- Your deeds have not gone unnoticed...
The Dragons' Claw is the ninth questing area in the game and becomes available when all sub-quests and boss encounters have been completed on at least normal difficulty in Together in Eclectic Dreams.
|The Watcher's Eyes | The Cyan Hunter | Mirror, Mirror, in the Sky | Falls the Shadow | All that Glitters|
|Title||Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4||Level 5||Level 6||Level 7|
|Five Finger Death Count |
(Complete The Dragons' Claw on Nightmare difficulty.)
|"Bring forth the sacred pig!"
An oink, a squeal, a grunt, and a curse -- the latter presumably from a different throat -- emerge from the trees at the far side of the clearing.
The black-robed man beside you scowls.
"Bring forth the sacred pig!" he repeats. His deep, impressive tones break slightly on the last word -- leading you to believe that his usual voice is rather less dramatic.
A second chorus of human profanities and porcine disgruntlement fills the air.
"Pigs can be difficult," you say. "Back in Burden's Rest, a hog once-"
He glares at you, causing the cheerful and amusing farmyard anecdote to retreat from your tongue.
You glance over at Solus, who ruffles his wings in a draconic shrug.
"Wilbert, Nissa..." The robed man looks to the nearby group of acolytes, who all manage to adopt suitably pious and solemn expressions with admirable quickness. "Go and help your brother with the pig!"
A young man and woman, dressed in long tunics the same color as their master's garb, bow their heads. They scurry away across the glade, their boots thudding against the white stone slab which covers its surface until they reach the opposite side and disappear into the trees.
There's a redoubled medley of grunts, squeals, oinks, thuds, shouts, screams, and blasphemies. The undergrowth rustles with such insistent force that there might be entire battalions of warriors within its depths, engaged in a whirling melee.
Out of politeness coupled with genuine interest, you direct your gaze away from the shaking bushes and focus on the stone monuments instead.
"Magnificent..." the man begins, in a quick, high-pitched, trembling voice. His lips smack shut, slapping the word back down his throat. When they open again, the ornate intonations of his preferred mode of speech return with a loud boom. "Magnificent, are they not?"
"They are," you reply, feeling obliged to match his loudness -- even though your raised voices do little to mask the noise of the commotion within the foliage on the other side of the clearing.
The tableau you see before you, separating you from the site of apparent human-porcine combat, is indeed impressive. Huge pieces of marble, cut and shaped with evident artistry, have been sunk into the ground and arranged in a series of concentric circles -- forming a slab that covers the entire glade. From the looks of things, it's held the ground and kept the surrounding trees at bay for hundreds of years. Around its edge are monuments made from the same veiny white rock. There are arches, each consisting of two oblong monoliths with a third placed atop them horizontally. Statues intersperse these, sculpted into the form of scantily-clad women in eye-catching and indecorous poses. Each stone maiden holds a crystalline sphere above her head. These latter objects aren't part of the marble, but instead look to be made of some sort of light blue gemstone.
When the remarkable edifice caught your eyes and Solus' orange orbs as the two of you flew overhead, you felt compelled to investigate. Upon descending, and seeing a black-robed man standing at its periphery alongside minions in equally ebon tunics, your adventurer's instincts almost obliged you to leap down and start hewing them limb from limb before they could perform whatever nefarious ritual they might have gathered for. However, the apparent master of the little group greeted you in a friendly manner -- before inviting you to join in their sacrifice to the gods and the subsequent feast. Thus you stayed your blade.
Under the circumstances, you're beginning to regret that decision. You wonder if it would be socially acceptable to change your mind and strike the annoying fellow down after all...
"Ah! Behold the sacred pig!" the man says, his assumed voice rising in triumph.
Nissa, her tunic now torn and disheveled, staggers from the trees. Her hands are clutching a rope, the other end of which emerges into sight a moment later -- around the body of a rather large hog. The animal grunts at the woman as she pulls at his frame. Then he turns his head and directs a similar grunt at the two male acolytes who bring up the rear of the procession. Both of them are in a somewhat sorry state. One wears a tunic which seems to consist more of mud than cloth. And as for the other -- the youth you heard addressed as Wilbert -- his face is smeared with an unpleasant brown mixture which you remember well, and without fondness, from your days as a farmhand.
But in spite of whatever setbacks they've endured, the two men shove at the pig's hindquarters with unbroken determination as their companion tugs on the rope, and at their combined urgings the beast's hooves trot across the stone. Once the animal is in the very middle of the clearing, atop a small central circle fashioned from a single piece of marble, the acolytes move away. The three of them form a loose triangle around him, and adopt low stances with their arms braced at the ready -- three grapplers prepared to tackle him if he attempts to flee.
For the hog's part, he casts a wary glance at each human in turn as though assessing his options.
"Myra," the master says, "place forth the holy turnip!"
A fourth acolyte reaches into her knapsack as she runs onto the marble. She pulls a turnip from the bag, sets it down in front of the pig, then backs away as though she fears he might devour her in lieu of the vegetable.
You're something of an expert on turnips -- which is admittedly a skill that does little to impress the world at large. And whilst you're somewhat dubious about this particular turnip's holiness, it does appear to be a rather fine specimen. The pig seems to agree with your assessment, for he lowers his snout and starts to sniff it. Then he takes a bite.
The three disheveled acolytes withdraw from the marble surface, returning to their master.
Pigs are clever creatures. In fact, you'll wager that the pigs in Burden's Rest had keener intellects than some of your fellow farmhands. You recall Roland propounding over a plate of bacon and kidneys that pig meat is an important part of an adventurer's diet -- on the grounds that the beasts' cunning might be transferred to whoever consumes their flesh. Such a theory might explain why kobolds always seem to be as dumb as mushrooms, and why Medea eats so many bitter herbs...
In any event, the pig raises his head from his part-eaten vegetable and casts an unmistakably suspicious glance at the acolytes who've now withdrawn after so insistently harassing him. His snout sniffs the air. Then he looks around at the stone arches and statues which encircle him. But he seems to find nothing to justify his suspicions, so he returns to munching on the turnip.
"The holy turnip has soothed the sacred pig!" the robed master says. "Let the ceremony commence!"
You begin a round of polite applause, which you abandon after a few claps when no one else joins in and the robed man favors you with another glare.
"Ye gods, heavenly immortals," he continues, raising his arms and upturned face skyward, "bless those of your children who call upon you! We offer you this sacrifice..."
The pig looks up. He studies the robed man with bright little eyes. But he evidently gleans nothing from his scrutiny, for he turns away from the master -- leaving him to continue his verbose pontifications -- and fixes an inquiring stare on you instead.
You shrug your shoulders. The gesture makes you feel like a sinister co-conspirator, and doesn't seem to convince the hog. His beady eyes narrow.
The acolyte with the knapsack tosses out a second turnip. The vegetable hits the marble slab, bounces, and comes to rest against one of the pig's hooves. This seems to provide a more persuasive argument than your feigned nonchalance. The creature sniffs his latest acquisition for a moment. Then he gobbles his provided victuals once more, apparently satisfied with the current state of the universe.
"In accordance with your edicts," the master says, "we have welcomed the nameless stranger-"
"My name is <player Name>..."
"The nameless stranger," he repeats, with such insistence that you don't feel inclined to argue, "into our midst. Let %his% piety be joined with ours, as we make you this offering!"
The robed man's booming tones fall silent. But you catch a final word, one which he whispers under his breath. It's so quiet as to be almost inaudible, and perhaps it's only a slight shifting of the wind which brings it to your ear.
Your puzzlement over the seemingly nonsensical word is shoved aside a fraction of a second later. Lightning flashes from the sky, zapping down from the cloudless blue expanse with a hissing, fizzing sound as though it's cooking the very air around it.
The bolt stops a dozen feet above the ground, seemingly held at bay by an invisible force, and splits into a number of smaller, crackling blue tendrils of electrified energy that spread out like the fingers of a hand. One slender digit strikes each of the spheres held aloft by the statues, causing them to throb with a bright, searing light.
The hog's head snaps to face one of them with such a sharp jerk that it makes his entire body spin around in its wake. The animal gives a long, high-pitched squeal as he rotates -- staring at one glowing orb and then another, spinning on the spot as though to view all of the mysterious threats in turn.
Lightning shoots out from the spheres, arcs of sizzling, sparking power that crackle downwards -- right at the marble circle at the center of the platform and its porcine occupant.
