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The torch flared brightly as the bristly dwarf swung it at Simon’s knees, close enough to blacken his sharkskin trousers. Simon jumped back, his heels hanging over the edge of the precipice. Swinging his arms wildly, Simon glanced down into the misty abyss, his stomach clenching. He hated heights.
The snap and roar of the swinging flames warned him of the incoming torch before he was hit with it. Clenching his teeth, Simon snatched the moving torch out of the air by its flaming end, feeling the fire lick his skin, smelling his flesh burn, before hurtling it over the edge and watching it spiral down and be swallowed by the mist. Hand crippled with searing pain, he turned back to the now unarmed dwarf.
Of course, unarmed never meant helpless, not when it came to dwarves. The little fellow scrunched up his button-black eyes and clenched his hammy fists, ready to bust Simon’s knees in. Simon though, had had quite enough. Mugging was supposed to be easier than this. A swift kick to the chest sent the dwarf toppling over onto his back with an outraged bellow. Simon leaped forward and used his uninjured hand to pick the dwarf up by the ankle.
Holding the shouting, clawing, kicking, twisting and biting creature at arm’s length, Simon carried him away from the cliff before shaking him vigorously. All manner of treasure and junk tumbled out of the upended dwarf’s pockets and onto the ground. At a glance, Simon could tell that what he wanted wasn’t there. Nothing even resembled a stone. He shook the little fellow harder, smiling at the funny way the dwarf’s shout changed, but nothing new fell out.
With an exasperated sigh, Simon dropped the dwarf on his head, turning away to examine his hand in the clear moonlight. The blisters had popped, the ooze covering the new, tender pink skin. The pain had dulled to a bearable ache. It would be healed within the hour. Simon slowly shook his head. At least being a vampire was good for something.
The scent of the little fellow’s blood wafted by on the crisp desert air. Simon licked his lips. He wasn’t hungry, but the bloodlust was never about hunger. Dwarves were tough and hairy, their blood strong and intoxicating, with the definite possibility of a hangover later, but it was blood for crying out loud! Hot, sweet, tangy, salty, thick, and throbbing with life and energy. It was hard to resist, but resist he must, or waste even more time finding another dwarf.
“Where is it?” Simon asked, looking out across the moon-silvered sand to the barely distinguishable mountains rising against the starry sky. He could hear the dwarf hastily stuffing his junk back into his pockets.
“Don’t know what yer talking about,” he grumbled in his dwarvish accent. Simon clenched his burnt fist and watched the skin split, his blood black in the moonlight. It hurt, but not like it should, not like it would have only a year ago. The pain was sharp, stinging, aching, but then fading. It did not throb, did not pulse with agony, it couldn’t, for he had no pulse. He held the other hand over his heart, feeling for its beat, its rhythm, even just the faintest tremble, but it lay silent and cold. Dead.
“I told you once already,” Simon said calmly, patiently, though inside he was anything but. “I don’t like to repeat myself, so listen this time. I’m looking for a dwarfstone. Give me a stone, or tell me where one is, or I’ll pull your fingers and toes off until you do.” He turned to face the sullen little creature and found him gone. The dwarf was stomping out into the desert, leaving Simon to chase after him. “Where do you think you’re going?” Simon asked, strolling alongside the puffing dwarf.
“Yer want a stone, I’ll get yer a stone,” he grumbled. “What do yer want it for, anyway?” Simon hesitated, looking down at the top of his companion’s head. What could it hurt? Dwarves certainly weren’t known for their guile.
“For a spell,” he answered, giving the elegant silver flowers of a night-blooming cactus an appreciative glance as they passed by. The dwarf didn’t seem to notice.
“What kind of spell?” the little fellow pressed, kicking a rabbit skull out of his way. Simon watched the skull bounce over the sand, coming to rest with the empty eye sockets staring at them. It reminded him too much of the sorcerer.
“I want to be human again.” A swift wind whistled past them, stirring the sand with a faint rattle. Simon hunched his shoulders. It was getting cold.
“What, don’t yer like being a bloodsucker?” the dwarf asked with a bark of laughter. Simon cringed. He had never liked vampires, not when he was alive and certainly not now, but he liked racists even less.
“How much farther?” he asked, looking around. Nothing but sand and distant mountains before them, the Desert Abyss to their right, and the winding road from Berthik Dun to Marnat behind and to the left. No sign of a dwarf lodge or a desert stronghold anywhere. The dwarf said nothing, but slowed his resentful, stomping charge, his breath blowing through his wiry black mustache as he began to wander aimlessly. Simon stood back and watched, following only when the little fellow got too far away.
