As the sun finished it downward path below the horizon, Gavin followed the two trolls around the side of Manticore Hill. Wrapped up in their own noisy conversation, they gave no indication of noticing the elf following along behind them. The warrior was careful with each foot fall. He moved fast enough so he didn’t lose the trolls, but not so carelessly that he made any noise. His hand never far from the hilt of his sword, he trailed the two.
Pausing behind a large boulder, he watched them enter the wide cave mouth. Even his keen ears couldn’t pick up their loud voices once they passed through the opening. Bright flickering torch-light blazed forth from the cave. Making sure to stay in the shadows as much as possible, Gavin worked his way slowly toward the cave. He pushed all of his senses outward, listening for any sounds, watching for the slightest movement, even sniffing for the unmistakable stench of troll. Nothing.
Deep shadows against the hillside were comforting to the warrior as he eased his way along. He still couldn’t see any guards near the cave mouth. So he slipped up there. His nerves tight, he listened for any sounds beyond the opening. Silence greeted him. Easing around the lip of the cave, for a second, he stepped out into the light.
No one stood inside the cave. Large crates cluttered a narrow passageway, providing Gavin with more cover to go deeper. He leapt lightly up the crates so he could dash along the top of them, hoping if any patrol came by they might not think to look up. The stack stretched all the way to the camber’s far end.
The passageway narrowed at the back of the cave. After hearing no sounds of movement, Gavin dropped gracefully down from his perch atop the crates. He was careful that no noise escaped his feet as he landed. There weren’t as many torches down the next passageway, and the warrior carefully avoided looking at any of them, to preserve his night vision. It’d be disastrous if he were blinded when enemies were coming his way. As he moved further down the passage without encountering anyone, he began to wonder if everyone was a dinner.
The metal hallway remained mercifully clear as Alchemy strolled down it, careful to stay close enough to the wall that his blending spell kept him appearing metallic. At each door he passed, he listened, hoping to hear some sound from Dolce. So far everything remained silent. When he reached the far end of the hall, it t-ed. The shiny metal surfaces gave no indication as to which way the troll carrying Dolce off had gone. He’d been underground long enough, that he no longer had a sense of direction. All the hallways were the same bright silvery surface.
As he stood there, a gnome woman with mouse-brown hair appeared from a door down the hall on his left. She carried the remains of someone’s dinner on a wooden tray. Without glancing Alchemy’s way, she scurried down that hall away from him. The wizard followed.
Gavin stopped in the entrance to another passageway. This one led to stairs going down. Glancing at the steps, they were still rough and unworn. This stairway must be fairly new since the rock in the cave had been fairly soft so far and would wear quickly. That matched the intelligence he’d been able to dig up on Doctor Gnome saying that the mad man hadn’t been in the area more than a couple of years.
Partway down the stairs, a torch illuminated a landing. Gavin paused there, listening at the door to his right. Loud ruckus voices sounded from beyond the door. Figuring it must be the dinning room, he continued down the stairs. If there was one thing Gavin didn’t want to do, it was have to fight his way through a bunch of hungry trolls. At the bottom of the stairs, the passageway turned right.
Loud coughs and growls came from the end of the latest passageway. Gavin tried to figure out what the noises were, but they weren’t anything he remembered hearing before. Deciding that the cave may be distorting some of the sounds, the warrior crept forward, hand still close to his sword.
The passageway opened in a huge cavern lit by strange lights that Gavin had never seen before. They hung from the ceiling with strange cords running between them. Glowing like miniature suns, the lights glared down on large pens holding an incredible number of dragons. From what he could tell, most were about the size of the ones they had fought so far. But even that size was more than he wanted to take on by himself, one on one, let alone with the more than twenty he counted penned up around the cavern.
Several trolls and goblins moved around the chamber, tossing large chunks of meat to the waiting dragons. Gavin ducked into a small space between the nearest pen and the cavern wall. Peering through the thick wooden slats of the pen, he watched as one of the trolls tossed several large chunks of meat that looked like huge arms into the pen. The dragon rushed forward and started gulping down the arms even as Gavin recognized the golden brown ursa fur.
