Direct quotations from episodes are in italics.
Lord Frederigo D'Honaire from Allaria is our hero on a quest to slay the dragon of the Southern Caves. He is wearing a combination of leather and chain mail. Just outside the cave entrance his squire is waiting with two horses and provisions.
Fred encounters Belboz the Necromancer. He has a ring of great power with a blue sapphire on it, attached to his right index finger. Leaving Belboz, Fred continues on, and successively meets:
1. Adele the sorceress, daughter of Belboz, beautiful and raven-haired. Trapped and unageing in a crystal till freed by Fred.
2. Elaine, also a sorceress, beautiful and blonde. Trapped and unaging in a crystal till freed by Fred and Adele.
3. Matthias, a warrior wearing leather armour - had been Elaine's fiance, before falling for Adele, so that the two sorceresses are on bad terms. Trapped and unaging in a crystal till freed by Fred, Adele and Elaine.
4. Princess Astra of Aqualaria, a beautiful naked redhead who had been in statis for almost 50 years. Trapped and unaging in a crystal till freed by the group.
5. Sigin, a rogue Dragon mage who was turned into a tiger (who could talk) by Minestus, another Dragon mage and "owner" of the Southern Caves (Minestus was thus the dragon whom Fred was sent to slay).
Adele, Elaine and Matthias had all been in stasis for 800 years, and are from the long-fallen Empire of Telluria. Sigin had been put in stasis at the same time, but was released by Minestus to free up a crystal to allow him to put Astra in stasis.
Astra is provided with a makeshift, but functional skirt and top by using off-cuts from Adele and Elaine's robes.
The group then finds Princess Exotica, daughter of the King of Allaria, tall, slim, dark-haired and very pretty. She had only very recently been captured by the dragon and been chained by her wrists and ankles to the cave wall. She is totally naked. Freed by Fred and his party, and provided with an extremely short skirt and a bikini-style top (material was running short).
Returning to Belboz, they learn that he fears Minestus, who is more powerful than he, has negotiated a truce with him and dares not defy him.
Belboz explains: "It all began a little over 800 years ago, when my necromantic researches enabled me to develop an enchantment which would make me so long-lived as to be all but immortal. Unfortunately it was rather similar to vampirism, but without the need for blood; sunlight - and even full daylight without sun - would bring about my rapid demise. I could have shut myself away in a windowless room, I suppose, but I decided that relocating to these extensive caves would be a more attractive option. They were home to a few ogres and the like, but I easily dealt with them. Unfortunately I had only been here for about five years when Minestus discovered the cave system and - like me - decided that it would make a good home. Even more unfortunately, soon afterwards Adele decided that it was time to pay me a visit before I had had a chance to warn her of the danger. She knew that I had moved here five years before, but not my reason for doing so. I had kept my quasi-vampirism a secret even from her. Adele brought some friends with her. Minestus had been willing to tolerate me for so long as I kept to myself, but now..."
Belboz, Adele (protective of her father) and Matthias (protective of Adele) take sides against Sigin, Fred and Astra (with Exotica keeping out of it). Belboz turns Sigin into a house cat (with only a cat's intelligence) and makes Astra's arms disappear. Astra kicks Belboz on the jaw, breaking his neck and killing him. Elaine casts a sleep spell on Adele and Fred disarms Matthias.
Elaine puts on Belboz's ring with the idea of using its power to help Sigin and Astra, but it corrupts her as well as providing her with some of Belboz's memories. She takes away Matthias's voice when he annoys her.
Exotica throws a rock at Elaine, but she stops it with magic, then magically strips Exotica and Astra. Then she heads off to confront Minestus.
When Adele awakes, she allies herself with Fred, Astra, Exotica and Matthias. The mountain starts to shake, a side-effect of Minestus's and Elaine's magical combat, in which Elaine ultimately triumphs and kills her opponent. As a result, the dragon-flame now burns within her. She can now teleport at will, and goes to Belboz's lab to see what she can find that might be useful.
Meanwhile Fred and his companions find the main exit blocked by a rockfall, and try to find another way out. Fred and Exotica are falling in love. Because Fred's supplies, the only food they have, are running low, they eventually decide to try to find their way back to Belboz's quarters, in the hope of finding food there.
Elaine has got to the lab first, and discovers a huge machine. Then images flood into her mind (presumably Belboz's memories) of the Tellurian capital being destroyed by an attack by a number of dragons, including a huge black beast. Seeing Celubar, the archmage, in her vision, she follows him to an underground chamber where there is a machine very similar to the one that Belboz had. With a start, Elaine's eyes opened and she was back in Belboz's lab, back in the caves of the Shreken, back in the future, a future in which Telluria had been ravaged and destroyed. Celubar had been renowned as a mighty time-mage. This machine, then...a machine that can transcend time!? But what would have caused Belboz to build one? How could he have known of Celubar's work, if he had been stuck in the Shreken at the time of the Empire's fall?