Suddenly, the dwarf dropped to his knees and pressed his ear to the sand, closing his eyes as a look of deepest concentration settled onto his lined and ruddy face. He sprang to his feet, as nimble as Simon had ever seen a dwarf, and began digging like an animal, the sand flying between his legs and piling up behind him. He dug like mad, faster than the sand could slide back into the hole. In a moment, his arm shot down to the bottom of the hole and he stood up, holding something in his hand that kicked with a dozen legs and clacked its claws together, the sound ringing like gunfire in the still desert.
Claws and legs waving futilely, the creature hissed, its baleful green eyes watching Simon as the dwarf carried it to a nearby rock. One sharp blow killed it and another split the hard, gray shell, a mass of gloppy wet entrails spilling out onto the sand. Tossing the carcass aside, the dwarf searched through the mess, coming up with a dull green stone about as big as a pea. As he stood, the sand near the guts and the body rippled, a dozen tiny creatures popping out of the sand, their claws clacking as they devoured their unfortunate cousin.
“Here,” the dwarf said, handing the stone to Simon. “Now leave me alone.” He turned and began tromping toward the road, in the direction of Marnat. Simon looked at the ugly and insignificant pebble in his hand. It wasn’t quite what he had expected. Simon narrowed his eyes at the retreating figure. Dwarves in general weren’t smart enough for deception, but every now and again you would hear about an incident of dwarvish trickery. Clenching his fist around the rock, he strode after the little fellow.
“Are you sure this is a dwarfstone?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” the dwarf replied, not pausing nor turning. “Go away.”
“You know that if you’re lying to me, I’ll hunt you down, break all your bones, and leave you for the wolves.” As if on cue, a lone wolf howled into the night. It couldn’t have been better timed if Simon had planned it. The dwarf stopped in his tracks.
“I’m not a liar,” he grumbled. “If that’s not a dwarfstone, I’ll let yer break all my bones. Now leave me alone.” When he walked away, Simon let him. Turning for Berthik Dun, he caught a glimpse of the sleek black shadow slinking between cactus plants. His eyes on the desert, Simon slipped the stone into the leather bag hanging at his waist, making sure to tie the drawstring tightly afterward.
After a moment, the long, black wolf stepped out of the shadows and stood where Simon could see her, her thick, glossy fur frosted silver in the moonlight. Even from two hundred yards, Simon could clearly see the pale gold eyes, the wolfish grin, the tattered left ear. A frustrated sigh escaped his lips as he walked toward the road, the wolf pacing him with her easy, loping gait.
“Quit following me, Kyssyla,” he said loudly into the night. “Go back to your pack.” She had to have heard him; her wolf ears could have heard his whisper in a thunderstorm, but tonight she gave no sign. Damn her. Deciding two could play at that game, he tried to ignore her, but her flowing form flitting like a cloud shadow across the desert kept drawing his attention.
Forcing his eyes to road, he watched the desert give way to scrubland, the spiky tufts of coarse grass casting pale shadows on the sandy ground. His hand stroked the leather bag, then closed around it, a desperate gesture. Inside, he could feel the small stone, the bit of shell from Amelika’s northern shore, the pointed puppy tooth from a silver wolf. He heard the crinkle of the paper packets, their herbal contents throwing off their spicy and bitter fragrances even through the leather. Lavender, jasmine, blue sage, firebell, and sweet sulo grass. Only one item left, one ingredient before he could cast off this curse and return to mortality. One item between him and life, and he was not looking forward to getting it. Not at all.
Simon stood before the black maw of the cavern, sweat trickling down his face and plastering his shirt to his back. Even at night, hours after sunset, this jungle was hot enough to roast a pig and humid enough to wash the pan afterward. The only relief came from the faint breeze that issued from the cave, what the native elves called the Breath of the Dead. It was cold and musty, turning the beads of sweat to ice water.
Drawing his sword with a soft, metallic hiss, Simon stepped toward the entrance. Inside, it was pitch black, darker than the darkest moonless night, and he was forced to unveil his Sphere of Light, shaking it roughly to agitate the tiny phosphorescent organisms inside. A cool blue glow surrounded him, reaching to the vaulted ceiling and playing down the passage before being swallowed by the dark.
Swallowing much too noisily and finding him mouth very dry, Simon slowly made his way up the winding tunnel, the floor and walls worn smooth by the passage of a great many creatures. In places, the light reflected from patches of silver-green moss, reminding Simon of watchful eyes. Every other step or so, his light would reveal a grisly reminder of what waited for him at the end of the passage; a pile of bones, a broken sword, a gleaming scale. He could almost see the hundreds of footprints leading in, with only one set ever coming out.
Take it easy, he cautioned himself. You’ve come much too far to screw this up now. Emboldened by that thought, he crept swiftly and silently toward his goal, rounding the last corner sooner than expected and nearly stumbling over the scaly tail of the sleeping dragon. He froze, his eyes taking forever to follow the tail up over the body, along the neck to the twisted horns, the closed eyes, and the long, tapering muzzle filled with needle-sharp teeth. She didn’t stir.
