The Ryder and his Steed

By Mardrena

White Wind lashed his tail out of boredom. Yulie always took him out to roam late at night, but the rest of the day he spent playing the inert 'toy display'. He sniffed at some of the steel tools resting atop a work shelf then jerked his head away. The father already suspected something amiss with the disappearance of the first set of tools.

White Wind glanced about shiftily then opened his mouth and hooked his teeth around the end of a wrench. He halted when he heard a creak from the door and assumed his statue-like pose. Mr. Yamano entered the garage carrying a trash bag and walked over to the aluminum can in the corner. He dropped it inside then turned to leave. He paused and glanced at the large toy. The thing had been in the garage the past six months, and every time he saw it, he seemed to notice subtle differences in everything from the angle of the legs to the way the wings rest on the shoulders. Mr. Yamano sighed and shut the door behind him, shaking his head dismissively. White Wind let his wings droop but immediately froze again when the door began to open.

Mrs. Yamano entered the room humming musically. "Hmm hmm hmm, I'm just going to leave these carrots here to dry. I'll be back for them later. Hmm hmm hmm…" she set a large ceramic plate on the top of the washing machine on the other side of the garage then headed back to the door. White Wind had to keep his gaze straight forward, and only the sound of the door opening and closing indicated she'd left. Nonexistent sweat glands poured imaginary waterfalls down the Pegasi's head. He knew bait when he saw it…but it smelled so irresistibly good! He cocked his ears ever so slightly, straining hard to listen for any faint sounds like footsteps or breathing.

His eye lenses angled towards the door. The door looked shut all the way, and only a pile of dirty laundry, brooms, and mops rest in the corner. The only sounds he heard came from the inner recesses of the house. White Wind glanced from side to side warily. He nudged one leg to the side then moved the other. The family vehicle blocked his path, so he had to scoot around it to reach the washing machine and the plate with the delightfully smelling vegetables.

He glanced around the garage once more, double checking the sounds and door. She wouldn't possibly notice one missing… He reached out and grabbed the thin one atop the pile and began chewing. He moved to return to his spot but paused and looked back at the plate. That one fat carrot kept drawing his gaze. Just one more maybe… White Wind made a pleased burble.

"AH HAH! Got you!" Mrs. Yamano sprang out from under the pile of dirty laundry. White Wind jerked his head up and squealed shrilly.

Yulie stared at the pages of his textbook intently and tapped his pencil against his notebook.

"YULIE!" He sat bolt upright when he heard his father yell and sprang out of his desk chair and ran towards the door. The call came from the garage.

"Yes Pop!" Yulie ran into the garage but skidded to a halt when he saw his father standing by the car with his hands on his hips looking very cross, and much to his horror, White Wind munching on carrots being offered by his mother.

"What is this?" Mr. Yamano demanded angrily and pointed at White Wind.

"Um…What's what?" Yulie waved his hand slightly behind his back, pointing to the side, trying to tell White Wind to flee through the open door. White Wind glanced at him and snorted, far too interested in snacking to care. Yulie hissed under his breath.

"Don't think I don't notice that." Yulie flinched and looked at his father. "I actually believed you when you told me this was some game store prop, when it turns out, all this time you've been keeping a flying robot space horse in my garage?"

"Wow Pop…that sounded real ignorant right there…" Yulie grimaced.

"You've been hanging around those people again, haven't you? I told you not to associate with those weirdos! Especially that man and his overgrown housecat!"

"Pop! They're my friends! They're not different or anything! Besides, White Wind hasn't hurt anyone or done anything wrong!"

"Oh it has a name now, does it? Well answer this for me then, young man: what does it eat?"






"So that explains what's been happening to my tools lately." Just then, White Wind let out a rattling belch, his ears flattening against his neck and his wings shaking.

"You're not helping…" Yulie growled.

"This is why your grades have slipped isn't it? You've been spending time with this-this- thing! I thought it was too much TV or video games, but this!"

"I'm passing just fine…"

"'Just fine' won't cut it when you get out into the world! I didn't raise you to settle for second best!" White Wind paused in reaching for the last carrot and twitched his ears forward. Mrs. Yamano nudged the plate towards him but the Pegasi ignored it and stared at Mr. Yamano.

"You think the world is just about working and money and business? You don't know anything about what I've been through. You've been through a lot too, you know!"

"Don't think you have any right to take any sort of attitude with me! I want this thing gone and that's final!" Mr. Yamano jumped when he heard a metallic squeal and glanced at the Pegasi. "Oh what, you got something to say?" White Wind emitted a series of squeals and chirps.

"He says he's carried me through real battle and he's sworn to protect me no matter what."

"Lemme guess, you understand him?"

"I can!"

"I've had enough. You, you understand the words 'get out of my house'?"

"I will not leave him!" The words came out of Yulie's mouth, but White Wind narrowed his eyes and shook his head and tail. "You stay in your small world with your small mind! You do not not try to understand, you do not want to understand!" White Wind growled. Mrs. Yamano stepped back, startled as he took a step towards Mr. Yamano.

"Don't raise your voice at me-" Yulie's mind felt detached somehow and he stared at White Wind. The Pegasi let out another spate of squeals and growls.

"Stupid and ignorant! Ignorant and stupid!" Yulie heard himself yell.

"I will not tolerate you talking back at me like that!" Mr. Yamano grabbed Yulie by the front of his shirt. White Wind's eyes widened and his mane crest rose. Mr. Yamano glanced at him. "What? What do you want?" White Wind snorted and stepped closer. "What…what are you doing?" White Wind struck the floor with one hoof, and the metal plates covering his forelegs started to shimmer. Mrs. Yamano clamped a hand over her mouth and took a step back.

White Wind reared up on his hind legs and spread his wings towards the ceiling. The leg plates glowed brightly before White Wind struck the concrete floor with both fore hooves. The floor sank and shuddered and cracks ran from the impact area all the way up the walls and to the ceiling. The car creaked as it bounced up from the force roiling the garage. Mr. Yamano yelped as the blow knocked him off his feet, startling Yulie from his trance.

"POP!" Yulie screamed. White Wind stretched one wing to the side and angled the blades in such a way that he scooped up Yulie and deposited him on his back. Mrs. Yamano screamed in terror as the Pegasi lunged and buried his horn in the garage door. Metal squealed as he tore the door down and trampled over it on his way outside.

"YULIE! WAIT! WAIT, PLEASE!" Mr. Yamano cried desperately as he staggered to his feet. Mrs. Yamano helped him stand but the two watched helplessly as the Pegasi carrying their son galloped out into the middle of the street. White Wind paused when he saw a car speeding towards them. The driver gasped when he saw a strange metallic figure standing in the middle of the street. White Wind narrowed his eyes and spread his wings. He swept them down powerfully several times and rose into the air, his hooves barely scraping the roof of the car as it passed below. "YULIE!" both parents cried as the Pegasi took off into the night sky, screaming.

"Oh…Ohh no…What have we done…" Mrs. Yamano sobbed into her husband's shoulder.

"Don't worry…he'll…he'll come back. He's just…upset. He'll come back…"

Tears ran from Yulie's eyes faster than the rushing air dried them. He reached up and wiped his arm against his cheek. White Wind glanced at him out the corner of his eyes and burbled a question, but Yulie kept crying softly. They flew over the beach now and White Wind dove down and spread his legs to land. Sand flew up as White Wind galloped before slowing to a trot then a complete halt. He craned his head around and nudged Yulie's shoulder with his nose.

