Magic, it seemed, could have a smell. If there had been time to anticipate what the ogre’s curse would do, Taff would never have guessed that it would stink like his father returning home. A smell of wine and sweat.
Guards and horses screaming. A glimpse of a fallen warrior Taff had seen once before, at a Winter’s Crest parade. Then I am no longer a boy — and I am not afraid of you.
Back on her feet, Lady Vex’ahlia’s tone had brooked no failure. “You are a guard of Emon.” Yesterday I was. Maybe not tomorrow. Taff clung to the hope that Vex’ahlia would speak to Sovereign Uriel as she had promised.
The man in rags spoke up with irritating calm. “You weren’t drunk when they brought you in, cavalier. And pardon me” — he bowed theatrically as far as his chains would permit — “but you look more like an altar boy than a brawler.”
Taff did not respond.
“… ’Course, sometimes the altar boys are the worst of all.”
Taff spat into the dirty straw at his feet. He clenched his fist around the list of charges he was facing.
The man in rags chuckled. “That pride won’t help you much down here, cavalier.”
Here was the dungeon below the Military District Stockade. The cell he shared with the man in rags was the closest to the stairs and to the only source of light, a diagonal ceiling shaft that connected to a west-facing window well in the inner yard. Taff could neither see nor hear any other prisoners. The only visible furniture was a bucket on this side of the bars and — out of reach against the corridor wall — a single wooden chair, a water barrel, and a rack of billhooks and greatclubs.
Taff scowled. “Why don’t you just ask me what you want to know?”
Rows of healthy teeth gleamed in the shadows. “All in good time.”
Taff heard a latch being lifted at the top of the staircase and held up his manacled hands to signal for silence. More than one person was coming.
The under-jailer led a familiar young woman into the dungeon. Heavy with child, Roesia walked past her escort and into the fading light. “I will be fine, sir. You need not stay.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll have to search you.”
Roesia looked at Taff with worried determination while the under-jailer patted her down for longer than necessary. Neither of them said anything until he finally left.
“Taff, I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to find out where they were keeping you since I buried my father.”
The man in rags whistled. “You’re in deeper than I thought, cavalier.”
Taff flushed senselessly. He had met this girl for the first time yesterday. Ignoring his cellmate, Taff returned Roesia’s worried look. “My lady, I — would you bring me some water?” He indicated the barrel. She dipped the ladle and passed it through the bars. Taff drank half and brought the rest to the man in rags, who accepted it with another bow.
Taff gave Roesia a tight smile. “Thank you, but you shouldn’t be here.”
“Where else should I be? I don’t even know why the other guards arrested you.”
Taff handed her the piece of paper in his hand. Roesia was slow to take it. She looked down for a moment and passed it back. “The light is poor. Perhaps your eyes are stronger.”
Why did I presume?… Quietly, he began to read. “Lancer Taff, Roundspur Company, the Sovereign’s Horse Guards. You are hereby commanded to surrender your weapons, insignia, and armor. You are consigned to the Military District Stockade to await trial by the Marshal’s Court on two accusations of insubordination.”
Roesia searched Taff’s face. He continued.
“Namely, that you willfully disobeyed lawful orders to retreat and to secure the North Gate of Emon against an attacking giant of unknown origin. That you abandoned your comrades-in-arms. That, by your dereliction of duty, you endangered your Sovereign and his people, whom you had sworn oaths to defend.”
“By order of Welton Rede, Captain of Horse.”
Taff looked up. Roesia pursed her lips. “Is any of that true?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “The ogre raised a weapon against us. A rod or a wand that afflicted my entire troop with magic.” Roesia nodded as she listened. “Whatever it was, I think it made us all remember our worst fears. The other guards fled. There was no order to retreat. Lady Vex’ahlia sent me into your house. When my troop returned, you must have seen a man who looked like he had just swallowed a spider. That was the Lieutenant. He sent some guards to search your house and pasture.” Roesia nodded again. “When they came back, he had me arrested. On our way to the city, one of my comrades told me that no wand was found on the ogre’s body.”
Roesia’s expression changed from worry to excitement. “Taff, I know that wand. She — the ogre — used it on me and my father. I can testify for you!”
“No!” Taff shook his head. “Don’t say that, you don’t know — ”
“Cavalier,” the man in rags interrupted. “I’m no snitch. But you, pretty lady, shouldn’t say such things out loud.”
Taff reached out for Roesia’s hand and squeezed it for emphasis. “Come closer.” She placed her head against the bars and he whispered into her ear. “If you want to help me, tell Captain Rede, Guardian Bratorus, or Lady Vex’ahlia. Tell no one else.”
A bell rang out, startling them both. It kept ringing. Taff heard muffled shouts above. A trumpeter blew three short blasts.
Taff squinted with incredulity. “The stockade is under attack.”
Something moved between the window well and the setting sun. Taff could no longer see. He heard an inhuman roar that seemed to vibrate the stone on which they stood. Taff felt Roesia clutching his hand. For the second time in as many days, he heard guards screaming in utter terror.
The shadow passed and the day’s last light streamed through the ceiling shaft again. The light was tinged with green. A caustic scent cut through the stink of the dungeon and Taff’s eyes began to water. Blinking rapidly, Taff saw a wispy column of greenish-black vapor coming down the shaft toward Roesia’s head.
Taff pushed at her hand. “Get out! Get out of here!”
Roesia scampered back. She watched the gas billow into the dungeon and looked at Taff, who retreated further into his cell.
