Actions

Work Header

A Gnome’s Tale

Chapter Text

The air was still. Shapes swam in the darkness as the sounds of the night filtered in through the open window.

Wait.

I always closed the window before bed.

“You must always be cautious, my little one. There will always be those who are jealous enough to try and hurt you. The guards can only catch so many who would do you harm.”

My father’s words came back to me as I sat up slowly. My eyes flitted around the pitch black room, only discerning the shapes and shades of black.

I heard a slight scrape, like a dagger being drawn or a stone being dragged across a piece of slate.

Before I knew what was happening, I was rolling to my right, landing on the cold, unforgiving floor in a pile of sheets and my night dress.

My heart fluttered like the wings of a hummingbird as adrenaline flooded my veins. My eyes darted around and I kicked the sheets off.

I heard a grunt towards the bed, and a soft thunk. The dagger being plunged into an empty pillow.

I couldn’t scream yet. Hopefully the killer wouldn’t know exactly where I was.

I crawled towards the door, my breath coming in terrified little pants. Pain ripped down my scalp as my hair was gripped and yanked backwards. I let out a bloodcurdling scream on instinct.

Stars swam as my head was thrown forward into the stone floor, hard enough that my scream was cut short.

It was too late.

At the same time I felt the cold edge of a blade pressed against my throat, the doors were flung open, and I heard shouting, the burst of a crossbow, and the whistling of an arrow right before I heard the grizzly squelch as it landed in the throat of the figure beside me.

They gurgled, their hand loosening in my hair and the knife falling away from my neck.

I was dragged upwards by my armpits, the familiar voice of Hector in my ears.

“Are you alright, my lady? Did she hurt you?” His voice was concerned, but steady. I clung to the strength in his tone. Tears burned in my eyes and I gasped for breath as the adrenaline started to wear off. I could still feel the memory of the blade on my throat.

“I’m fine,” I heard myself gasp. “I’m fine, Hector.”

I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I thought over and over again. It was over. The assassin had failed. I was still alive.

However, the feeling of being watched never left my skin.

Chapter Text

Linissa Ogolpi. I memorised the name and the back story. I was simply a debtor trying to escape the law. I came from the southern port city of Glinea located in the Dera Empire.

I shivered and wished I had a cloak to pull around me. Instead, I was dressed in common clothing, brown and roughspun.

I heard rustling, and looked up to see the dragonborn standing in the single shaft of light that came from the ceiling through the bars.

I knew there were others than me down here. I’d heard them moving for weeks. I had only gotten glimpses of their faces, but I didn’t care. All I needed to know was that my name was Linissa Ogolpi and once I reached Infinitum Porta, I would live there for however long I needed to.

“Land ho!” A sailor’s voice drifted down from the top deck, and I felt a sudden and immense sense of relief fill my chest. I had no idea how much longer I could take sailor’s food and the constantly rocking floor.

I brought my knees up and placed my quarterstaff across my lap. I glanced around in the darkness again. I saw others sitting against the walls and boxes, but again, their faces were obscured. My fingers tightened on the staff, feeling the new wood. It had been my single going away present from Hector. I held it dearly to my heart.

After what felt like a small eternity, I began to hear the commotion above us. Sailors shouted and equipment squeaked as they began the preparations to dock.

My chest buzzed with excitement, and I stood up as a trap door opened, illuminating a set of stairs across the room.

“We’re docking, so get your sorry asses above board!” Someone yelled, his accent so thick I could barely understand him.

Tentatively, I stood. I still hadn’t quite gotten my ‘sea legs’. After only a minor stumble, I was confident enough to take a step forward. Sailors began making their way down the stairs and grabbing boxes. Some of the figures helped. I watched one in particular appear to vanish his cloak as another sailor said something short to him. He picked up a stack of boxes, looking slightly unsure.

His eyes found mine, and he squared his shoulders and headed over. I bristled, wary as he approached.

“Here,” he said cheerfully, handing me a small box. I sneered, stepping back. His face fell slightly. He knelt down and placed the box at my feet, giving me an earnest look.

I turned and walked away, following the rest of the sailors and stowaways above board.

The first thing I noticed when I came above the confines of the ship was the mist.

It was like a curtain hanging eerily over the land, spilling out onto the sea. A wall of swirling grey completely obscured whatever was behind it. I felt a deep unease in my stomach, my magic recoiling for some reason.

I turned my eyes to the front and saw the faces of the others I had been travelling with.

