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Familiar Territory (Part 3)

A Tale of Laernon by Suzanne Campbell, copyright 2000

Chapter 1 - In Good Spirits

 

Amman softly whistled a cheery melody as he rode upon Thunder's broad back, mercifully in tune. Even though today had been another long day of walking uphill, the group of traveling companions were feeling equally cheery and would not have grumbled if the whistling had been gratingly off-key. With each passing day out of the small mountain village, their excitement mounted as they sensed their quest coming to an end. It wouldn't be much longer before they reached their destination: one of the little-known nesting places of the mysterious mountain dragonettes.

From atop his gently swaying perch, the Longstrider Priest considered his companions walking along side. Rel, the tall elven warrior, was to his left. She walked with the careful and deliberate step of one unaccustomed to traveling steep, rocky trails. Her long-legged stride, however, kept her comfortably close to her friends despite her cautious ascent. From his vantage point, Amman could see her reach up to stroke Lizzie's smooth scaly back and murmur to it affectionately. The lizard was riding on her shoulder facing back down the way they had come. It shifted carefully over the long black braids flowing down her back to Rel's other shoulder, claws finding purchase in the weave of her cloak. For a change it seemed alert, as opposed to the past week when all it had wanted to do was sleep curled up on her mistress's pack. Perhaps it, too, sensed the quest was close to completion.

Walking to Amman's right was Raven, who was at the moment in her short, powerfully compact Werewolf form. Although she did not have the advantage of Rel's lanky stride, she easily kept up with the group. She had agility and confidence, as well as a love of steep slopes that only a native of the mountains of the Wall could have. Amman had known Raven for a long time, but the werewolf still had the ability to surprise him. As Hunts-Like-Bear had outlined their choices back in the village a couple of days ago, she had come to a difficult decision, one unexpectedly mature of her.

The native guide had spoken of three areas hidden in the mountains that he knew had nesting dragonettes. The first one they ruled out quickly as it was too close to the ranging grounds of the horrific Troll-eaters (exactly what they sounded like) that inhabited the northernmost remote areas of the Wall. The second option received moderate attention, as the nesting area was held only by red dragonettes. The last option was met by much more enthusiasm by the party as Hunts-Like-Bear described both Reds and Blacks. Their excitement was dampened somewhat when he cautioned that a mated pair of Wyverns had nested in the area as well. He advised that, in order to reach the dragonettes without worrying about what might come at them from their backs, they should kill the Wyverns before seeking out their true quarry.

To Rel, the idea seemed to make sense. Raven, however, looked troubled. She didn't like the idea of hunting and killing the Wyverns, wild magnificent creatures that they were, just to get them out of the way. It didn't seem right somehow. She was torn between a fierce desire for a black dragonette familiar and an equally fierce distaste for what had been proposed. Hunting and killing for food, or for defense were one thing. Seeking out and butchering the Wyverns- which were not inherently evil creatures; in fact, to the south she had heard they could be tamed and ridden- simply because they had chosen a nesting spot that was inconvenient towards their designs was another. Raven's very human compassion won out in the end. She decided that the power gained by possessing a Black was not worth the stain on her self-worth.

Once her mind was made up, Raven was able to convince her friends that taking the second choice Hunts-Like-Bear had presented was good enough. The Longstrider priest in Amman had been pleased that Raven had come to her decision by striving to do what was right. Amman the friend was equally pleased and proud that Raven, for once, was thinking about someone, or something, beside herself. The fact that the something else happened to be wild wyverns who would happily rip their heads off if they dared intrude on their nesting area was beside the point.

The mountain hunter and guide had only shrugged when they told him of their decision. He did not share Raven's sentiments in the slightest. He couldn't care less why they chose one route over the other; he had already been paid. The sleek, intricately carved spear with its gleaming silvery point had never left the hunter's side from the moment they had presented it to him. Amman recalled the look of naked desire on his face when he had first laid eyes on the spear.

It was a matter of luck that the spear had been made for the brawny hunter. When the group of adventurers had returned from their brief stay at the Hotel Gambovissi with only eleven of the required dozen specialty arrows, the weaponsmith had refused to make the spear. No amount of coaxing or bribery would change his mind; he needed a full twelve arrowheads to fashion the metal tip of the spear. The companions left his smithy, dispirited.

By chance, they happened upon the village herbalist, who noticed the black rose, taken from the Hotel Gambovissi grounds, tucked in Rel's décolletage. She stopped and invited them to come to her hut, which they did figuring they had nothing to lose in the matter. Mezinna, the herbalist, was extremely excited to discover that not only did Rel possess a rose, but a live plant as well. She was willing to trade much for the small bundle of dirt and roots. Apparently the plant, native to the warmer climes further south, was a quite valuable ingredient in some of her herbal remedies. Rel agreed to trade the tiny rose plant on the condition that Mezinna find some way of convincing the weaponsmith to go ahead with the making of the spear for Hunts-Like-Bear.

The companions never found out exactly what bargain Mezinna struck with the stubborn weaponsmith. They only knew that shortly after the herbalist visited him he closed the doors to his smithy and began to transform the strange metal of the arrows into a wondrous spear for the hunter. It took a full day for the project to be completed, and it was indeed a thing of lethal beauty when he passed it over to Amman. When Amman, in turn, had handed it to Hunts-Like-Bear, the hunter had agreed on the spot to guide them through the mountain trails to seek out the dragonettes.

His acceptance of the bargain came with much relief for the friends. They had gone far out of their way to arrange this transaction in order to get the best guide they possibly could. They were serious about acquiring some of the dragonettes as familiars; they would take no chances with a second-rate guide. All the strangeness of their adventures at the Hotel Gambovissi had been worth it if the hunter was happy.

There followed a quick flurry of preparations for the expedition, and before they knew it they were on their way! Three days out from the village, and they were still in good spirits. Even Cahli, who had not much interest in acquiring a familiar and thus had no personal stake in the matter, seemed content in accompanying him on this quest. After so many years together, she knew without asking how much Amman wanted a familiar.

Amman came out of his reverie upon catching sight of Cahli signaling back to the group from where she walked further up the trail. The tall golden-haired elf pointed back up the slope to where Hunts-Like-Bear could be seen emerging from around a bend. He, in turn, waved his spear to indicate a campsite just up ahead. Everyone picked up their pace somewhat, curious as to why their guide was stopping now.

Once everyone was together in the small clearing off to one side of the rocky trail, the hunter informed the group that they were very close. Even though there was still a couple of hours of travel time left, he preferred to camp now. Tomorrow they could range out at first light and have the whole day to search. There were cheers all round as the companions heard the good news.

 

* * *

 

Hunts-Like-Bear busied himself with setting up camp. Raven was too excited to hang around the campsite for the remaining daylight hours, so she decided to make herself useful by foraging for fresh food from the surrounding area. Her mother, at one time a hunter, had taught Raven and her older sister how to hunt and forage in terrain very much like the kind they were on now. Not through any desire to improve her daughters, or to share something of herself with them, but from the sheer practicality that if she could get someone else to provide the food for the family she wouldn't have to do it herself. Raven briefly had an image of her mother the last time she had seen her: grossly obese, unkempt black hair pulled back from a shiny, sweating face as she hunched over her laundry tub, shooing away the men in gray who came looking every few months for someone named Annice.

