By S. Baker
Kantalos, 8172 F.R.-- What is that foul smell? wondered Darion, as he and his three companions, all swords for hire, crunched through the snow and approached the ominous cave mouth. I know this was once the lair of the Dragon Skywing, and that the beast was slain by the Lords of the West, but it has been far too long for a smell this fresh, thought the ranger. Still, the "curse" on this cavern had to be investigated if their charge was to be fulfilled.
As they entered the rank cavern, Darion noticed openings gaping to his left and right, old doorways reminiscent of guard rooms.
Strange that a dragon might need guards, mused Darion.
Quickly glancing into the rooms, the scout recoiled slightly at the charnel house that met his eyes. Bony corpses, the flesh rotted from their bones, lined the floor. Remnants of armor, orcish by the looks of it, hung from the skeletons. A battered shield marked with a crude, large red "A" sat upright against one wall.
I have seen that marking before, noted Darion with a start. The troops of the lich Afej, whom we fought outside the walls of the Spur, bore that emblem.
The guard room was a shambles, as if some force came through and made mincemeat of the orc sentinels. It was probably the Lords of the West, reflected the ranger. He waved his companions on, motioning them forward.
The large passage stabbed deeper into the hill. Gathering his courage, Darion ventured further ahead. His guttering torch barely seemed to push back the darkness. Finally ahead of the companions, the passage widened into a large cavern. The light from Darion's brand was lost in the blackness as the walls receded on all sides. Just out of range of the torch lay a large shape, looming massive in the shadows even in death-- the remains of the dragon. A foul stench emanated from the body, and white bones gaped through its now dull, cracked, and brittle blue scales. The head of the dead dragon, mouth agape, extended along the ground toward the group, as if frozen in an attack. The forked tongue, almost rotted completely away, lolled out of the skull-face. The scene was nightmarish. No wonder the cavern has the reputation for being cursed, Darion reflected.
"Bah! This will make an excellent trophy," barked the Northwoman Karin, drawing forth her great hand-and-a-half sword that had seen so many battles.
"Karin, do not!" urged the priest Phillip. "The head is too large to carry from this cavern anyway."
Ignoring the holy man, Karin struck the desicated neck of the dead dragon, her sword flashing flame as it reflected the torchlight. But even in death, the dry, cracked scales of the dragon could turn a blow, and Karin cursed as her strike proved ineffective. She only managed to shear through a quarter of the neck. The force of the blow slightly knocked the heavy skull aside, however, and a thick stench wafted up; it was all Darion could do to restrain his rising gorge.
Then the scout's sharp eyes spotted something peaking out from under the dragon skull-- a small, ripped leather sack
"I will get that," said the magician Sarra, in her usual pert fashion. She handily snatched up the bag.
Always ready at the first hint of money, thought Darion.
The other three companions gathered eagerly around the bag as the red-haired sorceress gingerly opened it. Glowing in the light of the torch were five gemstones: a fiery ruby, a multicolored opal, a pearl, an amber stone, and a cat's-eye gem, apparently the last remnant of the Dragon's treasure. The pearl, amber, and opal were set in silver necklaces, but the other two were loose. Sarra gasped as she drew out the glistening chain with the amber gem.
It looks like quite an expensive find, mused Darion.
Covering her mouth with her hand, Karin eyed the gems. "On second thought, I'll leave that stinking head. Money is a better trophy."
"I agree," smiled Sarra. "And so much for a curse. It seems the only curse is the smell. Let us leave this fetid place."
Nodding in agreement, the four mercenaries began to retrace their steps, heading back out of the cavern. But suddenly Darion stopped. He could see bright yellow light, dust motes floating in it, filtering through the mouth of the cave. "Was it not night when we entered?" he asked. "It has not been more than an hour. Most strange."
They proceeded forward cautiously. Peaking out of the mouth, they beheld a surreal tableau: it appeared to be day, and on top of that, it seemed to be spring. There was no snow on the ground, and the sun was shining in the sky. The land around the cave was blasted and scorched, with bare rock showing as far as the eye could see. The new growth of ferns that was beginning to cover the desolation of the dragon had completely disappeared, and that desolation had apparently returned.
Looking out into the area right in front of the mouth of the cave brought Darion another shock: tied to a wooden pillar, arms in the air, was a lovely young woman, her flowing blond hair cascading around her shoulders and falling out over a plain white dress that rustled gently in the spring breeze. Two oluk orcs, their gray skin gleaming with sweat and their thick sinews bulging, appeared to be pinioning the young woman to the wooden pillar.
The two orcs tying the woman, and the victim herself, were surrounded by a gang of some ten or fifteen orcs and oluks, the orcs squinting in the bright sunlight, their blacks tongues lolling out over their lips. The beasts appeared to be enjoying the woman's distress, leering evilly; occasionally they would glance at the sky, almost apprehensively, as if expecting something. Darion the scout recognized the same red "A's" on their shields that he had seen in the guard room. Somehow these were live troops of the vanquished lich Afej. But this was impossible, Darion knew, for the last of the lich's troops was slain years ago.
