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When he heard the key turn in the lock, Riz quickly contemplated running into his room and pretending he just woke up from a full night’s rest. But the mess in the living room, the three empty mugs still smelling of black coffee, and the ginormous bags under his eyes were a dead giveaway. Especially to a worried mum, who just also happened to be a detective for the Elmville Police Department.

He just had the time to sigh in defeat, before his mum stepped in their small apartment. Finding him after an all-nighter is not by any means a rare occurrence, but Sklonda Gukgak managed to give him her trademarked I-am-not-mad-just-disappointed stare all the same.

“Riz, honey, what are you doing awake? Did you even sleep?”

“Yeah, mum. Four hours like promised”

He didn’t sleep four hours. He was too busy repeating the plan again and again in his head. Scrutinising his outfit for the next day, making sure he presented the image of a dorky, eager, earnest freshman. Asking a black Tabaxi woman that only he could see, about any updates. Making sure his gun was loaded, for the worst case scenario. But his mum didn’t need to know that.

“Kiddo, it is your first day in high school. It is absolutely normal for you to be stressed about it, but you have to put your health on top of your priorities. How can you focus on your classes and on making friends if you are half asleep?”

“Mum, it’s just school. Sure they might make us fight kobolts or something, but I learned all the theory for that last year. I am super prepared. Don’t worry”

“It’s my job to worry. You are my little baby after all” She paused for a second. “Honey, I want to make sure you are OK. I know you are worrying about Penny, and we are trying our best to find her and the other girls, and see her safely home”

Riz had “borrowed” the case folder. He knew all about the case and the police’s most prevalent theories. They could’ve been murdered by a psycho or trafficked into a neighbouring land or they could’ve just run away from home. All those hypotheses were sound, but also wrong. He didn’t know where they were kept (Kalina didn’t share any information he didn’t need to know), but he knew they were alive. At least until the end of the school year.

Riz didn’t like to think, what would happen to kind, soft spoken Penny after that. Or that he was partly the reason she was abducted.

He smiled encouragingly and lied through his teeth. 

“I am sure you will find her! You are a certified badass!”

Sklonda ruffled his hair.

“What about a celebratory breakfast before school?”, she motioned to the kitchen table.

He almost accepted. But then he heard a familiar voice next to his ear.

“Riz, you gotta go. You can’t leave little miss Abernant waiting”

He tried his best not to react. He hated when she did that, without a warning.

“Sorry, mum. I promised I’ll meet a friend before school”

She deflated at his words but smiled.

“You already found a friend? Honey, I am so proud of you”

He laughed nervously as he turned to leave.

“I told you. School is no big deal. See ya”

As he was closing the door, he heard her say;

“Your dad would’ve also been proud of you”

He pretended he didn’t hear that.

~~

The Gukgak family always did the best out of a bad situation. When Pok and Sklonda first met in Elmville, pretty much penniless, they rented an apartment in the Strongtower Luxury Apartments to raise their son. When Pok died, Sklonda took more shifts in the police department and Riz secretly made a deal with his father’s old partner.

Now when he was participating in a mission to bring an ancient, evil dragon back into his past glory, Riz ignored the small voices screaming in his head, set all hesitations and morals aside, and focused on the job.

He meant to arrive in Aguefort Adventuring Academy before the first bell rang, but first, he had to make sure that Aelwyn was square on her part.

He took the bus to their usual meeting place, a park a block away from her home. This neighbourhood was way too fancy for Riz’s standards, and he would’ve surely received nasty glares, wasn’t he an expert in hiding in the shadows.

Aelwyn Abernant, a tall, blonde, high elf, was already waiting for him. As always, she was looking perfect in her pristine school uniform, not a hair out of place. And as usual, she was scowling.

“You are late. Some people have places to be, Gukgak”

He blinked unimpressed. He knew he wasn’t late and it wasn't the first time she tried to provoke him.

“Abernant. Always a pleasure. Excellent job with the Elven Oracle. I trust you informed the new one about the book”

She rolled her eyes.

“Of course I did. It is easy to plant the seeds if you know how to pull someone’s strings. Not that you would’ve had any idea about all that”

It was true. While Riz was good at reading other people’s intentions and finding the perfect ways to steer them to a direction, he was awful at the actual manipulation. In his home, until a few years ago, he never had to mask his emotions and while he knew better now, at intense moments, his true feelings always busted out.

He was better as an unseen spy, hiding in the shadows, and striking when he discovered his target's weakness. Charisma wasn’t his strong suit.

“Lovely. So you think that by the afternoon, we will know if they are the oracle”

“I don’t think. I am certain”, she replied with a harsh look in her eyes.

“Whatever. Do you want to share with me their identity? Since you know, I gotta spy on them?”

Her laugh was melodic and cruel at the same time.

“I don’t think I will. If Kalina wanted you to know, she would’ve told you. And anyways, what kind of rogue are you if you can’t find an elf in a small school?”

Of course, she wasn’t going to tell him anything useful. The fact that she was protecting the identity of the person, they were supposed to track and monitor, just proved how childish she was. What could he expect from the person who joined up the Shadow Cat, to “loosen up and have fun”?

“Alright”, he sighted and turned to leave, “I have to go to school. Have fun petting unicorns, or whatever you do at Hudol”

“Try not to die in the first day of school Riz”, she said and there was a sincerity in her voice.

As sad as it sounded, however mean she was, Aelwyn Abernant was the closest thing he had for a friend the last few years. They were just two teenagers, not so subtly manipulated by forces beyond their control, both pretending they were in control. It helped to be honest and open with someone, even if that someone was a stuck up, rich, high elf.

Riz would have still killed her, if Kalina ordered him to, but he’d like to think that he’d hesitate a bit.

~~

He arrived moments before a tall half elf decided from seemingly out of nowhere out of nowhere to approach and punch another student. Then the jerk announced himself as Fabian Aramaias Seacaster and proclaimed his alpha male dominance, or whatever.

“What. The. Actual. Hell”, whispered Riz to himself. A small blonde elf, holding a giant orb in her arms, nodded emphatically.

The other guy, a huge half orc (was he holding a tin foiled flower?), while he hardly seemed injured, was close to tears. Riz barely had time to scoot out of the way, before the half orc, half crying, half raging attacked Fabian.

Riz felt extreme satisfaction seeing his fist collide with the asshole’s stomach. The half elf’s face twisted into a grimace of pain. Nice. The elf beside him started shaking. If she couldn’t handle a little bit of violence, it was dubious if she would’ve survived the whole year here.

Before this had time to evolve into a full-blown fight, a red Dragonborn interfered separating the two students, and lifting them up by their shirts.

Oh. So this is Kalvaxus.

No dragonborn, no matter how strong could easily lift up a half orc with one hand and a half elf on the other. Some of his dragon strength, was seeping out of his flesh prison.

Kalvaxus scoured the crowd, no wonder for any other troublemakers, and Riz made sure to blend in with the other students. His eyes passed him without pausing, and Riz softly released the breath he was holding. There was no reason for Kalvaxus (or rather Vice Principal Goldenhoard) to suspect that the Shadow Cat had sent a spy to make sure that he wouldn’t betray her. Riz knew that, but it was in his nature to be overly careful. He remained hidden until Goldenhoard gave the two boys the first detention of the new school year, and left.

~~

There was no way Riz was gonna search for his teacher. The fact that their first lesson was to locate a master rogue hidden somewhere in the school grounds, presented him the perfect opportunity to explore the building. He had already met Penelope Everpetal and Dayne [], trying to reinstate the prom king and queen, like they were supposed to, and he has caught glimpse of Coach Daybreak, a member of the Harvestmen in the school. Penelope was hanging out with a water genasi, who he heard called Sam, which probably meant she was a potential maiden.

Just like Penny.

He’d like to say that everything was going smoothly, like a well-oiled clock, but there were too many pieces on the board to make such a bold statement.

Before he knew it, his legs took him in front of a door with the golden inscription; “Principal’s office”, and under that with smaller cursive letters; “Here to help and for hot gossip”

The door was locked. He ought to leave. Attention was the last thing he wanted. But. The crown was in there. He was working for Kalina for the last five years, and that damn crown, the thing they were working towards all this time, was just behind a door.

He really ought to leave.

It was idiocity. Pure recklessness. He knew he couldn’t take it here and there, there should be abjuration spells and traps aplenty protecting it. But he just wanted to steal a glimpse of that infamous artifact, that had pretty much ruined his life.

He took his thief tools, and quickly set himself to work, being ready to bold the second he heard someone heading his way. It was quite a simple lock, and it didn’t take him long before he heard a soft click and the door swung open.

The problem became immediately apparent.

Vice Principal Goldenhoard was standing behind the door.

They stared at each other for two seconds in perfect silence.

“IMMEDIATE DETENTION”, Goldenhoard roared.

“Uh..”, Riz stuttered his mind racing to find an excuse, “I was looking for my rogue professor? I-I was told that we had to find him?”

He tried to make himself look smaller, a quite easy feat since he was hardly four feet tall.

“Young man, it is quite obvious that your professor wouldn’t hide in the principal’s office and especially in a locked room, since you hadn’t had your lockpicking lessons yet”

“Oh. I didn’t know that”

He didn’t bother to ask why Goldenhoard was alone in the Principal’s office with the door locked.

“I am afraid I have to give you detention. What’s your name, young student?”

The thought to lie or run away briefly passed his mind, but he quickly rejected that.

“I am Riz. Riz Gukgak”

Goldenhoard raised his eyebrow but didn’t show any reaction that he recognised him.

Thank Sol.

He passed him a red slip and more or less kicked him out of the office.

What the hell possessed me to do something so reckless?

The hallway was empty save from one tiefling carrying a bass guitar. She saw him pocketing the red detention slip.

“Whoop! You got detention too? Same!”, she showed him an identical piece of paper and waved it enthusiastically, “We are way too badass! The school doesn’t know how to handle us. The whole educational system is flawed to begin with. What did they caught you doing?”

Why the hell is she talking to me?

The last thing he needed was a tiefling troublemaker trying to befriend him.

He gave her a small, shy smile, like he practised in the mirror, and fumbled the briefcase with his hands to appear embarrassed.

“I accidentally walked into the wrong room”

“Really? They gave you detention for that? This shit is fucked. Was it Goldenrod? It’s so great to make fun of that guy. I can go steal his lunch for you. I am Fig by the way. Forgot to say that”

“Uh, I am Riz? Please don’t steal his lunch. I am gonna leave. I have to find my teacher” He tried to walk away, hoping she would leave him alone.

“You are going back to class? I don’t think I am gonna do that. I studying to become a bard. I mean- no, I am not studying it, you can’t learn how to be a bard in a classroom. I am looking for real life experience for my music. You write music from the pain. Whether it is love, or health, or family”, she paused and her lip trembled “… or family”

“Um, is everything okay back home?”

She took a breath.

“I know we know each other only for a few minutes and you have probably already idolised me-”

“I-what?”

“-and you probably think I am this gorgeous punk rock person with no problems, but in reality, I am hiding a lot of pain behind my facade”

This time his stutter wasn’t fake.

“D-do you- do you want to talk about it?”

Her eyes lightened up with his question and Riz wasn’t prepared for the wave of words that crushed into him. About how she thought she was a normal wood elf, until her horns started growing last year, and how her dad was not her real dad, and how her mum and Gilear(“that is my fake dad”) got divorced, and how-

“Wait, so you are searching for your real dad?”, Riz asked tried to make sense of the information. He abandoned the idea to run away minutes ago, and could just hope that this torture would end quickly.

“Exactly”, she nodded, “my mother refuses to tell me anything, which obviously means that my dad is some really powerful and bad demon. He probably tortures bad souls in hell with fire, or… acid, or whatever there is in hell. And you know that I gotta find him, because it is really important for an impressionate teen like me to have a father figure to guide me. And inspire me. And probably be in a band with me. You know?”

“I guess? I mean I don’t, my dad died when I was nine”

Fig stopped in her tracks, and seemed to regret everything.

Nice. Now please go away.

“That is hard dude. But I think your honesty about this is pretty brave”

Motherfuck-

“So, what do you do Riz? No offense, but you don’t look the barbarian type. Can you do any magic?”

“Nope”, Riz lied through his teeth, “I am a rogue”

“This is awesome!”, she cried. “Dude, we can be the best duo! I can play my bass and entrance everyone, and you can do your sneaky stuff, while everyone looks away! We will be the baddest, more efficient team”

Nope. This was too much. He was supposed to blend in, but there was no way he would actually join a merry go lucky team. This was way too much socialising for today.

“I think I have to go. I hope you find your dad. Uh. Bye”

Fig frowned a bit.

“We have time to figure it out. And we’ll probably gonna need someone to heal us in case we have to fight a group of mobsters or something. See ya later”

He thought he got rid of her. But, he forgot they had detention together.

 She also somehow found all the freshmen that got detention that day and collected them all on the same table.

Apart from Fig and him, there were the two boys that got into a fight this morning, as well as the small elf girl that was sitting next to him.

He could feel someone’s eyes staring at him. As discreetly as possible he turned his head, to see a ginger human girl staring intensely at the table, before she turned to talk to Coach Daybreak in a hushed voice.

Oh fuck. Who the hell is she?

A few seconds later the coach loudly declared that the girl, called Kristen Applebees, got detention, for… bearing false witness?

The girl withered and wailed dramatically, before practically running at their table.

“Hey guys”, she smiled, not a sign of sadness or distraught on her eyes. She was grasping a small leather-bound bible close to her chest.

Did she lie to get detention? For what? To look cool or whatever? How desparate.

Then the whole table started explaining the reason they were here, and Riz sunk in his seat. He didn’t bother to engage in the discussion. They were in different classes and he didn’t expect that he would encounter them mu-

“I am Adaine Abernant”

Holy shit!

“And I stole a stupid book because my stupid sister told me so, and it was a horrible idea, why did I listen to her?”

Holy fuck! Kalina are you watching this?

Aelwyn’s sister was the Elven Oracle? This was huge.

Before he had time to collect his thoughts, a hulking half-orc in a letterman jacket grabbed Kristen’s bible and threw it in the tuna surprise.

Why is everyone in this school a freaking asshole?

~~

Later, while every other freshman gathered in the field behind the school to form their own adventuring parties, the six of them headed to detention despite Adaine’s fairly logical protests.

“How are we expected to succeed a school, all about teamwork and creating groups that help each other survive, when we are missing the most crucial part because of detention?”

“We can form our own adventuring party. Maybe Helio led us all together at this specific place and time for us to meet and become friends”

Kristen looked the happiest out of all of them to be there.

“Thank you, but no. Just no. I mean look at you”, Fabian said with his posh voice and gestured with his hand at the group. “No offence, I am sure you are all great people, but my party simply needs the very best. I intend to be a great adventurer and I need strong, powerful subordinates to follow my lead into battle”

A beat of silence.

“Yeah, I also don’t want to be with him”, Gorgug said.

“Yeah, you suck”, Fig said and the rest of them vocally agreed.

“Let’s do an adventuring party without him”, Adaine suggested with a deadpan look on her face.

Riz ignored their laughter and slipped from the group, rolling his eyes. Hopefully, now that the tiefling was bonding with other people, she’d leave him alone.

~~

Detention was awful. Being in an adventuring academy, Riz expected to have to do some kind of strenuous physical activity, like fighting or… yeah fighting, he expected fighting.

Instead Mr. Gibbins tried to prompt them to talk about their feelings. Riz had spent years ignoring and surpressing any unwanted feelings, he wasn’t going to suddenly reveal them to a teacher with a patronising voice. He debated sneaking away in the shadows, a tricky thing to do in the middle of a well-lit classroom, but he was desparate.

He could go and find Aelwyn. Interrogate her about her sister. He could track Dayne and Penelope and see if they were hiding anything. Make contact with Biz, and learn a little bit more about the whole palimpsest business.

He could go home, clean it up a bit. Cook dinner for his mum, so they could have a nice night and celebrate his first day of high school. He could lie and say he found tons of friends.

And then there was a scream.

The shrill scream echoed through the halls. Instinctively he grabbed his desk, his claws digging into the wood, and he bared his teeth.

What was that?

The sound was coming from the cafeteria.

Fig immediately jumped on her feet.

“Doreen!”, she yelled and ran for the exit. The others grabbed their weapons and joined her, as the counsellor plead for them to return to their seats.

Riz was pretty sure that this wasn’t supposed to happen. He eyed the windows and considered jumping out of one and fleeing away.

“Riz, dude! Let’s go!” Fig gestured with a panicked look in her eyes. He sighted. This is why he didn’t talk to people.

“Yeah. I am coming”

And thus Riz Gukgak’s freshman year in Augefort Adventuring Academy began.

Chapter Text

The cafeteria was a fucking mess. The lunch lady was possessed, there was a giant corn ooze monster, and some weird kind of corn gremlins were screeching and running around.

Kalina, can you please come and explain what the hell I am supposed to do with all this?

Kalina didn’t appear.

“Okay”, he whispered to himself. “I guess we are figuring this out on our own”

“Hey, you! Corn girl!”, Fabian called out to Kristen. “Is today like, a corn holiday or something? Are they like, friendly mascots?”

Kristen was gripping her stuff with both hands close to her chest, and was slightly shivering.

“I don’t know what this is. Helio is pure and good. He creates and brings warmth and beauty in this world. Those things. They are like a twisted imitation. A dark reflection that mocks everything Helio stands for and brings darkness in its wake, corrupting and destroyin-”

“A simple no would suffice!”, Fabian curtly interrupted. “I am attacking them”

He gracefully ran to the closest corn gremlin, leapt in the air… and then faceplanted on the ground.

Riz cringed.

This is gonna be a bloodbath.

He was right.

He reached out to the shadows of the side of the cafeteria, and they responded, completely encapsulating him in a cocoon of darkness and a hint of magic.

He was unsure of which side he was supposed to fight for. So it was better for him not to fight at all.

It was brutal. While the kids were fighting well, they were completely surrounded. Whenever one corn gremlin fell, another one seemed to appear in its stead.

Then Fig fell. An attack from Doreen hit her directly in the chest, and she fell, her bass guitar spiralling away from her limp hands.

She didn’t get back up.

A ping of guilt in his chest. He remained still.

Doreen then turned to face the ginger girl, Kristen. He saw Kristen closing her eyes, her mouth moving in a silent prayer.

He expected her to fall like Fig. She didn’t.

Golden energy surrounded her originating from her staff and exploded, pushing the cafeteria lady several feet back. Tables were blown away, corn cuties eradicated. And in the middle of the chaos, the human girl was standing, shaken but alive, eyes glowing with divine power.

Riz felt a paw on his shoulder.

“So this is Kristen Applebees”, Kalina purred.

“Where were you? What I am supposed to do?” he whispered.

“Oh Riz, I thought you were good at doing things on your own. You went to look for the crown without consulting me first, so I figured you were quite independent, kiddo.”