The squealing stops. The pig's eyes widen. Then he flops onto his side, his body convulsing -- trotters scrabbling at the air. In a few moments he's still, but for the faint twitching of his hooves.
"The gods have accepted our sacrifice!" the robed man says. "They have taken their portion, and left the rest for their devoted servants!"
"It looks like they've left the whole pig," you reply.
The man regards you with an expression in which you detect both superciliousness and uneasiness.
"The gods have no need for flesh and blood viands. They feast on the animal's soul, leaving the base and inferior meat to us!"
His eyes narrow. The hands at the openings of his wide, baggy sleeves clench into fists. But a smile forces itself across his face.
"You don't understand the ways of the gods, my friend" he says. His voice warbles, slipping into a higher pitch.
"I suppose not."
His smile becomes broader and more genuine at your admission.
"Oh, one thing..." you say.
"What was that word I heard you say at the end, after the prayer?"
His lips tremble like two shuddering slugs.
"You must be mistaken. I said no-"
"It sounded something like-"
Lightning flashes once more, descending from the heavens and forking to meet the glowing, statue-held spheres. Each luminous globe blazes, before firing a crackling tendril at the middle of the structure -- striking the carcass that lies upon the marble slab.
The pig's body undulates. Its chest rises into a small mound, as though life and soul have returned to the corpse and the hog is filling his lungs with the first breath of restored vitality. Then it explodes.
A wet, spluttering boom fills the clearing -- accompanied by an overpowering scent of charred pork that assaults and tantalizes your nostrils. Pieces of blackened meat and gooey organs erupt in all directions like lava hurled from the mouth of a porcine volcano, splattering against the statues and arches, smearing themselves across the stone and defiling the once pristine white marble.
Your reflexes and presence of mind, sharpened through many long days of combat and adventuring, allow you to evade a chunk of charred flesh that spins through the air towards your head -- spitting blood, hot fat, and other succulent juices. But a loud, inarticulate cry from beside you reveals that the robed man's prowess was rather less effective at sparing him from the delectable debris.
He reaches up with a slow, twitching hand, and claws at the tangle of intestines wrapped around his face. Between the foul, ropey lengths a pair of offal-soaked eyes stare bloody murder at you.
"We... we should be leaving," you say.
The dense forest drifts by below you, its host of swaying conifers a verdant green ocean rolling on across the surface of Stromhamre. In moments the arcane monument and its less than pleased inhabitants have vanished from your sight, submerged beneath the emerald swell.
Your presence here atop Solus is superfluous. But when you gaze out across the landscape spread like a blanket beneath a warm cyan sky, your eyes drinking in the glorious beauty of West Kruna from this lofty height, you realize that you made the right decision. After everything you've been through, a scouting flight is pleasant and restful -- even if the dragon's orange eyes are the ones doing the actual scouting.
Other scouts were sent from the mages' tower in different directions, to scan the surrounding countryside for more signs of the enemy, and to help determine the direction in which your army should next march. Some are making for the nearest big settlements, where news might be forthcoming and some of the king's agents found. But you and your draconic companion chose to make your way deeper into the forest, though as yet your journey has discovered nothing but greenery and that now ruined ritual.
"I'm hungry," you say.
"As am I," the drake replies. "The hog would have made an excellent meal."
You sigh, remembering the sweet scent of cooked pork. You need to find some lunch...
The Watcher's Eyes
|"I believe that I'm better suited for this task," Solus says.
"Maybe," you reply.
You swing your leg across his back and step onto the forest floor. There's only a slight moment of strangeness at the sudden return of solid ground under your boots after your flight. You must be getting used to being in the air.
"But I'm in the mood for a bit of hunting. It'll be a nice change to kill something that isn't trying to kill me at the same time. Besides, this way you can finish scouting first -- and we'll head back to the others after we've eaten."
Solus blinks at you.
"Very well," he says. "I prefer deer."
"I'll see what I can do."
The drake nods, waits for you to step away, then leaps into the air and unfurls his wings. A few powerful flaps send him soaring up among the treetops, which soon screen him from your eyes.
You glance around at the surrounding mass of the forest. But no cooperative deer has turned up to submit itself for butchery. It looks like you'll have to do things the hard way...
Solus was almost certainly right when he suggested that he's a more capable hunter than you. After all, his kind are built to swoop down from the skies and annex whatever beast they've selected as their prey. But you've killed enough creatures to fill the pages of a respectable bestiary, and your time on the march has allowed you to bolster you skills as a predator with lessons from Roland and those of your other companions who are more adept at such things.
And so you stalk the forest trails, searching for signs of suitable prey whilst enjoying the cool, earthy air and the soft rustling of the trees above you.
The first animal to have the misfortune to catch your eye and tempt your palate is a plump, green-breasted bird perched on a branch. Its species is a mystery to you -- some local variety which you haven't encountered before. But it looks edible. And if nature didn't want you to eat it, she would have made it appear fearsome instead of appetizing. Or else daubed it in red, as with so many of her more dangerous creations.
A cursory scan of the ground around your feet reveals a suitable rock, which you choose to take as a positive omen. Fate seems to want the bird killed and eaten, so who are you to argue?
One quick snatch places the makeshift weapon in your hand. An equally swift throw sends it hurtling towards its avian victim.
As a child you killed a lot of birds with stones, either for a meal or else to keep their beaks from digging up seeds in the fields. The unfortunate fowl doesn't stand a chance. The rock hits it in the side of the head with a convincing thud, and the bird tumbles from the branch -- its wings fluttering around its spinning body as though trying to latch onto the air.
You're on it as soon as it hits the ground, your hand on the dagger at your belt. But it's already dead. There's no need to draw a blade across its throat or snap its neck.
You lift your prize, which has a rather satisfactory weight to it, and retrieve the rock -- now stained a guilty and victorious red. If you can't bring down a deer before Solus gets back, a few birds and other such smaller game should serve well enough for the two of you.
No more than a few minutes later, a second ambulatory foodstuff bounds from the undergrowth. Another childhood enemy... The rabbit.
When you were a small boy/girl, you remember being told a fable about a white rabbit who lured children into his warren and buried them alive within its depths. Once they perished he would dig his way back to them, that he might devour their fingers for whatever sadistic and inscrutable reasons such things are done in tales designed to enthrall and torment children whilst ostensibly teaching them important lessons about the nature of life. In your case, the lesson the fable imparted was that bunnies are never to be trusted.
Your hatred for leporine creatures only intensified when you began to work the fields, and became part of the never-ending war between farmhands and the voracious, ever-multiplying rabbits who sought to despoil the crops.
In all fairness, you accept that the rabbit before you now is very unlikely to have eaten turnips in far-off Burden's Rest. But your old enmity combined with your need for meat unite and conspire to urge her slaughter.
The bird-slaying rock flies from your hand once more, thirsty for the blood and life of a second victim.
This time nature thwarts your plans. The rabbit's nose twitches, her head darts towards you and the murderous missile. And she leaps -- jumping out of the stone's path, leaving it to find an impotent resting place against a thick root that emerges from the ground like a half-buried tentacle.
The rabbit bounds away, springing for the aegis and envelopment of a nearby clump of bushes.
But you're no stranger to leporine speed, reflexes, and their discourteous refusal to die at your behest. The dagger slips from its sheath at your belt, and in that same motion you flip the weapon -- placing the blade between your fingers, managing to avoid the pain and humiliation of cutting them open in the process.
The rabbit leaps. The dagger flies, cartwheeling end over end.
The weapon is faster, and your aim is good. You've lobbed your fair share of blades at the straw target in The Plundered Dungeon -- Roland's tavern. And during some of your leisure hours on the road you've tested yourself against the rogues and assassins among your ranks. Admittedly such testing always resulted in their victory and your defeat, but it's sharpened your skills nonetheless. The one problem you have is...
Sure enough, it's the dagger's pommel rather than its blade which strikes the rabbit's skull. The beast gives a faint squeak, trips, and rolls across the ground. She lies in a furry heap, her chest rising and falling with rapid, shallow intakes of breath.
You jog over to the fallen creature and crouch beside her.
"Sorry," you say.
Your fingers close around the dagger's handle. The weapon moves to finish the job -- to end the rabbit's pain and remove the evidence of your ineptitude.
But the blade's still hovering in the air, poised between hunter and prey, when you feel a prickling sensation at the back of your neck. Disquiet bubbles in your stomach, as the suspicion crosses your mind that you're feeling the same awareness of observation and presentiment of danger that the rabbit felt but a moment ago.
