CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
11 - 12 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
I was so frustrated with the chore of keeping all the clones of my ‘dear friend’ from tripping over each other’s feet, and making them generate sounds only moderately harmful to the ear (a task as futile as it was challenging) that I completely missed the moment of the old man’s arrival. Afterwards, I learned that he had made a few circles around the fires, stopping at one of the stalls to accept a plate with a slice of roast and some bread, but refusing the ale. I suppose the ones of his kind have peculiar tastes. In any case, when he finally reached me, he was not munching on his food or clapping his palms in rhythm with the music (something he was reported doing at other fires). He was simply staring. It was that unwavering, flint-hard gaze that first drew my attention. His eyes looked like two narrow gashes made on the dark-tanned, leathery face with a very sharp knife. And these slits opened into some other universe, completely different from our own.
Later, I remembered that the eyes were blue, but not of the watery-pale or metallic-gray shade that you sometimes find in humans; neither of the sapphirine-bright hue that is natural for elves (though I could only judge by myself of course). No, these eyes were the color of dark indigo, or of that rare mineral sometimes found in the iron mines next to the ore deposits, that the dwarves frustrated by its hardness and poisonous nature call ‘kobold blue’. A few oily strands of hair of an unidentifiable shade bordering between gray and dirty brown, weedy and almost non-existent, lingered on his strangely deformed head, like the stalks of last year’s crop, left on the winter field by slothful peasants. His ears jutted from the oddly-shaped skull like that of an old bat, although they were too big even for a flying fox, and fringed at the edges like a border of a fancy tablecloth. But the most prominent feature on that head was a nose, or should I say a ‘snout’, for no other word would be appropriate to describe that venerable appendage. It was not just big - it was humongous. On its tip sat the biggest round, pointy wart I had ever seen. The nose had a life of its own. I think little creatures like jinx-kin or dwarf shrews of the kind we had met in the abbot Addazahr’s dungeon could have formed a colony on that nose, and developed a civilization of their own, given time.
Only after I had grasped all these fine details of the strange old man’s anatomy, I singled out the most important one of all – he was looking me straight in the eye without having to lift his head, or stand on tiptoes. It was because he was of exactly the same height as I, if not a bit taller. And I doubted the hin had invited another lofty guest to their celebrations besides the twins and me.
“A neat trick for a puny mind of an earthworm,” these were the first words out of his mouth. The indigo eyes were churning with deep electric-blue fire as he smiled. Thin, leathery lips pulled back revealing the swollen, purple-black gums, and I noticed that he had not had any teeth left.
I also got the impression that he did not actually say anything aloud. Rather, his words were projected directly into my mind in a manner similar to that, which the jahi had used when he wanted to make himself heard. Another telepath? I saw his smile deepen and turn into a hearty laugh. The laughter filled the air with a sound like a thunderclap, drowning the puny melody of Omwo’s music, and dissipating in a fine crackling noise of static electricity. That was when I realized we got trouble on our hands. The wyvern-shaped Dragon ring on my small finger was almost glowing with inner radiation. It grew hot and heavy, almost like it was gaining weight with every passing moment.
“A fine trick indeed,” the old man hissed – or spoke inside my head? “But I will show you one even better.”
I noticed that he was clutching a bit of greenery in his bony hand. It was just a twig of a fir from the mountainside nearby, but something about it made me feel extremely uneasy. Then the old man’s fingers moved in the spell pattern, his shriveled lips mumbled the syllables of the incantation – and all I could do was watch him, paralyzed by a strange fit of apathy. Finally, the spell took hold, and the world shifted around us, as the entire vista of the mountainous terrain and the stone-strewn field behind the last houses of the village suddenly fogged over and disappeared from view, replaced by something so completely different that my eyes almost bulged out of their sockets.
