“Elf candles.” Weaver pointed to a small stand of conical flowers nodding in the faint breeze.
“Versithorae,” Joe corrected.
The bard turned to frown at him. “What?”
“They’re called versithorae in the elvish. Plains tribes discovered them long before any humans moved into the area. Obviously, they didn’t call them ‘elf candles.’”
“Joe,” said Weaver with ostentatiously thinning patience, “are you just trying to be a pain in the ass, or do you seriously imagine that bit of trivia to be in any way significant?” He turned his back on Joe and the versithorae and resumed picking his way up the slope. “Elf candles in terrain like this are a sure sign we’re entering a green dragon’s territory.”
“How’s that?” Billie asked.
“Really?” He grinned down at her. “You, the famous adventurer who knows all the continent’s dragons, don’t know how to spot dragonsign?”
“First of all, ponytail, I know the names of the dragons on this continent because I had a good, solid gnomish education. Second, I’m a city girl. You point me at something you want dead and I’ll deadify it before you can finish givin’ the order. But the workshop is my fortress and the back alleys my stalking ground. I know bugger all about tracking diddly anything out here in the howling wilderness.”
Mary fluttered her wings, disembarking from Joe’s shoulder, and in the next moment was walking alongside them as though she’d never been anywhere else. “Versithorae are a lowland plant, native to the Golden Sea and the surrounding Great Plains. They do not like altitude. Powerful users of fae magic frequently cause the germination and growth of plants that would otherwise not thrive in a given environment, either by design or as a byproduct of their workings. Versithorae, however, need more than magic; they need ash. They only grow where the ground has been burned. Thus, Weaver is correct; seeing them where they should not grow is a near-certain sign that a green dragon lives nearby.”
“Well, how ’bout them apples,” Billie said cheerfully.
“Glad to hear it,” McGraw grunted, pulling himself resolutely along with his staff. “I’ll be happy to leave off all this hiking and tend to something more relaxing, like duking it out with the dragon.”
“Is this the part where you grouse about how you’re getting too old for this?” Weaver asked with a grin.
“Ain’t my policy to point out the obvious, sonny boy. Leads to people takin’ a dim view of one’s mental faculties.”
Joe gave him a sidelong glance, but kept his mouth shut. In fact, he was a little worried about McGraw. Mary had spent the hike from Venomfont perched on his shoulder—he still wasn’t sure whether to feel honored or alarmed—and Billie seemed to be a bottomless fount of energy, but the rest of them were clearly feeling the effects of the day-long uphill walk, particularly McGraw. Several times the old man had surreptitiously tossed back vials of some alchemical solution, and Joe had repeatedly felt the faint buzz of arcane magic being activated around him, but despite whatever preparations he invoked, the old man was still breathing and sweating more heavily than any of them, leaning much of his weight on his staff.
Keenly aware that he was the least experienced member of the party, Joe had been somewhat relieved that he wasn’t the only one struggling. Even Weaver was moving more stiffly this late in the day…but then again, he’d apparently spent the last few years lurking in some library. The trip through the Golden Sea hadn’t prepared him for this. Grateful as he was to have been prepared for the reality of blistered feet, uncomfortable behind-a-bush toilet breaks and a diet of jerky and flatbread, there was a great difference between hiking across mostly flat territory and hiking up into a mountain range.
“Anyway, no great surprise we’re seein’ dragonsign,” Billie said, taking out the map again and unfolding it. She held the expanse of paper in front of her face as she walked, somehow not slackening her pace or losing her footing despite completely obstructing her own view. “This here is Mount Blackbreath itself, an’ we’re not far from the caldera.”
“Should we think about settling in for the night and continuing on tomorrow?” Joe suggested, glancing around. The sun was long out of sight; climbing westward as they were, it had vanished not long after noon.
“Bad idea,” said Weaver, shaking his head. “We don’t want to be camped and vulnerable this close to a dragon’s territory. In his territory, most likely. They have differing ideas about visitors, but they do not like trespassers. Settling in crosses that line.”