A tall, broad half-elf stood with his back to me. He was covered in chainmail armour, and a huge sword was set across his back. He turned slightly, and I saw the profile of his face.

He was incredibly ugly, with scars stretching across any visible skin. Even if he had been as untouched as a child, he still would have been hideous. I’d never stumbled across an ugly elf, even a half-elf, so I found myself studying him before he turned away. I glimpsed behind me at the dragonborn. He was clothed in simple robes, and seemed to be caught up in his thoughts, or just staring blankly ahead, with scales the colour of ebony. His pupils narrowed as his golden eyes set on me, and I quickly looked away.

The human was perhaps the least scary of the three, but he was still formidable. He was a magic user, that much was apparent, and too friendly for his own good. I watched as he talked with sailors, bright eyes flicking around, as if searching for something.

“This is the end, boys. Welcome to Infinitum Porta,” a sailor bellowed, clapping the half-elf on the back. He didn’t looked pleased at being touched, but the sailor moved on before he could say anything.

My heart danced in my chest, and I started walking towards the town I could see at the end of the docks.

This was my home for Kelemvor knew how long.

-***-

The tavern was dim as I entered it. My eyes swept around quickly, my fingers tight on my quarterstaff. As always, the feeling of being watched never left me.

A dwarf sat at a table, a sheep at his side. They looked nonthreatening, so I ignored them. A tiefling and a human stood near the back, rolling dice around a small pile of coins. The bartender didn’t look up as I sat down at the bar.

“How much for a room?” I asked quietly.

“One silver,” he grunted in reply. His beady eyes flitted to mine momentarily. My fingers dipped into my coin purse and I set a glimmering silver piece on the counter. The bartender handed me a key from his belt, swiping the piece.

The door flung open, and three figures crowded inside, making enough noise that the bartender scowled and muttered something under his breath.

“Hello!” The human called, friendly as always. To my dismay, the dragonborn and half-elf headed towards me, sitting on either side of me at the bar.

“What do you have to eat?” The human boomed, walking up to the bar. He ordered some kind of meat for him and the half-elf.

“How much for a room, my good man?” He smiled charmingly at the bartender, who didn’t seem to care.

“One silver,” his voice was as gruff as it had been with me.

“Ah, let me see what I can do,” the human said proudly.

I expected him to come sit and start annoying me, but instead I heard his voice near the back where the two gamblers were.

Curiosity got the best of me, and I twisted around in my seat to see him pull out a deck of cards in front of the two men.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they seemed to agree on something before the human began to shuffle the cards. They blurred from the speed he was manipulating them, and I had to admit I was a little impressed.

The cards stopped, and the tiefling drew a card. His face melted into shock, and the other man laughed uproariously. The human took the card back and began shuffling again. And again, whichever card the tiefling drew made his brows rise and his jaw drop.

And then the human’s face froze, twitching as the tiefling seemed to tell him something hilarious based on his laughter.

“I ain’t got no fucking money!” The tiefling’s voice carried to where we were sitting, and I realised that the wizard had been trying to perform for room fare. I felt a little bloom of pity in my stomach, and fingered the pouch hanging on my belt.

Two plates of meat were set on the counter. The half-elf dug in, glaring at the dragonborn as he continuously stole chunks of meat from the half-elf’s plate. I shrunk back as the dragonborn reached across me to get to the steaming mystery meat on the plate. The human came and sat down at the bar next to the half-elf, dejectedly poking at his plate.

“How much for the card tricks?” My voice was quiet, but it got the human’s attention.

“Huh?” He furrowed his brow at me.

“How much did you want for the card tricks?” I repeated. It was a little hard talking around the half-elf, but he hardly seemed to care.

“Uh, just enough to pay for a room,” he replied. I bit my lip, then dug out a gold piece. I handed it to him. His eyes widened.

“Thanks...” he trailed off.

“Linissa,” I answered. The name felt foreign and heavy on my tongue.

“Lucius. And these are Randy and Leaf,” he smiled, introducing the half-elf and dragonborn. I gave him a polite smile, then turned back to the bar.

It wouldn’t do to stick my neck out too much while I was here.

I heard the clipping of hooves before something tugged on my pants. Startled, I jerked around on my seat to see...

...A sheep.

“Baa,” It tried to nip at my pants, and I moved my legs away.

“Sorry. She’s a little hungry,” a soft voice drew me away from the mystery sheep. I saw the dwarf from the other table. Getting a better look, he had short red hair and green eyes. He was dressed like a farmhand, and tanned like one as well.

