Shadow of the Overlord, Chapters 5, 6, and 7
(Just keep in mind these are very rough, unedited drafts)
Quillliaurran raced over the final stretch of the Thurgian Strait. The bowl-like shape of the rocky beach here seemed a perfect example of what the bonded sometimes called a ‘natural harbor.’ Not that they had need of such things now. With dragons reaching sizes adequate to carry dozens of riders and more, travel by ship was rapidly becoming obsolete.
He zipped over the tops of the lush trees, though he still enjoyed their sharp scent. It was a smell he associated with life, with growing things, with the light and pleasure of being one— at peace —with the world around him.
If only the Overlord could learn that, he thought. Rather than always craving more, if the Divinity Himself could learn to be at peace with what he has…
Blasphemy! shouted a menacing voice in the forefront of his mind. If anyone, anyone, heard you say such things, they’d roast you alive! The Overlord wants, the Overlord gets. It’s that simple. Don’t be an idiot!
Doesn’t mean I can’t dream, he thought wistfully.
Ahead loomed the Overlord’s towering spire. Only those who’d been summoned were allowed within three leagues of the Overlord’s mountain. And since Quill had no wish to test the stories of what awaited those who disobeyed, he turned north to fly a wide detour around it.
He raced past the trees to the north of the Overlord’s mountain as fas as his wings would carry him. The red sun was directly overhead now, which meant he was out of time. He struggled to flap his wings harder, faster, as he climbed upward to pass the increasingly taller and thicker trees beneath him.
Although still a fraction of the height of the Overlord’s spire, he estimated the trees below at close to four leagues in height, and the tallest among them might have been close to a league in width.
How do trees grow this tall? he wondered, not for the first time. In no other place on all of Val-Harra did the trees and mountains grow so tall. He had never understood how or why it should be so.
Finally, Quill thought as the huge clearing finally came into view. For leagues around, the trees vanished with no trace of root or leaf, and on the north end of the clearing they started up again, but at almost double the previous height. It was there, he knew, the malachite wyrm made her lair.
The clearing itself was actually an immense canopy of trees bent and twisted together to form a ceiling as dense and strong as any stone.
He dropped from the air almost a league before the entrance to the canopied lair and walked the remaining distance.
Two wingspans from the entrance to the canopy, a pair of agate wyrms snaked their heads out from the shadows to halt him.
“I’ve been summoned,” Quill said, trying to keep the indignation in his voice. It helps to cover his quaking terror.
“You’re late,” one of the dragons growled.
“Do not delay,” the other hissed. “The mistress is not known for her patience.”
Quill nodded and clenched his muscles to keep his scales from clicking together with his trembling flesh. He moved forward, his gait awkward and stiff. Gritting his teeth, he tried to stop all the telltale signs his body was giving that we was utterly terrified.
The inside of the canopy could not have been more different from his expectations. While the trees on the outside were green with leaves and covered in fresh, moist bark, the inside was dead. No branches jutted in, no bark survived. The trees and other foliage were mostly gray and rotting.
He entered a tunnel formed by thickly massed trees and followed it through a maze of twists and turns, all the while it sloped downward. After a few minutes, the trees vanished and he was surrounded by walls of earth and a while later, going deeper and deeper into the ground all the while, the walls turned to solid stone.
After a short while, the stone walls opened into a wide chamber. The entire cavern wavered, as though he saw it through the fumes of a bonfire. The stone walls were smooth and even, the ceiling and floor free of stalactite or stalagmite. At the far end, a massive green shape huddled in the darkness, crimson eyes wide and staring. They looked through him as though he didn’t exist.
Although Quill felt certain there must be more to the chamber that he wasn’t seeing— the wavering was an obvious illusion. So obvious, in fact, it was a certainty that she wanted him to see it. Was it an expression of her power? —he immediately dropped to his knees and prostrated himself before her.
“Mistress Underlord,” he breathed, forcing his voice to convey respect rather than terror.
“Do you know what I do with dragons who cannot figure out how to be on time?” she asked conversationally.
