Melanth had almost forgotten how difficult it was to travel long distances on foot. Generally he flew when he was by himself or with another dragon, and the unusual labour was making him irritable. The cart trailed at a snail’s pace, covering perhaps seven leagues every day. The old mule that pulled the heavy load had seen better days, but plodded on stalwartly with the kind of dogged determination that could perhaps only be stopped by running ahead of it and digging a big hole in the road. Several times now he had offered to fly ahead to the Cleric’s tower with the information, but the Abbot had remained stubbornly silent on the matter, and Melanth had eventually relented. Only he and the human girl knew the full extent of the Dream anyhow.
They only stopped at night, when it was too dark and too dangerous to travel the roads safely. At night, the howls of distant wolves and the slither of unseen creatures lurking in the shadows could be heard, and Melanth had nonchalantly taken to positioning himself between the ad-hoc camp and the road whilst he slept, lest any of them decide to try for an easy meal. The Abbot always insisted that a fire be lit to ward off the darkness and the chill of autumn air, and whilst the others took to their tents the night-seeing dragon would keep a solitary vigil, staring into the crackling, coiling flames until sleep eventually claimed him too.
Sometimes, in the darkest part of the night, half way between dusk and dawn when the fire had burned to embers and she thought no one else was listening, he heard Katrina sobbing softly to herself.
They had been on the road for nearly a week when disaster struck. The mule, well past its sell by date despite its apparent invulnerability to the upheaval and strain that had been placed on it in recent days, collapsed. The ancient animal’s heart had given out, and as it toppled it took the cart with it, spilling the contents and shattering the spokes of one wheel to kindling. The Abbot knelt beside the dying animal’s neck until it finally passed away, then shook his head with a ragged sigh. Since leaving Bristugo they had not passed through a town or city; the road was overgrown and not well travelled, taking them through forests and grasslands as they ventured deeper into the east. The cart could perhaps have been pulled by hand, but the damaged wheel would require a craftsman to mend. They were essentially stuck, unable to progress east or backtrack without their supplies, and without means of obtaining more along the way.
“Our packs could hold four, maybe five days worth of food.? He grumbled. “Nowhere near enough to reach the tower, but we could still get back to the city in maybe nine days, if we don’t mind tightening our belts that is.? He sniffed derisively. “That’s not including water or clothes mind. We can’t go anywhere without water.?
“I think we passed a stream a few miles back.? Katrina said crestfallenly. She had seen plenty of bows for sale in the city and wished she had thought to buy one. Hunting food as they went would not be the best way, but it could sustain them. “Where is the nearest village?? She asked.
“Heh, knew you would ask that.? The Abbot snorted. “The nearest village is about fifty miles north, a three day journey but there’s no way we would be able to reach it. The lands between there and here are blighted, home only to the Undead Hordes. Personally, I’d rather die of thirst.?
Whilst the three argued and bickered, Melanth stood attentively and smiled to himself. Dragons only had to eat once or twice a month, and the Lunus city of Dralk was a lava scorched wasteland completely devoid of water, save what could be gained from the blood of prey. He watched with amusement as the smaller creatures argued, then coughed meaningfully just as the argument reached fever pitch. They fell silent and looked at him with the kind of expression that suggested he had better have a good answer to their problem or be prepared to spend the rest of his days as a scaly throw rug.
“The ropes that bound the beast are intact? I see a solution to this dilemma.?
“Then do enlighten us great dragon.? The younger of the two Saris sneered, and then winced as the dragon’s jaws flashed shut an inch from his face.
“Bind your supplies in the ropes, and then throw the bundle over my neck. I will carry your provisions.? He stated simply, watching with amusement the expressions of surprise flitting across their faces.
“You would reduce yourself to a beast of burden for us?? The Abbot said cautiously, not quite believing what he had just heard. Melanth repressed a smile. As they had journeyed, the two had spoken little, distrusting each other intensely, but had developed a sort of mutual respect born more of suspicion than anything else. It was clear to him that the Abbot had met another dragon before him, for he seemed less ill at ease of his company than the others. Melanth growled deep in his throat, though there was no real threat in the gesture.