Fuck, she knew about that.

“You can lecture me later. What do I do now?”, he hissed urgency seeping in his words.

Her eyes glistened in the shadows of the cafeteria.

“The ooze abomination is animated by a parchment inside its abdomen. Destroy it, and the possession will cease.”

“Got it.”

He concentrated and a chill went through him as his eyes lightened up with magic. He stared at the giant abomination. Right there, at the centre of his stomach, he saw a small, crumbled aura, glowing with infernal arcane.

He aimed and shot the ooze monster, directly at the aura. Like always, his aim was true, but the bullet came to a halt as it reached the monster’s surface, before being slowly, harmlessly absorbed.

I have to get closer.

He sprinted out of the shadows, running past the gremlins, barely dodging the attacks. They were too many, but he couldn’t let that stop him.

He could bear a few attacks.

Claws were digging at his ribs. He tried to shake them off , but one stubborn gremlin persisted his hold. Blood started to trickle down his side and wet his suit.

C’mon, I don’t have time for this.

This was my dad’s suit.

He aimed the gremlin with the gun, but before he had time to pull the trigger, an axe sliced its head clean off.

“Go!”, screamed Gorgug.

The half-orc was teary-eyed, and looked seriously injured. His shoulder was matted in blood, and his arms were littered with scars.

“Go! I’ll hold them off!”, he repeated and with a yell attacked another corn gremlin.

Riz didn’t need any more reminders.

He ran towards Fabian.

“Fabian! I need you to slice the ooze monster.”

“That’s. What. I Am. Trying to do! Where were you?”, the half-elf replied between laboured breaths, slashing wildly to keep the corn gremlins at bay.

“There is a core inside of it, that keeps it animated. I need to shoot it. Can you slice it?”

Fabian sighed and plastered a winning smile on his face.

“Of course I can”, he said with a confident voice. His legs were shaking.

He charged with a grace that surprised Riz, jumping over the gremlins, and with a precise movement of his arm, a large cut appeared on the stomach of the ooze abomination.

It was too shallow.

“I can’t see it!”, Riz yelled, shooting a gremlin through the eye, “You have to cut deeper!”

Fabian cursed but complied. He attacked the same spot, but the monster was prepared this time. With a giant arm, it grabbed Fabian from his letterman jacket as he stabbed it and hurled him across the cafeteria.

But that was enough. Moving inside the hot, slimy insides of the ooze, there was the corner of a parchment. The runes were glowing a bright red.

Riz heard the elven oracle scream. He heard a heavy body fall on the ground, the sound of a great axe landing next to it.

He ignored them all. He shot and he knew that the bullet would hit its target before he even pulled the trigger.

Two seconds later the ooze monster was no more. Riz smiled at the satisfaction of a job well done. Then he looked to inspect the damage.

The cafeteria was ruined. Tables were turned upside down and broken, and tuna surprise was stuck on the ceiling and walls.

The elven oracle was the only other conscious person in the room. She seemed to be in the middle of a panic attack, but Riz had no time for that.

The tiefling, Fig, was still unconscious but okay. She was gonna live to annoy him another day.

Fabian was alive but heavily bleeding. Riz didn’t know any healing spells, he had no use for them, but at that moment he wished Kalina taught him even a basic one. Instead he tore the leg of his pants, and tried to stop the flow as best as he could. That would do for now.

The human cleric was dead. There was nothing he could do about that. He didn’t see her die, but her neck was broken, and her misty eyes stared into nothingness.

This was irritating. Kalina seemed to think she was important. He was the one who had to deal with the fallout.

Adaine was hovering over Gorgug, trying to stabilise him. He was long gone, probably due to the dozen cuts all over his body.

Riz caught a glimpse of something shining picking out of Gorgug's pocket. A flower made out of tin foil. For the first time, he observed the complexity of its design, and the delicacy of its petals.

Whatever. It was stupid of the half orc to engage with so many enemies at once. If he knew what was best of him, he’d use his axe to break a window and run away. Or never follow the scream to begin with. Or not try to defend a person he didn’t even know. Honestly he deserved to die for all his stupidity. Whatever.

He wished he knew how to revivify people.

“We have to go get help”, the elven oracle said. She was weeping but she stood up, determination clear on her face.

Riz nodded. Which was a mistake. Because running out of the cafeteria to find someone, led to a phoenix egg, a murder-suicide, and a ton of trouble.

Death will exact its price. A life for a life, eh Mister Gibbons?

While everyone was springing back to life, and Riz’s wounds healed, he ran away, out of the cafeteria. He narrowly avoided Kalvaxus nearing the room, by quickly jumping into an open locker.

He ran outside. Police sirens were ringing. His mom was probably going to be here as well. He’d better be as far away from the crime scene as possible.

He stopped running when he reached the parking lot. It was deserted, all students had already left. He took a deep breath. He stayed there for a while, just trying to collect himself. 

“Riz!”

It was Fig. Who else? The other four students from detention were following her.

“Are you OK? I didn’t see you when I woke up. Adaine said you ran away”

Adaine nodded, piercing him with a cool stare.

“I am fine”, he replied, perplexed by her concern. “I just had to get out”

Can’t they just leave me alone?

“Something fishy is happening in the school”, Fabian pipped in. “What the actual fuck happened in the cafeteria? Now Augeford is gone, my clothes are ruined, and I guess the faculty is involved in this whole shitshow?”

“We have to figure out what is going on”, said Kristen. “The principal trusted us to solve this. We have to bond together. It was Helio’s will that we met. Or maybe not. But still it is our duty, to avenge their death”

What.

Everyone nodded emphatically.

“Wait, hold on”, Riz tried to interject.

“It might also be connected to the missing girls”, Fig said.

Riz’s hand curled into a fist.

“The missing girls?”, asked Gorgug. 

Shut up. Just shut up already.

“Yeah, haven’t you heard? Five girls have gone missing so far. All from this school."

"Oh yeah, everyone says they got mur-"

"I am not gonna help you", Riz blurted out. 

Everyone stared at him. 

He hated being the center of attention.

He took a deep breath to focus. 

"First of all we are not gonna figure out anything. We are freshmen. Just because a madman recruited us, doesn’t mean that we are qualified to avenge him. I am not going to get involved in all this  bullshit. No. No way. I am not interested in this party or friendship or whatever. I am certainly not interested in solving the mystery and risking my life. Again. So, bye."

Before they could say anything else, he stomped away.

He started walking home and kicked a pebble on the road.

Like hell I am gonna help those idiots solve a case, I helped create. 

Hopefully he'd never interact with them again. He definitely could avoid them for the rest of the year.

Now, if he could just get some peace and qui-

“Hey, kiddo.”

For Sol’s sake!

“Kalina. What happened?”

The black Tabaxi was leaning against a tree. Or rather, appeared to be leaning since she wasn’t corporeal to begin with.

“One of Daybreak’s pawns fucked up. This wasn’t meant to happen. Thankfully, you were there to save the day”

“Go me.”, he said unenthusiastically. “What do I do now? I found the oracle, and the principal is dead. Also the counsellor but I don’t th-”

“Say, Riz”, Kalina interrupted. “What do you think of the students you were in detention with?”

“T-the freshmen?”

She nodded.

“They are annoying. They might have talent, but they waste it by goofing around. They know nothing of strategic tactics, or how to handle themselves in battle and if it weren’t for the cleric’s god, they would all be dead.”

Kalina sat thoughtful for a moment.

“Hmm”, she purred, “Yes, but they can surely be proved beneficial”

Fuck.

“What?”, he asked curly, dreading the answer.

“Our goal is to keep the new Elven Oracle alive. At least for now. She can surely be proven useful to our elven benefactors. Being in their adventuring party gives you the perfect position to keep an eye on her. Keep her safe.”

“You want me to join their group? Their group?

“I think it would be a splendid idea. Let’s be real kid, you need some socialising” 

He was burning from the inside out. His nails dug into his palm. Hell no.

“So what? I will be the oracle’s guardian angel behind her back? Should I also leave dollar bills in her pockets and clean her room? I can do that from afar. Kalina, you know I am a rogue, I work best in the shadows”, he pleaded.

“Riz, Riz, Riz”, she tutted, “ you are not only a rogue, you are my little warlock as well. You are extraordinary.  Look at the big picture. This party brims with potential, I know you see it. Other than Miss Adaine, there is Seacaster’s son. If the affection between father and son goes both ways, he is great blackmail material. Kristen Applebees is still needed for the Perditional Contradoxy-”

“I don’t even know what that mea-”, shouted Riz.

“-and that half orc is plenty strong, but stupid as a brick. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice how useful he would be if steered in the right direction”

He had noticed that. Kalina was right and he hated her for that. And she was always looking for new pawns. But something was still afoot.

“You know that they are trying to find out what is happening in this school. About the maidens, about Kalvaxus. Are you seriously asking me to help them against your allies? What is your plan?”

“Kalvaxus is powerful”, she said, giving emphasis to each word, like she was talking to a little kid. “But too arrogant, too close minded. The moment he gets what he wants he will probably betray us. We can’t have that. He is a useful ally, I will admit that, but he is gonna be an obstacle in the future. And we can’t have any obstacles in our way if we want to revive our God. So the moment we’ll get the crown, well. He is more trouble than worth. He has to go.”

“And they are gonna be the ones to kill him? Kalina, this is insanity. They couldn’t jump over a few tables, for Sol’s sake! Two of them actually died. There is no way they can defeat a fucking dragon”

“Of course they can’t. But they don’t need to. Kalvaxus is not going to go down in an upfront battle. We will have to surprise him, stab him in the back. No, those plucky, young heroes can be a nice distraction though. And even if they die, there is no connection to us.”

“You are gonna sacrifice them, so you can keep Kalvaxus attention away from you?”

That definitely sounded like something Kalina would do. 

“Yes. But I need you to make sure they follow the clues and that they’ll find the right ones. I need you to guide them.”

This made sense, which was horrible news for Riz.

“Still, pretending that I am one of them, helping them solve the conspiracy, is incredibly risky. Adaine is the Elven Oracle, for Sol’s sake! She will find out that I am working for you. It is a suicide mission!”

Kalina smiled, her tail moving playfully behind her.

“That’s why you have to blend in, Riz. So they won’t even suspect you. And in case things go bad, well…” She gestured at his gun. “I know you can take care of yourself.”

He sighed in exasperation.

“Why me? Why not Biz, or Penelope, or even Aelwyn?”

“Don’t be stupid Riz. Kalvaxus knows about them. Not about you. You are smart, you are talented. Don’t tell me you are not up for a little challenge”

There was an underlying threat in her words.

We can’t have any obstacles in our way.

“Alright. I will help them find about Kalvaxus”

“Excellent. And remember; You can do great things. I am keeping an eye on you kiddo”

With that she disappeared. 

But Riz felt he was being watched, the whole journey back home.

Tomorrow he’d go to those morons and ask them to join their group. Tomorrow he’d try to lead them. Johnny Spells was the obvious target to follow. He’d tell them tomorrow. Tomorrow. 

~~

Riz's job was often lethal. He mostly prefered to stay out of sight and snoop around for information for Kalina. But he'd also had his fair share of assassinations. 

To calm himself at night, he often imagines fight scenarios, calculating his enemies weaknesses, finding the best way to deal the killing blow. This night is no different.

First of all the cleric has to go. It should happen immediately, a gunshot on the back of her head, no time to ask help for her god. 

Then the oracle. She doesn't seem powerful, but she was the one that killed the lunch lady. A quick shot as she is panicking, before she can cast any spells. 

The tiefling was weak, but she could do ranged attacks with her bass. Cut the strings, as soon as possible, maybe even before the battle. Cut the throat before she can speak.

The other two can't do magic. Easy to kill. Cast dissonant whispers on the shy half-orc. Tell him about how he will never fit in, how he can never belong as the monster he is. Watch him die, right there, not a wound on sight, as his brain collapses.

Shoot the half-elf. From a distance. Three times in the chest to make sure he stays down.

Riz, like all Gukgaks, is a survivor. No matter what, he will survive this year.

Chapter Text

“Hey, kiddo! You must be Riz. I remember you from when you were a baby. You are all grown up now.”

“...”

“What, are you shy?”

“Are you mum’s friend? If you are looking for mum, she is still at the office”  

“Oh no no no. I was a friend of your dad. We were partners, actually”

“Oh. He is dead. He died two weeks ago.”

“I know, kid. Your dad was great. One of the best secret agents I have ever known. His murder is a terrible loss for our agency”

“Dad wa- dad was not a secret agent. He died because he was sick”

“What? Did your mum not tell you that he was a spy? I wonder why she hid that from you. What did you think was your dad’s job?”

“A boring, grown-up one. With paperwork! And.. taxes?”

“Hm, you sound like a smart kid. You gotta know that this doesn’t hold up. No, your dad was a spy. One of the best. He fought bad guys, and saved a lot of people’s lives”

“For real?”

“Of course kid! And guess what? He wanted you to follow in his footsteps. He believed you could become a great spy, a real superhero! Don’t look so surprised, your dad knew you had talent”

“But, am I not too young?”

“How old are you, Riz?”

“Nine and a half”

“That is a bit young and the job is dangerous, but you sure seem mature for your age. And you want to help people, the same way your dad did, right?”

“Yes! But I have to ask mum first”

“Hm, I don’t think you should do that. Your mum didn’t tell you about your dad, did she?”

“No, but-”

“She must think you are too young, too stupid”

“I am not stupid!”

“I never said you were. I am sure she means well, but your mum will only try to stop you. Riz, you have to promise me you are not gonna tell your mum. This is the first rule of the secret agency; never reveal you are a spy. This is very important. Can you do it?”

“I- I don’t know”

“Look, kid. I am an adult and your dad’s partner. You can trust me. This is unless… you don’t want to be a spy. I understand it, it is very dangerous. You would greatly disappoint your dad, he always wanted you to join, but if you are not ready-”

“No! No, I am ready. I won’t tell mum”

“Great! So, it’s settled. Any questions?”

“You never told me your name. Oh! Is it a secret? Do you have a fake name?”

“Oh, how silly of me. I forgot to introduce myself. It’s not a secret, don’t worry. My name is Kalina, partner”

“Cool!”

“Yeah, it is cool. Hey Riz, do you want to learn to do some magic?”

~~

It was almost too easy to re-enter the party.

The next morning, he approached the group that was huddled away at the back of the courtyard. He decided to be brief and direct.

“I changed my mind. I am back in. I also have a clue.”

Everyone, especially Fig, welcomed him back with open arms. The elven oracle raised her eyebrows as if confused about his decision to come back to this wreckage of a group.

Like I had much of a choice.

As he predicted, the other freshmen didn’t have a single clue from where to begin searching, so Johnny Spells was the obvious lead.

“Alright”, he stated in a hushed voice. “Let us establish some rules. We are a team now. We have to solve a case that puzzles even the police, so we need to be professional. No goofing around. No jumping on tables. People are missing. People are dead . Some of you were dead not even 24 hours ago. We have to be serious. We have to be careful. Because if we are not, we are going to die, and there is no other Phoenix Egg to bring us back. Got it?”

He had practised the speech before a mirror the previous day. If he had to train a bunch of morons to be competent enough to fight a dragon, he might as well do it right. 

The others listened with rapt attention as he spoke. About the measly information he had on Johnny Spells, about the missing girls, about a plan to meet at the end of the school day to find Spells and confront him at his base. And as the bell rang he organised a meeting at lunchtime, to form a battle plan.

He noticed the half-orc gulping. That wasn’t important.

Until Gorgug didn’t appear to join the group at lunch.

 

~~

Gorgug Thistlespring was sitting in the Barbarian Classroom. His fingers were tapping on the desk on the rhythm of the music coming from his headphones. Some kind of metal. Riz didn’t recognise it.

He didn’t care. He ripped the headphones from the orc’s ears in a swift move.

“Hey!”, Gorgug complained.

“Where were you?” Riz scolded him. He had run and searched the whole academy to find him. “We were supposed to detail our plan during lunch. Which is now!”

“I quit.”

“You quit?” Gorgug didn’t meet his eyes. “Why the fuck do you quit?”

“You quit yesterday. Why can’t I quit now?”

Riz scoffed.

“I was out, now I am back in. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have to find Johnny Spells, and probably fight him, and you, the brute force of the group, are acting like a fucking coward.”

“Well, maybe I am not such a good brute after all”, the half-orc mumbled, so silently Riz almost didn’t hear.

He still wasn’t meeting his eyes.

Okay, Riz. Diplomacy. Compassion. You got this.

“Okay, so walk me through this. What is the problem?”, he asked, softening his voice.

Gorgug looked at him for a second before he yanked at his hair in despair.

“I am stupid. I am gonna fail barbarian class! Even Fig is better than me, and she isn’t even an official student! I cannot help you save the girls! I will mess it up!”

Riz sighted.

“Gorgug, how difficult can it be? You hit things. And then you hit them again until they fall down-”

“It’s not like that! I have to rage, I have t-to get to a certain ‘headspace’, and I can’t do that! Mister Porter says that I’ve got to use my anger, but when I do that, I feel bad, really bad, afterwards. And I know it is simple, but I can’t rage on command! Urgh! I am so stupid!”

Are you serious? This is your problem? How stupidly pathetic.

No matter how much Riz wanted to just walk away, he couldn’t lose Gorgug from the adventuring party. He was the main melee force of the team, excluding freaking rich boy.

No, Gorgug had to come with them.

This self-pity won’t get us anywhere.

“Okay. I am gonna help you”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. We are gonna train together, you are gonna find your ‘inner strength’ and all that, and by the end of the day you will be a natural.” He carefully set his briefcase on a nearby desk. He removed his newsboy cap and set it on top of it. No point getting it ruined. “Let’s do this.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah dude, we gotta find Johnny Spells. No time to waste. Attack me.”

“What?”

“Come on! Hit me.” He raised his arms impatiently. “Punch me!”

“But. You are tiny.”

The half-orc looked absolutely mortified.

“I can take it”, Riz rolled his eyes. “Just think about something that makes you mad and attack me. Easy-peasy!”

Gorgug gave him a nervous smile, its corner twitching. He took a step back. He lifted his fist. And attacked. Despite himself, Riz closed his eyes and braced himself.

This shit is gonna hurt.

And then.

The hit never came.

“Dude, what the hell! Are you even taking this seriously?”

Gorgug’s fist had stopped just a couple of inches off Riz’s chest.

“I can’t just hit you?”

“Why not? I gave you my consent, I told you I was gonna train you, but you gotta put in the work! Use your brain!”

“But you are my friend. I don’t want to hit you”

We met yesterday. Grow up.

“Can’t you give me some tips or something? An inspirational speech?”, Gorgug asked meekly.

“Do I look like the kind of person who would give inspirational speeches?”, Riz screeched.

Okay. Be calm. Be understanding.

“What would make you attack me?”

