Ch. 21: The Company of Dragon Slayers
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
Elric struggled to ascend the grand staircase out of the dragon’s lair. His mangled knee refused to cooperate with him, hanging limply and shooting him through with pain. Even with Ordin’s assistance, it was a laborious task.
“Set me down over there,” Elric moaned, pointing to the nearest wall. A mighty yawn commandeered his face.
Ordin eased him to the floor and sat beside him, sliding down the frescoed wall with a heavy, exhausted sigh. Shinnick curled up beside his master, laid his head in his lap, and licked the salty-metallic mixture of blood and sweat that coated his alabaster skin. Crimson stains from the missing fang had dried in his chin fur, and his whimpers echoed Ordin’s muffled groans.
Cuauhtérroc slowly clambered up a bit later, leaning heavily on Cora for support. The front half of his body remained blistered from the fiery blast of the trapped chest, and he groaned with every movement. Still, he soldiered on, his eyes fixed on the top of the steps and his jaw set firm.
“Cripe,” Elric said when the savage reached the final step. “That dragon really did ya in. Ya need anythang, like water or…I got some jerky. Ya want some o’ that?” He finished with another yawn.
Cora shook her head at him. “Leave him be.”
Cuauhtérroc collapsed onto his back on the cold stone floor near Elric’s feet. “Dees feel good,” he moaned.
Cora felt his forehead and looked up at Ordin. “He’s burning up. I thought it might be just the heat from the dragon’s lair, but I think he’s fevered.”
The mystic reached over and felt the savage’s skin. He nodded. “I reckon that floor’s the best thing for him right now. Everybody give him your water.”
“We need to get him to a temple,” Cora said as she retrieved her waterskin.
Ordin held out his hand. “Give me your water, Elric.” He leaned over Cuauhtérroc and whispered a prayer over him. He looked up and shrugged slightly at Cora. “That should hold him for a while, long enough to gather up the spoils.”
After a brief respite, Cora and Ordin returned to the dragon’s lair. Elric yawned yet again as he gently poured their water onto the savage’s scalded body. “Well…my get up an’ go has done got up and went. How’re you feelin’?”
“Dees pain is better,” Cuauhtérroc answered, then he sighed. “Dees water is good.”
Sometime later, Elric awoke to voices, distant and indistinct, muffled by layers of stone and dirt, as if rising up from the ground. He stirred, but his mind remained foggy. A sharp jolt of pain shot through his knee, and he sat bolt upright. “Cripe!”
He grabbed his sword, and the central room slowly came into focus. Piles of rusty armor and two empty pedestals recalled to mind the grim battle against magically animated mail. The voices came nearer, words forming out of the murmurs. What’s goin’ on here? He glanced over at the savage still lying prone. He ain’t got a chance against another nisser attack. Through clenched teeth, he sat up and prepared to defend Cuauhtérroc to the very end. Curse those nisser.
“…and that’s when Cuauhtie basically told Fylo to shut up,” Cora said as she and Ordin emerged from the dragon’s cavern carrying a wooden chest between them.
Elric exhaled in relief and set his sword down. “Y’all cain’t be sneakin’ up on me like ‘at. ‘Bout gave me a heart attack.” They set the chest beside another just like it, and Elric’s eyes widened in surprise at the pile of loot already assembled.
“You’ve been sleeping for a while now,” Cora said. “We made quite a ruckus, but you slept right through it.”
Ordin knelt down with a grunt and peered in closely at Elric’s eyes. “Hold still…” He spoke a mote of light into being and held it in Elric’s face. “No, don’t squint—”
“It’s too bright,” Elric objected.
“That’s the point, you lunk. Now, open your eyes.”
Elric refused, and Ordin thumped his injured knee.
“Cripe!” Elric yelled, his eyes flying open.
Ordin nodded and stood. “Yep, he was induced.”
Cora frowned. “Induced?”
“Magical sleep. You can see his pupils won’t contract like their supposed to in the light. I suspect one of those elixirs he drank wasn’t curative.”
“One of ‘em did taste kinda funky,” Elric said, smacking his tongue as if the flavor lingered still. He eyed the newly retrieved chest. “So, what’d y’all bring up?”
“We don’t know,” Cora said. “After the first chest exploded on Cuauhtérroc, we are loath to open the other two.”
Cora rolled her eyes. “Hesitant. We don’t want to chance that happening again.”
“What about all that other stuff?”
Cora surveyed the pile and counted off their findings on her fingers. “So far, a pair of shields, an assortment of weapons, and quite a large sum of mixed coins of various mints, plus a few gemstones.” She lifted up a purple cloth item. “Also, this bottomless velveteen sack, probably an intra-portal device. Quite handy.”
“Can I see it?” Elric asked.
Cora handed it to him and knelt beside the ailing savage. “How’s it going, Cuauht?”
Cuauhtérroc smiled, but it was weak. “I theenk you are by dees side too meeny times.”
“I know,” Cora said with a soft sigh. “I know…but, we did it.” A satisfied smile spread across her face. “We rinkin did it!”
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “Yes, we keel dees great leezard.”
“We freakin’ kilt a dragon!” Elric exclaimed, reaching into the purple bag. He cocked his head sideways and frowned. “Hey…this thang ain’t got a bottom.”
Cora shook her head at him. “I just told you it was bottomless.”
“So, what’s it for?” Elric asked, turning it around to validate that there was, indeed, a bottom on the outside.
“We’ll have Calloway inspect it,” Cora answered, “but my guess is it will hold far more than should be—ahem—physically possible.” She gave Ordin a quick smile and wink.
The mystic remained unfazed. He reached down to feel Cuauhtérroc’s forehead.
“I suppose we could become a renown freeblade company after this,” Cora said in excited tones. “Maybe we should come up with a name for ourselves, something distinguished and formidable.”
