The dwarf gulped, looked at him dubiously. Alfred turned to face Samah. The Councillor was speaking the runes again, but this time Alfred did not stop him. Samah’s body shimmered, started to fade.
“Go to the aid of your Patryn friend!” he called. “See what thanks you get!” The Councillor disappeared.
The dwarf maid was too upset and frightened to be startled. She clasped Alfred’s wrinkled hand. She had, more or less, regained her breath.
“You must help! The dragon-snakes are killing him!” Alfred started forward, intent on doing what he could, although what that would be, he wasn’t certain. But he had forgotten, in his preoccupation with Samah, the horror of the creatures. Now, he stared at them, aghast: long reptile bodies whipping and lashing in the sand, eyes red as flame, green as the ugly sea, toothless jaws slavering, tongues dripping venom. The weakness swept again over Alfred. He recognized it, fought against it, but not very hard. Swaying, he let go, let it take him away from the fear . . . Small fists pummeled him.
Alfred, dazed, opened his eyes. He was lying in the sand.
A dwarf stood over him, beating him on the breast with her fists, shouting at him. “You can do magic! I saw you! You brought him his dog! Help him, damn you! Help Alake and Devon! Damn you! Damn you!”
The dwarf collapsed, buried her face in her hands.
“There . . . don’t cry,” said Alfred, reaching out timidly, awkwardly to pat the small, heaving shoulder. He looked back at the dragon-snakes and his heart nearly failed him. “I want to help,” he said pathetically, “but I don’t know how.”
“Pray to the One,” the dwarf said fiercely, raising her head. “The One will give you strength.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” said Alfred.
“Alake!” Devon cried, shaking the lifeless body. “Alake!”
“Don’t wish her back,” Haplo said. “Her pain is over.” Devon raised a stricken face. “Do you mean she’s . . . But you can save her! Bring her to life! Do it, Haplo! Like you did for me!”
“I don’t have my magic!” Haplo shouted harshly. “I can’t save her. I can’t save you. I can’t even save myself!”
Devon laid Alake’s body gently on the ground. “I was afraid to live. Now I’m afraid to die. No, I don’t mean that. It’s not the dying. That’s easy.” He reached out, took hold of Alake’s chill hand. “It’s the pain, the fear . . .” Haplo said nothing. There was nothing to say, no comforting words to offer. Their end was going to be a horrible one. He knew it, so did Devon, so did Grundle.
Grundle? Where was she?
Haplo remembered. He’d sent her back for help. For Alfred. The Sartan was hopelessly inept, but Haplo had to admit he’d seen Alfred do some fairly remarkable things ... if he hadn’t passed out first.
Haplo jumped to his feet. His sudden movement startled the dog, startled the dragon-snakes. One of them lashed out from behind him, its forked tongue flicked across his back like a whip of flame, seared the flesh from his bones. The pain was intense, paralyzing; every nerve in his body sizzled with the agony. He slumped to his knees, defeated.
Grundle stood on the shoreline, alone—a small, pathetic figure. No sign of Alfred.
Haplo pitched down flat on the sand. He was vaguely aware of Devon crouching over him, of the dog making a heroic, if futile, dash at the snake who had attacked him. Nothing was real now except the pain. It burned in his vision, filled his mind with fire.
The serpent must have struck him again, because suddenly the pain intensified. And then the dog was licking his face, nuzzling his neck, yelping and whining eagerly. It no longer sounded frightened.
“Haplo!” Devon shouted. “Haplo, don’t go! Come back! Look and see!” Haplo opened his eyes. The black mists that had been closing over him receded. He looked around, saw the pallid face of the elf, turned skyward. A shadow passed across Haplo, a shadow that cooled the flames of the snake’s venom. Blinking, trying to clear his vision, Haplo gazed upward. A dragon flew above them, a dragon such as Haplo had never seen in all his life. Its beauty made the soul shrink in awe. Green polished scales flashed like emeralds. Its wings were golden leather, its mane of gold shone and glistened brighter than Chelestra’s water-bound sun. The body was enormous, its wingspan seemed, to Haplo’s dazed mind, to extend from horizon to horizon. The dragon flew low, screamed in warning, dove down on the snakes. Devon ducked, involuntarily raised an arm over his head. Haplo didn’t move. He lay still, watching. The dog barked and yelped like a thing possessed. Leaping in the air, it snapped playfully at the beast as it thundered overhead. The rushing beat of dragon’s wings stirred up clouds of sand. Haplo coughed, sat up to try to see.
The dragon-snakes fell back. Bodies flattening, they slid away, reluctantly, from their victims. Slit-eyes aimed malevolently at this new threat. The dragon soared far above the serpents, wheeled, and dove again, taloned claws extended.
The king snake reared its head to meet the challenge. It spewed venom, attempted to hit the dragon’s eyes.
The dragon struck, pinioned the snake’s body. Claws sank deep into the scaled flesh.
The serpent writhed and twisted in fury. Its head coiled around, it snapped at the dragon, but the dragon was careful to keep just out of reach of the venomous jaws. Other snakes were rushing to their leader’s aid. The dragon, great wings straining, lifted the king snake from the ground, soared into the air. The serpent dangled from its claws.
The king snake fought, lashing with its tail, striking out again and again with its head.
The dragon flew higher, until it was almost lost to Haplo’s sight. Far up over the craggy mountains of Draknor, the dragon loosed its hold on the snake, let it fall.
The dragon-snake plummeted, twisting and shrieking, down onto the mountain, onto the sharp bones of the tormented creature it had used for its lair. The seamoon shook with the force of the snake’s fall. Rocks cracked and splintered, the mountain caved in on top of the snake’s carcass. The dragon came back, circled overhead, glittering eyes seeking another kill. The serpents coiled in defensive posture, the red-green eyes darted uneasy glances at each other.
“If we can catch the dragon on the ground, attack it in a body, we can defeat it!” hissed one.
“Yes,” said another. “A good idea. You challenge it, lure it down from the sky! Then I’ll attack it.”
“Why me? You challenge it!”
They argued among themselves, none of them daring to commence the fight that would lure the dragon down from its safe haven in the air. None was willing to risk its own slimy skin to save its fellows, and they had no king, now, to command them. Leaderless, faced with a powerful enemy, the like of which they had never encountered, they deemed it best to make a strategic retreat. The dragon-snakes slid rapidly across the sand, heading for the dark safety of what was left of their shattered mountain.
The dragon pursued them, harassing them, harrying them, until it had driven every one of them into the cave. Then it wheeled, flew back, hovered over Haplo. He tried to look directly at it, but the shining light of its being made his eyes water.
You are wounded. Yet you must find the strength to return to your ship. The dragon-snakes are disorganized for the moment, but they will soon regroup and I do not have the power to fight them all.
The dragon didn’t speak aloud. Haplo heard the voice in his mind. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
He forced his pain-racked body to stand. Yellow flares burst in his eyes; he staggered, would have lost his balance.
Devon was there beside him, the elf holding him, propping him up. The dog pattered around him, anxious and wanting to help. Haplo remained standing quietly, until the weakness passed, then he nodded, unable to speak, and took a feeble step. Suddenly, he stopped.
“Alake,” he said, and looked down at the body. His gaze shifted grimly to the cave where he could see the slits of red eyes, watching.