There had been a time, so long ago that Raven wondered if they were actual childhood memories or only fantasies, when her mother had been lean and strong, with a sparkle in her eye and a smile on her lips. But that must have been while she was still in the military, (Raven had found a military uniform cut for a much thinner woman packed away in a chest when she was only seven. Her mother had not wanted to talk about it- had looked pained in fact, as if sight of it recalled bad memories and the next time young Raven had looked for the uniform, it was gone.) and before her father went away. Why had he left? There had been rumors in the village for years after he had gone that he was a thief who left before his crimes could catch up with him. Raven suspected there was much more to the story than that, not that her mother would ever talk about it with her children. There was too much that her mother kept silent about; too many questions gone unanswered and ignored...

Raven banished the haunting images and bitter thoughts away; what was the point? She concentrated on digging up the wild onions she had found instead. They were popped into the small sack tied onto her belt, and within a short time were covered by small tubers and stalks of a leafy bluish-purple plant. She had just discovered a berry bush, when she got the feeling someone was watching her. Warily she reached for her valent slung across her back, while scanning the area searching for the source of her unease.

She soon realized that what she had dismissed earlier as a large outcropping of rock was really a building nearly in ruins; the stone of the building blending perfectly with that of the surrounding area. Carved upon the front of the building, nearly obscured by creeping plants and tumbled rocks, was a head; a huge head, about as big as Raven's body! Its large eyes seemed to be looking directly towards her, unblinking and solemn. Coming closer, Raven saw a dark opening to one side of the head that could have been a doorway. Curiosity urged her to take a better look, but caution won out in the end and she decided to go back to camp to tell the others about her discovery.

 

Chapter 2 - Ruins and Run-ins

 

Hunts-Like-Bear shrugged when Raven asked him if he knew about the building; apparently that meant that he had not come across it before nor had heard of anyone else encountering it either. He seemed more interested in the contents of the sack Raven had brought back than in the revelation of a mysterious ruin. Rel and Raven exchanged grimaces behind his back. He might have plenty of physical assets, but the man had all the curiosity and sense of adventure of a piece of furniture! Definitely not worth pursuing...

Since there was still about an hour or so of daylight left, and the ruined building really was not that far from the campsite, everyone was keen on taking a look for themselves. Raven led the way while their guide stayed behind preparing supper.

Amman exclaimed when he saw the head carved upon the wall. Both he and Cahli walked over to examine it close up. The priest ran his hands over the carvings as if by touch he could learn about who had made it and why. He conferred with Cahli, comparing assorted religious knowledge and histories, but neither could come up with anything useful. "The most I can tell you is that it's a stone head, and that it's really, really big!" said Amman with a twinkle in his eye. Rel snorted and Raven laughed at his statement. Even Cahli looked amused; she gazed at Amman with undisguised affection.

The other two women caught the look and waggled their eyebrows significantly at each other. They had already discussed at length what the real relationship was between Amman and his elven companion (they had had lots of time to kill in that small mountain village, what else was there to do?) and had decided that they were perfect for one another. Rel and Raven highly anticipated the time when the two involved would come to the same realization too.

There was not much of a discussion about whether to enter the building or not; everyone had had their curiosity aroused and couldn't resist the temptation. They did exercise caution, however. Even if there were not any enemies or animals hiding within, the probability that the structure might be unstable was a distinct possibility. Raven entered first, valent in hand, eyes probing the surroundings carefully. The floor was littered with debris: dirt and leaves blown in from outside, as well as a few old bones in a corner. Upon investigation, they turned out to be animal bones; judging from the small horns on the skull probably a small mountain goat. This had been a lair at one time, but Raven was confident that the beast was long gone from this place.

As she walked through the silent, dirty rooms, she got the feeling it had once been a temple, long abandoned to the elements. This far from the front doorway, light was very dim and even with her sharp werewolf sight she was having trouble making out her surroundings. Raven was about to turn back to ask Rel to bring her lantern, when she detected a slight reddish glow coming from under one of the few intact doors. She listened at the door, and hearing nothing carefully tried the handle. It opened, protesting. Wincing, she slipped through, ready for an attack. None came.

The room seemed to be as abandoned as the others, and the only thing of any interest was the fissure in the floor further into the room. The red glow she had noticed before emanated from the fissure, as well as heat; intrigued, she stalked over and peeked over the edge. The heat was more intense as she looked down, drying her eyes somewhat. The crack in the earth seemed to plunge downwards quite a distance, but she thought she could see it widening at one point. Then, she noticed the rope ladder leading down into the fissure. Someone actually went down there?!

Carefully, Raven withdrew and retraced her steps back to the others waiting outside. They were very interested in discovering who might be living down in the fissure. Despite the fact that it was almost time to return to the campsite for the night, everyone wanted to press on just a bit further. Perhaps their impatience was due to finally having arrived at their destination; they were in a position to take action at last.

Rel wondered aloud if perhaps some of the red dragonettes might nest in the fissure; if they had fire as a breath weapon might they be attracted to such places? No one could think of a reason to dismiss the idea. It was possible.

Raven led them back to the fissure after cautioning them that they should be quiet. She indicated the rope ladder. She wanted to go down and take a look but she didn't trust using the ladder; what if it was trapped? She prepared her own rope and, with Rel's considerable strength anchoring the other end, lowered herself carefully down in a different spot. It was a tighter squeeze than using the ladder would have been, but Raven's skilled hands and feet guided her through without incident. The crack was indeed widening beneath her, perhaps into a room?

She carefully wrapped the rope around her legs and let go with her hands in a slow, controlled move. Her head was the only thing peering into the "room". She saw right away that it wasn't a proper room at all, more like a large cavern. The walls were rough and irregularly shaped, as was the floor. As well, the fissure continued downwards even further. Almost immediately she spotted two figures squatting by the fissure, almost directly below her! She was very glad she had taken the precaution of not coming down legs dangling. The figures were talking in low voices. She couldn't make out the words or even what race the figures might be, but didn't want to hang around much longer. Besides, all the blood was rushing to her head already; under all the fur she was sure her face would have been very red indeed. She carefully raised her torso and grasped the rope. Untangling her legs, she began the slow climb back up the rope.

Almost to the top, Raven accidentally dislodged a few pebbles, they made a soft skittering sound as they slid and bounced down the walls of the fissure. Almost immediately, she could hear the quiet voices from below become louder; she had been discovered! She quickly pulled herself over the edge with a little help from Rel. She whispered what she had found and that she was sure they had heard her. As the group took up defensive positions, they could hear the voices echoing up the fissure as well; there seemed to be more than just the two Raven had said she had seen. A mist seeped up from the fissure, and they could hear an odd sound approaching.

In the dim light from the crevasse, they could make out something crawling over the edge onto the level floor. In stunned disbelief they could see it was not just one thing, it was wave after wave of huge ants marching up from the gash in the earth towards them in military precision! They were as long as a middle finger, and seeing that, both the mighty swordswoman Rel and the fearsome werewolf Raven turned and fled in terror, followed shortly by Amman and Cahli. After the horror they had endured in the necromancer's lair dealing with the maggot undead, they were not about to fight any more bugs if they could help it!