“I don’t know”

Never mind then. New plan.

“Of course you don’t! You can’t think at all! You are useless”

Gorgug shifted on his feet and looked downwards.

“Uh, I- I-”

“You couldn’t even stay alive yesterday! You died, and because you died, Augefort, the only person who could tell us what is going on, is dead !”

Gorgug wrapped his arms around himself and stepped back. He looked like he was about to throw up.

“The barbarian is the stupidest class there is, but somehow you manage to be that much of a fucking dumbass that you fail that. It is a fucking joke. I bet your fake parents are really proud of you.”

“H-hey don’t-”

Riz took another step, fully invading Gorgug’s personal space. He poked the half-orc’s chest with his finger, eyes blazing, intonating each word.

“You are the reason Augefort died! We are in this mess, only because of your fucking stupidity. Maybe you should have been the one that stayed dea- ”

“STOP!”, Gorgug roared. He pushed Riz back, but not harsh enough to throw him off his feet. He was out of breath. “Stop! Please, this isn’t helping! Stop trying to provoke me!”

Riz took a step back.

You noticed?”

He wasn’t supposed to. He was meant to hit him, get the rage thing under control and be done with this stupid lesson. He was a half-orc and a barbarian. That was the stupidest combination there was. It shouldn’t be possible for Gorgug to detect emotional manipulation, no matter how unsubtle it was.

Fuck.

“Sorry”, Riz said, shrugging his shoulders in an apology. “I guess I thought this would make you mad. Obviously, it didn’t work”

“I got mad! But hitting you wouldn't make me feel better. I still don’t want to hurt you.”

Gorgug started singing a song under his breath while hugging himself.

I utterly fucked up.

“Well, I can attack you if that makes it easier”, Riz half-heartedly suggested.

“Please don’t”

“Okay, I won’t. But I am out of ideas.” He rested his back against the wall of the classroom. “Uhm. I am truly sorry about all I said earlier. It was way out of line.”

“No, don’t apologise”, Gorgug interjected. “I-I am so, so sorry. It’s just- you a-and Fig and-”

He mumbled something under his breath, trying to find the right words.

“Riz, you are so competent. In just one day, you found a lead, you’ve got theories, you handled yourself in battle. You are awesome a-and there are some girls missing. This is just too serious. I-I can’t do this. If I can’t be a barbarian if I can’t understand my rage, h-how, how can I save anyone? How can I protect my party? How c-can I-I-”

“I knew one of the missing girls”, Riz blurted out, his face immediately scrunching up in regret.

Gorgug stopped. His eyes wide open.

“Penny Luckstone. She was my old babysitter. She was my only friend. The best rogue I have ever known. She was clever and witty, and brave and kind.” Words wouldn’t stop falling out of his mouth. Had someone cast Zone of Truth?

“One day she just disappeared.”

Images flashed behind his eyes.

Penny teaching him how to pick a lock.

Penny watching a trashy detective show with him, struggling to identify the murderer.

Penny making him hot chocolate after another nightmare. Not pushing him when he wouldn’t answer her questions, just staying here, one arm placed comfortingly over his shoulders.

Penny humming while putting a frozen pizza in the oven.

Penny ruffling his hair, before saying goodbye for the last time. 

Kalina’s eyes following her to the exit.

The ringing of the crystal later that night. Riz knowing in his bones what had happened, before his mum even answered.

“I couldn’t save her. I wasn’t strong enough, clever enough” His voice sounded strained in his ears.

Well, time to get back on track.

“I didn’t want to get involved in the whole conspiracy, because if she couldn’t escape her captors, what chance do I have to beat them? B-but now I realise that I might be her only chance. A-and this time, I am not alone. So I have to try, dude. For her”

He purposely didn’t meet Gorgug’s eyes. He slumped his shoulders. He made his voice tremble. And then he turned to leave.

“Anyways. Thank you, Gorgug. I am so sorry for bothering you. Don’t worry, I am not gonna bother you again”

He took a couple of steps.

“Wait”

Riz suppressed a sly smirk. He turned around, plastering a puzzled expression on his face.

Of course this dumbass took the bait.

Gorgug seized him only for a quick second before taking his decision.

“I will join the party. I might be dumb and not that brave. But I am strong. I will hit things. I-I wanna help you save your friend. Riz-”

His eyes were huge, and honest and hopeful, an open book waiting to be exploited for weaknesses.

“We are gonna do this. Together”, Gorgug ended.

“Yes. Together”, repeated Riz, his voice purposely choked. 

Mission accomplished.

“Okay! Now, let’s go back to the others! We still have time before the lunch break ends”

“One sec!” Gorgug opened his bag and after a few seconds of searching, his hand emerged holding a tin-foiled flower. The same one as yesterday.

“Wha-”, Riz stuttered.

“Here. You can have it. So you can give it to your friend once we find her”, Gorgug softly said, and gently placed the flower in Riz’s hand. 

“I- thank you. Thank you, Gorgug”

He knew he would never see Penny again. He knew she would be dead by the end of the year. By all means, he should’ve thrown this forsaken flower in the trash, the moment Gorgug looked away. 

Instead, he gingerly put it in his bag.

~~

Their fighting this time was thankfully far more successful than last time’s.

After the car chase, at the ice cream parlour, Riz found himself sitting close to the half-orc. It was the logical thing to do. He wanted to stay at the quiet side of the table, away from Fig and Fabian, who enjoyed being the centre of attention.

And if he enjoyed Gorgug’s company, oh well that was his secret to keep. Thankfully not even Kalina could read his thoughts.

He scooted closer to the half-orc and whispered.

“So. Did you find it? Your way to rage?”

“I am not sure yet”, the half-orc replied. Riz saw him observing the table. Fabian was ordering another round of ice cream for everyone, Fig was composing a song about their triumphant victory against the dancing tieflings, Kristen was helping the elven oracle to mend her clothes that had been torn up and bloodied during the fight. Finally, Gorgug’s gaze turned to Riz. “But I think I am figuring it out”

 ~~

That night, again like a ritual, Riz thought about how he would kill his party if the need arises. 

First, three shots at the head, to take out the magic users. He could shoot the half-elf from. Finally, dissonant whispers to take out the half-or- wait that won’t work! He wasn’t as stupid nor as susceptible to hateful words as he appeared. Better shoot him as well. 

The tin-foiled flower that sat on his bedside table, seemed to look at him disapprovingly. He hid it in his drawer.

Chapter Text

“Hey, hey kid!”

“Kalina!”

“Hush. Didn’t we say that spies are silent?”

“Mum is not here! I wanted to show you how much I improved. I can cast True Strike now!”

“That’s amazing kiddo. And just in time! I’ve got a job for you?”

“A job? Like a real spy job? Am I gonna have to fight someone? I betcha I can win”

“Slow down, sport. No, there won’t be any fighting involved, sorry to disappoint. But I want you to gather some intel”

“Intel?”

“Yeah, some useful super classified spy information. Are you up to the task?”

“Of course!”

“Alright, listen carefully. I want you to go to the precinct tomorrow. You know where your mom works, right?”

“Aha”

“Alright, so I want you to go there and say that you are visiting your mom. And I want you to find Detective Falun’s desk”

“Oh! I know Mr Falun! He is mom’s partner”

“So you already know our target. Good”

“But Mr Falun is good. He bought me chocolate once when he came to visi-”

“Riz, focus!”

“Sorry! Sorry!”

“Anyways, on his desk, there is a folder. It has “Project Aurelia” written on the cover. I need you to open that file and read what’s in there. Can you do it for me?”

“You don’t need me to steal it for you?”

“No, don’t worry. I just want you to open the folder and read what’s inside. Just that. Easy right?”

“And I am not gonna get in trouble?”

“You are gonna get in trouble only if you get caught. And real spies never get caught, right Riz?”

“Right!”

“Alright. Now show me your True Strike”

~~

Riz didn’t often take a moment to congratulate himself, but goddamn he outdid himself.

Kalina’s goal was to dismantle the school from the inside out and keep Kalvaxus’s attention away from them. That drug dealer werewolf was the perfect bait. Not only would he be completely incompetent at his job, but with the right moves, Riz would’ve gained a faculty member as the perfect pawn. 

“What did you say your name was?”

“Jawbone.”

The perfect plan indeed. 

~~

“Young lad!”, Bill Seacaster yelled. “What did you do during the fight?”

They were all sitting around the table in the Seacaster Manor, in various states of intoxication. Riz realised early on that outright refusing the alcohol wouldn’t put him in the Captain’s good graces, so he nurtured a glass of wine. He tried to take small sips, but being his first time trying anything alcoholic and due to his small body size, he found himself almost instantly buzzed.

“Uhm, I went and attacked the DJ” He tried to gather his thoughts “He seemed to be the one controlling that madness happening”

“Precisely!” the captain hit him so hard on the back, he started coughing up his wine. “A right rogue, always, always , goes for the kill. You are a sleek, sneaky little bastard, aren’t ya?”

“Uh yes sir? Yes I am”

Whatever. I am too drunk to care.

“You have the heart of a pirate! Always going towards the target, whether it’s gold, a lady, diamonds -”

“A freaking DJ zombie”, mumbled Adaine besides Riz, who giggled. 

I giggled? Damn, I should never drink alcohol again.

He still finished his drink. 

~~

Everything was starting to blur. Riz kind of liked the feeling. It was too tiring to always be on guard, always expecting danger to arise. The taste  of alcohol, while distasteful at first, now soothed him. He could just lay there on this couch, close his eyes and maybe drift awa-

“RIZ!”

A face. A ginger human girl. Kristen. She was cradling a bottle of wine.

“Riz, how drunk are you?” 

“So much. How about you?”

“Same!”

They started giggling at the same time.

This is fun.

“Riz, I kissed someone!”

“You did?”

“I kissed a girl! But don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret”

Normally Riz would file this away from blackmailing material, but right now he just found it hilarious.

“A secret? Who else knows?”

“You, me, Fig, Gorgug, Adaine, Randy the pirate that lives in a barrel, Fabian, Fabian’s dad, Gorgug, oh wait I already said Gorgug. Oh! And Tracker of course”

“Is Tracker the one you-”

“Yes! And I am in so much trouble, but she was so hot and if my parents find out they are gonna send me to harvest camp, where they’re gonna pray the gay away”

“Aha”

Kristen’s lips were moving, but her voice seemed to echo and change and come from miles away. Riz found himself drifting once again.

“Riz!”

“What?”

It was Kristen again, with her hand on his shoulder shaking him.

“Did you see me go down? Earlier, at the bar”

“Naw”

“But if you did, you’d help me, right?”

Riz tried to ignore the buzzing in his head. The grip on his shoulder strengthened.

“Why did you go after DJ Brains alone?”

Didn’t she hear him earlier on the table?

“I told you before. He seemed to be the one controlling the rage”, he slurred.

“But we are a team. We could’ve gone after him together.”

Riz scoffed despite himself. 

“I can handle myself. And because that was the fastest way of ending the battle”

Kristen looked at him with furrowed eyebrows.

“But you left me alone. Y-you left everyone alone”

“That makes no sense. How could’ve I le-”

“Shh. Don’t talk, now I talk” Her breath smelled like elven wine.

“Riz. Answer me this. I have a riddle. No- not a riddle, a question. Like the tr-, the trolley problem. If I was in danger and you knew it, would you still choose to go after your target or would you come to help me?”

The answer seemed obvious.

“The target. Anyday”

Kristen pouted. Riz just laughed at her face. He laughed and laughed.

I am sleepy. 

Kristen shook his shoulder once again.

“What? That’s not fair. Riz, if you were in danger I would save you. Even if- even if I had to fight those corn cuties again. I would save you”

Her sad face made him throw his head back and laugh. He was a rogue. Rogues work in the shadows. Everyone knew that. And he wasn’t supposed to help them that much. He wasn’t supposed to be friends with them.

But before he could explain himself to Kristen, another figure came along.

“Kristen, sweetie, common you drank way too much”

“Adaine! Riz is mean to me! And also I kissed a girl. Her name is-”

“Her name is Tracker, you told me not even ten minutes ago. Look, Fabian is gonna show you the kitchen. Let’s get you some water”

The elven oracle walked into his field of vision.

“Please tell me you are not as drunk as her”

“Fuck no.”

He giggled once again.

“Riz, tonight is the only time I’ve heard you laugh. Common, you gotta get some fresh air”

I don’t wanna stand up. I am comfortable here. 

Here, with Fig playing her bass, and with the pirates dancing, he felt more comfortable in his skin than he had in years.

However, he let himself be manhandled by Adaine as she made him stand up and walk out of the house.

“Kristen is mad at me”, he slurred. They walked through a ginormous garden, Adaine supporting Riz, as he tried to walk in a straight line.

“And why is that?”

“Because I am too good at my job”

“I am pretty sure she is not mad for that”

“She wants us all to be good ol’ friends and defeat the bad guys with the power of friendship and religion. How stupid”

“What’s so wrong with that?”, Adaine mumbled. “Would it be so horrible for us to be friends?”

Riz laughed. He laughed so much he started coughing. 

“It’s not that simple. Nothing is ever that simple. But yes, Adaine, becoming friends with you, with all of you, would be terrible”

Shiit, I shouldn’t have said that.

Even with all the fog in his brain, he had realised he screwed up.

Outside, under the light of the stars, he could see Adaine’s eyes glowing with divine power.

“You don’t trust us”

Her voice seemed to echo like it was coming from a deep well. It wasn’t a question, but a fact.

“And you shouldn’t trust me”, Riz said.

She cocked her head to the side.

“I am a good judge of character. I know my parents suck. I know my sister sucks. But you, Riz, you seem good.”

Wow, for an oracle, she sucks at character judgment. 

She looked at him and her blue eyes pierced into his soul.

“Riz, I don’t know what made you so distrustful of people. And it’s okay if you don’t trust any of us yet. But I trust you. And I wanna be good ol’ friends with you and defeat evil people with the power of friendship. You are not alone. Please remember that”

“Gods, I am too drunk for this”

She laughed, and he took notice of how beautiful and melodic her laugh was.

I don’t think I’ve heard her laugh out loud before today, either.

“Alright, let’s go find a place to sleep”

~~

That night, curled up on a couch, in the Seacaster Manor, still dizzy from the wine, he couldn’t think straight enough for his usual fight scenarios. 

He fell asleep the moment he closed his eyes.

~~

“Wakey wakey, kiddo” Kalina purred in his ear.

Riz groaned and put the pillow over his head.

“You know that won’t stop me from talking to you”, he heard the Tabaxi’s voice, clear as ever.

“I have a headache. Go away”, he mumbled.

“But we have so much to talk about! Your first time drinking alcohol! If only your dad was here for all those milestones”

“Urgh! Shut up!”

“Riz?”, Kristen mumbled, more asleep than awake. She was laying on a bare mattress, sandwiched between Gorgug and Adaine.

“It’s nothing. Go back to sleep, Kristen”

“Mhm”, she complied.

Riz tiptoed out of the room and into a giant kitchen, which was thankfully empty at the moment.

“What do you want Kalina? Gods, what time is it?”

“Around six in the morning”, Kalina provided. “See kiddo, you are always a surprise. I always thought you would be an angry drunk or dancing on the tables kind of drunk. Surely not a spill-all-your-secrets-after-a-few-sips kind of drunk”

“My head is killing me”, Riz replied surly. The memories from last night started coming back, and he wanted to slap his past self for his stupidity.

But.

“Didn’t ya hear?” He finally turned to face Kalina and offered her a sly smile. “The elven oracle trusts me.”

~~

“Can I sit here?”

Riz was sitting alone in the library, silently eating his lunch before Kristen freaking Applebees arrived to ruin his day. He nodded and motioned to the chair beside him.

The memory of their conversation from last night still laid heavy over their head, like a blanket.

He knew he had to patch things up. Not because of her hurt expression burnt into his brain. No, because Kalina asked him to. Just for that reason.

“I am sorry for last night”, he started.

“What for? You were right”

“What? I was?”

“It’s like you said. You are a rogue. It’s not your job to keep everyone alive. Your talents lie in stealth missions. If anything, it was my fault. I should’ve used my healing spells. Mister Seacaster was right”

That was great news. He had been absolved of all blame. Everything was okay. But something didn’t sit right with him.

“No”

“What do you mean no?”

“I had a talk with Adaine yesterday. It might not have been my job as a rogue to help you, but it was my job as a friend. I am sorry it took me so long to figure it out”

A second of silence. And then.

“Riz, can I hug you?”

“Oof, I guess”

Her arms flew around him. 

Nice. Problem solved.

He ignored the warm feeling inside him.

“Also I have a case for you” Kristen muttered.

“Is it the fact that you like girls?”

The groan that escaped her lips was confirmation enough.

“Because if so, yes, definitely. Case closed”, he snickered. 

Kristen punched him on the shoulder.

That warm feeling inside him remained for the rest of the day.

~~

They unknowingly enlisted Kalvaxus’s pawn Biz, as their hacker.

Even if they disliked him, they trusted him immediately.

Riz sighed.

My party is full of idiots.

~~

When Riz learned that the werewolf from the bar was hired as the new guidance counsellor, he made a plan.

Firstly he would go and relate with him over the fact that they’re species heavily discriminated against. With a subtle dissonant whispers spell, he could make the werewolf mad, and bring forward his hatred for the system. 

Secondly, he seemed like an addict. Riz had many sources where he could get all kinds of different illegal drugs. He could bait the werewolf and promise him things in exchange for valuable info. 

Lastly, common. How hard could that be? He didn’t look like the sharpest tool in the shed. 

He walked into his office with confidence. 

He left half an hour later, with a pamphlet on the consequences of drug abuse, and his head buzzing from a surprisingly insightful conversation on internalised racism. He left with the realisation that Jawbone wouldn’t be used as a pawn

“Fuck”, he said to himself and to the empty hallway, frustrated. “Kalina sure as hell won’t like tha-”

He took a turn and fell into someone with so much force he fell on the floor.

“Ow! Look where you goin- oh sorry Coach”

Coach Daybreak was standing in front of him. He stared at him for a couple of seconds and then smiled. That smile sent chills crawling on Riz’s back.

“Kalina, huh? I haven’t heard that name in a while”

Chapter Text

 

Riz’s chest was freezing and he felt the cold spreading to his limbs. His eyes immediately started looking for escape routes, but Coach Daybreak was blocking the way. 

He took a small step back. 

“I-I have no idea what you are talking about”

“Cut the act” Daybreak snapped at him so sharply that any excuses died before escaping Riz’s lips.

Kalina, help!

The Tabaxi was once again nowhere to be found when Riz needed her. Typical.

Daybreak inched closer, and Riz took another step back until his back hit the wall.

“So, you know Kalina, little goblin. Such an unusual acquaintance you have. It makes me wonder, do you know any other famous people? Perhaps any red dragons?”

Riz gulped. He knew he should say something but felt paralysed.