Ordin scoffed at her.
Elric scooped up a handful of coins from the pile and tossed them into the bag. “We could be the Dragon-whackers.”
Cora coughed. “Perhaps not, though I like your use of assonance.”
“She said she likes your arse,” Ordin mumbled.
Ignoring the mystic, Cora worked through an option. “What about…The Assiduous Company of Indefatigable Dragon Slayers?”
Ordin groaned. “That’s stupid. Too many words.”
“Too many big words,” Elric remarked. He started to toss another fistful of coins into the bag, but as he opened it, a pair of matching daggers tumbled out and clattered onto the floor. What in the…
Cora frowned. “Come on, guys. Large words are critical to precise communication. We need a name that speaks of grandeur, something that rings of prowess, a name that impresses kings. We need to give the songsages something to sing about.”
“Whatever,” Ordin said with an apathetic shrug. “Why don’t you shorten it to the Company of Dragon Slayers and be done with it?”
“Dees name ees good,” Cuauhtérroc said, staring up at the stone ceiling.
“I don’t know,” Cora said, musing. “I suppose we can go with that, at least until something more appealing comes to mind.”
Elric puzzled over the daggers. They were a dull black that reflected nothing. He reached into the bag to see if anything else was in there he might have missed. He turned it upside down and shook it over his lap, but nothing came out—not even the coins he had thrown in. He frowned at the bag, turned it around, and shoved his arm in it to the shoulder.
“Well,” Ordin said as he stood and stretched, “I reckon we oughtta do somethin’ with that dragon.”
Cora shook her head. “I’m am not inclined to bury it. Certainly not in all this rock.”
The mystic raised an eyebrow. “Bury it? Are you kiddin’? I’m thinkin’ ‘bout cuttin’ him up.”
She stared at him in disbelief.
“Look,” he explained, “it’s like field dressin’ a deer. Same difference, only lots of dragon parts are worth good money—the blood, the heart…even the eyes are worth somethin’. Besides, Cora, weren’t you on some fool quest to kill a dragon? Wouldn’t you like to have at least a tooth or somethin’ to prove it to everyone?”
Cora frowned. “I suppose so. Huxel did say I needed proof.”
“I got dibs on the scales!” Elric chirped, tossing the purple bag aside. “I always wanted me a set of dragon armor.”
“You want to wear the skin of the Enemy?” Cora asked in obvious shock.
Elric shrinked back like a guilty child, like when his mother berated him for shooting sparrows simply for the fun of it. “I’m sorry…I figgered it’s like a trophy, like I’m sayin’ to the whole world that I’m the dragon-whacker. ‘Sides, it’s really good hide, an’ I would know.”
“I don’t know,” Cora said. “I suppose you could wear it in triumph.” She turned to the savage. “Cuauhtérroc? What part do you want?”
“I do not understand,” the savage replied. “Panther warriors take dees ears from jaguar warriors, dees fingers from tiger warriors, dees heads from Amurraks, and dees hearts from all jungle creatures made by dees Great Father. But he deed not make dees dragon.”
“An’ the skins,” Elric said, pointing to the pelt tucked under Cuauhtérroc’s shoulders.
“Yes, and dees cuauh.”
Ordin held out his arms. “So, nothin’ then? ‘Cause I don’t think I can skin a dragon.”
“Dees teeth weel be good for me.”
“So then, we’ll need all the back scales, the heart, a few jars of blood, and just about everything from the head, so I reckon we’ll lop it off at the neck.”
Elric shook his head dejectedly. “I don’ reckon them guards outside are workin’ off the same set o’ rules. They didn’t want us comin’ in, so I figger they’ll never let us past with all this stuff. They’ll rat us out to the Cap’n an’ he’ll take it all an’ burn it.”
“That ain’t gonna happen,” Ordin quipped, patting his scimitar sheath.
Cora grimaced. “Seriously, Ordin, don’t attack the guards.”
The mystic grumbled to himself and began pacing the room. At length, he clapped his hands, “I’ve got it!”
“What?” the other three said in chorus.
His thin white lips curled in the most devious of grins. “You wait and see. Shinnick, stay.”
Shinnick raised his head slightly at the mention of his name, and he peered over at Cuauhtérroc. He blinked and laid his head down again.
“Cora, come with me.” With a decidedly lighter gait, the mystic bounded off down the stairs into the dragon’s lair. Cora followed at a more subdued pace.
Elric shifted his weight to find a more comfortable position, and grunted sharply from a shooting pain in his knee.
“How did dees leg break?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
“Well, I tromped down there an’, wouldn’t ya know it, stepped right on the dragon’s tail. He didn’t cotton to that an’ smacked me. Right ‘cross the knee. Broke it like a toothpick.”
Cuauhtérroc began to laugh but winced from a fresh wave of pain. “I theenk I need dees healer.”
“Yeah,” Elric said with a chuckle, “me too.”
* * * * * * * * * *
While Ordin carved up the dragon carcass, Cora strolled about the cavern. The fiery caldrons had died down, casting a warm reddish glow where they had been blazing brightly before. In the darker corners of the lair, she sang a light into being and affixed it to the tip of her rapier.
The cave was already starting to return to normal temperature, and a chill swept up Cora’s spine. “It’s hard to imagine this place harbored a dragon, now that I can get a good look at it.”
“Ain’t so hard for me to imagine,” Ordin said, elbows deep in the dragon’s chest. “The meat’s still pretty hot.”
“How do you think it got in here?” Her light shone dimly on the ceiling, throwing shadows that obscured the details.
“I reckon he walked right in through the front doors, same as we did.”
“But what about before that? He couldn’t have gotten through that closet door we found. It’s not even physically possible.” A chuckle followed, and Cora glanced over at the mystic.
