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What Lies at the End

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The summon to the throne room is not wholly unexpected, though Leon did not ever think the day would come.

He is asked to come alone, without his dragon companion. It's not often that the two of them are separated, but the messenger had been quite firm in telling them that Rose insisted Leon come alone, so Raihan accompanies him down to the throne room and waits for him directly outside its massive doors. 

Leon has some idea of what the conversation with Rose may entail. But over the last several years, he has had this same thought multiple times, and has always been disappointed. He takes several deep breaths, preparing himself for whatever may lie ahead, and pushes open the doors.

Rose, King Regent of the Kingdom, and his stepfather, is waiting atop the throne, looking as though he is deep in thought. His minister Oleana stands at his side, impassive as ever, with a covered chest behind her. Leon scans their faces for any hint as to what they want of him, but their expressions reveal nothing.

"Leon, my son," Rose says, voice booming through the throne hall. "It is good of you to come this morning."

"Of course, sire," Leon answers carefully. "I understand that you summoned me here?" 

Rose nods, rubbing at his chin. "Yes, I did. Leon, you were of the age to complete a coming of age journey some years ago, correct?”

His heart skips a beat. “That is correct, sire.”

“Hm.” Rose scratches at his beard, deep in thought. “I know that you have not been able to go on one. Part of that is my fault, for being unable to arrange one for you; but you know how busy the Kingdom’s affairs are.”

Most adolescents are assigned a coming of age quest in their late teens, but those years went and passed, and one never came. Leon waits silently, unwilling to betray his anticipation, and Rose continues speaking after a brief pause.

“You know of the blight that has been plaguing the castle town and its surrounding lands as of late; it is poisoning the farmlands and the water, and the people of Wyndonburg’s have been suffering.” He furrows his brow. “Oleana has traced the source of the disease under the castle. It appears the cause of the blight is a demon.”

“A… demon, sire?” Leon frowns. “I thought those were uncommon in the Kingdom?”

“They are.” Rose sighs. “We are not sure how one could have infiltrated so deep into our lands… but it appears that this one may have been here for some time. It is a danger to the Kingdom, and must be dealt with immediately.”

Leon has never faced a demon before; they are exceptionally rare and powerful creatures of the dark, and cause widespread death and disaster anywhere they go. Prone to madness, and notorious for tempting humans into doing their dark bidding. The books of history in the castle libraries are all too clear about the devastation demons have wrought throughout the centuries. They are masterful tricksters, inexorably cruel, and typically, they are dealt with by appeasing them with sacrifices, or killed by elite, specially trained demon hunters.

“I am to slay the demon, then?” he asks, hesitantly.

"Smart boy. Yes, you are to slay it. This will be your coming of age quest." Rose speaks solemnly, the weight of his words piling upon Leon's shoulders. "When that cursed demon is slain and exorcised, and you have brought back proof of the demon’s demise, the Kingdom will be free from its influence, and your coronation as the Kingdom’s rightful king will follow." 

Leon could cry from relief, but he does his best to school his expression into one of serious intent and bows deeply. “Thank you, sire. We will not disappoint you; Raihan and I will be sure to keep the Kingdom safe from any threat.”

Rose frowns, as if he has just remembered something. "As according to custom, I suppose that you may take your dragon vassal with you," he concedes. "Though your mother did hers alone…”

“The records show that the vast majority of the Kingdom’s rulers took their dragon companions with them on their journeys, sire,” Leon says, hesitantly. Rose sighs.

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Very well, Raihan may come with you. On such a dangerous task, it does not hurt to have a dragon’s protection.”

Though Rose has served as Regent for the last fifteen years after the late queen’s death, and as the queen’s advisor for the two decades before that, he does not have the bright golden eyes that mark him as being of royal blood, and as such, Rose does not have a dragon companion of his own. Draconic advisors sit in the castle’s council, but they are not bound to him the way Leon and Raihan are bound.

Centuries ago, the divine dragon clan that resides in the Kingdom made a pact with the royal family, to act as their protectors in exchange for an end to the poaching of their kind. Dragon hunting had been prolific at the time, and both humans and dragons alike suffered from the violence; the pact had since enacted lasting peace for both sides, thankfully, and though dragon poachers still surface from time to time, most dragons are happy to supply humans with scales or blood or other goods in exchange for trinkets for their hoards.

Nowadays, however, the dragons no longer serve as the royal family’s protectors, and have instead been elevated to the status of the Kingdom’s co-rulers, ruling alongside their human counterparts. A young hatchling is selected from the divine dragon clan to complement each member of the royal family from a young age, and Raihan had been chosen as the one to accompany him on his life’s journey. Being the draconic partner of a crown prince, Raihan is equal in rank with Leon, and will have ruling rights alongside him once he is crowned.

Their degree of closeness was rare, even amongst royals and their dragon partners; dragons could develop a weak telepathic link with a single individual, being able to share emotions with one whom they were exceptionally close to, and he and Raihan had developed this connection early in their youth. That emotional bond only strengthened their synergy in every way; they covered for each other's weaknesses so perfectly that Leon couldn’t ever imagine Raihan not accompanying him on any mission, no matter how small.

"You will set off at dawn tomorrow," Rose commands. "Pack your supplies well, and rid our lands of the hellspawn that dwells upon it. May the Light watch over you, my son." 

-

As Leon leaves the throne room, he notes, with surprise, that Raihan is nowhere to be found. However, in his place, his brother Hop is waiting for him, and he lights up when he spots Leon. Hop's own dragon companion, Victor, is standing by his side, amused at his partner's excitement.

"Lee!" the young prince grins. "I overheard—you're finally going on your coming of age journey! You're going to be legendary!" 

Hop is nearly at the age where he should be able to go on his own quest, soon; though if his own were any indication, Rose is likely to put off Hop's journey indefinitely as well. Hop still thinks that the coming of age is the most exciting thing he should be looking forward to, in his life, and Leon has no doubt that Victor will keep his brother safe when they do go on their journey. But where Leon is accustomed to night rides for bandit patrols and long monster hunts, Hop has always been more of a bookworm, caught up in fantastical bestiaries and grandiose tales of their ancestors' exploits. Their mock sword fights in the controlled armory of the castle, and the lessons taught by parchment and quill; none of that matters in the real world. No honourable duel between knights trains one for a midnight ambush when twelve bandits decide to team up against a prince and his dragon companion to pilfer their gold. 

Leon had tried to tell this to Hop before, but bright-eyed, eager Hop only heard tales of valour and bravery. So he continues to hope, selfish as it may be, that Hop will be able to remain glued to his books forever, and never have to face the reality of real battle. 

"Just you wait for me, Hop,” Leon says, doing his best to grin for his brother. He gives both Hop and Victor a steady clap on the shoulder. “We’ll be back in no time, and we can tell you two all about what the demon was like.”

-

As it turns out, Raihan had easily overheard the conversation that had gone on in the throne room, and retreated to Leon’s quarters, where he had been anxiously awaiting his partner’s return.

“Are you sure you have to do this, Leon?”

Raihan’s tail is swishing anxiously behind him as he watches Leon prepare for the journey. He’s unusually restless, pacing around the prince’s quarters and shifting periodically between his human and dragon forms. Currently, he’s somewhere halfway, unable to sit still, and the swishing of his tail betrays his anxiety as he tries not to shred Leon’s drapes to rags.

“You can stay behind if you like, you know I leave that decision entirely up to you,” Leon says, wrapping up bundles of salt and incense and stuffing them into his pack. A series of vials of holy water go in as well. “We’ve fought off many monsters before, and the Minister gave me special demon-slaying equipment, besides.”

Demons burn in the presence of sunlight. Salt purifies and repels evil spirits, holy water vanquishes. Here are some herbs and incense for protection and warding; remember their properties. Let your dragon's holy flame cleanse and cast the shade into the Light. 

It's their first time fighting a demon, but Leon has slain countless night creatures and monsters before. A demon, while far more dangerous, is not so different in principle. Half physical, half spirit, and entirely of the dark. 

“You know I’m not leaving you to go slay a demon in the catacombs alone,” Raihan says, interrupting Leon's reverie. He wrinkles his nose. “Oleana knows her monster-slaying, I’ll give her that. But still, this is a demon we’re talking about…”

Of course. Divine dragons and demons have had an instinctive hatred of each other for as long as history could remember, and one meeting another always results in either party's certain death, so Raihan’s fear is palpable. But Raihan is normally calm in the face of danger, and has an infinite confidence in his own ability to keep himself safe; he’s never once been this nervous about a mission before. On a typical quest, he'd be raring to go as soon as Leon finished his preparations, so the fact that he's so antsy for once must mean… 

Leon puts his gear down for the time being, taking hold of Raihan’s restless hands and doing his best to send nothing but calm confidence through their bond. “I know you’re worried for me, but I have to do this at some point, Rai,” he says. “I’ve had to put off the journey for so many years already. We’ll be fine,” he reassures him, putting on his most excited expression. “What can't the two of us overcome together?"

He smiles as earnestly as he can manage, and knows he's succeeded when acceptance flows through their emotional bond, and Raihan's shoulders relax from their tense position. 

"I know," Raihan sighs eventually. "I just can't stand the thought of you getting hurt, that's all.”

"The most injury I'll get is when I take a wrong turn and trip over a rock," Leon jokes, and he's relieved to see that it finally cracks a grin on Raihan's face as well. 

"Alright, alright, I get it. You're the brave hero on the quest to save the Kingdom, and I'm only there to save you from your own clumsy feet," Raihan grins, back to his usual carefree self. He musses up Leon's hair affectionately. "Let me know what else I can carry for you, or else your pack’ll get too heavy and then you really will trip down into the depths of the catacombs.”

The journey isn’t predicted to take long, but Leon packs vigorously nonetheless: protection runes, torches, camping supplies, healing salves, items for warding off malicious intent. His sword, an heirloom passed through the royal line and inherited from his mother, an elegant hand-and-a-half damascus-steel blade inlaid with silver and blessed by the Light; suitable for slaying the living and undead alike. He straps most of the exorcising equipment onto his own belt, and less critical supplies go in a pack for Raihan to carry.

Raihan has little preparation to do, in comparison, so he fully shifts into his dragon form to sunbathe for the remaining hours of daylight, orange scales catching the rays and scattering golden flecks of light across Leon’s chamber. The sun’s rays replenish his stores of light magic, which will be invaluable to them in the darkness of the dungeons beneath the castle. Leon himself has very little magic ability, only able to charm his equipment with weak light magic, so he lets his partner rest while he continues to gather his supplies in silence. 

He’s grateful that Raihan has agreed to come along with him; though neither of them are one to back down from a challenge, this is technically Leon’s quest, after all, and Raihan has no obligation to come along with him. Dragon clans have their own coming-of-age quests, and Raihan’s clan could easily assign him one if he didn’t feel up to facing a demon. But over the years, Raihan has always been there for him through thick and thin, a steady calm to balance his own intensity, and sometimes, Leon can’t help but wonder what he does for Raihan in return.

Looking at Raihan, peacefully napping in the dwindling afternoon light, he thinks of all their sparring matches, and the days they would run off together and escape their tutors to lay in the fields and watch the clouds go by, and Leon thinks to himself that he’d like to selfishly hold on to these good times for as long as he can.

-

Confident as he is in his abilities, Leon makes a trip to the castle mausoleum, late in the night before their departure. It does not hurt to be prudent, and he traverses the familiar path to the chamber where his parents lie; while he regularly gets lost in every other part of the castle despite having grown up here, this is the one place he can find no matter where he is.

His parents died quite suddenly a decade and a half ago, when he was but a small child, and the massive portrait that hangs upon these cold stone walls is all he has to remember their faces by. Leon's heart aches at the sight of their gentle expressions, made permanent in oils, and yet the masterful rendering does nothing to capture the beautiful gold of his mother's eyes that he remembers from his childhood. The same deep golden eyes he inherited, as the mark of the royal bloodline. 

Long ago, when the world was nil—the Light blessed a champion, to fight back against the encroaching dark. The scathing Light burned away all that was tainted, and left the champion blind, for the Light was not meant to be gazed upon by mortal eyes. But the holy champion, cleansed of corporeal temptation, carried out tremendous victories in the great war, and carved a space in the endless dark, in which humanity could gain a foothold and survive. The champion became the founding monarch of the great Kingdom, and even today, the descendants of that great hero bear striking golden eyes. 

So went the myth of the Kingdom. Leon remembers asking his mother to tell it to him, night after night, and though her duties as ruler and parent left her very little time to herself, she always told him the story again and again with a loving smile upon her face. 

Those days have long since gone, and now, kneeling on the cold stone floor before the caskets of his parents, Leon can't help but feel a woeful longing for the warm embrace of his mother and father in front of the fire. 

"Please watch over me on my journey," Leon murmurs into the silence around him. 

-

In the morning, before the sun has even completed its ascent over the eastern mountains, a convoy of attendants lead them down to the castle’s catacombs, where a heavily barred iron gate awaits them. Normally, the reigning monarch or regent would be present to send them off; but Rose has gone away on a diplomatic mission, so Oleana has come to see them off in his stead.

The gate is slowly raised, creaking ominously to reveal the gaping dark. Somewhere, deep beneath the castle, a demon awaits them. 

"May the Light watch over you," Oleana says, gazing at them both. For a brief moment, something akin to sadness flickers over her face; but then Leon blinks, and it’s gone just as quickly.

“No time like the present,” Leon says, steeling his resolve. He tightens his grip on his blade. “Let’s go, Raihan.”

Chapter Text

In theory, all he has to do is find the demon in the catacombs, and slay it.

In reality, the mission is not so simple. There are no maps of the catacombs, and what little information Oleana had provided him of its layout is useless in the face of caved-in tunnels, secret chambers and the infinite, unending dark. Their meager torchlight does little to pierce the shadows; all they have to guide them are the halls descending into the earth, and Raihan's senses as to where the light is at its faintest, and the darkness its most sinister. If not for his partner, Leon is quite confident that he would soon become lost down here in a heartbeat.

Rats and shadow creatures flit about at their feet, but for the most part, the mere aura of Raihan’s magic scares them off, and they only occasionally have to deal with a couple of beasts that are bold or hungry enough to attempt an attack on them.

The maze-like corridors they follow are bleak, just barren, stone-bricked walls and empty sconces, endless halls that branch off into sections of dungeons and storage rooms. The prison cells of the dungeons have long since been abandoned to time. But the deeper they go, the more an unsettling sense of dread seeps into their hearts. 

Alchemy stations, glittering with gold dust and shattered glass. Torture chambers of iron maidens and breaking wheels. Strange altars with otherworldly, twisted configurations that give them such a sense of dread Leon knows they are better left alone. Some of these items show signs of recent use; he’s not sure he wants to know.

It's strange. He had not known that these… activities were being done here, under the castle; by who, he hasn’t the faintest inkling. Raihan seems disturbed as well, examining everything warily from a healthy distance. But it is not their job to investigate these, and Raihan senses no lingering malice clinging to the cursed objects, so the two of them hurry past the ominous artifacts and follow the darkness deeper in.

Even further down, the stone brick of their environment gives way to twisting, bare cavern, so rarely used they hadn't been worth paving. Whatever traces of activity that may have existed here once have long since crumbled to dust; and yet, Raihan picks up on the faint scent of burnt flesh, growing ever more pungent. The telltale sign of a demonic presence.

At this point, this far in the stifling dark, Leon’s torch hardly illuminates past his own feet, and Raihan shifts fully into his dragon form so that he can see better in the dark. All he can do is place one careful foot in front of the other, and trust in Raihan to watch out for the both of them. The scuttling footsteps of night creatures around them grows the further they traverse, as do the squeals in the dark. The shadows cling to their feet, and it is only when they set up camp and light a fire that the darkspawn are encouraged to keep at bay.

The demon could ambush them at any moment; it’s for the best that they remain as well rested as they can manage, so Leon takes first watch, guarding their meager refuge while Raihan rests. It's been many hours they've travelled, and the many hours of trekking over uneven stone tunnels has worn them out; they nap in turns, sleeping lightly and rousing at the lightest disturbance. Leon’s bones ache, and he wishes that he could take the time to get in some proper sleep before they have to face their objective. But soon they must continue on, and follow the stone trails downward.

At the end of the path, the cavern opens up to reveal a grand set of heavy iron doors, pitch black and imposing against the rock. The torchlight glistens off of them ominously. Here, all is silent; even Leon can sense the danger thick in the air. Raihan pauses, sniffing the air and growling.

“I have a bad feeling about this place,” he says, radiating caution. “This must be it.”

When Leon pushes at the great doors, they groan in protest, and for a moment, he wonders if age has sealed these doors shut. But then Raihan joins him, and together they heave and shove until the rusted hinges give way and slowly creak open. Leon tightens his grip on his sword; Raihan rubs his cheek against him comfortingly. 