“Seems like splittin’ hairs,” said McGraw.
Weaver shrugged. “I don’t disagree, but it’s standard practice for approaching a dragon. Anyhow, there’s also the basic tactical concern that he can get the drop on us if we’re asleep. Even if we post a lookout, the rest of the group will have to wake up and get their pants on if he chooses to attack. Better to face him while we’re a little tired than to risk that.”
Mary made a lifting motion with one hand and murmured a few indistinct words. Instantly, Joe felt his weariness ease, leaving him alert as if he were freshly rested. Even better, the growing soreness in his legs, which had reached nearly excruciating levels, vanished completely. The group paused in unison.
“Much obliged, ma’am,” said McGraw fervently, tipping his hat to her. Mary nodded in return with a small smile.
“Here.” Weaver had taken advantage of the brief stop to reach into his coat and pull out what appeared to be a small cigarette case. From this he removed pairs of wax earplugs and began passing them out. “These are attuned to my instruments. They won’t impede your hearing, but they’ll protect you from the effects of spellsong.”
“At the risk of soundin’ paranoid,” said McGraw, bouncing his pair on the palm of one hand, “it occurs to me that if you planned to turn against the group, puttin’ these things in our heads would be a great first step. Being that we don’t know what spells are on ’em, that is. I can tell it’s fae magic, and not much else.”
Weaver shrugged, tucked away the case and turned to continue on. “Fine, leave them out, get bespelled as soon as we go into combat. Learn how much I care.”
“They do precisely what he says they do,” said Mary, putting her own pair of earplugs in one of her belt pouches. “Don’t be so suspicious, Elias; a betrayal from within the group isn’t likely, and would damage us less than if we spent all our time watching one another. In any case, Weaver, I have my own methods.”
Ahead of her, just behind Billie, he shrugged again. “Could everyone keep an eye out for bugs, please? I need to catch one.”
“Bugs?” Joe frowned, confused.
“Bugs,” Weaver repeated patiently. “Spiders, insects… A small lizard will do, if necessary.”
“Any preferences?” McGraw asked dryly.
“Non-venomous, not prone to stinging or biting, ideally. If I can’t have my druthers, though, all that’s necessary is that it be alive.”
Joe glanced around at the others; if they thought this as odd as he did, none of them gave sign. He wondered whether it was just standard adventurer aplomb, or if they knew something about Weaver’s methods that he didn’t. As they continued on, he slipped the plugs into his ears, grimacing. True to Weaver’s promise, they didn’t impede his hearing in the slightest, which didn’t make the sensation any less odd. If anything, it made it worse. Unnatural.
He had time to grow accustomed to them as they pressed on. The Wyrnrange was mostly bare, craggy stone, the kind of rocks that resulted in scrapes or even cuts and punctures if one slipped. As they ascended, greenery began to appear in increasing abundance, mosses and lichens predominating, but there were also flowers—including more versithorae—and small shrubs, even a few stunted saplings.
It was another half hour before they rounded a jagged heap of boulders and came to a stop, the path—such as it was—having ended.
“Welp,” Billie drawled, “this is the place, all right. Now what?”
Ahead there was an obvious pass, a wide crack in the towering rock wall before them. They couldn’t see what lay beyond, however, and not just because of the gathering dark. A thick network of vines, bedecked with mismatched flowers and bristling with evil-looking thorns, crisscrossed the opening, obstructing it completely.
McGraw held out his staff, and a clean white light glowed from the large crystal set into its head. The illumination didn’t help much; there was nothing to see except bare stone and the arboreal blockage.
“Used to run around with a witch back in the day,” he mused. “Had a pixie familiar. Damn annoying little thing—they’ve got the intellect of a two-year-old and the personality of a puppy, as a rule. Still, it was, among other things, a hovering lamp. Very handy at times like this. Now, I’m no expert on witchcraft, but is that barrier as magical as I think it is?”
