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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Spirit of Fire - 23. Resurgence

Third part of the finale -- one left!

"What is it?" She replied to him just as softly, a smidgen of concern creeping into her feelings. "If you saw something-"

"I did." He interrupted. "Listen. In a few seconds, right after I finish saying this to you, the water dragon with you, Lautone, he will try to kill you. Not just you, but the whole team."

The whole team?!

"Don't say anything to me. Don't give him any clues. Just when he starts to move -- do something. Anything. Whatever you have to, to stop him. If you don't, he will succeed. I- ... I can't talk longer, I have to tell the other team, warn them about Rheo."

The comm link went inactive, the message done, Torsten's time too limited to talk longer.

Her gaze came up, her expression passive, and she looked sidelong at everyone, out of the corner of her eye.

The team, in a tight cluster, Gamma-1 asking Kennedy a question while the others looked on.

The water dragon, tall and built, short military hair, a soldier's uniform of sable and dark blue. His hand was coming down from his face, a basic healing pass done, and casually he loosened one of the sapphire pins at his wrist, the material folding back to reveal a round flat clouded topaz. He tapped it, and it blinked with a pulse of sky blue light.

A second later, without him touching it, there was another pulse.

A signal.

Just as casually, he folded the material back into place, and with the smallest gesture, his hand barely moving as he coaxed it to obey, the water at the edge began to rise, slow and surreptitious, forming into a series of thickening spears, unnoticed by everyone else.

One for each remaining team member, and one for Agent Kennedy.

Celeste felt her blood run cold.

She turned, and as naturally and unthreatening as possible, walked up to Lautone.

The step before she reached him, the manipulated water abruptly hardened into ice. They shot out, and with surgical accuracy, flew through the group in a piercing hail.

In the same moment, she stabbed the enchanted steel of the switchblade into the water dragon's back.

Without missing a beat, he turned, not even allowing her to withdraw the blade, and backhanded her, sending her flying half a dozen feet. Turning again to the team, every single one impaled through the chest or abdomen by a harpoon of solidified cold, he twisted his fingers and in a breath, the magic imbued them, from head to toe, in solid ice.

With a final gesture, the ice shattered, the only testament to the human presence being the assortment of dropped weapons and gadgets.

He came about, ready to at last deal with the matriarch of this group, only to be met with a fist full of fire orbs. They burst across the unburned side of his face, a concentrated blare of infernal heat, and Lautone snarled, staggering back a step before she hit him with an energy blast from the hybrid pistol she carried, the shot striking him at close range.

It was too little to stop him.

"Enough!" He was unmoved, unhurt, and with a counter sweep of the arm, he batted the gun from her grasp, knocking it into the water. With a secondary flick of the hand, a swirling lasso leaped from the storage pool, wrapping around Celeste in a heartbeat, and it froze in place, immobilising her completely. Grunting in pain, he reached behind and angrily wrenched out the switchblade, tossing the metal shiv away to clatter on the floor. Lautone touched his cheek gingerly, inspecting the fresh burns, and he glared at her. "Out of respect, I was going to give you a dignified painless end, unlike the others." His eyes glowed, his magic roused from the physical provocation of her assault, the rancor evident. "You are making it difficult to be gracious."

"Crawley was right. You're all snakes." Despite the tiny stature and aged form, the enmity generated by her stare was as withering as that of a dragon elder. "My family has worked for generations to solve this, and you are betraying us. You're a coward. Triskeleth would be ashamed of you. Does all the priesthood know what you're doing?"

"Oh, countess." Lautone shook his head. "For one so connected, you are still rather naive. Did you think it was good intelligence that the Conclave knew when and where to steal the untranslated incantation? Did you think it was chance they discovered Lady Shiba's name and location and tried to kill her? Surely you must know of the Tempest's alias? Few do for certain, though I was convinced you had to be one."

He paused a moment, allowing it to sink in, and she was speechless, the duplicity deeper than she had imagined.

"Your Order is as noble as its name, but believe me, this has been a while coming. A time ago, she had a change of heart about this whole situation, though, it has not been long in the overall frame of the war." Again, he stopped, brief and contemplative, and nodded, half to himself. "It is hard to say, but I think she is appreciative of how useful humanity's creativity is. You have eased our path through certain dilemmas over the past few hundred years, and that effort has not gone unnoticed. Yet, I know she did come to realise, at some point in the last century or so, the ultimate futility of delaying what is unfortunately inevitable. So, instead of struggle, she directed us to engineer another outcome, where her leverage is superior for what is to follow the calamitous act of rebirth. If that means sacrificing some indeterminate number of human lives, then so be it." He gave a small shrug. "There is nothing personal about it and I take no particular pleasure. The Conclave will succeed here in the way we have orchestrated, and in so doing, the Order will fail, but valiantly. Pawns only exist to be traded for greater purposes, to die a hero's death. Yours is to allow her to defeat her brother, in the flesh ... again."

"You sicken me." Celeste spat, her voice coming more hoarse, the cold wrapped about her starting to take its toll. Her words were shaking, but as definite as she had been her entire life. "If they succeed -- if they resurrect him -- then I hope you die in the firestorm that follows. I hope he burns your precious goddess until there is nothing left."

"Now that kind of filthy language ... I cannot abide." With a dismissing wave of his hand, the icy magic flowed through her body, and it hardened into a statue of solid white, entirely ending her ability to react. "Goodbye, madame."

With a final snap of the fingers, the sculpture that was Celeste, last Countess of Rothberg-Cartier, was destroyed. There, the thousand shards of her broken humanity scattered, falling in a deathly patter at the water dragon's feet.


"You see, I held the Fear in my hand, and unlike the others who touched the godly relic, I was gifted with knowledge. I had an epiphany." Darren breathed in, slow and careful, remembering precisely what had occurred. "I realised three very important things in that moment. Two of them were insight, and conjured from the wellspring of chance that graces our lives, and the other? It was, simply put, all me." Brushing the bolstered ego aside, he continued on. "The first was that you, Araziah, are of overwhelming importance, that your rumoured potential is utterly and indisputably true, and that you will ultimately serve our father's purpose and not the rebellion you envisage." He kept on, speaking quickly and not allowing any room for a rebuttal. "The second was that your descent from Kitrax will be the factor that sets you on the path to us, and it is my role to enable that future. The third thing? Well, when you should reach that point, I will say what it is."


