November 2017

As Tizeech ran off again, Scarlet carefully looked around before she removed her gloves to reveal hands already glowing with the Art. Pressing them against the wood, she reached out her mind and her will, looking past the thick decorative wood to the room within.

She saw Pearl, sitting on the overstuffed bed, bound at the wrists and ankles by her own ribbons. She saw Jed, seated on the room’s only chair. He’d pushed it into the corner, behind the massive armoire. He had a clear shot at the door and the window from there, and a pistol limp in both hands, but the armoire would protect him from most return fire unless it were an exceptional shot.

“You peeking in at me, Miss Scarlet?” Said Jed. “I think you’ll find that I’ve thought of that.”

“You’ve got the Art,” Scarlet said. “Very impressive.”

“I’ve none of that nonsense,” Jed replied, with surprising vehemence. “Mages are a stain on our society, Miss Scarlet, and my family have felt its sting all too well. The years I spent in the war, fighting to bring those traitors to heel, were the best years of my life.”

“Just because I’ve a little skill in the Art doesn’t mean I had any sympathy for them,” Scarlet said.

“Oh, that’s right. Why would you? They’ve done nothing but hold your kind in contempt.” Jed laughed, mirthlessly.

“The rebels were no friends of boudoir owners, it’s true,” Scarlet said evenly.

“Oh, that’s how it is still, is it?” Jed said. “I’m sorry, Miss Scarlet, but if you were trying to goad me, that’s a tactic I don’t respect.”

“Respect? The man who has one of my girls trussed up like a turkey, holding her for ransom for something that’s not his to possess, has the gall to talk to me about respect?” Scarlet spat. “I’ll grant you that the boudoir life isn’t exactly princesshood, but these girls had nothing when they came to me. Pearl? Clever, brilliant, even. Sharp-tongued. But her mother was one of the wild folk elves and her father never left his wife back east. She was taking in washing for a penny a week when I found her.”

“I’m here on business,” said Jed. “I have a reputation–among the right people, mind–for doing what I’m hired to do. That means no questions. Valley Union knows what it wants, and what I want doesn’t matter. This is the way to go about it.”

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A whisper from inside, barely audible. Scarlet always kept her hair coiffed forward, over her ears and down to her cheeks, but she pressed to the wood anyway, leaving a smear of flesh-toned makeup as she did so.

“Please, let me go.” It was Pearl, unmistakably, and with a tremulous edge that was quite out of character for one of the Boudoir’s most assertive girls. Scarlet was immediately on alert.

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but I assure you, it will end badly if you seek to impede my girls, any of my girls, in the pursuance of their duties. You may have heard about one LQC Muntz, Jr, that was shot down and then kicked by a horse after failing to heed a similar warning.”

This time there was a response, in a deep voice, calm and assured: “Very well, then. My name is Jedidiah Edenburner; you might have heard of me. I’m the local stationmaster for the Valley Union office. If you don’t know what a stationmaster is, think of a security detail. I keep those big lovely boxes that bring money flowing into Smokewood from coming up empty once they arrive. You may call me Jed.”

Scarlet vaguely remembered hearing the name, and a face that was uniformly unpleasant and framed by black strings of hair came to her mind. “I don’t care if you’re General Muntz himself, come to avenge his only idiot son,” she said. “Let my Pearl out of there, safe and unharmed, or I will end you.”

“Oh, of course,” said Jed. “I wouldn’t think of harming her. But first, you’re going to tell me about her special delivery. I want names, I want locations, and I want them now.”

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“The girls have been going on a lot of ‘deliveries’ and ‘house calls’ lately, haven’t they?” Jed said. “We always see them riding off, but never in the direction we think they would have a lot of business. Never to the farms, or the ranches. Always out into the wilds, askew of the Old Mission.”

“Our homesteaders and settlers need love as well,” Scarlet said. “As do we all.”

“And you say your boudoir is getting paid in advance, in gold?” Jed continued. “We haven’t seen a courier come in here, and certainly no one who looks like they’ve got enough gold on them to pay for a ‘house call.'”

“The girls are my couriers,” Scarlet said. “They collect as they come back.”

