A Song Of Dragons

[06.12.00] » by Chris Vogel

I

It almost seemed appropriate that it was raining the day Futch rode away from Gregminster. The rain came slanting down almost sideways from the east, slicking his hair to his head and pooling in the small of his back as he rode. No one in the column spoke, and the only sound other than the splattering of the rain was the jingling of armour and tack.

Not for the first or last time on this ride, Futch glanced over his shoulder to watch the castle fade into mist behind him, and wondered how things might have been. He hated the horse, hated the stink of it, the mud on its feet, the emptiness in those brown eyes. The salesman had said that the horse had 'soulful' eyes. Futch thought they were empty.

He looked behind him mostly because he didn't want to look ahead. That was frightening. So he thought back instead.

How had he wound up here? He wasn't a mercenary, and he didn't want to be. But his contract wasn't up for another two years, and the pay was good and the food was warm, but even so...

Even if he hadn't wanted a place in Gregminster, Futch knew he could've stayed with Humphrey for as long as he'd wanted to. But that hadn't worked out, either. He felt as if he was missing something, something intrinsic that he'd never missed before, and Humphrey couldn't fill that void, not matter how hard he'd tried. Even if Humphrey had disapproved with him leaving for Dieger's mercenary band, their parting had been amicable.

Right now Dieger and his group seemed the worst choice he could have made, riding through the rain to the last place in the world he ever wanted to go.

Home. Except it wasn't home any more.

Life, Futch had discovered, was nothing more than a litany of missed opportunities, of looking back and wondering 'what if?'. Everything was too dark, too empty, to really mean anything at all. All a person really had was the chances he'd missed, or let slip away.

Like Black.

Futch sighed and hunched lower in his saddle, pulling his hat forward to try and keep the rain out of his eyes. He leaned forward and nudged the damnable beast in the sides to make it speed up. The sooner he got there, the sooner he could leave.

* * *

"I hate this place," Futch snarled through the phlegm in his throat. At the door, Kender laughed.

"Teien's not too bad a place when you're healthy," the jovial mercenary replied. "I rubbed down Damnation for you and stuck her in the stables with some feed, so don't worry too much about that."

Futch sneezed and hunched down lower in the bed. "My horse's name isn't Damnation," he replied irritably. "It doesn't have a name."

"Then it shouldn't make too much difference what we call 'er, right? Way you treat the poor beast, Damnation's a pretty good call, says I." Kender replied, still grinning, as he took of his boots and stretched out on his bed. "The way I see it, you're not too bad off, Futch. You've got a nice warm bed in the best inn in town, warm meals brought to you by pretty girls, good pay, and a good job not two weeks away. Think about it, kid! You're going to the Den! We'll get to see real Dragons!"

It's not the sight of them I miss, Futch thought. It's the smell, and the life, and the wind in my hair, and the sunrise behind us and the blue sky in front of us, and your song, ringing out as if there wasn't anything to worry about in the whole world. Nothing could ever go wrong when you were singing.

"It'll be great," he replied, then turned over and pretended he was asleep.

We were both na´ve, weren't we?

I miss it all.

* * *

The next day dawned clear and bright, and Futch felt some better for a good night's rest. He rode next to Kender for most of the day and managed a few jokes with the old mercenary. The teasing tasted like dust in his mouth, but he said them anyway. The best thing for him was to pretend he wasn't doing what he was doing. Not to think about what he'd given up.

He dropped Damnation to a light gallop around noon, to eat. Kender rode on ahead. Taking a tighter grip on the reins, Futch fished around in his saddlebag, looking for some of the stuff he'd picked up in Teien. His hand brushed up against the circle, and he jerked it back as if burned. Damnation whickered and pranced a little at her usually docile rider's sudden sharp movement.

He didn't want to touch the circlet right now. He didn't even know why he kept the thing. It didn't fit him anymore, not in any sense of the word. He'd actually tried to sell it once. He'd made it inside the pawnshop, even taken it out of his pouch and held it, ran his fingers over the beautifully wrought spread wings and the subtle designs of the circlet. And he'd thought, This is it. This is the end of it all. And he'd put the circlet back in his pouch and left. It had been a stupid thing to do; it wasn't like the damned circlet ever made it out of his pouch and onto his head anyway, so what good was it?

But he couldn't make himself sell it, and something told him he never would.

Brushing the circlet aside into a corner of his saddlebags, Futch pulled out the small oil wrapped packet of trail rations he'd picked up in Teien. It was lousy food, but it kept him filled up and healthy, and that was a start. By nightfall they'd have reached the mountains, and from there it was only a couple of days ride to the Den.

What was he supposed to do? This wouldn't be so bad if it hadn't been for Gremio...

He discovered that he'd lost his appetite, and tossed the rations away, hardly touched. Sighing, he spurred Damnation to catch up with Kender.

* * *

Reaching out, Kage adjusted Kasumi's collar a little, then stepped back to look her up and down one last time. "Not bad," he told her. "Not bad at all. You give me a couple of minutes to touch up the makeup around your eyes and you'll look exactly the part. "

Kasumi beamed at the praised and bowed to the older Ninja. "Thank you, sir," she replied, looking into the mirror on the wall of their small hideout. In the dress, wig, and makeup, she hardly looked herself at all, she was forced to admit. She looked like a lady of the court, not like a skinny, flat-chested tomboy.

"You remember your part?" Kage asked. Dressed in the finery and jewelry of a court fop, he hardly looked himself. His gray hair had been died into an auburn and shorn into a reasonable length. Kage's exact age was indeterminate, even to Kasumi, but he looked about thirty in his disguise.

"Certainly, Uncle Dorine," Kasumi replied, turning back to him and trying out her empty-headed smile on him. "I shall be the dutiful and devoted niece, fostered in my uncle's care, and a firm believer in his cause."

"You're overdoing it," Kage told her flatly. "We want you to be believable, as well. Try not to seem too foolish, and try to put even a glimmer of intelligence in those eyes of yours." He glanced out the window. "The carriage is here. You have your equipment?" Kasumi nodded, and Kage buckled on a rapier. "Good. Let's go."

* * *

One carriage ride later, and Kasumi and Kage disembarked at a tavern just outside of Rikon, stayed for a couple of hours, then boarded another carriage that brought them back into town, to the house of the noble lord Tavin Mordecai. The showed their invitations at the door and the herald announced them. Lord Mordecai bustled up to them, extended gracious welcome to his dear 'cousin' Dorine Dellinore, and suggested that he might enjoy meeting with some of the other lords later in the evening. 'Dorine' replied graciously, in the affirmative, and presented his niece Mireen. Mordecai received the young lady with all required pomp, and then asked if he might share a drink with her uncle. Once Kage and Mordecai were away, Kasumi began her part.

