In a forest far away from the hustle and bustle of city life, there lived a woman named Nanette. While it wasn’t the life of which she dreamt in her younger years, she was pleased with the solitude and peace of the quiet forest. No one bothered her, letting her sink lower and lower into the quagmire in which she had stepped many years prior. Like most of the forest dwellers, she avoided humanity at all costs, except once a week when she visited the nearby inn for a single drink.

“The usual, Nanette?” the innkeeper asked as she entered.

She nodded, and he poured her a glass of his finest wine. It was the only thing she allowed herself to indulge in anymore. It was the wine she and Samuel always shared after a victory. Now, she drank it once a week, letting herself become lost in aged but never forgotten memories.

“Well, it started here, but now it’s reaching all the way up my arm,” a young woman spoke from across the inn. Her voice was soft and tender. Nanette hated it. “I stopped here on my way back home because I was hoping the innkeeper might have a cream for it, but he said he doesn’t. Look at it.”

“Oh, that’s disgusting,” one of the men with whom she was speaking said. “I don’t think ladies are supposed to show off rashes.”

The young woman laughed. It was a lighthearted laugh that was full of glee. She was young and still filled with amazement at the world and everything life had to offer. The sound of it irritated Nanette and she griped her wine glass tightly.

“I never said I was a lady,” the young woman said. “I’m a warrior.”

“Witches don’t count as warriors. You’re still a lady,” he replied.

“A witch?” she asked. “That’s gross. I am not one of them. I am a sorceress. Make sure you remember that.”

“Just as long as you don’t give me that rash,” he said.

“I’m serious,” she said. “I am a warrior. I fight all the time. Just the other day, I was attacked by some bandits. They cut me pretty bad with this cool dagger, but I managed to get away and steal the dagger. I was hoping it might be worth some money, but it’s just too cool to sell.”

At the mention of the dagger, Nanette glanced in the girl’s direction. While she no longer called herself an adventurer, she still enjoyed a good weapon. However, as her gaze fell upon the blood-red blade, her own blood froze. That blade was made from dragon scales, and not just any dragon. She’d recognize those flamboyant scales anywhere. They belonged to the only red dragon she had ever seen: Vankrosis.

“You idiot!” Nannette jumped to her feet and grabbed the girl’s arm.

“Ouch, that hurts,” she said.

She gently grabbed the dagger from the girl. “This dagger is made from dragon scales.”

“Really?” she asked. “So it is probably worth a lot of money. I heard that people gather dragon scales from the skin that dragons shed to make weapons, but I’ve never seen one.”

“Because they are rare and illegal,” Nanette said. She looked at the rash. Just as she thought, it looked like dragon scales. “And this isn’t just some rash. You’ve been poisoned by that blade. Getting cut with a dragon scale poisons you, and the only way to cure it is to drink some of the dragon’s blood.”

The young woman stared at Nanette in silent horror. “Are you joking?”

“No, I’m not,” she said.

“Am I going to die?” she asked.

Nanette struggled to answer her question. Death didn’t always have to mean an end to life. It could mean something far worse.

“Yes,” Nanette said. “If you don’t get some of that dragon’s fresh blood soon, you’re going to die from the poison.”

The young woman looked around at the men in the inn. “Is she right?”

They shrugged. “No idea, but I’d trust Nanette. She knows a lot.”

“What am I going to do?” she looked up, and Nanette was reminded of a small doe.

Nanette desperately wished she could pull out her blade and hunt that little doe. The innocence in her eyes was assaulting, and she wanted nothing more than to eliminate it. No one should be allowed to be that innocent in such a terrible, dark world. If the dragon hadn’t been Vankrosis, Nanette had a strong feeling she would let the girl suffer her fate as punishment for her own naiveté.

“I’ll probably regret this, but I’ll take you to the dragon. I recognize these scales, but we must hurry.”

“Thank you so much,” the young woman said. “I can’t believe how kind you are. My name is Sophia, by the way.”

