The dragon’s wings beat through Shale’s chest as it flew past the temple, then glided back toward the Keep. A bolt of lightning flew from its gaping maw and struck the side of the Keep, pulling free stone and releasing the distant cries and shouts of soldiers.
The six companions, an odd grouping of humans, half-elves, a tiefling and a tabaxi, all watched the destruction from afar. Enemy humans and kobolds were standing at the front of the temple, quickly hacking away the branches of a fallen tree to make a battering ram. On the side nearest them was another group of mixed enemies. “I can put the fire out with a spell that commands water,” Fillip whispered to the group.
Shale nodded, “that’s a good idea, but we have to move quickly. We don’t want to be heard.”
Whisper looked around at the conversation and thrust a paw to the ground, releasing a mist of magic. The magic shot along the ground at an incredible speed, then swirled and coalesced around the five beings. Suddenly, one by one, all but one collapsed into the grass without another sound. They were asleep. Whisper stood and shot a fire bolt at the same moment as Fillip shot a stone and Shale released an arrow at the last remaining human. Shale’s arrow struck home, and the man collapsed. Whisper ran up and made quick work of those who were unconscious. A swipe of sharp claws into exposed throats.
Shale ran up to retrieve her arrow, the others also ducking low and making their way to press themselves against the temple wall. Whisper dug into the stone and began to climb, disappearing over the roof of the building. Shale could hear him pulling at the thatched roof. Fillip crept along the wall and motioned for them to look at the group creating the battering ram. Nearby was a tall man in black plated armour issuing commands, and they bent to lift the large tree.
Suddenly, a blast of fire flew from the roof and hit the battering ram, momentarily bathing the bark in flames. The men and kobolds threw it down and drew their weapons, eyes up. Fillip placed a stone in his sling and shot at the leader. The stone clanked off the man’s armour. Another firebolt shot from the roof at the same man, who raised a plated arm, catching the brunt of the heat. Their hiding place now apparent, Keelan and Reverence rushed out as Shale shot an arrow at one of the humans, who ripped it free, causing blood to splatter across the ground. Before the human could react to Shale, Keelan crushed his skull with a blow from his warhammer. Keelan spun on his heel and struck at another human, who just barely managed to raise his shield in time. A kobold pulled out a dagger and stabbed it into Keelan’s thigh as he pounded against the human’s shield. Keelan nearly dropped his hammer as he turned to face his new attacker. The dagger was jammed hilt-deep into his leg, and he tore it out and cast it aside with a grunt, blood issuing from the gaping hole.
As this was happening, Reverence faced the man in the black armour, passing a flurry of mace and fist through the air. Fillip drew his scimitar and took his stance next to the tiefling, battering him. They were wearing the man down, but he was quick despite his heavy plated armour. The man was barking orders while defending against two opponents.
Shale saw another human run past the opposite side of the temple, disappearing from sight before she could take aim. Instead, she fired an arrow at the man in black, but his armour was thick and well-made, and it ricocheted off. She swore and found another mark.
Oszaren ran into the fight, his body aglow with his writhing armour, and shot a blast of green energy at a group of kobolds, who scattered. Another bolt of fire shot down from the roof of the temple and hit one of the humans defending against Keelan.
Around the opposite side of the building, three more kobolds appeared. The human that had run in that direction appeared a moment after his allies. The kobolds started flinging stones with their slings at a deadly speed. Fillip barely managed to dodge one as he swung his scimitar at the black armoured man, but another stone caught him in the shoulder, causing him to stumble back in surprise.
Keelan was surrounded. The human shouted something, shaking his warhammer at the circle of kobolds and humans, but they moved quickly. As a kobold feinted in his direction, the man in the black armour ran through Reverence and Fillip and slammed into Keelan, throwing him to the ground. The strongest of their group, Keelan, lay there, unmoving as the black armoured man stood over his unconscious form.
Reverence leaped after him and struck with his mace over and over again, cracking the man in the black armour over the head and sending his helmet flying. With a final punch to the head, Reverence took their leader to the ground. Another human ran up from the other side of the temple but froze when he saw his fallen leader. “Fall back!” he yelled to the others, and the kobolds chattered in their strange, guttural language, a few stumbling away from the fight.
