The great crystal dragon, shining like a spark of purest gold in the light of the burning of Athkatla, swooped lazily overhead. Fa’ss’th waited below, squinting into the smoke, wondering when it would notice his sign. He could feel the fear that ran before it like an icy tide. Demaris stood nearby, but the others were in Waukeen’s Promenade, helping Old Felda in her makeshift hospital.
“Here it comes,” Demaris remarked. The dragon had coasted low over the city and passed them by, then abruptly flipped over in midair, an awkward maneuver that nearly sent it tumbling. It dove straight down at the street, landing with an earth-shaking crash.
Olena peered down the street at the dragon, shivering. She knew she should join Fa’ss’th, but in order to do so she would have to pass in front of the creature. Oren and Barak walked past her and she gritted her teeth. “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” she whispered, and followed them.
The dragon stretched its wings wide and clawed at the street, its talons ripping up cobbles and flagstones alike. Then it began to advance with slow, measured tread, on the group at the far end of the street. It stopped about fifty feet away, towering over the party even at that distance, and bellowed.
“WHO CALLS NOPALXOCHITL!?!”
Fa’ss’th gulped and managed to squeak out, in a voice far too high for a male lizard, “I do, finder of these . . .” He stood aside to reveal one of the crystalline eggs. There was a long pause while the dragon regarded them with narrowed eyes and everyone held their breath.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT, FOOD CREATURE?”
“To spoil the plans of a certain person who attacked our school,” Fa’ss’th continued.
“WHAT CARE I FOR SUCH THINGS?” Nopalxochitl demanded. “I AM DRAGON! THE CONCERNS OF FOOD ARE BENEATH ME!”
“Well, I was hoping that the safe return of your precious young would encourage your assistance in this endeavor. Are these not yours, then?”
Nopalxochitl chuckled, a sound that rattled the window panes all down the street. “THEY ARE MINE, AND YOU ARE FOOLISH TO BRING THEM HERE. DO YOU IMAGINE THAT YOU CAN THREATEN ME?”
“Well, ah, no,” Fa’ss’th squeaked. “But the rest of the eggs are being held outside the city by other forces after we took them away from the filth monster. They might be in jeopardy. I can help you reclaim them, safely.”
“IF ANY HARM COMES TO THEM, I WILL RAVAGE THIS COUNTRY FROM ONE SIDE TO THE OTHER UNTIL IT IS AS BLACK AS THE ASH PLAINS OF XIBABLA!” The dragon paused and settled back slightly. “SO YOU SLEW MY GUARDIAN, THEN?”
“It left us no choice, it attacked us,” Fa’ss’th explained.
“AND YOU PASSED MY TRAPS? YOU ARE FORMIDABLE, FOR SUCH SMALL CREATURES.”
“What is it, er, she saying?” Olena whispered to Barak. He blinked, then realized that the entire conversation had been carried on in Draconic . . . it was unintelligible to everyone but Barak and Fa’ss’th. Olena thought he was going to translate for her, but he began to concentrate, instead. She bit her lip, worried that the dragon might spot the tell-tale signs of psionic manifestation.
“Did your current allies have any hand in helping you protect your children?” Fa’ss’th pressed. “Here I walk into a war zone with one and keep it perfectly safe. And yes, your traps were there but no more. If all your allies were as formidable as I, I’m sure I would never have gotten my hands on your eggs.”
Nopalxochitl cocked her head slightly, interested. Then she reared back on her hind legs and blinked.
“I am sure if you were to help me,” Fa’ss’th continued, oblivious to what was happening behind him, “we could protect your eggs much better than they can.”
Nopalxochitl suddenly rattled off a stream of gibberish. Demaris stepped forward and said, “No, but we are not shadows or illusions, either.” Fa’ss’th shot her a puzzled look.
“It’s Nexalan, my father taught me to speak it. I’ve never met anyone else that did.”
“IT IS THE ONE TRUE LANGUAGE OF THE TRUE WORLD,” Nopalxochitl said. “I HAVE NOT ENCOUNTERED ANY HERE THAT COULD COMPREHEND THE SPEECH; THEY ARE SHADOWS OF THIS FALSE WORLD, FIT ONLY TO BE HARRIED AND EATEN FOR MY AMUSEMENT.” Demaris translated.
“This could be good for us,” Olena whispered.