The targets were more plentiful in this sector than earlier reports would have indicated. Sympathies seemed to extend all the way down the line, from the lords of the houses to the servants pouring punch. All, of course, were willing to spout propaganda to their newest recruit, the Lady Mireen, but the hot-headed young men and the flighty young girls that Kasumi was expected to canvas couldn't present her with any real information regarding plans or targets. She hoped Kage was having better luck.

She'd somehow managed to get herself roped into some discussion about the newest fashions from Lorimar, when the party was unexpectedly disrupted by a tremendous commotion from the drawing room she'd last seen Kage entering with Mordecai. Kasumi felt her heart skip a beat. Surely, Kage hadn't encountered any trouble...he was the best! Nonetheless, her hands somehow found their way to the concealed pouches at her waist, and the comforting feeling of her sais beneath her hands.

A split second later and the door to the drawing room was flung open. Kasumi's worst fears were concerned when Kage fell through the open doorway onto the floor, beaten and bloody.

Withdraw, something told her. But she couldn't.

Mordecai appeared in the doorway behind Kage, his face a mask of rage. "Grab the girl, Mireen! Call the watch! Someone call the watch!" Kasumi could see the other heads of the houses appearing behind him. Someone grabbed at her shoulder; she spun away and planted a firm kick in her attacker's gut. In the momentary stunned pause of the crowd around her, she broke for the stairs, flinging her cup of wine into the eyes of the nearest young man.

Someone grabbed her dress as she reached the foot of the stairs; she felt the hems give way as they'd been made to do and ignored it. Unencumbered by the dress, she made better time. At the top of the stairs there was a long hallway, and Kasumi paused long enough to pull the sleeves off the dress, kick off her shoes, and pull her sais. The hall dead-ended, no good for an escape. Kasumi opened the door next to her a crack, then darted down the hallway into another room and shut the door behind it, then tried to listen over the thunderous beating of her own heart. She heard the guards reach the top of the stairs, and heard a couple begin to search the room she'd set up as a decoy. More headed down the hallway towards her, systematically checking each room.

Just her luck, they were well organized.

Quickly Kasumi assessed the situation. This room seemed to be a study of some kind, books and more books. No windows. She was wearing only the utilitarian bodysuit she'd put on underneath her dress, her only weapons were her sais, two shuriken, and a pair of eggs filled with pepper. They hadn't expected their cover to be blown, so hadn't come equipped for a fight. Damn, damn, damn.

Her best option was surprise, and a quick escape. Quickly she analyzed the floor plan of the house that she and Kage had committed to memory. If she could get down the hall, two doors or so, there was a room with a window. She cursed her panic for not remembering earlier.

They were almost to her door. Kasumi took up a position just behind the doorway, and waited, her heart thundering as if to explode.

The door began to open and she grabbed it and shoved backwards hard as the guard opened it, heard the crunch of his nose breaking as it struck him full on, the dull thud of his body hitting the ground. Spinning outwards into the doorway itself, Kasumi crushed one of the eggs in her hand and tossed it into the face of the stunned guard standing over his fallen comrade. He yelled and clutched at his eyes. She knocked him to the ground on her way past. The way to the door she wanted was open...she was going to make it.

Too late she heard the hissing sound behind her and she cried out as a horrible burning feeling ripped through her shoulder. She felt a rush of blood down her back and a cry of triumph. She kept running. If they thought she was that easy to catch, they were wrong.

Kasumi slammed the door behind her and raced across the room to the window, shoving it open with her good arm. Her other arm had disappeared into a sea of agony. You don't need it, she assured herself as she clambered up onto the window frame. Keep going. Looking upwards, the lip of the roof was just above her. Reaching up, she struggled to haul herself upwards, the pain in her arms intensifying as she tried to make it bear some weight. The world spun in and out of focus, but she felt herself collapse against the roof. Almost there. Get up, you spoiled brat! Keep going!

Forcing herself onto her feet, she stumbled forwards into darkness.

* * *

The Dragon settled before them with a tremendous flapping of its wings, whipping dust upwards and buffeting them with both the wind it created and its great roar. Futch looked away. A brief glimpse assured him that the knight on the Dragon's back was no one he knew.

That wouldn't last forever. He should never have agreed to do this for Gremio. It wasn't even very important. If he didn't like the guy so much...

Dieger went forward with a couple of others to confer briefly with the knight, who remained mounted. After a moment, Dieger turned around and addressed the column.

"We're almost there. If we push for just a couple of more hours, we can make it by sunset and have a warm meal waiting for us. Sir Klevian is going on ahead to prepare the way. We're almost there!" A ragged cheer rose from the column. It was the most Dieger could expect this late in the day, and he knew it. The Dragon Knight, Klevian, nodded briefly and patted his Dragon on the neck. As the creature took to the air, Futch glanced aside again.

So majestic.

II

Futch had never really considered not delivering the letter. That wasn't his way. That didn't mean he liked doing it, though.

"Hold on, there," one of the trainees at the door addressed him, crossing his spear over the door. "I'm afraid I can't let you in here."

Raising an eyebrow, Futch halted. "I have a message for Vice-Commander Milia, from Gregminster."

"I...ah, I don't have any orders to admit visitors. The Vice-Commander's been very busy right now, and..."

Futch felt his already frayed nerves begin to strain to the breaking point. "Listen, tell Milia that Futch is here with a message from a friend, and if you don't do it right now I'll report you to Themder. Understand?" Fortunately, from the fleeting look of terror that crossed the boy's face, Themder still held his position as master of the novices in the Dragon's Den.

"I, ah, I'll announce you, but no promises, okay?" The trainee knocked quickly, opened the door, and muttered something into the room beyond. A moment later, he leaned back out. "She'll, ah, she'll see you now. Sorry, right? No problems, right?"

"Nope." Futch shoved past the boy and into the office with no more preamble. The sooner he got this one over with, the better.

"Futch! What the devil are you doing back here?" The Vice-Commander pushed to her feet and quickly rounded her oaken desk to embrace the young man. "You've grown up. Has it been a year? Come in and sit down, Futch!"

"Hello, Commander," Futch replied, a little embarrassed by the welcome. "I just came to drop off a message from Gremio."

"From Gremio? And, Futch. I'm not your commander anymore, you know. Milia will do fine in private, right? Just a moment, I'll send for something to drink. Have you eaten?"

"Ummm, yes. Thank you. I came in with Dieger's mercenaries." Futch eased himself into a chair, his discomfort rising with every passing moment.

"You were travelling with Dieger's bunch?"

"Ummm, not exactly. I'm in Dieger's bunch."

Milia paused at the doorway, then opened it a crack. "Send up some wine, will you?" Turning back, she crossed the room and sat down across from Futch. "You're a mercenary now? What happened to Humphrey?"

"It didn't work out. Look, if I can just deliver this letter I'll get out of your way, I'm sure you're busy." Futch reached for his pouch, but Milia grabbed his wrist.

