Chapter Twenty-five

But You Think it's Stupid, This Thing Called a Conscience.

Air thick with salt.

Sun beating down on back, shoulders.

Water sliding over fingers.

Water drawing back, fingers sinking into velvet sand.

Fingers brushing against hard bits, both sharp and smooth.

Cheek against warm, flat rock.

Where? Why? That noise...

Because I will it.

Strong fingers gathered full of Nina's crown and yanked her up. Her eyes flashed open to white sand and blue, blue sky. Waves. That's what was crashing.

Amber swiveled, filled with the Kaiser.

You think you're so clever do you, Keeper? He sneered into her face. Salty winds blew long white hair against her bare shoulders. You honestly believe there is such nonsense as 'getting used to' me? Granite dragged through her ear canals, suddenly threw itself against the drums. DO NOT PATRONIZE ME! The fury of his aura crushed into her from all sides as spittle flecked her cheek, shaking his jittery grip of rage. I AM NOT SOME COMMON ANNOYANCE, I AM THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS, THE HAND OF DEATH, THE VERY PERSONIFICATION OF FEAR! YOU CANNOT IGNORE ME, YOU CANNOT DENY ME, YOU CAN. NOT. DEFY. ME!

A bandaged hand clutched the Kaiser's wrist and twisted. Nina fell back into the crook of an arm. Stunned she took in what she knew was, but couldn't possibly be Ryu's soul setting her gently down and facing the Kaiser with a body too old, a drive much too strong.

"Don't t-touch her," he growled, jaw wavering.

Embers becoming slits, the Kaiser snaked in close to Ryu's trembling, yet firm legged form with his lips curled back into a nasty sneer. You protect anything? Do not make me remind you of what happened to your sibling right in front of y-

With an equally foul expression, Ryu engulfed the Kaiser's face in his hand and squeezed until his head popped into a puff of black smoke.

He turned Nina. Behind him, the puffs dispersed into a cracking sky. A tremendous roar tore through the air. "He'll be back. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to wake you up now."

"Wait!" she cried, voice finally finding her lips, "W-why do you look...what's the reason for...y-you're not...?" She blinked at him.

He pushed wild navy locks from a smile so warm it made her weak. "I guess someone helped me find some courage, eh?" he said, breaking away with the world.


In the morning, they found the sandcruiser.

"Ain't this our lucky day? I be damned if it don't even look broken neitha! Jus' a lil' busted up an' it ain't no sin ta be ugly ya kno' so we ain't gonna hold it against 'im!" crowed Gray, brushing the last bit of snow and debris from Remy's dented wreckage. He turned the key in the ignition and after a few sputters, the machine purred to life.

"Are we so lucky you know how to operate it too?" asked Nina, taking a seat near the back. It was a little too small to accompany everyone. Remy climbed into her lap, Wolfie curled around her feet.

The big cat scratched his head. "Now that I ain't so sure 'bout but it cain't be too hard I mean there jus' be a stop an' a go an'—w-whoa-!" He gunned the engine and they would have shot forward had Ryu not grabbed onto the back of it. The cruiser jerked in his grip. "Hahahahaha nice save bro!" Gray laughed nervously. Ryu threw in the rest of their luggage and hopped on top of it. Gray slowly, carefully, put his foot back on the gas and managed to ease the cruiser out of the brush into a smooth momentum. Once he got the hang of it, there were only a few minutes of trees whizzing by until they hit the desert.

They might as well have entered another world, thought Nina as sun, clear sky and scorching temperatures hit them all at once. Gray warned them of this drastic change, ( "Y'all kno' our world be crazy when it comes ta weatha in places. Like how it don't never snow in Wyndia an' theys only got a week outta tha year n' tha Sima Fort area where it ain't rainin'.") but it had done it no justice. Nina leaned into the wind, already sweating profusely. For miles every which way, she could see nothing but barren white sand dunes, some seemingly as high as mountains. No vegetation, no shade...

No cover.

She couldn't help feeling incredibly naked out there in the open. Now she understood Ryu's apprehension back in the grasslands. She shook her head at memories of her foolish behavior.