“So you do”, Daybreak continued. “Don’t worry kid, so do I. But. Strange thing. Kalvaxus never mentioned you”

“Perhaps, he didn’t think you should know”

Kalina, for Gods’ sake. Please.

Daybreak’s hand snatched Riz’s arm and squeezed hard enough to hurt.

“Are you sure about that, you sneaky piece of shit? Because if you are, you surely won’t have a problem with me mentioning you to the big boss”

Riz couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe.

Fight. Run.

His body was paralysed.

His silence spoke volumes. The grip on his arm grew tighter.

“Huh. So, Kalina has her own separate spies”

I can’t breathe. Please Kalina, help. 

Daybreak continued.

“But maybe you could be of us-”

“Excuse me, Mr Daybreak?”, a voice rung out.

Riz managed to turn his head to face Adaine, in her proper private school uniform, gently tapping Daybreak’s shoulder.

“Excuse me,” she repeated. “Mister Porter wanted to talk to Riz. About supplemental barbarian lessons”

Daybreak let his arm go, and Riz resisted the urge to cradle it close to his body. That would surely leave a bruise.

The Coach’s demeanour changed in a second.

“Alright, go along kiddos. But Riz! Can you please meet me at my office after school today? It’s quite urgent I am afraid, so don’t forget it”

“I-I won’t, Coach”, Riz plastered a shaky smile and let Adaine grab his hand and take him away.

I am fucked. I am completely fucked.

“Riz”

Daybreak is gonna tell Kalvaxus. I am gonna die. That dragon is gonna kill me.

“Riz, can you hear me?”

No, Kalina is gonna use one of her pawns to kill me first, so I don’t spill any info. Oh, gods, I fucked up.

“RIZ”

Someone was shaking him. Someone was touching him.

“Let me go!”, he desperately pushed the other person away.

“Hey, Riz, it’s me. It’s Adaine”

Oh yes. The oracle.

“Riz! Riz, look at me.  Can you breathe with me?”

What is even the point?

But he tried to comply. It took him a few attempts but he managed to inhale deeply and then exhale. He did it again and again until, while his terror didn’t fade away, he could put on a calm facade, for Adaine’s sake.

“Are you okay?”, she asked.

Fuck no.

Instead, he nodded.

“I told him a little white lie to get you away. I think you were having a panic attack”

“I don’t get panic attacks”, he said, his voice weak.

“What did he even tell you?”

“Doesn’t matter”

“Of course it fucking matters” Adaine looked at him with exasperation clear in her glare. “I get panic attacks all the time and I-”

“For the last time, Adaine! I don’t get panic attacks. Drop it!”, he snapped.

She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it once again. She eyed the palimpsests on the ceiling following their every move. 

“C’mon”, she said. “Let’s go meet the others. We can talk then”

Riz was a dead man either way. He complied.

~~

“All I am saying is that Daybreak is creepy”, Adaine said as she laid her lunch tray on their table.

“Aren’t all faculty members though creepy? And adults in general”, asked Fig who was tapping her fingers on the table in a familiar melody.

“And weren’t we told that the faculty is behind the whole corn thing?” added Fabian.

“Exactly!”, said Adaine, enthusiasm apparent in her eyes.

She’s approval seeking. Probably derived from her familiar relationships.

He then realised that she was expecting him to say something. He sighed.

“Uhm, I am not sure if he is involved”

“You looked terrified when I found you!”, Adaine countered.

“I did not! How did you even find me?”

“I was just wandering and I-I don’t know, I had a hunch”

A hunch my ass. That was divination.

“Did he mention me?” Kristen piped up.

“What?”

“I said did he ment-”

“For fuck’s sake Kristen. I am pretty sure Coach doesn’t know you are gay. We’ve been over this!” said Fabian.

“You didn’t hear what he told me! He told me that I’ll burn in hell if I am gay! He’ll murder me”

“Well, good thing he doesn’t know!”, said Fabian. “But it won’t remain a secret for long if you are announcing the fact that you are gay every five minutes”

“I support you, my gal”, Fig winked at Kristen. “Fuck that homophobic piece of shit”

“We are getting off-topic”, Adaine interrupted. “Riz, what did Daybreak tell you?”

“He didn’t have the time to tell me much before you came”, he answered truthfully. “But I am gonna meet him later today”

He winked at Fabian full of false bravado.

“Maybe he wants me on the team”

Fabian threw a chicken nugget at him.

~~

At the end of the school day, Riz ignored the worried looks coming from Adaine and stepped into Coach Daybreak’s office.

Here are the facts.

He could have already talked with Kalvaxus, meaning I am gonna die or get tortured for intel. 

Or. 

He could blackmail me,

The thought of that stupid human having him cornered was infuriating. 

Gods, I hope he kills me.

He knocked on the door.

“Come in”

  He entered, to find Daybreak sitting behind his desk with a smug expression on his face.

“I’ve been waiting for you. Riz Gukgak, right? Please, sit”

He motioned at the only other chair in front of the desk. 

Riz went through the motions. He closed the door. He sat.

“I’ve predicted that Kalina might have her own spies planted in the school, but let me tell you, I wasn’t expecting a goblin. Your kind is known to be deceitful and stupid. Not a very good choice if you ask me”

Riz’s fingers dug into the chair’s arms. 

Don’t encourage him. Keep your cool.

“What do you want?”

His voice sounded a lot more sure than how he felt. Good.

“I can report you to Kalvaxus. I am sure he wouldn’t like Kalina going behind his back.”

What do you want?”

“Easy kid. Sit silently like a good student for five minutes, okay? You don’t want to anger me”

Riz hated that whether he liked it or not he had to comply. 

He shut up.

“Good”, Daybreak continued. “You were one of those kids involved in the corn incident, right?”

Riz nodded. He clutched his dad’s briefcase close to his chest, but it brought him little comfort.

“Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen. That piece of paper was supposed to be on a cleric chosen by Sol, Kristen Applebees. You know her, right? You are on the same adventuring party”

Riz nodded again, dread sinking in. 

“What would happen if Kristen had the paper?”

“You aren’t in a position to ask questions, kid. Anyways, the first attempt failed. But that doesn’t mean we are gonna give up”

He slid across the desk a piece of parchment. Filled with demonic hieroglyphics. It looked identical to the one he shot on the first day in school.

“Listen goblin”, Daybreak snarled, the word ‘goblin’ sounding like an insult in his mouth. “I can forget about what I heard you say in the hallway if you do a small job for me. Make sure that the cleric has this parchment within a week from now. Is that a deal?”

And here I thought I knew better than to blindly accept deals after last time.

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“Don’t be stupid, kid. Lying and deceiving is in your blood. Your kind is a sneaky, murderous bunch. I don’t care how or when you do it. You slip her this page. And your job is done. And Kalvaxus never learns about you. Now, I hate repeating myself. Do we have a deal?”

Like he had a choice. He took the paper.

“Deal”

~~

Kalina finally appeared a few minutes after he arrived at his apartment. 

“Hey, kiddo”

“Where. The fuck. Were you?”, he snarled.

She lazily laid on the wall of his bedroom.

“Wow, Riz. Congratulations, you got caught. I won’t lie, kiddo. You really messed up”

“I know. I am sorry!”

He felt like a little kid again. He wanted to cry.

“Kalina, what do I do?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Kalvaxus can’t know about you. You slip the page and kill the girl”

Kristen would die?

His mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening. 

“B-but I am playing right into his hands. Who’s to say if he’ll leave me alone after I kill Kr-the girl?”

Kalina regarded him for a second.

“Do you have a better idea, kiddo?”

“Kill Daybreak of course”

“Hm, I am worried that this is too much even for you, sport. Daybreak is sturdy and he is protected by his whole Owlbear team. But you are right, Daybreak is a loose end. Kill the girl and then we’ll deal with him”

“Wasn’t the girl important?”

“She is important, because of the ritual the Harvestmen are planning. It’s called perditional contradoxy. By opening a Hellmouth inside of a holy person, destined for heaven, you prove their God a liar. This causes the apocalypse. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely not”

“Ugh, it’s the basic extremist thinking that all fucking cults have. Cause the apocalypse, have their God win, abolish all sin from the world, yada yada.” 

“Well won’t this interfere with your plans? Won’t the apocalypse hinter you from bringing back the Nightmare King?”

“I’ve been observing. Kristen is no longer loyal to Solo. Yes, a Hellmouth will be created but it won’t cause the apocalypse. Their plan won’t work. But this will distract Daybreak enough for us to plan our next move”

“I can kill Daybreak directly! We don’t need to wait, in fear he will tell on us”

She stepped closer, hovering over him.

“You are lucky kiddo. If I liked you any less, I would have killed you after a screw up like that. Why such a reluctance to follow my plan? Say, are you getting attached to your party?”

That was a dangerous question.

“Of course not. I just learned not to blindly accept deals”

The Tabaxi threw her head back and laughed.

“Look at you. You’re all grown up now. Alright, Riz. Your choice. Kill the girl or the coach. Choose wisely”

And with that, she disappeared.

~~

Riz stayed awake the whole night thinking of ways to sneak the piece of parchment into one of Kristen’s belongings. It was ridiculously easy. There were countless opportunities. Hide it in her jacket, as she hugged him each and every morning. Slip it in her bag during lunch. Between the pages of a textbook as they studied together in the library.

He knew he had to kill Kristen. That was the safest option for now. Hell, he was planning on sacrificing the whole party to Kalvaxus by the end of the year. 

Kristen had to die. That was okay. The party could survive without a cleric. Fig was learning healing spells. Sure, there wouldn’t be warm hugs and spams on their group chats over sexual orientation. 

She had already died once. It was like putting things back to normal. This was fine. He was fine.

He still tried to find ways to stealthily kill Daybreak. But he couldn’t think of a method, without that bastard spilling his secret to Kalvaxus. If he hadn’t already.

The parchment with the evil runes stayed in his drawer next to his tin-foiled flower.

He couldn't bear looking at them.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Riz. How long are you gonna ignore me?”

“...”

“You know you are acting like a baby, right?”

“Leave me alone. I am not talking to you”

“Com’on Riz. This is not a suitable attitude for a spy”

 “No!. You tricked me! The case you asked me to find. Project Aurelia was a witness protection case. That person died. I heard mom talking about this on the phone. You killed them, right?”

“Well, not me per se but…”

“Ugh! I hate you! I am gonna tell mom everything”

“What are you gonna tell them? Will you tell them that you were the one who found and leaked the information? They are gonna put you in prison. This, if they even believe you”

“No! M-mom won’t let me go to jail. And I didn’t do anything bad. You didn’t tell me what was gonna happen to them!”

“Listen to me, Riz. If you tell anyone what happened, they would surely fire your mom. You are a smart kid, you know the goblins don’t have a good reputation. I know that the kids are calling you names at school. And you forget about my power. If you tell anyone, I can make sure your mom pays for it”

“Fine! But I won’t help you anymore! I am done with being a spy! Leave me alone!”

“Are you really gonna abandon me after all I taught you? After all, I’ve done for you, is this how you repay me?”

“I am not. Talking. To you! Leave me alone!”

“Even if I paralyse you? Even if you won’t be able to walk for the rest of your life?”

“E-even then! I am not working with bad guys!”

“Don’t look so smug, kid. Something tells me that you are gonna change your mind soon”

~~

Two days after this conversation detective Daveej Falun died under mysterious circumstances while chasing some low-level thugs. His partner, Sklonda Gutgak was slightly injured.

Three days after this conversation Riz Gukgak returned to Kalina’s side and he never left again.

~~

Riz could feel the bags under his eyes weighing him down the next morning. He looked at the paper with the demonic runes and debated taking it with him, but ultimately decided against it. He had a whole week to slip it into Kristen’s pocket.

A whole week to find a way to kill Daybreak.

“Dude, are you okay?”, asked Fig

“Huh?”

“What Fig meant to say is that you look a bit dead on the inside”, added Fabian.

“What Fabian meant to say is that you looked a bit tired”, said Gorgug.

“I didn’t sleep well last night”

“Why? Did you have to study for a test or something?”, asked Kristen.

He avoided Kristen’s gaze. In all his plans no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop envisioning her betrayed face moments before her death. His fingers sank into the handle of his briefcase.

“I-I had nightmares”

Adaine nodded.

“Do you get them often?”

“A lot since my dad died”

That killed the conversation, but Riz didn’t care. He leaned his head on the table and tried to catch a few more minutes of sleep.

~~

During their fight in the abandoned factory, his briefcase got destroyed.

It slipped from his hand and dissolved in the acid.

This is fine.

His briefcase was gone. His dad ’s briefcase was gone.

This. Is. Fine.

~~

They find Fig’s dad trapped in a gem. That was random.

He turned away as Fig hugged him. 

I am not resentful over the fact that Fig has a dad. I am totally okay with that and happy or whatever.

More importantly Gorthalax the insatiable was a fountain of information.

He told them about the perditional contradoxy. Even though it was the second time listening to this information, it didn’t make it any less terrifying. His party’s faces quickly became grimaces of horror after listening to what could’ve happened to Kristen. Fig left her dad’s side and gave the human cleric a one-armed hug.                    

But now there was a clear target. The Harvestmen and by association, Coach Daybreak. He could rally the group against him! If he played his cards right, he could kill him before he’d tell anyone his secret.

However, his excitement was muted.

My dad’s briefcase was destroyed. My dad’s briefcase was destroyed.

Calm down, it’s only an object.

There is one part of my dad less in this world.

He dug his fingers into his palm hard enough to hurt. He noticed Fabian looking at him, but he ignored him.

Snap out of it! Everything is fine. The only important thing here is the mission. Kill Daybreak before the week is over.

~~

They got a text from Biz;

sorry guys, i can’t be ur hacker anymore

He also sent a picture of him in a hospital bed. Riz had to give it to him. If he didn’t know that Biz worked for Kalvaxus, there would be no way of him figuring out that this was all a ruse. 

Well, good riddance.

However, his party insisted that they should at least pay him a visit to figure out what or who attacked him.

This is how he ended up with Fig in the hospital, her imitating a doctor and Riz doing his best not to blow her cover. Even if that meant shooting a mummy coming out of a person’s tummy. At this point, this was just a usual Tuesday for his party. 

However Biz, after explaining that the Harvestmen were the ones who broke his bones, asked to talk to Riz alone. Fig looked puzzled but gave Riz a subtle thumbs up and left, closing the door behind her.

“What’s up, man?”, he casually said.

“Nothing much. I just wanted to congratulate you for joining the team!”

“T-the team?”, Riz asked, baffled.

“Yeah! With me, Penelope, Aelwyn! Gods, I knew when I first saw you that you were a good spy material”

Riz felt close to throwing up. His insides were burning.

“Who-who told you that?”

“Who else, my man? Daybreak! He told me to keep an eye on you, and I totally get it! You are a freshman, I am a senior, you need someone to show you the ropes. You get me, bro”

“Aha”, Riz responded, practically vibrating. “Yep, you’ve got it. I am part of the team”

I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.

“Cool, dude. We can also hang out sometimes. Not right now, because duh I’m in a hospital bed, but we can totally chill out at my place after that”

“That is an option that I will definitely consider”, he said through gritted teeth.

“Okay. So you go, and we talk later! Bye partner”, Biz winked.

Riz practically ran out of the room.

~~

“Okay, be honest. Are you following me?”

“Dude, no. We are just going in the same direction”, responded Fig smoking a cigarette. 

“The only thing this way is the Strongtower Luxury Apartments”, Riz noted.

“That’s where I am going!” Fig said with enthusiasm clear in her voice. “Is there where you live, Riz?”

Don’t let anyone know any personal info that they can use against you, his training screamed.

But this is Fig. She is an open book. No way she has any hidden motives.

“Yeah, me and my mom. How about you?”

“I don’t live there but my da- I mean Gilear lives there. So, I am paying him a visit. Let's walk there together!”

He let her chat about the lessons she was skipping, and the rock band she was starting with Gorgug. Until…

“Shit! Forgot to ask. What did Biz want to talk about?”

“Joining his AV club”, Riz dryly replied.

“You absolutely can’t do that! You’ll become a social pariah! You already seem weird wearing only suits -”

“Excuse you?”

“-but your popularity rises by being in the coolest adventuring party. Joining the AV club will drop your popularity score back to zero!”

“That’s it. I am done talking to you!”

“Riz!”, she wailed and ran after him, almost getting hit by a police car. 

Wait a second. Police car? Oh no.

His mom stopped the car and lowered the window.

“Hey, kiddo! Do you want to drive you home?”

“Uhm-”

“And who are you?”, his mom continued looking at Fig. “Are you Riz’s friend?”

“We are best friends actually!”, she responded beaming. “I am Fig. We are in the same adventuring party!”

“She is visiting her stepdad at Strongtower’s”

“Well, do you want a ride, kids?”

“I don’t know-” Riz started but Fig interrupted him.

“I’ve never been in a cop’s car before. I will have to get used to it!”

She opened the door and sat in the backseat.

Riz sighed.

“Alright”

The rest of the ride was full of his mom asking awkward questions and almost crying at the prospect of him having friends and Fig being surprisingly polite considering she was talking to a police officer.

Eventually (and thankfully) they arrived at their apartment building. 

“Well. I guess this is goodbye”, Riz started.

“No way! Now that I know you live close to Gilear, we can hang out all the time! Wanna meet later at the vending machine and do a study session together? I have some monk homework to catch up to”

“A-aren’t you a bard?”

“I am trying things out! So what do you say! Rendevous at the vending machine in an hour?”

“Which vending machine?”

“The one with the good snacks of course. See ya!”

“I don’t know which one you mea- and she skateboarded away”, RIz sighed.

He turned to face his mom.

“Sorry about Fig. She is a bit much”

“She seems lovely. I am glad you are friends. I haven’t seen you act and smile like a kid in a long time”

Riz’s fingers traced his face and indeed he was slightly smiling without realising it. 

Later, he would turn in his bed worrying about Fig knowing his mom and where he lived.

But for now, he let it go and smiled.

~~ 

Everything was going to hell these days, so you couldn’t blame Riz for thinking that there was a bomb in his locker.

To be fair his mind was full of worries about the things he experienced.

Daybreak knows about me being Kalina’s spy.

Biz knows some stuff about me.

Fig knows personal information about me, that she can use to threaten me.

My dad’s briefcase was destroyed.

I might have to kill Kristen.

The last two thoughts weren’t important, but they persisted in his head filling him with guilt.

So, yeah, when he found a mystery object in his locker, the first thing he did was to jump back and point his gun at it. 

When it didn’t move, he came closer to examine it.

It was a briefcase. Brand new, made of real leather. Riz was sure that this was more expensive than anything in his small apartment.

What? How?

It turned out that he wasn’t the only one who got a surprise gift. His whole party turned up with surprisingly insightful and personal presents.

“I think they’re from my dad!”, suggested Fig beaming with enthusiasm.