“No matter,” I replied evenly.

“Hello! And who are you?” Lucius’ voice startled me slightly.

“Mory. And you?” The dwarf replied neutrally. He seemed as if he was scoping us out.

“The name’s Lucius! And this is Leaf, Linissa, and Randy!” The human introduced all of us. Leaf and Randy barely gave the dwarf a second look.

“What are you doing in Infinitum Porta?” Mory asked, glancing at each of us. My stomach began to churn, but luckily Lucius answered.

“Travellers from the great empires! Do you live here?” He leaned forward eagerly.

“I do. I’m a sheep herder with my mother on the outskirts of the town,” Mory said.

“Excellent. How about a tour of the place?” Lucius’ eyes were twinkling. I wondered how someone could have seemingly boundless energy.

“...Sure,” Mory finally answered. I was torn between following them and going to my room early. On one hand, I would be living here for a while. On the other, I was exhausted, and desperately needed a nap.

“Curiosity will take you farther than you can ever imagine. Don’t ever exhaust it, dear.”

Another saying my father was fond of.

I decided to go with them. I could always sleep later.

-***-

A door bell rang above our heads as we entered the bookstore. A cat meowed at me from its lazy perch atop a stack of books. It had a collar, inscribed with simple print: Dera.

I recognised the name of my empire with a little surprise.

“Hello!” A deep voice welcomed us from behind the stacks. Mory and I had somehow gotten separated from the rest, and we made our way up to the counter.

“Carl Sharpspine, at your service!” He introduced once he saw me, and a beaming smile split his face.

“We don’t get new people often,” Mory had explained when I had met Taylor to commission my cloak. She had been bubbly and bright as they came. Her enthusiasm was admirable.

“Linissa,” I replied with a polite smile. My court training had taught me manners if nothing else.

“What can I help you with today?” Carl asked eagerly. Just then, a cat jumped onto the desk and rubbed its head against his chest, purring. This one had another name tag: Izqui. I recognised the sister empire of Dera.

“Is Ustara around here as well?” I said with a small laugh.

“He is!” Carl blurted. My eyes widened. I hadn’t expected there to be a third cat.

“He’s shy, but you might see him if you come here often enough,” Carl explained.

“Are you a history buff?” I wondered. History had been my preferred subject with my tutors.

“Indeed! I am especially interested in Ustara, the extinct empire... Although I suppose you knew that...” He laughed sheepishly. I felt a small smile tug at my lips. The half-orc was rather exuberant for a race that was typically stoic and harsh.

The doorbell jingled behind us, and I heard the familiar voices of the others filter in. I felt my spirits dampen a little.

Of course they would find us in a town so small.

“Greetings!” Carl called out. Izqui meowed for attention, and he absently started petting her. I noticed that his hands could crush her if he wanted. A memory of a hand fisted in my hair made me shudder, and I looked away.

“Hello! I hear you’re a historian!” Lucius smiled widely, sidling up next to us at the counter. Leaf and Randy hung back, looking disinterested.

“Indeed, sir,” Carl replied. Lucius’ face dropped, and he suddenly looked deadly serious.

“What can you tell us about the mist?”

My eyes widened. It was almost like I had completely forgotten the ominous mist wall obscuring part of the island.

“We don’t talk about it,” Mory muttered. Carl recovered from his shock.

“Oh, uh, not much, I’m afraid. The mist has been here as long as we have. No one knows where it came from or when it came to be,” he offered apologetically.

“Surely someone had ventured into it?” Lucius pressed. I almost wanted to speak up to get him to stop; Carl seemed uncomfortable. But my curiosity held me back.

“Unfortunately, yes... And they don’t return,” Carl looked down at the desk. He had stopped petting Izqui, who had curled up to doze.

“No one?” Lucius’ eyes widened.

“No one,” Carl repeated gravely. “Although I have been allowed to do some experiments on the mist!” His eyes brightened.

“I haven’t been inside it myself, but whatever we send to the other side doesn’t return. Even a rope tied to a ball thrown across the bridge will return an empty rope sliced at wherever it touched the mist. It doesn’t seem to be growing or shrinking, and it’s always the same consistency and density.”

Carl’s tone darkened. “Unfortunately, we have employed guards at the mist because children kept sneaking into the mist as a part of schoolyard dares and we haven’t seen them since.”

The silence rang out thickly as we all absorbed Carl’s words.

“Thanks, buddy! We’ll be off!” Lucius was back to his abundantly energetic self as he headed towards the door.