What use was a dead ancestor?

"I thought you wanted to tell me something interesting." Araziah glared, not caring about the repetitive and still baseless assertion of switching sides. A puff of impatient magical flame ran over the fingers of his right hand, a trifling indication of his restlessness. "None of this will change me. I am becoming more and more tempted to finish this foolish charade, instead of awaiting your impudence."

"If you do kill me now," Darren countered, "then you will be blindsided by what is coming, instead of knowing. What value do you place on forewarning? How important is it that you can react instead of being thrown into the future with no comprehension?"

"Then tell me plain, lest I be forced to ask yet again," growled the red dragon, "why I should care about Kitrax?"

"Because he was your grandfather."


"I advise you listen closely to the tale I am about to tell, and stay your wrathful hunger, since my knowledge concerns the very reason you exist at all." Darren inhaled, the irritability of his reaction gone fast, a paternal monologue taking its place, unabated. "Kitrax was celebrated. In recent millennia, it is very uncommon to find any dragon that embodies the virtues of our forebears, but he was one of the rare few that did. The Seventh House lauded him, and the other houses followed with their praise. He killed the Tempest's disciples in the name of our cause, he was noble, and he carried himself with the dignity of his bloodline. He was beauty personified, he bested our enemies and upheld everything we believed, refusing to let our cherished traditions be subsumed beneath the tawdry machinations of lesser beings. We loved him, thinking him a grand exemplar of Xajarkith, and it became a tragedy when he disappeared."


"Two centuries ago, Kitrax vanished. Without warning, without trace, he was gone. Many were sent to search for him, and the Conclave's lords were distraught when their servants returned without sight nor sound. Superstitious beliefs do not hold easy sway, but the loss of one so pure and perfect was seen as a sign that we needed to do more. We grieved, and in time, moved on. So it would have stayed, a sad part of our history left behind, but then I met you, and the whisper of insight told me you were descended from him. With our acquisition of the Fear and newer information in mind, I was obliged to find out how and why this miraculous happenstance could be true. To be enlightened, I sought out the last dragon to have spoken with Kitrax before his disappearance.

"That dragon is my uncle, Zereth. My father was the eldest and lord, and he had four sons; Michael first, then me, then Nero, then Theo. His brother, Lothian -- you met him briefly, I believe -- was secondborn and produced three spawn of his own; the twins, Faye and Kaia, and a son, Mordred. Yet, there is an unmentioned third. Zereth is the youngest brother, but he has never been known to the Order, because he did not mate like his older siblings, did not seek a life of politics and external war. Instead, he took the internal spiritual path, and at an early age, he devoted himself to our god. He became a priest, but one dedicated to combat. Choosing the role of a paladin, he trained endlessly, turning his natural talent for fighting into a life's work. Honing himself, he has rigorously practiced his art for decades, centuries. His calling is a righteous one and his purpose singular: to track and destroy the apostate, the heretic, wherever they might be.

"Given his inclinations, I expected little new information from him. At most, I thought he might give me a clue that could lead to discovering Kitrax's eventual fate, though my hopes were not high. Yet, when I told him that I had encountered a descendant, his attitude changed entirely. From disinterested, he became very forthcoming, expressing a strong desire to meet you. In exchange for a promise that I would arrange it, Zereth told me what he knew, though he swore me to secrecy before he began. It seems, Araziah, that the streak of rebellion within you is older than you.

"Back at the time of Kitrax's disappearance, my uncle was investigating a renegade female fire dragon. She had supposedly turned against the Conclave, refusing to offer tribute and spurning their legitimate authority. Zereth uncovered proof that she was being sheltered by one of our own, and when he covertly followed her, he saw it was none other than Kitrax himself. My uncle did not want to believe it, but he witnessed them together, and what he saw was undeniable. It was more than simple principle; Kitrax had taken the turncoat as his mate, and was harbouring her. So, Zereth did what he had to. He confronted them and in the name of the Conclave, condemned them. With regret, he employed his considerable skills to pass the sentence, and he fought Kitrax, then a mighty elder of more than six centuries, and killed him. While they were fighting, the female escaped.

"It took a century for Zereth to find her. She had quickened when he first saw her with Kitrax, and in the intervening years, she had birthed Kitrax's offspring. Regardless, he did his duty and killed her too, unable to forgive her offence against our god, but her progeny was elsewhere, decades old and already maturing. Zereth's search continued, his covenant demanding he hunt until the traitor's line was culled, and some eighty years further on, he eventually found Kitrax's daughter. Like her mother, she had mated young. Also like her mother, history repeated, and her mate defended her, dying to allow her to escape, in service to their future children. That was twenty years ago, in Mirrorvale."


"In his mind, it could not end until they were all purified in death. A diseased branch will bear bad fruit, and he searched long and hard for those elusive hatchlings, but he found nothing. The trail turned cold. What happened to her, Zereth did not say, though I believe he must know. All this time, he kept news of Kitrax to himself, so as to not sully the memory of a hero. For one so distinguished to be declared fallen was too much, let alone to detail a slaughtered line of false breeding. It was a secret ... until I told him of you." His eyes gleamed, a low warmth that was sinister and understated. "The child that Zereth never found."

"What-" Araziah stopped himself, unable to believe what he was hearing. "What are you saying?"

"When I told him," Darren murmured, "that my insight suggested the Order would have some unforeseen problems disabling two of our four lenses for the ritual, we knew what had to happen. I do not know why the Order will encounter these problems, but I am absolutely certain of one thing: without your intervention, they will fail. Perhaps they already have?"

Two of the four?

Araziah stood, the chair rolling back in his haste, and he stepped closer to the desk, eyes darting over the array of monitors. The readouts showed life signs as well as top-quality satellite video-cam feed for every single participating individual. By default, the audio was muted but available on demand. The Alpha and Beta -- air and fire -- teams were functional, their POV cameras sending a mishmash of combat and action. All the important people to Araziah were still alive, and although Beta had suffered multiple losses, Lucy and Crawley were fine.

The other teams?

Not so much.

For Delta -- the earth team -- there was only one human left alive, one of the commanding agents, and for Gamma -- the water team -- there were none. The system log's text indicated that their vital signs had been terminated nearly simultaneously less than three minutes earlier.

The implication was clear.