"I'm not mad at you…and I'm not mad at them…It's just…" Yulie wiped his face with his sleeve and slid off of White Wind's back. He cupped the Pegasi's chin in his hands and rubbed his cheek against his nose. White Wind burbled again and Yulie pulled away and sat down in the sand. White Wind bent his knees and sank down beside him, folding his wings at his sides.

"When the First Dynasty War started-that was probably before you were born-my parents were captured along with almost everyone in the city. I…I thought I'd lost them for good, but then we found out that they were being held captive. The Dynasty used them like batteries to create their armies. Ryo and the other Ronin Warriors fought real hard to free the people, and afterward everyone just went back to their normal lives. Like nothing had changed. I was so happy to see my parents again, and I thought everything could be as it was before.

"But…the week after…we were in the city shopping, and I saw Ryo coming along the sidewalk. I wanted to introduce him to my parents…" Yulie swallowed hard and clenched his fists. "They didn't even look at him. They just…kept walking, like he wasn't there. He started to say hi but they walked right past him. I saw the look on his face, and he looked so sad! I wanted to say something back then…but…I didn't. I couldn't.

"Rowen's wrong. The people of the city didn't forget what happened. They remember everything, but they're too afraid to admit it was real. They don't want to admit the truth…but that's stupid!" Yulie jumped to his feet and turned around. "The Dynasty gets its power from fear, and being afraid of the truth just makes them stronger!" White Wind listened quietly and watched as Yulie kicked up some sand and clenched his fists.

"I'm gonna do it! I'm gonna be a Ronin Warrior! I'll do the training, I'll study hard, and I'll do wherever it takes!" White Wind stood up and nudged Yulie in the shoulder. He draped one arm over the Pegasi's neck. "Rowen says 'all good heroes' die in the End Tide to secure the future. That means they'll need Ronin Warriors for the time afterward, right?" White Wind whinnied in agreement and swished his tail. Yulie chuckled and patted his neck.

"Oof!" Yulie grunted when White Wind butted him in the chest with his nose and nearly knocked him down. "Hey! What gives!" White Wind poked Yulie in the shoulder with his horn and grunted and rumbled. Yulie frowned thoughtfully then his face lit up with a smile. "I get you! Just a second…" Yulie searched around the beach and found a wooden post. White Wind pawed at the ground and shook his horn. "Let's start off with some Impacting Asteroid, huh?"

White Wind thrust with his horn and Yulie parried with the fence post. The exercise started out serious with Yulie learning how to anticipate each strike and White Wind adapting in kind. Yulie started giggling and White Wind whinnied softly. He reared back and his horn started glowing. Yulie squawked and fell backwards when his makeshift bokken shattered after a strong blow from the charged horn. White Wind squeaked in apology and tugged at Yulie's sleeve.

"I'm allright! I'm allright! I guess Sweeping Comet's still out of our league." Yulie sat down to rest and White Wind knelt beside him. "You know, after we visited Thanged, I dreamt I flew over the city riding Skybolt Sunhammer." White Wind squealed in protest and ruffled his wings. "What?" Yulie raised an eyebrow in confusion as White Wind stood up and pawed at the ground and swished his tail. He raised his wings slightly and arched his neck, raising his mane crest. Yulie narrowed his eyes as he studied the pose. A memory came to mind of kneeling by a fence and being awed by the arrival of the largest Pegasi he'd ever seen.

"You're one of Skybolt's foals!" White Wind whinnied in confirmation. "Hah hah! Figures he'd be a stud!" Yulie placed his hands on White Wind's cheeks and pulled his head close. "Well what do I need with Skybolt Sunhammer when I got his son right here? Hee hee…" White Wind made a contented rumble and closed his eyes. Yulie chuckled and patted his cheeks.

Suddenly White Wind jerked his head back and both ears went straight. "What's wrong?" Something had alarmed the Pegasi, as his metallic lips peeled over his teeth and he narrowed his eyes. "Where you going?" Yulie asked as White Wind trotted off towards a clump of tall grass further up the beach. The Pegasi reached behind it with his head.

"Ow! Ow! Hey! Stop! Hey! Quit that!" Yulie blinked and watched in confusion as White Wind tugged at the skirt of a young girl and pulled her from behind the cart. The Pegasi growled as he dragged her towards Yulie then released her skirt and moved back to stand beside Yulie.

"Who are you?" The girl smoothed her wrinkled skirt and looked at Yulie with light blue eyes. "Did you run away from home?" he asked again, taking note at the state of her dusty clothes.

"Umm…yes!" she said, brushing her hands through her dark orange hair. She wore what looked like stitched leather rather than store-bought cloth.

"…You said that too fast…" Yulie raised an eyebrow skeptically. The girl bit her lip worriedly. White Wind grunted and stamped a hoof. "He says you stink of magic."

"I do NOT! Besides, how would he know what magic smells like?" the girl argued. White Wind growled and stepped towards her. "Hey! What…What are you doing! Stop that! You're rude!" the girl protested angrily as White Wind reached out with his horn and began fishing for something under her shirt. "Quit it! Ah!" White Wind had snagged a black cord and pulled upward, bringing what looked like a tarnished silver pendant with it. White Wind stepped back, letting the pendant rest against the front of the girl's shirt. At first glance it looked like cheap costume jewelry, but the design of a winged dragon with long coiling tail and a gemstone clutched in its forepaws apparently warranted White Wind's scrutiny.

"Your friend is sharper than I thought…allright…I'll show you." The girl cupped the pendant in her hands and held it close to her mouth. "Razzunshagigknoph! Come forth!" The gem erupted with light and the silver figurine seemed to move and stretch. Yulie yelped and fell onto his backside when a large serpentine form spilled onto the sand and loomed over him.

It had a long, thin body covered in pearly white scales supported by two thick forelimbs with three talons on each paw. It extended its thin wiry neck and snuffled over Yulie with a trumpet-shaped snout. A coiled scaly growth hung from its chin. White eyelids closed over large bulbous red eyes in an intrigued blink. Two long curved green horns jutted out from the back of its narrow head. It ruffled long leathery wings marked by varying patches of colored scales ranging from purple to orange then green. The wing tips extended in long trailing leathery strips.

White Wind screamed angrily and stepped between Yulie and the creature. He raised both wings high and brandished his horn. The creature drew itself up by coiling its long tail under itself and raising its upper body high then, oddly enough, brandishing its knuckles menacingly.

"Razzie! Stop! It's just being protective of him!" the girl shouted and intervened at the same time Yulie staggered to his feet and moved infront of White Wind.

"Easy Wind! I think they're allright! It just startled me!" White Wind and the winged serpent eyed each other warily but eventually backed down. "Um…I'm Yulie…he's White Wind."

"I'm Drega. This is Razzunshagigknoph. I call her Razzie for short. We're from a realm called Thorolk. It means 'Wing Haven'. Dragon Master sent me here to look for a young boy 'who walks in the company of great heroes and as his steed rides an iron horse'."

White Wind snorted irritably. "He says he's made of dererium, not iron."

"Well, I can't exactly be picky. I know it sounds weird, but Dragon Master told me to bring you to Thorolk. If you're willing, follow me and Razzie. Dragon Master's keeping the portal open until I get back," Drega stated and walked behind Razzie. The winged serpent crouched down and waited as Drega seated herself on a polished saddle. Razzie coiled her tail like a spring under her torso then launched herself into the air. She flapped deceptively powerful wings and hovered in the air. "Dragon Master thinks you're a hero foretold in legend. Well? Are you?" she said before taking off towards the bay. Yulie and White Wind exchanged glances.