“We’d better follow,” I muttered to Mory. Winnie - I’d learned the sheep’s name - baa’ed behind us as she trailed after. Before I left, I thought I caught a glimpse of a pair of gleaming green cat’s eyes in the darkness of the stacks above a shiny silver pendant that read: Ustara.

Mory and I caught up to Lucius fairly quickly.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To the mist!” Lucius proclaimed. My eyebrows rose.

“Indeed,” I muttered. Of course he would be drawn to an ominous magical mist wall that nobody returned from.

As we got closer to the mist, I realised that the ground just disappeared before it. I realised that there was a gorge, and the only way across was a lonely bridge with a tall, wrought iron gate firmly shut and locked.

In front of the gate was a single human man with blonde hair and dark eyes. He was dressed simply, along with a chainmail vest and a spear in his left hand. He eyed us as we approached.

“Hail!” Lucius called.

“Hello,” the man said, shifting uncomfortably.

“We’d like to go into the mist,” Lucius smiled. I blanched. We? I hadn’t even gotten my cloak yet.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” the guard replied stiffly.

“Oh really? What do you care about the lives of five strangers?” Lucius tried to persuade him. Five? There were only four... And then I realised he was including Mory.

“I’m sorry, buddy, no can do. This is my job,” the guard replied, steel in his tone.

“And what if it costs you?” Electricity crackled at Lucius’ fingertips. Taking a cue, Randy reached up and placed his hand on his sword.

The guard gulped.

“Hey, hey! We don’t have to do this!” I blurted, grabbing Lucius’ arms. The electricity snapped at my clothing, but didn’t harm me.

“I’m getting into that mist,” Lucius glanced back at me with eyes full of steel. I stepped back, stunned.

“Hello!” A grandmotherly voice called. We all looked to see a woman in older age walking up to us.

“Hello,” Lucius replied cautiously, putting out his magic. Randy’s hands went back to his sides.

“Dorian, are you alright?” The woman eyed the guard.

“Y-Yes,” he stammered. She turned her eyes back to us.

“Why don’t we all go back to my house, and we can settle this there?” Her words were kind, but firm.

“Can you tell us about the mist?” Lucius asked.

“I can,” the woman replied. A moment passed, but he finally relented.

“Fine.”

I let out a sigh of relief. Crisis averted.

There was a tense silence among the group as we followed her back to her home. Within minutes, a small home came into view, neatly overgrown with an abundant garden of flowers and foliage.

“Come in,” she ushered us inside, where more plants lived, crowding windows and hanging from the ceiling.

I admired the greenery, reminding me of the courtyard gardens I loved to play in as a child.

“Your garden is exquisite,” I couldn’t help but comment. The old woman’s eyes brightened at the compliment.

“Oh, thank you, dear. Would you all care for some tea?” She waved her hands towards the kitchen.

“What did you just cast?” Lucius’ voice was sharp. My eyes widened. I hadn’t even suspected her, but he was right. The wave of her hands, along with the very faint taste of magic in the air.

“Just a simple detect magic spell. I like to know who I’m dealing with,” she waved us off, heading towards the kitchen. Within minutes, we were sitting around the table with a steaming mug in our hands. The tea was divine, and probably harvested from her own garden. I sipped my herbal mix again, relishing the flavours. She might have had a job as a tea maker in my home city if she had lived there.

“So...” Lucius broke the silence. “What can you tell us about the mist?”

-***-

“Useless,” he grumbled. We were headed back to the tavern after an admittedly useless adventure. Apparently Carl Sharpspine had told us all there was to know. Mostly the old woman, Grandmother as she wanted us to call her, had kept us from killing Dorian by using the mist as a distraction. While the talk had been unfruitful, I was grateful she had come along before anything drastic had happened.

As soon as we got there, I asked for a bath. Shortly after relaxing in the steaming water until it had grown cold, I was in my room for the night. It was small, but well furnished with a bed, a nightstand, and a dresser. A washbasin stood on the dresser, and an oil lamp on the nightstand.

I hopped up in the bed, obviously not built for gnomes, and curled up beneath the covers. My ears strained for every soft noise in the darkness, until I was too keyed up to sleep. I gently let out a breath and closed my eyes, trying to find some thread of peace.

Today had been certainly jarring. From arriving, to being in the presence of Lucius, to nearly attacking a guard. I was grateful to finally have some rest.

