So this is how I’m going to die – in the belly of a beast almost as ravenous as I. Curse you, Heinrich, for setting up this lunch date in the first place. I could have told you that no one dines with a dragon… unless you intend to be part of the meal!
My trip had begun innocently enough. “Axotep is the next leg of your book tour,” Heinrich had written me after I’d spent several days in Egrezi Ra with my undead host Judge Graal, taking in the sights of that ancient and cursed city in between readings of my book. Whereas in Iskandalon – that so-called ‘City of Letters’ - simply booking a venue had proven to be more arduous a task than keeping a spiny Aeedian lobster in a boiling pot of water, wherever I went in E-Ra the parlors were crammed beyond capacity with both the living and the dead.
Not only did these people want to hear selections from Confessions of a Gourmand, but imagine my surprise when they actually clamored to buy it as well! My meager supply of copies being exhausted at the very first venue, I feared that I would have no wares to hawk for the rest of the junket until Heinrich could have another edition painstakingly reproduced by hand when to my utter surprise I was greeted by an old friend at the next salon.
“Enic!” Queen Cariebasa’s vizier, a son of Egrezi Ra himself, looked almost exactly as I remembered him when we last saw one another. Mara, the Queen’s daughter, was at long last about to make her first Choosing, and Cariebasa had not only invited me to the celebration but had asked me to prepare the royal wedding feast as well. That was already over ten years ago – where does the time go, I wonder?
“Signore d’Allamitri. It has been too long. I rather enjoyed your book.”
I blinked. “You’ve already read it?”
The vizier had a wry smile on his face. “The Queen loaned me her copy. She insisted.”
“Oh. I hope I did not give Her Majesty offense…”
“Are you kidding?” Enic laughed. “She loved it, as did I. She told me to tell you that she eagerly awaits the next installment.”
I sighed. I wasn’t even certain that I would write another book, as Confessions had taken a great deal out of me. When I told my old friend as much, he waved his hand dismissively.
“Nonsense! When the Muses visit you, you will pick up the stylus again. Did you not tell me something similar, when last we met?”
Indeed, Enic had once been a composer before Cariebasa discovered him in Egrezi Ra and whisked him away to the Palmlands. His opera, Il Cioccolaterio, was still performed in theaters around the civilized world. Despite all of this youthful promise, when he became the Gorgon Queen’s vizier Enic stopped composing, a fact that clearly weighed heavily on his soul, as he confided in me while I served in Cariebasa’s royal kitchen.
When the Queen invited me to return to her kingdom after more than two decades’ absence, I informed her vizier that I would cook for Mara’s wedding feast on one condition: that he compose a new opera for the occasion as well. The result was an epic romance about the union of the first man to the Serpent of the World titled Lysirae, a piece that not only caused Cariebasa to weep but even touched the heart of her famously hard-hearted daughter and set into motion a chain of events that would forever change the face of the Palmlands, the Third Continent, and the world beyond.
But that is another story. What is important is that after being silent for many years, Enic had once again found his voice. After Lysirae came a torrent of new compositions, such that when Queen Cariebasa went into exile her vizier supported them both with his newly rediscovered musical genius. “I am in your debt, chef, as is our Queen - for this reason she has asked me to present you with a gift.”
Enic conducted me to the rear of his ancestral villa, where several crates stood in a storeroom. The vizier opened the nearest crate, rustled through a layer of straw which had served as packing material, and produced a leatherbound tome with gilded lettering that he placed in my hands. It was my book! I flipped it open to see that it had not been copied by a scribe, but printed by a machine.
“The Duke of Vrolens has his own printing press,” Enic explained. Vrolens, that free and independent city in the Voordian foothills, was renowned for its printed books. “The Queen asked him to set your book to type.”
I leafed through the folio and marveled at the Vrolentine printer’s craft. Although the Shan-li had been printing for millennia, we only used the method for creating paper currency, a practice which the Varonians had adopted for their denar and minar notes. Leave it to the Voordians to use this technology to usurp the scribal tradition! I wonder what my Librarian friends in Iskandalon thought of this development.
“How many books did she have printed?”
“A thousand,” the vizier said. “The Duke still has the original lead plates, however, and can print as many more as you require."
My mind reeled. “A thousand books! I should be so lucky as to sell a hundred copies.”
Enic smiled. “Consider this a vote of confidence.”