Nestled in the pile of gold and silver around her were seven dully gleaming eggs, their hard black shells giving off thin wisps of smoke. Her scales were blue, edged with silver feather-fire, her wings pale blue in the light from the sphere, but Simon had the feeling that under the bright sun, they would be pearly white. Maybe, if this went well, he’d be able to come back someday and see.
He shook the orb again and held the light higher, eyes scouring her from tail up, desperately searching for her fur. He could have seen her with a tufted tail, like the Gryphlian royalty, or perhaps in fringes on the backs of her legs, or a ruff around her shoulders, but he saw nothing. No fuzz on her head, no lashes on her big, glowing green eyes, no beard on her chin...Simon’s gaze jerked back to her eyes, her open eyes, and his hand tightened on his sword.
“Lower your weapon, creature of darkness, and state your intent,” she said in a softly ancient, yet regal voice. “Do so now, else I shall tear you apart and reassemble you, just to tear you apart again.” Simon quickly dropped the point of his sword, resting on it like a walking stick, before the tremble in his hands gave away his fear.
“My Blue Lady, regal Dragoness, and...and wise mother,” Simon began, trying to remember his formality and not quite succeeding. “I, Simon Anthony Patrick Harcourt, have traveled here from cities far distant, seeking the magical aide of your Dragon’s Fur to restore my lost mortality.” He stood straighter, feeling better about that last bit. “I wish you and yours no harm, but I will have your fur at any cost.” If he expected anger at this blatant challenge, he was greatly mistaken. She chuckled.
“Well, Simon Anthony Patrick Harcourt, I am Lady Saria-lynarthia-mel-minara. I suppose you may call me Saria, if I may call you Simon.” Simon nodded mutely, dumbstruck by both her name and her behavior. Where was the fighting? Where was the rage? “Why do you wish to be mortal again?” she asked softly, interrupting his bewilderment.
“I--My life was stolen from me. I didn’t want this,” he explained. “This isn’t me.”
“But it is you,” she replied, “the new you. Have you tried to accept what you have become?”
“I can’t. I’ve tried. I’ve spent nearly a year trying, but this life disgusts me. The killing, the blood, the fact that the blood makes me feel so good, it all disgusts me. I disgust me, and that’s no way to live.” He sagged with weariness, not of the body, but of the spirit. He was so very tired.
“Are you going to kill me for the item you seek?” she asked suddenly, though her voice lost none of its patient wisdom and gentleness. Simon looked at her, at the formidable horns, teeth, claws, and scaly hide, and then down at the black pearls warming around her, the treasure within growing and dreaming the things only young dragonettes dream before they hatch. The horns, and the teeth, and the claws, and the scales, he could probably overcome with his sharp sword and preternatural strength and speed, but the eggs would be crushed or orphaned, then next generation killed before they had even begun to live.
“No,” he said, putting his sword away. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Lady Saria. Rest well and...live long.” He made up some stupid farewell and turned to go, heart heavy with failure.
“Hold a moment, gentle Simon,” Saria called after him. “Compassion has never been without its rewards. Come here, and I will tell you something you need to know.” Simon carefully stepped over her tail and made his way around the edge of the hoard. “Dragons, dear Simon, are a species somewhere between bird and lizard, but not truly either one. We are not mammals. We have no fur.” Simon stepped back, shaken.
“Then how am I supposed to complete the spell?” he asked. “Did the sorcerer misread his book? Did he lie? Is he trying to kill me?” The blue dragoness did not answer. Instead, she raised her right wing, the one tucked behind her, and Simon was shocked to see long, bloody clawmarks razing the surface of her wing membrane, some deep enough to show through the other side.
“I was flying the other morning,” she said conversationally, “and a Gryphlian attacked me. I killed the stupid young wretch, but not before he did this. I barely made it back to my cave and I fear that I may starve before it heals completely. If you, with your magic blood, were to help me, I do have another bit of information you will find most useful.” Simon thought a moment, then stooped and drew a slim, silver dagger from inside his boot. He really had no choice.
Her wing was just as bad as it looked, and it took copious amounts of his blood spread liberally over the damaged areas before the new membrane gleamed pale and whole in the light of the sphere. He ran a hand over her soft wingsail with a weary sigh. His head felt light, his thoughts drifting in a fog. He stumbled off of the heap of treasure and walked around to face Saria on wobbly legs. She was carefully turning her eggs, packing the gold and silver back around them, and then bathing each one in a blinding jet of flame. When the gold began to melt around them she stopped, looking proudly upon her smoking clutch.
“All done,” Simon informed her, slipping his dagger away and rubbing at the dried blood on his lined and scored arms. They would heal in time, but it would take longer than usually, due to his weakness. He needed to eat somebody. “It’ll be stiff until you stretch it out, but it should be good as new.”