“IT COULD,” Nopalxochitl said, chuckling. “SULVEIG GAME TO ME AND OFFERED GREAT SPOILS AND BATTLE . . . A CHANCE TO STRIKE AT THOSE WHO DARE TO IMAGINE THEY CAN CONQUERE THE TRUE WORLD. BUT NOW I SUSPECT TE MATTER IS MORE COMPLEX.”
“I assure you we are not shadows,” Fa’ss’th said, “only competent people who can pass the traps set by a powerful dragon. So, are you interested in our proposal?”
“I AM CURIOUS WHAT YOU THINK YOU HAVE TO OFFER ME, YES,” the dragon continued in Common.
“You honor us by stooping to our base tongue,” Olena ventured.
“ALL TONGUES ARE AS ONE TO ME. I AM DRAGON. IT IS ONLY YOUR WEAK MINDS THAT HAVE DIFFICULTY COMPREHENDING.”
“I am sure the person we plan to assault will have spoils that you can use. I can also offer a better place to store your eggs, where they will be safe.”
“TELL ME, WHY SHOULD I NOT JUST TAKE THEM AND GO?”
“I only have one here. You would have to find the other seven, still. We would be more than willing to offer regular gifts if you were to offer us assistance.”
“A BRIBE?” Nopalxochitl asked. She seemed amused.
“Say it how you will.”
“WHAT CARE I FOR TROPHIES NOT TAKEN IN BATTLE? I AM NO MERCHANT.”
“Do your children not require sustenance when they hatch?”
“THEY HUNT OR DIE, IT IS THE WAY OF THINGS. I CAN LAY MORE EGGS< BUT I DO NOT THINK YOUR ALLIES CAN HIDE FROM MY WRATH.” She leapt forward, bringing her enormous face very close to Fa’ss’th. Everyone in the group swayed backward slightly, but only Oren yelped. The ivory snake on Fa’ss’th’s arm suddenly reared up and hissed. Nopalxochitl’s eyes crossed, trying to see it at such close quarters.
“Qotal,” she breathed. “NO, NO, DON’T BITE ME, I WASN’T GOING TO EAT HIM.”
“I see you recognize one of my allies,” Fa’ss’th said self-importantly.
“WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?” the dragon asked. “THE HAND OF QOTAL HAS BEEN LOST FOR MILLENIA.”
“I’m only interested in speaking about my deal. I’ll offer you this egg as a gesture of good faith. You may take it.”
Nopalxochitl picked up the egg in her mouth and swallowed it. Olena could not quite manage to conceal a look of horror, but Demaris chuckled. “It’s easier to carry something in your crop than in your hands. It won’t hurt the egg any.”
“SO WHAT IS IT YOU WANT ME TO DO?”
“The first step is simple. I want you to start faking your attack on the city. You see, I do not want my enemy to know I am coming. If something were to change in the city, they would know.”
Nopalxochitl snorted derisively. “HE HAS ALREADY LEFT THE CITY. ONLY THE OGRE MAGE REMAINS, OVERSEEING THE BATTLE.”
“Dammit!” Demaris burst out.
“Did Sulveig go back to Murann?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“Maybe he hasn’t gotten far,” Olena whispered.
“I CARE NOT. ASK ONE OF HIS BEASTS IF YOU WISH TO KNOW MORE. I AM NOT HIS SECRETARY.”
“He made you subordinate to an ogre mage, though?” Barak asked with some skepticism.
“I AM SUBORDINATE TO NO ONE!” Nopalxochitl growled.
“But surely you understand that it certainly looks like you serve the ogre mage,” Olena added.
“YOU BORE ME. THIS CITY BORES ME. THE SMALL PREY CREATURES SCURRYING HITHER AND YON BORE ME. THERE IS NO ONE HERE STRONG ENOUGH TO MAKE A PROPER BATTLE FOR NOPALXOCHITL. NO ONE STRONG ENOUGH TO TEAR THE FLESH AND MAKE THE BLOOD RUN.”
“Not even Cyrvisnea?” Olena asked.
“Are you kidding?” Demaris asked. “Cyrvisnea would make mincemeat out of her.”
Olena opened her mouth to apologize, then caught herself and said, “I hear Cyrvisnea is quite the dragonslayer.”
“YOU THINK SOME OGRE MAGE COULD DEFEAT ME?!”
“Oh no, great one!” Olena said hastily. “But I’m sure Cyrvisnea does.”
