Rights: Dreamworks and such. Not me. Nope

Previous Stories in the Dragons: Champions Series (In Order):

Standing Against, Standing Between

I Bring The Thunder

Dreams Of The Desolation

Note: If you're here without having read the previous stories, all I can say is… are you crazy? You should be reading all the other stuff first.

Author's Notes (feel free to skip my rambling if you wish):

Story endings are difficult. In fact, they tend to suck. Yet I think they're the second-most important part of any story (the first being how the story begins) because endings are the last thing you'll take away. A good ending won't necessarily save a story, but a bad ending will almost certainly sink one.

What makes endings problematic is that there are a hundred ways an ending can go off the rails. A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that the story must end as soon as the climax is finished, leaving plot points hanging. Others force a happy ending for the sake of their audience, while others rush their story so that they can wrap up all the loose ends. Some don't even really end anything, choosing to keep things open for future projects (this is especially prevalent in Hollywood, where you have a franchise to sell).

The best endings I know of have two common traits. First, they're appropriate to the story. Satire should go out satirically, comedies should get in one last laugh, and horror should leave you rattled in one fashion or another. A sad ending is not a bad ending if it reflects the story (though throwing in a sad/depressing ending just to make your story "edgy" or memorable is as cheap as forcing a happy ending).

Second, they save the best for last. I'm not talking about bigger and bigger spectacle. I'm talking about conflict resolution. Points should be made and confrontations should be meaningful. You don't have to keep raising the stakes, but there should be consequences at the end.

These are my standards, and it's a tall order. It's what I reach for as a writer, and the universe knows I don't always get there. But I try nonetheless.

As I say all this, I should be quick to point out that this isn't the final end to my fanfic writing. Every ending ultimately leads to the beginning of a new story. Whether it's a story worth telling remains to be seen.

A few odds and ends before we begin:

Check my profile for what is considered canon and non-canon in my series.

There will be characters here from the Dragons: Riders of Berk TV series, but you shouldn't have to watch the show to understand who there are. If a character's background is a mystery to you, rest assured that they won't stay a mystery for long.

This series features a lot of original characters (OCs). I make no apologies for it.

That's it. As always, hope you enjoy.

Prologue

In a land where your typical winter was more menacing than a horde of Monstrous Nightmares, every Viking had to pull their own weight and then some. Missing arms and legs weren't even enough to elicit a single syllable of pity from most warriors, nor did being chief of the village grant you the right to be an armchair general.

Near-arctic winter had moved into Berk, the air almost solid with frost. The snow piled up around the homesteads and covered all the brown and green of Berk in a blanket of white. Outside of the curls of smoke rising from household chimneys, the world appeared shut down and silent. The yaks and the sheep had their barns, the dragons had their caves and dragon-houses, and the Vikings had their fires and homes. They had prepared for the long cold as they had prepared for it over the centuries, and this winter would be no different.

To the Berkians, the sight of their chief standing at the central well and pulling up bucket after bucket of ice-cold water and dumping it into a large steel basin would normally be overlooked by most village dwellers as proper chieftain behavior. Stoick had been manning the well for an hour, filling up the basin and then disappearing with it, only to return with an empty basin several minutes later. Here was the perfect example of a Viking hard at work getting water for his family, though Stoick currently lacked any family to get water for. And considering that it was barely dawn and most sensible folk were in their beds and under their furs, his behavior did evoke curiosity from an occasional passerby, though not enough curiosity for any to risk disturbing Stoick's task by asking questions.

Gobber had nipped out to the smithy to make a few alterations to his false tooth when he spied his old friend at the well. It didn't take long for him to decide that Stoick's behavior was atypical. Being friends for years, he knew most of Stoick's ticks and quirks. This was new.

He was also one of the few people Stoick never got mad at for asking personal questions. Stoick was halfway to filling his basin again when Gobber decided that the well was going to run dry if something wasn't said. Gobber approached and smiled crookedly, waving his false arm at the basin. "You finally makin' that indoor pool I've always wanted?" he joked.