After the darkness inside the temple, the light outside seemed very bright, despite the fact that dusk was approaching. In her haste to be quit of the creepy crawling ants, Rel barreled right into a figure standing outside. She bounced back off the being, and lay sprawled in the dirt at his feet. He seemed not to have noticed the six-foot-four elf running into him at full speed. Rel quickly scrambled to her feet and drew her broadsword, ready to do some damage if he attacked.

He had to be one of the strangest looking men they had ever seen. His skin was pockmarked and very white. What skin they could see through the rags he wore was covered in fuzz. There was something naggingly familiar about his form, but they couldn't place his race. The strange man did not attack Rel; he was, in fact, unarmed. He gestured with his hands, and at first they thought he was preparing a spell, but then Rel realized that he was attempting to communicate with them.

She remained in a defensive stance, but called out to her friends that he was trying to signal. She glanced nervously behind her; in the doorway of the ruined temple she could see the ants blocking the doorway, and behind them in the shadow were figures with the unmistakable shape of weapons in their hands.

The tableau held for a few seconds, then Rel spoke in Humani to the ragged figure a few paces away, "I apologize if we intruded into your temple. We didn't mean any harm or disrespect."

The white man cocked his head at her words, frowned, and spoke something himself in an unintelligible language. Rel shrugged, and tried again in Kordarian. This time, he seemed to grasp somewhat of her words as he nodded slowly. He replied in a language that Rel didn't immediately understand as Kordarian, until she realized that it must be an ancient form of the language. She could only make out about half of what he was saying, and even that was a strain. He seemed to be commenting on the fact that she was an elf, that he was honored to have one such as she visit their temple.

It became obvious that no attack was imminent, and Rel sheepishly sheathed her broadsword. She approached the strange white figure and offered her hand in peace, and introduced herself. He, in turn, called back to the figures standing inside the temple entrance. One in particular, unarmed and robed, gestured with his hands and the ranks of huge ants blocking the doorway disappeared! Had they been only an illusion? Even though the passage outside was now open, the figures preferred to stay within the temple walls.

When the white man caught sight of Lizzie crawling up Rel's back to assume her rightful place on her shoulder, having been so rudely dislodged from her perch when her mistress had unexpectedly fallen on her rump, his eyes flew open and he gesticulated wildly, speaking too quickly for Rel to understand. She finally made out that he was warning her of the evil nature of the creature. Rel shook her head, trying to get across that Lizzie was a friend, not an evil creature. She attempted to put it in different terms: she was its mistress and it obeyed her. He looked dubious, but let the matter drop for the moment as the rest of the companions had gathered around to be introduced as well.

Amman was given perfunctory attention, much to his puzzlement. Usually people were quite interested in talking with a priest of Longstrider. Then, the strange man tried to pet Raven upon their introduction, much to her indignation; she growled her displeasure. He seemed surprisingly unconcerned that a werewolf should be displeased with him. He just about ignored her and the priest in order to voice his pleasure at making Cahli's acquaintance. Even though Raven was still in a huff about being treated like a pet, she, too, felt left out by all the attention given to the elves.

The strange fuzzy white man was pointing to Lizzie again, and asking Rel very haltingly if she was a Lizzard Master. Rel seemed to vaguely remember the name from one of her infrequently attended history lessons. She thought the term referred to the Guild of Lizzard Masters that was much more common in the early days of the Kordarian Empire, thousands of years ago. It was very rare indeed to hear the term these days. She shrugged inwardly, why not? She nodded her assent, and said, "Yes, I am a Lizzard Master."

Raven had to stifle a laugh; first Rel had claimed the title of Emperor's favorite back at the Hotel Gambovissi. Now she suddenly was a Lizzard Master too? What was next...Royal Princess of the elves? Despite her friend's penchant for exaggeration, Raven was glad the leader seemed to be impressed by her claim. Perhaps he would help them out in their quest to acquire the dragonettes.

Amman glanced worriedly at the sky, the sun was setting and it was getting late. He cleared his throat loudly to catch everyone's attention and pointed out that they needed to return back to the campsite. The elves said their good-byes, but not before giving their promise to return the next night.

The small group of friends turned to go, and as they were leaving, Raven heard very distinctly in her mind, "Don't worry, little one. I have no need to bind one of your kind now." Shocked, Raven turned back to the small, ragged figure standing at the temple entrance. He was looking directly at her with a smile upon his strange pockmarked face. Their eyes locked for a moment that seemed an eternity, then Raven wrenched her gaze away. Very discomfited, the werewolf hastened to catch up to her friends.

Sitting around the campfire later while finishing up the remains of the supper stew, they discussed the odd encounter. Hunts-Like-Bear seemed surprised that a community could have been living in the area without his knowing about it. He commented that they must have been in hiding down in that fissure for a long time. He started to say something about having seen some odd things before that might be attributed to these people, but then stopped himself. Superstitiously he made a sign to ward off evil spirits, and wouldn't comment on it further.

Raven decided to confide to her friends what the strange man had said. They listened intently and no one doubted her words. When she commented on the clarity of the speech and the lack of any sort of accent or hesitancy in the voice, Amman nodded. He had heard that some communication spells allowed perfect understanding, regardless if the caster and the target had a language in common. Those spells worked directly from one mind to another, with no spoken word to interfere with understanding.

"I wonder what he meant about not needing to bind me," said Raven.

Cahli spoke up. "Did anyone notice something unusual about the people in the temple? I saw several of their warriors with what looked to be bite marks on their necks. I've seen that before... on vampire victims. Do you suppose they've been attacked by a vampire? Or..."

It seemed as if everyone came to the same conclusion at the same time. Raven spoke first, "That weird-looking white guy is a vampire? But he was out in the sunlight!"

Amman replied, "I have heard that as vampires grow older and more powerful they are less vulnerable to the effects of sunlight... I have never heard of one being able to withstand full exposure though, even if it was close to sunset."

"He must be extremely powerful then;" said Rel, "unimaginably so. I've seen people with marks like Cahli described, too. Back in Kordar City I knew of a club for people who got off on that sort of thing, offering themselves willingly to vampires. They wore their marks like badges... So, if this guy is a vampire, those people are sustaining him. Perhaps he is their protector in exchange for what he needs."

Cahli nodded in agreement. She said thoughtfully, "That would explain the mist we saw coming up from the fissure. I have heard that vampires can transform to mist. That's how he got out of the temple before Rel."

"And why he didn't budge an inch when I ran into him," added Rel. "I would have sent a normal person flying at the speed I was going." She gave a shudder, and caught Raven's eye, remembering the reason they had been running away in the first place. Together they burst into giggles. "Of course they had to send bugs after us!!"

Raven, suppressing another bout of giggles, said, "Now that I think about it, I think I know why he said that thing about binding. Aren't vampires supposed to be able to bind creatures to them to do their bidding? Like wolves or bats? Maybe he is so powerful he can extend that to werewolves, too."

"Perhaps," agreed Amman. "If he is as powerful as we think he might be, I wouldn't put it past him. What I want to know is why he was so interested in the elves. He certainly didn't look elven himself."

