The half moon, glinting balefully in the night, seemed to be an eye tracking their every move, casting an eerie glow all around the forest floor.

"Are you s-sure we've lost th-them?" A male voice, high-pitched with fear, stuttered into the night.

"Do you want to find out?" Another voice growled. "I'll be more than happy to feed you to them if you don't-"

An ear-splitting roar shattered the calm, and the shadows jumped. "Come on!" a female's voice spat. "That dragon's almost upon us!" A scrambling of feet as the people fled for their lives, followed by their heavy panting and the monster's angry growls. Then...


"What's going on, Rannar?" The female said testily. "Didn't Gerrain tell you to shut up before?"

"S-s-sorry, Koshi, but I just stumbled into a h-hole!"

"What?" A scrambling of feet, and the woman landed beside Rannar. "Well, well, well, this looks interesting... Shut up and keep low!" She hissed urgently, and no sooner had she given that warning when the tranquility was suddenly broken by an angry bellow that made the trees shake, as the dragon, baffled, sought out other, less elusive prey.

No one dared to break the silence that stretched afterwards, until there was a thud, and the woman hissed a curse under her breath, evidently having tripped over something. "Someone pass me a stupid torch," she said, squinting at the inky blackness around her. "I can't see a bloody thing in this witch's hole."

Clinking and thumping sounds echoed throughout the darkness as hands fumbled in containers and promptly dropped the other contents stored within. There was a pause, a muttered incantation, and jets of flame shot out of a person's hands to light up a torch, illuminating the area and the faces of the squinting, pale-faced people, one gigantic, all in armour, and balancing a greatsword, another hunched over, with a shifty expression, yet another with straw-coloured hair and a diplomat's charming face, and finally a slim, trembling mage, dressed in green robes, dusting the smoke off his hands.

"Thanks, Rannar," Koshi grunted, taking the light. Shadows flittered in and out of sight, making the corridor stretching before them seem more ominous than it had a right to be. Behind her, Koshi can hear muffled gulps, and the steely whisper of blades sliding out of their sheaths.

"S-shouldn't we just leave th-this place?" Rannar squeaked.

"Don't be stupid," a smooth voice replied. "What if that beast is still chasing us?"

"Who's saying he's stupid, Tharn?" A deep, gruff voice said. "I thought you had nothing inside that head of yours, and you've got the cheek to call him that?"

"Who are you calling stupid?" Tharn replied indignantly. "Considering that you're a giant, you think you have the right to insult me for the sake of that--"

"Tharn, Gerrain, be quiet," Koshi said wearily. "We approach slowly, and no heroic antics unless I say so, because there's no telling what's inside. Rannar, I want you to leave markers in case we get lost. Gerrain, keep a watch on our back. Derd, scout ahead and report what's up ahead, we don't want to be caught by surprise. If there's loot here, we're not going to pass it, and we're long overdue for a profit, anyway."

The group moved into their roles with practised efficiency, grim-faced, their eyes shining with fear and eagerness. Light danced all around them, illuminating Derd's hunched figure trailing rough-walled corridors, stalactites and stalagmites that gleamed like a beast's jagged teeth, and the occasional scale stuck in a crevice, causing Rannar to whimper the painfully obvious at regular intervals as he laid markers on the path.

"W-wandering in a d-d-dragon's lair..." he was muttering, "this is s-suicide... I sh-shouldn't have gone along with th-this..."

"I'll stuff this torch into your mouth if you don't shut up!" Koshi snapped from the front.

When Derd returned, his eyes gleamed with naked avarice, and his face looked fit to burst with the wide grin plastered on it.

"Well, what is it?" Koshi said.

"It's a dragon's hoard," the man replied with a smirk. "Lying there, all unprotected... I wonder what happened to the occupant. Some rival got its hide or something?"

"Don't make me cross that line of thinking," Koshi replied with a shudder. "And don't be hasty, because it could just be a trap, waiting for us to set it off."

"I've yet to see a dragon own that branch of thought."

Koshi shrugged. "You don't know dragons. They're mean, clever, and if one's lurking around, you might as well hand in your resignation and let me slit your gullet, because it's much less painful than being incinerated. We're going, but we're watching for stuff. So keep those eyes alert, unless you want them burned off." She waved her torch, pointedly ignoring the trembling Rannar to face the gigantic man. "Gerrain," she said, "stay and keep an eye. If this isn't a trap, we don't have to worry about being heard because of Rannar's whining and stuttering."

Gerrain nodded, his smile hidden behind his full beard as the mage spluttered his indignation, his face red. Tharn smirked and gave a loud false cough that sounded suspiciously like "Idiot!" eliciting a wicked glare from Koshi, and she sighed resignedly as the party turned to resume their duties.

"How did I get stuck with this band of miscreants?" She grumbled, and shrugged. "Come on, people."

Turning the next corner, Koshi and her gang arrived at the mouth of a large cavern. The woman had a decent idea of what the hoard would look like, considering the greedy expression on Derd's face, but next to nothing could have prepared her for what she saw. She sucked in an astonished breath, and exhaled it in an admiring wolf-whistle.

"G-great gods and g-g-goddesses..." she heard Rannar whisper in an awed voice, and heard the shuffle of his boots as he withdrew from the room, his face white with terror and his hand making warding gestures. Koshi turned her head to watch his retreat with mild amusement before looking back at the fortune that shone before her.

Mounds of gold. Piles of jewels. The treasure twinkled under the light of Koshi's torch, dazzling her eyes. She averted her gaze to meet those of the others, their faces taut with anticipation and greed, their hands clasping and unclasping as if already feeling the wealth clinking underneath their fingers.

A sudden suspicion, connected with Rannar's behaviour, entered her mind, but before she could warn them, the others had rushed to the mountain, scattering the riches everywhere as they scrambled to fill their pockets with whatever seemed the most exotic and valuable, and already Derd and Tharn were busy fighting over a mosaic mask with an intensity that Koshi had not expected of either.

The woman swore under her breath. Gods! She should have known that dragons would not be so stupid that even if they perished, their loot would be guarded by some other means, and curses were as common as dirt to them. The woman looked from one blank face to the other, and swore again. She needed support to slap the men back into her senses, and her mind focused on...

"Gerrain!" She yelled.

No answer.

"I hate men sometimes," she muttered. "GERRAIN!"

Silence for a moment, then an entirely different voice, low, growling, and strangely muffled, spoke.

"Missing your friend lately?"

Koshi's blood turned to ice, freezing her movements. She slowly, painfully turned to face a green dragon's bloody snout, its teeth closed over Gerrain's shattered, lifeless body. As Koshi watched, sickened, the dragon crunched harder, spilling blood down its jaw to the ground before it opened its maw and swallowed the gigantic man, armor and all. (We're dead...) She thought with horrible finality.

Licking blood from its chops, the dragon casually picked something - most likely bone splinters - between its teeth with a talon the length of Koshi's entire arm. "Do you know how irritating it is to find little human thieves in my domain?" He said in a conversational tone.

Koshi stared in disbelief. She had totally expected to be eaten the same way poor Gerrain went, followed by the still-oblivious men, but a dragon willing to have a chat before killing her? "Where's Rannar when you need him?" She muttered.

"Sorry, didn't get that." The dragon made an exaggerated show of inclining its head.

"I said," Koshi said, her voice deliberately loud and slow, "what makes you think that we are thieves?"

The beast yawned, and scratched its head. "The curse can speak for you. It exaggerates the desires of its victims. I can tell you of the many interesting ways my trespassers have perished, and"--the dragon looked at the woman's influenced companions, basically almost buried under the treasure--"it appears your accomplices are drowning in their own desires."

Koshi swore again.

"Language, mortal, language," the dragon chided. "It makes my mouth feel so unclean when I know I just ate a human with a dirty tongue. Your mere kind may outnumber us dragons, but it doesn't protect you from mouthing off at me." It deliberately ignored the woman's murderous glower. "Your friend has a lot of meat, but I think he could do wearing less armor. It gives me indigestion." As if to accentuate the point, the dragon belched, its malodorous breath washing over Koshi, causing her to wrinkle her nose in disgust.

"That aside, I prefer humans who have been well-roasted." One of its golden, cat-like eyes fixed on her. "It is not in my nature to pass up meat that has so willingly entered my hoard."

Beneath the stench of rotted flesh, Koshi caught a whiff of brimstone. She stood tall and erect, a slight smile playing on her face while her insides twisted up with fear at having such a beast this close to her. "Well," she said, hoping her voice was as offhand and casual as she wished it was, "I'll have to warn you that I'm quite stringy."

The dragon chuckled, a low, throaty sound. "We shall see." Flames began licking at the monster's massive throat and rushed up its mouth. Before fiery death consumed her, a cold, clammy hand grabbed Koshi's shoulder, followed by a lengthy incantation, and the woman nearly lost the contents of her stomach as the world lurched around her.

Within the dimming reaches of Koshi's mind, she heard the dragon's frustrated shriek, resounding all around the entire cavern with its rage before the world disappeared in a blaze of light.

"Fancy spellwork you put up there," Koshi muttered grudgingly, feeling the lump on her head, and groaned. "Feels like I grew a new noggin. Next time, if you're teleporting, don't send us to a rocky cliff." She glared at the innocent-looking rock and kicked it hard, though all she earned for her trouble was a very sore toe.

Rannar smiled sheepishly, his face pale and hands trembling. "I h-have my moments."

"Fine moments they are, especially when I was about to be turned into dragon dinner." Her eyes looked up and down the mage, and narrowed suspiciously. "What's that you got there?"

"W-what?" Rannar tried to hide the conspicuous bulge beneath his green robes, but it was too late. Unexpectedly swift, Koshi grabbed the mage's shirt and dragged him close, ignoring his squealing protests. She plunged her hand in the bulging pocket and pulled out a spherical gem, pulsing softly, and warm to the touch. The multiple facets of the strange bauble reflected the white light that blinked with each pulse, giving it a dazzling appearance.

Koshi swore softly, in awe-stricken accents, her eyes bright and eager. Rannar looked even more sheepish than ever.

