“This is a very bad idea. We shouldn’t be here. What have you gotten us into, Human?”
“Why do you do that?”
“Why do you call me ‘Human’ every time we’re in trouble?”
“For the same reason you call me ‘Elf’ every time I try to back out of one of you’re silly schemes.” Ithican hissed.
“Fair enough.” Sam said with a shrug. “Now, let’s hurry.”
“Fine by me.” Ithican agreed. “The sooner we’re out of this death trap, the better!”
“I just have to get something and then we can go.”
“What in all of the Gods name’s could you possibly need in a Dragon Lair? If this is about gems, I’ll...”
“It’s not about gold.” Sam replied softly. “It’s a rescue.”
“Rescue? No one gets rescued from a Dragon, unless you’re planning to bring back a large load of Dragon dung for a funeral service. That’s about the best you can hope for.”
“Will you be quiet?” Sam hissed. “We’re going to end up as Dragon dung ourselves if you don’t stop your jabbering, Elf.”
Ithican glowered at his friend, but remained silent. They had traveled three days to get into the mountains. The Magi that ran the transport car would only take them to the foot hills of the mountain range. It was known Dragon territory. For the right price the Magi agreed to wait for them in the foot hills, but he’d only wait two weeks. Then he said he would consider them dead and go about his business.
Sam had been angry, but there was nothing he could do about it. Only the Magi had the power and knowledge to run the machines that had been with mankind as long as they could remember. So they had walked the rest of the way keeping as many eyes as they could spare on the sky, in case a Dragon decided to make a quick meal out of them.
Now the unlikely pair was creeping into the very heart of a Dragon’s Lair. It wasn’t hard to spot which cave belonged to the local Dragon. Ithican had picked up on its scent the second day of the journey. The stench of Dragon was unmistakable, and this far into it’s home it was almost unbearable.
Ithican froze solid as a sudden shrill scream pierced the dank air. Before he could stop him Sam was running top speed towards the source of the terrible noise. Ithican rolled his green eyes in frustration and took off after Sam. They’d met seven years earlier, and it had meant nothing but trouble for the outcast Elf.
When Ithican caught up with Sam he was surprised to find that there was indeed someone in need of rescuing. It was a young man, only fifty or sixty years old, with a strong lean build. He wore nothing more than a tattered pair of leather pants and a chain that bound his wrist to the cave wall. The boy’s tanned skin was beaded with teardrops of sweat and his long dirty blond hair hung in wet loose curls. He had his eyes clamped shut and reacted violently to Sam’s touch.
“Hush, hush. It’s all right, calm down.” Sam said in a surprisingly unsteady voice.
Ithican suddenly realized that his friend was crying. He’d never seen Sam cry, never. The boy screamed again. He was in obvious agony, but Ithican could see no wounds. The Elf looked around nervously -all this racket was going to bring the Dragon.
“Come on, Sam. Just grab the kid and let’s go!”
“I can’t, I can’t get this chain off!” Sam yanked at the restraint trying to pull it free of the wall. “Who knew a Dragon would have chains?”
“That is odd.” Ithican furrowed his brow. “Maybe Dragons aren’t as dumb as we thought. All the more reason to get the Hell out of here.”
“I’m not leaving him.” Sam growled.
“Sam, we have no choice, you’re not going to break that chain. Why are you risking our lives over this miserable little wretch?!” Ithican said with uncharacteristic anger.
“This miserable wretch is my brother!”
“Brother? I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“That’s because I never told you. We got in a fight ten years ago. We haven’t spoken since.”
“Over a woman?”
“It’s always over a woman.” Sam confirmed darkly. He held his ailing brother in his arms.
Ithican’s heart filled with pity. The youth shook and arched his back. He tried to cry out again, but he choked on his own breath preventing him from vocalizing his pain.
“What’s happening to him?”
“I don’t know. But we have to help him.” Sam said desperately. “Joseph? Can you hear me? Please, it’s me, it’s Sam. Where are the keys, Joseph. We have to get you out of here!”
“There are no keys.” Ithican said sadly. “Look.”
Sam took his younger brother’s bound wrist in his hand. He despaired at the sight. The manacle had simply been bent around the boys bleeding wrist. More than half an inch of steel bent like it was lead! Joseph’s frame stared to shudder more violently. Sam held him close trying to will the mysterious pain to cease.
Sam noticed for the first time the blood that ran down Joseph back. Seeing Sam’s expression Ithican came closer to take a look.
“Well there is a scratch here.” Ithican reported. “It runs all the way down, but it is superficial, it shouldn’t be causing this mu...”
Ithican stopped. His veins flashed to ice. The Dragon had returned.
“Sam! We have to go now!” They had entered through a side passage, and they needed to get back to it before the Dragon saw them. “There is nothing you can do for him!”
