Authors: James V. Viscosi
The dragon tasted the corpses of her hatchlings ...
The bodies were cool, their internal fires stilled. She moved them aside, finding the carcass of a man beneath them. He lay face-down, arms spread wide. She rolled him over; his face had been smashed in, rendered concave and unrecognizable.
She peered at the man for some time, considering. The damage had been done with a weapon. He must have come with companions, and they had crushed his head to keep her from taking it, showing it to other men, tracking him by his appearance.
"Cursed man," she hissed. She examined the body, turning it this way and that, but he bore nothing that spoke of origin or maker. He looked no different from any other thug who had come into her lair in search of booty; only the torn and broken remains of her young marked him as more remarkable than most.
"I could swallow you whole," she told the dead man, "but you are vermin and unworthy of such an honor." She tossed him into the bone pit, hearing him clatter to the bottom and come to rest in the darkness below.
These were no bumpkins. These were knowledgeable, dangerous, murderous villains.
Who had just made the biggest mistake of their lives.
This is a work of fiction. The people, events, locales, and circumstances depicted are fictitious or used fictitiously and are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to any actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
by James Viscosi
T'Sian smelled blood as soon as she landed, there on the barren spine of the mountain, where the orange-grey rock crumbled under the ceaseless onslaught of rain and snow.
Pressing herself flat against the stone, the dragon crept along until she came to the black mouth of her lair, concealed by the jumble of boulders she had heaped around it. She flicked her tongue into the opening, tasting the stale air that wafted from the depths of the cavern. The meaty aroma of decay: Nothing unusual about that. The little ones were always hungry, and since they had grown large enough to hunt, they had made a practice of dragging small beasts back to the cave, where they could feed in safety. Something else, though, some alien odor, had woven itself into the customary smells of fire and flesh.
Men had been here.
T'Sian pulled her wings close, molding them to her body, and entered the chimney, crawling down the near-vertical shaft, narrow and well-worn from the scouring of her metal-hard scales, her talons finding their familiar holds in the stone. At the bottom, the tunnel curved sharply, becoming horizontal. Her long body, malleable and supple as a snake, bent with it; she emerged into her lair, slipping through a crack in the wall.
She immediately turned and climbed up to the ceiling, her long, curving claws finding easy purchase in the craggy rock. She scanned the mammoth chamber that formed the main portion of her lair, a natural cavity that she had spent decades excavating, shaping, transforming it from cavern to home.
The darkness held no secrets from her, but where she should have seen the warmth of her hatchlings, she saw nothing. Perhaps they were not here; but that was a false hope, and the dragon knew it. T'Sian tasted the air again.
Men. Their scents were not fresh; they had been and gone some hours earlier, while she had been sunning herself on the rocks to the west. Lured by rumors of dragon hoard, most likely; in their arrogance, men insisted on believing that she had some use for the gilt trappings of their petty civilizations.
She spotted something, a flicker of warmth from the back of the lair, faint as a long-extinguished fire. She let go of the ceiling, twisted in midair to land feet-first on the stone floor. T'Sian moved cautiously toward the heat source, her black tongue flicking in and out, bringing her the strengthening scent of blood. She found the little ones in the back, near the pit where they tossed the bones they did not care to eat.
They had been hacked to pieces.
The dragon tasted the corpses of her hatchlings, tasting men as well. The bodies were cool, their internal fires stilled. They were not the source of the warmth she had seen. She moved them aside, finding the carcass of a man beneath them. He lay face-down, arms spread wide. She rolled him over; his guts spilled out, stringy, stuck to the floor. His face had been smashed in, rendered concave and unrecognizable.
She peered at the man for some time, considering. The disembowelment was the work of dragon claws, but the damage to his head had been done with a weapon. He must have come with companions, and they had crushed his head to keep her from taking it, showing it to other men, tracking him by his appearance.
," she hissed. She reached out with her long and clever tail, extending it forward over her head, snaking it around the man's waist, lifting him up. He was clad in some sort of armor, leather with pieces of metal affixed to it, a feeble imitation of her own scales. She examined the body, turning it this way and that, hoping to identify where he had come from, but he bore nothing that spoke of origin or maker. He looked no different from any other thug who had come into her lair in search of booty; only the torn and broken remains of her young marked him as more remarkable than most.
I could swallow you whole
," she told the dead man, "
but you are vermin and unworthy of such an honor.
" She tossed him into the bone pit, hearing him clatter to the bottom and come to rest in the darkness below.
