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.
The sun was setting, Viniv was lying down to rest, and Simaira was having quite a fit about it all.
“What did I say?” she shouted at no one. “What exactly did I say?”
“Keep it down,” Viniv said. “That Fire Dragon can’t be too far away.”
“It’d be farther away if we hadn’t dragged you along,” Simaira grumbled, but her resentment was already dying. Az had found a pool of rainwater in another huge pothole, one almost big enough to swim in, and having their thirsts quenched helped keep their tempers in check.
Drinking was a constant ordeal in the New World, which meant survival was a constant ordeal. The trick was to keep Water contained in small amounts. In the Old World, Water was kept in little plastic bottles. Supposedly, the oceans were now full of enormous islands made out of these bottles; bottles that had once housed all the world’s Water and kept it safe. Somehow, the Water had all escaped and filled the oceans, and its sudden, earth-shattering power had created the New World.
The greater the Water, the greater its strength, the more bizarre and abstract things could be rendered physical. Nowadays, those plastic islands were said to be populated by gigantic, bloodthirsty equations, or ruled by the concept of Love, or used by totem gods for sport. Even the Great Lake by Chicago was a source of unimaginable Unreality. It had birthed the Dragons, who in turn had depopulated the Northern hamlets. In time, mortals learned how to use Water’s power over reality to further their own ends, and so magicians were reborn. Nowadays, even a small amount of Water was dangerous.
But mortals still needed to drink. Viniv was something half-mortal, and the beating she had received from the uncaring surface had left her dusty-lunged and foul-tempered. Still, she was not about to dunk her head in a pothole full of Water. Az filled some twisted old bottles and passed them around, and desperation made everyone drink their fill. Poofy lapped a swallow or two from the pothole before dashing away and once again curling up in Simaira’s lap.
“Why aren’t there more alchemists around?” Viniv asked, on her back, watching the indigo sky grow blacker.
“Most magicians start out as alchemists,” Az said. “Once they get a basic understanding of how Water works, then they start studying to be wizards or sorcerers or something. All magic needs Water. Except the necromancers in the Loop; they use blood.”
The Loop was the most powerful, most civilized, and most chaotic part of Chicago. It was a smaller hamlet, positioned in the eastern center of the city, right next to the Great Lake. But the various powerful entities who lived in its great towers managed to keep the chaos in check. At least, they kept it from hurting their own interests. There were supposedly some Gold Dragons there as well, but Az apparently had his heart set on Fauz F’Liig.
“So, how come you’re still an alchemist? You don’t want to learn how to raise the dead or something?”
“I just think Water’s really fascinating.” He was still sitting by the pothole, filling a few bottles and pouring them out onto the black road.
“He doesn’t wanna lose his amateur standing,” Simaira said, tossing the fox away from her and lying down. Poofy landed daintily on its feet and snarled before lying down as well.
Az seemed to finally finish playing with the Water and edged away. “You know, I suppose the Elixir of Life could probably be used to raise the dead. I wonder if any necromancers have ever discovered it. Maybe that’s why they’re all so rich.” There were several necromantic firms in the Loop. They and their clients controlled riches almost as unbelievable as the fantastic creatures that spawned from the Great Lake.
Simaira changed the subject. “So what’s so special about this Fauz F’Liig anyway? What makes you so sure they know anything about this Elixir business?”
“Gold dragons horde things. It’s what they do. But Fauz F’Liig is called Fauz the Wise. Sometimes. He’s got a reputation for sending people on quests and rewarding them for their service.”
“Quests?” Simaira sat up. “I thought they just horded stuff like squirrels. I thought we were just going to sneak in and grab something. This is a Dragon we’re talking about, right? Like that overgrown lizard that’s been chasing us for two days?”
“There’re different kinds of Dragons,” Viniv chimed in.
“How many different kinds?”
“No,” said Az, “just four.” He counted them off on his fingers. “There’s the Golden in their caves and castles, hording all their wealth. The Fire Dragons roaming wide, a danger to your health. The Spirit Dragons in their graves, who on the dead do prey. And the Wyverns in the sky, who fight all night and day.”
Viniv continued. “And deep below the water, where the Sun can never reach, the Wyrms hold court o’er good and ill, and live beyond the breach. Yeah, I heard that rhyme too.”
Simaira’s eyes were already closed. “I’d hate to meet something that lives under the Water. Should one of us keep watch or something, while the others sleep? In case Big Red returns?” she asked, her voice already trailing into a somnambulant murmur.
“Not me,” said Viniv, “I’m exhausted.”
