Tales of Strange Adventures

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Home Index of Tales of Strange Adventures

"Call of the Dragon, Pt I"

"Call of the Dragon, Pt II"

"Ruins and Hopes"

"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3

"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4

"Childhood of a Fighter"

"The Pledge" Cornell #5

"The Rock of Discontent"

"A Tale of the Gods"

"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6

 

 


Call of the Dragon, Part 1

  by Marc H. Wyman & Chris Bogues

  Section 1 / Section 2

 

“You want me to fight a woman?!”

Boragger, the burly, seven feet tall chief bodyguard, laughed. “Yes, Nych, and I’m looking forward to seeing you grovel at her feet.”

The man addressed as Nych jerked back in disgust. A proper reaction for a man garbed in leather cured from the hide of the giant thymbair, wearing a long shirt tied in the waist by a dark strap and simple leggings below. His boots still bore the grizzled fur of the thymbair, much too warm for the hot city of Chazevo. An amulet to the war god of Keshmire hang around his chest, beautifully crafted from bronze. His face, though, looked considerably less barbarian, being of a noble cut, with a prominent nose below bright, gray eyes. His hair was long and blond – and yet, if one looked closely at the roots, dark brown traces were visible.

Nobody at the court of the merchant Ceravin Tangrain had questioned Nych’s barbarian origin ever since the man appeared well over two months ago. Cornell of Cayaboré was proud of his disguise as a warrior from the steppes of the distant south – the land of Robhovard -, of the tribe of Ryelneyd, down to the behavior and idiosyncrasies typical of this people. Long enough had he traveled with a friend from that very tribe to know that even a person familiar with the Ryelneyd could not find fault with him.

That will never happen,” he now said haughtily, drawing his sword from its sheath. Beautiful steel, the bastard sword glinted in the light of the afternoon sunlight breaking through the glass windows of the forehall.

A smile was Boragger’s only reply while he heaved his massive body, also weighed down by a thick, dark vest of armor, to the elfwood doors leading into Tangrain’s main hall. The chief guard smashed his hand against the door. Moments later, the valves swiveled open, silently moving in their greased grooves and opened to an opulent sight.

No windows were set in the walls, yet plentiful light streamed from magical tubular lamps at the roof. Rich carpets on the floor, gobelins interchanging with oil paintings on the walls. In a square near the entrance, boards of light wood were placed over the carpet – a fighting arena which Tangrain rarely bothered to remove. The sides of the arena were lined by men wearing the same dark vests as Boragger. Their faces ranged from the swarthiness of the Elfadil sandmen to the light skin tones of the Albinavian humans. Some were not quite human, either. Pale blue skin, slightly pointed ears denoted elves, and the nasty curvature of their mouths proved it beyond a doubt.

Beyond were stands holding some of the treasures Tangrain had amassed, and some that he was dealing in. Jewels of all kinds, arrayed on silk, next to the wares from Modayre, the source of the merchant’s wealth – and also the reason why Cornell had been sent to Chazevo.

A barbarian, though, would never let his gaze rest long on the unassuming weaponry and tools, he knew, and looked ahead to the far end of the hall. Two golden statues stood tall enough to scrape at the roof; one depicting a bearded, scholarly man bearing a scroll in one hand and a pen in the other, the other statue showing a striking woman in a flowing robe, her long hair surrounding her head like a corona. Darawk, the god of knowledge; Alyssa, the goddess of love. Between the statues, Tangrain sat on a wide chair before a large table. He was a small man, lean enough to be called haggard, a nervous twitch in his eyes that never vanished. He was unremarkably dressed, might have disappeared in any – well to do – crowd in Chazevo, which was exactly the way the merchant liked to appear. The man next to him might have worn dark, unprepossessing clothes as well, yet this person would never vanish in a crowd. Unless the crowd was made up of full-blooded elves, with blue, almost purplish skin and eyes of a color bordering on white. Cornell hadn’t seen this man before, but unfortunately he had no time to ponder the elf’s presence further.

“Move it,” Boragger growled. “The lady is waiting.”