"Should we trust her?" White Wind shrugged and chirped. "Go to another realm it is." Yulie mounted White Wind and the Pegasi took off after Drega and Razzie. The girl looked over her shoulder and smiled gratefully. They came within sight of the massive whirlpools in the bay.

"Dragon Master says the barrier between realms is thin here. That's how he made the portal. Follow me, and hold on tight!" Drega warned before Razzie dove into the churning froth.

"…Okay…I'm starting to think this might be a bad idEEEAAAAAAAAA!" Yulie howled when White Wind tucked his wings and plunged straight into the whirlpool.

"I-I understand…uh huh…if we hear anything from him, you'll be the first to know. Don't worry Mrs. Yamano…Okay…goodbye." Ryo hung up the phone quietly.

"As usual they blame the kid and not themselves," Kento grumbled.

"I just want to know what blew White Wind's cover. He's stayed there with no problems until now. I'll bet it was that mom of his. She's smarter than she lets on," Cye commented.

"Anyone know if Yulie has any particular haunts he might've run to?" Rowen asked.

"If he's with White Wind, I highly doubt he'd go anywhere someone could find him. He could be anywhere in the city at this point. Or the entire nation, for that matter," Sage said.

"I knew it was a bad idea letting White Wind stay here, but the little guy's so attached to Yulie, they're inseparable," Ryo muttered.

"Doesn't help with that screwball dad of his. I know he's probably just trying to be protective of the kid, but come on! MY parents never blew a gasket when I became a Ronin Warrior."

"Kento, your family's guarded the Armor for centuries…"

"Exactly! They're open-minded! Same deal with Sage. I mean, his grandfather's practically been around since the Armors were created."

"He's not that old!"

"Rowen's dad doesn't seem to give a hoot, and his mom's an airhead."

"No she isn't!"

"Dude, she saw you in full armor and to this day, she still thinks she dreamt the whole thing."

While the guys commented on the situation, Tanya hung back by the stairs. She headed towards the door and clicked her tongue against her teeth as she passed by a napping Whiteblaze. The tiger opened his eyes and twitched his ears and saw Tanya nod at the door. He rose to all fours and padded after her. She slipped out discreetly, followed by the tiger.

"I just hope he doesn't get into any trouble out there," Ryo worried.

"Eh he'll be fine. Just needs some time to cool off. Besides, White Wind's with him. That little guy wouldn't let any harm come to Yulie," Cye smiled cheerfully.

Yulie only dared open his eyes when he heard a reassuring chirp from White Wind. He looked up and saw the jagged face of a cliff as they flew through a fog-shrouded mountain range. "No, I trust you just fine. I just don't trust my head to stay on my shoulders," Yulie grimaced and ducked down, wary of stringy trees that grew out from the rock. One passed over his head a good distance, but Yulie cringed nonetheless. He glanced ahead and saw Razzie gliding through the mist like a festive kite. As they rounded a bend, a huge temple of vaguely ancient Chinese architecture came into view. Razzie dove down to land in the courtyard and back-winged before settling down on her paws. White Wind came in at a steeper angle, making Yulie's gut flip, but the Pegasi neatly set all four hooves down and galloped to shed speed before stopping.

Drega dismounted confidently while Yulie almost collapsed since his legs felt like noodles after the flight. White Wind nudged him with a wing to keep him from toppling over completely. Plainly-garbed monks hastened to the colossal lacquered doors of the temple and labored to move the mechanisms designed to open it. It took six on each side of the door to open it just wide enough for people to pass through single file. Drega motioned for both of them to follow and she walked towards the opening. Razzie followed by slithering on her tail rather than walking with her forelimbs. White Wind and Yulie exchanged glances before following.

"Ah! Drega you've returned! Now, let's see if this candidate you've brought has any potential," a deep rumbling voice echoed through the recesses of the temple. Yulie had his gaze on the floor, expecting someone to walk towards them. Then he noticed a most curious reflection moving over the polished tiles, and it seemed the distant back wall itself moved towards them. A shadow fell over the floor and the flames lighting the walls of the temple bowed as if in respect.

Yulie's jaw almost hit the floor when his gaze moved up and his eyes almost fell out of their sockets. White Wind's eye lenses opened as wide as possible and his ears drooped until the tips touched his cheeks. His wings almost fell off of his back and the forelimbs lay against the floor. Razzie tapped her talons together and the corners of her tiny mouth turned up in a smug smirk.

A lung! An honest to goodness lung! A body that looked as long as a subway train and twice as thick writhed through the enormous hall of the temple, and firelight danced over the large iridescent jade-colored scales coating the back and sides. The belly looked surprisingly soft. The floor shuddered as soft five-fingered paws pressed onto the floor and sickle-shaped talons each as long as Yulie was tall clicked against the tiles. A large tufted tail swished through the air behind the lung. Long branched horns barely scraped the staggeringly high roof of the temple as the lung reared its head up and peered down at the visitors with menacing-looking eyes.

Awe and terror kept the two rooted as the lung leaned down, bringing its bearded jaw parallel to the floor. Nostrils in the soft wide nose flared as the lung let out a contemplative snort. Long narrow ears wiggled by the back of the head. "Hrm..." it rumbled in a musical-sounding male voice. "You're a bit scrawny for my liking…but I suppose you will have to do," the lung shrugged and leaned back. "So, Drega selected you? In whose company do you follow?"

"The Ronin Warriors," Drega stated before Yulie had a chance to reply.

"They are united in this day and age? Impressive!" the lung raised bushy eyebrows in surprise.

"I've also watched him practice combat maneuvers. Looked mostly ceremonial, but he's pretty good. I studied you for weeks before you even saw me. I wouldn't have just picked you out of the blue without making sure," Drega said matter-of-factly in reply to Yulie's startled expression. "Though…the horse says he's made out of de-re-rium." White Wind shook his head and snorted. "And he says he's a Pegasi." Yulie blinked, surprised she understood him.

"And may I ask, what is his name?"

"Um...My name's Yulie Yamano. He's White Wind."

"Well met, Yulie Yamano. You may simply refer to me as Dragon Master. Tell me, do you have in you the makings of a champion in your own right? Danger nears the villages bordering my domain. Do you have the courage to face it and protect the meek?"

Yulie exchanged glances with White Wind then scratched his ear. "Um…I'll try. I mean, I won't try, I'll actually do it." The lung stared down at him, almost amused. "I, Yulie Yamano, solemnly vow to do everything in my power to aid you," Yulie placed a hand on his chest. Dragon Master reached up with one paw and stroked his chin, chuckling softly. "What?"

"I admire your conviction Yulie Yamano…but I can hardly expect you to go striding into battle against a vicious ogre chieftain and his minions in naught but your night garments."

"Oh! Umm…yeah, about that…well it was kinda late when she caught me… Do you got any gear lying around I could borrow?" Yulie asked Drega. White Wind grumbled. "No! I'm not going to leave all the fighting to just you. I'm going to do my fair share too. That's how we should do it." In the meantime, Dragon Master reached under his chin with two claws, retrieving a large polished white orb the size of a soccer ball. He held it delicately between the tips of his talons and lowered his arm, bringing the orb close to Yulie. The orb shrank to the size of a shooter marble. Yulie looked up when he noticed the proximity of the large paw.

"Do you know what this is?" Yulie glanced from the lung to the orb. "Go ahead, take it." Yulie cautiously reached out and cupped the orb in his hands. "Can you tell me what it is?"

"It's…it's a dragon pearl…your dragon pearl. Dragons like you use these as a source of power and wisdom, and it's considered a symbol of luck in some cultures."