Perhaps what Belboz had told them had been, if not actually untrue, then selective, with some important information omitted? Could he have had arcane methods of learning about what was going on in the Empire, and so have learnt of Celubar's work? Elaine realised that the machine need not necessarily allow travel in time as well as in space, since it was possible that she had been accessing old memories of a journey that Belboz had made at a time when the Empire still stood. She suspected that the machine only transported the user's mind rather than his or her physical body. That would explain why she - no, Belboz - hadn't been heard when he tried to talk to Celubar, and why he had been unable to touch the other mage. If Belboz had been telling the truth when he claimed to be suffering from a type of quasi-vampirism, then a machine that would allow the mind to travel without bringing along the body would obviously have been especially useful.
The six companions reach Belboz's lab and encounter Elaine. Elaine bespells Adele so that she is forced to keep her mouth open wide, then opens it even further so that her jaw dislocates. Elaine then restores Adele's mouth to normal. Matthias is rendered unconscious when he and Adele are flung into the chamber wall at high speed.
Elaine offers to heal the party if they will help her uncover the secrets of the machine, one to be healed in advance and the others if she is satisfied with their help, and Fred to decide which should be healed initially. Fred is convinced by Adele that it should be Sigin, as his knowledge and wisdom would be helpful. Elaine has counted on this, as Sigin is the only one who is likely to be able to help her, and had only made her gesture to gain their trust. However Sigin is only restored to the tiger form, to Elaine's surprise, and shows no sign that his intelligence has been restored.
Adele realises that her father's spirit still lives in Elaine, through the ring. She claims that it is gradually taking more and more control of Elaine, and will eventually take over completely. This claim, though Elaine regards it as a ruse, unsettles her. When Fred annoys her, she transfers his clothes and armour to Exotica, resizing them to fit; his sword and backpack vanish.
Matthias, now conscious again, suspects that Sigin is only pretending not to have his intelligence back.
Exotica finds some food and two old robes.
Sigin makes his move. Before Elaine can react, he bites off her finger and swallows it and the ring, to put it out of harm's way. Elaine's scream shatters some crystal components of the machine (though it seems that these are non-essential ones). However she still has the power of the dragon-fire within her.
Sigin and Elaine magically fight, Sigin seemingly extinguishing Elaine's internal flame by dousing her (and everyone else) with water. (We later learn that it has not in fact been put out.) Adele and Exotica physically attack Elaine. Meanwhile Sigin takes on his human form.
"Elaine's spell on me worked perfectly, but what she didn't know - what none of you knew - was that I am a weretiger, but unlike most were-creatures I can choose when to transform. All that Minestus did was to trap me in my weretiger form, since he knew that I could not perform magic when in that state."
"I thought that you were supposed to be a dragon-mage," Fred protested.
"A mage, certainly. When, long ago, people started whispering that my magical powers were so great that I must surely be a dragon rather than human, I did not disabuse them of the notion."
Sigin restores Matthias and Astra. Astra and Fred don the robes that Exotica had found, which Sigin says are safe to wear. Sigin then begins a spell that will transport everyone out of the caves.
Astra and Elaine find that they have been transported to somewhere unknown, beside a river of lava. Fred, Exotica and Matthias have been transported out of the caves as expected, not far from Fred's squire, Luc. Adele has interfered with Sigin's spell, and he finds himself and Adele stiill in Belboz's lab. He is taken by surprise, allowing Adele to slay him with a dagger. She cuts open his stomach, removes the ring and places it on her finger.
Wave upon wave upon wave washed over her. Dusty, unlockable doors within her consciousness melted to reveal their contents plain. An ancient, seismic understanding electrified her brain. It was time. Time to finish what her father had started.
Meanwhile three dragons have detected the death of Minestus, and are flying towards the Southern Caves. Their leader, a female, is Euaristus.
Matthias, though almost mad with grief, realises that Adele must be responsible for only the three of them having emerged from the caves, and tells Fred of his suspicion. Clearly she has acted so that she can get the ring. Fred tells Luc that they must get to Pellgar-on-Rayne by sundown.
