The Dragon of Broken Tooth

Copyright Adam Fassanella 1999

 

 

The mother bear's nostrils flared, filled with the scent of the ugulus below. She sniffed, lifted her head, and slowly opened her eyes, one at first, then the other. The cave was warm from her body heat, and the smell comforted her cub, which slept soundly, wrapped in her hind legs. He stretched, snorted a high-pitched sniffle, and curled back into contentedness in the sea of black fur.

The ugulus below were short creatures, the tallest reaching the shoulders of a ten-year-old boy. Their height was not an accurate measure of their ferocity, however, and most forest creatures feared them. But not the bear; she smelled their passing, and had tasted their flesh on many occasions. Her mouth began to salivate as her eyes narrowed and she lifted her weight and crept out on to the ledge overlooking the path, only temporarily disturbing the sleeping cub. The ugulus were directly below, and their animal-senses had not detected the beast above. They carried short spears and wore only torn rags, remnants of human cloth stolen from a raid on a local Viking caravan.

Ugulus appeared to be a demonic mix of rabbit and wild boar. Their tawny ears were long and flat, and their noses piggish with wide mucus-filled nostrils. Their eyes were little more than black pearls set deep into stubbly, sloping foreheads. They relied mainly on their sense of smell, which did not serve them well as the bear's scent was above, and a breeze carried it away from them. The invisible tendrils of the bear's odor drifted upward and away, into the detection of another, larger hunter.

The black fur of the mountain bear straightened as her wide eyes focused on the hunting pack. They represented two things to her: prey and predator. Her instincts demanded that she both protect and feed her cub. Only by killing the ugulus could she accomplish both, so she waited until the fourth in line was directly below her. The line stopped, apparently because one of them heard something. Their short muscular bodies tensed, leveled their spears, little more than sharpened sticks, two with stone heads, one with a metal point lifted from a dead human, and looked around. They did not know of the cave above, and could not distinguish it through its concealing cover of tree roots and dangling vines from the outcropping above.

With no more sound than a housecat, the bear would have been upon them. Her thick teeth and long, dagger-like claws would have torn their flesh open like a child rips paper from a gift. With the odor of blood in her nose, she would have grown stronger, and killed at least four before they scampered away like the rabbits they resembled. But she did not.

The morning sky momentarily darkened, as if the twin suns were being eclipsed by two of the nine moons. A great fluttering of wind and an ear-splitting screech of nails on stone forced the ugulus to drop to their knees and cower in terror. One dropped his spear and bolted, running away like a frightened bunny.

The humanoid hares screamed. Their ears went back, plastered to their skulls, their noses scrunched into balls. Three fell flat, holding their heads in their arms, waiting for whatever demon descended upon them to strike, their hearts beating like a thousand hammers. But then the darkness lifted. There were more small gusts of wind, an ear-deafening throaty growl, a wet slashing and squishing of hot liquid, and then the sunlight returned.

One by one, the ugulus relaxed their tensed muscles and opened their eyes. They had not been slain, and the only one hurt was the coward who fled, who slipped on dewy grass and twisted his ankle. Leaves began to fall, gently flipping from side to side, coming to rest at their feet and in their long hair. The bear was gone.

Where once was a massive combination of power, speed, stealth, and ferocious beauty, there remained only a dripping splash of crimson, a tangle of scratches on the stone outcropping, and bits of black fur. With their beady eyes open wide, tensing at any snapping twig or common forest sound, the diminutive and dirty hunters reorganized themselves into a circle, looking at their tallest and strongest member. He picked up a bloody tuft of black fur. He moved it around in his stubby fingers, lifted it to his snout, and sniffed. He nodded, grunted, and said in the guttural growl of the ugulu tongue, "Bear ... other."

The rest looked about, especially upwards, wary of any second visit from the sky. Their hearts began to slow, and one ran in search of their whimpering companion, who was calling for help. The leader threw the fur to the ground, tightened his grip on his spear, and grinned. "Mother bear gone. Baby bear ... alone," he whispered, thrusting his spear towards the now obvious cavern not twelve paces above them.

They would return successful from their day's hunt. The bear cub would feed their nest of one hundred for a full day, and the tallest ugulus would wrestle for its pelt.

Luckily for them, dragons preferred bear meat over that of ugulu.

 

 

* * * * *

 

The excitement attracted quite a large crowd. Every man, woman, and child for five leagues came to see the flames and the prints. Goronox's farm was nothing but ashen blackness. He now stood with his wife and three children, retelling the story to his scared and amazed neighbors.

A great winged beast had descended from the sky. It landed on the thatched roof of his longbarn, which collapsed under the lizard's massive weight in a cloud of straw and wooden splinters. The farm workers fled, the animals bleated and tried to escape, and Goronox took his sword down from the fireplace mantle. The dragon breathed forth such blasts of flame, fire the likes few in Junderheim had ever seen, so hot and molten that even the stone tower of the main house went up.

The attack came without reason, and was the third in the area within a cycle of holy moondays. Few had seen the beast, but those who did described it as emerald green with body-length stripes of deep crimson. Its teeth were like white pearls, and glistened as if wet. The dragon's scales were large, with stringy lengths of hair around the edges. Its eyes were large, with small spikes lining the lids, with long, thin horns sprouting from joints and skull. Witnesses described it as muscular, long, and sleek without being serpentine, a tight coil of corded muscles and magnificent, bestial majesty.

One woman was driven to madness after seeing it, and sat in her daughter's house in silence, moving only when led, and speaking only in mumbles. Five other farms, friends and competitors of Goronox, sold their livestock for fractions of their worth, packed up their meager belongings, and boarded ships or wagons for refuge in other villages.

Goronox was an ex-soldier, and had served faithfully under the warlord Cahok, self-proclaimed but much-ignored warlord of southern Junderheim. Age had not tempered the old farmer's bravery, and even after his farm's destruction, in which he had lost almost his entire herd of three-horned cattle, he told the tale as if it were a defiant struggle against tyranny. The audience listened in silence and fear, and could do nothing as they gazed into the puddle-filled footprints of the monster.

Most in attendance were farmers, hunters, trappers, or fishermen. Some were skilled, a metalsmith, weaponcrafter, beekeeper, bootmaker, and the local brewer. A lance of ten cavalry scouts rode through, to investigate the smoke and destruction. The stories made their way to the keep of Kianis, the local magistrate who kept the locals in line for Warlord Cahok. The scouts came and went, promising to report to Kianis, rectify the damage, and kill the beast.

After they rode away, the village men grumbled in disgust how nothing would happen, and the dragon would go unchecked until every farm and village on the Southern peninsula was burned to the ground. They decided to meet at the Crossed Swordfish Inn and Tavern to drown their frustrations. They left as a group, leaving their women to take care of the homes. Goronox led the way, sword in hand, promising to buy the first round, despite having lost his herd, his home, his favorite horse, and his biggest wagon.

One man in the crowd, a stranger to the coastline village of Lowcliff, remained behind. He walked up to the footprint, put his foot on the muddy edge, and imagined that a jungle-cat could curl up and sleep in its depths. The print had four talon-marks, two in the front and a pair in back, forming a rough "X" in the mud. The stranger poked at the talon-holes with the toe of his boot, adjusted the leather pack on his shoulders, and walked past the black char of the burned farmhouse towards the crossed swordfish.

It began to rain, and soon the muddy footprints would melt away, and the smoldering ruins would dampen and begin to settle. Goronox's wife and children left in a cart for a neighbor's house, the youngest child weeping, wondering where her dog was.

 

 

* * * * *

 

The five men on horseback sauntered up to the stable at the Crossed Swordfish. Their horses were heavy black valley stallions, bred for cold weather and war. The warriors were adorned with the chain and leather armor of the regional cavalry. The man in front also sported the black and white striped cape of a high officer. They carried their fur-trimmed roundshields into the tavern with them, and drew deep breaths as the smell of smoke, men, and hot stew filled their nostrils, and the orange-red light of a large fire made their eyes dilate.

The officer, his gloved hand on his broadsword's hilt, ignored the silence that was caused by his men's presence. His heavy riding boots with painful-looking stirrups clacked on the wooden floor as he approached the bar. His men joined him, and he tossed four metal coins on the ancient slab of ongo-wood. The barkeep, a hairy monster of a man named Quanik, a friend to hundreds of men who lived, worked, or passed through Lowcliff, knew these men, and what they drank. No words were said, and five leather jacks of ale were dispensed from the large keg mounted behind the bar.

The thirty men sitting around the fire and previously gossiping about the dragon, and how they would hunt it down and eat it for weeks, sat in near silence. The two men playing lutes stopped dramatically - all eyes watched the officer, including those of several strangers, all of whom it was known were there as mercenaries. Where there was trouble, there were always swords for hire. Even in remote little Lowcliff.