“THEN SHE WILL SOON DISCOVER JUST HOW MISTAKEN SHE IS.” Nopalxochitl reared back on her hind legs, stretching her wings as though she was going to take off.
“You’re just going to fly off?” Demaris sneered. “It doesn’t count if no one sees the battle, you know.”
“Right,” Olena added. “Someone has to tell the tale of how brilliant you were!”
Nopalxochitl eyed them, lowering herself back to the ground. “SO? WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST?”
“Dee, should we witness this glorious victory firsthand?” Olena asked, looking at Demaris.
“Dee?” Nymbus’ daughter asked, raising an eyebrow. Olena sobered abruptly.
“Right,” Demaris said definitively.
“The fastest way, of course, would be if someone gave us a lift to the fight,” Fa’ss’th mused.
“I need to discover what has happened to my brothers in my absence,” Oren whispered. Olena patted his arm.
“I will carry you if I must,” the dragon said, looking disgusted.
“I, for one, would be well-pleased to see this battle,” Barak added.
Demaris shrugged at Oren. “You’re outvoted, sorry. Besides, we can help them best by cutting off the head of this mess first.”
“Where do we sit, Nopalxochitl?” Fa’ss’th asked.
The dragon crouched so that they could climb on, clinging as best they could to her hard, glassy scales. When everyone was aboard, the dragon flexed her wings and leapt into the air, raising an enormous cloud of dust. She gained height rapidly, and everyone could look down to see the full extent of the devastation. The smoke was terrible, but the dragon seemed not to notice, letting the heat from the many furious fires lift her over the taller buildings. She eased into a glide and crossed the river.
Barak watched the fighting, seething to see so much destruction caused by one man. At first it looked like chaos, but gradually a pattern began to emerge and he grasped where the commander must be even before the dragon banked gently in that direction. Cyrvisnea flew above the great plaza in the government quarter, waving instructions to her troops below. Nopalxochitl shrieked a furious battle cry and closed her wings, going into a near-vertical dive.
Cyrvisnea looked up and gestured with one hand, a blast of bitter chill enveloped the dragon and those on her back as well. Everyone cringed in pain. Olena released her grip on the dragon and flew towards the ogre mage, striking with her greatsword. Cyrvisnea’s heavy armor turned the blow, and the ogre mage seemed hardly to notice.
“I’m thinking we should consider getting off at this point,” Demaris said, and pushed herself towards a rooftop. She landed badly and knocked the wind out of herself, but she was able to begin getting back to her feet. Barak dropped down beside her, followed by Oren and Fa’ss’th as the dragon spat a burst of coherent light at Cyrvisnea.
Smoke rolled off the ogre mage’s armor as she whirled in midair and dealt the dragon a blow with her massive black sword, nearly dancing on the air. Nopalxochitl flapped desperately, trying to turn around, and snapped at the ogre mage again. Cyrvisnea cut the dragon several more times, but then Nopalxochitl got a grip with her claws and rent the ogre mage to pieces. The corpse dropped to the plaza below and Nopalxochitl roared. Cyrvisnea’s lieutenants fled.
“NOW WHERE ARE MY EGGS?” the dragon demanded. Blood dripped from her maw. “YOU SEE? NONE CAN CHALLENGE ME!”
Barak looked over the dragon’s shoulder to where Cyrvisnea was beginning to stir once more. “Just out of curiosity, mind you, what would happen if I were to best an opponent you had not been able to defeat?”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” Nopalxochitl asked, her eyes narrowing.
“Just what I said,” Barak replied.
“I WOULD EAT YOU,” the dragon said. The snake on Fa’ss’th’s arm hissed again, warningly, and Nopalxochitl made a face. “OR, I WOULD, WERE YOU NOT SO OBVIOUSLY FAVORED. BUT YOU HAVE POWERFUL PROTECTION.”
Barak pointed a finger and Cyrvisnea was enveloped in flames. She screamed as the fire ate into her wounds, turning her to ash in seconds. Then the human psion crossed his arms and regarded the dragon coldly.
“VERY CLEVER, BUT WHAT IS YOUR POINT?” Nopalxochitl asked, baring her teeth. “WOULD YOU FIGHT ME, NOW?”
“You attacked with brute force and failed to achieve victory. I used the merest flicker of power and I am victorious. I think conflict between us would be . . . improper.”
