“Where are the dragon’s scales?” Aylwyn asked.
We stood at the edge of the stone ledge outside the cave, each holding one end of the dragon’s skull, preparing to heave the heavy crystalline skull over. We figured that would be the simplest way of getting it back down the mountain, since the material seemed incredibly sturdy and resistant to breakage, or even chipping, by smacking against stone. From what I had heard, it was possible to break dragon bones, but it required the application of magic in addition to physical force.
I looked over at her and set down my side of the skull. “You’re right. Something about this has been bugging me the whole time, and I think that’s what it is. The whole thing’s a bit too convenient. We’re looking for dragon bones, and we find them, but no scales. We’re looking for magical protections, and we find them, but nothing that the two of us can’t overcome with a minimum of effort.”
The more I thought about it, the worse it got. “That rock trap is clear evidence that someone has been active here, when Fiona assured us that no one, mortal or dragon, would be able to reach this cave safely.” I looked down at the sparkling crystalline skull, shimmering more in the daylight than it had under Aylwyn’s summoned ball of light. “Are dragon bones even supposed to be a purplish translucent color?”
She nodded, surprisingly. “No, this is consistent with dragon bones. They are strong, clear crystal, but can contain tints of almost any hue.”
Interesting. “Even so. I think we’ve got pretty solid evidence of third-party involvement here. If I had to guess, I’d say it was another dragon, possibly Ryell. She wouldn’t need to use my sapphire if she already had an attuned object in the lair somewhere.”
Aylwyn bit her lip. “You believe this was all an elaborate deception?”
I shook my head. “Not all of it. A philosopher once wrote, ‘the closer to the truth, the better the lie.’ I think it’s something more like the pigs. 1, 3, 4. Use a little bit of truth to hide the elaborate deception. Distract your victims, confuse them, misdirect them.” I gave her my best roguish grin. “It works well. Trust me.”
She sighed. “I suppose you would be an expert on such things.”
I had a hunch that I figured I ought to follow up on. “You know that thing you did, to examine the magic in the treasure chamber? Can you do that here?”
“Search for magic here?” she asked. “On this ledge?”
“On the skull, specifically.”
She nodded and sat down, closing her eyes. It didn’t take her long to reach a conclusion, though. She opened them again almost immediately. “There is a strengthening spell anchored just inside the left eye socket.”
I hmmmed and stuck my fingers inside, feeling around until I felt the tingle of magic and the Twist tearing it apart. I was half-expecting the whole thing to crumble to dust, but once the magic was gone, there were no other visible effects. So I looked around and located a good-sized rock, about the size of my head, and handed it to Aylwyn. “OK, you’re stronger than me. Hit the skull with this, as hard as you can.”
She raised the stone over her head with both hands, then brought it crashing down, and the dragon skull shattered. I crouched down and looked at the jagged fragments, then laughed. “Rose quartz, it looks like, altered somehow to be more transparent, and strengthened with magic.”
“Which, as I’m sure you could easily point out as well, does not necessarily mean that the rest of the bones are also quartz.”
So we checked, and they were. There was also a massive illusion covering the treasure hoard. Once I dispelled it, we found that all of the gold and silver was actually a slightly harder, silvery metal. Aylwyn looked at some of it closely, then gasped. “I think this is… aluminum!” she said in surprise. “But that is far more rare and valuable than gold or silver. Why would the dragon disguise it so?”
OK, that really creeped me out, because the obvious answer implied that Ryell knew way more than she really should. I groaned softly at the revelation. “Leave it,” I said. “The dragon is playing a joke, and I’m the only one for the next few decades who is likely to understand why it’s funny.”
She gave me a very strange look. “If you know about a process to make aluminum less rare…”
“Less rare?” It was hard not to laugh at that. “Aylwyn, the stuff’s about as rare as sand; it’s just extraordinarily difficult to extract from its ores, even with the assistance of alchemy. I know about a few hints of a process to make smelting it easier, but it’s currently infeasible and the subject of ongoing research. To say anything more on the subject would violate some exceptionally important confidences, so please don’t press me. Just… trust me; this ‘treasure’ is a decoy. It’s the dragon mocking us, mocking me. ‘Look, see this thing which you thought was of great value, and then in truth, it’s not.’ It works on multiple levels.”
Her eyes widened slightly. “Gerald Wolf was right. You are much more than the simple thief you pass yourself off as.”