Ithican managed to pull the stunned Sam to his feet, leaving Joseph on the dusty cave floor. The Dragon was still outside, Ithican could hear her munching on something out there. Dragons never eat in their caves. However she’d be done with her meal soon enough. Ithican tugged Sam towards their escape.
“Brother!” Joseph cried out. “Help me!”
Sam turned to stone at the sound of the plea. Ithican could no longer move him. He hadn’t thought that the youth had known who they were since he refused to open his eyes. Turning around Ithican gasped. The youth had opened his eyes.
The golden eyes of a Dragon!
“Joseph?” Sam whispered as he stared at his brother’s mutated eyes.
“Sam, please, I’m sorry but we have to get out of here.” Ithican pulled on Sam’s arm.
Sam pulled away and ran back to the Dragon’s prisoner. Joseph had sunk to his knees unable to control his quivering body. Ithican heard the Dragon belch and assumed that she had finished her gory supper. He had a moment of indecision -he could still escape.
“I guess we all have to die sometime.” Ithican sighed as he rejoined Sam.
Sam wasn’t about to give up so easily. He tugged at the chain with all of his strength. However it was bolted fast.
“You should have brought a Dwarf along instead of me. He’d be strong enough to break that.”
Ithican knelt beside the boy and put his hand on his forehead to try and calm him. Joseph was surprisingly cold to the touch. Ithican had assumed that the boy would be feverish.
“D...dra, Dragon...” Joseph whimpered.
“I know, believe me, I know.”
“Behind...” Joseph’s golden eyes rolled back and he passed out.
Sam sudden stopped his furious yanking and stood like a statue. His eyes were locked on something behind Ithican. Ithican stood slowly and turned. The Dragon was no more than fifty feet away! Her massive scaly body shimmered in the dim light of the cave. Ithican had been so preoccupied that he hadn’t even noticed her enter. Ithican held his breath waiting for her to spot them and pounce.
However, death did not come. The Dragon fell to the floor unceremoniously. For long moments no one moved. Finally Sam came to stand next to the shocked Elf.
“What happened?” Sam asked. He had momentarily forgotten about his brother. He was awe struck by the Lizard’s beauty. “Is she dead?”
“No, I... I think she’s sleeping.”
“Yeah, look at her. She’s breathing, but very slowly.”
Joseph stirred, Sam instantly went back to his side. Joseph tried to speak, but it was merely a whisper. Sam bent down to listen. Joseph repeated himself and passed out once more.
“What did he say?”
“He said she always sleeps after eating.”
“Fascinating. But she is going to wake up again. And I doubt the fact that she’d had a nap is going to improve her mood much. So what do we do?”
Sam was silent. He looked down at Joseph who was sleeping as peacefully as the Dragon. They could cut his hand off at the wrist, he might survive it. Sam’s stomach turned at his own thought. He looked up at his friend for guidance and found that Ithican had left.
Startled by the abandonment Sam almost shouted Ithican’s name. Then he spied the Elf. The crazy fool was sneaking up to the Dragon! Sam could do nothing but watch. He hoped his friend didn’t have any grandiose plans to try and kill the thing. A Dragon’s hide was as tough as steel.
Ithican wasn’t quite sure what he was doing either, but he had no intention on stabbing the great lizard. He crept up silently to the sleeping beast. Her jaw was open showing off an impressive set of teeth. Each of the teeth were about the size of Ithican’s hand. He shuddered.
Taking out his drinking horn, made from the hollowed out horn of a Unicorn, he drank down the last precious drops of water. Carefully he slipped the spiral horn into a stream of saliva that the Dragon was drooling onto the floor in her deep slumber. Once he’d collected about as much of the stinking liquid as he could stand he slunk back over to the brothers.
“What are you doing? Are you insane?” Sam demanded.
“I heard a legend once. They say that Dragon saliva is like acid. It eats right through metal.”
Ithican demonstrated this by pouring the thick drool onto the chain. The metal hissed and
spat furiously. Sam smiled and almost dared to laugh.
“See? This is why I bring you along!” Sam said happily as the chain broke.
“Lucky me.” Ithican grumbled.
“Come on, let’s get out of here before Sleeping Beauty wakes.” Sam lifted the unconscious Joseph and headed towards the side passage.
“Sounds like a plan.”
Ithican shuddered and looked up at the sky for the thousandth time that night. He looked over at Sam who was cradling his semiconscious estranged brother. Joseph’s chill had turned to fever as the sun fell. They should have pressed on and tried to get further away from the enraged Dragon. However, Sam feared that Joseph would die if they didn’t stop to rest. Ithican talked Sam into at least keeping on until they reached the forest.
