Astra was dead.
Fred sighed and looked down at her unmoving form. It was bruised and burned. And other bodies lay nearby as well; they too were mangled and torn. The smell of death was everywhere and the cave was wet with black blood. Of the numbers that had died here today, Fred could only guess. But he knew without a doubt that it had been the orcs who had lost the most, suffered the greatest.
There was no sense of victory here though. Rather, Fred was overcome by a sense of finality. A sense of things coming to an end. And it left Fred's heart heavy and tired. He was a soldier, a knight of the Kingdom, and he was no stranger to the reality of warfare. Death was a constant companion to all who wielded the sword. But that knowledge did not make the loss of a friend any easier to bear.
Fred's only consolation was that Astra had died as she had wished, with a weapon in her hand. And now no one, not Rift nor the dwarves or evil dragons or orcish beasts, could enslave her any longer. Astra was now on her way to meet her strange gods and Fred only hoped that they would welcome her.
For Fred though, it was time to go home.
So much had happened to him in such a short time. Now he needed to rest and to try to sort everything out. Since he and the Amazon princess had first found themselves transformed into half-animals, so many questions had arisen for the Lord of Suffex and too few answers. He had stumbled upon too many mysteries since they had first walked the dark, stone passages of Minestus' mountain home. The slaying of one dragon had led him to two others, and the death of those had sent him on a journey to a city of depraved delights and corrupt men. And then finally back to this mountain peak where a band of grim dwarves now silently tended to their wounded, prepared their dead and gathered their treasure. And where Astra lay dead on a cold, stone table.
"I will leave this place now," Fred said, turning to Tarin. "And I have no need of a guide. Or a guard." Tarin's response was swift and simple, he laughed, and when he was done he said, "If you leave this place without an escort, then you will die." Fred could not tell if that was meant as a warning or as a threat. Tarin seemed to read his mind. "If I wanted you dead, you'd be lying here next to the amazon," the dwarf said and pointed at Astra. "Now after all we've gone through together, I think that that would be such a terrible pity. Therefore I have assigned three of my people to accompany and guide you. You will go with them." Tarin paused and then smiled up at Fred. "Because like I said, if you don't you'll never see your home again."
Whether warning or threat, Fred clearly saw that Tarin was not giving him a choice. "Then bring these men to me now," Fred said commandingly. Tarin bowed his head with a mockish tilt and motioned the hand picked dwarves forward. He introduced them as Dokken, Baren and Lem. Quickly assembling needed supplies, the quartet left the dragon chamber and began their journey to the Shreken Mountains and the border of the Great Kingdom.
From there Fred would travel straight to Caemlyn, the capitol city of the Kingdom. There was much that he needed to report to King Emry. The complete journey would take at least a month and a half, and he was impatient to reach home, but at least he would have time to think through everything that he had seen and learned. And consider all the questions that had been raised by his adventure.
Was Dragonkind caught in the midst of some internal struggle? The dragon Malachi had called herself a rogue and mentioned a Dragon Council and Dragon Circles. Were they at war with each other? And if so, what did this mean for Humankind?
Who was Synizn? To Fred he was simply a name and a jumble of conflicting rumors and stories. But now he knew he was real and that he had some kind of connection with the dragons. And Malachi had wanted him to have the Crystallic. Why?
Who were the dwarves, really? In the Kingdom they were thought of as wandering smiths, the last remnants of a lost race. In Walants a small number lived within the city walls as lowly servants and assistants. But then where did this powerful force of armed warriors come from? Certainly not out of thin air. And Tarin had proved himself more than just a subservient ink-bottler. What then was his true relationship with the barrister Rift?
And the orcs. Fred had been taught that they had all been destroyed in an Age before Men had even learned to read or write. But that was obviously not the case. Like the dwarves, the orcish race was perhaps not so lost as Mankind believed. Were the two races now returning to play a role in the events of the world? Were the two races embroiled in some war of their own? The orcs had attacked them within the lair of the dragon. Were the orcs secretly in the employ of the wyrm? Perhaps the dwarves had accidently stumbled upon some newly made outpost of the creatures? Or maybe the orcs had been tracking the dwarves all along and had chosen the dragon cave to close in for the kill.
Too many questions, too many mysteries. And too few answers. But Fred was a patient man and a curious man. Mysteries and secrets were meant to be uncovered and all questions had answers. And one way or the other, Fred was going to get to the bottom of it all.
10/11/1999 12:08:29 AM
The Never Ending Quest Home
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