“Do not make this harder for me than it already is.? He snapped. “It is the only way that we can continue on this ‘quest’ without delay, and to delay could mean the ruin of all. Just bind the bloody stuff to my neck and let us be moving again.?
It took the Abbot twenty minutes to bundle the various supplies to the dragon’s neck and check that the ropes weren’t unduly uncomfortable. When he was finished, Melanth flexed his pinions and rumbled approval before urging them on down the road. The trail was nearly indistinguishable now amongst the net of grass and brambles that obscured it. Only the faint outline of a rut here and there and gaps in the trees could truly show the winding path. It was just as well that they hadn’t brought the cart; the increasing number of roots crisscrossing the path would have probably destroyed the already rickety wheels. It seemed also that the trees were gaining slowly, mile by mile an unfriendly appearance. Katrina caught herself looking over her shoulder, her hand often falling to the long knife at her hip at the sudden flight of birds from their perches as her unease grew. It was nearly a relief when at sundown they came upon a sheltered clearing, and the Abbot announced that his weary old bones could carry him no further this day. They unhitched the supplies from the dragon and set up camp in the shelter of three massive beech trees. Soon slices of preserved bacon were cooking merrily over a fire whilst Melanth plodded a little way further up the track with his nose pressed to the ground. The three talked sparingly before Katrina volunteered to take first watch and the two monks retired to their tents.
As the night drew further in, she sat hugging her knees near the fire listening intently to the noises of the nocturnal wilderness. The chirps of crickets and rustle of lurking, unseen things in the bushes disquieted her at first, but the fear of the dark quickly abated when a fox, drawn by the scent of the bacon fat that clung to the pan, poked his head shyly into the clearing then vanished with a flick of his bushy tail. She smiled to herself, staring into the flames until the sudden crunch of fallen wood sent a jolt of adrenaline through her guts. She stilled herself, willing her lungs to cease breathing as she strained her ears, listening for the telltale rustle of leaves and twigs, but heard nothing. Slowly she relaxed again, thinking herself foolish and was about to return to her vigil when an enormous shadow loomed over the entire camp, and then resolved itself into the glittering scaled form of Melanth before she could loose the scream that had been ready to tear from her lungs. The dragon, seemingly unperturbed, curled his bulk around the fire.
“You’re late back.? She snapped, still shaking. With a start she realised that the knife had arrived in her palm without apparent instruction from her brain. She stuffed it back into its sheath with great dignity.
“My apologies, I felt a need to hunt and flex my wings.? Melanth murmured, licking his muzzle where droplets of blood still clung. “From what I can tell the trail hasn’t been travelled in some months, which is hardly surprising considering that the travel gates are much safer and quicker. It’s just a **** shame that there isn’t one near where we want to be or this would be over already. We’re still long way from our destination yet though, and there are wolves nearby.? He said, stretching his head around Katrina and the fire until it touched the tip of his tail.
“Wolves?? She said, slightly panic stricken, remembering the noises she had convinced herself were no more than hedgehogs and maybe the fox.
“Aye, big brutes too, though I fear they will not trouble us.? He bared his teeth and dropped his jaw into what Katrina suddenly realised was a draconic grin. “I took the alpha for my meal and scattered his bones around the place. They hate the smell of their own dead.?
They sat for a few minutes, staring reflectively into the flames. Melanth started to groom his scales as she considered the full impacts of what might lie ahead of her with little success. She shook her head at the futility of trying to understand the recent revelations. Only time would reveal the truths that hid behind the shrouds of mystery.
After a while, as much to distract herself as anything else, she eventually said “So, where are you from??
The question seemed to catch the dragon off guard. He laid his head on the ground next to his forepaws and appeared to consider the question, fixing her inquisitively with a glowing lilac eye.
“Everywhere more or less.? He muttered. “It has been a long time since I lived anywhere long enough to call it home, but if you refer to the place I was born then the answer is Draak.?
“That’s the Lunus capital city, isn’t it?? She said, dredging up her knowledge of dragon society.
“No, you’re thinking of Dralk.? He said, shaking his head sadly. “You will never have heard of it. Its time passed long before you were born.? He sighed deeply and turned away, staring out into the darkness. She wondered if she had offended him in some way and was about to offer her consolations when he spoke once more with halting, hesitant tones that were nearly as unnerving as his ire. She started to enquire more, but he overrode her, guessing her question.