Indeed she was. Cornell had met her a few times before, and as before he couldn’t help his heart missing a beat when he saw Sylasa in front of the statue of Alyssa. The warrior woman was from Ibrollene, five and a half feet tall. She wore silvery chain armor so intricately forged that the chains seemed to flow into one another, comforting her ample curves, and moving as easily as silk with every motion. Magic, the Cayaborean supposed. Well, against a strong and skilled fighter such as he, it would at best level the playing field.

Boragger and Cornell walked into the center of the arena. At a sign of Tangrain’s, Sylasa nodded and sauntered over to them, her hips moving in a most pleasing way. It took all of Cornell’s effort not to be caught by the hypnotic sway – though Boragger, for one, felt no inhibition of the kind. And Sylasa seemed not to be bothered by this attention. Her eyes were firmly trained on Cornell, bearing a sparkling challenge.

“So, pretty boy,” she said, “ready to prove yourself a man?”

Laughter erupted from the guards. Sylasa basked in the mirth, smiling ever so sweetly – yet the Cayaborean warrior suddenly knew that the woman used the display only as a disguise to put her enemy at ease.

Boragger grinned and bowed to her. “Show him what he’s made of, lady.” The grin quickly vanished, replaced by a grim look to Cornell. “Drop the sword, you won’t be using it. Wouldn’t want to damage the goods. Not seriously, anyway.”

“Particularly such sweet ones,” Sylasa purred, flashing a disconcerting glance at Cornell. Then, one of the elves threw her a quarterstaff which she caught in a swift motion and whirled once about her body, all sweetness wiped from her face.

Quarterstaffs? Cornell suppressed a curse as he handed his sword to Boragger and looked about to receive a staff himself. His first mistake, he quickly realized, as Sylasa’s quarterstaff jabbed towards his chest.

He instinctively ducked, jammed his – empty – shield arm forward – and found that Sylasa was standing a lot further away than a swordfighting foe would. Instead of pushing her away with a shield, her staff crashed into his back, knocking the air from his lungs. Cornell was stunned for a moment, just enough to get his feet swiped from under him by another blow.

Hurled backward, he fell on his behind – and on a second quarterstaff. Sylasa came at him again, just as Cornell twisted sideways, pressed close to the ground. Her staff missed him by inches, she had to take a sudden leap not to stumble over him. At that point Cornell grabbed the staff and heaved it upward, slamming it into Sylasa’s midsection.

She groaned, but Cornell knew that much of the blow’s force was cushioned by her armor. And he had no intention to let himself be bested by a woman! So he jabbed the staff sideways at her legs. She fell, just as he had done moments earlier.

To his surprise, Sylasa rolled off on her back – and used the roll’s momentum to bring up her own quarterstaff, firing a stinging blow at his thigh. Again Cornell needed a moment to get his bearings, then he swung his staff for a forceful attack.

His staff was blocked firmly, then Sylasa launched a counter-attack which Cornell parried just as firmly. For a few moments they exchanged blows coolly, blocking easily. He was getting a feel back for the quarterstaff, began to remember the lessons of his youth seeping into his bones. Despite the aches in his body, he smiled. “Let’s see who’s in charge around here, lady,” he gasped – then he jumped sideways, avoiding her blow, and planted the end of the quarterstaff into the ground.

His own force carried him into the air, his legs swirled out and connected with her chest solidly. Sylasa was knocked back, her grip on the staff loosened for a moment. Just what Cornell needed! He landed on his feet, followed the motion through with his arms and hammered the quarterstaff into the warrior woman. Elation surged through him, as he kicked the staff from her hands.

She lay on her back, staring at him in astonishment.

Cornell had an urge to help her gallantly back up, but he remembered his guise as a barbarian. Therefore he planted his boot on her stomach and yelled impatiently at Boragger, “Is that it? That girl is no match for a true warrior!”

He frowned when all he saw around him were faces grinning in anticipation.

“Really, pretty boy?” Sylasa whispered from the ground – and the next thing Cornell knew was that his groin imploded under her knee.

The Cayaborean stumbled a step back, held on to his quarterstaff with the last remnants of rational thought. It did him little good since Sylasa had whirled up from the ground at twice the speed she had shown before. A hurricane of quarterstaff blows landed on him, expertly placed to keep him balanced and ready to receive the next strike.

