A few hours ago, elsewhere…
The birds chirping at the first rays of the sun had a habit of waking up the king of Takal (his ancestors had named the land, not him, otherwise it would definitely have a better name). He had always considered this attunement with the natural cycle of the Earth an immense boon, probably granted by one deity or another, he'd met so many.
"What day is today?" said the man with a crown atop his head, stretching his lanky arms. "Ah yes. The 29th after the first equinox of the year 295 of the second era. Now what gift does that correspond to..."
He thought in recollection, and his eyes lit up as he remembered the castle on the Grotto Cliffs. "Ooh, heheh. Yes, that's a fun one. Servant!" he shouted to no one in particular, as his assigned butler was already standing at the ready, his own sleep based on waking up twenty minutes before his ruler.
"Yes sir?" the man with greying hair said with a little bow.
"Fetch me my scrying orb - second one on the third shelf of the seventh row." The king laid back down into his soft sheets.
"It shall be done, my master," replied his butler before nonchalantly exiting the room.
The moment he was out of the room, he sighed, relieved. He'd known what he had signed up for when he accepted this job at the castle, and he knew it was all just hearsay, but encounters with the Mad King always stressed him anyways. Who wouldn't be scared of the impulsiveness of this twenty-something that spoke like an elder with an attention span deficit? He dutifully went to the room next door, which was the study, down one floor, out of the room, third door on the right, across the interior garden, out the opposite way, climbed the stairs, circled back to the king's room anticlockwise and into the room next door, which was the study. Only this time with extraneous rows upon rows of hand-sized white pearls in the west wing. Following the instructions and grabbing the correct one, he did his whole trek the other way around and readjusted his clothing to finally present the orb as instructed.
"Thank you!" the king heartily said, looking deep into the milky sloshes that started to ripple on the surface of the orb. "Come and sit down, let us watch this together."
The butler lost his composure for a moment. "I'm sorry, sir, could you repeat that?"
"Ah, come here, lad. You'll enjoy the spectacle."
One knew better than to refuse a king's order.
As the party descended further in the castle's depths, they found themselves in a labyrinthine web of natural caves. Well, some parts had been carved out into staircases, so it was probably a given that some of the elements making this place both even possible to navigate and hard to do so had been meticulously planned according to whichever unknown desire of the Mad King.
Roland didn't like this meandering around. His hands were clenched down on his two tower shields' handles, his intuition just telling him to get out.
He hadn't felt such ambient hostility since that day. The one that had been the first of the rest of his life, as he called it. At least he knew its most major source this time, he told himself as he glanced once more at Lowell.
The troubadour had been mercifully silent lately, apparently having decided to change tactics to hoping his brooding would somehow nag on the group's morale. But they were quite accustomed to brooding from Doan, so instead the break from the whining was welcome.
Speaking of Doan, they still seemed to be riding the high of whatever had happened to them. Well, if they had been troubled all their life, it'd probably be a happiness that'd linger for at least a couple of days, Roland guessed?
The mage had taken the lead, lighting the way forward and deciding on the direction in case of branching paths. He was the member of the group with the self-proclaimed least trouble making meaningless decisions, so it fit him just as well. It was only thanks to his assurance that the path forward was the one they took that his companions didn't feel lost.
Roland wasn't happy at the noise he heard when a circular chamber came into view; it was the heavy breathing of a gigantic creature. He ordered his companions to halt and sent Doan to check ahead, who dutifully obliged and took a peek at the corner of the corridor they were in.
They came back on swift feet with bad news.
"It's a dragon!" Doan spoke hurriedly in hushed tones, "There's no way we can take on this thing!"
"We don't have to fight it," the mage replied, to which Roland nodded.
"Well, that's good, because I have no desire to do so," Lowell whined, quitting his self-imposed silence.
"What else can you tell me, Doan?" Roland asked.
"Hmm. Let me go check again." The rangers moved swiftly once more, stopping at the junction of the room before slipping into further darkness.
A minute passed.
Another one did, and they came back. "There's a locked door on the other side of the room, looking mighty solid."
"Did you spot a key anywhere?" the mage inquired.
"No, but come on, take three guesses as to where it could be," Doan retorted. "Bet you the dragon has it."
The mage's eyes darted to the ceiling for a moment before he pulled out his book once more. "I should be able to do something about that if you give me some time to read. It'd be a bit noisy when it comes to actually opening the door, so you'd need to be prepared for that as well."
"Who says we even have the time, though?" Lowell questioned. "Maybe that beast could wake up at any moment. I say we send our ranger to pilfer the key."
"I'd prefer we stick to the mage's plan," replied Roland. "No need to put ourselves in unneeded danger."
"Ah, come on, who are you, Doan's mother?" Roland flinched at Lowell's choice of words. "The kid can handle himself, I'm sure."