Sunlight glittered off the sands in the horizon, she squinted her eyes. "Be careful lookin' out there!" Gray called over the cruiser's mechanical rumble, "'that metallic sand'll burn a hole in ya ret'nas befo' ya kno' it!" Nina quickly looked to Wolfie at her feet. He was staring up at Remy bobbing and humming in her lap. "In Synesta we's gonna hafta buy some tinted goggles fo' ev'ry one! Cain't be without 'em inna sandstorm!" Shyloh started to take off her pelt, Gray stopped her. "Dun bother, tha Frostlands be jus' up ahead!"

Nina's eyes migrated to Ryu's boots, her mind to his soul.

No.

She forced herself to focus on the present, and to get over her new fear of looking him in the eye, went to do it regardless when she noticed him distracted by the sky. "What's wrong?" she asked in Wyndian.

He lowered his gaze and stared ahead, saying nothing.

She glared at him. "If it's something important, I need to know!"

"What language is that?" Remy asked Nina, tugging on the blanket they both had wrapped around them. Their eyes met. Why did hers seem darker?

"A-ah..." Nina fumbled. She couldn't tell her Wyndian and she couldn't very well say something as obscure as Draconian without follow up questions she really didn't know how to answer. "W-woren," she finally decided with a guilty glance at Kittah.

"Ak'tar? To'burn skoltir, mada nomko?" asked the little girl sweetly. Nina blinked.

Kittah laughed nervously. Gray's head whipped back in surprise. "She said, ah...'Seriously? Then why didn't ya talk like this?'" the cat girl said with an awkward glance at her brother. Ryu was no longer preoccupied.

"W-well see w-we...w-well..." Nina bit her lip, then remembered not to, as her canines weren't so small anymore. She sighed. "It's ancient Wyndian, the language of magic. W-we're both h-humans with the gift...a-and a love for knowledge. Many ancient texts are written in it, you know." It sounded good, right?

The little girl's cute Isabella nose scrunched at Ryu. "But he sounds funny an' his eyes are weird an' his ears is even a lil' pointy."

"He's ahh...his body wasn't strong enough to hold all the m-magic he was born with s-see so it mutated him...kinda like how the creatures inside Wyndian forests are... So he's a little different than you but it's alright, he's a friend." Oh gods he was giving her the death look. Stop! She didn't want to call him a monster but the way he was looking wasn't going to sway the little girl's mind away from it! "L-listen I'm sorry I lied but, h-how in the world do you know woren language?"

Remy smiled, showing all of her teeth. "I'm smart. I know a~lot of things."

Nina's brow furrowed. Why didn't she care more about these "things"? "I see..." she turned towards Gray and the scenery before him answered the question forming in her mind. Black clouds that weren't there a minute ago tumbled ahead, filling both sky and ground with their tremendous icy bounties. Nina swallowed, could see the winds whipping snow off the tops of dunes and slamming it into others. Occasionally a flurry of ice chunks would catch a ride.

"Bundle up!" the big cat cried, and before they really had a chance to make sure everything was secure, burst into the Frostlands.

Nina got down to help Ryu hold all the excess luggage in place while shielding Remy, Kittah, and Wolfie with her blanket as bits of ice pelted them. Shyloh stood and lifted glowing hands into the air. A thin transparent shield bubbled around them; the ice bounced away. Nina pulled back her blanket. "How long can you hold it?"

"I'll be fine as long as Caleb hurries," said Shyloh, bringing glowing eyes to him.

"Aye, aye m'am! It ain't that big o' a place when ya gots a cruisa!"

Snow poured over the shield. Winds rocked them almost sideways. Remy's tiny hands reached for a broken metal rod on the ground beside them and she stood, facing Nina. "We better watch out, some of them ice chunks broke off a piece o' tha cruiser!" The jagged end lazily pointed in the Wyndian's direction. Wolfie dove forward, snapping at the little girl's legs. Remy yelped and kicked. "Make the mean doggie stop!" She squealed, swiping the rod at him, tears streaming down her face. "I don't like him, he's scary!"

Calm heart. Again.

The cruiser hit a slab of ice jutting out of the ground hidden in snow. Remy toppled over Wolfie onto Nina, or would have if Ryu hadn't have snatched the back of her dress at the last moment. The metal in her hands hovered dangerously close to Nina's abdomen. Ryu disarmed the girl and tossed it through the shield out into the blizzard. "For the rest of the trip, you're with me," he growled, taking hold of her around the waist and sitting back down on the luggage.

