He stared into the eyes of the sentinel. He tried to look behind those blank eyes that were the colour of quicksilver, searching for… something; a soul perhaps? He stared through the stream of sweat and blood that broke the dam of his brow and ran down the side of his nose and into the corner of his eye. He continued to stare as those cold unseeing eyes flickered briefly and then closed on eternal sleep, the sentinel slumping slowly to the floor, its body sliding from his sword that weary hands could barely keep in their grip.

‘Is it dead?’

‘You ask me that every time I kill something, Maris. What will you do on the day that I say no?’ he spat the sentence out between gasping breaths.

The man standing behind him shuffled nervously from one foot to the other in answer. Slowly, painfully he lowered himself down on to one knee and laid his sword carefully on the floor at his side, blood rushing into hands that had gripped a hilt too hard for too long and which now felt like they would swell until they burst. He pictured the thick weathered fingers flying off in all directions, slapping wetly against the tunnel wall and his companion standing behind him. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth at the thought of the mage having to clean gore from his immaculate robes, perhaps a finger would fall into one of the multitude of pockets and only be found weeks later, hopefully during an audience with the Duchess of Grandaria.

‘Borstal? Are… are you all right old chap?’

‘Of course I’m not fucking all right. Do I look like I’m all right?’

‘Fine. Just… checking the corpse.’

His mind prodded his exhausted arms into feigning some sort of search, and his arms vowed to give his mind a damned good kicking when next its attention was elsewhere. His mind wisely thought better of pointing out the irony of arms trying to give anything a kicking, though.

‘Nothing of any value.’

‘Just like the others.’

‘No, this one was different, it fought more ferociously. With desperation. We must be close.’

‘How can you tell such things? It all looks like so much brutal savagery to me. No offence old chap.’

‘Gods! I am too tired for this shi…’ The brief flare of anger in his face was hidden from his companion, and he managed, Gods knew how, to refrain from putting his fist through the face of the corpse at his feet.

‘None taken.’ He surprised himself with how calm he sounded. Not friendly, but no undertone of the suppressed malice either, just dead. ‘Death in human clothing.’ The Death Host was what they called him back in the lands of the civilised world, a stupid title he thought, invoked only by folk tellers to make their tales seem more epic and mothers to scare their children into behaving.

‘Let’s proceed with caution, then?’

‘I’ll take that as us proceeding with me first, shielding your pretty face from the horrors of the world?’

‘Indeed. Let’s.’

He stood up, too quickly, and his legs began to buckle underneath him. Steadying himself on the unnaturally smooth stone of the tunnel wall he reached down for his sword in one smooth motion.

‘Mind the blood on the floor. Slippery.’

‘Right you are my boy.’

‘Boy? I’ve got a score of years on your beardless scrawny hide.’

‘Right I am. Let’s go.’ He lumbered off down the tunnel, a rolling brutish gait that he used when he was trying to mask a wound bad enough to make him favour one leg. He was getting used to this place now though, it was almost becoming routine: they’d travel maybe three hundred yards along the unerringly uniform tunnel and then a sentinel would appear seemingly from nowhere and attack them, and he’d kill it while the mage probably stood picking his nose, for all the good he did. Yet the mage was the one paying the bills, he had been tasked with this grand quest to retrieve a tooth from the ancient dragon Ordnualmat, and it was he who had employed Borstal as a bodyguard and guide.

And a bloody wet nurse, by all accounts. Very bloody.

‘What was that old bean?’

‘Uh. I was just thinking that we’ve travelled over six hundred yards by my reckoning and we haven’t seen a sentinel.’ ‘Getting used to the place. Becoming a routine. That’s the danger with dungeon crawls like this one, you’re asleep on your feet and you don’t even realise it, not until…’

‘Hurr.’

‘What’s that you say?’

‘I said hurr

‘Well yes quite, but the import of the question is as to why you made such an utterance.’

‘If only you fought as well as you strung out sentences.’

‘I was expecting something to happen. But it didn’t.’

‘You expected… it didn’t… Really! I don’t think I will ever understand the workings of the minds of you barbarians. Although, perhaps if I were able to study you back at The College! I could take a small sample of your brain tissue, it’s a simple enough procedure: we drill a small hole, core out a section of brain, I’m sure you wouldn’t even miss it, I doubt you’ll use more than two percent of your entire brain capacity throughout your lifetime. No offence old chap. Old chap? Ol… oh.’

The room was vast and in complete contrast to the tunnels they had travelled. The walls had the rough uneven surface one would expect of a natural cavern, the rock that formed them was a deep rich scarlet. Dampness permeated throughout the underground chamber and the walls glistened in the faint light that was thrown up from the glowing orbs that were dotted here and there around its circumference. The effect gave an almost organic appearance to the place, it was like a womb in the earth. And at the centre of the womb, curled around itself as if in mockery of the image of a foetal child lay the dragon Ordnualmat.

