Authors: Salvador Mercer
They couldn’t see the cloaked man’s face, but they heard his voice from under the shadowed hood. “I’ll spare his life if you listen to what I have to say first.”
Alexi looked to Eric and received a slight nod in return. She started to move to the side, near the lone window in the room, while Eric moved in the opposite direction to block the door. The pair understood that the assassin had only two options for leaving the room, window or door, and they both moved to ensure that would require their consent before leaving.
“That sounds like a very fair proposition,” Lucius said, all but pleading with the holy warrior woman to listen to the man. “What do you say, Master Diamedes?”
“That’s up to the Fist. She will do what she feels is best,” Diamedes said, seeming to ignore the dagger at his throat yet recognizing the danger of his predicament.
There was an awkward silence while the group assessed the situation. Finally, without lowering her weapon, Alexi stopped her slow movement and held the sword in front of her, pointed at the men. “Speak, then, assassin. Why did you try to poison me?”
“Yeah,” Gabby spoke up and then stopped when her father bobbed his hand up and down to his right, signaling her to be quiet.
The blade relaxed noticeably, and everyone else breathed a longer breath. Only Diamedes seemed unaffected by the situation. “If I wanted to poison you, then you’d be dead right now.”
“Wait a second,” Gabby said, ignoring her father. “You mean to tell me that you put a sweet poison in her drink?”
“No, I mean to tell you that I put half a lethal dose in her wine, and
I put sugar in it afterward.”
“Why would you do that? That would be a sure sign that . . .” Gabby’s face changed expression from confusion to surprise.
“Yes, that I wanted you to know what I did,” the man said, relaxing his grip on the historian but not releasing the man.
The expected and obvious answer was waited for and provided by Alexi. “Why would you want us to know what you did? What foolish plan is that?”
“A necessary one,” the man said, his voice hardening a tad at the expected rebuff. These simple people could not understand the machinations moving against them. It was any wonder why his boss wanted to help them.
Alexi had her own assessment of the man, and it wasn’t flattering. “You wanted us to listen to you, well, speak, then. My itch to remove your head from your body grows with each passing second.”
The threat was not an idle one. What the man said next shocked them, but it hit Eric the hardest. “The mercenary there”—the man seemed to nod in Eric’s direction—“spoke the truth. He did see a dragon.”
Eric spoke quickly, upset by the revelation. “You were in Moartown, then, when I stood trial?” That was the only time that Eric had recounted his story and the only time for the man to have heard it if not from rumor.
“I was,” the man said.
“Then why did you not speak out on my behalf?” Eric seemed upset and hurt again at the number of betrayals he had been experiencing lately.
“Perhaps you should ask your companion here.” The cloaked man tapped Diamedes’ chest with his dagger, the first time it left the man’s throat, though he kept a strong grip across his torso with his other hand.
“What do you mean?” Eric asked.
The cloaked figure’s voice sounded amused. “Ask your librarian here. He also has seen a dragon.”
Eric was confused. “He said as much.”
“Ah, then he told you. Good, then you’ll know that you’re facing much more than a creature from myth and legend.”
“You speak in riddles,” Alexi interjected. “Out with your demands. I grow weary of your banter.”
Eric looked at the holy warrior, more than a little annoyed. “His banter is with me.”
Alexi tilted her head in the only gesture she could muster that indicated a sort of apology. “Go on,” she said to the stranger.
The man hesitated for a moment and then let it out. “I’m here to see to it that the mercenary’s companions are killed. You”—the man pointed his dagger at Alexi—“were not part of the equation. You shouldn’t be here, and you have complicated things greatly.”
Alexi didn’t miss a beat. “I’m glad to have frustrated you and your plans, then.”
“Wait a minute,” Eric chimed in. “Something’s not right here . . .”
“What?” Alexi asked.
“It’s too quiet.” The group looked at each other, taking their eyes off of the assassin for a moment. “I’ve never known Gabby to be so silent, especially in her own establishment.”
