In the ruins of Great Chicago, the boundless power of the Water has brought Dragons back to the Earth. The Gold Dragons, in their Caverns and Castles. The Fire Dragons, reaping destruction wherever they wander. The Spirit Dragons, who use the dead to torment the living. The Wyverns on high, who call everyone their enemy. And deep in the lake, beneath the earth… the Wyrms.
The only thing deadlier than the Ruins, are the wilds without. So the people stay, striving each day to achieve the impossible: to survive.
There was a flash of orange, and Viniv was awake. Unfortunately, she was also missing a wing and rapidly gliding downward.
It was not a painful experience. An elf’s wings were, essentially, just collections of potential; a pair of sparkling extrusions that appeared whenever Viniv was airborne. Whatever had just hit her simply displaced all that sparkly energy. It would take a while for the wing to return, however, and the prospect of hitting the ground at speed was nothing to shrug at.
Viniv inspected the rapidly approaching ground. Rough, craterous, pockmarked concrete and asphalt abounded. A particularly craggy hillock of asphalt was below, and it had just been crested by a particularly shaggy and especially foul-tempered Fire Dragon. The name took a moment to return; Viniv had not seen one in a long time. It looked like a giant red crocodile (another thing she had not seen in a long time, as any elf stupid enough to visit a lake was rarely heard from again), its tail barbed with brutal spikes and its eyes covered by the shaggy mat of overgrown black hair that covered its top. Just then, the creature was letting out a roar that must surely be deafening at ground level, shimmers of heat and flecks of flame spewing out from between its long, pink teeth.
It seemed frustrated. Viniv thought maybe the thing had not even meant to attack her. It had probably let loose a gout of flame as a random expulsion of anger, and the flame just happened to strike her left wing. As the mighty roar subsided, she quickly saw the creature had eyes for something else.
Someone else, rather. In front of the Fire Dragon, fleeing as best they could through the potholes and rubble, were a pair of people and a small orange dog. She could not yet see them clearly, but precise details were growing less important by the second.
Satisfied that the deadly titan was no longer thinking of her, Viniv considered her options. The landscape was bedecked with gutted buildings, none more than three or four stories tall. They were all still far below her. How high had she been flying? And what were the odds that a random gout of flame would strike her so? No matter; she had to focus on practicalities. It was very hard for an elf to focus on practicalities while in flight, an irony that was asserting itself with serious force at present. Unlike the Fire Dragon, however, Viniv did not have the luxury of venting frustration. She could not simply roar her problems away, though she immediately understood the appeal of it. No, she would have to actually do something.
A few blocks ahead, there was a large building, four stories tall it seemed, with a huge, flat roof of fairly intact concrete. There was a small garden tucked in one corner, but it was far too small for her to consider landing on the soft soil. No, she would have to swoop in at a sharp angle and try landing at a run. Viniv’s eyes narrowed: she hated running. The two people fleeing from the Fire Dragon seemed to hate it as well, but that was hardly her concern.
Viniv took another quick glance around her while she was still high enough to take everything in. Collapsed old buildings were everywhere. Back over her shoulder, far to the southeast, several soring towers still stood next to a great, ominous lake.
Chicago. She was flying over Chicago. Of course. She must have been unconsciously drawn by the Great Lake. Still, it was better than being stuck out in the wilds somewhere with only one wing. There were worse things than the Dragons of Chicago, and at least here there were plenty of other smells (and other targets) to distract the predatory population.
Focus! It was really hard to focus, but she made herself eye the huge roof coming up. She had passed the Dragon and its prey, the roof was four stories up; she did not need to waste her time right now thinking of other people’s problems. She swooped low, trying to accelerate as little as possible, and prepared to tread onto the close lip of the roof.
Another roar sounded behind her. She glanced back.
One of them was human, or maybe a gnome; somebody smallish. The other had a sleek mane of fiery red hair, which seemed fitting given the monster crawling after them. The small orange dog now looked like it might be a fox. You were not supposed to trust foxes for some reason, but she could not immediately recall why. Did they steal food? Had the fox stolen something the Fire Dragon was eating? No, that was ridiculous. Clearly the fox, and its apparent owners, had just been incredibly unlucky. Luck, as always, was the cruelest of gods.
