“Is that the dragon?” the pudgy administrative bureaucrat asked, peering over the ridge line near the beach.
“No, that is its watcher,” the Kesh wizard replied, looking intently at the Balarian government official.
“Well, it looks like a dragon, though I can barely see it from here,” the pudgy man said, moving to the side to get a better vantage point.
This brought an immediate reaction from the wizard. “Do not step beyond the two orbs, Overseer Jaxon.”
Jaxon rubbed his chin, stepping back from the ridgeline to assess the wizard’s words. “Why? Can it see us?”
“Not if we stay between the orbs,” the wizard replied. “It has ways of seeing in more than just the visible light.”
“That is not reassuring, Kaylor,” Jaxon said, eyeing the wizard with suspicion. “You seem to know entirely too much about them. Besides, even though it’s hard to see, it looks like a dragon to me.”
Kaylor took a step closer to Jaxon, scrutinizing the Balarian bureaucrat. Balarians were known for their backstabbing thieves, their professional assassins, and providing sanctuary to marauding pirates, but the wizard was about to add cumbersome and annoying governmental administrators to the list as well. “We are on the same side here.”
“Are we, Kesh?” Jaxon said, a nod of his head to the Balarian captain who stepped next to his administrator, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword.
A large barbarian warrior stepped up behind Jaxon and the Balarian captain. He had blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and towered at least a foot above the captain and more so the administrator. “Not wise idea to pick fight with magic wielder.” His accent was heavy, his words choppy, but his presence was commanding.
Several Balarian soldiers stood from their resting positions, and a few even grabbed their spears. Alyssa, the thief, and Krom, the Akun cleric, both stirred restlessly but said nothing. Kaylor looked around and smiled, which wasn’t exactly reassuring to Jaxon. “Now, now, Overseer, we would not want to start a diplomatic incident right before we face one of your country’s chief nemeses, now would we?”
Seth watched as the soft words of the wizard charmed . . . no, soothed would be a better word, the tensions of his fellow Balarians. There was something mystical not only to the man’s words but to his tone as well. Seth felt himself wanting to like the wizard, even trust the Kesh, but his instincts proved stronger, and he resisted. The Balarians worked with the Kesh, oftentimes closely, but that didn’t mean they trusted one another, and a time like this showed exactly why.
Seth stepped forward, interrupting the Kesh wizard and breaking the trancelike state that had suddenly come over the Balarians. “All right, Kaylor, you made your point. The stone-like-looking creature that we saw, if it isn’t a dragon, then what is it?”
Kaylor looked at Seth and then back to Jaxon, who was blinking his eyes, dumbfounded. The large northern barbarian Graz laughed quietly and shook his head, stepping back and down further onto the beach. Kaylor turned his attention back to Seth before speaking. “I am glad at least one Balarian still sees reason. The creature you saw is a wyvern, not a dragon.”
Captain Eiry spoke, keeping his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Not possible. The creature seemed small, much smaller than I would expect a mythical wyvern to be.”
“That is because these wyverns are drones, bred and raised to serve the Draconians. Fact of the matter is that particular one guarding the cave on the beach is probably one of the largest wyvern drones there is,” Kaylor said, looking now at the captain.
Seth fingered the daggers tucked into his belt at the small of his back, hidden by his light cloak that seemed out of place in the warm midday sun. “So, what is our plan, Kaylor? You’re the brains of this operation, and there would be no operation if not for your ambassador’s prodding. What would you have us do now?”
Kaylor motioned to his apprentice, who handed him a stick from a nearby dead tree. Kaylor began to draw a crude map in the sandy soil at their feet. Seth thought it odd that the wizard didn’t just use his staff, but he left it alone when Kaylor began to speak. “We move around these gullies to the rear of the cave to this point here.” The Kesh pointed to a spot behind a small rock that represented their target. “Then we assault the guardian from behind, surprising it and killing it before it can alert its master.”
Jaxon kicked the dirt, partially erasing the crudely drawn map on the ground, and then the pudgy man looked directly at Seth. “I’m in charge of this mission, not the Kesh. We will approach from the beachfront using the small tidal outcropping to conceal us until we are close to this wyvern thing. Then we attack it. You Kesh”—with this the administrator pointed a chubby digit from his right hand at the taller, swarthy wizard—“will make sure to silence the beast before it can alert the real dragon, if there is one.”