Everywhere the eye could see there was a shifting sea of sand: high dunes and flat, treacherous fields of the high desert rippling with intricate patterns and small wavelets of pale-gold sand under the bright light of the full moon. The five bright bonfires still flared among the dunes, forming the familiar rough triangle, but the huts and houses of Perch were gone, and the sharp downward fall of the chasm was hidden under the treacherous illusion of the desert. Mirage arcana is a very nasty spell, especially when bound to the place using a bit of a local terrain. I suddenly knew how it could be dispelled, but I did not have that magic at my disposal… and once again cursed and writhed in impotent anger. The crowd froze in their tracks; most of the little people were too terrified by the unfamiliar landscape, and the sudden disappearance of their homes to be able to react. I could hear the cries of the terrified children and wails of the womenfolk. The old man cackled and began to shift, wavering and changing shape before my astounded eyes.
A sharp and frightened cry of the human woman undulated in my ears, and a wave of shame suddenly hit me like a jet of hot steam from the boiling pot. “What is she going to do now?” I though briskly, “Throw herself between me and this thing?”
The very thought of this possibility, and of how humiliating this is going to be was enough to free me from my stupor. I did not even have time to think – my hands moved on their own volition. The only thing that I could do at the moment was to buy us some time, and the only remotely useful spell stuck in my mind had sprung to my lips without a thought. My hands finished the arcane dance even as the old man’s bulk began to swell, and his skin acquired a visibly scaly demeanor. As the giant bulk of an ancient blue wyrm began to emerge from the twisted mass of clawed limbs, thorny tail, and dark indigo scurf, the net of black shadow spread from my hands and wrapped the half man - half reptile in its tight weave. As the creature grew in size, the shadow net expanded further, enveloping the dragon even as he continued to reshape and take his natural form. The giant blue-black head with a huge horn protruding from the snout snapped at the dark strands in blind fury, and was consumed by the shadows.
The air smelled of ozone and hot sand. Between the coils of pure darkness, I could still see the tiny sparks dancing on the scaly, rough hide the color of deepest oceanic abyss. There was an angry roar of ear-splitting intensity inside the cocoon of gloom that was the dragon, it rose in pitch, and ended on the highest note transgressing into ultrasound. Iryklagathra was not happy about being caught, even in the net of shadows that could not really restrict his motions but only hindered his vision. But his magic and his most terrible weapon – his breath were not constrained at all. I could hear him taking a deep breath inside the dark cloud. I wanted to yell, but my dried up mouth refused to issue any sound, and my feet were rooted to the spot. Now, on top of the cries of horror and shrill yelps of children I could hear the stomping of many tiny feet, and another cry – that of mortal fear that suddenly ended on a sharp note as the body hit the slope below. The halflings were running in all directions, and some of them were obviously falling down into the hidden abyss.
“You have settled here, in this place and thought you could play with magic energies right under my nose and I would not even notice!” came the bellow from the net of shadows. “You woke me up, little ones, and now this will be the place of your grave! I shall teach you a lesson - you spineless worms! A lesson you will never forget. A lesson you will repeat to the children of your children until every two-legged slug crawling upon Faerun would learn what it means to anger Sharpfangs!”
I doubt he realized that nobody but me could understand his angry roars, since he was not bothering with Common speech, but used Draconic. The brass ring on my little finger grew hotter still as I knew it would, when its magic was invoked. A certain death – I remembered my own old joke. The Dragon ring allowed its owner to communicate with well … dragons, either telepathically or by translating their speech into Draconic, but only at a very close distance. Now the band felt almost like it was burning. Something was bothering me about the old dragon’s intonation though. I listened carefully, trying to figure out what it was. Iryklagathra’s roars sounded a bit stilted - I realized with a sudden hysterical laughter, and almost guffawed despite the direness of the situation. The old lizard had not had any teeth left, but was still calling himself Sharpfangs - what a comedy! And he lost the precious momentum on making his boastful threats.
The dragon loomed over me like a veritable mountain of darkness, crackling with small angry sparks of static electricity, his tail lashing out of the shadow net, delivering the deadly blows to everything on its way, yet I was not afraid any longer. A fit of reckless, idiotic humor came over me. If I was about to die, I was intended to go with a flash.
“Ay, you are a toothless, rotting skinbag on four crippled, rheumatic paws!” I cried into the cloud of darkness, making sure that the ring would deliver my speech right into the giant fringed ears and make it clear to him. “Do you need a fifth one, you old clown? Wait a minute - can dragons use crutches? How about changing your name to Bluntgums, O Venerable One?”