"Correct. Power and wisdom. One cannot exist without the other…well at least not successfully. Those who crave power often lack the wisdom to wield it properly, and those who seek wisdom often lack the power to defend themselves or others. Balance must be achieved and maintained. Luck plays a small role, but one none less important. Look at it closely, Yulie. What do you see in the pearl and in yourself. If you had the power to do anything, and the wisdom to use it properly, what would you do? What could you do?" Yulie stared at his reflection.

White Wind brought his nose close to the pearl and hummed. Yulie glanced from the pearl to the Pegasi and thought again of the mighty Skybolt and his legendary rider. He thought of all the colorful and unique outfits Thangiens wore. He thought of when he'd almost died, but White Wind arrived just in time and caught him, blazing white like a heavenly savior.

Drega, Razzie, and the lung watched patiently as the pearl started to pulse with a soft white light. White Wind twitched both ears when the pulses came in rapid succession. Yulie seemed entranced as the brilliance grew until it almost enveloped him. A blinding flash erupted from the pearl and White Wind recoiled in shock. Drega and Razzie covered their eyes and Dragon Master tilted his chin up slightly. The light faded and they turned curious gazes to where Yulie stood.

Yulie blinked cautiously as he recovered from the intense glare and realized he no longer held the pearl. He flexed his fingers to ease the odd prickling he felt then noticed his hands covered with thick white leather gloves. He heard a soft clinking when he moved his arms and fingered the folds of his left sleeve, feeling the linked rings of chain mail through the fabric. Braided tassels dangled from the edges of the stiff leather shoulder pads. Yulie reached down and ran his fingertips over the embroidered gold heraldic cross decorating the chest plate. He looked at his legs and leaned from side to side, studying the thick cloth trousers and shiny white leather boots.

White Wind whistled in delight, pleased with the transformation. He reached down and lipped at the pommel of a sword hanging in its gilded scabbard at Yulie's waist. Yulie reached down slowly and wrapped his hand around the hilt. He flexed his fingers testily and drew the sword out. The blade hummed musically and Yulie stared at his reflection in polished steel.

"While the pearl will not grant limitless power, I believe you will prove more than a match for Furugoror." Dragon Master shifted his massive coils and settled into a pile. "There are rooms in the south face of the temple. You have a short time in which you may retire there to prepare."

Drega smiled and even Razzie had to admit the new look impressed her. White Wind whinnied happily and nudged Yulie in the shoulder. Yulie himself, however, kept staring at his reflection in his sword. His brow furrowed in deep thought rather than wonder.

This…this is really happening.

"Yulie! Yulie! Is that you! Listen, I'm so unbelievably sorry! I-" Mr. Yamano scrambled towards the door after hearing the bell ring and swung it open but swallowed any further apology upon seeing the young woman slouching against the frame. She glanced at him lazily with bronze brown eyes and slipped her hands into the pockets of her worn gray windbreaker.

"Hi. Am I speaking to the ignorant jackass who calls himself Yulie's dad?"

"Oh…You're one of those people, aren't you?" Mr. Yamano demanded sullenly.

"Oh I'm one of those people, am I? Please, tell me: what kind of people are those people?" the woman raised both eyebrows and folded her arms over her chest.

"I don't have time for this…My wife and I are upset enough as it is, so I'd appreciate it if you just leave," Mr. Yamano grumbled and pushed the door shut. He didn't see it coming or have time to react when the girl raised one leg and kicked the door so hard the top hinge popped clean off the frame. Mrs. Yamano yelped in terror when she saw her husband being accosted by a girl half his weight and a third of his age. Mr. Yamano gurgled and squirmed as he found himself dangling off the floor and staring down the girl's thin arm and into her furious eyes.

"I'm not going anywhere until you pull your head out of your ass! If you knew a shred of what that boy's been through-for you two!-you'd think twice before railing on him again!"

"I don't know-! What the heck you keep talking about! The horse said the same thing before they ran off!" Mr. Yamano squawked when the girl released him, letting him drop to the floor.

"You do know. You know, and you're too much of a coward to admit it! There's things out there: bigger than you, bigger than me, and your son literally went through Hell to bring you back, and you can't even bring yourself to acknowledge the truth enough to be grateful. You close your mind to the truth so much you blind yourselves to how much that little kid loves you!

"He's blessed to have parents to care for. I don't. I was robbed of that years ago, but he got a second chance, and you-you cling so much to this fake normalcy you do almost as much damage as the Dynasty did! You want him to be your son? BE HIS FATHER! Encourage him! Support him! Make an effort to understand him! Unless you do these things, he'll never be your son." The girl whirled around and swiftly walked away down the steps.

"Wait! Just-wait!" Mr. Yamano staggered to his feet and rubbed his bruised elbow. The girl paused and looked over her shoulder. "I don't want Yulie to put himself in harm's way! I don't want him facing the 'forces of darkness' or whatever! I want him to graduate from school, grow up and be successful, to have a family of his own to love and care for! I don't want him to have to fight these fights!" The girl's expression softened and she shook her head.

"That's the sad irony, Mr. Yamano. We Ronin Warriors don't have to fight the forces of evil, but we wouldn't be the only ones to pay the price if we didn't. Be his father." The girl glanced at Mrs. Yamano, who had walked over to stand beside her husband. "Be his mother. Yulie risked so much to rescue you, and I don't think he could live with himself if he lost you again." The girl turned back around and walked to the sidewalk where she straddled a very familiar looking large white tiger. The tiger glanced at them with brown eyes before crouching and bounding down the street with the girl clinging to his back as if riding a motorcycle. The two stood in the doorway silently. Mrs. Yamano reached up and placed a hand on her husband's shoulder, and Mr. Yamano slowly wrapped his hand around hers and squeezed softly.

White Wind reclined on the floor and watched as Yulie practiced Rait'chian maneuvers on dummies made of bound straw. In addition to protecting his skin, the leather and chainmail armor seemed to increase his reaction time and speed. The dummies twitched and writhed under the blows as Yulie's blade grazed arms and shoulders. Yulie stepped back and took a few moments to catch his breath. He narrowed his eyes and began rotating the sword in his palm.

White Wind twitched his ears, recognizing the 'charging the blade' that preceded a Cresta's Wheel. He'd seen Yulie attempt the move once before but had only succeeded in leaving behind a large weal on Chaizar's muzzle. Yulie finished the fifth charge and swung the blade behind himself, laying the flat against his shoulder before swinging up then forward and down swiftly.

The target dummy exploded in a spray of straw and twine. Limbs bounced over the floor and dust drifted in the air. White Wind whinnied, impressed, but hummed in concern when he saw Yulie drop the sword abruptly. He stood up and walked over, nudging a wing against him.

"I…I'm going to have to do that to a living being? I-I don't think I can…" Yulie stammered. White Wind narrowed his eyes and raised his mane crest and began a spate of grunts and neighs in a lecturing tone. Yulie listened patiently to words only he could hear. White Wind shook his head and swished his tail then stomped the floor with a fore hoof solidly.

"You're right… Ander didn't let that bother him with the Thunthen…I can't let it bother me. If this wasn't some other realm? If this was Earth, and we were in Toyama? If my parents were-," Yulie leaned down slowly and grasped the hilt of the sword and stood back up. He imaged their faces in place of his own reflection, and they stared back at him worried for his safety. "Mom…Pop…" White Wind burbled softly again and Yulie nodded understandingly.

"I wish I could say I fought for my parents." Yulie looked up and saw Drega and Razzie enter the room. "Furugoror razed our village to ashes, and they were dead long before I met Razzunshagigknoph. Dragongirls like me usually serve as messengers for Dragon Master, but sometimes they have to make the ultimate sacrifice." Drega turned around and looked up at a large mural Yulie hadn't taken the time to study earlier. Razzie slithered around and folded her arms behind her back and tucked her wings close. Her bulbous eyes blinked solemnly.