Doan interrupted. "Themselves. Or at least herself. Never himself, never again."
Lowell waved away his (likely intentional) mistake, forgiving it to himself. "As long as you still do your duties to the party."
"Yeah, well what about you!?" accused a pissed Drix as she slid herself out of her other selves, who shrunk down to a size that thankfully still allowed them to keep their clothes on, albeit very baggily. "What've you done for the group except complaining all the time, lately?"
"Well for one, I was the one to dig up the rumors of this castle, so you should be thanking ME for that little boon of yours," he replied with a glare.
"Yes, we can do that," the two Doans that were still combined replied. "Thank you so much for this adventure, Lowell."
He grumbled and muttered under his breath, turning his back from the group. "You're welcome..."
"Ah, why'd you do that?" complained Drix. "I was so ready to tear him a new one."
Orwan - Orwenna and Anna - picked her up. "He wasn't wrong, and I think he just wants some gratitude every now and then. There's no reason to refuse giving him some, right?" they explained calmly before taking Drix back in.
"Okay," interrupted the mage with a clap of his book. "It shouldn't take me more than two minutes. We should move towards the door already, to avoid the beast waking up and getting in the way."
Roland nodded, and as soon as Doan gave the all clear, the group quickly traversed the room as silently as they could, Roland placing himself in the middle of the crossing, pushing his companions ahead as they passed by him.
That's when he heard the calm breath they'd been hearing all this time give way to a budding groan.
He turned his torso around and found himself face to eye with a frightening, pink-scaled dragon.
The creature reared back and he only had the time to place himself and his shields between its breath and his companions. The expected fire was instead a strange jet of sparkling bubbles, but it didn't lose in strength all the same.
As Lowell and Doan cowered near the door while the mage was frantically double-checking his book, making sure he was getting the spell right, Roland mentally chuckled as memories from his childhood reminded him this was a dragon versus dragon fight.
Today was the day. His fourteenth birthday, and as was tradition in his village, the day the old seer would tell him of his future. He was filled to the brim with excitement, having awaited this day all his life.
His father pushed him through the curtain that served as a door for the most helpful granny of the village. "You got this, champ! Go and make your dad proud, alright?"
He gulped his saliva and forged ahead into the house.
"Who is this!?" a coarse voice asked from the balcony overlooking the main room.
"It is I, Roland Guerlan. I have reached the age of fourteen, and require one of your foretellings." He had been repeating himself over and over in his head and was so giddy to have said it aloud just now. It was finally happening, after all.
The granny groaned and dropped down the stairs one step at a time. She approached the young man and started looking him over. "I see. I see. Follow me." She gestured towards the back room, a poorly-lit room whose main point of attraction was the cauldron in its center, placed atop a licking flame hungry for more wood. She obliged it, and the fire roared once more, the room filling with the putrid smell of whatever that brown liquid in the pot was.
She sat him down in front of it as she collected herbs and fruits scattered about the room and dropped them into the putrid liquid inside the cauldron. She then sniffed around, apparently able to discern different smells in this awful smelling stew. "Oh... Rosemary?" She eyed the boy over and cackled. "Rosemary..."
"What's so special about rosemary?" asked the boy.
She grabbed his face in her bony hand and continued cackling. "What's so special about YOU that there is rosemary?"
"I d- I don't..." he stuttered.
She let him go and grabbed a bag of powder, of which she threw a generous handful in the cauldron.
An immense noise rose up and the cauldron instantly exploded into a myriad of reds and pinks, the color escaping away from the modesty of the hut and shining like a beacon throughout the village. The room filled with a spicy feeling that brought tears out, it was like Roland's entire body was being pricked by needles, but especially his tongue and eyes. He was terrified as the witch only cackled further. Her laugh had gone from hysteric to mad. "I cannot believe this!!" she screamed. "Ha ha ha ha ha! A boy with maternal instincts! A dragoness without scales!!"
Despite the ambient pungency, Roland went pale at the mention of maternal instincts. He had hidden them so well, even from his own parents. How did she know? What did she see!? He jumped out of his seat as she went for the window, but he couldn't stop her in time.
"THE BOY DRAGONESS!" the geezer announced into the street for all to hear.
The boy dragoness.
The 14th birthday title was sealed, never to be changed again.
He would forever be known to his village as the boy dragoness.
He was scared.
He had been right to be scared. Everybody treated him so differently from this day onwards. Even and especially his own parents, who claimed they didn't understand him. Why was he like this?
He was just angry he hadn't been able to keep it for himself longer. He didn't know what was in his future that this facet of him would turn into something so prominent in his life.
He hated it all the same. Nobody understood. What the village populace originally saw as a warrior-to-be was now a frail boy that wanted to be a mom, as they'd taken the most literal reading of his future.
And apparently his rebuttals convinced no one. He himself was surprised each time he dodged the question instead of stating as clear as day he didn't want to be a mom.