Celeste and her entire team were dead.

More than that, though: the water dragon chaperones were disconnected from their sensors, and technologically speaking, were listed as unknown locations and MIA.

Except, he knew they couldn't be missing.

Without any elaboration, Araziah understood exactly what had happened.

Lautone and Rheo had killed the humans they were meant to protect.

The Tempest had betrayed them.

Without knowing the exact reason, Darren's insight was right.

"The Order's hopes are dwindling. They kept you back deliberately, because they were not sure what you might do in battle. They do not trust you." The captive dragon's voice brought his attention back again, Araziah's ire building from the suddenness of the situation, and the infuriating treachery of a supposed ally. "You have strength. You have power. You have anger. You can be there in the blink of an eye, because you can teleport. Oh yes, I know your ability, Araziah. You are a WEAPON." The sudden increase in volume was startling, and it matched the rising level of his fury, his mind returning to a state similar to when he burned the sanctuary. "You can change this. You can decide it. If you stay here, the Conclave wins. But, out there? Out there is a chance to prove your worth. A chance to face the one who killed your family. To discover the fate of your mother."


"He is waiting for you," Darren whispered, "at the water lens."

Araziah's stare drilled into him, wide-eyed and buoyed by a furious pressure, then he was back to the monitors, moving so quickly that his hair swished in a curtain of motion.

He was torn.

Torsten had told him what could happen if he joined the offensive, but, if he didn't?

They would lose anyhow.

He knew what Darren was trying to do. He knew it was a temptation designed to pull at his emotions, to drive him to an extreme through hatred and entering battle when he was meant to keep watch.

But ... wasn't this why he was in reserve?

To be used, when the need was great?

In that moment, he made his decision.

"When I return," he snapped, without so much as another glance to the prisoner, "Zereth will be dead, and you- ... you will finish your explanation before I end you, too."

With a short sharp sound, the red dragon teleported away.

Left alone, Darren blinked, the departure sudden, and he looked at the uninformative rear side of the control station's bank of monitors, wishing that he could see whatever it was that had convinced Araziah to leave. Idly, now with nobody to talk to, he turned to watch out the window.

In a sense, he mused, it didn't really matter why.

He only cared that it was happening.

In the gathering gloom, as he gazed across the buildings of Brookstone, the afternoon turning to evening, Darren let out a quiet sigh of satisfaction, and he began to smile.


Brookstone Downs open-cast mine was west of the town, in the rough hill country. Primarily for extracting granite and dolerite, the quarrying location was relatively unknown outside of the child company that administered the mining operations. The size of it was what surprised Minato; the pit was fairly uniform in shape, close to circular, and at the surface, hundreds of feet, perhaps over a thousand, in diameter. A series of concentric benches ran along the sides of the pit, each at least twenty feet high, intercut only by an access ramp that descended to the mine's floor. Down and down it went, for several dozen layers, a muddled stratified mixture of brown, cream, and grey. The nearby landscape on the mine property was verging on the Brookstone plateau; dry, rocky, dusty, and with a low scrubby cover, it was a sparsely populated backwater area of the county.

Their team, Delta, was the slowest and last to arrive at the zone of contact. Their approach had taken far longer due to avoiding a series of blast traps the Scourge had placed on the final section of road before the property. Once at the site, the team spotter sighted the enemy's own lookouts, a small number of them distantly visible and scattered around the far side of the pit. Taking cover in the foreman's office, a prefabricated workspace built overlooking the mine, Farrow sent Delta-6 to scout the edge and see what defences lay below. The building was little more than a desk, filing cabinet, computer, water cooler, and air conditioning unit, with dirt-streaked windows.

He returned a minute later, giving his report, and the whole team, Rheo and Minato included, clustered around the windows to hear his assessment. "Hard to see from this angle, but on the floor there are some kind of emplacements." D6 was doing hand gestures toward the pit, in a crude imitation of what he meant. "They're in a ring around what looks like a device on the base layer."

"The lens?" Farrow asked.

"Think so. The emplacements are swivel turrets, and they seemed to be heavy ordinance. Not familiar with the type, 'cause I've never seen the Conclave use something like them."

"Could be general purpose, but it sounds like anti-air," Minato pondered. "Maybe they were expecting us to bring dragons of our own."

"If so, they're right." Farrow glanced to Rheo, who nodded expressionlessly. "What about numbers? A count?"

"A lot." D6 shook his head. "From this height, not easy to say. Light isn't perfect either, but I'd guess at two score. Fifty, perhaps."

"That's a heap of Scourge." D2 frowned. "I mean, we've got some ranged damage, but Conclave dragons will complicate it."

"Excuse me a moment." Rheo interrupted briefly. The punk-cut chaplain was resplendent in a tighter combat variant of the priest's robe; a woven cobalt vest, with a jade trim, decorated in a roiling pattern that resembled waves. "I need to check the alarm receptors through my remote connection. I would hate for them to flank us while we are planning."

He stepped away, and in the same moment, Minato's earpiece buzzed and a voice spoke through a private connection.

"Agent Yoshida?"

"Just a second." He glanced to Farrow, indicating that he was doing the same as Rheo, and moved a few feet clear of the team. "Minato speaking. It's ... Torsten, right?"

"Yes. I need you to listen to me and do exactly as I say, or you'll die."

"W-what? The statement took the air out of his lungs. It was brazen, a slap to the face. "How c-"

"Listen." Torsten interrupted. "Don't ask how, just listen. In a few seconds, you'll see Rheo look at a blue stone on his wrist. When it glows, he's receiving a signal from Lautone."

A signal?

"For what?"

"To kill you all. He has a frost bomb. Won't hurt him, but it'll destroy the building and everyone else. Still got that shield Celeste gave you years ago?"

A bomb?

This was insane.

How did he know about that?

Why would they do this?!

"Wha- ... I- ... yes. I've got it."

The ablative one-use blast shield was something from his equipment collection he had brought with him on this final dangerous trip. He was saving it for a particularly risky situation, and he had figured this was the time for preservative measures.

"Don't try him. If you fight, you'll lose. Use it. Survive the blast. After, stay still. Hide. Somebody needs to live. Somebody who saw them backstab us."

The comms clicked off, Torsten's voice gone as suddenly as it had arrived.