Oszaren took out another enemy with his mace as he fled. Fillip placed a hand over his chest and a white light spread through him, healing his wounds as he parried a strike from a kobold.
Another blast of fire came from the roof and grazed the kobold where it stood, quickly followed by an arrow from Shale’s bow. It hit the spine, and the kobold collapsed, its short sword thumping to the soft grass. The other fleeing enemies turned for one last bout of ranged attacks. A volley of stones flew from slings, hitting Fillip, Reverence and Oszaren where they stood and forcing them to hide their faces. Shale still hid in the shadows, and she couldn’t see the enemies well enough to aim as they ran off into the darkness.
A kobold jumped from seemingly nowhere and struck Fillip over the back of the head, and the druid went limp.
Reverence half ran, half-crawled to Keelan where he lay and turned him over. His dark hair was matted with blood. The monk whispered a spell over the man’s body.
Oszaren and Whisper were still casting spells at the fleeing enemies as Shale ran up to the unconscious Fillip and tried to diagnose his injuries. Reverence joined her on the ground and whispered a spell over Fillip, who seemed to breathe easier. Both Keelan and Fillip were still unconscious, however. “We need to get them inside,” Shale told the tiefling, running for the barred temple doors. She knocked frantically. “Let us in! We’ve just taken out the enemies, and two of ours are injured!” No response. “Please!” She shouted, knocking more furiously.
“Who are you? What do you want?” A voice demanded from behind the door.
“We were sent by Tarbaw and Escobert to free you. We did a really great job at killing all these humans and kobolds, but two of our people have been badly hurt. We need healers! And we need to get you all to safety!” She couldn’t keep the frustration from her voice.
A moment passed, and Shale felt a flicker of panic. Then, there was the sound of something heavy being moved and the door was pulled open. Before her stood a tall, elderly half-elf in priestly robes. “Thank you,” the man said, surveying the bodies strewn outside the temple. “Please, come in. Men, help them carry their injured!” A few of the larger villagers rushed through the doors and assisted Reverence and Oszaren in carrying Fillip and Keelan into the temple. Whisper slipped in behind them, having climbed off the roof.
There were at least twenty villagers inside the temple. Stone benches lined the long room and a huge shrine stood at the forefront of temple, displaying various artistic renderings of agriculture. Torches flickered in sconces along the walls. “Do you have any healers?” Shale asked the priest.
“Not here,” he said, hurrying to Fillip and Keelan’s bodies, which had been lain on the floor side-by-side. He pressed a hand to each of their necks, checking for a pulse.
Shale put a hand on the priest’s shoulder. “We need to get you and all the villagers back to the Keep. We have the keys to a hidden tunnel that will bring us underneath the village. Hopefully we can find healers once we’re there,” when he nodded, she added, “do you think you could get a few of your strongest to help carry our companions? It will give us a chance to fight and defend you if need be.” He nodded again, ushering the same villagers forward who had helped drag Keelan and Fillip into the temple. “What is your name?” She asked him.
“Eadyen Falconmoon,” the half-elf responded, sounding exhausted as he stood.
Whisper padded over to Shale. “Back door,” the tabaxi said, pointing to the opposite end of the room.
Oszaren had come up to them as well. “We should send a couple out ahead to scout the way. We’ll go through the backdoor and run like nine hells for the tunnel.”
“Who has the key?” Shale asked, and Reverence produced a ring of keys from inside his robe. The tiefling was ragged, a huge gash on his forehead smearing blood across his orange skin.
“Do you have any weapons?” Oszaren asked the priest. “We need arms. As many as you can muster.” Whisper produced an illusion before them of a pile of human arms stacked neatly on the floor. A few of the villagers jumped back and a young girl cried out in shock.
Eadyen shook his head, looking around at the frightened villagers, confused by the display. “N-no, not really. They’re farmers, not fighters.”
Oszaren nodded, his thoughts confirmed. “Whisper,” he said, and the tabaxi made his illusion disappear, eyeing the half-elf intently, “you and Shale will run ahead of the group. Take a torch,” he pulled one from his bag and gestured it at the torches along the wall, “and make sure the path is clear. If any enemies are nearby, we’ll need you to draw them off and we can help you fight them. Our main priority is to get these villagers to safety.” He looked at the tiefling. “Reverence and I will protect them from the back.”
