Authors: Salvador Mercer
Their cloaks swirled in the wind with flakes of snow dancing all around them. Those directly in its path shielded themselves with their winter cloaks or used their hands and arms to shield exposed skin. The air was cold, but not lethal . . . not yet.
“Hit him with your magic, Milo,” Eric commanded, worry and fear starting to creep into his voice.
Milo acted immediately, taking a few steps forward to ensure his next fireball was formed properly, controlled accurately, and would impact the dragon on its head, hopefully killing it. “Ogon unitchtozhi!” he conjured, willing the charged particles of Agon’s atmosphere into and through his staff, culminating in the explosion of the air in front of him as he directed the ball of fire at the dragon.
The fireball was a direct hit, impacting the dragon right between its eyes. The flames crackled and burned the dragon’s head. The sound of ancient ice melting, and turning to steam, assaulted their ears. Water had long ago condensed around the dragon’s scales when it had returned from a warm climate to a cold one, and formed a barrier around, and between, its many scales. The steam from the century-old ice as it turned from a solid to a gas nearly instantaneously smoked off of the dragon’s head, neck, and shoulders.
The white dragon shook its head, having closed its eyelids and taking the brunt of the fire on its snout. It snorted and hissed, working hard to cool itself from the intense flame of the wizard’s magical fire. When the hissing stopped and the dragon composed itself, it opened its eyelids narrowly and stared at the ex-Kesh wizard’s apprentice. “My turn,” it said.
Inhaling deeply, the dragon reared back and shot its head forward toward Milo, who quickly conjured more of Agon’s force for another fireball. The ball of fire was much smaller, as the man had scant time to gather more energy through his staff, and a cone of frost came from the dragon’s maw, colliding with the fireball.
The fireball lost.
The rest of the frost covered the Kesh apprentice, freezing the man and coating his body in a thin layer of ice. His face contorted in pain as it froze, and in a split second, he appeared to change from a living human being to an intricately carved ice sculpture.
“Attack,” Eric commanded.
The pikemen and long spearmen renewed their attack on the dragon, which now used its massive wing tips to dislodge stalactites from the dark ceiling of the cave. The pointed cones of ice fell to the cavern floor, chipping, cracking, and breaking upon impact, but mostly missing the human warriors—mostly.
Several men were wounded by the falling projectiles, and two were gored by the ice tips, resulting in instant death. The dragon’s tail renewed its attack and started to pick off the pikemen on one side most efficiently. The warriors had underestimated their prey, and the hunters had become the hunted.
“Run,” one warrior yelled, dropping a long spear and heading for the cavern’s entrance. The porters had lost all thoughts of gold and followed suit, running toward the only exit as they dropped their smoldering brands onto the cold ice floor of the cavern. Death was everywhere.
Eric backed away, dropping one brand from his right hand and pulling his sword out. He wanted to relight the brand in his left hand, but he knew that wouldn’t happen, and part of his brain refused to let his hand release the useless torch. With a finality that surprised even himself, he yelled his last command. “Retreat.”
The dragon breathed again and sent three fighters and half a dozen porters to an icy death from the north side of the cavern. Several of them fell over in mid-flight, legs frozen instantly from the creature’s breath weapon. With methodical intent, the dragon moved forward, flapping its wings and dislodging more ice and stalactites from the ceiling, using its claws, tail, and mouth to kill the human invaders.
It seemed an eternity to Eric before he reached the wall of ice that looked like a waterfall that had frozen over the cavern’s wide entrance. Most of their packs and supplies were just inside the cavern or on the other side of the ice sheet that acted like a drape across the opening. Ducking to miss the edge of the ice, Eric threw himself toward the slope that led to the pass below. He fell and slid quickly, gaining speed as his momentum increased.
The rest of the porters turned, looking for the narrow path that they had climbed to reach the dragon’s lair, and found themselves trapped on the edge of the slopping cliff face and the vertical sheet of ice that had only a few gaps in it that they had used to enter the cavern. Through those gaps, another blast of frigid air hit them, and several died, freezing in place. The remainder died when the dragon hit the sheet of ice.
The wall of ice exploded outwardly as the dragon’s massive body impacted it. The beast had run straight at it, flattening, freezing, or goring its attackers as it went. The dragon leaped from the edge and unfurled its wings, using them to fly into the cold blue sky. Seeing the black speck that was Eric as he slid down the steep slope, the dragon started to pursue.
Eric managed to witness the death of his last porters and the exit of the dragon from its lair, as he jumped head first and slid on his belly, and then rolling onto his back, he looked past his flailing feet to see the end of his mercenary company, The Hunt. He was amazed at how the large beast could fly, and then his adrenaline kicked in as the dragon glided swiftly down behind him, closing the distance.