Az looked at the two. He tried to say something, but by the time he formed an argument they were both snoring lightly. “Well Poofy,” he began, but the fox too was asleep. He sat by the pothole and watched the Water turn black as the sun slowly vanished.
He set three Water bottles down in front of the pothole and stared at them. What was it about plastic that could contain Water’s power? Looking at such small amounts, it was difficult to guess; it was difficult even to know that the Water’s power was indeed contained. Even something as large as a pothole full of Water, though dangerous, was clearly not so terrifying that they were afraid to drink from it. Granted, Az was the only one willing to get near it and actually put his hands in it.
He kept staring at the bottles. If all the bottles in the oceans had once contained the oceans, then why was there so much more Water than bottles? Water was the one thing Water could not create; that was one of the first things Master Shoogen had taught him. Of course, Master Shoogen had been swept up and eaten by a Wyvern during their first and only visit to the Great Lake, so perhaps he was not as wise as he seemed.
There were a lot of Wyverns in the Loop. They liked to perch on towers, and that was where the towers were. Still, although they lived in the Loop, they loved to hunt in the Northern hamlets. It was a small miracle Viniv had not been eaten by one, but Az supposed it was a miracle the Fire Dragon had not yet killed them. Somehow, it all seemed mundane already. Like any resident of Chicago, Az was familiar with life-threatening dangers, but Dragons were another matter entirely. His Uncle Zoofl claimed that they hailed from a lost generation of great Dragon slayers, but if that was the case, any such extraordinary potential had long since been bred out of them. Gnomes were not known for daring feats of valor, and the Mondis tribe was no exception. Az wondered about the strange coincidences of his life. His master was eaten by a Dragon, here he was fleeing a Dragon, and thanks to the Salamander Simaira, he was seeking out a Dragon. Was there any significance in this? Or was it just that being in Chicago necessarily meant that your life would inevitably be affected, if not ended, by Dragons?
Az looked up. The stars were coming out, and it was getting very dark. Nearby was an ancient lamppost, bent at a harsh angle, long dead. It was said that lighting used to run through nearly everything in the City, like a life-force, that made the lamps light and animated the millions of long-dead auto-carriages that now littered the landscape. It sounded more magical than alchemy, but Az had seen the sky trains that ran along the bridges above them, animated by that very lightning. Supposedly, there were still tiny settlements in the Far North hamlets like Rogers Park, where workers would take the trains down to the Loop to serve the necromancers and other powerful beings: to clean their chambers and bring them their meals, then travel back north after nightfall. Sometimes, he could hear the great rumble of the trains, so often mistaken for a Gigas or Frost Bison, and realize it was a train, transporting workers like a metal beast carrying midges on its belly.
But now all was dark and lifeless. It was a great time to start a fire, but Master Shoogen had never shown him how. Simaira promised she could start fires with the click of her fingers, once she got her powers back. For now, it was dark and chilly. Luckily, the weather was several weeks from turning.
How had Simaira lost her powers? Az looked at the sleeping Salamander, finally realizing that he had asked her precious little before agreeing to help her out. It was all quite arbitrary: she found out he was an alchemist, asked for his help, and he suggested the Elixir of Life. It might not work. Fauz F’Liig might not know how to use the Philosopher’s Stone. Fauz F’Liig might not even be where they thought he was. Still, what else was he going to do? The Mondis tribe was long gone by now, and much like those midges riding in the sky trains, Az was nothing without a master to serve.
Az looked back at the Water. What master did Water serve?
Was that a real question? Did that mean anything? Maybe not. These were just the sorts of things an alchemist was supposed to ponder.
A few minutes later, Az was a hunched over in a grab position, sleeping soundly.
In his dream, Az was on his hands and knees in a few centimeters of water. He was covered in a thin layer of dirt, and was balancing a wooden tabletop on his back. Sitting at the table to his left and right were Simaira and Viniv, both twice their usual size, laughing and talking about worms and early birds. One of them dropped a crown on the ground and ordered him to clean the dirt off it, but he could not move his hands. They were helping hold up the table. Eventually, he started licking the dirt off. As the dirt slowly vanished, he saw the crown was inscribed with the words “Some day.”
He awoke to growling, grunting, and a woman shouting, “Get off me!”
Az’s back was aching from sleeping in a strange position, and it twinged as he turned. Two people were rolling about on the ground, gripping each other’s shoulders, and looking thoroughly unfriendly. He quickly recognized one as Simaira; Viniv was nearby, still sleeping through the struggle. The other person had a striking mane of hair as well, but while Simaira’s was the color of fire, this hair was dark and nearly brown. The two were punching each other, but not anywhere terribly vulnerable. They rolled closer, and Az tried to intervene.