“Okay,” Shale said, mustering a grim smile, “let’s do this.” She ran over and lit the torch, joining Whisper by the back door while Oszaren explained his plan to the people. Eadyen unlocked the tiny door and they pushed it open, scanning the grounds around the temple.
“Good,” Whisper whispered, and they shot off into the dark, the villagers trailing about ten feet behind them, flanked by Reverence and Oszaren. Shale held the torch tightly in one hand, the light guiding her footsteps forward.
They ran along the riverbank as quietly as they could, the torchlight dimmed by Reverence’s spell so as to not draw too much attention.
There was a loud splash and a shout and Shale spun around to see an older man, one of the villagers, had slipped and fallen into the rushing water. A woman next to him hurriedly helped him to his feet and Oszaren held up his hand in the back to quiet them. They all paused, listening.
“Jerymie! Oi think oi heard somethin’.” It was a man’s voice. “Here, by the river!” They crouched down by the riverbank and Shale thrust the torch into the sand. Oszaren peeked over just as a human figure appeared. The half-elf shot a blast of green energy from his hand, the snake on his arm glowing. The blast hit the man in the chest and he stumbled, swearing. “Jerymie!” He squealed.
As the second man, Jerymie, appeared with a torch in hand, Shale shot an arrow through his neck, ending him. The other man stared at his fallen companion and swore again, turning to run. Whisper shot a fire bolt, but it sailed over the man’s head as he ran. He rolled through the grass just as Reverence threw a dart at him, and Oszaren shot a final blast of green light at the man, hitting him as he tried to stand and forcing him to one knee. That momentary flash of light was all that Shale needed as she pointed and shot. Her arrow hit the man in the ear, burying itself deep in the side of his skull, dropping him.
“Nice shot,” Oszaren nodded approvingly as she headed back to the front of the group.
“You too,” she said. She retrieved the torch of the fallen men, which still burned slightly in the grass, and held it before them. “I see the tunnel entrance,” she said, and two-by-two, they ducked through the metal grate and into the damp tunnel. Once everyone was through, Whisper cast an illusion of a large boulder in place of where the door was. Shale splashed ahead through the tunnel, the flickering flames from her torchlight casting shadowed figures over the rugged stone walls.
The Keep was crowded and filled with terrified villagers, bleeding men and women, and crying children. Groups of soldiers ran through the crowd asking for able bodied fighters. “Please, are there any healers?” Shale called out as they emerged from the hidden passageway. The men that were carrying Keelan and Phillip placed them gently on the ground. “Healers?” Shale asked again, catching the eye of a young soldier as he passed.
“Uh, healers? Yes, yeah. We have some healing potions, but they’re not very potent.” He gestured to a middle-aged couple, a man and a woman both with dark hair and eyes. They rushed forward and bent to administer the healing potions to Keelan and Fillip.
“Thank you,” Oszaren said as their two companions sputtered to consciousness. “I know this is not the worth of a healing potion, but I hope this will help.” He passed the woman a couple of large gold pieces.
“It’s not necessary, sir,” she told him.
“Please, take it.”
She bowed her head and tucked the gold away.
Shale helped Keelan stand and Oszaren put out a hand to Fillip, who took it gratefully. They were alive, but just barely by the looks of it. Reverence found a spot on the floor and slid down the wall to sit. He looked to be in terrible shape, just barely clinging to consciousness.
The walls of the Keep shook, and a few pieces of dust fell from the ceiling. There was an all-encompassing ROAR again as the dragon above loosed a crackle of lightning.
“We need to get up there,” Shale said, and Whisper nodded excitedly.
“How are we supposed to fight a dragon?” Oszaren demanded, wiping sweat from his face.
“I don’t know,” she answered, “but there’s no use staying down here. The three of us,” she gestured to herself, Whisper and Oszaren, “can still fight. The way I see it, we can either die down here, or up there.”
“I choose to die down here,” Fillip mumbled, sitting down next to Reverence, who was half asleep already.
“I’m going to find the dwarf and ask him what their plan is, if they have one.”
Oszaren shook his head, “they won’t. They’re not organized enough for this assault.”
“Then, friend,” Shale said, patting the half-elf’s arm as she passed him to go up the stairs, “you’ll have to come up with one.”
