Race to Dragon

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By: Kaden Posted on: 1st May, 2018.

Minia - Levels 9 and 10

"Race you to Dragon!" he exclaimed with a grin, as he rushed off with training sword in hand.

"Wait!" I called out. I made sure my sheathed sword was secure--it still felt weird having it press against my hip--before running after him. I suppressed a smile. He had always been like this; bold, wilful and volatile while I was more even-tempered and delicate.

We were so different that I sometimes wondered how we'd been friends at all, much less Adventurers together, although then again perhaps not. After all, he needed someone to protect and command and I needed someone to push me to greater heights.

I skidded to a halt in time to watch him barrel through a door. "Have at you, villains!" he cried out. The pygmies inside collectively shouted out in dismay, followed by a gargling sound as the first of them died.

I ran in after him. There were four still standing and a fifth sitting at the end of the room. Gripping my scabbard, I drew my sword and swept it in a wide arc to scare off the two pygmies trying to flank my friend before pressing my back against him and sheathing my sword once more.

"Careful," I murmured, as I watched the two warily.

"Glad you could join me," he said. I couldn't spare him a glance but I knew he was grinning from ear to ear.

We swept forward to engage two pygmies each. I caught a brief glimpse of him battering against one of his foes, hammering at him again and again in an attempt to power through his opponent's guard. Then the pygmies were on me. I ducked in front of them, getting past the effective range of their spears before slamming the hilt of my sword against the closest pygmy's forehead, forcing her to reel back.

Anticipating an attack from her companion, I swept my right foot back, sidestepping the spear that had been aimed for my gut. I flowed like lightning, grabbing the weapon and yanking it forward. He stumbled out of balance and crashed stomach first, as I slammed my knee against his back, reached down, and broke his neck.

An anguished cry warned me that the pygmy I'd stunned had recovered and I rolled forward, but not fast enough as I felt a sharp stab of pain where I'd been grazed on the leg. I spun to face her and began to weave in and out of her jabs. Her anger was making her sloppy, and I took advantage of this, as I parried her attacks at every turn before finally seeing an opening and dispatching her with a quick slash.

I spun, just in time to see my friend charging towards the pygmy who'd remained seated throughout the entire fight. The pygmy rose, completely at ease. He was muscular and rich dressed in clothes of multiple hues and a grand headdress.

"Wait," I cried out. My friend towered over the pygmy, sword raised in a double handed swing. The pygmy shouted out loud and I averted my gaze just in time, as a green flash filled the room. My friend stood, stunned or transfixed, and the pygmy cackled.

I ran, crying out in desperation, and swinging with frenzied abandon. The pygmy staggered back, eyes wide as he tried to fend off my attacks. There was no grace or finesse to my actions, I fought as if possessed, using my instincts to anchor myself, as I battered my was past his defences before kicking forward and catching his knee. I hear a loud snap, as he staggered back, fear in his eyes, as I drove my blade deep into his gut.

It was at this point that I snapped back to myself. There was no hate or anger in his eyes, just wide-eyed fear that began to fade with each beat of his heart. The bile rose in my stomach and I fell back, letting go of my blade in the process. I rolled onto my hands and knees and began to heave. I had killed so many pygmies since I became an adventurer but this was the first time death had made me feel like I'd become something alien and terrible.

I heard clattering, as my friend pulled himself free from his incapacitation. He fell on his butt, sword clattering on his side and began to laugh. "We did it! Look at us! Adventurers at last!" He hooted, oblivious to my distress.

I righted myself to a seating position, smiling wanly. The sight of him well made me feel a little better. He grinned at me, and said, "I levelled! I'm level 10 now! What level are you?"

"Nine," I said.

He grinned. "You have your work cut out for you then. I'm going to win our race to Dragon!"

Level 65 and 68 - The Ram's Horn

The sound of laughter made me smile, as I approached the Ram's Horn. I had spent days hunting and had spent the better part of an hour soaking in the baths to cleanse myself and ease my tense muscles before deciding to cap off the night with a mug of ale.

The warmth of the Ram's Horn was welcome after the brisk Cyrenian night. A number of Adventurers grinned as they saw me, raising mugs and calling out in greeting. I returned the greeting with a smile. It still felt weird sometimes to be part of the same circles as the heroes of my youth, and make no mistake many of them were long-lived enough that they were also the heroes of my grandparents' youth too.

