A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that became two books

48. Strange, dangerous pastimes

25th of Kuthona – Toilday – 95th day in Varisia

Mountain of Rimeskull

The massive ten-foot-high and wide stone statues were in a circle, each staring inwards. Each depicted a different person – humans, I gathered – and each was decidedly different. A bald man with jewels sunk into his forehead. An arrogant lady. Another, attractive and alluring. A proud, handsome man who looked like he owned the world. An anxious, distracted, wild-haired woman. A plump, round-faced, delighted man. Only the last one was damaged – parts of his happy face had been chipped off, but otherwise they looked like recently chiseled. Which of course was not possible.

The plateau where the seven faces waited was surrounded by mountain slopes, that looked difficult or even impossible to traverse, but I still kept my eyes on them, ever vigilant for ambushers. The stone statues were not the only relic we found. Beyond them, a hundred feet or so away a wide path divided one of the slopes. At its mouth was an arch, not unlike the one we had seen in Riddleport, but only much smaller in scale, its uppermost point rising to forty feet or so. Like the massive arch of Riddleport, this one had strange Thassilonian runes etched along its curve.

There was only the faint howl of the wind above us. Fresh snow crunched under our boots as we paced closer through banks of snow, disturbing the stillness and silence of the plateau. But nothing opposed us, and I felt we were the first in ages to walk in the presence of the intimidating statues. A lesser man would have been cowed. Alice was leading the way for a change and we halted when we arrived to the center of the ancient ring.

“I recall mentions of seven runelords from the books at the Library beneath Jorgenfist”, she began, marveling at the statues, examining their details. “I can sense dormant magic in every one. From almost all of the major schools of magic.” She was more excited than I had ever seen her, and that was saying a lot. She was rather withdrawn most of the times. That, or she was just warming up to the fact she was adventuring with us.

I stepped to the fifth face from the north – the proud man. “Would this be Karzoug”, I called out, wagering a guess.

“I don’t think so”, Alice shook her head and herself paced towards the northernmost head. “That one has jewels on his head – something the books I browsed also said about Karzoug.”

Walking beside Alice I produced the quill from my pocket with a piece of paper, and asked the magical instrument whether the statue before us really depicted Karzoug the Runelord of Greed. The quill scribbled Thassilonian in my hand, and Alice translated the text.

“From riches to greed, Karzoug lies at your feet”, she said, nodding. “I was right.”

Where seven faces silent wait encircled guards at Runeforge gate, the verse told us. We had found the runelords, but we still lacked an entrance to the Runeforge proper. The arch had to be the gate. Alfred had come to the same conclusion as he was already sloughing to it and the path beyond, heedless of our discussion. But the poem also talked about timing for the entry – at end of day when dusk is nearer. It was now late afternoon and it would be a few hours before the sun would set. I said as much, and was responded with nods. For the time being, we could explore further.

“Let’s move on”, Harsk suggested, and we did, going after the sellsword.

We took the path up the mountainside. Going was easy, and thankfully the way was shorter than from the foot of the Kodars to the statues. Before long, we emerged before a gigantic head carved into the mountainside. It was none of the runelords, that we could tell. Boldly, we went on.

Xin awaits, his regal voice the yawning gates.

The wide open mouth of the head led to a dark tunnel that wormed deep into the bowels of the mountain. The caverns offered protection from the elements, but hid something far more nefarious and dangerous. The base of my skull itched once more, and with every step, the feeling became stronger.

Dragons are nearby.

I gave voice to my sensations which by then everybody had learned to trust, but the fact did not make us falter one bit. Alice’s light on Alfred’s shield pierced the darkness of the tunnel and we went deeper still. Miraculously, the ice and snow did not recede. It was as if we were pushing into a world made completely of ice. I strained my senses, trying to glimpse anything suspicious, any sign of a threat.

The tunnel turned left once, then back to right, and emerging from the corner we ran into a pair of man-sized statues. They stood like sentinels, covered in frost, holding their right hands forward in a clear gesture to halt.

“Interesting”, Harsk commented, his breath misting in the air. “Golems?” I asked Alfred. If I could somehow sense dragons, his scarab could sense golem creatures in our vicinity. But he shook his head seriously and brought his shield higher up before taking another step closer. The silent sentinels did not react. “Are they magical”, I asked again, Alice this time. She squinted her eyes, sensing with abilities I lacked. “They are not magical, but there is some illusion magic on them, or around them..”

