Here, There Be Dragons
Part the First
When my scout got back to the castle reporting the Old Ones had returned, I calmly assessed the situation and decided on a new plan. I'd thought the lights in the hills were merely another gathering of the usual unbelievers grouping for another attack, and I figured I'd just have them hacked up like always and send the survivors scurrying for the hills for another few months. But hearing from the bright-eyed kid in front of me that it was the Old Gods was something of a set back. I mean, how the hell had they found me already?
I smiled at the boy in the reassuring way a god-king should, patted him on the head, and turned to my general, Maddràs.
"Then we shall all soon be together on the New Quest," I told him in my firmest, most godly voice, letting it reverberate the way I do on state occasions. I stood tall, hoping the shaking didn't really sound like my bones rattling. "Tonight, I'll ride to the temple and offer thanks, and in the morning you'll go and meet them for me. Open the wine cellars! Proclaim the New Coming and tell the soldiers to rejoice! And here," I said, handing him my crown, "Wear this, so all will know that it is with my blessing!" And with luck, the searchers would think he was me when they saw it.
Maddràs' eyes narrowed with greed and his chest swelled with pride, as he set the diadem on his head. I wondered briefly how much longer he'd have it. The head, I mean.
"Then, the time has come, my Lord?"
I beamed. "Soon comes the New Order, and you will all have your promised post in the Place to Come; and Maddràs, be assured you have earned a special place for yourself in the next life, too. I truly believe you will get everything there you deserve," I replied sweetly, thinking of a poet on Andrew's world named Alighieri.
Maddràs grinned, eagerly snatching up the crown that used to be his father's before I'd shown up and left quickly. "Blessed be George," he chanted. "Blessed be His Holy Name!"
I pulled on my robe and headed for the courtyard. Maddràs was a good man as pigs went, and once he figured out I could crush him like a gnat after our first meeting, he'd been more than happy to yield his father's crown to me -- still attached to the old man's head. I never did find out what he did with the rest of him.
Of course he'd had his reasons. I was, after all, a Divine -- the way I'd used my magics to bring down the side of a mountain convinced him of that. Ever practical, he'd decided it was better to be the first living apostle of the new god than the last, martyred defender of the old faith.
He'd rolled the dice pragmatically and figured himself a shoe-in for my second-in-command since he knew how everything worked. Well, he was right about that. And even if he tried to have me killed once or twice, I really didn't blame him... just made sure he understood there weren't going to be any more attempts. Having your execution halted just before your head gets lopped off usually drives home a point, especially when you're face up and watching the blade drop. I'd frozen the blade as soon as it cut deep enough into his throat to leave a permanent scar.
Maddràs was my devoted follower after that, spreading the New Faith of the Lord George throughout the land. And what he couldn't convert, he killed.
I knew damn well there wasn't much time left, and while I would have been better off just slipping off quietly, I had to admit that this particular city had been better than a lot of the others I've ruled, so I figured they should have themselves a damn good party before my enemies wiped them out. And before they figured out I'd run out on them.
The Sacred Bells began chiming, proclaiming the New Coming I'd promised, and the soldiers began pouring into the courtyard.
"Bless us, Holy One!" they shouted.
I extended my clenched fist and flipped up the middle finger, the symbol of the Unified Heaven that Andrew had taught them. They fell to their knees, praising me.
I felt a pang of sorrow for them... until I remembered how they'd mutilated their old leaders and churchmen who'd questioned my ascendancy in spite of Maddràs' Edict of Conversion before they'd set them on fire in a pit when I first rode into town.
Not what I'd expected of course, but then from what I learned of the old regime, they likely had it coming anyway so I didn't lose much sleep over it. That stone pit was hardly new and there were a lot of much older scorch marks in it.
Besides, they were all soldiers here, anyway. The peasants in the villages should be safe enough since I'd decreed long ago that no one but the soldiers would be allowed inside the keep after nightfall. The peasants didn't seem to mind too much either. Especially given that the soldiers often used them for target practice after a few drinks. That is when they weren't busy raping their daughters or sons.
I stopped by Andrew's place in the North Tower. He was far from pleased that I literally yanked him out of the backside of the young knight he'd been wooing for weeks. I didn't blame him; the kid was gorgeous even if he wasn't my type. If he had been my type I'd have been in him before Andrew. I didn't need to woo a lover; gods seldom have to ask a virgin to give it up more than once.
"You and your timing, George. I barely got off my first load, and most of that wound up on his back," Andrew grumbled, pushing back his long, curly gold hair as he staggered out and mounted his horse.
Bitching aside, he must have guessed I was serious about having to hurry. He'd hardly done more than pull on a pair of hose and a doublet. Oh, well. Codpieces were silly things, and its not like he really needed one to look good.
I calmly offered more benedictions to my loyal guards.
