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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 20: Fylokkipyron

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

A classic from Anne Stokes

As the freeblades emerged from Wilder Tower, the storm that had swept in off The Deepening had dissipated, replaced by wispy white clouds and a cooling breeze. Mid-day had already slipped by, and the town glistened with the sparkles of an afternoon sun.

Passersby gaped at them and many recoiled in shock. Mothers pulled their children aside and covered the little ones’ eyes. Whispers followed glares as they trudged from one district into another, until Cora finally pulled them into an alley.

“We look horrible,” she said, eyeing the blood, sweat, and grime that covered the men.

You don’t,” Ordin replied with a sardonic grin.

Cora briefly felt a pang of guilt, but she shoved it aside with purpose. It’s my job to stay out of the fray and chronicle their exploits. Not my fault if I stay clean doing it.

A hand-siphoned pump by the leatherworking shop in Elric’s backyard served to wash most of the grime away without sullying a public bath. Elric’s home was typical of the free-standing houses in Westmeade, wood beamed and stuccoed, tiled and chimneyed, and clustered with many others of similar build. The pump drew from the aquifer beneath Westmeade, and it helped secure the success of the family business. “Reichtoven Leatherworks” read the wooden sign above the shop’s door, but the door was padlocked. Elric’s family wasn’t home, and using his father’s pump without his permission, while convenient, gave Cora the strong sense she was trespassing.

She scanned the neighboring houses. A group of children chased one another in a nearby yard. Their mothers conversed over a fence, and as one of them kept a wary eye on the freeblades, their talk took on a disapproving tone.

Cuauhtérroc stepped away from the muddy pool spreading around his feet and stood with the songsage. “Dees weemen do not like us,” he said, shaking the water from his hands.

Cora grimaced and averted her eyes from the gaggle of gossips. “No, I don’t think they do. We’re criminals to them and a threat to their children.”

“In my homeland, dees mothers are like dees panther warriors if dey see danger for dees cheeldren. Dey keel many who try to take dees cheeldren.”

“I don’t doubt that for a second,” Cora said. “Mothers are pretty fierce no matter where they’re from.”

“Well, my ma can sho nuff get riled up,” Elric said as he finished washing. “An’ if we don’t wash this muck off the yard, she’ll have a dyin’ duck fit.”

“Of course,” Cora said. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

That evening, after changing clothes, eating a solid meal, and purchasing a pair of boots for Elric, they returned to Wilder Tower, where the setting sun bathed its upper floors in a titian orange glow.

They returned to the central chamber below, facing the grand staircase that passed between the guardian suits of armor, which presumably led to Elric’s fantasy of treasure. And possibly a dragon.

Moments passed as they stood in solemn contemplation. Even Elric sensed the gravity of the moment.

“Well,” Ordin said to break the silence, “here we are.”

Cora sighed. “I’m not sure we’re ready for this.”

“Look, either we go down these stairs or admit we’re a bunch of ninnies.”

“What is dees dragon?” Cuauhtérroc asked.

“It’s a livin’ nightmare,” Ordin quipped.

Elric grinned. “It’s what’s got all that tray-sure.” But the overtones of his former excitement were greatly subdued.

“Let me explain it to you, Cuautie,” Cora answered. “There are huge lizards in the Audric Jungle, right?”

Cuauhtérroc nodded. “Dees Elder keel dees great leezard that try to attack our veelage.”

“So…a dragon is a great lizard, only it can fly, breath fire, wield magic, and speak with the wisdom of a sage. But it’s born of evil and has no greater desire than to kill and eat you.”

The savage’s eyes narrowed, his focus concentrating on the space between the suits of armor. He raised his macana and clutched it tightly in both hands. “Dees great leezard must die. We go down.”

“Yes!” Elric whispered. It wasn’t the shout of excitement previously heard, but he did whip out his sword with an extra measure of vim.

“Let me set your minds at ease,” Cora said, and she began an uplifting song of courage.

Elric stepped forward. On cue, the guardian suits of armor sprang to life as before, lifting their greatswords, spinning them overhead, and bringing them down in front of the stairs. The freeblades inched closer to the stairs, and after a brief pause, the armor sentries stepped down from their platforms as two tiny points of crimson light formed behind the visor slits.

Cora gasped, drawing nothing for herself from her encouraging song.

Cuauhtérroc’s shout filled the room as he swung his macana violently down upon the breastplate of the nearest armor. Small dents formed in the plate from the obsidian insets of his club, but the armor neither staggered nor slowed in its attack.

The great helm swiveled to face the savage. With the anguished sound of rasping metal, the armor clanked and lunged, swinging its rusty greatsword with surprising grace. The savage dodged and parried, and fragments of the macana’s obsidian studs chipped off his tribal club.

Cuauhtérroc ducked beneath the sword and drove his shoulder into the breastplate in at attempt to topple the armor. But the armor remained unfazed and unyielding, and the savage howled in frustration and pain as he caromed off to the side. Despite the apparent ease with which the rusty armor moved, it’s attacks were wide and obvious, giving the panther warrior ample room for strategy and maneuvering.

“How do ya kill a piece o’ metal?!” Elric shouted as his sword ricocheted off the other suit of armor. “There ain’t nobody inside!”