"Decades ago, my predecessor Grytha and her dragon fought the dark dragon Arthragor. Dark dragons are those who'd rather be cruel than kind to humans, and Arthragor was the worst. They fought for seven days and seven nights in the mist. Then they both suffered fatal wounds and fell into the Great Chasm, never to be seen again." Yulie gazed up in awe at the mural depicting a fearsome black beast grappling with a lone figure astride a graceful feathered drake. Then he noticed a figure astride a horse standing on a ledge sorrowfully overlooking the mortal struggle. The figure looked male and wore metallic armor eerily similar to Yulie's.

"Drega…who's that supposed to be?" Yulie nodded at the image. Before Drega could answer, White Wind jerked his head up sharply and looked over his shoulder. "What is it Wind?"

"What's wrong?"

"I dunno…something upset him…" Just then a monk ran into the room out of breath.

"Dragongirl! White Ryder! Furugoror and his horde! They have entered the valley!"

"What did he call me?" Yulie blinked as the monk left as quickly as he'd entered.

"It's time! Razzie, let's move!" Drega and Razzie hurried for the main hall. Yulie and White Wind followed and spotted Dragon Master as he began uncoiling from his nap.

"You received the summons?"

"Sorta. He heard the alarm first," Drega commented and jerked a thumb at White Wind.

"Yulie Yamano! Do you feel yourself up to the coming battle?"

"I'm ready, and so is White Wind!" The Pegasi whinnied fiercely in agreement.

"Good. Open the doors! Make way!" Dragon Master boomed. This time over two dozen monks labored to turn the mechanisms. The floor shuddered as Dragon Master lumbered towards the entrance. Drega and Razzie hurried out to the courtyard ahead of him and prepared to take off. The lung's horns barely cleared the top of the entrance as he lumbered onto the platform. Yulie mounted White Wind and waited until Drega and Razzie took to the air before spurring the Pegasi into a gallop. White Wind spread his wings and launched himself off the platform.

Yulie looked over his shoulder and watched as Dragon Master bundled his body close to the edge. His forepaws grasped the rock face tightly. Then the lung dove down like a spilled coil of ribbon. Just as he seemed to fall into the misty void of the chasm, he surged up and tucked his arms and legs close to his body as he writhed. The air roared with his passing.

"How old is Razzie?" Yulie asked, trying to make conversation as they followed Dragon Master. "No offense, but she looks kinda small compared to Dragon Master."

"She's older than she looks. She agreed to be my partner when I was brought to the temple to train as the new Dragongirl. Paradise drakes aren't big to begin with. They're one of the few breeds that can maneuver in the Great Chasm. It's too narrow for other types like dragon titans."

"I guess that makes sense. Someone like Raurgoth would probably find it a tight fit."

"Raurgoth?" Dragon Master rumbled and glanced over his shoulder. "Could you possibly mean Ruinhuriangoth? The Star of the North?"

"Uhh…no idea. I'm the wrong person to ask about dragons, though. …Do dragons always have really complicated names?" Yulie scratched his ear and shrugged.

"We're a complicated species. I'd tell you mine, but it's rather confusing for young ears. We are nearing the village. I will engage the main army and cut off reinforcements. It falls to you two now, Dragongirl and White Ryder to defend the village proper. Luck be with you in battle!" Dragon Master called before swerving up and into a fork in the chasm.

"…Why does everyone keep calling me that?"

"There they are! There they are! They're coming! Razzie, lets' go!" Drega shouted and pulled a long curved double-bladed knife shaped like a winged dragon from a scabbard on her back. Yulie's gaze snapped ahead and he saw the intricate network of terraces built into the wall of the chasm. Razzie's noodle-shaped body expanded slightly in the chest before a large lump moved up her neck and into her mouth. Her trumpet-shaped snout shuddered as she expelled a blazing white-hot ball at bands of grimy-looking figures trying to swarm over the walls.

Even from on high, Yulie could see the muddy-colored razor-toothed scab-skinned creatures. They looked every bit as hideous and vile as any creature of written lore and glared up at the flying defenders. Some of them fitted jagged bolts to crude bows and took aim. "Your war saddle loaded?" Yulie hollered and held on tight as the Pegasi did a loop to avoid a hail of arrows. White Wind neighed and bobbed his head. Yulie slipped his heels into the stirrup levers and pushed back, bringing the missile launchers forward with a grinding click. Gold colored spikes slid out of the openings and White Wind wheeled about for a better aim.

The goblins shrieked in surprise when volleys of projectiles sent them flying. Some groups standing too close to the edge of the terrace fell off entirely, vanishing into the mist. Yulie felt himself get a little queasy at the sight, until an arrow nearly pierced his neck. A second bolt flew towards him, but he managed to draw his sword and catch the bolt with his blade, much the same way he'd seen Ryo do once before. He flung it back down towards the nearest goblin. He heard it, but thankfully White Wind swerved before he saw the bolt pierce the goblin's eye.

"This is kind of funny," Drega commented abruptly while Razzie spat fireballs without abandon. "I'm so used to the Ryder fighting on the ground, not in the air."

"What's that mean? I keep hearing that a lot-"

"Oh no! War engines! Hurry! We gotta stop them! Even if we drive them back, if they destroy the village crops, they'll have no food for the next season!" Drega pointed her dagger at several clumsily-built wooden structures being pushed towards the outer wall. White Wind growled angrily and a fresh round of missiles appeared in the launchers.

"No! Don't aim for the goblins!" White Wind twitched an ear, confused. "Aim for the machines!" White Wind nodded and fired. Goblins chittered hysterically when their cobbled siege engines exploded beneath their feet. They flew close to one of the remaining engines, and White Wind tilted sideways aiming to sweep around for a better angle. Yulie had a different plan in mind and slashed with his sword, cutting a large swath through the wooden tower. It creaked as the top half crumpled to the side before collapsing entirely. White Wind raised his mane crest and let out a deep echoing bellow that echoed through the chasm. "Hee hee. He's trying to act like his dad. Skybolt Sunhammer used to carry a great hero named Ander into battle-"

"WATCH OUT!" Drega shrieked. Neither had time to react when a large rock plowed into White Wind's left wing. Yulie yelped and clutched the rein cords and White Wind screamed shrilly as he spiraled sideways. The thrusters in his right wing fired and he flapped furiously, trying to compensate and adjust for a crash landing. Goblins scattered as the white metallic form landed on a gravel-paved terrace. Yulie barely moved his leg up in time to avoid getting it crushed from White Wind's body skidding on his side. They eventually came to a stop and Yulie hopped out of the saddle and hurried to help White Wind stand.

"How bad is it?" Yulie frantically inspected the wing. The impact had bent three of the wing blades out of place. White Wind raised the busted wing and turned his head around to see for himself. He grumbled in frustration and Yulie watched as the blades rotated in the joint and slowly readjusted. He flapped the wing testily but snorted in disappointment. "Looks like we're grounded until self repairs kick in…" Yulie readied his sword when he heard greedy snarls as emboldened goblins surrounded them. They ran black tongues over dirty yellow-green teeth and fingered the edges of serrated blades. Yulie scowled but waited for them to strike first.

And strike first they did. One lunged from behind White Wind, but the Pegasi lashed out with a hoof and smashed its face in, sending its body flying. Two went for Yulie, judging him the weaker target, but he knocked them both out with well-aimed pommel strikes: Meteorite Scars. Some goblins tried to use pikes, and jabbed at White Wind only to recoil when white hot beams of light reduced the weapons to slag in their hands.