"Would you rather wait until the Magicians' Guild got us, and the best you could hope for was going back to being eighty-seven years old?" I reminded him and watched as he frowned. "Just keep cool, and wave. Remember, gods don't freak out; and neither do their consorts. So just bat those baby-blues of yours and look happy."
The streets were filling up with revelers and we had to take it slow, look casual. It wouldn't do to have the Chosen see their god-king and his favorite galloping off in a blind panic. Plenty of time for panic and terror once we got past the main gate and behind a stand of trees, where I could call for Reflections and get us out of here.
"Easy for you to say," he said nervously, saluting all we saw with his finger. "I can still bleed, remember?"
"And I can still make you bleed, so don't forget that."
Andrew pursed his full lips and kept silent. He rather liked finding out what life held for someone who looked eighteen but had the wisdom of a full life behind him. Well, several lives, now.
I'd met him when he really was eighteen in one of the other Reflections. I'd liked him, always meant to go back for him, but time has a way of slipping away from you. I thought I was off for maybe a few years, but when I got back to that world Andrew was an old man. For old times sake I regressed him, and finding he was better in bed than I'd remembered him being when I took his cherry way back when I decided to stabilize the spell and take him on as my, uh, assistant.
"Guess you got a point," he sighed, glancing back over his shoulder, blessing a guard he particularly loathed. "Hope you don't mind, but I drugged Waldo before I left and tucked him into a secret chamber. He might survive if they settle on just a slaughter and don't blast the Keep."
I smiled and teased. "Hoping to come back some day?"
He shrugged. "Stranger things could happen. I mean, I'd so given up on you before you showed up at the nursing home."
I shrugged as we passed through the gate and crossed the moat, and murmured about the possibilities of return, but when we reached the main path we edged for the forest to the east rather than the temple in the west. As soon as we were out of sight we broke into a gallop, hoping to put as much space between us and the castle as possible. Andrew understood it was hopeless. The culture here was fairly primitive and didn't have much to offer. Plus, to keep the peasant villages in line, wiping out the entire citadel would serve to make a better point in re-converting the country to the Old Ways. The Magicians' Guild didn't take well to finding their agents butchered and a new ruling class in place.
Besides, if he were really looking for more than a good time, Andrew would have tried talking me into taking the kid with us... again. Poor Andrew was always falling in love. At least until the next piece of hot boy ass showed up.
We got to the plain near the Standing Stones and dismounted, chasing the horses off. This was going to be touchy since I hadn't worked out an escape route and I didn't want to risk bringing anything extra with us. Usually I get ten years or so in a new world before the Guild starts looking for me again, but this time I'd barely gotten a year. I hadn't staked out a place for us yet, so there was no telling what kind of world we'd come out on or even where.
I'd landed in the middle of an ocean the last time this happened, and it took me a week to find land. And when I did, the locals were a stubborn bunch who denounced me as a White Devil when I did a few tricks and kept on coming no matter what until I was forced to use lightning bolts on them.
"This gonna be one of those free-throws you warned me about?" Andrew asked suspiciously, knitting his eyebrows. I nodded, and he sighed. "Oh well. The last three centuries were pretty good, I guess. Had to end sooner or later."
I gave him the eye and vented some sarcasm. "You know, you don't always have to be such a pessimist."
"Realist," he said. "I mean, it's all good for you, you're magical even if you are a rogue Mage. I'm just a dumb human under an aging spell. You could appear in the middle of a rock and still be okay -- I'd just get my cells mixed in with a boulder." He shuddered. "I still remember that pack-mule that got swept in with us one time."
That was the truth. The poor thing arrived in the middle of a tree, his hindquarters sheered off. He at least seemed to have died immediately.
"Hey, not my fault--he started to bolt when the winds came up. You know better. Now, stop worrying, okay? Have I ever let you down?"
He grimaced. "Yeah, well... shit. I just hope it ain't winter where we're goin'," he fingered the light silk doublet. Damn, he looked fine in hose.
I held out my arms, summoning my power and wielding my aspect. I spoke in the arcane tongue and the winds began rushing around us. I kept an eye on the glowing hill, hoping the Guildsmen hadn't sent out any sky riders or night watchers yet. Patrick again, I figured; exes can be such a pain. And it meant I had to do this quick, because once he saw the shimmering lights he'd pretty much have my location.
The lightning started to flash overhead, and sure enough I saw a steady stream of black things masking the greenish glow from the enemy camp, rising into the air. I struck the ground with my left foot, then suddenly the world came to an end and we stood among the Mirrors.
I reached out and took Andrew's hand in mine, thinking "Love-you-mean-it," even if I didn't have time to say it aloud. We vanished into a looking-glass, without even checking the runes etched into it in my own handwriting.
* * * * *
No telling if that was a good or bad thing just yet. I tested my movements and seemed to have no impediments. That was a good thing. After a quick transfer like this, my magic supply was going to be pretty low for a while.
