The Dragon Between

Everybody Must Get (Un)Stoned . . .

With a wet tearing sound, Viktor’s blade cleaves through the Medusa’s throat, spraying hot blood in a wide arc, some of it spattering across his face and shield. The creature’s head tumbles to the cavern floor, its locks of attendant venomous serpents writhing and spitting venom while the body staggers, then collapses.

He snarls defiantly, feeling that cold stiff feeling still creeping through his limbs as the head rolls to a stop, gazing emptily at him. Locked in a stare, fangs bared, his body grows rigid, breath locking in his lungs, heart suddenly stopping, and a sound like grinding millstones behind his eyes as his vision dims.

*

The world suddenly floods with light, the cavern replaced by a barn, torchlit and filled with statues—men and women from the medusa’s lair. Viktor lunges forward, his defiant snarl mingled with a wince as pain lances through his flesh, his body suddenly hot all over and feeling like lead on the verge of going molten, before he halts, taking in more of the surroundings: candles, small braziers of incense, a strange-smelling paste of herbs dotted on his brow. Sier and the others watch, standing in a circle around him.

“How long…? Where are we…?” he begins, looking warily at the interior of the barn, its hayloft and stables empty but for statues and bales of fodder.

“A few days,” Sier explains. “We’re in Regalport.”

The hobgoblin woman grins, showing her mouthful of sharp, slightly-yellowed teeth.

“And bringing you back wasn’t cheap. Nor will it be for the rest of… these.”

Viktor nods once, pausing to wipe his blade before sheathing it, though the medusa’s blood seems to have disappeared.

“I will give you what aid I can. Let me rest… a moment, first.”

A nearby hay bale makes for a serviceable seat as he unstraps his helm, shucking his gauntlets and laying his shield aside. He grips the clasp of his cloak, tracing fingertips over the worked silver draconic head and garnet blood-drop, bowing his head to pray.

“The Blood is the Life. May it sustain me and protect me…” Viktor whispers. He pauses, meditating on the last sensations he felt before apparently being turned to stone. Coldness, dimming sight, and the last sound of his heartbeat and blood rushing in his ears. The unnatural and heretical power of the creature that would seek to stop those things from happening.

Raising his head again, he takes in the sight of the other petrified men and women, whose own hearts have been stilled by the medusa. They wait to be saved, their life freed again.

“…and may it ever flow, undammed,” he finishes the brief prayer, rising to assist Sier in the ritual.

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On the Beach . . .

With a loud roar and a flash of heat, the beach shatters, spraying clots of wet sand, shards of stone, and boiling saline mist. Ducking behind his shield, Viktor grinds his teeth, spitting Karrnathi oaths to himself as he takes shelter.

He risks a glance over the lip of the shield as he scuttles crabwise, backing away from the shore and to the safety of the treeline. The landing party are well away from shore in their longboats, while the captain continues to wave his red flag to signal his ship. Sier has already made the treeline, while Xentril jogs after. The flailing Medani woman is slung over her shoulder, still cursing and gesticulating and threatening and hurling imprecations after the retreating boats.

The altercation took place swiftly enough, despite his quick reaction, that he still was not sure of the cause. First, Xentril and Cuinas’ return, their negotiations, the sailors’ preparations to depart… then the sudden weight in the air that foretold the Medani calling upon her talents, and the effect upon the shore party. Bloody noses, screams of pain, the sharp sense of panic in the air almost as strong as the salt of the ocean and the tang of blood. And for what?

Viktor continues to move away from the shore, eyes slitted against the bright sunlight beneath the jaw of his wolf-headed helm. His gaze flickers to his companions, then to the shore again.

Has the Khoravar bitch lost her mind? She may have her power, but what about the judgement to use it… or not to use it? If she had half the mental prowess she boasted, then why not speak more surely of their impending betrayal by the sailors? Viktor and the rest could be just as much a risk as the possible “pirates” to them… who is to say who is right and wrong? Even Xentril, bloodthirsty and suicidal as she is, must have felt something lacking in honor, only flailing wildly at empty air despite the easy targets before her.

