Chapter Two - Part One
BTVS, its characters and the world it depicts isn't mine. It belongs to Joss and all those other people who helped him make it a reality.
'Dungeons and Dragons' isn't mine either. That was a wonderful idea thought up by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and is currently owned by Wizards of the Coast.
The campaign world this story is set in, however is mine - as are most of the various characters who live there.
Interesting things in this chapter: a combat sequence I played out with dice (and then had to translate into actions ...) and a discovery or two about Cullie's Quaternity, a couple of which I knew about, while the others I didn't, until they brought them up ... Still trying to adhere to D&D rules (which seems to have had some 3rd edition sneak in along with the 2nd) - so updating stats on all the characters, their spells and their magic items, as well as rolling dice whenever combat is initiated. At least one of them goes up a level in this chapter! I am still exercising DM's discretion on occasions. It's my world, and the gods are on my side ...
Morning arrived with soft influx of light, the slow sweep of a dying winter’s dawn easing into a chill touched day. Flux was awake almost as soon as the day was, easing himself out of the cocoon of his bedding to pad, silent and barefoot, across to the mirror surfaced pool so he could dip in his ritual chalice and draw out a deep cupful of the crystal clear waters for his morning devotions. He didn’t conduct the rite quite so formally every day, but it seemed disrespectful not to do so after spending a restful night in the heart of the still blessed enclave. He knelt at the pool’s edge, took the chalice in both hands and lifted it in devotion, murmuring the litany of gratitude and blessing that he’d been taught almost as soon as he could walk, and which had long since sunk into his breath and his bones, making his existence a walking prayer to the goddess he served.
“Blessed Sulis, who moves among the waters and renews the world with your tears, hear my words and know my heart. For I thank thee for the gift of another day – this day that you have sanctified and made fresh with the rains of the night, the tumult of the rivers, and the stirring of the deep seas.” He lowered the chalice and bowed his head over it, continuing the chant in a soft undertone. “Bestow on me thy blessing, as a faithful child of thine order. Let me bathe my soul in the glory of thy waters, let my body be refreshed, and my heart be made clean. Inspire within me the courage of thy name and let me be worthy of the wisdom that is thy gift to the world. For with it I will protect the weak and defend the innocent. I will stand against the shadow. I will serve thy cause. And I will praise thee as I praise those who stand beside thee. In the heart of the Earth, in the power of the Air, and in the spirit of the Fire, thine is the wisdom of the waters. Thine are the depths, wherein all things are born. Before thee I am nothing but a single drop in the ocean of thy majesty.”
He took one, long swallow – tasting the cool freshness of the spring – and then he dipped his fingers so that he could sprinkle the final blessing over the curve of his clean shaven skull. Power sparkled in the gesture – an unexpected bonus, since he was merely marking his devotion, not calling on the goddess directly – and he felt the shiver of a blessing whisper through his bones.
“Thus may it be,” Cullie murmured reverently behind him, and he smiled.
“Thus, indeed. And I’m thinking you’d do well to light a candle here before we leave,” he said. “She blessed it.” He stood up, turning to offer her the chalice, and her eyes went wide.
“Truly. Without the asking, too. The power in this place runs deep.”
Cullie’s eyes flicked to where legends slept and bronze scales caught and reflected the early light. “I noticed,” she said, a little dryly. She half reached for the chalice and then let her hand fall away. “You’d better keep it. The dead sleep lightly in this city, remember? We may wake a few on the way out.”
“Aye.” Flux nodded grimly, remembering the last time they’d had to deal with the restless dead. “Well, let’s walk softly and pray we don’t.”
pray,” she half joked. “And I’ll let you take point …”
He rolled his eyes and stomped away to unroll the hole so he could find an empty flask to fill. Cullie stayed at the poolside for a moment, then moved across to poke the embers of the fire into reluctant life. Ashley was awake and taking a moment to scribe in her journal; Meldew, as usual, was the last to stir, twitching grumpily in his sleep and waking himself up with a sudden grunt that spilled him from his tangle of blankets.
“Morning,” Flux noted from the bottom of the hole. “Are we awake and with the world today?”
