Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 26

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 26

Chapter 25

Zuamar settled on the wall of the royal palace. It cracked under his vast bulk, dropping pieces of alabaster carving that had survived the earthquake. Prince Gywndar arrived moments later. This was plainly no time for his usual folly of a slight delay to show his importance. It was always just a small delay, as Zuamar had eradicated the probability of longer ones some generations of alvar rulers earlier, by flaming a tower when he was kept waiting.

“We have recovered some of the loot,” Gywndar said grimly, “but some of the thieves remain at large. We need your help, Lord Zuamar, to track them down.”

Zuamar began to spread his huge wings. “I have other matters to deal –”

“One of them is a human mage,” interrupted Gwyndar.

Zuamar let his wings fall. “What! You must be mistaken.”

“No, Lord Zuamar. I have had my best magic workers there. They say there is little doubt that it is not one of the other intelligent species. The miscreants we’ve caught were human.”

Zuamar snorted. “We were very careful to destroy every last trace of magical skill in the blood of humankind. I do not believe this. I must go to the place myself.”

Gywndar looked at the bulk of his overlord. “My Lord Zuamar . . . it is a narrow passage and down where the palace is dug into the rock. But . . . I myself was a victim of this sorcery. It is possible that the taint of still clings to me.”

“What happened to you?” asked Zuamar. Really, this fool would probably consider a flash of burning magnesium to be magic.

“I was transported, magically, instantly, some fifteen leagues.”

Zuamar blinked. That, if it had happened, was powerful magic indeed. “Come closer.” he said.

And yes, it was there. The scent of something he had not smelled for centuries.

He nearly cremated the Prince in his roar of rage. Just in time he turned his incandescent fury to belch up into the sky. He was angry, yes, that a human mage should be here on this island of his. But he was still angrier at himself. There had been a hint of the same scent of magic in his tax-hall. At the time the fact that there’d been dragonfire there had been enough to stop him thinking about it. Now . . . Now that linked the two incidents. Maybe even the third one.

“Come back here!” commanded Zuamar. The cowering alvar princeling returned from the colonnade he’d run to. It would not have saved him. “I want to know all about it. Every last detail.”

The alvar prince nodded earnestly and began to tell the dragon just what they’d established thus far. In alvar fashion they were very efficient at piecing it together. There were still some large and inexplicable gaps in the story. “You found the merrow treasure, but not the thieves?”

“We found some thieves, my Lord Zuamar. A large and well armed band. They fought. The survivor confessed under torture that they had come to steal the merrow treasure.” He paused. “But the human mage was not among them. In fact there was no sign of the two I had encountered.”

“And one assumes that the survivor could not tell you why they had left the treasure, and why the mage summonsed you?”

“He died . . . we have no skills at necromancy.”

It was a fire-being skill, and not a safe practice, Zuamar knew. He still briefly considered flying the body to one of them. But they were so steeped in devious behavior as to make dragonkind look straight-forward . . . anything he got out of them would be tainted; and besides, it was not a matter that he was keen to inform them of. “So two of them are still at large. Or at least two of them. One assumes, with your usual efficiency you have made some attempt to block the trails?”

The Prince nodded. “We’ve been both helped and hindered by the earthquake. The white road is impassable in several places. We sent guards out on horseback within an hour to seal off the main trails. We have patrols sweeping the lesser trails. It is unlikely that they could have escaped by natural means. We’ve sent messengers to close the ports. Unless they used magic to leave, they’re still on the island.”

“This is not something we can tolerate,” said Zuamar.

“Yes, the theft must be –”

“Not theft, you fool,” snarled Zuamar. “The existence of a human mage. It must be found and destroyed. If need be we will hunt down and kill every human on this island.”

“But . . . my Lord. We need them. They produce –”

“Need them, Prince?” asked Zuamar, dangerously.

“They . . . they grow much of our food. And they provide a large part of your tax base,” said Gwyndar, his voice quavering a little.

The latter, it was true, gave Zuamar pause. “They’re like lice. They can breed up again. But for now we will hunt for the miscreant. Before we make an example of some of them.”

“Yes, My lord Zuamar.” Prince Gywndar nodded respectfully

A panting alvar messenger arrived. Bowed. Zuamar was amazed at the temerity of the fellow. So, by his expression, was the Prince. “Why are you interrupting us?” he asked, in a tone that indicated that the answer had better be an extremely good one.

The alvar bowed again, nervously. “The . . . the teams you had out scouring the area for any sign of human magery . . . they’ve found something.”

“Ah. Where?” asked Gywndar, mollified.

“On the far side of the lake, Prince,” said the messenger.

Zuamar spread his wings. “I will go.”

Gywndar nodded. “I will send my troops. I never thought of the lake . . . it has a guardian.”

Zuamar knew that. He wondered if it still did. Or how this arrogant fool had imagined such a thing could resist a summonsing mage? He said nothing. Instead he spread his mighty wings and surged away from the wall. He used the thermals to gain some height to take him across the lake. It was already late afternoon, and even in the teeth of winter, the city was a good place for warmer air. From up here he could see a small knot of alvar on the shore and a few scouring the slope beyond. He flew across the limpid azure waters, looking for the drifting corpse of the lake’s inhabitant. He didn’t find it, but what he did find when he reached the far side shocked him more.

There had been very powerful magic used there. The traces of it were etched onto the rocks themselves.

And, taking the scents and flavor of it, for the first time in many years, Zuamar was afraid. He did not speak to the wary alvar on the scene. The Prince’s magicians would work it out soon enough. He lumbered with difficulty into flight. His first thought was the conclave. His second was to hunt down the miscreants first. Hunt them at range, with cleansing fire. He began to circle, in order to gain height and to scan the ground below. He could guide the alvar to close with them. And when they were distracted, burn the lot of them.

There was dragon, merrow, and human and possibly even something dvergar about that scent.

Zuamar could still remember when he not been the mightiest of dragons, but just a lowly messenger.

He’d burn every last one before he went back to that.

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