"Frankly," she replied, "I'm more interested in what you've been doing that last little while than Gremio. The letter can wait. For now, I'm happy to see you." She smiled at him while she spoke, but Futch could see the concern in her eyes. And the pity, too, which only made things worse. "What have you been up to?"

"Nothing really," Futch replied evasively. "I traveled a little, with Humphrey for a while, then I hooked up with Dieger. We did some caravan duty that was heading to Gregminster, and I ran into Gremio. He gave me the letter when he heard we were coming to the Den. Now I'm here. How are things going at the Den?"

Milia sat back. "Poorly, Futch, poorly. You know we lost a lot of people and Dragons in the war, and a year just isn't enough time to breed enough Dragons. We don't lack for able bodies, just for Dragon pups. And the raids..."

"Is there any indication where the raiders are striking from?"

"None at all," Milia replied frankly. "Their primary target is always the Aerie Cave, but you probably noticed on the way past that we've doubled the guard there. If you're with Dieger, that's probably where you'll be stationed. They've struck at the Den, too, and we're just spread too thin. That's the only..." She trailed off.

The only reason we'd hire common mercenaries.

Yeah, Futch thought, I remember how many Dragons we lost in the war. I remember because I was watching from the front when we attacked Gregminster, and I saw the real Dragon Knights fly into battle and leave me behind, and I watched the arrows fly up to meet them, and I watched them fall, fall, fall.

"I remember how it went. Look, here's the letter." Futch reached into his pouch and took out the letter Gremio had given him when they met in Gregminster. "He seemed pretty happy that I was heading this way. I'll, I will, that is, I probably won't see you again before I go. Goodbye, Milia." He rose and practically sprinted for the door.

"Futch?" Milia called out a moment before he could leave. "Futch, I'm glad you're back."

"I'm not back," Futch replied bitterly, and closed the door behind him.

Milia sighed after he had gone, and picked up the letter from Gremio, idly wondering why on earth he'd have sent her a letter. She hardly knew him. Sitting down at her desk, she broke the seal and unfolded the letter. Tears sprang to her eyes.

Milia,
He'll let himself die. Make it right.
-Gremio

"But I can't," she whispered.

* * *

Futch paused to catch his breath on the other side of the door. He hadn't known how much seeing Milia would hurt him, in her armour and her glory. He bit back a cry of loss.

"Are you okay?" the novice at the door asked him. Futch turned to answer him, and was lost in the childish innocence of those brown eyes. There was something in his eyes, and Milia's, and everyone's...something that he'd lost, or something that maybe he'd just never had. He couldn't remember which it was, now.

"Never love," Futch whispered, and started walking.

* * *

Kasumi's shoulder screamed in pain as she penned the note quickly.

Cover blown. Kage is a prisoner. I am wounded, wanted under the name of Mireen. Unable to seek medical help, I fear leaving the safehouse. Request instructions. There are more men involved with this then we knew. Examine possibility of a leak.

She had to pause to let her arm rest after she'd written. There was more to it than that, of course, but her supervisors in Rokkaku would probably be privy to most of that information by the time her message reached them.

Kage was fully ensnared, and Kasumi didn't honestly know how she was supposed to help him. Once Mordecai had discovered that there wasn't really a house Dorine, it had been easy to find Kage guilty of all kinds of falsified charges. The infection had even spread into the courts of Scarleticia, it seemed.

As for herself, she wasn't sure how much longer she could keep going. She'd managed to remove the crossbow bolt from her shoulder, but had succeeded in tearing the wound as she brought it up. The pain had been, at the very least, intense, and now she feared it was becoming infected.

Rising, she walked over to the cage in the corner and quickly affixed her note to the leg of the messenger pigeon within, then took it to the window and opened the cage, hoping the bird would reach its destination.

At least she'd gotten in one report. Now the only thing she could think to do was try to see Kage.

"I hope you appreciate all this effort, Aaron," she snarled through clenched teeth as she lowered herself into a chair to begin planning.

* * *

"Where are you going, kid?" Kender asked him.

"Just over into the woods for a second," Futch replied, pulling Damnation away from the column. "I need to relieve myself. You know how it is." Kender grinned at him and nodded.

No more dreams for Futch.

Spurring Damnation, Futch rode into the cover of the small grove, out of the sight of the column, and swung out of the saddle. He reached into his saddlebag and felt around until his groping hands encountered the circlet. He held it up and let it catch the light, absorbed by the sparkle.

"This is who I am now," he whispered, and threw it away. The circlet kept sparkling as it flew, twisting, the wings looking in the last moment as if they were trying to fly. But they couldn't fly, because they weren't real wings, and they didn't mean anything.

Futch watched the circlet land in the bushes, then turned and mounted Damnation again. "This is who I am now," he repeated, and rode out of the grove. He didn't look back, even though he wanted to.

No more dreams for me.

* * *

The Aerie Cave hadn't changed at all. Nothing ever seemed to. The song of the Dragons, echoing from deep below him in the dark, came close to driving him mad. He wanted to scream or cry or hit something, or just fly, and fly, and fly, and he wanted to take it back and he was sorry, and...

"Futch? You awake?" Kender tapped him on the shoulder. Futch started in surprise.

"Oh, sure."

"Well, pretend to pay attention. We're getting briefed."

"Right, whatever." Futch looked up as Dieger and a Dragon Knight he didn't know came to stand before the seventy mercenaries of Dieger's band.

"Welcome to the Aerie," the Dragon Knight boomed. "As I'm sure you know, this has been the primary target of the raids up until now. Unfortunately, we became overconfident and began to concentrate all of our forces here, at which point the raiders began striking at the Den. We're spread thinly as it is, so your task is to bolster the forces of the Knight stationed here in case of another raid. You'll be responsible for guarding, in particular, the Dragon eggs and the pups. The other Dragons can take care of themselves in case of an emergency. My name is Mairrin, and I'm in command of the Aerie. If you have any questions or concerns, bring them to Dieger and he'll see that they make it to me." The Dragon Knight, Mairrin, turned and walked towards the small fort that had been built to house the troops now stationed in the Aerie.

"Dismissed!" Dieger snapped. "Set up camp. Look sharp!"

* * *

"A visitor," the guard snapped. Kage looked up, then waited until the guard was gone before speaking.

"This isn't smart, Mireen," he chastised her. "We can't both be caught."

"I know, I know," Kasumi replied nervously. "I sent a message to Rokkaku two days ago, Kage, and I haven't received a reply. I don't know what to do! I need to go to Gregminster, and get word to Aaron..." She paused as Kage began to shake his head.

"No good," the Ninja told her. "Even if it were possible, we still don't have proof. Also, I heard from Mordecai that they've got men in the fortress and watching the ports, so there's no way for you to safely get out of here. Assume they've captured your bird. Now, Kasumi, tell me what I ought to recommend."

Kasumi paused. "I should find out what you know, and do my best to counter their actions however I can, right?"

