The Great Library of Palanthas

Astinus' Office

Dominating the center of this room is a massive birch desk. Legend claims this desk has supported the thousands of volumes of history Astinus has recorded. A large pot of ink, a container of sharpened quills, and a candelabra complete the desks decorations. Small windows line the room, allowing light to trickle in and gently illuminate the entire room. A comfortable couch rests against the west wall. Tapestries hang on the walls between the windows. Shelves line the walls, filled with tomes of the more recent records of heroes and villians upon the face of Krynn.

The librarian notices you aren't reading anything... Astinus hands a brief catalogue to an Aesthetic standing by you. You note the spine bears the word 'Cassan' scribed in dark maroon ink. As you glance down at the page you read..

From the pages of Cassan's book..

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:32:38 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (01/18)

Part 1: Blood in the Snow Blood trickled from the corpse of the dead crow and colored the snowy ground red. I gasped and started up from bed. My breathing refused to settle down for several minutes. I wiped the sweat from my forehead as I looked at the shuttered windows. There were barely any traces of sunlight. But I no longer heard the howling of the wind from outside. The blizzard must have calmed down by now. I fit on my headband and secured my shoes quietly. I heard the soft snoring of the hut's keepers in the next room. '{OTime for me to go. No need to announce my departure, as I am only a temporary guest.' I secured my belt and my pouch before I left out the door. It was approaching dawn. The barbarian tribe of Icewall was not at all awake at the current hour--there weren't even any guards currently on duty. '{OGood. All the better for me to sneak off without being seen.' I strode out into the snowfields once again and trudged southward. The wind was so quiet today unlike yesterday; I could clearly hear my footsteps in the snow. For nearly an hour, there was nothing to see in the entire walk. But my pace slowed down and I crouched as I spotted the camp in the distance. A campfire was burning outside, and two tents hung against the base of the plateau to the north. I narrowed my eyes as I recognized the banners just outside of those tents, as well as the white armor of the men lingering outside on watch. Dragonarmy.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:34:27 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (02/18)

Part 2: Retribution "Blasted snow keeps parting in and out. The clouds just won't go away, eh?" One of the Dragonarmy soldiers tried his best to restart the fire. But the flint that he held refused to provide any real spark in the cold. "Hurry up with that," his partner grumbled, "or the Commander will feed you to the tinders next." I crept around the unit and climbed up to the top of the plateau. Judging from the layout of the small camp, I needed to take them down with stealth. I waited until the watching partner of the fire starter looked away, and then jumped forward and snapped the neck of the white-armored soldier. "Hm?" The soldier at the dead campfire began to turn the moment he heard a thud near him. I swept my leg and kicked loose snow at his eyes. While he reeled from the blindness, I dashed up to him and delivered a hard uppercut to his jaw to knock the fool out. I sensed sudden movement from one of the tents and hid away from the entrance of the tent whose entrance flap was flung wide open. A bronze draconian with only a helmet on stepped out. "What is taking you fools so long--" He trailed off as he saw the bloody mess I had made. '{OOh. That's a Bozak. If I remember what the books said...' I drew out a single shuriken and threw it at Bozak's neck. "Comman--" The metal throwing star cut into his throat and stopped the rest of his words from slipping out. I dashed forward and drop kicked him straight toward the other Dragonarmy tent. As I predicted, the dead draconian exploded as soon as it made contact with something within the tent and set the last entity within on fire. "Who dares make a fool out of Dragonarmy?" it hissed as it stepped out of the burning structure and beat off the flames still on its scales. This draconian was silver and actually wore armor. Without giving it an answer, I ran at the recovering warrior and flipped my legs upward. My feet kicked it into the air, and I leapt up and dealt another drop kick against its armored chest. It growled as it was sent against the hard surface of the plateau. I narrowed my eyes as I saw no real damage from the hit. '{OWell, obviously. It's at least a half foot taller and more massive than the other one.' It snarled at me and opened its jaw wide. I tensed up as I anticipated a breath attack, but I blinked as a huge clout of snow fell from the edge of the plateau above the draconian and buried it. After about ten seconds, I sensed no further movement. "{OThat was pathetically easy. And you call yourselves Dragonarmy?" I shrugged and calmly walked over to retrieve my shuriken from the other dead draconian's remains before striding away from the ruined campsite.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:35:47 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (03/18)