Adele, empowered by her father's ring, attempts to operate the machine, but fails in spite of the additional knowledge she has gained. Against the will of the Archmage Avrahmin, Belboz and Celubar had secretly studied the workings of [the original] device for years, research that her father had continued throughout his centuries long exile, to the point of replicating it entirely here in these caverns. His alliance with Minestus had been born of something more than mere proximity; Their imprisonment in the stasis jewels for more than just protection against a dragon-mage's fury. This ring held all the answers. It was ancient, far older than Telluria. As old as this machine at least, and the key to its workings. She was sure of it.
But then she realises that, as well as magic, the machine needs superheated steam to power it, and succeeds in getting it to work. She puts the ring into a "keyhole" that the machine contains, as the final step.
Elaine realises that Adele must be the one responsible for her and Astra's predicament. Without the power of the ring to control it, Elaine's resurgent dragonfire is starting to become uncomfortable for her.
After using the machine, Adele finds herself in what appears to be a gigantic empty palace. But then a cloaked, foul-smelling figure approaches. It turns out to be Adele's spiritual alter ego, who tells her that she is stinking and disfigured as a result of Adele's own evil acts.
"Why do you think that your father did not use this engine himself? The answer is, that he did, but got no further than you will. The first step in getting knowledge is knowledge of yourself. The men who built this engine used it as a device for deep meditation. But those who use it must be trained. Your father thought that if he could keep you and your friends encased in amber and pure, as it were, that he could use you to unlock the secrets of the engine, to go where he could not." The lady walked to the white recess, and nodded her head. The white stone disappeared. Adele looked out the window. She saw herself, with a silly smile on her face, hooked up to a machine, with her body lying in filth and insects.
The lady said, evenly, "That is what you have come to, Adele. How much respect should I show?"
Adele was beyond crying now. Punish her enemies and reward her friends indeed. Adele would have welcomed Elaine's cattiness at this point. She now hated herself with more passion than she ever had against Elaine.
Adele said, "Conscience?"
The lady said, "That is as good a name as any. Now that you have had a little taste of wisdom, how do you feel?"
"Like I wish that I had never been born."
"Good. I may be hurt and might stink, but I am at least healthy enough to do my job. I am not going to let you take the easy way out, Adele. You are going to make amends as much as possible if I can find a few shreds of character in that silly little body of yours. It is time to grow up." The lady then added, "You didn't bring somebody along, to disconnect yourself from the engine? Didn't your father ever tell you about have a plan to back out before working with the unknown?"
The woman replied, "You have thrown away most of your opportunities. But you are still alive. There are three things that you might be able to do to salvage something of your life."
"First, there are three lives that hang in the balance. Astra, Elaine, and Matthias. And possibly some others. When you leave here, you will have no more magical ability without that ring. I doubt that you will have the strength of character to use it properly, but the chance exists."
(Second) "Anyway, if you can save Astra and Elaine from that lava, then you must submit yourself to judgment for what you have done. First among the people whose trust you have broken, and then among Sigin's people."
"Conscience, what is the third thing?"
"You must not practice magic, ever again, once the fates of Elaine, Matthias, and Astra are resolved."
Adele agrees, and returns to consciousness back in the machine. But the entity that she had taken as her Conscience is something else entirely, with an agenda of her own. This was a good start. Conscience had refined her mendacity much, had learned well from her mistakes with that paranoid insect Belboz. And now his daughter, his very daughter had stumbled into his footsteps, seeking the same answers that he had sought. But where the father had been immeasurably careful, meticulous and clinical, the daughter was soaked with regret, governed by pathetic memories and a hilarious dream of how the cogs of the universe should turn. She was a perfect vessel, a perfect conduit.</i> She reflected on how events had unfolded. <i>The necromancer, travelling to the Shreken, the very place Conscience had been annihilated and drilled into the earth. The necromancer, who had rejected death and decay, spending centuries building another Nexus. The dragon's truce. The dragon's death. And now the necromancer's flesh and blood, returned. Sweet Adele, perfect Adele, unquestioning. Loyal to her end. Fate was, ultimately, a theory. But the supporting evidence was oft overwhelming. She raised a glass that had not been there. To Adele's end. And to her beginning.
Astra and Elaine are transported away from their apparent imminent death. Astra and Elaine found themselves at the snowy peak of the Shreken's highest point. An ethereal, beautiful woman regards them. "Keeper of flame of Minestus, and her guardian. I am Euaristus. We have much to discuss."
"Do not be alarmed, for we mean you no harm, but I must tell you that we are dragons. We flew from far to the east when we learnt of Minestus's death. It was too late for us to help him, of course, but we hoped that his flame might survive, in which case it was important that it should be properly cared for. What we had not anticipated, of course, was that it should pass to a human."