The officer, a politically aware man, and yet lacking in intelligence, sipped at his drink with flair, enjoying the eyes that watched his every move. Even the hunting dogs, reluctantly let inside by Quanik, stopped licking themselves and the floor long enough to raise their ears in curiosity of the sudden silence. The drink was finished in one long swallow, the officer's prevalent neck rising and falling several times. He wiped his arm across his mouth, and put both his leather tankard and his square helmet on the bar with a loud thunk.

"I've come with word about the dragon."

This was not a surprise to any of them. The officer was Ahajik, the High Officer of Cahok's Lowcliff regional garrison. He was well known as a violent, ill-tempered soldier, accustomed to being taken care of and getting his own way in all things. What did surprise the common men of Lowcliff was the fact that Kianis would pay any attention to their plight whatsoever. Kianis was known as being even less concerned with the well being of the lives of poor peons. His only motive was wealth, feeding his rotund belly, and power over his subjects.

He had no real power, his employ under the Warlord Cahok being merely administrative in nature. All real decisions were officially to be made by Cahok himself from the capital city of Yulakas, but in practice, Kianis rarely troubled the unpredictable Viking chieftain with such small concerns as a few peasant farmers and woodsmen losing straw and mud huts and a few heads of cattle.

Ahajik pulled off his leather gauntlets, pulled a string of greasy black hair behind an ear, and continued speaking through jaggedly uneven teeth. "I have been instructed by my Lord Kianis to form a hunting party and kill this beast," he said, impressed with himself, awaiting the reaction. He was on stage, loving every second of the limelight, trying in vain to make his voice strong and noble. "His Lord is sympathetic to the needs of his people, and sent word immediately to Cahok's castle in Yulakas, where the Warlord himself ordered the beast to be slain."

The men began to mumble, making fists and promising blood, both of the dragon and the lying sack of cow-dung Kianis, whom they knew did not send word, but was merely trying to gain popularity for himself, and have a reason to tax them further. The mercenary swordsmen remained calm, waiting to see what the details might be. The more experienced of the strangers were not impressed with Ahajik's diatribe. One in particular, the mud of the dragon's print still wet on his boots, noticed the officer's true ignorance. Ahajik had removed his swordbelt and put it on the bar. And as he began to circulate among the villagers, he did so with his hands clasped behind his back. Both actions seriously hampered his chances of successfully warding off an attack.

Not that Ahajik had anything to fear in the Crossed Swordfish; the four men with him eyed the crowd suspiciously, weapons ready, one with a loaded crossbow. The stranger noted this and smirked to himself. It was the same the world over - loud-mouthed, pompous officers often relied on the strength of their underlings. True strength came from within, the stranger knew, not from behind.

"I have been given the quest to form this party as I see fit. It cannot be made of only my men, however, as the coastline villages need to be protected. Therefore, I can hire ten men, ten men from this tavern, tonight, if they have horses, arms, and armor."

Goronox, being the wealthiest of the farmers and the most recent victim of the dragon's fury, stood and held his viking longsword. "I'll be the first! I've a horse, this sword, and the strength to use it!"

The crowd gave a round of viking grunts and nodded heads, and someone shouted, "By Ragorum!" Two other longhaired, wide-bodied northmen stood, one holding a large and obviously well used battleaxe, the other a hunting longbow. These three walked to the bar to stand with Ahajik, and were given free drink from Quanik for their bravery. Ahajik nodded to these men, and asked, "I see before me at least thirty men, men of Junderheim, but only three will stand against this beast?"

A stranger, who wore archer's leathers and carried a longbow stood, "I will join you."

This man's announcement raised no voices, as he was not known, and therefore mistrusted. Another warrior, carrying a heavy barbed spear, a pair of Golarian gladiators, and a man who looked old and exposed to the elements, wearing ripped and patched boiled leather, but carrying a double-bladed battle-axe that was well oiled and wrapped in brown cloth, also stood, and walked to the front. A few of the farmers guessed that the last was a Ragorumite priest, or at least he carried the axe of one and walked like he was a true warrior.

Ahajik, surmising the line of men that had formed at the bar counted, turned back to the crowd and cried, "This is eight. I need two more."

Several men almost stood, and one who did was forced back down, he being drunk, horseless, and blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. This forced a few chortles, which stopped when a crackle of light burst forth from a dark corner of the tavern. One of the dogs barked, several drinks were dropped, a lute fell and its strings vibrated, and half the room breathed in or gasped in surprise.

A tall man, one arm lifted and holding a brilliant sphere of flickering red and green light, stepped forward. He was dressed in a thick gray travelling tunic, loose-fitting leggings, and wore a cowl of wolf's fur. He was impressive, especially so to the rabble of Lowcliff, a wizard by all impressions. "I will slay this beast for you. For the right price."

Ahajik, no longer sauntering about with pride, but rather standing ready to run, answered, "Sorcerer, or so you appear, you will be welcome, and you will be well paid."

Wizardry was not uncommon in Junderheim, as many came to the land of ice and snow to live in solitude. But few appeared as if by magic in small, weathered village taprooms. This one carried no weapons, save for a thick knife on his serpent-shaped belt. None doubted why.

"Perhaps with a man of magic nine will do. The rest of you, may Ragorum forgive you for your cowardice. Fear not, within a tenday the fiery fiend will be as dead as a dungworm."

The quiet stranger with mud on his boots stood as the party of dragon-hunters filed out of the tavern. He called out to Ahajik, "I'll be going with you."

The officer, content with his performance and selection, slowly turned to see the man who dared speak to him so informally. The stranger before him was not an impressive sight. He was of medium height, dented and scratched plate breastplate and one smooth plate shoulder guard, long brown hair tied back in an uneven tail, and dirty cloak and pants. Nothing more than a drifter, a swordsman with no purpose, no lord to serve and protect, and apparently no money, which indicated little or no success. Except for one detail: his broad sword glistened in its red fur-lined scabbard, its pommel long enough for either one or two-handed wielding, and its hilt-guard a beautifully wide crescent, in the shape of a flying dragon.

Ahajik snorted. "Why you? A wizard joins us, what can you add but another mouth to feed?"

The stranger lifted his satchel from the creaky table, slung it over his shoulder, and looked Ahajik in the eye. "I know where the dragon sleeps."

 

 

* * * * *

 

The fifteen dragon-slayers rode through the chilly night air to the lord's tower, where they could gather supplies, plan a course of travel and attack, and discuss terms of money with Kianis himself. The well-worn road, permanently divided by years of wagon travel, was empty of other travelers. Most merchants had stopped coming. Even the local wildlife seemed to sense the dragon's presence, and the night was ominously serene. Only three of the nine moons seemed immune to fear, and looked down upon them mockingly.

The farms they passed were small and poor, and the people who came out to watch were beaten and scared. Even the domestic beasts, which in other corners of Jundrheim were normally curious and loud, were skittish, thin and sometimes diseased. Kianis's tower was no exception - at least several hundred years old, it looked to be the only surviving part of a mighty castle from ages past, perhaps its gatehouse. It was small and squat, made of large, gray, cut stone and battlemented in several places. It consisted of one central square tower, with a smaller, rounded turret rising from its northwestern corner, and was surrounded by rubble and scrubgrass. During the day, the battleflag of the Warlord Cahok flapped in the breeze, but in the darkness of night it hung limp in shadow.

Several smaller buildings surrounded the tower, and lesser horsemen took the party's mounts. Ahajik led them inside, where they removed their cloaks, hats, and boots to warm their feet by the fire. Food was brought, and the men lay about comfortably in the soothingly warm room, which was decorated with heavy black iron metalwork and plain wooden furniture. There were no servants, but one of the tower's guards was a good cook, who had been told to prepare bread and stew.

The locals in the group ate without manners, secretly happy to be eating Kianis's food and sitting by his fire. The strangers sat without speaking, waiting patiently for their employer to arrive. The room soon grew hot, and armor, furs, and weapons were put to the side. The wizard, dispelling some of his impressive aura generated by the light show at the Crossed Swordfish, ate with much noise, and spat a distasteful bite into the fire. The Ragorumite priest held his axe, tilted back his chair, and proceeded to sharpen the blade. The last stranger to join the party looked at each man in the room in turn, and decided that two of them might be useful in the slaying of the beast. This dragon-hunter was experienced, and knew that normal weapons were of little use against such an armored monster.

Kianis arrived, wearing expensive silks from the Kartoo Archipelago, a feathered hat, and a small gentleman's sword at his ample waist. He greeted the adventurers with a wide smile showing his well-cared for teeth, a wide-armed hello flashing his eight rings, and promised the men they would be well rewarded for their bravery. Each man would receive 500 silver coins, food for the journey, and several days free stay at the tower upon their return. It was decided that the next day would be used to get ready, for practice, and the making of a plan of attack. The men slept soundly, all except the last, which kept one eye open, just in case. A lesson he had learned long ago the hard way, and sometimes limped for it in rainy weather.