“Why, you no good mercenary scum,” Gabby began, surprise and anger coming across her face. “That is why I left you long ago, you rotten, no good, two-tim—”
Eric interrupted, or better said, talked over her. “You were the one who wanted to lead the company, always conducting business with that wagging, non-stop tongue of yours, even pushing your own father away—”
“Eric, leave me out of this,” Lucius said, chiming in so that all three of them were speaking.
Softly, Diamedes asked the assassin, “You’re from Balaria, are you not?” The man nodded, looking not at the historian, but at the trio of arguing people in front of him.
The entire group, except for the Fist and, of course, the assassin and the historian, seemed to have completely forgotten the plight of Diamedes and the presence of the Balarian killer. They argued while Alexi rolled her eyes but kept her attention focused on the stranger in front of her.
Diamedes continued. “I’m afraid you bit off more than you can chew. It’s not the Fist of Astor you need to worry about . . .”
The group slowed and then quieted as the historian talked, and Eric picked up on it right away, turning his attention to the killer and chiming in. “Oh, the historian speaks the truth completely. You don’t need to worry about the holy woman’s sword when you’re facing the innkeeper’s tongue.”
Gabby took offense, as usual. “I’ve got two knives here, one for each of your wandering eyes.” She took out the small blades that she was concealing behind her back and waved them threateningly at Eric.
“Wandering?” Eric took his free hand and placed it on his chest, his eyes wide in disbelief.
“You did have a problem keeping your head straight,” Lucius said, looking down and seeming to remember better, or worse, times between the two.
“Head straight? The man’s head bobbed on that spineless neck of his like candy in front of a baby. He ogled half the maids in Moartown, and by the Nine, he gawked so much that it’s a miracle of the gods that he didn’t hurt his neck.”
“I was scouting the room for spies and informants,” Eric protested.
The snort was from more than one woman in the room. Alexi did the unthinkable and pointed her sword at Eric. “You sir,” she said, mocking the title, “strike me as an ogler. I’ve seen it firsthand with that barmaid back at the tavern where we met, and your eyes were all over the room. Besides, the scouting remark was so weak as to be laughable.”
Lucius looked at Eric. “She’s right, you know. I think you’d have come up with something better than that.”
“Whose side are you on, anyway?” Eric was annoyed with his associate and was starting to think his plan to enlist Gabby was another in a long line of mistakes.
“Hey!” The stranger put his dagger back at Diamedes’ throat, getting their attention once and for all. “I’m the one with the blade at your companion’s neck.”
The others quickly stopped their bickering to focus on the other man. “So what now?” Lucius asked.
The man took his dagger and pointed it at Alexi. “Now . . .” the man said, his tone menacing and serious, “we kill her.”
The small caravan was crossing the pass, coming up from the Ulathan green valley far below, switching back along the rutted road as it headed north toward Moartown and the farther realm of Regis. The last thing they were expecting was an attack by a group of wolves and a rather nasty wyvern, which looked like a small dragon with a stinger for a tail, if they knew what a dragon looked like.
The caravan was only half massacred, its few mercenary guards falling relatively easily to the wyvern drone, and the massive white wolves finished those who stood and fought. Only five of the ten wagons made it through with those survivors fleeing for their lives. The wolves would eat well that day, and after a long winter, it was a most welcome feast for them.
Artika had been alerted to the armed intrusion into her winter lair by the alpha male of the wolf pack days before. The large wolf had gone to the near edge of the large glacier and scratched at the surface ice. Normally, not a soul, animal, beast, or otherwise could hear the faint sound of claws against the hard ice, but the white dragon was in tune with the cold, and the ice above her conveyed the attempt to notify her, alerting her to the wolf’s presence.
She had come out then, down through the dark blue icy waters, and met with her scouts, the winter white wolves of the north who informed her of recent events. The most significant was the arrival of Askia, her wyvern drone. Their conversation had to wait, however, until the immediate threats were dealt with.
So the sun had started to climb high overhead, casting its glowing warmth, which annoyed Artika greatly. She preferred to strike during the night, when it was the darkest and coldest, but the passing caravan, so close to her abode, signaled the need for them to take immediate action. To that end, she had ordered the attack and had watched it from afar as it unfolded. With some small content, she observed her drone as he flew toward her, dripping blood from his claws and face.