Ordin looked up with a smirk. A smear of blood ran from forehead to left ear. “Poke all the fun you want.” He grimaced and twisted, grunted and pulled, then looked up at the cavern ceiling for a moment. “There it is,” he said, pulling again until an audible pop echoed through the lair. With a grin and blood dripping from his elbows, Ordin extracted the dragon’s heart, an organ nearly as large as the mystic’s head.
He dropped it aside, and it squished as it landed. Cora shuddered. “That’s disgusting, Ordin!”
“Just wait till I start rippin’ the scales off.”
Cora’s throat tightened.
Ordin held out a hand soaked in crimson. “You know, you could help me. Make it go faster, keep Cuauhtie from waitin’ so long.”
Cora shook her head. “No, thank you. Actually, I think I’ll go see how he’s doing.”
Nearly an hour later, Ordin returned to the main chamber with various dragon parts in tow, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Scarlet stains covered him so thoroughly he had hardly a patch of pale skin showing, and his hair was matted on one side with the dark flow.
Shinnick sat up and eyed his master with caution.
“Whoa…” Elric exclaimed in reverent awe when Ordin dragged up the dragon’s head and dropped it on the floor in the middle of the room.
“Okay,” the mystic said, slumping to the floor and letting his wolf lick at the blood on his face. “I’m worn out, but that’s everything.”
“That’s really disturbing,” Cora said, frowning at the wolf’s ministrations.
Cuauhtérroc still lay on his back, not having moved an inch. “Ordeen Clay look like dees panther warriors when dey keel dees meeny panthers. I theenk maybe dees mainland people are not very deeferent from dees people of my homeland.”
“I’m beginning to agree with you,” Cora said.
Ordin picked up a partially burned spear shaft and positioned the charred end at the neck of the dragon’s severed head. “Just you wait.” With a fierce grunt, he shoved the shaft of the spear up the dragon’s neck until it struck bone.
Cora bit off a shriek. “For the love of Beauty, what are you doing?”
“Here’s the plan,” Ordin announced. “I got this head on a pike, see, and when we open the front doors, I’m gonna poke it out and give the guards a good scare.”
Cora stared at him, speechless for a time. It was an idiotic idea, besides being completely ghastly. “Seriously?”
“Well, yeah,” Ordin answered. “Did you forget how I scared the pee out of you when you were sleepin’ in the castle?”
Elric laughed and pointed sharply at Cora. “That was so funny! Let’s do it!”
“That’s incredibly juvenile,” Cora said with a glower.
“No, it ain’t,” Ordin said curtly. “We need the guards out of the picture, and you won’t let me kill ‘em.”
“Please?” Elric pleaded. “They need their comeuppance.”
Cora pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “Oh, all right…come and get Cuauhtérroc and me when you’re done.”
“Well, actually…” Ordin said, wiping blood-matted hair aside, “we kinda need your help.”
“No. Leave me out of this.”
The mystic unsheathed his scimitar and proceeded up the stairs. “Then I’ll go slit their throats.”
“Wait! Fine...” Cora growled with irritation. “I know you won’t murder them, but since I can’t trust that you won’t do something supremely uncouth and land us in jail again, I suppose I can at least hear you out.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Inside the front doors of Wilder Tower, Elric leaned on his one good leg with his arms across Cora’s shoulders. Cuauhtérroc, in obvious pain, stood nearby, silently watching. Ordin placed his blood-stained hands on the doors and checked the skewered dragon head—the “hobby dragon” as Elric called it—that leaned against the wall beside him.
“Ready?” Ordin said.
“Ready,” Cora answered, and she quietly breathed a spellsong that began as a faint whisper but gradually grew to a voluminous roar. A dragon’s roar, a much more realistic and frightening sound than Ordin’s illusion in her bedroom. His was good for rousing a heavy sleeper, but the figmental energy of a songsage’s spellsong was thunderous.
Ordin nodded in appreciation, pulled the doors open and grabbed the red dragon’s head. He thrust it outward past the doorframe and twisted the spear haft left and right, shaking it as vigorously as he could. Cora’s phantom roar echoed through the tower and down the hillside, eliciting a pair of high-pitched yelps from the guards. A clang of metal rang out as swords hit the ground, followed by the patter of fleeing feet rapidly disappearing into the winding streets of Westmeade.
The mystic pulled the dragon’s head back and stood the shaft upright. He leaned against it with an expression of smug satisfaction, watching the panicked guards scrambling away. He sniffed and dry-dusted his bloodied hands. “Now, let’s find a wagon and load up Elric, Cuauhtie, and all this stuff.”
“I’m on it,” Cora said and trudged down the small hillock from Wilder Tower to the crowded houses.
“Can I borrow a wagon?” she called out, her voice tired and raspy.
Several people stopped and stared at her. Faces appeared in open windows.
“Please,” she pleaded. “We’re wounded and two cannot even walk. We need your help. A wagon or a pair of carts would be quite useful.”
“I got a cart,” a man replied. He eyed her disheveled and bloodied appearance. “Are ya all right?”
“Not quite well, but better than the others. Thank you.”
“Ain’t you the ones what burnt the tower down?”
Cora had no energy left for fuming at his misrepresentation of the facts. “Look, we’re on a commission from the Council to investigate the tower. It’s all legitimate. We encountered nisser and a red dragon. We’re all quite exhausted and carrying latent injuries. If we could just borrow a wag—”
An older woman hollered from her window. “I got one you can use.”
Cora turned to her, and a relieved smile spread across her lips. “Madam Wilkins. Thank you so much.”
The man shifted uneasily. “A…a dragon? Well, I reckon ya can use mine, too.”
Cora nodded. “And I thank you as well.”
