Dako was nervous. He tried to focus on his work and ignore the noises outside, but the harder he tried, the harder it was. Ever since Tichlas' visit, the kobolds had been rowdier. They fought often and loudly, hissing and yipping at all hours, sometimes even attacking one another. The divide between Tichlas and Gniklo's supporters was becoming violent and the wizard occupied an uncomfortable position between them. It was Gniklo's supporters that kept them safe and alive in the hopes of a resurrection, while Tichlas' people called for blood. But Tichlas might be their ticket out.
Dermott wasn't any better. The barbarian tried to pretend he was sleeping through most of it, but his muscles twitched at every sound. Right now he was slumped over a pile of white beaver skins. Another request Dako had hoped to stall with. Unfortunately, it turned out albino beaver or winter-skins weren't so hard to come by. Dermott was stitching them into a robe for appearance' sake. Or he was supposed to be. It looked like the barbarian was done with arts and crafts for now and well into nap-time.
The wizard's project today was to craft a scroll of the resurrection spell he was preparing to raise Gniklo. It was quite a piece of work. Scribed on fine lambskin in ink made from the sap of a platinum orevine, he'd put together the most complex draconic writing he could devise. It was largely nonsense, but followed the logic of a spell flawlessly. The characters were written in a tiny, cramped hand to further complicate the piece, and with every flourish he could fit to make it harder to read. On top of that, he imbued the scroll, sacrificing spells each day to infuse it with arcane energy. It was a waste of power, but to anyone studying it for magical properties, it would seem a powerful thing indeed.
Unfortunately, doing that kind of work left Dako feeling drained. Combine that with constant anxiety and the wizard was a mess. He'd bitten off every fingernail to the quick and had a scab on his pointer finger too. He decided to put the scroll down and spend some time reading. A new spell or bit of lore would be a nice distraction. He chose a leather bound tome from the pile. The front had only an arcane mark, no title, and a faint magic aura. The supple leather at the edges was rubbed nearly white and the spine looked to have been re-bound once or twice. Someone's much loved spell book, Dako thought. Until that someone was murdered by kobolds. He shivered and put dark thoughts aside, opening to the first page.
The book was beautifully scribed, the letters concise and clear. The author even took the time to add delicate symbols along the edges of the page in blue and red inks. It was enough to embarrass Dako. His spell book was plain brown leather, the pages rough and undecorated. At least I write neatly, the wizard thought, promising himself again to improve his spell book when he had time. He nodded to himself and then bent to read the text.
This book belongs to: Elhiaj Rykobel III
If found, please return to me at:
Safesails, Setting Sun Street - Luskan
Please be warned, the contents of this book are private.
The curious will pay a high cost for prying into the affairs of the Brotherhood.
The Art is not meant for the untrained nor the uninitiated.
You have been warned.
Do not read further.
Shame on you.
The S was oddly shaped, wide at the curves and tapered on one end. Dako squinted at it, reading the last three words. The moment he did, a dull, brown snake materialized between him and the text. There was a dull pop and an explosion of nasty smoke as it coiled and struck at him. The wizard panicked, arms waving around, the book still gripped tightly in his left hand. The air turn gelid around him, pressing uncomfortably against Dako's face, sliding past his chin to thicken around his chest and throat. And then the stool leg snapped. The snake sprung past him as the wizard went crashing to the floor in a tangle of limbs. A bronze colored bubble swelled above Dako and then burst, power dissipating as the serpent harmlessly sailed through the air and into nothing.
"What in tha nine hells!" Dermott was on his feet before the words were out of his mouth, staring at the bubble as it exploded.
Dako lay back against the stone breathing heavily.
"Uh . . . yer ok? Or?" the barbarian squinted suspiciously at the empty air and then nudged the wizard with his toe.
"Ouch! Yes!" Dako waved a hand in the air, shooing the big man away. After he caught his breath, he sat up.
"That a yes er a no? It's hard ta tell when ya cry." Dermott sat back down but continued to stare.
The wizard sighed. "Yes, I'm fine. The stool broke though." He stood up carefully, shifting the broken, jagged wood away. Dako kept hold of the spell book, though he didn't try to open it again. Not yet, anyhow.
Their kobold guard, Ixenjaxos, poked his head in, glaring first at the wizard and then at the barbarian. The wizard was beginning to wonder when it slept. Ixen was their guard more often than not, and seemed to take an unhealthy joy in taunting Dermott. "What that?"
"That was just me, stretching magical muscle," Dako lied. "It seems to have shattered your furniture though. I will require another stool."
The kobold tilted its head. "What?"
Dermott smirked and left the wizard to explain.
"It was magic. You know . . ." Dako wiggled his fingers at Ixen.