With a little puff of powder, the drone landed in front of her and bowed its head on its long neck in deference to her kind.
“Easy task,” Artika said, noting that there was no loss of life amongst her servant wolves, and the drone was uninjured in the attack as well.
“Yes, Mistress,” Askia said, lifting his head up slowly to ensure her approval of his demonstration of respect. “They seem to have gotten softer the last few centuries.”
“Not all of them are soft,” she said, looking at her left foot where two claws had been sheared from her body. “They still have some fight in them, especially those magic lovers of theirs.”
“You refer to the Kesh, Mistress?”
“None other,” she said, returning her gaze to her drone. “Why had you not arrived earlier? Harm could have come to me.”
Askia lowered his head a second time, this time in an apologetic gesture. “The time is still early, Princess of Frost. It appears that the Kesh have interrupted the cycle for an unknown, or unknown reasons.”
This news interested the white dragon. She was one of the few of her kind that slumbered near their realm, which was considered dangerous, if anything could be considered dangerous to her kind, and news of their actions, plans, or designs were always intriguing to her. “I sense they are still near since my last encounter with them.”
Her drone raised its head for a second time. “I too sense the same, Lady of Winter, though I could not detect their presence anywhere near here.”
“Yes, they play with power that they do not understand, though I’m certain they have a hand in what is happening here. I do not think they have strayed far, and they were surprised when I happened across them not long ago. Now tell me, what news from our queen?” Artika took a moment to look down the mountain slope at the feeding wolves that she commanded, noting with some approval of their feeding. It had been a long winter for them, and the fast was broken by fresh meat.
“The northerners have been mobilized. They fight both for us and against us.” Askia looked his mistress in the eye to detect any sign of emotion in the great beast.
The white dragon snorted, blowing a large puff of snow in front of it, and sent the flakes dancing across the wind around her drone. “Those stupid barbarian clans are useless to us. I don’t understand why the queen insists on continuing to use her little pets in this ridiculous game of hers.”
The drone nodded, understanding that more than one white dragon had died at the hands of the great red dragons, but more than one of the ruling reds were given a reminder of the ordeal with a frozen and useless limb or an eye blinded and useless for the rest of their lives. White dragons were vulnerable to the fire-breathing reds, but the reds were in turn most affected by the frost breath weapon of her kind. A red could kill a white, but oftentimes at a price, and this gave the smaller whites a certain arrogance that was dangerous to all involved.
“Perhaps she thinks her pets make our work easier?” Askia offered, careful not to take sides between the Queen of Fire and the Princess of Frost.
“They make for good slaves and food, but not much else. Better to let us fly free and attack at will, much as we did in the days of the ancient ones.” Artika turned her attention to the drone, content that the caravan attack was over and that the wolves had done her will.
“The ancients left long ago, but I would agree with you, Oh Mistress of the Night. Those were magnificent days.”
Artika smiled inwardly at the flattering words of the drone. It was said that Sivern, the drone of Qui Amatha, Queen of the Black Dragons, was the most flattering of all the wyvern drones, but Artika thought her own drone was more than a match for the evil black’s. “So that is all the news from our fearless leader?”
The tone of hatred toward their queen was obvious, and a dragon’s manners were not the most tactful in any situation. The drone would just have to deal with it and walk the fine line between the two egomaniacal species of dragon kind. “It would appear so, Your Majestic Permeator of All Things Cold . . .”
Artika narrowed her eyes and looked at the drone attentively. Perhaps she was overestimating his ability with regards to flattery and adulation, as that last effort sounded awkward to her at best. “Go on,” she prompted him.
“The approach of the Father is coming, but not for a season or so yet. The early awakenings are suspected to be of the Kesh doing. The queen investigates even now and has commanded that the reaping be prepared for, despite the earliness of the time.”