His speed was already reckless, and he was racing down the snowy, icy mountain slope head first on his back, blind as he looked at where he had been and not where he was headed. Luckily for him, the dragon’s lair was so high up in the Felsic Mountains that no trees grew at that altitude. Only an occasional rock flew by to his side as he missed them on his race down the steep slope.
Must go faster
, the voice in his mind commanded, though he knew he was already recklessly out of control. Finally, his hands released the brand and sword, and he used them to twirl his orientation on his shield so that he faced downhill. What he saw wasn’t much more comforting than seeing the white dragon in pursuit.
The tree line was fast approaching, and he had to keep his feet up to avoid flipping himself over and scraping himself along the jagged mixture of snow, ice, and rocks. He was sliding as fast as a horse could gallop at full speed, and yet it wasn’t fast enough. He braved a glance over his shoulder and, to his horror, found that the white demon had closed the gap and was less than a spear’s throw away from him. The creature was flapping its wings furiously in an attempt to catch him before he reached the tree line.
Eric decided that death by impact was preferable to death by dragon, so he tucked his knees toward his chest and pointed his toes downward, enabling his shield to act more efficiently as a sled, feeling the cold air burn his cheeks as the wind washed over his exposed face. Just when he almost reached the tree line, he felt something he thought impossible, a colder gust of wind from behind him freezing his clothing to his shield and even freezing his flapping cloak in mid-air behind him.
He narrowly missed a small pine tree, and then he darted between two larger conifers that acted as a gateway into a small forest of mountain pines along the barren slope. The roar of the dragon was diminished by the cracking and breaking of the pine trees as the dragon knocked them down by the dozen. Soon, the commotion became less, and only the roar of the wind and the skid of ice beneath him was audible.
Miraculously he missed hitting any tree and only went airborne once, landing hard enough to break a bone in his back. He struggled to breathe, trying to slow his descent as another group of trees and rocks appeared below him. Leaning hard, he managed to change his trajectory enough to avoid the rapidly approaching obstacles, and clearing a ridgeline, he saw in the far distance the gentler slopes of Ulatha beckoning him to their relative safety.
Two more times he went airborne, and nearly flipped once, avoiding a nasty cliff where the fall of over a hundred feet would have killed him for sure. He glanced over each shoulder and straight overhead but saw no sign of the pursuing dragon. Whether it was fate, luck, or coincidence, he did not know, but he reached a saddle in between mountain peaks and slowed to a stop directly in front of three heavily cloaked but distinguishable men.
The men had scarves wrapped over their faces to protect themselves from the cold mountain air, and a glimpse of a tasseled hat was barely visible beneath their fur-lined hoods. The three metallic staves with precious gemstone tips were the giveaway that Eric had encountered three wizards of Kesh. There could be no other description to fit the men.
“Interesting,” one of them said, looking down at Eric but not offering to help the man up, not that he could stand. He wasn’t sure what bones were broken or cracked in his body; he hurt all over.
The familiar sound of flapping and wind rustling intently around them could only be one thing—the white dragon had found him. Eric faced death by turning his head, looking over his left shoulder to see the large beast perched on a huge outcropping of rock a good hundred yards away, if not more. The creature was close enough to observe the men, but far enough away to avoid any type of arrow or missile weapon . . . or a magical fireball.
“They found the draconian,” another said.
The third took a few steps past Eric
the dragon. “White, how interesting.”
The dragon lowered its head and glared at the Kesh wizards, its stance ready to pounce. The Kesh didn’t waste time and spread out in a line about twenty yards apart and started to murmur arcane words. Their staves started to glow, and Eric could feel his hair standing on end. He was watching an epic showdown.
The white dragon appeared to be angry as it snarled, showing its razor-sharp teeth and allowing spittle from its mouth to fall, hitting the icy ground and turning into ice. With a sharp intake of breath, the dragon flapped its wings and flew away, disappearing into the distance, heading for its lair. The dragon was wiser than the humans.
Eric felt his breathing shorten, and the world began to spin, and his last memory before passing out was the three masked and hooded faces as they peered at him from above, with one voice saying, “He lives.”
The wind rushed by the great white dragon as it flew back to its lair high in the Felsic Mountains. The interruption to her sleep was not only rude, but it was most unexpected. For many cycles of the passing of Agon, Artika had never been awoken prematurely by any human, or creature, for that matter. This was a new development in her existence, and she was both perplexed by it and angered.
Rude is too polite a word for their kind
, Artika thought to herself, thinking of the humans and how they had evolved over the millennia.