"I believe he was an orc," said Cahli. Once again her keen eyesight had picked out what others had failed to notice. "You just have to look beneath the pocks and the pallor." The others exclaimed in surprise that they hadn't noticed it before. "I'm pretty sure the others in the temple were orcs as well," she added upon reflection.

"Maybe we shouldn't have promised to go back tomorrow," said Raven.

After his long silence, Hunts-Like-Bear spoke up now. "You're going back there? Knowing that guy is a vampire you're still thinking about going back? You people are crazy, aren't you?" He shook his head, laughing at their astonished faces. He strode over to his sleeping mat and settled himself down, turning his back to the light from the fire. His hands caressed his spear first, though, as if in reassurance that whatever lunacy his employers decided to cast themselves into, he at least had already been paid.

Back at the campfire, Amman continued dryly, "Well, it seems as if our intrepid guide has given his opinion on the issue... What about everyone else? Should we go back knowing what we know?"

Rel spoke slowly, considering her words. "I think that if he had intended us harm he could have easily taken us out back there. Besides, what will we say when he comes looking for us tomorrow night when we don't show up at the temple?"

"I agree," said Raven. "He wouldn't have bothered being reassuring when he spoke to me, I don't think. If he did mean us harm, why wouldn't he have tried to bind me then use me against you? I think we should go back."

Amman looked to his longtime friend and companion, "Cahli?"

"I say we go. We gave our word. Besides, as followers of Longstrider, shouldn't we find out all we can about these people, and perhaps bring them into the circle of civilization if we can?"

"Hello?" interjected Rel, "As I have pointed out before, you guys are the Longstrider groupies, not me!"

Amman, the Longstrider priest, ignored Rel's reminder and nodded in approval at his friend's words. "Exactly! Well, lets get some rest. It's bound to be a busy day tomorrow."

 

Chapter 3 - Master Vampire

 

Raven's sat up straight suddenly; her head turned unerringly in the direction of the ruined temple. Her gray eyes glazed over for a brief moment. When she re-focused on her friends sitting round the campfire, all she said was, "He's awake."

The others were startled by her behavior, and certainly the pronouncement did not make their nerves any steadier. Despite having made the decision to return to the temple yesterday, the group remained apprehensive. Their grisly discovery that morning didn't help the matter any, either.

They had been slow to get moving in the morning after an uneventful yet uneasy night. Everyone taking their turn for guard duty was well aware that vampires roam at night... Bleary eyed, they had organized themselves into two groups to search the area for signs of Red Dragonettes. Hunts-Like-Bear teamed up with Raven, leaving Amman, Rel and Cahli in the second group. The only find of the whole day was in the morning. Amman's team encountered a dead wild riding lizzard. The fact that it was dead was not unusual; these were the mountains of the Wall and life here was difficult. What was unusual, however, was the fact that the lizzard had been pinned down to the stony ground with wooden stakes and eviscerated while still alive! This was no natural death but the work of some rather sick individuals...

Despite having seen many gruesome sights in her career as a warrior, even Rel was sickened at the sight. They left the carcass and continued their search. Unsuccessful, they had met up with Hunts-Like-Bear and Raven for lunch. In discussing the morning's find, they had the suspicion that the inhabitants of the temple might have had a hand in that lizzard meeting its untimely demise.

Now, that thought was uppermost in everyone's head as they prepared to walk the distance to the temple. Why had the vampire master had such a negative reaction to Lizzie? What would they find awaiting them when they got there?

Whatever they had been expecting, it was not what greeted them upon their arrival at the ruined temple. There was a group of about 50 of the pale-skinned denizens of the fissure, as well as the one who had sent the defending ants away. He was dressed in robes, and looked somewhat like a cleric or priest. The crowd gave a cheer when they saw the companions approaching.

The priest approached solemnly, singled out Cahli from her friends, and escorted her to his people. Ceremoniously, he introduced her and demonstrated that she was an elf. Again they cheered. Cahli looked bemused yet amused by the attention. The priest then approached Rel and almost reverently asked her permission to be introduced. After the ritualized introductions were made, the crowd cheered wildly for the "Lizzard Master".

Once again Amman and Raven were passed over in favor of the elves; no one bothered to introduce them. Feeling slightly put out, they watched as the people began to mingle with the elves. They heard some of them talking to Rel in what sounded like very bad Kordarian. Later, Rel explained that they were approaching her about possibly taking on an apprentice Lizzard Master!

Looking around the clearing around the entrance to the temple, Raven spotted a familiar ragged figure standing upon the huge head. It was the Vampire Master. When he saw her looking at him, he signaled for her to come up with him. In her mind was a picture of the path to take inside the temple to reach him.

The Master greeted Raven by name when she reached him, the unfamiliar syllables of her name coming awkwardly from his lips. She bowed. This close to him, she couldn't believe she had ever mistaken him for anything other than what he was. It was more than the unnaturally pale flesh. There was something ancient, something knowing about his eyes, as well as a terrible aura of power around him. Heart hammering, she kept her head bowed until she felt the lightest of touches in her mind.

"Child, there is no need to fear. You will come to no harm if you answer truthfully. Tell me now what you and your friends are doing here."

Somewhat unnerved by the mental communication, and rather intimidated despite his reassurances, Raven blundered about seeking a response. She finally got across the idea that they were helping Rel find some lizzards to master.

A frown crossed his white craggy features. "What do you mean by that? The evil lizzards are dead; we have almost hunted them all down."

Raven was horrified by what she was "hearing". She was certain now that he was behind that poor wild lizzard they had found staked out earlier today. Confusedly she asked why he thought the dragonettes were evil.

The vampire, in turn, was confused by her question. He said, as if she should have already known, "There are evil ones and good ones. Why would the Lizzard Master desire an evil one?"

When he spoke of the evil ones, he sent pictures to her mind of the different colored dragonettes they had come here specifically to find! His dark, piercing eyes watched hers as he awaited her response. Raven was not lulled: hovering behind his gentle questions was Death. She tread on dangerous waters here. Her reply was carefully phrased to indicate that Rel did not know there existed different types of dragonettes. In fact, none of them would have come on this quest if they had known the lizzards they sought had an evil nature.

The Master Vampire's eyes carefully held hers as he judged the truth of Raven's statement. He nodded, satisfied. "There are only good lizzards now. They have been infused".

Raven's mind whirled. What exactly have the "good" ones been infused with, she wondered. Thinking as quickly as her confusion would allow, she told the Master that Rel would be very interested in mastering one of the "good" ones.

The Vampire Lord sent her a brief picture of one of these "good" lizzards. It was obviously a tiny, miniature dragon, whereas the dragonettes seemed to be more like flying lizzards. Smaller than the dragonettes, it could perch upon a shoulder with ease. It was not of a solid color like the dragonettes; instead, a myriad of shimmering colors danced upon its wings and shining scales. During the quick mental picture, it gracefully turned its tiny head and looked directly at Raven with gleaming iridescent eyes, all innocent curiosity. Raven suddenly suspected what the tiny dragon had been infused with: Elven blood. " A fairy dragon...!" she breathed in awe.

The Master cocked his head at the unfamiliar words, but indicated approval at Raven's inadvertent mental exclamation. "The difference between them is obvious. I haven't had much time to go out hunting for the tainted ones lately. Mostly I keep the Demons at bay."