They had made it into the woods just in time. When the Dragon woke to find her captive freed she had started to screech. The Dragon’s mournful wail filled the mountains. Even now the Elf’s sensitive ears could hear the occasional sound of weeping. Ithican didn’t know that Dragons cried, but the sound he heard couldn’t be anything else.
“We shouldn’t stay here.” Ithican said after they’d rested for an hour. “She hasn’t come looking for us because it’s getting dark. Dragons are known to have poor night vision. However, when the sun rises she’s going to be on our tails in a flash. These woods are the only place to hide and she must know that.”
“We can’t mo...”
In one of his more lucid moments Joseph had heard the concern in Ithican’s voice, if not the words themselves. He pushed his brother aside and struggled to his feet. He stood proudly trying to control the trembling in his rebelling muscles. Ithican smiled at the youths spunk, there was definitely more than an ounce of Sam’s blood in this one.
Ithican could see the pride that crept into Sam’s eyes. Wordlessly both men help Joseph before he fell and they started off through the dark woods. Ithican was just glad that all three of the moons were out tonight. The wan light was more than enough to light the Elf’s way and he guided them towards where he hoped the Magi still waited.
They would still have to find somewhere to hide during the coming day, but they’d worry about that later. Right now they just need to concentrate on completing some of the three day journey back home. Ithican could feel that every step was a test of wills for Joseph, and every stumble was a test of Sam’s heart. Ithican wanted to say something to soothe the guilt that he knew his friend was stewing in, but there was nothing to be said.
Joseph managed to keep on his feet long after he should have collapsed. It wasn’t until about an hour before dawn that his resolution failed him. Sam was right there to break Joseph’s fall. Ithican had never seen the man so attentive. Looking around for cover he spied a giant willow tree. It’s drooping boughs and long leaves would keep them out of the Dragon’s sight when dawn came.
“Here, I’ll help you.”
“No.” Sam replied wearily. He reached down and lifted his brother off the leaf littered earth.
“You can’t blame yourself for this. At least you had the courage to come get him.”
“If I had true courage I’d run him through on my sword. Before he becomes one of those loathsome Lizards.”
Ithican was at a loss for words.
Joseph sat on the far side of the enclosure built by the leaves of the willow tree. He had his back to the others, displaying the bright red gash. As far as Ithican could tell he was just silently staring at his hands. Beads of sweat continued to roll down his skin and he still trembled. Ithican noted with alarm that his once tan brown skin was taking on an emerald hue.
Sam sat on the other side of the great tree trunk from his brother. His expression was unreadable. Ithican had feared more than once that Sam was gathering the courage he need to kill his younger sibling. So he kept alert, in case he had to intervene. They should be getting some sleep, but all eyes were open. No one had spoken all day. Ithican was surprised when Joseph elected to break the silence.
“She told me stories...” He said to no one in particular. “So many stories...”
“Stories?” Sam said with a furrowed brow.
“She said...” Joseph continued still staring at his hands.
“Said?” Ithican joined in Sam’s suspicion. “She spoke to you?”
“Yes.” He whispered.
“Dragons can talk?” Sam asked incredulously. “I didn’t know Dragons could talk.”
“Not all of them can, just her...” Joseph said vacantly. “Her children aren’t as smart.”
“Who are her children?” Ithican was getting interested. He also noticed that talking seemed to be easing Joseph’s pain. He almost seemed calm. “Who are her children?” He repeated.
“All of them, they are all her children.”
“All of the Dragons?” Sam asked.
“They are just replicas, born directly from her flesh, but they aren’t perfect...” Joseph’s voice broke. “they have flaws...she wants them perfect...”
“Joseph?” Sam said taking a step towards him. Ithican stopped him, the boy was obviously reliving his encounter with the Dragon, and he wanted to hear about it.
“She says it’s because they didn’t start out human, like she had. She told me this story how we were all human once, long ago, Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, all of us.” Joseph paused. “I laughed at her...”
“What happened?” Ithican asked after a few moments of silence.
Joseph shuddered, his skin darkened further. “She got so mad. ‘I’ll prove it to you, Human! And you’ll thank me when you’re King!’.” He paused and when he continued his voice was barely above a whisper. “The Great Wyrm knocked me down, pinning me to the floor with a single talon. She raked a diseased tooth down my back. I heard screaming, the likes of which I had never heard before, not in my deepest nightmares. I’m not even sure how long it took me to realize that the wailing was of my own voice.”
“Dragon Madness.” Sam whispered.
“But why?” Ithican asked. “Why not just kill you?”
“I told you, she wants to make me King. She place her virus in my blood. There are no males, no mates...”
Joseph stood and turned to face the pair. Sam and Ithican gasped and backed away. Joseph’s chest was covered in bright shiny scales. The hands he had been staring at were now clawed with fierce talons. He roared in a reptile voice as another pang of agony from the change racked his frame. He sank to his hands and knees.