Part 3: Stranger The snow fall's speed increased not long after I left the campground, and I found myself in a blizzard once more. I sighed as I rubbed my arms together while I walked. '{OMaybe I shouldn't have destroyed both of those tents. I could have used the warming up period.' It was growing colder the longer I lingered in the blizzard, so much that I couldn't even see my previous tracks any more. '{OAm I lost?' "Really, now? Wandering around in such an inappropriate outfit as that? You're definitely not from either of the tribes in Icewall, are you?" Who just said that? I tensed up and clenched my fists as I heard the distinctly female voice. '{OHow did someone manage to sneak up on me like this? Then again, I can hardly see anything in this damnable blizzard.' "Oh, there's no need for violence. As you can see, I'm just an innocent little hermit." I saw a brief shine ahead of me, and the thickness of the snowfall around me lightened just enough for me to spot the person who approached. She was a silver-haired human woman who wore only a dull gray one-piece dress with long sleeves. It barely ended at her thighs. How was she not freezing as much as I was? "{OAnd I'm just a wandering monk. What is it that you want, hermit?" I asked as I cut straight to the point. "I could ask you the same thing, monk. The only fitting garments you have are your shoes, and those are hardly enough to protect yourself from weather like this," she remarked. "As you can see, these are hardly appropriate conditions to travel in, wanderer or not. Would you like to take shelter in my cave until the winds die down?" A random woman out in the woods offers refuge for a complete stranger? This spelled nothing but a trap in my ears. But then again, remaining alone in this blizzard relatively blind wasn't all that desirable an option either. I sighed and let out a short breath into the air. "{OFine. I'll accept your offer, herm-- ah... ma'am," I said, forcing myself to remain civil for now. The woman turned around and took a few steps, though she gave me a sidelong glance. "There is just one thing, monk." "{OWhat is it?" I swore her eyes were briefly aglow. "Please don't call me ma'am again." "{OOh. Alright. Ah... lady?" "Mmm." She shrugged and turned back to concentrate on the path ahead. "Lady will suffice for now." I sighed and remained quiet the rest of the trek.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:36:59 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (04/18)

Part 4: Direction The ice cave had seen better days, that much I could tell. Fallen stalactites littered many parts of the ground. The ground itself was left uneven and cracked by some unseen force, as if an earthquake had ruptured the entire space. Despite no obvious fire present, the cave was warmer than it looked. The only objects that I could identify that made the place a 'home' at all were a couple piles of pillows at two different corners of the room. Anything else that resembled furniture was in pieces. "{OWhat happened to this place?" I asked. "{OIt looks like it's..." "Broken? Of course." The woman snorted and led me to one of the pillow piles. "The locals don't much like me since I refuse to pay them tribute. They think they own the entire glacier, even though there's hardly anything worth owning here. But enough about that. Make yourself at home here. So..." As I took off my boots before settling on the pillows, she looked at me with a piercing gaze. "What did you come here all the way for, monk? You're a far cry from Lantern, aren't you?" "{OYou know where I'm... oh." I trailed off as I looked over my clothing. Other than the winter boots, the red and orange toga and pants were definitely of Lantern make. "{OIf you know where I am from, lady, then you can probably guess why I'm here. I am here on a journey to get stronger by fighting stronger creatures." The woman perked an eyebrow. "Out here? But there are hardly any entities worth testing your mettle on, dear monk. The ice bears are hardly notable. I've seen more brutal wildlife elsewhere." "{OIt's not the bears I am hunting." I shook my head. "{OI am here to hunt a dragon that is supposedly in hiding here. The sage at that barbarian outpost told me of a reclusive dragon who lives here."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:39:14 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (05/18)

Part 5: Motivation The woman sat up from her relaxed position and looked at me. "Oh? A dragon? That's pretty ambitious of you. But tell me something, monk... why do you feel you need to prove your strength against a dragon? What do you even need strength for?" '{OShe's being awfully nosey.' I turned away from her. "{OIt's personal. You don't need to know why." The hermit shrugged. "If you insist." The silence stretched on for a full minute. When I could no longer endure it, I frowned and turned back over to face her. "{OSo, do you know anything about a dragon who lives here, lady?" She gazed at me for a long while without answering me. "Perhaps I do," she replied with an unreadable look that made my lips twitch, "but before I help you, I require your help in something first, monk." "{OAnd what would that be?" I gestured toward the rest of the mess that the cave obviously was. "{OI'm not really a cleaning service..." She threw a pillow at me. I deflected it easily and ignored the cross look that she gave me. "Not that, fool. I require your help in restoring my cave's original dimensions. The frost giants who did this to me, you see, also stole a special relic that would allow me to repair my home easily. It is a clear orb made of ice. If you can retrieve the orb from the frost giants, I will guide you to your dragon. Do we have a deal?" I didn't have any further leads on a destination. And as I checked my pockets on my current stock of rations, I noticed I certainly didn't have the supplies to randomly search. "{OAlright," I sighed, "{Oyou have a deal." "Very good." The woman extended her hand out to me. "You will not regret your decision, mister..." She trailed off as she looked at expectantly. "{OCassan," I supplied to her as I accepted her handshake. "Cassan," she repeated as if testing out the sound of my name from her lips. "You may stay the rest of the night," she finished as she let go of my hand. "I doubt the blizzard will end anytime soon."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:41:34 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (06/18)

