"What do you mean it's only a dragon," the big warrior exclaimed, his blue eyes flashing dangerously.
"Don't tell me Mr. Have Sword Will Travel is afraid of one little dragon," Mordeus the Magnificent taunted.
"That 'one little dragon' has managed to wipe out ever adventuring group that has dared rattle a sword or cast a spell in its general direction," Pratt reminded them solemnly, the platinum medallion of Braman, Lord of Protection, glinting upon his chest in the afternoon light.
A soft, feminine chuckle emanated from the slight form that walked at the mage's side. Lustrous, silver hair was gathered at the nape of her neck by a leather thong, the molten strands spilling across the back of the gray cloak that hugged her tiny body. Almond shaped eyes of an amber hue and delicately pointed ears left little doubt of her heritage. "I think you're just scared Rell," Kesslyn snickered in her musical voice.
"Kadrian Rell is afraid of nothing," the big man shouted, banging the breastplate of his armor with his fist. Barely a hand's-breadth less than seven feet, the mammoth warrior bulged with both muscle and weapons but little else. An angry, jagged scar, the remnants of a youthful frolic, ran from the top of his forehead down across his oft broke nose to end at the base of his unshaven jaw. Wreathed by a mass of unruly black hair, his fierce visage was quite imposing.
"You know, referring to oneself in the third person is a sign of insipient madness," Mordeus teased. Dressed in a rich robe of sparkling emerald, Mordeus's mud colored hair, plain features, and simple brown eyes gave him an unassuming presence. A vast intellect and formidable magical aptitude, however, more than made up for his physical shortcomings.
"You know, allowing one's mouth to override one's good judgment is a sign of insipient mortality," Rell growled, his hand dropping suggestively to the overly large blade belted at his waist.
"Woo! I guess I'm supposed to be scared. Word to the wise big fellow, come near me with that oversized meat cleaver and you'll spend the rest of your days as a rock, just as the gods had originally intended."
"How are you going to turn me into a rock without any arms?"
"Enough!" the fifth and final member of the group hissed through clenched teeth. "Maybe if you two argue a little louder, we can just wait around for the dragon to come down and save us the trouble of finding it."
Stepping between the bickering pair, Thane was a tall man and broad of shoulder. Sharp, angular features and a wealth of pale, flaxen hair framed his jade eyes, eyes that burned with that intangible quality that all natural leaders seemed to possess. Starring intently at Rell and Mordeus in turn, both the warrior and the mage managed to look guilty under the annoyed glare of their leader.
"I realize things have been rough as of late," Than said evenly as he regained a measure of composure, "but we must stay focused as we run the risk of losing our royal charter."
"Not to mention our lives," Pratt muttered under his breath.
"What was that," Thane asked the priest darkly.
"I didn't say anything," Pratt said, throwing his hands up innocently.
"You don't think things are really that bad do you," Kesslyn asked as she ran a supple hand through her silvery mane.
"Well, we haven't exactly covered ourselves in glory these past few months," Thane replied.
"Now wait a minute," Pratt said as he wiped his sweaty brow with the sleeve of his azure vestments, "what about that vampire that was plaguing Ezlan's Vale?"
"We burned down over half the village and he still got away. I'd hardly call that a success," Thane said sarcastically.
"He hasn't come back though," Mordeus pointed out.
"What is there to come back to," Thane asked with a touch of irony.
"There is that," Mordeus conceded.
The remainder of the group silently acknowledged their stalwart leader's point. They all realized that the past year had been rougher than usual for the vaunted Knights of the Golden Spear. The recent incident at Ezlan's Vale had not been their only setback. The imminent invasion of an ogre army, there had only been then, the vile necromancer who had died of old age before they could reach him, and the accidental poisoning of the king's nephew was just a small sample of the Knight's misfortunes. Luck, ever a fickle mistress, had abandoned the Kingdom of Edeba's most famous adventuring company.
Just when it seemed that the Knight's legacy would die amidst the past year's failures, the dragon had appeared. Ravaging the countryside and causing the normal dragonish mayhem, the giant wyrm had systematically eliminated every group of adventurers the King had sent to slay it. Finally, in desperation, the King had turned to his last hope. Since any hope was better than none, the Knights of the Golden Spear were dispatched to destroy the troublesome beast.