“I don’t care what your name is,” Nanette said. “I just care about finding Vankrosis and settling my score with him.”

“What score?” Sophia asked.

Nanette spoke more to herself than to Sophia. “I faced him once before but failed. He nearly killed me and my companion.”

That day was so long ago, but she recalled every moment of it. She and Samuel had been fools to think they could defeat Vankrosis. Their pride at how much they had accomplished overshadowed their logic, and they failed to truly understand the strength of a dragon. Vankrosis nearly killed them, but they managed to escape. That had been their last adventure.

Traveling with Sophia was like pouring sugar on a toothache. Her sweet disposition and cheerful attitude gnawed on Nanette’s nerves.

“Where is this dragon?” Sophia asked.

“His name is Vankrosis,” she replied.

“Does it matter? He’s a beast,” Sophie said.

Nanette stopped walking and turned to face her. The look in her eyes was clear and serious. Those were practically the same words she had said when she faced him the first time. This wasn’t a game. This was life and death, and Nanette assumed this fight would really be her last.

“Dragons are brilliant creatures. Give Vankrosis the respect he deserves or you’ll be taken off guard when he kills you.”

“Morbid,” Sophia said. “So where does he nest?”

“I’m not entirely sure. I know he’s in the canyons just North of Lunaria, but I don’t know his exact location anymore.”

Lunaria was a large metropolis located just outside the woods in which Nanette called home. It hugged the Great Sea on the East. Nanette and Samuel lived there once, and Nanette still knew some people who may be able to offer advice on Vankrosis’ location.

As they reached the great arch of Lunaria, Sophia looked up with amazement in her eyes. Nanette, however, looked up in dreaded anticipation. She never wanted return home or speak with her friends again. They would talk about him, and she wanted to bury him deeper and deeper until the pain ceased.

“Do you think anyone here knows where to find him?” Sophia asked.

“My friends probably do.” She motioned for Sophia to follow her. “Come on. They’re probably at the Eagle’s Inn.”

Friends, however, was a loose term. Friends remained in each other’s lives and wrote letters. Nanette ran from her friends and never looked back.

Sophia pouted. “Can’t we look around a bit? I’ve never been to Lunaria before.”

“Sure, we can,” Nanette said. “And when you’re dead from the poison coursing through your body, I’ll go deal with Vankrosis on my own.” She sighed and tried to sound more comforting as she noticed the fearful look on Sophia’s face. “We only have so much time before that poison wins. You can look around Lunaria to your heart’s content after we deal with Vankrosis.”

“You’re right,” Sophia said and ran to catch up to her. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Thank you so much for doing this for me. I wouldn’t have even realized I was poisoned if it wasn’t for you, and now you’re helping save me.”

“Just don’t get in my way,” Nanette said.

“I wish I had some money or something to give you.”

“It’s fine,” Nanette said.

“Oh, I know!” Sophia rummaged through her bag and pulled out a small wooden rose. “This was the decoration on my very first staff. The staff got destroyed years ago when I tried to do a spell that was too powerful for me. I nearly killed myself.” She handed it to Nanette. “It’s not worth anything, but it’s always brought me luck.”

Nanette looked at the small trinket. It was junk. Anyone else would have thrown it in the trash, but somehow, looking at it made Nanette a little bit happy.

“Thanks,” she said, pocketing the rose. “But I don’t believe in good luck charms.”

“You say that now, but you’ll see.” She grinned.

“Come on,” Nanette said. “We don’t want to keep Vankrosis waiting.”

 

While she hadn’t seen them in years, Nanette could still predict the behavior of her friends and where they would be located on a lazy afternoon. The Eagle’s Inn was far from the only inn in town, but it was the trashiest inn in town. No one ever really spent the night there. If someone had enough money to travel to Lunaria, they had enough money to stay in someplace nicer than Eagle’s Inn, and anywhere was nicer than the Eagle’s Inn. It had, however, become a local hangout for anyone looking for a good drink and small crowds.