Part 6: Lingering Pain The blood of the dead crow continued to spread from the ground it lay on toward another corpse not even ten feet from it. A girl littered with arrows lay face-up with an empty-eyed expression. Her ghost lingered behind me and whispered. For a moment, her voice was exactly like the hermit woman's. "Why do you fight?" My arms shivered and I tried to turn around to face her and answer her properly. "{OI--" A giant droplet of blood suddenly splashed atop my head. I opened my eyes and gasped as I sat up quickly. I felt moisture on my nose and I reached up to touch it. It was a water droplet from the ceiling. The hermit was right. This cave was starting to fall apart without external assistance. I pinched my nose and knocked my head. '{OGo away, nightmare. I don't need you reminding me why I'm here.' I looked over to the other side of the room. The silver-haired woman was still sleeping on her side with her own pillows. I quietly dressed up and ate the next bit of my rations. Careful not to disturb the woman's slumber, I left the cave without making a single sound. '{OTime to get to work.' --- The ice giants' tower was not a difficult structure to miss, in no small part to the snow finally letting up for the moment. It stretched up to four stories, and vaguely resembled a coastal lighthouse at its peak. That, I assumed, was where I would find the ice orb that I needed. When I began my ascent, I found three ice giants having a meal at the center of the second floor's room. One put down the slab of animal meat he was holding the moment he looked at me and puts his hands on his hips. "Hey, worm. No humans allowed on giants' turf. You want to pass here, you have to go through us." I rolled my eyes as I stopped in front of one of the tower windows. "{OThat was the idea, seal for brains. Or you could do us all a favor and choke on that piece of meat you have there like a good little minion." "What?!" The giant male's teeth gnashed together. "How dare you insult a proud royal guard of Sir Kassr!" He rushed off of his seat and charged straight for me. I waited until the last second and jumped out of the way. The fool kept running and threw himself straight over the window ledge. I snorted and cracked my knuckles together as I faced the other two. "{OReady to end up as black and blue as your friend there?"

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:42:32 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (07/18)

Part 7: The Pinnacle "Foolish human! It is you who will be losing your head here!" The other two giants drew their weapons, a spear and axe respectively. The axe- wielder charged forward toward me. He swung wide from my right. I leapt over the strike and vaulted off of his shoulder, sending him stepping forward toward the broken window. The giant caught himself before he stumbled out of it, but I grabbed and threw one of the stone seats at the dinner table. The object shattered against his back, and he yelled as he fell off of the tower to join his friend. "Insolent worm!" I rolled away from the spear giant's first thrust, and while he reared back his arms for another strike, I kicked up one end of the giant wooden table. The spear went through it and missed me entirely. While his view of me was temporarily blocked, I leapt over it and spun my legs to kick at his head. The last giant guard grunted as his back hit against the opposing staircase leading upward. He held his spear high and thrust downward toward me. I narrowly dodged the blow and sent an uppercut straight against his jaw. The larger male went flying, and his head banged against the ceiling before coming back down. A part of his legs got caught against the stairway and cracked before falling against the tower's floor completely. I winced as I paused to wrap my hands in bandages. '{OPunching those giants really hurts.' I gave a test squeeze of my dominant hand and nodded softly. The bandages hardly dulled the pain, but they would hold for just a little longer. I proceeded up the stairs at a faster pace. But once I reached the pinnacle of the steps, a flying icicle shattered against my right arm. I grit my teeth and scowled as I faced the icicle's conjurer. A smaller frost giant, almost at a human's height, stood at the other end of the room holding a wooden staff. "So it was you who disposed of my personal guard. You will perish here and now, human filth," the mage scowled. I brushed the ice remnants off of my arms as I flexed into a combat stance. "{OSo you're this Kassr they mentioned. I'll be relieving you of your orb now," I intoned.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:44:47 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (08/18)