‘Though your opponent may have no honor, do not throw yours away with their own.’ The epigram from his Academy lessons rises in his memory. Along with it, the missive of the sudden cowardly attack on Tanar Rath, and his late return. The smell of weeks-old scorched rubble. Rows of new graves. The bandages on his father’s face and leg. The burns to his sister, and to his mother as well, all the worse for shielding his younger sibling.

Steel and leather creak as his gauntlet’s grip tightens on the shield, and for a moment the urge to sieze Cuinas by her pretty hair, bare the line of her pulse, and show her the meaning of the word ‘vampire’… the urge is sudden, feral, and his vision edges with carmine.

But these are not honorable thoughts, and he banishes them with a little effort. If the Blood wills it, she shall live and die in time—without his interference.

Monster some might think me. He pauses at the treeline, giving the retreating longboats one last cautious look, then back to the rest of his fellows—half-orc, hobgoblin, dragonborn… and half-elf. But true monstrosity is sometimes harder to see.

He slips into the shadows under the trees, and begins to follow the path there.

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Over the River and Through the Woods
to Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfathers' Treasureroom we go

The fighters lay in a clearing under the shadow of the large pyramid to the east. If there were songbirds they had quieted from the ringing steel and shrieks of rage, which came from creatures on both sides of the battle. Sier leaned against a tree playing an old melody on her altered lyre, something remmebered long ago so her thoughts could drift freely.
“I think I’ll make a song about the headaches I’m saved by Cuinas staying out of the heat of battle.” Sier thought. “Well, mostly.”
They fought well together, her seeming to lead from her snipers nest, if only by moving and healing the others before their gods take them. Their zeal seems as much a prayer for death as trust that someone won’t let them die. Although, Cuinas has slowed in her desire for the front line since their travels through the Underdark. She is perhaps more frail than she might have imagined.
In spite of that their progress since leaving Khyber has been a great testament to their skill. There is little good that comes from bringing strangers together to learn to fight in the heat of battle. Perhaps it is their prior familiarity with each other, or an understanding of weaknesses, that has forgerd such a strong war party.
“There is no war,” she corrected herself, “only politics and these pathetic battles we wage to make us still feel useful.”
Without a war the only fighting Sier was good for anymore was the fight to bring the Dhakaani to the throne. Once that was complete she would be trapped in Cuinas’ world of petty politicking and cowardly dogs killing their betters in their sleep. Her father may wish for such a world, but she would see to it that was not her fate. Cuinas may be near useless in these monstrous woods, but she seemed much better suited for that than Sier would be in her world.
“How in Kybher will I create an heir in a world where the two headed monstrosities make the blood sucker an appealing choice?” She grumbled. There would be an answer if she had to return to Karnath for a decade to find it. Nothing would keep her from this freedom. There was no honor in dying by poison in her bed at night, and surely that was the fate of any ruler in the days without war.
“Though I am not alone.” she thought, reflecting on Xentril’s behavior. “I have never sung so many death songs in my life. I’ll be hoarse rasping hymns before the treasure is yet ours.” Xentril had more songs in her name than any other party member by far and her thirst for any battle seems insatiable. It only seems appropriate to write a battle song dedicated to her insane, blood thirsty fighting style.
“Is crazed and suicidal really a style?” she reflected. “There is more yet to be seen from that one, though an unstable descendant of a dragon calls for a watchful eye. Which gives me an idea for a song…..” she thought while grabbing her songbook.

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A Serendipitous Encounter

Xentril stumbled along the road half a day’s march outside some unnamed town on the coast between Darguun (Blasted Goblins) and Valenar. (Twice-Blasted desert Elves.) She didn’t even remember where she was any more. She was still drunk from the night (morning?) before, and was halfway into her cups again today. The sun was a fearsome ball in the sky already (or still?) and hurt her eyes, so she kept them down, watching the stones and dust under her feet. And then she heard the screams. A piercing, frightened, desperate kind of sound. The sound that they describe in the stories, before some buffoon of an adventurer gets killed trying to rescue a maid.

Or at least that was the kind of story they would tell about her. If they even bothered to tell it at all.

Eh. Why not? It’s always a good day to die. Isn’t it?

