“Ahh, the tribute of Lartimer… Such fine work — such fine carvings.”
“Herino has done well this year… should I perhaps give him a present?”
“Master Nargol, you have visitors.”
Nargol, Great Dragon of the Northern Fang, raised his head ever so slightly from his amusements to look upon his assistant. Coins rattled as they fell down his mighty mound, many of which he had just been praising — now discarded onto the pile like rocks on a mountain. Flicking his forked tongue out between his teeth, Nargol let his displeasure be known; disturbing him in the middle of accounting for tribute was a cardinal sin.
Of course, his assistant would have a damned good reason for this imposition. Nargol knew this, because he had specifically asked for such discretionary disobedience when he ordered the automaton from the Makers, so many years ago. Having minions that were too obedient was as bad as having unruly ones. A balance had to be struck, and only the automatons like this one could perfectly assume the balance he demanded.
“What mighty visitors are these that you would disturb me during my accounting?” He hissed through teeth sharpened by millennia of grinding, even knowing his intimidating glare and tone would have no impact on the emotionless assistant.
“Not so much the visitors themselves, as their timing, Great Dragon. Two parties are seeking an audience with you and petition for a favor. Two separate parties, Master.” Said the automaton, not even flinching in face of Nargol’s legendary stare — which was said to have killed more fools than his fire had. The old tin-can had the height of an elf, with nondescript features, two arms and two legs, and was currently holding a leather folder by its side.
The folder was empty, of course. The automaton needed no aids to remember every word Nargol had ever said to it. No, the folder was for the fools who thought Nargol might be arrogant enough to let secrets be carried around in the open. It was an old ploy, one he had been using for so long one might think his enemies would have seen through it by now, and yet it consistently caught at least one fly every century. It might not fool the other Great Dragons, but there were always the occasional short-lived and short-sighted individuals ready to take a risk.
“Two parties, you say?” Nargol’s green eyes sparkled slightly with mirth. It was not often anyone who came to see him for a petition. He was not known as the most generous of the Great Dragons, indeed he was probably thought of as the most arrogant and stingy of his kin. However, he had reason for his arrogance; he was, after all, the most powerful of the six Great Dragons on Elhané.
Shaking his grey scales, Nargol took a powerful breath to enjoy the strength of his flame. Whoever asked the Grey Dragon for a favor, would usually have to pay a hefty price for his services. “Tell me who has come,” he said, already grinning in anticipation of how he would fleece these lesser beings.
“The first of your visitors is an envoy of Demons from the Kattah tribe, led by their chieftain,” said his assistant, seemingly uninterested in its master’s wicked expression of glee, “I believe they are here to negotiate more food in return for their metalwork.”
“Pah,” Nargol spat. If they had come here for that, it was better he just killed them from the offset. He did not want to bother with a negotiation, not after he had just stated the terms a thousand years ago. If they wanted something else, they would have to seek it elsewhere. “And the other?” He said, his mood taking a downturn. It was tempting to smash the automaton, to soothe his temper, but he was already running short after having wrecked a few in the last five thousand years. Without the Makers to resupply him, he would have to make do with what he had already.
“While I was unable to ascertain it with certainty, Master, I believe the other is a Starchaser.”
That did perk Nargol right back up. A Starchaser? What are they still doing on this world? The Dragons had not involved themselves the last time the Starchasers had come, nor in the battles that had been fought around Elhané. It was not their problem, after all. “Did it say anything about why it was here?”
“No Master, but it did bring along one of your drakkas.”
“One of mine? Which one?” Nargol was truly intrigued now. Though he could bestow the drakonid gift upon any who chose to serve him, he gave it out very sparingly, unlike the other Great Dragons. Expending his flame to give others strength was not his way. If one of his drakkas had gotten the idea that a Starchaser would be a better master than he, Nargol was going to have to disprove that notion.
“We lost contact with this one a few months ago, inside the Forest of Ammedia. He is not in good condition, though. I suspect the Starchaser is here to return him to gain your favor.”
“Yes… I remember,” Nargol narrowed his eyes. That one had been a bit of a risky bet on his side, but the drakkas had shown a lot of promise, Did I misjudge him?
“Very well. Send in the Demons first. I want to get this… petition over with before I get to the exciting bit,” said Nargol, chuckling slightly. Perhaps these Demons would make a good meal before he faced the Starchaser. Although the Starchaser was probably just a grunt, he was wary of anything that had to do with the Makers and their curse.
“Very good, Master. I will return with the chieftain shortly.”
