Bristugo was a trading town that had flourished in the aftermath of the battles that had swept the mainland. Originally it had been a garrison from which the Human race had launched its desperate bid to defend its homeland, launching foray after foray into the blighted Eastland. When the war had ended the town, with its many travel gates, well constructed roads and position on the only viable route from the isle of Lesser Aradoth to Tazoon, had quickly become a major centre of commerce, second only to Tazoon itself. Over time the fortification walls had been deconstructed for masonry, the roads widened and strengthened to accommodate cartloads of rare and exotic goods that arrived from lands as far flung as Sslanis and Maghara, all thought of its original purpose lost to the shifting mists of time and money. It was said that whilst the races of the world flourished, so would Bristugo, although vice versa would probably be more accurate. Anything could be bought and sold here amongst the throngs by those who were willing to search hard enough for it, not matter what it might be. It wasn’t unheard of for less savoury items to change hands behind the backs of the local watchmen.
The town was used to the comings and goings of the various races that inhabited the world. Why, thought the heads of the Guild of Merchants that had quickly risen to authority, pass up a good business opportunity when it turns up from Kion looking to sell a cartload of yams? Trade had been actively encouraged, discrimination punishable by hefty fines for putting off a potential customer. After all, Saris gold was as good as that of Humans. So it had been that after a few growing pains involving language and clothing (or the lack of, in the case of one rainforest tribe) all comers were embraced- and short changed- equally.
A lot of this had changed with the arrival of the Dragons, mainly because not even the wiliest merchant was willing to risk his skin by cheating a creature with forty feet of length, two tons of muscle and a short temper. The first dragons had only been passing through on other business, but even in the face of such imposing beasts, the innate instinct of Bristugo merchants trying to sell anything to anyone had kicked in. This had been slightly hampered by the fact that dragons understood commerce only in the same way that fish understood the stars; as something that existed, but was far away and uninteresting, but the dragons themselves quickly warmed to the idea after a kindly fishmonger mentioned that they might be able to add to their hoards without going through the tedious process of gnawing the rings from the fingers.
The dragons had given this some thought, and then left in high spirits. The next day they descended with what seemed like half their total population; all having heard about the wonders of trade, but all seemingly failing to master the subtle art of actually paying for things. Aside from the fact that two hundred dragons made the non trading population of Bristugo edgy, the fact that the town was losing money was simply too much for the merchants to bear. After a brief harangue in which the merchants had their eyebrows singed away, they had, for the first time, voted unanimously. They had voted not to try shouting at a dragon again.
Within half an hour the Town Marshal had been forced to declare a state of emergency and called for the immediate closing of the market, though he needn’t have bothered. By that time the dragons had discovered alcohol, and found it rather to their liking. As digestive systems that were used for distilling huge quantities of highly flammable liquids took delivery of the famous Ole’ Roberts Blackgut Whisky, the dragons experienced sudden feelings of levity, relaxation and happiness, immediately followed by acute unconsciousness. The following hangovers had lasted for a week, but had gone a long way to make the dragons more amiable to conversation. Once the finer points of economy had been explained and a number of valuable items returned, the dragons had left without much complaint to sleep off the worst headache of their lives. Similarly, the merchants had made allowances for dragons to trade in the items they desired or could not craft for themselves, after which the larger creatures had become a thriving source of economy.
All in all, they had thought, it could have been worse.

***

Dragons were a fairly common sight in Bristugo, usually dealing amongst themselves or trading unusual and exotic things they acquired on their travels for some intricate and beautiful thing that their own claws were ill suited to craft. No one knew why they collected such things, and the dragons themselves weren’t about to tell.
The locals were therefore not surprised when a pair of them alighted in the main square, scattering men, goods and papers with powerful wing beats as they settled to the ground. They were mildly more surprised when the pair immediately squeezed themselves into the nearest tavern, given that most dragons avoided alcohol like the plague after an unfortunate incident a few years earlier, but who could be expected to understand how dragons thought? Just so long as the infernal creatures didn’t forget that a deal involved a contribution on their part, preferably one made out of metal and could be stacked in neat little columns.
