The crone looked to the weasel, it's entrails pulled out across the table, and frowned. This was the third weasel. The other two were in the fire, and she would consult their bones to be certain.

Lord Cornibath was a small and patient man, and he had watched the ancient witch cut apart all three rodents, watched her pick over their intestines, examine their hearts and lungs, watch the blood pool in the grains of wood of the table, then toss all the flesh aside into the fire.

The room stank, now, of cooked weasel flesh. Weasels are not good smelling creatures to begin with.

But Cornibath stood and waited in silence as the woman worked.

She tossed aside the third into the fire, and there she watched the flames consume the flesh, and she watched the fire die.

With practice, she picked the bones from the fire, seperating each set into it's own pile. She lifted each pile, and tossed them onto the table. She picked over each set, staring at the charred bones, picking through the blackened remains, setting aside each skull, each vertebrae, each rib, placing the skeletons back together again.

Cornibath could hear each bone being placed on the wooden table. He could, for the second time in his life, hear the crone's ragged breath. And he knew it to be fear.

She stepped back from the table, staring down at the three skeletons. She steadied herself on it, looking down at the three skeletons, before picking the blackened skulls of each.

She showed them to Cornibath.

He looked, and he understood. Looking at each blackened skull, charred skin and flesh still held to the bone, flaking off as she handed them to him with the utmost care. He could see her worries, her fear. Six eyes stared back at him, cool and calm and wrong, all the same, untouched by the flame, but none the less changed. He stared at each set in turn, and he could feel himself drawn into the color of a winter sky, the crisp blue chilling his body, even as he felt the warmth of the charred bones flow into his hands.

"Eyes of the Dragon," the crone said. "The girl is alive... and protected."

He could feel her fear, he could almost taste it. Last time, he could not sense it as easily, but this time... or was she even more afraid?

"Protected by what?"

"She is shielded by the Dragon God. What protects her... I dare not say."

--

It does not stand. It towers. The plates of its back shift and creak as it takes its full height, but it does not stand. There's a hiss, steam or hate being released from a maw, a dozen fangs visible from the slim crack.

Upon its faces are masks of hate and rage, the anger of lost loved ones, the anger of arrogance, the anger of a thousand lives being extinguished. The anger of caged beast, or a caged man. In some cases its both.

From one of its heads bellows a litany of fire and damnation, an aria of hate and vengeance. Anther cried a chant of fear and sadness. Another whispered a child's lullaby. Another whispered obscenities and curses, never repeating itself. And there were still others, dozens upon dozens, each vying for Ryu's attention.

This is what you will soon face, my child.

Arms and legs and tails, scaled, furred, and skinned, all reached for him, falling short. Cries of pain and terror, help and need, assaulted his ears.

This is what you must save.

He spread his wings, trying to fly away, to escape, but it spread its own wings, and it had so many more than he.

Save it, or become one with it.

It was then that he heard it, a voice he recognized. He dared not look back.

Save them and yourself; damn them and yourself. Such is your choice.

It was her voice, urging him on. he could hear it, changed as it was, through the crowd. Telling him to run, telling him to hide, saying those last words to him.

He would not run. He would not hide. He turned, and with a roar, he turned and flew back at the beast.

--

The sun crept over the horizon as Ryu widdled away at a stick, the fire dead for several hours.

"You awake yet?" he asked the sleeping form of Vargas.

"And what if we needed the fire?" he asked without moving.

"Then we would have been dead anyways. It attracts attention in these parts." Vargas sat up, pulling off his chainmail in a single motion. "We don't want any at all," added Ryu. He looked to the princess. "We're still headed for town. Even if they're looking for her, I need the money from selling the armor. We need supplies if we're heading out into the world."

"Fine. It will provide a distraction to Cornibath and let your trail go cold."

"She'll need to change her clothes, too. Something plain, that'll blend in. Maybe rain gear to cover her hair?" thought Ryu, trailing off.

Vargas reached reached to his belt, taking his coin purse and handed Ryu some of its contents.

"It might not be a bad idea to teach her to fight," said Vargas.

"And if she thinks she can do something she can't?"

"Her family has a history of that. And they didn't fail."