The Dragon Campaign
by Lassarina Aoibhell
They were called the "Dragoons." They were the seven chosen, the Dragon Knights, harnessing the powers of the Dragons and the elements to give human beings power beyond imagining--power equal to, or greater than, the Winglies. Led by Emperor Diaz, they hoped to finally end the terrible oppression of the humans by defeating the Wingly overlords, most notably their dictator Melbu Frahma.
Silent as usual, Rose stood against the wall, arms folded, and watched them. They were her comrades. And, though the word sounded strange to the cynical woman, they might even be called her friends. Sweet, innocent Damia; gentle Belzac; angry, resentful Kanzas; thoughtful, studious Syuveil; kind Shirley. And there was Zieg.
She watched him covertly from her place in the shadows. The element of Fire suited him--they were all suited to their elements, but he seemed even more so. He was handsome. Blond hair fell around a strong-boned face. The eyes were crystal-blue. He was a leader for them. They all would have followed him into the hells of Mayfil, and Rose would have been the first.
He glanced in her direction and quickly she lowered her eyes. It would not do for her to be gawking after him like a foolish teenager. You are a Dragoon, she reminded herself. You are strong. You do not need anyone. You never have. Why start now?
"Is something wrong?" Graceful as always, Shirley seated herself on the bench next to Rose.
"Nothing," Rose murmured. "Nothing at all." Shirley was the opposite of Rose: loving and open, kind, always ready to help. She had none of Rose's cynicism, none of the anger that bubbled just beneath the surface, strictly chained. In some ways, Rose admired her. Shirley was everything good, as befitted a Dragoon of Light. But in another way, she pitied her. That kindness and sweetness would one day get her in trouble. Rose was certain of it.
"Look at Damia," Shirley said with a soft chuckle. "She's having the time of her life."
The young Dragoon of Water was laughing, teasing the giant Belzac, trying to convince Zieg to get out his harp and play. "She is far too young for this," Rose replied.
"The Blue Sea Dragon accepted her. What else could we do?" Shirley laughed. "Besides, she livens the place up."
They were all gathered in Shirley's tower in Vellweb. The Humans had just won their first major battle against the Winglies, and everyone was in a mood to celebrate. Outside the tower, the sounds of a loud party raged. Within the tower, though, it was quiet and peaceful. The tower suited its inhabitant right down to the ground.
"Syuveil, don't look so glum!" Damia cried, laughing.
"I am not glum," Syuveil said with great dignity. "I am thinking hard."
Damia laughed again. "Oh, leave off your fussing over life and death, Syu! We are all alive. We will defeat Melbu Frahma with the power of the Dragons! So what's the problem?"
"That girl is far too happy," Rose muttered.
"And you are far too cynical," Shirley replied gently.
"And why are you hiding away in a corner?" The warm, laughing voice could belong to only one person. Rose turned slightly and saw Zieg striding confidently up to them, smiling.
"I am not hiding away," Rose protested, and silently cursed herself for being a mindless idiot.
"Sure. That's why you're tucked away in a shadowy corner while everyone else has fun." His blue eyes laughed down at her.
"I prefer the shadows," Rose said. In the shadows, you are kept apart. You don't need to deal with people, she thought.
"Rose, Rose." He shook his head. "There is more to life than grim musings and shadows. There's light and happiness, too, you know."
She hadn't known he was a philosopher in the bargain. "Zieg, I'm the Dark Dragoon. Light has no place in that."
"Lighten up, Rose." He winced at the unintentional pun. "It wouldn't kill you to have a little fun. And you're much too young to be so gloomy. Look at Damia. She's having a great time." He gestured at the fifteen-year-old girl. She was dancing around the room while Belzac looked on and laughed. The giant Earth Dragoon had a weak spot for all young people, and Damia was no exception. As Rose watched, Shirley walked over and sat next to Belzac, laying a hand on his arm. They were so obviously happy together. Rose fought an urge to turn away.
"And Kanzas is being an idiot," she muttered. The Thunder Dragoon sat apart, as usual, glowering at everyone who came within sight. Every so often he aimed a particularly virulent glare at Rose.
"That's nothing new," Zieg replied with a laugh. "Oh, come on, Rose. From your face, you'd think we were at a funeral."
Rose shrugged. "Enjoy yourselves," she said coolly, pushing herself away from the wall. "I'm going back to my tower."
"Rose! Are you leaving already?" Damia's surprised cry stopped her as she reached for the door.
She turned back and nodded. "I'm a bit tired."
Belzac turned his gentle brown eyes on her and nodded, but he knew the true reason she was leaving. She could see that Syuveil, too, either knew or could guess. He murmured something about two kinds of death as she turned back to the door.
"Good riddance," Kanzas said with a snort.
"Kanzas!" Shirley's voice was quiet, but full of reproach. Kanzas gave her an angry look before he returned to his brooding. Rose made use of the distraction to slip out the door.
If it wasn't for Shirley, we'd all have killed each other a long time ago, she thought. The wind whipped fiercely around her as she moved silently around the path to her tower. Below her, she could see the lights of many bonfires as all Vellweb celebrated their victory. The city, built in a spiral, rose high above the surrounding land. Rose paused on the steps to her tower. She could swear she heard footsteps behind her. She whirled quickly, her rapier in her hand, prepared to instantly transform if necessary. She had the words of the Astral Drain spell on the tip of her tongue.
"Rose?" Zieg paused a few steps below her, his confidence appearing slightly shaken at the sight of her standing there, sword in hand.
"Zieg!" Startled, and a little relieved, Rose sheathed her sword. "God, I nearly attacked you."
"I didn't mean to startle you," he said quietly. "I wondered if there was something wrong. You left so suddenly."
"No, nothing's wrong." She bit back a sigh. "I just . . . wanted to get away."
