ROSHI STARED at his reflection, or at least what should have been his reflection. Instead, a pair of hollow eyes as black as pitch peered back from the face caught in the flat side of his katana.
With elbows braced on his knees, Roshi searched for the soul he sensed missing.
Behind him, Snowblight honed her claws on the training room's whetstones. "You're as bad as Bronzemane tending his feathers."
Roshi hunched as the scrape of talon added another layer of goose bumps to his sweat-smeared skin. "I am incomplete."
Snowblight joined the reflection with an arc of her long neck, ice crystals frosty on her scaled muzzle.
In the dragon's azure features, Roshi spied the same gap.
Snowblight snorted, her chilled breath dampening the katana and clouding the mirrored image. "You're pale and scrawny as always, Roshi."
Roshi wiped his blade clean with the meat of his palm. "And you are blind."
"I see fine."
"Open eyes do not always perceive the truth."
"You're not making any sense." Swiveling, Snowblight returned to the whetstones. "You can't see what's not there."
Roshi met himself in the blade again. He searched as Snowblight scraped, each rake chilling, each moment of probing futile.
"A sword without an edge is no sword."
"So?" Snowblight ceased her honing. "You'd break your word?"
"I am weak."
"You are imagining things."
Roshi adjusted his grip on the katana, the leather bindings as rough as his calluses but the grooves his hand had made felt suddenly unfamiliar. "I am not myself."
"Of course not," said Snowblight. "Whimsy improved us."
Lowering the blade, Roshi stared through the sandstone archways, at the foreign dunes of copper extending to a pale green sky. "Then why the emptiness?"
"Because you haven't slept."
"Because I have not dreamed."
"You're whining." Snowblight flicked her tail and yawned with a stretch of her forked tongue. "You've worked yourself up with this nonsense and so you haven't slept. Now you're seeing things because you're tired."
"I sleep." Standing, Roshi sheathed his katana through his belted sash and neared the window. "I do not dream."
"You gave them up. We all gave them up."
"Were the visions of night worth vigor in the day?" He set his hands on sandstone and sought answers in the alien plane.
"Enduring winter requires power," said Snowblight, "and might."
"A strong stance in dry sand is weak."
"Philosophizing is not going to make you feel better." Roshi scowled and Snowblight countered with a shrug of frosted shoulders. "The bargain's struck. Perhaps when Whimsy's victorious you can strike another."
"To dream again?"
Roshi leaned against the sandstone, his hand encircling his katana's hilt. "A just prize for the victorious."
"Perhaps. With the power he'd gain, not even your eloquence could contain what Whimsy would be capable of doing."
"He could repair us now that we are allies."
Snowblight's features hardened. "Whimsy needs no allies. He needs no one. He chose us."
"And we accepted."
"Would you have wanted to decline?"
Roshi cast his gaze to his toes. The tiles failed to show him his features but he sensed the gap within him nonetheless.
Snowblight neared, the air cooling as she approach with steps as quiet as morning's first snow. "He granted you endurance, youthful agility, a katana with an ever-sharpening blade. What's a little dreamless sleep compared to what feats your body can now perform? What we can accomplish together?"
Roshi peered up at the dragon. "Together?"
"No one is alone in the universe." Snowblight rested her chin on her forelimbs. "We are all intertwined."
Snowblight snorted, two cold clouds wetting Roshi's face. "Perhaps not Whimsy directly but strings thread his existence as they do ours. He chose us and we are linked.
"Choices have right and wrong." Roshi raked a hand through his hair and held onto the back of his skull, his bicep tense. "When one gains, something else is lost."
We made a deal, and unless..." Snowblight lifted her head.
Ah, now I understand."
"You understand what?"
She bared her teeth in a snarl. "You're afraid."
"Afraid?" Roshi tipped off the wall. "I fear nothing."
"You're afraid of what we might confront. You're afraid of failing."
"I am not afraid. If I was myself, if I was complete, nothing on the Astral Plane would stand in my way."
Snowblight rose to her full height, icy fog streaming from her nostrils. "You're nothing but a craven little man."
Before he'd thought of drawing, Roshi slipped his katana free. He leapt into the air, targeting the accusation and insult trapped within the chilled air, within the dragon's disgust.
Snowblight darted from the strike, her bulk slick across the tiles. The cold she left behind smacked Roshi's face as he sliced through empty space. Countering warmth surged within him, superheated and pure. Tingling with energy and verve, he landed on his toes.
Snowblight cackled. "Maybe you are missing something, coward."
With a snarl, Roshi vaulted off the wall. Snowblight lurched out of the way and Roshi tumbled harmlessly overhead.
"You're slower, Roshi."
Reaching the other wall, Roshi flung himself at the ground, rolling for a swipe across an underbelly of glacial scales. Snowblight lurched from the blow, flecks of ice spraying, her derisive laugh echoing.
A punch against tiles left a crater but not a scrape or bruise on his hand, and Roshi pounced into the air again. He slammed his heels into the underside of Snowblight's chin. His soles numbed on impact, the cold working up into his ankles, but heat surged from within him, curing, soothing, invigorating, and he absorbed the shudder in bent knees.
Momentum tossed them into the far wall, the sandstone cracking, the debris floating off into the desert winds.
Roshi backflipped from Snowblight's snapping jaws, but as he plummeted to the floor, her frosted breath surrounded him, smothering him in ice. The thick coating snapped when he hit the ground, and undaunted, he rolled aside before Snowblight's clawed foot slammed down. After a pivot, he had his katana held high, pointed tip steady. Snowblight's breathy laugh, amused now and tinny, paused his next thrust.
Snowblight grinned, revealing a row of icicled teeth. "You're weaker? Incomplete? Hollow?"
Crumbling sandstone punctuated the silence and pools of melting scales dotted the floor.
Calming his breath, Roshi lowered his katana. His body quivered with power instead of pain, strength instead of aches. Whimsy's gift threaded his blood and bone.
"Maybe not." Roshi met his hollowed gaze in the blade's flat face.
"Fight with me and we'll win, Roshi." Snowblight brought her head close, her whispers chipped. "We'll be victorious. Whimsy will be victorious."
Roshi tightened his grip on the katana. "And our souls will be whole again."
TITANS TACTICS: THE GAMES BEGIN. Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen A. Magner and Imbalanced Games, LLC.