Even had he been fresh and unimpeded by the pain, he would have had a hard time matching Sylasa’s fleetness. Now, he could only accept the barrage and suffer through the pain.

Finally, Sylasa stopped. Cornell wavered for a moment, then he dropped to the floor, expecting a final blow to put him into unconsciousness. Instead she rolled him over with her boot so that he looked up at her. Other than the triumphant pose he had assumed brief moments earlier, Sylasa held the tip of her quarterstaff against his throat, clear warning not to try any tricks of his own.

“Who’s the boss, pretty boy?” she asked, a sweet, honest smile painted on her lips. “Well?”

“I… yield,” he muttered.

Cheers went out from the guards around them, a few jeers directed at the “barbarian” – but they were shortcut by a sudden flash of light that raced like a wave through the main hall!

The quarterstaff vanished from Cornell’s throat, and instead he suddenly felt Sylasa grasping his arms and hauling him up with amazing strength. He blinked, felt his staff pressed into his hands, then he saw that all faces – and incidentally numerous weapons – were directed at the entrance, just as a second ring of light washed over them.

The door had been closed, now the valves were slowly moving open. Two men entered. One was in his late fifties, to be sure, judging by the salt-and-pepper hair and beard, wearing the tan jacket of a Darawk scholar over a maroon robe. The other man was much younger, about the same age as Cornell’s twenty-five years. He wore a journeyman’s clothes; leather breeches, shirt and a brightly embroidered vest. His hair was short cropped black, his face was narrow and managed to look at the same time openly friendly as it maintained a weasely quality.

Seeing the face made Cornell’s heart skip again – but certainly not because of joy. “Barandas,” he whispered and hoped fervently that his oldest friend would not look in his direction.

“Thank you, my boy,” the Darawk scholar now said to Barandas, then called out to Tangrain, “Playing your games again, Ceravin? You do know that there are other forms of entertainment available in Chazevo?”

The guards relaxed, Boragger shrugged, annoyed, and turned away from the entrance, having ascertained that there was no danger, after all. Cornell knew differently, but the danger to him was quite unique. So he took a step sideways, hoping to lose himself among the faces of the other guards when he suddenly felt Sylasa’s hand on his arm. “Stay ready, pretty boy,” she whispered. “The young one is a wizard. Never trust a wizard.”

Yes, sure he is, but a lousy one, Cornell nearly answered. Instead he hefted the quarterstaff closer and moved back to her side, feeling oddly elated. She had just beaten him, hadn’t she? The pain all over his body was proof enough to him, and yet she told him to…

At that point Barandas’ gaze fell onto the two solitary figures in the arena, and a merry smile spread over his face as he opened his mouth to greet his friend.

Oh, rats! Cornell cursed.

  

 “Wizard!” he hollered and sprinted toward the stunned Barandas, whirling his quarterstaff into a striking position.

“Hold it, you fool!” Boragger cried – and a lightning bolt suddenly scorched the ground right before Cornell. Startled and shocked, Cornell stumbled over his own feet and fell forward, wondering when Barandas had graduated beyond light shows.

He hadn’t, as Cornell realized a few moments later. Boragger stood at the side of the arena, pointing a massive metal object at him, a long rod of some two feet, attached by skeleton-like fingers of dark metal to a casing around Boragger’s right arm, tendrils leading into his hand. Markings cobwebbed the gleaming, dark surface; odd, intricate, arcane, snaking up to the front – shaped as a gaping dragon maw, the beginning glimmer of fire smoldering in the back of its throat.

A dragon rod. The mystic weapon from Modayre.

So Tangrain did have one of them, just as Cornell’s superiors in Cayaboré had assumed. Despite his situation, a slight smile sneaked onto his lips.

“Please forgive this mishap, honored sage,” Tangrain called over from his chair – or rather, a few feet in front of it, since he had jumped up and now was slowly returning to his seat. “Just a… young fool who has no knowledge of the civilized world.”

Barandas was too irritated to say a word. The scholar next to him just sighed, unperturbed, and began to walk forward. “Dear Ceravin, the level of your civilization is still being questioned by the learned. Here, young fellow, get up,” the scholar said and held out his hand to Cornell. Remembering his guise, the “barbarian” stared up in mistrust. “Oh, don’t worry, I am no wizard. My name is Demercur Ylvain, beholden to the Lord of Knowledge Darawk. And my young friend poses no danger to you, either, believe me. Tell me, what is your name?”

