Dragon Hunt - Part Four
"Look!" Brunnhild exclaimed. "There!"
In the distance was a trio of airborn outlines, engaged in an aerial skirmish. As the two females strained to make out the detail from afar, the carpet adjusted its trajectory. Lana realised she had subconsciously willed it to approach. Brunnhild glanced at her questioningly but did not voice any opinion that they should not approach.
As the carpet closed to within around five hundred feet a surge of flame erupted from one of the creatures’ maws: a red dragon! There were two of them, larger than hatchlings but not what might be termed small adults. Sunlight gleamed like fire across their ruby scales. They were bothering a third dragon whose pearlescent scales sheened in the winter sun. The larger white dodged the fiery blast and wheeled in the air to release its own breath - a shimmering cone which caught one of the younger reds leaving frost across the full breadth of its wingspan. The reds continued their attacks unabated; Lana wondered whether they might feel lethargic given the cold weather. The white was in its element but appeared to be struggling against its two adversaries.
Granistax, she thought suddenly. No it couldn't be. The young white she had befriended wasn't as large as the specimen before her. Might he have somehow grown during the past month? No, she told herself. Besides, his lair was far to the west. Wasn’t it?? She could have lost track of direction; perhaps her carpet had entered his territory without knowing it. Perhaps he had left his lair to seek the older white Kaltvyndar? She couldn't tell for sure but hoped this was not the same dragon she had encountered. For as she watched, the white was finding it harder and harder to hold its own and seemed barely able to remain aloft; even more so when the second red vented its breath along the white's spine.
The carpet closed at maximum velocity, the chill air searing the passengers’ cheeks as they hurtled ahead. Once it had drawn near enough Lana spoke words of magic and five arrows appeared which she sent hurtling at the reds. The missiles sought their quarry faultlessly, blazing a trail and drawing the dragons’ attention even before the impact. One flapped its wings and flew in the direction of the carpet; the other refused to relinquish its prey and savaged its neck with tooth and claw. The white howled with pain as a great rent opened on the side of its neck and its lifeblood spilled into the air. A moment later its body slackened and it fell from the sky.
Both reds then set their sights on the carpet; their wings flapping to close the distance.
"This is what we came for!" Lana breathed excitedly. "They're at a distance, which is a blessing, we can't allow them to get close. The carpet will turn to cinders if they do."
"Should we not lower ourselves?" The tone was one of practicality.
"There's no time," Lana said shortly, though she shared her companion’s concern. The carpet was at a height of at least a hundred feet. "What preparations can you make? Have you a missile weapon?"
"Only a sling, which will be little use. I could attempt to blind one?"
"Excellent," Lana said. "Keep that in reserve until they get close." She remembered Demetrion's warning that the young reds in the area, even the hatchlings, were reported to be extremely aggressive and would seek combat wherever possible. They are a fair size, she thought. Certainly they were both larger than mere hatchlings. The larger of the pair seemed almost the same size as Falaryx of Blight Swamp who had been young but dangerous all the same. That encounter had nearly cost Threy his life.
"Lana," Brunnhild urged, bringing her companion's mind back to the present. For the first time Lana thought she detected worry in her companion's voice The dragons, which were gliding down to meet them from a higher altitude, had closed to within three hundred feet.
She pointed at the oncoming dragons and invoked an Ice Storm.
"Thor's will be done!" shouted Brunnhild as boulders of ice formed in the air, smashing into the airborne dragons. The ice fell to the ground to shatter around the dead white where it lay. The lead red found itself caught in the squall and was consumed, its howls carrying through the snow. It dropped when the blizzard cleared, its wings twitching. The other dragon which had been flying twenty feet behind its sibling managed to wheel in the nick of time. It avoided the worst of the storm and kept coming apace. Brunnhild observed the display with a fierce look in her steely blue eyes.
The surviving specimen’s wings bore it closer and closer. In moments it would be close enough to immolate the carpet.
Lana noticed differences in its physique compared to other dragons she had encountered, which were mainly whites, plus a green and a black, a couple of blues, not forgetting the majestic golds… The length of its head, its arms ending in razor claws, the breadth and composition of its wingspan all looked different. She and Karnus had spied Infyrandax from afar but it occurred to her she had never seen a red up close. Drewen had, and had survived to tell the tale… This creature's facial features looked malevolent, perhaps that was her imagination. though
Magical cloud interwoven with thread…
Time was running out. The dragon was little over a hundred feet away. She had a split second to choose another spell, one to determine success or failure. Otherwise the dragon would have them. Her first thought was to summon an elemental with which to batter the airborne creature, but that was a powerful spell requiring focus. No, she decided, a quick spell was needed. Something simpler and more instant. She had another Lightning Bolt in reserve, but that would be too powerful a spell when the red was young and already injured. A spread of Amber Shards might even be overkill. A Phantasmal attack might deprive it of its senses, the resulting fall could prove fatal…
Smouldering thread, ends glowing bright…
"Lana," Brunnhild urged, as the creature closed to under a hundred feet and parted its jaws, showing its fangs.