I smirked. “I must be doing a good job at it, though, if you’re just now figuring that out…”
She scowled. “So why can the dragon know about this great secret research, but I cannot?”
I raised my hands in front of me, palms open, as if to ward off a verbal attack. “The dragon shouldn’t know either, and the fact that she does really worries me. But right now we have more immediate concerns.”
She nodded. “Such as, is the real dragon’s lair higher, or lower?”
“Or deeper.” I said. “Did you get a look at the back of the chamber?” It was pretty well blocked off by fallen boulders now.
She shook her head. “No, but you’re right. We should check.”
We had to climb over a few rocks and cut a few others apart, but in the end we did find a narrow tunnel leading deeper in. The floor was worn smooth, just like the entrance, and it sloped gradually upwards. We checked carefully for magic wards and other traps as we went, but we didn’t find anything before arriving at a second chamber. There was no treasure here; only what appeared to be a dead dragon, its metallic scales giving a dull, coppery reflection in the light of Aylwyn’s illumination ball. Several of the scales sat around loose on the floor, but most of them still hung together over the dragon’s skeleton.
Aylwyn examined the thing before us and pronounced it free of magical influences. I ran my hands along as much of it as I could easily reach, just to be sure. But this one seemed to finally be the real deal.
“Well, it looks like we’ve got the real dragon here, not another kandra. So let’s get this one out of here.”
She looked at me strangely in the dim light. “What is a ‘kandra’?”
I waved my hand. “A tale I heard once about a creature with very strange bones, that appeared to be something else. Nevermind.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you say so.” She called up her sword again. “Let’s get the skull.” She began to carefully use the flaming blade to cut apart the scales a few feet down the beast’s neck, not taking any chances that she might damage the dragon skull.
Suddenly the entire chamber began to shake, and a horrible noise filled the cavern. If it was possible for a trumpet to snarl like an angry tiger, it would sound something like that. The dead dragon began to glow with an eerie purple light.
“Get back!” Aylwyn said in a sharp, commanding tone, and I wasn’t about to argue. I turned and dashed for the tunnel. When I turned back to look, Aylwyn was shining so brightly I had to hold my hand in front of my eyes, and the dead dragon was standing in front of her, its coat of scales draped loosely over its bones, with no flesh beneath to fill it out.
It gave another of its jarring, brassy roars, and I saw Aylwyn’s hair blowing back wildly. How that was possible when the thing had no lungs left was beyond me, but it did. She stood her ground, though, holding her sword up in front of her in a defensive pose, one foot slightly back with her weight on her back leg.
It reared back and swiped at her with an immense arm, its sharp, curved crystalline claws flashing at her. Aylwyn simply stepped back, already in motion, and twisted her sword to the side. It clashed against the dragon’s crystal claws with a loud, ringing whine, like someone was rubbing a wet finger along the rim of some enormous wineglass.
It didn’t cut through, though. The two pressed against each other, the dragon’s strength versus the angel’s, each trying to push the other back, for a few long, intense seconds. Then the dragon swiped at her with its other arm. But again, Aylwyn seemed to anticipate the attack, and she gracefully disengaged, stepping back and sidestepping, apparently trying to get the dragon to overextend itself. She struck at the arm from behind, producing more ringing but no useful effects that I could see.
The dragon turned to the side–being dead didn’t seem to make it any less agile–and opened its mouth, trying to snap at her, but again she sidestepped, apparently trying to head for its tail.
“Can I help?” I asked in a loud voice. “Is this magic? Necromancy?”
“Stay back!” was the only response I got. Aylwyn dropped her sword, letting it vanish, and sprinted down the monster’s body. It had to be at least twenty feet long, but it turns out she wasn’t going for the tail. About halfway down, her legs flexed and she leapt up into the air, reaching up and grabbing on to the main bone of the dragon’s skeletal wing, swinging up and vaulting onto its back. It roared and flicked its tail up at her like a whip, but suddenly her sword was back and she turned halfway around, holding it out and beating the tail-slap back.
She dropped her flaming sword again and crawled forward, perched atop the dragon’s back, up to its neck. Then she laid both her hands on it and began to shine so intensely that I had to look away. I heard a loud clattering, and the light suddenly went out. “Oofh!” Aylwyn gasped as if she’d had the wind knocked out of her.
