Chapter 18

There was no time to come up with a convincing lie, if such a thing would even be possible to craft. Confronted with both the question and damning evidence that the answer was already apparent, on the spur of the moment, all he could do was to nod his head wearily.

"I just found out a few days ago." Remembering what Karl had said about him to Katherine, he repeated his Master's earlier words. "I'm no subject of the Kaiser, though."

She gave him a quizzical look, and he found himself needing to explain what that meant to him. "I... I don't really know what I am, other than a foundling, abandoned as a baby during the Dragonwar and raised by the ordinary, decent folk of my village. I worship the Goddess Miriam and I would stand against any threat to the Kingdom or its people, even from the Dragon Clan. On my word of honor, you have nothing to fear from me, Nicole."

She bit her lip. "I'd like to believe that. But a few days ago, I met you and your two companions on the road to Relyn. And now the town's been sacked and I find out the Rangers were escorting a dragon..."

"No, it's not like that!" Ryan protested, alarmed. He groaned and closed his eyes as the emotional stress made his head throb and his vision swim. After a few slow, deep breaths, he continued, forcing himself to stay calm. "I mean, that's not how it happened. If you know the town's been sacked, you'll also know it was a great demon that did it, not a dragon. Karl called it one of the Ancient Lords. You're a mage; does that name mean anything to you?"

Nicole shook her head slowly. "Demon lore was never really my specialty. The only ancient demon lords I've heard of were the Masters of the Birthing Time." It was from the narrative set forth in the Principio, that the first priests fought against the demons of chaos who ruled the world. They managed to tame the wild land and make the barren and hostile world blossom, but they were opposed at every step by the Masters, fifteen great demons of immense power. Only when Dolan, the greatest of all, turned against his comrades and aided Miriam's followers did they manage to defeat the Masters and bring peace to the world.

"Yeah, I think that's who he means, the Masters or maybe others that were just as powerful. They weren't killed by the ancient priests; they were sealed away beneath shrines of power, and then as civilization grew, people turned those shrines into churches. Our church caught fire and burned down, and the demon got free. We were coming to Relyn to seek aid from the Prefecure, but while we were there, the demon showed up to free its... I don't know what to call it. Its brother, maybe?"

Nicole listened, then paused in silence when Ryan was finished, considering his words. "There's something you're not telling me," she said slowly, "but... you're telling the truth, aren't you? You didn't attack the town. You tried to help, didn't you?"

Something was not quite right about her words. Ryan thought about it for a moment, then realized the problem. "Yes, and there's something you're not telling me. You shouldn't know that the town's been attacked if you found me on your way back, and you certainly shouldn't know that there was a dragon involved in the fighting. But I'm not your enemy, and I don't think that you're mine. It's just that everyone has their own secrets to keep."

For a moment, it looked as if Nicole was going to say something in response to that, but then she apparently thought better of it. Instead, she simply nodded. "I suppose." She remained silent for a moment, then continued. "And... no, I'm not your enemy. I think you're trying to help, and I want to help you."

A corner of Ryan's mind raised an objection that she had been persuaded far too easily, that he should be wary of her. The youth ignored it. He had only told her the truth, that he was a good person caught up in a mess that was not of his own making. Why shouldn't she believe the truth, afterall? Besides, pretty girls had never been interested in him before, because of the social stigma of not having a totem. Now that he had one, and it had drawn the positive attention of such a lovely young lady as Nicole, he would be mad to look for reasons to not trust her!

"All right," the dragon rasped. "You want to help? I'm kind of stuck like this. Not sure why, but I can't get out of Totemform. Also, I hit my head on that tree and it hurts like there's a dr-" he hesitated. He was about to say "like there's a dragon beating on it," a common idiom for severe pain, but he realized how ridiculous that would sound in context. "Like nothing I've ever felt before. You know any magic that can help me with either one?"

She gave a soft giggle as she caught the suppressed idiom. "I might," she said, turning a brilliant smile on him that might have sent his blood racing had he not been distracted by the pounding headache. "Give me a few minutes to prepare, and I'll see what I can do."