Breathless with adrenaline and a sudden fear, his eyes darted to Rheo, a dozen feet clear of everyone else across the confined space. In the same moment he laid eyes on him, the chaplain cast a solemn glance at his wrist, where a small round topaz was bound. It flashed once in a brief pulse of light, and he tapped it, sending the signal back.

Torsten's prediction, letter perfect.

It was about to happen.

Without missing a beat, Rheo withdrew an object from a pouch in his lower robe. Farrow was busy pointing to something across the pit, D4 and D6 with their hands moving in similar imitation as they debated an engagement strategy. There was no time to warn them, and no way to stop the chaplain as he primed the detonator, a sphere larger than the typical magical orb, the size of an apple. Clicking a tab on the side, his fingers slid in a brief twist across a runic pattern, activating the countdown. Rheo lifted the orb above his head, as if offering it to the sky.

The row of dots alone the orb's side lit up in rapid succession, one after the other.

At the same time, Minato's hand closed around the blast shield's trigger in his jacket pocket, twisted the form-lock sideways into personal-protection mode and squeezed it, hard.

The orb exploded.

Minato only heard a split second of magical combustion, a strange musical tone, before a blinding burst of blue-white smashed into him. He was sent flying, the shield depleted by the initial shock of the impact, but the rest of the blast was more than enough to catapult him outward, along with the building's walls. Knocked clear, he was thrown onto the wreckage, a half dozen feet beyond the building. Surrounded by and covered with a layer of granulated snow and ice slurry, shredded plastic sheeting, dust, and mulched particle board, he was stunned, his body stinging in a dull ache all over, with sharper pangs in his right shoulder and ribs. For a moment he didn't move, but just before he was about to, he remembered.

Stay still.

All he could see from where he was lying was the sky, and the edge of the building's foundation, a few inches above. Listening, there was only the final clatters of smashed construction materials striking earth, and the creaking thumps of the gutted building's remaining wooden infirmity perishing. The sounds trailed off, and it was quiet once again.

Then, footsteps.

Unexcited but still brisk, they tapped across the foundations, just feet away and above where he lay, covered in the explosion's detritus. Closer to the pit's edge, where the building had ended, the footsteps stopped for a few seconds.

Roughly where the majority of the team had been standing, by the window.

Checking for survivors.

Trying to not breathe, or even blink, he was still as a statue. Satisfied, convinced everyone was crystallised and shattered in one fell swoop, the footsteps reversed course and after a few more seconds, there was a heavy whoosh as the chaplain assumed his natural form. The arching shape of Rheo's wings appeared above, the membrane and stretch of it huge so near, passing through his field of view like a blue-tinted aircraft limb. Minato stared in disbelief, the wings extended in preparation for flight, and with a leap, the wood of the building's floor broke in multiple places from the force of the dragon's weight propelling upwards. Rheo was rising, his tail flicking by, swirling back and forth as his body undulated with the preliminary rising strokes, the melting powdered snow and dampened grit fanned clear from Minato's cheek and neck. Seconds more, and the water dragon was well above, his trajectory curving out of sight, on a tangent away from the site, in a simple abandonment of the Order's task.

Minato waited until the sound had faded completely before he finally moved, and sat up.

Lurching to his feet, he plucked a three-inch long shard of ice out of his side, through the perforated material of his shirt. Blood oozed from the wound, the only real shrapnel to reach past the shield, and his shoulder was heavily bruised by the softened impact of the rest, a lesser pelting that stung like buckshot. He ignored the pain, staggering up onto the foundation to get a proper look.

The team was gone, their physical existence completely obliterated by water magic, nothing except a jumble of dropped equipment left behind, but another realisation struck.

In the distance, the lookout Scourge were still watching, and he was now alone.


His concern came too late.

From the pit, right in front of where he was, a Conclave guardian dragon burst with dramatic speed. He whirled over Minato's head, spinning on a dime in the air to land directly behind, the whump of the landing making the earth shake and causing the unsteady Minato to waver, nearly falling over. The mottled ruddy-orange streaked adult drew back for a moment, like he meant to exhale death, but then he transformed, becoming a burly Adonis human form, ginger-haired, a predictably arrogant draconic warrior.

"Oh, it seems my eyes did not deceive me after all. A water kin, departing in haste, and in his wake? A bleeding human, far from home. What a friend you have in the Tempest, hmm?" He grinned, and in a rapid flourish, drew a bastard sword tethered at his hip, and began to advance. "I cannot let a merry task go unfinished."

Minato limped backward a step.

Unable to think of anything, unwilling to beg for his life.

There was no way out of this.

He knew what was about to happen, and the shock and speed of everything had not fully set in.

Blade raised, the Conclave dragon strode, the length of gleaming enchanted steel held wide and one-handed, an easy duelist's stance, and-


A tall long-haired figure stepped from the aether beside the approaching dragon in a brief magical glimmer, appearing from nothing. His foot stamped down in a hasty motion, finding just the right spot to break the aggressor's stride, tripping him. It sent the Conclave dragon onto one knee, and the left elbow simultaneously hit the face hard, producing an audible crunch of collision. Snatching the sword from the dazed opponent with his right hand, the newcomer simply reversed the blade with a deft twirl of his fingers, and plunged it directly into the other dragon's exposed torso.

Whipping it out, he yanked the head backward, hair gripped in the left fist, and in a short fast slice, slit the throat. Blood fountained from the gash, but the new dragon was done, shoving the body to the side. He flicked the blade away to clear the worst of the viscera, a sticky pool of it forming on the foundations. Minato had fallen onto his back, in disturbed fear of the rapid violence and how it simply continued from one incident to the next without breath, but his saviour walked closer, the sword held low and to the side, and offered him a hand.

"Agent Yoshida." Araziah pulled him upright. "Are you hurt?"

"I- ... I'm good enough to walk." He shook his head, the words difficult. "Rheo- ... he- ... why? For what? I don't understand!"

"The Tempest is no longer an ally." He drew in a deep breath, and Minato could see the level of pure anger within him, easily apparent even to an unfamiliar human. "She cares only for herself. I do not know how, but her servants have isolated us from Northwood. You must leave. Get clear of this site, find transport, and travel to the Grand Secretary. Warn him and expose her deceit."