“Your dad bought me a gift card for new clothes?”, asked Adaine, doubt clear in her voice.

Her dad doesn’t know I lost my briefcase.

He noticed that Fabian was surprisingly silent and modest throughout the whole conversation. He hardly even looked at his gift, wax for his bike.

No way. He wouldn’t. Would he?

He cornered him later as they were walking to class.

“You are the one who bought us the presents, right?”

“What? Pff, no way! I would never- I mean why would I? No way, I-”

“You are a terrible liar, dude”

Fabian opened his mouth to defend himself but then closed it.

“Okay, I did buy them”, he said in a low voice.

“No shit”

“But you can’t tell anyone”, Fabian whispered. “I swear to all Gods if you tell the party anything I will make your life in high school a living hell”

He came across more scared than threatening.

“Why did you keep it a secret, though? You are Fabian Seacaster, you don’t miss a chance to bask in glory. Unless...”

Fabian remained quiet.

“Unless you care about us. You wanted to do a nice gesture because you like us”

“Shut up”, said Fabian, visibly blushing. “I just saw that you were mopping after that briefcase and you looked quite pathetic”

He lowered his voice.

“And anyway, I didn’t want you to think that I am buying you as my friends”

“Fabian, no one would think that”, Riz replied in what he hoped was a soothing voice. 

“You are worse than me! You are in no position to give advice”

Riz took a step back.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You always act like you don’t care. I think I’ve never seen you joke around with the rest of us. But when we are in battle, you have our backs. You helped Gorgug with his rage problems and Adaine always seems calmer when you are around”

“Sh-she does?”, Riz asked baffled.

“Yeah! So stop acting like you don’t give a damn about us because you do”

How do I explain that I am required to keep them alive long enough to fight a giant dragon?

He remained silent. 

“That’s what I thought,” Fabian said, clearly thinking that Riz’s silence confirmed his theory. He turned to leave “Enjoy your new briefcase”

Riz cradled it closer to his chest. It was a bit heavier than his dad, but its weight gave him comfort.

“Hey, Fabian? Thank you. Really”

“No worries, the Ball”

~~

The next morning Riz put his textbooks in his brand new briefcase.

“Stop acting like you don’t give a damn about us because you do”

He put in the tin foiled flower.

“Riz, if you were in danger I would save you”

He looked at the parchment containing the runes that would create a Hellmouth inside Kristen

“Would it be so horrible for us to be friends?”

He took a deep breath. And then another. And then he tore the paper. He tore it into small pieces and threw them in the trash can.

He knew his target.

~~

A couple of days later, they fought Coach Daybreak and the entire Owlbear team.

But Riz was an assassin. He was made to kill. 

Daybreak didn’t have a chance.

A few minutes later the fight was over and Daybreak laid dead on the ground, two bullet holes in his forehead.

Riz was an assassin. And if a small part of him cheered at the prospect of sparing Kristen for a few months, well that was okay.

Chapter Text

“C’mon kid. Stop crying.”

“Leave me alone!”

“Riz, you did great! Considering it was your first kill, you were amazing”

“...”

“Stop crying. Only babies cry. You are not a baby, are you?”

“I am not. I am eleven”

“Take some deep breaths. See, isn’t that better?”

“No, it’s not”

“You are a natural, kid. Your father would be proud of you”

“Y-you are lying”

“So, and what if I am? It’s my fault, trying to make you feel better”

“There was so much blood”

“You didn’t get any on you, right? No? Good boy. Now wash your hands. There is gunpowder on them”

“Okay”

“And like usual, this stays between us”

“Yes, Kalina”

“Chin up, kiddo. You better get used to it”

~~

“You are frustrated”, Kalina remarked as Riz entered his room and loudly closed his door behind him. “I thought you would be happy. Your friend is okay”

That was a trap.

“She is not my friend”, he growled.

No, Kristen was not his problem. His problem had a different name.

“Is this about that school bully?”

Ragh fucking Barkrock. 

“You know I hate leaving loose ends”, Riz said through gritted teeth.

“Kiddo, relax. That pawn didn’t know anything, he made that clear. No need to deal with him”

Deep breaths, Riz. You’ve got this. Don’t let her know.

“I know. Maybe I overreacted”, he said carefully.

Kalina inspected him for a second.

“I like you kiddo, because you are able to keep your cool. Don’t act stupidly”

And she disappeared.

Riz let out a breath but didn’t do any sudden movements. He could never know if Kalina was watching. Every waking moment he had to keep up a facade. He couldn’t afford to have Kalina know about things he cared about. Not after Penny.

But, wow. He was so fucking angry. 

At fucking Ragh Barkrock. That idiot, that pawn, that freaking bully was spared. He threw Kristen’s bible into the barrel of corn, he had made fun of Adaine at least twice and he was spared ?

What the actual hell?

He hated Ragh. He hated that he was comforted, that he would start therapy, he hated that he was given a second chance. And what he hated the most is that if he was in his place, Riz would be dead.

Dead like Doreen. Dead like Johnny Spells. Dead like Coach Daybreak.

Because in Riz’s case he was no pawn. He manipulated people, he manipulated his own party. The second they would find out they would attack him, they would kill him, they…

Riz closed his eyes and willed his tears not to come out. He was losing control. He was thinking irrationally. The party was too stupid to even suspect they had a traitor amongst them. Everything was going fine. So why the hell was he so upset? 

Don’t feel. Don’t cry. Kalina might be watching.

He didn’t do his homework that day.

He stayed curled in his bed and fell asleep, grasping his brand new briefcase.

He couldn’t think of battle scenarios that night. Fuck it. Whatever. Let’s plant a bomb and blow everyone up. Everyone dead, before they realised that he betrayed them. 

~~

He woke up from a text from Adaine;

can we meet at basrar’s before school??

pls

He looked at the text puzzled.

sure

are u ok?

He got a reply in a few seconds.

not really

i wanna talk to someone

“Mom, I am going out!”, yelled Riz. “I am meeting a friend”

“A friend? Oh sweetie, I am so happy. Have fun, I’ll try to come back home early today. Maybe we can have dinner together”

“Yeah, that would be nice”, mumbled Riz. “See ya, mom”

~~

Adaine looked like a mess. Objectively speaking. She was in a booth cutting her ice cream scoop into smaller pieces in a rage.

Riz sat opposite to her while realising he was awful at comforting people. He hadn’t had a real cry for almost four years. Not repressing emotion was new terrain for him. But the oracle was useful and he was supposed to help her and also it was kind of upsetting to watch her be so sad.

“Is something wrong?”, he asked lamely.

She shook her head.

“Nothing unusual. Just my family. Being fucking. Awful”, she enunciated each word with another stab on the ice cream. “Ugh, it’s my fault. It’s my fault for thinking they would react normally for once”

“Don’t say that. What happened?”

“I told them I need to buy new clothes for school. I had that giftcard that Fig’s dad gave me. I thought since I wasn’t using their money, that it would be okay”

“Fuck, did they take your giftcard?”

“No, thank gods, I didn’t have the time to mention it. The second I started talking they immediately interrupted me. Said that since I was a member of the family, I represent them at, and I quote ‘the atrocious mess of a school’ I go to. That I haven’t earned the right to ‘be trusted to have a respectable fashion sense’”

“Oof, that is horrible! Didn’t your sister do anything?”

“Oh, she did! She told me in front of our parents that maybe if I focused on my studies instead of killing people with ladles, then she would let me borrow a T-shirt from time to time. And she said it so condescendingly. And then I had to watch my parents congratulate her on how good a sister and wizard she was”

“S-she really did that?” Riz tried to connect the Aelwyn he knew with the person described. 

“Of course she fucking did”, Adaine replied furiously wiping tears away. “It’s just a lot. Watching Fig and her dad. He knew her for less than a day and he showed her more affection than my family in years. I just- I just want someone on my side in this hell of a house"

Riz remained silent. He didn’t know how to help. How to bring comfort to people.

“Why did you text me ?”, he asked as an afterthought. 

“You said you get nightmares. I started getting them too”

Prophetic dreams for sure.

“I went to sleep yesterday and I saw you in a dream. So you were the first person I thought to contact. Also, you are a calming presence”

“Calming presence?”

“Yeah, you might not always be nice, but you are truthful and brave and reliable. You know?”

She was wrong about all the things she said, which meant that Riz was doing his job as a spy right. But he still felt a small ping of guilt for not being the person she needed. But-wait! A dream about him?

“What did I do in your dream?”

“I-I don’t remember. You were talking to someone. You were scared. I think you were in danger”

Oh wow. Fuck me right?

But at least the dream didn’t indicate anything about his true identity.

“Dreams are weird”, he said.

Adaine snorted.

“Yeah. Let’s go to school. And after that, I am gonna buy new clothes”

“For real?”

“Yep! I think jeans would suit me nicely”

~~

Riz could feel rage building up in him. He felt it at school when Adaine gently helped Gorgug with his Elven Language 101 homework. He felt it after school, at the clothing store, when she gleefully tried on a T-shirt and a jean jacket. And he certainly felt fury when he saw the oracle’s mood decline when it was time to part ways and go back home.

He did what he hadn’t done in weeks. He contacted Aelwyn Abernant.

~~

“Haven’t seen you in a while, dude. Did the cat want you to do anything?”, asked Aelwyn. 

They were again in the park. The last time they were there, it was Riz’s first day at school.

“Nothing from the cat I am afraid”, Riz said. He was fuming. “Did you know your sister was the elven oracle?”

“Oh, is that the reason you are here? Did you just find out? Are you mad I didn’t tell you?”

“Nonono, I am just trying to understand you. You knew Adaine was the oracle?”

“Of course I did”

“And you sold her out?”

“Excuse me? Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?”

“You are not supposed to sell out your family!”, Riz snarled. “What are you getting out of this, Aelwyn?”

“Riz, lower your voic-”

“You know what I get? I get to keep my mother, my family safe. I have spied and I have assassinated and I have done unspeakable things to make sure no harm comes to my family”

“Don’t you mind that Kalina might hear-?”

“Oh, she knows. You bet she knows how I feel about her, and this whole thing! But it’s my fucking job and I do it to help my loved ones. Not like you”

“What are you insinuating?”, she asked, her voice icy cold.

“I am not insinuating anything! I am spelling things out for you! I thought we were the same, I thought we had some kind of agreement. But now I know we are nothing alike. You are doing this all for yourself. You have one good family member, your sister, and you treat her like shit”

Any hurt on her face was carefully hidden but Riz knew to recognise the signs. She was blinking rapidly like she was close to tears and she was digging her fingers into her arm.

“You know she might die at the end of the year if she keeps getting involved in this. And you. Don’t. Care.”

She stayed silent for a second, looking for an argument. And then-

“Fuck off, Riz”

And she stormed off.

Riz left as well, his heart heavy. He didn’t care if Kalina saw the whole thing. 

He was supposed to protect the oracle after all.

~~

He was doing an essay on pickpocketing when he heard the door open.

“Hey, mom”, he said without lifting his head.

“Hey, kiddo”, she replied as she left the keys on the kitchen table. “I wanted to show you something”

“Can it wait? I am almost done with this essay”

“You want to see this, kid”, Kalina whispered in his ear.

“It’s important, Riz. It’s about your father”

He stood up.

His mom walked to the wall and pressed at a certain point, opening a hidden door. His dad’s secret office.

She is finally telling me the truth about dad.

“Your dad wasn’t an accountant. Far from it. He was a secret agent”

I knew it for five years.

Kalina showed me this office four years ago. 

“He was very brave, and he loved you a lot. But… he was killed on a case”

Why didn’t you tell me before? Why did you let me trust the wrong people?

He examined the room silently. He had searched it extensively when he first found it. He had read all the files on the desks. He found a photo of his dad and Kalina at a special event. He sat on his dad’s chair, his small legs dangling in the air. 

“Riz, are you okay?”, he heard his mom asking

“Riz, tell her you are glad to know”, whispered Kalina in his ear.

“I-I am glad to know, mom”, he echoed. He plastered a grin on his face. “We are a family of certified badasses”

His mom teared up and wrapped her arms around him.

“Yes kiddo. We certainly are”

He had one question to ask. One question that was burning him up for years.

“Mom? Was dad a good person?”, he whispered.

“Oh honey”, she hugged him tighter. “Of course he was. Of course he was”

They stayed like this for a while. 

Riz couldn’t shake the thought that his father would be immensely disappointed in him. 

Chapter Text

“Riz, wake up!”

“Wha-, Penny?”

“You were having a nightmare. You were screaming in your sleep”

“I was?”

“Yeah, are you okay?”

“Yes, of course I am”

“Do you remember what you dreamt of?”

“I-I, no I don’t”

“Hey. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it”

“For real?”

“Of course. Sometimes nightmares are freaking scary. But then you wake up and there is hot chocolate and TV”

“But there is no hot chocolate”

“So, let’s go make some, champ. We can watch some crappy reality TV as well”

“I wanna watch a murder mystery”

“After having a nightmare? No mister. You are watching ‘Fantasy Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ with me”

“Okay, but don’t be mad when I know the answers, and you don’t”

“Hey! It’s not my fault that you are a nerd, Riz”

“Aw, shut up”

“C’mon. Let’s go make some hot chocolate” 

~~

Riz was at the Seacaster Manor. Again. This time for a sleepover. He was forced to be there because he was supposed to keep an eye on his party. Also they threatened that they’d kidnap him if he said no.

So here they all were, in Fabian’s room, where the floor could barely be seen from the plethora of mattresses placed. Riz let Fig paint his nails a soft pastel yellow colour, that according to her, really complimented his skin tone.

“We should play a party game!”, Fig said gleefully.

“Oh, I know”, answered Kristen. “There was that game in camp where you started a quote from the Bible of Helio and the other had to finish it. I was three times champion at-”

“Okay, any suggestion from someone who wasn’t in a cult?”, interfered Fabian.

“We can play truth or dare”, suggested Gorgug.

And so they did. They played for several rounds and Riz learned some interesting truths, like that Gorgug liked this satyr girl, Zelda and that Fig was most likely to kiss Adaine of anyone in this room.

Riz decided to play it safe and he picked dare every single time. In the thrill of the moment, he didn’t want to spill any valuable information about him. But eventually, the others caught on.

“The Ball, you have to pick Truth at some point”, said Fabian exasperated. 

“Nope, I don’t. It’s Truth or Dare. Not Truth and Dare”

“Okay. Truth or Dare?”

“Dare. Obviously”

“I dare you to climb the outer wall of the house and reach the roof”

“Fabian, you are gonna get him killed”, intervened Adaine.

“We are on the third floor”, added Gorgug.

“Well he can always pick Truth, right Riz?”, said Fabian, fake innocence in his voice.

Oh, challenge accepted.

“Don’t worry guys. I got it”

“Oh my gods, Kristen please tell me you’ve got Revivify stocked”, said Adaine.

“I am not wasting my spell slots if he dies doing this”, she replied

“Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence, Kristen”, Riz said, one foot already out of the window.

“Anytime”

He inspected the wall. The house was made out of a ship, so there were ropes hanging and stools of the portholes sticking out. Piece of cake.

He immediately started climbing.

“Oh, no the Ball! I was kidding! Come back inside”

“Shit, he really is doing it”

“I can cast Featherfall” suggested Adaine.

“Nope, I am doing this”, said Riz, raising his voice to be heard. He had to scale far smoother and difficult walls for missions where he had to assassinate people or steal valuables.

“Oh my gods. The Ball is gonna die. At my house”, Fabian said.

“We can drop some mattresses down, so he can land safely”, suggested Fig.

“Nope, those mattresses were built from elven masters. My mama will kill me if they get torn”

“You worry more about mattresses than Riz?”, asked Adaine.

“Is Riz worth twenty thousand golden pieces per mattress? And we have a cleric. He is gonna be fi-”

“Hey guys! I reached the roof!”, Riz announced. The roof was more or less the deck, of what used to be a giant pirate ship. The surface was smooth, so he had no difficulty standing up. “Do I come back down?”

“Nope!”, immediately yelled Fabian. “I am coming to get you through the attic. Can’t have you dying at my own slumber party”

He waited until Fabian opened a trapdoor and he climbed back inside. In less than five minutes he had joined the others.

“See?,” he showed his hands to Fig. “Didn’t even ruin my nails”

She hugged him.

He sat smashed between her and Fabian laughing along as Kristen was dared to scream at the top of her lungs that she had a crush on Tracker. When it came Fabian’s turn, Riz dared him to jump out of the window, with Featherfall cast on. 

“Revenge for saying I am worth less than twenty thousand golden pieces”

To be fair, he was a trooper and jumped with only a little hesitation.

Then it was Riz’s turn again.

“Okay. Truth or Dare?”, asked Fig.

“Dare”

Everyone groaned.

“I dare you to pick truth”, said Fig with a shit-eating grin.

“I hate you. I absolutely hate you”

"No, you don’t. Now pick Truth”

“Fine. I pick Truth”

“Alright. If every one of us was drowning and you could only save one person, who would you save?”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“I am four feet tall. I cannot realistically save anyone”

“Say you’ve got a magic switch. Or you went to the gym and got super buff”

“Got super buff?”

She nodded and he sighed in annoyance.

He remained silent for a second deep in thought.

“Okay. Definitely not Fabian”

“Hey! Why not?”

“You are the son of a pirate. You should know how to swim. If not, you deserve to die”

“That’s harsh. What if I was chained up?”

“So I have to pick a lock and carry you to the shore? No way! That is too much work. Also fuck Fig, for daring me to pick truth”

“I know you love me”, she winked. Riz rolled his eyes.

“I guess I’ll pick Gorgug. He is the least annoying”

“I thought you were gonna pick me, you jerk” Adaine threw a pillow playfully at him. “We had a heart to heart and everything”

Riz could swear he had Tasha’s Hideous Laughter casted on him, because he couldn’t stop laughing. 

“Alright Kristen. Truth or dare?” he asked a whole two minutes later.

“Truth!”

“Is it true that you asked Daybreak to put you in detention just to seem cool?”

“You noticed?”

“Wait. What?”, interjected Adaine. “Really?”

“I just wanted to meet you guys. You looked interesting”

“That’s sweet”, said Gorgug.

“And hilarious”, added Fig. “What would you do, if you weren’t put in detention?”

“Well, I think that it was fate for us to meet-”

“That’s stupid”, interjected Riz.

“Okay, Riz, what would you do to make friends?”

I can’t say I wasn’t planning on having friends. I still don’t. Not if they knew the truth.

“I’d make business cards and pass them around”, he said instead.

The room was silent for a second before everyone started laughing.

“Shut up! It’s a practical method to pass your crystal number around. Also memorable!”

“It sure is memorable”, said Fig wiping tears off her eyes. “Who would have thought that Riz, super rogue extraordinaire, was a giant nerd”

He threw her the pillow that Adaine had previously thrown at him.