Part 8: Burial "You'll do no such thing, human scum. You will crumble like the foolish barbarians!" I attempted to charge forward, but the wizard clacked the end of his staff on the ground. Suddenly, most of the floor around him became an entire sheet of ice. I clicked my tongue as I kept my distance and backed off. '{OGetting close to him would be too much of a risk, especially with no real footing. What do I do?' I hurriedly looked at the battleground. The room had an odd, gazebo-like shape and structure at the peak floor, with four main supports holding the entire domed ceiling together. I hmm'd as an idea came to me. '{OIt's a big risk, but I don't really have any better options. Here we go.' Kassr grasped the ice orb in his hands and laughed as I retreated to one of the support pillars. "Join your frozen ancestors!" he howled and shot a blast of cold air toward me. I dodged away from the supports. The ice spell coated the supports almost completely. "{OIs that it? Is that all the power the frost giants can muster?" I taunted. He snarled as I scrambled toward another one of the supports. "You won't get away, worm!" I continued to dodge and bait out Kassr's ice magic until all four pillars were covered with the sorcerer's ice. After the fourth support was frozen over, I spun and threw all the shuriken I had toward the supports. I landed at the back of the room near the stairs leading down. '{OAnd now I--' "Enough of your moving!" The giant swept his staff downward. Thick webs began to cover my hands and feet. I grit my teeth as I glared at him. "And now to remove that useless head from your flesh..." As he raised his staff upward, I concentrated my chi into the stuck shuriken on the supports. They exploded in unison. The walled ceiling above the sorcerer began to crumble immediately. The frost giant looked up and gasped once he saw the rubble come crashing down. But I had my own problem. I wrestled with the webs still leaving me stuck in place. '{OThis is going to hurt... a lot.' I yelled as the webs finally gave way, and I made a desperate dive toward the stairs once the rest of the ceiling crashed down onto the floor. '{OWell. Not exactly how I wanted to end this... but at least he should be dead.' I climbed up past the wreckage and surveyed the remains of the top floor. Shining amidst the dust and the frozen floor was the orb itself. I pocketed the object and sighed as I finally climbed out of the tower. But during the walk, when the hermit's cave came within sight, my legs crumbled before me and my vision went black.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:46:36 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (09/18)

Part 9: Weakness He swung the staff, and drops of blood dotted the wooden floor. "Weakness will not be tolerated in this family, Cassan. I will not accept any future failures from you. Do you understand?" "{OY-yes, father. I understand, father." In a time before I grew the muscles I had now, I was actually quite frail and slow. And in the town of Lantern, especially within the O'Bachra family, being weak was equal to having a death sentence over your head. After all, we were not very far from the Nerakan border, where Dragonarmy still held a strong and venerable grip on the region. Everyone had to either learn to fight, or learn to die in the most horrible of manners. My father was the most unforgiving. Yet again, he smashed my nose with the training staff in his hands. "Pathetic," he scoffed as he watched me bleed from my nostrils. "Your sister Camille would have dodged that blow so easily. Unlike you, she actually amounts to something. I can't believe how useless of a son you turned out to be, no matter how hard I've tried to teach you." I learned to say nothing during one of his particular moods. Talking back only made things worse. After a while, he would leave me alone and go back to praising my sister along with Mother. --- But Camille was different. When she was out of the judging eyes of our parents, she came into my room and wrapped up my injuries. The first time she did it, I said nothing, nor did I react in any other way. All I wondered was why. The second time she came, I grabbed her wrist before she could reach me. "{OWhy?" I asked. "{OWhy are you even bothering with me? Didn't you hear what Mother and Father said?" "And? So what?" I couldn't think of anything to say after seeing how swift her response was. Camille continued to wrap my nose and continued speaking with a patient look. "I don't care what they said. By the grown-ups' logic, the only person who has the right to live would be the strongest. I don't like what they said one bit. Besides... I am as much of a slave to their logic as you are. But I'll never agree with it. That's not what strength is for." She looked so confident and sure of herself, I didn't know who or what else to believe in. "{OT-then... what do you think strength is for, sister?" Camille just tapped my nose and smiled at me. "Watch me and find out."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:49:03 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (10/18)