“Draak used to be an academy for my kin, a place where hatchlings were tutored in the arcane arts. All our kindred were educated there, though perhaps only a few enclaves called the place home. Iridan and I were among the last to be hatched under its trees before the Withered Aegis overran our defenders in the east. A few of us managed to escape before the city was besieged.? He growled low and deep in his throat, kneading the ground with his talons.
“I watched the siege break from the peak.? He murmured, so quietly she strained to hear. “The academy was the first to fall. Most of those who had their abodes in the isle were the infirm and the young, but they fought valiantly and I longed to join them, even though it was a hopeless effort.? He snorted bitter laughter. “My tutor had to bind us in place with magic to stop us rushing into the fray with the rest. You can have no idea of the horror of it... trapped helpless whilst your friends were slaughtered like mere beasts. Old tutor Telsec was the first one I saw go down, then his mate when she tried to drive them off his body. Little Yenish got her head bashed in by some reanimated half giant bastard before she could even squeak, then Ragul and T’sor and Frelth. They were all hatchlings. Not even twenty years in the world and they die in battle.? Anger hardened in his voice, his eyes flashing dangerously in the firelight. He hardly seemed to be talking to her anymore, as though immersed so deeply in his thoughts that he was barely aware of her presence.
“The defenders were eventually pushed back into the floating academy and the ancients blocked the entrance with their bodies. It was a glorious way to die. They must have slew thousands upon the bridge before the Aegis cut the chains that held the floating city in place. I can still see the city falling sometimes in my dreams, the horrible thump as it broke up in midair and smashed into the ground. The ancient ones were too crippled to fly as the spires tumbled, and only three of the adults managed to escape as the Aegis surged into the stricken caves. The hatchlings... never got out... three hundred of them made a last stand inside the city after it hit the ground. We were released from our bind when the one holding us was slain, but we were too scared to join the battle by then, all the fire had gone out of us. We could only watch from outside the city as the Aegis hunted down any who might have hidden in their caves and killed them.
“I was part of the relief force that arrived from Dralk and checked the city for survivors when the Withered Aegis regrouped, but by that time we all knew it was beyond too late. No one inside that city survived, except those three adults. We went inside the antechamber to search for the hatchlings but...? He shuddered. “The blood was so thick on the floor that some of them had drowned under their dying friends... they were all piled in the middle, like the Aegis wanted to burn them or something... not even the wounded had been spared...
“Have you ever seen a body?? He turned on her suddenly, snapping out of whatever personal nightmare he had been reliving.
“No.? She said, refusing to meet his gaze. In her mind she had always seen dragons as proud, fearless creatures. To see one so wracked by grief shocked her.
“There was no resemblance, none at all to the person you knew in life. To look upon the corpse of a friend is like seeing a likeness... but something is missing, some spark, some quality that tells you that person is the one you remember. It was not my friends who were entombed in that place, and I say this as one who has seen death firsthand. Whatever force drove them in life had gone, something that could not be replaced by the Aegis when they raised the corpses back to unlife. We who had been lucky enough to escape the city before the battle began returned to Dralk with the relief force and trained as warriors under the Lunus. Vengeance is our cause now, and vengeance is our name.? He growled something incoherent. “Cherek Resi Drulklar; or the Sundering Claws of Drulklar, as you might understand it. The actual meaning behind the words could take days to describe in the language of humans, but suffice to say it is the pledge of all dragons, Lunus and Helian alike to see the Withered Aegis defeated and brought to atone for the many ills they have inflicted upon the world. No dragon since the Great Schism may join the ranks of our warriors without taking those words to oath.?