"I t-took that f-from the cavern when your d-d-dragon was talking," he muttered reluctantly. "I thought it'd f-f-fetch a g-good price."

"For you alone?" The woman inclined an eyebrow, and laughed. "I suppose so. But at least it's better than nothing." Her eyes darkened significantly, remembering the price her comrades unwittingly paid for the gem, but shrugged indifferently, knowing that pointless grieving would waste her time and effort. "Come on, we have a jewelry store to catch. You don't mind flying a dragon?"

Rannar whimpered softly and mumbled something incoherent, all the while keeping his eyes on the ground.

"I'll take that as a yes." Ignoring the mage's horrified look, Koshi pulled a bulging sack of gold and whistled sharply. "For two, please," she told the firelizard that popped into existence. The critter chirruped, took the sack, and blinked out.

"Come on, it isn't that bad, isn't it?" Koshi said testily, eyeing the spot where the lizard vanished. "Especially since there's no hoard nearby where it has a good excuse to roast us all, unlike that weirdo dragon back there." She enjoyed tormenting Rannar, especially when their dragon-infested encounters added a new phobia to hiss character to compliment the one he already had with heights. The mage was going to have a lot of fun in the air, after all!

Rannar didn't look very convinced. By the way he cowered, he looked as though he was heading to his death sentence, leaving Koshi to roll her eyes and scan the horizon, all the while muttering, "Men."

Suddenly, the mage stopped whimpering, and began uttering garbled noises. Irritated, Koshi turned around, fixating him with her steely gaze.

"What now?" She snapped, making a mental note to have his tongue cut out in short order. She could use the resulting silence, after all, but too bad it nullified the only thing the mage was good at. Then again, she can always hoodwink another one, hopefully less cowardly than the last, and more liable to shut up. The woman curled her lip, coldly watching Rannar try to form the words through seemingly petrified lips.

After several attempts, he managed, his blasted stutter more pronounced than usual. "Y-y-your-"

"Spit it out!"

"K-Koshi, y-y-your-"

"Damn it, do I look telepathic? Say it!"

Rannar gulped, and pointed to Koshi's hand with a trembling finger. "Y-y-your g-gem!" He squealed.

Koshi looked at the bauble in her hand, and almost dropped it in astonishment.

"What in the world..."

It was pulsing more violently now, and a medley of colours began to swirl within the white depths. As the two stood, transfixed, Koshi felt a strange feeling on the back of her head, as if her hair was standing on end.

Looking up, she could only gape. A thundercloud, black and ominous, approached the two, its swirling innards spewing...

"Red thunderbolts?" She heard Rannar yelp, his voice shrill with terror as the storm cloud settled over them. "What trickery is this?"

"Why don't you tell us that?" Koshi said, but the raging winds whipped the words away until they were lost in the howling gale. Twin lances of crimson lightning shot down from the black mass, striking the two.

Koshi was conscious long enough to hear and mentally agree with Rannar's shriek of "We're going to die!" (Two in one day,) she mused. (Guess my life will be interesting to look at, even if it's short-lived.)

Then the world disappeared once again, and all thought of the present was obliterated.

Blackness. Sweet, soothing blackness, comforting her, consoling her, and leading with her to stay within its embrace. She could not wish for anything more, set someone far away seemed to be calling in a desperate, high-pitched voice, forcing her from this blissful world into this dark, dreary one.

"Koshi! Koshi! P-p-please wake up! Koshi!"

"Shut up, Rannar," Koshi mumbled, trying to seek the darkness she longed for. "I need to sleep..."

For a moment, her wish was granted, and she was drifting back into blissful oblivion, ignoring the gibberish the annoying mage was speaking, and sorely regretting not cutting his stupid tongue off.

Then she was jolted awake by the wan equivalent of having cold water doused on one's head--or, in simpler terms, the Chill Touch.

"OUCH!" Koshi yelped - or tried to, considering the spell numbed her cheek area, and it only came out as something like, "AAAFFHH!" She sat up and glared poison daggers at Rannar, now backing away as if the woman was a feral beast.

"S-sorry," he was muttering, "I had t-t-to..."

"Fhanfee foo fyin fooloo faf," the woman forced out, massaging her numb muscles and cursing Rannar with every breath.

Bewilderment crossed the mage's face. "What?"

"Fancy you trying to do that!" (I am seriously going to kill him,) she thought darkly.


Koshi rubbed her cheeks one last time, and got to her feet, looking around, noticing with surprise that she was in a town--more precisely, in a wide alley of the City of Medievia, yet it seemed... strange, somehow. Unnatural. She looked at Rannar, who flinched under her gaze, and she was hard put not to roll her eyes.

"Where are we?" Koshi said wearily, feeling as though she was a thousand years old. After the death of almost all of her companions, she wanted nothing more than to sleep it off, and being hurtled into some strange place did not fit her schedule.

Rannar shrugged. "The C-City of Medievia. I m-mean"--he added hastily when Koshi fixated him with a stern look--"A city that l-looks like it, but it's d-d-different. Somehow." He shrugged. "I don't know if we're just d-disoriented, but it looks... strange, and I th-think it has s-something to do with that th-thundercloud."

"Thanks, Captain Obvious," Koshi growled. "Now please elaborate more. What does the idiotic cloud have to do with us being transported here? We were nowhere near the City when it happened, remember?"

Rannar scowled. "Th-that's as p-p-precise as I can get it, K-Koshi. If you w-want explanations, go ask your gem." Almost insolently, he added, "as if y-you can get anything out of it."

Koshi rolled her eyes, but looked at the object, and swore so badly that Rannar's ears turned bright red. All traces of life were gone from the gem, the hue a dull, opaque black, without a hint of a white pulse anywhere. Koshi shook it, rubbed it, and even muttered some gibberish she hoped was arcane language, but expectedly it did nothing to the dead appearance of the bauble.

Swearing with disgust, she threw the stone away. It rolled a few times to a stop, where it was crushed by the clawed talon of a dragon's foot. Rannar shrieked and cowered with terror as the beast's bulging eyes focused on the two.

"Humans!" The dragon roared, and drew its head back to murder them with its fiery breath.

"Run!" Koshi yelled, grabbing the mage's arm, and the two sprinted for their lives, turning random corners, bearing no sense of direction whatsoever, their thoughts blank save with the desire to escape the beast. All the while, soaring effortlessly above the streets, was the dragon, lazily belching flame at regular intervals, laughing its horrid laugh as the humans ducked with every infernal jet sent their way.

"Come on, humans," it cooed, "don't you want to stay? I invite HALF members on special occasions, and they do enjoy them. Especially our Dragon King."

"What on earth is HALF?" Koshi said between gulps of air. Before Rannar could reply, the dragon screeched and dived, causing the duo to scatter like insects, but it pulled up at the last second, laughing at the effect the feint had on its prey. Regrouping, Koshi and Rannar turned and ran down an alley, panting hard, when a head popped out of the ground, scowling at them.

"What's going on, Koshi?" He demanded.

Koshi stopped in her tracks, stumbled as Rannar slammed against her, and stared at the man who was... Derd, alive and well.

'Am I dead...?' Koshi thought to herself, and she could barely dislodge the words from her throat.

"Derd... is that you?"

Derd snorted. "Definitely! Now get down here before that monster fries us all to a crisp!" A triumphant screech above their heads, followed by a jet of flame that almost singed Rannar's robes accentuated the point.

With a scrambling of feet, Koshi and Rannar clambered down the manhole and landed in ankle-deep muck, and at that moment, the woman was glad she had opted to wear knee-length boots. The mage wasn't so lucky, opting to stand on the shallowest portion of the sludge, his face twisted in disgust.

"That was safe to go wandering around the city when dragons are infesting the place," Derd was saying, sarcasm dripping from his voice. Koshi turned to face the scowling thief, barely silhouetted in the dim glow of the tunnel.

"Prompt of you to save my rear," Koshi muttered grudgingly.

"You should have known how dangerous it is for you to loiter around." Derd's enigmatic eyes took on a closed look as they landed on Rannar. "Did the dragons come after you because of him? Is that why you decided to creep out alone? Gerrain said you were out on a scouting expedition, but he was pretty evasive on the specifics." He scowled. "Trust you to do the craziest of things without our knowledge."

"What do you mean?" Koshi said, bewildered. She looked at Rannar, who seemed equally puzzled.

Derd curled his lip, his expression mildly amused. "So unlike you not to have an idea--"

"What is going on?" A strangely familiar voice echoed from the manhole. All three looked up, and did double takes.

Koshi was standing there, her face scarred and worn, but otherwise the mirror image of the other, and as the group stared, the woman jumped into the manhole with practised grace. Meanwhile, Rannar's eyes were so wide one can see the whites all around as he looked at both Koshis, his mouth open as if speechless. Both of Derd's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline, and the original Koshi crossed her arms and glared at her scarred counterpart.

"If this is a joke," she said flatly, "I am not laughing."

The counterpart snorted. "I can say the same, impostor."

"Who're you calling impostor?"

"I am!"

"Oh, why you little--"

"Hold it!" Derd stepped between the two women before a battle could break out, and narrowed his eyes at them. "I'd like to know what is going on, and see if one of you is some sort of dragon disguised as a human to spy on us!"

The Koshi we are all familiar with turned tomato red at the accusation. "Me?" She spluttered indignantly. "A spy? You're crazy!"

"You saying that when you brought in an old dear friend of ours?" The counterpart sneered. "Well, we'll see." She looked at Tharn. "Tell me a question which only I, and not the idiot, would know."

Derd smirked. "How old were you when you joined HALF?"

"W-what half?" She heard Rannar say, bewildered, and Koshi privately agreed with his statement. Yet the word seemed so familiar somehow...

Meanwhile, the mirror image was all smiles. "Twenty-three," she said confidently.

The man's grin held a tone of finality to it as he clapped his hands, smirking at the original Koshi's blank expression. "Well, that settles it! Now can we deal with these spies?"

The other Koshi nodded, and whistled hard. As the other sputtered, "I'm not a spy--" footsteps squelched down the tunnel, and the familiar, armour-clad form of Gerrain stepped out of the shadows.