The room beyond the grand set of doors is smaller than expected; their single torch manages to fully illuminate the small chamber, revealing carved stone walls and a worn altar. The scent of burnt ruination is at its sharpest here. Lines of crumbled red wax and runes are drawn across the floor, surrounding its perimeter and clustered near the doorway. 

“Binding magic,” Raihan murmurs. “Keep an eye out.”

But the room is small enough that its entirety is visible from where the pair stands at its entrance, and Leon frowns as he casts his eyes about. He had half expected the demon, or at least some kind of danger, to ambush them as soon as they entered, but as the seconds pass, nothing happens, and continues to not happen. His heart is pounding in his ears from the adrenaline, and he can sense that Raihan is just as on edge as he is.

A shadowy mass rests in the center of the room, so dark that the light from their torch does nothing to distinguish its features. It is only when the mass raises its pale head to look up into their eyes does Leon realize what it is. 

"I would know that stench anywhere," the demon sneers, from where it is bound to the floor. "Ye lot reek of Rose." 

The lilt of its voice is almost melodic, though its words are furious, and the piercing blue-green of the demon’s eyes almost shine against the black of the sclera. Despite the heavy, hexed chains restraining the creature to the ground, even Leon can sense the powerful magic radiating off of it, and he can't help the shiver that runs up his spine as the demon hisses with hostility. Everything in his body is screaming danger at him, and he raises his sword in a defensive stance; at his side, Raihan growls, scales standing on end and bristling warily. 

Leon feels the shift in the air before he sees it; power surges around Raihan and the burn of divine light magic gathers around the dragon. The demon snarls as it senses the danger, and yanks against its restraints in vain, though the pulse of black magic fizzes out and dies in the face of the powerful binding runes around its frail wrists. 

This seems too easy. There is no use for the salt, the holy water, the supplies in his pack, let alone the sacred sword in his hands. One blast of Raihan's holy magic will be enough to burn the weakened demon to ashes. Unease settles in his core, and before he can think about what he’s doing, he quickly sheathes his sword and shouts for his partner.

“Raihan, wait!” Leon yells.

The lurch is palpable when Raihan’s magic is sapped, his instincts urging him to follow Leon’s guidance, and the burn of light magic dissipates from the air. The dragon whines, clearly distressed, but something is eating at Leon.

“You know Rose,” he says, facing the demon. 

“Of course I know the bloody bastard, he trapped me here,” it spits. 

Leon frowns. “Rose… trapped you here?”

The demon hisses. “I said what I said. Bastard chained me to this room and left me here to rot.”

“Leon, this is a demon. Don’t listen to it, it’s just trying to use you.” Raihan’s agitation is apparent, radiating off him in waves. Through their bond, Leon can feel Raihan's anxiety quickening his own heart rate, but he takes a deep breath and tries to send nothing but reassurance back to him.

“I know, Rai, but please—I feel like something’s really not right about this. Please, trust me?”

Raihan grumbles and whines, but he eventually settles on his haunches, looking directly at Leon. “Only because I trust you,” he says testily. “It’s against everything I know, to converse with the nightspawn, but… you know I trust you more than anything else.”

“Thank you, Rai,” Leon beams, relieved, and then he turns to the shadowy entity before them. He doesn’t know where to even start, but… introductions are always a safe bet, he supposes.

Carefully, he asks, “What’s your name?”

The shadow merely scoffs. “I am but a minor demon, human. Ye ought to know that if I told you my true name, I'd soon lose all of my power.”

“Good,” Raihan mutters under his breath, but Leon hushes him and tries again.

“Okay, I respect that. But I’d like to call you by something more pleasant than 'demon', if that’s alright with you.”

“Hm,” the demon concedes, seeming leery. “...You may call me Piers.” 

Leon sighs in relief. “Thank you, Piers,” he says sincerely. “I am Leon, crown prince of the Kingdom, and this is Raihan, crown dragon and my partner. Would you mind if I asked a few questions of you?" 

"It’s not like I have a choice, do I?" Piers sneers, yanking against his restraints and letting the metal clank against itself. Fair enough.

Leon furrows his brow, and concentrates on figuring out what it is that is eating at him. There’s something that doesn’t quite add up.

“Why would Rose trap you here?”

“‘Cause I’m a demon?” Piers says scornfully. “Why else d’ye think? Ye light dwellers hate the darkspawn, and rightfully so.”

"That’s understandable, but… His Majesty the King Regent Rose told us that the blight across the Kingdom was being caused by a demon residing under the castle," Leon recalls slowly. "Is this true?" 

Piers scoffs. "I’ve been trapped here since the first winter after the bastard became Regent; I can't even summon enough magic to get out of this shithole. Ye think I have the power to rain blight upon the lands, in this state?" 

“A decade and a half he’s been down here, then,” Raihan murmurs stiffly. Leon, too, bites his lip. 

A decade and a half. The timing is too close to be a coincidence. 

“Was… why did Rose decide to trap you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Leon says slowly. He’s not sure he wants to know. His hand reaches for his blade, ever so slightly, his mother’s gold eyes flashing before his eyes.

“Ye really can’t figure it out?” Piers hisses. “I told you, Rose hates demons. I’m a fuckin’ demon, in case ye haven’t noticed, and we demons are dangerous creatures. Why else would the bastard trap me here?”

“He didn’t imprison you because you’d killed anyone, or anything?” Raihan pushes. 

“Nah,” Piers says. “There was enough death lurkin’ in that castle to drive even a demon off.”

He doesn’t elaborate on that cryptic statement. Raihan gives Leon a look.

“Even if the timing’s just a coincidence, I doubt Rose would have trapped a demon for no reason,” Raihan says hesitantly. “Though I also don’t understand why Rose didn’t just kill him then, and waited until now to send us.”

“Beats me,” Piers huffs. “Ye done interrogatin’ me yet?”

“For now,” Raihan says. “Leon… I still don’t think it’s wise to trust what he’s saying yet. But I don’t think he’s lying about not being responsible for the blight, at least.”

Looking him over, Leon has to agree that, no, Piers doesn't seem nearly powerful enough to cause widespread disease across the kingdom. Perhaps it’s because of the complete normalcy of his name as well, but now that he’s taken a closer look at him, and has a name to put to the face, Piers looks less like the sinister, apocalyptic horror that Rose had described, and more like a mere prisoner; bones jut from his thin frame, and his sunken eyes contrast sharply with the pallor of his countenance. The white streaks in his black hair are grayed with soot and years’ worth of grime.

Leon knows full well that appearances can be deceiving. He’s lived his whole life being taught not to trust anything he’s told, unless it came from the palace. Rose and Oleana’s voices are clear in his mind.

You are the crown prince of the Kingdom, Leon. You must grow up to be a powerful leader who thinks first of the Kingdom and its people. And you must never show weakness.

Given the chance, he’s sure Raihan would gladly cover for his moment of weakness, and complete the mission for him; the two of them would return to the castle, officially having come of age, and be crowned together as the Kingdom’s new rulers. But that doesn’t feel right to him, not with his gut screaming at him and saying that something is incredibly wrong, and for once, Rose isn’t here to tell him to be strong, be a good leader, don’t be weak or selfish .

He thinks of Rose. Cold and stern, an excellent leader. He thinks of his parents, warm by the fire. He knows what his heart says.

“Can I free you, somehow?” Leon blurts. 

For a moment, Piers and Raihan just stare at him, uncomprehending. 

“Are ye stupid?” Piers asks, squinting. “Ye want to free a demon from imprisonment? Mortal enemies of divine dragons, exterminators of mankind? Ye don’t think there’s a reason I’m locked down here?”

“Right,” Raihan says, and then corrects himself. “I mean, no, I’m not agreeing with him. But Leon… are you sure about this? You know how dangerous the darkspawn are. The Kingdom...”

“Don’t you think Rose’s story was suspicious?” Leon asks. “He told us to kill a demon that was wreaking havoc across the Kingdom, but Piers here is clearly confined and barely has the strength to even move. Those binding runes on his shackles make it impossible for him to use magic, don’t they? I doubt he could even have retaliated, when we almost attacked him, let alone started the blight."

"I know your heart’s set on this, so I won’t argue with you on that front," Raihan says cautiously. “But as your crown partner, I have to save you from your own kindness, Leon. What proof do we have that he isn't lying about all this, and that he won't just kill us as soon as we free him? Countless people, royalty or otherwise, have been tempted by demons before. We don’t have to free him. We could just leave him here."

Piers narrows his eyes at Leon. "The dragon’s right, prince. Don't make promises ye can't keep. If ye have no intention of freein' me, then either kill me or begone." 

It's true. Leon has no evidence to prove that Piers won't betray them as soon as they take off the restraints, and he struggles to find the words to explain what he feels to Raihan. He can sense the trepidation coming from Raihan, underneath that calm expression; he needs to reassure Raihan and convince his partner to trust him on his gut instinct. 

"I know what demons are capable of, Raihan," Leon says, fighting to find his words. "And I know the stories they tell around the Kingdom. But I really, really get the sense that Piers, at least, isn't lying about this. I don’t feel good about abandoning him here, if there’s something we can do about it." 

"If it makes you feel better, I trust the dragon about as much as he trusts me," Piers interjects. He takes a deep breath, as if he's trying to calm himself, and fixes Raihan with a piercing gaze. "I get it. Humans and demons are creatures of lies, right? S’been a long time since I’ve done this, but…”

He twists his lips; there’s a shift, imperceptible to Leon’s eyes, and then a guttural, sonorous speech unlike any Leon is familiar with comes spilling from his mouth. The sounds are incomprehensible to Leon’s ears, far removed from any human language he knows, but Raihan stiffens like a board, the blood draining from his face as he listens to the dissonant harmony.

“You—you can speak in dragontongue.”

“Aye,” Piers says tiredly. “Ye know what that means.”

“What did he say?” Leon asks, turning to his partner. 

“He… swears not to harm us so long as we don’t harm him first,” Raihan translates slowly. “And that if we free him, he’ll owe us a debt.”

“A debt?” Leon asks, confused. Raihan seems hesitant to continue, so Leon takes his hand and squeezes it encouragingly.

“The thing is, lies cannot be uttered in dragontongue… and favours from demons are not given out lightly. It’s rare that it happens, and they’re tricky creatures, but demons will always repay a debt owed. He’s serious about this, if we are.”

“I know ye divine dragons despise us, but we have pride, thank you,” Piers scoffs. “I’d rather rot here than be branded an oathbreaker by other demons. They’re far scarier than you could ever be, little dragon.”

Raihan pauses, and asks something in dragontongue, to which Piers replies in kind. Raihan hums and mulls over the words as he translates. “He also promises not to kill anyone or cause wanton destruction, unless it’s to fulfill his end of the debt.” He scowls, and his voice drops severely. “If you ever hurt Leon, demon, know this: I will hunt you down to the ends of the world.”

Þencst me wærlogan —Just swore to you, in dragontongue, that I would harm neither you nor your bound human, but ye have my word.” Piers rolls his eyes as he addresses Raihan, but he makes his promise solemnly. There isn’t a shred of deceit to be found anywhere in his eyes.

“What do you think, Leon?” Raihan asks. “I’m still wary, but if you truly think it’s for the best…”

Piers looks exhausted. Resigned, perhaps. But if even Raihan can confirm the veracity of what Piers has said, then Leon has no doubts that he truly means them no harm. 

"I trust him completely," Leon says sincerely, and bends down to examine the chains. "How do we get your bindings off?” Piers visibly recoils from him, but his restraints prevent him from moving far, even as Raihan steps up and tugs at the chains with a claw. His eyes widen in fear at having a dragon in such close proximity. 

“This is a pretty complex charm on these chains,” Raihan says, examining them closely. “Magic nullification, preventing spirits from phasing through them, various effects like that. But the chains themselves are nothing impressive.”

A sweeping brush of Raihan’s tail erases the binding runes on the ground, and he shears the chains apart with his claws. They instantly tear like sodden paper, the chains clattering to the ground, and the restraining magic is quickly expunged and gone. Piers rises unsteadily to his legs, free from the weight of hexed iron. 

Piers is shorter and thinner than either Leon or Raihan, but the aura of dark magic around him is intimidating in a way that more than compensates for his smaller size. For a brief moment, Leon is struck with debilitating fear, panicking that perhaps he misjudged the situation; Raihan, too, tenses up by his side, ready to pounce. But Piers bows deeply, surprising them both, and a rippling cloak of magic settles over his appearance. The scent of hellfire dissipates, and his horns and wings melt away, as do his blackened sclera. The pulse of darkness vanishes from around him, leaving Piers looking, at the end of it all, like a fairly normal human. 

“I cannot thank you enough,” he says. “As promised, I owe you both a life debt.” 

“Let's go over the terms of the debt, then,” Raihan says, settling down on his haunches. 

Dragons take their negotiations seriously, Leon knows, and it seems demons do as well. Although, he suspects part of the reason Raihan is so eager to get on with this is because demons are known for their trickery, and Raihan is nothing but thorough when arranging deals. Leon has a strong dislike for formal talks, himself, as he never had the knack for bargaining; nor did he ever enjoy asking for something in return for his services. But Piers hums, sitting down on the floor across from Raihan, so Leon joins them, sitting a little off to the side, next to his partner. Raihan and Piers are staring at each other gravely, never breaking eye contact.

“Let’s see. The two of you freed me from imprisonment, and I’d have otherwise been stuck here for what may have been eternity,” Piers says. “So, let’s put it on the value of my life, shall we?”

“Works by me,” Raihan agrees, picking his next words slowly and deliberately. “In the case that either, or both, of our lives, those being mine or Leon's, are in mortal peril, your debt is repaid when you have saved both of our lives in return.”

“Two lives in exchange for mine, is it?” Piers grins. “Since ye both played a part in my freedom, I accept. Normally, I’d disagree on that imbalance, but I know ye dragon cronies are awfully attached to your little humans.”  

Leon senses a twinge of irritation from Raihan, but his companion doesn’t show it, and continues smoothly. “Then we have a deal. Leon, any stipulations you’d like to add?”

He wouldn’t even know where to start. Leon shakes his head firmly, so Raihan turns back to Piers. “How would you have it formalized?”

“Blood pact?” Piers asks, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Raihan growls. “Demon blood is toxic, so no, I refuse.”

“Oh, so ye do know!” Piers cackles. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have actually gone through with it. Dragonsblood is toxic to us demons too, y'know.” He licks his lips. “What do ye prefer, then? Written contract? Verbal oath? Sexual—”

“Verbal oath,” Raihan interrupts. “Leon can’t speak dragontongue, so we’ll get his consent in plain speak, and I’ll translate for him.”

The two of them turn to Leon, who blinks owlishly, lips suddenly dry.

“Was I supposed to learn about how to do a verbal oath, at any point in my lessons?” he asks. Raihan cracks a smile.

“Mate, maybe if you hadn’t skipped all your lessons in negotiations, you’d know what to do.” Affection washes through their bond, soothing Leon. “State your name and title, and give concise, unambiguous assent to the contract’s terms.”

Leon does as he is told, and Raihan wastes no time in repeating the clause in dragontongue, adding his part in as well. The inhuman sounds of that ancient language dance through the tiny chamber, wrapped around the smooth timbre of Raihan’s voice. Piers purses his lips, mulling over the terms; when he is satisfied, he speaks his portion in dragontongue as well.

Piers has an alluring voice, with different intonations from Raihan’s. Underneath that sweet melodic voice, though, his tone is marred with a disquieting quality. Like claws against slate, or an untuned string. Shivers run up his spine; Raihan narrows his eyes.

“...I agree with the terms, but Piers isn’t your true name, though, is it.”

“No, but if ye want the contract to have any effect, then I cannot use my demonic name.”

“Fine,” Raihan huffs. “That won’t change the efficacy of the pact, will it?”

“No,” Piers repeats, and repeats himself in dragontongue.

Raihan dips his head, finally satisfied. “Then our contract is complete.”

"So what's your plan now, Piers?" Leon asks, letting out a sigh of relief. 

"Nothin’," Piers says, waving his hand dismissively. "I s'ppose I'll follow you to the surface and decide there." 

“You can’t just go home to whatever dark place you come from?” Raihan grouses. “You can shadowtravel, can’t you?”

“No strength,” Piers replies. He’s rubbing at the ashen skin of his wrists, as if he’d forgotten what the bare skin there felt like. “Like I said. 've been bound for long enough that my magic's been suppressed. Don’t know anythin’ of how the outside world is right now, either.”

“Then you’ll have to walk all the way up with us,” Raihan sighs, turning to leave the chamber. “I’m itching to get out of the dark as soon as we can. I hope those skinny legs of yours remember how to walk.”