"I will. Thank you for- ... for saving me." He glanced around at the vestiges of the frost bomb, the ruins of the building, and the dirt surrounds of the mine's edge, then back to the dragon before him. Minato had no special knowledge of draconic power beyond the Order's limited tutelage, but within the faint magical gleam in Araziah's eyes, he saw something more. A reflection that showed his intelligence, and grace, but moreso a condensed core of potential, waiting for release. Celeste had mentioned the draconic prodigy in passing, and Minato had seen Araziah at the meeting the previous day, but he had not treated it seriously until now.

He had never before felt thankful for the presence of a fire dragon, but this one was different.

"What will you do now?" He asked.

"Prove their fantasies misguided," Araziah said, and his attention shifted across the pit, to where the Conclave scouts were perched, "and make this ritual fail."


It was Francesca who was in command of the mine's defence, in the absence of their master. They had witnessed a flash of light above, emanating from where the infiltrating Order team was bunkered, and the scouts confirmed it. A magical explosion had occurred, and the foreman's office was destroyed. Seconds later, a water dragon rose from the wreckage and departed, the act of perfidy done.

Telling her to keep the Scourge in position, their lord had informed her he would investigate the remnants himself. In a second, he was in his true majestic form and rising out of the pit, before he vanished above.

Comfortable, unconcerned that anything could challenge one so magnificent and strong as he, Francesca watched idly the rim, ran her eyes over the descending benches, the access road as it wound around the mine's sides, and the digging equipment on the base itself, covered over to protect from the weather. She stood near the lens, the device sitting on a pedestal as it continued to accrue magic. The spot was relatively central, so there was room for an uneven circle of turrets around it, each at least fifty feet away, manned by four Scourge a piece. There were twelve, like the hour marks on a clock, all pointing up and out, though capable of full rotation.

Despite being outside and with no walls for protection, it was a good location, and the Order would have a difficult time attacking it.

So, she waited.

And ... waited.

It was not her job to second guess the abilities and priorities of the mighty Conclave soldiers, but Francesca was beginning to wonder if there was a problem. If something had gone wrong, he would be able to deal with it, but, what if he needed help? However unlikely that was, surely she should find out.

She lifted the communicator, and held the transmit button, requesting the first scout report in.

No response.

Frowning, she called on the rest of them, growing increasingly concerned when not a single one of the five returned her hail.

Finally, she saw a positive sign. A glimpse of wings, and then their lord was launching himself into the air, gliding for a moment out in the air above the pit. Her worry immediately began to subside, the sight allaying her fear and causing a rebuke of self-chastisement. How could she doubt one of them, the harbingers of fire? She scolded herself for a few moments longer, reinforcing the futility of doubt, until she realised something was different.

This dragon was larger than their lord.

Larger, and not orange, but ... red.

Red? Another Conclave master?

Banking, the dragon turned and pulled sharply into a dive.


An ear-splitting roar blasted forth, and Francesca heard the shouts of surprise, dismay, confusion, from the other Scourge as they recognised an incoming attack. Caught unawares, she could but watch, horrified and dumbstruck, as the red dragon plummeted toward them, the distant outline rapidly blooming to a formidable ruby-studded apparition of fury. At the nadir of his plunge, he let loose a burning gout of breath. The line of fire cut through the four northern turrets, and the deafening whump-whump of wingbeats was a localised cyclone that battered the remaining entrenched Scourge as he passed, sending surface dust flying in a turbulent mess.

"Kill him!" She found her wits, and screamed it, urging her comrades to act. Her voice echoed over the stirred up air and the cries of the unlucky immolated. "He's a traitor! Not Conclave! He's an ENEMY!"

They obeyed. The red dragon was rising from his swoop, and shortly banking again within the pit's limited space, but the Scourge gunners were no longer surprised. Moving synchronised, the eight functioning turrets swiveled in place to track their target, adjusting bearing and elevation with the speed of modern military AA mounts. Volleys of heated magic-metal began to spit from each barrel, the first couple missing, but the following third, fourth, fifth shots hit the flanks and right side as he turned for the next pass. Beginning to juke up and down, agile in the air, the flak started to miss, the projectiles slower than actual bullets, at least half zipping by a wing or under the body, but Francesca could tell one important thing. The rounds were perfect for tearing humans apart, and could do a lot of damage to a water dragon, but the fire kind? The flame effect and heated aspect was ineffective, but the kinetic impact of metal was still enough to hurt, or he would not be attempting to evade.

They just needed more.

"Rapid-fire!" She yelled. "Narrow band! Concentrate for maximum effect!"

Completing the arc of his turn, the red dragon increased speed, coming in again, but all the turrets were firmly trained on him. The stream of damage constricted, tapering into a thin cluster that focused across the bulk of the torso. At the last second it became too much, and with a flick of the head, just the two nearest turrets were doused in a splash of fire. Forced to disengage, he veered hard to his left, letting go a bawling rumble of draconic pain with it. Ignoring the freshly burned Scourge, she encouraged the rest, urging them on.

"He's hurt! Keep it up, brothers! Sisters! Bring him down! Make him pay! Make him-"


The target vanished.

She blinked, stopping mid sentence, staring at the empty space.

Where did he-

From behind, directly over her head, the red dragon burst, so low and fast that his passing wingbeat knocked her off her feet. Barely with time to react, the hapless gunners couldn't halfway spin their aim from facing the opposite direction, and he was already skimming them. Searing hot and very close above, a constant unbroken lance of pure white flame sliced through all six remaining turrets, from start to finish, as he passed over them in a single strafing run.

Francesca backed up, her shaking hand grasping for the only thing she had left, even as the breath attack was completed. The arc finished, and he swept around, the considerable mass looming even larger as he came directly for her. Back pressed against the pedestal, she steadied her aim, but at fifteen feet away, the incoming dragon became a human, his feet touching earth, the landing switching into bounding strides, the momentum and balance transitioning flawlessly. The first shot from her modified pistol hit him in his left shoulder, the second in the chest, but it didn't slow him and she never got the chance to shoot again. His blade flashed by, the enchanted steel slicing off the barrel and destroying the firing mechanism like it was made of butter, an inch shy of removing all her fingers.

She dropped the ruined gun, hands going wide in surrender, and he lowered the blade to an idle resting posture, by his side. Unafraid, emotionlessly, maintaining eye contact the whole time, with his free left hand, he plucked the tungsten-alloy incendiary flechette round from where it was protruding from his chest. Then he picked the other from his shoulder, neither having pierced fully into his flesh, and dropped both spent rounds on the ground.