"Gerrain!" The original stared, her jaw somewhere around ankle level. "Are you--"

The counterpart cut him off with an imperious gesture. "Gerrain," She asked sweetly, "can you take these interlopers"--she shot a scowl at Koshi and Rannar--"to the interrogation rooms? We're long overdue for a talk. Derd, come along, let's see what we can get out of these rats."

Rannar whimpered with terror at the implication of those words, and Koshi had to stifle the urge to gag him with his own robes as they were roughly disarmed and dragged away by the gargantuan man.

It wasn't the betrayal that shook her; it was the sight of her own, scarred, yet equally surly vestige that did the job. Something funny, yet not humorous. Grudgingly, Koshi admitted that Rannar had a point--or several, to be precise—in his theory of the phenomenal thundercloud.

The flanged whip bit into Koshi's back, causing her to double like a suffocating fish and cry out. The chains burned into the flesh of her wrists and ankles, and her shoulders felt as if they were going to pop out of their sockets anytime soon. Distantly, she heard Rannar's agonized shrieks as someone else--Derd, perhaps--took the honour of questioning him.

Meanwhile, Koshi's counterpart stood a ways off, the bloody weapon held casually in one hand and her face a mixture of impatience and amusement. "Are you going to stop this silliness and admit it?" She said coolly, lashing out her whip, the saw-edged end gouging a mark in the ground where the prisoner's feet dangled inches above. "Confession is good for the soul, you know."

"Very funny," Koshi muttered through gritted teeth, and screamed again as her sarcastic remark delivered another whip-lash. "I told you once," she continued, squeezing back tears of pain, "and I told you many times. I'm not a spy! Rannar and I were just waiting for a dragon when we got transported here!"

"So you admit it, then," the counterpart smirked. "How paradoxical. You said that you are not a spy and an impostor, and in the next breath you say that you are in league with the dragons. At least that explains Rannar's presence. How--idiotic--can--you--get?" She accentuated each word of the last sentence with a lash, causing Koshi to scream and arch her back with agony as the steel whip sliced into flesh like butter, eliciting fresh complaints from her overstretched shoulders and chained limbs.

"It's not like that," Koshi forced the words past the blinding haze of pain.

"Oh?" Both of the others' eyebrows rose, and her whip twitched threateningly. "Is this some cock-and-bull story you're trying to make up? Because if it is, I'm not impressed."

"It's true!" The prisoner snapped.

An awful smile spread across the other Koshi's face. "Pray tell, how do you get a dragon to serve you? I'll be happy to flay the hide off you if you make anything up, you know." The whip etched another stripe on Koshi's tattered backside, accentuating the warning, and she closed her eyes, willing away the waves of pain racking her body.

"We summon a firelizard with the gold required," she said, "and wait until a dragon comes to us.If there's an evil dragon around, the dragon will attempt to kill the other one, otherwise it lets us ride it. This way, both of us are satisfied in our bargain, and the evil dragons are kept at bay."

"I think you overlooked one detail there," the other retorted with a smirk. "All dragons are evil. Nice try, but your speech just skidded off my skepticism. I'd expected impostors to be more convincing than that." Her whip rose, and Koshi opened her eyes long enough to see the saw-edged tip, stained with her blood, pouncing towards her.

Screams, shrill and agonized, echoed around the stark room, sounding something like a poor demon being flogged, and it was quite some time before Koshi realized the cries were coming out of her mouth.

By then she was past caring.

In the cool, dim confines of her stone prison, Koshi leaned against the cool stone wall, rubbing her raw wrists and ankles, her mind burning with questions. What was happening here? Why was she chased by a dragon, tortured and thrown into a dungeon by a copy of herself? Her thoughts were muddled by the stinging legacy the interrogation left all around her backside, and she took several deep breaths to keep herself from being overwhelmed by the pain, feeling hot blood oozing out of the stripes to create a small dark puddle on the cell floor.

Privately, Koshi wondered if her counterpart flogged her enough to make her bleed to death, but soon she forced her mind from such morbid images, reached into the sleeve of her shirt to pull out a sling pebble, and tapped the rough stonework with it.

Tap-tap-tap tap, tap. "You done anything?" She said, raising her voice so it would carry through the thick barrier.

Rannar sighed, the sound muffled by the wall. "I've t-tried everything, K-Koshi. Etherealing, acid b-blasting, even sh-shockwaves, and the door isn't g-giving. It must be w-warded against magic."

Koshi cursed, storming over to her steel-framed cell door and smashed her fist against it, earning a wicked bruise as a result. Much to her chagrin, no sooner had she retreated back to Rannar's wall to nurse her hand when the counterpart came in, looking indifferently at the black and blue knuckles, and at the slight depression Koshi's venting left on the door.

"That should teach you not to try bashing down cell doors," she said, approaching the original. "I thought you, as a dragon, would have more brains than doing that with mere human strength, or the rat, trying to burn the door with his sorcery." She shrugged indifferently. "At least it reminds me that he was good at something on HALF's behalf"--she winced at the unintended pun--"before he turned traitor on us."

"Oh, shut up," Koshi snapped. "I'm not a dragon, and what is HALF, anyway?"

The counterpart's grey eyes hardened. "Still not giving up your deceit, impostor? I thought the torture would show you the value of truth, and as for HALF, Rannar would have told you what it is and what we do--being a former leader, anyway." She spat.

"I have no deceit, and I'm not an impostor!" Koshi threw down her bruised fist and matched the other glare for glare. "I told you, I'm not a stupid dragon spy, I don't know anything about this HALF, and Rannar's no traitor--even if he's a whining, stuttering coward at times--"

"Hear, hear," the counterpart remarked wryly as Rannar yelped, "I heard that!" from the adjacent cell.

Koshi continued on as if she hadn't heard the double interruption. "--and he actually saved my skin twice a while before I got my backside tanned bright red, and kicked into this dirty dungeon cell!" By this point, she found herself practically standing on the other's toes, screaming in her face.

The mirror winced. "You're stepping on my toes."

Koshi stepped off and crossed her arms, looking defiant and unforgiving. "Good for you, then."

"Are you going to remain this uncooperative?"

"I will if you keep on mistrusting me!"

"Then what would it take for me to trust you?"

"Some time to listen to what I say and believe it!"

"Fine bargain." The other Koshi sighed. "All right, I'll listen to what you have to say, but know that it does nothing to reduce my suspicions."

"Your loss." Koshi snorted, and told how she got into this strange land, the encounter with the green dragon, Rannar's exceptional wits that teleported them out of the lair at the price of the others' lives, along with his recovery of the strange pulsing gem that summoned a thundercloud that shot lightning bolts at them and transported them to this strange area...

The other's dark eyes narrowed skeptically. "Fine tale you've got there." She sneered. "Dragons are notorious for spinning stories to fool us little humans."

"It's as true as these stripes on my back!" Koshi snapped. "You want further proof I'm not a dragon spy? I'll be happy to tell you that when you were nine years old, you got kidnapped by a gang of bandits. Am I right? And when you were fifteen, you raided a minor village and made yourself plenty of enemies, and at seventeen..." She started ticking off events with her fingers while saying them, hoping that at least the mirror's life coincided with hers to this point.

The counterpart grunted, an odd, closed expression on her face. "You're funny sometimes, you know that?" She sighed. "Fine, I'll believe you. No one knows my life story with that much detail." She paced around the cell before facing the original. "Considering what you told me when I was having a nice chat with you"--(Yeah, right,) Koshi thought sarcastically--"I suppose you come from where we humans rule, and dragons are your servants, the worst being minor annoyances?"

Koshi nodded, and the other smiled wryly. "I barely believe you, but in this case, if what you say is true, I can say that in our lives, it's the other way around. The dragons rule the world, and we, the plucky humans, either serve them or do our best to annoy them. We are the annoyers, the HALF--Human Alliance Liberation Front," she added, rolling her eyes, "and I'm the leader--or one of them, at least. We're far-spread, and keep in touch via telepathy."

All the information slid right through Koshi's bewildered mind. "You actually telepath each other?"

The counterpart grunted. "After a slight ritual to become a member, yes, you can. Communication is essential for our survival, you know, as well as loyal troops." She inclined an eyebrow. "I suppose you haven't been in a clan before?"

"Once, but I never stayed long enough to dabble in their fineries." Koshi shrugged. "They kicked me out when I got caught picking the lock of my chastity belt."

"Honestly!" The other Koshi snorted, amused. "Were you intending on running a brothel or something?"

"Shut up," Koshi retorted, her face flaming. "Anyway, I suppose you are doing a good job as a leader?"

"Of course, everyone has to," the other replied, "otherwise we would be picked off like scabs by the time you dropped by here. As we are waging a continuous war against the dragons, and since they're meaner and cleverer than your average monster, we either have to have a strong leader or some strong grunt who can lead well--but then he'll be a leader anyway. I became top dog of Medievia's HALF after Tharn got overcooked by dragon breath and Rannar turned traitor." The counterpart seemed disgruntled at the notion.

"I would be very surprised if Rannar had any leadership qualities," Koshi commented offhandedly, and much to her surprise, the counterpart chuckled.

"Indeed," she snorted, "and Rannar had none to speak of, but he has all of a rat's. All he's missing are the whiskers and the worm tail." She spat. "Otherwise, he's all slime and a coward, and quite a time after his promotion, he betrayed us, and before I became leader, the dragons were picking us off one by one, no thanks to their informant's... tips. At least Tharn was marginally better than that traitor--the kid's all looks, and he's a decent planner, but can you expect beauty to charm those butt-ugly lizards? Tharn's better off being a diplomat or a stupid merchant rather than a HALF member--or Vryce forbid, leader."

"Hear, hear," Koshi murmured softly. "Now can you let me and Rannar out?"

The other laughed unpleasantly. "You, surely, but I am not taking a chance on that mage." She spat again.


"Didn't you hear what I said?" The counterpart rolled her eyes. "He's a rat, through and through, in human guise, even if he's from another world, or so you seem to indicate. I won't be surprised if he's going to try to humiliate me yet again to save his own hide, and this time I'll do a lot worse than lock him up." Beyond the stone walls, they could hear Rannar's terrified whimpering at the morbid statement.