The kobold jerked back as if stung and yipped at him. "No! You no be magicking on Ixenjaxos, little elf. I eat elf!"
The wizard sighed again, rubbing a hand over his face. "I was doing magic. That was the noise. Understand?"
Ixen poked his head back again to fix Dako with a flat stare. "Yep. You do at Ixenjaxos, you get eat. Understand?"
"Of course. Now get me a new stool and go. Please."
Dermott and Dako stood silently until the kobold replaced the chair and then withdrew. Thankfully, he didn't try to intimidate them further, though Ixenjaxos kept throwing narrowed eyed glances at the two.
"So what'd ya do?" the barbarian asked once it was gone.
The wizard grinned at Dermott. "I didn't do a damned thing, but I did get an idea. A little surprise for Tichlas, maybe."
The big man raised an eyebrow, "Yer an odd one. Kinda scary when ya smile like that too. I like it." He clapped Dako on the arm. "If yer done with tha explosions, I'm gonna get back ta nappin'."
"I make no promises," the wizard quipped, earning him a broad grin.
"I'm rubbin' off on ya already, see? Turnin' into a mouthy basterd jus' like me." The barbarian laughed and settled down on his furs, sliding the pile of white beaver skins onto the floor.
Dako couldn't keep the smile off his face as he went back to work. He had never expected to like the brute that had hit him on the head and left him tied up and laying on a cold cave floor. It was funny how things turned out.
The wizard opened the enchanted page carefully, uncertain if the spell was spent or if it could catch him again. With a breath, he muttered the words that allowed him to see magic in its raw form. He could see the traces of magic over the entire text, but nothing specific, nothing menacing. That wasn't exactly reassuring, but Dako flipped to the next page anyhow. Any book so warded had to have something great in its pages.
Hours later, to the chorus of Dermott's snores and the yipping of angsty kobolds, Dako came across the spell that had nearly caught him. It was set in the middle of a series of defensive spells, mostly things well beyond his capacity to cast. The author called it Serpent Sigil, which sounded vaguely familiar. Either way, the workings of the spell were pretty clear. A simple inscription written with the scale of a snake and sprinkled with gold dust, then dried over flames from a mushroom spoor while the charm was spoken - then it was complete. Basic, if a bit vicious. The wizard rubbed his chest at the recent memory of his near-entrapment.
Dako had gold dust and snake scales and mushroom spores from fourteen different underground varieties . . . it really wouldn't be hard to add it to his own spell book in the case of nosy captors. Or to his resurrection scroll. The wizard studied the charm and instructions, hoping the author had left nothing out.
Even if the spell didn't work, it would add to the aura of the scroll. Still, it would be a nice little surprise for Tichlas if it worked. The damned kobold needed to be taken down a peg or two. He was so rude! Dako set to work committing the incantation to memory, amused by thoughts of Tichlas trapped and humiliated. It probably wouldn't work, but a man had to have hopes.
In a cavern not so far away from the slumbering barbarian and plotting wizard, Jon sat chained to a wall staring at a guttering torch. The rogue had no idea how long he had been a prisoner. He remembered getting caught, the fight with kobolds in the dark and the satisfying sensation of his dagger sinking into scaly skin. It was the days after that were a blur. He'd been badly beaten, but enough time had passed that the bruises were beginning to yellow. His face still felt swollen and puffy, especially around the left eye and when he squinted, things were blurry on that side. At least the kobolds had stopped their games. Another few days of waking to torture and falling unconscious from agony would end his grasp on sanity if not life.
Jon had a myriad of injuries, from a scabby patch of skin the damned kobolds had peeled off to broken ribs that twinged with each breath. The worst and most recent was his hand. Even now it throbbed in time to the beat of his heart, a dull and constant ache. The third finger was missing, a raw wound where it once protruded. The skin around the gash was dark red, angry looking and swollen until the skin gleamed as if it was about to burst. You didn't need to be a healer to know it had gone septic. Much longer without treatment, and he would be dead from it.
Jonai, Fire Knife of Westgate, dying at the hands of kobolds in some nameless cave. It figured. His masters at Castle Cormaeril would laugh if they could see him like this. He'd spent his whole life dirtying his hands for them. Countless murders in dark corners, nobles falling ill at just the right moment, trade caravans missing at the worst possible time - all thanks to Jonai, and all for the profit of Cormaeril. All for nothing, really. He laughed and the sound echoed back to him, scratchy and dry, full of self-loathing.
After having himself a good mope, Jon tried to think of other things. There were some silver linings. His companions weren't in here with him and that seemed like a good sign. Maybe they were planning a rescue. Or they were dead. The rogue shrugged. Honestly, he just hoped the little wizard and that big oaf got away. Neither of them was strong enough to last through the attentions of a kobold gaoler, no matter what they might think. Dako was too young and naive to survive, and while Dermott might be brawny, he wore his heart and mind right on his sleeve where it was easy to break.