One could never be sure when treachery would rear its ugly head, and Lord Kianis was definitely not as friendly as he appeared.

 

 

* * * * *

 

After the morning meal of leftover stew and hot bread, which was not at all bad for a lonely gray tower in Junderheim, the stranger was asked to meet with Captain Ahajik and Lord Kianis privately. He did so, but not until he had visited the latrine and donned his swordbelt. They met in Kianis's solarium, a far cry from a true castle's sunroom, almost devoid of the usual tapestries and finely crafted furnishings, but bright nonetheless. Kianis started in without a greeting.

"What is your name, stranger?"

The outsider scratched at his long hair and looked the small in power but large in girth lord in the eyes. "Halthazar."

"Ahajik has told me that you claim to know where the dragon's lair is located."

"I do."

"Do you have experience with dragons?"

"I have hunted more than a score, and been present for the slaying of fifteen."

This made the other two men open their eyes wide in amazement. "Fifteen! Outrageous! Pardon me, sir," said Kianis, "But I must doubt your claim! I must doubt that any man has actually seenfifteen dragons."

"I make it my living. I am the owner and proprietor of a prestigious business in Laesor, in the capital city of Riverkeep. I make and sell dragon armor and custom-made weapons of dragon bone."

Kianis, set aback by both Halthazar's high Laesoran accent and calm demeanor, sat down and drummed his fingers on his table. "I see. Very impressive. Next time I travel to Riverkeep I will visit your store."

Halthazar, without smiling, returned, "Do. I am always delighted to visit with a fellow world traveler." There was no mistaking the subtle sarcasm in his voice. He stood erect, waiting for more questions.

"You dress as if nothing more than a mercenary swordsman," Kianis said with a superiority in his tone that was almost comical.

"I find it makes travel easier if I simply do not worry about my appearance, and concern myself only with the efficiency of my gear. And besides, wealth can attract unwanted attention. I am sure you have encountered this?"

"Oh yes," said Kianis, lifting his head in an effort to be effete, "I completely agree. But tell me, how do you know where the dragon lives?"

Halthazar moved to the window. "What is the name of that mountain in the distance?"

Captain Ahajik, unimpressed with the gentlemanly banter, responded, "The locals call it the Broken Tooth on account that the top half was destroyed a hundred years ago." Indeed, the mountain looked jagged, and solitary, there being no others in sight. It was small by most standards, more of a tall, thin hill, but was no less imposing.

Halthazar raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "A volcano?"

"Yes," said Ahajik, with a gruff dog-like growl.

"Your beast lives there," said Halthazar, "Dragons, of almost all variety, not including the Swamp or Black Spined species, prefer to live higher than the land around them."

"Why?" asked Ahajik, still unimpressed.

"It's only logical ..."

"I asked you a question," interrupted Ahajik, the hostility in his voice challenging and demanding.

Halthazar, tiring of the needless explanation, shot him a bored look and answered, "They feel safer at high altitudes, find it easier to survey the landscape for enemies and prey, and are usually able to find a cavern in which to guard their hatchlings. Enough?"

Ahajik snorted and wiped his nose with the back of his arm. "Lord Kianis," he said, his voice showing his disdain for the smarter Halthazar, "Now that he has told us this, he need not accompany us! What good will he be? Beg your pardon, Lord, but we need warriors on this quest, not schoolboys."

Kianis fingered his beard, curious as to what the stranger would say in return.

Halthazar waited a few uncomfortable moments, then, "Indeed, I would be happy to raise my own party, funded by my coin to hunt down this beast, but I would prefer not to be troubled with repeating the work you have already done. Furthermore, I will join for no coin. I only want select pieces of the dragon's carcass, namely the internal organs, armor, bones, and horns. The flesh can be sold or kept as meat. Also, I may have with me the only weapon that can actually puncture the beast's armor. I would be happy to demonstrate it for you, and if your Captain needs more proof of my mettle, perhaps a friendly duel..."

Ahajik fingered the pommel of his sword, his blood growing higher in temperature as the stranger in front of him refused to acknowledge his station. "A wonderful suggestion..."

"No, no," said Kianis, smart enough to see who the victor would be. "But I would like to see this weapon."

"It is in my saddlebags, I'll fetch it. Perhaps, Lord Kianis, as I am sure your Captain has already suggested, we should have the men join us, so that they can show us why they are suited for this task. It is, after all, best to know everyone's capabilities beforehand, is it not?"

Kianis raised an eyebrow, "I agree. But no, my Captain had not recommended this."

Ahajik tried to interrupt, to save face, but was not fast enough as Halthazar continued. "Have you a guide that knows the trek to this...Broken Tooth?"

Ahajik was able to gain some of his pride back, "Yes, an old hunter named Kedgepot. He will take us. It is about five days ride."

"I suggest," said Halthazar, "That we prepare today and leave at first light tomorrow. The dragon is well fed, and therefore will be sleeping for at least a tenday. Perhaps we can catch her in slumber."

The Suns had risen further during the conversation, and the room was bright with yellow light. The rays glanced off the metal in the room, the handle of Halthazar's sword being the shiniest. Ahajik noticed its gleam, and was instantly envious of such a finely crafted weapon. His own sword was well enough made, with northern steel and basic, plain construction, but was obviously inferior.

The three men made there way outside to summon the others for a martial demonstration. At the doorway, Halthazar smiled at Ahajik and waved for him to pass first. The Captain frowned, and strode briskly past the man he secretly wanted to gut from neck to navel, and promised himself that he would at the earliest opportunity.

 

 

* * * * *

 

The pair of Golarian gladiators went first. They were both small, sleek fighters, with the same bushy black hair and tanned skin. The southern natives seemed out of place in the land of white-skinned northerners. One fought with paired warhammers, each wrapped in thick leather to protect their hafts, the other with a short-staved trident with fat, menacing harpoon-like points. They demonstrated their skill by flipping and twisting their weapons about in a whirl of speed and curving strikes and blocks. Their weapon "Dances," as they were called in the hot southern lands, roused some nodding heads of the cavalrymen and the mercenaries. They did not, however, impress the northern vikings - Goronox and his two fellow villagers scoffed and kicked dirt. To them, true ability was shown not in dancing, but in war.

Kianis, quite taken with the worldly persona and flavor of Halthazar, nodded his head several times and motioned, palm up, towards them for his approval. Halthazar remained unmoved, but threw his apple core to the side. He watched as each warrior in turn flexed, swung, blocked, and growled, and all appeared well trained and deadly. Both the mercenary and viking longbowman were dead shots, one practiced in hunting forest animals for food and fur, the other at targeting people for bounty.

The wizard, who more and more showed he was not the typical academic sagely sorcerer, called himself Argan. He was prone to sudden guffaws and fits of knee slapping whenever something even remotely humorous arose. More a mountain man than an intellectual thautmaturge, Argan demonstrated his worth by standing in the center of the adventurers, removing his shirt, flexing his large trunk, and magically forcing more than a score of foot-long curved blades to sprout from the hairy skin on his chest, neck, arms, and waist. He resembled a large thorny rose stem. The shiny blades retreated several heartbeats later, and Argan, whose skin looked no worse for wear, walked back to Ragorumite priest who held his clothes. The others were mesmerized, and were snapped out of their amazement as the priest took his turn.

His faith was never questioned, nor his ability when he muttered several words, made his axe glow a bright orange, swung in the direction of a large rock, which then exploded in a small shower of pebbles, dirt, and dust. The hired warrior who wielded the barbed spear was closest, and was knocked over by the forceful wave of the detonation.

Kianis applauded, praised Ragorum, and asked Halthazar what he thought. The dragon-hunter was not impressed. He ordered a plate breastplate and a chain shirt be brought forth for a demonstration. He explained that a dragon's scales were as tough as this armor, and if these men had any hopes at all of even injuring it, they needed to be able to break through.

Only three could. The warhammers, the barbed spear, Goronox's sword, most of the cavalrymen, and the trident could not. The Priest's axe, the wizard's magical blades, and Ahajik's hate-filled stab summoned the strength. The bowmen's arrows bounced away harmlessly, and the viking axeman severely dented the armor, but did not break through.

Halthazar had the cavalrymen swing dinner plates on a rope from a tree limb, so the archers could practice, explaining that their only targets would be the dragon's eyes. For the others, he said that the teeth and mouth, talons, horns, anus, and nose were weak spots.

"What about you?" asked Ahajik, with scorn laced in his words. "What is your weapon you spoke so highly of?"

Halthazar brought forth a large bundle from his horse. It turned out to be a massive crossbow, a weapon he called a "windlass", that needed to be cranked to be loaded, and shot a bolt the length of man's leg. It was equipped with a set of three posts, so it could be leveled for firing. It was not quite a ballista, and could be fired while holding it, but any larger and it would have needed a wheeled base.

