The night before

Tuka was staring at her father, standing on the entrance of her village. He had a pleasant smile on his face and waved in greeting at her. Everyone else going about their business in the village. Some preparing breakfast, some cleaning, others idly playing music. It put her heart at ease to hear it.

She took a step forwards to try and embrace her father, but found that no matter how hard she tried to move, she couldn't. Like she was stuck in quicksand, or she could only manage to move incredibly slowly. Struggling to run, Tuka cried out in wordless horror.

She saw her village, her people, and eventually her father all begin to smolder, before bursting into flames. She screamed, begged them to put out the fire. To go to the well. To roll in the dirt. Anything, but they didn't answer her, wouldn't. Her father's smile staying put until it disappeared to the licking flames, charring him black as ash, before blowing away in the wind with the rest of her village.

Tuka blinked and saw the burned out wasteland of her village. Burned stumps of trees and some stone foundation remaining. The stone having melted and run like wax from dragon fire. She could walk now, almost like she was being mocked. She could move among the wreckage, but wasn't allowed to move when she tried to help.

"Hello? Anyone?" called Tuka, deafening silence meeting her instead. She blinked, and had to stop suddenly, because Itami and the JSDF were in front of her. They waved at her in greeting, smiling. Tuka waved back and hurried over to them, fighting not to blink, but when she finally did, she was somewhere else again.

They were at Alnus. Itami, Lelei, and Rory all standing in front of her, smiling. Tuka stood watching them, frowning in confusion as she watched the sun set far too quickly, before rising again an instant later. Like the gods had a rope attached and were swinging it around the world. Faster and faster it moved, until it appeared as just a blur. They stood still, even as everything around them changed.

People moving so fast that they were only visible in brief flashes as blurs, Tuka watching building be constructed brick by brick in an instant. Then she realized, that they weren't unaffected by it.

Tuka saw Itami begin aging, wrinkles deepening and widening, while his once pitch black hair turned grey, and then white. Lelei grew from her awkward adolescence and into a beautiful woman with long flowing hair, before continuing to middle age.

Tuka turned to Rory for help, but the Apostle merely smiled, before disappearing in a beam up light, streaking up towards the heavens.

"Wha-? N-no," stammered Tuka, horror and helplessness taking hold. She reached out for Itami, bend double with age, eyes white with cataracts, but as she touched him, he turned to dust and disappeared into the wind.

"No no no no no no," repeated Tuka over and over again like a mantra, watching in horror as Lelei approached her twilight years, appearing a wise sage.

"Lelei," croaked Tuka weakly. She was met with a kindly smile, before she too disappeared into black ash.

Breathing hard, Tuka whipped her head back and forth in a panic, watching as the days went by faster and faster. Tall buildings rising out of the ground like mountains, before falling down and even more impressive ones taking their place. The land reshaping to accommodate rivers even as more and more machines raced by her, flying ones too. A world of glittering steel and glass covering everything.

Then she watched it degrade, rust and fall back to the earth as the sky and sun turned an angry red. Soon leaving Tuka in a featureless wasteland of baking hot sand under a baleful red sun. Entirely alone, for she would live forever. Tuka clutched her head and screamed.

Tuka woke up, breathing hard and covered in sweat. Tears stinging the edges of her eyes, threatening to steal forth. Despair and grief an elephant sitting on her chest that she could not dislodge.

She was in the Humvee she realized, everyone sleeping peacefully, save for Rory who was on watch on the roof. She felt the panic lessen, especially when she looked at Lelei sleeping peacefully in her bedroll.

Tuka's eyes sought her father and confusion beset her, upon seeing a dark haired man sleeping where he had been. No, that wasn't right. It was just the dark befuddling her senses. Tuka blinked, feeling pain spike and lance behind her eyes, spreading to the back of her skull, but when she opened her eyes again, she was relieved to see that the dark hair had turned to the natural blonde of her father. She moved herself closer to her father so she was touching him. He smelled different, but that was only because of the Japanese soap. That was all. So long as she had him, she wouldn't be alone. Everything else could rot and fade away with the passing of time, but her father was permanent like her. He would never leave her.