"But I wanna be with Nina!" she screeched, balling her fists and hitting him, "You can't tell me what to do!"

"Looks to me like I am."

Shyloh staggered. A chunk of ice pierced through the shield and nicked Gray's shoulder. Nina clasped her hands together and hurriedly whispered for her sprites. The ice one appeared in front of her, and one she didn't see often, the green, flowing feathered harpy-like spirit of wind took in its surroundings with wide set, darting eyes. Please help my friend shield us from harm, she thought and immediately they both flew to Shyloh.

The shaman's weary, fading eyes widened as two tiny shining hands and a pair of glowing talons touched her arms. There was a wub noise, and the shield pulsed with regained strength. "Sprites heed your command?!" Shyloh asked Nina incredulously. "They barely acknowledge my mother, the leader of the shamans, yet they are at the beck and call of the Raven Prin-" Her eyes flickered from Nina to Ryu to Remy. She swallowed. "Tell me, I must know how are you able to control them."

Kittah was studying the ice sprite's paper thin, glittering wings. Nina shrugged. "Control isn't the word. They're more like...friends?"

She was thirteen when the light sprite first appeared to her. It was startling because, surely her summons wouldn't work on the first try, but lo and behold...

Over the next few months, other sprites showed. The ice fairy, the wind harpy, the earth dryad, the fire kitten, the shadow of the dark, all making themselves very known. Most were happy to see her, though some were shy in her presence, the dryad in particular. Harpy was flighty; everything was up in the air according to her. Fire kitten was elusive, she had only seen him once, as well as the shadow, who made sure at their one meeting she knew that was going to be the only time she ever laid eyes on it.

Shyloh was making a strange face. "'Friends?'"

Winds howled by. Gray whipped the cruiser through a forest of ice spikes protruding out of the ground. "Yes, I've always considered them as such."

She felt a subtle rumble beneath her feet.

Below us, up ahead! Something big!

Nina's alarmed eyes met Ryu's and they both dove for Gray at the same time. "BRAKE! STOP! BRAKE NOW!" they screamed in unison. Gray was too confused to react. Nina slammed her foot down on the pedal. The cruiser screeched and fishtailed on the ice.

"What tha hell ya both doin'?!" Gray screamed, letting go of the spinning steering wheel. He grabbed it after a few seconds and held tight. They slid sideways and clipped a spike. He held the wheel again, body squishing Nina against Ryu. His foot joined Nina's and they skidded to a stop. Veins scattered over his forehead. "Ya'll tryin' ta kill us?!"

Suddenly, a sandworm a good twenty or so of their cruiser length in width broke through the ground in front of them and shot into the air. All eyes followed its midnight blue leathery body arching over them wide with shock as its shadow engulfed them. Even Remy lost interest in fighting Ryu to gape at its majesty. The head broke through spikes and plunged into thick ice, snow and sand behind them, causing waves and another jolting earthquake.

Gray gunned it and maneuvered them around the worm's tail end still emerging from the ground, bouncing on waves of ground. "What tha hell was that?!" he cried as it fell behind. "I ain't thought there'd be no monsta's out here! How can it live in this wasteland, huh?! How tha hell didya git thru this, Remy?!"

"She's fainted," Ryu said, wrapping the blanket Nina handed him around her.

"Well she betta ansa when she wakes up, I ain't believin' she did any o' this by herself no ways! Didya check in tha cruisa storage bay real good? Maybe one of thems 'bad men' came wit."

Ryu shook his head. "No one. Nothing would escape my nose." He looked down at the girl.

"It be weird as a two tailed woren, I tell ya, an' I kno' it be a lot weirda than I be thinkin' but I cain't figgur out why I ain't thinkin' that way, ya kno'? Godsdamnit I sound daft!"

"Shyloh, are you alright?" Nina asked.

The shaman nodded. Her pelt floated around her in an invisible magical force. "Thanks to your 'friends'." The wind harpy squawked, 'too easy!' translated Nina's mind.