“You are all terrible people”, he stated but he could feel a smile creeping on his face.

~~ 

Finally after many yawns, and accidentally momentarily falling asleep, they decided it’s time to go to bed.

 “Wait, guys! The gift!”, suddenly said Gorgug.

“The gift?”, asked Riz.

“Oh shit, the gift”, Fabian stood up. “Who has it?”

“I do!” said Adaine, stumbling to her bag and taking something out.

“What gift?”, repeated Riz.

“Your gift!”, said Kristen excitement clear on her face.

“But… It’s not my birthday? What’s the occasion?”, stuttered Riz.

“No reason. Just friends stuff”, said Adaine handing him a small velvet pouch. “It’s a dream catcher. To keep your nightmares at bay”

“We all contributed”, added Kristen. “Fabian bought the fabric, Gorgug sewed it, I filled it with herbs needed as magical ingredients, Adaine did the ritual and Fig-”

“I decorated it!”, Fig interrupted. 

Indeed the pouch, which was made of dark blue velvet, had a sticker on it with the phrase ‘suck it nightmares’ written on along with an anarchy symbol.

Riz wasn’t moved by this. No, of course not.

And anyways, he rarely got nightmares anymore. He spent so much time calculating moves, making plans and trying not to screw up that he fell into a dreamless sleep afterwards.

This is all because of a lie I made up.

So why the hell did he feel his heart swell up?

“Thank you”, he said, his voice strained despite himself.

They did this for no reason at all. Just to help me.

“Group hug!”, Kristen yelled and everyone complied.

What a bunch of idiots.

However, the thought sounded affectionate in his mind.

~~

The next weekend the atmosphere was heavy at Gukgak household. It was the anniversary of Pok Gukgak’s birthday. A few years ago, that was a day full of laughter and ice-cream cake. Now, it was eating silently in a dim-lighted room and a visit to the cemetery.

Riz came to hate these visits. But there he was, holding his brand new briefcase and wearing his father’s clothes, which felt more uncomfortable and unearned than any other time.  

“I leave you two together”, said his mom squeezing his shoulder, before leaving to watch him from a distance. “Talk to him. He can hear you”

Riz wasn’t sure if his father could hear him, but he bet a Tabaxi woman did. 

“Hey, dad”, he said, feeling awkward.

Mom said you were a good person but you worked with Kalina.

Hey, I learned you were a spy. Pretty cool, huh?”

If you had told me you were a spy, I wouldn’t have played right into Kalina’s hand. If you or mom had told me earlier, I would have been smarter, I wouldn’t have been as naive as I was.

“I miss you”

I am a spy now as well. It’s awful. I’ve done despicable things. Would you be proud of me?

“I wish I knew you better”

For the last few years, I have lived every moment in fear. Every moment I know I am not alone, that I might be observed. I learned not to trust anyone, because of you.

“Bye, dad. I love you” 

And despite myself, I hate you too. I hate you because I had to grow up early. I hate you because I am leading people that care about me to the slaughter. I hate you because I did unspeakable things in your name.

Indeed, those visits were the worst.

~~

There was a complete mess up at Ostentatia Wallace’s house. Aelwyn Abernant had got sloppy. A fight occurred in a matter of seconds. 

Riz found his hands full, battling those elementals. However, as he turned an earth elemental to dust, a thought occurred to him. He was fighting his old ally, and they were winning. Aelwyn, who he had all those secret meetings with. Aelwyn, who was snarky but also rarely sincere and helpful. Aelwyn, who was always playfully making fun of his clothes.

Aelwyn, who he had a fight with. Aelwyn, who knew his secret. Aelwyn, who was completely out of control, not caring enough and capturing maidens in plain sight. Aelwyn, who hated him. 

He aimed at her with his gun. Kristen was distracted by some fire elementals on the other side of the house. Even if she wanted to, she wouldn’t be able in the heat of the battle to revive her.

No, if Riz chose to, Aelwyn would die. And he knew the right answer, without having Kalina whisper in his ear.

Aelwyn Abernant should’ve died. 

As he aimed at her she turned and looked him in the eyes. Crystal blue met yellow, and Riz hesitated. Because those were Adaine’s eyes. Because deep, deep, inside, he still considered Aelwyn his friend. And because after all, this was Adaine’s fight. 

He could see her too, fuming with anger, her blonde hair floating in the air with divine energy. She wanted to fight her sister, she wanted closure. 

If someone had earned to determine Aelwyn’s fate, that was her sister. And she did, giving her a sucker punch, that would make any professional kickboxer proud.

And later when all was done, and Aelwyn was led to the police car by his own mother, he saw her searching him in the crowd. 

When she found him she mouthed three words;

Look after her.

He couldn't promise her that. He couldn’t nod, not even to comfort her.

But she didn’t wait for him to answer.

She looked at Adaine one last time, a hint of pride in her eyes, and then she was gone.

Chapter Text

“Tell me the truth! Are you the reason Penny is missing?”

“Calm down, kid”

“No, I won’t calm down. Answer my question!”

“You knew Kalvaxus needed seven maidens for his ritual. I should thank you for finding an excellent addition”

“I didn’t find anyone! You could have picked any girl, literally any girl, so why, why Penny?”

“Why, kiddo, were you attached? Were your precious feelings hurt?”

“Oh, shut up”

“Riz, kid, she was distracting you. And she was nosey. With her around, how were you going to go on your missions?”

“So, you kidnapped her because she inconvenienced you?”

“She inconvenienced you, kiddo. Your feelings blind you. I need a spy with a clear head. She was an obstacle to our goal. Now, she is gonna be an asset. This is great”

“...”

“Riz, I need you as a spy. You are one of the best I have. Tell me, do you understand why I did what I had to do?”

“...”

“Riz”

“I-I understand, Kalina”

“See, I knew you’d see reason. One maiden down. We are doing this. You did well”

“...”

“Riz. I said you did well. What is the polite thing to say?”

“Thank you, Kalina”

“Good. Now, stop sulking. I have a new assignment for you”

~~

Well, according to Adaine, Aelwyn had spilled some secrets. Thankfully not his own. She advised the party to search her room. So there he was on the Hangman, with Fabian and Adaine going twice the speed limit, to arrive at Adaine’s home before her parents.

“This is her room”, Adaine dryly announced. “I wasn’t allowed in here. But! Now she is in prison, soooo”, she stepped inside, “who cares?”

“Dark humor. Nice”, Riz said. “What are we looking for?”

“Anything that screams ‘I am evil’”, answered Adaine opening drawers. 

Riz had to be careful with this. He had to find something to steer them to the next clue, but he’d also had to make sure that his connection with Aelwyn wasn’t apparent. 

He inspected the whole room with his gaze. It was spotless, the bed made, the pot with an exotic flower on her window looking healthy, and the highlighters organized at the order of the rainbow. The room was also filled with trophies and medals, from countless arcane competitions. 

However, it was devoid of character. No posters, no photos, no stuffed animals. It reminded Riz of his own room. 

When you are involved in this shit, you better hide anything you care about. 

A book in the bookcase drew his attention. It was the only fictional one amongst dozen textbooks, a children’s book; ‘Fantasy Alice in Wonderland'.

He gingerly took it in his hands and opened it. Inside there was a faded photograph. Aelwyn and Adaine, where they didn’t look more than five or six years old. They were both dressed in elegant clothing, but they were smiling widely at the camera. Aelwyn had stuck her tongue out, making a grimace, something normal, but also something he couldn’t imagine the Aelwyn he knew doing. 

“Guys look!”, Adaine called.

There was one of Aelwyn’s textbooks. On a page, scribbled at the margins there was a spell.

Detect maiden.

“What kind of creepy bullshit is this?”, muttered Fabian.

“I think it has to be about the missing girls. Right, Riz?”

He nodded. Bingo!

“Oh my gods, my sister was such a bitch. Let’s leave before my parents arrive”

Riz decided not to show the photograph to Adaine, but he pocketed it instead. 

It could be useful.

But most of all, because he had evidence that indeed Aelwyn Abernant cared about her little sister.

~~

The party figured out that KVX Bank stands for Kalvaxus. They realized that Penelope Everpetal was involved with the abduction of the six girls. They found that Zelda was gonna be the next victim. Riz was a little bit proud of them. They were not the people that couldn’t jump over tables anymore. They were solving a case that even the police couldn’t crack. Soon, they’ll connect the dots that Principal Goldenhoard was Kalvaxus, that the big bad was before their eyes the whole time. They would fight him of course, and then, and then-

And then they’ll be killed. Experienced parties cannot kill an ancient dragon. There is no way five kids, no matter how special they are, will be able to defeat him. 

Riz had started unconsciously making strategy plans for his party to win the fight. But even if he took into account Fig’s creativity, Adaine’s bravery, Fabian’s excellent fighting instincts, Gorgug’s silent strength, and Kristen’s clumsy idealism, he couldn’t find a way for them to defeat the dragon. Not without many of them dying in the process.

Wait. When did I grow so attached?

Fuck. Fuck!

Why didn’t I learn my lesson from Penny? 

“Are you okay, Riz?”, asked Gorgug.

“Y-yeah”, he answered. His palms were sweaty.

“We are gonna find your friend. We are gonna save everyone”

Fig threw her fist in the air and Kristen gave him a thumbs up. Fabian and Adaine were looking at him with a worried expression.

When I look at them, all I see are five graves.

He nodded and smiled still.

“Of course we're gonna save everyone. Let’s start with Zelda though”

~~

Zelda and Gorgug went on a date. They were cute and awkward and a total disaster. They were truly made for each other.

Riz and the rest of his fr- party, ( for fuck’s sake), were sitting in another booth semi-spying on them, semi-sending messages for advice. Fabian bought them all ice cream without much fanfare. Riz had noted that Fabian, who often was obnoxious and loud when he cared, he did small acts of kindness silently, as if ashamed of caring about them.

Reminds you of anyone?

No, it’s all an act. Everything I do is an act.

~~

Then two bad things happened. Firstly, Zelda got kidnapped, no matter how the party tried to protect her. And also Aelwyn escaped out of prison. Or rather she was taken off prison by a Fallinel strike team. Solace had declared war on Fallinel. Sure, why not? At this point, Zelda’s disappearance was a harsher strike than a freaking war. He could sense the disappointment seeping off every member of his party. No matter how prepared they were, they still failed to save her.

So Riz was confused when they picked him to console Gorgug.

“You are good at comforting people”, said Adaine. False.

“You are strategic. You can always find a way out”, said Fabian. False.

“Your friend is also missing. You can relate to that”, said Kristen, which was sadly true.

And so there he was, like the second day in school, trying to find Gorgug and comfort him. 

The conversation was torture. 

Again he was sitting on his desk, in the barbarian class, his headphones blasting some kind of metal music.

Riz sat next to him and waited. They sat there silently for a couple of minutes, the music being the only sound in the room. Then, the track ended and Gorgug took off his headphones.

“Zelda recommended me this band”

Riz didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded.

“Why her? Why did she have to be taken?”, asked Gorgug rhythmically hitting his drumsticks on his desk, eyes cast downwards.

“I gave them the idea. I thought the group needed an extra push, an extra reason to go after Kalvaxus”, whispered Kalina in Riz’s ear.

What is she doing here? Is she here to gloat?

“There is not always a reason. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. It’s not your fault. You did the best you could”, he stuttered.

“See Riz? Can you see how easily a person can be manipulated when they have attachments? Can you see how easily giants fall?”, purred Kalina. She stood behind him and her fingers dug into his shoulders.

“We are gonna find her. I promise you we will save her. Her and Penny and all the others. We are so close”, Riz ignored Kalina, his voice sounding distant to his ears. “We just have to keep searching”

“You are right”, Gorgug replied. “Moping here is not a solution”

He still sounded sad but there was grim determination in his eyes.

“Attaboy'', Kalina said, satisfaction clear in her voice. She gave him a pat on his head and she disappeared.

Later Riz ran into the bathroom and entered a stall. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his mouth so he wouldn’t scream, so he wouldn’t throw up.

Kalina is always watching.

Kalina is always watching.

When did lying and deceiving become so difficult?

~~

He could pinpoint the moment, everything went to shit.  Here is what happened.

First of all, when they took Biz and the Thistlesprings with them to the arcade to set up a power source. Biz winked at him and whispered to him to be ready. Strike one.

Then in the arcade, Biz asked to speak to Riz in private. There was a video game console named ‘The Lucky Stones’. On the screen, there was a familiar girl that Riz thought he would never see again. Strike two. 

And finally, the third strike, the thing that made Riz lose control.

Biz took out a blank palimpsest and suggested trapping Adaine in there.

He didn’t mean to act, but Penny was right there. He used to control himself, his feelings. He almost remained calm. Almost.

But then Biz, slimy, disgusting Biz said that he wanted to kidnap Adaine.

Brilliant, timid, kind Adaine. Who got panic attacks when a teacher looked at her sternly but was fearless in battle. Who had just started to joke with the rest, and to take up space, who sucker-punched her sister.

Adaine, the smartest out of everyone in this group, who was noticing the patterns and solving the mystery faster than Riz could cover up his tracks.

If she was gone, the party would’ve probably collapsed without her. They would’ve stopped looking. They would’ve been safe. They would have a chance to survive the year, against Kalina’s plans.

For a small second, Riz considered letting this happen. Let Biz sneak attack them, kidnap the petite, brave, so brave, girl, and run away. 

But then he saw Aelwyn stealing a look at her smaller sister as she was led into the police car, a hint of pride in her eyes. He saw the rest of the Bad Kids surrounding Adaine, helping her choose some normal clothes since her family couldn’t be bothered. There was no way in hell that they wouldn’t run after her, probably sacrificing themselves in an attempt to save her.

He saw Adaine on that night at Seacaster’s Manor, when he got super drunk. He saw her staring at him with a sad smile.

“Riz, I don’t know what made you so distrustful of people. And it’s okay if you don’t trust any of us yet. But I trust you. You are not alone.”

And oh gods, Riz was not stupid, he knew that they would abandon him, that they would kill him the second they would find out he is the traitor, that he used them, that they were not his friends, but his small heart was beating way too fast, and his hands reached for his gun.

Biz is useful , the rational part of his brain was screaming, you can’t turn against him. You can’t turn against Kalina.

But there was no way he would let this creep take his friend.

And so he aimed at him with his gun and pressed the trigger.

And he was stupid and he was emotional and he missed. He missed and Biz looked at him, with cruel anger in his eyes and then the video game console encapsulated him.

“Hi! I am Penny!”, he heard a familiar cheerful voice. “Collect the coins!”

“Penny?”, he turned and there she was, a person he thought he’d never see again, smiling brightly. Her cheeks were strained and there was a blank look in her eyes.

Not Penny. 

“Collect the coins!”, the twisted imitation of his first friend said.

But he couldn’t think, couldn’t collect his mind, couldn’t collect those damn coins, because fuck he cared about his party. 

Everything was crushing around him because that couldn’t be true, yet it was.

He loved Fabian’s extravagant demeanor. He loved Gorgug’s hugs. He loved Kristen’s inspiring speeches. He loved Adaine’s calm voice when she was explaining to him a difficult topic for school. He loved Fig’s carefree laugh and her heart that she wore on her sleeve. 

Fuck, he cared about those people and before he could organize his thoughts before he could decide what to do, he saw two bright red words.

GAME OVER!

And then he was downloaded into a crystal. 

“For fuck’s sake!”, he said kicking the walls around him in frustration, but they didn’t even move. He punched again and again until he collapsed tired against the wall. He took a deep breath.

“Riz?”, he heard that voice again, this time sincere without forced cheerfulness.

Well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions.

“Penny?”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Riz. Can we talk?”

“About what, mom?”

“About Penny”

“Oh. Did you find a new lead?”

“No. The opposite, actually. The trail has gone cold. Honey, it’s been two months since she disappeared. I know this is hard to hear but-”

“-you think Penny is dead, right?”

“I-I am not saying that. But you have to be prepared for every possibility. And one of them is that she won’t come home”

“I get it, mom”

“...”

“...”

“Do you want-, do you want to talk about it? Every and any feeling you have right now is valid, kiddo”

“No. It’s okay”

“Riz. I am here for you. Please don’t bottle things up. We can have you talk to a therapist if y-”

“MOM! I am fine. She was an adventurer. Adventurers die all the time. I don’t need to talk to anyone. Besides, you know we have no money to spare for a therapist”

“I-I know, but if you-”

“Mom. Can I go back to my room? I am tired”

“Yeah, of course. Goodnight, kid”

“Goodnight”

“Hey. We are not losing hope, okay? We will do our best to get her back. Okay, Riz?”

“Okay, mom”

~~

“Riz? Riz, did they capture you too?”

It was her voice. A voice that he had made peace with that he would never hear again. A voice belonging to a person, who he thought was already doomed.

But there she was, a hazy silhouette behind the crystal’s glass.

“Riz? Can you hear me?”, her voice echoed through the palimpsest's walls.

She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know.

“Penny!”, he yelled, his eyes inspecting the wall for weaknesses, to no avail.

“I am here! What’s going on out there?”  

“My friends and I were trying to find you. We met a devil, we fought like dozens of monsters, we killed Daybreak, we saw Ostantia getting kidnapped-”

“-Wait, wait a second. You have friends?”

“That’s not the part you should be focusing on! Do you know a way out of here?”

“Obviously not!”

“Yeah, shit, sorry. Fuck, I don’t know what to do”

“What about your friends? They are out there, right? Can they help us?”

“I don’t know if they have enough brain cells to operate those machines. Except for Gorgug, maybe”

“Ooooh, who is Gorgug?”

He rolled his eyes.

“Penny, now is not a good time for catching up. Focus”

“Uhm Riz?”, she said, her voice quieter. “We have all the time. I’ve been trapped here for months, years? I don’t even know. I tried every way imaginable. There’s no way out. Trust me, we all tried”

“We?”, Riz whispered. And indeed now that the shock of meeting Penny had subdued, he realized he could feel other presences around him. The other girls. The other prisoners. He was surrounded by pawns. Pawns like him. Because he was not a player, not a manipulator, but a pawn that had fallen.

Kalina, are you out there?

But she was nowhere to be found.

Of course. The crystals had protections against any divination magic, against scrying and Locate Person spells. Could it be? Was it possible that Kalina couldn’t reach him?

He shook the thoughts out of his head. He couldn’t waste precious minutes fantasizing about a reality without the Shadow Cat. 

“I am getting us out of here”, he promised.

He had let Penny go. He had thought that her fate was out of his hands. Whenever he thought of her, he forced himself to see her as a reminder to not get attached to anyone.

But now she wasn’t a mere memory anymore. She wasn’t a lesson to learn. She wasn’t a what if. She was here, right here, on the other side of the crystal and he could save her. 

Of course, he could save her! There were hundreds, thousands of maidens in Elmville. She wasn’t essential for the ritual. Kalvaxus could pick any other girl and the prophecy would be fulfilled. 