Tuka buried her head in her fathers neck, humming a song he had sung to her when she had been but a child. Willing herself back to sleep.

xxx

There was nervousness, but also anticipation. Excitement even, as Lupa fidgeted with the gloves covering her hands, but more specifically her fingers that ended with nails like those of a wolf. Claws would be a more accurate way to describe them, but at the same time not, because her true claws only revealed themselves in her lupine form.

This was her first time talking with a human, the being who her primary form was based upon. She liked her human form too, it allowed her much more dexterity and ability to do tasks than her more lupine form did, though it did not offer the same freedom. For in her lupine form felt as though she was free. Free to run, to hunt, and let her inhibitions go wild. As though she was one with nature and the land. Still, her human form was comfortable and she enjoyed being in it, especially since it allowed her to speak.

"Hello, how are you today?" asked Lupa, smiling. Having rehearsed so that her smile would look natural, normal for a human. Still hiding her more canine like teeth, giving her the appearance of giving a shy, but friendly smile.

"Good. Hey, where are you from?" asked the man, rising from working in his vegetable garden. Barefoot and covered in dirt and sweat. The salty, musky smell filling her nose, but it was a pleasant smell, one that she had quickly associated with hard work. He seemed to do a double take when he fully looked at Lupa. She was tall, taller than most men, and with snow white hair visible even under the hood of her travelling cloak. Her skin as smooth and flawless as polished marble. A beautiful woman, with seemingly blank, sightless eyes.

"Oh, we're travellers. My siblings and I are looking for our sister, she was separated from us you see. We heard that she might have passed through this way."

"What uh, what does your sister look like?" asked the man, looking at the large, cloaked figures behind Lupa.

"Oh, well like us. Well," added Lupa, seeing as she and her 'siblings' looked almost nothing alike from bone structure, to skin tone, to even simple mannerisms. "She has the same eyes as us, and long black hair. We have the same father, but, uh, different mothers."

"Ah," said the man, looking between the assembled homunculi. "The mottled men came through here the other day and they had a few women with them. A couple with long dark hair even. Didn't get a look at their eyes though."

"Mottled men?" asked Lupa, confused.

"You know, the men from the GATE to the South. The ones with powerful magic and weapons? What? Were you born last night?" asked the man, seeing the blank look on Lupa's face.

"Something like that," said Lupa.

"They were heading to where the dark elf kingdom is. Damned fool thing to do if you ask me with that dragon flying about up there. If the dark elves don't kill them, the dragon surely will. Seen him here once or twice too, but I figure we're too small for his trouble he just kept on flying. Suppose it's for the best though, harvest is coming in and we wouldn't want it to disrupt it. Or burn it down, that would be worse. We wouldn't get any seed crop if that were the case and with the rain being how its been."

"Yes, well, than you for your time and the information," said Lupa politely trying to end the conversation.

"No trouble at all. Though if you do head by the North road, make sure that you stop by the Fork in the Road. The Inn, not the actual fork, funny enough I suppose though, they're both at the same place. My cousin runs it and has the best mead around."

"We'll be sure to keep that in mind," said Lupa taking a half step back.

"Tell him Ivor sent you and he'll be sure to-"

"Peasant, shut up. We're done talking to you," cut in another of the Lupa's companions disdainfully. The travelling cloak of the homunculus having fallen back and revealed a tall, pale, beautiful woman with dark red hair and vertical slit pupils like those of a reptile. If you could pick them out from the milky nothingness of the rest of her eye. Her lips set in a firm line of distaste at having to deal with the farmer.

The farmer's face flushed in anger and surprise, but his indignation died when the homunculus stepped so she was near nose to nose with him, staring him down like a misbehaving dog. "Move along mutt, you aren't useful anymore, and I'm tired of breathing in your stink."

"I...uh," stammered the farmer, before turning awkwardly and beating a hasty retreat.

"That, is how you make an annoying human stop talking to you doggy," said the red haired woman, stretching expansively.

"Scylla, that was uncalled for!" Chastised Lupa and her sister merely regarded her out of the corner of her eye like she had just stepped in something unpleasant.

"You've got the scent doggy, now hunt."

"I never lost it!" said Lupa, voice a low growl, revealing large canines. "The alchemical smell of their carriages is easier to track than blood," said Lupa irritably. "I just needed their direction, because they cross their own tracks so many times. Now he's sure to remember, because of how you acted!" Scylla laughed harshly at her sister.