“Hold on, before we go.” Piers interrupts. “Ye say Rose sent you here to slay me, correct?”

Leon scratches at his head. “Er, well, yes. That was the original plan.”

“Ye can’t go back without some sort of proof. Here,” he offers, tutting, and before Leon can realize what’s going on, Piers has snatched his sword from its sheath and cut off a small length of his hair.

"I can't offer you my head, and I would have given you my left hand, were I not too weak to regenerate flesh and bone," Piers sighs regretfully. “Alas, ye shall have to suffice with a mere lock of my hair.”

He ignores the bewildered (and slightly horrified) looks that Leon and Raihan are giving him, and holds out the bundle for Leon to take.

“Uh, thank you,” Leon stammers, gingerly taking the bundle in his hand. He’s still a little bit in shock at how quickly Piers had grabbed his sword from him, and how casually he had offered his own hand, but he can see the distinctive white-and-black pattern clearly visible on the tuft; Rose should know immediately who it belongs to. 

Piers seems to have misunderstood Leon’s silence as him not knowing what to do with it, because he says, “Ye don’t strike me as someone who’s good at lyin’.” 

“No, he’s not,” Raihan agrees, finally recovering from his surprise. Leon makes a wounded noise, but finds that he can't argue otherwise. 

“Mm, thought so. Ye tell the story to Rose, then, say I disintegrated to ashes and this was all that was left. Leon can pretend he’s too worn from battle to say anythin’.” Piers looks around the small chamber, and sighs. “Well, let’s be off.”

-

Piers is relatively quiet, on the way up, only speaking when either he or Raihan ask him something; unsurprisingly, he isn’t used to physical exertion, and they have to stop frequently for him to rest. But what Leon can tell is noticeably different about the return journey is that the dark seems less stifling around them; the night creatures don’t come so close to them, and the shadows give them a wide berth. He’s able to keep his sword sheathed on the entire trip, and Raihan easily takes them back through the caverns and the dungeons.

The stone halls slowly begin to brighten, as they near the surface; Leon isn't quite sure how long they spent in the depths, but judging by the light at the end of the final staircase, it appears to be nearing evening. Raihan perks up noticeably, eager to be bathed in the rays of the sun once more, but Piers slows down, hesitating.

“It’s fuckin’ bright,” he mutters, scratching at his arms. “I’ll burn if I go any further than this.”

“Then burn,” Raihan says without hesitating, not slowing down in the slightest. “I’m not keen to be in the dark a moment longer.”

“Aw, how sweet,” Piers snaps back, pushing himself to catch up to Raihan. “And here I thought ye’d love to have demonic protection by your side.”

“Leon and I can protect each other just fine,” Raihan quips. “You owe us, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with us.”

“Please stop bickering, you two,” Leon sighs. “Piers, you’re not obligated to follow us. You could always wait here until night, and go your own ways then.”

Piers looks between them, sorting through his options, and then he smirks.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he says, and Leon blinks to see him melting into the gloom around them.

I’ll be in your shadows if ye need me , Piers’ voice laughs in their heads, and Leon glances down just in time to see a flicker of a grin disappear into the dark at Raihan’s feet.

Why ,” Raihan complains, swatting uselessly at his own shadow. “You’re free to go wherever you want now!”

Were ye not the one concerned about what I’d do to the world once I had my freedom?

Raihan grumbles, but he gives up and shifts back into his human form, muttering under his breath every so often when Piers says something in his head. Leon can only sense a wary resignation emanating from Raihan, lacking any real animosity, and he can’t help but laugh, climbing after his partner back into the light.

Chapter Text

Rose bears a strange expression upon his face when they return to the throne room. Leon knew better than to expect a warm welcome upon their return, but the look upon his stepfather's face stirs up the unease in his heart. The Regent looks dissatisfied, somehow. Discontent. But Leon is forced to push this thought aside as he and Raihan approach the throne, and the consequences of his choices begin to catch up to him. 

He won't be able to lie to Rose, if the Regent scrutinizes their story too closely. Leon has never failed in a mission to slay a monster before, let alone outright disobeyed an order—let alone disobey the very order that would guarantee his ascension to the throne, a turning point in his life; and if Rose were to find out that he had released a demon into the Kingdom...

He’s startled when Raihan gives him a strong pat on the back, and he nearly jumps out of his own skin. Raihan has a leisurely look upon his face, and waves of deliberate, calm confidence wash over Leon, soothing his restless pulse. The comforting warmth flowing through their bond brings him back to the present, and he takes in Raihan’s knowing gaze. He hadn’t realized his emotions had been so loud.

“Come on, the hardest part of the mission’s over,” Raihan says gently. “We just gotta report it now, right?”

...Right. Raihan is the one with the silver tongue, and he has absolute faith in Raihan’s ability to talk his way out of any situation. As long as he can adequately feign his fatigue (which, he really is quite tired), then they are almost certain to get out of this with no problem at all.

He’s a little sorry that Raihan has to deal with the aftermath of his impulsive decisions, but this is the nest they have made.

Reaching the throne at the end of the hall, Leon kneels before the throne, as he is expected to do; Raihan joins him but a moment later. Rose watches their exchange with an indecipherable gaze.

“I take your return to mean you have completed your mission, Leon?”

“Yes, we have,” Raihan says, his tone controlled as he takes over. He pulls the bundle of hair from his pouch and presents it to Rose, who scrutinizes the bundle with a careful eye. “The demon disintegrated into ashes, unfortunately, and this was all we could find to present to you. It wasn’t much of a fight.”

Whether recognition flickers across the Regent’s expression or not, Leon cannot tell. Rose looks up from the bundle, and examines their grimy, haggard appearances.  

“I see,” Rose says eventually. “It was not much of a fight, you say?”

“That’s right.”

A frown. “Strange. Was it not hostile? Did it attempt to sway your loyalties with lies or false promises, perhaps?”

“The demon didn’t have a chance to say anything before it was slain, sir,” Raihan says. He pauses, and then adds, "It was kind of pathetic, if I'm to be honest." 

Go fuck yourself, Raihan.

Raihan seems quite good at ignoring the barrage of curses that bubbles up from their shadows, but Leon jolts in surprise. Rose catches the change in his expression, and his gaze turns to Leon, sensing the opportunity to pry for more detail. 

“And you, Leon? What have you to say about the quest? About your first demon slaying?”

Leon does his best not to wither under the stony gaze, and straightens his back instinctively. “As Raihan has said, the demon did not put up much of a fight,” he says, doing his best to project weariness in his voice. “We were quite overprepared for the fight.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” Rose muses. “Even for a pair as well-trained as you, for a demon to pose no threat whatsoever… A demon that has been poisoning the land with blight, no less?”

“It’s the truth,” Raihan says evenly. “We brought back that trophy as proof of its death, as you asked.”

Rose looks again at the bundle of hair in his hands, his mouth twisting ever so slightly into a perplexed frown. “This was really all that remained of it?”

Raihan nods. “Take it or leave it, Your Majesty.”

The silence stretches on. Leon can’t take it anymore.

“If you do not mind, sire,” he says hesitantly, “The long journey has tired us out, and I would like to ask for permission to retire for the evening. Raihan and I could fill you in on the details another day, perhaps...”

Rose considers this, looking them over one final time. Leon bites his tongue; he can only hope that it’s been enough to convince Rose. 

Their worn-out appearances seem to do the trick, however, for a human advisor steps in and whispers something into the Regent’s ear. Rose sighs, and finally puts aside the bundle of hair.

“Very well,” he says eventually, pressing his lips together stiffly. He recites his next words with perfect neutrality. “As King Regent, I accept that your mission is fulfilled, and I will begin the processes for accession promptly.”

“Thank you, sir,” Raihan says, with a perfect bow. “We will take our leave, then.”

Rose summons attendants to whisk them off for the purification ceremonies that follow. As Raihan leaves the throne room, he turns over his shoulder to peer at Rose. The Regent is frowning as he stares down at the clipping of hair in his hands. He looks up, and for the briefest of moments, they lock eyes; and then the doors of the great hall close behind him.

-

Raihan gets whisked off for a ritual cleansing, and though he personally cares very little for rites and ceremonies, he accepts the cleansing with grace nonetheless. The process does feel quite nice, especially after having been suffocated by the grimy dark for so many hours, so he settles down and lets the attendants wash down his soot-covered scales while he basks in the glow of restorative light magic.

As his scales are washed and polished, he mentally runs over the assembly with Rose in the great throne hall. Something does not sit right with him. The way that Rose had pressed them for more detail; the way Rose seemed more doubtful than relieved at their safe return. Is it because of the seed that Piers had planted in his mind, that the Regent could not be trusted? But the way his gaze turned hard as he looked at his own stepson...

The attendants don’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary with his shadow, even when it moves when Raihan doesn’t. He is doused in holy water before a purified mirror, and if Piers feels any of the purification rites burning him, then he’s doing an awfully good job of hiding it.

He gets shooed out of the cloister as soon as the attendants are done with him, and ordered to rest. Leon’s rites, as the humans’ crown prince, are different than his, and are supposed to take all night; Raihan is not too keen on it, but the attendants are insistent that he sleep.  He doesn’t know where Leon has been dragged off to, anyways, so it is not as though he has a say in the matter.

As Raihan climbs the towers up to his chambers, the shadows grow long by the torchlight, and the eyes in the walls watch his every step.

Guess ye will be stuck with me, Piers gloats.

“You could just go home,” Raihan suggests. “But if you insist on pestering us, then you’ll be staying in my quarters. I don’t quite trust you to not whisper devilish ideas into Leon’s ears when I’m not looking.”

And what makes ye think I won’t do the same for you? he sneers.

“You know divine dragons are immune to the tricks of the dark,” he says curtly. “Save your energy.”

A shame. Ye beasts of the light are so uptight, I'd love to see you fall apart. 

Piers seems less inclined to hide his demonic presence around him when they are alone, however, because as soon as the door to his room is closed, the fetor of ashen death assaults his nose, and Piers emerges from the gloom to manifest in physical form. He ignores all else in favour of striding over to Raihan's window, and sticks his head outside to scan the castle grounds. The sun has dipped beneath the horizon, and the night sky blankets the Kingdom in tranquil dark.

"Haven't seen the sky in some time," Piers murmurs.

"Cool. I only have one bed, and I am not sharing it with you, so you can either sleep on my couch, or do your shadow thing and sleep under the bed." Raihan glowers. "Do not crawl into bed with me."

"Wasn't plannin' on it, but now I’ve got to," he says dryly. "Ye don't mind if I go off for a spell, do ye?"

Raihan raises an eyebrow. "Should I be keeping an eye on you?" 

"Such faith ye have in me, dear. Don't worry, I don't need babysittin'. I'll be back before ye know it," Piers says, and steps through the windowsill to plummet straight down.

Raihan gives a shout, scrambling to the window to look outside. The wing where his and Leon’s chambers are located is at the top of the castle’s highest tower, and his heart pounds as he takes in the fatal drop. 

But then there is a raucous laugh from above him, and Raihan looks up to see Piers clinging to the masonwork above his window.

“Ye’re cute,” Piers smirks, as he sprouts a pair of leathery wings. “Don’t miss me too much.”

Raihan can do nothing but watch wordlessly as Piers blows him a kiss and takes off into the night.

Part of him is screaming at him to chase after the demon and make sure that the people of the surrounding castle town remain safe from danger. The other part of him, the more rational side, is calmly pointing out that Piers has already promised, multiple times, that he would not harm anything without due cause. In any case, Piers is correct in pointing out his lack of faith; dragons advocate for trust and faith in those around them, and demons are just as strict about their own deals. It would be insulting to the both of them for him to continue doubting Piers at every turn.

Besides, Leon trusts in Piers; doubting Piers is only going to tell Leon that he doesn't trust him, either. Perhaps leaving Piers alone would be a good test of his character after all. He’s tired, anyways, so he may as well use the time to rest as he was told to. And if the demon turns out to not be trustworthy, then he and Leon can easily take care of it, although Rose is another problem entirely...

Unfortunately, with Piers off somewhere doing who knows what, and Leon taken away for purification rites, that does him to his own devices, for the time being. Raihan huffs, feeling boredom already creeping into the edges of his mind, and settles on preening himself to stave it off.

-

Raihan’s attention is pulled back to reality, away from where he’s been focused on polishing his nails, when he hears a wet squelch, followed by a thud, and he looks up to see Piers dropping a mangled heap of flesh and bone right in the center of his floor.

“...What is that?” Raihan balks, sniffing warily. “......Why is that in my room?”

“Sheep carcass,” Piers grumbles, shaking the blood off his hands, and, oh, that’s going to be a pain to clean off the tapestries. The trail of guts is going to soak into his rug, too. “Ye dragons like sheep, don’t ye? I brought you one, as thanks. For not killin' me and all.”

That… is concerning, and Raihan hopes this isn’t going to become a regular occurrence. “But why? Where were you?”

"Went to eat my first meal in fifteen years, thanks," Piers tells him. He must notice Raihan tensing up, because he scowls, and adds, "Calm down, I didn't kill anyone. Just went to the barber-surgeon's and stole the bloodlettin' waste, and then fucked off to eat the half-dead swine from the farmsteads."

“You could’ve just asked for my blood,” Raihan suggests sweetly.

“Nice try.”

“Haha.”

Still, Raihan is relieved to hear that Piers chose not to push the limits of their agreement; all things considered, he's been quite courteous. He’s never encountered a demon respecting the boundaries of a deal this readily, before; growing up, he had been told countless cautionary tales about demons twisting the words of their victims to do as they pleased. It was why one had to be unambiguously concise when making deals with them.

“I’m surprised you didn’t just leave,” Raihan adds after a moment. “You could’ve gone anywhere you wanted once you were out there. You didn’t have to come back.”

“Just because I promised not to hurt anyone, doesn’t mean I don’t have some lingering grudge against Rose,” Piers mutters. “Besides, bein’ bound for fifteen years fucked up my magic. I’d rather not be out there while I recover.”

Raihan is perplexed. “You’d rather stay with a divine dragon than be out there in the night?” he asks, rather incredulously.

“Unfortunately, yes. Ye lot ain’t the only monster hunters in town. At least I know ye won’t kill me yet.” Piers rolls his eyes. 

“I still could,” Raihan says, shifting one hand to reveal his claws.

“Aye, but then ye may as well have done it back in the catacombs,” Piers replies, flashing his talons as well. “Besides, Leon wouldn’t be too happy with that, would he?”

Raihan doesn't have a response to that, so he turns away to resume filing his nails, content to let the silence hang in the air. Piers seems unsure of how to handle this abrupt silence, though, and he stands there for a minute, staring at Raihan, until he slinks off into a corner to sulk. He sits awkwardly, and flicks his ears towards the sheep carcass, as if prodding at Raihan to accept the offering. Raihan sighs.

He… will clean up the mess later. Raw, crudely-butchered meat like that does not stimulate his appetite in the slightest, and it makes him a little nauseous, if he’s being honest, staring at the gory mass on his floor. In any case, this is his room; he’s not going to let a guest disrupt his normal routine.

Having a demon in his room at night while he sleeps, and with his express permission at that, is not something Raihan ever imagined happening to him in his lifespan. But despite the abrupt… “gift”, Piers seems willing enough to leave him alone, and Raihan trusts in his own strength if things were to go sour. The long journey in the catacombs has left him exhausted, at any rate, so he blows out his candles, and does his best to drift off and forget about Piers.

-



-

The castle's clock towers ring thrice, signalling the onset of the witching hour, and Raihan abruptly jolts awake, cold sweat rolling down his back. Fear pricks at his mind; his eyes dart around his room, searching for the source of his trepidation. 

There. In the corner: the gloom is abnormally concentrated, and the shadow entity stretches all the way from beneath his bed, up the wall, to his ceiling. The piercing glow of green eyes, eerie in the dark, are pointed right at him. Staring straight into his very core, as dark tendrils of hair and otherworldly malice ooze across the moonlit space.

"What are you doing," Raihan whispers. That paralyzing glare has his frozen limbs locked in place. 

"Just watchin' you sleep," a thousand layered voices say in unison. "Don't mind me.

A clawed hand with unnaturally long, spindly fingers stretches out towards him. He can't move. He can't move he can't move please move please move please move—

Goodnight. 

-

"How was your sleep last night?" Leon asks, as they dig into their food. The royal dining room is cozily lit by the sun shining through the eastern windows, and Raihan stretches lazily in his chair, happy to be bathed in the warm light.

"Good, I think," Raihan says, frowning. "I slept really well, actually, probably because I was so tired. Though I feel like something happened in the middle of the night…" 

Leon raises an eyebrow questioningly.