"We gotta git outta here befo' that big ol' bro decides he wants ta do mo' than jus warn us!" Gray cried, laying his foot on the gas again. The cruiser jerked forward, Nina and Kittah fell back into Ryu. Shyloh struggled to stand her ground with the sprites' help.

"Almost! We cain't be too far, jus' hold on a lil' longa, baby girl!" Gray drifted them through another group of ice spikes.

The blizzard was growing stronger. Nina could barely see a thing outside of the shield. She wondered if Gray could at all. She guessed not when he barely cleared a slide through two close together spikes and clipped the edge of another one. They spun, the wheel burned his paws when he grabbed it. Saucer eyes darted up at a spike materializing out of the clouds of white directly in front of them. Oh gods they were going to crash!

He spun the wheel the other way, the clip to the back that resulted straightened them out and the nervous lead foot flooring the gas sent them flying off a natural sand ramp behind it. Nina and Kittah clung to Ryu. Shyloh grabbed onto the back of Gray's chair. The shield dispersed.

Nina, expecting to be impaled by shards of ice and asphyxiated by snow, was suddenly very surprised to feel hot, dry air against her scrunched face. She opened her eyes to see the cruiser not under her, and herself, Ryu and Kittah all plummeting headfirst towards a dune.

What a time not be able to use her wings.


"Not...a problem. I got it, alright? You don't have...to thank me."

Pain shot down Nina's body in waves. Swollen eyelids opened to Ryu's sweat drenched shirt clinging to his back.

"I ain't...so good at drivin' in ice I reckon..."

She was laying on the deck of the cruiser and it was moving. Strange, she didn't hear the engine. Was Ryu pulling it?

"I see buildings," wheezed the dragon.

Nina managed to turn her head; it was all she could do. Everyone was laid out unconscious except Gray (and was that Wolfie?) though both looked too battered to move much either. Damn that flaky harpy. Probably didn't realize what was happening fast enough to do anything about it, if she cared that was. The cat nodded his head at her with a big smile. "Ya's damn tough, ya kno' that, Nina?"

She groaned in response. "Are we really alive?"

Ryu chuckled. His right arm hung lame at his side. "How much money do we have left?" he croaked, sounding a thousand times more parched than she felt. Winds whipped at his dust covered mop and the rags he was dressed in. Sweat poured in streams down his dirty, reddening arms. If even he was getting burned, Nina hated to think what was happening to her delicate skin. Gods it was so hot.

"Enuff ta party hard fo' awhile, bro, an' even git anotha cruisa lata!"

"I want...the nicest inn in the city. With a soft bed all to myself...and a...huge bathtub...I can fill with ice..."

Gray laughed, or rather sputtered pitifully. "'Aight, 'aight, I dig it...we git somnthin' fancy! Cain't... help ya wit tha ice tho, ya gotta kno'...we's ain't near...tha oasis an' we's ain't nowhere near tha sea neither. Water an' ice be hard ta find 'round here...even fo' tha rich! I mean we can get some but it ain't gonna be a lot...that's fo' sho'."

Nina could almost feel the disappointment radiating from the dragon. "Maybe," She strained through a sandpaper throat, "I can ask the ice sprite to be nice...and conjure you up some... How about that, Ryu?"

He strode forward, dragging the cruiser along behind him up a steep dune with powerful, sand caked legs. "Infirmary...first," he huffed, cresting it.

Clouds of black pollution loomed through the city of Synesta before them, wrapping their thick, sooty arms around its tall, dark, menacing buildings. Nina could hear the yells of people loitering near, a group of men jeering at each other. Judging from the slides their feet were making in the sand, she could tell they were more fighting than playing around. Ryu pulled the cruiser up and sat back on the bow. "Alright, here goes nothing!" he cried, grabbing onto the sides and tucking his legs in. He threw his weight forward, and let the cruiser coast down directly into those men.


Bourbon.

The only thing keeping him sane anymore.

King Issac Randolph Wynlan VII downed another shot as his bleary eyes stared down at that day's newspaper. They found Prince Vahn of Ludia's mutilated corpse in the forests near Chamba. The council was blaming one of Vahn's acquaintances, an otherwise unknown foxwoman. He knew better. Jaxx informed him right away of how difficult his daughter was being. He'd heard she'd been responsible for Ivory's death, but to be enough to kill one of the souls inside of Zeth Alabaster? What if she came back here? What if she really was an invincible god of darkness? Would she ever forgive him for sending her to Ludia?