He fell silent then, apparently brooding. She tried to ply him with further questions, but he was stubbornly silent about personal affairs, explaining only her queries upon the politics and culture of dragons. As the embers burned low she came to understand that the Lunus and the Helian were the two predominant factions of dragon society that arose when the problem of humanity becoming advanced and numerous enough to threaten dragon society had arisen. There had been wars in the distant past as the humans strived to throw off the fetters that dragon kind had placed upon them and bound them to servitude, wars that had ground to a stalemate before both sides grew sick of the slaughter. The dragons had eventually lost interest in the war with humans, as political divisions began to fracture their society and internal affairs came to the fore. By the time that the Helian and Lunus philosophies had diverged, humanity was well established and prosperous. The Lunus sought to regain dominance over humanity through force and warfare, whereas the Helian sought to become a target to which all races might aspire and regain the pinnacle in that way. She quickly discovered that Melanth’s own opinions of humans were mixed; he detested the Withered Aegis and the weakness that lay within all men, yet had fought alongside them for many years in the common defence of the un-blighted lands and respected their tenacity and bravery. It seemed that her questions amused him somehow, though she could not think why. When the younger monk rose to relieve her of her watch, she retired to her tent with the lingering sensation that although she was the one who had been asking all the questions, the dragon had learned much more about her than she had about him.

The morning brought with it cold and cloying mist that dampened the party’s spirits considerably. The damp permeated everything; clothes, equipment and skin became soaked through nearly immediately and the Abbot was forced to wrap extra cloths around their food supplies to prevent the perishables being spoilt. The thin ropes and cords that held the baggage to Melanth’s hide too became moist and started to chafe into his softened scales greatly, but he bore the pain in a stubborn, brooding silence. He was annoyed at himself for revealing so much to the human last night, but it had seemed appropriate at the time. The story of his and Iridan’s flight from Draak was immensely personal, and known only to a select few even within dragon society. He was beginning to wonder if he had taken leave of his senses when he tripped on a root in the track and stumbled, getting a condescending chuckle from the Abbot for his trouble. Muttering darkly under his breath he put such matters aside and concentrated on the road.

It was impossible to say how far they travelled. Two weeks flew past at a sluggish pace, during which time the four unlikely companions learned a little of each other. Melanth garnered that the younger Saris was called Guan, and the Abbot’s true name was Aralor, although monks forwent their names as a sign of devotion to the goddess Istaria. Katrina quickly came to appreciate the socks that Abbot Aralor had given her, though she became travel weary and blistered nonetheless. The signs of the trek began to tell on them all; Brother Guan and Melanth had taken to walking ahead in silence, and the Abbot was shedding weight despite the fact that the bulk Melanth carted on his back was decreasing at an alarming rate. Katrina became irritable, unused to the exposed elements and effort, longing for a clean change of clothes. They would have given up or each gone their separate ways if not for the sense of duty and purpose that guided them steadily eastwards.
The days wore on slowly; the path became less and less well travelled the further they progressed. Forest became prairies, prairies opened up into expansive grasslands that became wide, rolling hills and deeply gouged valleys. The journey was uneventful, even boring, and each member of the group found ways of entertaining themselves. Katrina took to counting the number of steps she had taken, lacking anything better to do; all even half worthwhile conversation had been expended within four days.
It was on the eve of the fourteenth day since they set out from Bristugo that Melanth spotted the squat purple shapes on the horizon. At first he took them to be more storm clouds, but when the sun began to fall and the strange blemish had not shifted that he realised what he beheld. He waited for the others to catch up before revealing his revelation.
“See, in the distance; The Granitefall Mountains.? He said, gesturing with his muzzle. The others gathered around, straining their eyes through the darkening sky. Finally, the Abbot sighed, visibly relieved.
“Then our journey is nearly at an end. Our destination lies further to the south, if the stars are any compass to judge by. We must cross the Granitefall Wash River, then journey deep into the foot hills to reach the tower.?
Thus heartened they travelled at a hastened pace, talking more often and even sharing jokes. Melanth delighted in making Katrina blush and the Abbot roar in laughter with coarse anecdotes he had acquired from time serving with Human mercenaries, whilst the Abbot supplied a number of lyrics that should probably never have entered the mind of a holy man. It came as a shock when the Abbot revealed that he had been a gambler and a wastrel in his youth, associating with the dregs of society before he discovered his calling in the monastery.