Koshi winced, both at the words and the stinging of her bleeding backside. "While I do get annoyed at Rannar's whining sometimes, at least he knows better not to betray me." She shrugged. "It was a stupid thing to do to employ him as a leader."

The other scowled. "Go say that to Tharn's grave."

"Can you two p-please stop talking l-like I'm not even h-h-here?" Rannar's muffled voice said plaintively. "I c-can hear both of you, and I can assure th-that I'm not a tr-traitor."

"Words are cheap," the other Koshi growled, "and actions are expensive--unless they are the actions of a turncoat."

"I'm not a t-turncoat!" Rannar persisted.

"Well, if you are one or not, I hate them, even if they seem to have changed their ways."

Rannar isn't what he seems to be," Koshi said wearily. "I'll know, and I'll see to that, if you get us out."

The counterpart shrugged. "Fine, he's your responsibility." She walked out, leaving the cell door open. "Get out, I've got to unlock your pet rat and see if you are true to your word. Remember," she added, her face darkening, "don't give me a reason to regret my decision."

"As if," Koshi muttered under her breath, stretching, and winced as her backside ached in protest. "You have a mean whipping hand, you know that?"

A dry smile tugged at the other's lips. "It's one of the things I'm proud of. Meet me at the infirmary, 'cause I've got to take care of the stripes I gave you." She stopped, as if remembering something she had forgotten. "Oh, to avoid confusion, just call me Drayer."

Koshi blinked. "Drayer?"

"Cobbled from Dragon Slayer, 'cause it's my title. Now buzz off before I give you an extra fifty lashes to take home with."

"Outch!" Koshi yelped, cringing in her chair as the cold, strong-smelling potion slid and stung down her lacerated backside as if a gigantic slug was crawling down the entire length.

"Stop squirming, you idiot," Drayer snarled through gritted teeth, drenched all over with the liquid, and was smelling pretty repulsive herself. "You're just going to make this last longer, and it's going to be worse than my little chatting session! Now hold still or I'll have to strap you down and force you to swallow this stuff!"

Koshi reluctantly obeyed, but she nearly bit through her lip trying to stifle the pain, although her mind thought of many remarks she would have loved to unleash on her counterpart if it wasn't social suicide to do so, and she settled with clenching her fists in a white-knuckle grip, taking deep breaths and consequently inhaling the smell, causing her nose to sting and her eyes to water as if she was chopping onions. In short order, she felt light-headed, and held her breath, trying to will the dizziness away, although she was left gasping for air.

"Okay, now your wrists and ankles. Those red marks are making me wince. Stupid people," the HALF leader grumbled, "don't they ever clean the torture devices?" Koshi reluctantly opted to concentrate on that train of thought when the alternative was to endure the stinging and awful stench of the slimy concoction as it was poured on the angry welts. To her mild surprise, the wounds mended and healed, the redness fading into a mild blemish, though the stench stung her nose.

"What is this stuff?" The woman half-choked, curiousity overcoming her revulsion.

"Dragon stomach juices," Drayer replied coolly. Seeing Koshi's start of horror, she laughed. "Oh, no, not that kind, just the milder type. We had several creative mages experiment with the stuff, and although some of the more careless types had melted their hands off with their experimentation"--Koshi winced, and not entirely from the pain--"we eventually made this. It stings, yes, but it works better than one of those rarer, more expensive types. Basically a cure-all." The scarred face laughed. "Only thing that keeps it from being popular was the smell, and that the sources are less than enthusiastic to offer their ingredient."

"Obviously," Koshi remarked as the slimy liquid was applied to the ankles. She hadn’t been eaten by a dragon yet, and already she was practically taking a bath in malodorous dragon digestive juices! No wonder their breath smelled so bad, she mused, remembering the green dragon’s stench as she stood almost face to snout with it. The sheer irony nearly made her laugh out loud if she was in a jovial mood, which she couldn't be farther from.

"Done," Drayer finally said, breathing a massive sigh of relief, and Koshi wondered how she could endure the stench better than she can. She felt like upchucking as the smell intensified, and even her throat began to suggest that course of option.

Eventually she couldn't hold it any longer. "Where's the way to the bathroom?" She croaked.

Drayer looked mildly surprised, though a smirk was playing in her eyes. "I thought you'd never ask. It's down there, if you turn right at the first intersection. Be thorough if you wish, we're just going to prepare some dinner--"

She didn't even finish her statement before the rapid footfalls of Koshi's hasty egress echoed around the halls. Drayer, and a few of the others who had the gall to eavesdrop, had to laugh at the poor woman's expense.

"I'd love to see her face when she returns!" She chuckled, and sniffed, blanching slightly at the horrible smell. "Damn dragon juices, I wish those mages knew how to make them less whiffy..."

When "Drayer", leader of the Human Alliance Liberation Front, led the two into the meeting room, Koshi didn't know what she expected to see. The room was bursting with sound from the other HALF members, their individual voices blending into a cacophony that made her ears ache. But her attention swiftly turned to a long table basically creaking under the weight of covered platters, and the smell that wafted from them caused the woman's mouth to water. Rannar looked to be on the verge of drooling, and he was about to advance when he started backing away as if it was evil, and the reason became clear shortly after--Derd and Gerrain were pushing through the crowd from the direction of the dinner table to stop in front of them, their faces narrowed with suspicion as they eyed Rannar's cringing form. Apparently the scars the mage earned from his torture session with the thief were not limited to just the physical.

"What's the reason for bringing the traitor here?" Derd snarled. If looks could kill, the glare he fixated Rannar with would have murdered the poor mage beyond resurrection.

"He's not him," Drayer snapped. "And keep your manners intact; I hate dissension, even if the man in question used to be a rat." She pointedly ignored Koshi's indignant splutter. "Anyway... people," she said, facing the crowd, "meet your two newest members."

Much to Koshi's lack of surprise, there was an instant uproar in the room. Several wicked glares were shot at Rannar, and the mage apparently decided that being close to Derd was safer than being smothered in the crowd, considering the way he huddled as close to the twins as possible.

"Shut up, people," Drayer barked, but it did not reduce the volume one whit. "I said, SHUT UP!"

The members went silent immediately, and quite a few clutched their foreheads as if recovering from a psychic attack. Koshi chuckled to herself at the effectiveness of clan telepathy, but stopped when the HALF leader started speaking.

"I know you all haven't forgot Rannar's betrayal"--a few catcalls towards the back of the room emphasized that--"but let me get this straight. THAT Rannar is not THIS one, and I don't want hostilities to permeate this dinner." At the blank looks greeting her, Drayer sighed. "Mage, please make it clear for them, and tell them of you and your friend's purpose to coming here."

"M-m-me?" Rannar whimpered. "Wh-why me?"

"Because you're the only one who knows, and if you don't talk, I'll be more than happy to sic Derd on you and lock you in that dungeon until your eyes rot!"

"That's harsh," Koshi murmured out of the corner of her mouth, but Drayer either did not hear or chose to ignore the remark.

Meanwhile, the mage's face was blanching with terror, but he sighed and straightened himself. "F-fine, then..." he turned towards the snickering crowd.

"Um," he squeaked, "n-nice to see you, p-people..."

"Yeah, nice to see you again, pal!" Someone yelled. "Look at that, guys, a rat giving a speech!"

"Think he's gonna impress us?" Someone else added.

"Since when have you met a rat who does that?" Another one replied snidely.

Unpleasant laughter echoed throughout the chamber. Rannar seemed to wilt under the onslaught, his face ghostly pale, until Drayer came to the mage's rescue by storming forwards, her face taut with rage.

"BE QUIET, ALL OF YOU!" She roared, and Koshi had to marvel at how the echoes multiplied the leader's voice a hundredfold. "I am sick of all this persecution! I told you, this mage is not the Rannar who betrayed you, but someone else--"

"Makes no difference, they're rats all the same," a gruff voice retorted. Several others wolf-whistled their agreement, and quite a few snickered.

The leader whirled on the source of the voice. "Red, if you don't shut that big fat mouth of yours, I'll put you on guard duty for a week! Same with the others!" She raised her head, her body exuding authority. "Now be quiet and let the mage have his word, and then we can eat!"

Mutinous grumbling punctuated the crowd, but none were loud enough to stand out, and Rannar eventually straightened himself again, apparently regained of his composure. "Th-thank you," he murmured, breaking the mutters, and cleared his throat. "K-Koshi and I... w-we're from another universe like yours." He paled slightly, and sighed. "It's got a lot of p-people like you, except they're probably d-different in what th-they're d-doing for a living. F-for example, in your leader's case, she's H-HALF's leader, right?"

Some people in the crowd nodded their agreement, albeit reluctantly, and it seemed to give the mage new confidence. Colour returned to his face, and his stutter seemed to fade altogether. "Well, as for my Koshi, she's leader of a bandit group which Derd, Gerrain, Tharn, and I are members of--in the other universe," he added hastily when Derd and Gerrain raised their eyebrows.

"Gee, thanks for saying that," Koshi muttered, but Rannar paid no attention, apparently caught up in his speech.

"Were you really?" Drayer said, a grin playing on her face. "Never thought Gerrain made a good thief... even though I can say differently about Derd and Tharn. So, made a tidy profit off being a cutthroat?"

"Oh, you wouldn't know. We were doing a fine business until centaurs and other bandit gangs started competing against our territory. Needless to say, we value our skins more than the wagons of our victims." She turned slightly pink. "And were you being mean by not telling me about the gil-ciera? It was trying to peek at me when I was busy getting rid of dragon juice smell! I practically had to grab a rock and bash it over the head for it to get my point about personal privacy!"

Drayer roared with laughter, rocking back and forth. "Oh, that! I was about to tell you, but you left so quickly"--she choked with mirth, giggling until sobered by her counterpart's death glare--"so what can I do? Peeping Tom does have its downsides, and you needn't be so harsh. It was being curious, after all." She tried without success to stifle a wicked grin.

"Very funny," Koshi replied with mock seriousness.