He sank to the ground. His heart pounded in his chest. The fear he’d been holding since seeing the battle site on the hillside came rushing forth. Buck was gone. He wanted to rush out and kill every dragon, troll, goblin and gnome in the hill, but knew he’d never be able to do it by himself. Hot tears ran silently down his face. He’d never again know the ursa’s soft caring touch, or his warm kiss.
He didn’t know how long he sat there. The dragon had finished its grizzly meal by the time the elf wiped the tears from his checks and glared through the slats at the giant reptile. He was a warrior. Buck was a warrior. He could only hope that his lover had met a warrior’s death and gone down fighting a good fight. Sudden death was the price every warrior faced, and they lived their lives knowing that.
Then Gavin remembered what the trolls on the hillside said about Buck’s sword. He had to get that sword back and return it to the ursa’s family. It had to go on, even if its latest welder did not. Gavin would do that to honor his lover’s memory. And he could only hope that Alchemy fared better.
Alchemy stood still against the wall of the dining hall. Around him the trolls, goblins, brownies and gnomes under Doctor Gnome’s command sat silently as their leader walked to the big table at the front of the room. The little mad man moved with a confidence that inspired loyalty in the people that followed him. Using a chair for a step, the diminutive dictator made it up on the head table. Every eye in the place watched him. It was all the wizard could do to hold still and watch. He’d followed the gnome woman down the hall and into the kitchen. Several of the kitchen workers had been talking about the appearance that Doctor Gnome was about to give in the dining hall, so Alchemy decided to go find himself a place along the wall to listen to what the man had to say.
Doctor Gnome cleared his throat before he began speaking. “As you all know the pinnacle of my plan to thwart the humans’ firebird network is about to play out. Even with the interference from the Fragrance Guild, we are still on schedule for our dragons to attack the secret nesting site with the dawn.”
The whole hall cheered.
“It is imperative that as soon as we have destroyed the firebird clutch that everyone returns to your respective governments and inform them that we have stopped the humans and are prepared to go to war with them and their allies. You must also inform your governments that it was I, Doctor Gnome, who stopped the humans, thus ensuring that the longer lived races have their rightful place in the world.”
Another louder cheer erupted. It made Alchemy realize that Doctor Gnome was very popular with his followers. This could be very bad for the Guild and the civilized world.
“Once our dragons have destroyed the firebirds, they will go on to lay waste to the human settlements around the secret hatchery,” Doctor Gnome continued as the cheering died down. “It will be very easy for us to stop the human menace before they can expand any further.”
The loudest cheer yet went up.
Gnome waited for the clamor to die down. “Now once you have finished your well deserved meal, I need my riders to report to the dragon pens for their last minute preparations. Never fear my loyal minions, I will be right there with you on the largest of our dragons.”
As the final cheer sounded, Doctor Gnome leapt off the table and marched out of the room. Alchemy stood there against the wall stunned. He knew he should contact K at headquarters, but how would she be able to help being all the way across the world in Salmania? She could only get so many people through the gates at a time, and by the time they reached Manticore Hill, the villain and his followers would be in flight toward human territory. Keeping his closeness to the wall, Alchemy followed Doctor Gnome out of the room and into a rough rock corridor.
Trying to move around the penned dragons was harder than Gavin first thought it would be. The beasts were much more observant than their handlers, and had a nasty reach when they wanted to. Several times he’d been pinned between two dragons each one trying to get a hold of him. Twice he’d had to crouch down and wait for the creatures to get bored and look away, giving him the opportunity to dash past. Once he’d had to use his sword to dissuade a grasping claw from getting hold of him. It left evidence of his passing, but he couldn’t find another way around it. Each time the dragons got upset and started roaring about his presence, the handlers would simply shout at them to be quiet.
As Gavin reached the far end of the chamber, a commotion started up by the stairs. He risked a glance up over the pens to see what was going on. It looked like a small group of trolls had just entered the cavern, but they acted like guards.
“How are my lovelies?” a high voice asked.
