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Brother Poncet crouched on the scree-covered mountain slope clutching his cream robe about himself, and watched his comrade, Brother Ambrose, inch into the pitch-dark cavern before them. He remained a few paces behind, still out in the sunlight, although at that altitude it did little to warm him. Up that high, it was always cold, even in summer.
Brother Ambrose lifted his small magelamp up to the darkness. The glowing sphere was caged in a mirrored housing, so all of its power shone into the blackness before him. The light reached in, but not far enough to fall on any surface.
“See anything?” Poncet said, his breath misting on the air. Poncet hated the cold, and counted the moments until he could get back to the campfire and his bedroll. Going home would be even better, but that wasn’t likely anytime soon. He had thought himself lucky when the Order had recruited him several years before. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Crouching in the cold on the side of a mountain was very far removed from the adventures he had imagined back then.
“Nothing,” Ambrose said, scratching his thick black hair. “Just darkness. Hellloooooooo!”
The sound of his voice bounced around in the abyss, repeated time after time.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Poncet said. This was his first mission, and he was determined not to see it go wrong through foolishness. Ambrose didn’t seem to have the same concern.
“You never know what’s in there.”
Ambrose laughed. “Afraid we’ll get savaged by a mountain goat?”
“No.” He thought for a moment and realised his comment was born from a fear of the dark, the unknown. Something only children were supposed to be afraid of—not a brother of the Order of the Golden Spur. Finally, he came up with something worthy. “A belek, perhaps.”
“It’s summer. Even up this high, it isn’t cold enough for them. They stay where the snow is. Commander Leverre told us so.”
Poncet noticed that all the mirth had left Ambrose’s voice, even if he still sounded confident. Only a fool took belek for granted. Even if Brother-Commander Felix Leverre told them to the contrary and swore it on his mother’s grave. “Ever seen one?”
“Once, when I was young,” Ambrose said. “The Duke of Trelain used to hunt them every winter. Sometimes the king would travel west to join him. They rarely found any, but I remember one year when they did, and killed it. Not before it had killed half a dozen huntsmen and the Count of Dreville, though. They paraded its body through the streets of Trelain. Like a cat, it was, but the size of a bear. A big bear. Fur the colour of steel and fangs as long as your forearm.”
Even with all of his training, Poncet didn’t like the idea of meeting such a creature. He wondered if that made him a coward, or if experience would ease his fear of such things—if each mission he did would bring him closer to the calm confidence of Commander Leverre.
“We’ll have to go in for a closer look,” Poncet said.
“It’s probably just another dead end.”
“Probably, but Brother-Commander Leverre said it’s close. We need to search every corner.”
Ambrose sighed. “We could search these mountains for a lifetime, and not find anything. We don’t even know what we’re looking for.”
“The commander does. It’s not for us to question our superiors. We simply do what we’re told. I want to be back by the fire as much as you do.”
“What we’re told,” Ambrose said. “We’ll need more light for starters. The cavern looks big; we’ll be quicker if we send back to camp for the others.”
“Should we bother them?”
“You said yourself that Commander Leverre thinks we’re close. Every hole we look into now might be the spot. Need to be thorough.”
Poncet nodded. “I suppose I have to go?”
“It’s your turn.”
Poncet bundled his robe up around his knees and started down the rocky slope, careful not to get his sword tangled between his legs. The mountains were littered with caves, but few were big enough to provide good shelter from the elements or to require much manpower for a proper search. Ambrose’s description of the belek planted enough of a seed in Poncet’s mind for his imagination to do the rest. As hard as the scramble up and down the mountainside was, he was glad they would have strength in numbers for the search. Gladder still that Commander Leverre would take charge, freeing Poncet from any difficult decisions.
* * *
Brother-Commander Leverre stared into the cavern’s pitch-black maw, giving his eyes time to adjust in the hope of being able to make out something. However, the darkness was complete, and no amount of time would allow him a glimpse of what lay within. Darkness in such a remote, wild place was always unsettling, but he could do something about it.