It took him as long to piece the weapon together as it takes a trained rider to saddle a horse. He asked one of the men to fasten the plate breastplate and chainmail to the swinging dinner plate. He loaded the weapon, lifted it to his shoulder, and pulled on the release lever. The bolt zipped out, struck the target as it swung past, ripped through it with a metallic clank, and stuck fast to the tree with the plate, chain, and wooden dinner plate halfway down its length, vibrating in the morning air.

Ahajik was impressed, but was not willing to let it show. His anger only grew with jealousy, and he imagined rippingv the stranger's lungs from his chest. He ordered his men to prepare their horses and pack their gear. Then he disappeared for the rest of the day. The rest, completely willing to cede control of all strategic planning to Halthazar, which he set about to do, sparred, ate, and prepared their own gear. And all got a full night's sleep.

As did the dragon, five days to the North.

 

 

* * * * *

 

Kedgepot the mountain scout arrived later in the day. A short man with two missing fingers on his left hand, Kedgepot exuded orneriness. He had seen at least sixty summers, even older than Goronox, who knew the scout and apparently traded with him occasionally, food for furs or lodging for forest herbs. The scout was not pleased about accompanying the group to slay a dragon, and while he did not openly refuse, he complained incessantly about being "drafted."

He rode a small mountain pony, an animal built for sureness of foot, not speed or strength as the rest, who were mounted on war-horses or at least stout riding mountain steeds. Kedgepot was dressed in loose fitting brown leathers, a wolfskin hood, and carried no weapons save for a shortbow and a utility knife for stripping fur. He appeared somewhat deranged to Halthazar, because of his constant rambling, quiet mumblings, and frog-like bulbous eyes. Halthazar liked him however, as he appreciated the man's experience and familiarity with the region they were about to enter.

The party left at first light. Halthazar had not seen Ahajik all night, but in the morning did hear him through the door of his small private chamber, apparently beating a woman. Were he not in a foreign land, amidst such questionable company, he might have burst in and offered assistance to the poor village girl, who no doubt was in such poverty she had no choice but to resort to prostitution. The dragon-hunter also saw the cavalry Captain entering Lord Kianis's solarium, laughing within at some private joke, and then leaving with a smile on his ugly face.

Kianis bid them luck, the priest, who would simply be called "Priest" by his companions, begged Ragorum to bless their holy quest, and they were off, with Kedgepot, the slowest rider of them all, in the front. The day was chilly, as the final days of Winter clutched for life at the last remnants of cold. By Sunsheight, the time of day when both suns were highest in the sky, the air would become warmer, and the light woods would transform into dense pine forest.

The gray-haired and very cantankerous Kedgepot educated Halthazar on the ecology of the region, although every fact had to be pried from the man's ancient lips. When the Broken Tooth erupted a century earlier, miners had come to reap the wealth of minerals and precious metal that came to settle on the surface. A small town was even erected, but soon after, when the miners and excavators found that the wealth was finely spread out over a very thin layer, and several volatile tribes of orcs had moved in, the town perished, the miners moved away, and the mountain became barren. The cavalry scouts no longer traversed the area, ugulus and orcs fought constantly with one another, and since it was nowhere near a major trade route, none dared brave it.

"Has there ever been a dragon nearby before?" asked Halthazar, a bit annoyed at the guide's reluctance to share.

"Unngh," he replied, scratching his grizzled beard and furrowing his brow. "Not since before the Tooth Broke, before my grandfather's time."

"How often do you hunt that far out?"

"Never counted."

"What kind of obstacles can we expect?"

"Depends on what you mean."

Halthazar rolled his eyes and smoothed his thin moustache. "What of the forest? Wyvern? Strangleweed? Poisonwort? Orcs?"

"Aye. And more. But the way I'm takin' ya, you'll be safe."

"And will you be attacking the dragon with us, or will you remain safely hidden and then lead the victors home?" he asked, hoping to elicit a smile, or at least a nod.

Kedgepot hawked and spat, then shoved a swollen-knuckled finger into his right nostril. "I'll take your sorry group to the Broken Tooth, but there won't be any reason for me to stay."

"And why is that?" asked Argan, the wizard having been riding just behind, and listening intently.

"There won't be none left to guide home."

Argan smiled, then belly-laughed out loud. The rest of the group within earshot smiled as well, not entirely willing to let the truth of his statements show on their faces. Halthazar gently jabbed his bootheels into his horse's side, and kicked up the reigns.

As he trotted forward, to check ahead as he heard rushing water, he said loudly, "Just you make sure that you wait until you know we're dead, old man, for if you don't, our spirits will haunt your dreams."

Kedgepot grumbled, spat again, and then scratched at bug bite the size of a large coin.

 

 

* * * * *

 

The quest had begun energetically, with the sixteen adventurers excited, energetic, and with the promise of silver and glory. No doubt all would be deemed heroes when they slew the dragon, and bards would sing epic poems the world round.

But by the first evening, their spirits had darkened to the point of fear. The forest had lost its splendor, and had become a dark labyrinth of twisted trees and stunted undergrowth. The shadows hid movement around every bush, and eyes peeked around every rock. Wolves howled and the wind blew haunting melodies of ghosts and monsters. All save Kedgepot had at least once been spooked, and had jumped in their saddle or turned around suddenly. The old scout merely chewed his dried pork noisily, and grumbled every time one of his followers flinched.

They had passed over three streams and a small river, over an ancient stone bridge and under a natural stone arch. They appeared to be on a crude and ancient hunting trail, replete with low hanging branches that slapped their faces. By the time they reached a fallen tree, Kedgepot's chosen campsight, they were exhausted, fearful, and sick of one another's company.

And they had four more days to go. Their fire was unduly large, despite Kedgepot's insistence that it be kept small. The viking axeman had terrible gas, the Priest talked in his sleep in some foreign tongue, and Ahajik screamed and yelled every time one of the men slept while on watch. They woke sore, hungry, and cold.

The second day brought them to a great plain, which relieved their anxiety. They were able to spread out a bit, and ride in several rows instead of single file. Argan the sorcerer approached Halthazar. He and the priest were Halthazar's only hope of combating the dragon - the rest were fodder, like so many others had been in the past. He did not feel guilty about this. He had, after all, warned them, and they were grown men, able to choose their own fate.

"Ahajik says you know something about the dragon."

"A bit. Green mountain species, female, at least forty years old, and she probably has four or five eggs."

Argan raised his eyebrows and sat aback in his saddle. He shook his face and blew his breath through puffed out cheeks. "My good man, how do you know so much? Have you seen this beast?"

"No," answered Halthazar, glad to be speaking to a man with some respect for knowledge. "I saw its prints."

"You were able to tell me all that from a track?"

"Yes. Green Mountain Dragon tracks are easily identifiable - it is a zygodactyll."

"Two appendages in front and two in back? Like a parrot?"

"Yes."

"And how do you know it is female?"

"The prints were smaller than the male, and had a slightly smaller talon imprint. I deduced it is full grown because it was described to me as having breathed fire - an ability only adults possess."

"I am impressed, my new friend. But I pray you, how do you know it has young?"

"When a dragon lays her eggs, she always searches for a new nest - in case the old is unsafe. And this maternal instinct is the only force strong enough to impel an adult dragon to find a new habitat. This particular dragon," explained Halthazar, looking ahead, speaking as if to a student, "is new to the region, and therefore must have laid eggs recently."

There was a momentary pause during which they watched Ahajik slap one of his men across the face for dozing in the saddle. Argan turned back to his companion and said, "Halthazar, Ahajik will be very angry if you are wrong, and the dragon is blazing down Lord Kianis's tower as we speak."

They both shared a smile, and then the wizard continued. "Our fearless captain says that you seek no monetary reward for your bravery - only the carcass. The bones, scales, and horns I can understand, but why the organs?"

"Did they teach you nothing in the school of wizards?" asked Halthazar, smirking slyly. "I seek the beast's dragonfire glands. Large sacs in its lower neck that produce an acid that ignites upon contact with air. With it intact, I can make a most powerful explosive device."

"Ah," laughed Argan, "That I did learn about. The Munkiri Empire used such organs to create their dreaded keg bombs in the War of Six Storms."

"Aye - to much success."

"How can you remove these sacs without exposing their cargo to air?"

"I'm not about to give away all my secrets. I'm sure you safeguard your spells."

"That I do," said the wizard, leaning back, his bearded face grinning from ear to ear. He shuffled his furs and looked out at what seemed to be the endless plain. "Where and how did you learn your skills?"

"After a lifetime of learning."

"Who taught you?"

Their eyes met, and Halthazar spoke, "If I tell you," he said, stretching his tunic out around his shoulders, "you might change your opinions of me."

"Try me."

"My grandfather hunted dragons for the Munkiri. He taught my father, and he taught me."