A vote of confidence. If the Queen had only known I was about to die like a damned fool in the hinterlands of Axotep, would she have wasted so much time and effort on my behalf? I try to comfort myself with the hope that the news of my untimely demise might bolster sales of my book and at least earn some kind of return on her selfless investment, but then again who will even know that I am dead if I perish here, many miles away from any beaten path, being stalked by a beast seemingly out of my very nightmares…
“Axotep?” I had asked myself in disbelief when I read Heinrich’s instructions. A city so mean and unremarkable that even the Raynar Horde bypassed it when they swept down into the Great Basin, Axotep’s only latter-day claim to fame was its gladiatorial arenas and the Campi dell' Inferno, those badlands which served as a proving ground to generations of Varonian Marines. The only cuisine here was bastardized Canalsider fare – parlors serving il funghi, Shan-li noodles, and oleaginous Salumar curries with dubious chunks of mystery meat. To be fair, however, a couple of enterprising souls had recently discovered that the arid region was perfectly suited to growing olive trees and certain varietals of grape. Was I going to sample some olive oil, or spend a long weekend at a winery?
“Find Sergeant Ambrosio. Tell him to take you to Vermithane. He’ll know what to do.”
Vermithane? What kind of a name was that! My innards had only just recovered from the nightmare of digesting the cuisine of the living dead - what fresh new horror had my agent Heinrich signed me up for this time?
Elio Ambrosio was a mercenary who made his living conducting people safely across the Campi, which despite the constant military presence was a dangerous and inhospitable region to travelers. I found him in one of the winehouses along the waterfront of Axotep, or “A-Tep,” following the Varonian penchant for abbreviating everything. The city is a series of vertiginous sandstone terraces flush against the Sea of Deltaine, with harbors deep enough to accommodate Varo’s winter navy. Fortunately it is late spring and the City’s war galleys are not in port, or else this enoteca would be filled to bursting with sailors and Marines with nothing better to do than to drink, gamble, whore, or pick a fight with someone.
Despite his gruff exterior, which is bronzed by the sun and riddled with battle scars, Elio is a consummate professional; moreover, his taste in wine is excellent. I was surprised to discover that he was something of a gourmand himself, but he only shrugged at this. “What else am I going to spend my money on here? I already have a sharp sword!”
When I told him that Heinrich wanted him to take me to Vermithane, however, his calculated mercenary indifference collapsed like a house made of spun sugar. Sergeant Ambrosio cursed. “I should have figured as much.Serves me right for owing that evil little gnome a favor!”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Is Vermithane dangerous?”
Elio quaffed his wine and gave me a gallows smile. “That depends – do you consider a Great Wyrm dangerous or not?”
Vermithane was a dragon! Not just any old dragon, mind you, but a Great Wyrm. These are the dragons of myth and legend, not the mindless beasts that harried sailors or made off with livestock but the monsters that terrorized entire empires with the stirring of their wings. Like the Gorgons themselves, the Great Wyrms trace their lineage back to the Serpent of the World, or so the story goes.
“But I thought they were all dead.”
“All but one,” the mercenary said. “Vermithane is the last of his kind.”
I was suddenly aghast. “Surely we are not going to eat him then, are we?”
Elio laughed – perhaps a little too heartily, in retrospect. “Not unless you brought an entire army with you!
"No, I believe Heinrich wants you to make him lunch.”
Anyone can kill a dragon, but who knows how to cook for one? Despite its appearance in many a cookbook as the main course, rarely has anyone broached the topic of feeding the beast. Most treatises are more concerned with preventing dragons from eating such things as deer, livestock, or one’s own children. What precious few books do address the topic tend to approach it from the perspective of perfecting bait, not preparing cuisine. Even the otherwise encyclopedic Culinaria of Jafed Sin, which contains extensive appendices on gourmanderie among the non-human races, such as Gorgons, the Giant-Kin, and elves, falls short in this regard.
In fact I daresay I would have been entirely at a loss about how to carry out my latest mission from Heinrich, if not for the fact that I had spent several years making the acquaintance of a Skraeling chieftain by the name of Arlix. The Skrae have come as close to domesticating the dragon as any other race of humanity has ever dared, a dangerous pastime if there ever was one; and it was through Arlix and his crew that I learned what I know about the proper care and feeding of dragonkind.
“We’re going to need some veal and the best brandy we can find in A-Tep,” I informed the mercenary sergeant, who looked at me as if I was a madman. Nevertheless Elio did as he was bidden, dispatching the members of his company to comb the waterfront for the ever-growing list of ingredients as I did my best to remember the old Viking’s advice.