"Andrew?" I called out, hearing my voice echo on rock.
I heard a thud followed by some muffled cursing. "What?"
"Don't get pissy," I said, satisfied he was okay and breathing easier.
Andrew may still look as hot as he did when he was eighteen, but he wasn't the sweet boy in awe of a Mage that I remembered. But of course, that's what made him good to have around. He looked like a boy, tasted like a boy, and screwed like a boy -- but had the full level of maturity of a man who'd lived almost to ninety, and then had a couple more centuries of experience tossed on top of that. Hero worship from your boyfriend kinda wears thin after awhile. That's why I'd given him some time to grow up before I went back and got him.
"Can you make some light?" His voice had a nervous edge. "And look, don't shake your head like you usually do if you can't, `cuz I don't have your vision and it's pitch black in here."
Still scared of the dark, I thought. I did shake my head but I spoke. He was okay. If he'd lost any parts he'd have said something by now.
"Batteries are pretty low, babe. Stay still and keep talking and I'll find you."
I heard some scuffing and I guess he sat down. He immediately began singing something from his youth, a raunchy song called "Bang-Bang Lulu". His reflection of the world didn't have a high opinion of man-love so he used to have to do a lot of weird things to cover it up. Didn't keep the little bugger from coming on to me when we first met, though. My foot found his thigh and he grunted, so I dropped down beside him.
"We seem to be in a cave or something."
"No shit, Sherlock," he said softly, almost but not entirely free of sarcasm this time. His hand searched and he took mine in his, squeezing. "Your eyes adjust enough for you to find your way around yet?"
"You moved. Was that a nod or a shake of your head?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. That was a nod. I can see, but not real good just yet. Give me a few before we start wandering, okay? I'll do a glow spell as soon as I can." I reached down and rubbed his crotch. "Of course, we could always do something to pass the time."
He picked up my hand and dropped it back in my own lap. "That's okay, I still remember what happened last time we decided on a little nooky before we got the lay of the land -- those things weren't exactly wolves, but one took a nice nip out of my ass because we were too wrapped up in things to notice what was going on."
I grinned in the darkness, "Served you right for obsessing on being top."
He snorted. "Yeah, like that's ever been a problem for you," he said and putting an arm around my shoulder, brushed his lips across my cheek. "My little thing with that warrior-babe back there bother you?"
"Nah," I replied honestly. "It's easier when we don't try to fake it. I mean, when a relationship lasts a couple of hundred years, you need some diversion. We've discussed this."
"True," he replied. "And its not like you weren't doing half the garrison. As usual."
He may not have been able to see my blush, but he felt the heat in my face and chuckled. Then he took my chin in his hand and leaned into me for a deeper, more satisfying kiss. Our tongues toyed with each other, and his hands started roaming along my back. I was starting to have some hopes that he'd decide to screw more than just caution.
I looked up, startled, and blinked into the darkness. I saw two large, pale glowing things about twelve feet above where I knew the floor ought to be. I summoned light to my fingers, but there was just the glimmer of a spark, like two stones striking. Even drained, I should have been able to do better than that.
I heard a sound that was almost a snicker, but it wasn't Andrew's voice. I strained myself with everything I could manage, but for my troubles only a few more sparks fell to the ground where they flickered and guttered. I said something, but I don't know what, though it could have been the same as the "Oh, shit," that Andrew managed.
The snicker changed to a chuckle. "I'll be damned," a low, resonant voice said in the darkness. "Another one of the Magicals. I've heard of you guys, but I never saw one. And I never thought any of you'd be dumb enough to come back here again. Oh, and allow me."
I heard a whoosh and a tongue of fire slashed the air, igniting a pile of broken trees lumped into a sort of trough in the rock and we both caught sight of our host, who had the most delighted of grins on his face. Maybe he'd never met one of my kind, but I'd had some brief experience with his. I gulped.
We were fucked.
* * * * *
Andrew was slowly pounding at his leg manacles with a rock, and it was starting to really get on my nerves. He'd been at it for over an hour, and I'd already told him it wasn't going to work.
"So, how come you never told me about these worlds before?" he asked quietly. "I mean, you always said magic was a constant, it was everywhere--just like greed and lust. Only not everyone could use it."
I swallowed, thinking I might just take another rock and hit his iron head with it. "Yeah, well, think of it like your own world. You guys used oil for machines because you didn't know how to use magic, right? Some places you had plenty, other places you didn't have any, and the ones that had the oil kinda hoarded it. In some worlds, magic's the same way."
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk with the rock. Slow and deliberate. "So, that thing is magical?"
I sighed. "Not magical. He's mortal, like you, but on a different scale." Thunk. Thunk. " They can't use magic, but they can absorb it so no one else can, either. If we can get clear of him, I can maybe do a few things... but Summoning is out of the question. That takes a lot of energy, and I have to be able to absorb for a while. Especially since I sorta over-did it in the last place."