"--so really," Rannar continued, "you can see that in this other universe, things are different. There, dragons--good ones," he amended, "are our helpers, helping us go places and even fighting evil dragons for us." He mused slightly, scratching the stubble of his beard. "When I'm in the subject of good dragons... what happened to all of yours here?"

"We have no idea," someone answered. "We've heard from others that they probably joined forces with the evil ones. They're mean and greedy enough as it is."

"He's wrong," a female voice countered. "My ma said that they've been routed to the distant mountains, trying to regroup. They're still allies, you know."

"Shut up, Elynn," yet another added. "Those dragons, they're all dead. Not enough of 'em to keep the balance, so we have to do it for them."

Rannar looked mildly nonplussed. "Well, let's suppose they're gone, anyway, and even if they aren't, they can't help us now. So, here's my offer. Will you help me and Koshi get out of here so we can get capable dragon hunters to assist you? Those who agree, please say, 'Hear, hear'."

"HEAR, HEAR!" The crowd roared in unison.

"You know," the leader remarked, "he's actually pretty good at this. Maybe I judged him a little harshly."

"Grudges last a long time," Koshi replied with a shrug. "I didn't expect Rannar to show some talents--I mean, he did say that he only became a mage because his teacher pitied him. Even then, he's not that great in the art. That cursed stutter of his makes disasters out of half of the spells he casts, and his attitude is worse. It's a miracle he can incant a teleportation spell when under stress." (Yet that miracle happened today,) she thought.

A grin spread across Drayer's face. "No prizes on how you tolerate him."

"No prizes, indeed," Koshi chuckled. "Just don't tell him I told you that, he won't be happy."

"I'll take your secret to my grave." The counterpart mused for a moment. "He's a fine talker, though--I should have made his twin a Speech-Maker or something. If your Rannar sure knows how to get people going, the other would... I mean, minutes ago the crowd wanted to tear him apart, and now if he asked, they would have made him the leader in an instant."

"Gods forbid," Koshi murmured, looking at Rannar's gesticulating form as the mesmerized crowd looked on.

"Gods forbid, indeed."

"--and for your sake," Rannar was saying, his eyes bright and smiling now, "we're not going to stay permanently just in case you feel uncomfortable around us"--more laughter at the jibe, and the two women raised their eyebrows in surprise--"but we do need your help to keep the dragons off our backs until we can figure out how the gem works."

"There's one problem, mage," Red's gruff voice, named so because of his flaming red hair, grunted. "I don't see a portal gem on you anywhere."

"A portal gem?" Koshi hissed in Rannar's ear.

Rannar winked and smiled at the woman's astonished look. "Something I made up," he whispered back, and turned towards the crowd. "Yes, I know. The last one we had got smashed by a dragon." He sighed. "It's going to be hard to find a replacement. And we have to do this quickly enough--if too many things change, we can be trapped here forever, and I so love my own world." He smiled wryly. "So this portal gem is our only hope, to put it bluntly."

Silence reigned for a moment. Then a female voice, the one offering her opinion on the dragons, piped up, "What does it look like?"

The mage looked mildly surprised. "It's a many-faceted black gem that pulses white. Why do you ask?"

"Because I may have what you're looking for." All heads turned to a red-haired girl, holding up an object that looked familiar. For a moment, Koshi was inclined to doubt, but the pulsing glow the gem gave off between the girl's fingers dispelled those congealing in her mind.

Meanwhile, Rannar's grin looked about to split his face in two. "Who are you, and how did you get that?" He exclaimed, walking towards the girl. "This is wonderful!" He breathed, more to himself as he held the gem in his hands as if it was a priceless treasure.

The redhead smiled sweetly. "I'm Elynn, Red's little sister, and I was just scouting the area when your dragon was busy playing cat and mouse with you"--a few titters were heard at that--"and I found it lodged between two barrels. Most likely your pursuer dropped it during one of his fancier moves. Sorry for not telling you about it, Drayer," she apologized. "It kind of slipped my mind, thanks to Rannar and his gift of gab."

Koshi had to stifle an amused grin as her counterpart spluttered incoherently, too indignant to do otherwise.

"So, c-can we eat?" Rannar asked plaintively, his stutter returning. "I'm h-hungry."

"Damn well we're hungry," Red growled. "That mage basically talked us right past dinnertime." The crowd cheered in agreement.

Drayer sighed, resignedly throwing up her arms. "Fine, fine, then, go stuff yourselves. There's enough for everyone." Then she caught Elynn, who was currently trying to sneak away to blend in the scrum of people over the tables.

"Young woman," the leader said ominously, "you and I are going to have a talk in my office. I thought you had learned your lesson about hiding things from your leader."

Elynn gulped.

"D-do we have to go through h-here?" Rannar whined, peering fearfully at the gloom his torch just barely dispelled. "I c-can't see my hand in f-front of my f-f-face."

"Unless you want to risk being dragon dinner, you have to," Derd said coldly. "As long as we're down here, the dragons are hard put to discover our presences." He paused at a fork, and waved his torch, squinting as though trying to recall something he'd forgotten. Then he grunted. "This way."

Gerrain, Rannar, Derd, Red, Elynn, Koshi, and Drayer slunk through the sludge-filled tunnels, their faces set and grim. Koshi felt her rejuvenated skin flex powerfully in anticipation for the task, and a thrill coursed through her. This was just another raid, another stupid bandit raid, and their destination was just another victim caravan... The thought helped her mind stay sharp and sane as the mountainous task loomed over her.

A curious gil-ciera trailed the party until Drayer irritably waved her torch at it, causing it to skitter away, chattering in protest. Tunnel slimes, feeding off the filth of the sludge, ignored the humans' presence as they oozed down the corridors for more meals. In the dim glow of Koshi's torch, she can see the faint outline of a gigantic scorpion, perched on the tunnel ceiling, apparently dozing, as it made no move to attack them.

"What do you think of this?" Elynn said to Rannar.

"T-t-terrified," Rannar laughed nervously. "I c-can't see a w-way we all can g-get out alive."

The redhead snickered. "Oh, don't be such a killjoy." She patted his cheek affectionately, causing the mage to blush. "We'll get out of this in one piece, I can assure you."

"If y-you say so." But Rannar looked mollified, and he waded through the tunnel, a hint of confidence glimmering on his face.

Finally, Derd stopped on a closed manhole. "This one," he said, and with a few deft movements, tossed the covering open and placed a ladder, and when Koshi crawled out, she found herself in a small mortuary. Gerrain and Red followed, muttering curses under their breath as they forced their massive frames out the hole and into the building. The redhead waved his torch almost frantically, eyes wide with something akin to fear.

"Come on, Red," Drayer said testily. "There are no bats here."

Red scowled. "You wouldn't know how much I hate them," he retorted, swinging the torch around. "Imagine if the bat you tried to shoo away suddenly turned into a vampire and tried to suck your blood..." He shuddered.

"Red's scared of bats," Elynn said matter-of-factly, although her eyes twinkled with suppressed humour. "It's been my hobby to hang a bat on his ceiling every night to make him jump when he wakes up."

"Shut up, Elynn," Red said, his face turning the colour of his namesake.

"Okay, both of you, cut the chatter," Drayer snapped. "We don't want to be heard. Now put out the torches--Red, I said NOW--and from now on, only telepathy is used, but be frugal, we don't know if that rat is with the dragons. Koshi, got your gem?"


Smoke filled the mortuary as seven torches went out, and the group poured out, partly to escape the choking gas. Dilapidated tombstones lined the weed-infested graveyard, and the ground seemed to exhale black dust with each step. Koshi reached down and took a handful--ash.

{Wow,}Elynn said, and Koshi thought she was speaking out loud until her voice echoed in her head. {This is scary... Red, where are all the zombies and skeletons?}

{They all got incinerated,} the big warrior replied in the same telepathic language. {Dragons don't enjoy competition--even undead ones.} His foot sifted at a pile of soot. {Most likely this is what's left of the poor blokes.}

{'Poor blokes' indeed,} Elynn snorted. {One tried to eat my eyes when I was wandering here, and a cleric had to burst it into pieces. I spent three hours in the bathroom trying to get all the ick off my hair.}

{Coast is clear,} Derd's mental voice echoed faintly, cutting off the impending discussion. {Be quick, and be quiet.>

The seven pushed their way through weeds so tall they obscured vision, only followed by the occasional broken stalk, markings of the thief's passage, and when they reached the gate, blessedly devoid of weeds, they heaved a collective sigh of relief. Rannar pondered at his cocklebur-infested and ash-dusted robes, and before he had a chance to follow on his intentions, there was a booming of vast wings, followed by Red's and Gerrain's belated yells of warning, and the gigantic frame of a green dragon.

Koshi's mind reeled. She was almost entirely positive that this beast was an exact duplicate of the one who chomped Gerrain and roasted almost all of her other party members to death, and now she was going to lose them again...

Then she blinked. What her dazed vision failed to comprehend earlier now saw a strangely familiar figure, hunched and short, wearing green robes, perched precariously on the dragon's spiked neck.

{Rannar!} Drayer hissed, her eyes blazing with absolute loathing.

{Koshi,} the mage replied, his mental voice cool and cultured. {So nice to see you. I was wondering when we'd meet again.}

{And I was wondering when I'd finish the job I had begun,} the leader snarled sharply, her hand flying to her chest for one of her knife sheaths.

"Stop!" Koshi demanded, grabbing her counterpart's hand. "You're going to be roasted!"

{Let go, Koshi!} Drayer snapped, and Koshi's mind reeled at the "blow" of the statement. {This idiot betrayed my clan; I won't let him get away with it!>

"And let HALF lose a capable leader?" Koshi retorted, still keeping her grip, and her senses. "You're better than that! Get to your senses, and we can deal with him later!"

Eventually, Drayer seemed to sag under the force of logic. She sighed, and moved her hand away. {Fine,} she muttered grudgingly. {Let's see what he wants.}

Meanwhile, the Rannar we are all familiar with was staring dumbly at his counterpart, gaping with surprise. The other was likewise, cool impression forgotten as he blinked and stared at his mirror image.

