Locasta was sitting very still, her eyes closed, her breathing deep but slow and shaky. She had been silent for a long time. They all had. Trax, Gerard and Locasta were sitting around the small fire between three claw like hills, recovering from the recent attack by the scavenging band of humans that followed Kelvin. Trax could still hear a few of them crawling around beyond the hills, but they would be still soon too.

“I don’t want to understand,” she said finally. She clenched her fists on her lap, and her eyes squeezed tighter. “Has the whole world gone mad? We’ve been safely governed by the Gargants for centuries, blessed to have their children, fed and protected. And we’re dragon ruled, the strongest and best . . .” her voice trailed off, and she took a big gulp of air. “And you’re just going to walk away.”

“You are young.” Gerard looked down into the fire. “You have the energy to keep up with what the dragons require of us. And you haven’t been asked to sacrifice so much for them yet.”

Gerard was a bit surprised when Trax tensed at that statement. Locasta seemed frozen, her eyes shut tightly, every muscle in her body locked, and Trax watched her closely. Slowly, very slowly, the stone texture appeared on Locasta’s skin, spreading up over her face like an illness.

“Breathe, Locasta,” Trax said in a quiet voice. “Take a breath.”

It took a moment, but she complied, took a deep breath, and the stone texture receded form her skin. Then she opened her pale eyes and stared at Gerard until he looked up at her.

“I know nothing of sacrifice? Have you forgotten how early they start taking things from us? We are raised knowing that everyone around us will die at their own hands, or at ours. Perhaps no one bothered growing close to you, but I found someone willing to talk and share and get close, only to find out that we were both going to be in the trials. I had to choose between killing him, or watching him die at the hands of our masters. His life blood poured out over my own hands, but when I looked in his face, I knew he understood. He accepted it. He knew . . .” Locasta slumped, her hand on the knife at her belt.

Gerard looked sorrowful, and folded his hands in front of him.

“So you do know. You have to understand why I am done sacrificing for them.” Gerard started to move around the fire towards her, but the hard look in her eyes made him stop.

“I killed with my own hands the only thing I ever loved in service to the Great Stone Dragon. Do you really think I will hesitate to sacrifice you as well?” Before she finished speaking the stone spire behind Gerard began to bend like a finger, and tried to press him to the ground. He rolled out of the way, just as another bent down over him, catching his leg against the ground. He pulled free with a rough tug that left a long scrape along his leg and part of his pants behind.

Locasta stood up, and as she raised her hands the fingers of stone responded, ready to swing at Gerard again.

“You cannot fight us both, Locasta,” Trax said quietly. He had not moved yet, but he was ready to spring if necessary. “You will not kill him.”

In answer, Locasta threw herself at Trax, her skin transforming to stone before she piled into him, and pinned him against the last stone finger. As she pressed him against it, it began to wrap around his body, trapping his wings behind him, and catching his legs in rings of stone. The pain and concentration it took to use the spell twisted her face into a hideous scowl, and she pressed her face close to Trax’s.

“I will do what is necessary,” she hissed, and pushed away from him to face Gerard.

He was holding Craven now, his hand already dripping blood again from the sharp points on the hilt. He did not look worried.

“You’re injured, and not thinking straight. This isn’t going to end the way you want.” Gerard kept a wary eye on the still swaying fingers of stone, as Locasta pushed toward him, bringing her spear up between them.

“You have no idea what I want.” Locasta rushed him, trying to force him against the stone as she had Trax, but he stepped backward easily, finding ground to slip to between the stone fingers. One and then the other swung down to try and knock him back into the circle. He ducked one, and the other brushed his shoulder hard enough to make him spin. It was enough to let Locasta get a stab at him with her spear.

Gerard knocked the spear away with Craven and swung forward at her, its keen edge slicing her arm despite her stony shielding. She didn’t even wince. They clashed a few more times, slipping between the grasping fingers of stone, and Gerard managed to dodge it all, but not without taking a few wounds. Locasta, though, was bruised, and bleeding, grunting with pain with every stab she took at him.

At first Gerard was confident, swatting away blows from the spear with ease, and feeling sorry for the battered girl before him. But the longer they fought, and the longer she pushed through what had to be tremendous pain, the more worried he became. She had had a few opportunities to take lethal blows at him. He had narrowly blocked her attacks but they were off their mark. It was more than simply tiredness or pain that was keeping Locasta from trying to kill him. She had a different goal.

Unfortunately he realized this a moment too late.

With a deft flick of the spear Locasta pinned his hand, his already bleeding and swollen sword hand, against one of the stones. Craven slipped to the ground, greedily soaking up Gerard’s blood. Locasta reached down, never letting up the pressure on his hand, and grabbed it by the blade. Then she pushed forward against Gerard, pinning him against the rock with the shaft of her spear.

“I don’t ever wish to understand your choice,” she said, panting the words into his face. “What I do understand is my mission. I was tasked to return with the sword, and that is what I intend to do. If you mean to abandon your home, and your masters, then fine. Do so. But you will not take anything of ours with you. You will leave Craven, and your armor, and your title behind, and go to your Rest as the nothing that you are.”

Locasta pushed away from him, brandishing both weapons, the stone spires still hanging close by him. She stood still as a statue, and waited for him to react. Trax was watching quietly from his stone prison, his expression blank as always. Slowly, with numb hands and an angry frown, Gerard began to unbuckle his armor.