“Oh!” Sophia said as they entered. She grabbed her nose. “That’s an interesting smell.”

Nanette looked around. Warped tables and chairs wobbled on the bowed floor. The few furnishing that hung from the wall looked ready to fall, and the years of smoke blacked them beyond recognition, making it impossible to tell the difference between a painting of a young woman and an old man. Sophia was right about the odor. The smell of rancid food mixed poorly with the hint of body odor and urine.

“They’ve really cleaned this place up since the old days,” Nanette said.

Sophia stared at her. “I’d hate to see it dirty.”

Nanette smiled. “Yes, you would.”

“You smiled!” Sophia said, pointing at her.

Nanette’s smile immediately evaporated. “Shut up.”

Near the back of the inn, a loud group of patrons talked and laughed. Nanette immediately recognized them as three of her good friends from her days in Lunaria. Bran and Thom were brothers who called themselves treasure hunters. More accurately, they were thieves, and bad ones at that. However, they were good men and quite large, so they were nice to have around, especially in a fight. Angelica was Thom’s wife. From what Nanette could remember, she didn’t particularly like Angelica. She always drank too much and then accused every woman of being in love with Thom. No woman anywhere was in love with Thom. No woman saw passed his missing teeth, leathery skin and onion breath. Bran got the looks in the family, and even he wasn’t Nanette’s type.

“Do my eyes play tricks on me or is that Nanette in the flesh?” Bran stood to greet her.

“Long time,” Nanette said and shook his hand.

Thom stood and opened his arms for a hug. Nanette looked at his stained clothes and backed away. “Thom, you know Angelica doesn’t like you to hug other women.”

Angelica was too busy looking at Nanette with pure distain to even hear what she had said. Nanette was pretty sure the woman was mentally tearing her apart at that very moment.

“Sit down and have a drink,” Bran said. “We have too much to catch up on.” Finally, he spotted Sophia. “Oh, who is this?”

“This is Sophia. She’s the reason I’m here, and we don’t have much time.” She grabbed Sophia’s arm and showed them the spreading rash.

“Dragon poisoning,” Bran said. “It looks bad. Do you know who it was?”

Nanette released Sophia’s arm and nodded. “Vankrosis. Someone made a dagger out of some of his shed scales, and she was cut with it.”

“Of course,” Thom said. He looked at Bran. “I warned you this was going to start happening more often. We should have done something about it sooner. We should have at least stopped people from salvaging his scales.”

“What do you mean?” Nanette asked.

“Vankrosis has been moving closer and closer toward Lunaria. I believe he’s aiming to attack the city. I warned people when I saw them collecting his scales that they are dangerous, and now I have proof,” Thom said. “I should have physically stopped them instead of just warning them. People are idiots.”

“You going to face him?” Bran asked.

Nanette nodded. “I was hoping you knew where he would be exactly. Is he still in the canyons?”

Bran nodded. “Yeah, I can take you to him.”

“I’m afraid I can’t go,” Thom said. He grabbed a crutch and struggled to stand. Only then did Nanette realize he was missing his left leg. “Lost it after a damn wolf bit it. Tore it up too good for the doctor to save it.”

“I’m so sorry!” Sophia said. “I’m glad you lived.”

Angelica glared at the sweet and adorable Sophia. Nanette simply pushed her back to protect her from Angelica’s long and sharp fingernails.

“Have you dealt with Vankrosis since you and Samuel faced him?” Bran asked.

“No,” Nanette said.

A silence hung around them. Sophia simply looked back and forth between Nanette and Bran, waiting for someone to answer the question that was on her tongue.

“Who is Samuel?” she asked.

“The best damn man anyone could ever meet!” Thom shouted with tears in his eyes. He had clearly had about five drinks too many already. “There’s no one else who’ll ever compare to him.”