"I'm cleaning out my son's dragon-house," explained Stoick, his eyes on the pulley instead of his friend, his great hands yanking the rope with steady precision.

"Now?" said Gobber.

"Hiccup left so quickly that he never got around to it," said Stoick. "I thought I'd do him a favor before he got back."

"Looks more like you're flooding it," said Gobber. "Besides, Hiccup's always been good about cleaning up after Toothless."

"I don't need your advice on how to clean my own home, Gobber." Stoick's tone was heading toward testy territory, but he didn't sound angry as yet.

"No, you don't, but maybe you want to do it when all that water isn't likely to freeze and…"

"It's all I have, Gobber!" Stoick's hands stopped their pulling and held the rope in place, the chief lowering his gaze but still not willing to look his friend in the eyes. "It's all I can do for him right now."

It wasn't hard for Gobber to guess the source of Stoick's agitation. Stoick had been in a state since Snotlout and Fishlegs had returned from a very eventful outing several days ago, minus the Twins and their Zippleback and plus some very disturbing information. In fact, the whole village was in a state, mourning the loss of one of their brightest young Vikings so very far away from home. Astrid's parents had taken the news hard, though Stoick had made effort to comfort them as much as he could, reminding them how brave a daughter they had and how nobly she'd met her fate. Being Vikings, they took some solace in his efforts, but there was only so much Stoick could do. Loss was loss, something Stoick was well familiar with.

There was also solace to be had with the news that Hiccup was alive and fighting on, if doing so on the other side of the world, but it only made Stoick miss him that much more. He'd been attending to village duties as always, but the enthusiasm just wasn't there. Not that mending fences, settling neighborly disputes, and organizing village defense drills were exciting topics, but Stoick always gave such subjects his full attention. With Hiccup gone, he'd been more distracted, more willing to delegate. Gobber half-suspected that Stoick wanted to go find Thornado, his old trusty dragon steed, and fly off after his son so that Hiccup wouldn't have to face such dire times without a father to guide him through it.

Like every Viking father before him, Stoick had to learn to let go and trust his son's adventuring skills. And it almost seemed like he was getting there before this rash of bad news came to their ears and reminded Stoick that adventures often had bad endings.

"Your son is fine, Stoick," said Gobber in a calm voice. "He has a lot of good people looking out for him."

"Like the Twins?" scoffed Stoick, letting go of the rope and turning to his old friend. "Whose bright idea was it to have those two join him? Half the village sighed in relief when they heard they were gone."

"Stoick…"

"I didn't want this for him, Gobber," blurted out Stoick. "Yes, I wanted a son that would follow in my footsteps, but I didn't want him to follow them this closely. I didn't want him to go through what I did… losing that one special person so soon…" Stoick shook his head sadly, memories surfacing of old hurts that never quite heal completely.

"Occupational hazard, right?" continued Stoick in a rueful voice. "That's what we tell ourselves. Such words seem so hollow right now."

Gobber moved in and gently placed his good hand on Stoick's shoulder. "Hiccup is your son – strong and stubborn. By Thor's mighty hammer and Odin's good eye, he'll get through this and he'll come home to us… probably with the same number of limbs he left with."

"But he won't be the same, Gobber," said Stoick. "The kind of grief he's going through… he won't be the same."

Stoick sensed that other eyes were upon them and quickly put back his fearless-leader persona, returning to the rope and resuming his pulling. "But no matter when or how he comes home, at least he'll have a clean house to come back to."

Gobber didn't reply. He'd been at Stoick's side when Valhallarama, Stoick's wife and Hiccup's mother, met her fate many years ago. Before that horrible time, Stoick's name had simply been a name. He'd even been fun, rowdy and boisterous and quick with the jokes and not so driven to kill dragons. Afterwards, the name became who he was, a way to cope with the grim realities of life. Village security became paramount, and his disapproval of his son's physical failings escalated. It had taken a long time for Stoick to wake up and see his son for who he was and to be proud of having a son like Hiccup, but at least he finally got around to it.

As Gobber lingered next to Stoick and watched the burly chief resume his water-carrying task, he was praying to any Norse gods not too busy slaying giants to keep an eye on Hiccup. He prayed that, for once, let not the son be too much like the father. Let Hiccup come home Hiccup.


