Ed Greenwood: Death of the Dragon

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Ed Greenwood Death of the Dragon
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    Death of the Dragon
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Ed Greenwood


Death of the Dragon

Troy Denning


Prologue

“I hate having to guess so boldly,” Alusair told the first clear hoof print she’d found in three days, “But these snortsnouts aren’t giving me much time to do it the proper way.”

Something dark moved on the crest of the ridge behind her. Alusair snarled an oath and trotted into the nearest copse of trees. Two days at least, now, the orcs had been following her. It had been two nights that she’d dared not sleep. She was talking to herself more to keep awake than to measure her weary thoughts.

Her bold guess as to which valley Rowen had chosen had been right again, but gods blast this, it was sloppy tracking. Rowen had ridden Cadimus here, or someone had. The marks of the hooves where the warhorse crossed soft mud were deep enough to tell the Steel Princess that Cadimus had willingly carried a rider, heading as straight north as the land allowed.

Three days had passed since Alusair had left her sister Tanalasta and the sage Alaphondar and set off to rescue-or learn the fate of-her scout Rowen. The scout-a Purple Dragon ranger-was an outlawed Cormaeril, but the father of Tanalasta’s unborn child. Cormaeril or not, the wedding was lawful. The babe, if it lived, would be the rightful heir to the throne of Cormyr.

“Gods above and below, but father will be furious,” she murmured, ducking her way through a stand of young shadowtops. “I don’t know which I’d rather not be-Tana or Rowen!”

A wry smile plucked at the corners of her mouth, then vanished in an instant as her eyes fell on the moss ahead.

There was a break in the trees, and Cadimus had passed through it. Tracks led up a mossy slope and away from the open valley floor, where in wet weather a creek meandered and the rest of the time open turf made for swift and easy mounted travel. Why leave that open ground? To camp?

Alusair caught herself yawning again. She slapped her own thigh with the flat of her sword to rouse herself. Gods damn these persistent orcs. The Steel Princess threw back her head and drew in a deep breath. She was too tired to do this properly, she was-suddenly very awake, with her skin crawling. She could feel the creeping, all over her, that meant her hair was rising. Something was wrong here, very wrong… but, by all the gods, what?

The trail went around the man-high, rotten stump of a long dead duskwood. She hefted her sword. From where she stood, as far as the eye could see, the trees ahead-an entire stand of them, dozens and dozens-were waiting. Silent, and yet not silent, there was a menacing, watchful heaviness hanging in the air.

Alusair peered grimly up into still branches and past mighty trunks, seeking a living, lurking foe but seeing nothing. The trees stood thick enough that there could well be a beast larger than a man-or even a score of such-ahead, where she could not see. The Steel Princess cast a quick glance behind her, listening intently for sounds of orcs scrabbling up the trail, but heard nothing. Her pursuers had never bothered to strive for stealth in their gloating eagerness.

After a moment, she shrugged and strode forward, sword tip tracing a ready circle at her feet, half-expecting a root to leap up and try to ensnare her. There was something unhealthy about the trees.

Alusair stopped again and studied the nearest one, almost fancying that it had moved slightly, but no. Her weary eyes were playing tricks on her.

It was a duskwood, and an old one. Some long ago lightning had left it misshapen, as gray and as gnarled as the convulsed gauntlet of a buried giant, its bark scaled where there should be no scales. No, not scales… runes.

The bark was engraved with a spiral of sinuous, somehow menacing glyphs. The runes seemed new, powerful, and-not good. The roots of the tree were exposed in all their tangles by a crude and recently dug burrow. The loose earth was simply flung aside as if a huge dog or hunting cat had dug swift but clumsy paws into the soil and torn at it. The hole was a ragged oval, just large enough for a man to crawl down. Alusair stepped back, then to one side, peering in. Every tree bore similar runes, and a hole had been dug under each of them.

Heavy breathing and the scrape of boots came at last. Orcs were ascending the mossy trail behind her. Alusair rolled her eyes and strode quickly forward, following the clear path Cadimus had left for her.

The trail continued to climb and the dark, recently disturbed earth now began to display strange treasures for her inspection. There was a metal scepter of swirling, clearly elven design, yet dead and dark as no elf would have made it. Stones that should have been gleaming gems were dingy and clouded, and the metal itself was as dull and gray as forge lead. Beyond the scepter was a sword, also of splendid shape. It too seemed somehow… drained.

That was it. There were more blades beyond, and a coffer and a quiver, then something that must have been a staff of great magical power or ornate ceremonial significance. Everything was gray, dull, and lifeless, as if all power and beauty had been stolen out of them.

The Steel Princess frowned down at them as she hurried on. Had this been an elven burial ground or a treasure cache? What manner of creature would know where to find, or dare to despoil, either?

“Gods,” she whispered aloud to herself, “Cormyr was such a simple place when I was a child. When did it grow so many unfolding mysteries?”

As if in reply, and startling her with its suddenness, a voice sang out of the trees ahead. Haunting and mournful, the liquid but sometimes harsh song was that of an elf maiden who was neither friendly nor gentle as she shaped words Alusair could not understand.

If there’d been no orcs right behind her, the Steel Princess would have backed swiftly away from that sound. As it was, the iron taste of fear was suddenly in her mouth, and she felt again that eerie stirring of hair rising all over her body. Well, at least she was fully awake now.

The song swelled, and she made out a few of its words. There was the name Iliphar, then the word shessepra, which humans had mangled into “scepter” and something that sounded like haereeunmn, which was in several old elven ballads sung by master bards when they visited the court, and meant, more or less, “all things of elves.”

It was repeated. Something of a refrain, then, about Iliphar’s scepter giving him power over all things elven. The voice was unearthly, achingly beautiful, yet as menacing as the hiss of a serpent. Alusair found herself shivering in time to its soaring.

Her hurrying feet brought her around a bend, and face-to-face with more than a hundred orcs. These were black, hulking snortsnouts of the most powerful sort, with battle-rings on their tusks and a cruel welcome glittering in their porcine eyes.

Their leader, a mighty orc almost twice as tall as the sort of tusker Alusair was used to slaying in the Stonelands, whose much-battered breastplate was studded with grinning human skulls, was grinning at her as one large, grubby finger rubbed along the glyphs of the largest tainted tree Alusair had yet seen. The song was coming from the runes the orc was touching, each one flickering ever so slightly at the chieftain’s touch.

“Well met, Princess,” the orc hissed. The scuffle of boots told Alusair that her pursuers were coming up behind her. “Or should I say, my next meal!”

The orc chieftain’s roar of laughter rose to join the eerie song as the Steel Princess snarled and sprang to one side, snatching at the magic she carried at her belt. She was going to die here, horribly, if she didn’t-

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