So they were not guards. They brought sacrifices to the dragon, noted Darion with disgust.
Abruptly the lovely woman seemed to notice the gaping group. "Help!" she screamed, desperation and fear filling her voice. The orcs wheeled with lightning speed, dropping into their orcish fighting stances, crouching low to the ground like large beetles. The ringing of steel filled the air as many scimitars and orcish broadswords were drawn from sheathes. "Help!" she screamed again, her voice ragged.
Groaning, Sarra shook her head. "Why us, why now?"
Phillip looked from the orcs to his companions." What kind of magic is this? Can anyone tell if this is an illusion?" Looking entirely confused, Phillip hoisted his shield up in front of him and loosened up his mace arm, ready for a fight they were sure to loose. Yet he refrained from attacking, apparently hoping against hope that his eyes were deceiving him.
The orcs too hesitated. They eyed the four warily, snarling, but did not advance. One of the oluks growled in his own nasty language, which, growing up in an occupied kingdom, Darion had learned to speak: "Finish securing her. He should be here any minute." He glanced again at the sky. Another oluk turned back and tied the woman's feet to the pole. "Help me, please!" she begged, tears now beginning to stream down her face.
I suppose it must come to a fight, thought Darion ruefully. He drew his bow in one smooth motion and nocked an arrow, sighting carefully down the shaft at the orc binding the woman to the stake. "Halt! If you do not do so, some or all of you will face great pain."
Sarra grabbed for her shortbow and also fitted an arrow. "Karin, it looks like it is time for you to do what you do best." Sarra's banter was light, but the fear she felt was apparent in her green eyes.
With a roar Karin charged down the slight slope toward the orcs, while over her head with a rush and a twang two arrows streaked toward the throng of dark folk. The beastly creatures raised their shields to block, and several harsh cries of pain rang out as the arrows disappeared into the crowd. Karin barreled closer, her face set in a grim rictus of anticipation. . .
Then unexpectedly the scene changed. The world seemed to abruptly leap forward in time. Out of nowhere, horrendous wounds appeared quicker than the blink of an eye on the orcs, and they fell, their bodies decaying and their bones disappearing as wild animals made off with them. Day flashed into night and season into season in an overwhelming blur, passing quicker and quicker. Then it slowed down and finally came to a stop. The cold night returned like submersion in an icy lake. Snow again covered the ground. The pillar to which the maiden had been attached weathered before Darion's stunned eyes, the rope dry-rotting in the seasons.
The scout's mouth dropped open. Now I understand about the curse, he reflected desperately, his thoughts barely coherent.
The maiden remained, standing at the base of the pillar. Her flesh was pale, pale white, as white as snow, although her pallid cheek bones showed gray through her withered flesh. Her mouth yawned wide in the gloaming, horrid, horrid wide, as wide as a chasm. Her throat showed vicious marks as of a giant maw that had clamped down on her neck; black scorch marks marred her sunken chest, a scorch pattern that Darion had once seen on a tree stump struck by a bolt from the sky. Her once beautiful hair was dead, dead and dry, as dry as straw. She stretched out one skeletal hand, beckoning the mercenaries forward.
Darion felt the hair on his arms, legs, and neck begin to stand, and fear gripped him. Speechless for a moment, he could not move a muscle.
Finally, after what seemed forever, he regained his speech. "Is.. is she beckoning us forward?" Darion choked. "Philip, you're the priest... what should we do with this spirit?" Phillip's white face and bulging eyes showed the scout that he had no idea.
"What do you want from us? Leave us alone!" shouted Darion, his voice breaking. Wonderful. Presented with the most amazing, terrifying thing of your life and you act like an infant screaming for your mother, the ranger chided himself.
"We must free her." Karin put away her sword. Haltingly, she approached the corpse-woman. Darion hung back, amazed at the burly woman's bravery.
As Karin approached, however, her steps faltered, getting slower and slower. She made it to within ten feet but then lurched to a halt, her breath pluming from her lips. "S.. so c..cold," she stuttered, hugging herself.
Then the thing spoke, her mouth opening wider than before. Down her gullet Darion could see the shadows of the grave. Her voice creaked and echoed hollowly in the scout's ears. "My necklace, that I may rest. Give me my..."
Instantly there was a loud rushing and a flapping sound, almost as loud as the winds of a tornado. Some distance away and to the left Darion heard a muffled thump, as of a huge unseen creature--a creature as large as a dragon-- landing on the ground.
The dead woman's eyes widened, showing to Darion's dismay only whites and no pupil. She looked to the left. "He is here. His ghost. He doesn't want me to rest. He wants my company forever. The nights with him are so long. Why does the sun no longer rise?" Her head turned, flopping loosely on her neck. "No, Skywing, evil dragon, you killed me once. Let me rest..." Her ear cocked, as if listening. Then her head snapped back suddenly; her cold, pupiless, fishy gaze locking on Darion's.