Part 10: The Crow So I did. I watched Camille as subtly as I could. On a hunt on the eastern edge of the dust plains, I watched as Camille easily twisted and snapped the limbs of the ravenous plants that lingered outside the bordering swamp. She had a cold and focused look as the onlookers, her tutor and several fellow students, also looked in awe as they observed her battle form. "And that, students, is how you destroy creatures with your bare hands. Thank you for the clear demonstration, Camille," the bearded male said with a smile on his face. "Now, let us return before night falls." He gave a snide look toward me before he beckoned the rest of the students to follow him. But Camille lingered behind instead of following them immediately. Once the others were out of sight, she saw that I too was lingering and winked at me. She then whistled and a black crow fluttered from out of the underbrush. My sister reached down to pick up the seeds of the plants that she mangled and offered her hand out toward them. The crow ate the offering happily. "{OA-a pet, sister? I didn't know you had one," I said. "It's a secret. Don't tell Mother and Father," she replied with a knowing look. Like they'd believe me anyway. "{OB-but, why a crow?" I asked her. "Because," she said with the same calm and patient look while she observed the black bird gobble up every last seed, "crows can do things that others can't. They may not be the strongest, nor can they hunt on their own. But they observe. They watch and learn. They know when to migrate and when to stay perfectly still." "{OOh." Camille remained still until the bird was finished eating. She gently stroked the bird's head. It crooned in response before flying back to its perch. "So," she said as she faced toward me, "were you paying attention? What did I use strength for just now?" "{OUmm..." I rubbed my head as I recalled what she was doing. '{OShe took down the living plants... no, that's obvious. She was demonstrating battle technique for the students... no, she didn't look all that pleased, that's not it...' I then looked toward the healthy crow, which looked back down at us from a distance. "{OUhm... you beat up the plants just to feed the crow?" "That's right." She petted my head. "I fought to protect and feed him. Because that's what I believe what the real purpose of strength is: to protect everyone you care about." She held my bandaged hands. Though her fingers were quite callused from handling weapons, her touch felt quite soft and soothing to me. "Even if you're weak, you have just as much of a right to live as anyone else. That's why I fight so I won't let anything happen to you, little brother." And I believed her. I believed her with all of my being. I knew that she truly had the strength to back up what she believed in.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:51:24 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (11/18)

Part 11: Burn Some days later, the attack on Lantern happened in the dead of night. Most of the adults, including our parents, were away on a large night hunt for enough animal meat to offer up to Sirrion for this year's ceremonial sacrifice. That left only a select few warrior adults, along with many children--myself included--to stay in the town and watch over it. I'll never forget those soldiers. The men in mostly red dragon-shaped armor fought worse than the local coyote packs. They struck in waves and overwhelmed everyone they saw with their steel, one by one. One such unit cornered me and Camille right outside our own home. A single sword swipe cut across my chest and left me heavily bleeding on the ground. My sister fought back harder, punching and kicking with fire trailing her very hands and feet. If I wasn't in pain, it would've been beautiful to watch. But Dragonarmy had the numbers. After she knocked out six, twelve more approached from every direction. The largest among them leveled his sword at my head. "That's enough," he shouted and gained Camille's attention. "Resist any further, and he dies right now." That was the first time I saw fear on her face. "N-no. Please, let him go." Her arms went slack. "I'll... I'll give myself up. So let him go, please!" The highest ranked officer among them snorted and looked her over. "Well, have to admit, she is quite a looker. She'll make for an interesting slave. Alright... you've got yourself a deal, little girl." He gestured for his fellow soldiers to bring the metal chains over. '{OSister, what are you doing? Don't--!' But it hurt to even breathe, let alone attempt to speak. Camille just smiled at me as she let herself get grabbed and chained up. A loud cawing suddenly came from above. My sister's crow dived down and clawed at the eyes of the guard closest to her. He yelled and backed off, then shouted toward the others. "Ugh, shoot that pest down!" "N-no!" A volley of arrows shot up. And Camille jumped straight toward the volley to attempt to block it. But once the volley stopped, both she and the crow fell onto the ground lifeless. They didn't breathe, and their bodies were littered with arrows. A distant war horn sounded from the west. The officer clicked his tongue. "What a waste of a slave. We're done here. We have our plunder, let's go."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:53:40 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (12/18)