Quill gulped. “Mistress Underlord, I-”
“Don’t waste your breath,” she hissed. “I have no care for whatever your excuse happens to be. At the request of one I hold in high regard, you shall not be punished. This time. But do ensure it does not recur.”
Quill gulped again. “Yes, Mistress.”
“I trust Sindorriaunna informed you of why you are here?”
“She… mentioned it.”
“Good. I’ll hear no protestations. He requested you specifically.”
“Who?” Quill was confused. Who had requested him? For what?
“The human you’ll be bonding.” The Underlord’s voice was matter-of-fact, as though he should have known this already.
Quill coughed in surprise. “A… human?”
The crimson eyes bored into him. “If that is a problem, you’ll take it up with him. I have no interest in hearing it. He made the request, I approved, and so it is decided.”
Quill’s mind reeled. What human could even make such a request? He didn’t know of any humans, outside of the Overlord’s pet, who even had any freedom here. There were others, of course, that had been recruited to the Overlord’s cause. Elves, ogres, trolls, gnelwyn, even the occasional dwarf. But a human? They generally couldn’t be kept alive long enough to convert them. Most of the fools insisted on fighting to the death the moment they saw a wyrm.
“Understood, Mistress,” he said, trying desperately to cover the quaver in his voice. “But, why did he choose me, of all dragons?”
“Ask him yourself!”
Quill clamped his mouth closed. It was clear now that she would answer no question she did not find important.
“Where will I find this human?”
“Behind you,” called a small voice from his rear.
Ordinarily, Quill would never turn his back on the Underlord. Nor on any other wyrm in a position of authority. Strictly speaking, it was not allowed. Dragons had been killed for less. But the Underlord’s attention had gone elsewhere. Either she was pointedly ignoring him, or he was no longer within her notice. Clearly, that was his dismissal. It might as well have been just Quill and the human in the chamber.
He spun around to face the human behind him.
And found himself decidedly unimpressed.
The man was small, even for a human. He was slight of build and short, with greasy gray hair and a thick, bushy beard which together gave the impression of a hyena. He was dressed in black cow leathers and carried a silvery sword which reflected every drop of light shone on it a hundred-fold.
The human smiled, his black eyes crinkling. “Greetings, Quill.”
Quill narrowed his eyes. One I hold in high regard, she had said. Perhaps at least a modicum of respect was expected here.
“Lord Novarel,” the man said. “During informal meetings such as this, you may refer to me simply as Novarel, but in public or in front of our troops, the title is mandatory.”
Though he seethed at being forced to pay a mere human such respect, Quill nodded in silence.
“I understand your reluctance, Quill. I know you are used to humans being the enemy. Please. Allow me to explain. I have been here in Thorutia for a very long time. I know things few living humans remember. I have been personal adviser to the Overlord himself for a great many years. I’d be surprised if anyone alive enjoys as much of his Divinity’s trust as I do. As such, I am held in high regard by all on the isle.”
“And why does the Overlord trust you so much?”
“I serve him willingly, as I have from the beginning. I allow him to plumb the depths of my mind for my true motivations. He knows he can trust me. And I have made myself… useful. My information is much of the reason we control so much of the southern reaches of the continent. I helped him secure the loyalty of certain tribes of ogres, trolls, and more.”
“How?” Quill wasn’t trying to be suspicious, but he couldn’t help it. This all seemed awfully convenient.
“Insight,” the human said simply.
“You know that much of the humanoids?”
Novarel shrugged. “I have an understanding of what motivates them.”
Quill sighed, and Novarel raised his brows.
Lowering his head, Quill looked the human in the eyes. As he’d thought, those eyes were pure black inside a white sclera. Were his irises black, or did he not even have them?
So very strange, he thought. Aloud, he asked, “Why do you want me?”
Novarel chuckled. “My dear charoite, that is a conversation for another time.”
Quill clenched his teeth.
“Now, now,” the human said. “We have more pressing concerns.”
Quill narrowed his eyes. “Such as?”