Thane held up his hand as the group reached the base of the towering cliff. Soaring upward to a pinnacle several thousand feet higher than any of the surrounding peaks, the dragon's lair was up there, probably near the very top, waiting with the dark promise of death. By far the most serious obstacle in their quest to find and slay the dragon, Thane glanced back at his resident mountain climber.
Kesslyn, shaking her lovely head, stepped up to the fractured rock face, her elven features screwed up in concentration. A thief by profession, she studied the cliff for several minutes before stating confidently, "I can climb it."
"Rell thinks your crazy," the big warrior said eyeing the cliff distastefully. They all knew of Rell's dislike of heights and it was one of the few things they did not tease him about.
Kesslyn laughed and began the arduous climb, her speed and grace making that ascent appear easy. Every fifty feet she would pause and drive a metal spike into the rock. Painstakingly securing a rope to each, she created a trail for those who lacked her skill. Making her way to the top, she slipped over the crest and disappeared, the rope highway the only evidence of her passage.
One by one the other Knights started up, the daunting task sobering their thoughts and muting their voices. The only conflict that arose was when Rell suggested that he carry the frail mage to the top on his back. Mordeus had shot Rell a murderous glare before gesturing briefly at the air and speaking a few simple words. As the others climbed and sweated, Mordeus drifted pleasantly upward on the currents of magic, a self satisfied look on his smug face.
Regrouping at the top to catch their breath, the Knights rested before the yawning mouth of the dragon's cave. Looming ominously out of the surrounding rock, the darkened lair represented the greatest challenge the Knights had ever faced. At such a great height the wind blew relentlessly, the chill air tearing into the exposed group with icy talons. Huddling together behind a large outcropping of stone for warmth, they discussed their plan of attack.
"Tell us what you know about dragons Mordeus," Thane said, his eyes studying the cave carefully.
"Well, I really don't know all that much," Mordeus admitted reluctantly. "They can fly, their teeth and claws can rend a man in twain, and their scales can turn all but the fiercest of blows. I have heard some can cast magic, but I don't know for sure."
"So much for the supposed knowledge of Mordeus the Magnificent," Pratt snorted.
"I don't see you praying up any useful information," Mordeus retorted hotly to the blue-robed priest.
Before the priest could respond, Kesslyn cleared her throat meaningfully, "I think you gentleman are overlooking one important little detail. I'm not the best thief in Edeba for nothing. Give me an hour and I'll learn all we need to know about the cave."
"That's awfully dangerous Kess. Are you sure," Thane asked.
"Don't worry about me, I'll be okay," Kesslyn said confidently.
"Rell says to be careful," Rell said worriedly.
Kesslyn smiled and patted the big warrior fondly on the arm, "You're such a nice boy." Turning gracefully, she quickly vanished into the cave.
For the next hour the group waited anxiously for Kesslyn's return, each one preparing for what was to come in their own special way. Rell sharpened his many blades, the raspy sound of steel upon stone carried away by the swirling eddies. Mordeus, his nose deep in one of his numerous books, readied the spells that he hoped would prove useful against the dragon. Pratt prayed quietly, his heartfelt pleas beseeching the Lord of Protection's benevolent favor. Thane, watching the others thoughtfully, had the most difficult of all preparations. He had to mold the Knights into a cohesive force.
Just when it seemed the elven thief would not return, her miniscule form emerged from the blackness on silent feet. A look of exhilaration touched her high-boned features, her cheeks flushed with the thrill of danger.
"What are you so excited about," Pratt asked as she rejoined them.
"Diamonds are definitely a girl's best friend," Kesslyn remarked offhandedly as she displayed the fist-sized chunk of pink diamond she had pilfered from the dragon's lair. As the others gathered around to marvel at the priceless jewel, Kesslyn continued, "There are plenty more where this came from and mounds upon mounds of gold."