It was an ironic thought. At that moment, something struck Viniv’s left ankle at a hard angle, and she found herself tumbling about. Something hard struck her in the chest, and she was suddenly flailing trying to find purchase. Ah yes, the building. She had missed. She had missed the massive, four-story building, and was now in the embarrassingly slow process of falling to her death. She continued to scrabble and claw at the brick wall of the building, winning some fresh cuts and bruises but no purchase on the side. It was when she was halfway down to the brutally hard road below that she remembered elves could fly.
She banked upward a little, at a very hard angle, and suddenly found herself looping around back toward the ground.
Ah yes. Her wing. She was missing a wing. A Dragon had blown it off. Naturally. Where was that Dragon?
Focus! An especially wicked mound of broken asphalt was flying up to greet her, and she managed to break into a sharp horizontal glide to the south. All this swooping had her traveling at quite a pace, though. When she finally connected with the unforgiving ground, she touched down not so much at a run as at a mad sprint. To make matters worse, she was madly sprinting straight for the strangers, their fox, and the enormous red monster bellowing flames after them.
All in all, it was shaping up to be a pretty harsh Thursday.
Viniv tried to slow her sprint, but struck her already aching left ankle against an outcrop of asphalt and tumbled gracelessly to the ground. She rolled over a few more rather petty-minded mounds that managed to give her a few more bruises to think about, before finally coming to a stop. Her remaining wing vanished, and finally her head cleared up.
Pain. Yes, that sensation was definitely pain. Quite a bit more than she was accustomed to, and frankly far more than she cared to put up with. Alas, she suspected the rapidly approaching pair of panicked strangers would spare little concern for her plight. She struggled to her hands and knees and spat a fine collection of blood and saliva into an at-hand pothole.
She was just about to look up when a knee collided with her head.
“On your right!” a high-ish alto called out as the fiery-haired creature ran past her. Viniv tumbled onto her back, outrage briefly overshadowing her pain. She tried to offer a rude gesture, but not knowing exactly who she was dealing with, she was unsure which finger positioning would prove the most offensive. Instead, she held out her left arm lamely.
The other stranger, the shorter one, slowed a bit and grabbed her arm. He was trying to pull her up on her feet, but he was still running. The result was an agonizing, but brief, period of being dragged across the broken asphalt, before the petite creature’s momentum was overwhelmed by Viniv’s relatively small mass. Clearly, this was not a warrior she was dealing with. The small man kept tugging until she reached up and swatted at him with her other hand. “Sorry” he mumbled, then continued running. A moment later, the fox bumped into her leg and ran off.
She wanted to shout something rude after them, but the heat at her back reminded her to keep a sense of perspective. Looking over her shoulder was not doing her many favors today, but she did it again.
The enormous Fire Dragon was barreling down at her. With its short legs and long body, it could have been funny to watch it dundering after someone. Its size made up for its clumsiness, however, and then of course there was the fire. And then, of course, there was the fact that it was chasing her. Mumbling something about other people’s problems, Viniv started crawling away until she felt confident enough to start limping away. Eventually, the limp evolved into a sort of hobble.
She developed a routine. She would limp for a few meters, then jump and glide for a bit until she forgot why she was running in the first place, then dismiss her wing and hobble some more. It seemed to be working pretty well, overall. It had a novelty to it, if nothing else. Of course, all the Dragon had to do was let out another belch of flame and she would quickly evaporate in a cloud of moral indignation and rolling eyes, but there was no sense being needlessly negative.
She caught up with the strangers quickly. This was not surprising, as the red haired one had tripped in a pothole, causing a sizeable chunk of asphalt to fall onto her leg. The short one was trying to pull her out, fending off more swats. By the time Viniv arrived, the short one had wised up and was trying to lift the chunk of asphalt off her leg. “Help!” he cried as she approached.
Viniv snapped a finger at them. “Hard pass,” she called, moving on. The fox, she noticed, was now well beyond them and displayed an equal lack of concern about their survival. She knew you were not supposed to trust foxes, but could not remember why.
A twinge of guilt struck her. Again, foolishly, she looked over her shoulder. She pulled a face at no one in particular as she rushed over to help.
