Long, drawn-out syllables made no sound but they shook Prentyze’s guts with volcanic power and a slight tearing sensation. He heard their sound in his intestines, not his ears. Either the voice was too low to be heard, or he was losing his grip on reality.
However, Father wasn’t noted for stopping in mid-sentence; so he must have felt it too. This was a relief, to an extent. But it also meant a large dragon undeniably existed, nearby, and was aware of their presence.
Maybe being insane wasn't so bad after all.
Four pairs of light beams, glaring in the cloudy air, swung in unison to probe a vast space beyond. They converged on a head – massive, scaly, and violet-coloured – which faced them about twenty metres away, more than twice their height above ground.
By the Gods! Large? It was huge! The telescope hadn’t done the beast justice. It was so much bigger up close that it didn’t seem possible it could fit through the tunnel.
Its snout, two metres long, reminded Prentyze of a crocodile’s –except with bigger fangs– yet flexible enough for speech. Two orange eyes faced them over the snout, with another pair set further around the head, which likely gave it good all-round vision. Lights reflected from one of its forward eyes, but congealing, black fluid –oozing from a gashed brow– obscured the other.
Scales that could turn a crossbow bolt continued down a thick, violet neck on which hung a wrinkled, yellow crop.
Mesmerised, Prentyze kept both his lights high, trained on the nightmarish head. Others, with more presence of mind, swung their beams around in the dusty air to assess the tactical situation. The tunnel opened into a large, circular chamber with a low, shallow-domed ceiling. The lair’s space and proportions were like the inverted saucer shape of a sports’ throwing-disk – albeit a fat one. The dragon in the centre occupied almost a quarter of the chamber’s volume.
It stood on a raised edifice of moulded stone which rose out of a placid pool of dense, waist-high dust, like a volcano rearing above the clouds. Claws as big as scythes gripped the edge of chest-high ramparts surrounding a deep, oval crater under the dragon’s body.
Could that be a nest?
The slow, paralysing gut vibrations resumed ‘talking’, stopping thought and pausing light beams in mid swing.
“I - GIVE - UP - PRETENDING - TO - SLEEP.
“SO - LET’S - TALK.
“TELL - ME - ARE - YOU - BRAVE - OR - FOOLISH? I - CAN’T - DECIDE.
“SURELY - YOU - GUESSED - I - SAVED - SOME - FIRE? OR - DO - YOU - THINK - I - AM - AS - STUPID - AS - YOU - MONKEYS?”
What was that? Something was glinting from under the dragon. Prentyze lowered his beams for a better look. Under direct illumination, glints of gold, silver and crystal flashed from the nest.
So it was true. Dragons did horde untold wealth in their lairs … for reasons that made sense only to dragons.
But something else was glistening under the dragon’s bulk and it took a moment to realise what he was seeing. Some of the gemstones were large. No, not just large. Gigantic. He blinked, trying to make sense of what he saw – uncut crystals, as big as fat hogs, smooth, rounded and elongated. They looked, for all the World’s Plane, like translucent eggs. In fact, mounds of jewellery and coins supported them, as if to –
Oh, by the Gods! That’s exactly what they were! Eggs! Crystal eggs!
The dragon was brooding a clutch of draclings!
Zubin’s harsh cry cut in on his thoughts. “So! It was never only about leases and contracts for Brassard weapons. There’s enough wealth here to –”
“ARE - YOU - PREPARED?”
The dragon’s crop started rising and falling with repeating contractions. Through the telescope, Prentyze had confirmed that this was where a dragon kept its fire, ready for use. With distance, it was possible to observe these regurgitation-like motions with detachment, but to see it happening only metres away was quite a different experience.
It was bringing up a fireball!
His stomach clenched tight, and his bowels quivered with new urgency.
"Have no fear!” his father cried. He affected a lack of fear, but his voice had a shrill edge that was unfamiliar to Prentyze. “It doesn’t have enough fire to –ah– harm us. And we are fireproof, what?”
The dragon finished retching and opened its mouth wide, revealing rows of wicked, long and sharp teeth. But Prentyze’s attention narrowed onto a misshapen mass of painfully bright white fire, the size of a fat tome. With deft flicks of its writhing and pointed tongue, the dragon shaped this irregular ‘gob’ of flame into a sphere, much like a juggler tilting a ball back and forth across their upper body.
During the ambush, the dragon defended itself with massive fireballs, each one slaughtering dozens of men and mounts. Direct strikes killed the lucky few in an instant, but most burned alive as splashes of glutinous fire ate through their armour and bodies.
In comparison, this puny ‘fireball’ hardly merited the title.
Edrei slipped and stumbled, wading through dust into the chamber’s threshold, white clouds churning upwards in his wake, fogging Prentyze’s lights. “See? Barely enough fire for one of us, what?” He jabbed his lance forward, pointing along his side of the dragon. “Forward, warriors of Waldemar! … Attaaaaack!”