Bran looked at his brother. “Quiet, Thom. You’re talking too much.”

“It’s fine,” Nanette said, but it wasn’t. Hearing him talk about Samuel was like twisting the knife that was always in her chest, stinging her more and more. She couldn’t take it much longer. “Well, I hate to do this, but we need to go now,” Nanette said.

Bran gulped down the rest of his drink. “I know. I can see how much it’s spreading. Come on. I’m ready.”

Nanette, Sophia and Bran headed for the door. Before they reached it, however, it burst open, and about half a dozen shrouded figures rushed inside. From under their hoods, their yellow eyes peered about the room like hawks, looking for prey.

“Ah, shit they’re back!” Thom jumped to his foot.

“Who are they?”

As if to answer her question, the figures lowered their hoods. Leathery, grey skin stretched over their pointy bones. Their bodies twisted in ways that looked unnatural, but they moved with the elegance and ease of a young acrobat.

“Witches,” Nanette said.

“They are Vankrosis’ witches,” Bran said.

Powerful dragons were dangerous, but they were also revered by many. A sorceress who vowed to worship and protect a dragon, soon transformed into a witch: a vile creature that only lived to devour humans and protect their master. As one of the most powerful dragons, it was no surprise Vankrosis had some witches watching over him.

“What do they want?” Sophia asked.

Bran looked down at her. “I suspect they’re here for you.”

“Why me?” Sophia asked.

Bran looked back up at Nanette. “You didn’t tell her?”

“It’s not important right now,” Nanette said.

The witches spotted Sophia and attacked. Nanette shoved Sophia behind her.

“Nanette, I can help,” Sophia urged.

“Stay behind me. Thom, keep her back there.”

Nanette pulled out her sword and swung at a witch. With a wave of her claw like fingers, the witch blocked the sword, stopping it mid swing. Nanette yanked on her sword, breaking the witch’s grasp. It was as if an invisible vice had taken hold of her sword.

“Nanette, please let me help!” Sophia called, but Nanette ignored her.

A witch leapt at Sophia, but Nanette threw herself in front of the witch. The witch swung her arm and slashed Nanette across the check with her claw-like fingernails. It felt like a knife wound and stung like venom.

Again, Nanette swung her sword, and this time, she hit the witch. The witch let out a shriek and vanished, leaving only her cloak lying on the floor like a puddle of black ooze.

“Where’d she go?” Sophia asked.

“Nanette killed her,” Thom explained as he held her back. “When they die, their bodies vanish and return to the dragon who owns them. It makes him stronger.”

“We can’t make him stronger,” Sophia said.

Of course, killing them wasn’t that easy anyway. Nanette and Bran struggled to even strike one of the witches. Both of them were rusty at fighting.

“Stop it.” Sophia broke past Thom.

“Stop her!” Nanette said.

Sophia ran at the witches and lifted her staff into the air. She chanted something under her breath and hit her staff against the floor. A wave shot through the entire room, nearly knocking Nanette off her feet. When it hit the witches, they blew out through the front door like leaves in the wind. Their shouting disappeared into the distance.

“What did you do?” Bran asked.

“I sent them back to their master.” She smiled at Nanette. “I told you I could help.”

Nanette should have been happy, and she knew it. Sophia had saved her. It was extremely difficult for non-sorceresses and non-sorcerers to defeat witches. However, she was more annoyed than happy to be alive. The fight made it clear that Nanette’s skills were fading, but Sophia’s were just emerging. She had everything before her, and Nanette wished she could snatch it away for herself.

“Good job, kid,” Bran said and patted her head.

“Come on,” Nanette said. “We are losing time.”

 

The path to Vankrosis’ nest was overgrown and difficult to walk. No one chose to go there. Nanette led the way, attacking anything that disrupted their progress.

“So who is Samuel?” Sophia asked Bran as they fell behind.

“Who was,” Bran corrected. “He has passed. It’s been about ten years now.”

“I’m sorry,” Sophia said.