“Didn’t the guards take one down?” Cora screeched. “Do what they did!”

“Well…” Elric retorted as he parried a greatsword, “I don’ know what they did.” He darted to the flank opposite Ordin and stabbed at the armor to little effect. “All’s I know is ‘at Carver kilt it!”

Ordin’s scimitar did little more than scratch a clean line across the rusty greaves. He ducked under the armor’s greatsword and sliced at what would be its hamstring, but the spine-melting scrape of metal on metal elicited a harsh curse.

Shinnick leaped upon the vambrace of the nearest sword arm, and before Ordin could call him off, the wolf bit down hard. It was the kind of tactic he had been trained to do—bite the weapon arm or the throat. It was instinct, and it cost him a tooth as he bit into only steel. He yelped in pain and leapt back, cowering and whimpering in a corner.

Cuauhtérroc multiplied dents across the various plates and pieces of the armor he fought. Obsidian fragments and chips of ebony flew about with each assault, but the savage pressed without concern for the macana. Soon, various parts of the armor began to interfere with its movements, filling the chamber with the harsh sounds of grinding metal. When the greatsword finally failed to raise, the jungle warrior pounded the armor, blow after heavy blow, until the red eyes faded and it collapsed into a pile of ruined scrap.

“That’s fer Lawton!” Elric shouted as he jabbed his sword at the other suit of armor. “An’ that’s fer Alain!” he said with another jab. He blocked the greatsword with his shield and chopped at the armor’s knee. “That’s fer Strone!” With a tight rolling maneuver, he ducked behind the armor and drove his sword hard into the backplate. “An’ that’s fer Zander!”

Ordin barely received instead a harsh wound to his shoulder as the greatsword whooshed over Elric’s head and came around to the mystic’s side. He toppled and rolled away, clutching his shoulder as the crimson flowed between white fingers. “Cora, do something!” he yelled in a voice contorted with pain.

From the relative safety of the far corner where she had retreated, Cora glanced at the lute slung over her shoulder, her fingers strumming the refrains of courage entirely without conscious thought. I am doing something.

She sighed. She had no spellsongs that would affect possessed armor. Concussive blasts of pure sound would topple Elric long before they moved the armor a single step. There was no mind to charm. Screaming at it would accomplish precisely nothing

Glumly, she looked down at the tip of the rapier hanging on her hip. As there was nothing else to do, she pulled the slender blade from its sheath.

Lunging forward with all her might and punctuating her thrust with a loud feminine roar, the songsage of Lorenvale jabbed the animated plate mail with her slender blade. She knew it was a futile maneuver. Ordin and Shinnick had already fallen, and even Elric’s military training yielded little result. What could she, with no training and a flimsy weapon, possibly hope to accomplish with a simple riposte?

The tip of her blade disappeared into a small gap between the breastplate and fauld. Slivers of radiance beamed out through the cracks between the various pieces, casting an eerie shadowy glimmer outward toward the ceiling and walls. In the next instant, all that light retreated back in through the gaps in the armor, drawing ambient light from the wall torches and casting a pale shadow on the party as the light coalesced into blackness.

Without warning, a raucous clanging of metal echoed throughout the room. The armor rapidly disassembled where it stood, piece by piece into a heap on the floor. The three men watched with amazement at the rapid deconstruction, and when it was over, their heads swiveled to Cora.

The songsage stood motionless, frozen in her riposte, staring with equal incredulity at her rapier and at the pile of armor parts at her feet.

“What in tarnation…” Elric said, shaking his head in amazement.

“Guys,” Cora began uncertainly, “I don’t know what—”

“I mean, don’ that jis beat all I ever seen! How’d ya do it?”

With a tremor in her voice, Cora answered. “I d-don’t know. I just—”

“An’ now, the tray-sure!” Elric announced as he bounded off down the stairs, his new boots clopping loudly as he went.

“Elric!” Cora cried out. “Wait!”

But it was no use; eagerness commanded Elric forward on his own, driven by an excitement he was powerless to control. At the base of the stairs were two heavy wooden doors, hinged and latched in wrought iron. He grabbed a latch, lowered his shoulder, and pushed inside.

A wave of warm air wafted up the staircase and over the other three, air tinged with the acrid scent of sulfur that left a tangy edge on their tongues. The sensation was brief, for the door closed with a dull thud, leaving them wondering in silence about Elric’s fate.

“Well…” Ordin said cynically, “I guess we’re goin’ downstairs. Just as soon as I finish wrappin’ my arm and see what’s ailin’ Shinnick.”

“Are you all right?” Cora asked.

“I’ll be fine,” the mystic said, kneeling beside his wolf. “But he don’t look so good. Lemme see your mouth, Shin…cripe!”

Cora winced as she saw blood dribbling from the animal’s mouth. Shinnick lapped it up as best he could, but Ordin grabbed his tongue and held it aside.

Ordin sighed deeply and scratched the wolf’s ears. “My prayers are good, but not good enough to replace Shinnick’s tooth.”

Cuauhtérroc stood at the top of the staircase, his breathing ragged as if he were exhausted. “Dees wolf need to stay here and not go down dees steps.”

Ordin nodded. “I agree. Ain’t no sense in him tanglin’ with a dragon.”