“And while I’m thinking about it, who out that way has gold to pay with in advance?” Jed said. “The mines are all to the south. Most of the farmers and homesteaders from up in the wilds barter for most of what they need. The Cuttergrilles, out of Sagescrub, send Mr. Butterhollow to exchange their grindings for gold to buy necessities, and the Butterhollows do the same with their mushrooms. And you know what else? For the life of me, I can’t think of a single…well, single!…homesteader out there. Even Jinny Witchazel is ready to pop, which means she must at least have a fella on the side. How would your girl Pearl, your brilliant girl Pearl over there, show up to a homestead of two or three and manage to get a little private time?”

Scarlet said nothing, but she placed a hand on the revolver tucked in its hiding place.

“And you know, funny thing. With the viaduct out, we inherited all the Valley Union men who normally guard it coming in. I put two of those idiots, John Skulljelly and Bill Grindstone, on the outskirts of Smokewood to keep track of comings and goings. And, wouldn’t you know it, your girls going out and our wagons failing to come back? They match up exactly. Like an Eastern & Wilds railroadman’s watch.”

“That seems an awful stretch,” Scarlet said. “But you seem to have quite a tale you’re spinning there, so don’t let me stop it.”

“You’re a funny sort, Scarlet. Don’t go by your real name, always wearing that fancy makeup, always have your hair over your ears…it’s almost like someone hiding who or what they are. And even though there’s wild folk that aren’t so different than me on the rivers, we both know most of them are elves and orcs. You’ve got Pearl, here, whose mother was wild folk. Melish, your other girl, the one that filthy rebel boy got ventilated for burning up, she was an orc, wasn’t she? I don’t suppose I need to tell you what the city offices have to say about her old man and where he came from.”

“That’s Melish’s business, assuming we ever get her back.”

“So here’s how it looks to Mr. Edenburner right now. Miss Scarlet, a wild folk herself or maybe a miscegenate, sending her two half-blood girls out constantly on ‘house calls’ that just happen to line up with Valley Union losing stuff. And all while the wild folk are as riled up as they’ve ever been.”

When he didn’t hear a response, Jed pressed on: “So here’s what’s going to happen, Miss Scarlet. You’re going to give me the names and locations of the wild folk you’re meeting. My men will ride out to meet them in your stead, and the problem will correct itself. Otherwise, in addition to the neck of lovely, fierce Miss Pearl here, I will also break news of your duplicity to the town at large.”

Through her Art, Scarlet could see that Jed had laid down one of his revolvers to stick a coarse-rolled cigarette in his mouth. He snapped a match alight with one hand and lit it, inhaling deeply. “You ever seen a lynch mob, Miss Scarlet? The good people of a town coming together to right a wrong that they don’t trust to the wheels of justice? It strikes me as a bit risky for a boudoir owner to risk it, risk her girls, for something like the wild folk. That horse is out of the race, Miss Scarlet. You can see its ribs through its raw hide and the flies are already buzzing. All it needs is a good pistol shot to put it down and to proper use in the tannery. And here you are, feeding it carrots on the sly as if it’ll help anything at all.”

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You didn’t stiff your bill at Miss Scarlet’s Boudoir.

Miss Scarlet, always elegant and dressed in the color after which she’d named herself, kept a repeater behind her desk and a shopkeeper’s six-shooter in her bustle, but she rarely needed either, thanks to the Art. Even though guns could kill a man quicker and with less exertion than the Art, many people still held mages with the same awe and reverence they had before the war, when the price of disrespecting one might have been enthrallment.

You didn’t stiff your bill at Miss Scarlet’s Boudoir.

Pearl Highwater had only been an employee for about six months, but in that time the young elf from back east had seen deadbeats with their ears blown off, their palms and worse seared by sudden flames, and a few of the more intransigent ones brought low with a few enthralling whispers. Everyone paid up eventually, though Miss Scarlet reacted indignantly to the suggestion that they ever paid a cent more than they had been offered in services. For the treasure hunters flooding into Smokewood had their needs, had their desires, and she paid her taxes. Deputy Sheriff Missy Ferguson was not exactly on warm terms with the Boudoir, but she knew the law and didn’t let things slide.

You didn’t stiff your bill at Miss Scarlet’s Boudoir.