Raven was bursting with questions; she wished she had Amman with her. The knowledgeable Longstrider priest would know which questions to ask and how to phrase them for utmost clarity. Left to her own devices, she plunged gamely ahead. The Vampire Master patiently attempted to answer her queries, but at times it was obvious that he was frustrated by her inability to understand why lizzards were bad. He had to explain things several times before she grasped the truth.

"The lizzards are tainted as they are one with the Dragonian hoards that have invaded our shores. The flying lizzards, the ones you call dragonettes, are especially dangerous. They were seeded deliberately in the hopes they would propagate in this, our land. They are much more intelligent than the typical lizzard, and have special abilities that make them attractive to people who don't know any better. Once successfully bonded with a Familiar spell, these lizzards slowly exert a corrupting influence on their masters. It can begin with encouraging a tendency towards smaller vices like greed or envy, for example. As they spend more time together, slowly the master is subverted towards more and more evil actions and thoughts. This is the true purpose behind those flying lizzards. When the Scaled Ones - the Dragonians - were forced from our shores, they had hopes they could one day return and find their invasion made easier by corruption from within."

Raven was stunned by what the Master had revealed to her. She felt as if she and her friends had narrowly averted becoming corrupted themselves. She recalled suddenly the warnings and worried faces of the elders in the village. It was possible they knew of the true nature of these lizzards. "Why, then," she asked herself, "did they not warn us about pursuing this quest?" She had to admit to herself, truthfully, that even if they had said something she probably wouldn't have listened. She had been so intent on the power these dragonettes could add to the group, she would have discounted anything negative she had heard. Now that she thought about it, the fact that none of the villagers actually had any of them as familiars- despite the fact that they had the necessary spells, rituals, and location in their favor - should have tipped them off. Chalk one more up to stupidity...

She shook her head to dispel those self-recriminations, and concentrated on what the Master was saying; something about demons...

"For as long as the great quake buried us in the caverns below the temple, I have been battling with the demons. To me they are an insignificant threat. I could eradicate them with ease, except for two things: they hide behind a wall of fire and, most importantly, on one of their raids into our territory they captured a relic holy to my people, one to the Living god, and somehow managed to get it across the firewall. I used to be a priest of my religion, but since my conversion I have been unable to withstand the presence of the relic in close quarters. I can cross the firewall safely, but none of my people nor the relic can. Thus, there is no-one who can retrieve the relic. They use this fact against me, holding me at bay on our side of the firewall. It is a standoff." The Vampire Master growled his frustration, and Raven quailed beneath his anger even though it wasn't directed at her. Then, his mouth lifted in a smile, albeit a cold one. "Occasionally they get brave, cross the firewall and mount an offensive, in which case I deal with them easily enough."

Raven ventured a small question, "Master, is there anything I... we... can do to help?"

The dark eyes held hers for a minute while he considered her offer. "Perhaps there is something you can do..."

 

 

Chapter 4 - Fire and Brimstone

 

Raven spoke excitedly to her friends, once again seated around the campfire. "So, you see? If we help him against these demons, he'll arrange for an introduction to the fairy dragons!"

Rel broke in, "Raven, that sounds great, but how do we know we can trust this guy? He's a vampire! I know the Mammalian Proclamation is supposed to include Vampires amongst their ranks, but I doubt these guys have heard about it, much less ascribe to its lofty ideals. From what you've told us, and what we've been able to gather, they've been stuck down there for thousands of years!"

Raven defended the vampire in question with some heat. "Yes, he's incredibly old, and powerful. You guys have no idea just how powerful he is, he has not touched your minds. Consider this, he could have bound me to him without effort, had he wanted to. He kills the demons with ease. Yet, in all the years they have been trapped down there, not once did he succumb to the loneliness and create another vampire. He used to be a priest, he said, before he became a vampire. I know we can trust him to keep his word."

"Yes," mused Amman. "A priest of this 'Living god', right? I've never heard of it in all my travels."

Everyone had to shake their heads in the negative as well. Perhaps those poor orcs who had been trapped below their temple were the only ones living who still worshipped... They believed their god was still popular. From what the friends had been able to gather, it wasn't till fairly recently, when another earthquake had opened the fissure they had seen in the temple, that the orcs had had any sort of contact with the above ground world. They had been horrified to find so many lizzards roaming the land, and their Master had taken steps to purify the area. Apparently they did not differentiate much between the dragonettes and the more bovine pack and riding lizzards they happened to find.

Even with Rel's assurances, they still were apprehensive about Lizzie. They could see that she was attached to the elven fighter, there was obviously a bond between the two, but their experiences with the dragonettes made them wary. But, as Rel was supposedly a Lizzard Master, her word on the matter was final.

One thing the companions had neglected to tell the secluded albino orcan community was the time that had passed since they had been sealed away from the world. So much had happened since then that they were afraid it would be too much of a shock to learn the truth all at once. They vowed to tell the Master before they left, however. They still had no name for him other than "The Master". Oddly enough, no one felt much like insisting that the Master properly introduce himself...

"Well," said Amman, drawing everyone back to the present, "It can't hurt to take a look at this firewall, perhaps get a better idea of what type of demon they're dealing with..."

Raven smiled, pleased. "Exactly so. It would be a shame to have come all this way without even trying. Come on, Rel, lets go sharpen our weapons!"

 

* * *

 

"All right, lets go over the plan one last time, so everyone's clear." Amman spoke firmly and with authority. Rel, in turn, translated his words into Kordarian and pitched her voice loud to carry all the way to the back ranks of the orcan warriors assembled in the cavern. Amman ticked names off his fingers as he spoke, "Rel, Raven, Cahli, Hunts-Like-Bear: you will all charge the firewall with weapons drawn, as if you were retreating from a battle. I will follow behind on Thunder.

"Daggo." He pointed to one of the elite warrior guards who was dressed in the priest's robes in hopes the demons would mistake him as such. "You will be my hostage. You fellows back there," he pointed to the other warriors suited up for battle, "will be chasing us down the passageway." Except for the other elite guard- this one properly dressed in his armor - the warriors in question looked slightly nervous about taking on the demons, their orcan snouts quivering and heavy hands clenching upon their weapons. They all nodded their tusked heads in determined affirmation of their role in the upcoming battle, however, and seemed eager to prove themselves in battle.

Amman continued addressing the warrior named Daggo. "Once we all reach the firewall, I will threaten you and you will wave your arms around and pretend to cast. The good priest will see the signal, and oblige by casting his summon spell upon the firewall. The ants will arrive, their piled bodies temporarily blocking the flames of the firewall, and we will pass through unsinged.

"Rel, your task is to run as fast as your elven legs can carry you to the back of the demon's cavern to block the entrance to the tunnel leading to their barracks. We can't afford any Demon reinforcements breaking through. Lizzie can stay with you; hopefully she'll be useful in the fight, as you've assured us that she can be.

"Daggo, once through the firewall, dismount and assist Rel; get to the back as fast as you can. Cahli and I will be supporting with our bows while the rest of the regular troops engage the demons out front. Raven and Hunts-Like-Bear, you catch any stragglers and above all, look for that relic! The Master says he can feel its presence; it must be in the cavern somewhere. Once you have the relic, pass it off to me. I will bug out on Thunder back up the passageway. The rest of you, get out if you can! The 'portal' through the firewall will only last a few minutes. Once the relic is carried up the passageway, the Master can emerge from a side tunnel and take care of the rest of the demons with no problems.