"Exactly. I'm going to try to make my escape tomorrow, but don't assume I'll be able to break free. Somehow Mordecai found out who we were, but I don't know how. What I did manage to pick up was their target. They're going to head for the Dragon's Den."

"The Dragon's Den? Why would they..." Kasumi's eyes widened in shock.

"Exactly."

"Time's up!" the guard snapped. Kasumi whirled to face him in surprise, drawing her hood tighter about her face.

"Good luck," she whispered. Kage nodded in reply, and Kasumi followed the guard away.

* * *

Futch sat up sharply at the first sound of the alarm bell, his hand reaching automatically for his spear. Across from him, Kender rolled to his face, grabbing for his sword. One of the younger members of the troop leaned into their tent. "Bandits on their way! Get yer armour on! We're moving!"

Futch felt his heart leap, and didn't know if he was happy or sad. He was going to defend the Dragons...He was going to be of some use again.

But I've already failed at that once...

* * *

"Hold the front!" Mairrin shouted. "We can't let them break through!" His Dragon passed by overhead, casting a shadow over Futch and Kender, fighting below. Futch darted beneath a swing of an enemy's blade and thrust upwards with his barbed spear, slicing upwards through his foe's ribs.

The bandits were well organized, he would give them that much. They'd managed to divide the forces pretty evenly by striking several targets at once. Most of Dieger's mercenaries had been drawn off by attacks on their base or the fortress. Now Futch, Kender, and about a dozen other mercenaries held the Aerie against the rising tide, while Mairrin and two other Dragon Knights harried the enemies below.

Even as Futch dispatched his latest enemy, the bandits formed into a wedge and rushed the line together. Futch braced himself to meet the charge, but the numbers were too overwhelming, their strength too great. The mercenaries met the charge with all the force they could muster, but were unable to stem the tide.

Futch hit the ground hard, his ears ringing from a stunning blow to the head. He could feel blood dripping from his nose and ears. As his vision returned to normal he saw Mairrin's Dragon settle to the ground. "After them!" he shouted. "We can't let them penetrate the hatchery!"

"Kender, follow me!" Futch shouted without intending to, scrambling to his feet and grabbing up his spear. "Come on, dammit!"

The Dragons...

He and Mairrin raced together into the darkness.

* * *

When Kasumi was sure that the guard had passed, she hauled herself up onto the parapet. There was no sign of any patrols outside the town walls, which would make things easier for her.

Her arm screamed a protest and she took, hesitantly, another of the painkillers she had removed from their stash at the safehouse. Once she was at the Dragon's Den she could receive the medical attention she needed.

It was all a matter of getting there. Checking one last time to make sure no one was going to sneak up on her unawares, Kasumi began the slow, painful climb down the other side of the wall.

* * *

Dragon song met Futch as he, Mairrin, and the mercenaries burst into the Aerie. A female green was doing her best to hold back the raiders, but had already sustained several wounds. It was only a matter of time before the raiders broke through. Screaming a battle cry, Futch raced to the green's defense.

His spear danced like lightning, and for a moment he felt a surge of joy so powerful that he wished there was Dragon song to accompany it. But there never would be again.

One raider fell to him, then another, and he sensed more than saw Mairrin and Kender beside him, fighting as well. "Rally!" he shouted above the din of battle. "Rally! Protect the Dragons!"

And then it was over, and Futch collapsed, exhausted, his spear the only thing that supported him. Looking around, he assessed the damages.

Despite his best efforts, the green lay on the ground, bleeding out the last moments of its life, eyes that truly were soulful full to bursting with pain. Leaning on his spear for strength, Futch rose and walked to the Dragon where he knelt and laid his cheek against the Dragon's head. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I tried. I tried." He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the Dragon breathing until those sounds stilled and died.

He heard someone kneel beside him. "You knew the way here." Mairrin's voice held no accusation.

Futch didn't - or couldn't - open his eyes. "I did."

After a second, Mairrin rose and addressed the gathered mercenaries. "They still need your help outside. Disperse!" He heard the sound of men moving.

Please don't make me leave.

"You can stay as long as you like," Mairrin told him, as if reading his thoughts. "You've done plenty for one day."

"I..." Don't deceive yourself. "It's all right." Opening his eyes, Futch drew away from the dead Dragon. "I don't belong here."

* * *

Futch raised his hand to knock, then lowered it, for about the fifth time. I shouldn't be here.

They'd won, of course, but not without losses. The green had been the Aerie's matron, and not a Knight, so that was some small consolation. There had been heavy losses among Dieger's band, and on the strength of that Dieger had decided not to continue with the job at the Den. Mairrin had been understanding but cold.

At least it meant that Futch wouldn't have to stay any longer than he had to. Tomorrow he could leave, and things could go back to the way they had been.

He knocked.

"Enter," replied a voice that wasn't Mairrin's. Futch pushed open the door. Mairrin sat at his wide oaken desk, beaming. Behind him stood Milia, and she was carrying...Futch blinked. A small gray dragon pup.

"We made a mistake, Futch," Milia told him. "I heard the things you did today. We were wrong." She walked towards him, holding the pup. Terror welled up in Futch's soul. "This is Endri, the pup of the green that died today." Milia looked into his eyes and smiled, and spoke the words Futch was so afraid of.

"She's yours. Welcome home, Futch."

III

Futch held Endri in his arms and didn't know whether to be elated or terrified. The small Dragon felt so warm against his chest, the soft purring noises sounded so right. He looked into Endri's eyes and could hear Dragon song.

Welcome home, Futch, Milia seemed to say again and again, and it was everything he wanted and everything he feared and everything was going wrong and everything was perfect, and...

And he pushed Endri away from him, back in Milia's surprised arms. "No," he whispered. "No, I can't. I shouldn't. It'd be a mistake." He hung his head. "I'm a mercenary now. I'll...I'll never be a Dragon Knight again." He met Milia's shocked gaze squarely. "I'm not that Futch anymore. Dreams just hurt, they're just bubbles waiting to be popped. I'm fine with Dieger." He sketched a quick bow. "I thank you for concern, Vice-Commander, but I have to prepare to depart. I'll bid you good day."

Again Milia's voice interrupted him at the door, and again he had no reply. "Futch...why?"

"I don't know," he said before he closed the door on Endri and on everything. But he did know.

Because when I looked into those eyes, the song I heard was Black's.

* * *

"Look, is something bothering you, kid?" Kender asked. Again, Futch started in surprise.

"N, no...nothing at all. Why do you ask?"

"Because you've screwed up pitching your tent, that's why." Kender gently pushed Futch aside and quickly corrected the tent's position on the ground, making it look something like a semblance of a real tent. "Look, you seem really down, kid. Is it that Dragon that died? You did your best, kid. They're just Dragons, after all."

They're not just Dragons. They're life, and beauty, and joy, and love, and everything I can't ever have again.