"He'll remember us, because we're the most beautiful women he's ever seen. You think when he's plowing his sow of a wife, he's not going to be imagining you underneath him instead? We were made perfect by our Master, these malformed things are hardly worthy to lick the dirt from our boots."

"He was being nice to us!" defended Lupa hotly.

"What he was being, was annoying. Humans should know their place and-ARANHA!" barked Scylla, with such sudden vehemence and rage, it startled even Lupa. The crimson haired homunculus brushing savagely at her shoulder as she hopped backwards, barring her teeth in a snarl at her 'sister.'

"I TOLD YOU TO KEEP YOUR FUCKING CHILDREN OFF OF ME!"

"She was just curious," said Aranha, the third and last female of their quartet of homunculus. There was an odd clicking sound when she spoke, as if someone was tapping small rocks together. She also never removed her travelling cloak, preferring instead to stay shrouded in layers of thick garments regardless of the heat of the day. Lupa watched her bend down and pick up an odd looking spider about a quarter the size of the palm of her hand. It was an odd looking motion, like she did not so much bend at the knees or arch her back, rather like she was simply lowering herself down. Like an acrobat standing on her hands.

The spider looked as if it was waiting patiently on the ground for Aranha, hopping into her proffered hand swathed in cloth as soon as it was extended. The homunculus was not like her sisters. While Lupa and Scylla were tall, full figured, and with features so symmetrical and flawless it was like they were statues given life, Aranha appeared to be like a wax figure left too close to the fire.

She seemed bent over nearly double. Head bowed low and face shrouded with thick cloth. Her hunchbacked form bulged and formed odd ridges under her many layers of clothing. Most unnervingly of all though, her eyes never seemed to blink, though it was hard to tell since they were most often downcast. She moved with short, shambling steps, yet without a constant gait. Like her hips shifted position with every step.

"She can be curious somewhere the fuck else!" snarled Scylla. "Next time one of your little bastards crawls on me I'm going to crush it!"

There was a harsh clicking sound accompanied by what could only be described as an insect like hissing that emanated from the homunculus. Aranha's form shuddered underneath her heavy clothing, moving as if she had multiple sets of arms unfurling from around her torso under her cloak. But it rippled and moved in waves as through a thousand different creatures were crawling underneath.

"We both know if I fight you as I truly am, I'll tear you apart Aranha," said Scylla low and menacingly. "So why don't you try it? I could use the exercise."

"And how pleased will Lord Charon be if we fight each other and don't complete the task he set out for us?" asked the last, and only male member of their troupe quietly.

A sudden, oppressive hush fell over the quarrelling homunculi, confidence and aggression leaving in an instant, replaced instead by timid fear, pale faces turning ghost white at the thought. Almost seeming to shrink in on themselves as if trying to seem as submissive and nonthreatening as possible.

"We should keep on their trail," said Scylla, voice subdued, a barely perceptible tremor now present.

"Agreed," said Aranha, equally as quiet.

"Good, then let's continue on," said the male Homunculus.

"You don't have to bring that up you know, Apis," said Scylla quietly.

"We all know how he feels about infighting and failure," said Apis simply. The homunculus was twice as wide as any of the others and heavily muscled, though his features were hidden by his heavy travelling cloak. His hands seemed large enough to wrap around the entirety of any of their skulls.

A startled shriek stole their attention and as one the homunculi turned to the source, just in time to see a woman carrying a basket bring her foot up and then down on top of something they couldn't see. A sharp crunch, audible from even where they were standing sounded.

"Ah, fuck," said Scylla eyes widening, Lupa noticing her face falling in dread.

"Aranha, calm, calm yourself," said Scylla, trying to placate their sister who was clicking madly and practically vibrating.

"Remember the Master's orders," added Apis, moving to grab the homunculus.

Several things happened all at once and it was only due to Lupa's superhuman vision that she was able to see it.

Scylla moved to block Aranha's path while Apis made to grab her from behind, but at the same time Aranha let out a piercing, inhuman shriek, twisting in ways that human anatomy would not allow. Thwarting Apis' effrots to grab hold, she sprang forward with surprising speed. Apis only managing to grab hold of her travelling cloak, but it was already ripping free from a form twisting in ways that seemed impossible, until the clothes were completely free, revealing the arachnid body beneath.