Andrew snorted. "Over-did it? Shit, holding court every day from a levitated throne was a bit much, and I told you that, but would you listen? Hell, no." Thunk. Thunk. "The God-queen had to have his own way, put on a big show."
He pounded the rock on his chain again, but his hand slipped and he mashed a finger. He swore a streak and tossed the rock away with force. I spoke a healing and rubbed his finger, and it seemed to at least calm him if nothing else. He nuzzled in close again anyway, and laid his head on my shoulder and sighed. We sat like that for a half hour. Then his head jerked up.
"I know this sounds self-centered, but what about me? Am I just gonna go back to being an old man again? Or just sort of crumble away because I should have been dead three hundred years ago?"
I patted his hand. "When I found you at the nursing home, I used a rejuvenation casting, and that's permanent. Everything was done in one big shot. Keeping you eighteen is different, though. I have it set up as something on-going so you never age, but it's a constant drain. It doesn't require a lot, but the worst that can happen is you start to age, just like you did the first time around. You know, picking up where you left off."
He nodded. "Cool. So I at least got another seventy years or so. Assuming a rock doesn't roll on top of me, or our buddy decides he wants get hungry for a manwich. Does this mean you begin aging too?"
"I'm immortal," I replied simply. "That doesn't change."
He knew better than to ask beyond that. I may have broken a lot of the rules in the Guild, but I still wasn't going to let him in on everything. Mortal man was only meant to handle so much, especially where immortality was concerned. And he'd only be more depressed if he knew.
See, Immortal is a tough thing to be since it goes beyond time. The World itself is wrapped in time so by its nature is mortal, and one day its time will run out. I've seen the end of time. Not pretty. I'm not sure what will happen to me when time runs out, but I know Andrew will be gone even if I keep him going that long.
Now, don't confuse being immortal with being invulnerable and all-seeing -- I can still die, but not naturally. I don't get sick and organs don't fail, but I can still be crushed, ripped to pieces or burned; it just takes a hell of a lot to do it. I mean there was the time half a parapet fell out from under my feet and I got buried in the rubble. Four broken ribs and an arm, that time. It was a tough week and a half, I'll tell you, especially since Andrew laid it on thick since I was at his mercy.
Plus any other Mage I might meet would be my equal, so it was possible for him to beat or hack me to death. And all mages have access to creatures that can devour us... which is what I'm pretty sure was what I saw taking to the air in the enemy camp just before we stepped into the Mirror Hall. And while I have a general vision of the future, it's not in specifics. I know that time will end, and what it will look like. I just don't exactly know when or what I'll be doing at the time, or five minutes from now. Well, outside of an educated guess, I suppose. Like right now my intuition was telling me that in five minutes we'd still be chained to the wall of a cave.
"So, like, what do they do with it then? The dragons I mean."
I shrugged. "They hoard it. Dragon's are greedy... all they want is power. Magic, gold, whatever -- they just want it for its own sake."
Andrew snorted. "I had a boyfriend like that once. Just sorta sucked everything up, and just about anyone off, to get whatever he wanted."
I chuckled. "Was that before or after you were in the US Senate?"
He giggled. "Before. I think I was still a televangelist then. But it might have been right after I got censured by the Florida Bar."
This time I snorted. "I guess you got a lot in common with a dragon then. Obsessive greed and no pesky moral concerns about how you get what you want."
"That's not fair," he said in a mocking tone. "Besides, you should talk. I might have hinted around I spoke for God, but at least I never claimed to be one."
He edged over to me and slipped a hand under my robe, found exactly what he wanted and started to give me a firm squeeze. His head was less than an inch from mine and his tongue darted out and teased my lips until I opened them and we started in on a long, leisurely kiss.
My own hand worked its way into his hose, and sure enough he was rock-hard and wetting the fabric. It was going to be awkward with the leg-irons and all, but there was more than enough chain for some play, and doggy-style worked for us too.
Andrew broke the kiss and gave me a crazy grin. "Last time I thought I was gonna die, I hadn't had anything in over twenty years. If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go with your taste in my mouth," he said, then kissed me quick and ducked his head under my robe.
I threw my head back as he sucked the other head into his mouth, his tongue dashing around the exposed top, teasing the ridge and my slit. I started fumbling the knots on his leggings and began working them down, intending to keep this a mutual thing. I'd just gotten him free, when he sucked me into his throat and I had the sinking sensation that with the way he was working things, it wouldn't take me all that long to blow and I was frantic to get his clothing off. I finally got his favorite weapon free and got just a small taste of it when I heard something and my head bolted up.