With a shaky hand, he poured himself another shot. Liquid spilled onto his desk. The bottle clinked against his glass and it broke in his hand. Ignoring the shards in his flesh and his adviser's frantic screaming for Lisele, he turned the bottle up and took the rest of his amnesia ambrosia down his throat and the front of his robes. He let go of the depleted bottle, it shattered on the floor. Glassy eyes went to his beautiful domed ceiling. His cheeks and lips were numb. He could no longer feel the glass jutting out of him.

Ah there it was. His ambrosia's beautiful black heaven of nothingness, far away from his murderous daughter plotting his demise and this whole godsdamn world.

He closed his eyes and let his only friend put him to sleep.


"Are ya serious?! Even afta payin' those heala's ya'll still can afford somnthin' like this?!" Kittah wowed, walking through their suite like her feet were going to set the floor on fire. Wolfie padded along cautiously, eying and sniffing everything.

"Hell we's ain't stayin' here but a night or so, right? We's got plenty! I can always go to tha nearest bar an' make all o' this back if'n it's a prob, ya kno'? C'mon, loosin' up, we deserve it!" Gray laughed, walking towards an island bar in the middle of a wide-span, steely kitchen. He opened a compartment built into it and pulled out a couple of bottles with a grin. "Oo guys, wouldya look at this?"

Nina crossed the main room's soft pinkish carpet floor gingerly with bare feet, past Ryu lounging on a black leather sectional and Kittah padding her way to Gray, over to glass doors leading out to the room's balcony. "Caleb we ain't got time fo' any o' that," the cat girl said, shaking her head.

"Sho' we do! Tell 'er, Ryu!"

The dragon was leaning back. From there he could see into the downstairs bedroom where Remy was wrapped up sound asleep. "I think I'll pass."

"Aww, ya's no fun, ya kno' that? Hey Shyloh, give it back!" Gray reached for the bottle she took. Kittah snatched up the other when his back was turned.

Nina opened the doors and stepped out onto the balcony. They pulled closed behind her, muffling the noises of her rowdy party.

It was unbearably hot and her dragon skin felt even hotter. She peeled a little of her tank top off her stomach. The contrast to her arms was shocking. With Vahn's generous donation to them, Synesta's most expensive healers were able to cure the sunburn from both her and Ryu, along with everyone else's injuries, though the aftereffects still remained. Ryu was almost darker than the dark duo and (surprise!) Nina now had her first tan.

She sat down at a table near the railing. There was a crystal vase on it housing some long stemmed white flowers. Magical flames flickered inside a space in the vase underneath the flowers, giving the table a soft ringed glow. She took off her boots and rolled up both pants legs, then turned her head towards a small fan oscillating beside the vase. She wished she could wear shorts, but it wasn't a good idea to show any skin in the desert. Hopefully she could find something lightweight at a shop to cover up out there, otherwise this place was going to be miserable. If only she could install this heaven sent fan into a hood...

Sounds of the city clamored below. Music, machinery, dogs barking, people yelling. Nina gazed out at equally tall buildings with their bright florescent lights displayed across them. Signs of all shapes and sizes flickered above and below. Black streams of smoke oozed by; thank the stars Vahn's charity bought rooms high enough to take refuge from it. She looked out over the buildings. To think she thought Chamba was a big city; it was barely half the size of this place! Gray had told her not to be too awestruck with even this. If they ever made it to Coursair, the real 'Sin City', then she'd "fo' sho'" be amazed. Either way, she had never seen this many different sorts of people gathered all at once, except for maybe her execution. There were even a good amount of Wyndians here! A few were in balconies just like hers in the other buildings, laughing and drinking with one another. A human with spiky brown hair whistled up at her, flexed a shirtless torso when she peered curiously down.

The doors opened and Kittah poked out her head. "Oi, Nina, wanna go out in tha city? Everyone's goin', even Ryu. Said 'e needed new clothes, soon as possible."

"What about Remy?"

"Ryu said she can stay in tha room by 'erself. If'n she stay asleep, it prob be fine."