Meanwhile Adele puts on the ring and transports herself to the vicinity of the lava in an attempt to rescue Astra and Elaine. Naturally she can find no trace of them beside the lava lake, and assumes that they must have perished. She plans to throw the ring into the lava to destroy it, though it will surely mean her own death. But then a man's arm comes from behind her and grabs her own, preventing her from throwing. When she asks what he is doing in such a desolate spot he says that he came there to look for her. He tells her not to throw the ring into the lava, as doing so would cause enornous destruction. The man reveals that he is Heraclius, and his true form is that of a dragon. Adele holds the ring, not daring to wear it, and Heraclius transports them to Belboz's chamber with its machine. There was no sign of the maggots; had she imagined them?
Without realising it, Adele has put on the ring again. She learns that Belboz had originally offered to build the machine, the Nexus, to help Minestus, as a bargaining counter to save the lives of herself, Elaine, Mattias and Sigin. (Though he had been intending to build it for himself anyway.)
Heraclius says that the Nexus must be destroyed, but Adele objects, saying that her father had built it to save her. She slaps Heraclius on the cheek, and the two face each other as anger swells in them.
Meanwhile Euaristus, Astra and Elaine are talking. It emerges that Astra had been warned by her mother that, in going on a quest to destroy the dragon, she would forfeit her claim on the throne. She had not then known that Minestus was more than a mere beast. Elaine tells Euaristus of Belboz's machine, and that in a vision she had seen its like in the Telluian capital, which was under attack by dragons. But Euaristus says that Belboz could not have constructed such a machine, as neither humans nor dragons possessed the ability to do so. Elaine asks what she knows of these machines and why her kind had destroyed Telluria.
Euaristus explains that countless ages ago dragons had achieved great magical power. They had been the overlords of humanity, though the humans had derived great benefits from the relationship. But the kingdom that preceded Telluria was an exception. By the time the dragons found that realm, it was already very advanced. The dragons decided that they would work with the Tellurians as equals on mutually beneficial projects, and that no dragon was to claim overlordship. For such an overlordship would give the dragon in question more power than would be safe.
That was a golden age, eventually brought to an end by a war amongst the humans. During the long Dark Ages that followed, the dragons turned inward. They also modified their bodies to become larger and more impressive.
"It was late in your Dark Ages that a great tragedy happened. Our forebears learned the secret of life itself. They thought that they had conquered disease and old age, and barring accident or violence, that they were immortal. Every dragon started to do what was right in his or her own eyes. The act of bringing another dragon into the world, instead of being regarded as a beautiful thing, became a problem to be solved. A young dragon was not a son or daughter, but a competitor who would ruin the pleasure of the parent and the progress of society. They decided to limit the number of new wyrms.
"And so they built a great engine. Children would be rare, and come into the world when and where they were need. At that time, it was thought that 180 dragons was the ideal number - enough so that we could keep an eye on the world, but not so many that any particular dragon would struggle for existence. Therefore, the machine was set so that it would require 40 of us to permit the creation of any new egg. In those days, they were able to this without all dragons even being in the same place, in a more advanced form of the silent speech, maybe. I don’t know."
At the end of the Dark Ages, Telluria rose to prominence. "Telluria's skill in the supernatural grew greatly, and there was a sort of Little Golden Age of magic. Our forebears became interested in you again, but they did not have the wisdom or tranquillity of those that lived during the Stannic times.
"At the point where you (Elaine) were placed in statis, our community was in trouble. We had not allowed a new wyrm to be born in a century. That generation became selfish. They started treating mankind as a mine to be quarried and abandoned, rather than an orchard to be nurtured and protected. Instead of assisting men, we started to order them to do our bidding. The younger generation grew proud, even as their skills declined. Having mastered man and nature, they only had one thing to fear - other dragons.
"I have noticed, Astra, that some of your leaders spend much time and treasure in building castles to protect themselves and their people from other men. We dragons became our own castles. This was the time where the dragons learned to capture flame within our bodies. Like a castle, we developed walls, but ours are of armour. We lost our shine, assuming colours that would either dully blend in to the background or try to inspire terror. We took the form that we have today. We started to fear the open spaces, and retreated to fortified places, or to caves.
"But now we come to a time just past the time when Elaine went into stasis, I believe. Elaine, you saw a fragment of the time that came after. But ironically enough, it was your empire, your people, who sparked the Factional War that eventually destroyed us. Things started out well enough between us. But then we saw your people become skilled in the supernatural, and you were now starting to discover things that we did not know. And we were deeply divided. But that did not prevent trouble. Two factions developed. One faction, called the Ethereals, proposed to destroy your cities, and your technology. Because, if you had our knowledge, you would be a threat – a competitor. The Ethereals also strongly believed that each dragon should mind his or her own business. Another faction, which called themselves the Philosophic, believed that limited cooperation among dragons would be good, and that human and dragon cooperation in gaining knowledge of the supernatural might be the beginning of a new Golden Age. This Faction proposed that we offer to exchange knowledge with your leaders, and designate three dragons to acts as ambassadors - and not overlords - to the city.