Xentril dropped her flask and lurched into a jog, fumbling for her axe and her scourge, then began to run more smoothly with the familiar, worn grip of the weapons in her toughened hands. As she ran, she saw through drink-blurred eyes the men that were closing in, surrounding an outraged and impeccably-dressed noblewoman on the side of the road. She was screaming at them. Xentril thought she heard something about curdling their brains in their skulls until it leaked out their ears.

What th—-?

And then her axe was halfway through the shoulder of the first man, her flail slicing off the ear of the man next to him and catching in his cheek. She jerked it out and felt the hot blood spray across her face as he howled, white bone showing through his torn flesh.

- * – * – * – * -

When the battlefog cleared her booze-soaked brain, she glanced around and all the men were on the ground. One was still groaning, but the other four were… savaged. The man who lived was nearest to the girl and had no obvious wounds, but blood trickled from his nose, eyes, and ears.

Strange…

“What are you, an idiot?!? I had them!” The over-dressed nitwit shrieked at her. Xentril was taken aback and looked the girl up and down with disgust. “Had them? You richling twit. You were a swift pommel to the skull from becoming the next set of holes those bandits were going to stick their Kyber-rotted cocks in. If you were lucky, they’d have killed you first, but they probably wanted to sell you in Darguun afterward.”

The girl gasped in shock and then the tears that were so close to the surface began to pour down her face, as her whole body began to shake and the shock of how close she had come to a fate worse than death started to dawn on her.

When will I ever learn to hold my cursed tongue? Ugh.

“Oh, Dragon Above” she muttered, as she surged forward and caught the girl before she fell over in the bloody mud. Except she was covered in blood and mud (when did I fall down?) and the gore left hideous smears all over the girl’s remarkably clean gown. Who wears a gown on the road anyway? Asking for trouble, that’s what she was… Xentril grumbled to herself and carried the girl to a large rock, set her down and then stumbled off after the frightened mare she must have been riding. When she brought the horse back, the girl had composed herself and was angrily scrubbing at the stains.

“What are you, some kind of crazed killer?” Xentril took a step back, and the girl must have seen something in her face, because her anger melted away. “I’m sorry. My manners. I forgot myself. I am most grateful for your assistance. My name is Cuinas.”

A rare flash of insight and a brief hesitation in the way she said her name, gave Xentril the impression that she was unused to identifying herself as such.

A false name? Or just incomplete?

“I am Xentril…” And I am also used to giving another name… but it is not mine any more.

Xentril crouched down next to Cuinas, which put her about eye-level with the girl, despite her being perched on the rock.

“I did not see, but you must have done something remarkable to fight off that one. But I do not think you could have beaten them all,” Xentril murmured.

Cuinas avoided looking at the man, now a corpse. It’s face was covered in bloody, clotted rivulets that had gathered in pools on the ground. “Yes. Well. I said I would curdle their brains, didn’t I?” She still looked bothered, but had a self-satisfied sound back in her voice.

“Mmm. That you did. Well. I am traveling this road for a ways.” She coughed awkwardly. “And despite… what happened here… Well. You may be safer on your own. I am dangerous and unpleasant company…” The dragonborn looked away, feeling oddly familial and protective of this girl.

Cuinas laughed, a sound like the soft tinkling of bells, declaring that she was pleasant enough company for both of them, and wouldn’t mind a dangerous companion for a while.

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Descent into Khyber

Descent into Khyber

The dark passage ways and caverns felt close, too close. Not enough space to move, let alone to fight in the style she had become accustomed. Her bulky strength was a disadvantage in this place. No child of Siberys would ever feel comfortable here.

Xentril ducked as she almost knocked her head on yet another low hanging rock from the ceiling.

Stalactites, Lorak had called them. A silly word for a pain in my head.

She still had a tender lump among her tendrils from one she had blundered into after the fight with the misshapen goblinoids. She’d almost taken off Viktor’s head in that one, but luckily he was good at getting out of her way. Most of the time.

And the rest of the time, that’s what his armor is for, yes?