But in her time at the Boudoir, Pearl and her friend Melish, an orc girl of around the same age who had joined two weeks before, had quickly became the favorites. Miss Scarlet steered the best customers to them, and trusted them with the “delivery jobs” around town. Until Melish had been badly burned by some hotshot pyromancer from back east–before got himself gunned down by the deputy sheriff for continued idiocy–and a customer from out in the wilds locked himself in one of the Boudoir’s many rooms with Pearl inside.

He wasn’t interested in his bill at Miss Scarlet’s Boudoir.

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“Why the edor?” said Eggebrecht.

“She liked us edor, said we reminded her of herself,” said Father Zelten. “Rare, and a thing you could only find in this land. It also cut down on the number of people she had to speak to. Not one for small talk, Highclaw.”

“And why gold?” Feris said, eagerly. “Why did she want something she couldn’t spend?”

“Now that, I don’t know. We wild folk didn’t really work much with metal before the easterners came, so soft gold and silver were basically all we had. But Highclaw did say something once, when I was just a boy. She told my cousin that a trinket he had made especially for her was ‘beautiful but worthless.’ It had to be, she said, ‘something used, something worn, something loved, something steeped in the memory and soul of they who wore it.’ It struck me as being awfully poetic when she said it, and I’ve never forgotten.”

Eggebrecht was scribbling furiously in his notebook. “I have many, many questions for you, Father Zelten,” he said. “But I should, I suppose, lead with the obvious one. Why did Highclaw fail to take action on behalf of the wild folk when the settlers first came? He–er, she–could easily have wiped them out. Even the army didn’t have weapons that could take a dragon down back then.”

“Highclaw asked a high price, one we couldn’t pay,” Father Zelten said. “If it were just us, we would surely regret being so cheap! But Highclaw asked for as much tribute as we had ever given in living memory. She said that without such a sum, she could foresee no way forward. Her time was coming to an end either way,and she could not risk her greatest treasure.”

“A curious way of putting it,” said Eggebrecht, still scratching out messy lines of shorthand. “What do you suppose Highclaw meant by it?”

“I think…I think she foresaw that she would perish at the hands of your people,” said Father Zelten. “How, I can’t say, other than some powerful magic known only to her kind.”

“And why, if she could foresee her death, would she go out to meet it anyway?” Feris said.

“Ah, now that is a question,” laughed Zelten. “But I have a solution, or at least a supposition.”

“What’s that?” Eggebrecht said.

“I believe that she was pregnant,” Father Zelten said.

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“That’s enough!” A new voice cried, followed by a fit of coughing and hacking. Another figure emerged from the brambles, hunched over and leaning heavily on a walking stick. He was quite old, well-wrinkled, but even then his features were strange, tough to place. Not green enough to be an orc, but too green to be an elf, and with ears that were only very lightly pointed. His eyes were piercing and blue-green, with a youthful appearance that belied his otherwise decrepit frame.

“Please, Father,” Sally said. “Let us-”

“Let you be what? Young, hotheaded sticks-in-the-mud? Bah! If these strangers have made the trip to see me, let them see me.” He coughed again, wheezing and bringing a rough linen handkerchief to his lips. It came away stained crimson.

Sally, grudgingly, bowed her head. “Yes, Father Zelten,” she said. “The will of the edor be done.”

“You kids really need to learn to laugh a bit, to have a little fun,” the edor said. “Things don’t get any better when you’re this old, let me tell you!” Then, to the travelers: “Come! Our campsite is just a bit further up.”

With Sally in the lead, the orcs took Eggebrecht and Feris into a hollow where they had pitched a small camp and tents. It seemed to be a hunting camp, with evidence of slaughter and several caracasses, but there were also children and older orcs present, which was quite strange. There were no other edor but Zelten, who led them into his tent and shooed the others away with a warning about evesdropping before he once again spent several moments huddled over a rag that sopped up bloody foam from his lips.

“You did well to come when you did,” Father Zelten said with a chuckle. “It’s not long before the still, silent world takes me at long last.”

“I’m quite sorry to hear that,” Eggebrecht said.