Behind Purple Eyes
|You keep your head bowed, sweeping the surrounding trees with furtive eyes lest you alert your potential adversary. Your gaze trawls over each thick conifer's trunk, over every mass of now ominous foliage.
There's a flash of grey movement in the corner of your vision as the rabbit, recovered from her stunning, scampers to her feet and tries to make her escape.
At the same time you detect a faint rustling in a clump of bushes which defies the strength and direction of the wind.
Your hand shoots out, grasping the rabbit by her ears. She squeals. Her paws scrabble against the earth and her head jerks from side to side as she tries to pull free from your grip.
With a sharp wrench of your arm your hurl the rabbit towards the suspect bushes. The animal is too surprised to even cry out.
She disappears into the mound of greenery with a crash of leaf and branch. This gives way to a louder, larger crashing that shakes the foliage from side to side. The rabbit screams. Something else howls.
The bunny darts out at ground level, shooting across the forest floor in a grey blur until she disappears into the undergrowth. The bushes' other occupant totters out in her wake, smashing through the greenery with a near-human cry of annoyance. A beastman. His clawed hands are pressed to his eyes, not quite concealing the fresh blood smeared across his fur and dripping down his cheeks. Rabbits are vicious little creatures...
You slip your dagger back into its sheath and draw your sword. It's time for a more substantial tool of war and death.
You move in for the kill. Then your boots freeze in place, as the beastman lowers his hands -- revealing the wounds of tooth or nail, and something else as well. His eyes are suffused with a deep purple glow, an unmistakable aura of sorcery.
"Very clever, human," he says.
The voice comes from his mouth, but you know full well that it doesn't belong to him. No beastman sounds like that, let alone this one. For the voice is feminine, almost human but for its unnatural accent and cadence. It reminds you of one you heard far from here, amid the northern snows.
"But I can still see you. And I'm coming for you."
The beastman steps towards you, his incandescent eyes staring with unblinking intensity.
Hunter and Prey
|Life, along with whatever soul the creature may possess, leaves the beastman's sprawling body with a rasping exhalation of air and a spray of bright arterial blood that paints fur and ground with victory and demise.
Yet the purple eyes still glow from his lifeless skull.
"I see you, human."
The beastman's throat is still, the flesh dead and frozen. But its lips move, shaping each word that emerges in that alien female voice.
You thrust with your sword -- a swift, darting strike that ends in a cruel twist of the blade. A second thrust completes the mutilation, leaving both eyes ruined. The sorcerous light vanishes. Only hideous wounded flesh remains in its wake.
"What about now?" you ask.
A female laugh, simultaneously warm with amusement and cold with the promise of wickedness, cuts through the forest. You whirl round, your gaze searching for its source.
"I still see you. Soon I'll be there. You've been a thorn in our side, human. But the Dragons' Claw will put an end to you. Our brethren will be avenged."
You make for the direction of the draconic voice, weapon at the ready, prowling eyes piercing the forest depths. There!
A glimpse of black and yellow between two distant tree trunks, along with a flash of purple -- a mottled pelt and the same sinister orbs.
You break into a run. The noise of scraping, snapping branches tells you that your quarry has done the same.
The beastman falls back into sight, emerging from the concealment of wood and foliage. He's sprinting away with the speed of his bestial nature, making the most of his head start -- apparently keen to avoid sharing the same fate as the caprine comrade you left eyeless on the forest floor.
You quicken your pace, straining your legs for all they're worth. He won't escape...
The ground rises before you, a gentle gradient which soon grows steeper -- dragging the trees along as it forms a wooded ridge that looms above the lower trees like an amorphous beast surfacing from the depths of a lake.
Your quarry slows as he navigates the incline, as though his legs are less accustomed to such terrain. You redouble your speed, forcing your lungs and thews into a new burst of exertion.
The beastman is scarcely a dozen feet ahead of you when he disappears over the summit of the ridge. A moment later he's yours.
You crest the summit close behind him, emerging onto a flat expanse where the ridge levels off into a plateau. The beastman's at its edge, his back to you. The foolish creature has cornered himself. Now there's nothing left to save him from your blade.
You're walking now, recovering your breath for the butchery which is about to take place. He turns as you approach. Purple eyes stare into yours, and his hyena-like mouth widens in what almost looks like a smile.
It occurs to you that it might not be he who's walked into a trap...
"I see you with four eyes now," the female voice says.
Above the creature's head, in the distant blueness of the sky, is a dot -- a small speck that grows larger each second, emerging from the cyan expanse as a winged form the same shade as the beastman's eyes. A draconic form.
You have to get out of here...
The beastman lunges, his passive frame erupting into violence with savage quickness. Your weapon flashes up to meet him.
But the creature drops low, shooting in at your legs with an attack so unexpected you can do nothing but brace yourself for the inevitable fall as wiry arms grasp the backs of your knees, and his momentum sends you toppling.
The instant you crash to the ground, the hyena-man scrambles onto your chest. His hands clutch at your arms, struggling to pin them down. His mouth widens, revealing sharp, piercing lengths of ivory. But he makes no attempt to clamp them around your throat, to risk his position by committing to an attack. All his efforts, all the force of his sinewy limbs, are devoted to resisting your struggles.
Over his shoulder the dragon draws nearer, her purple body descending towards the ridge where her minion and prey struggle.
"You're mine, human," the voice says through the beastman's twitching lips. "My kill."
Faster than Lightning
|Your teeth fasten around the beastman's forearm, biting into his flesh, filling your mouth with the foul taste and texture of his stinking fur.
The creature makes no sound, gives no voice to pain. But the weakening hold on your left arm tells its own tale. You pull that limb free, remove your jaws from his hide -- suppressing the vomit that rises up at the back of your mouth -- and reach towards his nether regions.
Your hand slips under his ragged loincloth and clutches what it finds there in a merciless, desperate grip.
The beastman screams, the sound emerging as a cross between a squeal and a howl. Agony does what even death couldn't -- the arcane light leaves his eyes, evaporating to reveal pained fleshy orbs.
You thrust your body upwards, throwing him off you. Your sword moves the second your right arm is free, taking him in the throat. His body tumbles aside as you spring to your feet.
But it's too late to flee. The purple dragon swoops towards you, close enough for you to see the murderous elation in her eyes.
She's little bigger than Solus -- either not yet fully grown, or else from a smaller breed than the other wyrms you've fought. Perhaps you can...
Thoughts of battle and victory fall away from your mind as her jaws open, and her maw crackles with flickering tongues of electric energy.
Throw the Dagger, Throw the Dice
|You dive aside from the torrent of sparking lightning, throwing your body into a roll as you hit the ground. It's a clumsy maneuver that does little to soften the jarring of your bones. But you rise from it unslain and unbroken, in time to see the last of the dragon's electric breath lashing at the ground. A long, shallow trench of blackened earth marks its destructive passage.
The wyrm soars upwards from her thwarted attack path, her lithe magenta form rising vertically with an avian grace that seems incongruous from so monstrous a creature. At the apex of the climb an agile spin sets her facing you once more.
A stratagem carves its way across your thoughts, a risky ploy that promises doom if it fails. You toss your sword to your left hand and draw your dagger.
The drake descends into another attack path. Death stares at you from purple eyes.
You have no chance against her while she's airborne...
Her maw opens in anticipation.
You have to bring her down...
Lightning surges between her widening jaws.
Your arm rises, salvation and destruction glinting on the dagger's blade.
Boss: Mesyra the Watcher
The Cyan Hunter
You've heard the mouths of dying enemies pour forth many things, from threats to curses, congratulations to inarticulate cries of rage. When people -- or even monsters -- face inevitable death, some will accept the dictates of fate with good grace. Others will rant and rage against the encroaching darkness, and spit out whatever taunts or ominous pronouncements they can muster in a final attempt to wound their foes. But the purple dragon's final words didn't ring hollow in your ear.
"Others... will... come."
You're still in danger. That belief, that irrepressible notion dominates your mind with its unconquerable insistence.
You close your eyes and whisper the name.
The blue drake has always seemed able to sense your thoughts, to anticipate your desires and actions. It's part of what's made the two of you so formidable when you've fought atop him or at his side in battle. And his eldrich senses have become even greater -- albeit more unfathomable -- since you slew his mother and he gained a fraction of her powers of far-sight.
So you picture him in your mind, repeat his name. You can't say whether the sound will make a difference, but perhaps giving utterance to it will help you to focus -- make it easier for you to imagine your thoughts reaching his draconic mind.
