They didn’t get very far the first day out. There were only a few hours left of daylight, and Kelvin insisted on stopping at a particular spot, somewhere protected by overhanging rocks, to avoid being seen by any patrols. They didn’t speak much. Each fell into a role as they made camp. Kelvin started setting up wards around them, while Locasta checked their surroundings for signs of anything dangerous.
Trax started the fire. He wasn’t usually careless building a fire pit, but either he was tired from the day, or tired of Locasta’s behavior, and he dumped a pile of dry sticks into a cleared circle, and breathed flame onto it. It made Kelvin stop and stare.
Trax shrugged. Kelvin raised his eyebrows and went back to what he was doing. Locasta returned, sat down cross legged by the fire, and began her evening prayers. She said them quietly, but not so quietly that the others couldn’t hear, her words still firm and strong.
“Oh Great One, today in your strength I helped to defeat a mighty roc. Today in your strength I traveled far in search of Craven. Today in your strength I have found the way to it, and shall soon bring it home. Thank you for your strength.”
Kelvin didn’t raise his eyes this time. Locasta ignored him as well, took a stick from the pile Trax had made and began whittling at it with a hunting knife she had on her belt. They enjoyed the fire for a while, each resting their own way. But eventually, Locasta caught Kelvin eying her. She was hoping he would start asking questions. She enjoyed seeing his cocky smile disappear.
“So, who’s Jinn?” Kelvin said eventually. Locasta’s smile faded. That was the last thing she had expected him to catch on to. “That is the name on the blade, right?” He continued.
“Yes.” Locasta set the stick down. It had taken on the shape of a stretched out dragon. She held his gaze, but offered no further information.
“So, does he have your blade?”
“Yes. I left it buried in his chest.”
Trax spoke up before the following silence swallowed the evening. “You said, Kelvin, that you were familiar with the champions of Dragonhelm. Are you not familiar with how they are chosen?”
“Well, one hears rumors,” Kelvin said with a shrug, trying to shrug off his shock at Locata’s words. “We’ve heard that there are difficult trials.”
Locasta snorted, but Trax continued.
“They are raised in preparation from their very early years to take part in the trials,” Trax explained. Locasta began spinning the knife in the dirt on its point. She thought she should be proud to hear Trax recount what she had gone through, but she couldn’t raise her eyes. “When a trial is called, any of the trainees between the ages thirteen and eighteen are released into a nearby forest or canyon, and there can be only one to make it out again.”
Kelvin nodded. “I’d not heard all of that, but I’m not surprised.” He watched Locasta dig a hole into the dirt with the knife. “And what about you, Trax? Were you left outside as a hatchling to see if you could survive the elements and be worthy of living as a dragonblessed?”
Trax responded quickly. “They leave us trapped in our nest with no food and no way out, until one of us eats all the others.” Kelvin went pale, but Locasta huffed.
“Stop teasing him, Trax, he can’t tell when you’re joking.” Locasta said, cleaning off her knife and resheathing it. Trax showed his teeth and laughed his hissing laugh. “He’s joking,” Locasta repeated to Kelvin, who was still looking terrified. It took him a moment to return to a more normal shade.
“And you?” Trax asked. “Where are you from?”
Kelvin started poking at the fire. “I’ve lived in several places. None of which cared if I was the strongest, or could kill everyone of my rivals, or anything, really.”
“You’re a healer, and an amazing fighter. I sincerely doubt that.” Locasta said.
“No, it’s true. My parents died when I was very young, so I started scrounging where I could. I learned to fight from some monks I ran into when I was a teenager, same with the healing.”
“So you’ve always been a scavenger.”
“I’ve always made my own way, survived on my own strength, yes.” Kelvin bared his teeth at her when he smiled. Locasta simply narrowed her eyes and took a deep breath. There were always those that because they followed their own chaotic rules that they were stronger. Perhaps they had faced dangers, overcome obstacles, but they were all happenstance. Nothing could match the carefully planned training and honing that bred the iron wills of the champions of Dragonhelm. The weak ones were not worth getting upset about.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Locasta said, standing up and heading out into the now dark plains around them.
The next day they caught sight of Gerard’s trail, the hint of footprints on a creek bed. A few hours later, Trax caught his scent, and they traced him to a set of three craggy hills that stood out against the flat landscape like the three fingers of a claw.
“We could circle around wide, see if we can spot him hiding in the hills,” Kelvin suggested.
Locasta laughed. “We’re not here to capture him. Besides, I’m sure he’s already seen us coming.” She headed for a rise of ground not far from the hills, planted her spear in the ground and yelled. Her voice carried well across the plains. “Iron Champion! Come and prove your mission has succeeded!”
The sun was directly overhead, and beat down ruthlessly. Trax sat down beside Locasta and curled his tail around his feet. He leaned back a bit and raised his face to the sun. Kelvin paced behind them.
“He won’t join us until you sit down,” Locasta said, pulling her knees up.
Kelvin sighed, and plopped down into the dirt beside Locasta. Another few minutes or so passed, and then a shadow appeared beside one of the hills.