The white dragon pondered the command of her queen. “This is a dangerous time with the Father so far away—our powers are diminished. Still, there may be wisdom in her words, for the magic-using humans are up to something. That much is certain. I’ve never experienced three of them together outside of their own miserable land. We must prepare, then.”
“What do you have in mind, White Death?”
“It is time to marshal not only our strength but our forces as well.”
“You move, then, early to reap?” Askia had a gleam in his eye.
“Yes,”Artika said, moving to stand from where she lounged on a large piece of ice that jutted out from the mountainside, a remnant of an ancient glacier. Flapping her wings, she stretched and prepared to return to her lair for the summoning of her forces. “Fly to the queen and report our intentions. Be sure to inform my servants that their time of service has arrived. I will await for you at Ice Crest.”
“Then?” the drone raised itself, also preparing for flight.
The white dragon was amused. “Then I live up to my last moniker you gave me—White Death.”
The ruse was a simple one, though the group felt it was unnecessary and awkward to execute. Gabby called for a coffin and allowed the most gossipy of her servants to peek in the door and declare her guest, the holy warrior, dead. It took nearly an hour for the group to convince Alexi to play along. In the end, it was the historian himself who asked her to do the deed and play the part.
The stranger revealed to Diamedes that he worked for Seth, also a Balarian, and the name seemed familiar to those in the room, but Diamedes knew the man, and when he showed a special coin that Seth had given to the historian earlier that year, it was enough for the historian to trust the killer.
The plan called for Eric, Lucius, and Diamedes to ride to Blood Rock that next day. The stranger who said his name was Zokar would lead Gabby and Alexi to where the raiders were going to ambush the trio and in turn hit them first before they hit their companions.
The plan was met with a lot of skepticism, and Gabby complained that she’d have no one to care for her inn while she was gone. A deal was made to have Lucius return to Razor Rock and watch over the place while Gabby accompanied Eric and the Tynirians.
“Do you really think this will work?” Lucius asked to no one in particular as the trio rode on their mounts across a narrow road that cut across the wildlands near Razor Rock. They were heading northeast, back toward the main trade road between Ulatha and Regis.
Eric answered, “It better. That Balarian killer said that their orders were to kill you two and make it look like I did it. That doesn’t exactly make me feel better, but watching you two as bait seems worse.”
“It is worse,” Lucius said, giving his associate a sideways look.
Eric looked at the man and then at Diamedes, who nodded. “Your associate speaks truthfully.”
“You keep strange company,” Eric said to the small historian as they rode.
“How so?” Diamedes asked.
“Well,” Eric began, “you show up first by yourself in—”
“Not by myself. I was with the justiciar.”
“Yes, that is exactly what I mean,” Eric said. “First you arrive in Moartown with an Ulathan justiciar, then you invite one of the king’s Fists—”
“The Fist,” Diamedes corrected.
“All right, the Fist, a deadly holy warrior from the Order of Astor, and if I understand their religion correctly, they don’t tolerate those of questionable backgrounds.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Lucius added.
“And, then we find that a Balarian assassin, with orders to frame me for murder and execute you, turns up in my ex-wife’s private chambers . . . Hey, you don’t think . . . ?”
“Eric, please,” Lucius said. “Move on.”
Eric shrugged. “All right, moving on, then. So this hired killer is someone who works for one of the most deadly assassins in all of Agon, who just so happens to have some sort of working relationship with you, and now we put all this together
Diamedes laughed, one of the few times he did so. “I see your point. From my perspective, history is history, good, evil, and everything in between. I believe fact and knowledge should be our ultimate goal, as that would allow us to transcend the rumors, strife, and ignorance that has been plaguing us for millennia.”
“You refer to the dragons?” Lucius asked.
“Mostly, yes,” the historian clarified. “That is a large part of our history and our lack of awareness with what our world endures, but there is more to it than just that. Even without such cataclysmic events, we should ask ourselves why we are who we are.”
“Meaning?” Lucius pressed forward.
“Meaning, for example, why do only the Kesh use magic? Why do the Arnen sleep the way the dragons do? Why does the Mother flee when the Father approaches?”