The Munkiri had killed hundreds of thousands mercilessly, using evil magic and ancient weapons. But Argan shook his head. "That war has been over for sixty-five years and the Munkiri abolished. I'll not judge you because of who your grandfather was."

"Thank you. But alas, many do."

"Is it true that you have killed fifteen dragons?"

"No. I've helped slay more than twenty. I deceived Kianis lest he think I was lying."

Again they laughed, and then stopped as in the distance a storm cloud was forming, and a bolt of lightning struck, menacingly close to the Broken Tooth.

 

 

* * * * *

 

The third night they reached an even deeper forest than before, the weather was colder than they had yet felt, and they were still wet from the storm. The extra saddle blankets were unfurled, and the fire was again too large for Kedgepot's liking. Ahajik had grown even more ill tempered, and snapped at every comment, question, or story told by a comrade. Partly because they needed it to ward off fear, they talked of past adventures, and found the mercenaries allowed their tongues to relax.

Amid the nighttime noises of the forest, a wolf was spotted in the trees, and Kedgepot became a bit unsettled, knowing that they had entered a wilderness that had not seen humans in several score years.

"Wolves!" said the gladiator trident wielder. "We eat them in the southern deserts of Sarg. Delicious."

Goronox made a bitter face. "That's no better than eating a dog! What else do you eat?"

"In my youth, whatever I could steal."

Ahajik, laying down, snorted. "A thief. Ha."

"In my youth," replied the hardened pit-fighter. "Now I can earn fifty coins a night in any tavern contest of arms."

"If that is so, why do you spend your time with us, wet and in the woods, instead of living in the lap of luxury that you claim?" asked Ahajik, sounding no better than a childish brat.

The gladiators both rose and the wielder of warhammers spoke, his deep voice calming in the loud forest. "We came to Junderheim to fight in the ceremonial pits but found that there were no suitable opponents. We are here to raise the coin for passage home."

Ahajik snorted, and removed a waterskin from his bundle. He removed the stopper and slugged a long, messy drink. "Humph. I'd wager it is because you both stole something, and are on the run from those you stole it from. Either that, or you were disgraced in the pits for losing and this was the only employment you could find."

The taller of the two, the one whose fist tightened on his trident, drew a small, slender dagger, flicked his arm in front of him, and the knife, now a flash of metal, flew out and over the fire. It sank into Ahajik's water bag, popping it. The knife rested in the leather sac, the hilt-guard preventing it from going in fully, and the water sloshed out onto Ahajik's leggings and boots.

Ahajik's mouth contorted into a grimace, and slipped the dagger free. He walked to the pair of tall southerners. He dropped the blade at the man's feet. "A pitiful weapon small and weak. Just right for a thief."

Both gladiators stepped forward, making the five riders under Ahajik take notice and stand also.

The priest shouted for them to be still. "Save your hostility for the dragon."

Ahajik grinned and turned, dropping his empty waterskin into the blazing fire. "Do you know what I do to thieves when my men catch them?"

None replied. Ahajik turned to all, again basking in the glow of attention. The flickering fire made him seem larger than life, although most suspected that he was really a very small man. "I caught a boy, not yet twelve summers, stealing chickens from a farm. I mounted my horse, and gave the lad a head start. I counted to fifty, watching him flee into the tall grass around his Lordship's tower, and then I rode him down. He gave me a moving target for my sword."

Goronox asked, "You killed him? Just for stealing a chicken?"

"I ran him through like the dog he was."

None said a word, and Goronox played with a stick in the fire, looking angered. The rest of the evening was quiet. The atmosphere had suddenly changed from camaraderie to thick distaste.

Many considered initiating a conversation with the others, one that involved the death of Ahajik. But none acted upon their desires, for despite his ignorance, foul-temper, and arrogance, the braggart had authority over them. So instead of citing rebellion, they went to their spots about the fire.

And all were kept awake by Kedgepot's snoring.

In the morning, the priest, who was on watch until Sunsrise, was not at his post. His horse was there, tethered with the rest, but his body was gone.

The party arose quickly, wondering where he had gone. Kedgepot, with panic in his voice, called for them to join him on the far side of a rock. It was coated, as if painted, with drying blood. A crimson-filled boot with a jaggedly torn-off foot rested on the ground, and the warrior-priest's axe lay in the leaves. The blades were clean.

Ahajik ordered a search, but Kedgepot could only snicker. "No use. He's dead and eaten."

"Was it the dragon?" asked the spear-wielder, crouching to examine the boot.

"No."

"How do you know," asked the mercenary, now holding the boot.

Halthazar answered for him. "Look above you."

All did, and saw nothing. Goronox asked, "What are we looking for?"

"Do you see any broken limbs? Torn bark, or a mass of leaves? Whatever made away with the priest's body was on the ground. Dragons attack from above. Always."

The only sound was an annoying crow, which screamed at them to leave. The mercenary threw the boot at the bird, then shuffled away. Goronox took the priest's axe, held it in disbelief, and then sank it into a tree. He made the crossed arms of Ragorum, and looked Halthazar in the eyes.

"Can you kill this dragon?"

Halthazar saw the desperation in the old farmer's eyes. To a viking, a dead Ragorumite priest was severe bad-luck. "Yes. But not by myself."

Ahajik commanded them to mount up and be on their way. The scene was too bloody to remain, and whatever mysterious monster killed the priest might return. Although they had not known him, his presence had made them feel safe. The vikings saw it as an omen of bad things to come that perhaps the god Ragorum did not want this quest to succeed. The longbowman friend of Goronox suggested they go home.

Halthazar was reminded why he did not hunt dragons alone.

 

 

* * * * *

 

The morning of the fifth day, just as the band was waking, emptying their bowels, and buckling on armor, they spotted a pack of twenty ugulus. Kedgepot sighted them on the other side of a small stream, heading towards them.

He screamed for them to assemble, get on their horses, and flee. An encounter with the diminutive goblins was foolhardy, as even though they would probably have emerged victorious in combat, one or more of them may have been killed or wounded, and would then be useless in battling the dragon. The party abandoned the fire and their extra blankets, and rode away without being completely dressed.

They galloped in earnest, hoping to get far enough away that the ugulus would decide not to follow. Their hasty retreat left an easily read trail, but they soon emerged from the woods into a rocky field, and before them lay the first slopes of the Broken Tooth. The rabbit-like trolls had not followed, but no doubt took all the blankets, a quiver of arrows left behind, and the carcass of the two hedgehogs the viking archer had slain for the evening meal. Quite a catch for the ugulus, who were no doubt fighting for ownership of the human-made goods.

The slope was not steep, and so the horses were able to ascend the hard-packed dirt trail that led up and around the mountainside. A few small trees littered the way, as well as many large boulders. Kedgepot brought them to an area of deeper woods, said they would have to tie the horses there, and went further upwards on foot. The horses were hobbled and tied, Kedgepot convincing them that the ugulus would not approach the gloomy mountain, not even to steal or eat defenseless horses.

The path entered a grotto of denser undergrowth and short, bushy Myli trees. It was a brisk morning, and with the approaching danger the men's bodies became stubbled with gooseflesh. They reached a break in the trees, and Kedgepot stopped. "Unngh ... this is as far as I take you."

"What's through there?" asked Ahajik, drawing his sword and tightening his breastplate.

"Your deaths."

All looked at him unappreciatively. "The Mountain's only real cave is beyond that large boulder," he added with a spit.

Everyone looked at one another, and emerged from the trees, to find themselves staring at the barren rocky face of the Broken Tooth. Some residual snow lay in a white blanket at its summit, and enormous rocks littered the area like some giant baby's building blocks. The mountain was small, and the men could have easily climbed it without gear or ropes. It was a lonely, jagged, and pitiful mount, with several fang-like protrusions near the top. Only at the peak did the slope become treacherous, and even then was tame compared to the Ogre Mountains of Laesor, The Mountains of Moch in Golaria, or the chain of volcanic islands known as Munkir's spine.

Weapons were drawn and armor tightened. The priest was not available, so Goronox, the oldest of the men, said a short prayer for their safe return. They made their way up the slope, occasionally stooping to help themselves up by grabbing a rock or tree root. As they made their way around the massive boulder, easily as large as a small castle, they heard the trickle of running water.

Ahajik, taking command and showing his courage, would not allow anyone to go forward without having his men scout the area first. Halthazar, who knew that the dragon was most likely snoring away deep inside the cavern, took the time to assemble his windlass and secure a bolt into its strings. He took a deep breath, let it go noisily, then listened as Ahajik explained that there was a very shallow, small pond under the cave opening, which resembled a mouth, replete with teeth of limestone and a layer of lichen. There was a steady stream of fresh water coming out the mouth, which fell five paces into the pond, which then ran down the opposite side of the mountain.

There was no sign of the dragon.