As they gathered the pair of carts, Cora shared their story, which elicited several gasps from the lady Wilkins. By the time she had led them back up the hill to the tower, a small crowd had formed, pressing her for details. At the base of the tower, Ordin emerged to meet them, “hobby-drgaon” in hand, and an audible wave of shock swept over the assembly. Young and old alike cowered before the severed head of a dragon and the four freeblades covered with wounds, sweat, grim, and an unreasonable amount of blood.
Whispered rumors began to float among the people. “Was there really a dragon livin’ underneath the tower?”
“Was that what was makin’ all the lights and noise?”
“Did y’all really kill that thing?”
Voices clamored in disarray for answers, clarity, stories. While Ordin and Cora loaded the spoils into the carts, dread of these four interlopers evaporated like the morning dew, replaced with awe and excitement for what the people now viewed as a band of heroes.
“All hail!” cheered the Wilder crowd. “All hail!”
“We’re saved!” they shouted, banding around Ordin and jeering at the bloody severed head.
With assistance from the men of Wilder District, they trudged slowly throught the streets of Westmeade. Children danced around the carts—now carrying Cuauhtérroc and Elric—as the chorus of cheers increased with the numbers of people eager to accompany them and to claim their allegiance as if they had never doubted.
By the time they reached the Solarium of Light, well over a hundred people had joined the procession, folks from all of Westmeade’s districts, singing the old ballads of Alinda Messling. Shouts rang out in effusive praise and echoed in the streets long after they had descended into the healing rooms of the Solarium.
After dropping off the wounded warriors, Cora and Ordin sequestered the spoils in Ordin’s hut in Overdale Park. With that completed, Ordin collapsed on his mat and laid a blood-encrusted arm over his face. “I’m done.”
Shinnick curled up at his master’s feet, closed his eyes, and blew a deep breath through black, blood-stained lips.
Cora stood in the doorway of his hut for a quiet moment. “Thank you,” she said at last, “for everything.”
Ordin lifted his arm just enough to peer out at her. “I reckon I should be thankin’ you. Maybe—and I’m sayin’ maybe—I’m closer to findin’ my purpose. And that’s ‘cause of you.”
Cora stood speechless in the doorway as her eyes grew misty.
“So,” Ordin said, lifting his arm again, “I’m bushed. You ain’t gotta go home, but go somewhere.”
Cora wiped an eye and backed out, pulling the canvas curtain closed. She was exhausted, too, but not so much that she couldn’t enjoy a celebratory pint of Oakenhammer ale and a steaming hot bath before falling into bed. Cora had hardly ever slept more soundly than she did that night.
It was nearly noon when she finally emerged from her room and stumbled groggily downstairs to the kitchen of the Kotting’s house. A letter from Montpeleón awaited her on the table, the seal of which had been partially broken. Velma Kotting admitted to having fretted over that envelope all day, but she was proud that she had not completely given in.
Cora’s body was riddled with various aches, lingering wounds that the curative elixirs hadn’t entirely wiped away. Especially the ribs…that telling blow from the dragon remained, and she incurred a dull reminder of it every time she bent or twisted. She was thankful for the leather armor, but a rib or two might still be broken. And her lute was ruined.
As Cora groaned, Mrs. Kotting expressed her concerns. “You really shouldn’t be doing that line of work, Miss Cora. You have a long life ahead of you, a handsome man calling on you, children to raise, grandchildren…” Her voice tapered off in worry.
“Yes, ma’am,” Cora conceded.
“You have such a beautiful voice, lass, that don’t need to be quieted by such foolish running after buried treasure.”
Cora roller her eyes. Velma sounded like her mother, which reminded her of home. I wish I could go home…stupid probation. I suppose I’ll need to let my parents know I’m stuck here. “You’re probably right, Mrs. Kotting,” she said softly as she opened the envelope.
Montpeleón’s letter consisted of greetings from Cer Cannaid and boring details of a trade deal being brokered on behalf of the farmers in the northern reaches of the nation. He was staying in Cer Cannaid for an extended time to help the free city prepare for the Duke’s fiftieth birthday in conjunction with the wedding of his middle daughter, the Lady Karlina Lenair. He ended with the wish that she could attend the noble gala at his side.
Cora’s shoulders sagged. But I’m stuck in Westmeade. There’s my defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Oh well…I’ll have to hear about it later, I guess. This is the script written for me.
She sighed, tucked the letter into the folds of her blouse, and plodded out the front door, announcing a “goodbye” to the Kottings as she pulled the door closed.
At the side entrance of the Solarium, an acolyte dressed in flowing white garb greeted her. “Good day, Miss,” he said with a quick bow. “My name’s Rolan. How kin I help ya?”
Cora smiled pleasantly at him. “I’m here to check on my friends, Elric and Cuauhtérroc. They came in yesterday evening with some fairly severe injuries.”
“Ah, yes. We been watchin’ them two real close. Never seen burns that bad in all my days on the one, an’ the other’n, I ain’t sure his knee’s supposed to bend that way.” The acolyte grinned to assure Cora of his light-hearted intentions. “But I promise you, they’re in good hands, an’ they’re doin’ just fine.”
“May I see them?”
“Oh, of course. Follow me.”
In rooms on opposite sides of the hallway, Cuauhtérroc and Elric lay with their beds positioned such that they could see each other through the open doors. The savage appeared to be sleeping at the moment, so Cora stepped across the hall. Elric startled slightly and quickly pulled his shirt down over his belly when she entered the room.
“Staring at your navel?” Cora said derisively.
Elric’s face reddened. “Well, there ain’t nuttin’ else to do. I’m bored stiff!”
“Try reading a book.”
The fighter’s grimace indicated that her suggestion might be followed only if the alternative was death.
“How are you feeling?” Cora asked.