“That and much more, I suspect,” said Mary, stepping forward to examine it. “This is no mere deterrence; Khadizroth seems quite serious in his desire for privacy. Oh, and Weaver…here.” She turned and gestured toward him; as if thrown from her hand, a large white moth fluttered out of the gap above the lattice of vines, drifting toward him. She smiled as he carefully caught the insect in his cupped hands. “I couldn’t find a butterfly, but that is close enough. It seems to suit you better than something that skitters.”
“I can’t imagine how you came to that conclusion. Thanks, though, this is perfect.” He held the helplessly fluttering moth up to his face, whispering inaudibly.
“So!” Billie said brightly. “What’ll we do about this, then? Blast it open?”
“Excellent way to die,” said McGraw. “It’ll be enchanted not just to resist attacks, but to react to them. Dragons are very serious magic users, as you know very well.”
“Bah! Problems I can’t solve with brute force are beneath my notice.”
“I can unravel it,” said Mary, peering at the vines from inches away, “but it will take time, and the process will surely alert the dragon to our presence, if he does not already know we’re here.”
“Best to assume he does,” McGraw opined.
“I concur. Be on your guard. Tampering with his gate may encourage him to come let us in, or it may prompt an attack. This could take… I am not sure. Hours, possibly.”
“May I?” Weaver asked. As they all turned to look at him, he crushed the poor moth between a thumb and forefinger, murmuring something to it. In the pale light of McGraw’s glowstone, Joe thought the man’s expression seemed oddly tender as he killed the insect; he dismissed the notion. Weaver was hard enough to figure out without adding in weirdness like that.
Brushing his fingers clean of moth guts on his coat, the bard stepped up to the barrier, Mary making room for him. He withdrew a wooden flute from within his coat, lifted it to his lips and began to play.
The first note seemed to resonate in Joe’s very bones, its tone far deeper than such a little instrument seemed like it should have been able to produce. Weaver played on, however, and the pitch climbed, forming a slow, mournful song. A dirge that seemed to cry with a nearly human voice. The others stepped unconsciously back away from him, Billie grimacing, her ears twitching violently amid her mass of curly hair.
The vines began to die.
It started slowly, a black rot appearing like a fungal disease on the green, but the more widely it grew, the more quickly it spread. Vines shriveled, thorns dropped off, flowers wizened away to nothing and disintegrated. A faint rustling began, then grew, the green barrier reduced in the course of a minute to a collapsing net of pitiful dried husks.
Weaver blew the final notes of his lament. In the silence immediately afterward, the others stood around him as if frozen. Finally, he tucked his flute away carefully, then casually kicked what was left of the vine barrier.
The whole thing collapsed.
“Life magic,” Weaver said dismissively. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
“May I just say,” Billie said, “that that was fuckin’ terrifying.”
“How did you do that?” Joe demanded.
Weaver turned to grin at him over his shoulder. “You’ll have cause to ruminate on this when you get to be forty and people are still calling you the Kid. The fact of the matter is, Joe, we adventurers don’t get to pick the moniker we get known by. Those are elected by the ignorant masses and the bards who shepherd them. Believe me, I campaigned to be called Glittergiggles Weaver, but for some reason they stuck me with Gravestone. Go figure.”
He turned back, straightened his coat, and stepped through. The others, after a moment, followed. There didn’t seem much else to do.
It wasn’t a tunnel or even a canyon, merely a break in the wall of the great crater. In the darkness, little of the huge space beyond was visible, the light of McGraw’s staff not penetrating far. The five of them trailed into the caldera, pausing not far beyond the break to peer around. Trees made dimly-perceived shapes at the edges of their vision, hinted at only by the farthest reaches of the light. It was overcast, denying them moonlight by which to see, but at least it wasn’t as windy as a mountaintop ought to be. Air currents whistled above them, rustling in branches, but the walls all around sheltered them.
“We are being stalked,” Mary said quietly.
“The dragon?” asked McGraw.
She shook her head. “An elf.”
“Darling mentioned an elf servant,” Weaver noted. “Well. Should we…what? Introduce ourselves?”