"What about the dragon," Thane asked, tearing his eyes away from the glittering gem lest it steal his soul. From the greedy glint in Kesslyn's eyes, it was already too late for her.
"Oh, him, I found him in the first five minutes. He's in the very midst of all those coins. His scales are the same golden gleam and I almost tripped over him. He's definitely a big one, but fortunately asleep at the moment."
Thane gave the thief a look of annoyance before turning to the priest, "Can you protect us from the dragon's fiery breath?"
"Good, that should be more than enough. What have you got for us Mordeus?"
"I have a nice little spell that should make your weapons capable of causing injury to anything short of a god," Mordeus said grimly.
"Excellent. That takes care of the two biggest problems I can think of, so here's the plan. First, we'll sneak into the cave as quietly as possible. That means no charging and not battle cries Rell," Thane said eyeing the big man sternly. Rell, as with most rebukes, managed to ignore him. "I mean it Rell."
"But how else can we strike terror into the heart of the enemy," Rell protested.
Kesslyn, seeing Thane on the verge of an angry retort, interjected smoothly, "Rell, how big would you say that I am?"
"Perhaps a hand over five feet and roughly a hundred pounds," the big warrior responded somewhat perplexedly.
"Now, how big are you?"
"A hand's-breadth short of seven feet and nearly three hundred pounds."
"Do I physically intimidate you?"
"How big would you say the dragon is?"
While Rell was far from being stupid, he was not the quickest of thinkers and it took a few moments for Kesslyn's point to register. "Caution probably would be the better part of valor in this instance," Rell stated sheepishly.
"A wise decision," Kesslyn said with an absolutely straight face though her eyes twinkled with mirth. Giving Thane a slow wink, she turned the floor back over to the flustered man.
"As I was saying," Thane said calmly, once again in control of his annoyance, "after we sneak in, we'll take up positions around the dragon safely out of sight behind the piles of treasure. Mordeus, you and Pratt will cast whatever spells you deem appropriate. Kess, you'll find a vantage point where you can put your crossbow to good use. Meanwhile, Rell and I will close with the beast and engage it in melee combat. Any questions?"
The other Knights looked at each other briefly before shaking their heads as one. Their trust in Thane's leadership skills was absolute, no questions were necessary. The time for discussion was over, the time of action at hand.
As the wind picked up, Pratt approached each of the Knights. With his holy symbol clutched securely in his hands, he prayed softly, the hushed words calling upon Braman to bless the recipient to withstand the searing blast of dragonfire. Laying his hands upon each individual to complete the spell, Pratt could not help but smile as Mordeus flinched almost imperceptibly from his touch.
A self proclaimed atheist, Mordeus despised those who hid behind the trappings of religion to fuel what he considered to be natural magical skill. He believed that if they could only realize it was not some higher power, but their own power they were calling upon, those charlatans who claimed to be priests would be a force to be reckoned with. Truth be told, however, his animosity toward religion was based upon nothing more than unabashed jealousy. It was definitely unfair that priests could not only cast magic, whatever its source, but could also wear armor and wield weapons, both a definite hindrance to any aspiring magi.
To Pratt, seeing the normally high and mighty mage uncomfortable was well worth the effort he put into this prayers. Praying for his own safely last, Pratt pulled out the solid warhammer that was his order's favored weapon. "Your turn Mordeus."
"My pleasure," Mordeus said somewhat stiffly. Pointing to a spot in front of him, Mordeus watched impassively as the group laid their weapons at his feet. Reaching into the thick folds of green silk to one of many pockets, Mordeus pulled out a small velvet bag. Sprinkling the contents, a gritty white powder, upon the proffered weapons, the mage's hands danced above them in esoteric patterns. Chanting arcane phrases, he built to a ringing crescendo, his normally sonorous voice growing harsh with the utterance of the final syllable. Flinging his arms skyward, a blinding flash of incandescent purple burned away the powder. Leaving the weapons unmarked, the powerful magic was now bound within the crafted metal.