"Shall we roast these puny humans, Rannar?" The green dragon growled. Same voice, after all!

Rannar--the other one, of course--smiled lightly. "Why do all that when we only need to get what we want?" He leered at Elynn. "You did say it was on her, right?"

The dragon nodded.

"Then get her, Kydorsag."

With an ear-splitting roar, the dragon unfolded its massive wings and lifted off, each wingbeat sending miniature dust storms coursing throughout the terrain. The group was forced to cover their eyes and noses against the onslaught. Koshi felt buffeted by sand and dirt, and everything seemed to tug at her, so strong was the wind. When the coast was cleared, Elynn's comatose figure was clutched in a talon, no doubt under the influence of a sleeping spell. At first sight of the green dragon flying off with its prey, Rannar let forth a cry like a dying animal, and before anyone could stop him, he plunged into the forest after the beast.

At the double disappearance, Dreyar swore so viciously that the grass around her seemed to wilt and curl up. "That turncoat and his dragon pet!" She burst out, apparently deciding to throw telepathy out the window. "And that idiotic mage! I would love to drown them in boiling oil!" She seemed enraged beyond comprehension.

"But Koshi," Red inquired, "why did they take my sister?" He looked worried, his eyes never leaving the dim shape of the dragon flying off, and the mute knowledge of the frantic mage following them.

Koshi swore and hit her head. "Of course!" She yelped. "Both of them thought SHE had the gem, but I had it all along!"

"Curses." Dreyar sighed. "And our hotheaded mage fled after them because of an oh-so-convenient romance going on." She muttered something along the lines of, "This is why I HATE romances."

Finally, it was Derd who took the initiative. "Come on," he said, "we've got to follow them, and I hope you've got your dragon hunting equipment. We've got some scores to settle."

His face twisted in disgust as he glanced at Koshi. "I almost wished for your friend's cowardly self again at these times," he muttered.

Koshi smiled, but refused to comment otherwise as the party plunged into the deep woods.

Despite a forced march across the treacherous ground, the party eventually had to stop at a clearing to rest. All thoughts were fluttering everywhere, mostly focused on Elynn and Koshi's Rannar within the forest, simply held or worse.

Koshi could barely sleep. Every thought seemed to conspire to keep her awake with worry and stress, and she started regretting the little snide jabs she made at her mage friend before all this had happened. Underneath the stutter and the cringing visage, he was actually a decent man, if a little unstable at times.

The woman smiled slightly, and settled into a more comfortable position. Being familiar to sleeping on hard ground, it wasn't difficult to find one, as long as she wasn't bothered by insects crawling around.

The world seemed to drift in a haze, and she was falling, falling, falling...

She was running. Running from what, she doesn't know. Yet it was a horror she would not care to even parley with, and that alone lent her the strength to run on. She knew if she stopped, or even glanced back, terrible things would happen. She tried to think, but the adrenaline of her legs prevented much thought, and all that she thought was (Run! Run!)

From behind, the awful thing closed in, its feet whomping across the ground. "Come to me," it was hissing softly, its voice a dragon's, then Elynn's, Rannar's, and finally, horribly, her own. "Come to me, and die softly... who knows, it may not be as painful as you think... I have never died yet..."

"SHUT UP!" Koshi yelled, and the voices laughed cruelly, their snide voices cutting into her soul like knives. Much to her dismay, her foot caught on a rock and tripped. She hit the ground, and turned, her throat constricted with horror.

A huge green dragon was whomping towards her, its face warping between its usual visage, then Elynn's malicious features, Rannar's cruel lust, and her own anger. All the while, it swayed its sinuous neck, apparently seeking a good spot to eat its trapped prey first. She was doomed.

"Help me!" She yelled, yet the voice that came out was Rannar's, weak, pleading, and desperate. Much like her own... or was it the other way around?

No one came, and Koshi watched, helpless, as the dragon's gigantic maw opened and surrounded the woman in a barrier of teeth and saliva.

(Oh, wonderful,) she thought wryly, (I'm going to get eaten. Wonder what it feels like to be melted into goop.)

Then the ground opened up under her, and the world spun out of control, Rannar's weak cry echoing in her ears.

"W-wake up, Koshi! Y-you're having a n-n-nightmare!"

Curses, Koshi thought, trying to keep her eyes shut from reality. (Stupid dreams within dreams,) she thought. Yet she couldn't get rid of the thought that the voice shouldn't be there a night ago...

Muttering curses, she opened her eyes to be staring squarely at Rannar's terrified face, and standing on the background were the others, rubbing sleep from their own eyes. Red yawned, his hair obscenely messy, and Drayer looked mildly irritated.

"Guess that's your early morning p-p-present," the woman yawned. "Fancy him sneaking up on us in the middle of the night. Then again, the ruckus you made would have made us react roughly the same way."

"The nightmare... Oh!" Koshi blinked, suddenly fully awake, and rubbed her head, wincing. "Yeah, bad dreams."

Drayer scowled. "Thanks, Princess Obvious."

"Oh, shut up." She turned to Rannar, and for the first time, she noticed he reeked of Drayer's diluted dragon juice. "How did you get here?" She asked.

Rannar looked fearful of the thought itself. "I w-was just trying to tr-trail them, and then th-that awful dragon came and tried t-to blast me w-w-with its fire. I c-couldn't get any closer b-because it was trailing me, s-so I confused it with a ch-charm spell and ran back here." He looked downcast. "S-sorry for worrying you all, b-but I can't..."

Red stepped forward and embraced the mage. "S'okay, Rannar," he said. "I lost my sister too, and I know how you feel." He ruffled the mage's hair. "Come on, we'll be looking for them, and we can give that rat and the dragon their dues."

Rannar nodded, but he still looked terrified. Apparently his own foolhardiness seemed to terrify him as he kept on apologising over and over again, much to the party's irritation, until even Gerrain looked slightly red and hastily excused himself for an upset stomach.

"Are you going to cut this mushiness?" Derd's tart voice broke the highly embarrassing moment. "We've got a girl to rescue and two scores to settle. Come on, get something to eat, get up, and let's march."

So they moved on again, helped this time by Rannar's directions. He pointed to areas where he trampled them in his haste to track Elynn, but there was a certain hesitance about him, as if he disliked to meet the monster face to face again.

"Don't worry," Koshi muttered to the mage. "There was one of you, and now there're six of us." She smiled wryly. "Hopefully we'll come out of this alive."

"If you w-wish," Rannar squeaked back, his face growing whiter and whiter with each step. As the party walked, Koshi shot a sidelong glance, and her gaze drifted to the bag hanging off Rannar's belt, partially obscured.

(Wonder what he has in there,) she thought.

Night fell once again. The group, half exhausted despite a potent stamina spell Drayer invoked on them, dragged on, determined to find the path to the end. Already they had hints--the occasional charred human corpse, the stench of brimstone, and the magic that seemed to distort the air, swirling around them and in all acting like one of the more unpleasant facets of a magical storm.

"Well, at least we know it's in the vicinity," Drayer muttered. "That butt-ugly lizard is not going to get away with one of my people while I'm still drawing air." Koshi thought that was a bit of an extremist statement, but before she could open her mouth to express that opinion, she heard Rannar's yelp.

"What's going on, Rannar?" The leader said testily, and Koshi smiled to herself at the sense of déjà vu. "Didn't Gerrain tell you to shut up before?"

"S-s-sorry, Koshi, but I just stumbled into a h-hole!"

That was when reality hit Koshi almost as hard as the dust storm itself. Within the screaming of winds, there resonated a screech, a boom of vast wings, and Kydorsag's massive frame was silhouetted against the night sky as he landed on the ground, splintering several trees in the process. Elynn still dangled from one talon, her red hair striking against the beast's green scales.

"Do you know how irritating it is to find human thieves in my domain?" The dragon shrieked, apparently too furious to admit the conversational tone Koshi was familiar with what seemed like days ago. Indeed, the events passed by so swiftly to her mind that she could barely recall any details, if she recalled at all. If she had been in a humorous mood, she would have burst out laughing, but only duty absorbed her mind. Influenced by what she considered was insanity, she boldly stepped forward and met the beast nose to nose--or more precisely, nose to hind toe, since Kydorsag was gigantic.

"You've got the wrong person," she said sternly. "She doesn't have the gem. I have."

{No!} Derd stepped forward, his hand outstretched, but his plea was telepathic, ringing in Koshi's mind and making her head ache, but she steadfastly ignored it.

Meanwhile, silence reigned. Then Kydorsag's lips parted in a wicked smile. "Ah, human," he hissed, "you lie. She has the gem." But the reptilian eyes flickered with uncertainty.

Koshi returned the grin, fingering the portal gem in her pocket. (I'm going to need a new pair of pants after this!) "Try me, lizard boy."

The dragon narrowed its catlike eyes, and hissed an incantation. Koshi felt a vague sensation of fingers poking in her mind, sharp and jabbing with rage, cunning, and veiled uncertainty. Then at the exact moment the sensations left, the creature howled in outrage.

"You have the gem!" It roared. "I shall have his hide for this!"

The dragon belched fire, just missing Koshi's head. At the same time, something that was most likely a hammer blow multiplied a thousandfold struck the woman in the backside and she collapsed to the ground, her head striking a tree trunk in the process.

(Unconscious in a battle ground with a raging dragon,) Koshi thought dimly through the swirling haze. (I think I don't even need to guess the chances of survival at that situation.)

Then darkness pounced and devoured.

"You slime," Red snarled, hefting his gigantic warhammer and taking a swing that would have split Rannar's skull open if he hadn't dodged. "And I even embraced you that morning!" He spat at the ground as if it would get rid of the memory.

"Don't you just love ironies?" Rannar replied coldly, all traces of fear gone from his thin face, and it even managed to look malicious. He incantated several words, and a shaft of lightning speared from his open palm, forcing Red to lunge to the ground to avoid being electrocuted. "It's a fine thing I managed to humiliate you before killing you--so much the better."