“He and Nanette were together since they were kids,” he said. “It was pretty disgusting how much they loved each other.” He looked at Nanette’s back as she surged forward. “They used to go on adventures like this all the time. In fact, their last one was to face this same dragon.”

“Vankrosis?” Sophia asked.

Bran nodded. “Back then, he was a newly emerged dragon, so he hadn’t gathered any witches yet.”

“That was their last adventure?” Sophia looked ahead at Nanette and frowned. “Vankrosis killed him?”

“No, not at all,” he said. “They failed to defeat Vankrosis, but they escaped with their lives. They crawled back to Lunaria and healed up. After they were better, however, something went wrong with Samuel’s heart. The doctors said he was lucky to have lived as long as he did. His heart was so weak.”

“That’s terrible,” Sophia said.

“It gets worse,” he said.

“Before he died, Nanette and he had a terrible fight. They were planning their next adventure. Samuel wanted to face Vankrosis again, but Nanette wouldn’t hear it. It led to a huge fight, and Nanette told him she hated him.”

“No!” Sophia said. “Why did she say that?”

“They were young, and young lovers often say things they don’t mean. After the fight, Nanette left. He died while she was gone.” He sighed. “She’s always been tough. That’s not something new, and that night was the only time I’ve ever seen her cry. I remember her screaming that he died alone, feeling unloved.”

“That isn’t true at all,” Sophia said. “Even if she said she hated him, I’m sure he knew she loved him when he died. I’m sure he died happy, knowing he was loved by her.”

Bran smiled. “That’s what I like to believe too.”

“It has to be true,” Sophia said and smiled.

“Hurry up you two and be quiet,” Nanette said, motioning them to catch up to her. “I think we’ve found the witches.”

They crept up and knelt behind a row of bushes. Beyond was the witch’s camp. There were about twelve of them, but they were all distracted, bent over a large fire and mumbling.

“What are they doing?” Sophia asked.

Nanette looked closer. “They are paying their respects to Vankrosis by burning the heads of their victims in that fire. They believe the smoke travels to Vankrosis and gives him strength.”

“Is that true?” Sophia asked.

Nanette looked down at her. “Let’s hope not.”

“How are we going to get passed them?” Bran asked. He pointed at a large cave beyond their camp. “Vankrosis lives within that cave. If we can make it in there, we’ll be safe. The witches don’t dare go in there. They consider it a holy place, and they will contaminate it if they go in there.”

“We’re going to have to kill them all,” Nanette said. She put her hand on her blade. “It’s the only way.”

“We’ll never win,” Bran said.

“It’s the only way,” she said.

Bran grabbed her wrist. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” she asked.

“This death wish you have, end it,” he said. “He’s gone, and you’re still here. Get on with your life and live.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said and jerked her hand away.

“I have an idea,” Sophia said. She rummaged through her bag and pulled out a dried herb. “This is Sleeping Root. If I can get it in their fire, it will create a smoke that causes them to fall into a deep sleep.”

“Clever little girl,” Bran said and patted her head.

Nanette rolled her eyes. “That’s great, but how do you expect to get it in there?”

“Magic, of course,” Sophia said with a secretive smile.

“It’s worth a shot,” Bran said. “There’s no way we can defeat them, and even if we did, it only makes Vankrosis more powerful.”

“It’s stupid,” Nanette said. It would never work. “Go ahead and play your little game.”

Sophia nodded and raised her staff. She tossed the dried herb into the air and waved her staff. A strong breeze picked up, catching the herb. Slowly and delicately, it traveled to the fire and gently landed amongst the flames.

“I can’t believe it,” Nanette said.

The smoke turned a light green, and one by one, the witches inhaled the contaminated smoke. They fell to the ground, unconscious. The trio waited until the smoke returned to grey before they emerged from behind the bushes.

Nanette approached the witches and inspected them. They were snoring loudly and out cold. She looked at Sophia. “Good job,” she said.