“I don’t remember,” Raihan says eventually, picking up his fork and knife. “Some attendant must've cast a sleep charm in my room while I wasn't looking. But, that’s neither here nor there. Did Rose say anything about the coronation?”

“No,” Leon says, averting his eyes. “I haven’t seen him yet today, but he told me yesterday that there were a lot of preparations to be done, and that I—that we shouldn’t worry about it.” Leon sighs again. “There's still a lot of work we have to do, anyways. Just because we completed the ceremony doesn’t mean I can shirk my royal duties.”

“I’ll need to return to my clan’s lands for a couple of days as well,” Raihan nods. “There are things I need to finalize there before we can be crowned, now that we’ve finally come of age. I'll probably have to leave as soon as we're done eating.”

“Ah…” Leon says, doing his best not to droop. “It’s been some time since you last went back, right? 

“Yeah, it’s been a year or two,” Raihan says. He hesitates briefly, and then asks, “Is it safe for me to leave you here, by yourself?”

“Rai!” says Leon, rather indignantly. “We talked about this. I trust Piers.”

“No! It’s not that. I mean…” Raihan shakes his head, sighing. He can’t get the image of Rose staring coldly at them out of his head, and he thinks of all the times he’s overheard Rose criticizing Leon just a little too harshly. Leon looks at him, sensing the unease in his heart, but not comprehending.

...He can’t.

“Mm, nevermind. I won’t be gone too long, anyways,” Raihan says, smiling to bury his worries. “The last time I went to visit my clan, you somehow managed to scorch half your body with light magic. We don’t want a repeat of that again.”

The diversion works, because Leon flushes. “It was an accident!” Leon cries. “I don’t want to rely on you for light magic all the time. I should be able to cast at least a basic spell.”

“Not if it's causing you pain, you shouldn't.” Raihan shakes his head. “I won't be gone for long. Just enough to take care of the formalities on the clan’s end, and then I’ll be right back. So please, wait for me to come back before you attempt any light spells."

“Fine,” Leon sighs, and then he frowns, as though he’s remembered something. “We’ll probably be put on monster hunts as soon as you come back, in any case. Apparently there were reports of a monster taking some of the farmers’ livestock, last night? Though it was only the really sickly animals that were killed, so the farmers aren’t too worried, but…”

That would’ve been me, replies a disembodied voice.

“O-oh. Hi, Piers,” Leon stammers. He hopes his tone comes out as warm. “How are you doing?”

Tired, still. Better, since I got to eat somethin’, but weaker than I thought.

“I see. Have you figured out where you’re going to go?”

Not yet. Like I said, don’t mind me. I need to find some things out, but ye can go about your business as usual. Ye don’t mind, do ye?

“Just don’t get in our way,” Raihan warns.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you need to,” Leon says over him. Raihan shoots him a look of incredulity, but he decides to ignore it.

Thanks, though I’m sure the dragon would prefer otherwise.

The three of them are forced to cut off abruptly, however, as Rose steps into the hall and zeroes in on Leon.

“What does he want this time?” Raihan mutters under his breath. 

Rose has a half-smile on his face, but Leon has come to know that expression as one of strain. He regards them not warmly, and disregards Raihan entirely.

"I would like to speak to you alone, my son," Rose says simply, and turns on his heel without waiting for Leon’s response.

Raihan clenches his fists, and watches as Leon follows the Regent, dejected, his meal left unfinished. A curse and a dark pulse flares from his shadow and follows after Leon; it seems Piers has decided to go after him.

Knowing Rose, Leon will be preoccupied for some time. Raihan grits his teeth and continues with his meal, alone.

-

“Here are the tasks that I have entrusted to you for the week,” Rose says, depositing a stack of parchment and vellum into his hands. “These are deeds confirming that the northern estates have paid their taxes, and the farmsteads their tithes. There are also a number of inheritance disputes which you ought to oversee as well, among others. I have already sorted them for you.”

“This is… quite the stack,” Leon balks. 

“I hope you are not thinking of eschewing your work,” says Rose. A note of warning creeps into his tone, forcing Leon to backtrack rapidly.

“No, sire! Not at all. My mind is still reeling from completing our journey,” Leon laughs. “It was a major event for us, and it still does not feel real.”

“Your quest was not meant to be a respite,” Rose says coldly, and Leon falters. "I would have had a messenger hand these to you, when you eventually came to see me in the throne room. But you were taking your time, so I came to find you myself.” His voice is fraught with disappointment. “Busy as I am, I thought you would know to take up your duties at daybreak.”

Leon bites his lip. "I apologize, sire. Raihan and I were relieved to have come back safely, and we wanted to enjoy our breakfast before getting on with the day’s tasks." 

"Now is not the time for you to be caught up in frivolities," Rose shakes his head. "You know the Kingdom depends on you to do your duties, as its prince. You should have the willpower to resist when your dragon distracts you with material fancies." 

"I am sorry, sire," Leon repeats, fighting the desire to dispute those words. He can handle any amount of reprimanding from his stepfather, but to imply that Raihan is somehow at fault for wanting to enjoy their morning meal together, before he has to set off—it bothers him deeply. 

Rose watches the emotions play across his face, and then his expression softens. 

"You are a smart boy, my son, and a hard worker. You have the makings of a great warrior-king, and I merely want you to grow up to be a fine leader, that is all. You know that." 

"Of course, sire. I will do better," Leon whispers. Shame flows over him as Rose places a hand on his shoulder. 

“And I hope that you will,” Rose sighs. “For the Kingdom’s sake—the royal family must not grow weak.”

Rose moves to dismiss him. Leon hesitates, questions swirling in his mind.

“If I may, sire,” Leon tries. “Just one thing—may I ask when I can expect the coronation to be?”

It is the wrong choice, for Rose’s eyes grow hard and cold once more.

“Are you so impatient to replace me, my son? Have you not listened to a word I said?” Rose says, and the clipped tone of his voice makes it clear that he is done. "Your coronation will take place when everything is ready. There are urgent matters to attend to, in the Kingdom, matters that are far more important than some silly celebration. You must not forget your duties, child .”

 

By the time he'd returned to the dining room, his plate had been cleared away, and Raihan was gone.

Just another failure to herald the day.

-

Leon sighs, setting down his quill and eyeing his half-finished stack of papers with dismay. He's been at this since the early morning, and made very little progress; paperwork has never been his strong suit, and the dwindling candlelight in the castle library only makes his eyes hurt more. He had tried summoning light orbs to brighten his desk space, but his magic abilities are lacking enough that even something as simple as a source of illumination had started to singe his fingers.

“Ye’ve been at this for some time now.”

“Piers!” Leon sputters. “I didn’t know you were with me. Is it safe for you to be out like this?”

“I’ve been following you since mornin’, and there’s no one around, not at this hour,” the demon says. “D’ye mind if I let down the cloaking veil for a wee spell? It’s tirin’, keepin’ it up all the time.”

“Feel free to do whatever is most comfortable for you,” Leon offers. “As long as no one sees you with me. Not that I’m embarrassed to have you seen with me! I meant…”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” Piers waves his hand dismissively. “Wouldn’t do for the crown prince to be caught with a demon, I know.”

Still, he feels bad for the way his words come out, but Piers brushes past it, dispersing the cloaking magic around him. His more demonic features leech back into reality, and in the open air, Piers' hair seems to come to life, the tendrils hovering around him of their own accord. Leon has to look away, and instead turns his eyes back to the parchment before him. 

“What made you decide to come out of the shadows?” asks Leon.

“Thought ye might want some company,” Piers offers. “Raihan’s gone, isn’t he?”

The unspoken you seemed lonely hangs in the air; Leon blinks. 

“I… would appreciate that, actually,” he says slowly. “The silence makes it hard to focus.”

“Alright. Let me grab somethin’ to read.”

Piers slinks off into the shelves, and Leon lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

He should really start getting used to Piers showing up out of nowhere. He knows that the demon means him no harm, but the mere presence of darkspawn instinctively has him on edge; not to mention demonic auras are innately fear-inducing. Years of training to track and hunt monsters, ingrained deeply in him, cannot be undone overnight.

He watches as Piers wanders through the maze of shelves, picking out tomes and skimming them before putting them neatly back into place. Piers takes his time choosing his books, and stalks back to Leon’s table with a selection of books about the history of Wyndonburg. He kicks his feet up onto the table, and begins to hum as he reads.

The scratch of his quill on parchment continues into the night, but it is now punctuated with the occasional flip of the page, and the gentle humming of an unfamiliar melody. Where it was lonely before, working in the nighttime library, Leon now finds companionable silence. He daren’t interrupt the demon’s reading, but his mere presence makes it easier for Leon to focus, and he finds the work going a little more easily.

He is finishing up the last of the estate deeds when Piers suddenly breaks the silence.

"What is that portrait, by the back of the library?" he asks.

Leon starts. "Huh?" 

"The large centerpiece, of the blind monarch." 

"Oh! That's the first ruler of the Kingdom, the champion of the Light." Leon beams, and he easily recounts the tale to Piers, the story familiar and rolling off his tongue. He can tell that he is getting too excited, but Piers listens attentively, nodding to show that he’s still listening, and prompts him for details when Leon trails off. When he finally finishes the tale, quill all but forgotten, Piers leans back in his chair, thinking.

"Interesting, that that is how your myth is told," Piers murmurs. "In our realm, the story tells us that the Dark protected life from the scathing Light for eons, until, one day, the Light tempted a warrior away to betray the Dark. That Waerloga was purged of all the gifts the Dark had given him, and betrayed our protector to burn out a place for the light-dwellers to live in."

“Wær...loga?” Leon asks, stumbling on the pronunciation. “You’ve said that word a few times before.”

“It means oathbreaker. It’s the greatest insult among demons, to be considered one. There’s no returning to demon society once ye have been branded a wærloga.”

Leon is perplexed. “...Demon society?”

“It’s better that ye don’t ask,” Piers says, growing tense. “Even we avoid each other as much as we can.”

“Right. We don’t learn about demons and their lives, here in the Kingdom,” he says, fidgeting in his seat. “Only how to hunt your kind. So I’d like to learn more about you, and your culture, but I understand if you’d rather not...”

“Trust me, it’s better not to know,” Piers murmurs, closing his eyes. “Let’s talk about somethin’ else, shall we? What is all of this paperwork for?”

Leon starts. “Ah! These, um, these are just military expense reports, estate taxes, tithe payments, and stuff like that. I have to finish these before I go out to the castle town for business tomorrow.”

“I’m glad ye’re the type to get hands-on with the common folk,” Piers says, raising an eyebrow, “but isn’t this scribe’s work? Surely Rose isn’t makin’ the crown prince do taxes. He’s a right bastard, givin’ you all this shite right after a long trip like that.”

“It’s not too bad,” Leon laughs nervously. “Just tedious, that’s all. The scribes are busy with shrine records, and there’s so much work to do in the castle... if there’s anything I can do to help out, then I’ll happily do it. If Raihan was here, he’d get all excited about doing this paperwork with me, but...”

Piers looks pityingly at him, and eyes the unending paperwork. 

“How about an offer? I’m lookin’ for somethin’ in particular,” Piers says slowly. “If I help you with your task, would ye consider helpin’ me with mine?”

“Of course,” Leon cries, reaching out to take Piers’ hands. “You’re a lifesaver, Piers!”

Piers just rolls his eyes, and quietly pulls his hands back to fold into his lap. “I’m goin’ to be generous and not count this as repayment for my debt, so don’t say that to me that again.”

As it turns out, Piers is surprisingly good with small details and monotonous tasks, and Leon soon finds that his amount of work has been drastically cut down. He’s not sure why he didn’t ask for help earlier, but he’s grateful that Piers offered his help at all. 

All demons ask for recompense for favours offered, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Oleana’s reminds him. He does his best to gently push the thought aside.

Piers does not bring up what he is looking for again. But he does ask to peruse the castle’s libraries and records at his leisure, which Leon is more than happy to allow him.

-

Raihan lands in a quiet mountain pasture in his clan’s territories at midday. He stretches his wings, sore from the long flight, and shifts back into his human form to let them rest. A few dragons are sunbathing in the crisp alpine air, though it appears that much of their clan has gone away on jobs to defend the Kingdom’s territories; not uncommon, for dragons bore easily, but the blight had been causing more trouble than usual around the Kingdom’s lands as of late. The humans were eternally grateful for the dragons’ help in purging the night creatures from their lands, and the easy work was honourable, and paid well.

With nothing to do but wait, Raihan decides to settle down in one of the mountain burrows and bask in the sun, dozing lightly while he waits for his parents and clan elders to return.

“You’ve returned,” a voice observes, and Raihan opens his eyes to see a fiery clan elder standing over him. 

"Kabu!" he grins, sitting up. “I didn’t know you were back in the clan’s territories.”

Kabu is a well-respected elder in the clan, and he had played a large part in mentoring Raihan when he was younger. He had served the royal family himself as an advisor for the last three hundred years or so, and frequently trained the clan’s hatchlings in the combat arts. As such, he was extremely knowledgeable in many aspects of the Kingdom’s affairs, both human and draconic. There’s no one that Raihan is more glad to see, at this moment.

“Let me guess,” Kabu says. “If you’ve come all this way, that must mean you and Leon have completed your coming of age and begun the rites of coronation?”

“That’s right,” Raihan beams. “We just finished our mission last night, so I’m beat, but I came back to do our draconic rites.”

“Ah, how fun,” Kabu snorts, but he quickly grows serious once more. “Your mission was given to you quite abruptly, was it not? We weren’t even alerted to the fact that the two of you had been sent on a quest until the morning of your departure.”

“I don’t know what Rose was thinking, sending us to kill a demon on such short notice,” Raihan agrees. “I mean, I know Leon and I have a lot of experience battling monsters already, but still...”

“A demon?” Kabu says, furrowing his brow. “No wonder you reek of the rot.”

“Ouch,” Raihan jokes, and Kabu cracks a smile.

“Well, seeing as you are healthy, at least, I must assume that the quest went well?”

“Yeah, it was easy enough,” Raihan lies smoothly. “Didn’t even get scratched.”

Considering all that Kabu has done for him, Raihan doesn’t really feel comfortable lying to the elder’s face like this, but he also certainly doesn’t feel like explaining himself to the elder about why he’d agreed to let Leon free a demon from confinement.

Kabu watches him for a moment, as if he is waiting for more of Raihan’s story. But he does not push, and nods thoughtfully.

“Well, regardless of the difficulty of your mission, you must be tired from the long flight,” he says. “Let’s get you some refreshments.”

Kabu ends up inviting him into his den, situated further along the mountain range by the lava flows. The elder had some fire dragon lineage in him, and he was always partial to hotter locales. Raihan promptly breaks out into a sweat as soon as he lands, but Kabu barely seems to notice the heat, and sets a kettle out by the fire while he asks to hear about their mission. Raihan launches right into it, describing the grim atmosphere of the crypts with precise detail, but glosses over the encounter with Piers.

He can only hope that Kabu assumes he either doesn’t want to talk about it, or that it wasn’t worth going into detail over. Fortunately, Kabu has always had a keen ability to pick up on these things, and Raihan is grateful when he doesn’t press the topic.

“You remind me of my younger days,” Kabu chuckles, when he is done retelling the events. “Straightforward and direct, and the fire that burns in you is loyal and true.”

Raihan just shrugs. “Hey, it was our mission. We had to do it.”

“Still, it must not have been easy for you to watch the one you made your bond with go into the depths to fight a demon,” Kabu says. “The number of dragons in our clan who can truly say they’ve faced a demon head-on in combat is very few.”

I’m sorry for leading you to believe that I’m one of them , Raihan grimaces.

“By the way, what do you know of the blight?” he asks instead, hoping to change the subject. It’s been eating at his mind ever since Leon told him about their mission; now, away from any prying ears in the castle, he can speak his mind more freely.

“You mean the recent one centered around the castle town’s lands, correct?”

“Yeah. The Regent said it was demon-borne, but I want to know your opinion.”

“Hm,” Kabu says, rubbing at his chin. “There hasn’t been a demonic blight in the last two hundred years. I was a century old then, but I seem to recall the magic being far deadlier than what I'm seeing now.”

Raihan is silent, running Kabu’s words carefully through his mind.

“But then, I’ve only lived through one demonic blight,” Kabu muses. “Our lands haven’t been afflicted, so I can’t say for certain, but I feel that the current situation more closely resembles that of ordinary pestilence. More concentrated and abrupt in its onset, perhaps, but it is not riddled with death magic the way a demonic blight would be.”

“I see,” Raihan muses. “So maybe Rose didn’t know? Or… ” 

“It does not do well for us dragons to doubt our cohabitors in the Kingdom,” Kabu warns. “We must put our trust in them the same that they put their trust in us. All the same… that man is but a regent, and he doesn't bear the right to rule as you and Leon do. He is only supposed to rule until you and Leon are crowned, yet he consults us for our advice far less often than any other ruler in the last three hundred years."