"I guess you're right," Futch replied.

"Sure. Look, if you ever need to talk..."

I don't want sympathy from you, too.

"It's okay. I'm really tired, Kender." He couldn't meet his friend's eyes. He pretended to be adjusting his tent. Kender clasped him on the shoulder and muttered some vague affirmative before walking away.

Why can't everyone just leave me alone? I'm fine here.

"Futch?" An almost unfamiliar voice jolted him again, and he felt his rage bubble to the surface. An angry curse rising to his lips, he turned around...and found himself staring straight at Dieger.

"Oh, Commander!" Futch had never spoken three words to the man his entire life. Dieger was a distant figure to the column, a provider and a protector upon whom their success depended. He didn't usually converse with normal troops.

"There's someone here to see you, Futch."

Please, no.

Dieger stepped aside and disappeared, and Milia moved forwards to take his place. "Futch," she began.

"I'm not interested," he replied. "I'm hungry." He tried to push past her, but the stronger woman gripped him by the shoulder and held him fast.

"Listen to me, Futch," Milia pleaded, still somehow managing to keep the iron in her voice. "Do you think everyone gets a second chance? There's precedent for this, but not a big one by any stretch. Do you know how many people have turned it down?"

Futch felt tears rise to his eyes. "Please let go of me," he begged.

"Eventually, no one. No one forgets, Futch. Ever. I know you haven't forgotten, I can still see it in your eyes. Normally, we'd never chase you down, but the situation is more dangerous than it's ever been. We don't want you to miss your chance, Futch; we care about you."

"Do you?" Futch twisted away and stood before Milia. "You didn't seem to care very much when you threw me out the first time, did you? You sent me away and never looked back."

Milia flinched and looked away. "You know the custom, Futch. Joshua didn't have any choice then. Do you think it was easy? Joshua loves the Dragon Knights as if they were his children."

"I don't want your pity."

A look of shock spasmed across Milia's face. "Pity? Futch, is that what you think this is about?"

"Please, Milia. I'm happy here. Leave me alone. Find someone else for Endri." Futch turned away and made some pretense of walking towards the mess, finding his way despite the tears in his eyes.

"Dragon Knight!" Milia yelled at him as he walked. "I'm your Vice-Commander, Dragon Knight, and I demand that you stop and address me in the appropriate manner!" Something in that voice still had the power to compel him, and as Futch turned he could see that most of the camp had stopped to watch the spectacle. Wave after wave of humiliation rolled over him. "This is not, nor was it ever about, pity, Dragon Knight. The Den is insulted by your flippant disregard of the work that was necessary to place you with Endri. If we did not believe in your skills, in spite of your past, the offer would not have been extended. Do you understand me?" Futch nodded mutely. "Good. Come with me. We'll take you home."

"No."

"What is that supposed to mean, Dragon Knight?"

"Stop calling me that! Did you forget, Milia? I killed Black! My stupidity killed my best friend in the world! I don't need you, or Joshua, or anyone else trying to make me go back into that, to look into Endri's eyes and see Black and try to convince myself that nothing's changed! Do you want another Black, Milia?" He shook his head to dash away the tears that came unbidden. "I'm happy here."

"You mean, you're safe here."

"Leave me alone!"

Turning, Futch darted into the mess tent. He half expected Milia to come after him.

She didn't, and Futch couldn't decide whether or not he was happy about that.

"You never said you were one of them, kid," Kender told him, sitting down.

"It didn't come up." "Like hell." Kender leaned across the table and grabbed Futch by the shoulder. "Look, kid, I'm a career soldier. This is my life, right? That doesn't mean I like it. It's tough, it's hard, and like as not to get ya killed. You don't become a mercenary to be 'happy', understand me?"

"I don't want your advice."

"I don't care, you're gonna get it. Even a stupid soldier like me can see that this doesn't make you happy, Futch. It's too empty. There's nothing to being a merc, you just go from place to place and do whatever comes up. There's no causes. You need more than that; you're more than that. I don't deceive myself, Futch. The only reason I'm here is because no place else would take me. But you?" Kender sighed. "That, I just don't understand." Futch was silent and stared at the table. After a moment, Kender sighed again, and rose, and walked away.

After a moment, he rose too.

* * *

"So will you be back, kid?" Futch turned around in the act of adjusting Damnation's saddle.

"Probably not," he replied, meeting Kender's gaze. "I might be. I just need to see, make sure I'm doing what's right. For Endri."

"Whatever. Your contract's not up yet."

"I know that too. I kind of hoped..."

"I never saw you, kid."

Futch smiled, for what seemed like the first genuine time in decades. "Thanks, Kender. You're a good guy."

Kender laughed, a deep, roaring belly laugh that seemed to rumble out of the earth. "Naw. I just don't like sharing my space with such a gloomy little brat."

"Thanks, Kender."

"No sweat. Now get going. Your Dragon'll miss you if you don't hurry."

Futch nodded, checked the tack one last time, and swung into the saddle. Kender pulled open the corral gate and Futch put his heels to Damnation's sides, sending the horse cantering into the night that surrounded them.

Maybe he wasn't safe anymore, but that didn't seem to matter much all of a sudden.

* * *

Raising one hand to his brow, Futch eyed the horizon. The Den was mere speck on the horizon, and the sun was setting. Something in him wanted to ignore the nightfall, and ride on, and not stop until he got there, but...

He patted Damnation on the neck and the horse looked at him in surprise, startled by the sudden validation of his work. "Don't get any ideas," Futch commanded. "I'm only being nice because this is our last ride, you understand? There ought to be a waystation around here...by the waterhole." Quickly, Futch took his bearings, and set out for the patch of trees that surrounded the waterfall, and the Den waystation. He might have to do a little fast talking, but he imagined he could get inside for some warm food and a pallet on the floor.

Futch dismounted to lead Damnation through the trees, ducking his head as he entered the clearing around the waterhole.

It was in that moment of vulnerability, when he lowered his head, that they struck. The cudgel struck him on the back of the head with stunning force, knocking him to the ground. Damnation whinnied in alarm, rearing up on his back legs.

Futch groaned, trying to rise to his hands and knees, but whoever was attacking kicked him harshly in the ribs. All the breath roared out of Futch's lungs, and a sharp cry of pain broke through his lips. Someone grabbed him by the hair and dragged him forward, tossing him to the ground.

"What have we here?" a smoothly cultured voice asked.

"Some kid," one of the men who had attacked Futch replied. His vision spinning, Futch tried to focus in on their speech, but found his reeling head unable to focus.

"Put him in with the civilian hostage," the cultured voice commanded. "He's not important."

The world spun away into darkness.

* * *

"Futch!" Someone hit him again. He groaned. "That's more like it. Futch!" Smack. "Wake up!"

Raising his hands, Futch batted at the hands that were slapping him, then grabbed one by the wrist. "What's going on?" he mumbled, trying to collect his thoughts. He opened his eyes.