“Getting you ready for the bonding ritual.”
“Ready?” Quill asked, confused. “What is needed for me to be ready?”
The human chuckled again, darkly this time. “It is truly sad, dear boy, how little you know of your own kind. How long has it been since you Eskerialized?”
Quill stared blankly. “Um, since I what?”
Now the human roared in laughter.
After nearly a minute of uninterrupted, almost sobbing laughter, Novarel had tears streaming down his face but he finally calmed the choking laugh enough to speak. “No one told me you were funny!”
Quill stared, more confused than ever.
Novarel’s laughter continued for another long minute before he finally sobered. He wiped the tears from his grinning face.
The human looked up into Quill’s eyes and the mirth vanished, his eyes going wide. “Do you truly mean to tell me you have no idea what I’m talking about? How can you possibly know so little of your own species? Or your own existence, for that matter?”
Quill swallowed his indignation as best he could. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that, Lord Novarel. I haven’t the slightest clue what you’re talking about.”
The human’s eyes narrowed. “Have you never wondered at why young dragons are shaped differently than you? Or how they become as they do when growing to adulthood? By the Overlord’s tail, do you remember nothing of being a wyrmling?”
“Actually, no,” Quill said. “I have no memory of being anything other than I am. And I assumed the wings just took time to grow in. What am I missing?”
Novarel sighed. “Not now, Quill. We have more important matters to attend to.”
Quill couldn’t stop the growl from rumbling up from his chest to the back of his throat.
“Enough,” Novarel barked and Quill quieted. “The bonding is our priority just now. The rest can come later. We’ll deal with your education soon enough.”
He nodded, embarrassed by his outburst. “What must I do?”
“Bleed,” the gravelly voice said, and Quill shivered.
Taliesimon stood proud, the only girl in a long line of boys, at the start line of a course of obstacles meant to test the mettle of those who wished to join the honorable order of the dragoons.
The boy to her left, like many others, had a shaved head and wore nothing aside from his torn and filthy breeches. The boy to her right, however, wore his short, blond hair combed band and his pristine linen clothing and fine, doeskin boots smelled like money.
The boy on the blond boy’s other side shied away from him, as though he had a contagious disease.
He was shunned by them as much as she was, it seemed.
“Ready?” a tall dragoon called from the front, but several voices growling from behind her brought everyone’s attention around to the back of the line. A bald-headed, shirtless boy in soft, black leather breeches and sandaled feet strode toward the line while three older boys, initiates, Taliesimon felt certain, chased after him.
Hold on, she thought. Is that a… another girl?
The shirtless youth had narrow, angular features but thick, full lips and a slightly swollen chest. The earliest beginnings of breasts, perhaps? If so, she lacked any degree of modesty or decorum.
The child hurried to the line and sidled in between Taliesimon and the bare-headed by to her left.
“Dragoons!” the middle chaser, the oldest, called. “That girl cannot be allowed to test. It is against all-”
“It is against nothing,” the dragoon in front barked. “It is unorthodox, to be sure, but young Taliesimon here had prior approval to compete. Allowing another girl in will change nothing.”
“But sir! We have never-”
“It matters not, initiate. Just because there has never been a female dragoon does not mean there cannot be. We will allow them to compete.”
The three initiates frowned and Taliesimon grinned. Glancing at the new arrival, she found the bald girl grinning as well.
“Way to make an entrance,” she said, impressed.
“Thanks,” the girl said as she ran a hand over her smooth head, looking almost shy.
Taliesimon extended a hand. “I’m Taliesimon.”
The girl touched a palm to hers and said, “Okara,” and they both grinned again.
“Ready positions!” The dragoon barked and Taliesimon spun to face forward, her right leg forward knee bent, and the left one stretched out behind her.
“Do you know what’s ahead?” Okara asked softly.
Taliesimon gaped. “You haven’t studied the course?”
The smaller girl shrugged.
She’s going to die, Taliesimon thought. They’re going to eat her alive.