She chuckled to herself at that one, and caught a sharp look from Cuinas, as the slight seer glanced anxiously around. Xentril tried to smile reassuringly, but wasn’t sure if her message came across. The half-elf quickly looked away and tried to strain her eyes to pierce further into the darkness.

She is not meant for this place either, a far stretch way from the palace she was raised in. None of us are meant for this though. Another few days in here and the laborers may break under the strain… What was Balestrider thinking when he hired that lot? I will be glad for them when it comes to digging holes, but for now they are a troublesome (and dangerous) inconvenience.

Xentril did not fear for her own life, but for that of her companions. And she also had little desire to die in this light-cursed place. She could feel the taint of Kyber in her scales, even just crawling through the surface of his realm.

I do not know if my soul would find its way home from this place. Although it would be a great honor to venture deeper and slay some number of denizens of this place. But I do not want to die here.

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Xentril's Late Night Musings

Seated on a log by the coals of the fire, Xentril glanced over each of her sleeping companions as she kept the watch. Balestrider’s laborers were dim, blanket-covered lumps huddled around the second, larger pit of coals, watched over by Lorak. The lord himself and her warriors were closeby and she could hear their breathing. Having so many companions again made her nervous, but she had to admit to herself being somewhat comforted by their sleep noises. The bard even sounded musical in her sleep, her soft whistling snores seeming to play the melody that accompanied the rhythmic sounds of Cuinas’ breathing. Viktor muttered for a moment in a language she did not know, then rolled over and quieted.

She returned her watch to the night, as her hands moved over the edge of her axe, freshly honed. That knick had taken most of her watch to smooth out. Damned Troll bones are tough on the blade.

Lorak slide onto the log across from her and shook Viktor’s arm, waking him for the second watch. As he moved to wake Cuinas, Xentril halted him with a quick gesture.

“Let the girl sleep a while longer, I’ll take half her watch. She is not used to this life and is sleeping poorly. We will need her rested tomorrow.”

Lorak grunted, then took over the space as Viktor vacated it. The pale Karnathi nodded silently to her and left to watch over the laborers. He moved with a lethal grace that she admired, even having just been woken from a restless sleep.

We are still working out how to fight together, but we are becoming an effective warband. Each have our own strengths and are learning to use them together with a brutal efficiency. And each warrior’s strength complements another’s weakness. All my companions could be worthy of their own inner dragon – the dark protector, the intuit seer, the silent guide, and the teller of tales.

She still thought like a leader sometimes, though she knew she was unfit for the honor. She was a mindless killer now, dishonored and unable to control her rage. Her life was spoken for by the dragon below, unless she could somehow redeem herself. But her shame was so great, the lives she had taken could never be replaced. The only way she knew to redeem her honor, to reclaim her place among her clan, was to die in battle. For she was a kinslayer.

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A letter from a Princess

Teriant D’Medani

I hope this letter finds you well. As per our usual procedure, please ensure that my father receives the enclosed note as soon as it is safe for you to send it to him. Peace and luck be with you, and I bid you good watching.

-Princess

Father,
I hope this finds you well and happy. Xentril and I have joined an expedition to a island that promises treasure and mysteries. The group I have joined is led by a minor lord of little consequence. Two former allies are surprisingly around me again, the Karnathi officer and the dirgesinger. I confess to feeling rather safe, so you need not worry. All around me my companions bristle with all manner of sharp and painful implements.

I am sending this letter from an island to which you have recommended some of your friends. Precautions as necessary I will take perchance I meet any of them.

I look forward to your correspondence, though I will be unreachable by normal means for a least a few weeks and perhaps for months. So do not fret if this is my last letter for a while. Do let me know when you will be back in Wroat, it has been too long since we have spent time together. I am certain to have some grand tales of my adventures to tell you. I send you, as always, my deep love and respect.

Good watching,

C.