How I wished Arlix was there so I could quiz him on the particulars and perhaps even invite him along on the quest, but alas, he was a king in the Far East now, the Skraelings actually having succeeded against all odds in freeing their beloved Horn of Baeleraan from the Imperial yoke.
I almost pitied the man! No one should be so lucky as to achieve their life’s ambition, for where does one go from there?
I consider myself a case in point for this particular bit of hard-won wisdom, which is probably why I had agreed to this book tour in the first place. Despite what Heinrich said, this trip wasn't simply about rediscovering my passion for food – it was me trying to figure out what the rest of my life was supposed to be. I am told that many people experience just such a crisis of meaning at some point in their lives, but I am afraid that I’d had my head down over the cutting board for so long that I unintentionally put off my day of reckoning for much longer than I should have.
Well, no more. Perhaps the Great Wyrm Vermithane would have some words of wisdom for my middle-aged ennui… assuming that he found my meal preferable to eating me instead!
If memory served, dragons were exceedingly fond of eating tender calves whole, so after dispatching a dozen creatures that Elio’s mercenaries had rustled up I skinned the carcasses but otherwise left them intact, using an awl pike to jam locally-harvested bulbs of black garlic into the yielding flesh.
After studding all twelve calves in this manner, I then directed the soldiers of fortune (who had been impressed into service as my sous chefs) to immerse each in enough Salumar brandy that they were completely submerged. Sergeant Ambrosio had chosen a particularly good vintage for this kind of preparation, a brandy from one of the vineyards in the Badlands that had been aged in fire oak casks for twenty years. The natural smokiness of the wood would permeate the meat so that it would taste as if it had been cooked slowly by indirect heat, when it fact the veal would still be raw when it was served. Loath to overly complicate the flavors of this main course, I added a frond of bay and a generous handful of allspice berries to each cask but nothing more.
When I learned that Vermithane was not just the last of his kind but had not left his roost in more than a century, I knew what else I needed to include in this most unusual picnic lunch.
“Bring me seafood. The bigger, the better.”
“Seafood?” Elio had cocked a dubious eyebrow at this, even after having been won over by presentation of the brandied veal.
As someone who had spent a good deal of time landlocked himself, I couldn't imagine what it would be like to have been deprived of a taste of the nearby sea for a hundred years. Belil, most splendid of the Cloud Cities situated along the Spine of the World, may be the gastronomic navel of the universe, but it still sorely lacks the bounty of the open ocean nevertheless.
The fruits of the Inner Sea – also known as the Sea of Tears – are fine and well enough, but Belil’s diminutive sardines are but a poor substitute for a freshly-landed tuna from the Great Basin or the Southlandish narwhal from the Ocean of Dreams. The chefs of Belil are thus obliged to import fresh seafood at great expense in order to fulfill the outrageous appetites of the malem hristoi, those hedonist monks who refuse to accept that an item should not be on the menu just because it is three thousand miles away.
I was one of those chefs for a while, running my kitchen on nothing but the credit of patrons who knew full well that I’d never be able to pay them back just so that I would never turn away any of the malem hristoi who flocked to my hole in the wall of an eatery. Oh, to be that young and stupid again!
The ingredients that I procured at such a dear cost were so precious that I dared not taste them myself, even to ensure that my cuisine was worthy of all of the praise I was garnering, a lapse in judgment that almost cost me my reputation when I failed to detect a diseased sea bream brought overland live from the shores of my own native Ma Hua Lin and served its spoiled liver as a trifle to a most unappreciative diner. I hesitate to share the entire sordid tale here, as to tell it properly would require that I write a whole new book, but suffice it to say that I was fortunate to leave that Capital of Gourmanderie with my life, let alone my good name as a chef!
From my Skraeling friends I knew full well that dragons took great delight in hunting the open oceans, their keen eyes spotting prey deep beneath the waves. To see a dragon dive suddenly from the clouds is an awesome sight, indeed, but how much more a spectacle must it be to watch a Great Wyrm plunge into the hungry sea and emerge with some leviathan in its deadly jaws. What a joy to be deprived of by the ravages of time and indignity of old age!