"About time," Kasumi snapped irritably. "My wrist was getting tired." The young Ninja sat back on her haunches, and Futch levered himself off the ground he was lying on to examine his surroundings. He appeared to be in a small wooden shed of some kind, ten feet by five feet, roughly, with no windows and a lock on the door.

"Kasumi?" he asked. "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same thing of you, you know," Kasumi replied frankly. Futch rose and stumbled over to the door as she spoke. "Don't bother, Futch, it's locked tighter than Lorimar after dark. I didn't think you were a Dragon Knight anymore."

"I'm not," Futch replied defensively, turning around. He quickly assessed Kasumi, recalling what he knew about her. They'd never really spoken at all in the war, given Kasumi's role as a spy and Futch's own late entry into the battle. She was a Ninja of Rokkaku, and supposed to be pretty good at what she did. The way she was holding her arm looked odd to him, as if she was favoring the other while trying to hide the fact that she did so. "What are you doing in this area, and what's going on?"

The Ninja thought for a moment. "I guess it's a risk I have to take," she replied nervously. "I'm here to try to stop the people who're holding us captive before they can attack the Dragon's Den." She paused. "They're loyalists, you see, loyal to the old Emperor. They want to overthrow Aaron but they can't muster enough military might. Up until now they've been posing as bandits, harrying the Den, but now that they've got the Dragon Knights spread so thinly they can afford to attack with impunity."

"Why?"

"Isn't it obvious? If they can get the Dragons for themselves and crush the Knights, they'll have just monopolized possibly the greatest asset a military campaign could have: Dragons. They plan to raise the Dragons to serve them and use them to retake Gregminster, reinstate the old system, and use the Dragons combined with their own forces and mercenaries from overseas to quell any resistance. They're convinced that once they can force the old system back on the citizens, they'll comply."

Futch felt bile rise in his throat. "That's disgusting! The Dragons will never let themselves be used that way!"

Kasumi raised an eyebrow in reply. "Why not? They can be trained, right? They were trained to fight Barbarossa in the war, they can be trained to fight Aaron now. Mordecai - he's their leader - has the advantage of men and surprise, and the Knights' weakened position. What's to stop him?" She shrugged. "Anyway, I've been sabotaging them since they crossed the mountains, but I got caught. Luckily Mordecai didn't seem to recognize me out of my disguise."

Futch nodded. "They took my spear, and my horse. Do you have a plan?"

"No, not really," Kasumi replied unhappily, looking aside. "I'm wounded, I'm stranded, I'm cut off, I have no way of knowing if backup is coming..."

"You're wounded?" Futch asked.

"It's nothing. I've stashed some pills on me, they help me ignore the pain. The arm's almost useless, though. It'll probably have to come off."

Slumping against the wall, Futch slid down into a seated position and leaned his head back. Assets, he heard Milia's voice say in his head. Analyze your assets, Knight. "They think we're civilians."

"What?"

"Assets. They think we're civilians; they don't know that you're a Ninja and that I'm a Dragon Knight." He looked at her. "I'm unarmed and you're wounded, but we've both got training they might not have."

Kasumi nodded. "All right. I have some tools stashed on me, too. The painkillers can be a sedative or even a poison if someone takes enough of them, but I don't see how that helps us. I have a garrote, a knife, two shuriken, and an eggshell full of burning power. Everything else they took." She paused. "There are about two hundred in this camp, at least five hundred more spread out in the area around the Den, plus their 'bandit' mercenary company." The Ninja sighed. "Face it, Futch...the best we can hope for is reinforcements from Rokkaku. Otherwise, it's hopeless."

"I refuse to believe that," Futch said flatly.

"Be realistic."

"No! Being realistic put me where I am now."

Kasumi raised an eyebrow. "What's that supposed to mean?"

No more dreams for Futch. "Nothing. Look, there has to be some way to get to the Den and warn Joshua."

Snorting bitterly, Kasumi rose and walked a quick circuit of the shed. "Let's see...thick walls, guards all around, camp preparing for an assault, no transport, no weapons, no prospects. If you've got ideas, Dragon Knight, I'd love to hear them."

Futch hesitated. "Let me see your arm."

Shrugging, Kasumi turned her back, her good hand going to the laces at her neck. Working remarkably fast for someone with only one usable arm, she slid the loose fitting black shirt she wore off of her shoulder to reveal her wound.

It was ugly, that was for sure, old and oozing. The remains of the bolt plugged it, which was the only reason that she hadn't already bled to death. Nevertheless, the pain must have been tremendous. The bolt had hit her right where her arm met her shoulder, and as she removed the feeble packing she'd placed on it, Futch could smell the sickly-sweetness of her infection. "Maybe I can do something for it," he noted dubiously. "Does it hurt much?"

"All the time."

Working as fast as he could, Futch removed the bandages and fashioned a more effective wrapping and even a makeshift sling from debris lying around the shed, and the shreds of the thick cloak he'd been wearing when he was taken.

"That should help, some," he commented when he was finishing. "At least it'll be easier for you to keep still, not be jostling it all the time."

"Thank you." Kasumi quickly adjusted her clothing, then turned to face Futch. "Any bright ideas?"

"Not really," Futch replied frankly. "We don't have much to go on."

Kasumi smiled bitterly, and nodded. "I've been eavesdropping on the guards; Mordecai and his band aren't moving out until tomorrow, but they're keeping a small force here in case the Knights try to escape through the pass. I imagine they won't want to encumber the attack team with prisoners, so we'll probably be left here until they're done."

"Or killed."

Kasumi shrugged. "Or killed. I was trying to be optimistic."

"Don't delude yourself."

The Ninja scowled. "Look, at least I'm trying...how many bright ideas have you contributed to our anemic little pool?"

Unaffected by Kasumi's outburst, Futch shrugged. "Not really. I prefer not to waste my breath." Sighing, he seated himself against the wall, facing the doorway. After a moment's hesitation, Kasumi sat down beside him.

"Sorry," she apologized. "I've been having a bad week."

Futch grinned, then he chuckled, then he laughed.

* * *

Morning sunlight sprinkled through the cracks in the boards and danced in helter-skelter patterns across the packed earth floor of the shed. Blinking his eyes, Futch sat up and stretched, working the stiffness out of his joints. He'd forced Kasumi to take the bench, in order to put less strain on her arm; but what seemed altruistic before seemed foolish now. He was so stiff he could hardly move. Suddenly, a heavy hand clamped down on his jaw and he thrashed in panic.

"Calm down!" Kasumi hissed. "It's only Kage." The hand released him, and Futch turned to see the older Ninja crouched behind him in the dirt, clad in full gi and with murder in his eyes.

"How..." he began to ask.

"Stay silent," the Ninja hissed. "We're leaving." The door, Futch noticed belatedly, was slightly ajar. "We have a small window of opportunity, while the guards change. It will be a few minutes before they notice that you're gone."