Leap of Faith
|You open your eyes after several moments of concentrated thought, unsure whether you've truly reached your friend or else simply deluded yourself and wasted time.
But you can do little more than wait, and hope for his return.
You stare up at the blue vault of heaven, like a <prophet/prophetess> awaiting a sign -- an eagle scattering a flock of lesser birds, a hawk clutching a snake in its talons, the passage of a firey-tailed comet, or one of the myriad other happenings from which seers claim to glean omens and foretell the coming of boons or disasters. But the sky remains empty as the long minutes pass, a blank scroll upon which your destiny is either hidden or as yet unwritten.
It's only as your turning away, your eyes sore from the blazing brightness, that the heavens acquiesce at last.
In the distance you see a shape, tiny and indistinct but familiar in its flight. You exhale, emptying your lungs of the heavy air which weighed them down like masses of lead, feeling as though you might float away with your newfound buoyancy. Once Solus is here you can fly back to the others and...
It's then that you realize that he's coming from the wrong direction -- from whence you came instead of whither he continued to scout. And as the faraway form approaches, its scaly hide emerging from the obscurity bestowed upon it by remoteness and the enveloping sky, you see that it isn't azure. Not the rich dark blue of your friend and mount. It's cyan.
Actions follow that epiphany. Your body turns and prepares to sprint back down the slope -- to lose itself amidst the dense forest and thwart your airborne foe. But something at the very periphery of your sight forestalls your flight.
Another shape outlined against the soft mantle of the sky. Another dragon, this one coming from the opposite direction. This one azure.
You look from one drake to the other. As far as you can judge, they're equidistant from you. If you flee, the enemy wyrm's wrath will be left to fall on Solus.
So you wait, watching each of them in turn -- observing with troubled mind and heart as both rescue and ruin converge upon you.
Solus' wings are carving their way through the air, flinging him forward faster than you've ever seen him move. But across the sky, the cyan drake is swift as well. And it's nearer... No, not nearer... Larger. A bigger dragon that the purple corpse that sprawls close by.
An insurmountable opponent, if you're any judge. A lone <man/woman> and a dragon not so very long out of his shell can't hope to master such an enemy. You need to escape, to return to your waiting army and powerful allies. Let it follow you there if it likes, and see what happens to it...
But your visions of the cyan wyrm being slaughtered by your comrades' combined strength and sorcery seem an impotent daydream at this moment, as its powerful frame cuts through the air to bring about your death.
Time flows with simultaneous quickness and slowness, creeping and rushing as the scales of fate totter and tremble their way to their verdict.
Two draconic bodies loom in the sky, close enough for you to perceive friend and enemy with perfect clarity -- to see both their gazes fixed upon you. The cyan dragon soars overhead, maintaining its altitude. And after the purple one's bombardment, you understand what that means.
As for Solus, he swoops downwards, drawing closer to the level of the plateau. You run towards the edge, understanding his intention as surely as he always understands yours. There isn't time for him to stop and land. You have to...
Your enemy opens its mouth.
Your friend dips into the nadir of his flight path.
There's a hissing noise from above.
|Whether it's down to your agility, Solus' control of his speed, or the synchronicity derived from your shared bond, your timing is perfect. You land atop the saddle, grabbing the reins to steady yourself.
Behind you, the hissing noise changes pitch and becomes paired with a splash. You hazard a glance back at the plateau and see the ground steaming -- scarred and corroded as though by a powerful acid.
A deep bellow of outrage, unmistakably masculine in its tones, falls away behind you as the hostile drake hurtles in the opposite direction -- his momentum carrying him onwards, cheating him of his quarry.
The cyan beast rushes beyond the plateau before swinging round in a looping arc and reversing his direction.
"You went hunting for dragons?" Solus asks.
The words are soft, almost stolen by the wind.
"I heard you taste like chicken."
You feel his body straining beneath you, his powerful muscles propelling him for all they're worth.
But the cyan dragon is fast as well... Faster. You twist round in the saddle, wrapping your left arm through the reins to help you maintain your balance, and see the monster gaining on you. Gaining, and rising. He's trying to get above you. He must be...
A spurt of motion, a sweeping flap of his leathery wings, sends the dragon upwards. There he seems to hover for a moment, matching your speed, looming like an immense bird of prey above its victim.
His maw opens. A blob of viscous green liquid splurges forth, hissing down towards you.
Secret Magic Word
|Solus darts to the side, navigating the air with the deftness of an eel in water.
The corrosive globule fizzes past, plunging out of sight, arcing down towards the forest far below. You hope it doesn't land on anyone.
Your enemy's throat bulges as he draws another portion of acid from whatever inner recess provides them. Cyan cheeks expand. Cruel, predatory jaws open. Another glutinous globe shoots from his maw.
But again you focus your gaze on it, willing its angle of descent into your companion's mind. And once more he swerves, putting you both out of its deadly trajectory.
You read the frustration in the cyan drake's eyes. It must seem that the stars in their courses are set against him, or else that Solus possesses the luck of the trickster god himself.
Another bulging green missile rains down towards you. And another. And another. But each time Solus evades them with effortless grace, thwarting the acidic bombardment.
A deep, guttural noise resounds from your enemy -- like that of a human trying to clear phlegm from a blocked throat. His mouth opens, and a pitiful splutter of green droplets tumbles from it. When this too falls through the empty air, vanishing into the forest below, he roars.
The finer details of monstrous anatomy are Lucian's purview rather than your own. Whether the creature's supply of acid is exhausted and must be replenished, or else some other inner organ has ruptured, you cannot say. Though you very much hope the latter is true -- that a slow, agonizing death from internal corrosion awaits him.
But regardless of what may be going on inside the drake, his speed doesn't slacken. In fact, it quickens...
The dragon swoops, his wings sweeping behind him as he hurls himself into his descent like an immense projectile.
Solus drops in turn, plunging downwards at a sharp angle -- forcing you to clutch the reins with both hands and press your body against his. The azure wyrm swerves, twisting through the air.
You look round, and see your pursuer matching his movement -- drawing closer with each passing moment.
Solus swerves once more, twisting to the opposite side with a sudden sharpness that makes your head snap round. As it does, you glimpse something in the trees below.
The information barely has time to travel between eyes and brain before Solus reacts to it. He descends towards the treetops, making for that familiar place -- throwing himself into a final burst of exertion that sends him ahead of your cyan enemy.
His scaly feet strike marble, his body shuddering with the hardness of the landing, and sprint on for several more paces as he tries to dissipate his speed -- azure wings outstretched to catch the air. There's an aggrieved mooing sound to your right, where one of their tips brushed against a cow which stands in the middle of the clearing -- staring in disapproval.
"You!" a voice cries out, as Solus comes to a stop just beyond the marble surface.
The robed master glares at you.
"You're no longer welcome in this sacred place! You-"
"Move!" you yell.
You leap off Solus' back, grab the man by his robes, and drag him further into the tree line.
"Help!" the man cries out. "Acolytes!"
But his minions are gazing upward, looks of awe and horror frozen across their faces.
A shadow descends across the clearing, prompting an impressed lowing noise from the cow and silencing the master. You release him, and turn to watch your enemy's arrival.
There's a crunching splat as the dragon lands, annihilating the bovine sacrifice beneath his scaly bulk.
Laughter rumbles across the glade.
"Do you think these allies can save you?"
"What? No!" the robed man squeals. "We're not <his/her> allies! I don't even like <him/her>! I-"
"No," you reply. "But I know something that might..."
Boss: Nimrod the Hunter
Mirror, Mirror, in the Sky
|Undulating emerald woods and soft rushing skies surround you, escorting you on your return journey as they did on your initial scouting foray. But the beautiful vista is different now, an exquisite tapestry of mockery that taunts and teases with imaginings of what lies ahead.
You try to put the unpleasant sensation aside, to crush twisting emotion beneath the solid and steady weight of logical thought. Your companions are capable, each of them possessing the skill and courage to fight and triumph. And together, in the army which has slowly coalesced since the day you left Burden's Rest -- becoming mightier with each passing adventure -- they form a fighting force whose membership any warrior would crave and whose leadership any commander might covet.
If the rest of this 'Dragons' Claw' has come for them, those wyrms will fare no better than the purple and cyan predecessors whose corpses litter the ground and souls flit around within the bubbling bowels of hell.
You know all this.