Seth no longer fingered his daggers, instead gripping the handles of both blades tightly. He was widely considered to be the best Balarian assassin in all of Agon, yet even he knew not to push a Kesh mage too far. Seth had once killed one of the Kesh sorcerers years ago, and it almost cost him his life. He would not underestimate one of them ever again. Seth stepped forward yet again, first to get the men’s attention and defuse the situation and secondly to get within striking range of the wizard, should his words fall on deaf ears.
“Master Kaylor,” Seth began, being unusually formal and polite with the man, “perhaps you could humor our good overseer and allow him the honor of the kill?”
Seth noticed that Jaxon’s chubby jowl began to quiver as his mouth moved, but no words came out. Captain Eiry seemed calm enough but had the look of a man ready to die, his knuckles now white as he gripped his sword still fortunately sheathed at his waist. Only Kaylor seemed truly calm, as calm as Seth was in this stressful moment. He was facing two dozen Balarian warriors, a formidable captain, an accomplished thief of the guild, an Akun cleric, and the best Balarian assassin in all of Agon, and the Kesh wizard had only a northern barbarian warrior to protect him, that and his frail, young, sickly looking apprentice. The extreme calm of the man unnerved Seth more than any display of anger or strength could ever do.
“I see, Master Seth.” The wizard returned the formality; obviously two could play at this game. Kaylor looked at the ground and dropped his stick and then scanned around the group, smiling even more. “Fine, then. If Overseer Jaxon wishes the honor of the kill, then we will grant that to our Balarian host. Lead on.” Kaylor motioned toward the beach and the unmoving dragon-like-looking creature.
Seth grabbed Jaxon by the arm and literally pulled the administer away, roughly shoving the man forward, propelling him in front of their troops, past the thief and cleric, out onto the beach, veering only slightly to the right to head toward the beast and its presumed lair.
“What in damnation do you think you’re doing?” Jaxon asked, his voice a hushed whisper.
“Saving your fat arse, Overseer. You should know better than to pick a fight with a Kesh wizard, especially one with a reputation like his,” Seth answered, keeping his voice low and squeezing tighter on the man’s arm.
“You’re hurting me,” Jaxon said, trying to free his arm from Seth’s grip. “Don’t rush us onto that beast; he’ll kill us first. Let the Kesh and his brute lead the way.”
“All in due time, Administrator. For now let’s just give the man a few minutes to calm down,” Seth said.
“He looks entirely too calm, if you ask me,” Jaxon said, trying to look back and catch a glimpse of the Kesh wizard.
“I meant calm as in allowing you to live,” Seth said, never moving his eyes from his intended destination—a large rock outcropping a quarter league down the beach.
Jaxon looked directly at Seth who ignored the stare, maintaining his grip and pulling the man along by his right arm. “He wouldn’t dare . . .”
“You haven’t spent enough time at the evening social galas in Balax,” Seth said, continuing to move toward his goal. “The last Balarian ambassador to Kesh that died did so at his hand over a dispute over wine. Are you sure you want to provoke him?”
Jaxon’s appearance took on a decidedly more fearish appearance once that particular deed had been mentioned. He practically stuttered, trying to get his question out. “How could the governor allow that man to even be in our country?”
“You would know better than most,” Seth began. “Politics will always take precedence over vendettas. The overall good of the Kesh-Balarian relationship is more important than any one man. And yes, before you ask, even an overseer.”
“Outrageous,” was all Jaxon could say.
“Take it up with the governor,” Seth said, finally pleased to have arrived at his intended destination without incident.
The rest of the group caught up to them with Captain Eiry leading the two dozen soldiers, all armored in scale mail, half carrying spears and the other half long pikes. The large barbarian Graz brought up the rear right behind Alyssa and Krom. The arrogant wizard actually walked in front of the soldiers, seemingly unconcerned to have that many armed men behind him. Must be the reason for the mercenary northerner of his.
Kaylor nodded to Seth and stepped over to stand in a small patch of shade next to the outcropping that separated the beach from the land. His apprentice walked over, standing next to him, and Graz did the same, placing his back against the outcropping, folding his arms, and glaring in their general direction. Had it been any other man in any other circumstance, Seth would have marked him for death, but he let it go. Today, he would let a lot of things go.