There was some clunking at the door and it sprung open, and our host stood there, looking amused. Dragons are such smart-asses when they have the upper hand. He had his wings tucked in by his side this time and he didn't look quite so threatening; just looked like an eight-foot-nine lizard walking upright, with his head down low this time writhing around like a snake's. They always have that ludicrous grin on their face no matter what; it's just the way things are arranged. But sarcasm was a more deliberate thing.
"Well, ain't this just fine. I always had some ideas about you magical types, and I guess I was right." He snorted and a little smoke came out, but fortunately no fire so he wasn't too upset.
That's another thing about dragons, they're very much hung up on sex, which is probably what you might expect from a creature that only gets it once every two hundred years. But he was more than a little indignant so I wasn't about to push any buttons considering our circumstances.
"None of that sicko stuff here, boys. I'm into egg-layers myself the way it oughta be, and I'm usually a pretty tolerant guy but enough is enough."
Andrew's head popped up, but he was tangled in my robe for a few seconds before he could get free and roll off of me. I rearranged myself for some semblance of modesty while he tugged his leggings back up, his face glowing red, and muttering about how no one ever knocked anymore, they just barged in. I elbowed him to make him shut up; since the last thing you want to do with a fire breather is piss him off any more than he usually is.
Andrew stopped talking, but he wasn't happy about it. Instead he went into a major pout, and folded his arms and hunkered back against the wall, not bothering to tuck anything back in and scowled at our captor.
The dragon snorted again and his over-sized head wobbled back and forth. This time I caught just a glimmer of fire in the nostrils.
"Tell the food over there I really don't like it when what could be lunch cops an attitude." He flicked his tongue and one of the forks coiled around Andrew's leg and glowed briefly. Andrew yelped and frantically began slapping at the scorched fabric. Then he bravely decided to squeeze himself in between me and the wall, whimpering. "So, what's with you and the boy? Since when do Mage's mess with human kids?"
I pursed my lips and my head bobbed a little. "We're, uh, just--you know. Friends. Close friends."
"Right," he said, his sarcasm returning. He leaned against the doorframe, brought up a claw and picked at something caught in a razor-edged incisor with a talon. "Uh-huh," the dragon sneered. "Just a friend. Like I don't know that's code for something nasty. Okay, whatever. So, how do you like the accommodations? You and your friend nice an' comfy?"
I cleared my throat, turned on the sincerity. Charm has its effect when magic sometimes fails.
"Well, it's not exactly the executive suite, but it's not bad," I said blithely, then held up the chain. "There's really no need for these. I mean, I know we sort of barged into your place and all, but we're more than willing to make amends and--"
"Stow it, you. There's no love lost between my kind and yours, and I know you've been here before. I can smell it. What one dragon knows, all dragons know, that's the proper way things work with us."
He peered at me and snuffled. "You and one of my litter-mates had a run-in a couple of ages ago when your kind started snooping around our place. Gutted him and left him on the beach for the humans to hack up; they even let his head rot on a pike above one of their city gates for a few decades... until I dropped by with a few friends for a little retribution. Of course, that was after all you guys gave up and boldly retreated back from where you came from. Rather a nice hole where the town used to be. I hear the grass is even starting to grow there again."
The dragon narrowed his eyes at us, or at least at me, and took a deep breath. "Yeah, I know that smell. You were the one that gave him the killing blow -- it was the last thing poor Udöed ever inhaled." A nostril flared, literally. "Not a very nice smell, either. Better than what the food smells like, though. You Mages bathe, at least. So, you got a name?"
"George," I croaked. "And this is--"
He waved it off, impatient. "Don't bother, I never name the live stock myself -- makes it too personal when you sit down to dinner. And you can call me Cérosk. "
Well, there was some good news in that. Maybe Cérosk saw humans as a game animal, but at least he saw me in a different light. Probably not as an equal any more than I thought him mine. If he didn't suck the magic out of the air around him I'd have had him filleted by now.
But that was the problem with these guys. Back before things soured between me and the Guild, I'd been an explorer and was one of six that made first contact with the dragons here. It was the first time any of us had been on a world where magic didn't work, and two didn't survive.
Even with our enhanced strength, it took all of us to kill the beast plus the distraction of fifty or so locals who saw us as angels sent by the local deity to rid them of the dragon. We'd have gladly abandoned them to their fate if the dragon -- Udöed, I guess, we were never really introduced -- hadn't attacked us first. So we'd been forced to ally ourselves with the natives and use them for canon fodder for our attack.
He grunted and nodded. "Yeah, that's right. Made you a bleedin' saint, they did. `Saint George, the Dragon Slayer'. Ppfft Dragon Slayer, I says." He leaned in and lowered his snake-neck until he looked me in the eye. "Treachery, I calls it. My littermate was a good-hearted sort, never tortured his food for kicks the way some do, just sat down and bit them in half, clean and fair. Even made a point of eating the head first so they didn't have a chance to scream... much. Doesn't get much kinder-hearted than that."