“Maybe the old man’s down here,” Cora suggested from a hopeful desire to face anything other than a dragon.

Ordin stood and whispered a prayer over his arm. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply as the healing magic flowed. Nature and its Maker was his lifeblood, the wellspring of power and also of peace. Cora watched with amazement as his quiet words remade torn flesh and calmed the soul.

The mystic opened his eyes and exhaled sharply. “I’m ready. Shinnick, stay here.”

“We go now,” the savage replied.

At the thick oaken doors, Cora bade them pause. “I don’t hear anything,” she said with a catch in her throat. “I would expect him to be shouting with joy by now. Or something.”

Cuauhtérroc nodded. “Be ready.” Then the savage pushed in the door.

Uncomfortable heat washed over them with the pungent odor of badly charred meat on a harsh alchemical fire. It was an unnatural heat, a dangerous heat. And Elric had foolishly rushed in.

The heavy door closed behind them with a resonant slam.

They stood in a natural cavernous chamber at least fifty feet in any direction. A pair of large firepits cast a dull reddish-orange glow of dancing lights across the stalactites and limestone columns. Heat radiated from these twin cauldrons, and the three freeblades began sweating immediately. Between the firepits sat a respectable pile of treasure containing perhaps thousands of coins, which sparkled with the promising multicolored twinkles of gemstones. To their left, a small alcove held three wooden chests. Elric had been right to dream of treasure.

A grim menagerie of bones lay strewn about the cavern floor, mostly human but interspersed with the remains of other creatures as well. Skulls, femurs, ribs…all broken and burnt.

Cora scanned the cavern with frantic eyes. “Um…where’s Elric?” she whispered. We have to get out of here!

“It ees hot here,” Cuauhtérroc observed. “More hot than my homeland.”

“So…” Ordin grumbled, “welcome to the gates of Hell, I reckon.”

“Yes, welcome,” returned a booming voice from within the cavern. “Though I would say Hell is much worse.”

The sheer volume and deep resonance of that voice, coupled with a fresh wave of heat radiating with each word, suggested two things: it was draconic, and it was dangerously close. Even before Cora turned around and looked up onto a ledge inset above the heavy doors, she knew what had spoken.

Her body trembled.

Sitting calmly in the niche overhead was a dragon. A true dragon, not like the various perversions of Creation called dragon-bloods. This was a scaly, clawed, winged dragon, red as blood and peering down at them with arrogant confidence in its slitted, yellow eyes. Tendrils of smoke curled from its nostrils as if it were smoking a pair of pipes. Small horns—not yet the glorious crown they would become in its old age—arched back over its spiny head. Its leathery wings were brightly hued, not like the paintings Cora remembered of infamous red dragons of history with their dark crimson to near-black wings.

But dragons were supposed to be immense creatures, towering above the largest buildings and capable of crushing men underfoot. This one, however, was considerably smaller than that, its body not much larger than a stagecoach. Perhaps the stories were greatly exaggerated. Or, perhaps this dragon was young. Yes, that must be it—it’s a wyrmling. Ever so slightly, Cora’s anxiety eased.

“Looking for this?” the dragon said, holding up Elric’s limp body in a curled claw. With a casual flick of its scaly wrist, it tossed Elric aside, the poor lad’s body flopping, rolling, and sliding to a motionless stop near the treasure chests. He was not bloodied or charred, but one of his legs was bent at an unnatural angle.

Cora’s breath caught at the sight, while Cuauhtérroc rushed over to Elric’s side and placed a hand on his neck.

Ordin instinctively backed away from the dragon, swinging defensive arcs before him with his scimitar.

“He is alive!” the savage announced as he inspected the warrior for less obvious wounds than the broken leg.

“Your friend is a simpleton,” the dragon purred, leering at them from the ledge. Then, with a thunderous flap of its crimson wings, it lifted into the upper reaches of the cavern and landed in front of its treasure horde. A wicked sneer formed across its toothy maw. “Or, are you the greater fools for following this idiot?”

“We’ll soon see, you foul beast!” Ordin seethed.

The dragon snorted contempt, and a short burst of flame jetted from its nostrils. A wave of sulfurous heat washed over Ordin and Cora, stinging their eyes and causing Cora to choke on the acrid fumes.

Cuauhtérroc crouched low and pulled Elric into safety away from the dragon’s breath. His focus sharpened as he knelt beside his unconscious friend, his dark eyes following the dragon’s every word and motion. He studied the enemy, patiently waiting for a moment to strike.

Cora only hoped he wouldn’t wait too long.

A memory from her classes on dragonkin flashed through her mind, and with it came a bold and terrifying idea. The arrogance of a dragon can be turned against it. This dragon’s haughtiness was evident. Perhaps a dragon so self-assured and proud could also be goaded into revealing secrets or making foolish choices. By stroking the dragon’s ego, maybe she could gain some information; maybe she could buy Cuauhtérroc a little time.

Before she could consider the wisdom of her words, Cora had already spoken the question. “How do you know we’re not your friends, O mighty red?”

Ordin shot her a questioning look.

The dragon nearly laughed. “If you were my friend, female, you would have known my name, and I yours. Were you my friend, your errand boy would not have stormed into my domicile shouting like a little child. Were we allies, you would not have slaughtered my creations upstairs.”