The automaton turned, face as placid as always, and exited Nargols mighty chamber. The Dragon followed the automaton with his sparkling green eyes, thinking on whether he should have crushed it after all. In the end it was just a machine, and —although he had requested it like that— he did not like the way they showed deference without a hint of fear.
Nargol preferred fear.
However, the alternative was much worse. If he crushed too many of the few automatons he had left, he would have to invest his flame in order to create lesser dragons, as his brethren did. Doing that would lose him the one advantage he had over them, being the strongest because he kept his fire to himself. While they ridiculed him for relying on the machines made by others, none of them had the power to stand against him if it ever came to a fight.
And I’m sure it soon will, he mused, picking up one of the gold coins he had received from Lartimer, Yes… Soon we will bathe in each other’s blood once more; as it should be.
He needed soldiers, though. Meat shields to die for him on the field while he ripped the other Great Dragons apart. Choosing not to divest his power was a risky strategy, as the others could hold him down while their minions took away his power base from below him. The automatons were useless in such a battle; nothing like the true constructs of the Makers. Those, the arrogant bastards had never been willing to part with, not even for a piece of his flame — the most valuable resource Nargol possessed.
Could the Demons perhaps be the answer to his problems? Though he loathed to negotiate with these worms, they were adequate fighters in their own right. Had they not been completely taken by surprise when the Makers showed up, even those all-powerful masters of the universe would have been hard-pressed to suppress the Demons as much as they had done.
Perhaps I can use this… Starchaser. If it is here, then there must be remnants of the Makers left on Elhané, enough that they are still sending agents here, thought Nargol, the contours of a plan forming in his head, and if there is anyone the Demons hate more than the elves, then it is the Makers who made them into such miserable creatures to begin with… Yes… This might be worth it after all.
His musings came to an end when the assistant showed three figures into the chamber. They were all clad in heavy cloaks, obscuring their figure from any view. When they finally came close enough that their eyes could distinguish Nargol’s shadowy form within the dark chamber, the leader removed his hood and showcased the classical features of his people.
Dark hair braided to his scalp, a wide forehead with two horns the size of thumbs sticking out, and a feline face with sharp lines. His ashen skin was complemented by the deep ruby eyes that observed the Great Dragon warily. This chieftain was no fool, Nargol decided.
“Master, I present the chieftain Mezza of the Kattah,” said his automaton in a strenuous monotone, “Greet the Great Dragon Nargol, lord of the Northern Fang, and most powerful of all.” The Demons all knelt before him, bowing their heads. Nargol stared at the automaton, annoyed at how unimpressive its flat delivery made his mighty titles.
“We greet you, Great Dragon Nargol,” said Mezza, the leader. Nargol flicked his tongue, deciding he would keep them kneeling. It was good for them to remember their place. “Tell me Mezza, why have you come into my presence? Have you come to ask for more food?”
“Food is scarce across the desolate plains, Great Dragon,” said Mezza, keeping his eyes lowered even though Nargol could tell how it hurt the pride of the Demon to do so. “However, that is not our purpose in coming here today.”
“Oh? Go on…”
“First, we wish to present you with these gifts,” said the chieftain, gesturing to his right, where a cloaked figure of a similar height knelt. The figure dipped its head a little lower, reaching into its cloak and retrieving a set of blades — one long and one short.
Still kneeling, the cloaked figure approached, careful to keep it head lowered, placing the two objects at Nargol’s feet. Annoyed at this display, Nargol huffed with enough pressure to blow away the figures hood, revealing the face of a young male demon…
No, a Daelos Demos! Interesting, Nargol observed, narrowing his eyes. The daemon was shaking from the assault of air, but still finalized his task admirably. After he retreated, Nargol took a closer look at the swords, using his fire to unsheathe the blades and observe their make.
“Magnificent work, Mezza,” said Nargol, appreciating the delicate workmanship in every detail. Compared to Dragonbone smiths, these toys were nothing, but Nargol had to admit that compared to the arrogant dwarves, the Demons made better blades for slaughter. “I will accept this gift. Now, get to the point already.”
“Yes, Great Dragon. The Kattah requires ships that can travel the deep oceans. We wish to exchange swords like these for such ships,” said Mezza. The daemon beside the chief kept his eyes lowered, but Nargol could see something like resentment in the young man’s eyes. It was of little concern to the Great Dragon, except that these worms were currently asking for a favor with such an insincere expression.
“Would you have me blow all your hoods away, Mezza?” Hissed Nargol, eying the last hooded figure. If this one showed even a hint of displeasure, Nargol would kill him right here and now to right the expressions of the other two. Fear was best, after all.