The big warrior clenched his teeth in anger. "You evil," he spluttered, lashing out a fist that Rannar easily dodged, "slimy," a warhammer blow glanced off the mage's head, causing him to reel, stunned, "conniving," and another heavy blow sent him sprawling, "rat!"

The mage was equally enraged. He wiped a trickle of dark blood from his lips, matching Red glare to glare. "My, my," he said quietly. "Evil, slimy, conniving rat? I'm fairly sure you can create a worse version of that." He shrugged. "Anyway, I'm not here to endure insults with the likes of you. Goodbye, former comrade."

Rannar held forth his hands, screaming out the fatal incantation. The spell struck true, and Red was thrown several yards by the force to crash on the ground several yards away, landing heavily next to Koshi's unconscious form.

One glance at the man's shattered chest area, the blankly staring eyes, and the blood pooling around him told Rannar of the grisly effectiveness of the spell. He smiled smugly, but before he could move, an anguished shriek of "RED!" pierced his ears. Drayer saw, of course, and suddenly a raging crimson mist engulfed her mind, silenced all reason and sense. Berserk, the woman whipped out her twin stilettos and lunged at the surprised mage.

"I'll kill you!" She shrieked, her eyes brimming with grief-stricken tears while Rannar backed away and desperately incantated another spell. Numerous bright red projectiles of magic sprung forth from his hands, and struck Drayer with such force that at the very least the sheer power of would have stunned her, or stopped her heart.

The magic missiles only halted the woman's charge and sent her stumbling to one knee.

That was it.

That was all.

Drayer leapt back to her feet almost immediately, half-crying, half-cursing, and before Rannar could articulate another spell, the woman had a death grip on the mage's throat. Choking for breath, Rannar reached into the folds of his robe.

"Watch out!" Came Gerrain's yell. But it was too late. The knife slid smoothly into Drayer's side and the wielder pried the limp woman's grip from his throat and started to run, but was quickly stopped by Gerrain's powerful fist crashing against the mage's nose.

There was an audible crack, and Rannar howled in pain as he collapsed to the ground, blood streaming from his crumpled nose. Gerrain waited, his face an awful mask of icy rage, greatsword aimed at the traitor's cringing, bleeding form.

Rannar's eyes filled with terror as he looked up; he had met his match. "Mercy..." he whined, blood spraying from his broken nose with every word, "A boon! Please spade be!"

For a moment, Gerrain's bearded features glimmered with compassion. But only briefly, and the cold, furious look was back, washing away all traces of sympathy.

"No, Rannar," the warrior snarled. "Mercy is for innocents. And to honour my leader, I'll show you what my verdict is."

Before Rannar could react, the greatsword dropped like a snake's gleaming fang, sliding into the mage's chest like butter. The dying man stared in disbelief at the mortal wound, but when he opened his mouth, blood spurted out.

"You..." he half-whispered, half-gurgled, "you..."

Then Rannar's mouth hung slack, his eyes glazed, and he slumped to the ground, dead, and Gerrain spared little more than an expulsion of spit on the corpse before turning to Drayer. Surprisingly, the woman was conscious, if exceedingly pale, and her smile was dry.

"Sure did a fine job of cleaning up after me, did you?" She said, her voice strained. She attempted to get up, eliciting several hissed curses, but Gerrain's monstrous hand stopped her.

"I suppose you don't mind bathing in dragon juice for a while after this?" He asked innocently, handing the foul-smelling potion to the leader. Drayer groaned as she took the vial, and the warrior harbored a private thought that part of it wasn't entirely from the pain.

"Well, anyway," Gerrain added as a roar shook the sky, "I'm needed somewhere else." Then he was off, his blood-stained greatsword held easily in one hand.

Drayer's scream brought Koshi back to her senses. The first thing she saw was a glimpse of red hair, and she tasted blood in her mouth. Almost dreading the worst, she struggled to her knees, and stared full at Red's gargantuan, lifeless form, his chest a bloody pulp. The man's face was slack, his eyes staring blankly, one hand still holding his gigantic warhammer, and when Koshi spat out blood, she realized with a chill that it was his--the spreading stain that tarnished the ground around the corpse in a one-yard range was mute, unshakable testimony of the obvious.

Koshi instinctively probed her pocket, and heaved a mental sigh of relief at the feel of the portal gem still secured there. Apparently Rannar's betrayal did not stun the group long enough for him to steal it, but unhindered by his stutter, the mage was a severe threat, and Red's corpse was further proof. The fact that a frail man could eliminate this giant so easily... it sent shudders through the woman's spine. Rannar--her own Rannar--would have no chance...

Tears exploded from Koshi's eyes, both from the stress and the shock of realizing that all the members of her own bandit group, save herself, were dead, and she had the misfortune to be alive to remember and regret all the stupid things she had done. Cursing, she wiped them, hating this show of weakness when there was a battle raging on!

Koshi crawled across Red's body and attempted to tug the warhammer away, and it slid easily through the dead man's blood-slicked fingers. The woman swore as the weight of the weapon dragged her to the ground, and as she struggled to heft it upright, she cursed her stupidity with every breath. (Of course Red's a big lug of a man,) she thought sarcastically, (and you expect you to do the same as he did?)

Even with both hands, it took some effort to lift the gargantuan weapon, and Koshi eventually resigned to dragging it across the ground when her arms started protesting with exhaustion. She looked around, and the first thing she saw was a gigantic green-scaled log with a black hooked talon on the end--one of Kydorsag's toes.

Smiling grimly, Koshi dragged the weapon towards the dragon, who was apparently distracted trying to blast Derd with its lances of fire, but the thief's quick feet served him well, evading the flames. For a few minutes he held the dragon at bay, but eventually a jet touched him, incinerating his right arm off, causing him to shriek in agony and fall to the ground, writhing and sobbing, blood oozing out of the stump of his destroyed appendage.

However, Derd's unwitting distraction served its purpose, and Koshi staggered over to the dragon, keeping low as not to attract his attention. With phenomenal effort, she lifted the warhammer, and brought it down on Kydorsag's toe, and she felt a surge of primal satisfaction as she felt scales, cartilage, and bone giving way under the blow.

Koshi's ears nearly exploded as they felt the full force of the dragon's agonized scream. "YOU!" The dragon ranted, its teeth bared. "Puny human, you annoy me too long to ignore you!" He gnashed its fangs, and saliva dripped to the ground. "I shall reward your foolishness by making your demise as painful as possible!"

The huge dragon took a deep breath, ready to unleash a cone of infernal death that surely could not miss. Koshi gulped nervously, knowing that little short of a miracle could save her this time.

It did come, but in a totally unexpected way. Two, to be exact.

Gerrain, all muscle, armor, and power, bulled into the gathering and swung his greatsword, smacking Kydorsag on his already injured toe, eliciting another shriek. Furious, the dragon's tail swung, catching the warrior and practically smashing him against a tree. The branches shook violently as Gerrain's heavy weight was hurled against it, but to Koshi's astonishment, he was up on his feet again, though his face was twisted in agony, and a powerful downward strike sheared some scales off.

"HUMANS!" The dragon howled in frustration, then pain when Elynn, roused by her captor's cry, pried a knife out of her boot and jammed it in a spot between the protective scales. Subsequently, Kydorsag let go.

"Elynn!" Koshi shrieked, and she almost dropped the warhammer on her toe in her rush towards the spot where the girl was falling.

Kydorsag, laughing, turned to Gerrain. "Now," he sneered, "where was I?"

Gerrain backed away slowly, his body racked with pain from the dragon's attack, knowing death when it was coming. There was virtually no chance the beast was going to spare him this time. (Now is a good time for divine intervention!) He thought desperately.

As if on cue, a cloud passed, and the skirmish ground was bathed in moonlight. It seemed to illuminate everything with an ethereal haze, and if there wasn't a gigantic dragon ready to roast someone's brains out, it would have been a beautiful night.

(Perfect,) Gerrain thought. His eye lazily strayed towards the sky, catching the moon's full, bright gaze. It had been a long time since he had exposed his eye to the light of the full moon, and the changes felt unfamiliar after all those years. He felt the transformation, armor falling as bulging muscles burst the straps, a tickling sensation as hair sprouted and claws formed, the briefest sting of pain as bones reformed themselves to a beast's.

Then came the mind... the wolf's savage mind. It threatened to overwhelm him, and even with his long years of fighting its nature, it was a difficult struggle. His jaw slavered as he eyed the dragon, and hesitated. This was no human, his staple prey... where were the humans? He vaguely recalled someone fleeing into the woods, but the memory was gone as quickly as it came.

Kydorsag took advantage of the hesitation. He drew his head back and belched a stream of flames at the new threat. The werewolf's pained shriek echoed throughout the forest, and all around, the stench of burning flesh and hair lingered.

Much to the dragon's surprise, the werewolf leapt to its feet as though it had never been hurt, wisps of smoke emitting from its charred fur. With a mighty lunge, the lycanthrope landed squarely on the dragon's back, paws scrabbling to find a hold between the scales. Roaring in rage, Kydorsag's massive wings billowed and took him up into the sky, bucking like a raging horse, the werewolf clinging grimly to his back. Infernal lances illuminated the moonstruck night, and it might as well have been a very intriguing aerial version of rodeo for the casual observer's eye.

With an amazing show of balance and grip, Gerrain crawled up to the top of the dragon's head and stuck his claws into the beast's eyes. Blood and ooze dripped down Kydorsag's jaw and splattered to the forest floor, and blinded, the dragon screamed in pain and fell to the ground. Trees were either immolated or uprooted as dragon and werewolf fought savagely, sparing no quarter.

"Are you all right?" Koshi asked, worried, staring up at the branch Elynn was suspended from.

The girl snorted and crossed her arms. "What does it look like?" She snapped sarcastically. "I'm all right, considering a tree's threatening my ability to procreate--not that I'm not relieved about it, though."

Koshi covered her mouth in an attempt not to grin. "Well, there are some consequences to keeping your life intact," she said with mock sincerity. "Who knows, you'll make a great nun sometime."

"Yeah, go say that one more time when I'm out of this and armed." Elynn attempted to shift herself to a more comfortable position, but only managed a wince as several sensitive spots were pressed on. "I hate wedgies," she muttered.