"Did you think any of this would really wound me?"

"Please." She fell to her knees, her voice wavering. She did not understand what was occurring. This dragon was younger and beautiful; red hair and pale skin and a fierce burning heat in his eyes that was more intimidating, far more terrifying, than her much older Conclave master that he had surely vanquished just minutes earlier. "Why? You- ... you are one of us! I- ... please! You are hurting your own kind!"

"You who would hasten the death of your species is speaking to me of hurt?" Araziah lifted the blade casually, so the edge of it was held at an angle where he could simply swipe it horizontally once, and ... end her. Francesca stared at it, and then fitfully back to the red dragon's calmness. "You are a pathetic thing, beholden to fear and wilfully partaking in lies. There are so many ways I could finish your miserable existence, but I give you what you do not deserve. Mercy."

Francesca felt the psychic force of his compulsion invading, and it seized her mind, a command being implanted.

"When I finish speaking, you will do what I am about to tell you. Leave this place. Forget what you saw here today, forget everything you know about this war. Do not go to Brookstone, nor Mirrorvale. Find a new home, far away. Spend your days giving fresh choices to those robbed of them; the poor, the weak, the least of your race. If ever your mind should desire a return to this false life, you will remember my face and the promise of fire that comes with it. Go now and be free, forevermore, from the Conclave."

For a moment, she shuddered, then the psychic domination kicked in, and her eyes glazed. Francesca turned, wordless, and began to walk away, between the burning turrets and ashes of the Scourge, to the access road that led out of the pit.

With that done, Araziah gave his attention to the pedestal.

A smooth circular supporting column five inches in diameter, it was approximately four feet high and topped by a saucer of dark metal twice the width of the column. Set around the rim were a series of socketed green gems, each narrowed to a sliver and pointing inwards and up, their aim converging on the lens. They were glowing faintly as they accumulated magic, and although Araziah could not see the flow of it, he could feel it being drawn in and directed to the storage capacitor inside the lens.

The lens itself was suspended in the air above the centre of the pedestal. The exterior was a translucent magical shell forming a sphere, about six inches across. Inside, a series of nested lines of green energy moved, fractured orbiting gimbal-style rings, but independent of one another. Constantly adjusting and refocusing the attunement of the lens, the energy darted and zipped back and forth, like segments of an armillary sphere on random dissonant paths. At the heart was the power source, a thin disc of capacitive emerald that lazily rotated and spun in place, the incoming magic diverting into it.

Along one side of the saucer was a spine that protruded out, distinct from the pedestal, and widened into a small flat panel that contained several glowing runes. Araziah shifted closer to examine it, and at a glance, he understood what the runes were showing.

This lens was aligned remotely to the other three, just as the Order briefing had described, and the status of the others was displayed through the arcane symbols. Each symbol was an iterative representation of the linkage strength and readiness of the corresponding lens, and would reform to the requisite emblem whenever a more accurate representation was due. The current situation showed the water lens was near to fully charged, and would shortly be done. The air and fire lenses were lagging behind somewhat, but would catch up within minutes. This one, the earth lens, had reached capacity just within the last thirty seconds, and was the first of the four to be at readiness.

What Darren said about the speed of it all was true -- the process really would need only a few minutes.

Time was short, and he needed to disable it.

Yet, control of the runes was locked. They did not respond to his attempts to access the magical constraints and alter their properties, so he could not rebind the lens to separate it from the others. Simply breaking the apparatus was unlikely to be effective either; the lens could still function apart from the pedestal's governance, and a brief inspection informed him that the compressed layers of effervescent micro-magic fiber within the sphere's outer shell made it nearly impervious to most types of physical damage, including direct flame.

Then how?

Araziah stared at it, frustrated, his teeth gritting. Trying to think of a way, his attention roamed from the saucer, to the accumulators, to the shell, rotating energy bursts within, and then finally to the core.

The core.

That was it.

Without a power source, the lens was useless.

Propping the sword against the pedestal, he raised his right hand, pressing his fingertips to the translucent surface, and pushed. At first solid, with some pressure, the shell gave and his fingers sank in, like penetrating a viscous material. The interior was filled with magic static, and it prickled over his emerging skin in an uncomfortable coating. The energised lines did not react to his intrusion, and they continued along their arcane-determined rotating paths, slicing through his hand whenever it was in the way. The sensation was much worse than prickling, and to Araziah each shifting touch felt like a searing cut of heat through tissue and bone alike. Grunting from the constant tangle intersecting his flesh, he grasped for the core, plucked it from the centre, and rapidly pulled his hand back out.

Immediately, the rune on the panel that represented the earth lens changed shape, and faded slightly. Along with it, the socketed gems dimmed, and the energy within the lens flatlined, the green lines reducing to dots, tiny sparks that slowed to a near halt, floating aimlessly and without their former vim.

Still connected, but powerless.

He turned the extracted emerald over, between thumb and forefinger. Two inches in diameter, it was a perfect circle and very thin. Nothing but a slice of precious stone, yet this innocuous object was imbued with a fantastic amount of raw magical charge.

A dangerous amount.

An idea came to him, as he felt the intangible buzz of power sealed in it, a power that was gathered for the purpose of resurrecting a dead god.

Perhaps he could use this to undo the Conclave.

Yes, he could.

He could use their arrogance against them, their pride, their overbearing righteousness. Their history had become one of bloodthirst and wrath, turned from its original purpose into a long violent tale of cruelty and malice that Xajarkith would have abhorred, that Kitrax knew for the true abomination that it was. Their nature had been warped and perverted in the most base way for ages, by a terrible malign insanity. They understood their role as nothing but destiny fulfilled, and Araziah's place in that in that gruesome fable to be the enabler, the champion, of their future.

Yet, he knew his will to be greater than any of his kin, and he could never succumb to the lure of revenge that they so clearly intended for him. Even as thoughts of it bubbled to the surface, his own were focused solely on the emerald pinched between his fingers. Their traps were paltry, their trickery immaterial. Torsten had bade him stay in reserve until his purpose was known, to intervene only when his path was clear.

Now, it was.

And the road ahead?