From the small cart at his side, the dragoon ahead of them produced a long, ashwood staff with a long, wide banner depicting a black longsword protruding from a brown serpent’s fanged head on a field of pristine white. He waved the banner back and forth above his head three times while the lines of dragoons on either side of the narrow path changed, “From the fires of youth, dragoons will rise. Only the strong will rise.”
They repeated the phrase with each wave of the banner.
“Be careful,” Taliesimon whispered urgently. “Keep your eyes open. Don’t get in their way.”
“In their way?” The girl was incredulous.
“The boys will hurt you. It’s all competition to them. They don’t care who they hurt to get ahead.”
The girl’s eyes widened for a moment, then her expression went blank, her eyes hardened, and she nodded.
After the fourth wave of the banner and the fourth repetition of the chant, the lead dragoon stabbed the longstaff into the muddy ground and barked, “begin!”
Pandemonium erupted around Taliesimon as the boys ripped and tore at one another’s hair and clothing, throwing opponents to the muddy ground. The boy to Taliesimon’s right was pulled down by his finely groomed blond hair and trampled. Blood poured from his mouth. Taliesimon waited at the line drawn into the mud before her, gripping the smaller girl’s bare arm.
For a moment, Okara struggled against her, trying to run forward, then she seemed to notice the violence being bandied about and relaxed in Taliesimon’s grip.
All the boys with bare chests and shaved heads made a lot more sense now. She’d known the start especially wouldn’t be pleasant, but she hadn’t fully expected the amount of hair and shirt pulling and the violent trampling that had occurred.
But, if Okara didn’t expect this, why is she-
Wrenching pain in the back of her head cut off the thought and she was flung forward. The muddy ground flew up toward her face.
She clenched her eyes tight as her face struck home for the second time today. Even though her eyes were closed, the world seemed to spin around her.
A laugh sounded above her, though it seemed far away and indistinct. Footsteps pounded past her and the laughter, bitter and mocking, dissipated.
With her mouth full of thick fluid, Taliesimon choked and coughed, but the fluid remained. She tried to roll herself over, but her body did not respond. Holy Trevandor, she thought. Please don’t let me die here! Why won’t my body cooperate?
Then a small hand gripped her shoulder and pulled her over. The crimson light of Kaustere burned through her eyelids and she coughed again. This time, the fluid vacated her mouth and she sucked in a gasping, labored breath. Though the breath burned all the way down, it felt sweet and refreshing. As she drew in her third breath, she opened her eyes and found her lids sticky with a thick crimson fluid.
She lay dazed for several moments before she tried to move again. Okara’s hairless head appeared above her, eyes wide and mouth agape. Her eyes are beautiful, Taliesimon thought, and accepted the thought as the dazed nonsense it was. They shine like sapphires in the light, but brighter, much brighter.
The wide sapphire eyes blinked and Taliesimon blinked as well.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked.
She coughed again, then turned her head and spit a build-up of fluid from her mouth. She tasted blood and finally made sense of the situation.
With a slight nod to the smaller girl, she struggled to sit up. After a moment, the other girl gripped her hands and pulled her up to a sitting position.
“We have to move,” she croaked.
Okara nodded and pulled Taliesimon to her feet. “They did that purely out of spite, didn’t they?”
“I expect so,” Taliesimon rasped as she took her first wobbly steps toward the lead dragoon ahead. He now stood a pace off the path, just before it curved into the dark woods. He offered her a grim nod as she trotted past with Okara in tow.
“Our advantage,” Taliesimon gasped as she ran. “Is that we have nowhere to go but up.”
“And now we’re the ones,” Okara added, not sounding the least bit winded. “Who can crack skulls from behind. They’ll never see us coming.”
Taliesimon nodded, but kept silent. Already out of breath, the less of it she wasted, the better off she would be. And I’m not sure how to respond to her viciousness, she added silently.
turning the bend into the woods, Taliesimon grunted. “Faster, Okara. Jump soon.”