Thinking of Dermott made the rogue smile. The barbarian had been part of a ploy in Luskan to rid Cormaeril of a particularly successful adversary, some captain from the City of Sails. Jon had long forgotten his target's name. What he did remember was the first time Dermott had taken a blade for him. The big idiot had given his loyalty so quickly; it had taken Jonai by surprise. Sure, the rogue had picked Dermott up from the gutter, gave him a job and coin, a place to sleep and food - it was no more than any employer would do for a useful tool. But the barbarian had taken it so seriously. Bodyguard, he'd titled himself. As if some low-born cur like Jon would have such a thing, no matter his noble pretensions.
It had all been talk until the day the pirates Jonai was scamming caught his lies. The dock had exploded into combat faster than the rogue could blink, and if not for Dermott stepping between Jon and the first mate, Jonai would have been skewered. As it was, the blade hit too low on the barbarian to be fatal, just serving to fuel his rage. While Jon darted away to safety, Dermott had torn the pirates limb from limb, his two daggers hacking them to kindling. Then with a shrug, the barbarian checked their pockets and shoved the bodies into the water. Jon smiled, remembering the way Dermott had sauntered over, blood seeping from his side and asked, "What's next, boss?"
The big idiot better still be alive out there somewhere. The wizard too, for that matter. Jonai hadn't intended to pull the little guy into this kind of mess. It was supposed to be a quick, easy job. Kidnap, ransom, be on their way with no one the worse. Dako should be sipping tea in his father's mansion by now, not roasting in some kobold cook fire. The rogue took a deep breath and then regretted it as the pain in his side flared to life. There was nothing to be done either way. If the wizard was taken and Dermott was dead, then so be it.
Jon was drifting off to sleep when the door to his cell opened. Three thick-chested kobolds pushed their way in, grinning at him with crooked jaws. Behind them stood a fourth kobold, its red-lined muzzle jutting between the shoulders of the other three. It was shorter and narrower by far than its companions and wore an odd pale leather vest and breeches, embroidered with a heavy red thread. The designs danced in the dim torchlight as it moved.
"Murderer." The oddly dressed kobold hissed, leaning down to eye level with Jon.
"And worse," the rogue nodded. There was no point in lying.
"You give testament. Honest good. Friends die, maybe live on you say." The kobold straightened, turning to its companions. "You take Szmajul'ani."
"But Tichlas, Ixen say-" one began.
Tichlas cut him off. "Ixenjaxos is coward. He want let humans go. I say, let Szmajul'ani choose." His posture was relaxed, but there was something dangerous in his tone. A creature used to being obeyed, it didn't like being questioned. For a moment no one moved, and then the three kobolds shuffled in without another word, releasing Jonai's chains from the wall.
Jon watched as Tichlas' scarred nub of a tail twitched, then the kobold left. He wondered what it wanted with him, what it meant. Who or what was Smile-you-any? Did the kobolds have Dermott and Dako or was the thing taunting him? It hadn't been specific in its threats, so maybe Tichlas was bluffing.
"Companions," the rogue asked, voice cracking. They ignored him. Jon decided to assume they had his two companions, and hope it wasn't true. If so, they were all good as dead.
The three kobolds grabbed Jon and pulled him along with them, up and around through caverns and tunnels that grew wider and smoother as they went. Here and there along the walls, crystalline growths sparkled in the torchlight. It was warm here, hot even. The rogue began to sweat, skin tingling from the heat and soon he saw why. As they crossed a wide bridge of carved stone, the ground beneath it cracked and slid revealing a red-hot lava flow. Blue and white flames danced in the cracks of the cooled lava until its shifting closed them again.
The sight gave Jonai a burst of hope. Any place with lava flows was bound to have a thousand routes to the sky, venting all that hot air and steam. And that meant a way out, assuming, of course, he could slip his guards and find the tunnel up. He stumbled along, trying to note escape routes without being too obvious. With three guards on him and his injuries to slow him down, Jon didn't have a lot of confidence he would make it, but any chance was better than none.
They passed a stone arch set in a solid cave wall. It stood out from the rough, raw stone, covered in detailed carvings. Jon didn't have much time to admire the artwork, but found it strange to see such carefully imagined pastoral scenes in a kobold cave. One lone guard stood by the arch, nodding to them as they passed. Once inside, the kobolds tossed Jon to the floor and left. One shot him a sly grin as a large stone slab slammed into place behind them.