“We have entered Khadizroth’s domain,” said Mary. “He would have greeted us if he intended to. As he has not, it appears we shall have to disrespect his wishes.”
“How do you propose to command a dragon’s appearance?” Joe asked.
“Hm,” she said noncommittally, peering around.
“Oh! You leave it to me!” Billie sat down on the ground, unslung her pack and began rummaging around in it. “I’ve got just the—ah! Here we go. Behold the wonders of modern enchantment!”
She pulled out a complicated apparatus that looked like the offspring of a telescope and an enchanted sewing machine, brandishing it and grinning broadly.
“Nice,” said Weaver sarcastically. “Unless that’s a dragon detector, I don’t see the point.”
“Don’t be daft, you can’t just detect dragons. Aside from the usual means, of course. Giant shadows, roaring, fire, all that. This is a gold detector! Me own design!”
“You can do that?” Joe asked, fascinated.
“Oh, aye!” she said, nodding enthusiastically. “These babies are essential in modern mining operations.”
“Dragons have hoards,” McGraw mused. “Messing with their hoards is the surest way to get their attention. Yeah, that’d work, if we’re willing to risk provoking an immediate attack. If it does work, that is. Seems likely Khadizroth would have enchantments laid over his treasures to prevent people doing exactly what you’re proposing.”
“Aye, but I spent last night tweakin’ it while you louts were snoring. See, I’ve rigged out the focusing lens with a holy charm to help penetrate his nature magic, and significantly boosted its operational range and spell penetration by way of amping up the power source to ridiculous, even dangerous levels!”
She flicked a switch on her device, grinning insanely, and a low hum sprang up around them, along with an electric tingling in the air that made the fine hairs on their arms stand upright. All four of them immediately took three steps back away from her.
The sound of powerful wings was the only warning they got. A massive shadow swept past above them, blotting out the very dim glow of the cloudy sky; the pale light of McGraw’s staff glittered briefly across viridian scales before the huge shape vanished beyond its range. The dragon settled to the ground some thirty feet distant, rearing up against the night. In the darkness, he was only a faintly perceived shape, towering like a church steeple, the only thing visible his intensely glowing green eyes near the top.
“That will not be necessary.” Khadizroth’s voice was a peculiar sound, a light tenor that was so deep from the sheer power of its projection that Joe could feel it through the stones beneath his boots. “Kindly turn off your device.”
“Aw,” said Billie. “But I was really hopin’—”
“Billie,” Mary said firmly, “please do as he asks.”
“Pooh,” the gnome pouted, but flipped the switch back. Immediately the arcane buzz was silenced, and she sullenly began packing it away in her satchel.
“Khadizroth the Green, I presume?” said McGraw, tipping his hat politely.
“You presume a great deal,” replied the dragon, “but in that, at least, you are correct.”
His darkened silhouette shrank, seeming to disappear entirely into the ground beyond. However, footsteps crunched on the stony ground, rustling in occasional patches of underbrush, and within moments a human-sized figure stepped into the circle of light.
Khadizroth, in this form, was a tall elf in entirely typical costume for a forest tribesman: tight vest and baggy trousers in matching brown, with a blousy-sleeved shirt of dark green and simple leather boots. His hair, likewise, was green, slicked back and falling past his waist behind him, from what could be seen of it fanning out around his lower back. In the manner of the oldest elves, he had a slim beard adorning his pointed chin. Those eyes were the same, though, the distinctive draconic eyes like glowing, smooth-cut gemstones.
“Mary,” he said, bowing to her. “You honor my residence; I apologize for the state of my hospitality, but I was not expecting visitors.”
“In fairness,” she replied equably, “we clearly forced our way in.”
The dragon actually smiled at her, before turning to the others. It was discomfiting, being unable to follow his gaze, but the lack of pupils hid the direction his eyes were looking. “Of the rest of you I have, of course, heard, though we have not met. With one exception, however.” He turned his entire head this time, making it clear he was looking directly at Joe.