I didn’t know when, but eventually my exhaustion allowed for some respite, because the next thing I knew I was waking up in the morning. Sunlight streamed in from the small window onto the bed, creating a warm patch that tempted me to crawl beneath the covers and never come out.

I knew I had to rise, however.

Slowly, I sat up, sliding off the bed and landing lightly on the wooden floor. I checked that my pack and staff hadn’t been tampered with, and donned my shoes before heading downstairs with everything. You never knew when you needed something.

I found I was the first one awake, and sat at the bar. The same bartender from yesterday was there.

“Porridge?” He offered, gruff as always.

“Sure,” I yawned, handing him a copper piece. A minute later, a steaming bowl of grey sludge was set in front of me. I stirred it for a bit, not entirely hungry, waiting for the others to arrive.

One by one, they trickled downstairs. Randy and Leaf seemed to hang a little further back from Lucius than normal, but I couldn’t discern why.

“Everyone sleep well?” Lucius asked cheerfully once he arrived. He was the last, along with Mory and Winnie. The dwarf sat silently next to me, getting a bowl of porridge from the bartender.

There was a chorus of grumbles from throughout the group in response to Lucius.

“I hope you rested well! How about a little adventure on the town?” His voice was far too upbeat for this early. Nobody replied, and Mory rolled his eyes next to me. I silently shared the sentiment.

After breakfast, we somehow found ourselves following Lucius around the town. Mory and I had broken off to pick up my cloak. Taylor had done an excellent job, creating a cloak in shades of orange and red to resemble a beautiful sunrise. I had given her quite a sum for the result.

My cloak swished about my feet as I walked, making me feel a little more protected from the searching eye. The colours were stunning, and the detail work was magnificent. I couldn’t have found a better product in all of my home city.

We ran into Lucius and the rest of them, who were talking about something to do with the mist.

Before I could ask, I heard a group of voices behind us. We all turned to see a group of people headed towards us. I recognised Carl and the bartender. The others were new.

“Ah, so you are the new visitors who have been causing such a ruckus,” a short man in rather formal wear greeted us.

“Maybe,” Lucius answered evasively. I glanced at him. Usually he was extremely friendly to a fault.

“And Mory. What a shame you have fallen in with such characters,” the man looked sadly at the dwarf. I bristled slightly. What had I done besides follow Lucius around while he was a harebrain?

“And who are you?” Lucius asked.

“I am the Mayor of Infinitum Porta,” the man replied stiffly. “And it has come to my attention that you showed intention to attack our young Dorian yesterday.” He proclaimed. I glanced over the crowd again, and saw a young human man that looked vaguely familiar. He must have been the guard. A woman pushed her way forward, and I recognised Grandmother.

“The town council has decided that in order to protect the citizens of Infinitum Porta, you five will be banished to the mist,” she sad gravely. The mayor nodded slowly.

“Five?” Mory’s voice floated from behind me, startled.

“I’m sorry, Mory. The bad apple has spoiled the bunch,” the Mayor replied.

“Hey, he had nothing to do with this! You shouldn’t be punishing Mory!” I blurted, stepping forward. Dread churned in my stomach at the thought of going into the mist. I didn’t deserve it, but I hardly thought these close-minded townspeople would consider my point of view. Maybe at least I could protect Mory.

“Dorian tells a different story, gnome,” the Mayor said apologetically.

“Fine by me,” Lucius piped up. I never wanted to punch someone so badly. The crowd surged forward, and I was hoisted off my feet by a burly human.

“I can walk!” I snapped, kicking my feet uselessly. Humiliation burned my cheeks. He dropped me with a wary glance, but fisted the hood of my cloak. I glared at him, but he seemed unphased.

We were silently led towards the mist, specifically towards the gate that now was unguarded. Nobody said a word even as the Mayor pulled a key out of his jacket and unlocked it, pulling it open. The oiled hinges didn’t make a sound as the gates spread fully open.

“Y-You can’t do this... I’m not with them,” Mory finally stammered. He was shoved forward first, Winnie following with a worried bleat. I was next, and then Lucius, Leaf, and Randy.

The gate shut hard behind us.

“I’m sorry, Mory,” the Mayor pocketed his key solemnly.

And then they turned around and left.

I didn’t know how long I saw there watching Mory scream and shake the gate, tears running down his face. I felt numb. How had we gotten here?

I turned to Lucius, but the bridge was empty behind me. When had they gone into the mist?

I felt a cold dread drown out Mory’s cries as I gazed at the mist wall. I felt like I was staring over the edge of an abyss, looking into the swirling greyness of it. My hairs stood on end, and suddenly all I could feel was a panic rising in my gut.