Each Knight retrieved his weapon in silence, the residue of magic that tingled up the hafts a welcome reminder of the strength they now held. Thane looked around at the group, an unspoken question in his discerning gaze. When no one spoke up, he nodded once and turned toward the cave. Squaring his shoulders and gripping his sword firmly, he strode purposefully toward the darkened opening. The others, emboldened by their leader's bravery, fanned out behind him. Like an arrowhead poised to pierce the darkness, the Knights of the Golden Spear entered the lair of the dragon.
Stepping from the cliff top into the cave was like crossing from one world and into another. The cutting wind ceased, the temperature rose to a more tolerable level, and the majestic grandeur of the soaring peak was replaced by the encroaching closeness of the cavern's walls. The glare of the afternoon sun was gone, a faint, phosphorescent glow of a reddish hue tinting the stale air. Issuing forth from a species of prolific lichen that clung in large clumps to the rock, the subdued light provided just enough luminescence for the Knights to navigate by.
Kesslyn, her eyes shimmering slightly thanks to her Elvensight, pushed her way to the front, her enhanced vision and limited familiarity with the terrain making her the idea candidate for the point position. Leading them through the narrow, winding passage, Kesslyn did not stop until the walls of the small corridor fell sharply away announcing their arrival at the main cavern. Motioning for the others to remain where they were, she slinked into the darkness and out of the group's sight.
For several long minutes she was gone, leaving the Knights to await her return in the dim radiance of the blood-red lichen. Padding quietly back into view as suddenly as she had vanished, Kesslyn raised a slender finger to her lips, "He's still asleep. I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the walls are literally peppered with alcoves and clefts, so finding a vantage point should be easy. The bad news is that there is almost no light. While I can see just fine, you gentleman might have some trouble."
"Not to worry," Pratt waved dismissively, "I can take care of that."
"No, I'll handle it," Mordeus disagreed.
"Listen mage," Pratt growled, his voice rising dangerously, "I said I'd do it, so I'll do it. Keep your nose out of it."
"Do I have to muzzle you both," Thane whispered. "Pratt, you take care of the light. Mordeus, do what you do best something flashy and deadly."
With the argument settled, Kesslyn gave the Knights a flippant little wave and scurried off. The others crept more slowly, spreading out to take up their respective positions. As they drew near where the dragon lay, a deep, sighing rumble could be heard. The metallic tinkling of coins as they shifted beneath the slumbering bulk of the dragon rang out clearly, a sweet reminder of the award awaiting the Knights if they were successful in defeating the gargantuan beast.
Pratt ducked behind one of the giant mounds of coins and gems. A mere fifty feet from the dragon, his heart raced with a plethora of emotions. Fear of the unknown, the excitement of battle, and concern for his fellow comrades, even Mordeus though he would have died before admitting it, coursed through his veins. Realizing the others were surely in place by now, Pratt breathed deeply and focused upon the task at hand, the peace and tranquility of Braman settling around him as he began his prayer.
Thirty feet away behind a similar mound, Mordeus readied the components he would need to cast his spell. A crystal rod, a bit of rabbit fur, and a vial of rainwater procured from a particularly violent storm and his preparations were complete. Still a bit upset about his disagreement with Pratt, he leaned against the pile and waited for the signal to start.
High up on one of the cavern walls, Kesslyn loaded her crossbow and took aim. To her Elvensight, the cave was awash with varying shades of grays, blues, and reds. The dragon, a bright beacon amidst a calm sea, was by far the largest object in the chamber with any heat. Four smaller fires were scattered about like tiny tongues of flame shed from their parent blaze. Steadying her aim against an upraised stone, Kesslyn allowed her vision to slip back into the normal spectrum lest the sudden flash of forthcoming light blind her.
Three orbs of a brilliant blue shot toward the ceiling with a muffled whoosh. Bursting amidst the fanglike stalactites overhead, the gloom dissolved before the scintillating glory of Braman. At last able to see his target, Mordeus poured the vial of rainwater upon the crystal rod. Rubbing it deftly with the soft fur, he chanted words to a deadly spell. Pointing the charged rod at the dragon, he unleashed the conjured lightning at the sleeping monstrosity. With a blinding flash that stole his vision, the blast slammed into the beast, melting coins and shattering a king's ransom of gems.