As Elio’s mercenaries showed up with whatever they could haggle for from the Axotepet fishermen I treated them as my mother used to harangue the local fishmongers. “You call that an octopus? How dare you bring that sorry excuse for a fluke! I’m sorry, but if these are the best shrimp you must be as blind as you are stupid…”
I should perhaps consider myself lucky that these were thick-skinned war veterans onto whom I was heaping such abuse, although I’m fairly certain that I saw one of them try to stifle some tears when I really got going. If only my mother had had a chance to see just how much I’d taken on her more fearsome qualities as I became just as impatient with suffering fools as she had. Mine had been a slow boil, but one that was no less potent in the end.
One of the mercenaries, bless her heart, had stumbled upon a treasure trove of shellfish, including several bushels of Deltaine geoduck, a massive sea clam with a neck as long as an amphora of wine. The local fishermen, lacking any good sense, either chopped these monstrous delicacies up for bait or sold them at ridiculously low prices to passing Shan-li dhows or Varonian far traders, who of course would make a killing reselling them in one of the City’s fish markets – perhaps the Foro of the Arches in Stabientia, the West End Seafood Bazaar (where shellfish was king), or the famed Aquario, where terraces of live tanks provided both the freshest seafood in all of the Three Continents as well as a spectacle for visitors that was considered one of the world’s wonders. These particular bivalves would have an even more splendid fate, however, as a feast fit for a dragon!
I praised this soldier as much as I’d scorned the others, so much so that I caused her to blush. Her name was Athanasia, and she was an Iskandalonian of Crusader stock. Of course when she was old enough to hold a blade the Crusade was coming to an end and the Second Crusade had yet to begin, so she did what any self-respecting adventurer would do during peacetime – ply her living as a sellsword elsewhere in the Great Basin.
Athanasia had fallen in with Elio about ten years ago and their camaraderie had endured several complete changes of personnel through death, drunkenness, and other forms of dissolution peculiar to the career of mercenary. I took an instant liking to her, and she me; the fact that we were both roughly the same age probably helped foster a sense of familiarity, as the rest of Sergeant Ambrosio’s company were barely out of their diapers. It didn’t hurt that I actually remembered a couple of things I’d been taught about Crusader military tactics by Ring al-Madizz, Queen Cariebasa’s Captain of the Guard, all of those years ago.
“Your stance is excellent, Kyrie d’Allamitri,” she told me on our first night out in the Badlands as I demonstrated my fighting prowess after cracking open one of the remaining casks of Salumar brandy. The Crusader lady’s eyes glinted like the steel that weighed so heavily in my arm – had broadswords always been so leaden? “You must keep your sword arm higher, though, if you hope to block any swings to your neck. Allow me to demonstrate…”
She closed the distance like a bull shark prowls the shallow bay, swift but silent, and I was suddenly aware of her proximity. How long had it been since I’d known the company of another woman? I tried not to think of it as she grabbed my forearm and helped me steady her sword at the proscribed height, the front of her armored bodice pressed against my back as she did so.
“See? Now you will be able to defend yourself if we find ourselves in a fight.”
I chuckled. “And pray tell how likely is that, Kyria?”
She withdrew somewhat, her body tensed suddenly, but said nothing.
I had assumed that our little luncheon delivery would be a rather straightforward affair, with the greatest danger being the unpredictable temperament of our host Vermithane himself, but no sooner had we left the cliffs of Axotep in high spirits and laden with our dragon’s lunch than the mood had soured among Sergeant Ambrosio and his company. A huddled conversation taking place suspiciously beyond my earshot about a series of tracks in the road had given the mercenaries pause, which had lead to the dispatch of a scout, who returned much later than anticipated with a couple more scrapes than he had left with.
“What’s the matter, Elio?” I had asked, eager to be made aware of any impending peril if danger indeed were afoot.
The mercenary leader spat into the dust. “Youth is what’s the matter, michi. This generation of sellswords will count your pay three times in front of your face, but they are more cowardly than a bunch of schoolchildren. My great aunt had more courage than this whole lot, my beautiful partner in crime notwithstanding.”
Elio must have been an excellent bluffer at the pai gow tables, because I had accepted his reassurance with nary a reservation; Athanasia on the other hand was a lot easier to read – regardless of what she said or did not say, her reservation was written all over her face in the firelight of our camp that evening.
“Kyria,” I said, breaking the uneasy silence. “What aren’t you telling me? This is my godsforsaken mission, after all – if there is something amiss then surely I should—“
“—our scout found signs of a struggle,” Athanasia blurted out at last, seemingly relieved to finally do so.