I blinked and forced myself to turn away, taking deep breaths to calm myself. It was eerily silent, Mory now sitting silently in front of the gate with his back to me. Winnie pressed against his back, bleating nervously.

I took a steeling breath and walked forward, putting my hand on his shoulder.

“We should go,” I said quietly. He didn’t respond for a long moment. Finally, he nodded, slowly standing. I gave Winnie a reassuring pet.

I sucked in a breath and turned towards the mist, ignoring the dread in my stomach.

I walked into the mist.

Chapter Text

I felt hands grabbing at my cloak, pulling me forward. I couldn’t see anything, just pure greyness. The world seemed to be spinning, and even my ankles were swallowed in mist.

I felt faint.

I tried to stand still, but the invisible hands dragged me forward. I opened my mouth to cry out for someone, anyone, but all that came out was a whisper.

I was going to die here. I knew I shouldn’t have gone so easily. I would never see my father again. Hector.

And then I was falling on my hands and knees, coughing violently. Puffs of mist curled out of my mouth and nose, and I could see the ground again.

“Hey, you okay?”

I looked up weakly to see Lucius peering down at me.

“Yeah,” I gasped, forcing myself to my feet. My limbs felt heavy, and my heart was hammering in my chest.

A moment later, I heard a soft thud behind me and turned around to see Mory, coughing mist from his mouth and nose.

“Just breathe,” I instructed, helping him to his feet. He choked in a strangled breath and sputtered it back out. Eventually, he seemed to regain control over his lungs.

“What the fuck was that?” He stammered.

“The mist, buddy,” Lucius said with a thoughtful look. He stared at the swirling grey wall for another moment before turning.

“Leaf and ugly bastard- I mean Randy - are this way,” he waved his hand and started walking up the hill we seemed to be deposited on. Mory and I gave each other a glance and began to follow.

-***-

“So...where are we?” I broke the silence. We were all huddled together by the sturdiest wall in a gaggle of ruins. It looked like it had been a school, with remnants of desks and chair overturned and scattered across what remained of the cobbled floors and the weeds overtaking them.

“I don’t know. Have you looked at the sky?” Lucius glanced upwards with a frown. I followed his gaze and gasped softly. I heard a few other noises of surprise.

The sky was the same colour as the mist. An impenetrable grey. There was no sun in sight, but it was clearly daytime.

“Wherever we are, I don’t think it’s Infinitum Porta,” Lucius mused. I suppressed a shiver. That wall of mist had definitely been more than just regular mist. Aside from almost choking to death in it, there had been some serious magic. I could still feel the echoes of it crawling across my skin.

I absently rubbed my shoulder as a persistent ache flared up. Probably from falling out of the mist.

“I hope it’s not some version of hell,” I muttered. Just then, Mory gasped. I turned around and saw him staring at something on top of the wall.

“A...A dragon!” He whispered vehemently, pointing. I was far too short to see.

“Leaf, give me a boost?” I asked the dragonborn. He looked down at me with indifference and stooped to scoop me up by the shoulders. I let out a yelp of surprise as I was suddenly standing on his shoulders, face to face with...

...a cat-sized dragon.

It looked at me with one crimson eye, and then it suddenly disappeared. Where it had just been was a pile of shinies, feathers, and small bones. Curiously, I dug into my coin purse and held out a copper piece in my palm.

A second passed, and then the copper piece floated out of my hand. The dragon reappeared with a little squeak and took off, circling around us in the sky.

Leaf started hissing and growling, and I nearly fell if not for his steadying hand. The little dragon chirped back, and I realised that they were talking.

Friend! Friend! The little dragon seemed to be saying. My days of feeding and playing with the woodland creatures were coming back to me. The dragon perched in front of me, looking at me expectantly.

“Do you want another?” I asked, already reaching for my coin purse. It squeaked again, happily snatching the copper piece from me.

“What’s your name?” I wondered. It chirped.

“Lim,” Leaf growled, and I realised he was answering my question.

“Well, Lim, you are beautiful,” I cooed. Lim squeaked and fluffed up his scales proudly.

“Hey, buddy. Want another one?” Lucius called from below me. I watched him hold out a copper to the dragon with a calculating look. Lim eyed him before wiggling his haunches and gliding down with a squeak. I saw a flash of electricity crackle between Lucius’ fingers before—

“Lim, no!” I shouted. The dragon faltered just before he could grab the piece. A shot of witchbolt flew over Lim right where he would’ve been as the copper piece fell out of Lucius’ hands.