It's going to breathe, Lana realised with certainty. She wondered whether its age would diminish the extent of its cone-shaped breath. Part of her would have loved to find out. As it was, she decided to take a calculated risk.
She pointed her finger and a ray of light shot sixty feet to hit the dragon on its snout.
This had no visible effect. The dragon continued to glide closer, borne along by its momentum.
Looking on, Brunnhild was bewildered. "What did you do?" she demanded to know. She began a prayer - one to protect from heat, by the sounds of it. It was a futile gesture, both women knew. Even if they survived the dragon's fiery breath, the carpet would be incinerated and the fall would finish them both.
"We're about to find out," Lana muttered as she waited to observe the effects of her spell. Silently, she sent her own prayer to any Immortals who cared to listen that the theory behind her plan might work.
The dragon drew to within forty feet and parted its jaws to expel flame. An unexpected look crossed its eyes and its breath gave out as its body propelled backward by more than thirty feet. The flames petered out less than two dozen feet before reaching the carpet.
Lana whooped with relieved delight.
"What happened?" Brunnhild shared her relief but didn't understand. Around a hundred feet away the dragon was choking on its own flame, and looked unable to control its flight. Its wings flapped unsteadily, sending the creature in random directions, and for all its size it gave the impression of a feather caught in a gust of wind. It fought angrily to reassert control over its movements.
"I reduced its mass," said Lana triumphantly, "tenfold, which combined with the force required to expel dragonbreath while airborne had the effect you just witnessed."
Brunnhild appeared to comprehend some of this. "You're saying its own breath… made it go backwards?"
"Yes," Lana nodded. "It backfired, literally." She found herself liking that term though she doubted the spell would have worked on a larger dragon. "It's accustomed to being its normal weight, you see, it doesn't know how to cope otherwise."
The dragon was having difficulty manoeuvring and ceased flapping its wings; as it attempted to glide its rate of descent was drastically lowered, and it hovered toward the ground like a feather.
"Will it stay that way for long…?"
A second blast of flame escaped the dragon's maw, propelling it toward the ground which it hit, hard.
"No, it will adapt long before the spell gives out."
Brunnhild took aim with her sling and loosed a polished stone; it hit the dragon hard between the eyes. One impact was all that was needed to extinguish its flame, whereupon it lay still upon the ground.
"Thor be praised," said Brunnhild reverently. "A victory."
"Our first." Lana allowed herself a smile. They had made a start.
The carpet undertook a tour of the surrounding area in search of the dragons’ lair. Desolation abounded - trees and shrubs had been blackened, wild animals and livestock such as goats and sheep were found torn apart, their carcasses charred and smouldering - yet there was no place to be found which might have been a lair to the dragons or any other creatures. They must have flown far from home, the companions concluded. As they were preparing to leave the area, Burrhus' pegasus came into view a short distance away, close to where the dragons had been defeated. The gladiator had evidently spotted the carpet and spurred his steed in its direction.
"We could try to outrun him?" Brunnhild proposed.
"No," said Lana, sounding tired. "This was inevitable. Let’s get it over with."
Before the gladiator could issue a challenge, Lana called to him from fifty feet away.
"Feel free to take the carcasses home, they’re battered but you’ll be praised for a hero. No-one will suspect two females completed the deed for you!"
Abruptly, the pegasus drew to a halt whereupon Burrhus noticed the dead dragons a short distance away. His scowl was visible in spite of how far away he was. "You must be joking. I'm capable of felling my own quarry. You got lucky this time, I'll wager. Your underhanded tactics will not keep bringing you such good fortune."
"What underhanded tactics?" Brunnhild demanded to know. "We felled the dragon fairly!"
"I do not mean against the dragons," came the man's shout, "I mean against me, at the farm. You transformed me into a bull to give yourselves a head start!" He cried the accusation aloud.
"A milk cow, actually," said Brunnhild, more quietly than the man would be able to hear.
"Do you recall it happening?" asked Lana, her tone disparaging.