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Cuinas's Journal (Lhazzar through the Underdark)

Cuinas’s Private Journal (most recent entry first)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The last battle before we (finally!) reached the surface was difficult. I was trying to be brave and helpful, but somehow I messed up again. Sier is ready to pull her hair out. I AM trying. I admit (to myself) that I am out of my depth. I need a day or two of intense meditation. I need a hot bath and a glass of wine. Neither of those things are going to happen any time soon, and my frustration is reaching levels I have not felt previously. It feel like all of my skills (and I am not boasting when I say they are considerable) are completely, utterly useless here. Was it a mistake for me to come? I think perhaps it was. Here I am though, on some island forsaken and abandoned by all sane, civilized folk. Trapped, the horrors of the underdark behind me and an unknown wilderness which promises to be no less terrible stretching before me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have prayed more in the last two days than in my entire life. To everyone I can think of. What have I gotten myself into? This place is oppressive, and it is only with supreme effort can I keep myself from panicking. I can’t talk to Xentril about it with so many others near. She, as usual, is only fearful of doing harm to the group. Every day is a battle with some new horrifying thing that I have until now only read about and researched. It is all very well and good to be told that the habitat for this monster is this and the normal mode of attack for a beholderkin is that, but to face one, it’s terrible visage hiding a terrible intelligence is something else entirely.

I can see myself being brattish. I know I am a pain, from the shared looks of Viktor and Sier, but right now, I feel as if it is either that or cowering and jumping at every sound. My watches are horrible. When most others are sleeping I can almost hear the terrors surrounding us in the dark. They whisper into my mind, and I have had to construct new barriers to keep them out. My sleeping hours are not much better. I wake with starts, and nightmares flood my dreams. I dream of my mother, and instead of comforting me as in the past, I feel a great wave of disappointment coming from her.

Hurry us to the surface, Lorak, out of this awful, vile belly of the world.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I can think of at least a score of individuals my father has helped put into this prison we travel toward. I am comforted by the fact that it is highly unlikely we will be anywhere near them, but still, it becomes a thought in my mind. The voyage there, though not long, has been exhilarating. Not often have I had the chance to go oceanbound.

The Karnatthi captain is irritating me somewhat. He dislikes me, and has no idea why I have been brought along. As if he expects me to apologize for not having a veritable armory of weapon skills. I am not sorry. Carrying a bristle of weapons around everywhere is tiresome. Sier is coming along, I amuse her I think. The mind staggers at how differently we have been brought up.

I am a bit nervous about the Underdark. Having never been, I’m not sure how I will handle it. Lorak seems pretty certain that he can guide us through safely… or, as I think his exact words were, “As safe as one can go through the Underdark.” I try to treat him with as much politeness as possible in respect for his house, but sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me and I pester him with questions.

I am going to send a letter to Father to let him know my whereabouts before we descend into the earth and begin the quest in earnest. It has been too long since I have written to him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mortifying. Last night Xentril and I attempted one our games in a local dockside tavern. Met an unusually astute ruffian, who clearly saw straight through our act. That’s never happened before. He was terribly rude as well, and provided us with misinformation. I should have known!

I am still not convinced that those guardsmen supervising the unloading of that vessel were on the up and up, but I just couldn’t bring myself to engage with them on the chance that they were doing their just duty.

In any case, it appears that I had gotten too used to the folks in the small towns that Xentril and I have been traveling through lately. I will have to start paying closer attention to everyone. Xentril seems a bit concerned about the number of people we are taking with us on this adventure. She is afraid of what she might do, clearly. I am hopeful that she is getting better.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So much for not knowing anyone. Who knew I’d run into two individuals who not only know who I am, but know some things about me I’d rather not broadcast. Hobgoblin dirgesinger. I remember her well. Calm, collected and intensely sure of herself. She treats me a bit like a child, which is frustrating but it can’t be helped I suppose, I am twenty years her junior. The Karnatthi Paladin remains as aloof as I recall him.

Balestrider surely flouts traditional lordly habits in choosing his employees. It’s as if he choose the most widely diverse group he could think of. He seems to not know a great deal about what we’ll be facing or even what the reward might be. I’m being kind really, he is abysmally unprepared.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today we met with Lord Thorin Balestrider. A minor lord to be sure. I expected him to have all the silly personality traits that noble younger sons generally do. He seems to have escaped some of the more annoying ones though. Certainly he is very boring, but he proposes to hire us for some sort of treasure seeking. I am almost entirely certain he is hiring me because I travel with the brutefisted, battle ready dragonborn. No matter, we apparently come as a pair. It’s the strangest thing our friendship, and sometimes I wonder if it is beneficial to either of us. We tend to encourage each other’s bad habits sometimes and we are learning new ones from each other. I think mother would be appalled at my recent behavior, but honestly, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had any freedom at all. It’s not as if anyone out here in the principalities knows who I am anyway. Learning that ritual to hide my dragonmark was one of my wiser moments.