“Aw’ight, I reckon. It don’t hurt much if I hold still, but that’s awful hard to do. The cassocks say I might can walk again in a couple o’ months.”
Cora’s heart skipped. A couple of months?! She turned around to view Cuauhtérroc’s charred body across the hall. “And Cuauhtie?”
Elric shrugged, “They didn’t say, but I can tell ya he ain’t gettin’ outta here anytime soon.”
Rolan cleared his throat softly. “Miss, your Audric friend’ll recover, but he needs constant care fer a good while. His condition is critical, but he ain’t without hope.”
Cora nodded acknowledgement, but her mind raced. Several months would set back their commission; they still didn’t know who the old man was or why he had been living in the top of the tower. But the only option for a speedier recovery was divine intervention, and that carried a hefty price tag. She motioned for Rolan to step into the hallway with her. “How much will it cost to get the Father of Light involved?” she asked, referring to the patriarch of the temple.
Rolan smiled warmly. “If you’re seekin’ a full healin’ for yer friends, the usual donation is several thousand gold stallions. Each. But since yer on a mission for the city, I reckon the pontiff’ll knock ‘at down a bit.”
Rolan shrugged. “I cain’t really say, Miss.”
“Two for one?”
Rolan shrugged again.
“You go talk to the pontiff, Rolan,” Cora replied. “Stress the importance of this mission and the critical part Cuauhtérroc has played in our success. He literally killed a dragon.”
Rolan nodded. “I heard about that. The whole town’s stirrin’ with rumors.”
“The High Council will be grateful for the Father’s timely assistance, and surely the Maker will honor his benevolence toward our cause.”
“I will see what I can do,” Rolan said with a bow. Then he turned and strode down the hall.
Cora poked her head back into Elric’s room. “Sit tight, Elric. I’m going to talk this over with Ordin. And…read a book.”
“That’s a rip-off!” Ordin exclaimed when he heard the cost for divine healing at the Solarium. “I know the Grove in the Cerion Forest would do it for far less than that.”
“But we can’t leave the city, Ordin. It wouldn’t matter if the mystics healed him freely; we can’t go there.”
Ordin picked up a small rock and heaved it with an angry growl through the trees of Overdale Park. “Look, this is stupid. We just got all this treasure, and now we gotta cough it up? Again? How are we supposed to earn anthing if every time we find somethin’ valuable we gotta use it for healin’? Nine Hells! We’d be better off openin’ up a bakery!”
Cora sighed, picked up a small stick and began snapping it into tiny pieces. “I know it doesn’t seem right. But this is what freeblades do. They take great risks for great reward. If they survive, they become rich and famous. Cuauhtérroc could have easily died in that dragon fight. And the scary truth is, he might the next time. Anyone of us could die in the pursuit of fame, glory, answers, quests, or whatever else drives us to take these risks. But if we survive—if we survive, we gain it all, and immortality, too! If we survive, songsages across the land will sing our praises!”
Ordin folded his arms and stared at the redhead. “You realize no one but you actually cares to be sung about?”
“Don’t say you weren’t filled with pride as the people cheered us.”
The mystic shrugged. “I’d just as soon nobody noticed me.”
“I’m sorry, but that comes with the territory. But hey, we’re close to breaking wide open the mystery of Wilder Tower. Right now, we’re in better favor with the Council of Westmeade, and the whole city is comparing us to Alinda Messling. We’re heroes, Ordin! In a couple of days, we’ll make our first report. Hopefully they’ll intervene on our behalf at the Solarium and get the cost down to something that doesn’t entirely wipe us out. That’s what I’m bargaining for. But we must be prepared to give up a substantial portion of our findings if we hope to have Cuauhtie and Elric healed anytime before winter.”
Cora nodded. “Yes. That’s about the sum of it.”
“Fine,” Ordin grumbled and left Cora standing alone among the trees.
“Here,” he said upon his return, holding out a burlap sack. “I delivered the dragon’s scales to a leatherworker early this morning. The head and heart went to Calloway, along with the weapons and shields. Maybe these coins, gems, and other stuff will be enough.”
Later that day, Cora exited the moneychanger’s office with a certificate of deposit for three thousand gold stallions in mixed coins and gems, after the exchange fees. The sale of the dragon parts to Calloway had netted another five hundred, and the leatherworker—Elric’s father, as it turned out—had paid another one hundred for the scales. She could only hope it was enough.
But it wasn’t. Through careful negotiations, the Father of Light agreed to expedite the healing process despite not having sufficient funds. He could speed their healing to within a couple of weeks. Not the instantaneous result she had hoped for, but it was much better than two long months of convalescence.
She spoke briefly with both of the valiant warriors, encouraging them and giving them hope for the near future. While Elric was eager to get back into the tower for more treasure, Cuauhtérroc had lost something. The sparkle in his eye had faded, and he barely spoke. It might be the pain he endured—the weakness leaving his body. But it looked more like his strength had left him. As he lay in agony, his blackened skin flaking off with the slightest movement, Cuauhtérroc did not even acknowledge Cora’s presence.
She sat with him for a long time, quietly reassuring him and hoping her presence brought comfort. The savage’s dark eyes remained fixed upon the ceiling, saying nothing.
Eventually, Cora left his side with tears wetting her cheeks. The jungle warrior grabbed her arm and uttered only one word. “Cuauh.”
Cora understood what he meant, but not why he seemed so morose. She reached up to a hook on the wall and retrieved the slightly burned black panther pelt. She folded it once and draped it across Cuauhtérroc’s waist where it would not chafe his blistered chest and where he could feel the fur in his hands. The panther warrior said no more, but grasped the pelt as if it was his only comfort.