“What kind of a struggle?”
The Crusader sellsword frowned. “Okay, more like a massacre.”
Someone had made short order of a passing caravan – a well-protected wagon train from a Varonian Great House, at that. The tracks had still been fresh, as had been the blood trail, which suggested that the perpetrators were still at large in the general vicinity. I’d been warned that the Badlands were full of disreputable individuals, but this seemed like something more serious than your garden variety bandits lurking in the foothills.
I peered around into the darkness beyond our campfires, where the only sound was the chirping of the cicadas through the cool arid air. “Are we making a mistake by pressing ahead then?”
“Hard to tell,” Athanasia said matter-of-factly enough for me to believe her. “Elio did a good job of giving the ambush a wide berth and our scout hasn’t seen any sign of the attackers since losing the blood trail in the opposite direction. That may be the last of it…”
“…or they might kill us in our sleep.”
Athanasia smiled wickedly. “Welcome to the mercenary’s life. I bet you wished you’d stayed back in Varo, safe in your kitchen.”
“Not really,” I smiled in turn, hoping that she would catch my meaning.
Happily, she did.
What can I say about the Campi dell'Inferno that hasn’t been said by every able-bodied Varonian male, and thus by extension their wives, their mothers and daughters as well? Give the Iskandalonian frontier credit for simply being desolate and windswept – the Badlands inland from Axotep are not just desert but harsh and unforgiving terrain as well, jagged and broken topography that belie the joke of calling this region a series of plains with every treacherous fraction of a mile underfoot. The ceaseless rise and fall of countless hills and just as many culverts makes navigation extraordinarily difficult to any but the most expert of trackers. May the Celestial Bureaucracy help you if you actually happen upon a path, because it will just as surely lead you to a blind canyon full of armed cutthroats as soon as it will lead you anywhere safe.
And forget about potable water or plentiful food, while you’re at it, for neither of these things is in abundance. Watering holes that appear perfectly cool and delicious are often so alkaline that a single quaff will strike a man dead, whereas the local fauna and flora seem to have been designed by a malevolent creator god to maximize their danger to others while minimizing any potential nutritional benefit from attempting to eat them. Cacti have needles both outside and stinging nettles within its sap, and the desert hare secretes a musk when frightened that will quickly spoil the flesh and by extension your appetite.
What locals there are here subsist on roasted cicadas and a drink called palque that they render by allowing cactus sap to ferment. While I do not mind eating bugs, palque is simply wretched. Perhaps if they could chill the beverage or mix it with something else it would be more tolerable, but these are luxuries for other lands. No wonder the Marines hate their mandatory training stint here! Don’t get an old vet started, unless you want to hear more than anyone should be forced to endure (and pity the next person who asks me about my trip to the Badlands).
Despite the hazards, Elio knew this territory like the back of his hand, so we made good time even despite detouring as far away from the supposed location of the bandits as possible. Speaking of keeping one’s distance, I couldn’t help but notice that Athanasia did her best to avoid me the next morning, keeping the entire column of mercenaries between her and me for most of the day. Unwilling to embarrass her in front of her comrades – not to mention not knowing a damned thing about women in the first place – I allowed her to ignore me, all the while hoping that the previous night was not a mistake.
You would think that understanding matters of the heart would get easier over time, but I have it on excellent authority from a thousand-year old Gorgon Queen that quite the opposite is in fact the case. I found myself so distracted by this combination of shame, regret, and lovesickness that I didn’t even notice our column slowing down until we’d ground to a halt, my horse almost pitching me headlong into the nearest culvert as I started suddenly.
“What is it?” I blinked against the bright white skies. It may have been overcast, but the promise of rain was a cruel one never to be fulfilled until the high clouds disgorged their moisture high in the distant mountains, on the other side of the watershed in southernmost Stariche.
Elio put a finger to his lips and cantered his mount to within whispering distance. “Vultures ahead.” The sergeant spat again. “So much for our good luck.”
I wanted to upbraid Elio for not telling me about the danger in the first place, but there was no time. For no sooner had he signaled his company to draw up into a defensive formation than we heard a low rumbling sound that vibrated the ground beneath our horses’ feet than the air around us. Everyone looked at one another as the animals whinnied, on the verge of panic. They knew before we did that something is horribly wrong; to my credit, I understood what was going on before the mercenaries did, for this is not the first time I have experienced this sensation.