Especially those meddling magic boys.
She pictured the three Kesh wizards clearly in her mind, allowing her memory of them to burn itself into her psyche. She would not forget them, though they had their faces concealed. She would see to it that the queen was apprised of the situation. It would be time, once and for all, to eliminate the meddling Kesh humans at any cost.
Artika saw her mountain abode in the near distance, but didn’t fly directly to it. Instead, she circled it, looking on all sides of the mountaintop for signs of any other human activity. The mere proximity of the magic-using humans to her abode alarmed her greatly, and she didn’t live for the eons that she endured by being hasty or reckless. The attack upon her, as well as the Kesh involvement so close, meant that she needed to assess her plans now and adjust for perhaps the first time in over a thousand years.
Seeing no movement below, she glided down to the entrance to her cavern lair and landed on the lip of the mountain crest, flapping her wings to slow her descent at the last minute. Unfortunately, it appeared that a frail, unarmed human had survived her attack. The man was nearly dead, frozen on the side of the trail, only his eyes darting back and forth, though his eyelids were barely open, a sure sign of death by hypothermia that she had seen hundreds of times before.
With a flick of her spiked tail, Artika ended the human’s life. She was, after all, a merciful dragon, unlike the cruel reds that ruled her kind. She entered her lair, pushing the dead bodies of the humans to the side for a later feeding. She was hungry when she woke, but this time the interlopers interfered with her appetite. She would not feed . . . yet.
Lulling on the ground in front of the magic man, she sent out her call for her servants. It would take them some time to arrive; in the meantime, she brought her face up to the frozen Kesh and eyed him warily but with interest.
This one is odd
, she thought to herself. He had the power of the Kesh, but in limited form. In her ultravision, the magic-users glowed a bright white that was visible to her kind. If they were powerful enough, they would glow brighter. The one in her chamber had a dim glow about him, as if he was still learning the nature of the arcane. She compared this to the intense white of the three Kesh she had encountered an hour earlier. They were powerful, all three of them, and perhaps she could best one of them in a fair fight, but three? That would be reckless and foolish of her to attempt the battle. That would most likely end her life, and she rather liked how she lived.
She had the temperament, as well as the wisdom, to control herself around them, unlike the great death-loving dragons. Oh, those black sisters of hers would attack a Kesh magic-user immediately. They had an unnatural hatred toward them, as did most of her kind, but theirs was special. Perhaps because they fed on the negative energy of Agon instead of its positive, or the negative of Akun. At any rate, the black dragons loathed the Kesh and would fight on sight. She had the luxury of time to allow her to use her knowledge beforehand. This was what the humans would call wise.
She decided to keep the frozen Kesh human as he was and not eat him. He would decorate her chamber for her amusement, and because she was curious as to why the man dared to face her so unprepared. There was something interesting here, and she wanted to find out exactly what it was.
After a long time, she heard the arrival of the pack. The leader of the winter wolves approached, leaving his pack at the cavern’s entrance. Its fur was snow white, and it stood half as tall as a horse, with long fangs and sharp claws. It only hunted in the north and in the high mountains across Agon, but from time to time, it served at the command of the great white dragons.
“You call?” the alpha wolf said, its speech a series of growls, grunts, and yelps. It could speak only in the most rudimentary of terms, and its speech was only understood by their own kind and the white dragons.
“Yes, I did,” Artika said, moving the frozen body of the Kesh to the side with its intact foot. Its wounded foot it kept tucked under its body, nurturing the injury. “I thought it would take you longer to arrive, Fangus.”
The wolf looked around the chamber, noting the recent death and destruction around it before turning to face the dragon again. “We close. We smell human yesterday.”
Artika smiled at the thought of the lupine finding the humans first, though they were late by half a day at least. “Yes, yet not close enough. You allowed the humans to enter my lair. How could you be so complacent?”
Fangus tilted its massive head, allowing a tongue to loll out of its mouth as it contemplated the large words that its mistress had used. “No allow, only find now, not before. Humans be dead now.”
“Yes,” Artika said, tilting her head at the large winter wolf as well, “no thanks to you or your kind. Fail me again and I’ll change my diet to include a more canine type of meat. Do you understand me?”
The large white wolf nodded. “Yes, understand well.”
“Good,” Artika said, looking around at the dirty cavern littered with bodies, torches, and human equipment. “I’ll be back to feed on this inside. You and your pack may dine on those outside. Alert me at my summer home if any human approaches here. Don’t fail me again.”
“Never,” Fangus said, salivating at the free bounty that was to come. It was always difficult to find food in the desolate regions of Agon, so something this gracious would be much appreciated by the pack.