After that last insult, I took a dive to the left and rolled over, roughly avoiding the enormous electric discharge that hit the spot on which I was standing just a moment ago. The line of lightning was thick as a tree trunk, and it left a smoking black crater in the illusionary landscape in which a small family of halflings could have hid easily. Fortunately, the place was empty at the moment when the lightning bolt hit the ground, as I barely had time to scamper away. The hem of my robe had been singed, but that was collateral damage. I jumped to my feet, wondering briefly how long would it take for the frenzied reptile to get me – by my best estimates I had a life expectancy of a mayfly swept by a swift current, with a smooth silver oblong lurking just under the surface of the stream.
“Get down on your belly, you insolent son of a drunken donkey and a madcap giraffe!” someone hissed in the region of my knees.
“Why madcap?” I inquired dispassionately, too shaken to wonder about the source of the suggestion. “And why does it matter - we are all going to be dead in a matter of mi …”
I yelped in pain as a very sharp object was plunged nonchalantly into one of my ankles. My assailant had reached the desired effect - as I bent over to grab at the bleeding spot he promptly tripped me over and pulled me back to the ground. Another cone of lightning fizzled over our heads, igniting the night with an eerie-blue electric radiation. That one was aimed diagonally, rather than vertically and would have hit my chest squarely, have I not been pushed down. The dragon continued to roar inside his cocoon of darkness, stomping around in wild rage, swatting his tail in random wide swipes, and continuously wailing his curses and threats in Draconic. Most of them were now aimed at me personally, as he was getting really annoyed at the shadow net, trying to dispel it and failing time after time.
It was all getting pretty boring fast. I expected my shadow net spell to last another five to ten minutes, after that the Great Blue Wyrm would go on a rampage, destroying the village and all of its inhabitants, including us. And with my magic lost or stolen, I had absolutely no recourse to stop him. The thought was irritating, but only moderately so. I wondered if my sudden apathy was the result of my despair or of the deeply ingrained shame for my past failures. It was somewhat rewarding to bait the dragon with insolent remarks, but the truth was - I was absolutely helpless against him. It was a wonder we have not been stomped over or raked to death with claws yet, not to mention his two misdirected electrical attacks. And with the deadly illusion still covering the terrain, we could not run or hide anywhere – that was extremely clever and cruel trick that the old bastard had planned in advance. I vaguely remembered that the illusionary magic was supposed to be the ‘specialty’ of the blue chromatic dragons, although of course every individual had his own favorite spells.
“How do you use this thing?” the irritating voice continued to whine in my ear. “Damn it boy! Snap out of it and help me to activate the ring or we are all going to Hell in a handbasket!”
“What ring?” I looked at Omwo (for of course my cheeky savior was none other but my ever annoying halfling companion) in a mild surprise.
“This one!” he thrust his plump little hand into my face. “The one you gave me as my part of the hoard. Curse it Jonny, you are a mage, however incompetent! You must know how to operate these things!”
On one of his short, sausage-like fingers, the single remaining ruby of the Ring of Three Wishes gleamed wetly like a clot of dark blood.
“Now, who would have thought that you of all people would offer a solution when everything seemed lost,” I muttered in utter disbelief. “I forgot about it completely. All you have to do is to touch the ruby and speak your wish aloud, plainly and clearly.”
“It is that simple, eh?” the halfling nudged me enthusiastically. “Watch me incinerate the old geezer on the spot!”
“Wait, wait! What is it you are going to wish for?” I yelped, grabbing his palm before he had a chance to go on with his plan.
“I am going to wish that the reptilian scumbag would drop dead, obviously. You know: kick the bucket, pop off, catch his death, buy the farm!”
“Don’t!” I gave his hand a good shake to make my point. “Or you may end up thrown a thousand years forward into the future, when the dragon will be dead from natural causes, or into some other reality where he never even existed, and in the mean time what are we going to do here and now?”
A loud crackling noise, followed by another streak of lightning and a series of loud screams gave emphasis to my last statement. I thought I recognized the female voice as Olphara’s. From what little I could see and hear in the pandemonium, she and Mirriam were trying to collect the children and lead them away to safety. But where could they take them – everywhere the eye could see stretched the endless ocean of glittering sand, cold and malicious as the eyes of a dragon.