It wore him down eventually.
He didn't stick around for even a month, and left his village, heading straight towards the capital and its knight's academy.
"You think you scare me...?" muttered Roland under his breath, doing his best to keep his stance steady against the incessant barrage of energy the dragon was sending him. Unfortunately and despite his best efforts, he couldn't block it all. Some slipped along the curve of his shields and snaked their way inside his armor. He coughed.
His companions needed him. That's all he knew.
He would protect them.
His shields grew hot and started melting against the pressure of the attack. More and more of the bubbles started hitting him all over, exploding in mid-air and splashing against his armor.
He was sure his skin wasn't exposed. And yet it hurt, it burned, just like that day.
But he stood his ground. He needed to protect his companions. His flock.
The melting metal of his shields and armor dripped down onto his skin, but surprisingly, it alleviated the pain instead of adding to it. As if something had been ripped off before and it was being put back on, pain going in reverse.
He managed to get a glance at the dragon during a moment and his gut churned as they exchanged a glance; he groaned and growled.
"I will not..." he said in a rising voice. "Let you hurt my friends."
The shields's grips slipped out of his hands as they disappeared, blown into shards by the bubbles. But the shields stayed on, sliding down his arms and growing spikes that then flattened themselves into scales.
The steel of his armor was dripping off his back and onto a tail that was snaking its way out of his pants. The tip was particularly getting covered, turning into a clobbering weapon of fierce power.
His helmet melted onto his face, leaving behind a draconic snout covered in bright silver scales.
His torso twisted and churned again, his armor being turned into his scales here too, but just as importantly, two protrusions formed on his chest. His musculature was in no way fading, only rearranging itself into a more feminine shape.
"I will not..." his voice boomed now. It boomed, and yet it was so high-pitched. Like a fire crackling on wood. "LET YOU HURT MY FAMILY!"
She removed her wings from the way and screeched the roar that had been building in her lungs, knocking the mage out of his concentration and stunning the other two members of the party. The bubbles popped in mid-air, far away from harming anymore, and the dragon was pushed away in surprise. It closed its mouth and, as the roar finally came to an end, it whimpered, dropping on its belly and looking at the most powerful being in this room.
All were silent. She walked up to the dragon and tugged the key that was attached around its neck by a simple rope.
She walked back to the door. She unlocked it, opened it and beckoned her companions to the other side, before entering herself and closing the door again.
The room they entered seemed to extend further to the right, taking the shape of an L.
As she finally had the time to breathe, the adrenaline of the moment receding, she was tackled by an over-enthusiastic Doan who jumped into her arms.
She spun around on her heel and kissed them.
Lowell was seething, and the mage took his focus on his book of spells again, preferring not to think about whatever was happening over there. Preferring to, but failing. He muttered under his breath. "I bet you're enjoying watching this, you mad old young'un..." He attempted meditating for a while to get back in control of his thoughts.
The moment's passion passed, and the lovers broke their kiss, but not their embrace. Doan had the same starry-eyed look from earlier on their face, only that it lingered for longer than before.
"Roland..." they muttered.
"Call me Boy," the dragoness replied.
They tilted their head. "Are you... Are you sure about this name?"
"It is the part shaved from my title. It has to go somewhere," she explained.
"I don't get it," they pouted in annoyance.
Boy sat down, lowering Doan with her. She threw a glance at her other companions, and seeing them apparently lethargic - or at least unwilling to contribute - she thought to herself she had the time to explain. Explain her village, its traditions, her life as it were when she was a child. And that fateful day, the first of the rest of her life.
"Even more so, then..." questioned Doan, who was sitting on her lap, after hearing all of it. "Why choose a name based on a moniker that causes you so much pain?"
"That's exactly the point. If it becomes my name, if I make the choice of that myself... It cannot hurt me anymore. It stops being a reminder of what I was seen as, and simply becomes the series of sounds I respond to." She let her hand run along their head. "I cannot be the boy dragoness if I am Boy, the dragoness."
Maybe one could call the logic questionable, but it wasn't Doan's place to judge, just as Boy hadn't last night. It already felt like so long ago, with how radically their lives had changed. "And so, between us...?"
Boy smiled. "A complicated situation... I guess, after last night, I stopped seeing you as one of the children in need of protection; I understood you had never been one..." She glanced at the two people wallowing in silence. "Which is not something I can say of our companions. They are more fragile than either of us was."
"I resent that," replied the mage, who apparently had been paying attention despite himself.
Lowell stood up and walked away from the rest of the group, preferring to take his mind off of his companions by observing the rest of the room... Only to find himself face to face with a peculiar creature as he turned around the corner.
"Ah, welcome..." an unfamiliar, sultry voice announced when the entity's presence had finally been noticed. "Who amongst your group is the most erudite?"
The mage gulped.