"Any questions?"

None were forthcoming; all were eager to mount the offensive. Amman looked over the group assembled in the cavern. Even Hunts-Like-Bear, who couldn't have cared less why they were attacking the demons, was excited; this would be the first chance to use his new spear in battle. Amman really shouldn't have been surprised when he had volunteered to help out on this mission instead of staying behind to guard the camp.

Amman was a little surprised at himself for agreeing to go ahead with the mission. The demons would be powerful foes; it would not be an easy victory by any means. They had stayed up for half the night with the Master and his priest, discussing the demons and their abilities, and possible plans. They had not been shown the passageways leading to the demon's cavern and the firewall, however, until they had given their word they would help, an understandable security precaution. Once they had had a chance to see the layout of the tunnels, they had been able to work out a plan of attack- one facet of which involved stuffing a rather large riding lizzard down their egress tunnel into the complex below- if a rather unorthodox one at that. The plan would have to work. It would work, he told himself.

Warriors began getting into position along the corridor. The friends had a chance to briefly salute the Vampire Master as he secreted himself in a side passage; the vampire smiled in grim anticipation, his pale face nearly masking power held in check. Once everyone was in position, the performance began.

They started with the yelling. The companions fled down the corridor as fast as they could go, looking over their shoulders. Daggo, for all appearances slung unceremoniously across Thunder's saddle on his stomach, flopped in a most undignified and un-warrior-like manner. The shortsword hidden in the folds of his rags wouldn't come out till later. Thunder himself had had the indignity of having to suffer blinders as he ran; Amman didn't want him to balk at crossing the firewall at the last moment.

The regular warriors followed them cursing and brandishing their weapons. They hesitated as planned when they saw the companions drawing near to the firewall. The indistinct forms of the demons could be seen through the ever-shifting wall of flame. They obviously came alert when they detected the commotion on the orcan side of the wall. Rel and Amman delivered performances of a lifetime, which was a good thing because Daggo and Raven's acting left much to be desired. Lizzie, clinging tenaciously to Rel's shoulder, surprisingly let out a belch of flame back towards the pursuing orcan guards, which helped make the whole drama more credible.

Much to everyone's relief, when the signal for the "portal" came and the ants began to materialize directly over the firewall, the demons had been fooled enough to step aside when the friends crossed over the flames. The foremost demons turned their attention on the regular troops who could be seen charging the firewall.

The demons were indeed as the Master and his priest had described. Most of them appeared as shadowy black forms wielding morningstars. A few, taller than the shadow demons, had dark red skin surrounded by an aura of flame. They, too, carried large weapons. The companions had only a moment to wonder if they were insane to be carrying out this attack, then they were in the thick of things and had no more time to waste on second thoughts.

Rel sprinted directly for the rough opening in the back of the cavern, dodging pillars apparently formed from stalagmites melding with stalactites. She moved with such speed that the shadow demon closest to the opening barely had time to register that she was swinging on him with her broadsword before the blade bit into the darkness that was his side.

The demons who noticed the attack roared in fury, a cacophony of sound, but by then it was too late: the rest of the attack force had come through the portal and had taken up their planned positions. There seemed to be roughly ten demons at first glance, seven of the smaller shadow demons and three of the bigger fire demons.

Rel, broadsword and longknife flashing, blocked the exit. She was set upon by two more shadow demons trying to run for reinforcements, but was able to handle them as Daggo soon joined her. The elite orc guard's swing with his shortsword on the demon's flank diverted its interest from Rel easily enough. Lizzie, once again, shot out a fireball that sizzled into the nearest shadow demon, whose howls blended in with the rest of the inhuman symphony tearing the air.

Raven, in her werewolf form, found her target right away. The black shadow demon in question, charging her from behind one of the columns, received a point-blank shot with the light crossbow mounted on the end of her valent, pinning its arm to his side. The bladed end of her polearm then cleaved into its thigh, almost severing it. She had to ignore him for a short while as she dealt with the flame enshrouded demon wielding a two-handed sword that had followed behind the lesser demon. Snarling, the werewolf threw herself into the fight, her rune-covered valent seeking a weakness in the demon's defenses.

Hunts-Like-Bear found himself the fight he had been longing for. Despite the hunter's muscle-bound physique and less-than-inspired conversational skills, he moved with lightning quickness in battle; his silvered spear tip darted in and around the fiery demon who had closed in on him. A sheen of sweat soon sprang up on his muscular torso from such close proximity to the flames.

Amman, mounted upon Thunder, and Cahli both had their bows out and began to search out targets that wouldn't be in line with their friends. Together they severely wounded a shadow demon bearing down on the mountain hunter already engaged with the fire demon, then quickly switched targets. Amman had to breathe his thanks to the Master and his priest for having cast bladerunes on all of their weapons and arrows; a considerable effort but unfortunately a necessary one: the demons could not be harmed by normal weapons alone. Cahli's feathered shaft took another shadow demon in the back as it rushed forward with two others to engage the regular guards close to the firewall. The guards were having a difficult time in holding the three shadow demons at bay.

Amman was just lining up another shot, taking maximum advantage of positioning, when he saw a sizzling bolt of fire whiz over his shoulder to explode on the breastplate of one of the regulars. The guard cried out in pain; a sizeable spot on his armor slowly smoldered and he was visibly shaken, but amazingly stood his ground.

Amman spun Thunder around to find the source of the fireball, and found it in the shape of another of the flame demons just emerging from his crouch behind a defensive wall of interconnected stalagmites. Amman, not having Cahli's confidence with the bow, decided to take a different tact in reinforcing the now beleaguered regulars. His face took on a look of intense concentration in the midst of all the chaos, and his blue eyes burned with a fire all their own.

The flame demon was running now, huge sword above its head and a confident leer on its red-skinned face. The force behind Amman's eyes reached some sort of apex, and, without gesturing or uttering a word, the demon suddenly clutched its head in apparent agony! It stumbled to a halt, disoriented. Cahli wasted no time in sending several shafts its way, wounding it twice while Amman was still fumbling with his bowstring. It reached the guards, but its wounds made the attacks with the two handed sword slow and ineffective. The other elite guard was able to hold it off

Cahli's sharp elven eyesight then noticed movement behind one of the groupings of columns towards the rear of the cavern. A previously unnoticed shadow demon was creeping from cover to cover. In the red flickering light of the firewall and the subsequent crazy shadows it cast all throughout the cavern it would have been easy to miss its stealthy progress, except for the fact that it carried something that gleamed like gold in the light. The holy relic! It seemed to be heading for the exit Rel was blocking. Given any opportunity it would escape with the relic into the warren of tunnels the demons occupied.