For the portly barman who ran the aforesaid tavern, this was not turning out to be a good day. Dragons, as a rule, were not big drinkers, but these two seemed to be making up for lost time. The barman was experienced in his trade, had casually struck up conversations with all manner of creatures and extended credit to none of them. He was an experienced conversationalist, which is more or less a prerequisite of the trade. Admittedly, such conversations had largely occurred along the lines of “Ah, so you’re an Sslik are you? How’s the weather over there at the moment?? but he had never been one to let a lack of intelligence get in the way of running an establishment. People expected the barman to ask jocular questions, and he was good at interpreting the answers.
So far the answers he was getting were not very satisfactory, but reading between the lines he knew enough. The pair were soldiers by trade, although it was a rare dragon indeed who was not a skilled fighter. They were from the dragon city of Dralk, which meant that they were of the Lunus faction. The dragons were talking in their own hissing, grumbling language, but the way they were both slumped despondently over the counter avoiding each others gaze told him enough. Without a legible word being exchanged, he knew that the two were mourning a fallen comrade.
“Here you go boys.? He murmured, placing a frothing mug before each of them and mopping his sweating brow with his apron before leaving them to their drinks. The larger of the two, a dragon with bright golden-bronze scales striped through with copper eyed the mug critically, extending his neck to take a sniff. Clutching the pewter flagon gingerly between his jaws, he lifted his head and upended the contents down his gullet with one swig.
Melanth sat back on his haunches, feeling the brew burn its way down to his stomach. He cursed the levity of the good natured barkeep half heartedly in the confines of his own mind. Despite the view that the Lunus held on the matter, he quite liked humans. They made beverages that took away the pain.
Beside him, Iridan, iridescent in his silver scales, followed suite. It was probably as close as dragons could come to a toast, as they were not fond of speaking openly of the dead. Lamentation was a wasted effort in a world where the dead not only walked, but took up arms and struck at the living. All in all, considering what could have happened, the fact that the dead stayed dead was considered lamentation enough.
There was a long, drawn out pause as both sought something to say in the fuzzy mists of beer and sleep deprivation, then gave up. Eventually Melanth, staring blankly into the dregs of his empty flagon said something.
“What is the definition of a hero?? He asked thoughtfully, teetering slightly as the beverage did its work.
“The first to fight and the last to die.? Iridan said automatically. It was an old Lunus proverb, drilled into the mind of all hatchlings from an early age. Melanth nodded solemnly.
“Yes, Jarlneria was both of those.? He murmured, idly gouging patterns into the wooden counter with a claw. “After she took that spear in the chest, she held on for nearly an hour when it should have killed her instantly. I was with her at the start and at the end, and I’m proud to say that I was.? He took a pull from a fresh flagon that the barkeep plonked before him, not really tasting it.
“But that’s not enough to just be proud, is it?? Said Iridan, carefully choosing his words. “She was yours, and now she’s gone.?
“She was never mine.? Melanth snapped.
“But in your heart she was, my friend. That is why you hurt so.?
He didn’t bother denying it anymore. Iridan knew him well enough to read the truth from him like a tablet.
“You have to let go-“
“Why?!? Melanth thundered, rounding on Iridan like a thunderstorm and startling the barman into dropping the mug he polished. “I can’t even say that I’ll see her in the next world, can I? For me there will be no next world!? He hissed, slurring his words. Iridan shied instinctively before mastering himself, drawing up to eyelevel with his friend. He said no word, but the gaze he directed at Melanth spoke volumes. Pity, sorrow, reproach. It only served to further enrage Melanth, who considered striking the silver scaled one, but then thought better of it, feeling suddenly exhausted. He sank back to the counter, cradling his snout in his forepaws.
“They call us Gifted.? He sighed. “It is no gift, my friend. It is a curse; a joke of the Gods, a trick of Fate.? He snorted sarcastically as the barman disappeared into a back room. “It’s good to know that the powers that be have a sense of humour. Even if it is a sadistic one.? He added.
“Everything must come to an end someday Melanth.? Iridan murmured. “Not even the Gifted can endure in this world forever. Perhaps then you will be reunited, perhaps not. Who can say? But for now we must look to the future, not the past. The past is behind us, it is as unchangeable now as the colour of the sky. But the future lies ahead of us. Maybe, just maybe, we can make some small difference, make the world a better place.?
“Gutting the Withered Aegis would be a good place to start.?
“Yeah,? Iridan agreed. “If only we could find the buggers. But even then it would probably take the better part of a battle company to deal with them, so we can well and truly say that is a long term prospect. I was thinking more short term.?
“Like what??
“Like who’s going to buy the next round.? Iridan grinned.