Cragfist, formerly of Clan Gunnarr and now of Clan Nothing, knew of an old proverb whose origins he had long forgotten: keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

His problem was that he wasn't sure who was who anymore.

The Zenith, former flagship of the Alchemist, was anchored off of a deserted stretch of coastline somewhere in the southern Mediterranean Sea, exposed to the streaming sun instead of shielded by the ship's mist generator. They had been here for a good day-and-a-half, the sailors taking shifts moving ashore in their landing boats to stretch their legs and hunt for provisions. It was Cervantes's concession to his men, who had been stuck at sea for too long and who would likely have considered mutiny if they had been forced to wait too many days longer.

Cragfist had already had his shift, walking about the barren beaches and exploring the adjacent grasslands for anything worth killing. Outside of a ground squirrel, one that proved impossible to catch among the wild grass, Cragfist had found little to satisfy him. He had returned to the Zenith early, only slightly less depressed than before.

Now he walked the length of the ship, exercising his legs and hoping to find a sailor or soldier doing something wrong, which would allow him to exercise his right to punish. But the ship was at half-crew and all the on-deck crew were right at work, scrubbing decks and securing equipment and watching for other boats on the horizon. Fours days with Cervantes had made the crew extremely obedient. Unlike the Alchemist, Cervantes had no qualms about breaking up squabbles between sailors by summarily executing all the troublemakers.

He avoided the bow as much as possible. All the sailors avoided the bow. The bow had become Cervantes's section, the silver-hued skeletal dragon made of mystical steel standing in a marked region of the deck, hunched over the weird alien-starfish device that summoned death from the skies, staring at it with his soulless eyes for hours and hours unending, night and day, storm and sunshine. It reminded Cragfist of the Alchemist and her relentless efforts to draw information out of an inanimate artifact not so long ago. Ironically, the inanimate artifact had been Cervantes all along, trapped in a type of lifeboat for disembodied minds. Trapped until Cragfist had unwittingly given him the energy he needed to rise to power.

Cragfist tried hard to steer his thoughts away from examples of his foolishness. There were too many to count now. But this one stuck. It always stuck. He had traded a powerful, yet surprisingly accommodating, woman of ancient magic and science for his father's killer. He had brought this on himself, and his brain wouldn't let the matter rest for even one second.

Today, the thought assailed him as he neared the bow, distracted him. He didn't realize he had gone past the line of water barrels cordoning off Cervantes's section. It only dawned on him that he'd intruded in the metal necromancer's space when he heard the unnerving hum of harmonic sound coming from his right. He stopped and twisted his head, dismayed at how close he stood to Cervantes and the Catalyszier, the two odd fish humming at each other like a pair of amateur vocalists. Cervantes had his clawed hands hovering over the top of the crystalline device, like he was warming them over a fire.

If he backed away slowly, he might not get the necromancer's attention. He might escape without any tongue lashings or…

Ah, Cragfist, piped up Cervantes, his dragonoid head facing the Viking's direction, his eyes pulsing with each syllable. How good of you to join me.

Cragfist sighed to himself and pivoted to face the metal monster. He only had himself to blame for this one. "Yes, Cervantes?"

Cervantes picked up on Cragfist's discomfort, chuckling his disconcerting imitation of human laughter. Distracted, I see. It pays to always know your whereabouts, First-In-Line.

"Right, I'll get on that," said Cragfist, hoping that was the end of it. First-In-Line was Cervantes's pet name for Cragfist, on account that he was as close to a first officer as it got aboard the Zenith. The necromancer had done away with most rankings, but Cervantes had made it clear that while there was no other authority except him, he did have his favorites.

The mutual humming ceased as Cervantes moved his hands from the Catalyszier, turning so that Cragfist could see every rib in the necromancer's exposed ribcage. He felt very small and helpless next to the power Cervantes wielded in that steel devil body of his.

Have you heard the latest gossip on the grapevine? asked the necromancer.