It was a trap, that was obvious. The trickery proved it. Silently, I stepped over to Alfred. “What do you think?” He asked me. Then I noticed it.

“Frost hanging in the air. Behind the statues”, I told what I spotted with a whisper. Without asking, I let loose one quick arrow. It crossed the air through the left-hand side statue.. and with a sharp twang, remained in the air, lodged into something we could not see.

Alice and Harsk both harrumphed at the same time.

“The tunnel steepens dramatically after the illusionary statues, but there is a narrow path angling along the left side of the tunnel”, Harsk told us with a chuckle. Alice was seeing it too but Alfred and I looked at each other and the tunnel suspiciously. My eyes told me the tunnel continued just as it was – straight forward. I told as much.

Harsk walked to the statues (which really were not there) and brushed the snowy ground with his golden longsword. The tip of the blade went through the ground like it wasn’t there. Willing it, I finally saw through the illusion.

“That would’ve been a long, fast and painful tumble”, Alfred commented as reality asserted itself. The angle of the slope was dramatic indeed. It would’ve been like walking off a cliff. But where was the pit? And was there something waiting for us there? Even my wildfire sight could not reveal the bottom to me.

We pushed on, doubly more careful now, along the narrow path. The sharp incline continued for more than hundred feet before becoming a straight fall down for gods knew how far, and the tunnel opened into a cylinder-like cave. The path wormed around the cave, offering a slower if safer way down. The layout reminded me of the crooked tower in Magnimar and the pit in Jorgenfist. Harsk grabbed a small rock from the path, mumbled a spell and the rock caught light, becoming something of a torch. The god-touched slipped it off his hand and it fell.. and it fell, until finally hitting solid ground far below. The dwarf grumbled.

“That must be 300 feet”, he spat. I sincerely hoped he wasn’t considering jumping down as was his peculiar habit. “Is that gold”, the sellsword asked, a twinkle of excitement in his voice. The stone of light had come to a halt among something gleaming. The colour was familiar. A pile of gold coins reflected the light of the rock. A veritable treasure. “It is”, I confirmed, and this made the moustached sellsword grin. “I knew it.”

By then I knew dragons hoarded treasures, and with that thought, the itching became that much more noticeable.

“I could dimension door us down”, Alice suggested frankly. The alternative was to make our way down the steep path. Harsk made the call. “This time I’d rather walk than port into somewhere we have no idea about”, he reasoned and started forward. It was a sensible call, for a change, and I followed.

We managed down the circling path without danger and finally emerged to the bottom of the cylinder cave. Several yawning tunnels offered more darkness to explore but what drew our attention was the formation of perfectly circular pillars pointing up from the cave floor. Seven pillars stood around an eight, and it was twice as high and thick as the others, 40 feet by ten. The lesser pillars were marked with runes, each with different ones, same as the heads of the Runelords.

Alfred was more interested in the gleam we had seen for up above. He paced past the pillars at the opposite side of the cave and guffawed all the way. I followed, some steps behind him, spotting something resembling key holes at the base of the smaller pillars, noting it to Harsk and Alice. Alfred’s greedy streak was well-founded. The pile was massive, formed of countless coins of all precious metals, jewels, armor and weapons. It was clear they had been gathered, but it all just lied there, waiting for no-one, ripe for the taking. I could see Alfred was itching to take his due.

It was too easy, and the axeman realized it too, and held himself in check. “It might be another trap”, he said gloomily. Alice examined the pile for any magic tricks, but found none. I squatted down at a safe distance, trying to see if there were simpler, physical traps among the riches, but I too did not notice anything. Around us, the cave remained dark save for the light of the small rock and Alfred’s shield. Nothing stirred or made a sound.

“We could come back when we’ve triggered the runelord heads or whatever and entered the Runeforge”, I offered. I wasn’t sure we would want to risk angering a dragon by stealing its loot when we were in the middle of infiltrating a mysterious, ancient forge. Alfred sighed but saw my point.

Unhindered we traveled back up the path and walked out of the mouth of the gigantic Thassilonian just as the last rays of the day swept past the westernmost peaks of Kodar Mountains across Lake Stormunder. We hurried down, not wanting to lose our window of opportunity to enter the forge.

We ran for naught, of course. We reached the faces just as night won. Alice sensed the magical auras strengthening and then beginning to fade to normalcy, but nothing happened. No portals opened. No fireworks, no light shows, no sudden appearances of threats. Nothing. Just the chilling wind picking up, howling above us. We were missing something.

