Alarc the Warrior quickly rode across the desolate plain to a small copse of trees that was the only (rather limited) cover. Still no sign of the dragon, and it made him nervous. Alarc was of average height, muscular, dressed in plate mail made of an unusually strong and lightweight metal, covered over with a tan tunic. He looked every part the lone knight on a great quest. or even a lone knight on the king’s business, which was a considerably more useful guise.

And now, he was in the middle of Selmar plain, having spent weeks battling orcs, exploring ruined temples infested with minotaurs, and questioning townsfolk trying to find out what happened to Princess Zoe. As he rested, Alarc contemplated the scene. He was in the middle of a large plain on the top of a mesa, bordered by steep cliffs which fell down to an equally bleak landscape below. About a mile away, among the red, orange, and tan rocks and the occasional saguaro catcus, stood the castle.

Now that he looked at it, the castle was a bit different than he had been told. The bard who had narrowly escaped becoming dinner when he attempted to entertain the dragon had told about one spire, but here were three: strong, imposing, and granite red. There was a stark beauty to the place, but predominately an imposing strength. If necessary he could probably take on the dragon in single combat, he told himself, but it might cost him a lot of his magic gear. So he decided that a stealth attack would be preferable, and laid down for a nap.

After night fell, he left his horse at the tree and strode quickly to the castle, expecting any second to feel the ground light up in a blaze of fire as the dragon swooped out of the night. But all was calm. When he reached the walls, he discovered that they were made of polished granite, quite skillfully made. No easy toehold here. Nothing to do but toss up a grappling hook and hope no one noticed. Stillness continued, interrupted only by the chirping of the crickets. (“How do they survive out here, anyway?” he wondered.)  Two-thirds of the way up the wall, a man appeared on the walkway. Alarc froze. The man gazed out for a while, out toward where Alarc had come. He seemed deep in thought, for he stared for some time. Alarc could not hold on to the rope much longer, and began climbing up as quietly as one can in plate mail. The man was apparently too far away to hear, and Alarc tumbled over the battlement. That the man heard. He drew his sword and came running.

“Halt!” he cried.

Alarc responded by drawing his bow, and quickly losing an arrow into the man’s throat. The man slumped down. Alarc dragged him into the shadows and ran into the keep.

The keep seemed like a labyrinth, but just keep to the center and you will find the center stairway, the bard had said. Alarc passed through several rooms, all piled with various treasures. Coins in one, golden goblets in another, jeweled items in a third. Some rooms looked like they had been decorated, filling the keep with a Baroque oppulence. Still no sign of the dragon; maybe he really was out hunting for new treasures, as the bard said he was wont to do.

Had Alarc but noticed it, a pair of yellow eyes opened in the shadows of the jewel room as he passed, and noiselessly followed him.

As it turned out, all ways led to the central staircase. Even in the quiet gloom, the room was obviously huge, and the staircase seemed magnificently decorated. Alarc paused to let his eyes get used to the dim light. Suddenly he felt his limbs go rigid as he was hit with a paralysis spell. Immediately the room blazed into light as the dragon roared into the room, enveloping Alarc in flame.

Amidst the flames surrounding him, Alarc could not help noticing the room, which now dazzled the eye. The floor and grand columns were polished black marble, inlaid with gold between the stones. Instead of white marbling, the marbling was gold, which produced a stunning effect. The columns, made of the same gold-flecked black marble, stretched several stories to the gold-leafed ceiling high above. A huge staircase made of some black semi-translucent material wound up, reaching the walkways that surrounded the room on the floors above. Gold and ruby chandeliers hung from the ceiling and sparkled in the light of the dragon’s fire.

“So you would steal my princess?” the dragon said with an angry sneer.
Alarc laughed. “You really think your fire will harm me?”
The dragon looked a bit unnerved but recovered quickly.
“Yes, it’s nice and comfy in here. Gotta love that custom-made dwarven armor. They sure know how to make metal that’s unaffected by heat and cold! Although...” Alarc paused as if pondering. “Hmm, I don’t suppose maybe your fires have cooled a bit?”

The dragon launched himself in the air. At the same time, the paralysis spell broke and Alarc unslung his bow, quickly firing a couple of arrows. They exploded in mid-air.

“Ha! You and your spindly steel needles! As if you could steal the Beauty of this castle from me with those dull pins that don’t even prick my hide.” The dragon grabbed at Alarc violently with his front claws. Alarc scrambled quickly and barely avoided him.

“You would steal the Treasure of my treasure?” The dragon knocked Alarc across the floor into a pillar with a back-handed swipe of his tail as he flew overhead.

Alarc stood up and drew his sword, which began to glow with a cold, icy light. As the dragon wheeled back to attack again, Alarc held his sword at the ready, and said in a cold voice:

“Release Princess Zoe, or die, worm.”

The dragon spewed fire at Alarc’s face, which was fortunately shielded by his helmet, rushed forward, then extinguished his fire. The dragon circled around as darkness fell again and the only thing visible was the faint light of the sword and the even fainter starlight filtering through the high windows. The sword rose and ...

Just then a figure who had been coming unnoticed down the stairway raised her hand in a Word of Command. “Stop!” she cried. The chandeliers lit up. Alarc’s sword clattered involuntarily to the ground and he was paralyzed once again. The dragon flapped his wings in front of Alarc, but was unable to advance, much to his surprise.

The woman spoke to Alarc. Her voice was cold, and echoed in the room.

“You’re here to rescue me.” Alarc began to agree, but she took no notice. “Did it ever occur to you that I might not need rescuing? No, apparently not! You rescuers are all the same: you barge in here, kill Drago, and just assume I’ll be grateful. Well, I’m not! You did not even have the decency to avoid killing my guard!”

The Princess continued her tirade, leaving Alarc was dumbfounded. He stared at her uncomprehendingly for a few moments, as he began to realize what she was saying. He was supposed to rescue the Princess to continue. The owner’s guide had hinted at rescuing the Princess. Everyone else had killed the dragon and rescued the Princess...

“But,” he interrupted, “but, how will I win the game? I need your magic, or I won’t be able to defeat the Sorceror.”

“That’s all you guys ever care about. You. Winning your game. Nevermind what happens to the rest of us. You just use our talents and casually leave us to be reincarnated for the next player so that you can have your precious storyline. You never care about me. You never care about who I am, only what I can do for you.
“At first I went with you guys willingly. But then I realized that none of you actually care about me. I’m just one more addition to your inventory, an asset to be used up on your way to greatness. But Drago, he appreciates me. He actually values me, unlike all of you. He fights for me. He likes how I decorate the castle.
“I don’t want to be just a set of spells for the right occasion. I’m not going. Leave!” She spoke the last word as another Command.

Bewildered, Alarc found himself walking down the first floor, out the front door, and gallopping back the way he came. He did defeat the Sorceror in the end, although it took a lot more creativity and an embarrasing number of lives than it would have had Zoe been with him. And he was not sure if he really liked it, but he had to admit that it was the best AI he’d ever seen.