Oh, Gods, no…
For all my time in the Palmlands, I never quite got over the primal fear that gripped me when I beheld one of the Queen’s saurian monsters. Even the gentlest of herbivores seemed like something that had lumbered out of someone’s nightmares, but this was no plant-eating giant approaching us now. It was a carnivore. A born killer. The original Devourer.
I hear my own voice, as if thrown by an illusionist, rising above the sound of thunder:
It is upon us seconds later – the sky, which was white just a moment before, goes completely dark as the Great Wyrm’s wings swallow us. I try to look away from the beast, but there is nowhere in my field of vision that the dragon is not.
How shall I describe the indescribable? The dragon is a sea of heaving scales that are black as coal yet dazzling as starlight all at once, attended by row after row of teeth – not unlike the mouth of a shark, but deeper, far deeper, and with teeth that are each as long as my chef’s knife and a million times as sharp.
Just when you think you have seen it all, then you lock eyes with the beast. The eyes! And at that moment you realize that you are not looking at a beast. You are looking at a God. No, you are looking at something older than a god, something greater – you are beholding an avatar of that which was before, that which is, and that which will ever be. And you know a kind of fear the likes of which you will never know again: not the fear of death, which seems simple and childish when you are face to face with a Great Wyrm, but the fear of everlasting fear itself, an eternity of terror locked in its all-seeing, all-knowing, all-consuming gaze.
My horse is rearing, but I have already unbuckled myself from the saddle and allow myself to fall sidelong off the road and away from the inevitable stampede. Weapons are drawn but only in vain, for talons as thick as tree trunks seize the nearest rider and whisk both mercenary and steed into the air, the man screaming as the horse bucks and shrieks.
“I don’t understand,” I can hear Elio shouting. “Vermithane hasn’t flown in a century. Why is he attacking us like an angry wyvern—“
I dare not look up, because I am reasonably certain that whatever it is I see will haunt me until the day I die; what I hear is horrific enough as the mercenary rider and horse fall from an impossible height and are dashed to pieces atop their surviving comrades.
There is another roar, then a brilliance that blinds me even though my eyes are closed. Seconds later I feel the blast of heat on my exposed skin, as if I have stepped into a wood-fired oven. My ears are filled with the screams of young mercenaries as they are roasted alive around me. How is it that I am not consumed by the dragon’s flames as well, I wonder, remembering that my ancestor’s wok is strapped to my back – hunched as I am on the ground, curled into the fetal position, the other Van’s indestructible steel shields me from certain death.
“Athanasia, watch out!” I can hear Elio shout over the final inarticulate anguished cries of the dying. There is a loud grunt, followed by a cry, which is accompanied by another roar – this time one of surprise and pain.
“It wasn’t me,” Athanasia calls out. “It’s already wounded.”
“The dragon – someone must have provoked it. Look, it’s flying away…”
But there is no reply. For my part, I refuse to budge from under my wok until I hear a gentle rapping on the enchanted hammered steel.
“Van, are you all right?”
“Miraculously,” I crawl out into a burning mess of wood smoke and charred flesh. “Did anyone else survive?”
“Just you, me, and Athanasia. And she’s gone chasing after Vermithane, the stupid woman.”
“Why would she do that?”
Elio shakes his head. He may have been no stranger to the mayhem of war, but he too had locked eyes with the Great Wyrm – you could see it in his eye, and hear it in the shaking of his voice.
“She said it… he… the dragon… was wounded."
“Do you think she’s going to help him?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let her die alone.”
He does not even ask me if I am willing to come with him. It is simply assumed. He is right, of course. I may not be a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but I do not want Athanasia to pay the ultimate price for my folly, as a dozen other mercenaries already have. I do not want to hear that they were only sellswords and that death is an inevitable part of their work, even if I know it’s true. These were not honorable men, nor were they particularly brave, but their blood is on my hands nevertheless. I will not compound their loss with any other deaths – not for a stupid book tour.
The trail is easy to follow. There is the dragon’s blood, which steams wherever the ichor hits the ground, and there is Athanasia’s blood, which is bright red and too copious to be a mere flesh wound. Every time we crest another hillock we fully expect to find either or both of them, but the trail confounds us by stretching ever longer until we are cognizant that we are closing in on a cliff face.