***

The Cart arrived in Bristugo late evening of the third day. Calling it a cart as giving it the benefit of the doubt, but there was no other word to describe the little wooden thing with the wheels that squeaked incessantly. Katrina dismounted immediately, thankful of the reprieve and waited patiently whilst the Abbot stabled the ancient heifer that had tugged the **** thing all this way. He had said that anything could be bought or sold in Bristugo. One of those things, and the one that was of particular interest to the two, was information.
Katrina took in the surroundings, feeling slightly nervous. All her long life she had never strayed far from her home and the sight of the sprawling town was almost too much for her grated nerves to handle. It was noisy, with hawkers and tradesmen trying to out voice each other with offers, children running through the legs of the adults, men with trays selling sweetmeats and water to parched travellers. She was left stranded in the sea of people, clinging to the cart like a log in a fast flowing current to keep herself from being swept away in the throngs. It was a far cry from sleepy Parsinia, with its hot days and freezing nights separated by sunsets that set the sky aflame. For one thing it rained a lot more here. Her clothes were light affair; long flowing skirts beneath a practical, if unimaginative rode suitable for the Parsinia veldt. About half an hour after they had reached the mainland and left the boat, these had been soaked through and clung irritatingly. She noticed a few men ogling her shapely figure as they passed and pulled her shawl around herself self-consciously, making a mental note to get some better clothes as soon as possible.
The old Abbot returned, grinning widely, gesturing for her to follow him as he took off among the various alleys and side streets. Unlearned as she was in the ways of the city, it was frightening to had to dodge the hagglers and criers who accosted her proffering items and services, all the while trying to keep the red robe in her vision whilst shoving them aside as politely as she dared. Every bit of the nimble footwork that was required to avoid the morning rush back home was needed to keep from being tripped and jostled by the flow of the oncoming crowds, until finally the old Saris disappeared into an apparently abandoned side street, beckoning her to come forwards. The street was flanked by two large buildings inside which noisy labours were taking place, and cast the street into a forbidding shadow. It was in streets like this, she fancied, that muggers lurked and the women of negotiable love plied their sordid trade, but as soon as she emerged from the shadow, she saw that it was otherwise. There was an opening of sorts, but calling it this was giving it the benefit of the doubt as it was really little more than a light well between the two larger structures. The abbot stood there beside another similarly clad Saris, though this one was perhaps fifty years younger and carried a twig brush, apparently speaking animatedly to his fellow. Behind them, cramped in the bottom of the street like the little shops of cafes that a person may walk past every day yet never notice, was a temple. It was a far cry from the one in Parsinia, little more than a wall with a pillared doorway and a miniature statuette of a spear wielding Saris balanced precariously on the lintel, but it had the same typically plain and functional appearance of Saris building everywhere. She almost laughed at the though. Hundreds and hundred of miles from home, here at least was a slice of normality.
After a few muffled words, the Abbot beckoned her forwards.
“This is the one?? The younger monk said, switching back to Continental Istarian. He seemed to examine her with a quizzical eye, finally nodding approvingly. “Yes, I see what you mean Master.? He said, scratching his furry chin. “She has much the look of her mother about her, though I expect you hear that often?? He smiled, to which she nodded. He indicated for the two to follow, and vanished thought the veiled doorway. Inside, the temple was much the same as it was on the outside, Spartan, devoid of anything more than intricately patterned rugs that were a monk’s sole possession. The temple was little more than a corridor with no more than three rooms, one of which was full to the brim with ledgers and tomes. The monk led them to a room with a simple wooden desk, stacked high with papers and began sifting through the mess until apparently finding one which met his approval. He handed the vellum sheet to the old Abbot, who engrossed himself in the strange, spiky writings whilst his younger colleague settled down upon his mat, motioning for Katrina to do the same. It struck her suddenly that these monks did not speak often, only when they absolutely had to. She wondered why; Saris possessed beautiful resonant voices, which it seemed such a waste to devote to silence.
“Would you care for refreshment before we begin?? He asked kindly. She quickly declined; the infusions preferred by the feline Saris were usually catnip tea and too pungent to be palatable to many humans. He nodded slowly, and appeared to think for a moment before speaking again.
“As you know, strange things have been happening in the world at large, though as my Master had already intoned, Parsinia is too distant for many of the rumours and you are unaware of recent developments.?
He sighed and shifted his weight. The old abbot handed back the paper, and slipped Katrina an encouraging wink.