"There you are! I haven't seen you in days," I heard my friend call out. I turned to him with a smile, only to hesitate when I saw him with a female Mhun on his lap.

"Oh, hey," I said. "Who's your friend?"

He grinned at his companion, as she snuggled up to him. "Sannie, right?"

"It's Sankie, silly," she replied with a giggle. I disliked her immediately.

"Hehe, Sankie has been keeping me company."

"She's practically cemented to you," I said, dryly. "What happened to...? What was her name again?"

Sankie looked at him curiously, a knowing smirk on her face. He at least had the grace to blush. "Um, she saw us together earlier. I don't think she'll want to see me anytime soon," he said with a rueful chuckle, only to be distracted by a kiss from Sankie. I shook my head, more out of exasperation than any real rancour. This was just like him, really.

"That still doesn't tell me her name, but I suppose it doesn't matter."

"Yeah, so where have you been anyway?"

I smiled, just a bit smugly. "I've been hunting," I said. "I decided to take an extended trip up north to try out a couple of new places that were suggested to me."

"Yeah? How'd it go?"

"Pretty good; I'm level 68 now," I said.

"Damn it! That's three levels ahead of me," he said.

I smirked. "Better get to hunting soon then or I just might make Dragon before you," I said with a wink. "Anyway, I'll leave you and your new lady friend to it." I turned, waiting till I had my back to him before smiling deviously; that should keep him from mischief for good long while.

Level 87 and 88 - Moghedu

We watched our Mhaldorian bounty carefully, waiting until he was well inside Moghedu before attacking. I lead the way, spinning past him, as he turned in surprise and ducking low in an attempt to strike at the back of his knees. I cursed at the strike's lack of resistance. He'd relaxed into the blow, letting himself fall on all fours before kicking back at me. He caught me in the stomach. I grunted as the wind was knocked out of my lungs and staggered back, barely aware that he'd used the kick's momentum to bring himself to his feet.

"Bastard!" my friend cried out as he swung his two-handed sword diagonally. The Mhaldorian sidestepped and his leg snapped downwards, catching the blade on the downswing and twisting it so that the flat of the blade became parallel to the ground as he spun, following through with a jumping side kick that struck my friend cleanly on the head.

The Mhaldorian jumped back, watching the two of us with an insouciant grin as we recovered from his counterattacks. The infamous brand of Mhaldor was livid on one side of his mouth, twisting his grin into something sinister and appalling as he tucked one hand behind his back and gestured for us to bring it.

My friend and I shouted out in anger simultaneously. We fought hard, testing his defences with our blades, trying for his legs again and again as he parried or dodged deftly. The three of us traded blows, his hands slamming against us with such force that it felt as if it were made of stone or steel, even as we caught him on the arms and thighs, drawing blood each time the sharp edge of our weapons kissed skin.

We circled around him, deliberately blocking the outwards exit. His only exit was deeper into Moghedu and the unwelcome arms of the Mhuns he'd been hunting so casually just seconds before. For whatever reason, the Mhuns had not yet stirred, leaving us alone in the room with him and corpses of his victims.

We moved with practice ease, taking turn watching him, as the other drank from a vial of health. His own wounds were knitting from the power of his Kai, but he no longer looked as sure as before. Mere seconds had passed but we could all feel that the fight was nearing its end, one way or the other.

My friend and I lunged. I was ahead of him by a few steps and I gasped as I felt his Kai rise in malice before the raw energy slammed nto me. I head four loud snaps and stumbled as my arms and legs shattered. I cursed, my eyes watering in pain, as I forced myself to use the salve of mending I had in my belt.

The manoeuvre had disabled me but my friend roared, leaping over me and slamming his sword against our opponent's legs so hard that bone splintered. The Mhaldorian shrieked as my friend's blade sunk deep into his gut. His wounds were no longer healing; in his panic, he'd expended all his Kai in his attempt to stop me. My friend screamed his anger, as he twisted the blade and yanked, disembowelling him with such ferocity that I knew he had gained a level.

"That's for harming my city and my friends," he said, as he spat on the corpse.

"Damn," I whispered. I had been level 88 to his 87 before he got the kill. "I was hoping to pad my lead."

Levels 92 and 94 - Beach by Lake Muurn

I knew I'd find him up here at the beach by the lake. I hesitated, wondering if he'd heard my approach or even cared. It hurt to see him so reduced. He was so brilliant, so vibrant. It was all I can do to nip at his heels now that we were both so close to Dragon.