"The men don't talk to me about much." Of course they didn't. The men hadn't liked him to begin with, but being First-In-Line meant he had the ear of Cervantes, which meant news he overhead would likely reach Cervantes. Conversations had a tendency to silence wherever he walked.

It is said that the Alchemist yet lives, Cervantes informed, surprisingly unemotional while he talked of the powerful woman they had betrayed. Cervantes saw Cragfist's eyes widen in pure panic and did that disturbing broken chuckle he was fond of.

Like the rest, you jump to conclusions. The signalman who works at the controls of the Conduit Capacitor was relaying what he'd heard through the open conduit to Sanctuary. Talk of bounties on various enemies of the Alchemist, including one on me. The highest reward for my powercore on a platter. I should be flattered.

For a change, Cragfist had a decent idea of what Cervantes was talking about. The Conduit Capacitor (another sage word… by the Gods, how he'd grown to hate sage words) was some kind of artifact kept in the bowels of the ship that had the power to send the thoughts of its user to other Conduit Capacitors elsewhere in the world. The Alchemist's forces used them to stay in touch with each other, like sending messengers or letters across the lands but without the need for paper and personnel. There was always a crewman on duty at the device, writing down messages received from the Capacitor. He hadn't ventured down to see the artifact himself – he had learned to steer well clear of all artifacts these days, especially ones that talked.

"Am I on the list?" Cragfist asked.

No, said Cervantes, it would seem that your part in my rise to power has gone unnoticed. Rest assured, it won't stay that way for long. Nonetheless, it is a moot point. There are no enemies of the Alchemist for there is no Alchemist, not any more. It is a smokescreen, a lie sent abroad by those loyal to the Alchemist. They desire to keep her memory alive so as not to invite a rebellion or court desertion. They will keep this up until the truth becomes undeniable. How long that takes is a matter for the soothsayers, not for the likes of you and me.

Cervantes' certainty came across like a wet towel to the face, and there was a horrible moment when Cragfist wished the necromancer was wrong so that he might one day hear the smugness disappear from the necromancer's voice. But that would mean the Alchemist lived, seeking retribution on those who had betrayed her. Any gloating Cragfist got in would be very short-lived, along with his lifespan.

What it does mean is that the Alchemist's subordinates will be expecting a fight when we arrive, so we must prepare for one. If you wish, you may stay and witness my discussion with a former friend of yours. I had him summoned to my presence just before you arrived. He'll be here any moment.

Former friend? Did he have any former friends? Cragfist knew about this sarcasm business, but like so many other concepts he could never quite wrap his brain around it.

He didn't have long to figure out Cervantes's meaning, as the "former friend" was walking around the water-barrel line with two armed escorts. Cragfist blanched at first when he saw the huge half-troll walk by him, barely even giving him a glance, acting like he was nonexistent. The half-troll's arms were manacled behind his back, his clothes were little better than rags, and his fancy mystical gem belt had been confiscated the day the Zenith changed ownership, yet Cragfist couldn't stop feeling a measure of fear. Norom had given Cragfist a very one-sided thumping on their first meeting, a fact Norom had continuously reminded him of every moment they spent together. Cragfist desperately wanted to feel smug about Norom's reversal of fortune, but the half-troll's imposing stature made that difficult.

Norom now stood in front of Cervantes, wearing a defiant expression despite the bruises on his cheeks. Cervantes had personally worked him over several times in the last four days, yet Norom didn't act any more cowed than before. His undying loyalty to the Alchemist was going to be the death of him.

Good day, Norom. To expedite my time, we'll skip the amusing part where I make cruel teases about your situation and get right to the meat of my demands. I need more information on this vessel's abilities. As you were the Alchemist's First, I trust you know a fair amount about them.

Norom gave him no reply, sticking to his stolid routine. Cragfist hadn't had the privilege of sitting through an interrogation until now, and he found he was anticipating the upcoming hurting session with surprisingly little glee. Norom had belittled him, even abused him, and normally that was plenty reason to watch him suffer. Yet all he felt was a gnawing emptiness within him, like someone had removed every ounce of sadistic joy from him and left a gaping hole in his soul. He wanted to enjoy this, yet he couldn't summon a single jolt of merriment at the notion of Norom writhing in agony.