“YOU KNOW MORE THAN I, THAT DOES NOT MAKE YOU STRONGER THAN I. GIVE ME MY EGGS AND I SHALL LEAVE YOU IN PEACE. I HAVE NO QUARREL WITH YOU. I GROW TIRED OF THIS PLACE AND ITS MANY DECEPTIONS.”
“I think we should embrace Nopalxochitl’s generosity,” Olena said, struggling to keep her voice even.
“We will make arrangements to gather your eggs back up, it will just take some time,” Fa’ss’th said. “I just have one question: where will you go now?”
“HOME, OF COURSE,” Nopalxochitl said, bending down and picking up Cyrvisnea’s helmet. “I MISS MY LAIR, MY TROPHIES. TELL ME WHERE MY EGGS ARE AND I WILL FETCH THEM MYSELF.”
Fa’ss’th hesitated for a moment and the dragon growled. He shrugged and fished some paper out of his pack, scribbling down a few notes. “Deliver this letter to a lady at the place I’ve drawn here. She will understand and get you your reward.”
Nopalxochitl took the papers very carefully between two claws and leapt once again into the air. The party looked around, unsure what to do. They had an excellent view from their rooftop, so they hunkered down to watch and wait.
With Cyrvisnea and the dragon gone, the defenders began to rally and the evil forces were gradually pushed towards the edge of the city. The fires gradually dissipated. Very late in the day, the pitch of the battle suddenly increased as a human army appeared on the horizon and assaulted the remaining ogres and hobgoblins, driving them southward and freeing the city. The party took that as their cue to climb down from the roof, to discover Quentin Dambraith below with his bodyguards.
“Hail, friends. You seem to have survived. I wasn’t sure what would happen when that dragon appeared. And what have we here?” the merchant asked, poking Cyrvisnea’s corpse with his sword.
Fa’ss’th grinned. “Just remember, dragons are defeated with paint. And ogre mages hate fire.”
Quentin chuckled appreciatively. “I’ll make sure to remember that if it comes up again.”
“It may, when Sythillis finds out about this,” Olena muttered.
“It appears the city owes you a great debt, although I doubt anyone would realize that at the moment. We seem to have a bit of a . . . situation on our hands.”
“Something else happened?” Olena asked. “Well, we may be able to help you with that, as well . . .”
Quentin looked sour. “That interfering old wizard . . .”
A calloused hand with thick knuckles descended on the merchant’s shoulder, and a deep, rich voice sounded. “No, ye would not be referring to me, would ye?” A tall human in a ragged robe and pointy hat stroked his long white beard thoughtfully. Quentin swiveled, seemingly without moving his feet. “I would have thought that ye would all be happy to see me. Come, we should all go and greet the new king as he rides into his city.”
“New king?” Olena asked, baffled. Barak shook his head in disgust. “Was there something wrong with the old one?” She asked.
Elminster smiled at Olena, his eyes twinkling. “Why yes, young lady. Athkatla has been without royalty for generations, when the great sword was lost. The Council of Six has ruled here for half an age.”
“Oh,” Olena said shyly. “Sorry, I’m from the Wild and know little of such things.”
“It seems that fate is kind, and in the moment of the city’s darkest hour, the sword was recovered from Aaherminaz the Lich. The swordbearer is the rightful king of Athkatla.” Elminster turned and began walking away. “Come, I am certain he will be pleased to thank ye personally for your assistance in ridding the city of Cyrvisnea.”
“Curse him,” Quentin muttered. “We don’t need a king. We don’t want a king. And now some idiot shows up with a sword and an army and thinks he’s in charge. He won’t last a week.”
“Have you met him, Quentin?” Barak asked.
“No, and I hope I don’t have to,” the merchant said fervently. Fa’ss’th followed along, dragging a large rattling bundle he’d acquired from Cyrvisnea’s corpse. A young man, certainly under thirty, rode up on the back of an ugly grayish horse and regarded the party. Olena attempted a curtsey.
“Well met, your majesty. Er, is that how you should be addressed?”
The mounted man smiled a bit shyly. “No, no, call me Gariad.” Elminster cleared his throat noisily.
“Your Majesty will do,” the wizard said severely.
Barak blinked. “I believe that ‘His Majesty’ just told us to call him Gariad. Do you want us to ignore his wishes?” Elminster’s expression darkened thunderously. Olena looked from him to Barak and then up to Gariad.
“Well, either way it’s still not as bad as the dragon,” she said.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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