Two weeks later, Cora and Ordin dressed in fine apparel and went to the Solarium to meet the other two. Cora carried a new lute on her shoulder, its fresh polish glinting in the sunlight. Both Elric and Cuauhtérroc were completely healed and well rested. Elric danced and capered about, claiming that even “that ol’ catch” in his knee was gone. Cuauhtérroc, however, remained stoic, quietly staring into the middle distance. The hair on his chest and arms had not yet grown back in, and his long black mane was trimmed back several inches to remove the singed parts. His skin was no longer darkly bronzed but more like the light olive tone of his birth. But the stern expression on the savage’s face belied the fresh, new look of his physique.
Elric and Cuauhtérroc took the bundles of clothes that Cora had brought for them—linen shirts and pants with complementary waistband and stockings—and they each washed thoroughly in scented baths in the temple. After dressing, Cora fussed over their hair until neat and trim. Ordin tried his best not to laugh at the spectacle, but the songsage insisted that their first presentation before the High Council leave a good impression.
The Company of the Dragon Slayers sat in the “war room” of the Lord’s Castle, keenly aware that time was slowly passing. An hourglass on the table had been flipped once already.
“This is the right day, isn’t it?” Cora wondered aloud.
Moments later, a side door opened, and Marcus Sebastian entered and quietly took a seat at the far end of the table.
“Good morning, sir,” Cora said.
Sebastian nodded assent and studied one of the maps on the wall.
Cora frowned at him. So…no “good morning” or an explanation for why we’ve been waiting so long?
The side door opened again, and Artus Calloway entered in full riding gear. “I’m so sorry for being late,” he said, taking a seat near the door, “and I apologize in advance for being in such a rush. I am on my way to Elandra for an important purchase.”
“Will there be anyone else?” Cora asked.
Sebastian and Calloway exchanged knowing glances. “I have a feeling this is all that will be here today,” Calloway said. “I know this hardly represents a quorum, so we will be unable to log this as an official meeting. But we would like to hear what you have found thus far. Well…I would, anyway.”
Disappointment weighed heavily on Cora’s shoulders. “I had thought this would be more important in the Council’s eyes.”
Calloway offered a weak smile. “I am truly sorry for the dismal attendance.”
“We nearly died in that tower, we paid an exorbitant amount for major healing, and we made extra effort to present ourselves, as the Council requires. I would think the very least this Council could do is show up.”
Calloway shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. “Yes, well, I will take that up with the other aldermen on my first occasion. Still, I think you might use this opportunity to share what you can.”
“For starters,” Cora began, greatly suppressing her irritation, “we have adopted a formal name, which we would have entered in the record: we are the Assiduous Company of Indefatigable Dragon Slayers.”
Ordin slid a couple of inches lower in his seat and slowly wiped a hand over his face. “You’ve got to be kiddin’ me.”
Sebastian looked up from digging something out of his fingernails.
Calloway raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry…what?”
Cora repeated the name with a growing sense of pride. Not only did it flow off her tongue, but it resounded with greatness and accomplishment.
“I see,” Calloway responded. “Will you want that shortened to ‘ACIDS’ for brevity’s sake?”
“No, why would I shorten it to…” The acronym registered, and Cora tapered off her retort with a small grunt. I hadn’t thought of that.
“We’ll work that out later,” Calloway said. “For now, please continue with your account.”
Cora cleared her throat and began. “We found Wilder Tower empty, for the most part. It seems Hunt’s men were especially thorough at ridding the tower of anything of value.”
“Yeah,” Elric added, “an’ he burnt most of it, too.”
Cora held up her hand. “Please. I’ve got this.”
Elric slumped down a little further in his chair. “Well, he did,” he muttered.
“As I was saying,” Cora continued, “with the tower basically emptied of all clues, we were fortunate to discover a secret panel leading to a basement level below the tower. In this area we found a lair of nisser—”
“Of what?” Sebastian said.
“Nisser,” Cora replied. “The singular is ‘nisse,’ I believe. Ordin?”
Ordin nodded. “That’s right. Dragon-blooded rats from the line of Falasteron the Black. Base intelligence, mix of scales and fur, pointed nose. Smelly. Probably diseased.”
Cora turned back to Calloway. “What was odd about this bunch is that they were playing with this.” She pulled from her pocket the tattered remains of the cards she had collected. Together they hardly stacked into a deck at all, and these Cora set carefully onto the table.
“As you can see,” she explained, “they are quite worn out, and several are missing. They are marked as belonging to Marley’s Tankard, which was the place where August Blanchard was murdered, if I recall.”
Calloway leaned in to inspect the cards more closely, softly mouthing something to himself.
“I don’t know if these will prove useful,” Cora said, “but they might serve as a clue to the true identification of Blanchard’s murderer. Regardless, we met with great and immediate resistance from the nisser and their alituri leader.”
“Their what?” Sebastian asked.
Cora paused before answering. Do you really know nothing? “An alituri, sir. Larger than most men, covered in coarse hair the color of fresh rust, jagged teeth with prominent upward tusks. Foul tempered and even fouler odor. From the line of Karashakon the Red.”
“How do you know these things?” Calloway asked.
Cora reached for a drink of water. “I’m getting to that. In another room we found the place where the alituri were being made. Several cages contained the suffering forms of people who had long ago lost their identities, both inward and outward. We tried to save them, but they were so deeply transformed that they regarded us as enemies. I’m afraid we could do nothing for them and were forced to put them down.”
Calloway shifted in his chair. “I’m sorry, Miss O’Banion—”
“Thank you, but Ordin assured me they—”
“No, you misunderstand,” the merchant said, standing abruptly. “I’m truly sorry, but I really must be leaving. I would love to hear more, but if I don’t start my journey now, I will miss my contact. Is there any news on who the occupant of Wilder Tower was, or information connecting Blanchard’s murder to the several failed attempts to fill his post?”