He considered the grim prospect that ignorance truly was bliss. No matter how much Norom suffered, Cervantes, the only other being in the world more responsible for his disgrace than Saga, would remain in charge of his life.

Your loyalty to your deceased leader is commendable, continued Cervantes, taking a step closer to Norom and placing a claw-hand on his shoulder like he was comforting an old friend. Commendable and foolhardy. I will take control of Sanctuary and all the power held there. I have all the time and talent I need to do so. You can either assist and be granted mercy, or you can find out how drawn out a death can truly be. We are talking weeks, even months, half-troll. A day for every hour you slow me down. Is the memory of your fallen Alchemist worth such a price?

Norom's face twitched at his mouth. He had to be tempted to speak, to insult and defend his leader. But the twitching ceased and the stoic half-troll remained silent. Norom knew that to speak was to risk saying the wrong thing. Right now, Norom had leverage for his survival. Give that up, and Cervantes's "mercy" would be instant.

The metal necromancer couldn't quite manage a sneer yet on his new body, so he opted for a headshake to show his dissatisfaction. I seem to be plagued by stubborn foes everywhere I go. I may appreciate loyalty, Norom, but I detest stubbornness.

A sizzling, snapping sound erupted from Cervantes's gripping hand, a blue current of electricity enveloping the hand and leaping to Norom's shoulder, where it spread all over the half-troll's body. Norom jerked in Cervantes's iron grip, every hair on his head standing on end, clenching his teeth as agony rolled through every nerve and muscle in him, lighting him up like a human-shaped thunderstorm. Even coated with electrical anguish, Norom refused to even grunt or exhale, even as Cervantes mercilessly increased the strength of the current and literally made him dance like a puppet held up by strings of lightning.

Cragfist watched the cruel display of power along with many other fascinated and terrified crewmembers. He continued to feel no joy. He knew Norom would eventually give in – everyone had their limits, even stubborn half-trolls. After that, Norom would be no more… and Cervantes would need someone new to torment. He did favor Cragfist for now, but Cervantes had a mad tendency to betray the ones he favored.

Cragfist knew it was only a matter of time before it was his turn to suffer in Cervantes's grip.


Lord Dunkirk had always thought of the balcony outside his room as the best view of Riki Poka, and for good reason. With his century-old manor built on top of one of the low hills on the outskirts of the city, it had no obstructing buildings or competing hills to interfere with the gorgeous and panoramic display of city life. From a distance, everything had a benign charm to it: the wagons in the streets ferrying goods to and from the Market District, the flotilla of defense boats circling outside the bay, the voices of thousands of citizens merging into an all-encompassing white noise that never really went away, even at night.

Everything looked wonderful from a distance, and that was the way most of the lords in Riki Poka liked it. That was part of the problem.

As he leaned against the stone balcony wall and let the noonday sun warm his wind-chilled face and short blond hair, his eyes drifted away from the serene, inspirational sight of his city and toward the east. Most of the morning fog had burned off, allowing for a clear day with a few scattered clouds dotting the blue above, but one cloud remained parked in the east, a cloud that swirled like a slow whirlpool in the sky. It had emerged close to ten days ago, an aberration that marked a horrible transgression to the natural order of things. The cloud had thinned over the passing days, going from a dark and stormy rainmaker to a wispy and transparent covering over the last week, but it persisted in staying directly over Outcast Bay, rotating in exactly the same place day in and day out.

He had witnessed the dreaded demonstration of light and destruction on this very balcony, as had half of the city from their various homes and places of work. At the time, he had thought it very peculiar but not threatening, something akin to a bizarre storm centered over Outcast Bay. But the stark reminder of the fading circular cloud made him more and more troubled every day.

The day before was so delightful by comparison. Harvest Festival had been in full swing, the city feasting and singing and dancing, celebrating the good times together before the winter months made such celebrations a soggy affair. A record number of immigrants and travelers had arrived to offer their money and their time, soon to return home and spread the word of the opportunities Riki Poka presented the world. The number of criminal incidents had been few and kept under wraps, and the general consensus between the Lords of Riki Poka was that Harvest Festival was a roaring success, as usual.