“Yes. Good at plan,” Whisper agreed, then bounded up the stairs past her. Shale ran to follow him, Oszaren just behind her, grumbling as they went.
Shale was grateful to have someone in their party who knew something about fighting. At least, Oszaren seemed to know a lot about it. He usually had some plan up his sleeve. She herself had never seen a proper battle. Nor had she fought a dragon.
Escobert stood at the top of the stairs handing out short bows to young men and women and sending them through the hatch. “We can fight this dragon,” the dwarf was saying, offering encouraging nods to those who passed. “We will defend Greenest. We will defend our people and our lands.”
“What can you tell us about this dragon?” Shale asked as they reached him. “Have you any plans on how to fight it?”
The dwarf rubbed a hand over his weary face. “It’s a blue dragon. Fully grown, if I can guess it right. Our best strategy right now is to throw as much at it as we have.”
“Have you found a weakness?”
He shook his head. “Arrows barely pierce the thing. It has hide thick as a wall and it’s hardly engaging us except to keep us down.”
“Does it shoot anything other than lightning?” Oszaren asked.
“Not as far as we’ve seen,” Escobert told him.
“We’ll help as much as we can,” Shale said, and he gave them a grim smile. They thanked him and followed where the other soldiers had just disappeared.
Oszaren grabbed Shale’s arm, pulling her back. “This is madness. We can’t go up there. The dragon will kill us in one hit.”
Shale pulled her arm free, “What do you propose we do, then? Let all those people die?”
He sighed. “No. I don’t know. There must be a right way to do this.”
“Enlighten me,” Shale said, “because I know nothing about dragons. All I know is that I’m going to aim for its weak points.” With that, she took her bow in her hand and held it up. “What do you know about dragons? Please, tell me.”
“Not much,” the half-elf said, looking down.
Shale turned and followed the tabaxi, who was watching them from the ladder.
Gods, this won’t be easy, Shale thought as Whisper pushed open the hatch to the rooftop just as a blinding flash of light crackled through the air with scorching heat.
The spears Oszaren had placed in the four corners of the Keep’s rooftop stood twice the height of anyone standing on it. He suggested they might draw some of the lightning away from the people, like how a tree or tall building attracts lightning in a storm.
The dragon was currently soaring over the rest of the village as men and kobolds ransacked houses and put thatched rooves to the torch. Whisper leaned over the edge of the Keep wall, watching the dragon. Then, the tabaxi roared like a dragon, light cascading around his voice to enhance the sound and send it echoing over the village. The massive dragon turned its head in the direction of the Keep, banked lazily, and beat its wings to bring it higher in the air. It was coming right for them.
“Control your pet!” Oszaren swore, his writhing armour glowing over his chest.
“He’s not my pet,” Shale yelled back.
“Take cover!” The half-elf yelled as a streak of lightning issued from the dragon’s mouth and struck the stone. Forks of lightning hit a few soldiers and fried them instantly. One man was thrown backwards by the force of the strike and stumbled to his feet a moment later, looking scorched but alive. Men and women loosed arrows at the beast as it rose up before them. Shale held her arrow, waiting for a weak point as the dragon turned its head.
She released her breath and her arrow, and it hit exactly where she had hoped. The dragon shrieked as it flew off, a long arrow protruding from a chink in its scaled neck. Whisper and Oszaren’s spells seemed to have no effect as they burst over its body and dissipated. They shot more at it, but they didn’t even leave a mark. Shale drew another arrow and, just before it flew out of range, she shot another long arrow that lodged in the back of its head. A smattering of cheers broke out from the people on the roof, and Shale gave them all an encouraging grin. The dragon had a half dozen arrows stuck in its hide. It wasn’t impervious to wounds, and that was enough for now.
Whisper roared again.
“Will you stop that!” Oszaren shouted at the tabaxi wizard, who only blinked back at him and readied a firebolt in his hand.
The dragon ignored Whisper this time, instead swinging low over the village in a looping dive. “Do you know anything about blue dragons?” Oszaren asked the people around them. “Have you read anything? Heard stories?” The soldiers around them shrugged or shook their heads. The half-elf looked terrified and his hands were shaking. His spells weren’t working, and without those, how could he fight? A mace would do very little against a flying beast.