"No... but the farmer's wife told me about it, and my mouth still tastes of straw. I am Burrhus of the Sands, Burrhus the Undefeated, and I will not be made a mockery!"
"We're not mocking anybody," Lana said plainly. "And we're not planning to tell anyone you spent the night as a cow so nobody will know and your reputation will stay untarnished."
"Except the farmer's wife knows," Brunnhild pointed out, thinking she ought to qualify Lana's statement in the interests of fairness.
"She knew who I was," Burrhus declared proudly. "Before I told her. She'd been to watch me fight in the Coliseum, her husband took her to the games one year as a birthday gift."
"Ah," said Lana, "so she does have a husband? We did wonder. Do you make a habit of cuckolding men you don't know?"
Burrhus shrugged. "It's not the first time it's happened. It won't be the last either. Simple - when the cat's away the lion comes to play. Life's too short for me to care."
"Right now, our only care is finding dragons." Lana decided the discussion had continued long enough. "Good day to you Burrhus. Kindly keep out of our way."
"Or what? You'll transform me again?"
"That," Lana shouted the warning, imbuing her words with all the sincerity she could muster, "or worse."
The man glared upward as the carpet sailed ahead of him along the trail. There was little he could do due to the distance in height. For a moment it seemed he might have fired a crossbow bolt at Lana's precious carpet however the moment passed and he seemed to accept that there was nothing he could do save continue on behind the two females, which is what he did.
The carpet travelled on, its passengers keen to outdistance their rival and his steed.
As with the previous day, progress northwards was greatly slowed by repeated investigations of every shadowy recess in the hillside that had even the slightest potential of being the entrance to a dragon's lair. Fortunately, wary of letting the two women find some treasure or glory that he would miss, Burrhus was doing the same and so missed the chance to overtake his competitors.
As the carpet continued north, Brunnhild brought out the pouch which contained her rune markers. She tossed them in the air and the stones landed in her lap. She scrutinised how they lay, leaning in close before drawing back. Something about their appearance unsettled her. Lana watched as she threw the tiles into the air again, then gathered and threw them a third time.
"What are you asking?" Lana enquired as the scenery passed by.
"I'm asking Thor to direct us to the dragons' treasure."
"What are the stones telling you?"
"I'm not certain they're giving the right answer. They keep saying 'behind'. It’s strange."
"Behind us?" Lana echoed. "But we've been flying in the same direction all day, we haven’t seen any dragons before now and we haven't seen any caves which might pass for a lair."
Brunnhild looked puzzled. "That's not what I mean by strange," she said. "I mean I'm not certain the stones are answering the question I asked. But I've asked it three times and each time the response is the same."
The hairs on the back of Lana's neck began to stand ever-so-slightly on end. Both females turned their heads to glance behind them.
"Oh my," said Lana.
There, half a mile behind the carpet, four airborne outlines were closing in tight formation, following the carpet at an alarming pace. Their wings flapped synchronously as they closed the distance at an alarming rate. Even from a distance the dragons' size was unmistakeable. And terrifying.
“Four of them,” the companions breathed in unison.
“And those aren’t hatchlings,” added Brunnhild. She was right: the dragons were full-grown and as large as any Lana had seen recently.
“Can you take us down?” Lana asked, after her heart had skipped several beats. Once again the carpet was a hundred feet high. Brunnhild nodded but grasped her companion’s shoulder before she did so. Coolness flooded Lana’s limbs, insulating her against heat. Then the carpet began to lower.
She watched the dragons approach. The situation seemed desperate. Against one or two they would stand a fighting chance, but four? Her potion might permit control over one or two, but that would leave the same number to tear her and Brunnhild apart. The cleric would not be able to hold her own while Lana maintained the level of concentration which the potion required. In her mind she ran through her remaining spells unsure which, if any, might turn the odds in their favour. Thank the Immortals the dragons were at a distance and she would have time to loose one or perhaps two spells before they were upon them. Their wingspans were enormous - each of them likely fifty feet across.
“There’s nothing to be gained if we run,” Lana said as the carpet reached ground level.
Brunnhild regarded her with an eerie calm. “Running hadn’t crossed my mind.”
“Then we’re agreed?” Lana found herself reassured by the cleric’s cool demeanour though she wondered whether it was bravery or a readiness to accept a quick death. “We will make our stand?”
Her companion nodded. “Thor will deliver us, or we will enter his hall as heroes.”