He closed his useless eyes and held out his hand. Ignoring the shuffling and muttering of his subordinates, he focussed his mind entirely on his task. A tingle started on the skin of his hand and spread over his entire body. Leverre smiled at the familiar and welcome sensation, then smiled even wider when he felt something else—a dense concentration of magical energy. The Fount, and far more intense than he had ever encountered before. It was just as the Prince Bishop had described. This had to be what he was looking for. When he opened his eyes, he could see the bare skin of his hand glow with an ethereal blue light for a moment. He wondered if the feeling of exhilaration he experienced every time he used magic would ever leave him. Considering how long he had been at it, he doubted it.
“I don’t know if we’ve found it,” he said, “but there’s definitely something here.” He could see the look of relief in the faces of his people. They had been searching the mountains for weeks, and it had taken its toll on them all. Their Order was still ostensibly a secret—while their existence was not concealed, their purpose and true nature were, on pain of death. That meant they couldn’t take advantage of the few comforts that could be found in these remote areas, instead having to stay away from any hint of civilisation and make their beds wherever they could find a dry, sheltered spot. The thought that their search might be over excited even him—not just the prospect of going home, but what success in his task would mean for his career.
He pointed his finger into the cavern, and focussed. A stone’s throw away, a glowing orb formed, casting light on rock that had likely never felt its touch before. He repeated the process a half-dozen times until all parts of the cavern in view were illuminated. He admired his handiwork and enjoyed the impressed sounds his people made. Creating a magical light was a simple enough thing, but to cast it at a distance, many times in a row, spoke to the skill of the caster, and none of the others were nearly powerful enough to achieve such a feat. Nonetheless, he could feel the strain it had placed on his body, and knew he needed a few moments to recuperate.
“Begin the search,” he said, concealing the fatigue that gripped him, so as to maintain his aura of power. He remained still as the dozen sergeants, corporals, brothers, and sisters made their way past him and into the cavern.
Only the two sergeants were able to wield magic with any strength. The rest could detect the object they were looking for if they got close enough, but most would need another five or six years of training and experience before they could do anything useful. Despite that, they were among the best the Order had. They would improve, but it was the next generation from whom the true rewards would be reaped. Such a slow process was frustrating, but even if the progress was slow, the gains were always worthwhile. Leverre’s own had been few and far between recently, and he suspected he had reached the plateau of ability his late start had imposed upon him. In a few years, the younger acolytes would surpass him. Until then, though, he would enjoy the awe with which his people viewed him.
* * *
Alpheratz opened one of his eyes and shut it immediately. The light cut through him like a lance and startled his already befuddled mind. It took him a moment to gain control of his thoughts, to place them in order and make sense of them. He tried to open both eyes, slowly this time, controlling the amount of light until he had grown accustomed to it.
He was careful to remain perfectly still. That part of his mind that sought survival over all else was in control, and it screamed danger. When Alpheratz could finally open his eyes completely, he could see there was something odd about the light. It was not how he remembered light to be—an intricate tapestry woven of infinite colours. This illumination was flatter, less interesting. There was no depth or beauty to it. It was then he realised he was not alone. He took a deep breath and listened. The sound of water dripping into a pool somewhere echoed through the chambers of the cave. It was joined by scratching, shuffling, and another sound—the voices of men.
That caused his heart to quicken, though his mind was still befuddled. How long had he slept? What had woken him? Might it only have been moments? He fought through the confusion, trying to remember what had gone before his sleep. There had been men then, too. Might these be the same ones? Warmth began to return to his limbs. Alpheratz knew he had to have slept a long time—an unsettling thought.
There was energy in the cavern, energy spilling from clumsy, unskilled magic. It was not as satiating as a proper meal, but enough to invigorate his stiff muscles. He took another deep breath and stretched his limbs. His sinews popped with each movement and he feared that he would be heard. He paused and listened once more. There did not seem to be any reaction. He could pick out pieces of conversation—they were looking for something, but it did not seem to be him. That was odd. Were they not there to kill him? How long have I slept? Weeks? Months? Longer?