“Soon I will be the first male Dragon.” Joseph panted. “And the Queen will come to claim me!” Exhausted the Dragon/man fainted.
Claim? Or rescue? Ithican thought to himself. He didn’t know it, but Sam was also silently questioning his brother’s loyalties.
They were both imagining how strong the Dragons could become with fresh blood.
“Don’t worry, someone will be able to help.” Ithican assured Sam, even though he didn’t believe it himself. “One of the Medical Magi can stop this. We just have to get back to the city.”
“The city? No, he’ll just be killed. And no Magi is going to come near him. They will all be too afraid. They will only see the Dragon in him. Just as High Priest only saw the Elf in you, all those years ago.”
Ithican absent mindedly ran his hand through his long black hair that was marred by a single streak of white at his right temple. He shuddered at the memory of that horriable night.
Sam sighed. He looked over at where Joseph was sleeping. He was concealed in under the thick cloak they’d placed on him after he’d passed out. The gentle rise and fall of the fabric told them that he was still sleeping.
“Then what are we going to do?”
“What I should have done in the first place.” Sam growled. He pulled out his sword and stalked purposely towards the heap of cloth.
Ithican didn’t know how to stop him, he wasn’t even sure he should try anyway. Perhaps it was for the best. Not wanting to witness the murder he turned his back on the scene. He heard Sam pull the cloak away, needing to see to get a clean shot. Ithican braced himself to hear Joseph scream one final time.
The seconds passed. Aware of a thick silence Ithican’s curiosity got the better of him. He turned and froze. Sam stood ready to kill with his sword in one hand and the cloak in the other. At his feet lay a brilliantly colored Dragon. Ithican caught his breath at the sight. Even in slumber the handsome creature had an air of nobility. His golden horns and multicolored scales played with the dying light of day. Starting at one shoulder and running diagonally across his arched back was a set of scales that were blood red instead of green -a permanent mark from the Dragoness’s tooth.
The Change was complete. Although still the size of a human Joseph now lay on the ground with leathery wings, sinuous scaly body, and a slender tail. Not to mention a full set of Dragon teeth and claws. Ithican’s blood turned to ice as he slowly realized that if this creature wasn’t on their side...
“Sam,” Ithican said softly “it’s now or never. If he wakes up....”
Joseph opened his golden eyes slowly. He stretched out like a cat and fluttered his wings. He looked up innocently at his brother who was still hovering over him with his weapon drawn. He blinked a few times. Ithican almost got the feeling that Joseph was unaware of his changes.
“Sam?” He said sleepily. “Is it dark already?”
Sam couldn’t answer.
Assuming it was time to move again Joseph tried to stand. Ithican was now convinced that the young man did not understand his plight. Joseph went to get up on his back legs and promptly lost his balance. He automatically tried to catch himself and in doing so spread his wings. This only made matters worse. Joseph fell into a tangled heap of reptilian parts. He thrashed trying to right himself.
Sam had backed away and he and Ithican watched, unsure of what to do next. Joseph finally calmed down and managed to sit on his haunches. He looked at the pair with his bright eyes and then hung his long head in what looked like shame.
Ithican’s heart softened at the sight. The young Dragon wasn’t anymore of a threat than the man had been. He was just as scared as they were. Sam sheathed his sword. He refused to look at Ithican, he looked just as shamed as the Dragon. Ithican had a hard time understanding how a man could be ashamed for not being able to kill his own brother. He, for one, was glad that it hadn’t come to blood shed.
“At least you’re not in pain anymore, right?” Ithican asked hesitantly.
The small Dragon nodded.
“Well, that’s a good start.” Sam added.
Joseph got up on his four feet and silently stalked out of the safety of the willow with his head and tail hung low.
“Where are you going?” Ithican chased after the Dragon with Sam on his heels.
“Where do you think I’m going?” Joseph said sadly. “I’m going to go back to the Dragoness.”
“You can’t do that. You can’t join forces with that Wyrm.” Sam stated. “What about Kara?”
“Tell her I’m dead, it will hurt her less than knowing she’s married to a Lizard.” Joseph spread his wings. Tears dripped off his snout.
“Wait, stay with us, we’ll find somewhere to go.” Ithican offered.
The Dragon laughed despite himself. “Never, no one will understand. The mountains are the only place I’ll be safe.”
“No,” Sam interrupted “he’s right.” Sam walked up to Joseph and put his hand on his scaly nose.
“Good-bye, brother.” Joseph whimpered.
The flash of steel was so fast that Ithican had blinked and missed it. The Dragon King lay in a heap on the cold soil. Tears ran freely from Sam’s eyes just as the blood ran freely from his brother’s side. He turned to face Ithican, looking for forgiveness.
“I had to.”