The crisp cold air seared their lungs. Around the small party a thick layer of permafrost glistened in the dazzling rays of the sun, and it sparkled with the intensity of a rolling sea of pearls. Snow glinted and stretched like a thick blanket for miles around and created an unnatural, oppressive silence.
The splendour of the scene was lost on Forfar; he cursed as he crunched through the snow, glancing in apprehension at the darkening sky. The mountain climate changed regularly and swiftly, and he had no desire to be trapped in a snowstorm. He felt that his life had changed significantly, being an apprentice, and a friend of the renegade Salar. To be entrusted with this task was pleasing on the one hand but very scary on the other.
He glanced back behind them to the swirling sheets of spiralling fog and sleet, a curious curtain of downpour. The thin curtain only existed for a few metres, making it all the more stranger, as to either side of the continual veil the sky was morphing and changing. At present, sleet fell from the dark sky, except in the ever- present strip a few feet behind them. Forfar didn’t like it; he was convinced it was a pathway to the underworld, but having emerged tentatively from it unscathed, he thought no more of it as they ascended the peak of the massive mountain.
Forfar was accompanied by seven others, two were sorceresses, and the others sorcerers. King Darwyl had tasked them with contacting the dragon world to see if they could expect aid; a monumental task that might help their war against the demons. But were dragons ally or foe? Others had discovered the dragon world, in their efforts to learn about the demons. If there was a demon world, they had speculated, then why not others.
Forfar tried not to think too hard about the task. It scared him. He glanced behind at the others. Their ragged breaths emerged in quick, shallow bursts of vapour that trailed behind them in slivers of ice, like banners unfurled and streaming through the crystalline air.
“What in the name of the Kalanth are we doing here?” Asked Shatha, her teeth chattered uncontrollably. She was leading the others, a young woman, tall and dark haired. Her eyes flashed her frustration as she struggled to breathe in the thin air.
Forfar smiled. “You know as well as I do, opening a gateway to the dragon world.”
“But why on top of a mountain?” Shatha quizzed. The others had stopped and were listening.
“Well, for one, we need to be away from the general population. We do not know what to expect and in case things go wrong… The other reason is, I’m told, the spell will work better in the mountains, especially in the cold. With all this snow and ice we certainly have that, in abundance.”
Shatha grinned. “By the Kalanth, it is cold, I’ll grant you that. But why will the cold help?”
“Because we can only open a gateway to the dragon world briefly,” one of the other sorcerers chipped in. “In the cold, the gateway will stay open for longer, or so goes the theory. No one has tried this before don’t forget.” He rubbed his hands together, clearly cold even though his mitts looked thick. He wondered how deep the ice was beneath his feet.
Forfar looked around. They were standing on a glacier not too far from BanKildor. That was the tallest mountain in the region. A frigid wind gusted from its peak chilling his cheeks. He pulled his cloak tighter about his shoulders.
“This should do,” Forfar announced looking around. “There’s no point in tiring ourselves further. Well this is it. Good luck to you all.”
They had the spell committed to memory yet it took them a while to organize themselves, drawing the necessary runes in the snow. When the casting started, elementals were summoned; their small forms dancing within the confines of the runes as the power of the spell grew. The chanting voices soon vibrated the very air about them, the magic of sorcery expanding the words into entities of their own.
A rift began to form above the circle of Eldric, and their shouts multiplied in fervour and astonishment. Whereas the rift to the demon world was always green and like a jagged tear in the fabric between the worlds, this was different, like looking through a giant lens.
Forfar didn’t know what to expect. The spell was cast and the rift was open. It should hold longer here in the frozen domain. But, it would still close soon enough. What was he expecting? It could take days to contact a dragon, assuming contact could be made. They continued casting spells, seeking to keep the gateway open.
An intake of breath from the others alerted him to something and glancing at the rift he saw a dark shape gliding upon thermals. Then he recognised a long serpentine body with gossamer thin wings, as the shape flew silently towards them. It was a dragon. He was amazed that one had found the rift so swiftly. Chanathan had said they might. A rift would be like a brazen alarm to anyone with magical abilities. Forfar could feel the rift’s presence strongly, and to his chagrin he could also tell that it was starting to close.
He and the others stepped back as the dragon approached. It was going to make it through, but it would be close. Then the apparition was crawling through the rent in time and space. He caught sight of a huge red pupil, a large, heavy black claw, blue scales that glistened and gleamed as though with a life of their own, a blue dragon? His colleagues had only spoken about red dragons.
Forfar fell to his knees as they sought to keep the gateway from collapsing for a few more seconds. The dragon itself seemed to help them and to their shock, the reflux of energy was morphed into a massive rent through the sky, sparkling and shining in radiant beauty. An explosion shook the mountain, tossing the Eldric through the snow like dolls, their heads ringing with ancient power.