Something squeezed at my heart then, ever so gently but painfully, as an image of another place ringing with the cries of terrified people blended with roar of the fire and crackling of the dying trees rose to the surface of my memory, only to flee before the desperate urgency of the current situation. And then I realized to my surprise that the atrociousness of Iryklagathra’s delayed revenge bothered me less than its futility. What was the point of this slaughter? A crime committed in vain. Murder that served no purpose, and brought no reward and no closure. Why would he feel the need to attack the descendants of his former enemy’s allies after the enemy himself was centuries dead? The ancient wyrm was living on borrowed time and yet he could find the energy and desire to kill, even with one foot in his grave... It felt ... distressing.
“Would you please stop drifting away and pay attention?” Omwo yelled into my ear. I blinked and turned back to the angry halfling. “You were saying I cannot wish him dead – what the hell did you mean by it? What good is the wish spell if you cannot wish anything you really want?”
“The Wish is a very complicated spell,” I explained patiently. “It alters the fabric of reality in our current universe, and of course as is always the case, Nature tends to seek the path of least resistance. Slaying a dragon is a difficult task, thus it has to be balanced by implementing many serious changes. Transporting you a thousand years forth is easier, since the disappearance of an unknown bard from our time and his reappearance in the future is not a big deal – nobody is going to miss you here...”
“I am actually well-known among certain circles in Darromar,” he started to protest.
“Look, this is not the point! What is important is the fact that it is much easier to move you away than to slay the dragon. Therefore, you have to be very precise when stating your wish or the spell will misfire. Say, you can wish for a heavy weight to be dropped on his head, or some really deadly spell to be fired at his scaly behind – but there is always a chance that he will survive.”
“Drat! Are you always such an optimist? And how do you know anyway? It is not like you ever had a scroll with the spell of that level in your hands...”
Omwo looked at me closely. The expression on my face was enough to convince him to stop arguing. I demonstratively let go of his hand, faking total indifference.
“I wish for the dragon to be incinerated like ... er like a crunchy potato chip in a hot oven...” he started uncertainly. “Wait, drop that one! I wish that the dragon would drop dead, but I would stay here and the village would be safe, and ... No, this will not do. Help me! Can’t you wish something intelligent for a change?”
“Technically speaking this is your turn,” I replied crisply, “the ring was given to you as part of the ‘loot’, if I remember correctly. Hence, it is up to you to make a wish, and save us all. As far as I know it may not even work, unless you formally gift it to me, and renounce your claim.”
“This is not the time to get into all these fine technical details!” the halfling yelped urgently. “Look – your magic is wearing off! Can you renew it quickly or something?”
I raised my head and issued an inarticulate hiss. Omwo was right – the giant reptile had finally freed himself from my spell and was looking straight at us, grinning in all his terrible glory. Now, you have to keep in mind that that was my first encounter with a real dragon in the new life, which was the only one I knew at the time. The view was one I am not likely to forget in another few hundred years. Iryklagathra was an impressive beast, even in his ancient senility. The dragon towered over us like a mountain covered in dark blue scab of ancient lichen. His scales were dull and tinted with a faint gray patina that had formed on his scabrous hide over the years, or mayhap centuries, of hibernation. The monstrous head, crowned with a huge horn, swayed from side to side rather like that of a poisonous snake ready to strike at the mesmerized mouse. Iryklagathra’s lips were drawn back from his toothless gums, his maw stretched into a visible snarl of triumph. Once again, the dragon opened his jaws, and took a deep intake of breath.
“Well,” I muttered, fighting back the most inappropriate fit of hysterical laughter, and finding to my chagrin that the last drops of moisture had all of a sudden evaporated from my mouth. “If you still want to do something about him you had better do it now!”
“I wish to save the village and all of its inhabitants, including us!” Omwo blurted out in one breath, snatching the ring from his hand and waving it at the enraged reptile as if he expected a magical beam of some sort to emit from it, and strike at the dragon.