I turned back to see her laying atop a mess of dragon bones and scales, with nothing holding them together anymore, on the floor of the cave. She was panting for breath as I slowly walked over to her. “Banish the spirit of the dead,” she said between deep breaths, “and the body it animates will fall inert.”
“Wow!” I said, holding out a hand for her. “That has got to be the most amazing thing I have ever seen.” She took my hand and I helped her back to her feet, but just as she was rising in front of me, I couldn’t help it. I grabbed her head and pulled it against mine, kissing her hungrily on the mouth.
Aylwyn… endured it, for a few brief seconds, then gently placed her hands on my shoulders and stepped back. “Please,” she whispered softly, “do not act on your feelings; you will only regret it when we are done here.”
It was like someone had thrown cold water on me. “What?”
“The dragon’s influence is strong here,” she said patiently, taking another step back. “It is attempting to tug at our emotions, to sow discord and disharmony between us, ever since we began to climb the mountain.”
I blinked. She thought Ryell was making me all hot for her? Wait… “Our emotions? As in, you’re feeling this too?”
She shook her head. “No, for me it attempts to inflame a different base passion, anger. I have been feeling inordinately frustrated and annoyed by every little mistake and imperfection on your part over the last two days.”
I looked at her in surprise. “You certainly haven’t shown it!” If anything, she’d been nicer than ever to me lately.
Apparently that was the entire point. “Yes, I’ve gone out of my way not to. Once we are away from this mountain, once my emotions are my own, I will trust them again, but for now… you would be wise not to either.”
Well, no, I was pretty sure I’d been wanting to do that since long before we arrived here, but hey, if she’s going to give me an easy way out like that, I’d be a fool not to take it! “All right,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’ll… try to be more on my guard in the future.”
She nodded, seemingly satisfied by that. “Then I will try to not act on my own feelings in response to what you did,” she said with a playful smirk. That made me shiver a little as I considered the implications of it. Had all of her friendly, almost flirtatious playfulness over the last few days been an act? A deliberate overreaction against the dragon trying to get her all angry and make her end up… what? Smiting me or something? (Not that I wasn’t already a bit smitten, but that’s different.)
We searched around a little and found the real dragon’s hoard in a side chamber. It was surprisingly small, actually, when it came to the expected mountains of gold and silver; if we weren’t already focused on draconic remains, we could probably have loaded the entire stock of precious metal and gems into our single horse-drawn cart. The truly interesting part, though, was the artifacts. Along the back wall of the cave were several unique items, each one masterfully crafted, each unique, and each beautiful in its own way. Weapons and armor, works of sculpture, wands, staffs and magical devices, a few things that I didn’t even know what they were supposed to be, and a few musical instruments, as fine as anything I’d ever seen in my time at the Bards’ College. Any of them could easily be worth hundreds of delin, and there were a few dozen artifacts, all told.
I saw a lute next to a beautiful harp with what appeared to be gold leaf inlaid over its carved frame. “I don’t suppose you play the harp?” I asked.
She looked at me quizzically. “No. Why would I?”
I shrugged. No point in explaining the imagery. “I play the lute.”
“Then bring it along. I am no judge of such things, but it looks like a fine lute.”
“Yeah, I think I will. What about you? Is there anything here that interests you?”
She slowly walked along the display of items. “I already have the only weapon I need, and these suits of armor are all made for people without wings. The magical implements would be of value to the Circle, but much less so to me personally. But this…” She crouched down and picked up a wooden box, about two feet long, one foot deep and a few inches high. It was made of some rich brown-colored wood, and intricately carved all over with amazingly detailed reliefs of all kinds, from people and animals to trees, leaves and fruits, to abstract symbols to several inches of something strongly resembling Celtic knotwork. When she picked it up, I heard something sliding around inside, hitting the inner wall with a muffled sound that seemed to indicate that whatever was inside was fairly soft. “This is fascinating.”
“What is it?” I asked as I looked the box over. “And… how does this open? I don’t see any seams…”
She nodded. “That’s the point of the box. It is a puzzle. There’s some way to use the carvings, to manipulate them, to cause the box to open itself. It would be interesting to try and find the way. For example,” She pressed her finger against one of the carved fruit, and it sank in slightly. “This first part is clearly loose. What the second step is, I don’t know.”
“Well, whatever it is, it must be worthwhile if the dragon had it in the company of all the rest of this stuff!” The angel seemed to agree.