White Wind raised his mane crest and bared his teeth. He leveled his horn at the horde and spread his wings to their full span, making himself appear three times as large and just as menacing. He let out a piercing roar and struck the ground with a fore hoof. The remaining conscious goblins turned and fled, squealing in terror. "Yeah! You tell'em Wind!" Yulie cheered.

Yulie heard the sound of air whistling before he saw it and staggered back when another boulder passed within inches of him, striking White Wind square in the head. The impact thankfully did not crumple the dererium, but it sent the Pegasi colt reeling. "WIND!" Yulie knelt down and wrapped his arms around the Pegasi's neck. White Wind mumbled something incoherent and dragged the tips of his wings slightly. Yulie glanced at the boulder. It looked exactly the same size of the missile that had downed them in the first place, and had come from too low of an angle to have been a stray or lucky shot from a catapult.

"So, you are the latest whelp Dragon Master has dispatched to confront me?" a deep raspy voice grumbled. Yulie looked to the side and his eyes widened when he saw the towering green-skinned figure. It stood more than twice his height and hefted a club fashioned from the leg bone of a large creature and tipped with metal spikes. Two thick tusks jutted down from the wide chin and two long horns protruded from the sides of the head with the tips pointing downward over the wide muscular shoulders. A mane of coarse gray hair flowed from the back of the skull over the chest and back and a loincloth of flayed white hide draped between the legs.

White Wind pushed himself to all fours and stood infront of Yulie, spreading his wings and growling. The ogre's thick chest heaved with rich, rough laughter. "What is this? The steed protects the Ryder? Come now, boy? Surely you have courage of your own to have heeded Dragon Master's summons?" While the ogre Yulie assumed was Furugoror taunted him, White Wind narrowed his eyes angrily. The lenses glowed, and Furugoror gasped in shock when two lances of white hot light struck him square in the chest. The ogre staggered back and White Wind used the distraction to launch missiles at close range. Yulie covered his ears from the explosion and waited for the dust to settle before looking to see if the ogre survived.

Furugoror had a large meaty hand clamped over two blackened marks in his skin and growled, more annoyed than injured. "Meddling beast!" he roared and swung with his club, aiming for White Wind's head again. Before the club connected, though, it splintered into dozens of fragments. Through the shower of shards, Furugoror saw Yulie seeming to hover in the air with the blade of his sword sweeping downward after a powerful strike that felt like several in one.

Half of his club still proved effective to use as Furugoror struck White Wind again, sending the Pegasi crashing through a wall and landing on another terrace. Yulie landed neatly and looked over his shoulder, in his concern for White Wind forgetting about the immediate threat of the ogre. Furugoror swung up with one foot and kicked Yulie away into a crop field.

"Your horse alone proved more of a challenge than the last stripling I fought. I am pleased! But, I haven't spent the past fifty years fighting to control these lands just to lose to a boy and his construct. To that end, I shall do you the distinct honor of eating you alive. It is rare I dine on boy-flesh, as they often prove to be too soft and fatty for my liking. However, your distinct courage in daring to challenge me should provide sufficient flavor."

"Too bad! Because I'm putting you on a diet!" Furugoror growled in frustration when a long white tail wrapped around his arms and shoulders. Long green claws grasped the horns on his head and pulled upward. Drega grabbed her own dagger and tried to get a good angle on the ogre's chest. Razzie's aimed her snout at Furugoror's head and a lump moved up her neck.

Furugoror wrenched one arm free and reached up, grabbing Razzie's neck and stifling the fireball. He grabbed her tail with his other hand and unwound her body before flinging her against a large tree in the village square. Drega jumped and tumbled away in time to avoid a savage stomp meant to crush her. She hurled the dagger with startling precision, striking the ogre in the thigh. Furugoror reached down and plucked the dagger out like removing an annoying splinter and tossed it to the side. He took a step towards the defenseless Dragongirl.

He bellowed in rage when something sharper than a thorn or dagger pierced his left shoulder. He looked behind and saw Yulie clutching the hilt of his sword, the blade buried deep in the thick hide that earlier had withstood lasers and missiles. Yulie grabbed a handful of Furugoror's mane and pulled the sword out to stab again, but the ogre didn't give him the chance. He pulled one arm forward then thrust back with his elbow, catching Yulie in the chest and sending him flying. The boy skidded on his back before coming to a stop just before a crumbled wall.

Yulie heard the thump of heavy footsteps coming toward him, but when he tried to sit up, his chest burned with a horrible pain unlike anything he'd ever known. He coughed and tasted something bitter and metallic in his throat. He coughed again, and when he managed to tilt his head up, he saw flecks of red staining the clean white chest plate and the embroidered cross. He dug the tip of his sword into the ground and tried to use it as a crutch to help him roll onto his side. The pain in his ribcage intensified and he felt something salty and sticky drip from his lips. Bright red drops stained the grass and dirt of the garden.

Furugoror stalked towards him, hefting a large boulder above his head. Yulie struggled to stand, and while his legs still seemed to work, the searing pain in his chest made him want to just lie down and sleep. Furugoror grinned cruelly and prepared to drop the boulder on the boy.

He cried out in pain and staggered back a step, dropping the boulder just short of Yulie. Yulie saw the torrent of blazing hot light from a Pegasi horn cannon pouring onto the ogre's back, causing the thick green skin to turn white and blister. Furugoror snarled in frustration and began turning around but cried out again when a furious White Wind buried his horn deep under the ogre's ribcage. The little Pegasi screamed in rage and twisted the horn about the ogre's innards.

Razzie pounced at Furugoror and wrapped her tail around his shoulders once more. She blasted him repeatedly in the face with fireballs. Drega retrieved her dagger and hurled it at the ogre's spine. It pierced the weakened flesh, but not deep enough to cripple him. Furugoror grabbed Razzie's neck and tossed her away. He backhanded Drega as she tried to stab him again then grabbed the Pegasi with both hands. The horn slid out of the deep wound and Furugoror grabbed it with one hand, keeping the other firmly wrapped around White Wind's neck.

"Vile, vicious little golem!" He snarled and held a squirming White Wind fast. Yulie faded in and out of consciousness, and between labored blinks saw Furugoror pulling at the Pegasi's horn. The unthinkable sound of metal popping reached his ears, followed by a piercing anguished scream that one would think impossible of a machine. Yulie's eyes widened when he saw the metal plate that formed the base of the forehead where the horn connected to White Wind's head start to peel up ever so slightly. White Wind let out another agonized scream.

Rage flooded the boy, drowning out his crippling pain, and he grabbed his sword and charged at the chieftain. Furugoror remained so focused on the delightful torture that he failed to react in time when he felt Yulie spring onto his body as if scaling a mountain. The boy's heels braced against the ogre's kneecaps and he ascended swiftly. His left hand grabbed the ogre's collarbone and his right thrust up with the sword. Any guttural taunt or retort died swiftly as the tip of the blade pierced Furugoror's head, going under the jaw, through the brain, then out the skull.

He felt disbelief before his mind went numb. He saw the righteous wrath kindled in the eyes of the young boy with his hands grasped firmly around the hilt of the sword before his vision started to darken. "IM-POS- " he croaked before his life left him entirely.

White Wind squirmed free of the dead chieftain's grip and staggered back. Drega pulled herself up from where she'd landed. Razzie disentangled herself from the vendor stall she'd crashed into earlier. Yulie's fingers felt numb and with the fading of the adrenaline rush came the resurgence of pain in his chest. His fingers slipped from the hilt and he dropped to the ground, landing on his feet before sinking to his knees. He slumped to the side and braced his right palm against the ground to try and support himself but succumbed to a fit of bloody coughing.