He nodded. "I love Damia dearly, but sometimes her exuberance can be wearing. And as for the others . . . it can't be pleasant having Kanzas's dagger glare fixed on you all the time."
Rose shrugged. "I ignore it."
"Like you ignore everything," Zieg muttered in an odd tone of voice. Rose looked at him, surprised.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing." For a moment, he looked as if he was going to say more, but he apparently decided against it. "Good night, Rose."
"Good night, Zieg." She turned and went into her tower. But try though she would, she could not sleep. She lay on the bed, staring up at the vaulted stone ceiling. What was this odd feeling? For some reason, she had a longing to be with the other Dragoons--with anyone. Is this what they call loneliness? she mused. I suppose it must be. She had the oddest feeling that she would come to know a lot more about loneliness in the future. Sighing, she resigned herself to the reality of a sleepless night, and got up.
Shirley's tower was dark now, she observed, looking out the window. Belzac's too, and Kanzas's. Lights still burned in Syuveil's quarters. Doubtless he was poring over yet another ancient text, in his eternal quest for knowledge of life and death. There was only a faint blue-green glow from Damia's tower. Surely the child was asleep. Rose felt something like a stirring of pity for the young Dragoon. Half-mermaid, she had been raised between two worlds, never quite able to inhabit one or the other. Her human blood kept her apart from the merfolk, and her merfolk blood separated her irrevocably from the humans. Caught forever between two worlds--and Damia was very sensitive. Rose shook such sentimental musings from her mind. Next thing she knew, she'd be trying to protect the girl in battle, for heaven's sake.
The tower next to her own was dark, but even as she turned to gaze at it, a light flared. Zieg appeared in the arched window, holding a torch. Quickly Rose withdrew into the shadows. You idiot, standing there like that! As if you were a peeping tom of some sort . . .
Zieg looked around Vellweb, as she had only moments before. Then he shifted his gaze to the torch he held, as though pondering the eternal questions about fire: what was it? Why did it burn? How did it burn?
Rose turned slightly to stare out at the darkness. She was comfortable in the dark, far more so than she ever could be during the day. She would leave the light to Shirley, Belzac, Damia, Zieg, and Syuveil. They belonged to it. Kanzas--well, in her opinion, that one belonged in the deepest hell Mayfil could devise. And she . . . she belonged in the dark.
Absently Rose wondered why there was no Void Dragoon--a Dragoon without an element. How could such a Dragoon Spirit be obtained? Thoughtfully, she perched on the windowsill and stared out into the dark night.
The only dragon she knew of that was non-elemental was--Cold chills raced down her spine, and suddenly she knew why there was no Void Dragoon. The only Void Dragon was the Divine Dragon, and anyone foolish enough to go after its Dragoon Spirit . . . Well, for each one who tried, the world would be rid of one more fool.
A cool breeze brushed across her face. The wind seemed to have died down. Sighing quietly, she looked around Vellweb again--and found herself staring straight into a pair of crystal-blue eyes. Startled, she leapt back, and Zieg flew in the window.
"I saw you were up late," he said by way of explanation as he landed. He transformed back into his human shape and grinned in that endearing way he had. "And thought you might like some company."
"Zieg, I . . . " Damn it, she was stuttering like a schoolgirl.
"The party below finally died down. All Vellweb is asleep, except for us and Syuveil," he said, seating himself casually on her windowsill.
"And he will undoubtedly fall asleep over whatever ancient text he's examining this time," Rose said tartly.
Zieg grinned again. "Precisely."
Rose fought the urge to twist her hands together. What on earth was wrong with her? She knew Zieg. She shouldn't be nervous. All this talk of glory from Emperor Diaz is going to my head. That's it. I'm just exhausted from all the fighting, and it's making me silly.
She was still trying to convince herself of that when Zieg kissed her.
It was a long kiss, and Rose's mind stumbled to a halt. At last they broke apart, and she stared at him, wide-eyed.
He looked slightly abashed. "I, um, I meant to say something about that first," he said, raking a hand through his hair, "but it seemed like a good idea at the time."
She blinked, trying to clear her head. "Zieg . . . what on earth . . . "
The quicksilver grin flashed again. He really ought to register that smile as a lethal weapon, she thought irritably. "Well," he drawled, "I've seen you watching me."
Rose turned to stare out the window, hoping he couldn't see her well enough in the darkness to tell that she was blushing. Well, there's a novelty. For once it's me and not Damia who's the color of a tomato, she thought with some vestige of humor. She valiantly attempted a steady tone of voice. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Now he laughed. "Sure you do. Like tonight. You were standing in the shadows, staring at me. At first I was sure I imagined it. Then I was convinced that I was right. You were staring at me."
"And what does that have to do with anything?" Rose snapped.
He was still grinning like a loon. "Well, if I were a conceited man, I'd have thought that you liked me."
"God forbid anyone should call you conceited," Rose muttered.
"I'm not conceited, I'm confident." He chuckled. "So, I thought I'd test my theory."
Rose whirled to face him, unsure whether she was amused, shocked, or angry. "You call that 'testing a theory?'" she yelped.
"Well, that was what I had in mind . . . but it didn't quite work out that way." He rose, all traces of laughter gone from his face. "Rose . . . "
"Don't." She laughed a little. "Don't say a word." She stepped forward and kissed him.
They shortly had other things to do than converse.
Sunlight streamed onto her face, making Rose cringe and turn away from the bright light that seemed to pierce right through her eyelids. She bumped into something warm and solid, and for a split second, had no idea where she was.
Then memories of the night just past came rushing back. Oh, God, she was in her tower, and Zieg . . .
She pushed herself up on an elbow and looked down at him. He was still asleep, his dark gold hair charmingly rumpled. Rose glanced at the sunlight streaming through her windows and realized, with something akin to horror, that it was nearly noon.