“Was August Blanchard so privileged as to call you friend?” the songsage pressed. The dragon knows something of the areas above him, and he might know a lot.

“Cora?” Ordin nervously touched her arm. “What in the Nine Hells are you doin’?”

“It’s called a parley,” Cora quickly replied. “It’s what I do best. Try not to interject with anything offensive, okay?”

The dragon harrumphed. “That old fool is no friend, for his word is worthless guile.”

Cora found a mote of bravery beginning to grow with each sentence she spoke that didn’t end with her gristly death. “Why is such a mighty and powerful dragon bothered by that? You have no love for honor yourself; why would this human’s deceit upset your lofty estate?”

“Your tongue drips with honey, female. But how do you know August Blanchard?” the dragon asked, and Cora noted something different in its tone.

“We’ve met, but the meeting was not pleasant.”

“He is a perfidious scoundrel. He thinks a position at the top of the tower places him in a position above me. He knows nothing.”

Cora nearly smiled, for the dragon had given away much. So…the man living in the Tower is indeed August Blanchard, somehow returned to life. And Blanchard knew this dragon was here…but for what purpose?

“If this Blanchard, the scurrilous one,” Cora continued, “is no friend to you, why do you debase yourself by living beneath him?”

The question must have touched a sore spot with the dragon, for it snorted another jet of flame and began to pace about in front of its bed of coins. “I live where I choose to live, female—how are you called?”

Cora paused and took a deep breath, though the heat and sulfurous fumes burned the lungs. Pushing too much could upset her advantage, and maybe even the dragon as well. And an upset dragon would be calamitous, no matter its size. “My name is Cora O’Banion. May I have the enviable privilege of knowing your great name, so that I, as songsage to kings when in my prime, may immortalize your name in song?” Doubtless, it fully expected to live for two millennia or more. Maybe the opportunity to have its name sung so early in life catered to its overwrought sense of self-worth.

The dragon narrowed its yellow eyes and pondered the offering. “My name is Fylokkipyron, though I doubt you’d ever spell or pronounce it correctly.”

“Fylokkipyron,” Cora repeated perfectly, thankful for her diction and dialect classes. “It is a bold name, suggesting power and strength. And I will obtain the correct spelling once this matter has been cleared, O mighty one.”

The young dragon nodded in appreciation. “So tell me, songsage…” Fylokkipyron folded in his wings and lowered his shoulders, slowly approaching Cora with a cunning smile. “…why does a delicious maiden—” His eyes narrowed as he gave the slightest tilt of his head. “I presume your kind finds you attractive?”

The interruptive question hung in the acrid air, begging an answer. Her mind spun, trying to divine the best answer, the most politically acceptable one. “Only those who appreciate true Beauty.”

The dragon scoffed and turned to Ordin, causing the mystic’s breath to catch. “Is this female pretty? To you?”

Ordin glanced nervously between the dragon and Cora, uncertain how to answer. His eyes pleaded for help.

Cora nodded at him, closed her eyes, and held her breath. Please…don’t say anything offensive.

An impatient snort tossed Ordin’s white hair and parched his skin. Quickly, the mystic gulped. “Yes, I reckon she is.”

“Good. I will not condescend to speak with your simpleton or your brute. It’s bad enough that I must lower myself to a skrub, but it is wholly beneath me to parley with an eyesore. Now…” Fylokkipyron turned back to face Cora, and his expression grew more lascivious, “tell me, lovely maiden, why you have destroyed my creations and entered my home.”

Cora’s heart pounded hard in her chest. What the rink are we doing? The wicked grin that played at the dragon’s thin, scaly lips spoke of desire, but whether it was to mate with her or to eat her she could not be certain. Firelight from the twin smoldering pits glinted off the dragon’s bright red scales, reflecting sharply against its golden yellow eyes. We’re all going to die. Ordin stood anxiously on her right, waiting with rapt attention for her reply or possibly a hint that he should fight. Or run. Cuauhtérroc remained hunched over the fallen Elric, watching the discussion with patient ferocity. I am not ready for a dragon. Not today. Not this year. Not ever.

“Well…?” Fylokkipyron prodded.

Cora snapped back to focus on the dragon, suddenly mindful of something he said. “You say we destroyed your ‘creations.’ Do you mean the statues of armor?”

The dragon’s expression drooped. “I am disappointed that you would even ask such an imbecilic question. Of course not. Blanchard put those worthless contraptions there. You destroyed my children!”

A wave of horror shot through Cora’s mind, and she stepped back. “The nisser?” But one of them was threatened with being thrown to the dragon.

Fylokkipyron studied Cora briefly and shook his head. “You are as much a simpleton as your errand boy. No, female, the nisser are not my children. Those ugly things are from the line of Falasteron the Black and breed so prolifically they are by now rightfully a race of their own. Do they not teach draconic heritage anymore?”

Cora knew enough to know that it hardly mattered whose lineage begat whom. But hearing this removed any vestiges of guilt she had harbored against killing them. If not the nisser, then… The answer was unthinkable, and she violently suppressed images of those wretched creatures in the cages.

Fylokkipyron scowled, and for a moment Cora suspected he might eat her. After burning her to a crisp. “Did you not see my children, my alituri?” the dragon asked.