“You are not the only one to have these dreams.? He said gravely. “This is but a small establishment here, only three Brothers including myself, but we talk to people. This is a… listening post, of a sort. We gather all the knowledge we can of what is happening in the world and strain fact from fiction. Bristugo trades almost as much corn as it trades rumours and gossip, and it all makes its way here.? He smiled proudly. “It would seem that a great many people have experiences this dream as you put it, and it is a puzzler I assure you. Dreams can not be shared, that much is fact, yet this one has somehow managed to make its way into the minds of a good few hundred people. How, we ask? But we when we search, we find no answers. Nor have the Clerics, or the Templar Knights, or the great Magus of the Tower. What dream therefore could so vex men of cloth, steel and magic?? He took his odorous tea from the desk and took a sip.
“It’s not a dream is it?? She said, putting two and two together in the confines of her own mind. At the time it had not seemed like any dream she had ever experienced, although she had direly hoped that it had been nothing more than a fancy of the sleeping mind. The news disturbed her greatly; made her feel cold inside to know what she had witnessed… what she had experienced had actually happened. She shivered to thing that she was now embroiled in such events. All she had ever asked of the universe was a quiet life, and up until now she had got it.
“No.? The monk shook his head sadly.
“Then what is it?? She asked, morbidly curious, like a child picking at a scabbed wound, wondering what was underneath.
“The ones who experienced this… dream,? The Abbot said, sitting cross-legged in the circle with them, “shared no common background. Members of all the races seem to be accounted for here, save of course the reticent Dragons.? He shrugged. “Peoples of all walks of life. Everyone from farriers to army officers, Satyr and Dryad, men and women and whatever it is that out Sslik cousins are- I do not care to ask- are accounted for here. They all have one thing, only one thing that connects them, binds their fates together.? He said, regarding her with a warm smile. “They are all Gifted.?
“But that’s impossible.? She said with a light laugh. “I underwent the Tests. I am no more gifted than Miss Blot who runs the bakery.? She laughed again, but the sound died in her throat when she saw the thoughtful expressions the two holy men wore. “No,? She murmured, disbelieving. “That’s no possible…?
“Sometimes,? The old Abbot said slowly, pensively, “Such abilities are slow to develop and only appear at maturity.?
“But surely I would have known!?
“No, that is why we have the Tests.? The Abbot smiled. “When the Gifted first started to appear most of them didn’t know they had the ability. Indeed, we suspect that many only found out when they did not begin to age as their peers did, or through mishap that would have ended in the death of a normal mortal.?
“But I cut myself peeling yams last week and there was blood everywhere!?
“Oh, the Gifted aren’t invulnerable.? The younger monk said, nodding. “They can still be hurt and heal normally, but they are immortal, at least as far as we understand the word.?
“This is preposterous, I can’t be Gifted, I am no warrior.? She said with finality. Rumours about the Gifted abounded, but it was a well known fact that the Gifted seemed inevitably drawn to war. It was their calling; it was said, to fight the Withered Aegis. It was undoubtedly the reason they were brought into existence.
“Have you ever tried to wield a blade beyond a carving knife??
“Well… no…?
“Aha!?
She shook her head, truly disbelieving. None of her family had been Gifted, when it was said that the Gift ran in families… but then, did it matter? The monk had said that the Gifted who had experienced the ‘dream’ had no connection beyond their mortal status. Maybe that was all smoke and falsehood too, like the tales of their invulnerability, concocted by ignorance and assumption. She suddenly felt appreciation for the works that the young monk and his brethren did. It was more work separating the wheat of truth from the chaff of hearsay than harrowing a quarry.
“There’s only one way to prove it.? The old Abbot said, smiling at the look of ultimate confusion plastered across her face. “You will have to do the test again.?
She thought about it for a moment, still stunned by the revelation that she could be amongst the elite few who were lucky enough to be Gifted. She had never so much as hoped let alone suspected. Sighing, she resigned herself. If she was, her life as she knew it would be at an end. If she wasn’t, well, she could go back to sleepy Parsinia and forget that this had ever happened. Even as she thought about the town and the bed she had left unmade before they had set out, the idea of simply ignoring what had happened seemed somehow wrong, as though it would be a betrayal of the life she had shared as it had been cruelly snuffed out of existence. In a strange way, she had felt as if it had been her life.
“When do we begin?? She asked gruffly.