He was strong, but he could take their tools, their own weaponry, and make it his. He could wield everything they possessed, and with more efficacy than their best. He knew Conclave guardians waited at every other lens, and that he could employ his ever-increasing might to destroy them in turn. From one to the next, Araziah understood, with a fantastic insightful clarity born in that instant, that he was now unrivalled by even their greatest. Capable of mastering any that sought to own him, he had the resolve to find and kill them -- Michael, Mordred, Lothian, their lesser kin, their family and servants -- all of them, no matter who they were and what they knew.

Darren was utterly mistaken.

This was his fight to win, because he was Xajarkith reborn.

He would do it.

For Torsten.

For Sebby.

For all those who had courage enough to fight the Conclave.

Pressing the emerald to his right palm, he bound it, the alchemic fusion as easy as weaving the green stone's mineral composition to the transfigured magic of his own skin. It grafted, temporarily bonding to his hand in a display of advanced magical application that was as obvious to his burgeoning arcane comprehension as child's play. He felt his ability to access it come alive, a wellspring of stored energy interfacing with his body, and at his disposal.

First had to be the most pressing and personal of the enemy, with the rest to fall in his stead, like chaff beneath the reaper's scythe.


Araziah closed his eyes, took a deep breath, opened them, and picked up the sword.

In a blink, he teleported away, leaving behind only melted metal, charred bodies, and the swirling dust of an empty mine.


The foundry floor had been cleared of most of what was normally present. The machinery and equipment for the metallurgical processes of molding, casting, degating, heat treatment, cleaning and finishing; all were gone, or shunted to the corners. What remained were the furnaces along the right wall, the bucket crucibles and transfer ladles next to them, with attached industrial hoists, and not least of all, the setup for a fiery ritual display.

At the centre of the far end of the building was a pattern, cut into a heat-reinforced circular section of floor. From three equidistant points on the circumference, there began identical spiral indentations, approximately two and a half feet wide, that interlocked together as they converged. They were filled with liquid metal, the glowing trenches bubbling red-white hot, kept molten by some ambient magic force, and meeting at the hundred-foot diameter's confluence. There sat a lone dais, upon which rested the lens.

Next to it, Mordred, in human form.

Above, and behind him, an adult fire dragon. Primarily orange and brown, he had trailing splotches of roughened mauve on his flanks. Forelimbs were planted delicately across branches of the spirals, his front and head held low, torso and tail raised, coiled, wings half open, in a protective embrace that shielded the Grey Prince. The eyes were glaring, heated coals of anger, and his posture that of a predator staring down the alerted prey

"Bravo!" Mordred's voice echoed through the building, his mocking applause ringing loud over the ambient sound of simmering metal and idle foundry equipment. "What an entrance! Sadly for you, I am stronger. You!" He pointed at Poe. "That trinket cannot save you. Shoot your team dead."

Poe didn't move, and he began to speak, but before a single word was fully formed, he froze. The ring on his finger began to glow, and then abruptly cracked, shattering from Mordred's psychic power. The agent jerked, his fists clenching, his eyes blinking rapidly as he tried to resist, but his hands moved stiffly, reloading the bolt launcher like a clockwork drone.

"Poe! Goddammit!" Crawley drew the Colt, swapping his hybrid weapon out, just as Poe began to raise the launcher and orient it, on Beta-5. "Sorry, friend. Can't let ya."

Without hesitating, he flicked the revolver up and shot the dominated agent in the head, killing him with a single round.

"Foolish little ones, thinking they can challenge the children of a god!" Mordred laughed freely, a goading call. "In what way are three frightened apes the match for even one dragon?"

"Ask Nero, ya overgrown skink." Crawley shouted his reply, stashing the Colt again, rearming himself with the hybrid weapon. He was adding a stock attachment as he spoke, and from the corner of her eye, Lucy could see B5 sidling clandestinely away toward the catwalk ladder along the left wall. "Saw him spittin' up his guts with a hole in his chest. Newsflash: yer gonna be next."

"How quaint. Marcello, I have preparations to complete. Kill these savages."

With pleasure, my prince. The dragon began to move, stepping over the spirals, past Mordred. Though there was enough interior for him to approach, the foundry being a large spacious building, there was not much to spare for rapid movements. His stalking advance was slow and deliberate, his foe having no place to hide. Knowing full well, B5 was already rapidly scaling up to the catwalk, and Crawley began to split the opposite way, to the right. Lucy followed him, not forgetting his advice to stick to him like a shadow, and they found cover by a workbench by the wall. The agent was still modifying his weapon, even as they arrived, and with a final ka-chick he twisted and pushed the power connector into place.

"Alright, Five." He whispered into the comms. "Let's blizzard this bastard's face."

Marcello had reached the middle of the room, in no rush, his enemy cornered, when B5 opened up. The sniper-style hybrid weapon sent high-impact ice spines at velocity, one by one, but in a quick succession. They struck the dragon's neck, embedding into the flesh, and he growled in pain, but didn't stop his approach. When she was done, reloading, Crawley opened fired, in an alternating pattern.

Like a mortar, the bundles launched on a low arc, exploding just above to rain down in a carpet of viciously sharp frost shards, all over the dragon's back and side. After the fourth volley, he flipped a tab on the gun's side, and began to fire the regular rounds, a burst fire of short sharper ice needles that were aimed at the dragon's head and eyes.

As he got closer, within range of a breath attack, B5 was backing up along what was left of the catwalk before it intersected the sealed-off administrative office section. Crawley was finishing his second round of attack, the damage having made some impact, various pieces of magical ice poking out of the softer sections of hide, when in a sudden quick thrust, Marcello slunk forward, his head twisting, and a flaming blast was unleashed on the underside of the catwalk, directly beneath B5.

She dived along it, rolling on the metal, and he did not let up, angling his head so the flame followed her. Still on her feet, she grabbed the railing and vaulted over it, swinging to drop to the ground.

In the same moment, Crawley was up, Lucy still a couple of feet behind him. He strode forward, fearless, his aim trained on the broadly exposed side of the dragon's head, at a specific spot.

The left eye.

Marcello's aim followed the woman on the ground, wings twitching, his haunches and tail turning in reaction, bumping the metallic catwalk supports, the whole thing shaking violently from the impact. Impatient, the stream of fire widened, and sprayed all around her, before Crawley's burst-fire found its mark.