And yet the disquiet remains in full measure.
Flight of Dragons
|The scene is apocalyptic, a battle worthy of a final clash between gods and monsters at the end of creation. The vista spread before you, painted across ground and sky in a vast, sweeping expanse of length, breadth, and height, is almost overwhelming.
Dots and splashes of color and motion resolve themselves into decipherability as Solus' wings carry you towards the place where you left your companions a few hours and two dead drakes ago. But it still takes several moments for you to drink it all in, for the chaos to settle into something you can comprehend.
The magic school is once more the nexus of arcane combat. Tiny winged shapes flap and flutter around it, like a swarm of silver moths. The creatures gleam and glimmer, sprinklings of gaudy baubles that reflect both the radiance of the sun and the throbbing multicolored glow from countless spells which whoosh and explode around them.
And this is but one segment of the raging conflict that covers land and air with sedate impartiality.
Most of your comrades are scattered across the grass, fighting dispersed battles in little pockets - many of them firing eldritch missiles or arrows at more of the little airborne creatures. Some have requisitioned the various flying mounts which have become part of your retinue during your eclectic journeys, and taken to the skies themselves. There they battle the small beasts in their own element, and other foes besides...
Even after all the thing you've seen, every horrific monstrosity and sorcerous wonder that the fates have flung in your path, all the drakes you've encountered and befriended or slain, what you witness sends your heart hammering within your breast.
Dragons. At least a dozen of them, in the same gleaming argentine hues as the smaller creatures - which you now perceive are whelplings, miniature versions of the great wyrms they flit around like shoals of brazen minnows encircling sharks.
As you look on, one of the huge drakes swoops down towards a pocket of fighting on the ground. Its talons claw at a group of mages, only to rebound from a magical barrier in an explosion of golden light. The wyrm soars back into the air once more, thwarted for the moment but already moving across the field as though seeking out other victims amongst the sprawling fray. Its companions are doing the same - descending towards the fighting on the ground or else plunging into that which scars the heavens.
That's the word that thunders in your brain its echoes enveloping you like a funeral shroud.
So many drakes... It's as though all the draconic forces across West Kruna have chosen to descend upon you - relinquishing every other theater of war in the name of eradicating your army. The host you see before you is impossible, invincible... Argentine destruction ready to consume you all an end your tale.
But you're not dead yet. And if this is the end, they won't find you selling your lives cheaply...
You glance towards the aerial conflict those of your companions who are airborne seem hard-pressed by the swarms of whelps and the bigger dragons that swim amongst them with lashing talons and snapping jaws.
Your comrades on the ground are better placed to offer resistance to defend one another and take the fight to the enemy as they've done each time you've lead them into battle. But those in the air are pursing a more desperate stratagem, having thrown themselves into a realm in which they're very much out of place.
So it's there that you direct your attention, and Solus his flight.
Roland and Aesa are the first of your companions you come upon when azure wings bring you into the silver tempest. The two of them are sat back to back atop a pegasus, encircled by flitting whelplingss. Roland directs the majestic mount with a hand upon the beast's reins. His other swings his orange blade, sending it through one of the miniature wyrms. The creature's head and body fall towards the ground in seperate arcs.
The shaman, tied to him at the waist so as to keep her balance, is invoking a bright, searing rune - conjuring it in the air and causing the nearby dragonlings to flit away as though burned by its mere proximity.
Solus Takes you closer. You draw your weapon.
|"Thank you, southlander."
The shaman's fingers caress the air, and the blazing symbol vanishes.
"What happened?" you ask.
"Don't know where the damn things came from," Roland replies. "Our scouts saw one of them in the sky. Next thing we knew the whole flock was on us."
"They all look the same," you say, gesturing to a nearby portion of sky from which three of the large wyrms are swooping - their paths diverging as they pick out their targets below.
"That's because only one is real," Medea's voice says, underscored by a definitive, slicing wave of music.
You look yo your right and see a cascade of dancing chestnut hair. Your gaze ascends to take in the bard's upside-down face, followed by her equally inverted body. A magic carpet rests overhead, the fabric of its border fluttering in the wind. There's a purple glow around her boots where they meet the eldritch rug's material.
"I didn't know the carpets worked like that," you say.
"Perhaps if you spent more time learning about the artifacts you discover, instead of simply shoving them aside when something catches your eye-"
"They're not real?" Roland interrupts.
"One of them flew close to me. Close enough for me to hear my song rebounding from its scales. The sound was wrong. I believe they're illusions."
Your eyes widen. Elation washes over you. If that's true, then this battle can be won...
"I have to get closer to one of the big dragons," the bard says. "Keep the whelps away from me. Some of them may be illusions, but not all."
You nod. The ones you cut down were solid enough.
Medea shoots ahead, her carpet spinning as she clears Solus - until she's standing upright atop of it, her hair falling into place behind her.
The azure drake and your companions' pegasus move to flank the bard, as clouds of silvery dragonlings swim through the air to converge upon her.
The Mirror Lies
|Medea's voice an harp form a mélange of sonic force, a blast of heavenly beauty and hellish volume that seems to spiral through the air like a physical thing - a spear of pure sound that parts the ether before it.
The silver dragon's howl reminds you of a dying woman's scream when it transfixes her - driving against her bright, mirror-like scales. Her entire body seems to shudder, a tremor spreading out from the point of impact and oscillating across her hide. A faint ripple dances across the argentine body, as though is were a reflection upon the surface of a lake.
The elven bard cries out in triumph, the victorious exaltation becoming the beginning of a new verse, one even louder and higher. Fingers slip across the strings of her harp, fashioning delectation and destruction.
Another scream, as the ripples become a surging tide - the waves of a turbulent ocean rebelling against existence. Then comes the explosion.
Silver matter bursts in all directions, parting in silent violence, vanishing into an insubstantial mist within the beat of a heart.
So she was right...
You look around the battlefield, now transformed in your mind from a scene of impending doom to a curious labyrinth of mirrors and trickery. The other drakes and whelplings continue their flights, their paths of motion and attack. But only one of the great wyrms is real... And you need to find her.
A gnomish sorceress and goblin archer, the two of them mounted atop a crimson-furred manticore, flap their way towards you. A gesture sends them into position - protecting Medea in your stead while you and Solus slip away.
Together the bard and her retinue fly off to bring her epiphanous music to bear against other foew. But you depart in a different direction.
It'll take time or Medea to strip the illusions away one by one. And the sooner the phantoms can be culled, the real enemies exposed, the quicker you can bring this battle to a close.
So you scan the skies around you as Solus soars and swoops amidst the fray, searching for any clue that will allow you to pick your target our from the silver illusions.
|"That one," you and Solus say with a single voice.
The keen-eyed drake has seen it too.
All of the dragons' mirrored scales are reflecting the chaos around them, like canvasses upon which artists have captured scenes from the turbulent battle. The effect is truly remarkable, creating a riot of spectacular sights as the flying warriors, fluttering whelplings, and zipping spells are displayed in turn.
But upon the shining silver body of the dragon above you the reflections are... wrong. When a mage raises her right to cast a spell, her mirrored doppelganger lifts her right arm as well - instead of her left. And the crackling bolt she shoots through the air is reversed within the fabricated world beyond the surface of teh scales.
Your first instincts are to look elsewhere for your target, to assume that the dragon who so violates the laws of nature must be an illusion. And yet your sweeping gaze shows you that the other ones are different. As each of them falls into your sphere of vision, and you scan them for reflections, you see that their scales return the sights of the world around them in the manner of looking glasses. Right and left trade places, adhering to whatever optical edicts govern such things.
The illusions obey those laws. Their orchestrator does not.
"The third eye?" you ask.
"The third eye," Solus agrees.
Each of the great drakes has three eyeballs set into her scaly face. The third, that embedded within their brows, is different from the others - its eldritch nature betrayed by its curious appearance.
You think you know how to put a stop to those illusions...
Solus loops round the dragon, giving her a wide berth - concealing your intentions. In moments you're above her.
You grab the azure drake's neck with your legs, wrapping the limbs around him and locking them in place like a grappler trying to strangle his opponent. The grip you secure is tight, for it's a matter of life and death. But the powerful muscles of his neck are more than equal to the strain.
"This seems unwise," he says.
"Good last words," you reply.