‘I hope you have a plan, mage, because there is no way in the seven seasons of Hrothvar that I am going to be able to defeat that thing.’ he turned and whispered through his teeth, as though he might sieve the words, make them smaller and thus quieter still.

‘Not to worry friend’ – the words, although whispered, rang deathly loud in the barbarian’s ears making him flinch – ‘I have the item we require here in one of my pockets, it’s got to be… no no not that one, or that one. Hmmm, it must be one of these then surely. Oh dear me, I expect…’

It was a subconscious reaction. Muscle memory from year upon year of fighting in dungeons such as these. Borstal raised his arm reflexively, the jaws of the beast slamming into it and snapping down as though steel sprung, teeth like ivory nails piercing through his forearm rending flesh, muscle and tendon.

‘So fast. So quiet’ he thought.

And then he screamed.

The folk tales of his village always told of the brave warrior valiantly shrugging off the loss of a limb with a hawked spit and a curse of their enemies, then fighting on regardless to ultimate victory. He’d always thought that those folk tales were full of shit, especially the ones about himself.

He screamed again as the dragon began its death rattle, flinging its head from side to side in an attempt to snap his neck or crack his skull open against the cavern wall. He struggled, but it was the panicked wild-eyed struggle of the prey that knows its death is rapidly approaching. He flailed around with his good arm trying to grab the creature’s face, trying to grab at anything that would steady him against the violent shaking, but he found no purchase. Tears began to well in his eyes, tears of agony, anger and regret.

His neck snapped and he slipped into darkness.

Maris watched calmly as the dragon flung the corpse of the barbarian against the wall of the cavern. It was a shame to have to sacrifice such a good warrior, but the Ritual of Dominance required the blood from a fresh victim of the creature. He ran his finger down the side of his face and then brought it up in front of him, noting with indifferent satisfaction the barbarian’s blood that now covered the tip.

The dragon looked up from the mangled corpse to where the mage stood, it’s forked tongue flicked out once from between rows of scalpel-sharp blood soaked teeth. An act of mockery, or tasting the air trying to sense his intent? Maris did not have time to think on it too deeply, in barely a couple of breaths the dragon had snaked half way across the distance between them, it’s wide open jaws revealing further rows of teeth behind those at the front.

Maris made two circular motions in the air in front of him with his bloody finger and spoke a single word of power.

Ordnualmat stopped violently, its head snapping backwards as if it were chained by its neck to the wall beyond and it had reached the limit of the chain’s length. The dragon lay still on the floor. Maris observed it for a moment, noted the slow rise and fall of the creature’s chest; it still lived, but he would soon rectify that. He moved carefully into the cavern and skirted around the edge towards the body of the barbarian. Upon reaching the corpse he bent down and with a deft slash of his knife he removed the purse of gold from the barbarian’s belt. It wasn’t as though he desperately needed the money, but there was no point in letting it go to waste, the barbarian wouldn’t be needing it after all. Then he walked calmly back towards the entrance, the dragon unmoving in the corner of his vision, and bent down to pick up the sword from where the barbarian had dropped it – the sword he had given to the barbarian at the start of their quest with promises that it would protect him from the dragon and allow him to slay it. It wasn’t entirely a lie, but it was certainly not the sort of protection that one could use in a straight fight.

He stood up and found himself looking directly into amber eyes full of all consuming wrath.

‘Release us, mortal’. The voice echoed around the cavern. It seemed to emanate from everywhere at once. It was the sound of pebbles being washed up on the shore.

‘Oh please. I have not been mortal for over five hundred years, a being of your power can sense this full well. I thought of you as more than petty insults and childish tantrums.’

‘RELEASE US.’

‘It’s not very fucking likely is it?’ Maris composed himself, and then continued ‘I need one of those very lovely teeth of yours, and I’m willing to bet that you aren’t going to give it up of your own volition. So I’m afraid it’s death for you.’

‘You cannot kill us, child of flesh and bone.’

‘There we go with the insults again. But you are right, I myself cannot kill you; this, on the other hand…’ and he raised the sword slightly such that it caught the dragon’s attention. The dragon’s eyes flicked briefly to the sword and back to the mage, and its head shrank away almost imperceptibly. Almost.

‘Yes. You recognise its power, don’t you? You don’t know what the power is, but you can sense the magnitude of it, you can taste the radiance of it. That is the taste of your doom, you belly-crawling worm of the deep.’