Lord Dunkirk himself had gone out to mingle with the people, the "common rabble" to other Lords. He had mingled as a Lord, donning his best ceremonial armor and putting on his best mingling face as he circulated the city. He had gone past the Market District and to the other sections of the city, where few Lords ventured. He had even gone by the Open Museum, where he still contended that the portrait of him that hung there hadn't gotten his ears right.

He mingled a lot these days. That's why he knew of the many problems that hid under the glowing reputation of Riki Poka – the inequality between Market District and the poorer districts, the undercurrent of crime that flourished around the docks, the understandable resentments of the residents who felt neglected by the Lords' commerce-first policies. That's why he knew the people had come out of the festival with a collective sense of joy and ease, even though the days ahead would quickly remind everyone that while life's problems could be hidden by a good celebration, it never solved them.

Then the mysterious lightstorm occurred, and opinions changed somewhat. No one had ever witnessed such a bizarre phenomenon, and so close to the city. Murmurs and rumors materialized, suggesting everything from a focused thunderstorm to divine intervention. One of the more persistent and powerful rumors, circulated by the criminal elements of the city, referred to an unknown mercenary leader dubbed The Alchemist, and that somehow she had been the one to summon the storm. She claimed to "bring the thunder" and would sell it to the highest bidder the next time she came to the city.

Despite efforts by the Lords to quell such talk, the rumors persisted like a crop of dandelions in a field of daisies. The people were afraid that this Alchemist was quite real, that her intentions were ultimately insidious, and that the Lords weren't doing enough to protect the city. After the debriefing with Admiral Pelzer, the officer in charge of Riki Poka's fleet and the man who had personally gone to investigate the strange occurrence, Dunkirk had to agree.

"Dunkirk?" The call from within his room came from a deeper, mirthless voice, one Dunkirk knew quite well. He didn't dread the voice exactly, but his life would be easier if he didn't have to deal with the voice's owner every day.

Dunkirk moved through the balcony door and found Lord Benzyl, the middle-aged, gray-streaked overweight man already inside the room without having knocked for permission to enter. Permission was always granted, but presumption was unbecoming. The older lord was heading for the dining table for today's business-lunch, the table set with fine silverware and imported liquor from a foreign kingdom with an impressively unpronounceable name.

Lord Benzyl saw Dunkirk, smiled politely, and then squeezed his bulk into his favorite seat at the table. He had on a new outfit, a garishly colorful thing made of brilliant blue and green fabrics that easily took one's eyes off the man's sizeable gut. A lord of many contradictions – resistant to any kind of change to the fabric of life, but a lover of new fabric, no matter how tacky or tasteless it might be.

"Glad you're not late, Dunkirk," said Benzyl, helping himself to some grapes from the fruit bowl. "Didn't want to be rude and start without you. I've worked up quite the appetite today."

"Yes, walking up three flights of stairs does make one famished," commented Dunkirk dryly, scooting into his own designated seat. "Or so I'm told."

"Can your wit take a day off for once?" Benzyl popped a grape into his mouth and chewed it with gusto. "We have a lot to go over before the Lords' Meeting next week and we need to be on the same page if we intend to put things back in order and recover our city's reputation."

"Recover it? I wasn't aware we lost it."

"Oh, we haven't… not yet. But you are aware that the Cutthroats have been increasing their activities as of late, aren't you? As have other gangs and thieves in the city."

Dunkirk grabbed an apple and began to use a supplied paring knife to de-skin it. He wasn't very hungry today – his appetite lessened as his apprehension increased – but it gave him something to do besides watching the fat Lord next to him eat. "I've heard rumors, but nothing substantial."

"They're emboldened, I say," declared Lord Benzyl. "The guard overhears the apprehended ones talking about how the Alchemist is going to turn everything upside down. They say Outcast Bay was just the beginning. Fools, all of them. Some insane storm destroys their pitiful settlement and they think it's a great deal."