“Uh, excuse me… ladies?”
A leg swept out from the scuffle and knocked Az over. He rolled back, but before he could get his footing, he fell over the edge of the pothole and into the pool.
It was not a large pool, but clearly it was big enough to hold a panicking gnome. Az was no swimmer, but he managed to realize eventually that thrashing about was not doing any good. It was too late to hold his breath, so he stilled himself, tried not to move, and tried desperately not to breathe in the Water around him. Drowning was a frightening notion, but far more terrifying was the thought of getting so much Water anywhere inside except your stomach. Who knew what it would do to you?
His frantic heartbeats slowed, and he came to realize he was sinking upwards. He must have gotten himself upside down. Another two seconds, and his head struck a fairly flat surface. He used his hands to reorient himself and looked down at the flat surface in order to place his feet and kick off upward.
His eyes widened.
There, inscribed in a glittering golden lettering that could be seen even in the near total blackness, there was a message. It was written in a foreign tongue, but it was unmistakably words. Az’s excitement was soon drowned out, however, by the prospect of drowning. He kicked off from the floor and managed to break the surface of the pool before gravity became an issue.
He scrabbled onto the ground and allowed himself a few panicked breaths before standing and looking about. Viniv was still sleeping. Simaira was lying back with her hands behind her head, whistling at the stars.
“What happened? Who was that?”
“Hm?” she asked, seeming to notice him for the first time.
“Somebody was attacking you. What happened?”
“Oh. That. He ran off. That way, I think,” she gestured in an arbitrary direction. Poofy immediately began growling after the assailant.
“What… well, who was it? What did they want?”
“It was an attacker, Az. He probably wanted my treasure or what have you. Just be glad it wasn’t Big Red come to swallow us up. You were asleep on the job, I noticed.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry. But listen! There’s something written at the bottom of this pool.”
“Is it ‘take a deep breath?’ Don’t believe everything you read, Az.”
“No, it was… well I don’t know what it was. What languages do you speak?”
“It was… I think it was Abysmese, or maybe Necrohol.”
Simaira sat up. Poofy had stopped growling and was now listening intently. “That’s some pretty serious stuff, Az. Maybe leave it alone.”
“Maybe we can wake up Viniv.” Az took a step closer, and Simaira was instantly on her feet and backing away.
“Hey! Az! You are covered in Water, just so you know.”
His entire face grew rigid. He screamed as he spun around dancing, doing everything to get the Water off him. By the time Viniv awoke and sat up, he was down to his pants and ringing his shirtsleeves out over the pool.
“Rockin’ bod,” Viniv offered. “What’s going on?”
“Az fell in the pool.”
Viniv paused before pointing. “That one’s Az, right?”
“I know; I forget too.”
Az dropped his still soggy shirtsleeves on the ground and tried to wring out his old woolen vest. It was not going well. “There’s writing at the bottom of the pool. Viniv! Viniv!”
“I’m right here, guy.”
“Do you speak Abysmese? Or Necrohol? What do elves speak?”
She stood up. “What is going on right now?”
“Az is saying there’s something written in devil-talk at the bottom of that hole full of Water.”
Viniv looked around the starry night. “How can you tell?”
“It’s glowing or something. Gold letters. Would you mind, maybe…”
“I don’t speak Abysmese, exactly, and I definitely don’t speak Necrohol.”
“It might not be either of those. It could be… elf-talk.”
“Sylvani. And I’m not sticking my head in a pool of Water.”
“I just did. I fell in, and I’m totally fine.”
“Are you though?”
Az looked himself over. “I think so. They could be important. The words.”
“Nothing important was ever written at the bottom of a pothole.”
“I’m with the elf,” Simaira murmured.
“Okay. So who was that, Simaira? She had hair a lot like yours, but darker.”
“Viniv, are you going to stick your head in that pool or what? This is important.”
Az was torn between curiosity and the hopes of exploiting the Salamander’s superior powers of persuasion. He chose to do nothing.
“Who cares what it says?”
“It’s written in gold, Viniv. Do I need to spell this out for you?” There was a significant pause, pregnant with implication. “Gold, Viniv. We’re going to see a Gold Dragon. Maybe they wrote those words.”
“And that concerns me how?”
“What if it’s some sort of password? What if we need that to get our… quest, or what have you, from Fauz F’Liig? It’s sitting right there. What do you plan to do if this massive, glittering, gilt beast asks us for the password and we haven’t got it?”
“I dunno… wait three days for my wing to grow back, and then leave?”