Furugoror's lifeless body stood like a statue for a few moments before toppling forward, a hollow rattling sigh gurgling from the impaled throat. Yulie's vision blurred to the point he only saw patches of light and dark, and he saw something large and dark descending upon him swiftly. Then, before he blacked out entirely, something light intervened and shielded him.

"Don't sit up too fast!" Drega's voice warned. Yulie blinked up at the roof of a simple tent and moved his arms to prop himself up slowly. Breath came painlessly to him and he looked down to see himself wearing a clean white linen shirt and leggings instead of armor. He glimpsed several bandages covering his chest through the collar of the tunic. "Dragon Master mended you, but he worried your spirit might drift and not come back. Glad it did or else-OOF!" Drega almost fell out of her stool beside Yulie's bed as an ecstatic White Wind plowed into the tent and all but buried his nose in Yulie's lap, whistling with delight.

"Furugoror nearly crushed you in his death throes. This little one used his body to protect you. He is quite devoted to you and refused to let you die. Very brave for a horse that is not a horse, but rather quite an intricate construct: a most curious union of spirit and metal. You are very lucky to have each other's friendship," Dragon Master commented from outside the tent. White Wind burbled and Yulie stroked his head, inspecting where the horn met the forehead. The Pegasi let out an assuring chirp and Yulie saw the wounds had repaired themselves.

"Can you stand up? There's something you should see," Drega stood up and moved to the side of the bed. Yulie grunted and swung his legs to the side and set his feet into some plain sandals that had been provided for him. White Wind lowered his left wing for him to grab a hold of and Drega supported his right side. Razzie stood by the door flap of the tent and held it open with her wings as they approached. Yulie blinked from the brightness of a noon sun pouring into the chasm and looked forward where he saw Dragon Master with his massive coils draped over the courtyard of the village. Something obscured his paws, and Yulie looked down to see what.

People of all ages and all backgrounds: wealthy merchants, simple farmers, weathered craftsfolk all stood gathered around the lung. "Many of these people are so young they only know of the White Ryder from tales they heard as children. Many more are old enough to remember the previous one from when they themselves were young. They have you to thank for their lives and lands. It will be many decades before a new chieftain dares rise once more, and because of you, there will be peace for that much longer." Yulie didn't know what to say or do. He thought he should make a speech or bow, but his ribs still ached. Then, just as he opened his mouth to speak, the crowd dispersed. "They have crops to tend to and homes to rebuild. They have no need to dwell on ceremony, but be assured you have their lasting gratitude."

"I kinda zoned out there, but I've never been called a hero before…Um…Dragon Master?" The lung looked at him. "Furugoror said he'd fought others before me…others like me…I'm…I'm not the first one you've brought here, am I?"

"No. Indeed you are not. You see, many ages ago, long before I came here, there once lived a mighty hero who traveled the land championing the weak and defying the dark. His true name has long been lost to time, but he is remembered best as Ryder, and eventually White Ryder for the armor he wore and the steed he rode. When old age claimed him, his young squire took up his name and cause, and from then on, every generation there has been a White Ryder.

"The Ryders traditionally cooperated with the Dragongirls, but when Grytha and the previous Ryder died, no other had the courage to step forward. Drega emerged as the new Dragongirl, but my efforts to find a new Ryder proved fruitless. To that end, I attempted to recruit young men from other lands. My requirements were strict: he had to have friendship with men of might and ride a great steed clad in metal. The first boy Drega brought me was a young lad who worked to forge the future of his country and traveled aboard what his people called an 'Iron Horse'. While he saw much in his travels and had great experience in combat, poverty embittered him, and he lacked the conviction and selflessness required to be a hero. So I sent him back home.

"The second lad I found from this same village. He grew up on the stories of the mighty White Rider and had great aspirations. Furugoror had long tormented the land, and his heart burned with the desire to fight this oppressive foe. He trained very hard, and as the son of a metal worker, forged armor of his own for himself and a steed he trained to carry him to battle. He was very brave, and very strong, and fought Furugoror to a standstill. He very nearly dealt the final blow. But, while he and his steed wore armor of metal, and the boy held fire and steel in his heart, his horse, sadly, did not. It failed him at a critical moment in the face of the enemy."

"Did he…Did he?" Yulie stammered. Dragon Master's grim stare answered that question, and Yulie wrapped both arms around White Wind's neck and hugged him close.

"That is why you are the first successful Ryder in so many years. You two are more than just Ryder and steed: you are friends who love each other very much and would go through great lengths to protect each other. It grants strength incomprehensible to those like Furugoror."

"But, wait…I don't get it. Why bring me here? Yeah, I almost died, but Furugoror wasn't that tough now that I think about it. Why couldn't you just take care of him yourself? Why put kids like me and Drega in harm's way?" Yulie scowled.

"Now Yulie, what good would it do if I came swooping in to dispose of every danger? My role is that of teacher, not as guardian. Men need men as heroes to inspire them, not dragons. Men have, and always should be masters of their own fates. How else would they discover the strength inherent in themselves?" Yulie frowned in thought and nodded understandingly.

"But, this is not your destiny," Dragon Master gestured to the village and the chasm with one paw. "This is…a vehicle…a method of transport on the long road to your true destiny. You have parents you should be getting home to, and you can scarcely protect them if you remain here. I might also add how irresponsible it is to run away from home!" Yulie flinched and White Wind chirped guiltily. "But, I will not berate you too deeply, for it made you available to me, and enabled you to discover your inner strength, both of spirit and friendship."

"Well…um…I guess this means goodbye-," Yulie began speaking to Drega and Razzie.

"Oh don't be silly. I'll likely call upon you once again in the near future; emphasis on future rather than near," Dragon Master interrupted irritably. Yulie and Drega looked at each other, happy at the prospect of more adventures. White Wind grumbled begrudgingly and Razzie cheeped and bobbed her head. Yulie felt something in the pocket of his shirt and fished out the dragon pearl. He held it out to Dragon Master. "No, you keep that. You'll need it."

"But, it's not mine!"

"Oh, I beg to differ. You see, power is best used by those with imagination, and wisdom is needed most by those who are young; and I am too old to have either. Besides, I'll grow a new one in a hundred years or so. I think it will be best suited with you." Yulie gazed down at the pearl appreciatively. "Whatever you do, don't swallow it."

"Why would I do that!"

"Erm…you'd be surprised what desperation can compel you to do…" Dragon Master winced.

Mr. and Mrs. Yamano looked up when they heard a wooden creak and saw Yulie trying to hoist the door to the side since it hung on only the lower hinge. "YULIE!" they cried in unison and rushed over and hugged him tightly, almost lifting him off the floor.

"Oh Yulie! Please, don't ever run off like that again! You had us so worried! We missed you so much, and you were gone for so long! It's been days! Where have you been?" a sobbing Mrs. Yamano pulled his face toward her chest.

"Yulie! Listen, I'm sorry about everything I said. You're right; I was being ignorant and stupid. One of your friends came by and sorta knocked some sense into me. I-" Mr. Yamano paused when he saw something approaching the door. Both of them backed away from Yulie and Yulie himself stepped sideways to give the metallic equine room as it stepped into the house. The adults stared at it warily. Yulie put one arm behind his back and held a fist over his mouth and coughed before holding his hand out to the winged horse construct.