In spite of his gruff carriage, Futch noticed that Kage offered an arm to Kasumi, who seemed faint. As he watched, the younger Ninja swallowed another painkiller. "Running out," she whispered to Kage.

"Probably for the best," came the terse reply.

Outside of the shack, Futch carefully stepped over the prone bodies of the guards that had been keeping track of him and Kasumi. There wasn't a mark on them; in the early morning light, he couldn't tell whether they were alive or dead, and he wasn't in the mood to care.

Outside of the camp, Kage had tethered three horses, and had, at some point, liberated Futch's spear from the armoury. Futch experienced an unexpected pang of sadness when he realized that none of the three was Damnation.

Kasumi and Kage were whispering excitedly. After a moment, they turned to Futch.

"It is my belief," Kage told him, "that Mordecai plans to lead a strike against the Den, not the Aerie. Until this time, all of the large-scale assaults have been focused on compromising the Aerie's defenses, and the Dragon Knights have adjusted accordingly, leaving the Den more poorly defended. This is the perfect chance for Mordecai to strike the Den, and once the Den falls, the Aerie will shortly follow."

"And once the loyalists have access to the Dragons, it becomes more difficult to stop them from attacking Gregminster," Kasumi offered.

Futch nodded and swung into the saddle. "So, we got to the Den?"

"I intend to stay here," Kage said, "and disrupt Mordecai's camp with more covert action. Then I will go to the Den and give a warning to the Dragon Knights there. I believe that you and Kasumi should head to the Den and alert Milia and Joshua of the impending attack."

Kasumi grasped Kage's shoulder. "Good luck, sir," she murmured.

"Don't worry," Kage told her. "Everything will turn out. Ride!"

* * *

They had to stop several times during the ride to the Dragon's Den; Kasumi's wounded arm was practically useless now, and it was awkward for her to ride for long periods of time. Futch did his best not to be sharp with her.

It was noon before they passed again beneath the shadow of the walls of the Den.

* * *

Futch stood on the battlements of the Den beside Milia, staring out across the plains. The sun hung high on the setting side of noon, and there had been no sign of any impending attack from Mordecai. There was silence.

Unexpectedly, Milia put her hand on Futch's shoulder. "I am glad that you're back, Futch. You know that you earned this, don't you?"

Futch smiled softly and looked away. "I haven't earned anything yet. But I promise you that I will, Milia. Thank...thank you." He felt tears spring into his eyes and did his best to hide them.

"Vice-Commander!" The voice cut through the short space between Milia and Futch like a knife. "We've force approaching us!" The young trainee ran up, panting, and shoved a sort of telescopic lens into Milia's hand. "West. Ten o'clock."

Milia raised the lens and scanned the horizon. She paused after a second, and Futch felt himself tense. "I see them," she said after a moment. "Strange...a smaller force than I'd expected. Are you sure your estimates were correct, Futch?" She passed him the lens.

Futch peered into the lens; it looks his eye a moment to adjust. He blinked and dropped the lens. "That can't be...it's less than half of Mordecai's force.."

Milia gasped, and the realization hit Futch at the same time. "The Aerie!" Milia hissed.

"Kage!" Futch replied. Endri!

Milia spun and grabbed the trainee by his lapels. "Tell the Commander that a small force is en route and that he'll want some men to defend the Den, but that most of Mordecai's men are heading for the Aerie. Scramble every available Dragon. Futch! You're with me!" Milia placed two fingers in her lips and whistled shrilly. Below them, in the courtyard, Milia's red Dragon, Thrash, sang out in reply and stretched wings that filled the sky.

* * *

By the time Futch and Milia arrived at the Aerie, they could see that the Dragon Knights' force was hard pressed. Milia dropped Thrash into a low dive and they swung once around the battlefield.

"There," Futch whispered. "Kage..."

The Ninja, dressed in black, stood near the edges of the battle, wielding a long, wicked looking naginata. For the most part he watched impassively, but if a Dragon Knight strayed too close, his spear was very quick. He was good.

Very good.

Futch felt his blood begin to boil. "Take us lower. Take us near Kage."

* * *

Kage was counting up his payment in his mind as the battle raged before him. Most of what Mordecai had offered him would be needed to sever all ties with Rokkakku and start a new life; normally Hanzou had no problem with his Ninjas pursuing exterior contracts, but this was definitely in violation of the treaty that the Ninjas had established with President McDohl after the war.

It was worth it. He would be a rich man.

He had just finished counting when he heard the flap of leathery wings behind him. As he spun, raising his naginata, Thrash drew back sharply and let out a sky-rending shriek.

And Futch, screaming in fury, launched himself from Thrash's saddle, slashing at Kage's head with his spear as he fell.

* * *

When Bohran opened the door to the infirmary of the Dragon's Den, he knew that he should probably be afraid. There was no one in the beds and someone had extinguished all the light sources in the room. Light from the doorway spilled across the darkened floor, but otherwise the room was silent.

He remembered the instant of movement that had occured when Renald opened the doorway. He had heard his fellow loyalist make a sound halfway between a scream and a whimper, and then Renald had vanished inside, the door swinging shut behind him.

As Bohran's eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see Renald sprawled across the room from him. Renald still seemed to be breathing. Slowly, carefully, Bohran made one step into the room. Nothing happened. He drew his sword. Still nothing.

He took another step.

The door swung shut behind him and he heard a flurry of movement. Something cold pressed itself against his throat.

"I wish I could say," Kasumi whispered into his ear, "that I hate myself for doing this. But it so happens that the President is a good friend of mine."

Bodhran felt Kasumi's knife slash across his throat. Whatever was inside him whimpered once as it died.

* * *

As Futch fell, he twisted his body and extended his right arm, wrapping it around Kage's throat. He felt the blade of Kage's naginata slash along his leg as his momentum carried him past the Ninja. Futch's grip on Kage's throat brought them both down; Kage knew how to take a fall and managed to avoid having his windpipe crushed. Futch scrambled to his feet and raised his spear.

"You sold us out!" he snarled.

Kage rose to his knees, rubbing his throat. "Mordecai made me an offer," he replied hoarsely. "They're only lizards."

Futch darted forward, raising his spear and delivering a massive overhand blow designed to cleave the ninja in half. Rather than moving out of the way, Kage simply met the blade of Futch's spear with the shaft of his own, twisting it aside and using Futch's own momentum to trip him. Futch stumbled but remained upright, turning around and raising his spear to the defensive position, ready to meet Kage's riposte.

The ninja didn't move. Beneath Kage's gi, Futch saw the ninja raise one eyebrow. One black-gloved hand raised, beckoned to Futch. A faint smile creased the wire enforced mouth guard of Kage's mask.