Simaira drew herself up to her full height, nearly a head above anyone else, and put her fists on her hips. “Well,” he aspirated, “I guess we’ve learned all we need to learn about elves today, haven’t we, Az?”
“After you quite literally crashed into our lives. After you drew that Fire Dragon’s fury down on us—“
“That’s not what happened.”
“After we dragged your limping form away from that bloodthirsty killer—“
“Az did that, not you.”
“And who exactly is asking you to read those letters, huh? The gnome who saved your life, who selflessly risked his own for the sake of a complete stranger—“
“All right! Fine! Jaiva!” Viniv stormed over to the pool, knelt, and stuck her head furiously into the Water. A few seconds later, she pulled her head out, her hair scattering droplets all over. “It’s Eternal. Luckily, that’s sorta like Abysmese, which is sorta like Sylvani. Wow, that’s cold. You didn’t tell me it was cold.”
“Sorry.” Az offered his shirtsleeves to use as a towel, but as they were still damp Viniv quicklyi threw them back to the filthy ground. “So uh, what does it say?”
“Nothing. Something about secrets and power; it’s like prophecy.”
Az drew up beside her. “It’s a prophecy?”
“No, it’s like prophecy, the game.” Az continued to stare. “Prophecy? It’s a little kids’ game. You make up some vague statement like, “The Moon will turn again and again before your shell is cleansed,” and everybody has to guess that you’re actually talking about doing laundry in two months, or something like that.”
“Oh.” He flattened out his shirtsleeves to help them dry more quickly. “So, what does it say? Exactly?”
“Nothing. It says ‘Learn the secrets of the Dragons, and you will learn the secret power.’ Or something like that.”
“That sounds like something big. What’s the secrets of the Dragons?”
“I dunno. It might be Secret Dragons or something. Eternal doesn’t have a word for ‘of.’ All I know is that ‘Dragon’ and the first ‘secret’ are both plural, so it’s either talking about secrets that Dragons have, or a bunch of Dragons who are secret.”
“Secret Dragons?” asked Simaira. “Like the Wyrms beneath the earth, maybe?”
“Maybe.” Viniv was already lying down again. “I don’t think it means anything. Just some idiot trying to sound profound.”
“It’s written in glowing letters in a pool of Water!” Simaira was gesturing emphatically. “How much more sign do you need? What kind of secret power do you think it’s talking about? That could be the Elixir of Life, right?”
“It could,” Viniv yawned. “It could be practically anything. If you ask me, though, it’s pretty long odds to find some magic inscription about a thing we happen to be hunting after, right near the thing that supposedly has it.”
“Right? This sounds like destiny, or something like that. Doesn’t it? Right, Az?”
He had never heard of any secret power, but then that was a vague term. Magic itself could be called a secret power, and who knew what sort of secrets Dragons might possess. And, of course, if any particular Dragon possessed secret knowledge or secret powers, it would be Fauz the Wise.
On the other hand, Viniv was right. Happening upon such an inscription, so relevant to their own search, did seem like quite a coincidence.
Simaira remained convinced. “This must be how the Gold Dragons got so rich. You said necromancers have this Elixir too, right Az? And they’re all swimming in money.”
“Aren’t you excited? We’re going to be rich!”
“Well. We still don’t know if Fauz F’Liig knows how to use the Philosopher’s Stone. Or if it really even makes the Elixir of Life.”
Simaira was bouncing on her feet. “And wait! Isn’t the Stone supposed to turn lead into gold too?”
“Well yeah, but, we don’t have any huge chunks of lead sitting around, so…”
“Oh, right, right. But still—“
Viniv groaned. Loudly. “Grii’vaiiya! Yes, Fauz F’Liig has a lot of money. They’re a Gold Dragon, of course they do. We’re all gonna go find them tomorrow. We were already gonna do that, right? So let’s get some sleep, so we’ll be ready to run in case that giant lizard comes back.”
Simaira slumped, and a little life seemed to trickle out of her. “Yes. You’re right, you’re right. Tomorrow.” She elegantly collapsed onto the ground.
Az looked out into the dark. “Shouldn’t somebody keep watch?”
Viniv was already snoring again. “I’m sure we’re fine,” said Simaira.
“But what about that guy that attacked you?”
“Good point; you keep watch, Az. Good night!”
He tried to argue, but Simaira was already snoring, both loudly and (he suspected) falsely.
Az shivered. The weather was a long way from turning, but being damp and half-naked at night, without a fire, was far from comfortable. Between the chill, the words, and the excitement of the strange assailant, he doubted there was any risk of falling asleep again.
He was snoring lightly in another ten minutes. This time, his sleep was dreamless.