Cora blinked hard and stared disbelieving at Calloway. I was right in the middle of telling you that.
“We kilt a dragon,” Elric said, his tone downplaying its significance.
Calloway and Sebastian exchanged another pair of knowing glances. “So we have heard. It’s causing quite a stir. Perhaps Sebastian can take notes for me. Honestly, I do want to hear this. It’s a shame so many are unavailable today. I am sorry.”
Then he left.
All eyes turned to Marcus Sebastian.
Cora’s eyes narrowed as she simmered with irritation. “Shall I continue?”
“Actually,” Sebastian said, slowly getting up from his seat, “I’m not really very good at taking notes. I think perhaps we should adjourn this meeting and reconvene next week. How would that work?”
He stopped briefly at the side door. “Help yourself to some snacks on your way out.”
“Stupid Council,” Cora muttered as they walked from the Lord’s Castle down the winding path between towering trees.
Ordin could contain his bitter mirth no longer. “I told you it was all for nothin’, Cora.”
Cora looked crossly at the mystic as he laughed to himself. It was ludicrous, and she knew it. “You know what?” she said smugly. “That’s the last time we bother preparing for a meeting. In fact, next week let’s show up with battle wounds, blood stains, sweat, dirt, stink, and everything.”
Ordin grinned at her. “Maybe next time I’ll dump the dragon’s head out on the table. That oughtta keep ‘em occupied for a few hours.”
That afternoon, Harold Kotting handed Cora a letter worn from many miles of travel. “I had to keep this away from Velma,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Looks like you might have another suitor.”
Cora scrunched up her nose. That’s the last thing I need right now. She took the envelope and bit off a high-pitched squeal; it was from an address in Cer Halcyon. With trembling hands, she tore it open and fumbled through unfolding the parchment.
Cora the Younger,
Word has reached my ears that you have accomplished the tasks set before you, gaining full rights to the Sword of the Coast per the criteria set forth by your grandmother. It is, therefore, my pleasure to present this heirloom sword to you. With the Maker’s blessing, I will be arriving at the Kottings house in Westmeade on the fourteenth day of Vespira.
Cora threw her arms around Mr. Kotting. “I did it! I got the Sword! Huxel’s coming to visit on the second of Arini to give me the Sword of the Coast!”
He returned the hug with much less exuberance and a lot more confusion. “So…this is not a suitor?”
“No,” she said, pulling away as tears of joy traced her cheeks, “this is the fulfillment of my goals, proof I was on the right track. I was so worried that my parents would disown me for leaving home against their will, but now that I got the sword, I’m sure they’ll be proud of me.”
“Hmm…” Harold said with a concerned frown. “If they weren’t keen on you leavin’, they may not be so keen on your success. Might feel like rubbin’ their noses in it.”
Cora’s shoulders sagged. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Well, you might wanna think quickly, lass,” Harold said with a nod toward the attic stairs. “Today is the fourteenth of Vespira.”
“By the Maker!” she blurted in shock. “I’ve got to get ready!”
In her attic room, Cora sat down hard on her bed and exhaled mightily. “I did it,” she repeated to her room, but the exuberance was already beginning to wane. “That means I have to go home now. I mean, I…I get to go home. I’ve done what I set out to do, and anytime now I’ll have it.”
She flopped back on the bed. “The Sword of the Coast is mine!”
After a period of quiet reflection, Cora got up and began to change into an elegant forest green dress topped with a lace collar. As she fussed with the endless row of buttons down her back, she pondered her current situation. How will I get home if I’m stuck in Westmeade for the rest of a year? And what happens to the others? What becomes of the Assiduous Company of Indefatigable Dragon Slayers? She smiled at her reflection in the mirror. That’s a great name, too, and I don’t care what they think.
But, as she brushed her scarlet locks, her former cheeriness faded, replaced with the worry of indecision. What am I to do? Certainly, my parents have every right to expect me home now. But I can’t leave the guys to fend for themselves. Can I? Should I? I promised Mother and Father that I’d come home. I guess I’ve got several months to figure it out…
Shortly after sundown, Cora sat on a couch in the front room and fiddled with the hem of her dress in expectant silence. A knock at the Kottings’ front door sent a wave of energy through her spine. Her palms began to sweat. “Is that him?” she asked, not daring to peer past the curtains.
Harold shrugged as he opened the door, and Cora’s throat went dry.
“Harold Kotting?” said an aged man on the porch. “My name is Durk Huxel. I believe you are hosting a young lady named Cora O’Banion, and I have come to deliver something to her.”
“We have been expectin’ you,” Mr. Kotting replied, ushering Huxel into his house. “Come in.”
Cora swallowed hard as Huxel eased himself into a chair opposite her and set a long mahogany box on the table between them. A smile played at the corner of his lip as he inserted a key and unlocked the clasps.
“This is the fulfillment of a long journey,” he began, while Harold and Velma Kotting stood together in the doorway watching with growing interest. “Your grandmother, Cora the Elder, would have loved to see you now, and it would have been her greatest pleasure to present this sword to you herself.”
“A sword?” Velma whispered, leaning into her husband’s ear.
Huxel opened the box and retrieved the sword in its sheath. With an aged grunt, he stood and held it at arm’s length. “Cora O’Banion, please kneel.”
A moment passed before Cora could process what was happening. Then, with a sudden realization, she approached the old man and knelt. She bowed her head as if expecting to be knighted.
“Lift your head, Cora,” Huxel said softly. “Take it.”
Cora’s heart pounded as she held out her hands and Huxel laid the sword across her open palms.
“Having satisfied Cora the Elder’s requirements, I hereby discharge my final duty to her. Before these witnesses, I bequeath to you the Sword of the Coast. You may rise.”