"And then you guys cock it up even more by teaching them how to make swords, bows and armor along with catapults and such. Been one round of mischief after another ever since then. Buggers come looking for us now."
I swallowed hard, and elbowed Andrew who'd started to whimper slightly when he figured out that referring to him, as food was more than just a put-down. "So, I guess this is where you get your revenge."
He snorted and he gave me a dirty look. "I wish. Fate drops a Mage into my hands at just the right moment -- just my bad luck it has to be the one I've been hoping to meet up with for seven hundred years. Well, revenge is sweet but I have to be practical. I need you, and I'm willing to cut a deal."
He raised a scaly eyebrow, "I'll even let you keep the human with you... as long as there's no more mating in front of me. I mean, sire-to-sire sex is sick enough, but when you do it with animals?" He shuddered and his long spiked tail twitched nervously. "At least my dame taught me not to play with my food," he added, incredulous.
I wasn't about to get into long discussions on the subject. A lot of the worlds I'd stumbled into over the centuries seemed to have a problem with men being together. Usually I was in a position to shut them up -- it's amazing what finding yourself suddenly catching fire can do to open your mind about things that are basically no one else's business but yours. But this was the first time I'd ever been accused of bestiality.
Unfortunately it didn't seem the
best time to argue the point. "Uh, yeah. Well, you said you needed me for
"Right," he said, shoving off the frame and waddling into the room on his short, hind legs. He pulled up what seemed a large table to me, but a stool for him. "Well, it's like this. Thanks to you guys screwin' with the food chain, things aren't the way they used to be around here. I mean, we sort of had to work out a peace treaty with -- with the men." He almost spat the word. "Sort of one of those non-aggression deals like we got with one another -- stay out of my yard, I stay out of yours. All pretty reasonable, right? I mean, there are alternative food sources around that don't fight back."
He paused, waiting for me. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to ask questions or just fill in the blanks myself.
"So, this is sort of a border question, right? What happened?"
I don't know if dragons could wince, but this one seemed to. "It's all rather... difficult. I mean, I struck a deal with the local baron, and he's been damn decent about it. The only murky question was about one little patch of land down by the river, because it changes its course now and again, and both of us sort of kept it as a DMZ."
"De-Militarized Zone," he said patiently, explaining to a slow child. "Well, that was fine. I don't go burning the fields on their side; they don't lob boulders at me when I do a fly-by. And naturally, if I feels the need to go plundering or what not, I heads down south where the infidels live. No one gives much of a damn about them, anyway. And it's all good until this new Archbishop arrives. Real snotty type, knows everything, thinks himself a candidate for sainthood, no less--name like Sequoya or something --Sequiosa dePondre, that's it."
He sighed and looked like he was thinking back to happier times, "Well, he don't like the old church the locals have had since forever, not him. Wants a grand Cathedral, like they got in the big cities. No problem, I thinks. Except the bugger builds it down by the river. Well, that was okay, I was willing to cede the dispute about the banks, just to keep things friendly, y'know? Then the bleedin' fool fills it with gold."
A long, slow shudder passed over his body when he made the word with his mouth. I felt a wave of sensuality emanate from him that bordered on sexual excitement. Dragons may have hoarded magic accidentally, but acquiring and keeping gold was the soul of their being. Tacky, you might think. But being a power junky myself, I wasn't one to criticize.
"Let me guess. You pillaged the cathedral, right?"
Cérosk was indignant. "I didn't `pillage' anything. I sacked it. I even left the building in one piece... well, mostly one piece. And it's not my fault. Everyone knows how it is with us and gold. It was deliberate provocation! Hell, I could smell it so plain it woke me out of my winter nap.
"Yule rolls around, and they're down there doin' whatnot, except they don't call it Yule like decent folk anymore, singin' songs in the middle of the night and marching around with candles and torches, with all this gold laying about. I mean, it was too much."
If a dragon could shrug, he did it then, "Plus I was a bit peckish after sleeping for three months and I needed a snack so I tagged a couple of stragglers, figuring they wouldn't notice what with the panic and all. I mean, it was no big deal, right? They was priests, too, so I knew they didn't have families depending on them. Who was the wiser?"
Cérosk had a point. Most places I've lived, the main body of the religious were pretty much a festering boil on the backside of any population no matter what god or gods were involved, doing little more than extorting money with vague promises of finding joy in the afterlife for sacrifices in this one. Didn't stop most of `em from leading a life of ease for themselves, though.
"So the locals aren't exactly up in arms about what happened?"
He laughed. "Them? They could care less about that damn cathedral. The priests've been bleedin' them dry for years to get the extra tithings to build it, not to mention the un-paid labor his-fucking-grace demanded. The baron and even the king hisself ain't to fond of him, especially after the row he created after I, uh, took my cut of the action down there... which was proper."