Lana forced a smile as she turned to survey the dragons. I’ve plenty still to accomplish in this life, she said silently to the heavens, if it pleases any of you to spare me.
Brunnhild began another prayer. Lana invoked Haste and other protective charms while the dragons closed. It was unmistakeable - they were heading directly for the two females.
The carpet touched ground and the two females stepped away from it.
Lana squinted a little and aimed at the dragons as they were about to enter spellcasting range. She waited a second then completed her incantation. A snowstorm arose, huge chunks of ice appearing in mid-air which managed to catch two of the dragons. When the blizzard cleared, they had completely vanished.
Brunnhild blinked and looked at her companion in disbelief. “Were they swallowed by the storm?”
Equally confused, synaptic connections then formed like lightning in Lana’s mind. She could have cried at the relief brought by the realisation. “It hadn’t occurred to me but of course…” It occurred to her there was no time for explanations as the remaining dragons would be upon them in an instant. She spread her hands and a cluster of glowing shards appeared. She divided them into separate salvos and blasted the oncoming dragons. As expected, one of the dragons vanished before her eyes. The other roared with annoyance and opened its mouth to breathe.
“Run!” Lana barked at Brunnhild who was standing by her side. Without further ado Lana spoke the words to another spell and a howling gale arose, forming itself into a cyclone in the air right before the two females. The sole remaining dragon, whose mouth was open in an attempt to breathe, found itself repelled by the gusting winds.
Fifty feet away, Brunnhild began a prayer to Thor. Lana channelled her will through the elemental, compelling it to push the dragon away. It grappled the flying creature with greater ease than if it had been standing on the ground. The dragon shrieked angrily as its wings twisted backward, and it seemed it might have fallen from the sky had the elemental not kept it in its grasp.
The aerial melee continued then something remarkable occurred. The dragon broke free from the elemental’s hold and expelled its breath at the elemental. It gave a great wracking cough. For all the world, Lana was put in mind of her master’s old cat coughing up a furball. From the dragon’s throat emerged a fiery gout of flame which it spat in Lana’s direction. Seeing the oncoming ball of flame Lana was obliged to dive aside to avoid the missile’s impact. Despite being Hasted, she realised she would only manage to distance herself by twenty feet, at most, from the point of impact. She withdrew her Wand of Cold and issued a blast which froze the air as the fireball erupted just a short distance away. The resulting blast knocked both Lana and Brunnhild off their feet. As fire turned to steam around her, Lana felt the searing heat diminish slightly as Thor’s will protected her from the worst of the blast.
With hideous clarity Lana felt the wind intensify around her. She realised she had forfeited control over the elemental in order to dodge the fireball. Simultaneously she heard Brunnhild cry out in dismay. Lana forced herself to maintain focus and snapped her fingers in the direction of the elemental which was closing in search of its summoner. She was protected by a charm she had invoked moments ago, but the dragon would be close behind the elemental and would not be held at bay. As the steam from the fireball began to clear, the winds also died. Twenty feet away, Brunnhild was on her feet but staggering as if mad and the hand which did not carry her hammer was in front of her eyes.
“Stand and meet your fate, lizard!” came a boisterous challenge as she was next deciding how to not die. From some direction not far away, Burrhus was speeding in on his pegasus. Despite the peril she was in, Lana found herself wishing the gladiator would naff off and find his own fight.
Rather than rise to her feet, Lana pointed through the steam and cast another spell. Her best guess at the dragon's location proved needless when its maw snaked at her through the clinging mist. Lightning erupted from her fingertip though she broke off before the energy could fully discharge; the dragon’s jaws snapped shut where her legs had been a moment before. Believing she had escaped harm, she then felt stabbing pain in her side - the dragon’s talons had caught her robes and opened a tear along the flesh covering one of her hips. Unable to stand from the pain blossoming in the open wound, she dragged herself away pathetically.
Meanwhile Burrhus had taken advantage of the dragon’s fixation on attacking Lana and had opened a gash which ran from its breast along its side. The last of the steam cleared in time for Lana to see the gladiator dismount from his pegasus in mid-air and plunge the most of his blade into the gash, where it sounded as though it pierced one of the creature’s lungs. It gave a hideous roar and convulsed, writhing in agony on the ground as wind whistled in and out of its perforated airways. The air took on a burning, coppery tang as blood and flame spurted from the wound, mixing freely.
The threat, it seemed, had passed.
Burrhus was taking up position with his sword, raising it with both hands as if ready to behead the creature.
“Enough!” Lana barked the word as forcefully as she could.