Try as she did to forget that horrid scene, Cora’s mind remained on the prison room and the poor people with all manner of malformities encaged there in squalor. It was an image she would not soon forget. “Why do you torture your children?” she asked, her jaw beginning to tremble. Such evil she had never thought possible and never imagined facing.

The dragon raised up and snorted. “What? Why would I do that?”

“Dees orange fuzz monster is dees dragon’s cheeldren,” Cuauhtérroc offered, his glare locked firmly on the dragon’s head.

Fylokkipyron wheeled to face the savage, his scaly tail sweeping an arc through one of the firepits and sending a shower of sparks and embers flying about the cavern. Cora and Ordin dodged several glowing coals hurtling through the air. “There is a reason I do not converse with brutes,” the dragon bellowed, his sulfurous breath steaming Cuauhtérroc’s panther pelt. “My children are the alituri, and you have reduced their regality to ‘orange fuzz monster.’ Speak again, and I will slay you where you sit by your idiot friend.”

“Whose bones are those?” Cora cried, knowing full well she didn’t want the answer. She had to divert the dragon’s attention from Cuauhtérroc.

Fylokkipyron raised up off his front feet and grinned cruelly. He calmly inserted a claw between two fangs and pretended to dig out a scrap of meat. “The nisser. Mostly. My children build an army with them, training them to obey without question. I eat those who fail to learn.”

Courage would never describe the sensation that swept over Cora. The truth was she felt defeated already. There was no winnable solution in her mind against a true dragon, even if he were merely the size of a horse. The heat was beginning to wear on her, the palpable dread had her nerves completely frayed, and she was staring down a beast who had spawned mighty creatures to enslave other dragonkin, which it regularly ate. Fighting was out of the question, especially with Elric already down. Running was foolish; the only way out was through heavy oaken doors. The dragon would flay them before they could pull them open. No, courage was hardly what fueled Cora’s next comment. Fatalistic determinism spurred her to speak. She had to face the music, but it was a song she loathed.

“You’re going to take over the city, destroy it from the inside out.”

Fylokkipyron harrumphed in feigned denial.

“You’re going to accomplish what Terenon could not.”

A devious grin spread across the red dragon’s toothy maw. He pounced forward, landing inches from Cora’s face, and chortled an evil, arrogant, mocking laugh. “And you are not going to stop me. You are no Messling, and I am no pathetic green. I am a son of Karashakon!”

Cora’s face parched and her hair singed from the furnace-like breath of the dragon. She blanched as the blood drained from her head. Only Ordin’s firm grip under her arm saved her from toppling over.

“You foul creature!” the mystic seethed. “You gotta go through us first!”

Fylokkipyron sat back for a moment and studied the white-skinned half-Vashanti. His fierceness subsided as something of a cruel grin crept across his snout. “You know, for being a whitewashed skrub, you still do have a sense of humor. That was literally what I was planning to do.”

Ordin turn a shade whiter, which struck Cora as oddly impossible. He was afraid, and that meant he was particularly likely to fire off a retort that would seal their fates. She held her breath. Oh, please don’t say anything stupid.

But a change washed over the mystic. His color—his normal pastiness—returned, along with his resolve. Standing tall and raising his head another inch higher, Ordin entered his plea. “O great dragon, surely we could pay you something that doesn’t cost us our lives.”

This time Fylokkipyron did laugh, and short bursts of cinder escaped his nostrils with each chuckle. “How quickly you cower before me. Now you wish to bargain for your lives? This is most delicious. What supplication does a tasty treat like you have that I would ever consider?”

“How ‘bout the whole rinkin tower!”

Cora whipped her head about, her eyes wide in disbelief. What in the Nine Hells are you doing? You don’t offer a dragon his own tower to perch in overlooking a populated city! Fool!!

Fylokkipyron studied Ordin for a moment, then he boomed his scorching response. “Now that is rich! And possibly the most contemptable thing I have ever heard. You would give me the throne of Westmeade to spare your puny lives? Normally, I would have to earn that by years of patiently killing off the weaker souls until I emerged to rain a fiery death upon thousands, while your pathetic soldiers lob their toy weapons at me. But here you stand, a Mystic of the Maker, offering me, a son of Vaeroloth, a bloodless path to glory. You would crown me king of Westmeade in exchange for…not eating you? Is this the best the Maker has to offer? I am truly disappointed.”

Ordin shifted on his feet, but he refused to back down. Cora had to give him credit for that. “Those are the terms,” he said.

The dragon lowered himself to face Ordin eye to eye, his infernal breath desiccating the mystic’s skin. “You must take me for an idiot. The tower is not yours to give. Unless you have slain its owner.”

Cora nearly gasped from that sudden revelation. Oh, the wealth of information you have delivered, dragon. You see Blanchard as your superior…which means, you are not as powerful as you pretend…

“And you are also devoid of tribute,” the dragon continued, raising up and spreading his wings in a threatening display of power. “I tire of waiting for puny snacks such as yourself—”

From his hidden perch at Elric’s side, Cuauhtérroc jumped up and launched a spear into the dragon’s underbelly, cutting the dragon’s tirade short.