Cahli shouted a warning to both Rel and Amman, but the nomad priest was the only one available to do anything. He urged Thunder deeper into the cavern, dodging columns and the larger of the rough rocks strewn about the uneven floor. In the nomad way, he guided his riding lizzard with his knees as he drew and took aim with his bow. At point blank range he loosed his arrow just as the demon was turning to face him; the arrow caught it right in its shadowy eye! As it slowly toppled over, its body strangely crumbling into an ashy residue, Amman leaned way over in the saddle and deftly caught up the relic with one hand. Whooping in triumph, he wheeled Thunder back towards the firewall and charged towards safety. They had to add dodging figures still locked in combat on the obstacle course that was the cavern floor. The "portal" was beginning to break up as the ant bodies were slowly reduced to ash by the intense heat of the flames, but there was still enough of an opening to allow Thunder to run past unharmed.

Amman and Thunder escaped down the tunnel, kept purposely clear for just this occasion, shouting that he had the relic- a strange symbol worked in gold and mounted upon a carved wooden base. He did not pause till he had reached the agreed-upon point, past the side passage where the Master had been waiting, at which time he handed over the holy relic to the orcs waiting there.

Not stopping to recount what had transpired, Amman once again wheeled Thunder back towards the battle. As fast as Thunder had been in dropping off the relic, they were no match for the blur that had shot out of the side passage when they first went past. By the time man and beast had arrived back at the firewall, the fight was over. The priest was there, summoning more ants to reinforce the "portal" to allow the companions and their allied orcan guards to exit the demon's cavern. Scattered in piles throughout the cavern, he saw the ashy piles where the shadow demons had fallen. He could even see more of the piles of remains in the exit tunnel leading further into the demon warren. Of the tall, fiery demons there was no sign save scorch marks upon the stony ground.

His companions were making their way through the portal, lending assistance to those of the guard who had been wounded. Amman dismounted and made his way towards them. There were cuts and burns aplenty, although of all the guards who had braved the demons, only one was severely wounded enough to warrant being carried out. There was no visible sign of the Master. If Amman listened carefully, however, he could hear the faint sounds of screams and howls from deep in the bowels of the demon's warren. Amman found that he didn't care to listen all that carefully, after all.

"What happened after I left?" he queried Raven.

"He ripped their heads off..." she replied wonderingly, yet not able to disguise the fear behind her voice. "He came in like a wind; suddenly he was there and where ever he blew they died. He didn't even bother to carry a weapon...They don't stand a chance in there," she stated, nodding her head towards the back of the cavern. She absentmindedly patted places where her fur had been singed by the fire demon.

Rel came up beside Amman and clapped her arm around him. "Good work in there, Amman," she said approvingly. "That was quite the shot you made, right through its eye! You're getting better, I must say."

Raven chimed in, "I think our priest is turning into an acrobat as well as an archer. I caught that maneuver to snag the relic...Very impressive."

Amman grinned, unaccountably pleased by the praise from his two friends. He sheepishly ran a hand through his blonde hair, which was standing up in even wilder tufts than usual from the battle. With his other hand he patted Thunder's scaly flank. "I couldn't have done it without Thunder here, he was my legs. And Cahli; as ever, she is my eyes..."

Cahli, bow in hand, grinned at the description, but as usual made no comment. She made room for Hunts-Like-Bear to fall in beside her. He, too, was grinning, and he gave the rest of the group a victory salute with his spear. Together the group of elated comrades made their way into the tunnels of the orcs.

 

 

Chapter 5 - Fairy Dragons

 

Rel and Amman stood transfixed in open-mouthed wonder, scarcely breathing lest it disturb the ethereal sight before them. Raven, even having had the benefit of the mind link with the Master, was still enthralled. They stood with the orc priest at the entrance to a large cavern. Globes of cool, white light illuminated the small white trees growing scattered over the floor. Their pale, shimmering foliage was beautiful to behold, but nothing in comparison to what was nesting in their branches.

There were many tiny dragons perched there, peering shyly out at the visitors from behind the cover of leaves. Perfectly formed miniature dragons, they were arrayed in all the colors of the rainbow. Some trick of ventilation allowed breezes and air-currents to move about the airy cavern, and some of the dragons could be seen riding these currents, gliding effortlessly with minute movements of their glistening wings.

When the priest led them down to a seating area further into the cavern, a few of the dragons bravely began to circle closer to the visitors. The humanoids caught sight of flashing scales on smooth flanks and gleaming eyes as they whizzed past. Several began to play a game of tag overhead, impossibly fast and agile as they twisted and turned in midair, as if to show off for their visitors. The visitors were suitably impressed. Their guide, the priest, spoke with the assistance of a communication spell, pride evident in his voice.

"They are very intelligent, social creatures. They are not our pets or our familiars; they live here of their own preference; they come and go as they wish. Until recently, they were trapped below with us. They prefer to live in family groups, and seem to communicate with each other all the time. They are herbivores; they love ripe fruits and vegetables, sometimes hard to come by down here."

The priest smiled fondly as a particularly brave one, a male, alighted on his shoulder. It rubbed its head on the orc's cheek before blatantly checking out his companions on the bench. This close up the fairy dragon was a marvel of beauty. This particular one was colored mainly in blue's and greens, with a yellow underbelly and a white throat. Its eyes gleamed like tiny iridescent gems, and the intelligence behind them was unmistakable. It seemed very taken with Rel; it watched her with avid interest.

The priest continued speaking, "As I said before, they are very intelligent. They learn amazingly fast, and can learn quite complex commands. Look here..." He very carefully encouraged the little dragon to come down to his arm. From the tip of his nose to the end of its tail it was only two feet in length. The orc delicately ran his finger under the tail, lifting it slightly so they could see the tiny stinger at the end. "These dragons don't have a breath weapon, like the dragonettes. They can scratch and bite, but the most dangerous thing about them is their stinger. It has a very powerful non-lethal poison that renders the victim unconscious. We have legends that one sting from these beauties can be enough to drop a berserk troll in its tracks!"

"Incredible!" Rel leaned forward, eyes only on the tiny dragon. It unfurled its wings, startled, then took flight to rejoin its friends. The priest ruefully rubbed his arm where tiny claws had reflexively tightened before taking off, leaving tiny pinpricks behind. "It's perfect! How do I catch one of them to cast a familiar spell on it?" Rel asked.

The priest looked horrified at the suggestion. "Catch one? Familiar spell? No, no! If one of them chooses, they will bond with you. Whether it stays with you is entirely up to you, however. These dragons will remain bonded with you so long as you remain good at heart. Just as the dragonettes you spoke of before encourage increasingly greedy and corrupt behavior, these dragons encourage the opposite behavior. They are like a live conscience, if you will. Now, let us be silent and just wait quietly, to see what will happen."

They did just that for a space. The blue and green dragon that had been so bold before came back, and this time it settled beside Rel. She offered it bits of her preserved rations dug out of her backpack, just the vegetables, of course. It sniffed cautiously at the unfamiliar food, then decided to take a taste. Rel risked reaching out a hand to it to stroke its smooth scales. After a quick sniff of her skin, it allowed the caress, much to Rel's delight.

Soon after, Amman, too, had a visitor. This dragon had many different shades of blue with black wings. Speaking to it softly, and borrowing a handful of the food from the packet Rel had opened, he eventually encouraged it to come closer.

The delight on her companions faces as they interacted with the jewel-like tiny dragons was unmistakable. Raven scanned the air and the trees around hopefully. "Oh please, oh please!" she whispered to herself. After a considerable time of watching and waiting, she finally caught sight of a tiny pair of eyes watching her from the shelter of a tree just behind her. They stared at each other for several heartbeats. Raven whispered softly in Windsong, a speech favored by the animal-loving Fayans south of the Wall, "Come, come...choose me..."