He stood, wavering. The magic in the cavern could only do so much to restore him, and his muscles refused to obey commands. Alpheratz felt weak, weaker than he had ever known. If the men were here for him, he feared they might be able to best him. The thought of hiding in the hope that they might not notice him was tempting, but an orb of light appeared in the alcove where he had slept. His decision had been forced. He shook his head in distaste at the clumsiness of the magic used to make it and concluded that the person who had cast it was not powerful. They were unlikely to trouble him too much. The orb liberally spilled energy into its surrounds. Enough that Alpheratz was able to heat his flame glands.
* * *
Brother Ambrose carefully navigated the rocky outcrop. Its edges were sharp, the cavern floor uneven, and everything was damp and cold. A slip and fall could easily result in a cracked skull, and not even Commander Leverre had the power to mend that. Ambrose reached out with his mind to survey the area before him for the object. He felt frustrated by how little he had been told about it—an object, magical, you’ll know it when you find it. He felt certain that even using magic, having a more detailed description would make the process easier. How do you find something when you don’t know what it is? However, as he constantly heard from his instructors, it was not his to question why. Accept, have faith, open your mind—these were the only answers they ever gave him.
His heart jumped when he felt something. It was unlike anything he had sensed before; it was even different from the first time he had opened his mind to the Fount and felt its boundless energy all around him. He brushed his misgivings aside, filled with the excitement at the prospect that he might have found what the Prince Bishop so desperately wanted.
He stumbled forward, toward the edge of the light provided by Commander Leverre’s magic. Two great, glassy orbs appeared before him, their brilliant emerald green reflecting the meagre light. It took Ambrose a moment to realise that this could not be what he sought, and another to realise that the orbs were far too large to be a belek’s eyes. By the time he screamed, the first tendrils of flame were already rushing toward him.
* * *
There was little left of the man by the time Alpheratz drew back his breath, but enough to momentarily quell the rumbling in his stomach. Unlike some dragons, he had never developed a taste for humankind. Too stringy, too bitter, but in a bind it would do, and Alpheratz could not remember having ever been so hungry. He could feel the effect of the warm meal in his stomach immediately. He rolled his shoulders and gently ruffled his wings as some of his strength returned. He needed a proper feed to be fully restored, and unless his ears deceived him, there were several more people between him and something he would actually like to eat. They would have to do for now.
Alpheratz stood again, his legs protesting at the movement, and started forward. Familiar features told him he was in his cavern, though it looked sadly neglected. Glancing at himself, he saw that he, too, looked worse for wear. His once lustrous scales were covered in moss, mildew, and grime. It worried him to think of how long he must have slept, and he wondered what the others thought had happened to him.
He rounded an outcrop that led out to the front chamber. A man stood before him, staring, frozen in terror. Men had always feared dragons, but Alpheratz had never seen a reaction so pronounced. He chuckled as he squirted a jet of flame at the man, turning him into a pillar of fire long enough to burn off his cream robes and any other extraneous parts; then Alpheratz swallowed him whole.
More were dotted around the cavern, shuffling about in the dark spots as though looking for something. They had always been vicious little pests, and Alpheratz didn’t hesitate in slaughtering them. Their frailty came as a surprise—the last humans he had faced had been formidable indeed. He could remember, now, returning to his cavern, badly wounded. He had crawled to the back of the cave and collapsed, exhausted. The question of how long ago still bothered him.
He killed the last of the humans and forced them down, his stomach now protesting at the excess of food rather than the lack of it. He lay down in the cavern’s mouth, looking out over the land before him. Farther down the slope, he could see one of the little cream-robed vermin running and tumbling downhill, trying to get away. Alpheratz considered going after him, but didn’t think it worth the effort. He had cleared the vermin from his home and had eaten more than enough. He needed to rest and digest, then visit the other peaks and find his kin.
Pillowing his head on the cavern lip, he surveyed what was once his domain and wondered if it might be still, or if another young dragon had come and claimed it during Alpheratz’s slumber. It looked little different, but it felt a great deal so. He could taste the magic on the air as he breathed. It was so strong—stronger than he had ever experienced. Mankind had sucked so much of it out of the world with their brutish efforts to use it, but now it had returned in full blossom. As he drifted off to sleep, he dwelled on that comforting thought to keep away all the disturbing ones that threatened to keep him awake.
Copyright © 2019 by Duncan M. Hamilton