"The Philosophic Faction prevailed, but there was discontent among some of the Tellurians and dragons. For many Tellurians saw this as compromising their independence, and the Ethereals saw this as reckless indulgence of humanity. But the Philosophic path seemed to work for a time.
"But then, one day, the three ambassadors were murdered. Nobody knows who did it, although a lot of lies were written by all parties involved. And that was the start of the Factional War. The dragons of the Philosophic Faction were snuffed out. We lost two thirds of our population in the purge. Another result, that you saw in your vision, was the annihilation of the Tellurian Empire.
"I was born after that time. I was in the generation that came into being after the Factional Wars had ended and the Ethereals had won. I had always felt that we had somehow fallen, and so I read the histories of other times. Although the actual factions no longer exist with active organizations, and their leaders are long since dead, their ways of looking at the world still affect us. I am more strongly sympathize with the Philosophic point of view. The Order that I belong to is founded on many of their beliefs. I bring two others who are also of the Order, who should be here shortly, after they have completed their tasks."
Astra replied, "What happened to the Ethereals?"
Euaristus shook her head. "Ironically enough, they turned on each other. Remember,the Ethereals believed strongly that each dragon should mind his or her own business, and no dragon should rise above the others, as well as believing that humans should know their place. It did not take much for one Ethereal to believe that another was trying to rise above him or her, and they ravaged each other's lands. And some of the dragons of my time, and especially the time afterward, are little better than savages. They have had little guidance, and are often not likely to accept any."
"There is a special wound - a terrible one - that our kind has inflicted on itself. I told you earlier, that our forebearers, in their pride, constructed an engine that requires forty dragons to assent to bringing a new wyrm into the world. They never thought that it would become impossible to get forty dragons to agree. But that is the way things are today."
Astra and Elaine's eyes widened. Had the number of the dragons dropped below the forty that Euaristus had mentioned? Or were they so divided that it was merely impossible to get an agreement on which dragon would be the first to do so? Or perhaps there was agreement, and the knowledge of how to operate the device had been lost? The question was not asked.
Euaristus continued, "So a dragon like Minestus cannot even do what a possum or field mouse can do, and have offspring. And the one lesson that he remembers from history is that humans used to serve us. So if a bully like Minestus resents humans for a joy that he can never feel, how would he naturally strike back?"
Concening Belboz's machine, Euaristus says: "If it is what I think it might be, which would be some variety of a device called the Nexus, that engine is likely to be an incomplete and twisted version of the one in the Citadel [which dated from the earlier empire]. Such a device should never have been built in the dark, and in secret, for one thing. It cannot possibly lead to any good. Even in your time, the machine in the Citadel was not exactly what it was when it was built - just as my kind of that age was not the same as those of the Golden Age, and the Tellurians were not the same as the Stannics. But to answer your question as to why I am concerned - the two in my company will fear it because it can be used as an instrument to enslave us, either by another dragon or humanity. But I am concerned about it for yet another reason. If this machine is what I think it is, it may take mankind down our path, and drain from their souls that which makes you human."
Astra asks if the need to destroy Belboz's machine was why the three dragons had come. "That was not why we came, for when we set out we did not know of its existence. No doubt Belboz originally came to the caves so that he could work on it while keeping it a secret from my kind. If Minestus found out about it, then as an outcast he did not choose to share his knowledge with us. But now that we have learnt of it, we must see that it is destroyed. The instability induced in the caves by Elaine's duel with Minestus may do the job for us, smashing it under countless tons of rock."
"I'm still puzzling about how it could be possible that forty dragons would have to agree before another dragon could be born," Elaine said. "You spoke of a machine. But how could a machine - even a magical one - prevent conception? Or would it affect things at a later stage of pregnancy? In any case, why can't this machine be switched off or destroyed? And are you saying that the number of dragons has now fallen below forty so that, however long-lived you are, the dragons must eventually die out?"
"We have not quite reached that point yet. But we are few enough that it would require four-fifths of our people to agree, and that is very doubtful."
"Even if failing to agree would eventually lead to the extinction of the dragons?" Astra asked.