I can save her. I can save her!

Hope filled his body, a feeling so foreign, a feeling he hadn’t known for years. Adrenaline spiked and a manic smile spread on his face.

I can save her!

He ignored the distant sounds of the fight around him. He ignored the girls in the other crystals. He ignored the monotone voice of the computer announcing the downloading of the maidens. His eyes focused on a corner of his small prison and he attacked.

He attacked and he scratched and he kicked and he punched, until his hands started bleeding, until his vision was filled with red. 

What did the game say? Game over. But she was here. She was here. He blinked away tears, and he told himself they came from the pain and not the hot, burning feeling inside him.

He was a goblin, chaos was his heritage, he was resourceful, he was calculating, he was pure fury, pure uncontrolled energy. He was trying to save the girl he helped get captured. He had befriended the people that he was ordered to lead to their deaths. He was a bunch of contradictions packed together in a small, useless body. But that body had claws, and he would dig, dig, dig until he found a way out.

That was the Gukgak way after all.

Riz, what are you doing? He could almost hear Kalina’s voice in his head.

“Acting stupidly”, he muttered, blood running down his arms, covering the light blue shards of the crystal around him.

And then he managed the impossible. He saw the end of the tunnel. He witnessed the consciousness of the girls, little lights in a wire, being transferred out of the arcane, across the town, to the Augefort Adventuring Academy. To the AV club. Of fucking course.

A voice snapped him out of his thoughts.

“Riz?”, said Penny. “It’s getting quieter out here” Was she crying? Her voice was heavy, defeated. “I don’t blame you. Thank you so much for trying”

“No!”, he snapped his head towards her. “Penny, there is still time! I am not giving up! We are gonna get out of here together!”

She remained silent for a moment.

“You’ve grown so much. Where is the reclusive, weird kid I knew?”

He let out a wet laugh.

“It’s still here, Penny”

“I missed you, weirdo. It was nice seeing you one last time”, she said fondly. There was a calmness in her voice. A surety that this was the end.

And it was.

“I am sorry, Penny! I am so so sorry!”, the words escaped Riz’s mouth.

Sorry for getting attached to you.

Sorry for painting a target on your back.

Sorry for getting you kidnapped.

Sorry for lying.

Sorry I tried too late to save you. 

“Sorry, sorry, sorry”, he repeated falling to his knees. He repeated the same word as a prayer, as a plea, as a lifeline. 

A perk of being free of Kalina. She couldn’t see him sobbing on the floor of the crystal. He couldn’t be bothered to wipe the tears out of his eyes. He let them fall, down his face, on the floor, blending with the blood droplets around him.

“It’s okay, Riz”, Penny softly muttered, like an angel in the darkness. “Your friends will get you out. Just. Don’t forget me. Alright?”

He couldn’t answer. Sobs didn't let him breathe, let alone talk.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the silhouette of the halfling girl rest her hand against the crystal. He mirrored her movement. He couldn’t feel the warmth of her hand through the wall between them, but this was all he had.

They stayed silent for a few moments. It felt like hours, it felt like a fraction of a second. It surely didn’t feel like long enough.

Eventually, Penny sighed, like she could predict what was coming.

“Goodbye Riz”

She disappeared.

Penny Luckstone was downloaded.

And Riz was alone once again, surrounded by shards, blood, tears, and defeat.

~~

Slowly Riz rose to his feet. He wiped his tears and his nose with his sleeve. He inspected his arms and hands carefully. Some cuts were still bleeding, but it was nothing Kristen couldn’t heal.

He felt like he was in a daze. His head was spinning.

He sensed Adaine casting Mage’s Hand. He sensed her hesitating between him and Zelda, before deciding to save him.

Zelda Donovan was downloaded.

In another life, he would be filled with glee at the prospect of manipulating the group to the extent of saving him instead of a missing girl. Or relief that he was free. Or touched because these people cared so much.

But now he felt numb.

He took a deep breath. He had a job to do. 

He was let out of the crystal but he ignored his party's cheers.

Biz was in front of him, with his hands handcuffed.

He loaded his father’s gun, he looked Biz in the eyes and shot him unceremoniously on the head, right in the middle of his forehead. 

The pixie’s head jerked back from the force of the bullet and his body fell on the floor. 

Fig screamed surprised and took a step back.

“What the fuck, the Ball?”, yelled Fabian, who was on top of his motorcycle for some reason. “We just revived him!”

“Kristen, can you-”, started Gorgug.

“That was my last third-level spell slot. I-I don’t know what to do!”, interrupted Kristen, her eyes wide, staring at the corpse in front of her as if she looked at him long enough, he would be revived.

“Riz!”, said Fabian, his voice strained. “We won! He was unarmed! We were gonna interrogate him for information! Why the fuck did you kill him?”

He used my real name. This is serious .

He didn’t care. He knew he had to do it. It was strictly business. Biz knew he was a double agent. And he wouldn’t last a minute under pressure. He would have spilled Riz’s biggest secret.

But he couldn’t deny the sadistic, dark satisfaction he felt. A small justice for Penny and all the other girls.

He straightened his back.

“He told me everything we needed to know. He didn’t know who was pulling the strings. His only job was to charm the crystals to trap people and to transfer the maidens’ consciousnesses to the AV club, in the academy. He did that using the machine Gorgug’s parents made”

He was guessing some of the intel, but those were logical conclusions. They were probably true or at least reasonable enough for the party to believe.

“But still”, said Adaine. “He could be hiding something. I could have casted Detect Thoughts on him. We might have foun-”

“Adaine!”, Riz interrupted, irritated. “Do you know what he told me? He said that he wanted to trap you in a crystal. Not because he was told to, not because he had to, but because he felt entitled to you. I have no clue and I don’t want to think what he could do to you”

The party visibly paled. Adaine looked like she was gonna throw up. However, she still raised her voice.

“He was a motherfucking creep. But he didn’t have to die. We could have had him arrested or-”

“For fuck’s sake Adaine! He was a pawn, he didn’t matter!”

He knew immediately that he said the wrong thing.

The change was instant. His party seemed to retreat, trying to get away from him. Their faces were a mix of shock, distraught, anger and betrayal. And fear. They all seemed afraid of him. 

“How can you say that?”, muttered Kristen.

He ignored her. 

He knew he had to keep up the facade of the nerdy, smart, anxious teenager. But he couldn’t. 

He was an assassin, a thief, a criminal, the Shadow Cat’s prized warlock.

Deep, deep down, he was hurt by their reactions. But this was the real him. A villain. A monster. This was just a reminder that they would kill him if they ever found out the truth.

Penny’s voice rang in his ears.

Goodbye Riz.

“C’mon. We have to find the girls”

He pushed past them heading to the exit. His eyes were focused straight ahead, not even once glancing back to his party. He didn’t want to face them.

Kalina appeared next to him. 

“Hey, kiddo. I lost you for a hot second there. Did anything interesting happen?”

He shook his head.

He had a job to do.

~~

Whenever Riz thought he couldn’t be surprised anymore, life always proved him wrong. 

But how the hell could he know that his whole party would be arrested for the murder of Johnny Spells, of all reasons?

So this was how they all ended up in prison, all of them in the same cell.

He counted the minutes and then the hours. After a while, he had to accept that the maidens had already been moved from the AV club. Even if he somehow escaped now there was no way to save Penny.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Kalina most definitely doesn’t want me to find them.

As his party tried fruitlessly to find possible escape routes, he sat silently on his bed, avoiding everyone’s gaze. In his mind, he replayed every second that passed inside the palimpsest. His conversation with Penny, her disappearance, his meltdown.

He didn’t allow himself to think of the reactions of his party after Biz’s murder. 

They are just pawns. They are just targets. Their opinion doesn’t matter.

He didn’t sleep that night.

~~

The next morning Riz, and Riz alone, was released. 

“I pulled some strings”, Kalina purred in his ear as he was collecting his stuff.

Everyone else assumed that he was allowed to leave because of his mom’s influence.

“Try to find us a way out of here!”, shouted Fig, her voice light. Like he hadn't murdered a teenager the previous night in front of her very eyes. A guard shushed her.

His mum gave him a bone-crushing hug as he left the precinct, relief evident on her face. Her arms were shaking a bit. She didn’t know exactly why they released him but she wasn’t gonna look a gift pegasus in the mouth.

“We are gonna find a way to get your friends out of there. I promise”, she said. 

They are not my friends. And if they ever were, not anymore.

When they reached home, he retreated into his room where Kalina was waiting.

“So”, she started. “We can all agree that the whole thing was a fiasco”

“What do you mean?”, he asked, perplexed.

“I am not saying this often, so treasure the moment. I was wrong”

“About what?”

“About that stupid party. Truly they are more trouble than they’re worth. And now they landed themselves in prison. I had trouble getting you out, I am not gonna waste any more favors for them to be a mere distraction. We can find many other ways to keep Kalvaxus away from us”

Riz felt his blood freeze.

“What does that mean for me?”

“Back to usual. I am giving you small jobs, you complete them. Easy peasy. At least until I find another way to distract the dragon”

He stayed silent. 

“Didn’t you say you are not a team player, Riz? Well, now you don’t have to interact with those loud, obnoxious teenagers ever again!”

His mind flashed to his fr- to his former party’s terrified faces at the arcade.

He nodded. That seemed to satisfy Kalina. 

“Alright kid. We’ve got work to do”

Chapter Text

“What was that, Riz?”

“...”

“You said you could keep a secret! You said you won’t tell anyone about us”

“I didn’t!”

“You almost spilled everything to your mom today. What the fuck, Riz?”

“D-don’t curse”

“I’ll do whatever the fuck I want. Don’t pretend you are all innocent. Remember that I can see you? That I can hear you? You told your mum to quit her job”

“...”

“Didn’t you?”

“L-let go of my arm. Kalina, you are hurting me”

“Answer. My. Question.”

“I did! I did! Let go!”

“You think you are so clever, don’t you? You thought that if you keep her out of the force, that you can keep her safe from me? Kiddo, I run this place. If I want, I will murder her. On the way to the post office, in her car, even in your own home. No matter the place, no matter the people she is with, I can and will kill her if you pull a stunt like this again. What was our deal?”

“...”

“I know you haven’t forgotten. We made it yesterday after all”

“D-do what you say, and- and you keep mum safe”

“That’s right. And don’t forget the second half. What happens if you go against me?”

“... You’ll kill her”

“And what did you do?”

“Please, please don’t hurt her. I am sorry, I am so sorry, I’ll never do it again. Please, Kalina, plea-”

“Calm down, kiddo. We are friends after all. You get a freebie. After all, you didn’t mess up that bad. A nine-year-old asking his mom to quit her job after her partner was killed is normal”

“Thank you, thank you, thank yo-”

“But. This is your only warning. I don’t want to be forced to do something drastic. Sklonda is an old friend after all. I would hate for something bad to happen to her. So never disappoint me again”

“I won’t. I promise”

~~

A small shadow was illuminated by the streetlights, before slipping again in the darkness. No one was around but it was still careless walking close to the artificial light like the shadow was daring the fates for a reaction, a challenge, or maybe just to be caught. However nothing stood in his path and he continued through the roads of Elmville to the suburbs, where a small mansion stood alone. 

The shadow was Riz Gukgak, freshman of the Augeford Adventuring Academy, but in the middle of the night, in the middle of his mission, names weren’t important. Names gave something value, made something extraordinary and worth seeing. The shadow wanted to slip unseen in the darkness, just a pure machine, a weapon. When you were barely a presence, you don’t need a name.

He carefully inspected the wall of the mansion. It was too smooth for his liking, and he could hear voices from the kitchen. He knew he wouldn’t fall but he couldn’t afford any mistakes, and the shadow was careful. Precautions made him a hundred percent efficient after all. He casted Spider Climb and started ascending to the second floor. 

His legs were shaking slightly. Even after three weeks back to his usual gigs, his moves were just a bit unsure, just a bit wrong. Nothing that would constitute a mistake, but this weird uncertainty could prove fatal in a high-stakes situation.

He couldn’t understand. He was a shadow, he flourished in silence. Then why did his ears twitch searching for loud laughs and jibes? Why did he wait for five sets of footsteps to follow after him? Why was he missing the support of his former party?

Let’s not think about that. Not on the job.

He neared the lit window and stole a glimpse inside.

It looked like a personal office. He could see the back of a half-elf, hunched over a mahogany desk, frantically writing on a parchment. 

The window was locked from the inside, which didn’t stop him from Misty Stepping, his feet silently hitting the carpeted floor. The half-elf didn’t move, enraptured in his work.

The fact that his husband and kids were awake, and only one floor away would be a problem if he wanted to extract information. But he wasn’t here to torture anyone. Not tonight.

His gun would make noise. But he didn’t need it. He had done this routine dozen, maybe hundreds of times.

He tiptoed until he was right behind the half-elf. He drew a long dagger from his belt. Then, with a smooth, lightning-fast move, he slit his target’s throat. It was an extremely difficult balance to achieve, to cut deep enough to reach the carotid and to slice his victim’s vocal cords, but also to be so fast that no blood stained his gloves. But practice makes perfect. 

The half-elf’s hands flew to his neck, partly trying to stop the flow of the blood, and partly trying to understand what just happened. It was fruitless. He took a few hyperventilated breaths before the heaving stopped and he fell face-first onto the desk, his blood staining the papers. The shadow watched as his victim’s eyes turned glassy.

He took out a handkerchief and he cleaned the dagger, ignoring that his hands were slightly shaking. He released a silent breath and then Misty Stepped out of there, on the lawn. 

He doesn’t know who was the man he killed, nor why he attracted Kalina’s attention. That’s how it always was. 

However, his mind wandered, trying to solve the mystery even with the minimum clues he had. He scolded himself. Researching and theorizing was a thing he did with the Bad Kids. He didn’t associate with them anymore. They were in prison. Out of mind, out of sight. His job was, it always was, to carry Kalina’s will. Never question her. Or else. 

He ran away, and he was gone long before screams started coming from the house, the corpse already getting cold.

~~

Wake up. Go into a daze. Sleep. Repeat.

Riz was exhausted with his life. He lived day by day, going to school, returning home where he would do his homework all alone until his mom returned or Kalina came with a new assignment.

He couldn’t escape the whispers following him around school. He was the only freshman without an adventuring party, and though Jawbone pulled him aside and suggested he could join a new one, he declined. His reputation as a member of the most infamous party followed him, and he could score himself an empty table at lunch without anyone disturbing him. However, he preferred to sit alone in the library, studying new spells he could use on his missions, with Kalina encouraging him and giving him suggestions to improve. 

Wake up. Stay in a daze. Sleep. Repeat.

He aced his rogue classes. They were child’s play for him. He made himself unapproachable and slipped away whenever his classmates tried to talk to him or congratulate him for a perfect score. He didn’t need any more distractions. 

He would see Gilear Faeth sometimes, Fig’s step-dad, working as a lunchlad, or hanging out at Strongtower Luxury Apartments. He looked even worse than usual, if that was even possible, with huge bags under his eyes. One time he tried to wave at Riz, before tripping and falling face-first into a trash can. Riz ignored him and walked away.

His mum would look at him with pity, uttering empty promises of finding a way to free his party. He wouldn’t respond and she didn’t push. She gave him as much space as he wanted.

Wake up. Stay safe in the daze. Sleep. Repeat.

Whenever the silence in his house was too loud, or whenever the pitiful stare of his mother became too heavy, he would go to the cemetery. He would go to his father’s grave, and take care of it, pulling out the weeds and leaving fresh wildflowers. And after that, he would sit, with his back against the gravestone, and study the day’s homework. Then, when the sun would begin to set, he would mutter a goodbye and leave. 

Kalina never made her presence known whenever he was in the graveyard. He knew she was watching, but at least she didn’t interfere. A small mercy.

He never visited the Bad Kids in prison. 

Wake up. Be trapped in a daze. Sleep. Repeat.

~~

He was cleaning his room when he found it. In the bottom drawer.

The tin foiled flower from the first day of school.

He took it and examined it once again, noticing the detail, down to the veins of the leaves.

Damn, Gorgug is so talented.

He had to throw it, right? It was a part of his past and he knew that attachments could be used against him.

He took the flower and hovered it over the trash can. 

His grip on the flower was so tight that his knuckles turned white, and the delicate form crumbled under his clammy fingers... He stayed like this for ages, or maybe minutes or just seconds, before kicking the bin in frustration and throwing the flower back in his drawer. 

Along with the photo of the young, smiling Abernant sisters. He swore he’ll never open that drawer. 

He broke that promise many many times in the middle of the night, in moments of weakness, when his hidden regrets came to the surface and seemed scarier than even the Shadow Cat herself.

He would hold his briefcase and flower close to his chest, he would look hungrily at the faces of his friends in the photograph and he would hate them.

Oh, how he hated them. He hated them all. He hated that they threw him off his rhythm, that they lowered his defenses even for a bit, that they made him sloppy. They were the reason that his hands trembled a bit for hours after an assassination, a thing that hadn’t happened in years. They were the reason he felt cold whenever a group of loud teenagers passed him by. They were the reason his mind got distracted and gods, he hated them.

He hated that he thought of them in prison and that he wondered if they were up to some shenanigans. Who was he kidding, Fig surely was. Fuck her and fuck everyone else.

~~

A month after getting out of prison Riz remembered something.

Didn’t he use to make scenarios of fighting his party if the need arose? Yes, he did, he was so sure that they would find him out sooner or later, so he made sure he always had a plan to kill them all.

When did I stop making those plans? When did I stop seeing them as a threat and as something more? Long before we were arrested.

But no! This was good! This was great actually. He would make another scenario. He would remind himself that they were enemies, distractions, pawns.

Not friends. 

He pictured them surrounding him. He could easily imagine their faces. They’d probably have the same expressions as after he killed Biz. Betrayal, disbelief, fear.

Who should he start with? The most powerful magic user, Adaine. An easy target due to her bad constitution, and her anxiety weighing her down. But no, that couldn’t be accurate. Because he could picture her clearly in his mind. Eyes shining with tears, chin trembling, but standing, standing defiant. Determination written on her face, a powerful, brave opponent. She was already hurt by her family, by her sister, and yet she wasn’t broken. She was one of the strongest, most terrifying people Riz knew and she would do anything to defend her friends.

No, no, no let’s start with Gorgug. The tank, the brute. But he could see him tilting his head in confusion, not even bothering to raise his axe. He could hear his soft voice; “Hey, Riz are you okay? ”. Not doing anything to defend himself, in blind trust, as Riz points his gun at him, as he pulls the trigger, as the bullet hits him. The confusion never turns into betrayal, believing Riz as his friend until the end. Until his body hits the floo- NO !