“Not nearly as sorry as I am!” laughed Father Zelten. “But such is the way of things. Perhaps because there are so few edor anymore, we still carry a lot of weight with the various wild folk with whom we make our home. And with poor Zobela gone, now…she was one of the youngest, still flexible enough to make a difference. A real blow, that, and easy to see why it’s got the damn too-serious kids all riled up and ready to burn things.”

“You really do have my sincerest apologies about that,” said Eggebrecht. “It’s a tragedy when such a rare creature such as yourself dies.”

“The good die young, as they say,” Father Zelten said. “But you didn’t come here to talk to me about the affairs of edor or why there are so few of us anymore. No, you’re here to ask about dragons, am I right?” He coughed. “To get a leg up in the treasure hunt, yes?”

“No,” said Eggebrecht. “It’s the knowledge I care about, not the gold.”

“Good!” Father Zelten laughed until it was choked off by a fresh fit of coughing. “Because I have no idea where it is. Or even if it exists! Highclaw always met us by the Meeting Stone out on the prairie, and as to what she did with all the gold, well, as far as I know it all went into the lake!”

“I’m sorry,” Eggebrecht said. “Did you say…she?”

“Oh yes, that’s a shock, isn’t it? Highclaw, the greatest and last dragon of our age, was a female. Females often are the more fierce of the lot, as you might have noticed from Sally and Jinny.”

“And Feris,” piped Feris, who had otherwise been mostly quiet.

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The blue glow of their scrying org grew ever-brighter as the land grew ever-rougher, and it had nearly filled the entire orb by the time the horses began to have difficulty navigating the terrain. By the time the travelers were within range of those seeking to ambush them, it was a solid blue glow.

“Hands where we can see them!” The command, accented, seemingly came out of that brush itself. Eggebrecht immediately thrust his arms up, while Feris was contents to hold them out in front of her as if they were entangled in an imaginary cat’s cradle.

Wild folk, all of them orcs, rose out of the grass and scrub at a sharp whistle. Some had repeaters, others bows and arrows, and one even had an old muzzle-loading flintlock that looked like it had been buried for a hundred years.

“Hello there. I am Dr. Dana E. Eggebrecht, eminent ethnologist, and I have come here seeking information. I want to assure you that, regardless of what has caused the recent unrest, I still regard yours as a fascinating and noble people worthy of serious academic study.”

“Also, he’s unarmed,” said Feris. “He probably should have led with that bit.”

One of the orcs with repeaters answered. “One of you interlopers killed an edor in cold blood at the Meeting Stone, one of the most ancient and respected places in the wild,” she said. “It would be like killing Highclaw in his den rather than on the field of battle. We here of this group are still not convinced that this killing was a deliberate slight rather than an accident, and it is for that reason that you are still alive.”

“Ah, yes, I have no desire to see such a fascinating, uh, ethno-cultural construct such as an edor die out,” Eggebrecht said. “In fact, I might even dedicate a chapter in my book to them. I have the dissertation to sprang from on my person if you’d like to peruse it.”

“What’s your business here?” the lead orc said. “These hills are what little remains of our old lands, and if you have no business with us, you must leave.”

“We’re looking for Sally Hammertoes,” Feris said. “Dr. Eggebrecht would have gotten to that part in about a day.”

“I am Sally,” the orc said. “Or, at least, that is one of many names that I suffer myself to be called. How did you find me?”

Eggebrecht flashed the scrying sphere, now as bright blue as the summer sky on a sunny day. “We were given some very kind help by your friend Jinny Witchazel,” he said.

“She is no friend of ours,” Sally said. “Not anymore.” She held out a hand. “I would have that from you.”

“Oh, of course.” Eggebrecht gave the scrying sphere a light toss, and Sally caught it. She crushed it in her hand, the enchantment shattering and leaving nothing but dry brambles and water leaking through her fingers.

“Now you’ve found me, and we need not worry about anyone else doing so,” Sally said. “What is it you want?”

“We’re looking for Father Zelten,” Feris said.

“Ah, yes,” Eggebrecht stammered. “We have some questions for him. About dragons. If he’s still alive.”

“You’d come here, in light of what your people have just done, and ask to speak with one of our oldest and most revered leaders?” Sally spat. “How dare you? You’re not worthy to be in his holy presence!”