“Who is that?” Though Locasta’s voice had resonated loudly, this voice boomed and echoed. “Who comes to challenge my mission?”
“Come closer and I’ll tell you,” Locasta answered.
The voice replied with an loud laugh that resounded from the rocky hills behind him. “You must be from Dragonhelm, no one else would be so cocky.” The shadow started moving towards them, and solidified into a craggy man, clad in scaled armor, with a long sword at his side. A jagged scar ran the full length of his arm.
Locasta stood up, planted her spear again, and stood as tall as she could. “I am. I am in training to be the champion of Stonehaven.”
“Ah, and I’m to be the completion of your training?” Gerard’s tone was light, almost jovial. He stopped about thirty yards away from the group, and considered the trio.
“That depends. I have been sent to see if you’ve completed your mission. Is that Craven?” Locasta motioned to the sword at his side.
“What is this?” Kelvin asked, rising to stand beside Locasta. “I thought you were the champion of Stonehaven?”
Locasta ignored him. Everyone else ignored him, too.
“Have you come for the sword or for me?” Gerard asked with a sigh.
“I’ve come to ensure that the sword makes it home. With or without you,” Locasta answered. Trax finally reacted to that, coming out of his enjoyment of the sun, and looked up at Locasta.
“I thought it would be a bit longer before the Stone Dragon sent someone to find me. I guess you were just too eager to contain.”
“You underestimate how important Craven is to the Stone Dragon. Are you refusing to come back with us?” Locasta began to step forward, and readied her spear. Trax rose to his feet.
“I’d like to see how well you’ve been trained,” Gerard answered. “But this is no longer a concern of mine.” He turned his back on them, and started walking back to the hills.
Locasta quickened her step. “Then I will make it your concern. The sword is coming back to Stonehaven.”
Then a lot of things happened at once. Kelvin raised his hammer, and launched himself from the small rise towards the two champions. Trax started to go after him, but stopped when he heard the flapping of wings, and saw the shadows rush along the ground past them. Looking up, he saw three small wyverns that were being ridden toward Locasta and Gerard. Then dozens of people began to appear all round them, all yelling and waving weapons above their heads.
After taking in the situation, Trax shot forward towards the Locasta and Gerard, outpacing even the flying wyverns, and plowed into Locasta. As they tumbled across the ground, Locasta stabbed her spear into the dirt to slow them down.
“What?” she asked. When they landed Trax’s wings had unfurled and he was crouching over Locasta, who had landed on her side and was half covered by wings.
He answered in draconic, so he could quickly explain that this was a trap, and that somehow the people had stolen wyverns for their own use. Locasta pushed her way through his wings and looked up as the wyverns began to circle Gerard. He seemed to be aware of them, but was more focused on Kelvin, who was charging him, hammer raised.
“You take high, I take low?” Locasta said. Trax nodded, and they jumped back into action.
Trax launched himself into the air after the wyverns. The first rider wasn’t expecting an attack from the air. Trax pulled him from the wyvern and let him fall to the ground. The wyvern screamed and wheeled away, tearing at his saddle as he flew. The others noticed the attack, and one turned to retaliate, as the other dove towards Gerard.
Locasta screamed to him. “Gerard, jump!”
Locasta barked out another word in draconic, and the ground rose up beneath him, tossing him into the air. He leapt over the heads of the attacking crowd, tumbled twice when he fell but was up and running right after.
Locasta crouched and set her hands flat on the earth. Large cracks spread across the ground from her hands, and a massive tremor rippled towards the attackers. Half of them stumbled and fell, and the others were kept busy trying to stay on their feet, distracting the attackers just long enough to allow Gerard to return to the crowd.
Gerard stepped into the throng of attackers slowly. He took his time looking them over, lightly dodged a few attacks, and then swept into one long stroke with Craven. Two of the attacking crowd fell bleeding onto the broken ground. Others rushed him, two and three at a time, but no one came any closer than Gerard allowed. He left a swathe of fallen bodies as he made his way toward Kelvin.
Kelvin changed course away from him, barking orders at those still standing to go after Locasta instead. Trax tried to shout her a warning, but was interrupted by the last remaining wyvern and rider that plowed into him from the side. They spiralled together into the ground. Kelvin led six of his crew, surrounding Locasta as she began to stand up, a bit weakened by the spell.
The first hit, from a club, barely phased her. She batted away another strike from a staff, but that opened her up to two more blows from behind. Her stony skin could only protect her from so much, and she fell to one knee. Trax lost sight of her within the crowd. He managed to land on top of the wyvern while throwing the rider several feet away. Using the wyvern as a platflorm Trax launched himself toward the knot of people that were still swinging away.
Before he could reach them, a growling shout erupted from the center of the knot, and a booming clap of thunder exploded out from the area, knocking all of the attackers away. The few that got up only made it to their hands and knees to crawl.