"Zieg! Wake up!" She pushed at his shoulder, rather ineffectually. Still asleep, he mumbled slightly and rolled away.
"Zieg!" She poked his shoulder again, harder this time. "Zieg, wake up! It's nearly noon!" She scrambled out of bed and grabbed at the short, dark tunic she usually wore. It was joined by her low boots and the cropped dark pants that ended well above the knee. She shivered slightly as a chill breeze invaded the room, raising goosebumps on her long legs.
Zieg yawned and half-sat up. "What the hell . . . ?" he muttered. Then his eyes popped wide as he, too, recalled some recent events. "Rose?"
"Zieg, it's almost noon!" She darted over to the window and looked out. The other five Dragoons were clustered at the bottom of the stairs that led to her tower, discussing. She muttered a very unladylike word under her breath.
"Hmm." He grinned. "I imagine Emperor Diaz might be a bit annoyed at our late appearance . . . but he'll get over it."
"Zieg! This is not a laughing matter!" Rose hissed, glancing around wildly for her rapier and scabbard. Where was the damn thing? She usually put everything away neatly in its place, but last night . . . well, there were reasons for that. She spotted the weapon lying underneath Zieg's shirt and grabbed it. "Armor. Where's my armor?" she muttered distractedly.
A hand on her shoulder made her start and whirl suddenly with a surprised cry. Zieg backed away, hands raised. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"You seem to be very good at it," she muttered.
"Look, Rose, relax. Diaz might be a little annoyed, but he knows he can't win the war without us. He has no choice here," Zieg said reasonably. He scooped up his shirt and pulled it over his head. Quickly and efficiently, he finished dressing. "Where are the others?"
"At the bottom of the steps!" she replied sharply.
He raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly. "Well . . . I hadn't planned on announcing this quite so soon, but . . . the hell with it. They'll all know soon anyway."
Rose bit her lip. "How are you with sarcastic comments?" she muttered under her breath.
"If you're worried about Kanzas, don't. I can handle him." Zieg finished strapping on his sword and held out his hand. "Come on, Rose."
Uncertainly, she placed her hand in his. I've got to stop this. Today will be the last day of such madness. I don't need anybody. I'm fine on my own. She repeated those last two sentences to herself over and over as they descended the stairs from her tower, hoping that repetition would make them true.
Shirley saw them coming first, and her mouth made a round "O" of surprise. She tugged quickly at Belzac's arm. He turned and looked up at them, his face breaking into a broad grin. As they reached the ground, Syuveil seemed to realize that only Damia was still talking to him. Kanzas, was, as usual, giving everyone surly glares from his place apart from the small group.
Syuveil smiled slightly as Zieg and Rose joined them. "I told you last night there were two kinds of death," he said quietly. "I assume you've now discovered that there are two ways of being alive?"
Much to her mortification, Rose felt a blush creeping up her face. Damia tilted her head to the side, a slight, puzzled frown creasing her forehead. Shirley and Belzac smiled. Zieg just laughed.
"Well." Kanzas suddenly entered the group. "So, you show up three hours late." His tone was derisive.
"Knock it off, Kanzas," Syuveil said very quietly.
"Like hell! What, we're all supposed to wait around twiddling our thumbs while she plays the whore? What about the Dragon Campaign?" Kanzas exploded.
"Kanzas!" Shirley snapped. "That's enough!"
Syuveil was regarding the Light Dragoon with a bemused expression. Rose rather thought it was the first time she had ever heard Shirley raise her voice.
"I told you we should have gone up there and gotten them. But do you listen to me? No!" Kanzas stormed.
"If you said anything worth listening to, Kanzas, we might pay attention," Belzac rumbled. His eyes met Rose's, and she realized that he knew what had happened last night even before she and Zieg appeared today. How, she wasn't sure, but she was positive that he had known.
"Playing the day away, weren't you! Wasting time! Don't you realize that the Winglies are going to attack Fletz this afternoon? And where are you? Off having fun! This is a WAR, you idiots!" Kanzas raged.
Belzac gave the Thunder Dragoon a pitying look just before Syuveil's fist connected with Kanzas's jaw. The Dragoon flopped backwards and lay still.
Syuveil shook his hand to ease the stinging knuckles and grinned. "We don't need him today at Fletz anyway," he said blandly when Shirley gave him a disapproving look.
Zieg laughed, and opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by Emperor Diaz.
"Ah, Zieg, Rose. So you've decided to join the living," Emperor Diaz said jovially.
All six conscious Dragoons went to one knee in a gesture of respect.
"My apologies, Your Excellency. I overslept," Rose said, her face burning.
Diaz laughed. "Don't worry about it! I expect you were exhausted from the celebrations last night! And we do need you Dragoons well-rested."
Zieg shot Rose an I-told-you-so look over Damia's head. Syuveil snickered.
"Speaking of resting, what's wrong with Kanzas?" Emperor Diaz continued, puzzled.
"He's . . . " Shirley stuttered to a halt.
"He was making trouble, so I decked him," Syuveil said pleasantly.
Emperor Diaz appeared more than a little startled. "Ah, will he be well enough to fight at Fletz today?" he asked, trying to cover his confusion.
"Whether he is or not doesn't matter," Zieg said briskly. "We should be able to handle it by ourselves. Besides, he's never been a team player. We're probably better off without him."
"Quite so," Diaz agreed, sounding distracted. "Let me know how it goes with Fletz. I'm sending the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries as well as the First Knighthood with you."
"Is it wise to send so many?" Rose asked before she could stop herself. Oh well, in for a copper, in for a gold piece. "The raid on Fletz could be a distraction. Our intelligence tells us that they are sending very few to attack."
"Hmm." Emperor Diaz appeared thoughtful.
"They might be sending very few, but it only takes one Virage to wreak havoc," Belzac said. "Better to have the extra men. We must protect the children."