“Thank you, kind Simon,” she replied, not looking up from her eggs. “It won’t be long now,” she murmured to herself, then she turned to Simon, as if only just remembering him. “Dragon’s Fur is the common name of the silvery moss that grows in dragon’s caves. I’m sure you saw it on your way in. The sorcerer must have assumed you would know.”
“So he wasn’t trying to get me killed,” Simon said with a thoughtful nod. “Thank you, Lady Saria. Farewell.”
“Farewell, Simon. Fortune be with you on your quest for humanity.” Simon turned and tried to will some life into his shuffling steps. As the blue dragoness disappeared from view, he heard her call after him, “Rest well and live long, Simon.” As the tired smile spread across his face, he stopped to scrape a patch of Dragon’s Fur from the wall, depositing it in his leather bag with a sigh of relief. Now, to the sorcerer.
“Did you have any trouble?” the sorcerer asked, staring at Simon with his unnerving, deepset black eyes. Simon tossed the leather bag onto the scarred marble table.
“Not really,” he said. “I was bit by a sand cat, nearly pushed off a cliff by a dwarf, and almost eaten by a dragon, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Oh, and I’m being stalked by a Werewolf. She thinks she’s in love with me.” The sorcerer knitted his thin, gray eyebrows.
“This Werewolf, she didn’t follow you here, did she?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t seen her since the jungles of Amry Ky. I think I lost her.”
“Don’t bet on it,” the sorcerer replied ominously. “Now, about this spell.” He rubbed his hands together. Simon reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small sack, tossing it onto the table with a metallic clink.
“Five hundred,” Simon told him, ready for the argument. “To insure that this gets done right, five hundred now and the full fee after I’m mortal.” The sorcerer just nodded his head and went to work. Opening the bag of ingredients, he dumped everything into a large pewter bowl, added a beaker of pungent yellow liquid that made the whole mess fizz and smoke, and murmured some magic words Simon couldn’t quite catch. He set the bowl on the table, dug into one of the many pockets in his long purple robes, and pulled out a single silver feather.
“Stand back,” he warned, and Simon retreated several paces. Shielding his face with one hand, the sorcerer dropped the feather in the bowl and jerked back, just as a massive pillar of blue flame burst out of the bowl. The bowl cracked in half, the pieces flying apart, and a fluffy silver creature spilled out, soft paws sliding on the slick marble as it tried to stand, the curled wings unfolding in a splash of iridescent beauty. Huge gray eyes blinked in the guttering light of a dozen smoky candles.
“My God,” Simon whispered. “What is it?”
“A kinsa,” the sorcerer replied. “Hunted to near extinction, she is one of seven in all the worlds. You must drink her blood if you want your mortality back.”
“You mean, kill her?” Simon stared in horror at the silky fuzzball, her glittering butterfly wings fanning lazily as she gazed up at him. Just do it, he told himself. One more life now, or a thousand lives later. He licked his lips, but out of nervousness. “I can’t,” he said finally, “I can’t do it.” The sorcerer nodded knowingly and picked up a teacup from the table behind him. A small paper packet emerged from his pocket and he sprinkled the contents in the cup.
“Drink this,” he said, forcing the cup into Simon’s hand. It looked like blood, the smell suddenly so powerful he couldn’t resist. He downed the contents in one gulp, hardly tasting the bitter, very un-bloodlike liquid before it was swallowed. He waited for it to make him sick, like real food did, but nothing happened.
“What was that?” he asked, setting the cup down. The sorcerer walked over and scratched the kinsa between her fluttering wings, exciting a happy hum from her.
“The quest was to see if you really wanted your mortality. You did, but I had to know if there was enough humanity in you to make you human. There was. Now, where’s my money?”
“Your money?” Simon asked, dumbfounded. “You mean I’m...That stuff...it worked?” His hand flew up to his mouth, feeling for the sharp fangs, but they were gone. “I’m--I’m mortal,” he whispered. A giddy grin on his face, he pulled the larger sack of coins out of his jacket and set it on the table, the kinsa humming at him as he turned and left the sorcerer’s shop.
Walking down the dark forest path, Simon didn’t hear a thing until something large knocked him to the ground. Rolling onto his back, Simon looked up into pale amber eyes of a huge black wolf. Breathing a sigh of relief and annoyance, he tried to sit up, but Kyssyla placed her front paws on his chest, holding him down. A little angry now, he reached up to push her off, a flash of white, a sharp sting in his arm, and a trickle of warm blood began running for his elbow. She had bit him.
Kyssyla jumped off now and trotted away, looking over her shoulder with the promise of seeing him again shining in her eyes. Simon sat on the path and watched his blood dry in the moonlight, feeling the quicksilver spirit of the Were burn in his veins. Then, slowly, he stood and headed back to the sorcerer’s shop.
Si setiri il ky lasani, tenit. (I flew to the moon, my love.)