Gavin’s breath caught. Could it be that Doctor Gnome himself just entered the cavern to check on his dragons? He tried to figure out a way he could get a better look. A glance down the way he’d come dissuaded him from that path, since several dragons still had claws sticking out through the slats searching for him.
“They will be ready to fly soon boss,” one of the troll handlers replied.
“Very good,” Gnome replied. “And make sure that Firewing is saddled and ready for me and my personal driver along with two guards. I will be leading the attack.”
“He’ll be ready for ya boss,” the troll said.
“You haven’t had any problems in here this evening have you?” the high voice asked.
“Nope,” the troll responded.
The dragon nearest Gavin started roaring its displeasure at not being able to reach him. The elf ducked as heads turned toward him. He couldn’t make out the details of what was said after that. Gavin retreated to a small alcove in the wall, just out of reach of grasping dragon claws. His mind raced trying to think of some way to stop the dragons from taking off.
From his vantage point blending in against the wall, movement at the far end of the dragon pens caught Alchemy’s eye. He watched as the dragons near there reacted to an unauthorized person in their midst. Still unsure how best to deal with Doctor Gnome, Alchemy headed toward where the dragons indicated someone waited. Maybe the newcomer could shed some light on the situation and a possible solution.
The dragons were more attuned to their surroundings than the trolls and other minions of the good doctor. By the way they paced up and down the back of their pens, trying to find Alchemy, he knew they sensed him. A razor sharp talon, nearly two feet long almost caught his leg as he worked his way behind the pens. The dragon looked cockeyed out the slat of the pen at him, like it was trying to get its eyes to focus. After that he watched were each dragon was in its enclosure before he scurried behind it.
The trolls began moving along the front of the pens, checking to make sure the dragons had finished their meals. This drew the dragons’ attention toward them and away from the wall. As the dragons turned toward their keepers, Alchemy moved swiftly toward the spot in the wall where he’d seen the figure disappear. His heart leapt when he saw Gavin crouched in the small alcove. With his best friend at his side, they could overcome the odds and find a way to defeat Doctor Gnome.
“Gavin,” he whispered inches from his friend’s ear.
“Alchemy?” the warrior responded just as softly. Alchemy knew with his training, the other elf wouldn’t do anything to alert the dragon handlers to their presence. The wizard laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder, the hand changed to look like the leather armor Gavin wore.
Gavin smiled. “The chameleon spell. How are you doing magic without your wand?”
“How do you know I lost my wand?”
The warrior reached into his pack. “Because I found this out on the hillside,” he said, pulling out the lost instrument.
Alchemy’s breath caught as he snatched the wand from his friend. He’d never been so happy to see a silly piece of wood in his life. “Thanks, I think we’re ready for a fight.”
Wand in hand, the wizard spun around toward the nearest troll. He whispered “Burn” as he flicked the wand. The fireball caught the troll in the head and flipped him backwards into the dragon pen behind him. The dragon there roared and tore into the troll with gusto. The other troll and the goblin turned too late to see the fireball, and scrambled to try and save their friend. Alchemy flicked his wand again. “Burn” and caught the second troll in the back.
As his coworker flamed up, the goblin screamed and ran for the stairs. Gavin jumped up on the slats of the dragon pens, and took the quickest route to intercept the goblin. Dragons roared around him, but the elf ran for his life as he dodged their grabs and managed to make it off the pens to land just ahead of the goblin. His sword slashed down and the little green man died with his head split in two.
Gavin turned toward Alchemy as the wizard walked toward him. He swept the other elf up in a big hug.
“I’m so happy to see you’re still alive,” he mumbled, his voice starting to fail him. “They fed Buck to the dragons.”
Alchemy hugged his friend back. He decided to not tell Gavin that the dragons weren’t the only ones that got a taste of the ursa.
“I’m sorry about that,” the wizard said. “I saw him fall. He died in battle like any good warrior would want to. He fell defending me and Dolce.”
Gavin wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his hand. “I take it Dolce is the girl?”
Alchemy nodded. “We need to find her. Doctor Gnome has her somewhere in the complex.”
“First we need to take out Doctor Gnome,” Gavin replied.