"I see that you are astonished. Yes, even so, so deep do our divisions go. For if a dragon was born to a member of a particular faction, that would be seen as making that faction stronger. That is why saving Elaine's life was so important. It had never occurred to us that a dragon's flame could pass into a human, but nevertheless it has happened. That flame - and hence Elaine - must be preserved because, as far as the machine is concerned, possessing that flame makes Elaine a dragon. She could thus potentially become one of the quorum of forty."
<p>Heraclius attempts to destroy the Nexus, but loses a magical duel with Adele and is forced to teleport away.
Conscience had nearly refused to believe the arrival of the winged ones, for to believe it was to believe utterly, inexorably, in Fate. They had come following the stench of that pathetic, bitter Minestus' death. Her original intent had been to get Adele to retrieve Minestus' killer, the one who had absorbed his flame, and then Conscience could have continued her attempts to deconstruct her from within, to distil the dragonflame. But there had been.......an intervention, and the dragon killer was not where she should have been.
And Conscience had been frightened, for Adele had then chosen to relinquish the ring, to relinquish Conscience to the liquid flame. Such an act would not have destroyed her, but would without doubt have been disastrous in other ways. And then Fate (surely, surely Fate) had brought Heraclius, and he had stopped them at the edge. He had saved them both.
And when their perfect draconic saviour had discovered the Nexus, Conscience had revelled in his anger, for it was a baseless, teenage anger born of dusty lectures on the folly of man and his infernal creations. His anger was in fact his forefathers' anger, and without the wisdom of knowledge to temper it, it had worked beautifully to Conscience's advantage.....
In the box now, thought Adele, but it was not her thought and yet she obeyed, for Heraclius the black dragon was before her, eyes aflame and throat brimming with a horrific power that would surely vaporise her, the ring, the machine, everything. She flung herself into the Nexus as the room exploded and the doors slammed shut above her.
But the doors were not above her. They were beside her, and now made of gnarled, ancient oak, bruised and yellow from a hungry tree-fever that hugged its surface like a repugnant wet curtain. Adele turned and saw the blank white corridor with its myriad side passages, and there in the middle was Conscience. And she was shaking with laughter, the laughter of the victorious. With each laugh, the rank, hot odour Adele recalled from her last meeting with Conscience washed over her. Adele felt sick.
"Oh, Adele." began Conscience, her wounded face beaming like a child's. "So many victories, so little time. Is not the world a fine place of fine lines, twisting and binding to make such pretty bows? You were a wonderful slave, my dear, but fate is a far more wonderful master."
Adele felt anger and hate claw at her breast. "What victories, Conscience?" she demanded, stepping forward. "Astra and Elaine are lost to me. Sigin is dead by my hand. Matthias, my love Matthias is gone! I tried to use this accursed power to destroy a dragon and fared worse than even Elaine! And now that same dragon has destroyed everything my father created! Where is the victory!?"
"Oh, sweet Adele." purred Conscience. "The victories are mine, not yours."
Adele hesitated. "Y.....your....? But....I...."
"Oh, Adele." drawled Conscience, reaching her arms out towards Adele in an enigmatic gesture. "You cannot possibly know the time, the sheer expanse of time I have expended bringing the world to this edge. Imprisoned! Imprisoned for longer than the longest within this infernal circlet, I came to know the nature of imprisonment, its nuances and effects; on the body, on the mind, on the soul. Through this knowledge came more knowledge. Of how I might imprison others."
Adele stood and stared, compelled to listen....
"Your father.......amongst mortals, his was a particularly superior mentality. So vibrant and......ripe. He saw things as few others saw things, and I hungered for his perception. I granted him many boons of power and clarity, for which he was very grateful in the course of his studies into the deepest arcana. Slowly, little by little, he submerged his will to me, unbeknownst, unseeing. I was very careful, Adele. I have time enough to be careful."
Conscience's face formed a deep scowl, and her eyes turned a shade of red. "Then you were born. Sweet Adele. Believe me, child, I made the damndest effort to stop your conception, but it transpired that Belboz the Great Deathwarder had the same mockworthy weaknesses of any common man. Infected with infatuation, he was, spread by that whoredog Martina. Always I felt his mind on her, and for a time he forgot me, forgot the gifts I had bestowed upon him, and together he and Martina spawned you. Although, given current events, even that appears to have ultimately worked in my.....in.....in my....."
Conscience found her monologue interrupted by a further bout of uncontrollable laughter. She held a hand to her forehead and guffawed drunkenly, her overbearing stench once more wafting over Adele, who clamped a hand over her mouth and nose, eyes streaming as she began to understand. This.....creature that claimed to be Conscience had manipulated her father in the same way that it had manipulated her. The ring......it was imprisoned inside the ring and had been for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, plotting and preparing for this moment. Adele's anger began to wilt under the icy smog of fear.