His cheeks were puffed and his eyes raw. He'd been shouting before, but was silent now. He looked tired and spent, and I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd screamed himself hoarse. My shoulders slumped. It seemed, as if there was a vast gulf between us that had nothing to do with the fact that he was two levels ahead of me in our silly little contest. "Hey," I finally managed, as I stepped closer and knelt just behind him. It felt like it encompassed all the hurt and pain we felt, even if it paradoxically didn't at the same time.

The dam broke at the sound of my voice, as he threw myself at me and clung to my chest. I held him close, stroking the back of his head as he wept bitterly, his chest heaving from the wracking sobs.

"We did nothing," he croaked, his voice strained.

"I..." My own voice faltered. I couldn't say anything to comfort him; he was right.

"We just stood there, letting them kill the guards. We watched them die while they begged us to remember them and called out to their loved ones and to the city that had failed them."

I held him close, letting him vent. My own shame was hot against my cheeks. He was right. We'd been raided and we'd given up, choosing not even to attempt a defence. Our enemies had been judged too strong. It was a bitter pill to swallow to some more than others, my friend included.

I sighed. I was finally holding him close but he'd never felt more far away.

Level 95 and-96 - Southern Vashnars, near Caer Witrin

Midnight hung heavily like a death shroud. I held no light, relying on the moon and the distant lamp to guide my way. I wasn't even sure where we were other than near somewhere near or past Caer Witrin. I couldn't see him this far away, but I knew that it could only have been him. It was snowing hard and I shivered, as I raced to catch up. I'd run the second I'd heard he'd renounced his citizenship.

"Wait!" I shouted, as I finally neared. I saw him stiffen, as he turned towards me. He refused to meet my eyes.

"Is it true? Are you really planning to go to the West?" I demanded. I felt tears roll down my eyes, bitterly hot before freezing against my cheeks.

"Yes," he said finally.

"No no no. Please," I said. I shifted, not even realising that I'd taken up a battle stance until my hand had closed around my scabbard. "It's not too late."

He looked at me with hurt in his eyes. "I have to," he said, voice small. "I can't take it anymore."

"I won't allow it! I'll stop you, even if you wind up hating me," I said, the momentum of my feelings of hurt and betrayal taking over, as I broke into a run.

His eyes widened, taken completely off guard as my open palm slammed into his sternum. He staggered back, and I pressed my advantage, or at least tried. My attacks were wild and sloppy, driven more by anger than discipline. He dodged my attacks effortlessly, refusing to fight back at first, until he slipped on a patch of black ice.

I towered over him, teeth gritted and blade in hand. He looked up at me with fear in his eyes that quickly changed to anger. I didn't even hesitate as I tried to impale him, only to feel a jolt on my arms as my blade only found hard earth.

He roared in rage, as he tackled me, not even bothering to draw his blade. My vision blackened and the strength left me with each blow until there was no fight in me left. I huddled, making myself as small as possible, waiting for him to end it all, but he didn't. His fists dropped limply.

"Don't follow...they'll force me to kill you if you do, and you're not allowed to die until you make Dragon and beyond," he said wearily, as unclipped a vial from his belt and dropped it on me before leaving me alone.

Level 98 and 98 - Annwyn

I sheathed my blade, having just finished hunting the Unseelie of Annwyn. I turned only to find my way blocked. I leaped back barely avoiding the wickedly barbed two-handed sword as my assailant tried to behead me, only to freeze when I saw who it was.

"No..." I whispered.

"Hello," he said, favouring me with a crooked grin that didn't quite reach his eyes. Where there had once been passion, only anger and hate remained. "I'm level 98 now and I just need one more Adventurer kill for Dragon. What better way than to purge the one weakness I had left?"

I stumbled, half-raising my hand out towards him but then thought better of it. Instead, I flowed into the Sanya stance. Level 98 and one kill, it was almost laughable that he'd finally come see me at this time, here and now, when we were both tied. I allowed myself a single tear and let the void consume me. The last thing I remember hearing was his scream of rage as he attacked...

I knelt before his prone form. His skin had turn wan and blue from the bleeding but there was a smile on his face that broke my heart more than his betrayal ever did. I was drained; emptier than I had been in Sanya. I pressed his hands over his chest, and clasped them in my own.

"99," I whispered. "99 and Dragon."