The moment was surreal.
One minute, the boy stood on the deck of the abandoned ship, the next moment he was gone.
Haryk and Andril had sent him there to investigate, sensing something wrong. The lad had rowed himself across from their ship to the galleon at anchor in the middle of the still lake. Their calls unanswered, Haryk couldn’t imagine how the ship came to be there, sails furled, as if it were simply resting at dock, waiting for the crew to come back from shoreleave.
The next thing they knew the boy had fallen into the water. Only moments after that, a form emerged from in front of the ship, a huge head, horned and frilled, followed by a neck that went on and on, curling itself upwards. Two gigantic wings spread wide, with rivers of water and great bunches of pond plants falling off of their leathery surface. They unfolded, curled out and spread to a massive wingspan as large as the ship itself. The sun glinted off the scales as the beast heaved itself fully out of the lake. Unbelievably, the motion looked graceful. It shouldn’t have. It should have been impossible for something this large to hurl itself out of the water, and yet it did so with such ferocity, the spray hit Haryk in the face, from dozens of yards away.
It’s size was simply massive, Haryk looked away briefly to avoid the spray, angry at himself for losing focus . This foe, beyond all others in the realm, was not one you ever took your eyes off of. He had thought he had seen dragons before, had even battled one once. A feat that few in the realm could equal, even the most noble of Celns, or lordly of Lords. But he had been wrong. This wyrm was something altogether different. It was not a dumb angry brute. It had a cunning, a grace. With swift purpose it had launched it’s attack.
A trap. This ship, sitting silently in the lake was no accident.
He gaped at the thing, forgetting himself for a moment. A chill, an uncontrollable tremor ran down his back and he knew then that he had been affected by the animal’s frightening power. The legends, Haryk knew now, were all true despite the fact he had once felt as strongly that they were false. He had now seen it, felt it. The beast possessed the ability to strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest of men, said the legends. This realization now was legend no longer.
So he stood, stunned.
And then he saw the boy. The water fell from his limp form, as the dagger like talons gripped him tightly. He was barely visible in the huge hind legs of the thing. His arms and legs dangled below him. The monster had him, would fly away from him. “Could have been me,” thought Haryk aloud to himself. “Sorry, kid.”
The dragon rose higher and higher, and then to Haryk’s utter bewilderment, the creature circled back around and paused above him in the afternoon sky. A shadow, larger than his ship fell upon the lake, and Haryk’s puzzlement turned to dread as he realized the the dragon wasn’t leaving. The beast dove, it’s mouth open.
Haryk had only time to briefly call a command, and he did so while moving back to the central harpoon mounted near the main mast. “Archers!!!!!! Archers!!!!!” Roared the knight, and several men came to his call. They dropped to the deck and laying on their back in a fashion that increased the range of their weapons, stretched their legs, letting loose a volley at the speeding dragon.
Haryk watched, holding his pistol for just the right moment, pointed at the thing’s chest. He was awash in shadow, blotted out by the sheer size of his attacker. Even though in shadow now, it was a huge target, but well fortified. He’d only get one shot he knew.
The arrows whizzed through the air past and above him, and raced with deadly aim. And that’s when Haryk saw something he would later think on. And on. And on.
He remembered it like the world had slowed. His bangs blocking his view, he swept his head to the side, and saw the arrows rise up to the dragon. In that instant he saw the beast’s skin, the wrinkles, the eyes, the years and years of scarring, and then he saw something else. The monster moved so fast, with such dread that one would not notice until it was upon them. But in that slow moment, Haryk saw the wounds, etched across the beast’s chest. Wounds that were not healed, wounds that he knew changed it’s flight, wounds that he knew made the thing far more injured than it appeared to be.
Haryk remembered once a dire bear he had tracked as part of an expedition in the interior of a dread isle. He had injured the beast and finally found it on a ledge over a river. There it put up it’s final fight, and he remembered the way in which it moved, pained by injury, yet still possessing amazing strength of physical power and will.
That was what he saw now.