The rent glistened and shut swiftly, but not before the huge beast had flown through, and now it hung suspended in the freezing air, huge gossamer thin wings stretched to either side of its massive body, bulked with girth and powerful muscle, framed with scales of blue.
Forfar had a sinking feeling. There was little or no intelligence behind the creature’s façade. Its keen gaze was more akin to a fox looking at its prey than a benefactor. Its red eyes stared at them madly then its maw opened, revealing large, serrated teeth that clashed and salivated.
For a second there was silence, as the world appeared to freeze on its pivot. The Eldric stared back in an amalgamation of terror and awe at the huge beast, which appeared to be just as confused as they. The thermals in the air caused it to rise and fall like flotsam, and it shook in surprise, its rippling tendons straining and bulging.
Then suddenly, with the speed of light, it whipped down, snatching a screaming body in its talons and expended a stream of burning, liquid flame over his face. The dying scream withered as the sorcerer’s flesh bubbled and his skin melted, his bones cracked into slivers and shards and his blackened corpse fell to the snow; shocking the other sorcerers into action.
“Take cover!” screamed Forfar.
Everyone scattered. “Stop!” Forfar shouted at the dragon. But it was clear that the creature would not obey him. It seemed that dragons were mad, and not to be trusted.
“Kill it!” Forfar shouted and immediately the others started to cast spells aimed at the dragon, summoning power through elementals and then imps. The mountain resonated to the sounds of explosions, the snow bucked and the mountains crumbled as a multitude of spells were tossed at the dragon.
It screamed in fury and spiralled into the air, spewing vitriol and magma at the insects below. Forfar swiftly created a shield of magic around his companions and he gasped as they survived the first blanket of burning flame and licking acid, but the effort expended left him weak and trembling, and Forfar knew that he had to destroy the beast quickly.
He sent a spear of light at the creature, but it simply bounced off a scale in a burst of blinding power that left Forfar gasping on the ground, rubbing his burning eyes. A woman was rent in two by a hurricane of talon and teeth and the dragon seemed to laugh as it carried the corpse back into the air, out of reach of the Eldric spells, where it devoured the woman in sight of them all.
Then the creature roared and swept down. Most of the Eldric scurried away to avoid the bulk of the beast, but one man was flattened by the flailing muscles and tail as it snapped and jerked its head round, attempting to slay all those around it.
Forfar screamed to the others. “When I shout, take the air away from beneath its wings,” he screeched. “Shatha! With me!”
The sorceress ducked beneath a splash of flame and ran towards Forfar. The dragon flew low, spewing flame and vitriol almost randomly in an attempt to kill them. It seemed to be toying with them, as though enjoying the sport.
“Over there,” Forfar shouted. “Turn the ice into water.”
The dragon was hovering high in the air, as though debating which of them to kill next. Forfar and Shatha cast their spells and a lake formed beneath the dragon.
“Now!” Forfar screamed at the others. He watched them casting their spell, his heart in his throat and fear in his belly. Would his plan work?
The dragon screamed as it plummeted down. With a splash that sent water cascading all around them, it fell deep into the magical lake. Forfar snapped off his spell. “Release your spell,” he screamed at Shatha, which she did; only too glad to cut off the spell. Forfar cast a spell to hurry the freezing process.
The lake froze instantly. Forfar waited. He wasn’t sure if it would work and the dragon would be trapped and he feared that it would somehow escape. When nothing happened he timidly walked out onto the ice, staring down beneath his feet. The others called to him, their voices sounding shocked and afraid.
Then he saw it; an indistinct shape tens of feet beneath him. Trapped in the ice, its body had contorted as it had tried to right itself. Its great wings had spread uselessly about its body as they fought against the water, suddenly locked in the ice’s hard embrace. Even the dragon’s great maw was trapped shut. Tons of ice pressed down on it, sealing its fate.
The others gathered around Forfar. They looked pale and shocked by what had happened. He glanced around to seek out the wounded. He should have realised not to bother. Dragons didn’t wound, it seemed. The bodies of the four dead spellcasters were torn to shreds, their dismembered parts cast across a wide area. Snow had turned red, marking the points where limbs had been strewn.
“By the Kalanth,” Shatha said. “What have we done?”
It had taken only moments, but the dragon had killed four of their number. “There is no help to be had from the dragon world,” Forfar exclaimed.
“I would prefer to face demons,” said another.
“At least with a dragon, death is swift,” Shatha intoned. “They do not take your soul for an eternity of torment!”
“Come, we must leave. There is no point remaining here,” Forfar said, looking to the sky, which had turned a leaden grey. He had to report to the king that yet another avenue of hope was closed to them. It was a meeting that he was dreading. With heavy hearts the small group turned their backs on the dragon’s tomb, and retraced their steps down the mountain.
By David Burrows
Author of the Prophecy of the Kings