Cora’s body jerked involuntarily at the unexpected display of violence, as if she had been jolted from a disturbing dream only to find out that reality was much worse. Perhaps the savage had saved them from being eaten. Or, perhaps he had only ensured that they soon would be.

Her knees wobbled.

The dragon lifted his head and roared in pain, filling the ceiling of the cavern with a roiling ball of fire that scorched a wide area of rock. Waves of heat pressed down upon them, sweltering and oppressive, baking the air and purging every hint of moisture from the cave. Cora covered her ears against the thunderous roar, and she screamed in abject fear. Her skin parched and any last vestiges of courage melted away. As her vision began to fade, Cora cried out, “Maker, save us!”

“Stay with me, Cora!” Ordin yelled at her side. He squeezed her arm to hold her up and stomped her foot to wake her.

Cora’s eyes shot open.

“We need you with us, songsage. You gotta sing for us!”

Fylokkipyron raised his right wing and looked at his side. The spear protruded from his soft underbelly and a deep crimson fluid slowly oozed down the shaft. The mighty beast stiffened his back, scales shifting like ripples in a pond as his anger burned. His eyes narrowed and darkened, and he whirled to face the panther warrior.

From the shadowed cove, Cuauhtérroc raised his macana overhead and stepped forward. Firelight flickered against his bronzed skin, motes of red and orange glinting off the beads of sweat running down his muscled chest. With a sonorous shout that echoed across the cavern, he called upon all the ferocity of a panther, leaned in, spittle flying as he bellowed, and rushed straight for the dragon.

Cora wanted to scream at him, to rush in and stop him, something—anything—that would prevent a full-fledged conflict with a son of Karashakon. But the Audric lived up to his savage reputation—frothing, screaming, rushing headlong into danger, and stirring up trouble when calmer minds should prevail. She knew the stories of Audric frenzy, tales of wild and dangerous bursts of raw, destructive, uncontrolled power. Cora despaired for their survival.

Ordin cursed. He released his hold on her arm, grabbed his scimitar with both hands, and charged. “You’re gonna die!” he shouted, “and rot in the Abyss!” But against the dragon’s tough scaly plates, the mystic’s weapon glanced off harmlessly.

Cora dropped to one knee as her strength of will evaporated. In that moment it became frightfully clear what they had done. Everything was spinning out of control. There was little for her to do but pray it was all a horrible dream. She hoped it was, and that any second now she might awaken in her room with her mother’s voice calling up from the kitchen for breakfast. She would rescind all pursuit for the Sword of the Coast and never leave home again.

But not even nightmares were this terrifying.

Cuauhtérroc leaped forward, hands raised, mouth open in clamorous yell, and landed at the dragon’s side, where Fylokkipyron raked across his side and sent him reeling. Bruised and bleeding but undeterred, the panther warrior charged in again. He slipped past the dragon’s claws and grabbed the spear embedded in his side. Vigorous jostling revealed that blood was not the only thing leaking from the wound—an oily fluid dribbled down the haft of the spear, sizzling on the wood. Cuauhtérroc withdrew his hand, and Fylokkipyron knocked him clear off his feet and halfway across the cavern.

Ordin’s last words echoed in Cora’s head: “You gotta sing for us!” She pulled her lute around, but it felt wrong in her hands. The heat had warped and cracked the wood and it was completely out of tune. She dropped to a second knee as a tsunami of hopelessness washed away all expectation of living. Cuauhtérroc is beaten, Ordin’s attacks are pointless, and my lute is ruined. I have no spellsongs that will defeat a dragon. Devin Rhynn—surely you knew I would need something for this!

Despite his scimitar being utterly ineffective against the scaly hide, Ordin continued to harass the dragon’s flank, forcing Fylokkipyron’s attention away from the savage. But the mighty beast only growled in contempt. “Atdırmaq!” he cursed, sweeping his great tail around and pounding Ordin so hard that he blacked out. As his legs buckled, he dropped his scimitar and crumpled into a heap.

Cora saw blood pouring from Ordin’s mouth and nose as he went down. “Oh, Maker of Beauty!” Cora cried. “Help us!”

Amber eyes seething with rage refocused on the songsage. “The Maker? You are pathetic, human. The Maker abandoned his creation long ago, and you with it. Assuming he even has a clue you exist, he cares nothing for you, and he certainly will not be helping you. Your reliance on that traitorous one will be your undoing…and your death.”

Cora began running through her repertoire of music, searching for something she could weave through with a spellsong, something that didn’t require the accompaniment of her lute, harmonies, or anything else more complicated. A simple song, but a powerful one. Charms were pointless and figments futile; she needed a glorious melody sent from Reindon, avatar of Beauty…

Something sparked in Cora’s memory. Worship.

The whole point of worship at the Arthouse, besides the cultivation of love, was the creation of breathtaking art and the glorious melodies of joyous praise. She could see titles and page numbers of the Codex Euphonica flying through her mind. That’s it! “The Red Rose of Love,” by Reindon himself!

The curtains had parted; the show was on. “Yes!” she yelled, pointing a defiant finger at the accursed dragon. “Yes, I rely on the Maker! This world is his canvas, his symphony, and all you’ve done is rink it up. By the words of the avatar, Reindon, you…you, Fylokkipyron, are doomed to an everlasting torment in the Abyss.”