Nina wanted to. Night life in this big city sounded so much more interesting than the trees she'd been staring at back in the forest every night, yet she could barely entertain the thought of it. She was dead tired. "No, I think I'm going to turn in for the night. I don't really feel comfortable leaving an eight year old on her own in a place like this anyways. What if she wanders off when she wakes up because she doesn't know where she is?"

Kittah nodded. "'Good point, I reckon. I'll tell Ryu." She made a face, her tail twitched at her feet. "I was sorta hopin' ya'd come tho'."

"What about tomorrow?" Nina asked, tossing her bangs back and smiling, "Just you and me? I'd invite Shyloh, but I'm not sure she likes me too much..."

Kittah brightened. "Shy jus takes some gittin' used ta, she ain't all bad when ya git ta kno' 'er. Fo' sho' ya can count on me. It be a date!" She stepped back into the room and spoke to Ryu on the couch. He leaned back and stared at Nina through the glass almost upside-down while she did. Nina braced herself when he stood and walked over to the door. With his 'I'm really serious face' he raised up his left arm and pinched his wrist, then cocked his head and raised his eyebrows questioningly. She nodded. Pinch there and he would come, yeah she got it.

Huh, so there was enough respect now for her to be left alone, she thought as the door to the suite closed shut behind them.

For the most part, you've been thinking a lot more like him lately. He is noticing this.

She thought about Ryu's soul saying this while smiling at her like he did in her dreams.

Ah...I'm not quite that handsome, I don't think.

She jolted herself up from the table, just missing a hit to the knee that would have surely brought physical Ryu bounding back. Bed. Now. She had to sleep, had to turn her mind off. What the hell was this? No privacy, ever! He didn't respond. She didn't know what she would've said if he had, but he knew that didn't he? Didn't he already know everything?

Bed. Seriously.

She stumbled down to the room Remy was in. Her vision blurred. She was so very, very tired. Wolfie barked at her from the bed. She "Shh'ed" him. He was going to wake up Remy! The bed. That's what she needed. She climbed in. Wolfie was barking at her again. He sounded so far away...

She was out before she finished the thought.


Sea green eyes popped open. Tiny hands flew to Wolfie's muzzle and squeezed it shut. "Will you stop it, you stupid mutt?!" hissed Remy, twisting. The dog held its ground, growling at her fiercely. She scowled. "I'm tired of dealing with you like this, Lesley! Have the decency to speak your mind as a person."

Wolfie stopped growling. Tawny eyes flickered to Nina. The little girl sighed. "Look at her, she's dead asleep. Why so worried?" the dog resumed his growling louder when amusement crept into that scowl. He pulled his muzzle out of her grip and hopped back. "Jaxx always says to play nice! Just talk to me!"

The dog snorted and snatched a blanket from the end of the bed, padding out of the room and up the stairs with it. Remy followed. When she reached the top, there was a man seated on the couch with nothing on his otherwise naked, toned body than that same blanket wrapped around his waist. Remy cocked her head thoughtfully. "I'm always surprised at how you can hide your piercings, but not clothes. I mean, that's just a recipe for an uncomfortable situation!"

Lesley narrowed his eyes underneath unruly, shaggy copper hair and heavily studded eyebrows. "Leave, Adelaide. Now." he growled, nervously clicking a tongue stud against his teeth. Two uneven locks of his hair on either side of his head bound by dark red string brushed against his cheeks.

Adelaide giggled, shaking her head. "You are aware of how much she's worth?"

"Yea, like everybody. But she don't deserve none of this trash bein' thrown out by the papers 'bout her so she don't deserve us houndin' her. She's a good person. You know she is."

Adelaide's childish face showed no sympathy. "I'm sorry, what exactly am I hearing? Your deal is what, you afraid your little girlfriend will get caught in the crossfire? You think she'll find out your dirty little secret? How long have to been her damn pet anyways? I'm sure Ironsides asked you to keep an eye on her from a distance." Lesley scowled and turned away from her. She tried to stifle an awkward laugh and failed. "Oh Gods, how funny do you think he would find this? I can just see his face now..."

"It ain't like that!" he exploded.

"I wonder if killing you here would be merciful." she added nonchalantly, then laughed again. Tawny orbs shifted back. Adelaide hummed to herself, idly bouncing on one foot.