Kabu sighs. "We had to push him quite a bit for every year that he continued to put off your coming of age; it pained us to watch you eagerly await your quest and never be given one. Something smoulders in his heart that I believe is not set quite right.”

“I can feel it, too,” Raihan grits, shaking his head. “I don’t know what his plan was, sending us on such a dangerous mission. We’re lucky it went well.”

“The affairs of humans are a complicated matter,” Kabu agrees. “There is nothing I can tell you that you do not already know for yourself, Raihan. You’re a smart lad, clever, and a quick thinker. But what lies at the end of the path you and Leon take may not be something either of you expect.”

The mountain rumbles, from deep within.

“Well, then,” says Kabu, shrugging off the somber mood. “What say we play a game of Go, since you’ve come all this way back? It will be some time before the rest of the clan comes back, in any case, and I could use the mental exercise.”

"You're on, old man," Raihan grins. "Don't go easy on me." 

Chapter Text

Raihan returns to the castle at daybreak, after a long night’s flight from the clan’s mountain lands. The early morning birdsong welcomes him home, and he takes in the sight of the sleepy castle town only just waking up to embrace the new day.

Making the long flight twice in the span of a couple of days has left him drained and exhausted, and his wings ache with protest; but it’s all made worth it when he follows his emotional link to Leon and swoops into the office where his partner is folding papers into envelopes and stuffing them into a pack. Leon looks up with distress when he feels the air roll past him, scattering papers all over the floor, but he lights up with joy upon seeing that Raihan is sitting on the windowsill.

“Rai!” Leon exclaims, setting down his work. “You're back! I thought you'd stay at least a few more nights with the clan. How did the rites go?” 

The immediacy with which his heart fills with their mutual excitement has Raihan grinning, and he shifts back into his human form to join his partner. “I told you it’d be quick. A whole bunch of the clan gathered to celebrate the rites of passage, and they actually wanted me to stay a while longer, but I didn't want to keep you waiting by your lonesome.” He slings an arm over Leon’s shoulders, peering down at his stacks of papers. “Whatcha up to?" 

"I spent the last few days and nights working through all the documents His Majesty needed for today, so now I’m packing for a day’s trip to town.” Leon gestures to his desk helplessly, where he’s been organizing letters and parchment into neat stacks for delivery. He very nearly knocks over an inkpot in the process, which Raihan only barely saves from tipping before it spills over his work. “I was supposed to give them directly to His Majesty, but Oleana told me that he was busy, so I’m to drop them off at the monastery myself.”

“I’m sure he could have found anyone else to do these. You sure you're not overworking yourself?" Raihan asks, his heart sinking. Upon taking a closer look, those do seem to be dark circles under Leon’s eyes.

“On the contrary, I'm wide awake and excited to go,” Leon beams with his usual sunshine. "Do you want to come with me? It's nothing big, but it’s been too long since I’ve been able to visit the market and spend some time with the people. I haven’t gotten to go out in a while." 

"You know I'm going to say yes," Raihan grins. "What about Piers? Is he with you?" 

“He’s in the castle library. He asked to look through the materials there, so I’ve given him free reign to access whatever books or records he wants.”

Raihan can already feel a headache building. “You what .”

“Don’t be like that!” Leon chides him. “It’s just the libraries. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Well… if you’re sure,” Raihan grimaces, trying not to think of all the collections of ancient spellbooks imbued with hallowed magic that are stored there, or any number of holy relics or draconic writings that could be used to bring about the end of the world. And to think that Leon would just let a demon loose in there...

“I’m absolutely sure. He wasn't interested in any of those ancient spellbook collections when I showed him around,” Leon says, interrupting the trajectory of his thoughts. “Besides, he offered to help me sort out these deeds and records, since you were gone. I’d have lost my mind if he didn’t lend me a hand.”

Raihan blinks in surprise. “He did?”

“Yeah. He was a great help.” Leon shoves the last of his documents into his pack, slinging it securely over his shoulder with a smile. “Come on, I’m ready to go if you are.”

Raihan gives Leon a cursory glance up and down to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, and says, “You sure I can’t convince you to change out of that armour? We’re just going to the castle town, after all. Seems a bit overkill.”

Leon shoves lightly at Raihan’s shoulder. “Says the one wearing a silk waistcoat! You know His Majesty prefers that we be careful, and I’m more comfortable in this anyway. I don’t get how you can be comfortable in silk, it’s so stifling and doesn’t offer any protection.”

“I’m just kidding, I know you prefer the weight of steel,” Raihan teases, and then stops in his tracks. “Wait, don’t tell me you wore that the whole time I was gone?”

“...Maybe,” Leon says sheepishly.

“Even in your sleep?”

When Leon nods, all he can do is sigh and shake his head. “I was gone only a few—nevermind. Let’s get going, already.” 

It’s early in the morning, and the castle courtyard is tranquil, save for the birdsong carried along by the wind, and the voices of the servants drifting about from the edges of the courtyard as they scurry along to do their work. A gatekeeper gives them an enthusiastic salute when they reach the gatehouse, and opens the portcullis for them to pass through.

It has been some time since Leon last had the chance to visit the divine dragon lands, so Raihan tells Leon about the open skies and vast sunlight swaths of land as they walk. The territories are largely unchanging, that high up in the mountains, and the land is blessed with generations of draconic magic, soaked into the soil and the air itself; while the lands have more or less been the same since Raihan was born, Leon has spent most of his life in the castle’s stone halls, and he listens with rapt wonder.

“By the way, I asked about the blight, while I was there,” Raihan says. “Kabu said that he doesn’t think it’s demonic in origin.”

Leon taps his fingers on his pack, frowning as though deep in contemplation. “That lines up with what Piers told us. What do you think’s causing it, then?”

“Who knows. Maybe some poor fool cast the wrong kind of spell?”

To be honest, he does have his suspicions; it’s difficult for the average human to find such potent toxins just anywhere. But he doesn’t have proof, nor has he given much thought about how to breach the subject with Leon. Though it is their responsibility to keep the Kingdom and its people safe from whatever threats may arise, there is no point in baseless speculation, so Raihan keeps his mouth shut. 

Thankfully, Leon doesn’t comment on his non-committal answer. “We’ll have to keep searching—I didn’t think to ask Piers, but maybe he might have some idea.” Leon’s expression darkens as they pass a grove of sickly, yellowed trees. “I hope it’s just a natural blight, but the crops and the animals will take time to heal regardless.”

“If it’s not demonic, it shouldn’t be more than a year or two before the land heals. The dragons can apply healing magic to the land as well, if need be.”

Of course, there is no real need to go that far, if the blight truly is mere pestilence. But it appeases the humans, and it helps nature recover from the setback, so there is no reason for the dragons to not do the ritual, if it is asked of them.

Raihan casts a light healing spell on some of the wilted greenery on the side of the path as he passes by; it won’t be enough to offset the poison entirely, but it doesn’t hurt to fortify the plant life where he can. Leon seems to have something on his mind, for his brows are furrowed in concentration as he stares off into the town. Focused contemplation rolls off him in waves, and Raihan knows it’s best to let Leon think things through at his own pace. 

"I know you’ve only really been around him for a short time, but you're a lot more agreeable about having Piers in the castle than I thought you would be," Leon confesses, after a while. “I like him a lot, but I know it can’t be easy for you, since he’s darkspawn.”

Raihan whistles thoughtfully. “Honestly, I thought I’d be a lot more stressed about this whole thing. I expected a lot worse when he first said he’d be sticking around.”

“I’m sorry.” Leon’s shoulders droop in shame. “I should have considered your comfort in all this. I didn’t think he’d stay with us, either…”

Leon’s heart is so heavy with dejection, Raihan can’t help but pat his head in reassurance, giving his partner an easy smile. “Hey, it’s fine. He’s been true to his word and hasn’t tried anything so far, and it’s not like he’s staying here forever, at least I certainly hope he doesn’t plan to. I’ve never even met any non-dragon who could speak dragontongue, either, so that’s helped his case.”

He hesitates. “Besides, you clearly trust him, and no matter how wary I am of him, you are a grown man who can make your own decisions. If it turns out we were wrong, then we’ll deal with it together."

The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that, other than his annoying tendency to flirt, Piers has been very well behaved, keeping to himself and not testing his patience. He’d even brought him a sheep carcass as a peace offering, misguided as it was. Heavens, he hopes that carcass isn’t still in his room.

"You're the one who taught me how much dragons value trust," Leon reminds him. "We can't live our lives always doubting others. I think Piers is quite nice, besides. I’d still be buried in parchment if not for him."

“Mm, true. That already makes him better than some people, in my eyes,” Raihan concedes. “I wish I’d been there to help you out, though.”

“Don’t worry, Piers was amazing, actually!” Leon’s eyes shine and he becomes animated as he speaks about the demon. “He’s really knowledgeable, and not just about paperwork and stuff, either. He taught me a bunch about the darkspawn’s mythos, and we even talked about all kinds of weapon techniques a couple of nights ago.” His voice grows dreamy as a shy smile tugs at the corners of his mouth.

Raihan chokes when he feels admiration flowing through their bond, and fails to hold in his laughter. “No offense, Leon, but do you really think he can even pick up a shortsword with those scrawny arms?”

“I, er, may have said something to that effect to him as well,” Leon giggles, embarrassed. “He looked so mad, you wouldn’t believe! But he’s got a great grasp on magic and tactics to make up for it. I wonder how he’d fare against you?”

“I sure hope you’re not implying these are going to lose to that bony little bloke.” Raihan makes a show of flexing his muscles, which only has Leon laughing harder. 

“I don’t know,” Leon teases. “He’s awfully smart.”

"So am I! I can't believe you'd side with him over me." Raihan deflates. “Best friends and bound partners for nothing.”

Leon jabs him in the ribs in jest, and warmth blooms over their bond as they pass through the castle town’s gates.

Their first destination is the monastery complex at the western edge of Wyndonburg, to deliver the documents. The scribes there will receive the deeds and reports, and make sure that the administrative work is all taken care of. Leon stops by the old bakery on the way there, and buys out several baskets of bread.

The monastery houses scribes and monks who deal with the administrative work within Wyndonburg and its neighbouring areas, but it also takes in the less fortunate and provides them with food, shelter, and a place to work. The failed harvests from the blight have left more victims to hunger this year, though, and the monastery is stretched thin enough as it is, leaving more and more people crowded in its grounds.

As they approach the complex, some of the monastery’s orphans catch sight of the two princes approaching, and shout for their friends. Leon holds out his baskets of bread with delight, and the children readily snatch up the comestibles in minutes, babbling at length about their lives in the monastery, little tales of childrens’ adventures and dreams about becoming royalty of their own.

It takes some time to pry themselves free of the eager children, but when they finally enter the scribes' hall some time later, the scribes take the documents off of their hands and scurry off elsewhere to process the papers. Leon makes small talk with a couple of the monks, asking about the state of the castle town, but there is very little they can tell him that they have not already heard from Rose or Oleana.

Eventually, they finish off the last of their tasks, and the monks are too busy to entertain them for long, besides.

“Well, that’s that.” Leon sighs in relief as he hands off the last of the deeds to the scribes. “Rose hasn’t given us any other tasks for today, so I think we can spend the rest of the day out, if we want.”

“Please,” Raihan says eagerly, stretching his back. “It’s such a nice day out, too, it’d be a waste to spend it indoors. What say we go to the market?”

He doesn’t even need to ask, of course; almost any chance they get to go into town, they will inevitably end up staying in the marketplace until the sun sets. Leon immediately lights up, and the excitement infects his heart like a bolt.

“Oh! I was thinking as much, but it’d be a good time to check up on Milo, wouldn’t it?”

Milo was one of the farmers who regularly sold his crops at the marketplace, and having some faint epimeliad nymph ancestry, he was renowned in the castle town for his particularly prolific green thumb. Leon had made it a point to buy his favourite apples from Milo whenever he went into town, and Milo always made sure to save the best of his harvest for them.

“Let’s go, then,” Raihan laughs, but Leon is already halfway out the door, and he has to chase after Leon before the prince can get himself too lost.

-

When they arrive at the market in the town center, it is bustling and lively as ever. The town crier stands in the town square, shouting about the most recent news, while bards play their lutes and fiddles in front of the taverns for coin.

“Heavens, it’s busy today,” Leon laughs as the crowd folds in around them. The people return his smiles with delight whenever he calls out to the townsfolk that he knows by name, which, knowing Leon, is almost every person in all of Wyndonburg. Leon rushes ahead to help the old miller lug a wagon of grains down the street, and once the old miller has set up his shop, Leon dashes over to Milo’s stall. Milo waves vigorously at them when he sees them approaching, hoisting a small bag full of apples onto his table just in time for Leon to pick one out of the bag and take a bite.

“Good morning, your highnesses! I was hoping you might pop by today,” Milo beams. “I saved some apples for you two, but they’re not as good as usual, sorry. The blight’s been rough on the crops.”

“They look great to me,” Leon says, once he’s swallowed his mouthful. “Tastes as great as always, too.”

“You didn’t have to save them for us,” Raihan says, handing Milo a gold coin. He wipes a drop of juice from Leon’s chin. “These are your livelihood, right? We're just paying customers, the same as any other, and we’ll always support your stall, even if all the apples are sold out before we get here.”

Milo shakes his head, gently pushing away Raihan’s hand when he tries to give him more money. “The sheep are doing fine, so I can make enough from the wool sales to support myself, but I can’t very well let you two go back to the castle without my best apples. Besides, you pay me too much for what I give you.”

“Milo, all of your apples are your best, and they’re worth the coin. Take care of yourself, yeah?” Raihan gives Milo a solid pat on the shoulder, and sneaks a few extra gold coins into the farmer’s stall while he's distracted by Leon nearly dropping all of their apples. 

Milo sighs, but there’s a fond smile on his face as he sends them off with another half dozen apples. Leon practically skips off into the streets with his mouth full, and Raihan only barely manages to wave goodbye to Milo before Leon is pulling him off elsewhere.

Leon’s joy is infectious as they stroll through the market streets; Raihan watches children tug on Leon’s armour for a chance to speak with their crown prince, and young folk press flowers into his hands and hair. He shines the most when he's surrounded by the townsfolk like this, and Raihan can feel firsthand the love that seeps through every fiber of his being and into their bond. He’d like these trips to the castle town to continue long into the future, if they could. 

Seeing Leon interact with the people only strengthens his resolve to get their plans into motion. They’ve spent countless nights conjuring up ideas on how to improve farming techniques that bolster the fertility of the land, better the Kingdom’s infrastructure, and support the healing arts and learning. That’s before they even consider what the dragons can help them with, using their magic to influence the bounty of the earth… He’s itching for the day he and Leon can finally help the people prosper and live in ease. It's only a few more weeks at most before Rose cedes the seat of power to them, and they can finally start giving back to the Kingdom that raised them.

“Rai!” Leon calls, and Raihan blinks out of his reverie to see his partner slip a stem of gladiolus behind his ear.

“What’s this for?” Raihan asks, surprised. 

Leon smiles, tucking a leaf securely over the shell of his ear. “I just thought it’d look nice on you.” 

“Well, thank you,” Raihan says sincerely. He pulls the flower from his hair to look at it; it is a lovely bloom, evidently grown with care. It makes him a little sad that such a vibrant life was picked just to end up as a decoration for him; but Leon is so excited to see it on him that he doesn’t have the heart to say anything about it, and instead he tucks it securely into the breast pocket of his waistcoat.

Already, Leon is tugging at his sleeve, eager to get going onto their next stop in the market. “Come on, I want to find something for Hop and Victor, while we’re here. Do you think they’d like some of those mermaid’s trinkets Nessa sells?”

“You know Hop likes everything you bring him, right? And Victor just accepts everything you hand him no matter what he thinks of it,” Raihan grins.

“Come off it!” Leon pouts. ”Hop always holes himself up in his books, since they can't go out as often as we can. I want to make sure they both like whatever we find for them here.”

“I'm just teasing you,” Raihan grins. He doesn't have the heart to tease Leon, not when he's so excited to find something for his brother, and the genuine upset in Leon’s heart tugs at his own emotions as well. “Yeah, I think Nessa's wares would fascinate them. Hop's never been to the sea, right? Let's go see what she's got today.”

Back in the library, Piers flips over the back cover of the tome, and heaves a deep sigh as he reshelves the book.

He’s been searching the library all morning, but the castle library is abysmal. The organization system is nonexistent, and what meager histories he can find of the castle town are complete garbage, glorified tales of past royals and sagas of great wars, but nothing concrete about the area proper. Granted, he’s only been able to search a tiny corner of the vast halls, but it isn’t a promising start.