The alchemist peered at him blearily. He was not
a morning person as a rule, and waking early after a cold night on hard stone tended to make him a little testy. Back home at the tower it was easy to sweeten his mood with a cup of hot tea laced with plenty of honey, but out in the field they usually had to endure his grumps until his mind and his body sorted themselves out and realised they were both awake. “I don’t know,” he grimaced. “Did we meet a dragon
“We did,” Flux grinned, bouncing on one foot as he tugged a boot onto the other. He’d not entirely believed it himself, waking in the cold stir of dawn and taking a moment to consider if his memories of the day before were no more than a vivid dream – and then he’d sat up, and all doubt had fled in an instant. At sometime during the night the Lord Watcher had managed to coil himself into the exact pose that dwarves still stamped on the back of bronze tradebits – the higher end coinage, worth almost as much as a Summer’s gold crown, and twice the value of a silver sail – although Flux now knew that no coinage stamp would ever capture the sheer presence
of a true dragon, no matter how skilled the artist that sculpted it.
“And is he still … here?” the alchemist questioned warily. Flux’s eyes darted towards the Bronze’s resting place.
“Well, now,” he answered, “he’s not flown off in the night, if that’s what you were thinking. Nor has he vanished into thin air, or turned out to be naught but one of Issamov’s marvellous mechanicals, all cogs and key turning. At least,” he added with a thoughtful frown, “I don’t think
he has – but you could always take your staff and go give him a poke if you wanted to check …”
Meldew glowered at him, all irritation and morning thunder. “Oh yes,” he muttered, groping around for that self same staff and using it to help himself to his feet. “Because I have such
a fogged head in the morning that I can be persuaded to poke valuable property at a creature more than capable of biting both it and
me, in two …” His grumble tailed off as he turned and found himself staring at the subject of their discussion. Wings that had been little more than darkened shadows in the night now lay draped like shimmering banners over the Bronze’s gleaming flanks, catching the morning light and reflecting it back in a dance of iridescence; there was something – some sense of majesty
– about the sight that stilled the breath and stirred the heart. Flux had felt that moment catch at him, even in the grey of dawn. Meldew took a half step back, almost as if he’d struck – and then he pulled in a shaky breath and swallowed and nodded, suddenly far more awake than he’d ever been, that soon after waking. “Idiot,” he muttered softly, half under his breath – although whether he was berating himself, or belatedly finishing his complaint, Flux would never know.
“When you’ve both had your fill of staring,” Cullie called across with a grin, “we need to break camp. A good swift start and we’ll be halfway to the Edge by nightfall. Gods willing,” she added softly. “Ashley, would you sort out a cloak or something for the Lady Willow? I’ll – uh,” she took a determined breath, “- go … wake our – guests.”
Flux and Meldew exchanged a look – and then the dwarf was scrambling out of the hole and hopping after Cullie’s brave stride, tugging on his other boot as he went. There were moments when he and the others were more than willing to give their leader’s fiery impetuosity full rein, and others – like now – when cooler heads and wiser choices needed to intervene. For all they knew, the Lord Watcher would be grumpier than Meldew if woken unexpectedly, and until they had some
idea how he might react to being disturbed, the moment would need to be handled carefully.
There was a reason the alchemists’ texts described the use of their fiery powders as waking the sleeping dragon …
“Oh,” he heard Cullie chuckle softly. “That’s just too … I can’t disturb that.
Flux hastened to catch up with her, grimacing at the note in her voice. You weren’t supposed to find the envoys of the gods amusing
. Dragons were serious business. On the other hand … He walked round her to see what she was smiling at, and found an involuntary grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. It wasn’t done
to laugh at a Dragonkin, let alone a true Dragon, and yet …
The firechild was tucked up under the Bronze’s wing like a babe, fast asleep against the shimmering flank; her hair spilled round her like a halo of flame, and her slender figure was curled in on itself, snuggling down into the deceptive softness of dragonhide. She looked younger than she had before, the tenderness of youth revealed in her artless slumber. Chit of a girl
, Cullie had called her, just before her Guardian had revealed his presence. She was neither a ‘chit’ nor wholly a girl – but it was
a charming sight, seeing her lying there like that, her presence gentling the Dragon, cloaking his terror and the true depth of his power. He
was barely more than a child himself – fifty years he’d claimed the night before, not quite denying his embarrassment at the admission. Fifty was barely adolescence for his kind, or so the stories said. The great wryms – a hundred, two hundred feet long – had nurtured their wisdom for a thousand years or more.