“Joseph P. Jenkins, at your service,” he said, tipping his hat.
“Ah, Jenkins. That name I do know; you are well thought of by the elves near your town. Welcome.”
Khadizroth spread his arms, and light began to blossom in the crater.
It began with the flowers, but spread, pale shades of pastel accentuating bright silver and white. Stands of tall mushrooms, luminous flowers, vines twined through trees, even some of the trees themselves; it seemed fully a third of the plants occupying the crater were bioluminescent, and they came to life at their master’s command. Light rippled outward from Khadizroth, till it reached the edges of the caldera. It was like a meadow, trees, bushes and flowers scattered artfully across the stony ground, stands of tallgrass waving faintly, all illuminated by soft organic lights.
“Wow,” Billie breathed. “Oh, hell, that’s gorgeous.”
“I am glad you approve,” said the dragon, sounding actually sincere. “But you have not come all this way to admire the view, and it is not my custom to be excessively sociable with assassins.”
“Well, now, that’s a mite unfair,” said McGraw. “We’re not necessarily assassins.”
“We’re strictly unnecessary assassins,” added Weaver, grinning when McGraw nudged him with the butt of his staff.
“Indeed, let us to business and have done with it,” said Khadizroth seriously. “You are here at the behest of Antonio Darling, are you not?”
“We are,” said Mary, nodding.
“And am I correct in assuming that he desires my death?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He desires a cessation of hostilities between you. Your death is one way that could be accomplished, yes, but any number of others would be preferable. An arrangement, for instance.”
“In fact, I sent my servant Vannae to offer the Bishop exactly that,” said the dragon, his face growing stern. “He saw fit to assault my man and issue insults to be delivered back to me.”
“He did?” Billie asked delightedly. “Well, that ol’ poof has more balls than I gave him credit for. You go, Darling!”
“Will you kindly button it, you little freak?” Weaver exclaimed.
“Oh, so it’s only funny when you do it?”
“I should further note,” Khadizroth continued, ignoring both of them, “that while I sent one individual presenting no threat to offer a civil conversation, Darling has sent back five individuals representing significant destructive force. I question his good faith.”
“If one must send mice to consult with the cat,” said McGraw, “one doesn’t send the smallest or weakest, and certainly not one alone.”
Khadizroth smiled thinly. “You are not without a point, Longshot. The fact remains, though, that your master and I have little to discuss.”
“You could always renounce your claim on those two elf girls,” suggested Weaver. “That’s really all he wants.”
Khadizroth was shaking his head before the bard finished speaking. “I must take it as given that my security is compromised; that proverbial pigeon has flown the coop. The matter does not end there, however. If Shinaue and Lianwe wished to leave my company, they had only to do so. Instead, they chose to abduct every member of the family I had laboriously built up, hiding them away among elven groves where I may not safely retrieve them, turning the elves and now the humans against me in the process. Quite apart from the damage they have done to my long-term plans… It is not in my nature to lightly tolerate such betrayal.” His face grew ever grimmer till he was outright scowling, and Joe fought down the urge to back away from him. “There shall be reprisal for that. Darling, in assaulting, unprovoked, my last loyal servant, has invited further vengeance upon himself. Tell me, what has he offered as recompense for these various affronts?”
A pause fell; the five of them exchanged a round of glances.
“So,” the dragon said grimly. “Bishop Darling does not seek to bargain, but to intimidate. He sends killers and so-called ‘heroes,’ and offers nothing toward earning my favor. It seems, as I initially said, that we have nothing to discuss.”
“You’re quick to place blame, sir,” said Joe, stepping forward. “With all respect, perhaps you should consider whether you’ve brought this treatment down on yourself.”
“That’s right, let’s taunt the dragon,” Weaver mumbled to himself.
Khadizroth raised an eyebrow. “You presume to judge me, boy?”
“My judgment is as flawed as anyone’s, I suspect, but it’s all I’ve got to work with,” said Joe. “Unless we’ve been badly misled—which ain’t impossible, I’ll grant you—the plan was for you to breed yourself an army of loyal dragons… Using girls taken from their tribe for the purpose.”