Part 12: Ashes The fires that the Dragonarmy left behind had already died down long after the war horns stopped echoing. By the time the rest of the hunters along with my parents returned, it was far too late. Mother and Father wasted no time rushing to our family home. They were among the first to see the results of what had happened. "Camille! No!" Mother immediately rolled my sister's body to see if she could recover, but it was too late. Too much blood had already leaked out from the puncture wounds. She cried and cried, ignoring me entirely. But Father did not. He grabbed me by the throat. "What have you done, Cassan?! You allowed your sister to die by those Dragonarmy dogs! Why did she have to die and not you?!" I couldn't think of anything to say in response. "Useless!" He threw me onto the ground, agitating my slash wound even further. "You are undeserving of a quick death. From this point on, you are no longer our son! You don't deserve the honor and pride of the O'Bachra family! Look! This is what happens when you are weak and pitiful like you are!" He pointed at the sight of my dead sister and my mother crying over her body. I winced and finally tore my eyes away from the sight. "{OI... I'm sorry." Father finally had enough and turned his sword upon me. "Enough of your useless words. Now get out. Leave us and Lantern and do not come back." And I never came back. Not that I actually wanted to. No place truly felt like home without Camille there.

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:55:58 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (13/18)

Part 13: Unmasked "You're shaking, Cassan. Wake up." I opened my eyes and winced from the lingering pains of my previous puncture wounds from the icicles. My mouth grimaced from the painful reminders of the nightmare I saw. '{ONo. Not a nightmare. A memory,' I corrected myself. Looking down at me was the hermit woman. I blinked twice as I registered what I was. "{OH-how... did I get here?" I rasped, finding my throat was more hoarse than expected. "You have been asleep for about half the day. You are fortunate that you did not die of hypothermia outside my home," she admonished. "You fulfilled your end of the bargain, Cassan, so mending you was the least I could do in return." "{OMend?" I echoed and looked over at myself. Though the pain lingered, the wounds I received from the frost giants were gone. '{OHow? How did...' I blinked and rubbed my eyes as I registered where I was. The cave was not so much of a wreck anymore. The walls were smooth and glistening, as was the floor, and the entire place looked far cleaner than ever before. The western wall no longer held a giant pack of rubble, instead revealing a darkened passage that I could not see further into. The furniture at the sides of the room was back to looking more neat, though the pillow piles remained. The ice orb now rested on an obvious pedestal at the center of the room. And then I realized something else: I had been asleep on the woman's lap. I cleared my throat and tried to glance away from her body. "{OI-I thank you, my lady. I didn't know you were a healer too." "Of sorts," she chuckled. "It is not a skill I get to exercise very often. Now then, you seem to be well-rested. It seems I do better work than I thought." "{OYes. I still feel a little sore, but it's not a bad kind of pain. It'll go away in time. Now, about your end of the... bargain..." I trailed off as I tried to connect the dots on what I saw. The lair was simply far too shiny and immaculate, with a cave entrance that was unnecessarily large for a single woman to use. And the way the woman treasured her objects, along with how quickly everything had been put back into place--with parts of the architecture not easily manipulated by even magic. "Mister Cassan?" There was something odd about her face, as if she too sensed the conclusion I was getting to. I stood up and rubbed my hands, willing them to regain all sense of feeling. "{OYou're the dragon, aren't you?"

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 19:58:04 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (14/18)

Part 14: Pursuit "My, my. It took you this long to figure it out. But for a newcomer human, you did piece out the truth faster than most," she complimented. I tightened my hands into fists. "{OI see now. You've been using me this entire time. But it ends here, dragon. Prepare yourself." "Oh, really now?" She gave a dismissive gesture as if I didn't look at all serious. "You actually plan to fight the one person who saved your life?" "{OSeems like a fair answer," I retorted, "{Otoward a blatant liar. I'm not leaving until I've got what I came here for: your head." The silver-haired woman wagged her finger at me. "Ah, ah, ah. I never lied about a thing, mister Cassan. I merely withheld the truth. Since I see that you don't want to be reasoned with..." She outstretched her arms and shined with a white light. The light engulfed the entire room, and I stumbled back as I covered my eyes from the shine. When it died down, I looked up at the dragon who stood more than twice my height. "It's a shame," the female dragon said in her human voice, "that your pursuit of power is going to end here on the floor of my nice clean lair." --- It was nigh impossible to get close to her. Not when she had the advantage in reach, regardless of how I attempted to approach her. My shurikens dotted the floor, frozen and stuck in place from her breath. I was beginning to get tired of dodging her claw swipes. In the middle of an errant dodge, I tripped over the pedestal holding her ice orb. She growled and pinned me onto the ground with a single claw. "You can't win," she intoned with her human-sounding voice. "You don't even know what you're fighting for. A man who's incomplete can't even hope to beat me. Unless you answer my question." Her grip began to tighten. "What are you fighting for, monk? What do you need strength for?" For a brief moment, the flash of memory struck me again. A dead crow, a dead sister, all littered with arrows. And the words of an ideal I had almost forgotten, buried somewhere in the recesses of my soul. "Because that's what I believe what the real purpose of strength is: to protect everyone you care about."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 20:00:30 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (15/18)