Halthazar, upon his own investigation, found otherwise. There were many scratches on the stone, a stinking pile of dragon dung, dragon urine stains on the cliff face, and even a perfectly preserved print in the mud of the pond. The dragon was definitely here.

The cave mouth was five paces above them, so they had to step up stones like stairs to reach it. One man slipped, and splashed into the pond. He was scorned, and they waited to see if anything moved from within. Their nerves began to fray, but none ran.

No sound was heard, so they ventured forth, careful not to scrape armor, kick loose pebbles, or breathe too noisily. It was dark within, far too dark to see, so Argan cast a spell of light on three of the men's weapons, a warhammer, the barbed spear, and one of the cavalrymen's swords. The illumination was of a purplish hue, and did not flicker so the light was constant and even. They wrapped their glowing weapons in their tunics so as not to give themselves away, but the residual light was enough so they could at least see where they were going.

The stream was centered along the path, and it was difficult not to step in it. The path went in for less than fifty paces before it opened up into a large cavern. The party crammed together before entering. Halthazar tried to see, but it was still too dark. He asked the gladiator to throw his warhammer inside. He did, and it landed on gravel. The light it gave off, now unwrapped, showed them a beautiful oval-shaped, crystal-coated room of stygian appearance. A small spring bubbled up water in the northern half, and a large pile of gravel made up the floor of the rest. The ceiling was encrusted with rocks, crystals, and lichen.

There was no sign of the dragon, but it smelled within of rotting meat.

They entered slowly, one at a time, archers staying behind to cover them. After several seconds of looking around, Ahajik relaxed, let down his guard, and shouted, "Where is the bloody thing?"

"Where are its eggs?" asked another.

Halthazar said nothing, perplexed. Everything he knew about dragons told him that this was the lair, that this was perfect, and that she should still be sleeping.

"Maybe it's hunting," said Argan, in a soft whisper.

Halthazar moved back to the opening of the cavern. He set down his windlass and removed his tunic, as it was hot inside. Ahajik kicked at the water of the spring, and picked up a rock. He threw it against the cavern wall, cursing them for fools.

"Do you mean to tell me we have to wait for it to come back?"

No one answered. They looked at Halthazar for answers, and would soon grow impatient. One man grunted and sat down, apparently to light a pipe.

The men's mumbling began to echo around the cavern, creating a confusing jumble of metallic banging, coughing, and cursing. None looked up.

The rock wall above the viking axeman moved.

None saw it at first. As if ancient, gothic cathedral doors were being opened, the dragon's wings pulled away from the wall. Halthazar caught the movement in his peripheral vision, and screamed, but it was too late. The dragon had been on the wall the entire time, holding on with her talons. Her body had changed color to look like the wall itself, and now turned green, and then red, with anger. The wings parted to reveal, a long, thin body, bristling with horns and claws. Her skin was of a rocky texture, adding to the illusion that she was the wall itself.

It let go of the wall, fell fifteen paces, and landed on the viking axeman. He disappeared from sight completely, dead before he even felt the weight.

The muffled thunderclap reverberated off the cavern walls. Its intensity turned all heads, and Goronox was knocked over by the force of the impact.

Each and every heart within stopped, and the dragon began to make an ungodly gurgling noise.

It's neck swelled and arched into an "S" curve, the skin on its nose wrinkled to show its teeth, and the beast dug its talons into the gravel.

The dragon began to inhale.

 

 

* * * * *

 

None had time to react, save for a bowman, who launched his arrow at the monster. It zipped through the stale air of the cave, only to bounce away from the dragon's chest. The beast seemed not to notice, and kept breathing in. Several men had leapt into the water, and one, who was behind the dragon, dropped his weapon in terror and closed his eyes as he clung to the stone, hoping he would go unseen.

The dragon's curved neck uncoiled. As it leveled to a horizontal position the bear-trap set of jaws opened to reveal not a shadowy, slick maw of teeth, but one of pure fire. Not the pretty flickering flames of a campfire, but the roaring, white-hot incineration of a sun. The blast lasted only one heartbeat, but the fireball, which immediately turned to a bright orange and yellow, hit the longbowman in the chest. His body was sent backwards as if launched by a catapult. His burning corpse hit the far wall, stuck for a split second, then trailed down into the spring where it hissed and bubbled underwater.

Behind her, on the wall where she had been hiding, lay a smaller, open cavern where several eggs could be seen. But none cared, for the beast swiveled and stood ready to attack. She kicked one leg back and crushed the man behind her, whose leather armor was nothing against her strength. His ribcage snapped like dry twigs under an avalanche of boulders. With smoke streaming out between her nostrils, she looked from man to man, sensing that she had them panicked.

Ahajik roared for his men to attack. They charged, and were joined by Goronox and the surviving mercenaries. Halthazar lifted his windlass. Argan stood waist deep in the spring and lifted his arms. His fingertips began to glow and the water around him vibrated with concentric rings as if a stone had been thrown in. The cavern was bedlam, the magical purple light emanating from the warhammer making everything look unreal.

As Halthazar leveled his massive bow to be fired, the dragon's tail spun about with unexpected speed. Half the charging men were struck and whipped like a child's tenpins. Of those who charged the beast, three reached her: Ahajik, Goronox, and the gladiator with the trident. All swung, two with screams. But none of the weapons were able to break through the thick hide. The trident's haft snapped like a broom handle, and Ahajik slipped and fell on loose gravel.

Halthazar pulled on the launching lever. The bolt zipped forth, and with an audible spank sank into the dragon's shoulder. Not a deep wound, or in a vital area where he had hoped, but enough to make her recoil onto her two hind legs. Unfortunately, the sudden movement removed its head from the flight path of Argan's magically created bolt of lightning, which instead of blinding the beast across the eyes, sliced an electrical jagged line of damage across the chest, where the plates of its hide were thickest.

The wound hurt, and the dragon was punched back into the wall. The vibrations of her impact forced one of the eggs to fall. The leathery sac flopped onto the cavern floor and split; a half-formed baby-dragon sloshed out onto the stones, spilling out mucus that gleamed in the magical light. As the men recoiled, one wounded beyond repair by a spike on the monster's tail, she noticed her egg, and growled.

Halthazar had seen berserk dragons before. Both times had ended in utter failure for his party, and one time he had been the only survivor. He cranked with desperate speed trying to reload his weapon. Argan began to recast his spell, and the men who were closest swung time and again, trying to wound the beast. It was a full ten heartbeats before she howled in agony, a pain not of flesh but of maternal instincts. She snapped at the closest warrior, the warhammer-gladiator, caught his wriggling body in her teeth, and flung his broken torso against another man, who rolled on the gravel, and lay still, apparently unconscious.

The dragon was again wounded, this time by the barbed spear, which miraculously punctured the thick hide. The dragon bellowed and jerked away, taking the weapon with it. It turned to face the man who wounded it, and presented its back to the mage and dragonslayer. The second windlass bolt was launched and struck the beast in the back. The bolt stuck, but did little else than give her a reason to flinch and growl again. The second bolt of lightning lit up the room with a flash and lanced against the back of the dragon's head. It forced the head against the wall, making several small stones fall to the floor, and scraped its horns in an agonizing screech. It shrieked with a voice of some prehistoric winged dinosaur, and flew into a rage.

And as Halthazar knew all too well, a dragon's rage was one of the deadliest forces in nature, and possibly the most terrifying.

 

 

* * * * *

 

None of the battle could be heard outside the cave, and so Kedgepot did not know what transpired within. Another egg had fallen, and the fury of the dragon grew tenfold. With the corded muscles of the beast's arms and legs, spikes of its tail, and dagger-like fangs, the monster hissed and spit, drew blood and killed. Three more of the band died, one with a talon through the heart, the other two in a gust of flame that shot them down the tunnel like flaming catapult missiles. One of which was the other longbowmen, who had in part been responsible for wounding the monster. One of his shafts had found the mouth of the beast, and wounded its tongue and gums. But not enough, and with his fiery death, and that of the other bowmen, Halthazar was left with the only ranged weapon. Save Argan, who stood, uttering a more powerful incantation.

The mother dragon recoiled her neck again, taking in a deeper, longer breath. Halthazar knew what this was. It would not be a fireball, no, it would be far worse. A long, steady stream of hellfire would pour forth. The flame would reach to all corners of the cave, and would have the diameter of a large tree. It would take another few heartbeats for the dragon to complete its inhalation, giving him and the mage another moment to act.

One of Ahajik's men thrust his spear into the dragon's leg. It bit through the scales, and forced the beast to lift the leg in pain. The shaft snapped, and the man was caught off guard by his broken weapon. He tried to back away, but was impaled by a tail-spike. The dragon once again opened her maw. She did not exhale towards Ahajik, who ran at the monster again, nor at Goronox, who stabbed his sword into the dragon's ribs, but at Argan. The dragon knew who the real threat was, and sought to annihilate him. The mages eyes were closed, and his spell was almost ready.