“We’ve hurt it,” Shale said reassuringly, “we just need to keep doing what we’re doing. One thing I’m not sure about,” she paused, looking around at the other soldiers and lowering her voice, “is why it keeps coming back for more. It’s distracting us. It must know we can’t beat it.”
With that, the dragon flapped its wings and turned back to the Keep. Shale nocked another arrow and waited. As soon as it was near enough, she shot again. Her arrow soared, followed by the smaller arrows of a dozen shortbows, and hers and a few others stuck while others clattered away, bouncing off the scaled armour of the beast.
Instead of shooting more lightning, the dragon twisted and flew up and up into the dark sky until it disappeared in the low hanging clouds. Oszaren hit its tail with a burst of green magic as it moved out of sight and Shale held an arrow, waiting for its descent. Giant drops of blood splashed down.
The descent didn’t come.
A moment passed, then another, and finally they heard the distant screech of the dragon as it flew past the town of Greenest and struck out to the East.
“It has fled!” The man who had been struck by lightning shouted, and a cry rose up from the soldiers. Cheers and whoops filled the night air.
Oszaren withdrew a vial of lamp oil and emptied it on the ground, scooping the quickly drying blood of the dragon into the now-empty glass. He corked it and stowed it inside his coat. “Could be useful,” he told Shale and Whisper as he walked to the hatch.
Shale went around clapping soldiers on the backs and congratulating them on their efforts. She helped them drag the blackened bodies of fallen soldiers into a line near the hatch, so they could be taken later and buried. The living headed downstairs into the Keep and were greeted by Escobert and Tarbaw. Tarbaw, the governor of Greenest, was dead on his feet. He had fresh wounds since last she’d seen him. “Thank you again,” he sighed, smiling at Whisper, Oszaren and Shale. “Tell me, how did you fare at the temple?
“We killed as many as we could and brought everyone back,” Shale told him, and he took her hand gratefully.
“It seems Greenest is in your debt twice-over.”
“We are happy to fight,” Shale said.
“Why did the dragon attack your village?” Oszaren asked softly. The fear that had cast over his face before was now gone as he was drawn back to purpose.
“I don’t know,” Tarbaw said, looking troubled. “We’re a very wealthy town. Perhaps that’s why they attacked. Their goal didn’t seem to be reckless killing. They mostly only killed those who fought back or got in their way. They’re going through our homes, stealing our gold and our heirlooms.”
“What did they want from the temple?”
“We offer a great many donations to the temple,” he shrugged.
Fillip, Reverence and Keelan made their way slowly up the stairs to join them. “How are you feeling?” Oszaren asked them.
“Swell,” Fillip said, smiling. His colour had returned to his face, but he still looked weary. Reverence’s head had been bandaged, and Keelan was wincing and rubbing the back of his head, where a giant lump had likely formed. “What did we miss?”
“The dragon flew East,” Oszaren told him.
“It seems I was wrong not to listen to your warnings,” Tarbaw said, looking at Reverence.
The tiefling raised his chin. “Indeed, you were.” Shale wasn’t sure what they were talking about.
“PEOPLE OF GREENEST,” a loud voice boomed from outside the Keep. Whisper started barking and Oszaren summoned a ball of yarn, which he handed to the tabaxi to quiet him. “HEAR US NOW.”
They glanced around at each other, then ran for the stairs, Whisper lagging behind.
At the top of the Keep, they gazed out and saw two hundred people gathered in front of the tall stone building, a mix of humans and kobolds. They stood out of archer range. At their forefront stood two impressive figures in the dawning light of the morning: A woman with deep purple robes, dark black hair, and holding a massive glaive, which she leaned on lazily. Next to her stood an eight-foot tall, blue scaled figure with a reptilian face. His fearsome size was larger than any dragonborn Shale had encountered. What was this creature? He wore full plate armour and was draped with the same, deep purple robes trimmed with golden thread. Despite their distance from the Keep, Shale drew in every detail of their appearance.
“THIS HAS BEEN A SUCCESSFUL NIGHT, AND I’M FEELING GENEROUS,” the scaled man’s voice boomed, enhanced by some magical means. “BRING FORTH THE PRISONERS.”
A group of kobolds dragged four people forward and threw them on the ground before the Keep. There were two young children, a teenage boy and a young woman. They were clutching each other and looking up at the people in the Keep.