“Perhaps we don’t have all the verses of the poem”, Harsk suggested as he stroke his beard in contemplation, followed by multiple people groaning in irritation and exasperation.

**

Thanks to Alice’s powers, we returned from the trip that had taken us almost a week in a span of seconds. Her precision was impeccable, and from the statues in Rimeskull we stepped into the depts of Xaliasa’s dungeon beneath Sandpoint. I went to work immediately, my eyes now penetrating the darkness, looking for verses that we had missed. I did not know Thassilonian but all of the verses had stood out somehow, even for someone without even a rudimentary grasp of the language.

We had truly missed one single verse, and we found it in the main chapel chamber, the same where we had engaged the glabrezu demon. It’s strange how such eerie, malevolent places lose their effect after you’ve purged them of their evil denizens. Instead of threatening, the dungeons now felt just ancient, senile and listless. Series of sculptures of jackal-headed, pregnant women, their mouths open in empty howls, lined the sides of the dark chapel and behind one was a scribbling of the mad Thassilonian.

Each stone the grace of seven lords, one part of key each ruler hoards; If offered spells and proper prayer; Take seven keys and climb the stair.

Harsk harrumphed after he had made the translation. “A rather crucial piece of the poem”, he said sourly.

“I remember the keyholes in the seven pillars in the mountain”, I sighed, their purpose now evident. We had sidestepped an important part of the process. The seven faces of the runelords required more attention should we gain access to the Runeforge.

Alice was frowning, lost in thought. “Spells – that we can manage, but proper prayers? What does that mean? Kind words, tokens, sacrifices?” A shadow of loathing moved across Harsk’s face. “I am not praying to some evil power”, he declared loudly and raised his armored fist to his heart. Iomedae would have been proud, I snorted inwardly but felt no ill will for his decision.

“Maybe we should try gifts”, I hazarded a suggestion. Each of the statues had a small ledge protruding from their base, something to put on items, I thought.

“Do whatever but I’m not saying one word of reverence to those dark masters”, Harsk grunted, emphasising his position and gestured dismissively.

“Fine, fine” Alice placated him, rising her hands before her. “But if we want to try to gifts or tokens, then what should we get?”

“I’d reckon we should try to learn more about the runelords first”, the sellsword opened his mouth. I nodded in agreement.

“We have the key to the library beneath Jorgenfist..” I began, remembering the small piece of paper we had found within the complexly locked magic cylinder, and Alice saw where I was going. “.. and we can get in without them seeing.”

With our next action decided, we returned in the cover of darkness from the depths of the Thassilonian ruins and withdrew to the White Deer for the night. The next morning, after a quick breakfast, Alice took us to the depths of Jorgenfist. This time, the doors to the ancient library opened without an angry light monster barring our way, and we found the brass clockwork machine waiting within, always ready and willing to serve any visitors. The pale-faced magus asked for documents regarding the runelords, their schools of magic and any religious rituals and prayers one might have offered to them. The clockwork creature clunked on its way and after a moment, brought us two books. Alice wolfed down on them like starving man on a piece of bread. I have to admit I had yet to see anyone read so fast.

“Here are some descriptions of the runelords”, she began, her finger following her eyes on the pages of the book she was holding. “They were considered just and lawful wizards in the beginning, when they took up ruling Thassilon. Each represented a virtue, but one by one they all became corrupted by their power.”

The oldest story of the world, I considered.

She read on for a moment, taking in the information. “Krune was the lord of zeal – but his virtue turned to the sin of sloth. His school of magic was conjuration. Belimarius utilized abjuration magic and represented charity, but was perverted by envy. Sorshen’s school was enchantment, and her virtue of love turned to lust. Xanderghul was an illusionist, and his humility became pride. Alaznist was the master of evocation magic, and the lord of kindness, but she turned to wrath. Zutha’s temperance became gluttony. His power was necromancy. And finally we have Karzoug, who as we know was or is a tranmutationist. Before being the lord of greed he was the lord of generosity.”

I snorted. “Old Karzoug and you Harsk would have had a lot to talk about”, I said to the dwarf, who spat to the stone tiles at his feet in disgust.

“So everybody turned into their opposites, from virtues to sins”, Alfred concluded. “Correct”, Alice nodded, “and the runes we’ve been seeing – they don’t mark the runelords as much as they symbolize the different schools of magic.”

Contented, the pale-faced magus set aside the first book, which the brass clockwork automaton swiftly took, and opened the next. “This one is about the Runeforge.”