"What if," Damia ventured timidly, "while we are defending Fletz, they sneak in and attack somewhere else?"
"My decision stands," Emperor Diaz said abruptly. "The three divisions will be there. They are already in place. Report to me when you get back."
They all bowed again as he left, then rose.
"Well," Zieg said calmly. "It appears, my friends, that we are journeying to Fletz. Everyone properly armed?"
At their affirmative nods, he grinned and raised his Dragoon Spirit. "Then let us go!"
They transformed in unison, six Dragoon Spirits flashing in the sunlight. In moments there were six powerful fighting machines where there had been merely six warriors.
They flew off toward Fletz, their powers making short work of the journey. The graceful twin towers of the new castle rose proudly in the morning sun, two slim white spears against the blue sky. Rose glanced to her left. Zieg flew beside her, his face alight with the challenge. He always looked forward to thwarting the Winglies. On her other side, Damia's young face was bright with excitement. She was still young enough to consider it all a grand adventure. Belzac and Shirley flew together as always, their attention focused on their objective. And above them, Syuveil drifted comfortably along, secure in his element. And probably still pondering life and death, even now, Rose thought with bitter amusement.
And I . . . what am I? I am not bold and adventurous like Zieg, or young and enchanted by everything like Damia. I am not kind, as Shirley and Belzac are. I cannot seem to focus long enough to be a scholar like Syuveil. Where am I? Where does Rose fit into all this? Quickly she shook off such morbid philosophical reflections. The spires of the Twin Castle, as the folk were calling it, were directly below them. As one, the six Dragoons swooped down to land.
It was midafternoon, just before the time when the Winglies were due to raid, when Kanzas made his appearance. He did not bother with conversation, but strode straight up to Syuveil and raised his fist. Syuveil simply swept his spear behind Kanzas's knees, knocking the furious Dragoon to the ground again. "Ease off, Kanzas," he snapped. "There's a battle about to begin."
"Kanzas." Shirley looked down at him quietly, ever the peacemaker. "Whatever you may feel about us, we need to work together right now to defeat the Winglies. Afterward, you may do as you wish."
Kanzas subdued his resentment, although not without effort. After all, it had been at Shirley's urging that he had joined the campaign. Shooting a disgruntled look at the redheaded Dragoon, Rose fervently wished that Shirley had never made that effort.
"Winglies in the sky!" The warning cry rang all through Fletz. Quickly Rose and her companions transformed and soared into the sky to meet the enemy.
Rose found herself facing off with a very young Wingly, barely old enough to wield a sword. He was quick, though, as all Winglies were quick. He dodged most of her attacks, but his own didn't connect often enough to hit. It took her nearly half an hour, but she dispatched him.
Above her, Syuveil gave a shout of triumph as he finished his own battle. The Wingly--one she recognized from previous raids, a seasoned soldier--plummeted toward the ground, his face twisted with rage. As he fell past her, he slashed out with his sword. Burning pain ran down Rose's leg from mid-thigh to ankle. She lost her sense of balance and she, too, tumbled downward.
Strong hands captured her in midair, strong caring hands. Zieg soared upwards with her as her blood made thin red rivulets in the clear air.
"Zieg . . . " she gasped. She was accustomed to pain--all warriors were wounded at one time or another--but she suspected there had been something in that blade besides metal. Her vision was blurring, and she couldn't seem to keep a coherent thought. "Zieg, his sword."
He looked down at her, concerned, and for the first time saw the angry red gash running down the outside of her right leg. "Rose, my God! What happened?"
"The Wingly . . . there was something . . . in his sword," she mumbled, and that was all she managed before everything shifted into darkness.
Zieg sat silently in Rose's tower, keeping a wary eye on the wounded Dragoon. Thick white bandages, spotted here and there with blood, swathed her entire leg from hip to foot. It had taken Shirley's White-Silver Dragoon Spirit to draw all the poison out of Rose's body, and then Shirley had been too exhausted to try and heal the leg wound. She had collapsed, wearied from both the fighting and trying to heal the wounded.
Rose lay quietly, her face ghastly pale against her ink-black hair. The dark violet eyes were closed now. In repose, her face looked almost childlike in its innocence. Gone was the angry cynicism, the bitterness that usually shadowed her eyes and pulled the corners of her mouth down. Looking down at her, Zieg thought she was too young for the anger and bitterness that always lurked behind her eyes. Asleep, she looked no older than Damia.
A sound at the doorway made him turn. Damia stood there, her young face worried. "Will she be all right?" Damia asked hesitantly.
Zieg nodded slowly. "The doctors think that, since the poison is gone, she will recover. It will take a while though." Anger built within him at the thought of that Wingly, who had come so close to killing the woman Zieg loved with all his heart. I may not have known her for very long, but I've certainly fallen hard for her, he thought wryly.
Damia hesitated a moment longer. "You should get some sleep," she finally said. "I'll stay and watch her."
Zieg shook his head. "I'm all right. And you've got to be exhausted, too."
"No, I took a nap, and I'm all right now." She slowly laid a hand on his shoulder, uncertain of how the gesture would be received. "You should sleep, Zieg."
He smiled tiredly. "No, I'm all right." He glanced out Rose's window to the lights that still burned in Syuveil's tower. "Tell you what, why don't you go nag Syu. He'll collapse over his precious texts if he doesn't get some sleep."
Damia smiled and headed for the door. She paused only long enough to say, "Good night," before she slipped out of the room, headed for Syuveil's tower.
Zieg turned back to Rose and saw, to his surprise, that she was waking. She inadvertently moved her leg and a grimace of pain crossed her features.
"I bet that hurts," Zieg said quietly. In her surprise, she tried to sit upright, and fell back to the mattress as the movement pulled on the damaged muscles. A sound like a strangled cry came from between her clenched teeth.