Cora the Younger leapt to her feet and immediately drew the sword. The metallic sching quickly gave way to a melodious voice of purest clarity and tone. The whole room reverberated with the lilting soprano notes that drowned all other sounds in its song. All eyes focused on the greenish-silver blade. Cora gaped in wonder as the candles began to dance and glow with increasing luminance. Light filled the room, radiating from all corners and removing every trace of shadow.
She could not possibly have known its tune, but after many years of music instruction and exposure to Montpeleón’s ideas of improvisation, she quickly picked out a harmony to layer underneath the sword’s melody.
With her voice added, the candles melted to nubs beneath the intensity of flame as all four people shielded their eyes from the overwhelming brilliance. Only when she ceased her harmonization did ambient light return to normal, and when she returned the Sword of the Coast to its sheath, the room went completely dark for lack of any candles remaining.
“By the Maker of Beauty!” the songsage exclaimed in reverent whispers.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following day dawned gray and dreary, as another storm stoked by The Deepening had unleashed its torrents upon Alikon during the night. The town of Westmeade awoke to cloudy skies, dripping roofs, and muddy streets that soon became a shallow morass in the absence of cobblestone pavement.
For Cuauhtérroc, the skies reflected his mood. He had been quiet—nearly morose—through breakfast at the Crossroads Tavern. Cora tried to cheer him by sharing Huxel’s visit and her great fortune, but he remained gloomy.
Finally, she could stand it no longer. “What can I do for you, Cuauhtérroc?” she asked, cradling a steaming cup of kaffe close to her lips.
The savage remained silent, staring across the table.
Cora regarded his smooth skin and considerably shortened locks. “Talk to me, Cuauhtie. Let me help.”
Cuauhtérroc’s dark eyes flashed strong emotion as he met Cora’s look of concern. “My veelage is burned, my peeple dead in dees fire, and I am also burned. Dees Great Father of dees Fire Mountains ees angry. He send dees Amurraks to burn my peeple and now he is trying to keel me.”
The songsage recoiled in disbelief. “Cuauhtérroc, you were burned by a trapped treasure chest. It was my fault for not checking it first.”
“No! Dees Elders say when a man is burned he is touched by dees Great Father’s anger. He is angry weeth me.”
Cora leaned in and stared intently into his glowering eyes. She held that stare at length until Cuauhtérroc stopped fidgeting. “You listen to me, Cuauhtérroc,” she began in a firm tone. “I don’t know much about this Great Father, your people, the Amurraks, or your homeland. But here’s what I do know, and I want you to listen and remember. There’s only one Maker, but he’s rather complex and means different things to different people. To me, he gives beauty to everything and fills the world with song.”
Cuauhtérroc glared miserably at her.
“So, I think,” she continued, “when it comes down to it, this ‘Great Father’ your people worship is an attempt to understand the unknowable, to connect with the Maker in some way. I suppose the Audric people have discovered a few correct understandings, but I also suspect their knowledge is incomplete and flawed, just like everyone else’s. So, let me try to correct something that maybe your people believe about the Great Father that isn’t true: he doesn’t burn people.”
The jungle warrior fired back. “You say too many words, Cora O’Banion. Dees Great Father leeve in dees Fire Mountains. He burn me in dees Wilder Tower—”
“What?” Cora retorted. “You started that fire! Not the Great Father, the Maker, or even Vaeroloth herself. You flipped out and smashed everything, and it blew up and caught fire. And a crafty arcanist loaded a fiery trap into that treasure chest, and you opened it.”
Cuauhtérroc growled. “Dees Great Father is mad—”
Cora pressed on. “Look, the Maker makes things; he doesn’t destroy them. Only Vaeroloth is trying to destroy things, but she’s locked up in the Abyss. So, it’s down to us common folk, those that follow the Maker and those that follow the Dragon. The Maker wants us to fight the Dragon and all her lineage. He wants us to make things beautiful, to restore the damage inflicted during the Annihilation. Don’t you see, Cuauhtérroc? The Great Father is not burning you; he needs you, now more than ever! He needs Cuauhtérroc, panther warrior, to quit this childish sulking and get his arse in gear! He needs that army, Cuauhtérroc, and he’s counting on you to rise up and exact a raging revenge on those Amurraks who worship Falasteron and who destroyed your homelands and people.”
Cuauhtérroc studied the songsage for a moment, his fierce glare softening into contemplation. “How do you know dees?” he asked quietly.
“I read books written by men who have studied the Samantekt and conversed with the greatest cassocks of old, men who sat at the feet of the Maker’s avatars. Men like your Alton Myrick.”
The savage took a long drink from his water glass. “You have dees sword you want. I theenk now you weel go home and no one weel teach me dees things.”
A knot formed in Cora’s throat, and she sat perfectly still for a time, staring in silent contemplation at the glass. He’s right. I have what I came for. But he needs me. He’s lost in this world without me. Ordin’s lost, too. And Elric. Cripe…they all need me. What am I to do? I either abandon my family or I abandon my allies…
She swallowed hard. “I’m not leaving you, Cuauhtérroc. We killed a dragon, but we still have a mystery to solve. The old man is still out there somewhere, and Captain Hunt seems to be working in shadow. Yes, I have my sword, but you still need your army. We’re stuck in Westmeade for a long time, so I will do my best to help you get one. And in the meantime, Elric can teach you how to ride a horse and I’ll teach you how to read.”
The warrior’s expression softened as Cora sipped the final drops of her kaffe. “When weel you teach me dees reading?”
Cora smiled at him as she set her cup aside. “Well, Cuauhtie, how about we start tomorrow?”
“My name ees Térroc.Do not call me—” The savage paused and regarded his friend.“It ees good.You may call me dees name, Cora O’Banion.”
THE END OF BOOK ONE