The dragon sighs. Then he dives, lurching to the side as he flies - rotating his boy in a rapid spin. Your stomach lurches in turn as he completes the movement, and your weight falls away from him. Gravitation's greedy fingers grab at you, yanking your inverted body towards a distant doom below. But your hold on Solus' neck suffices to spare you from such a fate. Instead you simply dangle from him, simultaneously attempting to master your digestive system and wondering why you ever thought this was a good idea.
An unwise glance shows the ground, a far-off expanse of greenery that's absurdly placed above your head instead of beneath your feet where it belongs. But the tiny figures you glimpse battling there, fighting creature both flesh and phantom, cause you to master your discomfort and disorientation. You have to do this.
The silver dragon glances up as you descend towards her head. Her eyes widen.
You can't resist making an obscene gesture with your left hand as your right tightens around the hilt of your sword.
Boss: Phaedra the Deceiver
Falls the Shadow
|The apprentice shuffles into the room, bent backwards by the weight of the immense volume he carries against his chest -- which looks taller, broader, and thicker than the weedy youth's torso. His excruciating pose and agonized grimace bring to mind a woodcut you once saw of damned souls being tortured in the underworld, laboring beneath huge stones destined to form the walls of a demon's fortress whilst being whipped by his fiendish minions. Except that those unfortunates at least had discernable muscles.
His foot twists beneath him, perhaps caught on a bulge in the thick rug. He tips forward, and staggers as the weight of the book drags him further into the room -- his spindly legs whirring as they try to recover his balance and prevent him and his burden from collapsing.
Aesa springs up from her chair, interposes her body between the apprentice and his inevitable tumble, and braces him with her hands. She plucks the book from his arms, handling it without apparent effort, and passes it to Archmage Winifred. The youth mumbles his gratitude, then scurries away with a red face.
Winifred's broad-shouldered frame manages the tome with equal effortlessness. She lays it down on the table with a soft, almost reverent movement, eases the cover open, and runs her gaze down what you assume must be a table of contents. It takes you a few moments to realize that the text, upside-down from where you're sitting, is in an ancient tongue rather than merely rendered illegible by the ornateness of the script.
"Is that Colfinch's <i>Codex Draconis</i>?" Lucian asks. He leans across the table, with a look on his face that wouldn't seem out of place on that of a leering pervert gazing upon a sensuous dancer or a gourmet feasting his eyes on a tantalizing cut of beef.
"It is. Marvelous work. Quite marvelous." The archmage nods and smiles as she runs her fingers along the edges of the pages, before picking her spot and turning a great slab of them over.
"Headmaster Grimsly had a copy at Darkfriars, but he never allowed any of the pupils to see it. Some of us did once think of purloining it from his private library..."
Winifred and Lucian spend several moments discussing the merits of the work in terms which escape both your understanding and your interest. You look around, and see that the rest of your friends sat around the oblong table seem similarly disinterested in the exchange. Medea makes the occasional pluck at her harp. Roland examines his orange crystal sword in the manner of a jeweler scanning the facets of a gemstone in search of flaws.
"Ah! Here we are!" Archmage Winifred says at last. She thrusts her index finger towards a newly uncovered page. "The Dragons' Claw, you say?"
"That's right," you reply. "That's what they called themselves."
"Thought the name sounded vaguely familiar. But it's hard to keep track of all the names and titles that came from back then -- especially since it depends on how you interpret them. Colfinch used words which most scholars translate as 'Dragons' Hand'."
"But the noun can be translated as 'claw'," Lucian says, gazing at the portion of text identified and accused by her finger, "depending on how one evaluates the various breathing marks in accordance with-"
"What does it say?" you ask.
"The Dragons' Claw were a group of five drakes," Winifred says. "Each one marked out by a different missing finger... Or toe. Whatever one calls those bits on a wyrm. I'm not a damned zoologist."
"The word we use in our own tongue can translate as either," Solus says. He pads over from the corner and leans his azure face towards the book.
"They were something like champions, I suppose," the archmage continues. "Or maybe assassins. They were sent in to deal with their kind's greatest enemies."
"Like me," you say.
"It seems that your fame has spread among our enemies as well as our friends," Medea says, with a plink of her strings.
"According to Colfinch, the Dragons' Claw were rather sporting and honorable. By dragon standards, I mean." Winifred looks round and gives Solus a rather forceful pat on the head -- one which makes his neck buckle, almost knocking his lower jaw against the surface of the dark oak table. "No offense, dear boy!"
"Many of my kind are indeed despicable."
"He describes their encounter with Terracles," Winifred continues, her finger drifting over to a paragraph and its accompanying woodcut. "It seems that the leader of the Dragons' Claw challenged him to single combat whilst his minions watched. After Terracles killed him by... Oh, my goodness... If this is true, he tore one of the dragon's wings off, shoved it down his throat, and choked him to death."
"I hadn't heard that story before," Lucian says.
"Nor had I. But after the dragon was killed, the other four honored the terms of the duel and left rather than fighting."
"Perhaps they didn't want to have their wings ripped off as well," Marcus says.
"So there were five of them back then?" Roland asks.
A look passes from face to face around the table. Even the least capable mathematicians among you know what that means...
Your body welcomes the softness of the mattress with a gentle sigh and a vague twinge from aching muscles. Though you spent much of the day on Solus' back, rather than engaged in long hours of marching or martial footwork, there's something about being hunted by a sequence of drakes -- and then being forced to battle them -- that proves rather taxing to mind and thew.
But a good night's sleep should put things right, at least for the moment.
You offered to leave the tower and lead your army further afield, to spare the school from any further involvement in your struggle. But Winifred wouldn't hear of it, and all but demanded that you stay put. If the other two fingers of the Claw come for you, she wants you to benefit from her mages' assistance. You were touched by her courage and kindness, almost as much as by the accompanying slap on the back -- which you're certain fractured a rib or two.
In the morning scouts will be dispatched once more, this time searching for those who are in turn searching for you. Being ambushed by dragons has proven to be an unpleasant experience, and the more you can do to avert its reoccurrence the better.
But for now, sleep...
Ghost of Battle Past
|"You're terrible!" Medea says. Her harp echoes the sentiment, with a cry that sounds like a quacking duck.
She grabs the lute by its neck, snatches it from your hands, spins round, and smashes it against a statue of a muse. The statue's head breaks off, hits the floor, and bounces away.
"Look what you made me do!" the bard says.
"Maybe the lute's not his instrument," Roland says. The adventurer turns from the bar, brandishing his tankard - sending a little spill of foam and ale over its lib. "Give him something else."
"Fine..." Medea rolls her eyes.
She walks over to a nearby table, on which a number of assorted instruments have appeared. After a few moments of fiddling with them, casting some over her shoulder to shatter on the floor, she gives a little cry of triumph. When she returns to you there's a smile on her face.
She shoves an object into your hands. You look down at it.
"A turnip?" you ask.
Now that's just ridiculous. And with absurdity comes lucidity. Even Medea isn't enough of a bitch to suggest that you play a turnip. Well, perhaps she is... But she wouldn't be so frivolous when it comes to her chosen sphere of artistry. This is a dream.
And if this is a dream, that means you can have a little fun...
You clasp the turnip in your right hand, fingers spread across one side of its round surface. Then you thrust it at the elven bard's head.
It splatters against her face, squelching and smearing across her features until they're covered in a white mess that resembles a mask of mashed potato. In dreams it appears that comedy takes priority over vegetative verisimilitude.
Two eyes open in the debris. They glare at you in hilarious outrage.
That felt good. Cathartic, in fact.
Now that you've dealt with Medea's oneiric counterpart, you contemplate what you might do with the remainder of this dream now that you have mastery of it. Perhaps you'll summon up a decadent pleasure chamber, or-
"I've found you."
The voice is a grim whisper, cold and feminine. It fills your mind with the image of a skeletal corpse opening its jaws, of the win rustling through the tall grass of a cemetery.
Medea and Roland are gone. You're standing in the snow now, surrounded by a rolling blanket of familiar whiteness.
"So you're the fourth one?" you say. "I've been expecting you. You couldn't have waited for me to wake up?"
"I am Tenebra," she say. The voice brushes your ear, as though she were right by your side. "Born of Kalaxia, fathered by Nalagarst."
"Kalaxia and Nalagarst? I thought she was Erebus' mate. Your mother was quite the harlot, wasn't she?"
An indeterminable stretch of time elapses in silence, and you feel a smug satisfaction at your verbal barb.
"You slew her. But now she's come for revenge..."