A few other spirits drift in between the bookshelves with him, but the noisy things latch onto him and gab away without helping him in his search. He’d considered asking Leon to help him sort through the endless stacks as well, this morning; but then again, his business does not concern the prince, nor would he have anything to offer Leon in exchange for his assistance.

Perhaps browsing the Kingdom’s archives would be more productive than banking on the possibility of one of these books being remotely helpful. Sloughing through centuries of annals will be tedious, but records of events will hopefully be at least somewhat factual; besides, he can look for information on other things that may have happened while he was sealed away. The ghost of a long-dead librarian points him towards the back shelves, and he quickly locates the manuscripts in the dusty stacks. 

Even here in the castle’s sacred lands, the wailing of nightspawn plagues him in the back of his mind, but he pushes the noise aside and focuses on the chronicles. First things first, he needs to sort through the annals of the last fifteen years, so he starts with the most recent record, and starts reading.

Year 1240 — A number of towns neighbouring the blasted heath by the eastern borders were once again subjected to a demon's wrath in the depths of winter. One survivor spoke of dark lightning in the skies as the demon tore through his hometown, before he was consumed by the poison coursing through his veins.

This one seems to be from early last year, and in total, there have been four major demonic rampages while he was gone, mostly in the eastern hinterlands. None of the attacks were too close to the large cities, least of all Wyndonburg, but the frequency of the destruction is concerning. It is rare that demons rampage so often, and he is surprised to see that the humans do not seem to have dealt with it yet.

He will have to investigate, once he regains enough strength to travel on his own again; he’s headed for the eastern hinterlands at some point in the future, anyways. In the meantime, there are other things he must do in Wyndonburg, and Piers sets aside this set of annals to research the older ones.

It takes much longer to find another entry that piques his interest, and this one an entry over eight hundred years old. These papers are ancient and sooty, and nearly crumble when he lays his hands on them.

Year 440 — The dreadful hail and lightning storms forewarned us of the events of that night on the ides of the tenth month, wherein a massive rupture spewed forth hellfire and torrents of magic from the earth below. The castle’s keep along with a number of its towers were destroyed in the raining devastation that followed, and in the aftermath King Lance II ordered restoration work done to restore our beloved castle.

“Finally, somethin’ worth my time,” he mutters, rereading the passage. He had not sensed the influence of any power source in all his time underground, which means it must be even further down in the deep earth, or concealed in some manner. Perhaps both. If it is the object of his search, then...

Piers continues flipping through the records in the hopes of finding more, but the words are becoming more and more archaic, and before he’s able to focus on reading them, he’s interrupted when his ears pick up a faint sound, emanating from the hallway outside.

Footsteps, heading towards the library. Piers stills his breath, shelving the archives back in their place, and when the footsteps stop at the library’s entrance, he melts into the shadows against a bookshelf to listen. The library’s heavy oak door creaks open on rusty hinges, and the footsteps draw closer, a well-measured pace carrying a reasonably sized human across the padded carpet. 

“Some time, at last,” the person sighs.

It’s Rose. The mere thought of being so close to the Regent has Piers' blood boiling. If he listens closely, he can hear only one set of breaths, and no other sounds of life anywhere in the vicinity of the library. He’s alone.

He could get his revenge against Rose right now. A decade and a half's worth of vengeance simmers in his blood. Alone and unguarded, the bookshelves and carpets will muffle any screams from the rest of the castle's inhabitants; or perhaps, opening a portal to drag the Regent into the void would be a more fitting end.

But even the mere thought of laying a hand on Rose sends fire searing through his veins, and Piers has to fight back a hiss of agony. Damned dragonstongue curse. 

He did promise to behave, as much as he hates that he can’t do anything about his hatred of Rose, and Leon and Raihan aren’t in any danger right now, so there is no warrant for him to harm anyone here. He’ll be burnt alive from the inside if he so much as breathes near the bastard with the wrong intent, and then that would just be counter to his goals.

At the very least, he might be able to learn something from Rose. Unable to do much else, Piers retreats back into the shadows, and the searing pain dissipates as he settles for straining his ears and listening.

“I must do something, and soon,” Rose is muttering under his breath. “The land and its people grow ever more feeble, the longer I wait. And yet…” 

He trails off, making his way through the aisles with purpose in his step. Piers shadows him through the room, crawling along the darkest corners after the Regent. 

“Would that the people could support themselves,” Rose murmurs. “For the sake of the Kingdom, and so that the people may prosper, I must find it. So much work to do, and there is the matter of Leon's accession, as well…"

Mumbling indistinctly under his breath, Rose approaches a row of cabinets. Piers hears the rattling of a key in a lock, and shaking glass as a door is slid open. A book is pulled from the shelf, followed by the flipping of pages. A finger running along lines of text as Rose parses the contents of some volume. Footsteps, and the tome is set down on a table. The scratch of a quill on parchment. Rose writes for some time; he seems to be taking notes from this particular book.

He wishes he could take a look at what Rose is reading, but hiding in the shadows means that he is blind the world around him, so Piers settles down and waits. Rose seems quite engrossed in his reading, though, and as time passes, he grows more and more impatient. He has half a mind to just crawl up to the ceiling and read over Rose’s shoulder, if it were not so risky to do that during the daylight hours. But eventually, his patience pays off as Piers picks up on the sound of long strides clicking down the hallway and approaching the library. The great doors swing open and someone walks up to Rose with delicate steps, rapping on the heavy oak table to catch his attention.

“Your Majesty,” the newcomer calls out. It’s Oleana. “There is someone here to see you in the throne room, an applicant for the position you requested. I have already confirmed that he meets your specifications.”

Rose slams his book shut promptly, rising to his feet without delay. “Thank you, Oleana. Let’s be off, then.” 

He stands to return his book to its original shelf. Piers pays close attention to the sound, listening to the rough edge of leather bindings sliding across the covers of other books.

The pair of footsteps leave from the library, and disappear down the hall. When all is silent once more, Piers dares to manifest from the shadows and slink over to the locked shelves. He phases a claw through the shelf to pick the lock, and then he slides the book out of position, one by one, listening to the friction of the leather covers against one another. When he finds the one that matches the sound of the one Rose had picked out, he pulls it out, and feels for the lingering warmth of human life on its pages. This is the one.

As soon as he lays his hands on it, he can feel that this one is not bound like the others. Wrapped in an unpleasant leather, thin and sickly, there is no mere magic that radiates from its pages like a regular spellbook, but enmity and abyssal power.

“What the hell was Rose readin’,” Piers murmurs. “Plannin’ on gainin’ more power, is he?”

He flips through its pages quickly, curious, but the words are odd and twisted. Singular, unsettling tales about old relics and rituals, much of which is written in strange languages he is unfamiliar with. He can even see some old dragonscript, which is beyond his abilities. Some of the magic is rarer than the old demonic spells, magic that has goosebumps rising on his skin. 

It is not necessarily evil magic, for there are spells of all elements and attributes scattered amongst the pages, but it is old, and rare, and unsettling. If this is a human tome on demonic magic, then it’s certainly impressive how much its authors have managed to compile without cursing the book itself.

There is no way that quickly skimming through this book will tell him anything; and yet, the oddity of this volume has Piers hesitating to put it back. It is strange that Rose would leave such a book out in the library, if it’s important enough for him to spend hours and hours studying it. Why is Rose reading a book like this, in the first place? The Regent has no latent magic ability to utilize these materials, and this content couldn’t be any further from helping the people of the Kingdom, either.

The more he thinks about it, the less he understands. He may not be familiar with Rose the way Leon and Raihan are, but he gets the sense he shouldn’t be telling them that he’s been reading these kinds of things just yet. Raihan probably would not take well to that, and he would like to investigate this matter for a little longer.

Hesitating only briefly, Piers decides to hang onto the book rather than return it to its place. He’d like to get a better look into the tome’s contents, and if nothing else, withholding it from Rose’s grasp for the time being may not be a bad idea, either. If Rose discovers that it’s gone missing, then that will have to be a problem for future him to figure out. He can only hope that the blame will not fall on Leon or Raihan.

As for how he’s going to hide it from Raihan… He doesn’t need the dragon accidentally stumbling upon what nightmarish horrors he’s brought back from their library. He’s sure Raihan will be fine with him opening a portal to another realm under his bed, so that he can store the book there though, right? That’s normal. It’s just a temporary measure, anyways.

When he looks up from his reading, he realizes that the library has grown dim around him; it must be nearing twilight. He doesn’t dare draw too close to the windows, not when the sun is still out, but he can just barely see the courtyard from where he is standing, and outside, he catches a glimpse of the prince and dragon returning from their day’s trip. They are laughing in the last of the evening rays, their figures radiant in the courtyard and striking amongst the rabble.

Maybe he should call it quits for the day. Spending all the hours of daylight squinting at old, musty books has not been as productive as he had hoped, especially when Leon isn’t here to keep him company, and he can tell that he’s at his limit for the day. In any case, he's rather tired by now, and he quietly slips out of the library and back through the halls of the castle with the odd book clutched tightly in his hands.

He makes his way back to the tower where he's staying without being discovered, and as he climbs the stairs to the princes' quarters, he isn't surprised to hear both the prince and the dragon talking in Raihan's room. They’re speaking in hushed whispers, but Piers can just make out the words over the din of everything else in the castle. 

“I’m telling you, Leon, you already do so much for the Kingdom. Take it easy, alright? We’ll have all the time you need once we’re officially on the throne.”

“But that’s the thing, Rose still hasn’t told us when it’s supposed to be. There are no official rules about how quickly the accession needs to happen, but usually the royal is crowned within a month of their coming of age, so…”

“Fair enough. I want to help the people, too. But you don’t need to push yourself to make a point to Rose, or anything like that…”

...He gets the sense that he probably shouldn’t just appear before them without any warning. Piers lets his heels clatter loudly against the stone steps as he makes his way up the tower to Raihan’s room, and their voices trail off as the sound of his footsteps grow closer. When Piers slips through the door, the two of them are sitting across from each other and pretending to be busy, Raihan sorting gold coins into neat stacks and Leon polishing his heirloom sword. Leon looks up, and beams at him when he catches sight of Piers in the doorway.

“Oh, Piers! Welcome back,” Leon chirps. “How was your day in the library?”  

“Tell your bookkeepers to fuckin’ organize the shelves, but thanks for lettin’ me hunt through the stacks,” he grunts, quickly cloaking his book in the shadows under Raihan’s bed. “I’m not interruptin’ your time together, am I?”

“Nope! I was just about to go off to do some training, myself,” Leon says, sheathing his sword and setting it down. Piers eyes it warily, even if he knows Leon has no intention of using it against him; Raihan is watching his line of sight as well. 

“Trainin’, ye say.” He hazards a judgemental look at Leon. “Ye spent all day faffin’ about in town, and now ye want to go train. Ever heard of somethin’ called rest?

“He can’t sleep unless he gets in some exercise beforehand,” Raihan answers, reaching over to tousle Leon’s hair fondly. “The usual place, then?”

“Like you can resist a challenge,” Leon counters, grabbing Raihan’s cheeks to smush them up in a decidedly non-intimidating manner. “The usual place sounds good. I’m not too fond of the servants getting on my case every time I visit the training halls at night.”

“Only because you never give yourself a break,” Raihan says, words muffled by Leon’s grasp on his cheeks. After a brief tussle, he manages to wrangle himself free from his partner, grabbing a couple of training swords from a rack on the wall. Then he stops, and turns to look at Piers with mild interest. “You coming too, or nah?”

“...Do I have a choice?”

Raihan shrugs. “Either you come train with us, or you can stay here and brood by yourself for the rest of the evening. Not much to do by yourself around here, as I'm sure you've found out.”

Leon leaps to his feet, his eyes practically beaming at the chance to spend more time with him. “Please come, Piers! You’ve told me so much about different styles of combat, and I want to see what you’re capable of, too.”

Piers grimaces. It is quite tempting to stay here and brood alone, just out of spite for these two damned extroverts, but Raihan does have a point. He has no intention of rummaging around in Raihan’s room without his permission, nor is he too keen to spend yet another few hours alone in these cold stone walls. Not when he’s already been doing that all day, and not when he’s being offered the chance to go out in the cool night air.

“I’ll come,” Piers sighs. “Take me wherever ye’re goin’.”

He's prepared to just sit in their shadows and let them do all the walking, but to his surprise, Raihan shifts fully into his dragon form and stretches his wings. Leon climbs onto his back just in front of his wings, and then the two of them look expectantly at Piers. After a moment’s hesitation, Piers hops on behind Leon. He’s not sure where exactly he’s supposed to hold on to, since Raihan doesn’t have any convenient shoulder spines or a saddle, and he hovers his hands uncertainly until Leon notices his dilemma, and takes hold of his arms to wrap them around his waist.

“Wow, you’re cold ,” Leon laughs, shivering slightly under Piers’ touch.

Raihan chuckles, a short huff in his dragon voice. “That’s because he’s dead, Leon,” he deadpans, and he launches them from the windowsill.

The thundering of his wingbeats soon overpowers the rush of wind as air whips around them. Leon gives a shout of exhilaration as Raihan sails through the cool night sky, and all Piers can do is squeeze his eyes shut and hold on for dear life.

Before he knows it, there’s the barely-audible sound of grass being lightly crushed underfoot as Raihan touches down, and Piers opens his eyes to see that they’re in a forest clearing, deep in the woods behind the castle. Only the tallest of the castle’s spires are visible above the treetops, and the woods are quiet but for the wind in the branches and the movements of woodland creatures. The rising moonlight faintly illuminates their surroundings just enough that he can see the eyes in the darkness between the trees, whispering too softly for either Leon or Raihan to hear.

“Here we are,” Leon says, but he doesn’t move. He looks over his shoulder to glance at Piers. “We can get off, now.”

He blinks, uncomprehending, until he realizes that his arms are still clenched tightly around Leon’s waist, and he very nearly throws himself backwards to release him from his grip. Leon hops off of Raihan’s back gracefully, but then turns around to offer Piers a hand. How gentlemanly of him.

“I can do it myself, thanks,” he says, hopping off lightly and taking a few paces away. He does his best to ignore the flash of disappointment that crosses Leon’s face.

The gentle moonlight is soothing to his senses, and he can already feel it replenishing his energy after spending all day avoiding the sun’s rays. It’s a rather nice place, considering how much the castle and its surrounding lands reek of centuries’ worth of light magic, seeped into the soil. 

Leon takes his training sword into his hands, and brandishes it with a couple of swings to warm up. “Who wants to go first?”

“I’ll just watch, thanks,” Piers grumbles, retreating to the edge of the clearing. “‘M not in the mood to get sweaty.”

Raihan gets a glint in his eye as he picks up his own training sword. “Too scared you’ll lose?” 

Refusing to let Raihan rile him up, Piers sticks out his tongue at the dragon, and sinks back to lean against a tree, crossing his arms. To hell if Raihan thinks he can get him to exert any physical effort on sparring , of all things.

But then Leon holds out a training sword for him, eyes wide with child-like excitement. “One match?” he begs. “Please?”

Piers finds himself shrinking back in the face of Leon’s enthusiasm. He opens his mouth to refuse, but he can almost see Leon already deflating, and he just doesn’t have it in him to say no to a face like that. Raihan is already smirking at him insufferably.

“Ye get one match with me,” he says wearily, and Leon cheers. “Any rules?”

“Nothing with the intent to maim or kill, obviously,” Raihan says. He’s clearly trying his best not to laugh at Piers for giving in so easily. 

“I trust you,” Leon says, jumping with glee. “I want to see how you’d actually fight in real combat, so don’t hold back on me!”

-

To no one’s surprise, Leon wins handily in no time at all, and Piers is down on his knees upon the earth, gasping for breath as he leans against his sword for support. He has no clue why Leon expected anything other than this outcome; he’s incredibly rusty, after all, and Leon is the Kingdom’s finest warrior, schooled in the finest of tactics and fighting techniques. And that’s before he even thinks about the fact that where his strikes are light, dainty even, Leon cuts with the force of a minotaur. He’d been powerless to resist every time Leon pushed him back, and a voice in his head briefly entertains the idea of how it would feel if Leon were to push him around in other contexts.

Ugh. He needs to stop listening to that intrusive voice.

“Do not ever ask me to spar with you again,” Piers wheezes, when he’s finally regained enough composure to get a word out. “I don't know how ye have the energy to battle for fun .”

“Aw, but that was so exciting!” Leon beams. He’s not the least bit winded, stupidly fit warrior that he is. “You’re really good, Piers! You actually managed to land a couple of hits on me. That’s better than what most of the castle’s knights are capable of.”