“What the fuck?” I cried, forgetting my years of etiquette training. I lunged at Lucius, but Leaf caught me around the waist. Lim was nowhere to be seen.

“What? I’m hungry,” Lucius crossed his arms dismissively. My blood boiled.

“So? Don’t just shoot the dragon!” I reared my arm back and punched him in the leg. He winced, which made me feel marginally better.

“Maybe we should see if we can find anything in there.”

We both turned to see Randy looking towards the dark tree line. A small finger of fear traced itself down my spine. I had practically grown up in forests when I wasn’t in the city... but this one seemed almost malevolent.

“Maybe we shouldn’t, we don’t know what’s out there,” Mory echoed my fears.

“Aw, come on, what’s gonna attack us? We haven’t seen anybody so far,” Lucius said confidently. He shared a glance with Randy and they started forward. Leaf followed with no hesitation. Mory and I looked at each other.

“Stay here,” Mory patted Winnie’s head, who bleated solemnly. We rushed to catch up with the rest of them. Being alone in the creepy ruins was worse than being together in the creepy forest.

-***-

We hadn’t been walking for more than an hour but we hadn’t seen any form of life. The light barely illuminated the ground, and I was wondering how Leaf could even see his feet as he was the only one of us without darkvision.

“Something feels wrong,” Mory murmured, glancing around. I shared the sentiment.

“There’s nothing there,” Lucius scoffed.

We heard a snap.

Mory bumped into me with a slight grunt as I froze, peering into the darkness intently.

I saw something large and dark move, and then—

—it disappeared.

Suddenly, my animal studies professor’s voice came back to me.

They are very fast and very dangerous. They can essentially teleport by moving themselves to other planes at will. If you ever encounter a displacer beast, your best bet is to hide until the guards find you.

“Displacer beast!” I cried out. Fear quickened my blood and magic lapped at my fingertips unbidden.

“A what?” Nearly everyone chorused.

I didn’t have time to respond before we heard a roar and whipped around to see a hideous panther-like beast with snakes sprouting from its back.

“Yeargh!” Mory cried, swinging his herding stick down right onto the beast’s head. It let out a yowl of pain, shrinking back.

I threw my hand out, a jet of flame flying from my fingertips. It barely grazed the beast’s hide, and I let expletives spill from my mouth. My panic was making me sloppy.

The rest of the battle was a haze, magic crackling over my skin as I acted and reacted, missing or barely striking most of the time. Lucius was behind me, muttering words and sending his own magic flying over my head. Leaf and Randy slashed and stabbed at the creature as Mory ducked in every now and then with a solid hit.

It felt like forever and no time at all. Before I knew it, the displacer beast let out a mournful whimper before going silent. And yet my limbs felt heavy like I’d been walking for miles and miles. I wanted to rest, but I knew we could still be in danger.

“I really don’t want to meet another one of those,” Mory broke the silence. I muttered my agreement. Lucius glanced around, realising that we all were pretty sore from that fight. Even Randy had taken a good swipe from the beast.

“We should head back,” he conceded. My shoulders sagged in relief.

It was dark by the time we emerged from the woods. Randy and Leaf has dragged the hulking corpse of the beast behind us, and after a short dissent on where we should stay (Lucius wanted to dig a hole in the ground, the rest of us wanted to take shelter in the ruins), we started a fire within the ruins. Luckily Randy knew how to clean the displacer beast, and after a surprisingly decent meal, we were all ready to drift off to sleep.

I closed my eyes, curled up under one of the remaining standing desks. Luckily I was just small enough to fit under it, so if it rained I would have at least some shelter.

I thought I heard some talking before I fell asleep, but I was entirely too tired to care.

-***-

I didn’t know where I was. Everything was dark, dim, and even with my darkvision I couldn’t pick out any details.

The world started to appear gradually, until I was standing in a familiar room. My study.

I saw my father standing over my desk, my lesson books open in front of him. His face was creased in what looked like pain.

“Father!” I cried out. He didn’t move.

“Father, it’s me!”

Again, no response. I stepped forward, nearly tripping over my skirts. I hastily gathered them, pushing down my confusion at why I was here, why I was dressed in skirts, and why my father couldn’t hear me.

“Father, I—!” I reached for his arm, but my hands passed right through him, like a spectre.

He was gone.

