Failure…

Maybe that morning should have been Winse’s first indicator that the day wasn’t what it should’ve been.

Lymph and Leth’s second nest hatched. So did Rabi and Chemi’s first nest. The whole lair was present for the births.

And the inevitable deaths.

Seven hatchlings came into the world…and four lost their lives within minutes of breathing.

Leth was shell-shocked by it. Again. Two tiny Spirals lay unmoving. Only a tiny purple-bellied Skydancer lived, giving weak cries. Rabi nuzzled his newborn sibling, trying to console him.

The survivor–Geri.

The dead–Mening, the male, and Mar, the female.

Lymph buried them quickly while Safe consoled Leth. Rabi would’ve helped but he had his own helping of shock to handle. Of his four children, only two were still alive.

All of them were girls, three Guardians and one Spiral. Two of the Guardians, one pink and the other white, huddled against Chemi’s side. The third, coral-colored with a jade underbelly, lay motionless alongside her red Spiral sibling. Both were dead.

The white survivor was named Pati. The pink was Lassa.

The deceased Guardian was Tula. Her Spiral sibling was Vari.

Rabi couldn’t bring himself to leave Chemi, who stared and stared at the spot where her dead children had laid. Zone had picked them up and left to bury them, leaving the families behind to comfort and grieve.

Winse found himself staying close to Matous and Malar suddenly. The recollection that death could be around any corner frightened him.

Sadly, his wish to stay with his sons could not last the whole day. The clan required food and supplies that could earn the lair treasure. It was up to him and the others to get those from the wilderness.

Chocomint and Tussis, both recently grown and eager to prove themselves, decided to join him today. Bruce argued at first, the ice-colored Mirror trying to persuade Chocomint to stay.

Their affection was obvious. Bruce wished to raise children with Chocomint from the moment they had grown up in the lair–both having been found orphaned in the Wandering Contagion–and learned what it meant to be adults from their peers. The chocolate Fae eagerly returned his affections. Their plans were as simple as could be–stay together, raise children together, die from old age together. Everything would be them, together.

Winse wished he’d helped convince Chocomint to stay home. The Fae was so tiny, so inexperienced, so weak. And Tussis, Safe’s blood-colored son from her last nest, had no clue how the world beyond their lair operated yet.

But he didn’t. He let them come. He told Bruce to back off, to relax. Let Chocomint prove herself.

How can you prove yourself when you’re dead?

——

The ground was hot. No wonder it was called Scorched Forest. It was a new area, the trees burnt black, the air hazy with smoke and ash. And the beasts in it were just as devastating as the environment they lived in.

Two centaurs attacked them. Winse did most of the attacking. It was immediately obvious to him what was happening here.

These centaurs were intelligent. They knew Winse was strong. Dangerous, even.

They also knew Tussis and Chocomint were weak. Frail. Vulnerable. In way over their heads.

And the centaurs aimed for the weak.

Tussis’ scream echoed in Winse’s ears as he was cut down, blood mixing with the ash on the ground. Chocomint froze, unable to register what she was seeing.

Tussis…was dead…

Winse roared, images flashing behind his violet eyes. Pizzicato. Malihini. Bola. Woodland Path. Death.

No!

He attacked, striking with teeth and claws and shadow magic. The centaurs staggered, one falling dead to the earth.

But it wasn’t enough.

One strike from the living centaur was all it took to end Chocomint’s life. She hadn’t even had time to scream.

Winse wondered if her last thought had been of Bruce, waiting for her at home.

There was no more time to think. He had to act fast or he’d be joining them. The centaur threw multiple attacks at him, forcing the gray Guardian to use a lot of his stored-up Potions to recover from all the damage.

When Winse saw an opening, he took it. One final blow, a mix of rage and magic, killed the centaur spearman.

Winse spent nearly an hour there in the ashy forest, recovering his nerve. He had failed. Again, dragons he knew and loved had died. All because of him. He started this, going into the wilderness, after all.

And it was costing him the lives of his loved ones.

He took the bodies home. There was no alternative. Just like last time.

Zone was enraged. Bruce was heartbroken. Safe and her children cried. Every dragon watched Winse, shocked.

And Winse just left. He still had a job to do. He didn’t expect others to join him today.

Nobody did.

Winse headed for Woodland Path. He considered Scorched Forest to be off-limits for today. Maybe he’d go again later, maybe with Lymph and Leth. They were strong enough. Maybe the three of them could handle the place together.

Together.

The word made him feel sick.

Chocomint and Bruce’s dream was broken thanks to him. Their together was gone. All his fault.

Woodland Path was a breeze, yet his rage refused to be dampened. Every Woodland Owl he saw brought up awful memories. The knowledge of who died there fifty days ago.

Pizzicato. Malihini. Bola. His friends. His family. His loved ones.

Dead.

Like Chocomint and Tussis.

Why does everyone around me have to die?!

Nineteen battles later, the deed was done. Winse’s rage died. All it left was exhaustion. The gray Guardian wandered home, dumping everything he had gathered into the hoard pile.

Let Zone sort through it later. Winse didn’t care right now.

He just wanted to sleep and forget. Forget the death, the looks, the fear and shock and anger.

Bruce hissed at him in his dreams–Murderer.

Winse knew it to be true. He was a murderer of the highest degree.

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