Without a sound, the small girl ran faster. Within moments, she came up even with Taliesimon then seemed to force herself to slow, as though she were unwilling to move farther ahead. “Sharpened. Stakes. In. Pit,” she gasped and Okara nodded.
Ahead, a tall, muscular boy ran. The muscles of his back rippled with every movement and his freshly shaven head was marred by numerous razor cuts.
Either he did it himself, or his father’s face must look like a torture victim, she thought in sympathy. It had to be terribly painful.
“I’d wager that’s the snake who hit you,” Okara growled.
Taliesimon wanted to smack herself. Of course he was! He must have had the same idea as she, wait for the others to bloody each other then jump ahead of them all. But that idea had clearly been a spectacular failure. Somehow, they were still the last three in the course.
How did that happen? she wondered. Surely, at least some of them had to be bloodied worse than me.
She couldn’t argue with the reality, however. There hadn’t been a single beaten or bloodied boy ahead of her on the field when she’d risen and they’d finally started moving.
Clearly, she had miscalculated somewhere and now it was going to take everything she had to come in well enough to continue the testing.
The blue-eyes girl sped up, pulling away from her. What was she planning to do? Taliesimon tried to increase her pace to match, but her thighs burned already. Her knees and feet were beginning to ache, her lungs her on fire, and the roiling nausea in her belly was too much to ignore.
Even pushing herself as hard as she could, she could not match the smaller girl’s pace.
The path curved to the left and the boy disappeared around it, followed by Okara, who was rapidly gaining on the older boy. After a few moments, Taliesimon rounded the bend herself. Ahead, three boys leaped a chasm in the path almost in unison. The two on the outsides cleared it easily, but the boy in the center, the blond boy who’d been at her right hand in the line, stumbled on his jump and leaped much lower than the others. He fell just before the far edge, only just catching himself with his arms.
He hung there a moment, still, as though in shock. Then he seemed to paw at the lip of the chasm. Over and over, his fingers dug into the dirt for purchase and came up empty. It was only a matter of time, she saw. Unless he found a stone or tree root or something else firm enough to hold his weight, he would fall.
The boy who’d hurt her was almost to the edge of the pit and Okara was little more than a pace behind him. The slight tremble in the boy’s legs and the increased tightness in his arms made it clear to her that he feared the jump.
Taliesimon scoffed silently. With that muscular body, he should have not difficulty in making the jump. Easy as spilt milk, as the saying went.
The entire world seemed to slow, as though time itself had almost stopped, as the boy’s foot landed at the edge of the chasm and he thrust up with all the strength of that powerful leg to make the leap.
Impossibly, Okara’s left leg shot sideways in the instant before her own right leg touched down for her own jump. Her left foot struck the boy’s right and a resounding crack accompanied the crumpling of the boy’s ankle and as she moved upward in her lead across the chasm, the boy fell almost straight down into the pit.
His high, terrified shriek was a loud as it was short-lived.
Taliesimon stared in shock at the spot he fell from.
I would never have, she thought, dazed. This is important, but… what am I going to do? She’s a murderer.
Taliesimon snapped her jaw closed and the world seemed to return to normal time. She glared straight forward, determined as never before to make the jump and overcome the course.
Her last few steps before the chasm passed in a blur, her pulse thundering in her ears. She shortened her last three steps before the edge, to ensure her right foot landed at the very edge of the pit. She sucked in a deep breath and held it just before her foot touched down. She thrust up from her right foot with all her might, her thigh, calf, and torso seemed a single muscle as all worked perfectly to send her sailing into the air.
Taliesimon glance down as she went up and caught sight of the broken body, and a dozen more just like it, impaled by the stakes.
Oh, no, she thought. I’m not going to make it.
Dargon flexed the fingers of his right hand. “Incredible,” he breathed. Aside from the scab over the cut on his finger, it was as though nothing had happed yesterday. And try as he might, he could not push the image of the blue-glowing water from his mind. It was his duty, both as a Moritzan citizen and as a member of the royal family, to obey the Trevan, but in his heart he knew the priest’s answer could not be true. Even deep blue liquids never glowed blue under the light of Kaustere. At best, it would produce a purple or violet glow.