"He wants to stop you. I have the power to hold his spirit back for a short time. You have one chance to help me. Will you do so?" Her voice rasped, as if grave earth was choking off her throat. The area grew colder, colder than the depths of winter. Clammy fear gripped Darion's heart.
Her necklace... thought Darion, fighting the urge to flee anywhere, perhaps back into the stinking cave. Then he remembered the sack filled with precious stones they got from the dragon's lair. Darion immediately made the connection.
"Sara, throw her the contents of the sack!"
The corpse woman's head snapped toward Darion, flopping loosely as if her neck was broken. "Yes! You must place it around my neck. It is the... " She stopped again and glanced to her left with her disconcerting, dead fish eyes. Her withered lips pressed together in anger, sinking into her toothless mouth. "No, Skywing! Why do you thwart me?" She turned back to the group, and another wave of cold fear washed over Darion. He shuddered visibly. "Skywing will not let me tell you which necklace it is. Instead he insists on toying with you, as was his fashion in life. He always toyed with his prey." A shudder wracked her emaciated frame. "A riddle, he says, will reveal the proper necklace to place on my neck to release me from my torment," she intoned ruefully in her rasping voice, and an image of a yawning eternity of nights accompanied her words.
A huge rustling sound again filled the air. The ghost maiden nodded toward the snowy ground, and suddenly lines of glowing lightning appeared, racing through the snow as if someone or something were writing them with a giant stylus--or perhaps the tip of a huge claw. When the electricity faded away, the ranger could make out scorched black letters in the snow. They formed some sort of a riddle, written in Kelevan:
Of sap was I born,
Pale yellow forever,
A beauty so true, but
Lines lie, sight never.
"Consider... Oh, consider those tricky words carefully, and free me from this curse. Free me... . Place the correct necklace on my neck. Which stone is it?"
Phillip appeared to be considering. Finally, dropping his mace, he picked through the sack in Sarra's hands, pulling out the amber stone. "I think we should place this on her neck."
"No... Cat's-eye is the one. It was once on a necklace, but it fell out. Find the chain. Sarra, cat's-eye is the one..." Karin said, crowing. She warily glanced right and left, seeking the invisible ghost dragon she knew was present.
Grabbing the necklace back from Phillip, Sarra looked them over. "Pearl, amber, and opal are the three necklaces. Those are the only chances in the bag." She sighed. Closing the bag, she tucked it away in her pack, and then gripped each necklace tightly in her hand. Walking up to the woman, she stopped where Karin had stopped. Finally she thrust forth her hand, a necklace dangling from it. "I agree that it is amber."
"It does seem like it would be the amber, from the first part of the riddle, at least. But what of the second part, 'lines lie, sight never?' I don't see how that relates to the stones at all. The cat's-eye is the only lined stone we have, and it seems to have not been on a necklace at all. Hmmm, were I choosing all by myself, I would choose the amber," Phillip thought aloud, confusion plainly etched on his face.
Darion listened to his companions and reread the poem on the ground. Why is it on the ground, he ruminated. Why not just say it? Then suddenly the answer dawned on him, as harsh and obvious as a slap in the face. "Opal! The lines of the riddle lie to us. Using our sight, which 'lies never', look at the first letters of each line of the poem. O-P-A-L. Give her the opal necklace!"
Sarra looked back, her brow wrinkling with uncertainty. "Are you sure?"
Slowly, ignoring the discomfort she obviously felt, Sarra took a few halting steps and held up the opal necklace. Her breath came in plumes and turned to tiny crystals of frost which tinkled to the snow in the dead silence. All sound had stopped. Fighting against her fear, she placed the opal necklace on its silver chain around the dead woman's withered white neck. Then she quickly scurried several feet back, scorched by the cold.
The sound of pealing laughter broke the air, emerging from the yawning mouth of the corpse maiden. It was a sound made horrid by the conditions, but there was no evil in it, judged Darion. "Ahaha, Skywing! Outwitted by a human." A wrinkled smile played across the ghost's lips. She turned back to the group, and suddenly over her dead body was transposed the lovely image of the woman as she was in life. Her hair was once again vibrant and blond, her body voluptuous, her face delicate and comely. She smiled a rich smile with her red lips. "This opal necklace was my favorite in life, a gift from my beloved mother. It saw me through many long nights during the Occupation. Now it shall see me through the final, endless night. Know that you have brought comfort to my spirit, and now I may rest. Skywing forced me to give you that riddle, and you have solved it. I was the wedge that held open the door through which the malevolent dragon's spirit could come through, and now that wedge is removed. Goodbye....."
The words of the lovely maiden drifted off, blown away by the breeze. She was gone. The wind seemed to make a faint howling sound, as of some distant reptilian creature keening with rage, then that sound too grew faint. Darion noted that the ill-feeling and extraordinary cold of the scene seemed to have dissipated, leaving nothing but the normal cold of winter.
The horrible stench from the cave has also lessened, noted Darion, if it has not disappeared entirely.
The weathered post in the center of the clearing was empty, although the shreds of rope which hung from the top swung slightly to and fro, perhaps blown by the breeze.
Darion somehow felt satisfied.