It took the rogue's eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. The chamber stretched far into the dark, the opposite side not visible from where Jonai stood. It was lit only by fissures in the rock which steamed and glowed with a steady red light. Piles of gold and gems lay strewn across the floor, cups and plates and crowns twisted and dented, half melted into misshapen lumps of metal. The rogue's stomach twisted as he realized where he must be. Never in his many years of travel had he ended up in the den of a dragon, but he had no doubt that was where he was. At least now he knew what a Smile-you-any was.
Jonai took a deep breath, trying not to look or smell afraid. He might not know dragons, but he knew predators well enough. Never show weakness or you'd be marked as prey and dead as soon as you blinked. He shrugged his shoulders to loosen the tension and then began to look around in earnest. There were several stalactites close enough to the floor to be scaled, and plenty of places to hide - though he doubted hiding would work in a dragon's own hoard - and a few cracks he could fit through. All in all, it wasn't a bad situation. Jon began to slowly move in, guiding himself by the wall to his left. The one to the right was hidden in the murk, a heavy cloud of steam thick enough to cut with a knife. The rogue didn't think it was wise to strike out that direction.
He kept his eyes open for anything he could use as a weapon while he walked, but the few blades he saw were more ornamental than functional - sure to break at the first use. Jon figured it was better to rely on your fists, banged up as they were. The rogue made a mental note as he passed possible exits, sniffing for fresh air. There was little promising, though a few of the cracks showed through to tunnels with an upward slant. They could go anywhere, but up was better than down.
After some time, he got the feeling he was being watched. Nothing he could put a finger to, but he had that prickle up his spine, the one that made all his small hairs stand on end. Jonai stopped, breath held as he stared into the murk. Steam drifted and swirled in the cavern, every churning eddy catching his eye.
There was a slight flicker to his right, the fiery glow blinking out and then back instead of dimming. It wasn't much, but it was enough for Jon to peg his voyeur. "I see you," he said loudly, facing that direction. Several pounding heartbeats later, a scaled form slipped out of the mists, ruby skin wet and gleaming like fresh blood.
"Interesting." The dragon hissed, mouth twisting in a rictus of a smile. It circled Jon, sliding its pony sized bulk between the man and the wall. "I am Szmajul'ani."
"Short name for a dragon," the rogue quipped. The skin around its head twitched and flared before the beast flattened them back down, giving him an inscrutable look.
"Dinner is mouthy," it spat, raising its head to stare down at the rogue. The creatures horns almost scraped the ceiling here, but it did not seem to mind.
"My mouth often gets away with me," Jon nodded agreeably, holding position despite the quiver in his legs. They wanted very much to run, but he was made of sterner stuff. At least, so Jonai tried to remind himself.
Szmaj' took that as an apology, giving the rogue a slight nod. "Before I devour you, we must speak."
"I don't mean to say anything out of turn, master dragon, but you aren't giving me much reason to cooperate." Jonai was proud of his voice, quiet but unwavering. One didn't rise to the rank of an assassin without some backbone, after all.
The dragon scraped a dagger sized claw across the stone, producing an ear rending shriek. "You are right. I am used to obedience without inducement," it admitted.
Jon shrugged, "Well, I'm no kobold. Adventurers don't do something for nothing."
"Your wizard has offered to give me back my speaker for his life. You have only words. Or am I mistaken?" The dragon's haughty tone indicated he never considered himself mistaken.
The rogue smiled, "Not mistaken, master. Just hasty. Now, I can't bring back the dead . . ." And neither could Dako, Jon thought but kept that tampered down, "But I'm not without skill. If you've got an enemy you need rid of or a bit of shiny you'd like requisitioned, I'm your man."
"I am a dragon." Szmaj lowered his head to eye level with Jon, its breath hot enough to make his eyes water. "I kill my own foes."
"No offense meant, master. Of course you do. I was offering for those beneath your notice. But . . . you didn't say anything about requisitioning? Is there, perhaps, some delicate thing I could return to your hoard?"
"Return?" The dragon sounded surprised, eyes widening for a moment before its scaly lips spread in another toothy grin. Jon was not happy to see those blade length teeth bared so close to his face. It made a man sweat. Or would if this cave wasn't already so hot. "Yesss . . . returned. Hmmmm. Perhaps you could live a bit longer. For what you know, and for thissss . . . service."
"You are a wise and merciful master, Szmajul'ani." Jonai did his best to say the name right, but it came out with a few too many z's. The dragon didn't seem to mind though. It settled itself on a nearby pile of gold, toying with a dented crown, his claws popping a large emerald in and out of its setting.
The dragon's smile curved even wider, a vicious glint in its eyes. "Of course I am. Now, you will start by telling me all you know. What of you and your companions? Who are you and why did you come to my caverns?"