Surely the Trevan knows this, he thought as he wrapped his hand around the hilt of the wooden sword hanging from his belt.
Shaking his head to banish the thoughts, he whipped the practice sword from its scabbard. As always, the hilt felt good in his hand. It felt right. Natural.
“Is everything alright, my lord?” asked the warrior across the battle-floor from him.
“I’m fine, Gerand. Please, begin.”
The leather-clad man drew his own practice blade and the two squared off, mirroring one another’s movements. Dargon narrowed his eyes at he man and stepped toward him, wary of some trick. Gerand was no longer young, but he was still as skilled a warrior as Dargon had known.
Gerand stepped just beyond striking distance and saluted, holding the flat of his wooden blade up between his eyes. An instant later, the blade flashed down and he leaped forward.
Dargon blocked the blow with his own blade, the loud crack of wood rattling his ears. He moved smoothly into a low swing, but found his blade blocked. He swung high with a similar result.
“Speed, my lord. You must move faster,” the old warrior said.
Dargon nodded and swung with all the force he could muster.
“No, your highness,” Gerand barked. “Not harder. Putting all your strength behind a blow makes it slower. Speed of movement will win a fight much more often than brute force. Light slashes and shallow cuts will eventually wear down an opponent, but brute force against his defenses is far more likely to exhaust you than him.”
The drills continued for hours, as they had since he was old enough to hold a sword. King Duncan had established early on in Dargon’s life that he needed to be a warrior first and a ruler second. Although the dreaded torthugra hadn’t been seen in centuries, nor had any of their expeditions returned from Thugra Isle in even longer. They had to be ever-vigilant. War was coming, his father assured him. And when it did, they needed to be ready. They couldn’t afford to be caught off their guard. Too many lives depended on them.
When Gerand finally called a halt, even he was breathing heavy. Dargon could hardly lift his sword arm. The old warrior landed at least three dozen strikes which would have been killing blows while Dargon had managed only one.
Sheathing his blade, the old warrior walked off the dirt battle floor and into the green grass of the courtyard proper to the water barrels and proceeded to scoop out several ladles full which he dumped over his head. At last, when his hair and shirt were thoroughly soaked, he slurped a dozen ladles full into his mouth.
Dargon followed his example, though with much less water going over his head. The chestnut curls were unruly enough without drenching them in tepid water.
“You did well today, Lord Dargon. You continue to impress me with the rapidity with which you learn.” He smiled. it seemed genuine enough.
“I did?” Dargon asked, uncertain. “I rarely land a blow against you.”
“My lord,” Gerand said patiently. “Are you aware of how many years I’ve been training with the sword?”
“Close to forty, isn’t it, ser?”
“I began my sword training upon acceptance into the dragoons thirty-eight years ago.”
“You were a dragoon?” Dargon asked, excited. In all the years Gerand had been teaching him, that was a detail he had never disclosed.
The old swordsman sighed. “yes, I was. But,” he held up a finger for silence. “To focus on relevance. How long have you been training with the sword?”
“Well, I don’t know if you’d call the silly exercises when I was four training-“
“Well, in that case then about eight years, I suppose.”
“And how many of formal teaching?”
Dargon considered. “About three or four, I think.”
“So, between my vastly greater experience and being roughly twice your size and possibly thrice your weight, do you knot think landing even one killing blow against me is rather impressive?”
“Well, when you put it that way, I suppose so.”
Gerand sighed. “Enough,” he said through a laugh. “You are a quick study, but don’t forget to keep practicing. The more you work at it, the greater skill you will achieve.”
“Now run along. Find something fun to do before your archery session with Jorimund.”
Dargon nodded and spun on his heel to trot back to the keep.