Pages went past in a flurry of reading, and finally Alice came across something she deemed worthy of our attention. “The runelords wove wards around Runeforge that barred entrance into the complex to any runelord or his direct agents”, she began reading straight from the pages of the old tome, “in order to keep the research within free from sabotage at the hands of the enemy.”

“So they did not trust each other”, I commented. “I think they fought. Remember the hellstorm flumes?” Alice asked me. “Point taken”, I grunted.

“We need to be careful then”, Harsk stated. A word of advice we typically dismissed.

“Anything else? That was hardly new to us”, I asked the magus, and she shrugged. Producing the peacock quill and a piece of paper, I asked her to ask the quill about the prayers we could offer to the seven statues. Standing cordially apart, I saw the automaton stir in panic as it thought Alice was about to write on the pages of its beloved tome, but it eased into inaction when the quill found the empty paper instead.

“Tickle their interest and you have prayed, it says”, Alice sighed. Alfred guffawed and I rolled my eyes in exasperation. It was a strange tool, that quill.

We tried the clockwork machine for any additional information, and it brought us some documents that showed the iconography of the different runelords. With that knowledge we could link each runelord with a school of magic and a sin of a soul. Runes for runelords.

We spent a moment considering what simple items we could use as gifts or sacrifices for the runelord statues. We were surprisingly innovative, the simplest being gold for greed, and for lust the most farfetched perhaps a piece of harlot’s undergarments Alfred just happened to keep around. He was particularly sullen to see his memento/trophy lost as a sacrifice. “You’ll get new ones”, Harsk consoled his friend.

It was three hours after midday when we stepped to the chill of the Rimeskull mountain. We immediately recognized the runes etched into the statues and were now able to identify each runelord. “When the time comes, Alice and I will cast simple spells from particular schools of magic to each statue”, Harsk stated the plan. “And we’ll place the tokens into the stands with Alfred”, I added. “Simple enough work for you two”, Alice said with a smirk. I shot a killer’s dark glance at her.

Like the last time we arrived, we had ample time to spare before the day turned to night.

“I say we go hunt the dragon in the mountain Alpharius sensed”, Alfred suggested cheerfully. The best idea of the day. I removed my skull mask and rubbed my eyes. “Are you serious? Is this about the red dragon we didn’t finish”, I asked him, frankly almost outraged at his thrillseeking.

He shrugged, evading my hostility like a thrown tankard in a bar fight. “We need to go in there eventually anyway. Why not clear the place of enemies first?” Grudgingly I had to admit he had a point. And he was hungry for the gold treasure the dragon had been piling. The sellsword had not had a pay day for a while.

Once more we climbed the snow-covered stairs to the mouth of the Rimeskull mountain and boldly entered the icy, pitch-black caves. I noticed nothing but our recent tracks in the ground – nothing else had come and gone on foot. Then again, dragons had wings. It took only a moment within the mountain before my dragon sense kicked in, alarming me once more to the presence of the mighty creatures. It could have been anything from a dragon youngling, like the ones we had slain under Jorgenfist, to an adult like the one what attacked Sandpoint. I had read of stories of even older, bigger dragons. Wise men would have turned tail and withdrawn.

For us, engaging a dragon was a pastime. Something to do while waiting for something else to happen. Its absurdity was ludicrous. I blamed Alfred.

But it had to be done. The dragon, or dragons, stood in our path. We might as well roll up our sleeves and get it over with.

We approached with care and relative silence. I was on point, scouting the way, when we passed the warrior statues that urged trespassers to leave with raised open palms. I kept an eye on normal traps. I did not see the magical alarm I tripped when I hopped on the narrow path that circled the drop to the abyss.

Somewhere afar, something like an avalanche, or falling rocks, thundered.

Fuck this, I cursed with a whisper. I was responded with a bestial roar that literally shook the walls of the cavern and made dust and snow fall from the ceiling.

“Company”, I informed the others as non-nonchalantly as I could. I could see about as far as I could throw a stone accurately, which, if I remembered correctly, was something a grown dragon could cross in flight in two seconds.

“Fall back to the curve”, Harsk ordered me between his teeth and stepped back a few steps. Alfred was with him, Alice a bit farther back. In the tunnel and abyss beyond it, I could pick out beats of wings like sudden wind crashing sails. I turned and ran, drinking two potions as I went – Bull’s strength and Barkskin. Alfred flexed his neck and shoulders, and I could see his skin hardening as well, the earth elemental powers manifesting.

The beats of wings were getting closer now. The beast had risen from the pit. It was within our vision in seconds. The prickly sensation in the base of my skull was gaining strength.