Sophia grinned. “Thanks!”

Nanette turned around and looked at the cave. Within its dark cavern rested Vankrosis. The last time she faced him, she had Samuel with her, but now she was alone. Part of her told her this was a stupid idea and she should flee, but she ignored it. If she could defeat Vankrosis, perhaps her pain would finally end.

“Does she have to go in there too?” Bran asked, pointing at Sophia.

“Hey, I’ve helped a lot,” Sophia said. “Don’t expect me to wait out here.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You can’t wait out here. You have to drink the blood practically as soon as it comes out of his body to stop the poison.” She took a step toward the cave. “Let’s go.”

Darkness shrouded the cave, making it impossible to see, but Sophia used her magic to create a magic lantern that floated before them, giving them some idea where they were going. As they moved further and further into the cave, Nanette felt more and more scared of what was waiting for them at the end. That feeling burned inside of her and made her angry. She shouldn’t be scared. However, what made her even more upset was seeing the look in Sophia’s eye become stronger and more determined with each step toward Vankrosis.

Finally, they entered the final cavern of the cave. Lying on the floor, staring at them was Vankrosis. He seemed to have been waiting for them, and for all Nanette knew, he was.

“What insects have found their way into my web,” Vankrosis spoke in a deep, cracked voice. His voice echoed off the walls, nearly shaking everyone. His gaze fell on Sophia and he smirked. “Ah, my child has come home.”

“Child?” Sophia said and looked up at Nanette. “What does he mean?”

“Nothing,” Nanette said.

“Leave us,” Vankrosis said to Nanette and Bran. “She is already mine. My poison has spread too far for you to undo it with my blood.”

“I don’t believe that,” Nanette said.

Sophia pulled on Nanette’s arm. “Nanette, what is he talking about?”

Vankrosis laughed, shaking the ground. “Foolish child, don’t you know what dragon poison does?”

“It will kill me,” she said, but it sounded more like a question.

Again, Vankrosis laughed. “No, it is a blessing, my child. Soon, you will be like me: a powerful dragon. You will be my child and forget this life. Together, we will destroy this land.”

“No!” Sophia stumbled backwards. “No, I don’t want to be like you.” She looked up at Nanette. “He’s lying, right?”

“No,” she said, too ashamed to look Sophia in the eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sophia demanded. “You said I would die. You didn’t say I was going to turn into a dragon.”

“I didn’t want to scare you,” Nanette said. “It’s worse than dying. Whatever happens after death, you won’t know. You’ll live hundreds, thousands of years. A small part of you will remain human: just enough to hate yourself for what you have become.”

Sophia’s body shivered with horrified fear, and she looked back and forth between Nanette and Vankrosis. “You should have told me the truth.”

“Don’t worry,” Nanette said. “I won’t let you turn into a dragon. We will take his blood.”

“I already told you that it’s too late,” Vankrosis said.

“And I told you I don’t believe you.”

“Very well. We will fight. You will die, and I will take my child.”

Vankrosis stood. His body was even larger than Nanette remembered. He stretched his back and spread out his blood-red wings. At his magnificence, Nanette felt her feet crumbling beneath her, but she managed to gather her strength.

She unsheathed her sword and ran at Vankrosis. She swung, but he easily blocked her tiny sword with his massive claw. His strength knocked her off her feet.

With a growl, Vankrosis bit at her, but she rolled out of the way just in time. Bran took this as his opportunity to join the battle. He ran up Vankrosis’ tail until he reached his head. He struck Vankrosis on the head with is sword, but it was like hitting iron. Again, he struck, but it didn’t leave a dent. In fact, the only thing getting destroyed was his own sword.

The strength of Vankrosis’ scales made it impossible to pierce him. Nanette tried to find a weak spot, but she only saw one, and she had no desire to go near it. The inside of his mouth was fleshy and soft. If she could pierce his mouth and get the blood to Sophia within a minute, it would work. Perhaps she wouldn’t be able to defeat Vankrosis, but it would be enough to save Sophia.