For a brief moment I was afraid that it would not work, that nothing at all would happen, since the wish was not articulated properly. Then the air around us clouded and shimmered with a haze that dispersed instantly, removing the illusion and revealing the familiar outlines of the mountains, and the stone edifices of Perch. And above the angry roar of the maddened wyrm I heard the first silver note that reverberated across the cold stony ground, reflecting from house walls and mountainsides, filling the universe with a sound of such terrible sweetness and joy that my heart almost burst from a sudden surge of hope. The sound was repeated and went on and on, booming and rolling over the mountains, until it reached the high slope above our heads, and the dark entrance to the cave veiled by the silvery swirls of the night fog. The bell on the small plaza hidden among the clay roofs and rickety walls of Perch was ringing.
“What the...,” Omwo mumbled in distress, “the old bugger is still alive and the stone is gone! Something must have gone wrong.”
I glanced at his hand. The ring was empty of the last ruby, its three sockets glaring at the world like the blinded eyes of some bizarre insect. I tried to swallow nonexistent saliva – the dragon was still there, angry like a wounded adder, and his infuriated roar filled my ears, overwhelming the silver call of the bell.
“Cretins! Imbeciles! Foolish two-legged worms! Do you still think he will come out to protect you? He has been dead for millennia! I will show you, I will show you all!”
And as if in an answer to his string of violent curses, there came a distant cry, brought from above by the gust of night wind.
“I am coming little ones, I am coming! Be of good courage and strengthen your hearts!”
The voice was strong, yet melodious, and something in its intonation was undeniably female. The words were spoken in Common, and there was an eerie echo to them that made me think of flying and of the vast open sky high above the tattered shroud of clouds. At the first sound of it, Iryklagathra screeched in violent rage, spreading his enormous wings and making an attempt to take to the air. But it was too late - the dragoness dived out of the mist and struck at him like a bright spear sent by a hand of the vengeful goddess.
She was magnificent in her righteous fury: elegant and lightly built. A precious statuette crafted out of the brightest white metal, pleasing to the eye of an aesthete. Yet there was also strength, and above all purpose to the graceful outline of the slim, silver body and the sharp cut of her powerful wings. The two powers of epic proportion collided in mid-air, just as the blue dragon tried to take off. But his great age was taking its toll – he was too slow for the silver wrath on bright wings. The massive, dark indigo bulk of the great wyrm met the light aerial shape of the silver dragon. Iryklagathra roared in pain, collapsing back to the ground, and the dragoness retreated swiftly, hovering over him like a seagull over a great ugly vulture.
“By Urgolan’s black mastiff!” Omwo peeped in awe, “somebody, please pinch me! Am I sleeping, or we are about to see a battle between two dragons?”
“I would be more than happy to oblige but I am not sure if it will help you much. If both of us are experiencing the same illusion there is no warranty that my pinch would not be a hallucinatory one...”
“Oh, shut up Jonny,” he snapped nonchalantly, “you have the imagination of a dung beetle! It may be the making of my career as a bard, that is if anybody will believe it!”
“I would say ‘if’ we get out of this mess alive. There is no guarantee that she will win.”
“How do you know it is a she?”
“I just know. Have a good look at her bone structure, and her wings. And anyway, only a female could think of attacking something twice her size with such utter disregard of the consequences. The male dragon would have tried to negotiate first...”
Indeed, the situation did not look very promising, and after the first powerful rush of exalted emotions I began to doubt the outcome of the battle. The silver dragon looked too small, almost fragile, although she probably would have towered over the highest house in Perch and Amkethran. Her tactics seemed to work at first – she was trying to keep her gargantuan opponent grounded, and nebbed at him from the air, alternating between deadly bites of her needle-sharp teeth, and slashes of her formidable claws. But her breath was only moderately useful for that style of a battle, as the other dragon, being very old, was immune to her paralyzing cloud attacks.
He was also clad in enormously thick layers of protective scales; thus rendering her second option - the cone of cold - practically useless. Even though she pelted the old wyrm with streams of sharp fragments of ice, they could not penetrate his thick skin and deal enough direct damage. The blue dragon reared on his hind legs, supporting himself with his massive tail. He was balancing in this upright position, waving two enormous tattered wings, and parrying her attacks with his front paws. His jaws, useless as a weapon, snapped at the dragoness in powerless rage, but his mouth regurgitated incredibly thick discharges of lightning, and some of them were hitting the target - the silver dragon was singed and probably much hurt. Finally, Iryklagathra’s claw caught her shoulder, and a gush of crimson blood sputtered over the bright mail of silver scales. I winced. It did not look good at all.