As the cave lit up with the priest's prayer, Kesslyn exhaled slowly and depressed the trigger. With the release of the spring mechanism, the tension on the string was let loose with a sharp twang. The enchanted shaft leapt from the crossbow and sped toward its target, the fleshy tissue of the dragon's eye. Whether it hit or not, Kesslyn did not know for the mage's spell went off almost simultaneously, the blinding flash and thunderous detonation robbing her of both sight and sound.
At the sudden appearance of the blue brilliance, both Thane and Rell scrambled from their hiding places. With weapons in hand, they rushed the dragon intent upon delivering the first and hopefully final blows. They had barely crossed half of the intervening space before the two warriors felt the hair on the back of their arms stand up. A split second later, a bolt of radiant white streaked overhead and crashed broadside into the great beast. Knocking both men flat and bringing tears of pain to their eyes, the stench of discharged ozone inundated the cavern.
A shattering roar pierced the thin veil of silence. With one eye closed forever by Kesslyn's shaft and a sizeable number of ribs broken by the mage's spell, the dragon awoke with a vengeance. Scrambling to its feet, the dragon's good eye scanned the cavern. Focusing upon the hapless warriors first, it impaled the largest of the pair with its wickedly barbed tail. Slinging the dying man across the cave into the far wall with a sickening crunch, the dragon returned its attention to the last who had managed in his fumbling to retrieve his weapon.
Thane's vision had returned just in time to see Rell's lifeless body hurled against the far wall. An intense anger filled him as his hand closed upon the hilt of his trusted sword. When the dragon's gaze settled back upon him, Thane did not even flinch. Fueled by rage, he stalked inexorably in, determined to finish the foul beast.
Kesslyn fumbled to reload her crossbow. Her first shot had failed to penetrate the dragon's skull to the venerable brain beneath. Still, it had blinded it in one eye and she hoped she could repeat the feat.
Pratt ran to where Rell's broken body lay against the blood smeared stone. Bringing to mind the most powerful prayer of healing he knew, he knelt swiftly at Rell's side. With one glance at his twisted form, Pratt knew that it was too late.
"Pratt," Rell muttered weakly.
"I'm here Rell," Pratt replied as he tried to keep any hint of emotion out of his voice. Taking the man's hand in his, he squeezed it gently.
"Tell...Kess...I...lo...," Rell murmured faintly, his last words unspoken as his eyes glazed in death.
"She knows Rell, she knows," Pratt said softly. Gently closing his unseeing eyes, Pratt uttered a quick prayer for Rell's safe journey into whatever afterlife awaited him. Rising resolutely, Pratt readied his shield and warhammer. He would not allow the death of his friend to go unpunished.
Mordeus was at a lose for words. The lightning bolt was one of his most powerful spells and it had barely scratched the dragon. Needing time to contemplate his next move, Mordeus pulled a scroll from a pouch and cast the penned spell. Vanishing from sight, he would have the time he needed.
The dragon watched the lone warrior approach, confident he could slay the pesky human with ease. The ancient beast, however, had not lived for countless centuries without gaining some measure of caution. Sensing the magic woven about the man, he decided that would be his first target.
Kesslyn aimed her second shot through a blurry haze of grief. She had seen Pratt rise from where Rell lay and start toward the dragon. When Rell did not follow, she knew that Pratt's clerical magic had not been enough to save him. Pulling the trigger, she thought about all the things she had never, nor would, say to the big warrior.
Thane dodged the dragon's massive claw as he swung at the beast's exposed flank. The thick scales cracked beneath the enchanted blow and the dragon bellowed in pain. The dragon's return claw swipe would have surely torn Thane in two and he could only watch its approach as he had committed himself fully to the attack. Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth against what was to come, he awaited his fate stoically.
Pratt broke into a dead run as he watched Thane engage the dragon. Everything seemed to slow down to the desperate priest as a surge of adrenalin pushed him faster. Flinging his emblazoned shield between Thane's unprotected side and the dragon's vicious claws, he was rewarded with the painfully numbing impact. Thane nodded gratefully and swung again. Pratt, relieved he had been able to save someone, shook his numb arm to regain some feeling and joined the attack.