She caught her breath as the branch stirred. Cautiously, a dragon emerged from the shadows. It crept further out on the branch and regarded Raven levelly. It was as beautiful as his brothers, if not more so, it seemed to the Were. Its body was dark green with emerald wings. The underbelly was silvery, shading into more emerald green under the neck. Raven held out her hand in unspoken communication, and it flew the short distance to land on her wrist. With her other hand, Raven stroked it gently, amazed that she should have been found worthy of even this much contact. The tiny dragon looked at Raven, with shining opalescent eyes, and she knew without question that she had been chosen.

Raven laughed softly in delight and wonder. Unconditional love and acceptance like this she had never known. That part of her that had remained frozen and carefully walled off for so many years opened up then. She felt overwhelmed with love for the tiny creature on her wrist, and could not contain the tears that welled up in her eyes. Unchecked, they spilled down her cheeks, past the smile of joy, which, for once, held nothing of its usual fierceness or bitterness.

After a small time had passed, Raven had a thought. She carefully dug in her belt purse, hesitated over the copper and bronze, and finally fished out one of the few golden coins. She offered it to her dragon. With a cry of delight, the dragon took it in his mouth and flew away with it. Catching her friends' surprised looks, she said, "They are dragons in every sense of the word, right? It makes sense that they would like shiny things, doesn't it?"

"You are quite right, Raven," replied the priest, who had been quietly looking on while the visitors and dragons bonded. "They have their horde hidden away in there somewhere," and he gestured deeper into the cavern. "I'm sure your gift will be admired by all."

Rel and Amman each decided to follow Raven's example. Clutching gold coins in their mouths, their dragons flew away into the trees as well. Raven's green dragon could be seen making its way back already. Raven thrilled at the knowledge that she could now pick it out of a group with no difficulty. It had something in its claws; a silver coin!

It carefully dropped the silver coin on a clear space off the path, then turned around and flew back into the canopy of small trees. Curious as to what it was about, Raven stood and walked over to where it had deposited the coin. It was back almost immediately, bearing something thin and flexible in its claws, which it, too, deposited next to the coin. Then, cocking its head at Raven, it appeared to wait.

"What's this? You want me to pick one?" Raven squatted down to examine the offerings. The coin was silver, all right, if of an unfamiliar mintage. Raven had never seen a silver coin before; it was too rare and worth ten of her gold coins alone! The other object seemed to be a length of green dyed leather, with a bronze buckle at one end and holes at the other. It was too short to be a belt, however. She was torn. The silver was a lot of money, yet it was only that. She expected to make considerable amounts of it on her adventures. It did not tempt her. It was the strip of leather that aroused her curiosity. Why would her dragon give her a leather strap? Maybe there was something special about it... She picked up the leather, making her choice. The fairy dragon picked up the silver coin and returned it to the horde.

Rel's dragon had now returned as well, and repeated the same ritual. First it dropped off a silver coin, then it returned, flying clumsily with a large weapon clutched in its claws. When the warrior examined it, she discovered it was a broadsword, but not like one she had ever seen before. The blade was black, and had a slight wet sheen to it that reminded one of viscous oil. Without much hesitation, Rel chose the broadsword.

Amman had to make the same decision: silver coin or a strange-looking bottle made of red and white swirled glass. Without hesitation, Amman chose the bottle.

The three companions gathered around, wondering at each other's gifts and at each other's dragons. The three dragons wove complicated patterns in the air as they flew; they seemed to be as excited and pleased as the three friends. The priest of the Living God turned to lead the group out of the cavern. The three young dragons quickly flew back to the shelter of trees, where, with some difficulty, they could be seen surrounded by many other dragons, shifting and twining about each other. It seemed to be some sort of farewell, for they soon disengaged from the larger group and flew back to the humanoids they had bonded with. With pride, the three companions bore their chosen dragons over the threshold of the cavern and into the tunnels beyond.

 

* * *

 

Cahli admired the miniature dragon sitting contentedly on Raven's outstretched arm. In the sunlight outside the temple, its scales had a burnished, gem-like quality. It was indeed a creature of rare beauty.

"So, what do you think, Cahli?" asked Raven. "I was thinking of naming it something like 'Little Jewel' or 'Elven Jewel'. How would you say that in Old Elven?"

Cahli considered for a moment. "In Jess'taht'Lyr, the word 'Elf', or 'Elven' is said Jhen. 'Jewel' is said Vdair. Properly said, however, it would be Vdair'Jhen.

Raven rolled the unfamiliar syllables around in her mouth. Her pronunciation was atrocious, not having the musical ear necessary to properly pronounce the old elven language. (It sounded more like singing to her than speech, something she had not put much thought to learning in her formative years, preferring instead learning the finer points of evading her mother's demands for household chores, or, failing that, training with her valent, or even simply roaming the mountainside in solitude.) She nodded her head. Her dragon would have an elven name, as was fitting, but for everyday use, she would call it Jhenni.

"Jhenni." The little dragon turned to regard her curiously, head cocked. "Yes, that's perfect," the were said with much satisfaction. "Thank you, Cahli!"

Cahli sighed quietly at the mangling of her language, but had to smile at the young were's apparent pleasure at having named her new little friend.

Rel, too, wished Cahli's help finding the perfect name for her dragon as she did not speak the old tongue. She settled on Tah'Besu, or "Little Sword" translated into Humani. Amman quickly decided on the more prosaic name of "Speeder" for his dragon.

"What do you expect from a man who would name his riding lizzard 'Thunder'?" whispered Raven in an amused undertone to Rel. Aloud, she spoke to the whole group.

"I wish the Master could have seen our dragons. It's such a shame that he has to stay away from them. He seemed so sad when he said that ever since he was made into a vampire they have been uneasy in his presence, notwithstanding the fact that he is a good orc."

Amman replied, "Yes, it is a shame. I think it would give him some measure of peace to be able to retreat to that magical place on occasion. As it is, I'm afraid we've disrupted any measure of peace for him when we told him somewhat of what has gone on in the world since he was buried away."

"He will have much to discover for himself, as well," added Rel. "As do we all. Raven, what did he tell you before we left, by the way?"

Raven's brows narrowed as she related the Master's last words to her. "The book you carry so close to you, both in body and in heart, is written in Madrakeese. It usually runs in the family, Raven Stark. Good fortune in your search for the truth... Farewell."

Amman shrugged when queried about the language called Madrakeese. He had never heard of it before, and neither had any of the others, even Cahli who was quite well traveled.

"I wonder what he meant, 'it usually runs in the family'. Strange... Well, like you said, Rel, some things we will have to find out for ourselves, and I know now that none of us have to make that search alone!"

With that rousing - if rather sentimental - speech, the companions clasped arms, pledging friendship, loyalty and trust. The culmination of their first quest, while having taken an unforeseen twist, was an unequivocal success. The bond they now shared with their fairy dragons exceeded all expectations. It was time to move on to wider horizons. And although this tale comes to an end for the reader, for our intrepid heroes the story is just beginning...

Editor's Note

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