Eight spidery limbs unfurled as Aranaha leapt over scylla, abdomen unfurling that was coated in more of the palm sized white spiders. Thick, stubby, prickly, sickly white bristles covered Aranha's abdomen, with darker bristles making patterns that hurt to look at, though they were hard to make out clearly with the smaller spiders crawling and skittering over top of each other. Eight, baleful red eyes from a somewhat human looking head with mandibles jutting from the jaw fixed solidly on the woman who had squashed one of Aranha's children. The same woman who was now shrieking in horror. The upper torso of Aranha looked vaguely human, but it blended between arachnid and human so seamlessly that it seemed that there was no clear distinction. Merely a new, terrifying type of spider.

Aranha leapt the remaining distance, taking the woman down under her weight, and piercing her through the chest with one of her scythe-like limbs. The terrified shrieks shifting to low moans from the woman.

Lupa watched in horrified fascination as Aranha reached back with one of her human looking arms, coaxing one of her children into her palm, while bringing the mortally wounded woman up from the ground with her scythe-like limbs so that she hung suspended in the homunculus' grip. Then the spider seemed to ready itself, before entering the cavity made by Aranha's appendage.

The woman shuddered like she was having a seizure, blood and fluid leaking from every orifice visible. Lupa saw the spider's limbs begin growing supernaturally fast, watching them bully their way through the woman's body, seeing the flesh bulge as the arachnid made itself a nest within the villager. The sound of popping bones and cartilage audible, even without Lupa's enhanced hearing. With it, she could hear more. She could hear the body changing inside. Flesh and bone being repurposed to form something else. With a final shudder and gurgle, the woman fell limp, the wound in the abdomen closing over alarmingly quickly. A moment later, she looked up, a smile on her face as she looked at Aranha. The homunculus stroking the woman's face, almost tenderly.

"Maybe...maybe we can leave, before anyone notices?" said Lupa hopefully.

"If we move right now," agreed Scylla, letting out a loud sigh as more cries of alarm sounded. Apis letting out a loud huff of annoyance.

More villagers, drawn by the screams and unnatural howl of Aranha had arrived, just in time to see her in her monstrous Arachnid form.

"Clean up your damn mess Aranha! Meet up with us again when you're done!" yelled Scylla in frustration.

Lupa watched in fascinated horror, as Aranha set the woman down she had been holding, and saw the body morph, limbs opening like there were merely coverings, revealing bladed spider-like limbs. The jaw hinging open revealing wicked looking mandibles. Moving on all fours, or rather, all eights, Aranha's new creation fell on a villager in an orgy of blood and viscera, followed quickly behind by her mother. The corpses in turn beginning to twitch and spasm as more of the small white spiders entered and used the corpses as hosts. Lupa only looking away when Scylla put an arm around her and pulled her along with her, leaning in close to whisper in Lupa's ear.

"A word of advice sister, watch that those little fuckers don't get near you."

Xxx

"What the hell," said Feliks, rubbing at his forehead, not believing what he was hearing.

"Yeah, it probably wasn't the best call," admitted Itami.

"Itami," began Feliks pointedly. "Eating a heavy meal before swimming isn't the best call. Playing into and reinforcing the delusions of who for all intents and purposes is a teenager; one suffering from severe mental trauma and depression is a TERRIBLE fucking idea."

"I know," began Itami.

"No! No you don't," said Feliks angrily. "Because do you know what else is a stupid fucking idea? Taking that traumatized teen to fight a fucking fire breathing lizard with no backup, with what I assume are stolen military supplies, and a bunch of fucking civilians! No offence Rory," added Feliks quickly.

"You are forgiven this one time," said the apostle.

"Look, I know that it wasn't the best call, but we we're trying to help her," said Itami. "If we left her how she was, it could take years to help her get healthy again. Decades even."

"You do that with therapy Itami! Not taking a teen who could have a mental breakdown if someone says the wrong couple of words around her to fight the thing that is the cause of her trauma. There's exposure therapy, and then there's fucking someone up for life! Jesus Christ! The only reason she isn't having a breakdown right now, is because we're speaking Japanese and she can't understand it!"

"We have a plan," said Itami.