“Stand firm my friends,” Harsk urged us and lifted his golden, god-touched longsword, “Iomedae is with us. We shall not fall!”

I could hear a hissing sound, coming from a throat that swallowed cows in bites fewer than the fingers in my hand. I steeled myself, raising the Carmine Avenger, pulling back the string and the nocked dragon-bane arrow. In the darkness the wings beat, coming closer, closer.. but I could not see a thing.

Something huge swooshed past us, over us. I felt the air breeze on me, the gust of chilly air. “It’s invisible”, Alice screamed the warning. “Why didn’t it attack”, Alfred was howling, his legendary axe ready strike, his shield raised high, shooting a searching beam of light across the walls of ice.

“It’s running”, Harsk realized and took off running as well, to the exit of the tunnel. The dragon had disregarded us completely and was rapidly approaching the mouth of the cave.

“Do something!” Alice. “What!?” Me. “Kill it!” Alfred. We were all running now, after Harsk who moved like flowing water, not hindered by his short legs like before.

“Make it visible“, I roared in exasperation and anger, the tension releasing in an eruption of adrenaline now that the fight was on. Harsk had a better idea. With a swift gesture and a bark of words, a wall of magical swords of Iomedae came to being near the exit. With their tips towards the cave and the outside, the blades filled almost the entire forty feet wide and high tunnel.

The dragon had no chance of stopping or evading them. Another bestial roar, of pain this time, echoed in the tunnel and thick, blue blood splattered in gallons as the dragon crashed through the blades. Its bulk forced the blades aside but not without cost. It came to view for a split second as it magical invisibility failed in the onslaught but returned before anyone of us could say anything about its nature or type.

Alfred guffawed in glee. But it had gained too much of a headstart.

“To me!” Alice commanded suddenly, and we complied without question, our ragtag group of adventurers finally showing some coordination. Alice’s powers flashed, and in a blink, we were standing at the mouth of the cave. Daylight blinded us momentarily.

The wings thundered above us. Now enjoying the benefit of added space, the dragon chose to emerge from its blanket of unseeing.

My first thought was that it was not as large as the rocs of Jorgenfist.

The beast screeched and gained some altitude. It was turning, coming to a dive. “By Cailean, I know that creature”, Alfred gasped as he gazed to the air, “This is the most feared, mythic dragon of all Varisia!”

“And you wanted to have an afternoon adventure to hunt that thing”, I huffed in anger at the sellsword.

I never got an answer. The massive white dragon came at us, bloodied and angry, its scales colour of pure snow, and breathed a blizzard of frozen air at us. Alice had been the smart one – she had gone invisible while we gawked at our “prey” and stepped aside. We three suffered the mind-numbing cold. Before, I had thought getting burned was the most horrendous pain one could suffer. Emerging from the frozen mist with my hands shaking and white, my face covered in ice despite my skull mask, I had to rethink my position.  The beast howled and turned to retreat to the air, beyond the reach of our swords and axes.

With the wildfire pulsing within me, like another heartbeat, I fought the pain and the numbness of my arms and lifted the Carmine Avenger. The white dragon was old. It was powerful. But it was also a big target. I let loose a duo of dragon-bane arrows.

The arrows hit home, and they cracked in half upon impact. I cursed. I let two more arrows fly in rapid succession, feeling my fingers again. Both hit. Neither did any harm. Fuck me, I murmured.

Harsk had taken to the air and was bellowing taunts at the dragon while blasting holy fire against it. His spells were not having any effect whatsoever as the they flickered and died before they could reach it. “It is resisting!” Harsk yelled, a hint of despair now in the stout, bold cleric’s voice.

Then it came again. Alfred spread his legs, finding better balance and readied his counter-strike. The dragon swooped past Harsk like he wasn’t there, then flew over the sellsword who tried a desperate lunge. Too late I realized it was not coming for another breath. It was opting for close combat. With me.

I tried to duck and roll but the fucker snatched me into one of its hind claws. The air was crushed out of me and I almost lost my bow as I was suddenly propelled into motion and into the cave.

I gasped for air and screamed a curse.

“ITTEEEEE XHAAAAAAAANNNNN!”

It responded with a terrifying howl that momentarily deafened me. Only later I realized it had flown again through Harsk’s wall of blades. Its bulk had protected me but it had had the madness to push itself through for another time.