“Tell me your dastardly name, weakling female, so that I know it before the rest of your life force spills out of your cooling carcass on the stones below!” Iryklagathra roared in Draconic. “It is the way of our kind to know the names of our dead enemies. Even though you follow the tradition of your perverted race, and prefer the worms crawling over earth to your brethren in the sky. I am Iryklagathra, the Sharpfangs. And who are you, insolent fool, who so boldly took over the home of my ancient enemy, and his tribe of servitors?”
“I am Adalon, the Bright,” was the simple answer, and my heart stopped beating, even as I felt a hurricane of blood rushing in my ears. I moaned, grasping at the solid earth under me, and almost fainted, but stopped the seizure with an incredible effort of will.
“Why?” an echo went inside my head, “Why does it have to be her? Curse it to the lowest level of the Abyss!” Then it all suddenly went quiet.
“I shall not allow you to ruin these good halflings’ homes and take their lives as a tribute to your senseless fury, Ancient One!” The silver dragon’s voice sounded steady and serene, even as her lifeblood continued to flow out of the ghastly wound. She was still hovering in the air above the blue wyrm, but was forced to rise higher, and this allowed her opponent to finally take to the wing. It was a truly terrific sight: both of the dragons were rising in slow, gliding circles, avoiding each other’s breath.
“She is going to die. Nothing to worry about – she is already half-dead!”
“I sensed you,” Iryklagathra continued his insane recital, even as he climbed higher. It was getting harder and harder to comprehend his roars. “I could smell your presence in the air; it woke me up from my slumber in the bowels of the earth below these mountains and almost drove me mad with its familiarity. All of your kind stink of rain and clouds - did you know that? There is nothing worse than this stench; it grows on you, goes under your skin, and into your very stomach! I watched and waited, and crawled around like a shadow to find out who and what you are. I know your new cave like my own. I have spent decades crawling around it, searching for the hidden doors, and I was afraid you would flee through the back exit at the first sight of me, and deny me the pleasure of snapping your arrogant neck! If I had known you would come out to protect your pet worms I would have wiped out this viper nest a long time ago! But I am glad they provoked me with their annoying festival.”
They were circling high above our heads now, estimating each others’ remaining strength; and I had roll over in order to see them better.
“Yes, the old grump is going to kill her. You are safe from her, worm. And he was right, that is what you are now - an earthworm crawling on its belly.”
That last passage filled me with cold dread. Was I finally going insane? Whose thoughts was I thinking? Why was the life and death of the silver dragon that I had never seen before, and that was technically on ‘my side’ a concern of mine? Or, to be more precise, why would I wish her dead? No answer. Only cold, resentful silence. I jumped to my feet shaking like a leaf.
“Jon, are you alright?” I realized that Omwo was tugging at the hem of my robe. We were both standing upright now, since the dragons paid no heed to anything besides their combat. “You look a bit paler than usual. Did it finally catch up with you? I know fear is a strange thing – it strikes you at the moment when the worst has already passed. We need to get out of here quick – they are evacuating the village. The Bright One may lose the battle, but she will save us all by delaying the rotten bastard and letting us flee into the caves below.”
“Stop babbling,” I replied softly, walking to the very edge of the rocky precipice. “Follow if you must, but I am not going anywhere.”
He was right - the halflings were all fleeing from the field, the only ones left behind were the guards and a few young women set on helping the wounded to escape, and checking the dead. Mirriam and her brother were helping Olphara to evacuate the children, although I expected the girl to rush back any moment now.
The two dragon shapes in the night sky were circling the full moon, disappearing from view and showing again in the long gashes between the swiftly running clouds. I could see the bright blue flashes of lightning dancing in the sky as Iryklagathra continued his assaults. Adalon answered with weaker gusts of white. Slowly but steadily she was drawing the old wyrm away from Perch and her cave.