Pick another target! Pick another target! Fabian! He was mean to him at first and he kept calling him that stupid nickname. Yes, he could kill Fabian. He could see him evading bullets and storming at him. Yes! A fight! He could win at a fight. He imagined Fabian trying to slice him with his sword, every movement lethal, but elegant. But no. This didn’t sound like the Fabian he got to know at all. The real Fabian would indeed storm with his sword, that’s what he did best after all, but he would try to deflect, to defend the others, to disarm him without hurting him. He would try to immobilize him, putting his body over him, making it easy to stab him with his dagger in the hear-

STOP ! Just stop!

Riz ran to the bathroom and threw up. He stayed there for a second, trembling, hugging the toilet, defeated.

And then, covering his face, he cried. 

~~

At least his friends would be safe when the end of the world came.

~~

Days passed. Homework was done. Assignments by Kalina completed. Silent dinners with his mum partaken. 

And so two months passed.

And so came the day of the prom.

He obviously wouldn't go.

Riz sat on his bed staring at his watch. Waiting for the moment Kalvaxus came back. Waiting for his life as he knew it to be over. Waiting for Kalina’s plan to come to fruition, after years of careful planning.

The Shadow Cat was there and she was repeating her plan. Riz was listening to her absentmindedly. 

The crown was protected by spells that Kalvaxus casted when Augeford died. Since those spells could be dispelled only if Kalvaxus was dead or if he gave them the crown himself, which he wouldn’t, they’d have to wait for him to lower his guard. 

“And why not before the prom?”, Kalina tested him. Her voice sounded distant to his ears. A thousand miles away. 

He knew the answer like the back of his hand. His voice was robotic, with no intonations, as he recited the plan.

Kalvaxus was very careful, and a wrong move would expose them. Better to wait for him to grow to full power, to become cocky, to lower his guard and for Kalina to form the perfect plan. 

Kalina nodded approvingly and complimented him, and Riz zoned out once again.

The world was ending, and he was feeling numb.

What pulled him out of the fog in his brain wasn’t Kalina. It was the sirens.

Sirens of fire trucks. A lot of them.

Kalina looked surprised.

“It’s probably nothing. But let me check. Be right back, kid”

He nodded and when she disappeared he finally released a sigh that was building up inside his chest.

Kalina appeared quicker than he would like, an amused smile on her face.

“Oh my gods, Riz, it’s a shit show. Remember your old party?”

His blood froze.

Like I could ever forget.

“Turns out they were actually more competent than I thought”, she continued. “They escaped prison and actually found out about Kalvaxus. Isn’t it hilarious?”

Riz felt the pressure building up inside him. He could barely spit out his words.

“W-what about the sirens?”

“This is the good part. Kalvaxus sees them as a threat! He tried to distract them by burning their homes down”

He burned their homes down?

“I know, brutal. Not my style, too obvious, but gotta respect his ferocity. But I am not done. It gets better”

Riz’s nails dug into his palm. The pain was the only thing preventing him from screaming.

“How does it get better?”, he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Kalina seemed oblivious to his inner conflict, drunk on enthusiasm.

“Those complete idiots actually went to their houses to save their families, and after all that shit they still decided to go fight Kalvaxus”

Riz opened his mouth to say something, but he couldn’t breathe. He could only release shallow gasps.

No, no, no, please no.

“Classic adventurers, I am telling you. So, I guess the apocalypse will be postponed for a few minutes until Kalvaxus kills them all, but we stick to the plan. This is good. Now they’re dead and we have one less loose end to deal with”

Kills them all. Dead. Dead, dead, dead. No more distractions. No more hesitations. No more weaknesses. No more Fabian, Kristen, Gorgug, Adaine, Fig. Dead. 

He didn’t remember when he stood up. Kalina was staring at him with curious eyes.

“I have to help them. I’ve got to be there with them”

Dead. No. Not yet. 

“Didn’t you hear what I said, Riz? We don’t need them anymore. When Kalvaxus kills them, he might get a confidence boost, making him easier to attack. It benefits us”

They are not dead yet.

“No”

He stood defiant. He was terrified, trembling, but staring at Kalina’s eyes nonetheless. Was that how heroes felt? Was that how his friends were feeling anytime they fought anyone stronger, more sinister than them?

“Are you going against me, Riz?”, Kalina said slowly, and Riz was reminded of the promise, of that constant threat that was hanging over his head for six years.

“No, Kalina”, he said, choosing his words carefully. “I believe in them. I believe that they can win. They are strong and they are smart and brave. You don’t need to orchestrate the perfect plan to trick Kalvaxus. They can beat him and you can have the crown tonight”

He looked at her pleadingly, trying and failing to hide the desperation in his eyes.

“But they need me to win. You have to let me help them. Please.

He could pinpoint the exact moment she connected the dots. That she realized how much he cared about those stupid kids he was tasked to lead. 

That she realized in how many other ways she could manipulate him.

But he couldn’t care. Not now. He had to save them. His friends.

Kalina sighed.

“It’s your funeral kid. Go out there and play the hero. It’s a pity. You had such potential”

And she became one with the shadows, leaving Riz alone.

Riz didn’t have the time to get hurt by how easily he was discarded.

Just another pawn amongst many.

He grabbed his gun. That sword from the arcade. 

He was ready to run to the Academy. To his friends. Who cared if they even considered him part of the group anymore?

But before he left, he took the tin-foiled flower and the old photograph from his drawer and he hastily put them in the inside pocket of his jacket.

Near his heart.

Chapter Text

“Can I give you a word of advice, Riz? As a mentor to her mentee”

“What kind of advice could you possibly have? You are only two years older than me”

“Well, I got into Hudol, so I am obviously extremely wise”

“An extremely wise, stuck up bitch-”

“Anyways! Stop rolling your eyes”

“Can’t help it. I have a serious medical disorder. I can’t help but rolling my eyes whenever someone spouts stupid bullshit. Have some respect, Aelwyn”

“Huh, you are joking. That’s a first. Don’t you wanna hear what I have to say?”

“No. Not really”

“Okay then”

“...”

“...”

“Fuck it! Tell me”

“Well, aren’t you a little brat? Okay, here it goes. What I learned is in our line of work, you can’t afford to have any attachments. Or at least to show them. In any way. Never, ever reveal what or who you care about. They can be used agai-”

“Seriously, that’s it?”

“What do you mean that’s it?”

“This is common knowledge, Aelwyn. C’mon. I learned this like five years ago”

“Five years? How long are you working for the Shadow Cat?”

“That doesn’t concern you”

“...”

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just… You are fourteen, right? The same age as my little sister”

“My age doesn’t matter. I am just as competent as any adult. I have done things, spies all over Spyre think that are impossible. I have killed more people in the last couple years, than most adventurers in their lives. My age doesn’t hinder me in the slightest-”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I-I… You know what? Forget it! It’s my fault for wanting to help you for once”

“If you want to help me, stop giving me shitty advice. Not having attachments, not letting anyone too close, yada yada, this is just common sense. I am not stupid. I am never gonna do that mistake”

“...”

“Stop looking at me like that! What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing. Let’s get back to business”

~~  

Riz ran the fastest he ever ran in his life. He sprinted down the road, not caring as he bumped into multiple people, ignoring the insults that they threw his way. He crossed streets and avenues, not bothering to look for passing cars, almost getting hit more than a couple of times.

The warm breeze threw his newsboy cap away and blew his hair in front of his face. He didn’t pause, merely swiping the hair and sweat out of his eyes.

The only important thing was to reach the academy. Before it was too late.

I can make it. I can make it.

In front of him, he could make out the gym. He dashed ignoring the pain in his spleen.

He paused for a second at the gym’s doors.

Please gods, let the prophecy not be completed yet.

Please, let Kalvaxus be a dragonborn still.

With that, he pushed the door open and burst inside.

His breath hitched at the sight.

Students were screaming everywhere, running towards the exit, pushing and flailing, almost tramping Riz in their panic. 

But the elephant in the room was the huge red dragon. Sure, Riz knew that this was an ancient, powerful creature, that caused wars and countless deaths. But stories didn’t prepare him for his ginormous height, the fact that he had to crouch to fit inside the gym, the way that the temperature had risen from his fiery breath. 

Every cell in Riz’s body was telling him to run.

Where are they? They are the most important thing here. Where are they?

With great effort, he took his eyes away from the threat, and there they were! His heart missed a bit, only by the sight of them.

Their clothes were singed, their faces covered in soot, they were bleeding profusely, Fabian was missing an eye but they were alive. Standing.

In all their glory, there was Riz’s party.

For a merciful second, he forgot about the dragon. He wanted to run to them, try to explain himself, apologize for abandoning them. But then Kalvaxus roared, moving his head to face Kristen and Ragh, who were running towards him, staff and axe raised respectively.

Wait, since when was Ragh on their side?

The dragon deeply inhaled and Riz’s eyes widened. He was gonna use his fire breath on them.

You have to protect them! Protect them!

Without hesitating, he raised his arm. He casted Cloud of Daggers almost instinctively, his brain barely having time to form the command.

Protect them!

Shadow daggers appeared around Kalvaxus, surrounding him before burying themselves along his scales.

They weren’t enough. Kalvaxus' hide was too thick for them to penetrate and cause real damage.

But he had accomplished his objective. He had the dragon’s attention.

Along with everyone else’s in the room.

“Holy shit, did Riz just do magic?”, screamed Fig from the other side of the gym.

“Oh my gods, Riz is here!”, added Kristen.

“You really took your time, the Ball!”

Riz would have loved to reply with a wry comment but he found himself occupied on the behalf that there was a twenty-foot high dragon right in front of him.

Oh shit.

The dragon throat lightened up from the inside, and that was the only warning Riz got before a fireball was flying his way. 

He was expecting that, and rolled away as quickly as possible, but he wasn’t fast enough. The blast caught his left side, and he let out a hiss in pain.

There was excruciating pain from his leg, all up to his arm and it stung and it hurt, and it hurt, goddammit it hurt so much.

Through eyes blurred by tears, he realised that his pants had caught on fire. He rolled on the floor, trying to doze out the flames.

This is fine. This is fine. At least he is not attacking the others. I was the only one uninjured, it was for the best that he targeted me.

He grimaced through the pain.

It’s fine. If I can keep him occupied long enough, the others have more time to prepare. By attacking me, he doesn’t attack those idiots who decided to stay in a fucking crowd, when there is a fucking dragon with fire breath.

He tried to stand up but his leg gave away the second he tried to put weight on it. He swallowed a cry of pain as he collapsed on the floor once again. He tried again with the same results. But he had to keep trying. He couldn’t give up already.

Well, they are my idiots. Gotta buy them some time.

“Is that all you got?”, he snarked, plastering an arrogant smile on his face.

At the edge of his vision, he saw Kristen casting a healing spell on Ragh.

But he didn’t have time for that. If he wanted to stay alive he had to keep his eyes on Kalvaxus. 

As a rogue, his forte was in the shadows, searching for weak spots to swiftly attack, only to slide back unseen a fraction of a second later.

But he didn’t have the luxury of being careful or strategic. For now, he had to be the bait. With Kalvaxus distracted the party would have time to regroup.

The dragon edged closer and Riz tried desperately to drag himself away, fully aware of how slow he was.

He kept eye contact with him.

“I was wondering where you were, Riz Gukgak. Or do you prefer Ball?”

He said the nickname with such disgust, as if it was a slur.

“It’s the Ball, bitch”, he responded, spitting on the ground.

Keep him talking.

The dragon smiled, bearing sharp teeth.

“I see. You, little detective. You must have done your research on me. As you probably know from my binding, I was forbidden from harming Solesian citizens. Your father had to renounce his citizenship when he entered the service”

Riz’s eyes widened.

“Devouring him was the greatest joy I have known these past three hundred years”

The realisation sank slowly into Riz’s bones. Kalvaxus had killed his dad. After his dad’s death, Riz never wondered, never considered who was responsible for it. He always pictured nameless thugs dressed in black with masks over their faces, or mob bosses, with bodyguards strong enough to crush a goblin’s skull in a second.

He never though-

Why did he never ask Kalina? 

Gods, why did he never ask?

An even more horrible thought popped into his mind.

I was helping bring back my dad’s murderer.

It didn’t matter that Kalina was already planning to kill him. He went to the same school with his father’s killer. He talked to him. He was gonna let him have his triumph, if it weren’t for his party.

Kalvaxus was the reason he grew up in an empty home.

Kalvaxus was the reason his mom still secretly cried in the middle of the night.

Kalvaxus was the reason he made that deal with Kalina.

Kalvaxus…

Kalvaxus was-

Kalvaxus is gonna kill me. Just like he killed dad.

The thought hit him with absolute certainty.

He was gonna die. 

The dragon stomped triumphantly closer to him, each step making the wooden floorboards shake and bend under his weight. But Riz paid no mind to him. The edges of his vision were blurring.

And Riz couldn’t move. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t crawl, he couldn’t breathe. 

Kalvaxus’s front leg crushed on Riz’s small figure, not hard enough to harm him, just to keep him in place. His long claws dag painfully in his burnt leg. 

But there was no need for all that.

Riz was done fighting. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Kalvaxus laughed, smoke coming out of his mouth, clearly amused watching him tremble like a leaf. 

And Riz was pinned down, and he couldn’t even find the will to attempt to fight against the dragon’s grasp.

Is this how my dad’s final moments were?

Kalvaxus’s mouth opened, and Riz could distinguish rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth. And he could see light coming from deep into his throat.

There is another fireball coming, his mind provided numbly.

The temperature was rising, the mouth was coming closer, flames escaped through jagged teeth, Riz’s hair was getting singed, and he was trembling uncontrollably, and he was hyperventilating and he couldn’t do this, gods he couldn’t face this, he couldn’t even raise his arms to protect his face. 

He closed his eyes, bit his lip to stop any whimpers from escaping, and tried fruitlessly to curl up. He was so scared. Please gods make it quick, he was so scared.

Kalvaxus roared in pain and Riz felt a hand grab the back of his shirt. The dragon’s claws retracted momentarily and his grip loosened. And then there was a strong yank and Riz was flown backwards into someone’s embrace. A cold breeze hit his face. He reluctantly opened his eyes.

Fabian was grabbing him and holding him close with one hand, while he was driving the Hangman with the other.

Riz blinked, not believing in his eyes, as the other boy gently and with little effort placed him in the back seat of the motorcycle. 

“You can’t die just yet, the Ball. You just arrived. You did a dramatic entry and everything”

Riz didn’t respond, too busy trying to stay on the motorcycle, his body shaking too much to stay uplift. They were evading Kalvaxus, moving to the other side of the gym, but terror still consumed him. In desperation he hugged Fabian from behind, digging his nails into his jacket. The half elf didn’t complain.

“Riz, listen. It’s just dragon fear. You are okay. You are s- well not safe, but don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe. Try to breathe. Can you do that for me?”

A broken laugh escaped Riz’s lips, but he tried to comply. He buried his face in Fabian’s jacket and inhaled deeply. Soon enough his intense terror lessened and he was able to steady his breath. 

It was just dragon fear. It was a common effect that those scaly creatures had on inexperienced adventurers. And he, like an idiot, fell right into the trap.

“S-sorry”, he whispered, shame painting his cheeks red.

“It’s no sweat, the Ball. It’s the end of the world after all”

He laughed once again, genuinely this time. 

The Hangman came to a stop and Riz hopped down on unsteady legs. His leg was still killing him but he could stand. That would have to do.

Kristen shot him a smile as she casted a healing spell on him. It was weak and he barely felt any relief, but he didn’t complain. 

“I am so glad you are back”, she told him before running off to heal Adaine.

“You are doing great, kiddo”, Riz heard a voice coming from Kalvaxus’s direction. 

Is that Jawbone, inside the dragon's mouth, like a fucking madman? How didn’t I notice it before? Holy shit, Gorthalax too?

He took a deep breath.

Alright, this is it.

And he took aim.

~~

So here was the thing. Riz’s party was amazing. His friends were resourceful, brilliant, talented, incredible fighters. They had the biggest heart of anyone Riz had ever met. They were gifted and far too experienced for their age.

But they were exhausted, terrified, gravely injured. They were stranded without any resources, without healing potions, without any backup. And they were against one of the greatest legendary villains of Spyre. Only this time the villain was even more experienced, more furious, more vicious.

Kalina was right. They really didn’t stand a chance.

Kristen was the first to fall. A ball of fire hit her right in the chest, and she was thrown against the gym’s wall. She didn’t move after that. 

Riz spent years learning everything he could about battles and party formations. When the cleric was put out of commission, the party most of the time was as good as dead. 

He gritted his teeth and tried to focus on the fight.

Aim. Shoot. Hide. Repeat.

Even with his magic, even when he was bending the shadows to hide him, Kalvaxus could find him more often than not. It was almost laughable, like a little kid hiding behind a curtain, only for their parent to find them immediately.

Fig, Ragh, Adaine, Gorgug, they all collapsed on the ground. Riz didn’t, couldn’t afford to stop and find out if they were just unconscious or-

They had to be unconscious. They had to. For gods' sake, they had to.

Aim. Shoot. Hide. Repeat.

Kalvaxus attacked him with his claws, tearing his jacket and shirt and skin. Riz felt the warm blood soaking his shirt and dripping to the floor. Did he damage an artery? No, he had no time to try and stop the bleeding. 

It was a losing battle. Every second, his goals shifted.

He had to kill the dragon.

He had to protect the still bodies of his friends.

He had to do damage. Every shot counted.

He had to survive the next attack.

He had to stay awake.

He panted and leaned against the wall. His one hand tried to put pressure on the wound on his side, which was bleeding profusely. His other hand, holding his dad’s gun, took aim, even if his arm was shaking, even if he felt woozy from blood loss. He didn’t have the energy to run and hide. He didn’t have the energy to move at all, not even to dodge the dragon’s attacks. His knees buckled and he collapsed on the floor.

But even then, he still tried to shoot the dragon.

Only Fabian was still up, desperately dodging the dragon, riding on the Hangman. Through Riz’s blurry vision, he looked like nothing more than a hazy figure.

Kalina was right. They failed. His friends were going to die, he was going to die. He knew it the second he decided to join them, but gods he was hoping for a miracle.

Monsters like him didn’t deserve a happy ending. But his party, his friends, the Bad Kids, were good, oh so good. And their goodness wasn’t based on naivety, rather on the desire to face all the world’s evils head-on and deciding after all the ugliness they’ve seen, to be kind.

They were heroes. They deserved a miracle, they deserved to live, to emerge victorious.

Kalvaxus was facing him once again preparing to release a breath of fire. He could hear Fabian screaming for him to move, but he couldn’t. 

He let his gun slip through his fingers. He didn’t feel afraid this time, but maybe he was too dazed to feel fear.

I don’t regret coming here. I don’t regret dying here. If I could I would do this all again. 

His world became an inferno and he screamed from the unbelievable pain consuming him.

As the fire swallowed him, he had one last conscious thought.

Surrounded by friends, this is not such a bad way to die.