Gritting his own teeth against the anger that threatened his control yet again, Zieg poured a glass of water and added the herbal mixture the doctor had given him. "Drink this."
"What is it?" Her voice was low and strained.
He gave her an exasperated look. "It's poison, Rose. I thought I'd get rid of you since my plan with the Wingly went awry!"
She tried to glare at him, but she just couldn't manage it. She took the glass he offered with ill grace. Grimacing at the taste, she gulped it down. They were silent for a while, both resentful--albeit for different reasons. After a while Rose realized that the lancing pain in her leg had dulled to a throbbing ache. "I'm sorry," she said quietly.
"Don't be." His hand caressed her cheek very gently. "How's the leg?"
"Shirley used her Dragoon Spirit to remove the poison."
In frustration, Zieg wondered if she was going to keep answering him in one- or two-word phrases.
Rose slowly leaned back to the mattress. Obviously there was something more than a pain medication in that drink. Her mind was going fuzzy again. "Emperor Diaz?" she mumbled.
Zieg grimaced. How like her to think of something like that at a time like this. "He was unhappy that you were injured, and sends his best wishes."
"Mmmmm." Her mind was drifting toward the darkness. "Zieg?"
"Don't leave me alone," she mumbled.
"I won't." She vaguely felt him take her hand in both of his as she dropped over the edge into unconsciousness.
Zieg spent three long days caring for her--giving her the pain medicine and carefully changing the bandages on her leg. The gash was still raw and red. It ran from midthigh straight down to her ankle. She was very, very lucky that it hadn't severed anything important. On the third day, Rose decided that she was fed up with staying in bed. She wanted to be out and about.
"That's not a good idea," the doctor informed her sternly when she voiced her wish. "Those stitches are just too new. You could burst the wound open again. That leg won't take your weight yet, Rose. Just accept it."
"I'm bored!" she railed as the doctor was leaving. "I'm bloody sick of seeing this room!"
The doctor shrugged. "Put up with it a bit longer. Your body needs the rest, Rose. If you keep pushing it, one day your body just won't respond. Think about that for a while." She strode out of the room.
Zieg was trying unsuccessfully to hide his smile at the doctor's tart response. "Here," he said, rummaging through her closet until he found a long robe. "I'll help you put this on, and then I'll carry you outside. You can at least get out of this room?but you aren't walking anywhere. Understood?"
Rose nodded, eager to be ANYWHERE other than inside the room. Gently Zieg helped her into the robe and fastened it neatly at her waist. He picked her up very carefully, but even so, Rose had to clench her teeth and turn her face against his shoulder to keep the pain from showing.
Zieg carried her outside and settled her in a comfortable lounge chair, which Emperor Diaz had sent up "in case she wants to go outside," the Emperor had said, "so she can sit and rest her leg." In some ways, Emperor Diaz treated all seven of them like adored children, eager to see that they had everything they required. Pushing such thoughts out of his head, Zieg flipped a light blanket over Rose, because there was a cold wind today.
Rose lifted her face to the wind, reveling in the cool rush of air past her face. "Zieg . . . " she began, and stumbled to a halt, unsure of what to say.
"Yes?" He turned toward her, his blue eyes warm and understanding.
"I . . . I wanted to thank you for what you've done," she stammered. Why the hell can't I manage a decent conversation without stuttering all of a sudden? she wondered irritably.
"It's nothing." Zieg hesitated, unsure of how his next comment would go over. "It's nothing because . . . I love you."
The look of shock on her face was not precisely what he had hoped to see. "You . . . what?" she said, the words a hoarse croak.
"I love you," he repeated, searching her dark violet eyes, hoping she wouldn't reject his feelings for her.
For several long moments Rose was completely shell-shocked. Slowly, she realized two things--one, he was waiting for an answer, and two, she knew exactly what that answer would be.
"I love you, too, Zieg," she whispered softly. His smile spread slowly across his face, making him more handsome than ever. Slowly he bent to kiss her.
"Well, isn't this nice." Kanzas's bitter tones interrupted their moment. "I suppose you're having fun having everyone wait on you, little whore," he added sneeringly.
"Kanzas! That is quite enough!" Shirley's tone was angrier than Rose had ever heard it before.
"Just because you are bitter, Kanzas, do not deny everyone else their happiness," Belzac rumbled. He switched his gaze to Rose. "How's your leg?" he asked much more quietly.
"Better." Rose forced a smile as Damia came flying up the stairs. Syuveil followed a bit more sedately behind her.
"How are you feeling?" Damia cried, fluttering around Rose, her aquamarine eyes wide. "How's your leg? That was a nasty trick, to melt poison into the sword blade! But then, only a Wingly would stoop so low," she chattered cheerfully.
Behind her, Syuveil rolled his eyes. "Damia, calm down," he said tolerantly. "You'll wear her out with all your chatter."
Damia stopped still, looking stricken. "Oh, Rose, I'm sorry," she said quietly. She settled herself on the edge of the ledge in front of Rose's room.
"It's all right," Rose muttered, sitting forward slightly. She was heartily tired of lying down all the time. The stinging ache in her leg was negligible.
Kanzas snorted. "I'm going to train," he announced. He strode past Rose, deliberately kicking her wounded leg. Rose's body doubled forward over her legs, her breath escaping her in a hissing sound of pain.
"Kanzas!" Belzac and Syuveil roared. For one wonderful second, Zieg was sure that the two Dragoons were going to fling him off the tower and into the heart of the spiral below. Unfortunately--in his opinion at least--they only hauled him down the stairs and shoved him towards his own quarters. He turned back to Rose and gently helped her lean back.
Shirley reached for her Dragoon Spirit. "I can--" she began.
"No," Rose said through gritted teeth.
"What?" All five of her companions turned to stare at her.