“Sounds like ye ought to train better knights.” Piers staggers to his feet, his thighs screaming in protest. “How d’ye expect them to protect you like that?”

A laugh reaches his ears, and Piers raises his head to see Raihan approaching them, chuckling with the most prideful, shit-eating grin on his face. “We’re the ones protecting them, most of the time. Not their fault they aren’t the great Raihan .”

Leon aims a light-hearted jab at Raihan’s ribs, which he easily dances out of the way of. “Piers, you don’t mind if I spar with Raihan for a bit, do you? Gotta put him back in his place.”

“Knock yourself out.” Piers seats himself on a fallen log and waves them off. “Give him a nice bash on the skull for me, would ye?”

“Do it yourself, then!”

Leon sighs and shakes his head, but there is a light smile upon his lips as he jogs off after Raihan.

Piers watches as Leon and Raihan ready themselves in a bracing stance; Leon gives a shout, and the two of them clash with ringing steel flashing in the dark.

Unlike him, Raihan is far more evenly matched against Leon; though Leon has the power to muscle through his opponent’s defenses, Raihan has faster reflexes and a longer reach. But no matter how close their swords come to each other, they never quite manage to connect, their reflexes kicking in at the last moment to block the other’s attack.

Piers does his best to follow every flash of their blades, but their moves are so synchronized that trying to keep up is making him dizzy. It doesn’t help that their faces are glistening with sweat in the moonlight, and that Raihan’s bladework looks more like an elegant dance—he really ought to stop listening to that voice in his head that keeps whispering about how toned their muscles are, and how Leon’s chest rises and falls with each deep breath he takes, and hell below, that’s enough .

Fuck. Fifteen years in isolation left him more than just physically weak, it seems.

He'd known this would be a problem as soon as he laid eyes on the other two, but Leon and Raihan are incredibly beautiful. Unfairly so. What right do these two light-bearers have to be so damn radiant? It's only even more obvious against his corpse-like appearance, and yet here he is, shamelessly laying his eyes on them as though he has any right to do so.

His attention is wrenched back into the present by a particularly dissonant screech of steel, and Piers looks up just in time to see Leon’s training sword pointed straight at Raihan’s heart. 

“I win,” Leon pants, and Piers has to appreciate how uncharacteristically hoarse Leon sounds when he’s out of breath.

Raihan blinks, speechless from the abrupt counterattack—and then he laughs, dropping his arms helplessly in defeat. “What can I say? Beaten again. One of these days, I’ll get you.”

Leon only laughs politely at that, and he looks as though he’s ready to go again; but his eye catches sight of Piers, watching them from where he’s sitting at the edge of the clearing. He must mistake his... interest, for something else, because he turns to Piers with a curious look, and ponders, “I wonder how you'd fare against Raihan…”

“To hell with that,” Piers scowls. Raihan seems intrigued at the prospect, and he glares daggers at him. “Ye can train against him all ye like, but I’m done sparrin’ for today. For the rest of my days. Not everyone's got muscles as big and powerful as yours, Leon.”

“Sounds like you’re the one whose muscles are lacking,” Raihan teases, while Leon colours behind him. 

“Need I remind you, I haven’t touched a weapon in fifteen years ,” Piers snaps. “Ye can shut it, prettyboy.”

“All the more reason to practice, then.” A glint appears in Raihan’s eye as he sizes up Piers. “Or are you too scared to find out how easily I could wreck you?”

Piers growls, and he feels the anger boiling in his veins, dark magic seething under his skin. He should not let Raihan rile him up, he should not let Raihan rile him up—

Piers spits. “Fuck you. Come at me, then, if ye’re so proud of yourself.”

Before he can change his mind, Raihan is launching at him with his sword in the air, nearly knocking Leon over in the heat of the moment. Piers barely manages to raise his arms to deflect the attack, and Raihan can tell that he’s struggling, because Piers barely makes any attempt to meet him head-on, and instead just focuses on deflecting his swings. 

Unfortunately, he’s severely miscalculated how drastic the difference in their heights is. Raihan towers over him by far, and since he’s so thrown off his rhythm, it’s all he can do to just barely keep out of his range. Raihan isn’t even tired in the slightest, either, even though he’d just come out of an intense bout with Leon, and quite frankly, this amount of stamina is inhuman.

Okay, well, to be fair, Raihan is not human. But neither is he, so why the hell does Raihan have this much more stamina than him?

Stupid, tall, infuriatingly cocky dragon bastard, with his lean legs and impeccable form. He’s at a massive disadvantage, and it's all too clear every time he ducks out of the way of Raihan's swings rather than fight back. It was stupid of him to let Raihan have his way, but to hell if he isn’t going to put up a fight.

He takes another step back to avoid a strike aimed for his head, and his ankle comes into contact with something solid. It takes only a quick glance for him to realize he's been backed up against a tree, and Raihan's smug look tells him that he’s been played right into this trap.

“It looks like this’ll be a quick one,” Raihan laughs, no worse for the wear. He’s barely even winded as he twirls his training sword in one hand. Show-off. “I’m almost disappointed in how easy this was.”

“I’d hate to let you think that I’m easy in any way,” Piers grits, but he really has nowhere to run now, and he has no choice but to block Raihan’s incoming attack directly. There's no reason for Raihan to even use this much strength; he's definitely showing off. It just pisses him off even more, and he knows that Raihan knows it.

Technically, he could call it quits and forfeit the match to Raihan; it would be much easier to just give up and let Raihan take the victory, after all. But he's pissed, and the harder Raihan strains against him, the less he wants to let him win. Really, he wants to bash that idiotic grin in, knock out Raihan’s stupid toothy fang and wear it around his neck as a trophy if he could, if he didn’t get the feeling that doing that would actually compel Raihan to kill him for good.

He’ll have to settle for bringing Raihan down to his knees instead. For now, at least.

Raihan pushes another step closer to him, smelling imminent victory as Piers continues to lose ground. Quickly running out of any other options, Piers makes a split-second decision and braces himself against the earth, and as Raihan leverages his sword to swing the edge down towards his neck, he makes the mistake of flicking his gaze away from Piers’ eyes and down towards his exposed throat, which leaves the perfect opening for Piers to kick one leg up and knee Raihan square in the crotch.

Raihan crumples to his knees, hissing as he doubles over in pain. Before he’s able to take advantage of the opening, however, Raihan wrenches his sword out of his hands and casts both their blades aside, and Piers just barely has enough time to dart out of the way of Raihan sweeping the ground with his tail to trip him up. He hadn’t even seen him shift it out.

Raihan picks himself up, growling under his breath; but he’s got intrigue written all over his face, and his growls are playful rather than infuriated. 

“Playing dirty, I see.” Raihan grits out his words through the pain, the grinding of his teeth palpable in the night air.

“All’s fair in love n’ war, darlin’,” Piers exhales, relieved to finally have some breathing space. He hurls a dark spell in Raihan’s direction, watching in satisfaction as Raihan ducks out of the way to avoid getting hit. “Ye never said I couldn’t.”

Raihan laughs, shaking his head with an amazed grin creeping across his face. Piers watches as Raihan readies himself to pounce, and his tail shakes in anticipation just before he launches himself at Piers anew.

The next moments pass by in a blur. With their swords now thrown aside, Raihan is intent on grappling him into submission, but Piers launches a barrage of weak spells after him to stop his pursuit. Lunging at him with talons and the hooks on his wings, Raihan makes a formidable opponent, and Piers wouldn’t have it any other way. And while his own bat-like wings are nowhere as powerful as Raihan’s, he’s still got talons and magic to pack a punch.

Swords be damned, this is the kind of fighting that gets his blood pumping. None of the decorum that comes with playing with weaponry, only raw power. When Raihan swipes at him, it's with blunted claws, but the air whooshing past him as he narrowly dodges a crushing blow sends the adrenaline pumping like nothing else.

Sensing an opportunity, Raihan leaps straight for him, but Piers counters and sends him teetering off balance with a well-aimed blast of black magic. This has Raihan crashing right into him with full force, wings wrapped around them both to cushion the fall. He rakes sharp nails over Raihan’s shoulder as they tumble to the ground, tearing into the fine fabric of his shirt, but Raihan seizes his wrists, and they land with Piers’ thin wrists pinned solidly above his head and Raihan on top. It’s immediately clear from the way Raihan’s hands envelop his wrists so completely that there’s no way he’s escaping his grasp anytime soon.

For a moment, neither of them move, panting as Raihan stares down at him, and Piers stares back up at those glistening blue eyes with equal measure. Raihan studies his face, eyes flickering up to his trapped wrists and then down to his exposed throat once more.

He parts his lips to say something. And then—

“That was amazing,” says Leon.

Piers starts. He’d quite forgotten that Leon was here—he hadn’t meant to get carried away at all, but their surroundings had gotten away from him, and then he’d found himself pinned under Raihan

Above him, Raihan jolts and rolls away, stumbling to his feet and retracting his wings, leaving Piers to hiss and jerk upright before he or Leon can notice the problem tenting in the front of his pants. If he had a heartbeat, he’d be flushed unbelievably red, but he can hear Raihan’s pulse thundering loud enough for the both of them. At least he’s just as embarrassed as he is.

Fortunately, Leon doesn’t seem to have noticed his predicament. The prince moves to stand up, but he loses his balance, and stumbles. In an instant, Raihan is at Leon’s side, fretting as he slides himself under Leon’s shoulder to support his weight. Piers takes another moment to dust himself off and calm down enough to make his way over to where Raihan is holding Leon steady on his feet.

“C’mon, Leon, let’s go,” Raihan is saying gently. “It’s time you went to bed, it’s been a long day for you.”

“It’s too early to sleep.” Leon rubs his eyes and shakes his head vigorously, fighting to wake himself up. “I promise, I’m good to keep training for a while longer…”

Piers huffs and grabs Leon, pushing him towards Raihan, who shifts to his dragon form and stretches his wings to ready them for flight. “Ye’re a right fool to keep trainin’ any further. Ye slept, what, six hours in the last two days? Listen to your damn partner.”

Raihan makes a sound of surprise when he hears this, and headbutts Leon with a displeased crease in his brow.

It takes a good amount of convincing, but eventually, Leon acquiesces to their nagging, and he is hardly able to resist as he’s pushed and pulled around into place on Raihan’s shoulders. As Piers does his best to help him sit upright, Leon blinks with sudden wakefulness, taking Piers’ hands into his own with widening eyes.

“Piers,” Leon murmurs. “Your hands…”

...Oh. He hadn’t even noticed, but mottled bruises are spreading over his knuckles, and he’s trembling in Leon’s grasp. The blemishes are minor, but spreading quickly, and his skin is so paper-thin that the slightest discolouration is jarringly dark and visible. 

“What happened?” Leon frowns in concern. He presses just a touch too hard on his bruising fingers, which has Piers recoiling with a hiss.

“It’s fine,” he mumbles. “S’what happens when ye use dark magic. Nothin’ unusual.”

All magic had side effects, after all, but those of dark magic could be particularly gruesome if left unchecked. He’s not surprised that Leon’s never seen dark magic strain before.

He wasn’t lying when he said it was nothing unusual, but it’s been a long time since he had bled from such light magic use. It had been some time since he had pulled on his magical sources, but if mere training spells this weak were exacting such a toll on his body, then he was in worse shape than he thought. But he doesn’t need Leon or Raihan knowing that; he’s weak enough as it is right now, and it’s not worth their time to worry about it, anyways. It will heal on its own, soon enough.

When he looks back up, Leon has his brows solemnly knitted in concern; out of the corner of his eye, Piers thinks he sees Raihan wincing as he turns away. The two princes share a look wordlessly, sharing some kind of mutual feeling that he is not privy to, but in the end, Leon does not say anything more, and wraps his arms around Piers’ waist this time, for the trip ahead.

It only takes a few powerful beats of Raihan’s wings to take them above the trees, and Piers looks on as the eyes of the forest watch them leave. Leon holds his hands for the entirety of the flight, but no sooner does Raihan touch down than Leon finally slip from his back, barely managing to avoid slamming his face on the cold stone tile.

“Oof,” Leon grunts, stumbling as he hits the ground. “That was a good spar. I think I’m energized enough to draft up some schedules for next month’s patrols…”

Raihan sighs, but he puts a fond smile on his face and pats Leon hard on the back. “You’re not going to get anything done like this, champ. Get some sleep, yeah? Your work will still be there in the morning.”

Leon rubs his eyes and opens his mouth to protest, but all that comes out is a jaw-cracking yawn, and Raihan gives him another look.

“Leon,” he says, very patiently.

Finally, with another long stretch, Leon’s shoulders droop, and he gives them a tired, resigned smile. “Haha, I guess I was more tired than I realized, after all. I’ll just wake up early to compensate…” Leon yawns once more, doing his best to stifle it before giving in. “Goodnight, you two!”

“Don’t get lost on your way back to your room,” Raihan calls out as Leon leaves, and the prince guffaws as he stumbles off.

“...That’s not possible, is it?” Piers can’t help but stare after him skeptically.

“You’d be surprised,” Raihan sighs. “His room may be just down the hall from mine, but… I’ve had to retrieve him from the kitchens before, all the way across the castle. It happens plenty.”

Piers snorts, and he strains his ears in the direction of Leon’s room. He can hear his footsteps dragging across the rug in the hallway, and then the drag of iron and wood across the ground before the door closes behind him. After another few moments, the snoring commences.

When he turns his attention back to Raihan, the dragon is looking at him with a peculiar look. Piers can’t tell if it’s confusion, curiosity, or something else entirely, and for a moment, he’s not sure what to make of it.

“About earlier…”

“I have to say, I’m sorry I doubted your abilities in combat,” Raihan interrupts with a grin. “You’re scrappier than you look.”

Piers blinks. 

“It was a lot of fun, if I’m being honest. I’m used to getting completely crushed by Leon, but no one else has been able to get close to being evenly matched with me on the field. I’d nearly forgotten what it was like to fight with an opponent that’s my equal.”

“I—what?”

Raihan presses on, excitement building in his voice. “You really had me up against a wall there, Piers. I didn’t expect much from you at first, but your strength and skill when you’re not being held back by traditional weaponry is really something. Please, you and I have got to battle again.”

Piers scowls. “I told you, I’m not sparrin’ again. I only agreed to it today ‘cause Leon looked like he was goin’ to die if I refused him.” He reaches over to flick Raihan’s forehead with a dulled nail. “Besides, ye fool, ye won.”

Also, he will never say this aloud, but if he spars with Raihan again, he is, with absolute certainty, guaranteed to embarrass himself, and he can’t let that happen, not when Raihan so clearly despises him. How pathetic would that be? Raihan would think him a masochist.

But that refusal just has Raihan twisting his lips in a childish pout, pressing his hands to his forehead with a whine. It’s not nearly as convincing as Leon’s pleading face, but hell below, Raihan is finally behaving like the spoiled prince Piers had been expecting, and he refuses to be drawn along by these princes and their damned puppy eyes any further tonight.

“You’re really strong,” Raihan continues, ignorant to his plight. “I’m just saying, we should really fight it out again sometime, if you really want to see who’s better...”

Why is he so stubborn about this? At this point, refusing him outright isn’t going to work. Searching for an out, his mind trails back to earlier in the evening, when he’d made his way back to their chambers. Perhaps a diversion…?

“Enough about me,” he says roughly, and before Raihan can say anything else, he follows up with, “So what was all that about earlier today? The talk about Leon not pushin’ himself to prove a point.”

Raihan starts, and then he squints suspiciously at him. “...You heard all that?”

“Mm, I’ve got good ears. The prince likes to overwork himself, doesn’t he.”

It seems he’s taken the bait. Raihan runs a hand through his locs, breathing out a heavy sigh. “...Yeah. He’s been tired all day, even at the market, since he was kept up doing paperwork while I was gone.” He stops to take a breath, visibly struggling to keep his anger down. “I hate when Rose—or anyone, I guess—does that to him. Rose knows Leon isn’t good with paperwork, and then time and time again, he goes and unloads it all on him right whenever I’m not there to help him out.”

So it seems the best way to distract Raihan is by getting him to talk about Leon; he'll have to keep that in mind. Piers frowns at the implications of Raihan’s words. “Rose has done it before?”

“Yeah. He claims he doesn’t trust anyone but Leon to do it correctly, but Leon and I are supposed to take the throne together, aren’t we? I’m the crown prince’s draconic partner, and my clan has watched over the Kingdom’s affairs for centuries and he doesn’t trust me to take up my duties.” He scoffs, resting his elbows on his knees, and takes a deep breath once more to cool off. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you about this. It’s not something you need to concern yourself with.”

“No, ye have a point.” Piers shakes his head. He’s harboured this grudge for so long already, but the more he learns about Rose, the more his blood boils. “It’s awfully shitty of the bastard, and then he has the gall to make Leon feel bad for bein’ stressed about work he hates doin’.”