Cérosk nodded, eased back a bit on his stool, but I noticed his tail still twitched nervously. He knew this was a tough sell, even to himself.
"The way I see it, he built the damn thing on my land, so anything there is mine. I just went and collected it."
I had to chuckle -- a dragon calling a priest greedy! That old pot and kettle thing again, but considering the position we were both in not one I wanted to debate.
"Okay, so you've got a pissed-off preacher out there. What do you want me to do, whack the guy? Seems to me you could do it yourself with half the trouble. Or you could probably just call it off by giving back the gold."
He laughed at the suggestion, and a ball of flame slipped out and played off the ceiling for a few seconds. It ignited the straw Andrew and I were perched on and he got frantic for a second, but I just stamped it out with my foot. In fairness, at least I had boots on. Cérosk apologized for trying to torch us.
"Sorry, but that was just too funny... give back gold? That'll happen when men fly. And as for offing the archbishop, well that might have worked once. But the bugger went and gathered what he called a synod with all the other bishops. They denounced all dragons as heretical beasts and called for holy war. I've got an army parked out by the river waitin' to come at me, and after that the bishops insist they make the country a dragon-free land."
He snorted and Andrew and I both ducked as a ball of fire flew over our heads. "Well, didn't that just piss off the dragon community, I'll tell you. They're leaning on me to settle this without a war, or they'll turn me over themselves. And divvy up my personal hoard between `em."
"I thought you said the people didn't care about the archbishop?"
Cérosk wound his tail around his feet and grunted. "Peasants don't, but their lords are a different story. The priests got this strange system... if you aren't one of their gang no one's bound by their oaths. Went right to the top, he did -- threatened to excommunicate the king if he doesn't fight. No amount of mischief would come about with all his lords, scrambling for the edge on each other and he's out on his arse."
He sat back, "So, that's the situation I've got here. And that's where you come in. I want you to convince them it's easier if we settle this like gentlefolk and avoid the army stuff. One on one, winner takes all."
This time I snorted. "Right... like he'd go for that; one man against one dragon. Not very good odds!"
He raised a scale ridge over his left eye again. "Too true. But, if I had a champion to fight for me... and the king had a champion to fight for him... well that would make it all sound a better deal, right? My boy wins, I keep the gold and the archbishop goes away. I mean, losing a wager isn't the same as--" he shuddered again "--giving it back. And if I win, well I just keep it. And it's a win-win situation no matter what. The King doesn't have a few thousand corpses layin' about the countryside stinkin' things up, and I don't have the Dragon Lords goin' through my stash with their sticky fingers. I mean, it works for everybody this way, right? No torched fields, no ruined villages. What do ya think?"
I thought it sounded like a good way for me to escape. "So, the way I see it, you want me to broker the deal, right? Set it up and I can be on my way?"
He dug a claw into the rock floor. "Um, well, not exactly. I, uh, still need a champion."
I raised an eyebrow this time. "You want me to be your champion?"
He grinned, and I shuddered at the rows of sharp teeth. "Like I could trust you... you'd be off and gone as soon as you set foot out of my cave. That's what's so beautiful about this -- you've given me a hostage," he said, pointing a talon at Andrew, who suddenly had a low growl in his throat. "Screw me on this deal and he is literally lunch meat. And I'm not like my old littermate -- I got no problems listening to screams." He leaned his head forward, and the wings rustled a little. "I like to start with the legs and work back."
* * * * *
It was rather a long walk, but I suppose things could have been worse. Cérosk didn't have any horses, of course, something I was going to have to discuss with him. If I were going to be his champion, I had to be outfitted properly.
He had tons of armor lying about, though, and I picked through it coming up with rather a nice dagger and a short sword, complete with scabbard. I dug about for a halfway decent shield but no luck; I noticed a lot of the armor parts were fused together by heat... or simply bitten through. None of the weapons gave any look of being hard used either -- like maybe they'd never been touched in a battle with something like a dragon.
Sobering thought. I'd fought one before, after all.
There was no end of young knights showing up every now and then aching for a good fight for God and Country by slaying a dragon. Cérosk saved their armor and left it piled up right in front of the main entrance to his cave once he'd checked it over to see that he hadn't missed any tasty bits, working a suit of armor like it was a lobster dinner. He left the pile as a warning for the next starry-eyed kid from a noble family looking for the fast lane to riches by slaying the dragon and stealing his gold hoard. And there was no end to lesser sons roaming about. It wasn't an unusual course for a lot of different worlds.
The male tended to be the stronger of the human species and could swing a club harder, so he got to run things. After all, might makes right. In this society, the first son inherited everything; each family practiced the idea of an heir with a spare, but once the old man kicked off the younger brother usually found himself called into his brother's study, presented with a suit of mail and a horse, and told to have a nice life as he was sent down the dusty trail of life seeking adventure and a rich patron.