“Are you crazy?” Burrhus looked at her as though she were mad, though he stayed his blade all the same. “Dying serpents bite the deepest. This creature must be killed.”
Clutching her injured leg, Lana hobbled toward the dying red; flames were burning in its eyes but were close to being extinguished.
“The fight is fought,” Lana spoke in the Dragon tongue. “We honour your departing spirit, mighty red.”
“Those with no honour cannot give it,” came the dragon’s wheezing response in its own language. “You slew hatchlings.”
“They would have attacked us,” Lana answered. “They were making for my carpet, we had to defend ourselves. The fight was fair.”
“Lana,” said Burrhus, whose blade was still raised though out of the dragon’s line of sight. She waggled her hand to show that he should stay out of the conversation.
“Wizards never fight fair.” As the dragon spoke, the life seemed to go from it more and more. “Were I to have my time again, I would never have spoken with your kind.”
Interesting, Lana thought. “Were the hatchlings your own kin?” Lana asked.
“No,” was the dragon’s response, “though they were entrusted to my care. I would have taught them magic in time, once they had grown. Now they will never have that chance.”
“Lana.” She glared at Burrhus and mouthed the mouthed the words: 'SHUT UP'.
Lana’s heart sank. “You were a frightening adversary. It was my privilege to fight one such as you who has mastered the ways of magic. For what it is worth, I take no joy from your demise.”
“Lana, ask it where its hoard is.”
She turned and looked at Burrhus. “That's what you're concerned about? You said you didn’t care about dragon gold.”
He shrugged. “Why should it go to waste? We all participated in the fight, save for Brunnhild though she looks to have been blinded, we’ll split its treasure equally.”
A groan escaped the dragon’s jaws. “Tell the worm to be silent, whatever it is gibbering about. I will not permit him to diminish my passing.”
“You’re antagonising her,” said Lana angrily, “she’s dying, for the love of the Immortals let her -”
Something occurred to her. The realisation dawned slowly, very slowly. She turned back to the dragon.
”You don’t understand what he’s saying?”
The dragon was in pain and did not respond. Though it might die within moments, Lana decided to indulge her hunch.
“Not, from… these parts, you are?”
The dragon gave what might have passed for a sneer. “For one who controls wind and lightning, you speak the wizards’ tongue woefully.”
The joy of the insight was lessened by Burrhus continuing to pester her.
“Has it told you?”
“You came from faraway, didn't you.” Lana reverted to Dragon to pose the statement.
“Correct. As did many. Not all have grown.”
“Why did you come?”
”It served our purposes.”
“What were they?”
”Dominance. Power. The wizards told us of a great territory where we would dominate weaker species, as is our right. Power exists for those who can take it. There are many eggs in these mountains. It will be years more, in your mortal terms, before they all hatch.”
“And have any Alphatians remained here to ensure they grow?”
“Wizards? No. Others?” The eye watching Lana gleamed enigmatically. “Perhaps.”
“Others? What do you -“
“Lana, give me a bloody answer, whereabouts is the thing’s treasure??”
If Burrhus was exasperated, so too was the dragon. Somehow it found the strength to angle its head, open its jaws and expel flames which consumed Burrhus from toe to head. He howled and his metal breastplate glowed while he danced to lessen the tremendous heat.
Lana watched dismayed as the effort proved to be the dragon’s last act. Its body was wracked, consumed by hacking coughs, tongues of flame escaping the wound in its breast before the light in its eyes gave out and it lay still. Lana was oblivious to Burrhus’ cursing as she found herself consumed by mixed emotions - delight at her survival, sorrow at the dragon’s death, resentment at Burrhus’ lack of feeling, respect for a fallen foe, and power at having vanquished one so powerful and dangerous as a spell-casting red dragon. Reds were vicious, ruthless, urge-driven creatures, perhaps Nature’s most dangerous predators, and they were all the more formidable when they could cast spells. Terrible as they were, they commanded respect. She could have learned so much more from this red before she died…
You’ll need to come to terms with dragons dying, she heard a voice inside her head. That’s what you accepted to do in return for my aid.
“Did it tell you?”
“About its gold?” Her thoughts returned to the present. Burrhus’ question seemed vulgar in the extreme when the dragon had just died. Now was not the time for such a discussion. She glared at him. “No it bloody didn’t.”
“Great. Now we’ll never find it.”
Maybe you won’t, Lana mused. She, on the other hand, had gained a valuable treasure from the dragon before it died. Knowledge. She just had to figure out what it had meant by other parties besides the Alphatians.
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