Raihan looks strangely at Piers, then, as if he didn’t expect Piers to take his side. Why he would think that, he has no clue; he’s made it more than clear how he feels about Rose, after all. There is genuine frustration etched in the line of Raihan’s brow, but it’s not directed at him, and after a moment, Raihan sighs, the tension dissolving from his shoulders.

“Leon told me you kept him company and helped him with a lot of his paperwork. That was awfully kind of you.” A somber cloud passes over his expression momentarily. “I’m grateful that you offered him assistance in my stead.”

“It’s no big deal.” Piers looks off to the side to avoid Raihan’s intense gaze. “Besides, he’s helpin’ me out with somethin’, too. It’s only a fair trade.”

“And that something would be…?”

Piers bites his lip. “...I’ll tell you another time.”

Raihan looks suspicious, but they’ve clearly made some progress, because after a moment, he just shrugs, and even though his shoulders are still tense, he doesn’t press on the matter. “Fine. I’ll hold you to that.”

He hesitates. There’s evidently something weighing on his mind, and Piers waits patiently for him to continue.

“Actually, I’d like to apologize for how I behaved to you before. It was unbecoming of me, as draconic prince of the Kingdom, to be so unfriendly to a guest of my partner. Leon welcomed you wholeheartedly, even knowing the risks of harbouring you, and I should have done the same without questioning it.” Raihan looks embarrassed, but he dips his head in formal apology.

...That’s incredibly generous of him. Piers doesn’t even know how to respond; he just helped Leon with some basic paperwork, after all.

“I still have my reservations,” Raihan is saying slowly. “I don’t know what you’re after, and I hope you’ll understand that I can’t trust you fully, not until I know what it is you’re getting from Leon in exchange for helping him out. But… you’ve done more than enough to prove that you’re worthy of my respect.”

“S’ fine,” Piers mumbles, a little thrown off by the honest confession. “Anyone would’ve done the same in your situation. I’m not too fond of other demons, either.”

“I was wondering about that,” Raihan states, and when Piers doesn’t answer, he elaborates, “Every other demon I’ve ever heard of was completely degenerated into madness, you know?” 

“You’ve fought other demons before?” Piers asks, immediately suspicious.

“No, well…” He trails off, fighting with himself, and then he says, “My elder sister was killed defending the mages from a demon, a few years back. There have been other attacks in the Kingdom over the years, but those were usually taken care of by Oleana or other demon hunters. Leon and I hadn’t had to, before you.”

Piers looks away. “‘M sorry to hear about your sister.”

“It was a long time ago,” Raihan says, his gaze distant. He shakes himself back into focus. “As I was saying. We were taught our whole lives that nightspawn are inherently out of their minds, just by virtue of being nightspawn. But you…”

“I wonder,” Piers interrupts, biting the inside of his cheek. “You barely know me, Raihan. I’m just a minor demon, but that doesn’t mean...”

He trails off, and Raihan gives him a strange look. Like he doesn’t know how to react, or doesn’t understand what the hell Piers is getting at. 

“You’re an interesting one, Piers,” is all he says instead. “But I stand behind my words. You’re not all bad.”

Piers doesn’t bother responding to that. He doesn’t get how Raihan can just forgive him on a dime like that, especially when he was the one who was so vehemently against bringing him back in the first place. What part of “ demons are not to be trusted” has Raihan forgotten? It isn’t even as though he helped Raihan directly. 

A loud snore from Leon’s room comes barrelling through the air, interrupting his train of thought. Piers jumps a little, and for a brief moment they stare at each other in surprise; Then Raihan chokes back a laugh with an unattractive snort, and Piers finds it in him to crack a slight smile.

“Seems he’s well asleep,” Raihan says, a gentle smile teasing at the corners of his mouth. He tilts his head, honing in on his bond with Leon. “It doesn’t seem like he’s dreaming, either.”

The fondness of that expression tugs at something long forgotten in him; Piers pushes the feeling down deep into the back of his mind.

“It’s gettin’ late,” he manages, mouth suddenly dry. “Ye plannin’ on sleepin’ anytime soon yourself?”

“I’d planned on sleeping, but all that exercise has got me wide awake. I got plenty of sun today, so I’m pretty wired up, too.” Raihan hums, stretching his arms above his head. “I think I’ll wind down for a bit, in any case.”

“...I’ll leave you to it, then.”

It’s about time he made himself scarce; he’s already intruded enough on Raihan’s time today as it is. Considering the sheer aura of Raihan’s light magic gives him a near constant headache, he can only imagine what the drain of his dark magic is doing to Raihan. He makes to settle into the comfort of the dark for another night, but Raihan coughs, drawing his attention back to him.

“Actually, since I’m not tired enough to sleep yet, I was thinking, I was going to find something to do—you’re welcome to join me, if you like? We can start over on a clean slate, yeah?”

Rather uncharacteristically for him, he stumbles over his words a few times. And while he doesn’t want to be a burden on Raihan for any longer than he has to, the earnest fumble hits a weak spot in him, and he finds himself sitting down to humour him. “What’re ye thinkin’ of?”

“Well, there’s not much in the way of group activities to do up here, unfortunately,” Raihan says, scanning over the contents of his room. “I’ve got cards and dice, so we could play some simple games for the time being. I’ll have to look into finding other things to do up here.”

“Such a wonderful host ye are,” Piers says dryly, but there’s no venom in his tone. He shakes his head almost fondly. “Dice’ll do for now. What do ye and Leon even get up to when… ...on second thought, I don’t wanna know.”

“Nothing like what you’re imagining.” Raihan rolls his eyes as he retrieves a pair of bone dice, and kicks his shin in revenge. Piers tries not to wince in pain, because ow, his old, frail bones . “Leon and I are just partners in rule, alright. That’s all there is.”

“Sure,” Piers says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Because ye dragons bond with just anyone and everyone, and it’s not like ye typically only bond with one ye consider a mate. No, nothin’ goin’ on here, not at all.” He rolls his eyes. “Ye ain’t foolin’ me.”

Raihan crosses his arms, huffing in disbelief. “Light above, I’m just trying to get along with my new roommate, and this is the thanks I get?”

This is familiar. Piers relaxes, feeling their previous dynamic settling over him with ease. He can work with this. Teasing banter with Raihan comes almost naturally to him, and is much more preferable to honest heart-to-heart talks. 

“I’ll shut up if ye can beat me in a game,” he says. “I’ll even let you pick.”

“Well, dice it is, then,” Raihan says, already dividing up stacks of gold between them. It seems he’s already shaken off any insult taken. “Let’s enjoy ourselves, shall we?”

Piers smirks. “And if I win?”

“We’ll see about that,” Raihan laughs, with prideful amusement. He considers Piers thoughtfully, looking at the table between them with a careful eye.

“Just don’t let me catch you cheating,” he quips, almost as an afterthought.

-

They settle on a simple game of Hazard, because Raihan is technically supposed to be winding down before he can sleep, and Raihan offers to let Piers start, because he is the guest here, and it’s Raihan’s dice they’re playing with. It’s a simple enough game, one more of luck than of any skill, and there’s no real need for him to give it his full focus. But he is interested in seeing if Raihan’s prowess for strategy extends past battle and into games of chance as well. 

It starts off fine enough. Raihan easily wins several consecutive rounds, but Piers manages to break his streak with a few well-placed bets that force Raihan to hand over a considerable sum. Can’t have his ego getting too inflated, now.

But Raihan’s gaze keeps drifting back to his bruised hands over the course of the game. He winces every time he looks at his bloodied knuckles, and Piers has to swallow down another snarky remark every time it happens. It’s not Raihan’s fault that he has a gut reaction to seeing the side effects of dark magic. Hell, the first time Piers had cast a black magic spell, he’d nearly collapsed from exertion, and he’d been bloody and battered for weeks after.

He sneaks a look at Raihan’s own hands as he’s passed a stack of coins. Soft skin, without a callus in sight, and delicately filed nails. Briefly, their fingers brush against each others’ as the gold is traded between them, and Piers does his best to not think about how his own calloused fingers must feel like grindstones against Raihan’s.

Straining his magic may not have been his wisest decision today. He’s already weaker than he should be, and though he’s fed, his magic is still at a deficit, and this will only set him back further. But he just couldn’t resist Leon’s pleading, and as for Raihan...

No matter how clearly Raihan wears his emotions, he can’t get a read on him at all. Just a few nights ago, Raihan was all cold and aloof and wanted nothing to do with him, but now he’s gone all soft and apologetic. Even now, Raihan keeps looking at him with a mixture of expectation and… pity, perhaps. It’s infuriating. It’s intimidating. It’s more than he deserves.

Piers tosses his dice, nicks the roll, and collects sixty gold from Raihan. 

Well, he supposes he hasn’t been the most straightforward, either. Not like it matters. He’s only staying here until he’s regained his strength, after all, and hopefully, that is before Raihan or Leon start getting any ideas about friendship , or anything preposterous like that.

The situation is straightforward: he owes them a debt. And more, for the favours Leon is doing him: letting him stay in the safety of the castle and use as many of its resources as he pleases, all without prying into his affairs. He’d imposed himself on them without really asking, but neither Leon nor Raihan had explicitly told him to leave, and masking his fears behind a veneer of brazen flirtatiousness had been the easiest way to hide how nauseous he’d been at the idea of having to take refuge right in the heart of the Kingdom, surrounded by light magic and dragons that likely would not hesitate to kill him at first sight.

But now he’s embroiled in this whole situation, and he still doesn’t have the strength to travel far enough to the places he needs to go, nor has he finished the original mission he first came to Wyndonburg for, all those years ago. And then, there’s the matter of Rose; something about him has been needling at the back of his mind, ever since he returned to the surface, and he can’t quite pin it down.

“Hey,” Raihan says, bringing him out of his thoughts. “Is this boring you?”

“No, not at all.” He bristles defensively, and then remembers where he is. It’s not like Raihan’s been reading his mind, so of course he’d be confused as to why Piers was glaring at the dice for so long. He jerks his head at the table. “Go. It’s your turn.”

Raihan just keeps watching him, brows furrowed in concern. “I know you’re the one who challenged me, but we don’t have to keep going, if you’re not having fun. Really, I don’t mind.”

He seems hurt, though, and understandably so; he’s trying his best to make amends, and Piers will barely even look at or talk to him. He really needs to learn to behave like a reasonably functioning person in front of others.

“No,” Piers manages, fidgeting in his seat. “This is… nice. Appreciate it. It was a sudden change is all, and I was thinkin’ about somethin’ else.”

Raihan visibly relaxes, but his eyes are still inquisitive, so Piers tries again. “Didn’t mean to get carried away by my thoughts. If ye’re gaggin’ for my attention that badly, then I'll focus.”

“Hey,” Raihan says gently, putting a hand over Piers’. (What is it with these princes and constantly trying to hold his hand?) “Whatever it is that’s worrying you, it’s not affecting you right now, is it? Just focus on the present.”

“Easy for you to say,” Piers mumbles, but Raihan squeezes his hand reassuringly, and picks the dice up once more.

“Look, you’re not trying to kill me, and I’m not trying to kill you, so I’d say things could be a lot worse.”

Allowing himself a snort of laughter, he glances up at Raihan, and as Piers focuses his ears on Raihan’s steady heartbeat, he allows himself to let go of his thoughts and bring himself back to the present.

“Ye got a point,” he says at last, looking back down to their half-finished game. “Though I’d certainly hope you won’t be mindin’ when I completely destroy you and your treasure hoard.”

Raihan looks relieved to hear his usual prickly self come back, which is strange, because who in their right mind likes getting teased by a demon, but the expression is gone as quickly as it came, replaced by the usual cocky demeanor.

“That’s the Piers I’m used to. But I gotta say, I think you’re the one getting wrecked, mate.” He gestures to his towering stack of gold, and Piers’ last ten coins. “It’d be pretty hard for you to make a comeback now, wouldn’t it?”

“Not if ye stopped switchin’ out the dice for the loaded ones in your sleeve,” Piers snorts, enjoying the dawning realization on Raihan’s face. “Ye got one weighted for each face, haven’t ye? I can hear ‘em clatterin’ around, ye know.”

“You knew,” Raihan says, and when Piers nods smugly, he throws his hands up in the air, exasperated. “You knew , and you didn’t bother to call me out until I’d almost won?”

“It was way more worth it to wait and see the surprise on your face just now,” Piers answers simply. “Ye really thought ye could get away with it?”

“No one else has ever noticed,” Raihan says, dejected, and Piers finally bursts out laughing. They’re both in their human forms right now, but Piers can almost see his tail between his legs.

“Oh, ye never fail to amuse me, Raihan. Ye of the honourable divine dragon clan, caught cheatin’ like a dirty thief,” Piers snickers. “Weren’t ye the one who told me not to get caught cheatin’?”

“It’s a game of chance, there’s no way to strategize outside of making smart bets! You should see the tactics Kabu and Melony can come up with,” Raihan grumbles, sweeping his rigged dice into a cloth pouch. He points a finger accusingly at Piers. “Besides, you were manipulating your rolls, too, weren’t you? That chipped die came up four way too many times for it to be natural.”

“Ah, sharp eye. Why didn’t ye say anythin’, dear?”

“I didn’t have enough proof, and I was going to count for another round to make sure, before calling you out.” Raihan pouts. “I cannot believe I’ve been bested. Me . The great

“Yeah, yeah, ye and your greatness,” Piers interrupts. Funnily enough, the excitement of it all is buzzing under his skin, and even though Raihan looks incredibly put out from having his scheme foiled, he’s kicking his feet like he’s excited to go again. He wouldn’t mind another game with Raihan. It was the most fun he’d had in quite some time.

Scratching at the bone dice with a sharp talon, he says, “Ye down for another round? Technically, neither of us won, and we had a bet goin’, if I recall.”

Raihan shakes his head, and Piers’ heart drops. How stupid of him. Of course Raihan wouldn’t want to—

“Not this game, but I’ll absolutely play you in something else until one of us wins.” Raihan says, with a playful look in his eyes, and Piers allows himself to relax. “You’re just full of surprises, Piers.”

-

In the end, they play until the rays of the morning light peek over the horizon, with neither of them ever managing to secure a win without getting called out on their underhanded tactics. They would have kept going, if not for the fact that Piers is at risk of getting burnt by the sun, and that Raihan finally feels exhaustion settling deep into the marrow of his bones. Just as the sun’s rays begin peeking above the horizon, Piers excuses himself to finally let Raihan go to bed.

Strangely, instead of settling into the darkest shadows in the corners, he leaves the room without a word to disappear into the night. Raihan senses only a vague shadowy presence in the hall outside his room, and then Piers is gone entirely.

Humming an old melody to himself, Raihan starts the task of putting away all his things. Piers is an enigma, that’s for sure, and the more he learns about the demon, the less he understands. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get a proper read on Piers; one minute, he’ll tease him and drop shameless pet names and innuendos left and right, and the next, he gets shy and deflects genuine praise.

He had been taught, before, that demons were an independent type, and that they didn’t form cohesive bonds with one another the way humans and dragons did. But for Piers to imply that he preferred the company of humans and even a divine dragon, his mortal enemy, over other demons was certainly unusual.

Raihan shakes his head, and puts away the last of his scattered gold coins. There’s no point dwelling on things that he has no answer to; Piers will reveal what he’s comfortable with, in time, and if not, then that is fine as well. If nothing else, though, he’s glad to have finally found someone that he can honestly fight against as an equal. He loves training with Leon, he truly does, but considering his more than twenty year losing streak, and the rest of the knight guard who can’t hold a candle to either of them, he hasn’t had a truly new fighting experience in years.

Not to mention, as awful as he feels for thinking it… he’s grateful that Piers is so open about his distaste for Rose. It’s the first time someone other than him has offered to help Leon with his princely duties, let alone outwardly express his hatred for the Kingdom’s beloved Regent. After all, Rose has worked so hard to keep the Kingdom functioning while he and Leon waited to become of ruling age; there’s little room for anyone to complain about what Rose has done for the land and its people.

He yawns, putting away the last of his cards and dice.

It’s incredibly rare that he stays up all night like this, and he’s exhausted. Normally, he’d keep his shutters wide open and let the sunlight restore his energy as he sleeps, but… he’s not sure when Piers intends to come back, and it wouldn’t be very hospitable for him to sleep in the sun if it would cause Piers to burn. It’s a no-brainer for him to close the shutters and bar them tight before he slips into bed.

He can forgo restoring himself in the sun’s rays for one sleep. He doesn’t need a full night’s rest like humans do, in any case, so he can rise in a couple of hours and bask in the sunlight then. 

Strange that he’s been sleeping so well in his room, since they brought Piers back.