Fylokkipyron sneered and began to laugh, chortling spurts of fiery ash through his flared nostrils.

But Cora steeled herself, and she began to sing.

The dragon’s laughter subsided to a quiet, nervous chuckle as his cavern began to reverberate with the clear, lofty refrain of a single voice, a melody of crystalline clarity, unsullied by din of battle or crackle of flame. Cora sang, and her voice filled Fylokkipyron’s home. Fires in their pits flickered with the tune, as if swayed by the sonic energies.

“What are you doing?” Fylokkipyron demanded.

Cora sang on with calm composure, her eyes closed in defiant serenity.

The dragon scratched at his earholes and shook his head. “Enough!” he roared. “Stop that wretched sound!”

The songsage transposed her tune, increasing both timbre and volume. Echoes built one upon another until the amplitude overpowered all other sound, until there was only Cora’s clarion voice.

Fylokkipyron howled in pain and leaped to Cora’s side, and with all his might delivered a wracking blow to her side that sent her hurtling across the cavern, rolling and flailing, and finally skidding to a stop near one of the firepits.

For the next several moments, she crawled through excruciating pain away from the flames, her lungs heaving in agony for the slightest draught of air. Her mind reeled and her body trembled to the point of collapse, but her resolve was unshaken. She forced herself to look up at the mighty beast. Her jaw quivered, and she spat blood. “Fylokkipyron…” she said with a painful groan, “you…will…lose.”

The dragon watched her piteous crawling with obvious triumph. “Crawl to me,” he said with a sneer.

Cora stared unblinking at the dragon. She was filled with a peace that defied reason. Or maybe her mind had gone completely numb. Her emerald eyes sparkled; her face remained tranquil and calm. Fear was gone.

The dragon flinched.

“I said crawl to me, human!” Fylokkipyron roared. “Beg me for mercy.”

In the flickering shadows behind the dragon, Cuauhtérroc crouched and crept along, drawing ever closer to the dragon’s side.

Hope rekindled in the songsage, as her savage slinked along in secret, a panther warrior on the prowl. Bolstered by the sight of the Audric closing the gap with a spear in one hand and macana in the other, Cora’s stare turned to scowl. “I don’t beg,” she forced herself to say through excruciating breaths, “I pray. And I pray the Maker has no mercy on you!”

Enraged by Cora’s defiance, Fylokkipyron drew in a copious amount of air, channeling it not to his lungs but to the flame-producing organs. But his eyes shot open wide; something was wrong. He checked his side again, expecting to see a simple stab wound. But with each pulse of his fire-organ, with each attempt to produce an incendiary breath, raw fluids leaked down the spear shaft and burst into flame.

And standing there with a second spear in hand was the Audric.

With a mighty shout, Cuauhtérroc plunged the spear into the dragon’s belly near his oozing wound. A torrent of flammable liquids poured forth, igniting the shaft and enveloping the dragon in flames.

“Do you think I mind the fires?” Fylokkipyron hissed, pivoting to face the savage. “They are a hindrance to you, not me. I practically eat fire for—”

Cuauhtérroc cracked the dragon’s jaw with his macana, stunning the beast. It was hardly a telling blow, but the dragon raised his head in a terrifying roar, and Cuauhtérroc caught the glint of firelight reflecting off Ordin’s fallen scimitar. As Fylokkipyron shook the cavern walls with his rage, jets of remnant flame escaped his throat as a flimsy reminder of his stolen power, a power that now enveloped his body in a pointless inferno. The savage ducked and rolled beneath the dragon’s uplifted head, springing to his feet with the scimitar in hand.

Finished with his roar, Fylokkipyron lowered his head to meet the savage, his slitted eyes narrowed in wrath. “But I will eat you fir—”

With a massive uppercut, Cuauhtérroc stabbed the scimitar into the dragon’s neck. Searing hot blood flowed down the blade and onto the savage’s arm, blistering his skin. The dragon staggered, choking on gushing blood as it gurgled past the curved blade through his esophagus.

Cuauhtérroc released the scimitar. With his macana he repeatedly bashed the dragon’s head until the dreadful beast fell, until blood leaked from both nostrils and one of his eyes dangled free of its socket.

The dragon clawed forward, slowly and painfully. Cora began backing away, fearful he might yet spring upon Cuauhtérroc and eviscerate him. But Fylokkipyron could only hobble across the stony floor, now slick with blood and flaming bile. The dragon grasped clumsily at the scimitar and yanked it from his neck. Spurts of steaming blood leaked down his breast and dripped onto the floor, scorching the stone.

The panther warrior held his ground, his chest heaving with battle-readiness.

Fylokkipyron clawed forward until his battered face was inches from Cuauhtérroc’s and the dragon’s breath dried his sweat. With his good eye, the son of Karashakon glared at the jungle warrior. “You may have beaten me,” he sputtered, blood dribbling past mangled teeth and broken jaw, “but after me will come another. Then another until Vaeroloth is released to rule once—”

Cuauhtérroc growled and crushed the dragon’s good eye, and Fylokkipyron fell limply onto the cavern floor. Then he swung a leg over the dragon’s neck, and with both hands he slammed his macana between Fylokkipyron’s horns, cracking the skull and bringing the dragon at last to a smoky end.