“That’s my sister!” A man cried. Shale turned and saw the one who was previously struck by lightning. He was rushing forward and two of his comrades were holding him back. “Let go of me! They have my sister!”
“SUMMON A CHAMPION TO FIGHT ME, ONE AGAINST ONE. FIGHT ME, AND I WILL RELEASE THE PRISONERS. FIGHT ME, AND WE WILL LEAVE.”
They all looked around and Tarbaw clutched his injured arm, wincing. “Do you have anyone who could fight him?” Oszaren asked the governor. “A champion?”
Escobert, the dwarf, joined them. “We are barely soldiers. That beast down there is a fearsome one. I don’t know anyone who could fight that and win.”
“Are you all cowards?” The man whose sister had been taken demanded of the soldiers on the roof. “Let me fight him!”
“You’ll not fight him,” Escobert growled at the young man. “You’re barely on your feet, lad. That blue beast will strike you down before you can shit your pants.”
“I won’t let her die,” he said, his arms still being held back as tears streaked down his dirty cheeks. “I’m responsible for her.”
“Would it be shameful for me to ask for one more favour?” Tarbaw asked desperately, looking back at the young soldier and wringing his hands.
Keelan grunted from where he leaned against the stone. “I’m strong. Perhaps I can take him.”
“You can hardly stand,” Shale said, looking at him. It was true. He needed to rest, not go up against a massive beast in hand-to-hand combat.
“WHAT IS YOUR ANSWER?” The voice came again.
“We need to come up with a plan. Now, before anyone else is killed,” Oszaren said.
“What is your name?” Shale called out over the Keep.
“ARE YOU THE NAMED CHAMPION?” He called back.
“I might be,” she shouted. “So, what’s your name?”
He shook his head. “JOIN ME ON THIS FIELD AND I WILL TELL YOU.”
“You’ve beaten us already,” Oszaren shouted. “Why give us this chance? Why not just take the Keep and be done with it? You have enough men.”
The creature laughed a low, booming laugh. “IT IS NOT BLOOD I WANT. I WANT A GOOD FIGHT.”
“I fight?” Whisper asked quietly.
“Are you a good fighter, Whisper?” Shale asked doubtfully. Sure, he had magic, but what if this creature was impervious to magic? Could she let the tabaxi die for this?
Whisper shrugged in response.
“No,” Shale said, scratching him behind the ear. “No,” she said more firmly, looking around at her beleaguered companions. “I will fight him.”
“You?” Oszaren asked.
“Yes,” and she added quickly, “but I won’t last long, so you had better come up with a few tricks to get me out of this. Magic or something. And, get the hostages out first.”
Oszaren nodded thoughtfully. “Very well.”
They all looked dazed, as though they couldn’t believe the events of that long night had just occurred. “It’s not over yet,” Shale told them. “Come on.” She went over to the edge of the roof and shouted back. “I’M COMING DOWN.”
Her opponent nodded, and before she could let her proclamation truly sink in, she ran for the hatch and descended the stairs, her new companions following her down.
“Good luck,” Oszaren sighed, and Shale nodded as Reverence swung the Keep doors wide open. She stepped out into the morning sun and approached her certain doom. What little trust she held for these strangers whom she had fought out the night with, she hoped to the gods that they would figure something out.
Chapter Three: A Scar to Be Remembered
Whisper spoke draconic fluently and seemed to be arguing with the eight-foot tall, blue scaled man. He gestured at the woman and said something, which seemed to anger the man. The discussion lasted for a full minute in a language Shale didn’t know before the scaled man waved Whisper off and drew his massive greatsword from behind his back. The blade flashed in the morning sunlight, of a height to Shale. She eyed its sharp edge and lost her breath for a moment, fear flashing through every limb and holding her there.
Shale looked over at her companions. The soldiers in the Keep had filed out of the large doors and now stood in a semicircle across from the two hundred invaders. Fillip pointed a finger at his chin and mouthed the words “weak spot”. She nodded back, licking her lips, which were dry. When was the last time she’d drank some water? It must’ve been the night before, with supper.
Shale cleared her throat, looking up at her competition. He was nearly three feet taller and standing a dozen steps away with the point of his greatsword resting in the dirt. “Release the prisoners,” she said, her voice sounding much braver than she felt.