A second crossbow bolt buried itself to the fletching in the dragon's cheek. At first annoyed, but now truly angry, the dragon rumbled a powerful word of command. All magic within a hundred feet ceased to function. Inhaling deeply, the dragon was determined to finish the intruders as quickly as possible.
Fading into visibility with the unraveling of his spell, Mordeus screamed, "Run, the dragon dispelled our protection. You won't be able to withstand..."
Mordeus's words were lost to Pratt and Thane as the dragon exhaled mightily. A billowing gout of flame hotter than anything the mage had ever encountered issued forth from the dragon's maw immolating the unfortunate pair. Even though the blast fell several yards short of the startled mage, his skin still blistered from the great heat. Realizing all was lost, Mordeus did the only thing he could think of. Mordeus ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
Kesslyn watched as those she had called friend and companion died horribly. From her perch high up on the cavern wall, she came to the toughest decision of her life. Knowing escape was not an option, she pulled out the one magical scroll she possessed. The spell written upon it had been penned by an old friend and it would be enough to collapse the cavern roof. While it would certainly be her death, the dragon would not survive either. The Knights of the Golden Spear would die along with their quarry, the cavern their mutual tomb.
The dragon watched as the mage fled. Determined not to let any of the interlopers escape, he spread his leathery wings and launched skyward with a grace and speed that belied his great bulk. Covering the distance swiftly, the dragon chose to ignore finesse and simply dropped upon the fragile human. Six tons of dragon landing upon two hundred pounds of human flesh was not a pretty sight.
Unrolling the scroll with suddenly stiff fingers, Kesslyn ignore the splattering noise the mage made as he was crushed by the dragon. Focusing upon the precise lines of the arcane runes, she began to intone the spell; her mind was resolved that this was the only way.
Across the cavern, the dragon took notice of the elven thief for the first time. Knowing her words for what they were, he dragon began a spell of his own. Less complex than Kesslyn's, the dragon's dweaomer went off first. A globe of utter silence descended around the beautiful thief, cutting off her frantic chanting.
Kesslyn had nearly finished the spell when her words were suddenly suppressed. Looking up, her eyes met the dragon's and she knew that her end had come for all she saw in that lone orb was certain death. Turning her back to the dragon as it raced toward her, she sighed bitterly and closed her eyes. She refused to give the dragon the satisfaction of seeing her fear.
A moment of intense pain and then cold numbness. As she lost consciousness, her last thought was how she had ever allowed herself to get in such a predicament.
"Game over," the computer said emotionlessly as the friends' visors winked out.
"I can't believe we lost," Derek said in disgust as he ripped off his V.R. goggles. Unplugging himself from the bionet, Derek's expression closely resembled that of the huge warrior he played.
"Well if Morgan hadn't cast that lightning bolt, we might have had a chance," Matt accused.
"I can't help it if my magic is more powerful that your pitiful little priest's. I played my character the way I was suppose to," Morgan protested, "Mordeus used his spells in the most equitable fashion."
"Face it Morgan," Samantha said as she disengaged from the computer, "you made a mistake. Not only did you misjudge the lightning bolt, you went invisible and pouted about it."
"Guys! It doesn't matter who messed up, we are suppose to be a team," Daniel said, the parallels between the game world and the real world disturbingly similar. "If we're ever going to go farther than the second round in The Games, we need to stop this pointless bickering and act like a winning team. Okay?"
The others glanced around at one another for several minutes before their angry visages melted into accepting smiles. Once again, Daniel's wisdom had won out.
"Good. Now let's plug back up and get some more practice, the preliminaries are only a few days away," Daniel said with an encouraging grin. "Computer, reload The Knights of the Golden Spear and run program A17: Dragonslayer."
"Complying," the computer's soulless voice chimed as the group plugged in. Thoughts of failure vanished as the five friends once again became the legendary Knights of the Golden Spear.
Setting off to face the dragon, Rell, Mordeus, Pratt, Kesslyn, and Thane were confident that this time, things would be different.