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The prairie soon began to deepen into the Sagescrub Valley, a relatively gentle fissure that ran up into the mountains to the west around a small but fierce glacial stream. Feris had only heard of about seven families homesteading up there, and Jinny Witchazel was perhaps the best-known of the lot. Gifted in the Art, she had a reputation as a healer and winder of clever cantrips.

Her homestead was just off the main road, a small cabin built to strongly resist the worst winter could offer. Its barn was integral to the structure, with a second story build high enough that, if necessary, the inhabitants could escape from them and snowshoe to safety.

“I think something’s wrong,” Feris said. She pointed to the field, where ensorcelled farm implements lay amid unharvested grains. They were weakly twitching, as if the complex enchantments needed to weave them into independent action were unfinished or unraveling.

“She must be an impressive mage of the Art if she can coax a harvest out of the inanimate,” said Eggebrecht. “Even the rebels tended to use thralls for that kind of labor.”

“And today you can just buy a horse-drawn harvester and get it done with no magic at all,” said Feris. She took the lead, tying the horses to a fence post and walking slowly toward the homestead with her hands up. “Jinny?” She said. “Jinny Witchazel? It’s Feris Skulljelly, from Smokewood. We’re here to talk to you.”

Nobody answered. Dr. Eggebrecht stepped forward. “Hello, miss? I’m Dr. Dana K. Eggebrecht, a researcher and scientist of some reknown, and I have a few questions for you about the edor!”

Still nothing. “Maybe we should try the door,” said Feris. Before Eggebrecht could intervene, she walked up and pushed. It swung open, and she trotted it, with Eggebrecht dashing after her.

The interior was a bit flavorful in its odors thanks to sharing a wall with the barn, but it was crammed with things useful for the Art, herbs and dried mixtures, with tanned and canned animal bits in equal measure. Embers were still smoldering in the fireplace, and a kettle of what smelled like coffee was heating in a magical blue flame on a nearby tabletop.

“Seems like we just missed her,” said Eggebrecht.

“I don’t think so,” Feris said. “She’s still here. There’s no way that, even with the Art, she could have gone far.”

“How do you know that?” Eggebrecht said.

“Like this!” Feris threw back a rug to reveal a root cellar; grasping the iron ring in its trapdoor, she pulled.

The light revealed Jinny Witchazel, on her back in the darkness, with a repeating rifle aimed upward and a cast-iron plate from a potbellied stove hanging around her neck and over her torso like a piece of armor.

“Hiya, Jinny,” Feris said. “Remember me?”

“What do you want?” Jinny shouted. Her voice was louder than it might have seemed, and Eggebrecht suspected that she was using the Art to amplify it a bit. He also noted that the azure runes that regular Art users tended to brand themselves with–to avoid having to constantly reapply them–were visible and luminous on her hands.

“Well, for one, we want to know why you’re hiding in a root cellar with a repeater,” Feris said.

“We also want you to know we don’t mean any harm and are just here to ask some questions,” Eggebrecht added hastily. “We can pay for your information.”

Jinny’s eyes flashed red, but it seemed that whatever cantrip she had used put her at ease. “Sorry about that, love,” she said to Feris. “You know I never was very good at reading you.”

“My life is a closed book, after all,” Feris said.

Jinny struggled for a moment and then got up, slinging her repeater over one shoulder as she slowly climbed the ladder up. Eggebrecht quickly saw another reason why she might have been hiding: she was heavily pregnant, her wiry frame looking fit to pop at any moment, and the makeshift armor she was wearing appeared to have been chosen specifically to protect her unborn child from gunfire.

“You’re…with child,” he said.

“Yes, thank you for that observation, love,” Jinny said, kicking the cellar door shut behind her. “I wasn’t sure if there was a baby in there or if I’d just gone fat, but with your say-so I think I’m more confident.”

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Feris’s usual omnipresent smile disappeared for a moment. “People like things that fit neatly,” she said. “The edor make people around here, and even back east, awfully mad because they don’t fit. Most don’t look like orcs, most don’t look like elves, some can even pass for humans. They’re a living mirror, reflecting the fact back at folks that a lot of their feelings are wrong.

Eggebrecht, fascinated, tapped his chin.