Then something strange happened in that moment. Behind the laughing Conscience, far down the white corridor and almost beyond Adele's vision, something moved. It emerged from one doorway, travelled across the width of the passage and disappeared into another doorway. It was only visible for half a second, and Adele could barely see it, but saw it she did. But now Conscience was reclaiming her (its) composure, and she was looking at Adele. Adele looked back, silently praying her eyes did not betray her.
"Your birth angered me, it is true." continued Conscience. "I was concerned that Belboz might sense my anger, and so I withdrew. I bode my time. Soon he returned to me, as family love grew stale and tasteless to him. I was the one who taught your father the secret of eternal existence, Adele. I was the one who taught him the darkest roots of every 'mancy he could comprehend. And I was the one who brought him to this.....Shreken......to build the Nexus. The dragon was a nuisance, but Belboz did not disappoint me. He pacified the dragon with careful words, and our work continued."
"And then you intruded on us again, sweet infuriating Adele, on some hapless pilgrimage to reclaim your father's attention from me once more. There the truce was made with the red dragon, and your life spared. For centuries, we worked together, your father and I. Slowly our masterwork grew to fruition, and slowly I revealed more of myself......and himself......to Belboz. But your father......he was weakened by you, his mind clouded with dumb, animal emotion as the years passed and you remained frozen and blind, divorced from time itself. I grew ever so impatient, dear Adele. I offer your father's memory a modicum of credit - though emotion strained his will, his perception was still steelsharp. He perceived my impatience, and he grew suspicious."
"Alas, torn was he. I could smell his growing animosity to the Nexus.....so near completion but for one final cog......wrestling bloodily with his love for you. Doubt pierced him through and through, and he began to understand truly what he was building, and its function. Can you imagine his ambivalence, child? Finish the machine, or sacrifice his daughter? His inner turmoil made him hesitate, and I bled with fury. He shut his mind to me, broke free of his prison so I could no longer draw his thoughts in my direction. Rage. Rage, rage, rage felt I."
"But then your father died, and with it his suspicion, replaced by young, ambitious Elaine. Together we did what Belboz dared not - destroy that petty, virulent Minestus. Together we took his flame, his final cog. And we returned to the Nexus. Complications arose - the pure flame had been spoiled by the girl's immaturity. But now, FINALLY now! Dragonflame, pure, natural, unsullied dragonflame has charged the cogs! Do you not see child, your father's work is not destroyed, far, FAR from it! And now. Now, it beginsssssssssss......"
Conscience changed. It was not a slow, dramatic metamorphosis as many a fancy scribe would embellish. It was fast and it was hideous. Her face suddenly bulged to three times its size like a fleshy bag filling with a jet of air. Every strand of her hair slid out of the expanded follicles, tumbling erratically to the floor. Her eyes squeezed out of their sockets and dangled uselessly by her cheeks for a single second before the head exploded, showering the screaming Adele with pieces of foul smelling offal. In its place was two dark green tentacles, covered in vicious spikes and twisted barbs and glistening mucus.
The hands of Conscience morphed into two massive, hairless paws. Without hesitation, they sank their claws into her own ribcage and yanked outwards with maniacal strength. Her innards opened like a hellish cupboard and a black mist emerged forth, enveloping her whole form. Then there was a noise, an indescribable noise that interrupted Adele's screams that she might stagger back and retch violently. The mist was sucked into the quivering pile of dark ooze that was now Conscience. No trace of human form remained - only a deranged pyramid of glutinous flesh, with the two writhing tentacles atop its spire.
Adele struggled to gather her senses, to stop herself from losing her reason to terror. She backed up until her back struck the poisoned oak door behind her. "You're no Conscience of mine!" she cried, fists clenched and eyes wide. She reached back to pull the door open, but it was locked. "What fell beast are you!?"
As if in response, two more tentacles sprouted with frightening speed out of the monstrosity's skin (if the shifting, bleeding mess of bulging veins and scum could be called 'skin') and joined the first pair, swaying and shaking in the air as if dancing with joy. A vertical fissure cracked open in the centre of the thing, and an eye peered through at Adele. It was over a foot in diameter, perfectly round and black, with a white dot the size of a pinprick in the centre.
I am Orphyn said Orphyn. And now I will awake, and I will draw all into the Void.
The tallest tentacle lashed out at Adele, wrapping tightly around her neck. The barbs sliced into her flesh, the grip tightened, and breath was denied her. "Nuh....nuh no......" moaned Adele, reaching up to pull the foul appendage from her throat. But two more tendrils darted forward and snaked around her wrists, dragging her arms back to her sides. And together, they pulled Adele to Orphyn.