At first it seems just like another hill in the desert scrub, but instead of falling away it grows larger and larger until the granite face is looming over us. In the shadow of the cliffside we find Athanasia’s horse and the remnants of a camp. The horse is dead, having bled out from three deep slashes in its left flank. Elio and I are relieved until we notice a thinner but still noticeable trail of blood tracing a path up the boulders and granite scree towards a dark mouth yawning above us.
The mercenary captain and I look at each other; he shrugs, I sigh, and we begin to climb.
There is a body at the mouth of the cave. For a moment we start towards what we assume to be our comrade’s fallen form only to stop suddenly when we realize that it is someone else: a man of Cebalese complexion. One of the bandits?
Elio whispers tersely to me as he spots two more lifeless forms just at the edge of our vision, both of them also ripped to bloodied shreds. One has a massive weighted net, the other some kind of monstrous manacles. I’ve seen implements like these before – the Oguntak use them to slaughter their beloved brontosaurs without risking one last dying stampede and trampling the entire hungry village underfoot in the process.
“Not bandits,” Elio says with a growing note of disgust in his voice. “Dragon-hunters.”
This was no mere gang of thieves, but a party of adventurers bent on slaying the last Great Wyrm as some kind of trophy. Did they even know what sort of disastrous course of action they had committed themselves to, not just for themselves but for anyone within hundreds of miles of this place, innocent or not? No wonder Vermithane had blindly attacked us – wounded and in agony, it must have thought we were part of the same hunting party!
Suddenly I feel sick to my stomach. It wasn’t just the shock of the situation, but a sense of revulsion that anyone would do such a thing to the last of the ancient dragons. I can feel the bile rising in my throat and the darkness beginning to spin out of control when Elio’s voice brings me back to the here and now.
“I can’t see, but there is a fresh blood trail here. They must be close now.”
We proceed into an ever-deepening darkness, our only guide as we become hopelessly lost in the bowels of this cavern a sticky rivulet of Athanasia’s blood and the dragon's ichor. There is no thought of how we will find our way back out, just the fading hope that we will find our comrade still alive instead of dead. Somewhere between total and absolute darkness we hear another rumble and our blood runs cold. This however is not the roar of approaching sudden death but the labored breathing of a dying god. As we draw nearer and nearer to its source, the inhalation and exhalation are as forceful as an Iskandalonian sirocco.
Then we see light – a golden illumination that becomes ever more intense until we can see the ground in front of our feet again and stand up from our desperate crawl. Here there are more dragon-hunters, all of them having died horribly, what remained of their bodies contorted like ragdolls. We can see what appears to be the remains of some kind of mechanical trap that they had set in hopes of ensnaring the beast. The Great Wyrm melted it with its flames so that only a few pegs remained amid the embers and twisted molten metal, which we take great pains to avoid as we follow Athanasia’s trail through another cave mouth and into a vast cavern where the source of the illumination becomes clear.
Amid a dozen burning braziers of wrought brass there are piles of coins. No, not piles, but hills or veritable mountains of gold, silver, brass, and copper, and other foreign specie in metals whose name I did not know! Glinting amid the coins were gems and precious stones, each of them priceless in its own right, and tangles of jewelry and other fine objects of ornamentation.
I have heard the tales travelers tell of dragon’s hoards and read more than my share of cheap fantasy novels written by bored librarians who wished the real world were as interesting as a writer’s imagination, but never in a million years have I seen so much wealth in one place- not amid the opulent villas of Hightown, or the palaces of the Gorgon Queens, or even in the counting-houses of the Bank of Varo itself, where I assumed all of the gold in the world was secreted away until I see what is before my own two eyes.
It is such a wondrous sight that I do not even notice the dragon at first lying at the foot of the largest pile, with Athanasia kneeling by his side, stroking his snout. Without so much as a word, Elio and I dash from the mouth of the cavern, sliding down a pile of gold denar coins bearing the likenesses of Doges long dead and the ubiquitous stamp of the SPQV, and there we are again, face to face with the Great Wyrm.
He seems smaller now than he did in mid-flight, though in truth he is as massive as the coin mountains which surround him; already the lustre in his scales is dying, like a sky full of stars that suddenly turns cloudy. One by one these infinitesimally tiny lights are being extinguished, never to burn again for all eternity.
This is not how a god should die. Whereas the last time I felt fear in the mighty dragon’s presence, now I can feel nothing but panic. There must be something we can say, something we can do, even though I know deep down in my soul that there is nothing. All of us know this. The only thing that remains is for the three of us to comfort the last of its kind as it exits Creation once and for all.