“What’s up with the theatrics?” Alyssa said, walking up to the group followed by Krom.
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Seth said, finally releasing his hold on the overseer and watching as Krom also took a position facing the barbarian and stared back, folding his arms across his broad chest, mimicking the northern mercenary.
Jaxon straightened out the sleeve of his silk robe that was wrinkled when Seth unceremoniously grabbed it. “The audacity of all of you . . .”
The look on Seth’s face told the man to be quiet. “Not now. Are the soldiers ready for a frontal attack?”
Captain Eiry nodded. “Yes, we’ll split our ranks on either side and flank the beast. One or more of our troops should be able to get within striking range with a long arm.”
Seth looked over at the Kesh contingent and then back to the captain. “We need to be careful. The Kesh are known for making statements, and I fear that after the pompous ruckus that our good overseer here provided today, they may decide to make an example of one of us.”
“Don’t you mean he?” Krom asked, nodding his head at the wizard and propping his wooden club in the crook of his arm, continuing to stare at the barbarian.
“Fine, he, if you like. I’m serious, though. I doubt he would move to attack one of our triumvirate, so that means the overseer, myself, and Alyssa will most likely not be targeted. You, Krom”—Seth nodded at the short, stocky cleric—“are expendable as would be . . . Captain Eiry, that would be my guess. One of the sergeants or troops wouldn’t make a bold enough statement, I think.”
“Just what are you saying?” Jaxon looked at Seth, his eyes wide, mouth gaping. He composed himself when Seth refused to answer. “You mean they would hurt or kill one of us to make a point about our argument?”
“Well, it really wasn’t much of one,” Alyssa chimed in. “I think, however, that if the slayer says to watch our backs, then I would heed his counsel.”
Seth wasn’t particularly fond of being called by his moniker. Some bloated egos heaped rather large and prestigious titles upon themselves, but in his line of work, discretion was valued more than notoriety, though Seth the Sword Slayer did have a certain ring to it. “Like I said, I’m more concerned with the captain and our good cleric. Let me have a word with the mage and see if we can proceed without any undue excitement.”
The Balarian administrator nodded, and Seth left them at the outcropping, walking past the soldiers who remained standing in twin columns, one sergeant commanding each, and approached the Kesh.
“Yes, Master Seth?” Kaylor said without turning around, and indeed, Seth could see no visual cue passed from the mercenary to the wizard to alert him of Seth’s approach, and Seth was purposely trying to be silent. Again, the word unnerving came to Seth’s mind as he continued to walk, standing alongside the slightly taller Kesh wizard.
“We are ready to flank the beast and begin the attack. Before we do, I wanted to apologize for any unpleasantries displayed today by our government official.” Seth waited for a response.
Neither the apprentice nor the barbarian moved or said a word. The silence went from expected to mildly annoying and then downright awkward. Still, Seth was determined not to play into the wizard’s hand.
“Apology accepted, Master Assassin,” Kaylor said. “Inform our esteemed leader that the Kesh stand ready to lead the attack and silence the beast first. Oh, and do inform the captain that his men must remain between my apprentice and myself. Otherwise our protection cannot be extended, at least until we are ready to launch our attack.”
“Understood, Master Kaylor. I’ll inform Overseer Jaxon, and we will begin when you’re ready,” Seth said, turning around and walking back to his group.
When he arrived, Krom nodded and Seth looked back in time to see the barbarian Graz leaving and running into one of the many draws and gullies that lined this section of the beach. “Where’s he off to?”
Seth watched the tall man disappear and then addressed the cleric and group. “I don’t know, but keep a sharp eye. The Kesh wizards are ready.”
Before he could say more, the wizard and apprentice walked over to their group and Kaylor nodded. Jaxon nodded in return but didn’t move, so Kaylor and his apprentice took out the two orbs that had been set on top of the ridgeline earlier and said a few words, and they illuminated slightly. It was hard to see the faint illumination in the noonday sun. Both Kesh started to walk along the beach, separating by at least a good twenty feet.
“Captain Eiry, keep your men between the Kesh and tell them to be quiet,” Seth said.