Adele bucked and twisted and scrabbled her feet against the hard floor, but the tentacles gripped like the heaviest shackles, drawing her inexorably towards the unholy dark mass, the single insane eye gazing unblinking at her. Adele slipped, and final tendril spied its chance, approaching with speed, encircling her ankles and closing the loop tight, binding her legs together.
All this time.....I wanted to show your father My rebirth said Orphyn But now I will show you My rebirth, and you will die by My beauty. My final boon.
Adele tried to scream, but the hold on her neck was so tight her lungs could neither fill nor expel a shred of air. She squirmed helplessly in the painful, cutting grip of Orphyn as she was dragged to within a mere few feet of its throbbing, sickening mass. With no visible effort, it lifted her high into the air, and a mindless, acidic burbling noise poured out of it, filling her head with nightmares long thought dead. She closed her eyes, and prayed that all to come would not be as hellish as her heart believed......
And suddenly Orphyn screamed, and Adele was thrown awkwardly against the wall. The tentacles vaporised into nothing, and Adele fell on her side, gasping for breath. She heard another unworldly cry from the thing that was Orphyn, and urged herself to her feet. Turning, she saw dozens upon dozens of tentacles struggling to emerge afresh from Orphyn's flesh, but each one was dissipated without a sound before it could achieve full growth. The oozing body of Orphyn swelled and bled black oil as it wavered and waned. The mad white pupil in the centre of the eye flew this way and that, searching for the unseen assailant. Adele looked further, behind......
A man stood behind Orphyn, a blistering white beam of light blasting from his outstretched hands into the back of the dark beast. His skin was yellow and weeping, peeling from his emaciated, skeletal, naked body. His hair was naught more than a few wispy strands of white lines, and his face was terribly gaunt. But his expression was one of utter, focused determination, and his eyes flowed with exuberant passion. He turned to Adele, and Adele felt a massive sliver of ice drop through her heart and land in her stomach.
"RUN!" shouted Belboz.
Heraclius joins Euaristus, and hence Astra and Elaine. On hearing his news, Euaristus says that she has to see the machine, and will take Elaine with her. Heraclius says that it is much too dangerous, and that they should all flee, but she is adamant and, as leader of the three dragons, overrules him. Heraclitus and Astra are to wait on the peak for the return of the third dragon, Callistus.
Meanwhile Fred's party has reached Pellgar. Matthias is still unconscious. It is late and they cannot speak to the town's lord till the morning, and Fred thinks it best not to tell their news to anyone before then. They rent rooms in an inn, and Fred arranges for a healer to see Matthias. Luc waits with Matthias downstairs. Exotica is unable to remove her armour unaided, so Fred helps her. Once the healer arrives, Luc goes out into the town on an errand to buy some more suitable clothing for Exotica and a sword for Fred. Many of the people on the streets had been gazing at the Shreken range on the southern horizon. Even at this distance, the after-effects of Elaine's battle with Minestus were clearly visible, a plume of smoke rising from what had previously been a long-dormant volcano.
Returning with clothes for Exotica, Luc was about to knock on the door of her room when he was alarmed to hear her shriek. Afraid that she was being attacked, he threw the door open. Looking up at him ftom the bed were two startled and guilty-looking faces. He had interrupted Fred and Exotica at the most unfortunate moment.
A clanging of alarm bells interrupts them. From outside, Fred can hear the voices of the town guardsmen: "The dragon approaches! Make ready!" How could this be!? Was Elaine lying about the dragon being dead? Of course he has no knowledge of the arrival of the three dragons or that this was Callistus.
Exotica insists on going with Fred and Luc as they go outside to investigate. A dragon's wings can be heard beating in the darkness somewhere high above, and all is confusion. The three ascend to the top of the nearest watchtower and then traverse a parapet looking for the senior officer. ...as Fred looked over the parapet to the horizon, he caught a glimpse of their enemy gliding through the night air. It could not be Minestus. Minestus was not the colour of living shadow, did not have a solitary curved horn sprouting from his forehead, and was certainly not as large as this monster was.
Fred finds the sergeant in charge and gives his name. The soldier is unimpressed, recognising the name and that Fred had been sent to slay the dragon. Then the man sees and recognises Exotica. She orders him to tell them what is going on. He reports that his men have been firing arrows at the beast without effect. "It hasn't attacked, thank the powers, but it's certainly not going away. I think.......I get the strangest feeling it's looking for something."
Then the dragon landed on a nearby tower. Its eyes fixed on the four of them and then it spoke. "There you are! You know, I would have been quicker if you all didn't insist on running around and changing places...
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