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Suspire

“But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.”
— Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix/B4, “All Along the Watchtower”

The crumbling steps of the ancient temple are slick under Viktor’s boots, awash in ichor, blood, and crushed vegetation. All around him the battle roils, Lorak and Xentril standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him against the beasts on all sides. As he fends off blow after blow with his shield, parrying strike after strike with his sword, Lorak tumbles swiftly to one side, and Xentril utters a high-pitched roar as she flails madly, froth spilling from the corners of her jaws. Viktor bares his teeth in frustration, then the breath is knocked from him by an errant strike from the enraged dragonborn’s weapons.

‘How quickly the fortunes of battle can change, like the seas under sour weather.’ The brief epigram from his history lessons flits through his mind. I never much cared for sailing, anyway…

A deeper-pitched roar from twin throats echoes just overhead, drowning out Xentril’s cries, the furious squeals of the monstrous wild razorbacks, the clangs of steel on steel. The blazing sun is blotted out by the two-headed silhouette looming above, and he raises his shield on pure instinct.

But not fast enough.

Easily the size of a small tree, the Ettin’s club collides with Viktor, crushing him to the ground in a single, agonizing blow. His vision flares white and his ears ring. As he collapses to the stone, still feebly trying to ward off another blow with his shield, the Ettin’s twin heads glare at him in stupid, murderous cruelty, and twin gap-toothed grins leer down at him as the giant deals him another massive clout, smashing his shield aside, denting his armor, and jolting his head to one side. Only the wolf-shape of the helm prevents the blow from twisting his head far enough to snap his neck.

His senses reel, vision whiting out, then fading to grey and a dull black, while his ears keen and whine over the faint sounds of battle. For a brief, absurd moment, he can smell the fragrance from the exotic blooms that decorate the vines enshrouding the ruin, before the Ettin’s stink overpowers that, then similarly fades.

All is quiet, peaceful, and Viktor drifts, barely aware.

A distant, deep thrumming resounds, overpowering the remnants of his senses, and he strains toward it. It is slow, but steady, reassuring in its regularity, like tides on Scions Sound, like wind in the Rekkenwood pines, like Rekkenmark Academy drums, like the breath of a sleeping lover.

Like the sound of a vast, slow heartbeat.

Viktor’s eyes open and he jolts back to consciousness, heart hammering fiercely, defiantly in his chest, driven as much by his own will as Sier Dhakaan’s war chants.

“The blood is the life…” he whispers to himself, hoarsely. He shakes his head, staggering upright. The Ettin turns to him again, and with all the force his arm and his faith can muster, he returns the monstrosity’s attack in kind. His blade flares with divine fire, and the ettin’s twin voices turn to pained screams as it falls. Unlike the Karrnathi, the giant stays where it falls, blood pouring from its mortal wounds.

The hot metallic reek fills Viktor’s senses, trickling from his injuries, dripping from his weapons and armor, spilling down the steps of the temple from both sides’ combatants, but he pushes back the thirst, keeping his attention on the battle remaining.

And if I should fall, I know that I shall rise, for the Blood is the Life.

Viktor bares his teeth, fangs flashing, as he raises his sword, giving voice to his own defiant roars, and rejoins the fight.

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Dragonborn on Fire
And she likes it

::singing::
There once was a big, scaley, strange lady
That liked to jump in fires and get hit by big blades.
She ran to the fray with a zeal that was crazed,
And jumped into the fire cause I think she was raged.

Oh, Dragon-like lady, oh, Dragon-like lady,
I think somethin bad happened, bein a Dragon and a Lady.
Oh, Dragon-like lady, oh, Dragon-Like lady,
Keep killin those Trolls and I won’t give a damn.
::repeats::

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