My dragon-sense was screaming, becoming a stabbing head-ache. The numbing coldness returned, the aura of the dragon made of frost itself. I struggled in its iron grip, managing to pull one of my gladii out of its sheath with a free arm. I stabbed with all my strength. I barely made a scratch on its claw. Thundering down into the mountain, it flew, grunting with effort now, bleeding from a score of wounds. I kept struggling, to no avail. Within seconds, it had flown the entire tunnel and emerged above the yawning pit. My fate dawned to me.

“You bastard”, I said to it when it released me, blasted me with another blizzard breath that turned me into a living icicle before turning in midair.

Beneath me was nothing but 300 feet of darkness.

**

Magnimar, eleven days earlier

“Could anyone be able to loan me some platinum”, I asked the others as we were stocking up on our gear for our journey north during our last day in the city. “How much do you need”, the dwarf asked. “Seventy”, I replied. Alice looked at me like I was the last person she would loan a single copper pinch. Harsk shrugged and apologized for not having enough in his person, but Alfred guffawed. “What are you going to buy with that”, he asked with a wink. “Ring of feather falling”, I kept my answer short and waited for his answer. He guffawed again. “Thinking about falling down in the future?”

I let out a faint smile, allowing myself to be drawn into his jesting. “You never know. We’re going to the mountains, and altitudes on those can get rather high.”

**

I don’t know if it was the frost or my strength of will that prevented the ring from activating the instant I entered free fall. But my dramatic descent was quickly halted before I became a bloody smear among the runic pillars. With my hand shaking uncontrollably I raised it after the withdrawing dragon and made a rude gesture. It had already forgotten about me, probably thinking I was done and dealt with.

It retreated into the tunnel. Bright light shone from within and as I was falling down gently I could listen and see fires erupt in the distance. I would have shot my fist into the air to support my comrades but I was too numbed by the coldness. All I could do was grip my weapons with unfeeling fingers and wait as I descended.

Another flash, and a roar of bestial pain. They’re hurting it, I thought, drawing resolve from the fact, ushering my elemental powers to the fore to warm me. I could feel and see my skin glowing. My eyes burned as in fever. Slowly, some warmth returned but I knew I was so close to losing myself to the chill and to the sweet oblivion which entailed it.

My ring of feather falling brought me down peacefully among the eight pillars at the bottom of the abyss. The fight still continued above me, but for now, I was alone. I was missing the fight with the dragon, again.

With fumbling fingers I emptied my last potion of healing, feeling some of its magic rejuvenating me and I started towards the path leading up while keeping my eyes to the hole far above me. I tried to motivate myself with the mental image of dropping the bastard from here if it dared to re-enter its lair.

I managed a few pained, stiff steps before something huge crashed behind me into the ice floor from nothingness. I came to a complete and utter stop. My heart missed a beat.

Long, hard breaths like bellows of a forge filled the air and the dragon grunted in pain between them. It must have been thirty feet from me.

I turned around, very slowly. One of the pillars stood between us, blocking direct line of sight. The beast, I concluded, had retreated with a teleport spell and emerged right over its hoard. I had been lucky beyond any reason. It had its back to me as it examined its gold. No, I realized, it was looking for something in the pile.

The Carmine Avenger in my hand flashed in angry ruby red. Take the shot, it seemed to command me. It is gravely wounded. Kill it. You can surprise it.

It was right there, bleeding profusely, parts of it scorched, but totally focused on its treasure. My mind raced. What if I missed, or its hide would break my arrows? Then what? I was barely holding it together. I was amazed I could walk let alone nock an arrow and pull a string. The beast could kill me with an off-hand swat of its claw, or a half-missed breath of iced air. The beast seemed to flicker somehow, repeatedly displacing left and right. I thought my eyes were fooling me but I quickly realized it was some sort of defensive magic trick that made it even harder to hit. Damned.

I imagined my brother, sitting on a golden throne, waiting for something. I can’t risk it, I decided. I had come too far to bet my life on a slim chance of killing the dragon. Pulling my bow close to me, I stepped behind a pillar and considered my remaining options. Glass broke and shattered, crunched. I risked a glance and saw it throwing entire potions into its jaws. Healing potions. The bastard was healing itself.

Something glowing emerged above us into the abyss. It was Alice, floating like an avenging angel, arms outstretched, her scimitar a bolt of thunder. In her light I could see Alfred and Harsk too, gazing down from the edge of the path. All of them were hurt, but standing. Harsk yelled something, probably a taunt or a warcry, but the echo made it impossible to be sure which.

The dragon raised its head up, snorted and vanished into the ground. The day was ours.

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