A smile touched the edge of his scaled lips. “We will release the youngest prisoners.” He gestured to the group of kobolds holding them. “Release the three children. The girl stays with us until the fight is done.”
The two children and teenager were released, and the older boy rushed by them as fast as he could through the crowd and back to the Keep. Shale nodded to Oszaren, who had just whispered down to Escobert. He cast his writhing armour over his body and gave her the slightest of nods.
“What is the name of the person I am to fight?” Shale asked, turning back.
“I am Langdedrosa Cyanwrath.” He bowed his head. “Thank you for accepting this noble challenge. May the best man win.”
Shale returned the bow slowly, nervously. “May the best person win,” she said. She drew the two swords from her back and held them aloft.
Langdedrosa raised his greatsword, and they began to circle one another with cautious footsteps. How was she going to reach his chin? His reach was far longer than hers, his armour much thicker, and he moved with a deftness one would not expect from someone so large. Shale had never fought in a duel. Sure, she had fought before, plenty of times. But nothing like this.
It’s okay, she thought to herself reassuringly, heart pounding in her chest. All you need to do is stall until your friends can stop this madness.
Langdedrosa struck first, his massive blade cutting through the air with incredible agility. Shale ducked under the first cut, which narrowly missed taking off her head. As she ducked, her boot caught in the dirt and she stumbled, just barely, but it was enough to give her opponent the advantage. He backhanded the pommel of his sword into her chest, and she felt the breath leave her and heard the crack of ribs. She fell back, gasping for air and feeling blood in her throat. She coughed and spit into the dirt, leaving behind a red stain.
Her opponent gave her the chance to stand, and she moved quicker now, the pain disappearing with the adrenaline. She twisted her blades in her hands, looking for an opening as they circled each other once again. Shale saw the flash of an illusion in front of her eyes and heard someone yell from the crowd. “No funny business!” She didn’t dare look to see what had happened. What were her friends doing? Were they doing anything? How naïve was she, putting her life in their unsteady hands, when she’d known most of them for less than twelve hours.
There was more noise on the edge of the circle, and Shale spared a glance to see Oszaren pushing at the group of kobolds holding the young woman hostage. He was trying to tackle the prisoner free, but they pushed him away, daggers raised at the half-elf. Two struck at him simultaneously and, when they hit his flashing armour, they turned to ice and exploded. “Does no one fight with honour?” Langdedrosa growled, looking over to the commotion. He turned back to Shale. “We are the only ones who fight honourably.”
She leaped forward to attack. Her first blade, wielded by her dominant hand, slashed across his neck and left a streak of red, but the cut was shallow. He had jumped back just in time. Her other sword slammed against his armour and made her hand ring with numbness. She hopped back, holding a defensive stance. She tried to catch her breath, and her chest burned. Her mouth tasted like iron.
Langdedrosa attacked again, and she parried the blow, but the strength of her foe brought her to one knee as she tried desperately to defend herself. He pulled his massive blade from her crossed ones, throwing her off balance as she tried to stand again. The greatsword arched down in a flash of steel, cutting into her shoulder. The blade stuck firmly in her flesh and she gasped in surprise, blood pouring from her open shoulder.
Langdedrosa looked down at her with pity and ripped the greatsword free. Without his blade holding her up, her legs lost their purpose and she felt herself fall backwards into the dirt. Gasping for breath, Shale stared up at the faded blue sky and the large, blue-scaled man who stood over her, her lifeblood streaming out, sucked in by the thirsty ground.
“It was an honour fighting you,” he said, and thrust the greatsword into her chest.
It only took a heartbeat. One heartbeat. Cold and darkness washed over her body.
Kelek? Where are the children? What—what’s happened?
I give you the Hunter’s Mark, Shale. Use it to avenge them. That was not Kelek’s voice.
Hunter’s Mark? What does that mean?
You were already strong, Shale. But you will need to get stronger. To find your vengeance, you must first defeat Tiamat.
Shale awoke to the sound of voices and hurried footsteps all around her.
“Shale? Are you awake?” Whose voice was that? “Hey, I think she’s awake.”
Shale opened her eyes a crack and saw Keelan’s face looking at her. She was lying in a cot, still inside the Keep. She raised a hand slowly and touched her chest, feeling for broken ribs. There were none. She felt the rip in her shirt and touched the fabric where it had been sliced open by a greatsword. “Hey, fighter, you nearly died. Maybe next time you should let me do the fighting.”