"I said, no." Rose saw the look of protest on Zieg's face and shook her head. "It will heal. I think it would do me good to have the scar to remind me."
"Rose--" Shirley protested.
"I mean it, Shirley," Rose said firmly--or as firmly as she could. Her teeth were clenched tightly against pain.
Shirley sighed and shook her head. Damia stared down at the deep spiral of Vellweb, saying nothing. Her pale hair shone brightly in the sunlight. Syuveil looked as if he wanted to say something, but he apparently decided against it.
"Rose, I don't think that 's a good idea," Belzac said mildly.
Rose raised an eyebrow slightly. "Too bad."
Belzac shook his head slowly, but none of the Dragoons argued with her. From the look in Zieg's eyes, though, he planned to say quite a bit--except that he would wait until they were alone to say it.
"I hate to say it," Syuveil said thoughtfully, "but Kanzas was right about one thing. We probably should be training."
Shirley nodded as she and Belzac headed down the stairs. Damia gave Syuveil a wide-eyed puppy gaze as she followed.
Syuveil sighed. "What am I going to do about that child?" he muttered to no one in particular.
Zieg tried to smother a grin. "Does she have a crush on you, by chance, Syu?"
"It would seem so," Syuveil said disgustedly.
Despite herself, Rose laughed. "What's so funny?" Syuveil snapped.
"Syu, you make it sound as if it were the end of the world," Zieg said, chuckling.
"She's fifteen, Zieg! I'm twenty-eight!"
Zieg grinned. "Well, yes, there is that slight age difference," he said, and started laughing again. Rose couldn't help but laugh along with him. How odd it feels to laugh, she thought. I didn't know . . . that I knew how to laugh.
"The pair of you are as bad as she is!" Syuveil threw up his hands and stalked off to find more congenial company. He paused midway down the stairs. "Are you joining us, Zieg?" he asked.
"Maybe tomorrow," Zieg said.
Syuveil nodded and continued down the stairs. Zieg turned to look at Rose, his blue eyes troubled. "Rose, I wish you'd let Shirley heal you."
Rose shook her head stubbornly. "No."
"Why not?" he asked gently.
"I was stupid," she said simply. "He shouldn't have been able to slash me in the first place. So, I'll keep the scar, to remind me to be on my guard."
He sat on the edge of her chair and put his arm around her. She leaned against him with a quiet sigh. "Rose, you were on your guard," he said quietly after a moment.
She shook her head slightly. "I got careless because I had just finished my own opponent."
"Are you planning to sit here and scold yourself over every minor mistake you've ever made?" he demanded, his tone angry now. "Damn it, Rose, don't you realize how much that scared me, to see your blood everywhere? I thought that misbegotten Wingly had killed you!"
Rose looked up at him, startled to see the blue eyes flashing with anger. "Zieg . . . " She couldn't think of a response.
"Rose, listen to me," he said earnestly. "I love you, more than anyone I've ever known. I hate to even think of the possibility that you might get hurt, even though I know that we all probably will before this is over. Please, just don't fight me on this."
She nodded agreement slowly, her head drifting down to rest on his shoulder. "I love you too," she whispered. "More than anyone I've ever known."
Three weeks later, Rose's leg was healed and she was hovering with the other six Dragoons over Bale. There was no sign of the Winglies yet, and Rose was beginning to be worried. It would be just like the treacherous bastards to leak news of an attack here, and meanwhile be gathering to attack Rouge or even Seles.
"Hey, Zieg!" Kanzas taunted. "Maybe the Winglies aren't planning to show up!"
From the irritated look on Syuveil's face, he had been about to suggest the same thing--in a nicer way, of course. Rose turned to Zieg, waiting for him to make a decision.
"I don't know, Kanzas." Zieg tilted his head back to scan the sky. After a moment, he could vaguely hear the aggravating sound of approaching wings--Wingly wings, to be precise.
"I hear them," Damia announced, just as Shirley said, "The Winglies are on their way."
Syuveil flew effortlessly to a higher altitude and slowly scanned the countryside around them. "Five Winglies, approaching from due east," he announced laconically.
All the Dragoons shifted to face east, but to their surprise, the Winglies halted about three hundred feet away. "We bring a message," the Wingly leading them announced.
"What message?" Zieg snapped.
"Our great leader Melbu Frahma desires a serious battle, not these paltry raids."
"Perhaps because he has been losing so badly in 'these paltry raids,'" Rose interrupted.
The Wingly gave her a frosty glare before he continued.
"The great Melbu Frahma suggests the Capital Kadessa," the Wingly finished. "What says Emperor Diaz?"
Zieg looked around at his fellow Dragoons. "We will be at Kadessa in three weeks' time. Tell your 'great leader' that," he said coldly.
"Agreed." The Wingly and his four cohorts turned and flew away.
"We could smash them now," Kanzas mused aloud.
"They came in embassy. We cannot violate that," Syuveil protested.
"Why Kadessa?" Belzac wondered aloud. "Surely they know that their capital will be destroyed in the battle?"
"Shut up," Kanzas snapped.
"Kanzas!" Syuveil lifted his fist.
"We return to Vellweb! Now!" Zieg called, interrupting what might well have become an all-out brawl between Syuveil and Kanzas.
They soared back to Vellweb and split apart, each heading for their respective towers.
In Syuveil's tower, the Wind Dragoon was bent over yet more scrolls. "I know it is here," he muttered. "There MUST be more to life and death than the Birth City Crystal Palace and the Death City Mayfil. There must be more than what the Winglies have decreed from their seat in Kadessa. And I will find it!"
"Syu, you're talking to yourself." Rose leaned casually against the doorframe.
He jumped and only his quick reflexes kept his papers from scattering all around the already cluttered room. "Rose! Must you startle me like that?" he demanded peevishly.
"If it weren't for startling you, Syuveil, I'd never be able to get your attention when you're poring over ancient texts."