"Mom. Pop. This is White Wind. He's a Pegasi from Planet Thanged, and he's the son of Skybolt Sunhammer, one of the most famous Pegasi alive. We've saved each other's lives, and he chose to be my friend and live here with me." White Wind made a series of chirps and burbles.

"Oh ho ho! Why thank you! That was very sweet of you," Mrs. Yamano giggled and put a hand over her mouth. "He said I was very smart for finding him."

"Wait-what? You understood it-I mean-him?" Mr. Yamano sputtered.

"I guess so. Maybe he wanted me to hear him."

"Well…look…I may not agree with everything you do…but I realize now how much you mean to my son and you're obviously very dedicated to staying with him. You're not just some stray. I have no problem with him staying," Mr. Yamano said to Yulie. "But you're going to have to take care of him responsibly. Does that sound okay to you?" he said to White Wind.

The Pegasi walked further into the house and Mrs. Yamano took a step back as he passed by. Mr. Yamano remained still, uncertain as the Pegasi moved behind him. He suddenly heard a loud ripping sound and felt cool air on his legs. Mrs. Yamano and Yulie stared wide eyed at him.

"He tore my pants off, didn't he?" The two nodded as White Wind walked back towards the door, happily chewing on the metal belt buckle. "Okay…Okay…I can admit when I've been wrong. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones. Now, can I please have my pants back?"

White Wind flung the pants out far into the street. They drifted towards the pavement only to be caught by the windshield of a passing car. The Pegasi looked back at Mr. Yamano, the metal eyelids peaked in a mischievous wink one would think incapable of a flying robot space horse.

"Drega? How comes the work?" Dragon Master brought his huge head close to the door of one of the side rooms of the temple.

"See for yourself," she said and jumped down from the bamboo scaffolding climbing the wall. Razzie cheeped from where she coiled around the topmost level and allowed one of the painters to use her tail to climb down. "They're almost finished."

"Dragon Master! As always, we are most honored to employ our skills in your honor. While many of us were not there to witness the battle, Drega's account provided more than enough detail. Come, see if you can," the lead artist gestured to the wall. Dragon Master had to lower his chin till it lay on the tile and peered through the doorway.

The partially finished mural depicted a towering brutish figure wrestling with several attackers. A wiry white drake with multi-colored wings grappled with his upper body, while a magnificent metallic winged equine thrust its horn into the behemoth's side. An orange-haired girl with bright blue eyes hurled a double-bladed knife at the ogre's back, and from the front came a young brown-haired lad wearing white armor suspended in the air in a fantastic leap, sword drawn and pulled back in preparation for a lethal thrust aimed at the ogre's face.

"Splendid! You've captured his likeness perfectly!"

"YULIE!" Yulie dropped his workbook and pen on the desk and scrambled out of his room and headed to the garage where he saw his father standing with knuckles braced on his hip and looking very cross. White Wind stood in the corner munching happily on a thin aluminum sheet.

"What's wrong Pop? Did he eat the trash?"

"Oh noooo…he didn't eat the trash, he ate the trashCAN!"

"Well, he can't help that he's going through another growth spurt! He's grown two hands in the past week alone! And he doesn't like plastic or paper…"

"I told you that you're going to have to be responsible for this animal if he's going to stay here! Find him somewhere else to eat, or else he's staying outside from now on." A noticeably taller White Wind glared at Mr. Yamano. "Don't give me that look. You have a couple hours before bedtime. Go on, get out of here." Mr. Yamano pointed outside as he opened the repaired garage door. Yulie hauled himself into the saddle and grabbed the reins. "Make sure you get back in time to finish your homework!" Mr. Yamano hollered with his hands cupped around his mouth as the two took off into the night.

"Don't worry! I will!" Yulie hollered back. "He's right; we gotta find you a new place to graze. Can't have you munching on Mom's plants or she'd skin both of us alive. Luckily I know just the place. There's a scrap yard close to where the Elders work. Should find some nice parts there…" They flew for a few minutes before touching down in the vacated construction site.

White Wind sniffed at a pile rusted metal salvage disdainfully. "Oh come on, you can't be picky. Besides, you won't know what any of it tastes like unless you try it. Some things get better with age, like cheese or wine," Yulie commented and held up a metal brace that promptly crumbled to pieces. White Wind stared at him warily then bit into a long piece of bent rebar and began chewing. He let out a pleased squeal and began chowing down passionately. "See? Told you. I wonder how much more you're gonna grow…I hope you don't get too big. If you get as big as Skybolt then you'll have no choice but to stay outside…"

White Wind jerked his head up suddenly and raised both ears. He looked to the side in time to see a long black and white striped tail vanish behind the wall of the adjacent building. "Chiaje? Isn't that what the Thangiens call Whiteblaze? You saw him? Out here? This late?" White Wind chirped in affirmation. "Wonder what he's doing…can you follow him? Quietly?" White Wind extended his wing and grunted. Yulie mounted and they took off. The Pegasi flew traditionally, without use of the wing thrusters, and glided in pursuit of the white tiger.

Whiteblaze seemed to be carrying something in his mouth; a large haunch of meat of some sort. He galloped along the less-trafficked streets, totally oblivious to the two tailing him from on high. Yulie looked ahead and saw them nearing the city zoo. Whiteblaze neatly avoided the scrutinizing gaze of security cameras. Yulie whispered in White Wind's ear and the Pegasi shot at the cameras with his eye beams, quietly melting the lenses. Whiteblaze came to a stop near the big cat area and made a powerful leap to the top of the fence designed to keep animals out and in. He managed to scale the inner wall and padded into the lush enclosure. White Wind circled the area and Yulie observed the tiger head over to a figure lounging by the back wall.

Whiteblaze set the haunch down by a smaller white tiger. It reached out with its mouth and gratefully nibbled chunks out of the meat-laden bone. Whiteblaze twitched his ears and looked up when he heard the whine of an engine. White Wind alighted on the ground by the deep inner wall and Yulie dismounted. "Heya Whiteblaze. Whatcha doing way out here at night? Who's this?" Yulie looked up at the fence and spotted a plaque. "'Kiasha: Rare white Bengal tiger. Former Las Vegas performer.' Oh cool! She's a retired celebrity! I didn't know you were dating. Can I say hi?" Yulie took a step forward. Whiteblaze regarded him cautiously.

White Wind screamed shrilly. "What? Oh don't be silly Wind. Whiteblaze and I are friends. He wouldn't hurt me," Yulie waved dismissively and took another step. Whiteblaze seemed to tense while the tigress dined blissfully. White Wind squealed again and grabbed the back of Yulie's pants with his teeth and pulled him back then swept one wing infront of him, shielding the boy from the tiger. "White Wind! What's got you so upset?" The Pegasi brandished his horn at the large tiger, and Whiteblaze remained where he stood. His tail twitched in warning.

Yulie leaned down and parted the wing blades enough to peer through. Whiteblaze still stared at him, tail twitching rapidly. The tigress leaned her head back and seemed to lick a portion of her left arm. Yulie and White Wind watched, curious. Yulie assumed she was grooming herself…until it seemed like a small lump of fur bulged upward. A white blob of fur with barely noticeable stripes squirmed and laid one tiny arm over Kiasha's. Another white blob reared up and Yulie saw a tiny pink nose surrounded by thick curly growths of white fur. A third blob erupted from between them and shoved them to either side, this one brilliant orange instead of white with bold striping. A tiny mouth opened wide in a menacing yawn and tiny black ears twitched before it settled down for a nap. Kiasha reached down and licked all three.

Yulie stood up, eyes wide. "Wow…" White Wind chirped in worry. "Whiteblaze had babies."