The captain nodded and moved off to command the men as the entire group walked quickly to catch up to the Kesh who had opened a small distance between the two groups. Once they caught up, they marched quietly in unison with Jaxon and Alyssa bringing up the rear. Krom walked next to Seth just in front of the captain and his men.
“Do you think this is going to work?” Krom whispered to Seth as they trudged in the hot, heavy sand.
Kaylor turned from a good fifteen feet away and nodded. “Yes, Master Krom, this will work if your men do not make much noise.”
Krom gave Seth a look, and Seth just shrugged his shoulders and carried on, pulling his short sword when they rounded a small promontory that was another third of a league farther down the beach.
Krom gasped and covered his mouth. There, not more than forty feet in front of them, was the entrance to a small tidal cave, and sitting like a stone statue was the small, dragon-looking wyvern they had spotted from nearly a league distance. The wyvern had appeared to be quite small when they viewed it from a great distance, but Seth saw instantly that the creature was easily the size of two or more horses. It had a dull grey skin, allowing it to blend in perfectly with the grey rock of the outcropping, and its wings were folded in like a bat hanging from a cave’s ceiling. Its head, however, was held in an alert pose about ten feet above its claws, and the tail ended in what looked like a scorpion’s stinger.
Kaylor never stopped walking and indeed practically marched up to the creature, stopping within ten feet of it, as did his apprentice. Holding the orb in his left hand, he used his right to swing his staff around in a tight circle.
The wyvern finally moved, cocking its head toward the group and the beach, but Seth had the distinct impression that it didn’t see them. Then it did something that really worried Seth; it started to sniff, as if smelling something.
“Oh hell,” he heard Krom state as the cleric pulled his wooden shield over his left side and readied his wooden club.
“Now!” Captain Eiry commanded, and the Balarian soldiers sprang from the middle of the formation, branching out as each squad moved from the center to the left and the right.
“Pohozha na vodi!” Kaylor said, pointing his gem-adorned metallic staff at the large tidal pool in front of him. Instantly a huge ball of water levitated and then attached itself to the wyvern’s head.
The creature roared in defiance, but the sound was muted as the large ball of sea water centered on the creature’s face. The wyvern lunged sideways at one group of Balarian soldiers, and its tail flung two of them to the ground. It swung its head violently from side to side and tried to dislodge the water ball from its face.
Seth noticed that the ball of water encompassed the creature’s eyes as well, and while he wasn’t sure how well the creature saw in normal light, he felt confident at the wild thrashings of the beast that the water warped its vision.
Krom rushed toward the front, giving a long, swinging arc to his wooden club and impacting one of the front claws of the creature. Several other soldiers, now in flanking positions, stabbed and jutted their pikes and spears into the creature. Most of the blows were deflected by its scaly armor, but the wings were not armored and they were injured by the long weapons.
Seth looked for an opening in which to strike, but the entire area around the wyvern was crowded with Balarian soldiers and his comrades, making the fight a crowded one. Kaylor must have felt the same as he stood, staff in hand, allowing them to do the fighting. A quick glance over his shoulder showed the administrator Jaxon practically clinging to Alyssa as she held her short sword in front of her, both of them well to the rear of the group.
Finally getting some traction, the wyvern managed to hit two soldiers to the right of the group with its tail, the stinger missing one of them by mere inches. Krom got a claw stuck in his wooden shield for his efforts, and one of the sergeants was nearly bitten despite the globe of water that pushed him away as the creature tried to bite.
“Do something, Seth,” Krom yelled, pulling back on his shield and almost stumbling backward into the wizard’s apprentice.
“You seem to be doing just fine,” Seth answered, stepping up next to Krom, grabbing him by his club arm and helping to stabilize him.
Kaylor seemed to have seen enough. Moving his staff, he stepped into Seth’s field of vision and pointed his staff at the creature, saying, “Umerai!”
His gemstone atop the metallic staff had started to glow as it took in the charged particles from the atmosphere. A bolt of lightning shot from the staff at the creature, passing into the water ball and disbanding the hydrogen molecules so that the water sprayed everywhere. The bolt hit the wyvern squarely between the eyes and smote a gaping hole in its skull. The beast thrashed a second more and then tottered and fell, its head landing heavily with a dull thud right in front of Seth and Krom.