“Don’t get yourself knocked in the head next time, then,” she croaked.
She sat up suddenly, her head pounding, and nearly fell back, dizzy.
“Take it easy, alright? Reverence healed you enough to keep you breathing, but there’s still some recovery time. Ah,” Keelan said as she looked down at her shoulder, where a thick scar now cut across her black skin from collarbone to armpit, “that is permanent, I’m afraid. You’re lucky you kept your arm.”
She ran a finger along the scar where, only hours before, there had been a gaping wound. “I kind of like it,” she said, nodding to affirm it. “It reminds me that I’m not invincible.” Her voice cracked and Keelan handed her a waterskin, which she took a swig of gratefully, coughing.
“Alive,” Whisper purred, bounding up to her. She smiled and scratched him behind the ear, which only intensified the purring.
“What’s happened? How long was I out?” She asked.
“We’ve all been sleeping,” Keelan told her, standing up from the cot’s edge. “After that first fight, we all needed a rest. It’s late afternoon. Come on, we were just about to talk to Governor Tarbaw.”
Shale stood with the help of the tabaxi and followed behind the human.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” Oszaren nodded. “Look, I, uh—” he paused, looking embarrassed. “I’m sorry about what happened. I tried to free the girl.”
“I saw,” she nodded. “What happened after I was struck down?”
“Well, they handed the girl over, then packed up and headed South.”
“South? Not East?”
He shook his head. “They didn’t follow the dragon. We’re not sure why.”
“Ah, Shale,” Tarbaw said as they approached him in his small study. He stood and took her hand, bowing. “Thank you for what you’ve done.” He looked at them each in turn: Reverence, Keelan, Whisper, Oszaren, Fillip and, finally, back to Shale. “Thanks to all of you. You saved this town. You saved our people.”
“We were happy to do so,” Oszaren said.
“I have asked a lot of favours from you six in the last twelve hours, and I’m afraid I have to ask one more.” He glanced around uncertainly.
“Go on, then,” Fillip said, folding his arms and grimacing back at the governor.
Tarbaw clutched his hands together nervously. “If you can follow these raiders and find out where they are going and why they attacked us, we would be forever in your debt.”
“That’s for sure,” Fillip agreed, “what makes you think we would risk our lives for that kind of information?”
“I think—what he’s trying—to ask,” Reverence began, “is—how much will we—be paid?”
“Yes, of course,” Tarbaw nodded. “We would pay you two hundred gold. Each.”
Shale rubbed her shoulder as her companions considered. She had something she needed to do. She didn’t have time to waste on this. Then again, these raiders were going around killing people and stealing their livelihoods. She couldn’t stand for that, could she? Plus, there’d been that voice just before she thought she’d die. Two hundred gold was a fortune to her. Imagine what she could accomplish with that. Besides, what information could she glean while travelling with these people? She had to admit, travelling alone was wearisome, not to mention dangerous.
“And what about our payment for the night’s events?” Fillip asked, cutting into Shale’s reflective thoughts.
“Oh, yes,” Tarbaw walked around the room to his desk, inserting a key into one of the drawers and counting out a stack of gold pieces. “Twenty-five gold, to set you on your way?”
They looked at each other, then back at the governor. Fillip nodded. “Alright, I think that will suffice.” Tarbaw handed out the gold without another word. Shale filled her pouch, surprised by the new weight of it at her side.
“You need to build better defenses,” Oszaren was saying, but Shale was finished with the conversation. “You’ll need to hire more men and women for your army…”
She was tired. As Oszaren continued his lecture, she exited the room and leaned against the cold stone wall, closing her eyes in exhaustion, one hand on her chest. There was her heart, steadily pumping away. It was like a bad dream had just passed, and she narrowly escaped the eternal nightmare.
Her eyes flew open, and she saw Nazim, one of the monk students, pushing through the crowd of civilians and rushing to her. His black hair was plastered to his face, and he was limping. “Shale!” He said again, breathing hard as he stopped in front of her. “Something’s happened.”
“What is it?” she demanded, straightening.
“Leosin—he’s been taken.” Nazim held up two broken pieces of their monk teacher’s staff.
He sighed, arms dropping to his side. “I have a lot to tell you.”