Or they could join up as clergymen, if the family were rich enough, even managing a title with a church estate. It wasn't a bad life, really... plenty of time on your hands, access to money, and if they liked women or boys, the second sons who took holy orders just promised their bedmate absolution in the morning and it was all good.
The only trouble was you had to be able to read, and most of these offspring of first cousins had a tough time getting a grip on things like reading and writing. So maybe only half of the nobility was literate. If they were lucky.
It was even worse for the peasants. They almost never had any education and it was easy to figure out why. Every good despot knows, the less educated his people the easier they were to control. The local religion operated on the same principle.
So in this world, peasants worked the fields or served the masters in some capacity or other, but never had any hope of anything better. Most didn't even have control of their own lives.
During times of war they were decked out in uniforms and given benedictions and heroic speeches and sent to be slaughtered somewhere for something or other that had nothing to do with their lives, being assured they were serving country and god nobly. Once whatever cause was fought for they were dumped back in their old slots again, where no one cared if they flourished or starved so long as they paid up their taxes and made their tithings.
What pleasures the secular branch didn't tax or take, the religious forbade as sinful. I've never understood why so many religious types think who you might screw was more important than who you might kill.
Yeah, well, I don't suppose I was a lot better either when I moved in on a place, except I usually tried to keep my nobles off the backs of the peasants. They generally died before they were old enough to have their hair change color as it was.
It was like I'd told Andrew over and over -- certain things are parts of every world we've ever found; after the constants of magic itself, there was greed, lust, and self-interest. All potent, all powerful in their own right, and that's what made the many worlds go `round. And who was I to buck the system? Magic gave me an edge, so the local system didn't kill me. I didn't have a problem with that.
Poor Andrew. After Cérosk and I hammered out a deal -- which basically meant he got everything he wanted, and Andrew and I got to keep breathing -- the filthy beast put him on something like a dog collar and leash and walked the two of us through his caves.
Cérosk didn't seem to much care that Andrew couldn't keep up, since except for the thin cloth of his hose his feet were unprotected. I had on boots and of course Cérosk didn't need anything for his claws. I managed to slow the dragon down a little, but not as much as I wanted. If Andrew fell the beast just sort of yanked him along without bothering to look back, and he was a sight by the time we got to the entrance of the cave.
He shoved us both inside a sort of paddock, after fixing Andrew's chains by fusing the metal into a loop around a tree. It was a good size pasture, too, like what you'd see on a big farm for keeping the livestock. I wondered if it dated back to before dragons struck their deal with men. There was a good stack of something at the far end that looked suspiciously like bones, even from a distance, but I decided not knowing was probably a good thing at this point.
I shifted my attention to the trail, but saw nothing but a blasted plain of rock and dirt. No place to take cover or hide, and no trees close enough for us to run to for cover, especially since Andrew was basically barefoot now. No hope of us running off -- not that it would have done us any good. Dragons are quicker in the air than they are on the ground, and they move pretty quick on the ground in spite of their awkward look.
"I'll leave you two to make a fond farewell," he said, with a little note of disdain in his voice. "And none of your snoggin' again, okay? It's disgusting." He went off muttering again about sex between two sires.
Andrew's crystal blue eyes locked on me. Oh God, he was trying to look brave, even if his lower lip was quivering.
"I don't suppose there's any way you can spring me, right?"
I shook my head. "I'm too weak for anything like that; he's like a black hole, sucking up all the energy. And even if I could break the chain, he'd snag us before we got fifty feet from here. He has to be watching, you know that."
"Maybe not... the idea of you and me even kissing seems to cause him some trouble." He put his arms on my shoulders. "The further you get from here, the stronger you get then?"
His lips tightened, and his eyes never left mine. "Cool. Then as soon as you can, do the Mirror walk and get out of here."
I shook my head. "Not gonna happen. It's you and me."
"Don't be an idiot!" he growled. "I've already had more than I was meant to have... and no other man had a better partner." He leaned forward and kissed me lightly, eyeing the cave. "Save yourself, George. No sense in both of us dying. If you lose that fight, he'll eat me. If you win he'll likely do the same and then kill you -- you're no match for him the way you are now, and he won't need you anymore."
"I got you into this, I get you out," I said firmly. "No one's getting eaten except maybe him by the worms later. Now, give me a kiss and stop arguing."
We heard some rustling just inside the cave... Cérosk letting us know he was getting impatient. Andrew muttered his usual mantra in such situations -- "Fuck `em" -- and leaned in to give me a long, lingering kiss.
I stroked his arm, whispered a few healing spells for his bruises I hoped might work even a little and we separated. His eyes locked on mine again.
"Go. Just go, and keep on going."
Then I turned my back on him and
began the long, slow walk across the plain, wondering just how long it
would take to find the King's army... and satisfied Andrew couldn't see the
tears I was trying desperately to fight back.
To be continued.