Futch charged again, feinted an overhead strike and then spun, using his spear as a fulcrum. Kage saw the attack coming in time to avoid being eviscerated as the blade swung in towards his side, stepped forward and let the shaft smash into his body just below the ribcage. Futch heard him grunt, and he lifted and twisted the shaft of the spear, sending Kage flying. Futch twisted to meet the ninja as Kage tried to rise and swept his feet out from underneath him. As Kage fell into the dirt again, Futch caught the shaft of the naginata with the curved blade of his spear and flipped it out of reach.

And then Kage was up, faster than before. And Futch began to feel cold, somewhere in the pit of his stomach. His spear sparkled as he thrust it at Kage's chest, hoping to end the duel with a single blow.

Kage showed him what fast really was. He moved like a tendril of water, slipping out of the way of Futch's thrust and catching the shaft as it passed him, dragging Futch along like a fish at the end of a line. Futch saw Kage's fist come up...

...there were stars behind his eyes, and he was lying on his back. There was shouting inside of his head. He rose unsteadily to his feet, and Kage grabbed him by the hair, helped him up. Then his feet were off the ground, and he was flying...his body slammed into the rocks that made up the mountain which the Aerie cave was carved out of. Thrash was singing somewhere off in the distance...fighting, dying, flying. Something exploded in his chest; he felt curiously numb.

Am I dying? Two punches and that's all, dead? Stupid, stupid Futch. Never be a Dragon Knight.

I am a Dragon Knight.

Black...

Endri...

Kage grabbed him by the front of his shirt and began to lift him again. Futch's hand closed on something cool, and hard, lying against the mountain. There was blood running from someplace on his face, warming him. He coughed, spoke.

"They're not just lizards."

Kage grunted; it sounded like he was starting to laugh. "Are." Futch could feel consciousness slipping. Focus on the pain...exquisite pain. "Are much more. Life."

And he struck Kage across the face with the rock in his hand. He felt the wire mesh crumple beneath the force of his blow, felt Kage's hand drop away, felt his body begin to fall. His knees buckled; he caught his own descent with his hands and dragged himself to his feet, leaning on the rocks. Kage was rising.

Futch knelt in the dirt and picked up his spear.

"Much more," he repeated. "Life. Music.

"Me."

Kage rushed him; Futch felt time slow down, align itself to the beating of his heart, the pulse in his veins. He found within himself a place he'd only known with Black. There was a blade of some sort in Kage's hand, three pronged, vicious, long.

Ignore it. Fight.

"Everything." Futch somehow managed to meet the first slice of Kage's blade with the shaft of his spear, then the second, and the third, and he planted his feet and thought of the Black and Endri and Milia and Thrash and the green dying beneath his cheek and the rest was all easy, and he was meeting every blow.

Waste of time.

Fight. Kill.

He dropped his guard for a moment, saw Kage take it. The blades entered his shoulder and he felt nothing, exquisite emptiness, even when they raked across his chest, and he wondered if that sound he heard was the blades as they scraped across his ribs...

Kage almost seemed surprised when Futch found it within himself to take advantage of the ninja's distraction to strike back. Futch wondered if a mercenary could understand sacrifice.

Futch's blade entered Kage's chest and stopped his heart, and time seemed to be slowing down, and the world seemed to be dancing, and in the moment before everything became very, very dark and still and cold, he heard Black singing.

The last thing he saw as his body collapsed atop Kage's was Milia's feet, and it seemed a very strange thing to see just before you died.

IV

It wasn't that Mordecai didn't appreciate the skills that Mirmillian brought to his group, it was simply that he couldn't bring himself to trust her. It certainly wasn't that he didn't need her help.

But there was just something about her, her dark eyes and the ready, agile fingers on her one hand. Her other hand, you see, was missing, along with her entire arm, cut off right at the shoulder. Her dark dress had no sleeve for that arm; the effect was almost as if part of her was missing - not amputated, but missing. She was very disconcerting.

In the three years since Kage and the Dragon Knight debacle, Mordecai had come to realize the value of mercenaries. Prior to that, he had limited his confidants to socialites with similar loyalist tendencies, idealists with money and pull, but people such as Kage and Mirmillian brought certain skills to the field that his usual clique failed to. True, Kage had failed, and he hadn't procured any Dragons, but it had almost succeeded. It might have succeeded.

Mirmillian was not a warrior herself, but she knew more about espionage and deployment of small, covert groups than Mordecai had imagined there was to be known, period. She had forgotten more than he had ever suspected existed.

"It's all true," she told Mordecai as she entered the conference room, in the cellars beneath his mansion. Her eyes took in Mordecai and his current three lieutenants. "President McDohl has married, in secret. He plans to go public with the marriage sometime within the next month. What we did not know before my mission was this: McDohl's wife is with child."

"Child?" Mordecai rose, his heart pounding. "Perfect! I assume this means that you've also deduced the lady's identity?" The identity of Aaron McDohl's long rumoured lover had remained a mystery to Mordecai, but was key to overthrowing the President. If they could ransom his lover...no! Ransom his wife...and now, his unborn child...

"Oh, of course," Mirmillian replied, smiling faintly. "She's me."

Mordecai's cousin Reiken had always been long on brawn and short on brain, and his bad luck was to be sitting next to where Mirmillian was standing when she made that announcement. Mordecai would often remember the speed with which Reiken had risen, the speed with which his sword had left his scabbard...

But he would remember more the speed with which a small, precise blade dropped from Mirmillian's sleeve, and the fluid grace with which she planted it in Reiken's throat.

Mordecai stumbled backwards. "You...you..."

"Just give up," Mirmillian said. "There's no escape any more, Mordecai. My name is Kasumi, and by the authority vested in me by Rokkaku and President McDohl, I'm placing you under arrest."

"N...no!" Mordecai spun and his hands found the secret catch in the rock wall of the conference room, and he spun through the hidden panel into the tunnel. Mirmillian's last words followed him down the hallway, echoing in his terror-filled mind. "Try and run...try and run..."

He burst from the front door of his mansion and into the morning light, and before he had even made it to the gateway he was sure he was being watched. Something born of terror forced him to turn around, and look up...

...to see the Dragon and its rider perched on his roof. The Dragon spread its wings and roared, and filled the air with a song like nothing Mordecai had ever heard before. The noble dropped to his knees in terror and closed his eyes, praying for mercy out loud.

He heard the Dragon settle before him, felt the rush of wind away from his body and huge gray wings drew into its body. He opened his eyes and looked up.

The Dragon's rider was a young man, barely more than a boy, dressed in the armour of a full-Knight. His brown hair was windblown and his cheeks were browned from the passage of air across his face. It was a face that knew flight. The green wings on the circlet on his head were a crown, a halo.

"My name," the Dragon Knight said, "is Futch, Dragon Knight first class, and I know you very well, Lord Mordecai." His eyes were exultant. "Why don't you come with me, and we'll have a little talk about President McDohl?"

The Dragon raised it heads and sent victory flying on the wind.

 
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