“Nych,” Cornell growled, cautiously taking Ylvain’s hand. “Nych of the Ryelneyd tribe.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Nych. Ryelneyd, you said? Fascinating. Tell me, is Zechyll still chief?”

“What?” Cornell blinked, shook his head in surprise. A priest of Darawk! The Divine Seeker of Knowledge… It’s a trap! He suspects… Fortunately, though, this was a trap he knew how to avoid. “I beg your pardon, honored sage, but you must be mistaken. Zechyll is head of the Araysal, Vetora leads my people.”

Ylvain raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Then I ask for your forgiveness. My memory must be failing me.”

Certainly, Cornell thought, and fish have taken to flying like birds.

The priest waved Barandas on, then he continued his walk towards Tangrain at the far end of the hall. As the wizard passed Cornell, he shot the friend a bewildered glance. Cornell shook his head slightly, imperceptible to any but the closest persons.

He did not realize that Sylasa had moved near him as well.

“Honored sage,” Tangrain greeted Ylvain, leaning forward with a blankly polite expression on his face, “to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

The scholar chuckled. “Well do you know that it won’t be a pleasure. My young friend here informs me that you have received a very special gift from your masters in Modayre.”

“They are not my masters,” Tangrain protested casually.

Ylvain shook his head. “Oh, Ceravin, mincing words won’t get you anywhere with me. I thought you had learned that lesson by now, hard won though it would be for you. Now, as so many times before, I remind you that you have dedicated yourself to the worship of the great Darawk, wherefore it should be your sacred duty to hand over said gift to my order for proper study. Afterwards, the object shall be returned to you unharmed.” The scholar’s smirk never vanished, nor did his words sound enfused with any holy duty – or any expectation of easy success. Cornell thought that these two must have been playing this game for quite a while.

Tangrain’s reaction proved the assumption for he languidly shifted in his chair. “I have also promised my service to the lovely Alyssa. Would you, honored sage, also expect me to hand over each and every one of my servants to the priests and priestesses of the Goddess for, ahhh, inspection?”

Next to Cornell, Sylasa chuckled. So did some of the guards in the hall – and Barandas. Then again, the Cayaborean would expect nothing else from the wizard. His mind was happily at home in the gutter whenever he wasn’t hunting money or powerful magical objects.

Which might explain his presence here, he realized and wondered what this “gift” was that Ylvain had mentioned. He wondered if it might be a dragon rod – and whether he might have a better chance to “acquire” it in Darawk’s sacred academy.

“That,” Ylvain shrugged, “is a matter you had better take up with the Goddess. My own association with Alyssa consists of no more than the occasional prayer for strength, whenever my wife demands I overcome my age.” Again Sylasa chuckled, this time notably satisfied. The priest was fortunately far enough in front not to hear and so continued, “Ceravin, you still have not replied to my request. Will you grant me lease of that object?”

Tangrain raised his hands, and Cornell noted with interest the blueish color of his fingertips. A sign of elven descent? That could, possibly, explain how the merchant had managed to gather so many elves in his troop of bodyguards.

“Honored sage, I fear that you know the answer clearly. My station in life, rich though it must seem to you, is one that depends on my trade. What do you think, my fellow merchants would say if they learned that I just gave away one of the objects I put on sale? They would say, ‘Tangrain, he has become infirm in the mind. Let us no longer respect our agreements with him for he will not notice.’ Would you have me suffer because of your request?”

“Forgive me, Ceravin,” Ylvain answered after suppressing a noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter. “Never would I dream of imposing such trouble upon you. Yet this seems hardly the proper way to follow in your service to Darawk. The land of Modayre, though near in riding days, is more distant to us in the mind than the land of the furrag in the far south. To attain knowledge about Modayre and its magnificent trading goods is of supreme importance to the order of Darawk.”

Tangrain sunk back in his chair, shaking his head. “Let us cut this discussion short. Much as I enjoy it, there are matters pressing on my time. Perhaps we might be able to come to a… symbolic payment for the time of lease, provided that time does not interfere with any sale. Now,” he sat up straight again, rubbed his hands together, “which item were you referring to.”