Motes of snow rise from the ground, drifting upwards as though nature has reverse itself and they're returning to the clouds which once scattered them. But they don't make it that far Instead they begin to coalesce a few feet above the ground, coming together in a mass and spreading out like paint daubed from an invisible brush. It's no longer white. It's blue.
Two cyan orbs blaze amidst the forming mass. A moment later Kalaxia stands before you.
The dragon roars.
She's not real. You hammer that thought into your mind. Have to focus on that. She's not real. You killed her. She's-
Kalaxia pounces, her jaws widening to tear your flesh and snap your bones.
Shadow of the Present
|The jaws close around you. And they explode.
For a second you're encircled by a tempest of azure particles, the air filled with their swirling mist. Then it begins to part, fragmenting and dispersing into nothingness. In a few seconds the crisp air is empty, and you're alone upon the snow.
"Very good, human," Tenebra says.
"Not especially. She wasn't real."
"But I am."
Darkness pools around your feet, seeping into the snow like blood from an ethereal wound. It spreads across the cold ivory mantle, tainting it, enveloping it. Smothering it. Soon black snow covers this unreal landscape.
Ebon flakes float into the air, parting company with the ground and coming together in a thickening cloud as did their white predecessors. This time the glowing orbs that appear within the mist are green.
Dark scales harden into existence, the form of a huge black wyrm like that you fought outside Fallows.
No, not like him...
For the void-colored snow hasn't yet finished its work. It continues to swirl and shape more midnight clay added from a sculptor's hands to create the monstrosity forming before you.
Black scales are shrouded, concealed beneath something even blacker that overlays them in a viscous mass - like thick butter smeared across a scone. It's... shadow. Shadows, but with an oily tangibility. They seethe around Tenebra's body, creating writhing tentacles in the shade of death that snatch at the air and plough through the ebon snow.
"I'm no mere phantom," she says. "You cannot wish me away as you did Kalaxia."
She stalks towards you, the shadowy footfalls beneath her immensse frame noiseless upon the tundra's funeral cloth. Green eyes pierce you, transfix mind and soul with their dread gaze.
And yet you smile.
"A week ago, you might have won. I'd die here in my dreams, and be found lifeless on my mattress the next morning - like a child in one of those fables."
The dragon pauses, tilts her head as though trying to comprehend your nonchalance.
"But I've recently had a little experience when it comes to magical dreamworlds. I've been in worse ones than this. Ever tried thinking in song? It's not pleasant."
You concentrate, feel your dream-flesh tingling in response to your thoughts.
"You may have power here," you continue. "But I have more."
Your body bulges, muscles shifting and shaking as they expand to encompass a growing frame.
The drake isn't looking down at you anymore. Your eyes are level with hers. And now they're above them.
For a moment you envision the body of a dragon, imagine taking on draconic form and powers - to battle her as one wyrm against another. But with that thought comes a niggling, unnatural feeling in your shoulder blades as the beginnings of wings start to sprout. Your mind isn't used to controlling such appendages, or walking on all fours. So you cast the notion aside, feel the nubs drawing back into your body.
Another idea comes to you instead. What better likeness to wear when battling a dragon than that of their greatest foe from eons past?
Your chest and shoulders wide, becoming almost incredibly broad, plated in massive slabs of muscle. You've never seen Terracles. He was rather before your time. But you've seen those absurdly proportioned statues of him, and that will do for now...
By the time your body stops growing and contorting, you're as big as your foe.
Tenebra hisses. Then she advances. She may not have been expecting this change in fortune, but she's not shying away.
You stride forward to meet her. This'll be interesting...
The Future, It Is Murder
|The dragon's battered body struggles and thrashes. But she can't break your grasp, full free from the viselike hands around her neck and thigh. She remains aloft, held above your head like an offering to the gods. Though only for a moment...
You bring her down, your counterfeit muscles manipulating her mass as easily as a skilled wrestler would his opponent's. As she descends, propelled by Terraclean thews, you fall onto one knee - leaving the other braced like an anvil..
A horrendous crack and a hellish scream echo across the black snows as Tenebra's spine breaks across it. Darkness explodes in all direction, the shadowy wyrm's body fragmenting before your eyes until nothing's left but a fresh scattering of black snowflakes upon the ground.
Your body withdraws into itself, the demi-divine musculature collapsing inwards and reducing until it forms the contours or your own rather less impressive physique instead.
"I cannot defeat you here." Tenebra's whisper is grinding, grating, rasping - each syllable burns with agony.
"So I noticed."
"But I will slay you. In the material world."
"You know where to find me. Come to the tower and put it to the test."
The dragon hisses
"No. You will come to me, and meet me in single combat. We will settle this between ourselves, without your allies interfering."
"Nice try. But I don't think so."
"Look, human. Look and see what the future may bring."'
The black tundra ripples, the entire tableau shaking and shifting as if it were painted upon a canvas blown about by a windstorm. When the rippling stops, the world around you has changed.
There's packed earth under your feet now. Buildings loom up close by on either side of you - timberframe structures with black-tiled roofs, in the style of rural Stromhamre.
Screams of pain and terror tear through the night.
You run out of the alleyway, emerging from the buildings' shadow into a little village square. More timberframe buildings encircle it on all sides, arranged in neat rows. But it isn't the architecture that draws your attention
Beastmen. Swords and spears in their hands. Taunting.
|You lunge at the nearest of the creatures, reach for his neck to drag him away from his victim. But your hands pass through his fur as though he... no, you... were a phantom.
"You cannot interfere here, human," Tenebra's voice says. "This is a vision. A vision of what may come to pass."
The beastman thrusts his spear. An old woman screams, then splutters, then falls still.
More shrieks come from your right. You turn, though you know there's nothing you can do - nothing but bear witness to the inevitable horror.
Men, women, and children are running - their eyes wide, fear twisting their features into something both pathetic and infernal. Some clutch infants in their arms, pressed against their bodies. Others carry impotent weapons, clubs and daggers which will do no killing this night, be stained with no blood or brains but for their owners'.
A golden shape rises up against the black night sky, its leathery wings sweeping at the darkness as it dives.
Gold jaws open. Aureate flames pour forth, a widening torrent of fire that spreads out to surge across the ground below. There are screams. Then there's silence.
Charred bodies lie upon the earth, little fires dancing in victory upon their burned and blackened flesh.
"Behold the might of Valanazes, master of the Dragons' Claw," Tenebra whispers. "Even now he and his minions hold this village in their grasp, and stand ready to inflict the slaughter that surrounds you. Whether it comes to pass is your decision."
"What do you want?" The question is needless. You already know what the answer will be.
"In the waking world you will find me in a clearing, a short distance south of the tower in which you now sleep. Come there alone and face me in combat. If you vanquish me, one of my servants will fly to bring Valanazes news of my death. And he will leave the villagers unharmed. If I slay you, I shall return to him myself - and again the village will be spared. But if you do not appear, or else treachery prevents both I and my servant from returning to Valanazes by dawn..."'
The dragon gives a low, hissing laugh. There's no need for her to finish that sentence. Its conclusion is here before you, fashioned from the stuff of which dark dreams are made.
Your eyes flick open. The shadows and darkness before them transform into the walls and ceiling of your bedchamber in the mages' tower. You hurl the blankets aside, leap out of bed.
The image of burning corpses flashed before your mind's eye. A village full of innocents, their lives in your hands - their deaths on your conscience, unless...
You pull your clothes on, gird your sword belt around your waist. Thankfully Solus is sleeping elsewhere, and you hope against hope that he's too deep in slumber to know what you're about to do.
The door eases open with a piercing creak that makes you wince. In the silence of a deep night it's a cacophony, a screech that should wake living and dead alike. You freeze in place, expecting to hear movements as your companions in the nearby chambers respond to the disturbance. But several seconds crawl by and there's nothing. The silence is renewed, undisturbed.
You breathe a sigh of relief and step out into the corridor.
Soft boots make little sound against the thick carpet. You're fortunate that your panoply is still down below in the tower's forge, where the school's obliging blacksmith was polishing it up to obscure all signs of the abuse to which your lifestyle has recently subjected to it. But that thought gives way to another... Perhaps fate has arranged it thus, to smooth the path of a doomed (wo)man.
You turn the corner, heading towards the staircase which will take you to your armor, your destiny, and your destruction.
Then you halt, dismay spreading through you. Marcus approaches from the other end of the passage, the stairway at his back, clad in a long nightshirt. He halts in turn as he sees you.
"Couldn't sleep either?" he asks. He glances downwards, and you read the surprise on his face at finding you fully dressed, your weapon at your side.