The dragon backed away from the corpses, feeling the heat in her breast where the crystals danced. She raised her head and let the flames fly, illuminating the lair with dancing light. N
ictitating membranes slid across her eyes as the flames poured out, preventing the close, intense heat from blinding her temperature-sensitive vision.
The stone ceiling, already cracked and soot-stained, took the punishment mutely; fire rippled along its surface, flowed around the stumps of sheared stalactites. She cried out, a hissing wail to accompany the silent inferno, echoing up the chimney and out across the rocky slopes and thinly forested valleys of the mountain range.
At last she closed her throat, choked off the fire. She would put her scalding breath to better use, once she found the men who had invaded her lair. She crept along the floor, up the wall, to the alcove where she stored her crystals. She thrust her head and neck into the niche, and knew at once that what she sought was gone. She should have seen and felt the radiance of the stones, but there was nothing, only the faintest of traces, lingering in the rough rock walls. Her tongue flicked across the dry, empty pocket of stone.
The dust tasted like men.
She drew her head back, shocked. The humans had taken her stones. Why? Had they, in their ignorance, thought the crystals some sort of precious gem?
That was certainly possible; but men were superstitious, unpredictable. She knew how they thought: Always believing that some secret ingredient, some missing element, would cure whatever ailments bedeviled them. Perhaps some alchemist had decided he needed the crystals for a potion to turn lead into gold, or some noblewoman believed that they would keep her youthful. Over the years, she had heard both those excuses, and more, from men she had caught searching for her lair.
T'Sian returned to the bodies of the hatchlings. She hated to do this, but she had wasted a considerable amount of fire venting her rage, and the stones were of no use inside her dead young. Delicately, she lifted one of the carcasses, only to find that the small dragon's chest had been cut open, the leathery sac slashed, the crystals taken. She dropped the corpse and examined the other. It, too, had been plundered of its stones. What she had taken for mere brutality had instead been surgical: The men had slit open her babies and taken the stones from their gizzards.
Now she understood. Men had come here specifically to steal her crystals. There had been no mistake. They had not thought they were taking diamonds or rubies; they had no interest in dragon's horns or scales or whiskers. They had wanted the stones and knew, somehow, where in the body they could be found. These were no mere adventuresome bumpkins; these were knowledgeable, dangerous, murderous villains.
The dragon pivoted, turning back on herself. She crawled to the crack in the wall, climbed up the chimney, emerging onto the windswept summit where the rocks were as cold as the wind. She crept away from the opening to her lair, sweeping her head back and forth, flicking her tongue along the ground. She quickly picked up the scent of the men, following their trail along the ridge until it disappeared in a riot of strange, birdlike odors. Perhaps they had carried chicken carcasses, dragging them around to confuse their scent.
She raised herself up, tasted the air: Rain and pines and distant snow. No trace of the murderers lingered; no trail led off the mountain, showing her where they had climbed. It was as though they had simply vanished from that spot.
The dragon lowered herself again, hugging the rocky spine, considering her next move. She needed more of the red crystals; she could tell, by the chill in her belly, that they would soon be exhausted, leaving the blue ones inert as the rocks that lay scattered on the mountaintop. Obtaining red crystals meant a long flight to the distant volcanoes of Enshenneah, giving the killers ample time to flee; but these were unusually devious villains, and she could not face them without her fire.
The dragon's idly twitching tail dislodged a small boulder, sending it bouncing and clattering off the cliff and into the cold, barren valley below. She glanced at the rolling rock as it vanished into the chill mist; then, her course of action determined, she tore down a few scraggly nearby trees and jammed them into the chimney. That would keep trespassers out until she returned.
Satisfied, T'Sian spread her enormous wings and leaped off the cliff. The vast membranes filled with air; lazy flaps carried her away from the mountaintop. She circled it three times, scanning the crags and crannies for any sign of the murderers.
Nothing. How could men just disappear?
Frustrated, she veered away, flying off to the southwest, toward the distant volcanic islands.
Tolaria had been waiting outside Klem's office for hours, responding to an urgent summons, only to find herself perched on a narrow, uncomfortable bench, staring at the senior oracle's closed door. With nothing else to occupy her, she had begun going over all the other slights she had endured over the three months she had been here.
Three months! She remembered her excitement at being assigned to the Crosswaters, the largest oracular institution outside the college at Flaurent. Situated with Barbareth to the south, Dunshandrin to the east, and Madroval to the north, overlooking the frothing union of the Knopp, Achen, and Red rivers, the Crosswaters saw petitioners from throughout the continent. Even Enshennean traders stopped by from time to time, and merchants brought her news from her homeland, icy Yttribia, beyond the grey waters of Lake Achenar.