“Come, Ceravin,” Ylvain chided him, “you know exactly what I am talking about. The silver gauntlet, five gemstones inset at the roots of the fingers. Surely –“

“How did you know about it?!”

Everything in the hall came to a sudden standstill as the voice of Tangrain roared out, bordering on the hysterical. Boragger instinctively swung his dragon rod about, aiming it at the scholar. Ylvain himself gave no sign of being disturbed. Quite different was Barandas’ reaction who seemed to shrink as he took a step back.

 “Tell me, Ylvain!” Tangrain demanded and sprang from his chair. “Who told this boy about the gauntlet?! Or did he scry on my home? How did he breach the wards?”

 The question should be, Who did he bribe? Cornell corrected and wished he held his sword instead of a quarterstaff.

Ylvain noted how Barandas had retreated and stepped in front of the wizard. “There is no need for this,” he said calmly. “The boy is in my employ and therefore had the resources of the academy at his disposal. Do not worry about any abusal. Rather tell me what price you demand.”

“A price?” Tangrain cried, his face red from anger. “After your magic wielder peered in… No, Ylvain, there’ll be no deal! The gauntlet is not for sale, and it’ll never be! Leave my hall, scholar, leave my home – and don’t you ever presume to invade it without invitation again! Am I understood?!”

“My, how quick you are to lose your manners. Very well, we shall leave.” Ylvain bowed graciously, then turned and headed out the hall, trailed by a disconcerted Barandas whose eyes kept shifting about for any possible attack.

“And you, barbarian,” Tangrain hollered moments later to Cornell, “get out of my sight as well! I shall pay no witless fool who cannot hold his fury!”

What?! Cornell’s mind thundered. The merchant of all people had to accuse him of being ruled by anger? “Master Tangrain, I will –“

“Shut up, Nych, and get out!” Boragger shouted and raised his dragon rod to underline the words of his master.

Real fury burned in Cornell’s eyes. He was so close to a dragon rod, and now he was sent away just because of – Barandas?! Yet there was no circumventing the convincing power of the weapon, so he nodded. Boragger nodded to one of the elves who held out Cornell’s sword. The Cayaborean took it, raised his head high and walked out. No member of the Ryelneyd tribe would walk out meekly and humbled – and neither would Cornell have without his disguise.

On his way out he walked by Sylasa who watched him with quiet interest. No sweet smile was playing on her lips, but the sparkle in her eyes only served to strengthen her allure.

Maybe, he thought to himself, not all is lost yet. Proudly he smiled at her. “Remember the name of Nych of Ryelneyd, my lady. His might will bring greater fame than the trader Tangrain could hope for!”

She only raised an eyebrow, turned away and went over to the statue where she had stood before.

Apparently, his own powers of conviction were hardly a match for those of the dragon rod. Grim thoughts filled Cornell’s head as he left the main hall and later the home of Ceravin Tangrain, the merchant of Modayrean goods.

  

 

 Tangrain’s home was in the wealthiest section of Chazevo – Sestercion -, close to the ocean but far away from the smelly harbor with its seedier inhabitants. No house was built less than twenty yards apart, each towering to a staggering three stories at least. The roads were wide avenues, paved with marble polished to perfection and blessed by priests so that horses or carts could not scratch the surface and blemish their appearance. Statues of former rulers of Chazevo dotted the sides of the road, some in front of shrines devoted to one of the many deities worshipped in the city. All the shrines were beautifully maintained, which was no wonder since gods were as much given to vanity as the people they had created in their image. A god well pleased with its worshippers was more likely to grant a prayer after all.

Yet Cornell had no eyes for that beauty as he stormed onto the avenue, his pack of belongings on his back. Fury and anger filled him. Two months of hard work ruined in less than an hour. Defeat at Sylasa’s hands would have set him back a little, but not much. It had been a set-up, of course, since few people could be as expert at quarterstaffs as the woman warrior was. Boragger had wanted to put some humility into the cocky barbarian, establish his own superiority. Very well. Cornell could hardly fault him for that – he had put a great deal of work into that very appearance.

But now?!