With roars of “Waldemaaaaaar!”, Prentyze and the others slipped, wobbled and skated into the chamber, kicking up thick clouds of hitherto undisturbed dust. Edrei and Flammia led each pair in the slow and ungainly charge, dividing as they advanced into the chamber.
Oh, gods save him. This was stupid. What was he doing, skidding into battle on uncertain footing, screaming with an already hoarse voice from a parched throat? With his scholastic leanings, he was as much out of place here as –
No. He had made his choice. He had set aside any hope of academia to pursue the golden path of the noble. He must follow Father’s destiny now. Stupid battle cries included.
“FOOLS!” The intestines-shaking ‘voice’ hit them again, with greater force, doubling everyone over in pain.
The inglorious charge hadn't gone far. Only a few wobbly steps.
Wait a minute. How did it manage to speak at the same time as – ?
“THIS! - IS! - ALL! - I! - NEED!”
A second wave of abdominal rending ceased as, in quick succession, the dragon expanded and flattened its belly, covering the nest with its body. It flicked two pairs of stubby wings down with a crash against the nest’s sides and curled a long whip-tail –previously lying hidden in the dust– around the enclosure, clamping its wings to the sides. And somehow, it managed all this with its head held high and still juggling the melon sized fireball.
By the time Prentyze and the others straightened up, the fabulous treasure had disappeared.
From its already lofty height, the dragon lobbed the bright ball of liquid flame with a nonchalant flick of its tongue.
It arced towards them in a high trajectory.
The dragon hadn’t targeted anyone.
Though hardly an accomplished racquet-ball player, even Prentyze could tell that the ball would land at a point midway between its nest and the attack leaders.
Why so casual? It didn’t add up.
Scholars theorised that a dragon’s intelligence increased with age and size, and this one had plenty of both. If the relationship held true, why would such an intelligent creature waste its last remaining shot of dragonfire?
No, it didn't add up at all. There HAD to be a reason for the fireball’s trajectory.
A deadly one.
A sense of mounting dread and horror seized him. He stumbled to a halt at the chamber’s threshold, focussed exclusively on the flame’s arc. Nothing existed but the fireball which had almost stopped in midair.
Wait. Stopped? What the … ?!
The ball of white flame inched down from its apogee, drifting outwards and downwards, centimetre by centimetre, with all the urgency of a soap bubble.
What the discordant deities was going on now?
Had time slowed or was he thinking fast?
No! Never mind the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of it. Prentyze had gained an unexpected gift of time to think! He had to use it wisely.
The most pressing puzzle was the dragon’s seeming waste of the last of its precious flame. It had to mean something. Perhaps the difference between life and death.
His mind stilled and cleared as he concentrated. Dizziness, aches, cramps, pain, stress, emotion – all evaporated away.
The distance to the floor closed millimetre-by-millimetre, like grains of a sand timer draining in slow motion into the bottom flask. Somehow each grain dropped, each millimetre closed, took on increasing significance.
But why? What was his mind trying to tell him?
Such a small flame posed no danger to anyone. Even if aimed at one of them, this armour would withstand its direct strike with ease, and any splashes that caught others would be unnoticeable. Even ordinary armour would protect against them.
But this tiny featherfall of dragonfire would hit the floor far from anyone and the splashed droplets would fall short. So where was the danger?
The dragon’s aim must have been deliberate. With his thoughts still racing faster than the fireball, Prentyze had time to analyse the clues. He broke the jigsaw puzzle into pieces, to rearrange them into a more helpful picture.
Facts spun in his mind’s whirlpool, spiralling down, gathering into new arrangements.
Dust? No, not common organic dust: Atomic Particulate, no less.
That last piece clicked into a fresh arrangement of pieces, and a new, deadly picture formed.
Its focal point was the dry atomic particulate.
The wet padding that chafed his brow became cold and clammy.
Why hadn’t he seen it sooner? It should have been obvious from his first encounter with this rare and valuable dust. In fact, his irritating snippets of memory about atomic particulate were probably warnings from his subconscious, only he had been too weary and too distracted to understand.
“When devoid of moisture, even ordinary organic dust is flammable. When ignited, it releases impressive amounts of heat and light in a short period. See table below for –
“In contrast, dry atomic particulate is, by two orders of magnitude, far more reactive. Just 1ml –
“… is a highly energetic accelerant with a potential heat-energy reputed to approach that of dragonfire itself –”
THAT’S why the chamber lacked moisture. It was by design.
It was a trap. They were inside a fireball!
The dragon hadn’t been bluffing. A tiny flame was indeed all it needed – a mere match would suffice. But it wasn’t a tiny, sputtering flame that drifted ever downwards.
The dragon had lobbed a miniature star, and it didn’t matter where in the dust it landed.