Just as the various attitudes in the group began to change, the landscape too underwent another evolution. The soil became thinner as the looming bulk of the mountains drew nearer; all too often they would have to scramble up the side of some steep valley or cross bare karsts marked with crevasses and crags. Few trees grew here, and it became increasingly hard to find shelter or soil clean enough to peg down a tent without extreme difficulty. They took cover in what caves they could find, or beneath the rocky bluffs of tors. When finally on the sixteenth day of travel they found themselves on a bare outcropping of rock when night fell, they had no choice to spend the night under what scarce cover was provided by Melanth’s bulk and an extended wing. Fortunately, the winter had not progressed enough yet to glaze the land with hoarfrost, so the three smaller companions were merely irritable and not frostbitten.
Finally, on the dawn of the eighteenth day, with only enough food to sustain them another two nights, they beheld the sight that night had so prestigiously hidden from even the night seeing dragon. The Granitefall Wash snaked its way hissing through a deep ravine like some reptile, spitting white foam in its precipice less than two score yards from where they had made camp. The Abbot visibly gulped as he realised that another five minutes walking might have seen all four of them tumble onto the razor edged rocks at its bottom.
Shock quickly gave way to a more practical stint; the gorge was nearly fifty yards across, and although Melanth flew for two leagues along the north and south course of the river, there was no crossing.
“What now?? Brother Guan muttered miserably. “We can turn back and starve, or we can try to scale a fifty foot sheer drop and ford it, most likely being dashed against the banks if we tried.?
The others didn’t even bother to chide him; they had been thinking the same thing in the scant comfort of their own minds. They sat upon the lip of the cliff in a sullen silence, Katrina flicking rocks into the foam flecked waters below for nearly an hour. The hopelessness of the quest began to sink in, and despair threatened to overwhelm them until the Abbot stood up and walked back a short way, judging the distance from one side to the other.
“What’s on your mind old man?? Melanth growled, seeing the gleam of intuitive mischief in the old Saris’ eye that he had come to know and fear over the last two and a half weeks.
“How much do you think you could carry?? He asked, bracketing the opposite cliff with angled hands. Melanth snorted.
“Not so much as you might imagine.? He said. “Our flight is a delicate thing indeed; simple weight and application of lifting surfaces is only the beginning of the calculations involved. Even I could not tell you for certain, for I have never been so foolish as to overburden myself; perhaps three hundred pounds. Why do you ask??
The Abbot’s malevolent grin told him everything he needed to know.
“No! I will be a gecko before I suffer the indignity!? Melanth roared, rearing onto his hind legs and startling Guan and Katrina.
“Then you had better leant to lick your eyeballs quickly dragon,? He smiled sardonically. “Unless, that is, that you can think of a better way across??
Melanth growled low in his throat, crouching low, passing his tongue in and out of his jaws as though there was a bitter taste in his mouth. He tossed his head like an angry stallion, gouging deep chunks out of the rock with extended claws. He tried to think, but the lands around were barren save for some tough shrubs and the ropes that bound the equipment to his back would not be long or strong enough to fashion a bridge. He sagged, defeated by logic.
“I’ll take the girl first.? He rumbled softly, so quietly that the others had to lean in to hear. “I would not risk taking anyone heavier until I get this baggage off. She will untie it on the other side, and I shall return for you two.? He snorted again, in one simple noise expressing the fact that he would dearly love to fly off and leave them stranded.
Katrina approached cautiously whilst he waited, glaring at her with a baleful eye, his tail lashing backwards and forwards like an angry cat’s. She waited for him to gather her up in his talons, but it became apparent that he wasn’t going to cooperate.
“Aren’t you going to pick me up?? She asked cautiously, keeping her voice as soft as possible as though she were trying to placate an enraged bull. Melanth growled again, sending shivers up her spine.
“And have you mauled to death on my claws?? He snarled, extending the five inch long talons of his left forefoot. “I think not. You will have to ride me like some common mule.?
Without further instruction he settled low on the ground, grudgingly lifting a foreleg to help her upon his sinuous back. She caught the ridge of short spines that ran along the extremity of his backbone, wincing at the thought of what would happen if she were to mount him without any sort of padding and shrugging off her coat to lie across his neck. When she was confident that the spines would do her no harm, she tentatively settles into place whilst Melanth grumped and complained beneath her.