Between the two of them, the asphalt was quickly removed. The fiery-haired woman seemed undamaged and quickly resumed retreat. The short one said “Thanks,” gasping a bit, as he continued running.
“Remind me,” Viniv called as she followed, “why aren’t we just hiding in a building or something?”
“It can knock down buildings” the woman shouted back. “We learned that one yesterday.”
“Well, shouldn’t we at least be zig-zagging or something?”
The short one struck himself in the head. “Oh. Right. Simaira! Turn right on… is that… Berton?”
“I think it says ‘Berteau.’”
“Who cares what it says,” Viniv shouted. “Just turn right!”
The fox, having evidently understood the plan, turned right down the next street, followed shortly by the fiery-haired Simaira. Viniv tried gliding again and accidentally fell on the short one, who finally agreed to give her a shoulder and help her along. They turned right soon as well.
“When it gets up to speed, we can’t escape” the short one shouted. “If we keep turning, we can outpace it.”
“Okay byyyye!” Simaira called.
Viniv took a quick breather, and the short one did the same. He looked her up and down like an armoire before asking, “Are you all right?”
Her eyes widened before narrowing. “Do I… do I need to answer that? Or can we go straight to you being embarrassed?”
“Sorry. Did you fall from the sky?”
Sarcasm was not Viniv’s preferred method of communicating, so she decided to ignore him and move on. “So what’s the plan? Just run in circles until it gets tired?”
They started trotting again as he spoke. “Well… even though it can’t see very well, it doesn’t actually have a good sense of smell or hearing either. I think if we just outrun it again, we’ll be fine.”
“Again? How long have you two been doing this?”
He looked up at the sky. It was just past noon. “This is only the second day.”
“Not filling me with a lot of confidence here.”
He nodded. “Welp…” On they went.
For all its terrifying size and power, the Fire Dragon was lacking in grace. As predicted, it handled corners very poorly. They kept turning corners, and the behemoth creature kept falling behind. It tried to speed up, and at one point it turned so sharply it lost its balance and rolled over like a log before scampering back to its feet. Viniv laughed aloud, but her aching ribs taught her humility. The sense of threat vanished long before the creature itself, and a mere half-hour later they were catching up to Simaira and her fox, who were sitting in a large pothole in the center of an intersection.
Viniv collapsed onto the ground just outside the pothole and proceeded to not move for ten minutes. “So,” she managed between gulped breaths, “this is Chicago, right?”
“Yeah,” said the short one, also gasping on the ground. “What happened to you?”
“I think that big guy blew one of my wings off.”
Simaira looked up. “Wings? You can fly?”
“Well,” she hedged, “not right now. They’re kind of… made out of… magic… stuff. It’ll grow back. In a few days. Probably.
“Why are you in Chicago?” Simaira was sitting in a lotus position, the fox curled up in her lap. “If I could fly, I’d be out of this cesspit in a second.”
Viniv sighed. How could you explain flying to someone who would never taste the sky? “I didn’t mean to come here. When you’re flying… you sorta lose your sense of time. And place, really. It’s hard to focus on anything. I was… I think I was near the Gulf, and… I’m sure I wanted to go somewhere, but…” she trailed off.
The short one leaned into her view. “Do you think it was something important?”
She shrugged. “What about you two? What are you doing?”
“We’re looking for a Dragon,” the short one said.
Viniv stifled another rib-roughing laugh. “Well I hope you learned your lesson.”
“Not a Fire Dragon: a Gold Dragon, named Fauz F’Liig. He’s supposed to be near here.”
“Is it a he?” Simaira asked.
“Oh. I guess I’m not sure. Anyway, his… their lair’s supposed to be near Keeler and Keokuk. That’s what this hermit down in the Westers told us. Fauz F’Liig has a lot of treasure, but he’s supposed to have a vast array of knowledge too. We’re gonna ask him about the Philosopher’s Stone. I’m an alchemist, I should’ve said.”
Viniv nodded sagely. Then, “What’s an alchemist?”
“Someone who works with Water. Experiments with it, learns its properties, that sort of thing. The Philosopher’s Stone can turn Water into the Elixir of Life, supposedly. That’s why Simaira’s here. She’s a Salamander.”