"No. I'm going for a walk outside. Maybe that'll help."
The former guard captain meets your gaze once more.
"I told you, I-"
"I was a guardsman for years. How many witnesses and suspects do you think I ha to question or interrogate in that time?"
You sigh, He's right... Lying to him is futile. And so you blurt the story out.
"I have to go," you say, after the last f it has spilled from your lips.
"No. Let's wake the others. Together we'll find a better way."
"And if we can't? They'll try to stop me."
You move to go around Marcus. He sidesteps back into your path.
"I'm not letting you leave Just because you're the hero doesn't mean that you have to run off on every suicide mission that throws itself in front of you."
"Marcus, get out of my way."
His eyes glint.
You grab each other at the same moment, falling into a wrestlers' clinch.
All that Glitters
|Dark forests drift by below, battalions of grim sentinels watching you in swaying silence, judging and perhaps condemning.
Solus' flight is slow, like the steps of a man shuffling towards the gallows. There are hours till dawn. If the dragon's hostages perish this night, it won't be because of speed or slowness. It will be because of the choices you made, and had made for you.
You glance down into the shadowy masses, scanning for signs of movement. But you see nothing. Everything is hidden.
So you look forward once more, into the star-studded blackness. Into a future where death might be preferable to life, and the burden of guilt may be more than you can bear.
Not the Drake You're Looking For
|"Why isn't it working?" you whisper.
"It is," Solus replies. "You don't see it because you're within the sphere of its influence."
You hope he's right...
Solus slows his flight even further, bringing the two of you to a halt in mid-air - high above the ground. His azure wings flap in strong, swift bursts of motion. You hover in place, gazing down at the sight below.
A village rests upon the open space where the forest ends, its timberframe buildings iluminated by flickering torchlight. Even from up here, your viewpoint so very different, it's unmistakeable. The settlement you saw in your reams, the place where men, women, and children were annihilated in a cruel inferno...
Dots of movement mark the passage of beings in the village square, its expanse lit brighter than its environs by a larger concentration of torches. From this height it's difficult for your eyes to distinguish between humans and beastmen, but you're sure both are represented in the pockets of activity you glimpse there.
One shape, far larger than all the others, is clear enough. A golden beast perches atop a stone building at one end of the square, his wings outstretched - broadening the shadow he casts on those below, transforming it into something demonic.
Solus pulls back his head and roars, a long, loud bellow that booms across the clear night sky
The golden neck cranes upward.
Your throat tightens. Two futures that of your vision and that of your plan, hang in the balance - alternately taunting and tantalizing. Dozens of lives totter on the edge of the precipice between survival and destruction.
The drake's wings flap. He launches himself into the air.
Valanazes grows larger as he ascends towards you, his fearsome draconic frame more distinct. But with each elapsing yard you feel only elation. For each yard further away from the village. And your companions are waiting at the periphery of the forest, ready to make their move...
In moments he's before you, staring from the deep blue eyes set in his aureate reptilian features. But his gaze doesn't meet yours, or Solus'. Instead he's focusing on point some distance in front of the azure drake's snout.
"It is done?" he asks.
"Yes. The human is slain."
Solus speaks the words as you mouth them, trying to will tone and cadence into his mind. You heard more of Tenebra's voice than he did...
|A dragon with argentine, mirrored scales lies dead near the mages' tower. A black drake sprawls lifeless in a forest clearing. Each is missing and eyeball.
It was Solus' idea, though he himself had no idea if it would work even with the aid of your spell-casting allies. But after eating the silver wyrm's third eye, and experimenting alongside the finest mages among both your companions and the tower's residents...
"So your parent's spirits are avenged..."
"May Kalaxia and Nalagarst's souls feast upon his," you mouth and Solus says. Beyond the illusion's sphere, the words resound in Tenebra's grim whisper.
You feel a certain smugness at being able to supply those names, nuggets of dragon family knowledge yanked from your memory to help maintain the guise of the wyrm you're impersonating.
But the pleasant sensation doesn't last long.
"One more thing..."
"Why are you speaking to me in the language of the lesser races, instead of in our own tongue?"
You sigh. Solus echoes the gesture out of instinct, as he did your mouthed words. You imagine the illusionary form of Tenebra doing the same thing. This is going to be difficult to recover from...
"A cleaver stratagem, human. But it will cost those peasants their lives. You may witness their demise before your own."
The gold dragon pivots in the air, angling his great frame with the grace of a flitting sprite, and aims his aureate snout down at the distant village. His wings sweep at the air.
So do Solus' wings.
The azure drake darts at the larger dragon, putting on a burst of desperate speed. He reaches out with his claws, snatches at the flesh of a golden wing.
Valanazes growls. His flight becomes level, Solus' weight and grip ruining his descent - pulling him away from his murderous mission.
Now's your chance...
You draw your sword and leap from the saddle, onto the membranous surface of the wing. This is insane, deranged, suicidal... But when has that ever stopped you before?
Solus braces the wing, latching onto it for all he's worth - forcing the dragon to keep it flat for the moment or else lose a chunk of it And somehow you manage to run across its surface with surefooted strides, luck, divine providence, or else the precise and inscrutable instincts of a lunatic allowing you to keep your balance and avoid tumbling to a certain death.
It's as you come onto the drake's scaly body that fortune turns against you. A deliberate shrug or else an incidental thrash, as the dragon attempts to either correct his flight or dislodge Solus, flings you upwards - knocking you into the air.
A feeling of ominous weightlessness grasps your intestines. But it only lasts for a moment before you land back on the golden scales.
You move forward again, in a low stance now - your moment of freefall having impressed caution upon you. The dragon's neck... That's your target. The place where your blade might be able to bring the mighty beast down...
As you near your goal, a sharp lurch of the wyrm's massive frame launches you once more, higher than before. But this time you're ready for it.
You reverse your sword as you fly through the air, aiming it downwards, struggling to keep your presence of mind and direct your body in it inelegant plunge. A missed landing will doom you. But a good one may doom the golden drake...
|The dragon roars as the blade finds its way between his scales, into the soft flesh beneath. The enchanted steel sinks into him, slipping in as though it were driven into butter until it lodges itself in the aureate armor and the tender meat, and the grinding plates seem to fasten around it like a vice.
A good blow, but not a fatal one. You missed his spine, found a softer, less vital target instead. You tug at the weapon, hoping you correct your mistake. But it's wedged in the monster's reptilian hide, as immovable as if it were part of his body- an outlandish protrusion set there by nature's hand instead of your own.
You're glad of that a moment later, as the dragon thrashes. You grasp the sword with both hands, by hilt and blade - your gauntleted hands closing aroun the steel - using it as your anchor.
Valanazes hisses. His vast bulk starts to tilt, falling away to the right. You tighten your grasp on the weapon, bracing for the completion of the movement which may leave you clinging onto it with only air and death below. But the dragon doesn't complete his stratagem. Instead his body drops back to the left.
You look to Solus. Your draconic friend remain latched to his wing, using all his weight and might against it - almost steering the golden drake.
"So be it!" Valanazes roars. "Cling to me like a parasites! Look on as they die!"
The dragon descends. Down towards the distant village. Managing to overcome Solus' resistance and turn his frame towards the grim carnage you saw once before.
You look to Solus. His orange eyes meet yours...
Beside the village is an expanse of grass. A green, from the look of it.
Solus nods. You drive at your sword, and the azure drake drags at the wing.
Valanazes bellows in rage as his body betrays him - pain and leverage forcing him away from his goal.
He pulls back into his trajectory, even as a grinding tearing sound announces the damage such a boldness has caused his captured wing.
Have him turn aside...
You drive your weight against the sword once more.
|The ground rushes up to meet and murder the three of you. Green Grass that marks your victory is ready to become your tomb as well.
Valanazes bellows. And now you hear the slithering underbelly of fear amongst the pounding rage.
But even the dragon's cry can't smother the horrendous tearing noise, as his final vengeful attempt to direct his plummet towards the village causes his wing to sunder in Solus' relentless grasp.
Only futile destruction awaits him now. And you, unless...
You leap into the air - relinquishing the imbedded weapon that granted you sustenance and triumph. The gold and azure dragons fall away below you, hurtling at a greater rate.
Solus releases him last, catching the air with his blue wings and flying to reach you, to break your fall.
Boss: Valanazes the Gold
Burden's Rest |
Faedark Valley |
The Last Titan |