Only an arm’s length now separated the burning meteor from an ocean of highly explo –
Oh, Gods! He didn’t have time to waste thinking! He had to move! He had to flinch! Seal up the suit’s weak points!
Prentyze released the grip on his lance, his fingers complying with excruciating slowness. He left his weapon to hang in the air.
Now! Curl up! Duck the head! Bend the knees! Pull in the arms!
His limbs began to obey but at a sluggish pace.
Why did it take so long? He must seal his armour’s weak points, the joints, or else –
Curl up, damn you! Flinch!
The searing point of ignition crept inexorably down towards its fuel, like a fuse burning through the last millimetres of paper into a signalling rocket.
Detonation was imminent.
With enormous effort, he forced his body to react faster, ignoring razors of pain which sliced through his limbs. Why did it hurt so much to make his stupid, laggardly limbs meander into position?
Oh, of course!
His movements were only sluggish relative to the speed of his thoughts. In reality, his limbs moved faster than the fireball fell, but he was ripping muscles and tearing tendons trying to overcome their stupid inertia to make them move even faster.
Never mind the pain! He could buy a whole House of Healing, if he survived!
Through a torture of torn tissues, and with mounting terror, he tracked the comet of doom as it wafted down the final centimetres towards an impending firestorm.
And touched it.
Starting from a point between Father, Flammia and the dragon, a blinding white mound of fire mushroomed from the dust, progressively obscuring the dragon behind it. The dragon was now prone, having laid its head on its front claws. Its ears had flattened down and sealed. Its eyes were shut tight.
It knew what was coming.
It was now out of sight behind an incandescent fireball which ballooned out towards his immobile Father. In stark silhouette against the glare, the man cut a ridiculously defiant figure, a hero attacking heat and light with a thrust of his lance. A searing wall of brightness began to envelop him, lifting him back a few steps with its force.
As each part of Father’s body vanished into the glare, momentary sooty jets erupted from his armour’s joints, an ominous litany of smoke signals: elbows, knees, neck, armpits, waist, hips –
Oh Gods! No!
The fire had entered and flashed right through Father’s body!
Father had ceased to exist.
Someone Prentyze both hated and –to his surprise, still cared about– had gone.
The thought was too big to hold in his head right now, and his mind switched to another track.
What about Flammia? No sign. She had submerged in the brilliant fire at the same time as –
With her military training and fast reactions, maybe she had sealed up before the flame took her? He hoped so. She deserved better after her poor treatment this day by –
Soon, the fireball would expand to reach him and Zubin. At the edge of his vision, and one or two steps ahead, the silhouetted priest was no longer upright but already hunched into sealed armour, having started sooner than Prentyze. The priest’s dragon-lance had already vanished into the dust.
The tall figure soon followed and the glare swallowed him.
No sooty jets.
The point of Prentyze’s own weapon began to pierce the agonising light of the advancing fireball. As its dazzling white flame worked along the wooden shaft, clouds of sparks and ash blurred outwards, soiling the pristine flame front.
The fiery expansion, already fast, accelerated as the chamber’s shape compressed and focused the blast into the tunnel’s threshold, where he stood. Time was getting short. Had falling a few steps behind given him enough time to seal his armour? Was he in position yet?
Knees bent, rump out - check.
Head lowered, chin tucked in - check.
Shoulders rounded - check.
Hands gathered before chest (rowing position) - check ... Well, not quite. His left arm extended too much.
It would have to do. There was no time to pull it in.
Seen closer, the dazzling flame front was neither uniform nor smooth. A maelstrom of chaotic eddies moved in different directions, though the total explosion expanded ever outwards.
A large, protruding swirl, the size of one of the dragon’s eggs, moved across the flame front from his right and would be the first part to hit him.
Your design had better work, Father.
Oh, Gods! You’ll never know, will you?!
Edrei Brassard, the most brilliant Design Master in the long history of House Brassard, would never learn if his design worked and whether his only son survived.
With a hollow heart, Prentyze could only await the tempest’s onslaught.
The slow motion shock-wave felt like an enormous jelly pushing against and around his armoured shoulder. Its pressure increased continually, forcing telescoping plates to collapse inwards and making him topple slowly to the left. His shoulder’s metal plates reached their design limits. And went beyond them.
Oh Gods, the pressure front was crushing his shoulder!
Had the main fireball hit him face-on yet? He couldn’t tell. Agony coursed through his upper body as the bones in his right shoulder and arm pushed into his chest. His right collarbone curved outwards, millimetre by millimetre.
Intense pain! A jumbled flash of intense experience – blinding light, sound and pressure, tumbling, and uncountable glancing blows against rock.
It ended as quickly as it began. Late afternoon sunlight illuminated his trajectory of torment, out and away from the mountain.
No ground awaited him. Only more sky.
He flew into an infinite abyss of sky.