Although his destination was more than three dozen twists and turns and stairways into the keep, almost as though his great-grandfather had been trying to hide it in shame when he’d built the structure, Dargon knew the way by heart. He could have found the massive chamber blindfolded, he was certain. When he came to the immense, diamondwood double doors, engraved with the image of an open book with flames roaring out of it with a spitted serpend just above the flames, Dargon grinned from ear to ear. He pushed the door open and waves of bone-numbing cold rolled into him.
With a shiver, he grasped the torch from its wall sconce outside the door and stepped into the massive chamber, his elm-heeled boots echoing on the marble floor. He walked around the inner walls lighting torches, then walked through the towering wooden shelves to light the lanterns throughout. Finally, he stopped at the brick-enclosed hearth at the heart of the chamber. Stacking several lengths of chopped wood into the center, he thrust the torch between them and waited for the dried wood to catch.
He stood and placed the torch in one of the matching ivory sconces to either side of the hearth. Straitening, he breathed in a deep breath and held it. After a moment, he released the threat and felt the tension melt away.
This was his space. Few people would even think to look for him here, and it was so out of the way that the chances of anyone coming here by accident was so close to nil as to be indistinguishable.
Turning a slow circle, he took in the wonder of his sanctuary. The wooden cases stretching away from the central hearth were as the spokes of a wheel coming out from a central hub. Each one stretched more than seventy spans before ending a dozen paces before the wall. Each stood more than twice his height and consisted of eight to twelve shelves, each covered with books. Some were bound in leather and others in wood or even cloth. Some were merely loose sheafs of parchment held together by strings of hemp. At the end of each of the two-dozen cases was an oaken bin filled with rolled scrolls. Most were housed in tubes of wood or stone or bone, but some were loose, held closed only by strips of leather, twine, string, or ribbon.
Even after years of coming here, the sight took his breath away. There were even more books here— more stories, more history, more information —than existed anywhere else that he knew of, and easily more than he could ever hope to read if he lived for four lifetimes.
How can they shun this place? he wondered, not for the first time.
Then a new thought occurred to him. But, if Gaureth shunned the library like everyone says, then why would he have built it in the first place?
He froze. He attacked the thought from every angle he could imagine, but try as he might, he couldn’t find a flaw in the thought. For the first time, he was left seriously questioning the things he had always been taught.
There was no scenario he could come up with that made any sense in which Gaureth would have gone to the time, trouble, and expense to have the place built if the place hadn’t brought him either income, joy, goodwill, or knowledge.
And on that note, if it had been shunned since its creation, then where in the nine hells had all the books come from? Why wasn’t it covered in layers of dust? And why were there torches in this part of the keep?
It was yet another series of valid points that he couldn’t find a hole in. There was simply no situation he could imagine in which the library’s size, state, and truly, even its existence made sense if it was true that Gaureth had shunned books and learning.
Dargon shook his head to clear the thoughts away. He didn’t come here to contemplate such serious matters, he came here to escape his own life and life someone else’s adventure for a while.
He turned to the plush armchairs on the other side of the hearth and lifted a tallow candle from the table between them. Using the torch, he lit the candle and replaced it in its holder on the table.
The book he’d been reading for the past several weeks, the collected tales of Veralon Scale-Breaker, remained in its place next to the porcelain candle holder. With a broad, excited grin, he picked up the massive book and plopped down into the plush chair.
Pulling the red ribbon marking his place, Dargon continued where he’d left off and was immediately immersed into the adventures of the greatest dragoon to ever live.
Dargon found himself in the shoes of the great hero, stepping into a tiny, unnamed city-state near the Verdant Forest after his latest victory over the invading hordes of torthugra. He needed a rest and hoped to find it in the tiny city.
Town would be a more accurate word, Dargon thought as he gazed at the faded boards making up the facades of the homes and businesses.
That evening, Dargon, in the shoes of Veralon, sat by the hearth in the town’s single inn with his feet up on a stool, letting the warmth of the fire melt his cares away.
Any minute now, he thought, the peace is going to explode. The anticipation was almost too much to bear. He had realized early on that every story started this way, with the great hero trying to relax and get away from the conflicts that plagued his life. But it never lasted long. His peace always devolved to ever-greater conflicts.