Locasta was still on the ground, leaning heavily on her spear, and breathing very shallow. Trax reached her a few moments later, and crouched beside her. Gerard had Kelvin by the back of his collar, and dragged him across the ground toward Trax and Locasta. Kelvin was still alive, barely. He was was groaning with each step Gerard took. Gerard dumped Kelvin at Locasta’s feet. Trax eyed him carefully, raising up to his full height and spreading his wings out over Locasta.
“Do you understand now what this one was planning? You lead him to me, right to the treasure that they needed.” Gerard knelt down to try and look into Locasta’s face. “All because you got ahead of yourself. You thought you saw a chance to become the champion before your time.”
Locasta took a deep breath, gripped her spear, and began to stand. Slowly, her face twisted and gray, she raised herself up. Gerard followed her up, staring into her face the whole time.
“You just hurt yourself with your own spell, didn’t you? So desperate to show how strong you are.”
Locasta began muttering, quietly at first and then more loudly.
“Ah, there you are,” Gerard said, sounding relieved.
“My will is iron,” Locasta said, breathily. “My heart is adamant.”
“That’s it. Get up.” Gerard almost growled it through gritted teeth.
“My body is stone. I feel no pain.” The last sentence tore out of Locasta in a shout. She pushed herself up and lunged at Gerard. He grabbed hold of her wrists to keep her from scratching his eyes out. They struggled for a moment, but every move Locasta made, despite her assertion, forced a look of agony across her face.
“You don’t have to do this,” Gerard said, looking into her face. “Let’s go talk for a bit. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can kill me later.”
Locasta took a few more ragged breaths, then nodded. Gerard let go of her wrists, and she staggered briefly, but caught herself before falling backwards into Trax.
Trax put his hand up to steady her. Gerard turned and started walking back towards the three clawing hills, stepping over bodies as he went. She was leaning heavily on her spear again, and breathing shallow.
Without a word, Trax reached into the folds of his robe and produced a small vial of red liquid, and held it out to her. She looked at it, and then him, with contempt, but he held it out until she took it and drank down the contents.
The potion took affect fairly quickly, and in a few moments she was standing straight and breathing more deeply. The stony look of her skin faded away, and several large bruises and cuts appeared. She dropped the vial back into Trax’s hand, and followed Gerard to the hills.
Gerard had made camp between the clawing hills, nothing more than a small fire and a place to lie down. Locasta lowered herself down to the ground, gingerly, and leaned against a larger rock at the foot of the hill.
Gerard stoked the fire up, and made a place for Trax to sit, using his own bedding to form a sort of seat for him. Trax hovered near Locasta for a bit, but she waved him away.
“I’m fine Trax. Sit, eat something. Tend your wounds.”
“Please, blessed one, sit,” Gerard said, motioning to the seat he had made. “Can I get you anything?”
Trax shook his head, took another close look at Locasta, and then made himself comfortable on the seat, folding his wings behind him.
“Those fools out there had you convinced they were just a bunch of scavengers, trying to live on their own without the Gargants in charge.” Gerard shook his head and crouched by the fire. “But they were more than that, as I’m sure you noticed. They were rebels, some of the top people from each of the four lands, and the moment they knew what you were they intended to kill you. But not before you led them to me.”
“Was it Craven they wanted? Or just to take a stab at us?” Locasta’s voice sounded small to her, weak compared to Gerards, which rumbled in the small space around them.
“Mostly Craven, I think.” Gerard shrugged. “But it would have helped them to say they had killed us as well.”
“Helped them how? Even if I had reported them when we returned home, they would have been able to move, find another hiding place, and keep on doing whatever they’re doing.”
“Perhaps they believe that they can start a larger rebellion if they continue making a nuisance of themselves?” Trax commeted.
“That is all they are too, a nuisance.” Gerard huffed. “They would have been stamped out eventually. Kelvin was a fine fighter, but he was no leader. They were after something more than just scrabbling around and making trouble. They needed a prize.”
Gerard had laid his sword aside, and was cleaning his hand. It was puffed up, and bleeding. Blood covered the hilt of Craven, and as Locasta watched it slowly began to disappear. Not drip off, or dry, but was absorbed into the sword. Once his hand was clean he bound it tightly with a strip of cloth.
“A prize? For what?” Locasta started to lean forward eagerly, winced, and sat back again.
“They wanted to impress someone else. The real leaders of the city for humans. They needed a prize to get into the city of Rest. I think Kelvin had actually been there, and they knew he was trouble, so they wouldn’t let him and his scavengers in. So he thought if he killed a few champions, brought them a magical weapon, that they would reconsider.”
“Rest?” Trax said, thoughtfully. “Where is this city?”
“The eastern wastes, somewhere. I’ve only heard rumors.”
“Is that . . .” Locasta wasa having trouble finding her words. “Is that why you didn’t return home when you found Craven? You’re hoping to find Rest?”
“Yes. I’m hoping to find Rest. I will not be returning home.”
Silence stretched between them. Locasta started down at the fire, thinking furiously through any and all options. But none of them ended well.
“I don’t understand.”
“No, I imagine you don’t.” Gerard stirred the fire again, looked across at her, then at Trax. “I will try to explain. But I can’t make you understand.”