“Rescued from disaster at the hands of the Tiraan Empire,” the dragon said firmly. “Raised in the shadow of my wings, willing to pursue the duty I required of them.”
“You can dress that up any way you choose,” said Joe coldly. “There’s not a one that makes it seem a respectful way to treat ladies.”
The dragon stared at him in silence for a long moment. Joe stared right back. The weight, the sheer force of personality pressing outward from those featureless green orbs was almost enough to push him physically backward, but he refused to yield ground. His companions stood silently around him, seeming not even to breathe.
“I accept your condemnation,” said the dragon at last, nodding deeply in a gesture that was very nearly a bow. “I wonder, Mr. Jenkins, whether you have yet faced a situation in which your principles were tested against one another, and against grim necessity?”
Joe opened his mouth to reply, but his voice caught in his throat. He suddenly couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“It is an agonizing position,” Khadizroth continued. “Faced with the growing depredations of the Tiraan Empire, the reality of the threat it represents, yet lacking a good means of throwing it back. There are only poor methods available of accomplishing this vitally necessary task; I assure you, I have looked for better and found none. The best I could do was to carry out my plan with the greatest kindness possible toward those upon whom it depended. Even so, I confess to as much relief as disappointment that I was denied the opportunity to bring it to fruition. For all the wasted effort, all the lost years, even despite the heartache of losing those I have come to regard as family, I shall emerge from this with my integrity undamaged. I was prepared to mourn its loss. For that, my retribution upon Shinaue and Lianwe shall be mild indeed.
“However, the initial problem remains. This new Empire is a disastrous thing, a teeming cauldron of evils waiting to be tipped out upon the world—again. The carnage of Athan’Khar must not be forgotten, and that was only the greatest ill in a long and endlessly-growing list. I remain in opposition to this Empire, more certainly so now that my errant girls have evidently begun to set humanity against me. I reject the judgment of Tiraas and all its agents, and in particular that of Antonio Darling, a man who has exhibited neither respect nor courtesy, whatever his aims. I will not be pressed by his lackeys.”
“Will you not?” Mary asked quietly. “You suggest confidence in your powers that may not be warranted.”
“If you are counting on the ancient respect you are owed to stay my hand, Mary,” he said, “you will find the matter changed entirely by the fact that you have come to me offering violence. I have no animosity toward any of you; should you choose to turn and walk back down this mountain, you may go in peace, and with my blessing. But whether I win or lose any battle you offer, I shall not yield to the corruption you serve.”
“And there you have it,” Weaver said in disgust. “History, politics and adventuring in a nutshell. You can work around the selfish and the depraved in a thousand different ways, but all it takes is one idiot with principles to throw everything into chaos.”
“Indeed,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Will you leave, then? Or strike first?”
“Sure there’s nothing we can say to change your mind?” McGraw asked, tightening his grip on his staff.
“Oh, the hell with all this,” Billie snorted, pulling a pair of wands from her belt. “Let’s just burn him down and get outta here.”
“So be it,” said the dragon, spreading his arms again. This time, instead of a show of lights, he rose up, swelling in seconds to his full form, and despite himself, Joe backpedaled frantically.
Khadizroth the Green in his true shape was over three stories tall, reared up on his hind legs. He was a serpentine symphony of scaled muscle, massive claws digging into the living rock, his enormous wingspan blotting out the sky before them. He opened his fanged mouth, drawing in a deep breath, and telltale flickers began to form around his jaws.
Joe was distracted by the tiniest sound from behind him. Instinct snapped into play and he whirled, whipping out his own wands.
A tomahawk was speeding toward his head; reacting without conscious thought, he blasted it out of the air. If the elf—Vannae, that was his name—was surprised or intimidated by this, he gave no sign, pulling a wand of his own and leveling it at the group, his face resolute.
Elf and dragon attacked simultaneously, catching the party right between them.