A pair of babes, the two of them, fast asleep in the ruins of a world that had witnessed the destruction of their kind.
And dangerous ruins, at that. They might be safe enough within the enclave, but it wouldn’t do to sleep so artlessly elsewhere in Sharshall - not when hungry shadows lurked at the edges of perception, waiting to take advantage of the slightest inattention.
Flux nudged Cullie from her amused stare and took a half step forward, intending – if acting without too much thought could be called intention
- to reach up and shake the girl from her sleep. Then he stopped, frozen by a sudden wisp of terror that leapt, unbidden, to seize his heart.
The Bronze was watching
The Dragon had one eye half open, a slight, narrowed stare that pinned Flux to the spot with the certainty of a spearpoint. Dragonfear
the stories called it – that sense of a presence so vast, so awe-inspiring, that brave men were humbled and lesser souls ran screaming in fright. It took a true hero to stand up to such a look with anything less than a trembling heart. Even if the Dragon concerned had intimated that you might – might possibly
– be worthy to be called a friend …
“Good morning,” Flux heard Cullie say, her voice overbright and her words suddenly – and unusually - tremulous. She was a brave soul and
a hero, but it seemed not even she was immune to that considering gaze. “Sleep well?”
The Bronze lifted his head – he’d been resting it on his forelimbs, tucked up as neatly as a cat – and glanced down at his still sleeping companion with what had
to be a fond smile. Then he blinked, and turned his attention to the two of them, tilting his horned head to get their measure. His eyes now held hints of curiosity along with lingering amusement, and Flux found himself letting out the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding back.
All those colourful tales and lurid legends – even the few more accurate accounts he’d managed to gather over the years – faded into pale sketches when matched against the real thing. He really hadn’t been expecting that.
“Strangely enough,” the Lord Watcher was saying, in that warm and resonant voice, “I did. Good morning to you both.” He glanced up at the broken dome and the hints of blue sky that were beginning to emerge from the softness of dawn. “You’re early risers, I see.”
“We’ve a long way to go,” Cullie explained chirpily, her normal confidence reasserting itself. “And this isn’t a safe place to stay. Not for long.”
“Safer than most,” Flux couldn’t help drawling, fascinated by the curves of the Dragon’s neck, by the shift of muscles beneath the metalled skin. Only the gods could craft such a creature, but he could see - in the divine design – some of the inspiration that had shaped the strength and beauty of his ancestral home. “With him
The Dragon chuckled, and Flux froze for a second time. Fire and metal
, what was he thinking ...?
“My pardon, Lord Watcher,” he started to stammer, and earned himself a second chuckle, this one even more indulgent than the last.
“Oh – good lord,” Giles murmured, his tone both pained and amused. “Flux – Master Wireform – please … I know that you’re concerned about offending me, and .. I am very
conscious of being … slightly more intimidating than I am generally used to … but – really … there is no need to walk on eggshells around me, and I can assure you, I am not going to take offence at some offhand or casual remark intended as a joke.” He lowered his head a little further, so as to meet Flux eye to eye. “I do have a sense of humour, you know. Hard as that may be to believe.”
He was nose to nose with a dragon. Even closer than he’d been the day before. Close enough to see each gleaming tooth, to study the curve of each nostril and count the pattern of scales that circled each deep and discerning eye. He could smell the taint of dragon breath, warm with a hint of unspecified spice, and he could feel the whisper of it brush against his skin, almost like a soft caress.
And that was all it took – that moment of suspension, balanced between the total awareness of the power he faced, and the dawning realisation that, despite
all that power, there’d been no hint of arrogance or condescension behind the proffered words. The dragon had meant exactly
what he’d said.
A very roundabout way of saying be yourself
perhaps but then, dragons had long lives. They could afford to squander a sentence or two. Flux Wireform felt himself relax, almost as if he’d passed some unspoken test; he let a small grin surface on his face and responded with a casual shrug.
hard,” he said. “Now, believing it of Meldew, that’s
stretching the imagination …”
“Hey,” the alchemist protested from the other side of the camp. “I heard that.”
“You were meant to,” Flux shot back, and winked at Giles, who rolled his eyes and snorted softly.