Adelaide Kilgore, the youngest member of the AG, though she wasn't quite as young as everyone perceived. Adelaide looked to you like whatever Adelaide wanted you to see, which was usually a very young girl. It was much easier for her to work her magic that way. Same reason her brother looked the way he did. Lesley licked dry lips, running his tongue over a ring through the left side. Since he was also AG, she wasn't allowed to manipulate anything else but his perception of her. Right now, she was still mimicking Isabella Wynlan up to her eyes. She always had trouble with the eyes. "Addy, Listen 'aight?" The girl cocked her head, ringlets on either side tied with ribbons bounced. Since he was AG she wasn't allowed to do anything to him...unless she declared conflict to Jaxx, which he had certainly already given her plenty of grounds for... "Back off this one. I'll owe ya, aight?"

"Since when do mutts have income?"

His jaw clenched. Fighting her was going to be a pain and he couldn't very well do it here. Not where Kittah might see him. Gods forbid Dexter showed up... "Jus' let me owe you a favor, Adelaide! It ain't that hard!"

"I wasn't going to bother the cat girl unless she interfered if that's your problem."

That was the problem. Lesley's brow furrowed and he muttered, "Nina's Kittah's friend," before he could stop himself.

Adelaide's tiny hands went to her cheeks, her face purpled from holding in laughter, "Wow, Dex was right. You really have turned into a puss-"

Rustling came from the bedroom down below. Lesley hurriedly transformed back into his canine form. Adelaide turned to see Nina appear at the top of the stairs rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "What's going on, Remy? I heard a man's voice?"

"The doggie was being bad so I told him who was boss!" the little girl cried crossing her arms and jutting her chin out. "A-and I yelled at him while I was on the porch so you probably heard one of those men out there!"

Nina furrowed her brow and ran her hands through her hair, glancing up at a clock on the wall. "Ah, he probably needs a walk." She paused, looking sleepily at Wolfie waiting tentatively. "Wait, why aren't you with Kittah?" He whined questioningly. She shrugged and pat her hand against her leg. "C'mon boy, you wanna go outside?" The dog barked and bounded towards the door. "Whoa, not so fast speedy, let me put my boots on." He clawed at the door ruthlessly. "Hey, Wolfie, stop! They'll make us pay for that!" She donned her boots, grabbed Adelaide's waiting hand and followed Wolfie out of the door.


"Ya think Nina'd like this, Ryu?" Kittah asked the dragon, holding up a shirt with a large cartoon drawing of a cat on it. Ryu shrugged, running his fingers over a row of chain-mail lined black leather hooded jackets on a rack. A grassrunner three times his size hunkered down beside him, doing the same. "Ya's prob right," Kittah said, "She needs sumthin' mo' pract'cal-like."

"Ya hafta wear tha goggles Shy, othawise ya's gonna go blind out there!" Gray argued with Shyloh, holding up a pair of dark goggles lined in blue plastic. "C'mon on now, they's cute an' way high fashin out in tha dunes! Right, Kittah? Ain't ya seen some o' these in ya's girlie magazines?"

Ryu plucked out one of the jackets and tried it on. Some girls near him giggled and whispered to each other about the torn, dirty pants he was still wearing. He answered by dropping them to the floor. Kittah's mouth went with them. He was covered by the jacket but still! "R-Ryu! Y-y-y-y-ya can't do that here! Theys got rooms fo' that!" she hissed. He ignored her and reached over to a shelf past the grassrunner's grunting oblivious form and picked out a lightweight beige pair suitable for the desert. With half the store watching, he slipped them on. He then took off the heavy jacket and peeled his sweat stained red rag of a shirt from his skin.

The girls were really whispering now. 'Look at that!' 'What are all those marks on his back?' 'They could say he was the devil and I wouldn't care!' He ignored them and slipped on a light hooded robe of the same material as the pants after he pulled the shirt over his head. He donned the jacket again and looked to Kittah, Gray and Shyloh staring at him. "Get these for me. I'm going to check on Nina and the kid." They watched him bound off into the swelling crowd outside.

Gray shrugged when his sister and Shyloh looked to him. "Eh, a dragon's gonna do what a dragon damn well wants ta do, ya kno'?."