“Ask an elf or an orc why they are the best of the sapient races, and they’ll babble at you for an hour. But if the edor can do things just as well or better than any orc, any elf, that means those people are wrong. They’re not better. And if they’re not better, that means nobody’s better. That gets the humans, dwarves, and halflings in a twist. Even the other half-and-halves don’t stick up for the edor, because they are too busy living with being mirrors themselves.”

“How do the settlers in the wilds react to seeing an edor?” Eggebrecht asked, curious. “I know that the half-breeds elsewhere certainly get an askance look, as if the unfortunate circumstances of their birth are any of their own doing.”

Feris shrugged. “They’re been killed on sight. And boy, does that make the wild folk mad. Mad enough that it’s not a good idea to run into them. Ever.”

“I am beginning to think,” Eggebrecht said, “that I made the right call, bringing you along, Miss Clutterbucker.”

“Wheel,” Feris said, suddenly all smiles again. “The name’s Miss Wheel.”

Eggebrecht immediately began reconsidering his statement a moment prior. “You introduced yourself as Feris Clutterbucker to the sheriff,” he said, confused.

“Exactly,” Feris said airily. “And I’m introducing myself to you as Ms. Wheel. I trust you can keep that straight, Dr. Eggebrecht.”

“As you wish,” Eggebrecht said with a long face. “Come on, I have a few more government dollars we can spend for supplies before we head north.”

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“You know about the edor?” the dwarf said.

“I’ve heard people using that word in a way that suggest they’re not all that welcome,” Eggebracht said.

“Well, as you know there are plenty of bands of wild folk, and they’re not really united on much,” the dwarf said. “But the orcish wildfolk and the elvish wildfolk, up in the forests and the highlands and the mountains…they were more united than most on account of the edor. They’d set their chiefs up to marry, and from that would come edor, half orc and half elf. They’d be the ones in charge.”

“Interesting,” said Eggebrecht. “Go on.”

“And they were also the only ones the dragon would speak to.”

Eggebrecht pulled out a second dollar, so the first wouldn’t get lonely. “Why?” he said.

“A lot of people–myself included–think that the various sorts of folk are various for a reason,” the dwarf said. “But the edor…well, they’re a handsome folk. They’ve got all the smarts of elves and all the toughness of orcs. I think the dragon just like them because there were so few and it meant he had less people to talk to. Two edor won’t even make any little edor, after all.”

“What did they talk about?”

“He’d judge important matters and, if someone was naughty enough, burn them to ash. Everything paid for, of course, and a regular tribute on top of it besides. A big enough tribute, and Highclaw might just decide to go to war for one batch of wildfolk.”

The ethnologist nodded. “If these edor were in so well with the dragon, why didn’t he come to their aid against the settlers? The wild folk haven’t done well in that area.”

The dwarf nodded. “When the settlers first came, the edor went to Highclaw and asked that the he go to war for them. And old Highclaw, he demanded a tribute so huge that the edor couldn’t possibly pay it. He wanted a river of gold that they just didn’t have. So he did nothing.”

Eggebrecht nodded. “And for their inability to pay…they eventually had their power shattered and were driven to the periphery. The best homesteads and all the mines that had once belonged to the wild folk aren’t theirs any longer.”

“And it might not have made any difference,” the dwarf said. “The settlers weren’t on good terms with Highclaw, seeing as the dragon’s took a shine to eating their livestock right out of their pastures. And, of course, it didn’t take long for them to get word of the dragon’s massive hoard.”

“I heard Highclaw was eventually brought to battle in an ambush, forced from the air by cannon fire,” said Eggebrecht. “And that even with his dying breath, the dragon refused to divulge the location of his hoard, which died with him.”

“That’s right,” the dwarf said, eyeing the dollars and licking his lips. “You’ve probably heard of his bones, a ways outside of Smokewood. What do you think of all that?”

“I think…it might be interesting if there’s an edor around who spoke with the dragon while it was still alive,” said Eggebrecht. “What do you say, Feris?”

“Oh!” The young woman had been listening, rapt, to the old-timer, sitting cross-legged with her head between her fists. Eggebrecht’s comment startled her out of her attention. “Uh, I think that’ a good idea. Yeah, we should…we should totally talk to someone who’s talked to a dragon.”

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