Now he was right where he started. All right, so he now knew there was indeed at least one dragon rod in Tangrain’s home. His superiors wanted one to be brought back to Cayaboré, to be studied so that hopefully they could reproduce the weapon and use it in the war against Ibrollene that everyone feared.

Yet what was he to do? Steal it?

“I’m not a thief,” he grumbled.

“Then what are you, young man?”

Cornell looked up startled and found himself staring into the soft eyes of Demercur Ylvain. The scholar was standing behind him, his arms folded before his chest. Barandas was a step behind, spreading his arms wide, as if asking what he was supposed to do.

Ylvain continued, “Are you in trouble with the dragon riders?”

“I beg your pardon?” Cornell muttered.

“Well, seeing that your home is Cayaboré, I was wondering why you would need to take on the disguise of a man of the Ryelneyd,” Ylvain explained easily. Behind him, Barandas eyes widened and he hastily shook his head. I didn’t tell him! “The best I could think of was that you do not wish the dragon riders of your homeland to know where you are. They have eyes and ears in many nations, and they are well known to apprehend criminals even in the furthest recesses. ‘There is no escape from a rider,’ I believe their motto is. So, young man, is that the answer?”

“No!” Cornell spurted. “No rider is hunting me!” Which was quite true; after all, at home his own dragon rider uniform was waiting for him as well as his own dragon, Tempest. “And why do you claim that I am a Cayaborean? Do you think that I was in the wrong about great Vetora, leader of my people? That the Araysal Zechyll is chief?!”

A smile spread over Ylvain’s face, growing into a laugh that made his beard quiver as if hornets buzzed in there. “Surely not, young man,” he said when his laughter subsided. “You passed that test very well. Nonetheless your inflection and your tone are quite wrong, not to mention that the amulet you wear is an imitation.”

Instinctively Cornell’s eyes fell to the bronze amulet around his chest. A master smith serving the dragon rider corps had crafted it, working from exact descriptions a spy in the south had delivered.

The scholar laughed anew. “Oh, it is a masterful work indeed, boy. That is the point, though! None of the barbarian tribes possess the skills to work metal in this way. So, please do not insult me by pretending to be a Ryelneyd, I would much rather learn what your goals are. If you do not intend to hide from the riders, then why the pretense, and why at Tangrain’s home? That is, if you are not a thief?”

Cornell shrugged. “Begging your pardon, honored sage,” he said in the polite tone of his homeland, “but this is nothing to concern you. Your sudden appearance has cost me much already, so I am not required to give up on this secret, am I?”

The eyes of Barandas had by now contracted to slits, his lips pressed close together. You’ll have to tell me, his mien demanded clearly.

“Quite true, although I wonder why you reacted so ferociously to the appearance of young Barandas…” His voice trailed off and he glanced at the wizard. As Cornell had thought many times earlier, Barandas must have possessed the second sight for scant seconds before the scholar swiveled his head, the wizard’s face changed to blank emptiness. “Well, there is no answer now. Yet, young man from Cayaboré, I am a scholar of Darawk and always in search for answers. If you are not willing to tell me right away, then perhaps I can uncover the secret over time.

“It appears,” he said after a very brief pause, “that you have no shelter for the night. Unless you mean to leave Chazevo right away, I would gladly offer you a meal and a bed at the academy. The price would be that you allow me to speak with you and learn about your intentions from what you say – or do not say.”

“That is a very gracious offer,” Cornell nodded, noting Barandas’ face lighting up. It was also sure to be better than one of the dingy inns in the harbor district Cornell would have had to choose otherwise, considering the paltry amount of coins in his possession. There was also no danger whatsoever to his person. An academy of Darawk’s was warded by clerical blessings and magic that would inhibit any act of violence. Which also meant that it was the safest place for Ylvain to discuss with Cornell – should he prove to be a criminal despite his words. He smiled. “An offer that I will gladly accept, honored sage. Accepting your offer, I would be disrespectful if I did not reveal my true name. It is Cornell of Cayaboré.”

“Well met then, Cornell of Cayaboré,” Ylvain said and clasped the warrior’s hand. “Let us be off then. The day is not yet that old, and much learning can still be done!”

  

 

Read on in
SECTION 2