Ryu dove into the shadows as soon as he felt safe doing so. A few beggars may have seen him, but drugs, dementia and the heat made people see a lot of things. He scaled the fire escape ladder of one of the city's taller buildings to the roof.

He had known something was wrong this entire time, just couldn't voice it, could barely even think it!

She's the one, or one of the ones that must have been responsible for the courtyard in Ludia.

Influential magic, and Ladon was it damn strong for being so subtle. The farther he got away from Remy, the more he could focus on the red flags that had already risen in front of him waving madly. That little witch had tried to stab Nina twice and no one had thought much of it. He had acted on a whim, making the girl sit with him on the cruiser, a very faint feeling he wasn't even able to conform into an actual, logical thought...yet the dog... How was the dog able to withstand her?! It didn't make any sense! Ryu leaped from one building to the next, hands and feet scrabbling on the tiny rocks pebbling their roofs.

Don't be so hard on yourself!

They'd shown doubt in the beginning. How did she get to the forest from Synesta? How could she speak woren? She was a child! She told them she drove the cruiser through the treacherous Frostlands. Wait, what? And they never asked how a child could do that until a brief moment of clarity after the sandworm nearly scared them all out of their skins? Then they crash and everyone suddenly becomes even more enamored with her at the infirmary? Ryu had an eye glued to her back in the suite without a shred of comprehension on why he felt such a need to. This was cheating, the most underhanded kind of magic there was!

Maybe she really did faint from that beast?

That made him cock a smile, "You're probably right, even her poker heart beat a little faster at that."

Nina's soul paused, took in the anxiety brewing within her dragon casing. Relax. I'm not hurt, yeah?

His smile disappeared as he ran like a cat over uneven buildings, the chain mail lining the hood on his new jacket illuminated even in the shadow world by Synesta's florescent PAWN, ARMOR/WEAPONS, REPAIR, PUB, GRUB, HOTEL, GIRLS!, 2MANYGIRLS!...etc signs. He overestimated a gap where a large neon red outline of an almost naked woman lying on yet another WOWSOMANYGIRLS sign stretched its length. Luckily it was trash day at the restaurant he landed on, and a mountain of bags cushioned his slam into its wall.

"Yet. You aren't hurt, yet," he growled to the soul, crawling out of the mess miraculously without anything too pungent joining him. Nina was really tired and it was throwing off his depth perception. Tired and...was that poison? It was hard to tell. It didn't matter anyways, her dragon body would neutralize it before it was able to do its full intended damage, though the handicap was going to be annoying. "But if you keep buying into her 'little sister' ruse... Gods you're letting her get so godsdamn close!"

Oh really? You say you wouldn't be phased by someone looking like Ana.

Ryu shook his head, hurdling over a group of fences. "Ana is dead. Nothing anyone can conjure will ever bring her back so there's no use fawning over something that reminds me of her."

Be happy there's any shred of love in my heart after how many times the Kaiser's tried to ravage it.

"I am," he said, squeezing through a tiny gap between two pubs and jumping over another torn fence covered in barbed wire, "I know I may have said I did before, but I don't think now I want you to be so much like me."

But you think it's stupid, this thing called a conscience.

"Yeah," he said, jumping down into an alleyway and taking off down it, "Case and point."

He could feel the magic now, wriggling its tiny, deceptive fingers into his senses.

I will do my best to help you see behind her facade.

Ryu snorted. "If you were capable of that, why didn't you do so before?"

Getting away so I could actually recognize it helped. Wait, i-it was the same for you, ass!

"I don't think you can do it," retorted the dragon, using the alley wall to avoid a pile of sleeping homeless crowding the ground. He rounded a corner, skidding on a puddle of greasy mud. "But please, feel free to prove me very wrong."


A/N: I'm sorry this is not as long as I promised some, but I felt I would have rushed the next part if I tried to write it now. Christmas was crazy, work is just now getting back to its slow days. Good thing because I got an ipad (yay!) and I'm using the downtime to paint Benevolent Monsters' cover! I'm trying to put a lot of detail in it, but don't expect too much, I'm pretty much a virgin when it comes to digital art and really painting in general so it's slow going and mostly an experiment.

Thank you so much as always for all the love!