The image faded like rippling water, until I was standing in front of a massive grey wall. I was back in my commoner’s clothing, leaning my head back as far as it would go to see the wall stretching up towards the sky.

Tendrils of the mist crept towards my feet, and I stepped back nervously. I didn’t want to suffocate, even if this was just a dream.

Something pulled me forward, and before I could react, I was walking forward casually. I wanted to scream but my mouth wouldn’t move.

I was inside the mist. My heart fluttered in my chest, starting to pound. The mist clogged my nose like last time, and I started to panic as my lungs were choked with it.

I couldn’t stop.

My feet kept moving, even when the world started to go dizzy from lack of air. And finally when I thought I would pass out, I was back out of the mist. Whatever had controlled my body was released, and I fell to my feet, panting like I had last time I’d gone through the mist. I stared at my hands as mist left my body, and dug my fingers into the earth. Tears welled up in my eyes and I started to sob.

What was I doing here? With these people? All I wanted was to go home. To see my father again. I hated this. Hated it!

Rage and despair boiled in my stomach, and I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.

When I finally ran out of tears, I slowly stood, rubbing my swollen eyes. I glanced around, wondering where I had ended up. My heart sank as I saw the same forest and same grey sky. I hadn’t left. Only came right back out where I had gone in.

I sank to the ground again and buried my face in my hands. The world started to fade around me, and I didn’t move. I wanted to be swallowed by the ground. Or at least sleep without the torment of my own mind.

And eventually everything was gone.

-***-

I awoke restlessly the next morning. I didn’t feel any less tired than when I’d laid down the night previous.

“Linissa! Come look what we found!” Mory called. I crawled out from under the desk and saw everybody crowded around a huge rock with moss overgrowing it. I stepped into the semicircle we were forming and absently ripped some of the moss off. Maybe I could use it later.

I noticed a scratch in the rock under the moss, and frowned. I pulled away more moss and gasped when I realised what it was.

“What is it?” Mory asked, looking away from the main spectacle.

“That’s a tarrasque,” I said weakly. What was a drawing of a tarrasque doing here? What did it mean? Mory touched my shoulder.

“Look at that,” he pointed towards what everyone else was looking at. It was a cryptic message, written in a foreign yet weirdly familiar language.

“That...looks like ancient Ustaran,” I muttered. Everybody turned to look at me.

“Do you think you can decipher it?” Lucius broke the speculative silence. I bit my lower lip.

“Maybe...” I said uncertainly. It had been a while since I’d had to deal with a dead language.

“Give me an hour,” I said more confidently. Lucius nodded thoughtfully, returning his gaze to the message.

-***-

And hour later, we were all gathering around a piece of parchment Lucius had produced. Why he carried ink and parchment was beyond my grasp. Maybe it was a wizard thing.

The parchment was filled with a rough copy of the message and guesses of what each character meant, most of the guesses crossed out several times. The other had been surprisingly helpful, and we all stared at what we were sure was the translated message.

Evil sleeps deep and dark beneath the land of dragons.

Not ominous at all.

“Well, that’s friendly,” I muttered bitterly. I rubbed my eyes in irritation. A better part of an hour had just been spent decoding an ominous phrase that produced more questions than answers.

I heard a squeak, and then heard the flapping of wings. I opened my eyes just in time to see the little dragon from earlier land on the paper in front of me. We all stared in surprise as he looked at me expectantly.

He chirped after a moment, wiggling his haunches.

And then he took off, flying above us in a circle and trilling again.

“Do you want me to...follow you?” I asked uncertainly. All I got was another chirp.

“We’re not following the dragon,” Lucius said firmly.

“I didn’t ask,” I snapped, standing up and grabbing my gear. I hadn’t meant to be so short tempered, but honestly, he wasn’t our leader.

“I’m going,” Mory blurted, grabbing his stuff as well. Leaf and Randy shared and glance and began to move. Lucius rolled his eyes, reaching for his items.

“Fine. But if we die it’s your fault,” he muttered.

Lim seemed happy that we were following, flying around my head a few times. He led us out of the ruins, towards the only place without trees that we could see.

After about an hour, Lim fell back and landed on my shoulders. We stopped.

“Where are we?” Lucius wondered aloud. We were halfway up a hill, surrounded by trees on all sides but one.

“I swear, if that little fuck lead us to the middle of nowhere—“ Lucius began.

“Guys! Look!” Mory was standing at the top of the hill, wide-eyed at something. We all rushed to his side.

I gasped.

In the distance there was a city.