"Perhaps we should take their words more seriously. Many of them were at Outcast Bay that day."

"And many of them were sleeping off hangovers." Benzyl gave him an impatient glare. "Dunkirk, reputation is everything. All this talk of unnatural disaster is blemishing our city's image. We offer safe travels and safe desires. The last thing we need is to make our city look dangerous by overreacting."

"Right, overreacting. I assume you're referring to my proposal to double the defense fleet and restrict sea travel to a few established routes."

"Exactly." Another grape disappeared into Benzyl's mouth. "Many of the other Lords are jittery, like you. They might go for your idea. But how will it look to travelers to see our city get so tight on sea travel? We'll scare them off."

"If the Alchemist is real, then the mighty ship at her disposal is equally real. That's where we need to put our efforts."

Benzyl ceased his eating for once, placing the newest grape in his hand back on his plate. He then closed his eyes and shook his head in quiet frustration. "You're the youngest Lord in Riki Poka, Dunkirk. With youth comes ambition, and I understand that."

"This has nothing to do with ambition," countered Dunkirk, putting down his half-skinned apple.

"Doesn't it? With you, it's one proposal after another, and most of the time they're plans to improve the rabble districts, or add more security to the docks. I particularly liked the absurdity of your recent plan to add a second park to the city."

"What was wrong with that?"

"For starters, we need to bring more travelers into our city, not plants. But mostly you don't seem to grasp the concept of commerce. Your ideas tend to go against it. I've excused it because I suspect you're attempting to make a name for yourself, as most of us attempt to do in our youth. I keep hoping you'll get tired of these exercises in futility and …"

"My ideas are based on the notion that all those who help generate commerce in our city should reap the benefits of it," interrupted Dunkirk. "But regardless of my philosophy, this current crisis is a different matter."

"We can't afford to fund a bigger navy, Dunkirk." Benzyl's temper was starting to tinge his words, his fingers tapping on his plate. "Nor can we afford the loss in trade shipping. Most of all, this is not a crisis. This is the superstitious babblings of uneducated rabble, and you're buying into it."

Dunkirk shot the elder Lord an angry look. "Half the city saw the sky come alive, my Lord. You can't dismiss them all. Nor can I ignore a potential threat to this city. I will proceed with bringing my proposal to the Lords' Meeting, with or without your support."

Benzyl's glare intensified. Dunkirk readied himself for one of the Lord's mean-spirited rants about the decaying of the status quo and how Dunkirk was the chief enabler. But to Dunkirk's surprise, Benzyl leaned back in his chair and chuckled like he'd just listened to a little kid try to tell a centuries-old joke like it was brand new.

"Go ahead, then," Benzyl quietly stated. "Perhaps it's time for you to stand on your own two feet at the Meetings. We'll see how far you get. Rest assured, young Dunkirk, that just because many Lords agree with you doesn't mean enough of them agree with you." Benzyl signaled the discussion had come to an end by plucking more fruit from the fruit bowl and grabbing half-a-loaf of bread. Food rapidly found his mouth, allowing for no more words to escape.

Dunkirk sat in silence and resumed his apple skinning, disheartened. He had heard the veiled intentions within Benzyl's statement. Up until now, Benzyl had allowed Dunkirk to submit his proposals without obstacle, occasionally supporting him but mostly keeping his mouth shut during Meetings. The other Lords had voted against his ideas over and over again, but not Benzyl. It was an old favor to Dunkirk's father – keeping his only son out of political trouble. But today, there would be no more of that. Benzyl would oppose him where he deemed opposition required, which was on virtually everything.

Dunkirk could see Benzyl successfully convincing enough Lords to go against this newest proposal. He'd been at this a lot longer than Dunkirk. He was an expert schmoozer. The fleet would remain at its regular size and spread out too thinly to counter any war vessel of serious magnitude, and the rumors suggested the Alchemist's ship was a very serious war vessel.

If the Alchemist returned, and if she "brought the thunder" with her, she would find Riki Poka lacking in opposition. And then Dunkirk, Benzyl, and every other citizen of the city would see her "thunder" up close and personal.