Dargon almost bounced with excitement as he waited for the new adventure to begin.
Within minutes, his anticipation was rewarded in the form of a distraught mother bursting into the inn. Almost in hysterics, wailing about her missing daughter. It turned out that this girl was only the latest in a rash of young children disappearing. One every few days. The locals hadn’t put together that it was a connected problem until almost ten of the children had vanished. At first, the populace had suspected each other. But as it went on, they ran out of suspects. They turned their eyes to the feral gnelwyn of the forest, but were quickly informed by the local dragoons that no gnelwyn had been seen there in months.
In the absence of other options, the populace started blaming the torthugra. The villagers in the inn turned to Veralon, who had already become quite famous, for help. But he informed them that the only known torthugra in the city-states were now far to the north, since he had led his dragoons to destroy the force which had been nearby, and there had been no survivors.
The villagers were disheartened, but Veralon, Honorable dragoon that he was, offered to help. He couldn’t just stand by while their children vanished. Naturally, this task was quite different from his usual quests and would require a very different method than he was used to. Battle against obvious enemies was the usual gamut of these stories. Dargon got even more excited as he followed the Scale-breaker through his investigation of the mystery. As the tension mounted, Dargon grew more and more excited. The stakes grew with each page, as the taking of another child neared, and his pulse quickened.
Dargon glanced at the tallow candle. He’d already been reading for one and a half turns. He only had a half a turn left before he had to get on his way to archery with Jorimund.
“Please,” he whispered as he read. “I have to get to the end before I have to go.”
He made an effort to read faster, as fast as he could without missing details.
Veralon followed a sequence of clues Dargon hadn’t even recognized as clued until Veralon pointed them out. Days passed as he followed clue after clue and Dargon had to wipe sweat from his brown. Finally, the clued led Veralon beyond the town to the Cliffs of Thorutia. He climbed down the cliff to a hidden cave and snuk in, wearing nothing but his soft breeches and a long dagger, having decided stealth was more important than armor or a sword. The evidence had pointed to a single man being responsible for the whole sordid affair.
The hero crept into the dimly lit cave, dagger in hand. A short way in, an ambient glow filled the tunnel with greenish light. Veralon turned a corner and crouched down to watch in horror as an ancient-looking human stepped through an aisle between rows of stone cages which held children ranging from two to eight years of age, every last one bruised and bloody.
The man held up his arms and the stone bars shook, rattling with a deafening cacophony. The children cringed back away from the bars, almost I unison.
Dargon grimaced and Veralon with him, in combined disgust and fury.
Bastard! Dargon thought vehemently.
The human stepped to a stone altar where a boy of perhaps ten years lay calmly, free of both restraints and any sort of defiance. Dargon gritted his teeth as Veralon noticed the marks of brutal torture all over the boy’s body.
The old man placed his hands on the boy’s chest and Veralon tensed as he prepared to act. He had no intention of letting this old man kill the boy.
Without warning, the boy’s eyes bulged from his face and his back arched, his hand curling into fists. His mouth opened wide as though to scream, but no sound emerged.
The boy’s flesh shriveled and wrinkled, as though from great age. His hair grew long, turned white, and fell from his head within a few short moments, while at the same time the old man seemed to grow younger. His back straightened, his flesh tightened, and the long hair of his face and head thickened and turned from the frosty white to deep, blue-tinged black. The now-young man grinned and causually batted away the blade Veralon swung at him.
Dargon’s pulse thundered in his ears, his blood boiled. He read a detailed description of the young boy’s death, his flesh turning to dust and falling from his dry, brittle bones as the old sorcerer lost his facial ahir and his face became as smooth as Dargon’s own.
Dargon lost control.
His temper flared to rage and his vision turned crimson. He screamed, “This is why we don’t allow sorcery in the States!” before his vocalizations devolved into an inarticulate roar of fury. Leaping to his feet, the book tumbled from his lap, his hands clenched into fists so tight they trembled, and the open book before him burst into flames.
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