I put my hand next to Athanasia’s and stroke the top of Vermithane’s right nostril; she smiles at me, tears brimming in her eyes, and puts her hand on top of mine. We hold our breath and wait for the end to come, but then I am struck with a flash of inspiration.
“Van, what are you doing?”
It is at that moment that I remember that I am carrying one of the Deltaine geoducks in my rucksack. Our picnic had proven to be so large that it overflowed our baggage train and spilled into any available backpack, satchel, or saddle bag. I hope and pray that the mollusk is still alive, and gently pull it from its wrapping of wet seaweed and salt halt to find that its protruding neck still shrinks from my touch.
No sooner does the geoduck flinch than Vermithane’s eye snaps open suddenly to regard the tasty morsel from the sea. The nostril I was petting sniffs curiously, and Athanasia and Elio take a step back as the Great Wyrm lets out another roar, this time a rumbling from deep within its belly.
I take one step closer, proffering the giant clam to the dragon. I stand transfixed as I see the beast’s mouth slowly open wider and wider. What do I do? Do I throw it in and hope for the best? Before I can make the wrong decision, however, a curling wave of dark flesh rolls towards me – instead of breaking over my entire body and dragging me into the Great Wyrm’s maw, however, the tip of the dragon’s tongue snakes around the geoduck and slurps it down into its inky gullet, its great jaws snapping shut just inches from my outstretched hand.
Until that moment, I did not realize that a dragon was capable of purring, but that is exactly what Vermithane does, rumbling contentedly for a minute or two before its eyes snap shut again, never to re-open. Then he is gone.
Athanasia collapses soon after the dragon, but somehow Elio and I are able to bind her wounds and keep her from joining the beast on its final journey to whatever lies beyond this mortal realm. In truth she had been injured even worse than her horse, and we are both amazed that she had been able to remain on her feet for as long as she did.
She gives me a weak smile. “I never told you thank you for last night.”
“You can make it up to me by staying alive,” I smile back. “Think you can manage that?”
A grimace. “I make no guarantees, Kyrie d’Allamitri.”
Elio does his best to ignore us. “So what are we going to do with all of this treasure?”
I feel sick to my stomach again. I want nothing to do with these riches. No doubt this is why the adventurers had come – not just to kill a dragon, but to become wealthier than any living King or Emperor in all of the Three Kingdoms. The mercenary captain seems to be wrestling with the same sense of guilt. “How about I take enough to bury the dead, and provide for their families. Surely a Great Wyrm can spare such a paltry amount?”
I nod, and Sergeant Ambrosio begins filling his pockets with as much wealth as he could, but suddenly I am distracted. Against the far wall, just behind one of the braziers, there appears to be something carved into the rock. I squint against the flickering golden light, trying to make out the scratchings, when I realize that I recognize the hand that wrote them.
It can’t be.
The mercenary duo look at me with surprise as I dash across a hillock of silver and brass and flop gracelessly in front of the back wall of the cavern, wondering if my eyes are playing tricks on me until I am standing right in front of the carved glyphs and there can be no mistaking them for what they are:
My father’s name, in his own hand, and a date.
OVIDIO DALLAMITRI – 6th Day of Month 13, Varonian Year 1749
The date on the wall was ten years ago. Ten years ago, my father had come to this cavern. How? Why? I knew he had been a far trader, among other things, but some kind of adventurer? Had he come here as the Great Wyrm’s guest, or did he steal in here uninvited, on a mission of his own the particulars of which I could not possibly fathom, not in a million years.
Wait. Is this why Heinrich had sent me here? Maybe Vermithane had known my father! Had things not gone so horribly wrong, perhaps I was supposed to come here and learn something important about my past. My mind is whirling as the events of the day race back through my memory in a kaleidoscope of panic, missed opportunities, and a loss that was growing ever more deep and personal by the moment.
That’s when I realize that there is more to the message scrawled on the wall. Part of it had been blackened out by the soot from the brazier’s smoke, but as I run my fingers against the stone I can just make out what is written beneath:
I have never heard of such a place, but as soon as I read it I know that it must exist, and that even now my father is there. He must be, for why else would Heinrich have sent me here to discover this clue? I have always been told that the Fen work in mysterious ways, and this wizened gnome is proving to be no different.
Send me on a book tour, will you? As long as each stop takes me one step closer to Far Angelina, I think to myself, I will play your little game, little man.