But it would not be cast soon enough, and the dragonfire would immolate his body. Halthazar dropped his loaded windlass and hurled himself at the wizard. They collided, and hit the water together with a sloppy, mouth-filling splash, and were submerged as the spire of flame tore across the spring and filled the cave like the inside of an oven. Safely under the water, they could both see the orange and red light turn the room above them from night to day.

The flames continued, filling the men's nostrils with smoke and the putrid stink of acid. The flames gushed forth, howling in ravenous fury. The flames lurched in direction, and headed for Ahajik. The cavalryman saw it coming, stopped his charge, and backed away towards the tunnel. Another of his men was caught in the path, as well as the unconscious mercenary, and both were sent up in flame. Few men were left standing, Ahajik, Goronox, three of Ahajik's men, and one of the mercenaries. Halthazar and Argan came to the surface and gasped for breath, thrashing about wildly. Tackling the mage, while saving his life, had cancelled the spell, and caused him much mental pain. The energies that should have flown out of his body circulated within, and made his heart quicken and his head spin.

The dragon stopped, stood stock-still with tendrils of smoke emanating from its open mouth. It looked to be made of stone. A new kind of aura surrounded the battle; where once was pure chaos, and a slight upper hand in attacking the monster, there was now a thick atmosphere of panic, of instinctual life-preservation. Ahajik and his men began running for the tunnel. Goronox began to wade out into the pool, and the mage and Halthazar scampered for the loaded windlass. With her enemies running away in all directions, the dragon thrashed and bit at them with a confused happiness. She knew they were afraid, she sensed their fear, and could not make up her mind which one to slay first. She settled on Goronox, and stamped over to the pool where he was fleeing to and forced his body under the water with a quick step. She held his squirming body there for several moments as she turned to intake air for what might have been a final exhalation.

The tunnel was littered with limestone protrusions, and Ahajik and his men jumped behind them for cover as the gout of flame headed their way. It had centered on the mage and Halthazar first, but Argan had quickly cast a spell of protection, and the pair of slayers went unburned. The glassy dome that surrounded them was strong enough to have the hissing flames bounce away harmlessly. One of the cavalrymen was not so lucky; he was blown backwards while still running, and rolled about on the floor in flames, screaming and begging for help.

The dragon itself was severely wounded. With almost a dozen small cuts and stabs she was bleeding profusely. This seemed only to anger her, but Halthazar knew that soon she would flee for her own safety. If that happened, they would not find her until she had healed. He aimed the loaded weapon and told the mage to cancel his spell.

The dragon had begun marching with its reptilian gait towards the tunnel, resembling a graceful alligator storming a family of hapless ducks. Ahajik and his men would not have been able to escape, their human feet being too slow. Halthazar watched as the bluish-green orb of magic flickered away, and then pulled.

The bolt sped and hit the beast in the ribs. It sank deep, and caused such a roar that all went momentarily deaf. The dragon rolled to its side and kicked out in vain and the ground shook from her throes. She lunged upwards, colliding with the ceiling, and fell again to the floor, sending quakes through the ground that would have made lesser men wet their trousers. She landed on all fours, and charged at Halthazar, her obsidian eyes like hypnotic black pearls. He scampered for another bolt, but in his rushed attempt they spilled and he slipped.

The dragon was but four paces away with her mouth open and teeth flashing. With every step massive vibrations and thunderclaps shook the walls of the cave, and Halthazar saw his own death. He closed his eyes and put his arms up across his face as the dragon snapped her maw forward to strike. She averted the strike when Argan stepped forward, mumbling, but with nothing happening. At the last possible second, the dragon chose Argan, and picked him up and swallowed him whole like large bird would a lizard.

Argan died instantly; his neck snapped like a dry tree-limb. But the magic that coursed through his body remained, and completed the spell. No sooner did the dragon close her mouth than four massive spikes sprang from inside her neck. One went into her brain, another down into her chest, and the other two straight out the sides. She died instantly, slamming the floor with a great vibratory whack. Her blood seeped out in buckets, and Halthazar rolled and stumbled backwards, trying to regain his breath.

His hands shuddered, and almost with a sense of the anti-climatic, all was quiet, with the she-dragon's head staring at him, a gentle pillar of smoke rising out of its half-open mouth and nostrils. It had been the quickest slaying of a giant beast he had participated in. Usually there was more give and take, more provocation, more planning and attacking from opposite sides. Sometimes the men would set a trap, or the dragon would flee. But this dragon had gained the upper hand quickly and kept it until Argan sacrificed his own life. One of Ahajik's two surviving men bent and vomited behind a rock.

The dragon had been of a breed Halthazar had never seen. Very similar to other dragons, this one had the ability to send chemicals through its skin to change pigmentation, much like a chameleon. Halthazar was too fill with adrenaline to find it stimulating. His hands shook and his eyes watered.

Ahajik laughed, and lifted his arms like he had slain her himself. He walked to the eggs and cut them to bloody, malformed pieces before Halthazar could compose himself long enough to object. He felt like vomiting himself. Never had his own death been so close. Never had he felt so uninspired to carve up and take home the prized scales of the dragon. Ahajik spit, laughed again, and clapped one of his men on the back, smiling, then laughing again, whooping and carrying on as if drunk.

Normally the unborn dragon young would have been priceless. But before Halthazar could object, they were all butchered, meaty slabs of red and black, slicked over with mucus and blood. Halthazar reloaded his windlass, more out of habit than for any other reason, and sat down on a stone to gather his wits. He rubbed at his brow, took a deep breath, and then opened his eyes in terror and abhorrence. For what he saw next made his blood boil.

Ahajik had discovered that one of the mercenaries was not yet dead. The wounded man sputtered and groaned as he awoke. He put up his arms for help, but found Ahajik standing above him with a drawn dagger. The cavalryman snickered, then, "Ah, what do we have here? A survivor?"

Ahajik drew a dagger from a sheath. "Well, my good friend, thank you for your services, but unfortunately his lordship was not honest. He hasn't the monies with which to pay you. Any of you. So be a good lad and die." And with that, he knelt down and cut the man's throat while holding his shirt in a fist. The mercenary gurgled, bled, and died in a whimper, blood pumping with every fading heartbeat.

One of Ahajik's two surviving men chuckled, and bellowed, "Another one."

Ahajik, blood on his hands and chest as if he had been dipped in paint, turned. "Kill him. Make sure they are all dead. But," he began to add, "Leave this one to me," pointing his dagger at Halthazar, who slowly began to rise. He had been the target of treachery before, but not by such ignorant, unintelligent adversaries. He did not think Lord Kianis or Ahajik capable of such, even though he had suspected something. Again the world surprised him, and he looked at each of the three men, who stared back at him, smiling, as if history had already told them of his fate.

Halthazar saw that to get to the tunnel entrance he would have to get past Ahajik and one of his men. Even if he killed one with a windlass shot, the other would be on him before he could draw his own sword. The third was murderously stabbing another dying survivor, repeatedly, with gurgling wet thrusts of his knife. Ahajik began to draw his broadsword. A smile crossed his face, one of revenge, of madness and instability.

Halthazar knew he had to make his one shot count, and was inspired when he saw the dead dragon behind his two attackers. He kneeled, aimed and shot. Ahajik charged. The bolt zipped towards them, but not at them. It hissed past, and lanced into the dragon's neck, right where it met the chest scales.

Halthazar dropped his weapon and jumped to the other side of the rock he had been sitting on. The bolt had burrowed into the beast's dragonfire glands. There was one moment of hissing and spitting of sparks as acid dribbled out like a comet's tail, but then the neck exploded. The shockwave knocked Ahajik and his man to the floor, flames clouded up and danced on the ceiling, and the dragon corpse was lifted a foot of the ground and rolled onto Ahajik's other man. His legs buckled and half his body was trapped. He screamed, and hit the floor with his fists for help.

It was a small explosion, but dramatic, and completely unexpected. The dragon's body was ripped open, the corpse ruined and on fire. There would be little left, if anything, for Halthzar to salvage. The effect was unexpected by all except Halthazar, who used the time to stand, draw his sword, and almost get to the tunnel entrance. The smoke was clearing, and Ahajik and his man were for the most part unhurt, but dazed. The lesser officer stood, and clumsily loped over to Halthazar. The dragon-slayer stopped running, allowed the man to strike first, and let the blade swing past his head. The swing was sloppy, and since the man was still dizzy, off balance and with poor aim. The sword hit the rock wall and sparked. Halthazar now slightly behind the man, plunged his broadsword into the man's back with a two-handed thrust. The finely crafted blade, made personally for him by the famed swordsmith Gojang, the same man who now made weapons for the King Magnus Nekron of Laesor, was thick, solid, and not too long, but without any stubbiness either. Its wide hilt guards offered extra hand protection, and the deep trench of a bloochannel prevented the opponent's blood from making the grasp slippery. The sword punctured the armor and the man slipped to the floor, all but dead. Halthazar slipped his blade free, seemingly impervious to the shock that sometimes comes with killing another person.