Syuveil watched warily as Rose sauntered forward. Her right leg was now encased in a high boot that covered her leg to mid-thigh, concealing the ugly scar that ran along her leg. She was doing a very good job of acting as though she'd never been injured, but the truth was there in the faint hesitation as she walked, in the slightest hint of a limp, invisible to any except those closest to her.
"All right, Rose. Out with it." Syuveil folded his arms. "I know you've better things to do at this time of night. In fact, I'm surprised you're not in Zieg's tower right now." He grinned when a flush of color rose up her face. Ah, yes, there was a way to get a reaction from the icy warrior. He'd have to keep that in mind. "So, Rose . . . what's the problem?"
"There is no problem," she said coolly. "I thought I'd remind you that you're no good to a fighting unit when you're dead on your feet from poring over ancient scrolls."
"But Rose, look!" Syuveil forgot his suspicions in the joy of research. He waved a thin leather-bound book at her. "I've managed to translate only the first two pages, but it says that there are other beliefs! Death City Mayfil is not the true meaning of death, nor is the Birth City Crystal Palace the true meaning of life! Don't you see? It's the culmination of my research! I will finally be able to determine the true meaning of life and death!"
"You will determine it firsthand if you keep working at this pace," Rose said tartly. "You're working yourself to death, Syu!"
Syuveil shrugged. "It's important," he protested. "If we do not understand the meaning of life and death, how can we be expected to live?"
"Maybe the mystery is what allows us to live." Rose wondered at the words she heard out of her own mouth. God, she was becoming philosophical these days.
Syuveil frowned. "No, no, that can't be it. After all, the Winglies have not two principal cities, but five. Law City Zenebatos, Capital Kadessa and Magic City Aglis would not exist if they did not serve some purpose. So this existence cannot be about only life and death. No, I must continue my studies."
"Hmmm." Rose absently poured him a glass of wine. He took it and drank it quickly, then blinked and shook his head as his eyes unfocused. "What . . . " he mumbled.
Rose shoved him lightly in the direction of his bed against the wall, then slipped out the door. The drug she'd slipped into the wine would keep him asleep for several hours, enough to restore his strength. He'd faltered several times that day out of sheer exhaustion. God only knows why I care, she thought wryly as she headed back toward Zieg's quarters.
"So!" Kanzas stepped in front of her. "At last I find you without your loyal supporters," he jeered.
"Get out of my way, Kanzas," she snapped. She had definite plans for her evening and they did not in any way include the Thunder Dragoon.
"No." He stepped closer to her and smirked.
Rose didn't bother to think her action through. She just threw her shoulder into his stomach and put the full weight of her body--slight though that was--into the shove. Kanzas reeled backwards. She walked right over him without a thought and jogged the rest of the way to Zieg's tower.
He was waiting for her. "Did you manage it?" he asked quietly as she came in.
She half-smiled. "He didn't have a chance."
Zieg looked surprised. "You know, I think that's the first time I've ever seen you smile."
It was her turn to be surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah." He stood up and walked over to her. "Really."
Much later, they lay together in his bed, Zieg stroking her long black hair gently. "Rose?" he said almost hesitantly.
He took a deep breath. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, he reminded himself. "Rose . . . will you marry me?"
"What?!" She sat up suddenly, her eyes wide and startled. "What did you say?"
He really felt like a fool now. "I said, will you marry me?"
She blinked twice, trying to convince her stuttering mind that, yes, she really had heard him say that. "I . . . would be honored," she murmured.
He smiled. "Good."
"You, I heard you two are going to have a wedding after this battle." Emperor Diaz smiled benevolently at them both. Then his expression became pensive. "There is no guarantee of coming back alive," he warned.
"Even if one of us dies, our bonds of affection are forever," Zieg said firmly.
"Zieg," Rose whispered. She knew, of course, that it was more than likely one of them would die. She just couldn't bear to think of it.
Zieg smiled warmly, squeezing her hand gently in reassurance.
"Your eyes are already looking at our future!" Diaz said exultantly. "Then I will realize the future for you!"
"Thank you, Emperor Diaz," they murmured.
"From the looks of it, there's only one battle standing between you and your wedding," Emperor Diaz murmured, his face falling into pensive lines once more. "The battle at Kadessa."
"We have every intention of coming through it alive, Emperor Diaz," Rose said with quiet dignity.
He smiled slightly. "If anyone can do it, Rose, you Dragoons can." He sighed, the moment of amusement over. "I need to prepare my battle plan," he said. "Go enjoy your last day before battle."
They bowed and took their leave, but for some reason, Diaz's words sent a cold chill of presentiment down Rose's spine. She hesitated as they stepped out of the Emperor's throne room. "Zieg?" she said reluctantly. "Do you--do you think we'll be all right in the battle tomorrow?" She cursed herself for sounding like a frightened child, but she had to ask.
He smiled. "It's a battle, Rose. There's no way to predict it. But yes, I think we'll be all right." He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a one-armed hug.
She allowed herself to be convinced, but some tiny inner voice screamed in caution.
The cool white light of early morning streamed into the airborne city that was the Wingly capital Kadessa. The Dragoons watched from their high perch as the Winglies zipped about beneath them.
"This is the last battle," Shirley said abruptly. "Frahma himself came to this one. All we have to do is kill him." Such angry words were much out of character for the gentle Dragoon, but her sentiments were echoed by all six of her comrades.
Hours later, the battle was beginning to slow down. The warriors of both sides were exhausted and wounded, and that was when they would begin to make mistakes. The Dragoons had already dispatched ten Virage, those monstrous creatures that the Winglies had employed as their trump card. As the Humans used Dragoons, the Winglies used Virage.