Mezza gestured to his left, and the much smaller figure there raised its hands shakily, removing the hood to reveal a very unlikely face. What is a halfling doing in the presence of Demons? Nargol licked his lips, looking at the little snack with interest. Halflings were tender and soft, a good meal for a hungry dragon.
Obviously, the halfling knew this as well, since it visibly shook so violently with fear that Nargol could taste the sensation. Ahhh… That is how it should be, thought the Dragon with delight, now content to leave the other two alone. They might not have the right attitude yet, but this little halfling compensated greatly. Perhaps he should ask them to leave it here once they left?
“I apologize, Great Dragon,” said Mezza, “If we have shown you any discourtesy. As an apology, I promise to gift you another set of swords.”
“Two sets,” said Nargol, smirking when he saw the chieftain’s face twitch, “And all is forgiven. Now, ships you say? I wonder, are the Kattah going somewhere in particular? Perhaps you are going somewhere greener?”
The chieftain did not allow himself to be taunted, admirably so, Nargol thought. Keeping his composure, the Demon allowed himself to raise his eyes slightly, looking at Nargol’s talons as he spoke, “Where the Kattah goes is not important. We require ships, and are willing to pay for our fare. Can the Northern Fang provide?”
“Perhaps…” Nargol drawled and inspected his talons studiously, “I have ships enough to loan you some… If you tell me where you are going.”
Mezza’s entire face became stone-hard as he once more tried to deflect the question, “I assure you, Great Dragon, our destination is of no importance to you. I invoke the Right of Silence in this matter.”
Nargol hissed with feigned displeasure. In truth, he was rather enjoying seeing the Demon chieftain squirm before him. Perhaps he should find some Demon servants of his own…
“Your Right of Silence is denied, Chieftain,” Nargol finally said, “You have no grounds on which to claim such a right of me.”
Now Mezza’s ashen skin was taking on distinctly volcanic hue from anger. “Need I remind you,” said the Demon chieftain through gritted teeth, “That your kind are guests of this world, and that you agreed to certain terms when you were allowed to control these lands? Need I remind who the true denizens of Elhané are?”
Nargol leaned forward, inching his massive head closer, until his warm breath curled around the chief, scattering his cloak. With as much acid in his voice as he could manage, Nargol said, “Need I remind you withwhom that agreement was made? Tell me, Demon… Where are the ‘People’?”
The chief’s face went from angry red to stiffened white. After much pause, the chief finally managed to utter, “The People are no more.”
“Indeed… Such a pity only Demons remember the old oaths. And so, there is no one we owe any favors to, nor are there any of you who can evict us. With that in mind… TELL ME WHERE YOU ARE GOING!”
His roar echoed through the hall, reverberating at least a dozen times, shattering eardrums and making the three petitioners bleed from their ears. Only once his voice had died down, did Mezza raise his head ever so slightly and say, “The Kattah go to find the White Witch.”
That was a surprise. Nargol studied the three figures closely, before finally nodding his head. That might be advantageous to him… if played in the right manner. “If that is your wish, then I shall loan you the ships to take you there. I will require ten sets of swords for each ship that you borrow, and a hundred sets for each ship you lose on the journey.”
Mezza was visibly shaking, either from rage or hopelessness. After another bout of silence, the Demon chief agreed without even trying to haggle. He knew it would only end in Nargol raising the price further.
“I thank you for your hospitality, Great Dragon Nargol,” Mezza said, rising onto his feet, head still lowered, “We will await news of the ships on the harbor.”
Nargol waved a crooked talon in the general direction of the exit to the hall, sighing with feigned exhaustion, “Yes, yes… Leave me now, little Demons.”
All three figures walked backward, not daring to show their backs to Nargol, chiefly out of fear from being stabbed in the back on their way. Nargol had been known to do that. When they finally turned around, only the daemon used the opportunity to raise his head and meet Nargol’s stare with his own, ruby-red meeting muddy gray.
Such spirit… Nargol thought, huffing a bit of smoke through his nostrils, No wonder the Makers made sure to break that kind of stare when they were here.
Satisfied with the deal he had just stuck, Nargol was now in a rather good mood. With the next, interesting guest arriving shortly, the Dragon felt positively alive on this day. Once the three Demons had exited the chamber, it did not take long before his automaton assistant opened the doors once more.
The creature that arrived was one Nargol had only heard about, but never encountered in person. It had the general shape of the elf-bloods, but the smell of it was positively abhorrent. It stank of something dark and moldy, something that should not be in the light of day.