"And what plan is that? Give the rocket launchers to the dark elves who don't know how to use them and don't understand the concept or danger of back blast? Did you even bring hearing protection, because I'm pretty sure the concussive blast is going to fuck up their hearing for good if you didn't, because elves have really sensitive hearing Itami."

"I know that," defended Itami.

"No. You really don't," said Feliks. "You don't know anything, because you don't play, you don't think things through, you act on emotion and rely on your dumb fucking luck to get you through your bullshit and now you're dragging civilians in with you."

"I know what I'm doing, and I have a plan," said Itami hotly. The rockets are just in case we have to use them, not that we are going to use them. We're going to go into the dragon's lair when it's not there and rig it with enough C4 to turn that mountain into a pile of rubble, taking the dragon with it. So yes, I have thought this through."

"Really? What is something goes wrong though Itami? Plans fuck up all the time."

"That's why we have the AT weapons."

"You mean the ones your dark elf friends don't know how to use? So, assuming they don't all get murdered immediately following this 'great warrior Itami Youji' to battle the dragon, the second you fire one of those rockets around them you won't be able to communicate with them. Want to know why? Because if a human fires one of those without protection their hearing is going to get fucked for a while. The concussion already feels like getting punched in the chest. Now imagine your hearing is a hundred times greater. Imagine that same pain and ringing times a hundred. Imagine they're all in an enclosed space. Now they're in a lot of pain Itami, all they're going to be hearing is ringing, and you can't give out orders anymore. People don't rise to occasions Itami, they fall back on training, of which they have none. So, instead of reacting how your squad mates would in the JSDF, they're going to start freaking out meaning they're going to die even with an apostle with you. Personally I doubt that Rory is going to be overly concerned with keeping a bunch of Hardy Worshippers alive. No offence meant," added Feliks and the apostle laughed.

"If they want to worship the god of the dead, who am I to stop them from joining her?" asked Rory, still laughing.

"Well," said Itami, trailing off.

"Ow," said Feliks rubbing at his head. "I think the stupid is giving me an aneurysm. Look, you want that dragon dead? So do we. There's a shit tonne of tanks coming here with arty and a bunch of trigger happy 18-20 year old guys who would love to light a dragon up. Let them fuck up the dragon, then take Tuka to see the corpse. She can spit on it, kick it, scream at it, get it out of her system. Whatever she needs to do. Hell, I'll give her a rifle and she can dump a mag into its carcass, but for the love of god, don't take an untrained militia with an emotionally and mentally fragile teen into probably the most dangerous part of the continent to see combat. Jesus, why the fuck do I have to say this," muttered Feliks. "It's stupid for anyone to even come here."

"Then why are you here?" demanded Itami.

"Because orders, and to get that guy," said Feliks jerking his thumb in the direction of Captian Nikolai and his dark elf paramour. "Also, I came with a platoon of guys, including a tank, fully intent on not fucking with a giant lizard. The military is a team sport Itami, play together or get off the fucking field."

"Look, I get it," said Itami, his own anger rising. "But you want to know what? No one was going to help her and she was suffering. No one gave a damn, because it was too much work and politically inconvenient. This was probably the only chance she had and I took it. At least I look out for my friends."

"Oh fuck, you're right. Here, let me grab a bunch of teenagers, go AWOL, and give said teenagers weapons they don't know how to use so we can hunt real life Godzilla. That'll prove I care by putting them all in mortal danger. I had to come here because of bad weather, you're here because you're fucking dumb Itami and it physically pains me."

A feminine voice raised in anger cut through Felix and Itami's argument, rapid fire elvish following a loud slap and a yelp of pain. Felix looking to see that the high elf Tuka had struck Luella, eyes wild with rage and hurt, brimming with tears.

Felix put up a hand to stop Ianthe from moving, as Luella said something quietly in elvish, before turning and marching over to where they were all standing, purple eyes fixed on Itami. Filled for the first time, with what Felix would call rage. A red hand mark becoming more visible upon her face.

"Mr. Youji," said Luella deathly quiet in Japanese, unblinkingly holding Itami's gaze. "Did you tell Tuka that you are her father?"

"She called me her father," defended Itami.

"DID, you tell her, that you are her DEAD father?" asked Luella again, an angry bark in her tone.

"I thought it was helping her. I didn't know what else to do," said Itami.