The breath stopped, cut off, and with a booming roar, he thrashed, a forelimb clawing at the barbs in his eye. B5 dashed through the flames, singed by her brief exposure but alive, and joining Crawley and Lucy, they began to back up. The agent continued to shoot the enraged distracted dragon, moving at a rearward jog.

They were fifty feet distant, when Marcello finally cleared the thorn, but in another horrific burst of speed that left no space for counter-reaction, he whirled to face them, simultaneously sliding closer, then to rear upward dramatically. His profile blossomed into a wall of armour, scales, and draconic wrath; standing on his hind legs, his wings were spread, striking both walls, and his chest was expanding. Head held close to the ceiling, his jaw snapped open, the entire area beneath him an easy target, and Lucy knew they were two seconds from him spraying everywhere around them in flame.

She reacted on instinct.

She didn't know if it would work, but there was nothing else.

The gauntlet thrust out above her, she concentrated on his gaping maw, and then the raging burst of heat that flowed from it, and tried not to think how terrified she was of dying, right then and there.

All around them, the flame struck the floor, but directly above?

It bounced away, diverting, just like it had with Nero.

The magic in his breath was nullified.

Lucy's eyes widened, as she realised what this meant.

Marcello was Seventh House.

The breath attack stopped, and for a moment he glared at them, furious and now baffled, the humans untouched in a ring of empty space, but Lucy didn't give him a single chance.

A white beam of light shot out of the gauntlet, and she swiped her hand sideways. It ran through the ice-studded neck, cutting all the way in a single clean surgical slice.

Headless, the body spasmed, twisting and toppling back and to the side to smack against the right wall, striking the closer furnace, the weight causing the chamber to tear slightly from its mooring, the corpse sliding against it to a resting pose. The head tumbled down, and the three humans leaped back, the several-tonne chunk of severed flesh and skull slamming into the fire-covered floor right next to them.

From the other end of the foundry, Mordred's voice rose, once again, infuriated, but also shocked.

"What is that?!" His hand came up from where it was tending the lens, and he pointed at Lucy, tearing his attention away from the dispatched form of his retainer, the slumped mass of it already beginning to burn. "What stolen magic can a stripling bitch wield?"

The low grinding of psychic power began, and a cudgel of force leaped to her, a battering ram that smashed against the gates of her mind.

"Well," he snapped, his eyes glowing a solid red, "let's see what you can do!"

The end stage of the conflict has arrived, and the pieces are moving on the board! Betrayal comes in many forms, but what do you do when a goddess is enacting it? Lucy and Crawley face a very tricky situation, Minato barely survives what Celeste couldn't, and Araziah -- he is becoming the powerhouse he needs to be, but the next fight is the biggest and most personal yet.

Just one more chapter, dear readers!

Please let me know what you think! Comments and discussion are always welcome. Thanks for reading!

Copyright © 2017 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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Remind me next time not to start reading until all chapters are posted! OMG! I don't know if I can wait! I'm on the edge of my seat, but it's a good exciting, worried, waiting. Thanks. 

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You go Lucy! Far from the carefree chatterbox we were introduced to just a short time ago. She has gained much respect for the seriousness of the alter world she now lives. Her trust in Crowley, and his in her, is an amazing transformation. Fortunately, Lucy knew exactly when her time to act was; at least saving herself and Crowley thus far! Kudos to her friendship, trust, and bravery.

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Poor Celeste, a stalwart protector of Torsten and a distinguished agent for the order; so sad to see that strong character ceded by betrayal from a historic ally. Torsten’s words too, seemed to be those spoken by Celeste as she witnessed, in her final moments, the confirmation of the ultimate betrayal by the Lady Shiba.

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On 12/18/2019 at 9:03 PM, JeffreyL said:

Remind me next time not to start reading until all chapters are posted! OMG! I don't know if I can wait! I'm on the edge of my seat, but it's a good exciting, worried, waiting. Thanks. 

Haha! Well, you'd be waiting a couple of years if you wanted to do so from the start :) I am flattered you're enjoying it so much -- only a couple of days and the final part will be available. I hope the ending will be to your taste.

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On 12/18/2019 at 11:57 PM, andrew35 said:

Oh Wow!! Can hardly wait to read the next chapter!!!

Thank you! Check back on Christmas Eve for the last part!

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On 12/19/2019 at 12:34 PM, Philippe said:

You go Lucy! Far from the carefree chatterbox we were introduced to just a short time ago. She has gained much respect for the seriousness of the alter world she now lives. Her trust in Crowley, and his in her, is an amazing transformation. Fortunately, Lucy knew exactly when her time to act was; at least saving herself and Crowley thus far! Kudos to her friendship, trust, and bravery.


On 12/19/2019 at 12:54 PM, Philippe said:

Poor Celeste, a stalwart protector of Torsten and a distinguished agent for the order; so sad to see that strong character ceded by betrayal from a historic ally. Torsten’s words too, seemed to be those spoken by Celeste as she witnessed, in her final moments, the confirmation of the ultimate betrayal by the Lady Shiba.

Lucy was fulfilling the reason she was put on that team to begin with. There's more danger for her and those with her; they aren't out of the woods yet.

Celeste, though, is one of the victims of the longer betrayal, the same that almost claimed Minato. An uncomfortable reminder that to larger supernatural forces, human desires and motivations don't really matter too much -- pawns on a chessboard, expendable and inconsequential.

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18 hours ago, centexhairysub said:

Sadly, the dragons prove no more honorable than the humans.

In service of 'higher' causes -- gods and the politics of war -- dragons are scarcely any different from humans. Some will do terribly dishonourable things because they believe they must, especially when such things are understood as being sanctioned by the divine and 'necessary' to ensure victory. Simply put, when the Spirits command, they will obey -- but to what point? ^_^

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Torsten acted as the Seer. A little bit too late for Celeste but just in time for Minato. Still he almost got killed if there wouldn’t have been Araziah.

Finally he has arrived on scene, hopefully not too late.

Always when you start asking yourself, what is Lucy doing here, she pulls a trick. She is able to finish off a seventh house dragon. Will she be able to handle Mordred as well?

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On 6/27/2023 at 12:24 PM, BarkingFrog said:

Always when you start asking yourself, what is Lucy doing here, she pulls a trick. She is able to finish off a seventh house dragon. Will she be able to handle Mordred as well?

I guess I'll see in the next chapter!

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