‘Hrsssssssssssss’ The dragon reared up, and arched its head backwards ‘We cannot reach you mage while your parlour trick binds us so, but you are no warrior and we can tell that you dare not approach within the bounds of our confinement. We, however, do not need to reach you to kill you, ape spawn.’ Maris watched transfixed as gills opened in the side of the dragon’s neck and with a sucking rasping sound air was drawn in through them. Then the dragon threw its head forward and a tremendous jet of flame burst forth from its mouth engulfing the mage in fire.

Ordnualmat halted its breath and looked upon the spot where the mage had stood. Something was deeply wrong. The flame persisted as a great fiery ball surrounding the mage, and as the dragon looked on in bewilderment the globe of fire began to slowly rotate and unravel like the peeling of a fruit, curling itself into a spiralling stream of flame that twisted its way up the length of the mage’s body. Then swiftly the flame writhed its way seductively around the mage before flowing up the length of his arm and into the sword which it held at its end.

‘Hmmm. A breath of fire, just as the texts said it would be.’ Maris twisted the sword in his hand, watching the now flaming blade cast its flickering radiance around the cavern. The dragon watched him in silence. ‘And now, to see if the texts were right about this as well’ and he pointed the sword at the dragon and spoke another word of power. The flame leapt from the blade and engulfed the dragon as it had done the mage only moments before, but the effect upon the dragon was markedly different, its scales sizzled and cracked, the flesh beneath bubbling and melting down its sides. Maris almost faltered at the last, the sword nearly dropping from his hand, for the dragon did not scream out in agony, it did not make a sound, it just continued to stare at Maris with eyes that reflected an age of sadness and suffering. Then Ordnualmat exhaled once as if in relief and slumped to the floor. In an unintentional paradoy of the dragon’s death Maris let out a deep sigh and sat heavily down with his back to the cavern wall. He used the sleeve of his robe to wipe the sweat from his brow and mopped at the trickle of blood that ran from his nose down to his mouth as he stared at the dragon’s corpse.

Twenty minutes passed before he moved from the spot and made his way tentatively towards the dragon’s smouldering remains. He pressed his foot to the dragon’s open unseeing eye. No reaction.

Dead then.

Victory was close now, he could finally allow himself to think it. After all the travels, the fights and narrow escapes, he had made it against all probability into the Caverns of Vroll; he had found the dragon who dwelled there; he had indeed found a way to slay it, despite all the nay-saying of his colleagues back at The College. Now he could take the tooth, and his quest would be almost at an end. He had but to return with it to his study in New Harthsbridge and perform the ritual he had found hidden in ancient texts buried deep within The College library. Then, if the texts were to be believed, near limitless power would be his. And the texts had yet to prove false.

With a trembling hand he pulled his knife from its sheath and, resting his foot on the lower jaw he prised the dragon’s mouth open with his other hand.

He screamed, a long moaning wail of agony.

‘No… teeth? What trickery is this?’ He cast desperately about the floor around the dragon, in case the rows upon rows of teeth had all been smashed out when the dragon fell. Nothing.

He looked again into the dragon’s gaping mouth.

‘NO FUCKING TEETH? ALL THIS. I HAVE GONE THROUGH ALL OF THIS… SHIT AND THERE ARE NO TEETH?!’ he furiously tossed his dagger to one side, clenched his fists and beat them against the sides of his head. It did not bring him any relief. He looked at the dragon again, its lidless staring eye and half open mouth seemed to be frozen in a state of mirth, as if it mocked him from beyond the veil of death. He kicked at it in mindless rage and the head rolled onto its side, the jaw slapping shut, the eye staring off into nothingness.

Several times he paced away from the dragon and then returned to look in the mouth again, as if the missing teeth might suddenly reappear. They didn’t. As he turned to leave, disappointment sitting so heavy in his heart that his chest ached from it, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the barbarian’s corpse was gone. At this his anger redoubled, it burned brighter even than the dragon’s breath.

He stormed out of the cavern.

——

Epilogue

Maris Vengamort, first of the Order of Seven, arch magus of The College of the Infinite Mind, Immortal, Lord of the Arcane Path, walked up to the the job postings board in the centre of New Harthsbridge’s town square. He pinned a single sheet of paper up on the board and half turned to leave before turning back and ripping another flier from the board and casting it to the floor. Then he stormed off towards The College, his face a mask of wrath.

The message on the board read:

LFM to Caverns of Vroll. Need DPS, Barbarian preferred. PST Maris if interested. Need tooth of Ordnualmat, shitty drop rate so will pay for boost. Have pre-req Sword of Mirrorflame all ready.

The quickly blurring lettering on the rain-soaked piece of paper that was now slowly dissolving in the puddle where it had been thrown read:

WARNING: Maris Vengamort is a fucking ninja looter and a total noob. Do not team with him! Also an XP leecher and trains mobs onto party members. PST for the lowdown. — Borstal

Posted by Melmoth at 3:48 pm