The gas was a frightening unknown. “Roesia! Leave us!”
Roesia made a different choice. She plunged her woolen shawl into the water barrel and wrapped it over her nose and mouth. The column of vapor widened as it descended. Roesia pulled a steel-tipped greatclub from the rack of weapons on the wall. She tried to skirt the acrid fumes and swung the club over her head and down onto the cell door lock. The lock held. The gas reached the floor and started pooling outward.
Roesia kept on swinging. Her fifth blow broke the lock.
Taff ran to her. She dropped the club into the pool of gas and raced for the steps at last. Taff squeezed his eyes and nostrils shut and bent down to feel along the floor. He grasped the club. His hands and forearms came up red and peeling. He rushed to the man in rags but stopped short.
The man had somehow slipped his chains. Together, they ran after Roesia.
She was waiting at the top of the stairs. Her dress was discolored and her exposed hands and ears and forehead were spotted with angry blisters. Taff doubled over, coughing. When the fit ended, the man in rags was gone.
“Taff,” she said with an edge of panic. “I can hardly see.”
“I’ll be your eyes,” he rasped.
More bells were ringing all around. The trumpet had gone silent. Taff led Roesia by the arm toward the outer wall of the stockade, away from the inner yard and the still expanding cloud of poison. They heard plenty of commotion but reached a side door without encountering any other guards.
Outside, however, a cordon of guards lined the opposite side of the street. Every man and woman looked skyward. Taff followed their gaze to a massive silhouette, with four great claws and a wingspan longer than the largest warship in the harbor. Dragon.
It circled once, angled its wings, and flew south in the direction of the palace.
Queen of Light, preserve us.
Taff pulled Roesia back against the wall of the stockade.
“After the beast!” barked an officer. “Forward!” The line of guards began to run in the dragon’s wake. “For Uriel!” Several guards saw Taff and his manacles but none of them broke formation.
They have a bigger fish to catch. Taff watched his comrades go with mixed feelings of pride, envy, and horror. What can they hope to do against a dragon?
As the dust settled in the now deserted street, Taff became conscious of his burning extremities. She has to feel it, too. He spied a watering trough for horses. “Roesia, this way.”
Taff helped her kneel down and douse her head and hands in the water. She untied her shawl and used it to cool her neck and chest. Taff rinsed his peeling arms and his bare, bleeding feet. The water was a cool relief but the pain returned quickly, only slightly abated. It will have to do.
“Fuck this,” said Roesia. She rolled over the edge of the trough and flopped into the water, submerging herself entirely.
Taff smiled despite himself. He took a moment to catch his breath and looked around in the deep blue twilight, trying to decide what to do next.
He heard echoing crashes to the south, like a giant rockfall. Roesia sat up and clambered out of the trough.
“How are your eyes?” he asked.
Gingerly, she wrung the water out of her hair. “Not good. Where did that nastiness come from? Are we still in danger?”
“It was dragon’s breath. The dragon headed for the Cloudtop. It could still come back.”
“Will you take me home?”
They headed for the North Gate, following narrow alleys and staying in the shadows where they could. Armed men and women marched down the main streets toward the Cloudtop District. Scattered civilians ran north, to safety, joined by more than a few who should have been fighting.
So should I. But I can’t leave her like this.
Roesia’s dress dripped water and Taff’s feet dripped blood. They reached a hilltop square. Taff held Roesia back. “Oh, no. No.”
She froze and then turned her stricken eyes toward the sound of Taff’s voice.
“Fire,” he breathed. “Fire coming down from the Shoreline Summit. There is flame and smoke all along the coast. It’s coming in. Gods, Roesia.” He stopped.
“What?” she pleaded. “Tell me.”
“I think your farm, your village, they’re in the path. It’s all burning. Here it comes. Down! Get down!”
Out of the flames came a second dragon. It was flying too fast for Taff to comprehend its size. He could only tell it was much larger than the first. Taff pushed Roesia under an eave and did his best to shield her body with his own. They huddled together as the great beast swooped low and passed to the south.
Roesia buried her head in the crook of her elbow. Taff held her awkwardly with his shackled hands. He realized he was shaking.
Taff looked back at the Cloudtop District. The fire dragon crashed onto the roof of the palace, shattering the central dome. Taff stared at the sight, unable to move or think. Two other dragons — two? — rose into the sky and flew westward over the Ozmit Sea, before curving around and heading east along the Silvercut.
Fires were burning all over Emon, sending pillars of smoke into the sky.
What happened next was the most impossible sight of all. As if drawn by a whirlpool, the smoke from every burning fire in the Cloudtop bent toward the palace and swirled upward, coalescing into a majestic purple thundercloud. The thundercloud flashed from within and began hurling rain and lightning down on the great dragon at the center of the city. Taff felt a hot tear on his cheek. Someone fights. Someone with power.
He took a deep, calming breath. “Roesia. We can’t stay here. We need a new plan.”
She raised her head. “Taff, you said I have nothing left to go back to. The other guards must be fighting. You should leave. Do your part.”
He took her gently by the arm with his face less than a foot away from hers. “Roesia. Can you see me now?”
She nodded. “A little.”
“I’m not going anywhere. The best place for me to fight and the best place to keep you safe — it’s the same. We should make for Greyskull Keep. If anyone can fight these dragons, it’s Vox Machina.”
The determination she had shown in the dungeon returned to Roesia’s face. “Then let’s go.”