With one opponent dying, another trapped and bellowing in pain, Halthazar allowed Ahajik to stand, pick up his sword, and begin what would be the first real "duel" in Halthazar's life. Both men were passionate about the other, one because of hatred and envy, the other for dishonorable actions and ignorance. The cave around them was spotted with small fires, areas where the dragonfire acid had splashed and burned on the walls. Both men were disheveled and sweaty. Clothing and armor was dented and ripped, and fatigue was a disease that threatened to rear its ugly head and make strikes weaker and more prone to emotion.

Ahajik growled and swung with a strength that was not his own. Because of the fury behind it, the attack was easily swatted aside, after which Halthazar jabbed the tip of his broadsword at Ahajik's face. This kind of attack was not expected, and the Cavalryman did not block. The tip stabbed his cheek and drew blood, scraping bone. Ahajik recoiled in pain, swinging his sword in defense to keep Halthazar at a distance until he could regain his footing. His hand went up reflexively to his face.

The dragon-slayer did not press his advantage. He allowed the miscreant before him to stand, look at the blood on his gauntlet, and speak. "I'll cut you into so many pieces the ants will walk away with your corpse!"

Halthazar was nervous, despite every logical instinct in his mind that told him he was the better swordsman. Any enraged opponent is dangerous, and with so much debris the arena was treacherous. He fought back the urge to run, and spoke. "Lesson one, a gentleman does not speak during a duel."

Ahajik, pure rage running through his veins, "I need not your advice on how to fight!" And with that, he swung twice, from right to left and back again. Halthazar blocked them both with textbook precision, each resulting in a satisfying clang. Behind them, the trapped cavalryman sobbed in pain and begged to be let free, his voice growing hoarse from the shouting.

Halthazar feigned an attack to the left and twirled to the right, where he found Ahajik's ribcage prime for a strike. He did so, but the swing was weak, and glanced harmlessly off the man's armor. He stabbed forth again, this time towards the man's neck, but found his blade bashed away by Ahajik's. Three more times they exchanged blows, not connecting with any real impact.

Both men began to feel the influence of weariness. Their muscles grew limp and their breathing quickened as their breath became hot. Ahajik attacked with violent hacks and unskilled stabs. Despite his weariness, Halthazar remained calm and collected, blocking easily and attacking with professionally trained skill. It would not be long before he would find an opening to finish it for good.

Except that he did not expect to trip. He stumbled back into the man he had run through. He fell on top of the blood-soaked body and his arms splayed out, presenting his torso to Ahajik like an archer's target. The enraged combatant held his sword above him like a standard on a field of battle, and plunged it ferociously towards Halthazar's abdomen. The strike would have punctured his armor easily, and probably have eviscerated his entrails, but the downed slayer hit the sword with his own. He managed to push Ahajik's weapon down to his thigh, before it connected. It hit and sank deep, causing Halthazar to scream with his mouth open and his eyes shut.

Ahajik was so jovial, so pleased with himself, that he did not withdraw the blade and deliver the killing blow. Instead, he began to twist the blade, giving Halthazar even more pain and nearly took away his consciousness. Halthazar's eyes watered and spittle leaked from his mouth, but with newfound energy, birthed from his own growing anger, he lashed out with his own sword and cut Ahajik across the other cheek, deeper than before.

Halthazar rolled sideways, being careful not to put pressure on his injured leg, and used the cavern wall to hoist himself up. Both men scampered to stay on their feet. Halthazar's leg was nearly useless, but was able to hold his weight if he concentrated. He was bleeding, but not profusely. Run he could not, but with the wall's help, he could limp towards the cave-mouth. He began to do so, hoping that he might be able to get outside and to the trees before Ahajik calmed himself enough to attack again. Indeed, his opponent walked about the cave awkwardly, holding his face, screaming vengeance. He watched as Halthazar began to limp away, and tried to run after, but the pain in his cheekbones made him dizzy and he slipped. Eventually, his mind cleared enough for him to snort several times, grit his teeth, and lope towards the escaping Halthazar.

Halthazar made it to the cave mouth when he heard the echoing howls of Ahajik come towards him, louder and louder. Halthazar turned to fight, the sunlight behind him, his foot in the trickling stream. He waited, and his plan was to let the madman charge him, then dive out of the way at the last second, and hopefully Ahajik would continue running right over the edge and into the pool. Halthazar would then have the advantage. The rantings seemed fierce as the cave walls echoed them, doubling their noise, giving them an almost monstrous tone, but when he came into the light, and there were no walls for his sounds to bounce off of, he sounded just like what he was an ignorant, foul-tempered mercenary. Halthazar watched until he was close, close enough to see the blood dribbling down his face. He dove to the side.

His plan worked, but not as well as he had hoped. Ahajik tried to stop, but lost his footing and stumbled forward into the water with an awkward splash. Halthazar, using his good leg, jumped and landed on Ahajik's back. Both men fell forward, under the knee-deep water. They grappled one another, both lost their swords, and Ahajik drew a dagger.

Halthazar caught his wrist and punched him in the jaw, sending him backwards. Ahajik did not fall over, and he stabbed forward, slicing Halthazar's forehead. It stung, and the warrior lost his footing. Ahajik screamed and leaped on Halthazar, straddling him, keeping his head underwater. Halthazar was able to grab the man's wrist and keep the dagger from slicing across his throat, but soon he would drown.

His enemy's grasp was powerful, and no matter how hard he tried, Halthazar could not muster the strength to push Ahajik off of him. But then, as his brain began to shut down, just as small sparkles of light began to pop in his mind's eye, the grip released, and Ahajik's body fell backwards, off of him. Halthazar launched himself upward with a gasp and a sputter, then rested on his knees and hands, wondering why Ahajik had not killed him.

The answer was simple. Ahajik was hopping on one leg to the pool's edge, dripping wet, bloody from several wounds, and with a bow shaft sticking out of his left leg. He could not walk, and when he reached the edge, he collapsed, breathing heavily, sputtering water from his mouth. Halthazar smiled, and turned to see Kedgepot near the large boulder, bringing another arrow up to the bowstring. The old scout was muttering to himself, something about taking care of the whole world, and nodded to Halthazar. "Unngh. Are you alright?"

He nodded. "Yes. I'll live."

Kedgepot spat at the ground and aimed at Ahajik. "And what of the other fools?"

"All dead. Most from the dragon, some from him."

"I figured."

"Did you know this would happen?"

"Aye. They was going to pay me extra to keep my mouth shut about it."

Halthazar limped up to the cranky old man. He flicked some water from his hair and retrieved his sword. It was obvious that Ahajik was going nowhere, despite his groans and promises of revenge. His kneecap was shattered, and he would have to crawl to move, and even that would be torture. "What made you help me?"

Kedgepot relaxed his grip on his bow and laughed, a one syllable "HA!" He spit again, then scratched his eyebrow. "I got to thinking about the long trek back to the village. I bet they were plannin' on killing me too, when they got back. I figured you at least might pay me. And not to mention, you make for more pleasant company."

"If it's money you want, you'll get plenty. Just get me back so that I might deal with Lord Kianis."

"And what of this one?" asked Kedgepot, kicking at Ahajik's head with his boot. "Should we kill him?"

After a few moments pause, Halthazar spoke. "No. Let's leave him here with a broken leg. Some sort of local wildlife will find him a most delectable treat."

They left Ahajik screaming, alone, with night coming, at the base of the Broken Tooth. Kedgepot, after bandaging the slayer's wounds and helping him onto his horse, asked Halthazar if he wanted to take anything from the dragon.

"No. That dragon deserves to lay in death without its corpse being ripped apart. And besides, the most valuable parts have been destroyed."

"Ahajik and the one in the cave won't survive the night, you know, something will get him before sunrise."

"I know. And I think it will be that dragon in the sky to the north of us."

Kedgepot stopped his horse immediately and looked behind him. There was nothing there but waning blue sky, a few clouds, and an ugly scavenger bird. The scout let out a sigh of relief, and both men laughed at Halthazar's joke.

The two men had left the slopes of Broken Tooth behind for several hours before Halthazar's words became reality. Another dragon, a male, flew from the north looking for a suitable lair. He scented the female, blood, and another rich smell that invoked images of prey. His fear and confusion at the sight of the slain dragoness and smashed eggs gave way to a rush of pleasure upon discovering the source of the food-smell. He carried the still thrashing and noisy prey to a cleaner and less noisome stone outcropping, and settled down to feed his hunger, one limb at a time.

Editor's Note

Post your comments on this story on the Fiction Discussion Board.