Part 15: Answer I gasped as the pressure became almost too much to bear. At the same time, my muscles tensed up as I prepared my answer. The burning in my soul wouldn't stop. "{OYou... want to know why I fight?" The silver dragon suddenly growled and withdrew her claw. She looked at the burn mark on it and then at me. I calmly stood up. "That aura... have you finally found your answer?" She swung her tail at me, but I jumped over it and landed onto her back. There, wedged between her wing joints, I found the remains of a spear head still stuck in her back. How long had that been there? I yanked it out, eliciting a howl of pain from the creature, and landed a punch on the weak spot. She yelled again and crumbled onto the ground. The dragon knelt on all fours, and I jumped off of her and landed in front of her face. Her breathing was heavy and strained. '{ODid I actually hurt her with that blow?' "{OYou were wounded from the start," I observed as I held out the bloody spear head toward her and tosses it aside. "{OThat's why you needed me to deal with the frost giants. And yet, after getting your orb back, you didn't use it to heal yourself first." I took a slow breath and tempered my battle aura. The burning sensation around me died down. She looked at me warily. "What do you think you're doing? You said you were going to take my head, correct?" "{ONot like this," I replied with a deep frown on my face. "{OBeating someone who was already weakened wouldn't please me in the least. Besides... I never got to answer your question yet." I reached over and touched her muzzle. The very air she exhaled from her nostrils was almost frigid, but I endured the sensation as I remained in front of her, unafraid. "{OI fight so that I can live the life my sister never got to. She gave her life to save mine... to save her ideal. That's why I have to live and grow stronger so I can spread her teachings. Killing you as you are, my lady, would not serve that purpose at all." The silver dragon stared at me for a long minute. "So...? What do you plan to do with me, then?" "{ORight now...?" I shrugged as I stepped back from her personal space. "{ONothing. Why, what were you expecting me to do with you, my lady?" The dragon snorted and curled up. Light shone around her as she shifted back into her human form. Her simple cotton clothing was all in tatters, and the wound on her back was still slightly bleeding. "It just seems anticlimactic," she replied in her normal voice, "for you to have come all this way for nothing. And will you stop calling me 'my lady'? It sounds sarcastic and mocking, coming from you." "{OBut what else could I call you?" I asked while scratching my head. I circled her while she sat on her legs. '{OThat back injury will definitely be crippling, but since I took the spear head out, should heal with time.' "{OCalling you 'dragon' at this point just sounds rude. And I don't really know your name." "That's because I don't have one, you fool--"

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 20:02:37 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (16/18)

Part 16: Kindled She covered her mouth and looked at me with narrowed eyes. Was it just me, or did she looked completely embarrassed? "{OYou... don't have one? Why?" I asked. "Don't judge me, you human fool." The woman turned away from me. "I was born without parents, okay? So I never had a name. And considering everyone wants to kill or use me for their own purposes, I didn't really bother giving myself one." "{OOh." I bit my bottom lip as the general mood turned awkward. I fished around my pockets for something, and my face brightened as I brought up the bandages that she had given me before. I walked up to her as I unwrapped the bandages. She sensed my movement and scooted back from me. "Now what do you think you're doing?" she asked with a defensive scowl. She sure was less courteous when she no longer had the upper hand. But for some reason, I found that quite... attractive, in a way. "{OPatching you up. I don't know for how long you've had the spear wound on your back untreated," I replied. "{OI'm no healer, but I can at least stop it from getting any worse. Consider this my, ah, apology for being ungrateful for earlier." "Hmph. Do whatever you please." She folded her arms and turned away, but did not shy away from my contact. I was careful as I wrapped the bandages around to her front side. "{OIt's not too tight, is it?" "No." I nodded, more to myself than to her as she was facing away from me. I secured the bandages and dusted off my hands as I stepped back. "{OFinished," I concluded. "I see." She refused to look at me. '{ODamn, she sure can hold a grudge.' I shifted nervously from the awkward silence that followed. "{OLook," I began to speak up after only a few seconds of quiet. "{OI'll come back and fight you again when you're fully recovered, okay? And when I do... I know what I want when I win now. When I win--" She snorted. "When you win? Pretty confident, are we?" "{OYes. {oWhen," I said as I slowly gained some of that said confidence. "{OI'll give you a name." The dragon woman blinked up at me. "Are you serious? And what exactly do you stand to gain from that? That doesn't sound much like a prize if you ask me." "{OWho said that's all I wanted?" She grumbled but stayed quiet and allowed me to continue. "{OAnd then..." I bit my lip as I paused. I honestly didn't know what sort of consequences to expect should she react badly. But I had to press on. I couldn't forget the burning sensation in my soul the moment I realized exactly what I needed in my life. "{OI want you."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 20:03:52 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (17/18)