Without waiting, she raced at his mouth. He opened to let out a roar, and she thrust her sword forward, piercing the soft flesh. Vankrosis reared his head and let out a painful moan. Bran flew off his head and landed hard on the ground. His leg snapped from the impact.

Nanette turned to rush the blood to Sophia.

“Nanette!” Sophia shouted.

Before Sophia could finish her name, Nanette felt it. She felt the sharp, piercing ache of Vankrosis’ fangs as he bit into her shoulder. No doubt, he missed when trying to bite her head. The sword dropped from her hand. She tried to pick it up again, but her hand refused to work the way she wanted it to. Vankrosis’ bite punctured her nerves. She spun around to face him, and he bent down to bite her again.

“Stop!” Sophia struck her staff against the ground.

There was a deafening bang, and something struck the back of Nanette’s already sore shoulder so hard it imbedded into her skin, but she was too busy looking at Vankrosis. His teeth slowly fell out of his mouth as if they had suddenly rotted. One of his large fangs lay at her feet, and she lifted it up. Dragons often fought each other. His tooth would be strong enough to pierce dragon scales.

In pain from losing all his teeth, Vankrosis dropped to the ground, and his head hit the hard rock. He lay on the ground, weakened and panting. He was too painted to move or even protect himself as Nanette raced toward his chest with the fang in her hand. Without a moment of hesitation, she thrust the sharp tooth into his chest, piercing his heart. Before he was even dead, she spun around to take the blood to Sophia.

As she turned, something fell out of her pocket. It was the wooden rose Sophia had given her. It was only then when she deduced what had struck her in the shoulder. She reached back and plucked the item out of her shoulder: a piece of wood. It was a piece of Sophia’s current staff. She scoured the room for Sophia, and let out a gasp when she finally spotted her. Sophia lay on the floor, immobile.

“Sophia!” Nanette raced to her, forgetting about Samuel and Vankrosis for once.

The spell she had done to save Nanette was too powerful, and it destroyed her staff, sending shards flying. One piece had pierced her neck. Blood gushed out of her with every beat of her weakening heart.

“No, no, no!” Nanette said, scooping her into her arms. “Sophia!”

Sophia opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She released one last breath and stopped moving.

“Sophia!” Nanette shouted.

Bran came to her side, wincing as he put weight on his broken leg. “What happened?” he asked.

“She’s an idiot,” Nanette said. “She used a spell that was too hard and it cost her. She knew it was too strong.”

“How do you know that?” he asked.

Nanette looked up at him. “She said something before she died. I couldn’t hear it, but I read her lips.”

“What did she say?” he asked.

“It was too late,” Nanette said and pointed to one of Sophia’s hands. It was shaped like a dragon claw. “She knew Vankrosis was right, and she didn’t want to become like him.”

She was prepared to die in this fight, but she wasn’t prepared for this. Sophia had been so annoying, so hopeful, so much like she used to be, and she felt that if she could save her, it meant there was still hope for Nanette, but she failed. Sophia was dead, and Nanette would never stop hurting.

“This should be me,” Nanette said. “She had a great future ahead of her.”

Bran reached up and shut Sophia’s eyes. Then he placed his hand on Nanette’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Nanette, but it seems you’re one of the unfortunate ones who must carry the burden of life.”

“But why?” Nanette asked.

“Because you’re strong,” he said. “Take what you learned from her and become that happy young woman again. It’s not too late for you to enjoy life.”

He was right. Everything she hated about Sophia was everything she wanted to be again, but even as she admitted this, it slipped away from her. Sophia was dead, and it was her fault. Like Samuel, she was another ghost to follow and torture Nanette. As she looked at Sophia’s body, another piece of her hardened, making her more like the dead girl in her arms and less like the one that had been full of life.

THE END

Image from imageevent.com

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