And then, the arrows stopped. They simply stopped in the middle of the air. The great wyrm spread it’s wings like massive mainsails, and the arrows below it, stopping in midflight, fell back through the sky and into the water. All except one. One arrow, struck the very edge of one of the beast’s wings, ripping through the skin. The dragon gave a mighty roar, and careened sideways, down and to the side of the ship.
Haryk ran to the rail, pistol at the ready, but the dragon was turned from him, still carrying it’s prize. Just above the water, it pumped it’s wings precariously, again and again, and rose above the dark green treeline, past the lake and out of sight.
‘Where in the darkness is the mage?” yelled Haryk. He looked around, stretching his arms out to both sides in frustration and one of them hit something that he couldn’t see there. He grabbed out and felt the mage’s robes, even though there were none in his view. “Blast the wizard trickery,” he called. He stared, sure of the mage’s magical nonsense and before long a feint outline and the spectre of the mage appeared. Andril grew more and more solid, until the entirety was standing there before him, visible once more. The mage reached up and pulled Haryk’s hands off his robe.
“Fine looking dragon,” said the mage smirking. He smoothed out his garments nonchalantly.
Haryk was about to give him a hard time for not joining in the battle, when he realized that he himself had not fired a single shot either. He decided not to say anything about it. The mage had grown powerful from his recent tower studies and he was always ready to argue in any event.
“Well done men,” said Haryk to the others, ignoring the wizard for now, “The beast is gone, take your positions, we will board the derelict vessel. Mildrake, you will take a skeleton crew, search it well, and return it to Black Hollow along with us. Let’s work fast men, if we do, we may enjoy a hearty growler before we turn in tonight, sleeping like babes in our bed.”
The men cheered. Many of them near tears after surviving the encounter with the dragon. Haryk smiled, clapping several on the back and laughing along with them, recounted the details of the dragon’s attack foiled by their sharp wits. “Not to mention lads, there will be a lady or two in town who will be waiting to hear your dragon tale before she invites you to sleep in her bed!”
Clapping and whooping, the Celn sailors did their lord’s bidding and returned to their work. Andril said nothing, and Haryk stared at the mage, seeing a look upon his face. The mage knew something.
“What is it, Andril?” asked Haryk. He had seen this look before.
Andril made an attempt to dismiss his face, but Haryk knew him better. Haryk was a stout companion and stubborn as the darkness, but he didn’t like being lied to. He figured Andril had learned that lesson, so he asked again. This time he got a response.
“The wyrm is injured,” said the mage matter of factly.
“Yes, I know. Badly.”
“Indeed,” replied the mage innocently.
“And?” asked Haryk sensing more.
“And,” said Andril, “And it uses magic.”
“What do you mean, uses magic?”
Andril smiled sarcastically now. Haryk watched him and the smile turned to deep thought. “The spell used to block the arrows is an ancient form of magic,”he said. “It requires concentration, and preparation and arcane research.”
“You are saying that massive beast does arcane research? It studies books or something?” Haryk turned to watch his men rowing out in the longships to the abandoned vessel in the middle of the lake. Andril was always too serious, too dramatic.
He looked back over his shoulder at the mage. Andril moved next to Haryk and patted his shoulder playfully, “Indeed, Lord Haryk, I am saying the inn-sized dragon that just nearly disintegrated our ship can cast spells, and is therefore smart enough to do so.”
“Is there anything else, or is that the only bad news?” Said Haryk. He figured if that was all there was, it didn’t mean much to him. The mage always made such a big deal of these encounters.
“No,” snarked Andril, “But I doubt I need to tell you that this gigantic creature with the intelligence of a king’s sage now knows what you look like.”
“Us,” said Haryk. “You mean, it knows what we look like.”
“Uh, no,” said Andril, who suddenly winked into thin air. His voice, now all there seemed to be of him finished. “I mean you Haryk.”
Haryk stood at the rail listening to the mage’s footsteps move across the deck and down the main galley ladder. The mage chuckled to himself, finding the moment rather hilarious. Out in the black water of the lake, the dying light cast large shadows from the massive trees surrounding it’s edges.
Anything could be lurking out there in these wilds, Haryk thought, just about anything at all.