"You...are...a FUCKING ASSHOLE!" raged Luella, shocking everyone present, moreso when the petite elf actually spit on the Japanese officer, vibrating in rage. Cursing him in elvish so vehemently, that even the dark elves present took notice.

"Luella," began Feliks feeling timid for the first time around the elf.

"No. Not with this Feliks. I'm not sorry so don't start. What he did is unforgivable! This...this...this is inexcusable! I don't even want to look at him anymore!" spat Luella, and Feliks realized that the air on his forearms were standing on end, like the air was electrically charged. In shock, he realized that Luella's eyes were emitting a faint violet glow. Hadn't he heard that magic could respond to emotions?

"Call me if you need me to translate his lies," said Luella tersely, turning on her heel and heading over to where Boris was standing, too angry to even take the chocolate the she was offered. More concerning though, was the amount of interest that Rory was giving her.

"It wasn't bad weather," said Rory finally, her lipstick turning purple and breaking the tension.

"What?" asked Feliks, glad to finally have something to focus on other than a VERY pissed off elf.

"It was dark magic. Someone's been very naughty, using all kinds of forbidden spells. You can smell it on the land. Have you seen the blackened dead spots scattered about? How everything is dead? It's not fire that did it either. Fire wouldn't poison the land like that, nor would it turn the wildlife into abominations. Surely you've seen them at least?"

"I've seen some weird deer, but I haven't seen...but there was Riverbend," said Feliks, the beginnings of realization hitting him. "Ianthe said the place was wrong. Felt cursed. Defiled even. Everything burned, everything dead, but for no reason."

"I've seen a lot of death," said Ianthe finally speaking, having watched the exchange silently from Felix's side. "But that...it didn't feel right. I've seen the evil of man, but...that was different."

"When I was in the capital, I felt something. It was like a wave, some kind of premonition almost. Like feeling Yokai running through you, or how I would imagine it would feel," added Itami, anger having left his face, looking thoughtful instead. Still shifting uneasily from the verbal lashing he had been taking.

"I remember something like that," said Feliks. "Luella screamed, and we all stayed up that night manning perimeter defence. We didn't know why, it just," trailed off Feliks.

"It felt like death," added Itami.

"And the trail has been moving steadily Northward hasn't it?" prodded Rory. "Into the Kingdom of Elbe, right to the fire dragon's lair. What a strange coincidence isn't it?"

Feliks pulled out a map and they all crowded around the hood of the HUMVEE, looking over it. The idea seeming almost ludicrous to Feliks, but he was here talking with elves, apostles of actual gods, an officer from a possible parallel world, and trying to stay away from a very real dragon, so who was to say that this was crazy?

"So I was here in the Capital when that...feeling came over all of us," said Itami. "It also messed with our radios and telecommunications whatever it was, almost like an EMP or cyber attack. Intelligence figures that it originated from somewhere around here," added Itami drawing a circle on the map in what looked like just plain wilderness. "We thought it was you guys testing out some kind of jamming equipment honestly."

"The storm that brought me down wasn't bad weather, it was definitely magic," said Captain Nikolai Vasiliev, having joined them and pointing at the map where he had to eject, drawing another small circle. His dark elf companion Maeldes hanging onto his arm, Luella having returned and translating for the dark elves present, continuing to cast hateful glares at Itami as she did so.

"The clouds were...alive. It wasn't turbulence that brought down our strike group. They hit us like we were flying into stone walls, and if they didn't break your plane apart there were...things in the clouds. They got my wingman, ripped Vyacheslav right out of his cockpit. They were wispy things, almost transparent to look at. Almost got me too, but you could hurt them like they're flesh and blood. They burn anyways."

"Riverbend with the massacred villagers was here," added Ianthe, drawing another circle on the map, and they said that it was a monster that did it."

"And the deer that was all messed up was here," added Feliks, drawing another circle on the map.

"Wait," said Ianthe, brows furrowing.

"What?" asked Feliks.

"I remember something. Something the priestess said. Remember what she was saying about the man who did it? The monster? How his eyes were blank? Like they held no soul?"

"A homunculus," said Rory.

"A what?" asked Feliks.