Despite the interminable agony in her ribcage, Cora cried out in overwhelming relief.

Moments passed while Cuauhtérroc waited to see whether the dragon would move. Satisfied that the creature was dead, he hobbled over to the chests near Elric. “I weel look for dees dreenks for healing,” he said aloud.

The first chest Cuauhtérroc opened emitted a faint click, and a fiery explosion rocked the cavern, sending jagged pieces of wood flying in all directions.

A roiling ball of fire engulfed the savage.

Cora’s mouth opened in a scream of terror, but it was drowned by the thundering explosion. Her eyes flew open, horrified at the sight of Cuauhtérroc’s body flying backwards, of Elric’s body careening against the cavern wall, of plumes of fire piling on yet another layer of death and filling the area with blistering heat that parched her skin and flushed her of sweat.

The savage tried raising an arm, but it flopped limply to his side. Then his eyes closed.

“Cuauhtérroc!” Cora wailed.

For a brief moment, Cora could only stare at the blackened char that had once been a wooden chest, her eyes vacant, like her soul. All around her, lying in twisted heaps, were the three men who had thrown in with her. All were likely dead, though she prayed not. Elric hadn’t moved since they entered the lair, and Ordin’s body lay exactly where the dragon had left it. “Cuauhtérroc!” she yelled.

Though pain riddled her body, Cora crawled to the fallen savage. “Please be alive…”

Putrid reddish-white blisters covered his chest, arms and face. His panther pelt lay several feet away, the fur scorched.

Cora retrieved the pelt, holding it delicately as she shuffled back to the savage. “Your cuauh…it’s…”

Deep sadness overwhelmed her. “I’m so sorry!” she wailed. “I…I’ll get the….” She cried out from shooting pain as she struggled to reach a pocket on her pack. “If I can just…get…cripe!” A scream of pained frustration escaped her parched throat. Despite the agony jolting through her, Cora pulled an arm through the shoulder strap and shucked the pack entirely.

With a long sigh, she opened the top flap. “I’ll make this right,” she said, hastily rummaging through the pack’s contents. “I promise…just…” She paused in her search, her eyes cast upon his bubbled skin. “Please don’t die.”

“I am not dead,” the savage whispered.

A squeak escaped Cora’s throat as she jumped, then groaned from a fresh wave of pain. She stared at the unmoving savage. Did I imagine that? “Cuauhtie? Cuauhtérroc? Say something!”

“Pain is weakness leeving dees body,” he moaned.

Relief washed over the songsage, and she nearly threw her arms around him. “Thank the Maker! You’re alive! I despaired, thinking I was the only survivor. I saw you fall, and Elric’s body—Elric! He hasn’t moved at all!”

“Go to heem,” Cuauhtérroc said with a groan. “I weel stay here.”

“I will, but first…” Cora dug her arm deeply into her pack. “I know I put all our vials in here…”

“Go to Erik Rikeoven.”

“No! I’m not going to leave you.” She pulled out a crystalline vial, one of the many received from Artus Calloway. She pulled the stopper and recoiled as the intense scent of almond extract wafter under her nose. “Whoa, that’s strong! I hope it’s as powerful as it smells.”

Cora slowly poured the contents of the vial into Cuauhtérroc’s mouth. Relief washed over him from the tingling of healing restoration, and he sat up slowly. “I weel be okay now. Go.”

“Here,” she said, handing a pair of vials to Cuauhtérroc, “take these to Ordin.”

After quaffing an elixir herself, Cora crept gingerly through the broken glass, twisted metal, and shards of wood to the far recesses of the alcove. The explosion had relocated Elric to a small puddle near the wall, where his charred armor and grotesquely mangled knee filled Cora with grief.

She called his name repeatedly and slapped his smudged cheeks until the blonde handlebar mustache twitched and a pitiful groan escaped from beneath it. “Quit slappin’ me…” he shouted as if the songsage were not standing directly over him. “What happened? I cain’t hear so good. My ears is ringin’ an’ my…everythang hurts. Like I been run clean over by a herd o’ cattle. Sonuvacrap, I feel awful.”

“This is for you,” Cora said, handing him a pair of vials.

“What?” Elric shouted, straining to hear.

“I said this is for you.”



With a nod, Elric took the elixirs and swigged the contents.

“Pain is weakness leeving dees body,” the savage said from deeper in the cavern.

“What’d he say?” Elric asked, his eyes squinted as if that would help his ears.

With a grunt, Cora leaned in and shouted, “He said pain is weakness leaving the body!”

Elric began to chuckle, and Cora furrowed her brow. “What’s so funny?”

“That’s jis it! He’s right! ‘Pain an’ sweetness tickle the body.’ I ain’t never thought about it like ‘at before, but I reckon there’s a certain sense to it.”

Cora groaned.

Elric craned his neck to see past Cora into the larger part of the lair. “So…did we win?”

“The dragon’s dead, if that’s what you mean, but I wouldn’t call this a win. We nearly died…all of us.” She glanced over her shoulder. “How’s Ordin?” she called out.

“Ordeen Clay is alive!” Cuauhtérroc answered back. “I geeve heem dees bottles to dreenk, and he say I am stupid.”

Cora turned back to Elric and grinned.“I think Ordin’s going to be okay.”

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