“Don’t get used to this.? He warned in low tones, before shoving off the ground with his powerful hind legs. Katrina was taken by surprise and feared slipping for a moment, but the dragon’s balance was masterful and he carried her carefully. Without any supports or restraints she quickly began to panic and threw herself forwards over his neck and gripped tightly with her arms and legs, eliciting a surprised choke from Melanth, who was carrying them rapidly across the canyon’s expanse. Fear of falling paralysed her in position, her teeth bared in a sort of terrified rictus as she squeezed her eyes shut and tried desperately to ignore the rush of the wind and terrible weightless sensation. The feel of the dragon’s hard scales beneath her fingers was reassuring. Like a child picking at a scab, knowing and fearing what was beneath it, she opened her eyes for a quick peek and saw the rushing water far below, surging masses of white and yellow foam tossing and turning in the currents eagerly. She slammed her eyes shut again and redoubled her grip; only when she felt a solid thump and the cessation of all motion did she risk another glance, and was surprised to find herself on the opposite side of the crevasse.
Somewhat unsteadily, she managed to dismount and untie the complicated assortment of knots that held the bundles close to the dragon’s hide, letting the rolls of cloth and sacking fall to the ground. Melanth immediately took flight again, picking up the Saris monks one at a time and ferrying them across. The Abbot appeared completely at ease on the dragon’s back, as though it were something that happened to him every other day, though she took some sadistic pleasure in noting that Brother Guan was noticeably shaken and wide eyed after he touched down. Melanth sulked until all the baggage was back in place and then took off ahead of the other three, his longer stride setting a pace they could not match. Katrina started after him, but felt the tug of the Abbot’s warning hand on her shoulder.
“Let him be for now.? He counselled. “He’s likely to be a bit huffy for a few days; he thinks we have offended his honour you see, or at least feels that we have.?
“Oh, is it that bad?? She said, wondering just what a ‘huff’ could entail from such a large creature. “Is there any way to make amends??
“Only if you don’t mind trying to best him,? The Abbot chuckled at her terrified expression. “That’s how they solve matters like that as far as I understand, though it rarely ends in blood. Dragons have a longevity that is unmatched by any of the other living races and they like to keep it that way, you see. Still,? He added with an amused smile, “We might go some way to soothing his vitriol with a snack. He hasn’t eaten for five days.?
The camp that night was a somewhat more merry affair than had been had over the last few days, made all the more so by their proximity to their destination. The barren bare boulders were swiftly being replaced with bushes as the karsts melted back into woodland, and to see greenery again was as though an unconscious weight had been lifted from the shoulders of the group. Still there was no game to be had, but despite the perilously low supply levels it was felt that some celebration of sorts was in order. A thorough search of the remaining food stocks revealed several large chunks of salt beef, salt pork and mutton jerky that were soon sizzling merrily over a fire that Melanth was eventually persuaded to light. The Abbot then proceeded to surprise the whole group by producing a bottle of sherry from the depths of his robes and adding a generous splash to the tough cured meat. Brother Guan watched in open mouthed amazement as the Abbot bit the cork from the bottle and knocked back a mouthful before passing it to Katrina. He began some half thought out spluttering protest before the Abbot silenced him with his greying paw. “Just a little something to warm my bones Brother, I have not sunk into the pits of vice and debauchery quite yet.? Katrina, who had learned to recognise a good thing when she saw it and didn’t mind a little debauchery when it would stave off the chill air, took several more mouthfuls before the Abbot secreted the bottle back into his volumous robes. Melanth had yet again been conscripted into being a living wind break and watched them sullenly, alternately peering into the darkness and surreptitiously trying to stop himself drooling at the odours of cooking. All four ate heartily, the hot meat going a long way to soothe fractured tempers and frayed nerves that had so nearly threatened to split the group asunder. The jokes resumed tentatively, though soon the Abbot had them in stitches recounting tales from his wild youth. Melanth volunteered a few dragon jokes that left the other three completely nonplussed, so instead resorted to riddles.
“How about this?? He said eventually, feigning exasperation, his mood much improved.

What does man love more than life,
Fear more than death or mortal strife,
What the poor have and the rich require,
And all contented men desire,
What misers spend and spendthrifts save,
And all men carry to their grave?

It was a poser, and when no one could guess the answer, he rolled over with a snickering laugh and said “sleep on it? before retiring.