"An artificial person. A creation of a skilled mage or necromancer being able to create a fully grown and functional creation with imprinted skills and memories. Their physical abilities are normally able to far exceed that of a normal being. Theoretically the only limit to their strength is the magic used to create them. They aren't bound by the normal laws of nature. They can survive with very little food or drink and they're stronger than flesh should allow them to be. Though as to whether or not they have a soul is debated. They are most easily recognizable by the lack of colour in their eyes and appearing pale, even if their skin tone is darker," added Lelei helpfully.

"We pulled Desdemona out of the water here," said Luella quietly. "When I healed her, I felt that she was not brought into the world through natural means. But she's not a bad person! I felt it, and I know she has a soul, because I felt that too! Someone has just been terribly cruel to her," added Luella sadly. "She even apologized for making me cry, she was just afraid. She's still afraid. She's not bad, just...afraid. It's like a darkness smothering her. And now I think I know why. Her creator must be very cruel."

"Why would you keep that to yourself?" asked Itami.

"Shut up Itami," said Luella spitefully.

"Luella," said Ianthe reproachfully.

"I'm not sorry," said the petite elf.

"You need to act your age."

"The old Emperor Reindahl would routinely punish liars by having rats feast on their genitals and he did that at half my age. Maybe I should do that to Youji?"

"Lualla!" said Ianthe more sharply.

"I'm not sorry," said Luella again.

"Then that would be here," said Feliks, drawing another small circle, determined to stay out of the drama unfolding around him.

"And now we're all here," said Itami, circling the refuge. All present now staring at the small red circles that all steadily moved further north to where they all were. Just shy of the fire dragon's lair.

"Your circles look more like squares," barbed Luella, earning a reproachful glare from Felix, surprised when the petite elf met, and refused to break it.

"The blood of a fire dragon, especially one as old as this one, possesses very strong magical properties," said Rory.

"Mages use it to power spells that they would otherwise never be able to cast," said Lelei, the young mage having been quiet up until this point.

"Has anyone seen the fire dragon lately?" asked Feliks and Luella translated the question. The dark elf Maeldes shaking her head.

"Maeldes says that it hasn't attacked anyone or been seen for about three days now," said Luella.

"It's been four days since we pulled that woman from the river, and the river was flowing downstream past us. Even on foot, someone setting a good pace could have reached the fire dragon depending where they were in a day," said Ianthe.

"Faster if they have inhuman endurance. So we have two problems," said Feliks. "First, we have a homunculus in my goddamn camp that's down to half strength with most of our firepower here, and its half full of civilians. The other problem."

"Is that someone might have already killed the dragon and taken its blood," said Itami.

"FUCK!" cursed Feliks loudly, banging his hand on the hood of the HUMVEE.

"AVERIN!" yelled Feliks.

"Comrade Lieutenant?" answered back the soldier from the perimeter defence.

"Get a hold of Dima and tell him to detain that woman we pulled from the river!"

"The priestess?"

"No! The Desdemona woman, the one with pale eyes!" said Feliks irritably.

"How many people exactly have you guys pulled from the river?" asked Itami.

"Two women," said Feliks.

"That's highly irregular," said Lelei.

"It was kinda starting to seem common," said Luella.

"I mean, I was pulled out of a well," added Tuka, having calmed down, though still holding her head as if in the midst of a massive migraine.

"Yeah, see, that's three. Well, maybe just water in general?" pondered Luella.

"Correlation is not causation," pointed out Lelei.

"Fuck, that doesn't matter. AVERIN! Tell Dima to shoot her if she resists! With the PT 76! The main gun!"

"But she's not bad!" said Luella angrily.

"And as long as she listens...no, fuck it. AVERIN! Don't send it!"

"Comrade Lieutenant?" asked the soldier, confusion on his face, holding the radio handset.

"We don't want her knowing we're onto her, or any shit starting until we all get there!" shouted Feliks grabbing up his map and running to one of the BTR 60s they'd taken to get here.

"You want some help?" asked Itami.

"Actually yes. Right now the whole goddamned world coming with me, because I have no idea what the fuck is going on!" said Feliks, as he and his men got back into their vehicles, engines starting with throaty roars. The sky a mix of pinks, oranges, and reds with the setting sun. Their impromptu column throwing up dust as they raced along the narrow pathways of the canyon back to his camp.

AN: I decided to make this chapter a little shorter, since I wanted to put it out and quit revising it or putting out other scenes since it's been sitting in my laptop for like a year. Also, not dead.