“Enough,” Cullie commanded, shooing Flux back towards the fire. “You can annoy Meldew later. Will you wake the Lady Willow, Lord Watcher?” she asked politely. “It will take us some time to escape the city, and we should be as far from here as we can by sundown.”
“Of course. But – please, just … Giles will do, Lady Cullandra,” the Dragon reminded her. “I’m not convinced we’ve earned these titles of yours. Not yet, at any rate. But I have been giving some thought to your …concerns, about my presence. I believe I might be able to … attempt a - a change,” he concluded. “Less … conspicuous that way.”Change?
Flux’s ears pricked up at that, a little leap of delight catching at his heart. The tales were full of dragons who could shift their form, with a great many stories in which they chose to hide themselves and their power in the wrappings of men and dwarves and elves – and even disguising themselves as baser creatures, as horses and cunning foxes, and wise talking birds who would lead heroes to their destinies …
“Uh – yes, I suppose it would be.” Cullie’s bemusement added a hint of laughter to the excitement fluttering beneath his ribs. That was politeness talking, not awareness of what might be about to occur. Had she not been listening
when he’d entertained her with his tales? Flux hurried back to his abandoned bedding, torn between not wanting to risk Cullie’s ire if he caused delay, and a longing to stare and stand witness. Would it be impolite to turn and watch? Could the Lord Watcher truly
shift and change? He pondered how it might happen – in a flash of light, perhaps? Would there be a swirl of power and a dramatic clap of thunder? Or just a rippling of muscle and bone and distorting skin? Shiftings – those undertaken by choice - were a matter of will and determined deformation. And until the art was mastered, they were as painful as those imposed by involuntary means. Potions and curses, and even the changes wrought by rings or spells tended to hurt
. He’d spent an uncomfortable day forced into the shape of a dog once, and had no desire to repeat the experience. But dragons –in the tales, dragons
shifted from one form to another without hesitation … and without much effort, if half the stories were true. “Besides – I am Cullie to my friends. If that is not presumptuous of me …”
“Not at all.” There was a kindness – and gratitude – in that gentle acknowledgement, that would put many a noble lord or lady to shame. “Willow and I are a long way from home. And you’ve been far more gracious and considerate than either of us have a right to expect. I hope we can
“So do we all,” Meldew muttered as he dropped the cooking pots back into the hole. Flux chuckled and bent to hastily gather up his bed roll. There was a hint of concern and a great deal of hope lying beneath the wry bite in his friend’s words. The lanky alchemist had faced a great deal of disillusionment over the course of his life, and he’d crafted his cynicism with determined effort, creating an armour that helped protect him from broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. He’d followed Cullie on this wild dragon chase simply because she’d asked him to, predicting disappointment in order to avoid it – and probably not expecting to endure more than their usual sort of adventure and find a magical trinket or two. And yet, here they were, in the company of legends – legends who, in some ways, were nothing like what the stories suggested, yet in others, were every inch the epitome of a bards tale. Not even Meldew could deny the possibilities, or the potential purposes that lurked within the gifts of the gods – and the dragon and his kin were gifts indeed, breathtaking, inspiring, and utterly, utterly terrifying.
In a good way, of course …
A soft gasp from Cullie lifted Flux’s attention from rolled bedrolls and folded blankets. There’d been no flare of light, no swirl of magic, not even the sound of those bone cracking, muscle popping, agonised distortions of form the Chosen of Terra sometimes employed. Nothing but a blink, and a brief stir of displaced air – and he’d missed it. Where, barely a moment before, there’d been a dragon, a sleepy dragon-kin sliding from the warmth of his flanks with a yawn – there was now a man, cautiously rising to his feet. A tall, stately figure of a man, with short dark hair lightly peppered with hints of grey. He was dressed in the Bronze’s colours – dark, close cut leggings and a shirt of deep shimmering blue green – topped by an oddly styled long leather coat, seemingly dyed to match the sweeping shading of his dragon wings.
Willow was staring at him with wide eyed wonder. So was Cullie. The moment held for a breath – and then the Firechild uttered a wordless squeal of delight and threw herself into the man’s arms, hugging him with a sudden, fierce enthusiasm, and the son of Smelter Wireform broke into a grin that threatened to split his face in two.
Every inch a legend? Perhaps he should make that every foot
Because, even disguised as a man, the Sword of Sulis towered over them all …