Viniv examined Simaira more closely. She had large, pointed ears with a red-gold tint that made them seem to blend into her hair. Her large, dark eyes gave the impression of intelligence, or cunning. She was staring at Viniv, her long fingers caressing the fox nestled in her lap. She seemed to relax and let her breath out, at which point the fox bit her finger and leapt away. Simaira grumbled. “Yep. Salamander. Fire spirit. Very powerful. Yep.”
Before Viniv could ask the obvious, the short one explained, “She’s very weak now. That’s why we want the Elixir of Life.”
“Doesn’t look that weak to me,” Viniv said, letting out a few more choice gasps.
Simaira shrugged. “Well, I didn’t crash into a building after falling two thousand meters out of the sky, I’ll grant you that, but I’ve been better. I need the elixir to, ya know, make fire and stuff. I guess I could kill that Dragon then. Ya know. If you want.”
“What’s with the fox?”
“Her name’s Poofy. She farts a lot.”
The fox growled at this. “Never trust a fox,” Viniv said to no one in particular.
Simaira nodded. “Sage advice, yes. Mmhm. Soooo where exactly are we now?”
The short one pointed at a tattered green sign hanging on a large overhanging pole above the intersection. “Looks like Keystone. And Cullom.”
“Where is that?”
“I’m not sure. The short one slowly clambered to his knees and produced an ancient map of the city. Many of the streets were labeled, but many were not, and much of the map was worn by time, punctured by misfortune, or rendered illegible by the rain. “I think we were mostly running east,” he said, “so we can’t be too far from Keeler. That’s where you found us,” he explained to Viniv. “We didn’t want to turn and risk getting lost again, but of course lost is better than dead. Thanks for reminding us, by the way.”
Simaira threw a tiny piece of road at the fox, Poofy, who easily evaded it. “So, we just head back west until we find Keeler again, and get back to walking north, right?” She climbed out of the pothole and started off. The short one stood.
“Okay,” said Viniv. “You two have fun now. I’ll just… I’ll just… rest here.”
The short one looked at her, then back at Simaira. “Simaira. Don’t you think we should take her with us? The Elixir could help her too, right?”
“Yeah, good point. Or here’s another idea: we could not do that. I don’t want to be out on the road after sundown, and she’s looking a little on that not-fast side.” Silence. “Big Red isn’t after her, right? She can just go hide in a warehouse or an old apartment building or something.”
“Wait,” said Viniv, “is this thing actually after you? Like, you two specifically?”
The short one shrugged. “Not sure. There aren’t a lot of people in the Northwest these days. Maybe we’re just the only game in town.”
“So it could come after me.”
“Yeah but it totally won’t,” Simaira insisted, still walking. “It’s totally our nemesis, or something. You’ll be fine.”
“I think we should take her with us.”
“Why are you thinking about that, when you should be thinking about Water, or following me, or something else.”
He refused to move. “We can’t leave her out here in this condition, with just a wing and prayer.”
“Oh ho, ho ho, very clever.” She was still walking.
“What’s a prayer?” Viniv asked.
“It’s a human thing, I think. It’s like a wish.”
“It’s where you think about something you really want, and then it happens.”
“Humans can do that!?”
“Not, I mean, not really. They just think they can. I think.”
“Are you…” Viniv bobbled her head. “Are you not… a human?”
“I’m a gnome. My name’s Az, by the way.”
“Yes! Sorry, I just, I called it. Up in the air. Cause you’re so small.”
Simaira let out a loud bark of laughter.
Az the gnome seemed to shrink even in the moment. “You’re not exactly a giant yourself.”
“I’m an elf. Elves are small. So what? I’m Viniv.”
Az waved at her, even though they were a meter apart. “Hi.”
She felt awkward too. “Hi.”
Simaira let out a loud howling groan. “Fiiiiine. Bring her along, but hurry up. We gotta make up for the limpathon.” The fox, Poofy, was yipping in a decidedly amused fashion.
Az the gnome positioned himself next to Viniv. “You need a shoulder?”
“I don’t need anything,” she said, before resting against him. “I do want a shoulder, however.
The two trudged after Simaira and the fox. She kept well ahead of them, refusing to slow down, but Viniv noticed that she never let herself out of their sight.