Artika moved quickly to exit the cavern and walked around the side of the mountain till she was sure the meddling wizards couldn’t see her even from afar. They had magical sight at times that gave them the uncanny ability to see things that they shouldn’t be able to see.
Spreading her wings, she leaped off the mountainside, allowing herself to fly just above the terrain below her. Occasionally she allowed a rear claw or two to slice into the cool snow below. Gliding down for many miles, she came upon a glacier in a valley. It was half melted and it spread for several miles in all directions, as thick in some places as a mile deep. It quickly tapered to a much more manageable size, ending in a huge lake that took in the melting waters. This lake was known to the humans nearby as Glacier Lake.
Swooping high above the polished glass surface, she banked and brought herself back toward the edge of the glacier, plunging into the frigid waters and swimming back toward the mountain. After several minutes, she found the underwater entrance to her ice cavern and crawled out of the water and into another chamber carved directly from the glacier itself. She felt safe again, under tons of ice and protected by a mile of ice cold water. It would be nigh to impossible for even a red dragon to reach her, much less a puny human. Here she could rest and heal and ready herself for what was to come.
“What hit me?” Eric said, putting his hand to his head and trying to pull away the bandages from his eyes. He was startled by an answer.
“No one hit you, silly,” a familiar female voice answered. “You’re lucky, though, to be alive. What were you doing with those Kesh?”
“Wait, what . . . ?” Eric struggled to sit up, and he felt soft hands helping him scoot back against his pillows. “Is that you, Mary?”
“Yes. Now sit still for a moment and let me unwrap your bandages.” Eric could feel her hands around his head as she unrolled the tight cloth from around his skull. Suddenly a bright light pierced his eyes, and he held a hand up to shield them. “Let me get the blinds for you. I almost forgot.”
Quickly, Mary went to the window and closed the curtain over it, leaving only a small crack in the middle to provide some illumination. Eric put his hand down and looked around, not really recognizing the place but sensing that it was indeed familiar. “Where am I?”
Mary laughed softly, coming back to the bed and sitting at his side. “You don’t recognize this place?”
“No, should I?” Eric answered her question with one of his own.
“It’s the Noble Room in the Peak Pub and Inn, silly. You don’t recognize it cause you never stayed here before.” Mary smiled at him.
Eric took another look around and noticed that some of the furniture was familiar-looking to him, the same maker as the furniture in the Peak Pub and Inn, though the furnishings in this room were most expensive. “I didn’t know that old innkeeper had anything this nice in his rat hole.”
“That’s most rude of you, Eric,” Mary scolded, though she winked at him in jest. “I’ll be sure to tell Master Frankel how you feel about his establishment. Now, how do you feel?”
“Fine, I guess, though you can forget what I said about this place and let’s keep me in the innkeeper’s good graces for the time being, if you don’t mind.” Eric blinked twice, allowing his eyes to be accustomed to the shadowy interior.
“I can do that. Did you know that you are quite the talk of the town?”
“Yes, you, silly. Who else would I be speaking of?”
Eric looked at Mary again, assessing her words. She was one of his favorite workers at the Peak Pub, and many of his men would socialize there in their free time. The place was actually a de facto office of sorts, for his mercenary company, The Hunt, and he brought a good deal of business to the establishment, though not nearly enough to warrant his accommodations.
“Mary,” Eric said, lowering his voice and looking at the lone door to his room. He specifically was looking to see if there was a shadow, or two, indicating that someone was standing and eavesdropping on their conversation. Seeing nothing, he continued. “Humor me for a moment and tell me how I got here.”
“You mean how you arrived here,” Mary said, leaning back and raising an eyebrow at the man. She was probably the only well-educated servant here and would oftentimes correct Eric’s grammar or speech, telling him he needed to sound more noble if he ever wanted his business to succeed.
“Fine, how I arrived here, then, Lady Mary.” Eric addressed her formally, a slight riposte at her initial comment.
Mary looked at him, and her gaze went from playful to serious. “Yes, well, I guess you were injured and unconscious, but everyone thought you were with those Kesh from the start.”
“Let’s stick to my initial question—how did I
here?” Eric prompted. “Tell me as if I didn’t know.”
“A most unusual request, Eric, but if you insist—”
“I do,” Eric interrupted her.
“Fine.” Mary composed herself and smoothed her skirt down as it lay on the edge of the bed and flowed toward the floor. Eric knew this was a sign that she was nervous, though he feared to learn why. “The Kesh brought you to town three days ago. You were nearly dead, frostbitten, body broken, and delirious from a fever.”
“I had a fever?” Eric asked, not remembering this in the least.