We spent the rest of the day hauling things out to the mouth of the cave and figuring out how to transport it down the mountain. We took several of the larger dragon bones, and they could just be dumped down the cliff, but smaller things like dragon scales, and more fragile items like the artifacts we picked, would have to be transported with a bit more care so they wouldn’t be lost or broken. It was a bit of a tricky balancing act, deciding what to take and what to leave, because the one thing we were both sure of is that we didn’t want to make a second trip back up the mountain. Unfortunately, we didn’t find much in the way of boxes, packs, or other containers in the dragon’s hoard, which meant that in the end, what we brought down with us was sharply limited.
There was a case for the lute, and I packed as many gemstones as I could into a small compartment on the inside of it, but I couldn’t put much of anything loose in the main area without worrying about ending up damaging the lute itself. We left the weapons and armor behind because they were big and bulky, but Aylwyn gathered up as many of the magical implements as she could easily carry, and we started on down.
Coming down is always easier than going up, even if you have to be careful to make your way down at a controlled speed, and using her wings to glide down turned out to be much less taxing on Aylwyn’s strength than flying upwards, so we were back to the ground by sundown. We gathered up our loot and loaded it into the cart we’d left behind, then both decided we needed to wash off. There was a mountain stream not far away, and I let her go first, staying back at the cart as she cleaned a few days of sweat and grime off, then I went down into the water and did the same. It felt a lot better when I came back up out of the water and put on a clean change of clothes.
We spent one more night in the tent, and I was able to distract myself from obsessing over Aylwyn by playing with the lute a little. It took some work to get it tuned to something that didn’t sound horribly out of key, and for a while I just ran my fingers over the strings. It had been some time since I’d played, but it came back to me easily enough.
“Do you have any song you wish to play?” Aylwyn asked, similarly absorbed in the intricacies of her puzzle box.
I thought about it for a while, until an old melody came into my head, a song I grew up with. It had been one of my mother’s favorites, and I’d never truly understood it as a child, but it was beginning to make more sense as I got older. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it justice, but it seemed to fit. “I think I will, if I can manage it. This might be a little bit beyond my skill level, but I enjoy a challenge sometimes.”
I grinned at her in the dim light as I started experimentally picking out notes, trying to find the right point to start. It was originally supposed to be played on a piano accompanied by a guitar, but they hadn’t gotten around to inventing pianos (or even harpsichords) yet, so I’d just have to make do with a smaller set of strings. “This is a song sung by one of the greatest master bards of my homeland,” I said as I finally found the right notes and started to reproduce the haunting combination of rhythm and melody, the rise and fall that had always suggested to my mind the imagery of a wheel turning. “It’s a song of love, loss, and the wisdom that time can bring.”
She nodded slowly, looking at my fingers as I called forth the notes of the introduction. Then I reached the verse, and began to sing.
on the memory of
the dance we shared
beneath the stars above…
Aylwyn waited in silence as I played and sang, watching and listening. I got some of the notes wrong, but I didn’t butcher it too badly at least, and the best part of performing something the audience isn’t familiar with is that they don’t know when you’ve made a mistake.
Once it was done, she smiled softly at me. “That is a beautiful song,” she murmured. “Sad, but lovely, and there is much wisdom in it.” She paused a moment, then asked, “Where do you come from, Paul Twister, where chocolate is plentiful, aluminum does not impress you, bards compose works in such an unfamiliar style, and well-educated youths are cast out to become thieves in distant lands?”
I just shook my head and packed the lute away in its case. “If I told you the tale, you wouldn’t believe me,” I said. “But maybe, someday, I will anyway.” I yawned, then lay down, and surprisingly enough I was out almost immediately.
The next morning Aylwyn was able to summon Wyntaf back from the Celestial Realm. The enormous, powerful horse didn’t seem to have any objection to pulling a cart, and we made our way back to town to retrieve my horses. With a bit of our newfound wealth, I purchased a draft horse to haul the cart the rest of the way, and then we were off to the southeast, to finally make our way to the end of this journey.
We had done it. We’d beaten the dragon’s traps and tricks, retrieved the loot, and gotten away from the mountain safely. We both hoped that the worst was behind us, and that all we’d have to do now was drop our bounty off with Ken’tu Kel and we’d be done.
Turns out we were both horribly wrong…