Part 17: Aflame The silver-haired woman's face reddened. Then she gripped my arm quite painfully. Despite her human-like state and her condition, she still had quite a lot of strength left in her. "Did you just say what I think you said?" she asked, suddenly appearing quite offended. "You think you can claim ownership over a dragon if you're strong enough?" She pushed me away and hmph'd as she crossed her arms. "Well, you wouldn't be the first to want me. Lots of people want me--for my loot, my power, the scales off my back, or all three. So which is it, monk? What do you want from me?" "{OIt's not those at all." I placed my hands on her shoulder. "{OI want you to be my friend." She stared at me for a long minute as her arms dropped to her sides. I had no idea what she was thinking. It was hard to read her expression. Was she thinking that I was lying? Or was the flicker in her eyes something else entirely? After a minute, the dragon female grasped both of my wrists and tried her best to appear in control. "Are you sure," she crooned, "you want me only as a friend? How about as a lover?" My mouth shaped into a small 'o' as I briefly imagined it. '{OHer skin does feel really soft when she's in her human form--' "{OU-um, please, one step at a time," I said quickly and let go of her. "Hm. Now that's a more fitting reaction," she said, starting to regain her usual smug look. "Fighter or not, you're still just a boy, after all." "{OB-be quiet. So, do you accept my terms or not?" "Not until I make my own clear. Since you're going so far as to claim me... if--no, when I win instead..." The silver-haired hermit pushed me toward one of her pillow piles and straddled me on both sides. "You'll become mine. You'll be a part of my hoard... and more if you so choose it." My body twitched as I tried to fight off the temptation before me. "{OA-alright! Alright! I-I accept your terms."

Author: Cassan Date: Sat Dec 22 20:05:17 2018 Subject Crow's Blood (18/18)

Part 18: Soaring Heart "Good." She leaned forward toward my face, licked her lips in front of me, and then drew back with a teasing look. '{OJust what have I started...?' I tried to slink away, but she refused to budge any further. "Then the oath has been made. As a sign of your promise to return..." The dragon female held out one of her hands upward. A silver flash emanated, and a red-bladed sword and its respective sheath materialized in her hands. She sheathed the weapon and handed it to me. "This is a mark of your promise. It's just a throwaway item from my horde, but I expect you to treasure it as if it actually belonged to you. You *will* give it back to me once you return. Do you understand, Cassan?" She slid off of me and then offered me the blade. "{OYes. Of course," I replied and accepted the sword with a small smile. It felt warm to the touch, and I felt that warmth spread from my hand to the rest of my body. Obviously, this sword was not normal, not even normally enchanted. '{OIf I had to guess...' "{OThen I expect you won't hold back or be injured again once I return." "Agreed." The dragon snorted and gave me a dismissive wave. "Go on now. You have a lot of training to do if you think you can handle me at my peak, Cassan." "{OThat I do." I stepped off of the pillows and settled the sheathed sword onto my brass belt. "{OThen I'll see you when the time is right... {omy lady{O." --- I didn't dare look back to see whatever embarrassed reaction she gave off as I walked toward the cave's exit. As I traveled the snow, I noticed for the first time I was no longer feeling cold--physical or otherwise. I rested a hand on the sheathed blade's handle. Seeing her normal face again was worth the extra bruises. The snow outside was not falling for once. I hardly noticed it brush against my hair and shoulders as I walked. '{OIs this what the happiness of giving to others feels like, sister?' As I approached the edge of Icewall Glacier, I picked up a clump of snow into my hands and looked at it. I molded it into a rough spherical shape and poked holes to visualize the likeness of the woman's face. I considered the briefly cool sensations on my fingers as I carved the smug and happy face. '{OYes. I think I have that name for her. When I win... I'll call her Kiara{O.'

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