The vulture circled. Usually he would arrive early to exchange gossip with the others. Today he just wanted to be done with it; he considered all of this flying around the desert looking for fresh carcasses unnecessary not to mention distasteful. He landed next to the dead cow the others had gathered around. What a stupid animal, to come this far into the desert. "Can we get started? I have other things to do."

The other vultures stopped to stare. A vulture more than twice the size of the others spoke up; "You seem to have lost your manners Magyl. I know you think disguising ourselves as vultures is a waste of time, but our secret meetings must be just that, secret. Do I need to remind you of Azel? That is what happens when one of the dark order is discovered."

"Azel was an idiot; anyone who uses the dark power of destruction just so he won't have to take out the trash deserves to get caught. Besides, disguising ourselves as vultures is not very convincing if you're going to show up with a ten foot wing span."

"Enough." boomed Kraus. The others parted to make room for the newcomer. Despite the fact that he looked like every other bird in the group, he was old. His age radiated from his very being almost as much as his power. There was never a dispute as to who was in charge when he was around. "Regardless of how we look or where we are, we have business to attend to. Azel was more than just an idiot. He was weak. He started to believe the lies of that cleric John. Before he died he was about to betray us, as that do-goody-good cleric advised him, 'to save his soul from eternal torment'. What a joke; no one suffers more torment than the betrayers of the Dark Lord." The others looked around suspiciously as if they could reveal any other betrayers with their gaze alone.

Magyl spoke up with his usual contempt, "What does this have to do with us? You said he was about to betray us which means that he did not. Now that he is dead, he can no longer betray us."

"In your quickness to speak, you have not thought things through. Azel feared detection so he spent his last month creating a ring to store power for any emergency. The night before he died he gave this ring to some fop named Alex. It is my fear that he encoded the ring with a message for the cleric, knowing that Alex would take it to the temple."

Quin, one of the more practical members of the group spoke up, "How much does this Alex person know, and has he seen the cleric yet?"

"From what I have seen, he is as much an idiot as Azel was, but he did go see the cleric. So we have to assume the cleric knows about us now." Movement from the assembled crowd signaled the general uneasiness to this piece of news.

"Then we must kill the cleric and anyone he may have told. If the ring has information about us, then we must retrieve that as well."

"I will find Alex and the ring," commanded Kraus. "Magyl. Quin. Deal with the cleric."


* * *


"Father?"

His heart fell; he knew what was coming. "Yes, my daughter?"

"I can't stay here any longer. I don't belong here. I have to go out into the world and find someone I can connect with."

The king put down his fork and sighed with resignation. He had been dreading this moment for 40 years. The table, the food, the fork he had just used, they were all an attempt to make her feel less of an outsider. It was no use; whatever he did to cover it up, this was the home of dragons and she was not a dragon. The closest being to her age here was 250 years old, more than four times her age but still too childish to be much of a companion for her. "Where do you want to go?" He knew better than to stop her; he had been the same in his youth.

"Stormhand had a magical sack; trying to find it will give me a place to start."

"When will you leave?"

She turned her head to cover her emerging tears. "Now. A long good bye would make it too hard to go. I have already gathered some supplies."

He stood from the table, sadness threatening to overtake him. "I have a gift I was saving for this day." He reached forward and plucked from the air a beautifully crafted bone white staff. The slender staff consisted of many intricate carvings. One for each of the 15 dragon races and topped with his own image. "This is a bone fragment of my father, the first king of dragons. May the power his 10,000,000 years aid you in the days to come. Each of the carvings holds the strength and spirit of the first dragon of its kind. Call them by name and they will help you.

Tears streamed from her face as she took the gift and turned to go. A wave of his hand and M'leryne disappeared. Tears poured from the great dragon for the fist time in centuries. They shimmered with every color of the rainbow each color the essence of sadness.


***


"Ow!" came a curse from the darkness. "Why didn't I do this during the day so I could see? Here I am with the power to stop time and I get the bright idea to wait until dark." He traversed the maze-like warehouse narrowly missing another sharp corner. "That torch I tried to light will probably burst into flames the moment time starts back up. A lot of good that will do me." Suddenly the room was filled with light. Alex could not see the source but he felt an evil presence ahead and just above him.

"Alex, I finally get to meet you." His voice rang with contempt. "You have something that belongs to me." Alex raises his eyebrows. "I knew that once you discovered that the ring can stop time you would not wait to try it out so I cast a spell that protects me from the ring. Now you can give me what is mine, or...." He let the threat trail off.

"Who are you to make such demands? The ring is mine now." His voice carried far more confidence than he had. "I couldn't take the ring off if I wanted to anyway," he muttered to himself.

"I am Kraus, and you are not even worthy of bowing before me. For your defiance you will feel the full force of the torture that I am capable of inflicting." The mage let his invisibility drop and began to chant the words of a spell.

Alex saw a black robed figure materialize and desperately sought anything helpful but the room contained only sealed crates. As a last resort he reached into his belt pouch, grabbed the next thing he touched, and thrust it in front of him just as magic flared from the mages palm.

Kraus screamed an oath as his spell reflected off the shining disk in Alex's hand and streaked back towards its caster. He jerked his hand and a protective field sprang to life. Magical energy slammed into protective field with an ear splitting crack. Spittle flew from Kraus's mouth as he spat more words of power.

Alex dropped the mirror and ran. His magical bag had saved him again but he couldn't rely on that forever. He turned a corner just as the crates behind him exploded into a million painful splinters. He needed to escape before he suffered from more than splinters. Escape routes, however, seemed to be in short supply. After the third dead end, he cursed the boxes blocking his way despite the fact that they were the only things keeping him out of sight. He doubled back and came abruptly face to face with the ancient man.

A mirthless grin split the wizard's face revealing crooked yellow teeth. "There will be no protection for you this time. No escape. I am going to enjoy every hour of watching you die." Kraus held a tiny ball of fire in his hand. With a breath, it floated from his hand like a kiss blown to a lover across the room. It wafted through the air lazily. Alex pulled a juggling ball from his sack but without knowing how it might help, he just tossed it aside. The tremendous heat of the approaching fireball had already scorched his skin when suddenly his ring flashed with a brilliant light. He had the sensation of being pushed through a think liquid then he was back in his room at the Weeping Wyvern.


***


Away from the turmoil of the warehouse Alex had relaxed enough to get time going again. He braced himself for the gut wrenching effect of time twisting back on to its proper path and dipped his hand into the wash basin. Despite this simple precaution his face and muscles whitened from the force of the ring. To his quiet adjusted ears even the calm of night sounded like thunder. What was left of his adrenaline slammed his body into overdrive as the sound of movement came from behind him. He lunged toward his pillow and the dagger he kept hidden there. Grasping the hilt he turned and thrust the knife protectively in front of him, his back to the wall.

The female figure in the center of the room just continued to sob softly. He didn't know what to think. She looked twelve but held herself as if much older. Both human and elf features combined to make her softly beautiful. Green cracks ran down her metallic gold skin in a way that made her gold irises seem perfectly natural and grotesque at the same time. She seemed very vulnerable, as if she needed protection from him not the other way around. He was so confused the challenge he wanted to say came out as "hello?".

The last of her sobs dying away she looked up humbly "Would you mind... telling me where I am?"

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