Many claim that Dragonhelm is the fairest city in Gargantua. Locasta did find it impressive, tall gold tipped spires and wide paved streets spoke of its prosperity and power. Supposedly the only city to rival it was Maritia, the capital of the kraken’s folk, but those were mere rumors. Hardly anyone who visited there ever returned in a reliable state of mind. But none of those opinions mattered to Locasta. To her there was only one city, and that was Stonehaven.

She caught a glimpse of it on the horizon as she reached the peak of the hills that bordered Dragonhelm and the giant’s lands and it thrilled her. The sun was shining on the white granite walls, and bright red pennants flew from the solid towers. Light flickered off the wings of wyverns as they glided to their nests on the cliff walls below the city. Locasta took a deep breath and held it in for a few moments.

She led Trax to the front of the line that was waiting to board the metal box that would draw them up the side of the cliff into the city. No one in line protested. They were greeted at the gate by two of the royal guard, who pushed through the crowd of merchants and city watchman to allow them through.

As they strode easily through the streets, people hurrying to get out of the way, Locasta revelled in the reactions. During their journey people had mostly reacted to Trax, as dragonblessed rarely travelled away from Dragonhelm. But here, where they were much more common, the people were reacting to her. They had gathered to watch her leave. It had been a cold meeting then, following on the heels of the trials and the death of so many of the young. And now they received her with fear, and respect, as they should.

They were led straight to the hall of the Dragon Regent. Long red banners trimmed in gold hung alongside the pure white columns. An image of the Great Stone Dragon glared down from above, his claws wrapped around the corners of the building, and his wings spread out behind him, forming part of the roof. Locasta paused to bow to the image before heading inside.

The Dragon Regent was not present, he rarely was. But the Oracle was there, lying on a chaise, her eyes glossy and staring into the distance. The Vice Regent was present as well, seated in a chair at the foot of the stairs that led up to the Regent’s place. They didn’t stand when Locasta and Trax entered, but the other nobles and soldiers in the room did.

“Welcome back, Locasta. I am eager to hear your report,” the Vice Regent said. His tone was even, almost bored. But he sat forward in his chair, and his eyes went immediately to the sword at Locasta’s side.

“Thank you, regent,” Locasta said. She stopped midway through the hall and bowed. Trax did not, but he did pause, so that he would not end up walking in front of Locasta. “I am proud to report that I have recovered the sword Craven, that was taken from Dragonhelm so long ago. I present it to you as a prize for our Great Lord, long may we receive his strength.” Locasta unbuckled her sword belt, knelt before the vice regent, and held it toward him hilt first.

The vice regent looked closely at the sword, small spikes dotted the hilt. He leaned back in his chair without touching it.

“And the Iron Champion?” he asked.

There had been whispering through the hall when Locasta and Trax arrived. It stopped now. Locasta did not hesitate in her answer.

“Gerard the Iron Champion is no more,” she said, rising. She left the sword on the floor before the regent. “He had taken the sword from the giants, but fell prey to scavengers in the wilderness.” She did her best to sound somber.

“I see. And you were unable to bring his body back with you?”

“There were rocs involved,” Locasta said, clearing her throat rather delicately.

The regent nodded, and raised a hand to his chin. “I will need to confirm with the Regent, of course, but the succession is clear. And you may take that with you.” The vice regent looked distastefully down at Craven. Locasta picked it up and put it on again, doing her best to hide a smile. She had expected this, but it still made her proud to be granted such a precious item. “Thank you for your service, Iron Sorcerer.”

Locasta bowed again, almost with a bounce, then turned and strode out of the hall. Trax followed her out. The royal guard saluted her as she passed.

“It’s good to be home,” she said, stopping in the courtyard outside of the hall. The town square stretched out below them, shaded by another massive statue of the Great Stone Dragon.

Trax said nothing.

“Are you still sulking? You got what you wanted. He lives. And you’ve assuaged your guilt over the deaths of your students.” Locasta spat this over her shoulder at him.

“It was not about assuaging guilt. It was about bringing peace.”

Locasta scoffed. “Peace. There’s no peace without pain.”

“So you are content with your lie?”

“It’s not a lie. That person no longer exists. He’s nothing now. A deserter.”

“It is not the truth.”

“It’s more than truth.” She turned and fixed a hard stare on Trax. “He has chosen to end his old life and start a new one. Gerard as Champion no longer lives.” She narrowed her eyes and stepped up to Trax, not caring that he towered over her. “Why are you with me, Trax? Why did you follow me on this journey? Were you sent to report on what happened?”

“No. I am glad that Gerard lives. I do not wish to change that. I am simply trying to learn why you are willing to lie about it.” Trax’s eyes were wide, and glimmering gold. “I am starting to allow myself a little bit of hope for you.”

“Hope? For me?” Locasta smiled wryly, and set her hands on her hips. “You’ve been following me all this while, because you think you can save me?”

“I do not know that I would say save. But change. Perhaps.”

Locasta laughed, loudly, a little too loudly, but she didn’t want to lose her tone of bravado. She spun away from Trax and started down the stairs to the square.

“I’m afraid you’ll only be setting yourself up for more disappointment.” Trax watched her as she strode down the hill, Craven swinging from the scabbard at her side.

“Much more,” Trax agreed, slowly following her down. “But hope is worth it.”