Rose looked around her wearily. Three Winglies were approaching her with smirks, sure of their victory because of greater numbers. From their armor, they were Light-elemental. With a fierce smile, Rose made use of a Sun Rhapsody to restore her MP. "Take this, you bastards," she muttered, summoning the Dark Dragon. Her vassal dragon, Michael, appeared and destroyed all three Winglies with one simple attack.
"Damn!" Rose whirled at the sound and saw, to her horror, a huge pillar of stone tumbling toward Belzac and Shirley, courtesy of an enormous Super Virage. Belzac shoved the Light Dragoon out of harm's way, bracing his own body beneath the pillar. Rose could see even the giant man faltering.
"Belzac!" Shirley cried. "Your death won't be in vain!" She raised her bow and took aim at the Virage. As always, her aim was true.
"Shirley, go!" Belzac cried. With a long look at him, she obeyed. The pillar crushed him, and not even the powerful Dragoon armor could stop it. A cry of fury made her look back, startled, to see Shirley attacking in a frenzy against the Winglies and Virage. From beneath the pillar protruded one large hand. Blinking back unaccustomed tears, Rose turned her attention once more to the battle.
Damia was cornered, trying to fight off six Winglies. Even as Rose rushed to the girl's aid, one of the Winglies ripped her hammer away. Damia summoned the Blue Sea Dragon, but the Winglies were all Water elemental, and it barely harmed them.
"Damia!" Syuveil shouted, plunging down toward the Winglies. He grunted as a spear struck him in the back and continued his long plunge--all the way to the ground. Rose couldn't bear to look at it, his arms and legs sprawled in death. She lunged toward the Winglies attacking Damia, but she was too late. One of them threw the fragile girl into the stone wall behind her, breaking her neck. One more Dragoon fell lifeless to the ground. "God, no," Rose whispered. In a raging fury, the likes of which she had never known, she unleashed a series of Dragoon Additions on the Winglies until they, too, were only broken bodies scattered around the valley. The battle insanity of the dragoon, she thought in anguish.
"Aaaagh!" That cry of fury could belong only to Kanzas. As Rose watched, he faced off with a huge Virage. "Kanzas!" she cried. True, she had no great affection for him, but he was her battle comrade. She couldn't leave him to die. Quickly she soared toward him, too late. The Virage's attack was lethal.
With his last strength, Kanzas managed a mocking smile. "Nice try," he sneered, "but I'm taking you with me!" His final attack, the powerful Thunder God spell, dispatched the Virage. Kanzas slumped lifelessly against the remains as a Wingly swung a sword that was as long as he was tall, splitting Kanzas in half easily. That same Wingly met his death from one of Shirley's arrows in his back.
"Rose!" Shirley shouted, and pointed. Rose looked in the direction Shirley indicated, and her heart almost stopped.
"Melbu Frahma!" The furious shout rang through the area. A red blur soared toward the evil Wingly. Zieg was facing off with Melbu Frahma, the despicable man who was dictator of the Winglies. They circled each other warily. To her horror, Rose realized that Frahma had the Dragon Buster--the sword that was always lethal both to Dragons and Dragoons. "Zieg!" she cried. "I can't lose you, too!"
He didn't give any outward indication that he had heard her, but continued to circle Frahma. To her surprise, Frahma wasn't using his sword. He had a crafty smile on his face. Rose realized what he was up to, too late.
"NOOOOOOOOO!" Her anguished cry echoed over the valley.
Just as Zieg's sword pierced Frahma's heart, Frahma finished his spell. "Zieg!" she cried, reaching for his hand. His fingers curled around hers. "Rose! Save yourself!" he cried, then turned to cold stone. Frahma's petrification spell made her lover a part of the rocky outcropping forever. "Zieg!" A vicious air current ripped her away from him, and for a moment she tumbled in midair. A thin shattering sound heralded the breaking of the Crystal Sphere, which Melbu Frahma had used to seal the soul of the God of Destruction, the Moon Child.
The few remaining Winglies, seeing their leader slain, began to depart. The last one to leave, though, was determined to send the last Dragoons into Mayfil. His sword pierced right through Shirley's Dragoon Armor into her heart.
Rose landed silently, sick with grief. Racking sobs shook her body as she crouched next to Zieg's body. "Zieg, no! You can't leave me! Not like this!"
She was vaguely aware of a silvery white flash. Looking down, she realized with a start that all her battle wounds had been healed. She looked up in time to see Shirley--or rather, Shirley's spirit--smile gently at her before drifting away. "You know where to find me, Rose," the soft words whispered on the wind. "In the shrine to the White Silver Dragon."
"The White Silver Dragon Shrine no more, Shirley," Rose whispered. "Now, it will be your shrine." Slowly the Dark Dragoon rose and looked around the valley, at the broken bodies of her six friends. Then she lifted her gaze to the body of the Virage Embryo, which Frahma had hung in the sky as the Moon That Never Sets. The Crystal Sphere that housed the Embryo's soul had been destroyed mere moments before. "Every 108 years, I will kill the Moon Child," she vowed. "I will keep the Virage Embryo, the God of Destruction, from ever being born. I will prevent Soa's plan. Your lives will never be in vain." With one last anguished look at Zieg, she laid her hand very gently over his heart, and left the valley.
I had a dream that I could fly
I can feel each moment as time goes by
We'd never be too far away
You'd always be here
I heard you say
I never thought
Thought that it would be our last goodbye
I can still dream
That one day love will fall from the sky
Do you still remember
All the time that has gone by
Do you still believe that
Love can fall out from the sky
If from where you're standing
You can see the sky above
I'll be waiting for you
If you still believe in love
Find a way
To bring back yesterday
Find a way for love
I hope you'll stay
When tomorrow comes today
Love will find a way
I'll be waiting for you
In my heart you are the one
If I cannot find you
I will look up to the sun
If from where you're standing
You can see the sky above
I'll be waiting for you
If you still believe in love