"Hold on, I'll get you down."

"No need to," Elynn grunted back as she continued to squirm, her face white with pain. "I think this branch's about to--AAAAARGH!"

Her yell was aptly put as said branch snapped and sent the girl plummeting to the ground for the second time. Koshi winced and ran towards the spot, quickly enough to hear Elynn finish her sentence.


"No kidding," Koshi murmured, unable to stifle a grin this time. Elynn winced, rubbing her rear as she struggled to her feet, only sparing the woman the dirtiest of looks before storming off, muttering.

The foul stench of diluted dragon juice reached Koshi's nose, and she turned to face her counterpart, face pale and holding a blood-stained rag to her side, but otherwise intact.

"Where have you been?" Drayer said.

Koshi shrugged. "Trying to save Elynn."

"Looks like she wasn't happy about it." The woman's voice was flat, unemotional, and her gaze was likewise as it drifted over to the sulking girl.

"No, the tree did it for her." Koshi's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What happened?"

"He's dead." Drayer spat. "Derd, I mean. That idiot dragon and his pet mage... I swear, I want to take an axe to them and--" and the woman launched into a tirade of expletives so vile Koshi felt her face redden and she saw Elynn place both fingers to her ears, her face shocked, and for good reason. No person worth their gold's worth of decency would be caught dead uttering such profanity!

When Drayer finished her venting, Koshi inclined an ear, and a chill went up her spine. There was no sound of battle, not even a growl, nothing whatsoever. Elynn's face was confused and frightened at the same time as she strained an ear to hear.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Koshi muttered. Drayer and Elynn nodded.

Mutely, the three ran towards the battle, their hearts in their mouths. Elynn, possessing youthful agility, reached there first, and her howl of mingled triumph and anguish can be heard. Koshi stumbled into the clearing, and quickly saw why.

The combat had been brutal. Vicious talons and claws were involved, and flies were already homing in towards the iron stench of death. Dragon and Gerrain, human once more, slumped there, and amid the blood and ash, there was more on the outside of their bodies than on the inside.

Elynn was kneeling next to Gerrain, crying. "H-he was almost a brother," she whispered as Koshi approached. "Next to R-Red... when Red died, I thought... I thought..."

"Yeah, I know." (Why is it so hard to say those words?) The woman thought as she laid a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Come on," she said quietly. "There's nothing you can do."

Sobbing, Elynn glared at Kydorsag's lifeless body. "Curse you," she hissed, grabbed a rock, and hurled it at the corpse. The object bounced off the scales with little effect.

"Now, now, is that the way you treat our prize?" Came Drayer's sarcastic voice. Koshi turned to face her counterpart, limping towards the battleground, her face unreadable. "Elynn, you've got a knife--go cut some scales and try not to throw any rocks at them. I'll get you vials to collect some of their stomach juices--we'll definitely need them when we get home. Oh, and Koshi..."

Koshi turned, and much to her surprise, her counterpart was smiling, even though her eyes were full of tears. "Here," Drayer said, plunking a bag into the astonished woman's hand. "One of those bags Rannar used to carry around all the time. Since he's dead, he doesn't need it anymore."

Koshi forced a laugh as she held the bag. "I'll use it well."

Drayer nodded, and smiled. "Good luck starting a new group."

"I probably don't need to. I've had enough adventure to last me a lifetime."

"Indeed." Then Drayer looked at Elynn. "Done yet?"

"Yes," the girl half-choked, her eyes red-rimmed with tears as she hefted the sack.

"All right." The leader took Elynn's hand in hers, and muttered an inaudible incantation. With a burst of light, the two disappeared.

{Better use it now}, Drayer's voice echoed in Koshi's head. {Who knows if the dragons took notice of this place.}

"Uh, sure," Koshi replied, unsure on how to communicate telepathically.

{You just did,} Drayer replied wryly. {I can hear your thoughts a mile away. Next time, try to curb that habit of speaking while thinking. It sounds like there's a parrot on your shoulder copying everything you say.}

"Uh, thanks." The woman reached into her pocket and pulled out the portal gem. The blazing white seemed to gleam like a beacon of hope in this wasteland.

"Back to home, I guess," Koshi muttered. She held the gem and closed her eyes. A roar of thunder replied, and she felt her hair stand on end. A flash of red as the bolt struck her, and blackness engulfed once more.

"Oy! Koshi!"

"How did she appear, just like that? And with new clothes also!"

"I thought she was dead!"

"Oh? She's breathing, last time I checked. But what about Rannar? Where was he?"

"Most likely dead, perhaps?"

Rannar? It took some time for the thought to form into Koshi's mind. Her hand closed around the gem, and the memories rushed back. The transportation...the meeting...the kidnapping...and finally, the dreadful battle...

Then someone was shaking her, and the woman opened her eyes to stare into Tharn's astonished ones. By the looks of the environment, she was in a tavern room, accompanied by Tharn and Derd.

"What happened?" The man asked, his voice shaking with excitement.

"I can ask the same of you, boy," Koshi replied wryly. "I thought you and Derd were dragon dinner by now."

"The spell broke when the dragon came and started chatting to you," Derd said, stepping forward, his face as cool as ever, though a smile tugged at the corner of his thin lips. "It was about to roast us when a bunch of dragon hunters dropped by the lair and chased it out."

"Talk about a stroke of luck," Tharn quipped with a chuckle. "Double, to be exact. A few of the people decided to come with us after hearing of our plight. Want me to introduce them?"

"Uh, sure." (Well, it sure helps to cope with Gerrain and Rannar...) Fresh tears stung her eyes at the thought. Despite her attitude towards them, they had remained loyal, and they had paid for it with their lives...

Koshi, lost in her own thoughts, allowed herself to be led out of the room and down the stairs, where the common room glowed with a hale, hearty light that lifted her spirits somewhat. At the center table, where she was obviously heading towards, there were bunches of people chattering, and among them was...

"Hi!" The red-haired girl chirped. "You must be Koshi! Your people told me all about you!"

Shock froze Koshi's tongue for a moment. "Elynn..." she managed to choke, "is that you?"

"'Course it's me, dummy!" Elynn snorted. "And how on earth do you know my name? Do you know who HE is?" She pointed towards her brother.

"Yeah, that's Red," Koshi replied almost automatically, and the big man blinked and spluttered incoherently. Behind her, she could feel Derd's eyebrow going halfway up the room, and swore. (Curse my loose tongue!)

The girl crossed her arms, looking sulky. "I suppose you know the others as well? Or just me and my brother, because we're so famous?"

Koshi stifled a snicker, although her cheeks burned with embarrassment at the awkwardness of the situation. "Sorry, I think it was your fame."

Elynn rolled her eyes, and took a sip of her drink. "So... how did you know me and Red? And don't lie, because I know it wasn't fame. Come on, my gang was just formed months ago."

"It's a long story," Koshi mumbled, her face flaming.

"We've got all day," the girl pressed.

"Uh, sure..." The woman absentmindedly untied the knot on the bag Drayer gave to her, and nearly dropped it in shock when a voice piped up from the depths, distant, yet audible.

"C-can you get me out of h-here?"

Eyebrows within earshot went up everywhere. Elynn's eyes looked ready to pop out of her head.

"That voice is too familiar..." Tharn muttered, and groaned. "Great, the stuttering, whining mage back in our ranks again..."

Koshi was too busy ignoring him. She stuck her head in the bag, feeling a rush of vertigo as she did so, and at the bottom, she saw Rannar, battered, bruised, but alive.

"What in sweet Saponaria are you doing here?" The woman yelled, even though in her mind she already knew the answer.

"It's not my fault!" Rannar whined back through the void. "M-my counterpart ambushed me and sh-shoved me in this b-bag! I r-really can't leave Elynn alone, y-you know..."

"No kidding." Koshi pulled her head out, blinked, and looked at Red. "Hey, Red," she said with a grin, "want to get this guy out of the bag? He's a little uncomfortable."

Bemused, but curious, the big redhead plunged a gigantic hand inside and yanked. There was a yowl of pain as Rannar popped out, Red's hand clutching at the mage's hair.

"Ow, ow, ow! Lemme go!" Rannar was yelping, until Red's other hand clamped shut against his mouth.

"Rannar," Koshi said, rolling her eyes. "I suppose that'll teach you to run off alone next time. What were you trying to do back there? Trying to have a liaison with your girlfriend or what?"

"Mmmph mmmph, urf grrmph!" Rannar mmmphed, and Koshi wondered if he was really saying the indecent thing that the muffled speech indicated. Maybe he was, considering the way Red winced and Elynn's ears turned even redder than her hair.

"Red, put him down," the girl ordered, and the big man obeyed. Rannar crouched, clutching his scalp and whimpering at regular intervals until Tharn yanked him to his feet.

"Well, fancy you," the diplomat said, his voice deceptively smooth in the way he used to conceal his true emotions, "slinking out of death like the rat you are..."

"Tharn, be quiet," Koshi said wearily. "He did save my life, and you'd better owe him the respect he deserves."

At that, Tharn opened his mouth, and shut it again, his eyes disbelieving.

"Anyway," Elynn cut in, "what's with all this? With the mage now, you’ve got an extra reason to tell." Her eyes twinkled mischievously.

"Oh, shut up," Koshi retorted. "So, you want the story?"

"I'm all ears. I've heard stranger tales, you know."

"Fine, then." The woman took a chair and plunked herself neatly on it. "Rannar, help me with the parts I forget." She cleared her throat. "And I need a drink, anyway."

"I'm getting it," Tharn said quickly, and ran off, his face flaming.

"Thanks." Koshi smirked, and turned back to the intent audience. "Anyway, it all happened when Rannar and I were transported to another world..."

News and Features

- by The Mudslinger Staff

Contest Winner! Alternate Lives
~ by Crazto

An Interview with God Calrog
- by The Mudslinger Staff


Folly on the Fury
~ by Aivanther

Barklins for Booze
~ by Crazto

Poetry and Songs

An Autoquester's Prayer
~ by Tiexie

A Valediction: Forbidding Trading
~ by Selenia