The soldiers stepped back, dripping with water, and then, seeing the wyvern dead, started to cheer. One even stepped forward and poked the creature’s neck to see if it was breathing.
Seth felt a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to see Alyssa at his side. The government administrator also stepped closer, getting a better look at the beast before speaking. “Well done, Master Wizard. I’d say the foul creature has seen his last day.”
Kaylor turned and looked at Jaxon for a moment as if distracted by a child, and then finally answered. “Too easy I would say, but yes, no more troublemaking for this one.”
“Everyone is accounted for,” Captain Eiry said, approaching the group. “Two with broken bones, a couple more banged up, but no deaths. It was a good fight.”
“For us, yes, but not so much for the dragon,” Jaxon said, trying to shake off the fear that had gripped the man not more than a minute earlier.
“Wyvern,” Kaylor said.
“Nonsense,” Administrator Jaxon said, walking over to the nearest soldier and grabbing the man’s spear. He took a few steps forward to the side of the beast’s head and placed his sandaled foot on top of its skull, thrusting the spear point first into the hole on its forehead. The squishing sound was too familiar for Seth.
“What are you doing?” Alyssa asked, taking a step toward Jaxon, her charge.
“The dragon is dead,” Jaxon said, twisting the spear slightly as a black ichor came from the hole. “Look for yourselves. It has wings, claws, scales, and nasty fangs. This is what the Kesh were so worried about, enough to upset our governor and roust us from our revelry to come all the way out here and kill it. There is nothing to worry about.”
Alyssa opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Sand from on top of the cave’s entrance slowly started to stream down in very small slides, making a unique yet soothing sound. The cackle of something sparking sounded faintly, and the smell of ozone was in the air.
The very ground vibrated, gently at first, and then the sounds were unmistakable, louder and clearer. Something of a purplish hue was approaching from the cave. The soldiers backed away, and Krom raised his club, taking a few steps to the rear. Seth grabbed Alyssa and pulled her back toward him, noticing that the only person not backing away from the cave’s entrance was Jaxon, in his ridiculous victory pose, and the Kesh wizard, who narrowed his eyes.
Jaxon turned, looking at the cave entrance since noticing the reaction of his troops and colleagues. His mouth hung down, his fat jowl bouncing up and down in rhythm with his mouth as he, too, tried to speak but could not. The dragon stepped from the cave’s shadow into the sunlight.
The shade had made the mass look diffused and hard to see, purplish in color. In the sunlight, the effect was very much the opposite. The detailed lines of the beast were now clearly visible. Claws scraped on the rock, thick scales moved in unison with the massive muscles beneath them, and wings unfurled once they cleared the cave’s entrance, looking very much like thick, stretched leather. The entire creature shimmered a bright blue in color, and its reptilian eyes were also of the same hue.
Seth held his short sword out in front of him. Small, static electrical sparks were coming off the wings where they came too close to the rock cliff. The beast lowered its head and looked at Jaxon still standing with his foot on the wyvern’s skull, hand still gripping the spear. Jaxon soiled himself, and Seth instantly recognized the man’s state of fear. He was paralyzed and couldn’t move, much less control his bodily functions. Seth had seen this state of fear many times with many of his victims, and now he was seeing it again.
The blue dragon took a second to look around and assess the group. It was several times larger than the wyvern, and a strange fear-inducing aura emanated from it. It hesitated for only a second, and then in three quick steps, it lunged forward from the cave’s entrance and struck out with its head, opening its gaping maw and biting down on Jaxon’s legs, taking the entire man into its mouth.
It raised its head and started to chew, shaking its wings and beating them fiercely for several seconds. The sound of bone crunching was mingled with the howl of the wind as sand blew every which way and partially blinded the group in the mini sandstorm. Red blood poured from the side of the blue dragon’s mouth, falling from the corner of its lips, a single fang protruding, barely visible as the blood fell on the sandy outcropping of rock. Administrator Jaxon was no more.The wind died down, and the dragon reared back, its stance one of a lion ready to pounce. Silence returned to the group and was only broken by Kaylor, who turned to Seth, saying, “I think you are going to need a bigger sword.”
Book 1 in the Claire-Agon