The Starchaser, for that was what this creature was, was dressed in a long leather coat, sturdy boots, and a wide-brimmed hat which covered its face in shadow. Within the obscure darkness of its face, however, two gleaming red eyes stared directly at the Dragon, without any pretense of subservience.
Nargol was pretty sure he had found the real reason why the Makers had dealt with the Demons in such a heavy-handed manner. The glare from those eyes even made the Great Dragon feel a cold tickle down his spine.
Although he had never met one before, he had felt the reverberations of their power, back when they forced the Makers to flee for dear life. The battles had occurred in the outer system, far away from Elhané, and the Starchasers stopped their assault the moment the Makers vanished with their fleet of flying citadels.
At the time, Nargol had been in sizable debt to the Makers, and had therefore been overjoyed to see them leave without any attempt at retrieving what they were owed. It was only later, when his automatons began failing, and he crushed a few in anger, he began to resent their quick eviction.
Had he known, he would have stocked up on servile automatons in advance.
Behind the Starchaser, two additional automatons held up a stretcher between them, and on it was the most pitiful creature Nargol had laid eyes upon in a long while. Granted, he did not deign to leave his cavern often for sightseeing, but this was contemptible.
What had once been red scales, were now a dark charcoal. What had once been strong yellow eyes with a sinister gleam to them, were now nothing but an unfocused mess. What had once been two prideful wings, granted by Nargol himself, were now just two broken stumps, hanging limply to either side.
Nargol sneered at the sight, his talons digging deep into the golden treasures beneath him. To think he had wasted his fire on such a pathetic thing. Disgraceful.
Straight backed, the Starchaser came to a halt at a passable distance before the Great Dragon and gave a modest salute, saying, “Great Dragon Nargol, thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”
Its voice was a whisper, and yet the strength of it easily reached Nargol’s ears, biting into them like tendrils. The Great Dragon showed a few of his finest fangs in appreciation of such a magnificent impression.
“It is my pleasure, Starchaser. How may I address you?”
“Bann, is the name I go by in this world,” said the creature, proffering the slightest of bows.
“Bann it is, then. What business do you have with me today?” Nargol said, deciding to take a wait-and-see approach in this encounter. His ancient memories spoke of these creatures, but Dragons always preferred to stay out of their business. Nargol wondered why that was.
“I have brought you your faithful servant,” said Bann, gesturing towards the stretcher. Nargol huffed in dismay, but waved the automatons to approach. The tin-cans obeyed his command to perfection, laying down the pitiful thing before Nargol.
“Hmph… I suppose it would be a waste to just let him die,” Nargol said, hissing to himself. Leaning forward, holding his head slightly above the stretcher, he opened his mouth and breathed out the smallest flame he could.
The little flame was barely a thread, but it still remained whole until it touched the pathetic creature below, seeping into its chest. The change was immediate and immense.
Charred scales were shed, and shiny red ones replaced them. The unfocused eyes constricted, once, then twice, and the creature managed a powerful breath for the first time in a long while. The useless lumps on its back grew outward, forming a new set of wings in an instant.
Blinking, the Nargol’s drakkas finally identified its master. “Great Dragon,” Behmet breathed, his voice half trembling. Though the lizardman was stupid, Nargol was certain he had ingrained his displeasure with failure into him. Yet, here he was, forcing his master to waste fire on his recovery.
Behmet immediately rolled out of the stretcher and knelt before his master, holding his forehead to the cold stone floor. “This useless servant greets the Great Dragon,”
“Shut up, Bug,” Nargol hissed, flicking away his servant. With the smallest amount of power, he made the lizardman fly through the air, hammering into a nearby pillar. “Stay there for a bit.”
“Y-Yes Gr-Great Dragon,” Behmet managed to wheeze out.
“You have my gratitude, Bann the Starchaser. Tell me, how did you come upon this pathetic servant of mine?”
The Starchaser gave another one of those shallow bows and said, “I have been in the care of your servant for some time now. He has helped me achieve several goals of mine, and I felt obligated to… reciprocate the favor.”
“Is that so,” Nargol said and eyed the kneeling lizardman. Was his servant truly such a dunce; to willingly help a Starchaser? Even if Behmet had no idea about what Bann really was, the fire he had been gifted should at the very least have warned him. Or had Bann found a way around the effect?
“Indeed it is,” Bann continued, not giving Nargol the time to think, “It was actually my information that led to Behmet’s… accident. I hope you will not blame me for his failing.”
Nargol dismissed the notion with a wave of a talon. “Of course not. I am sure you did everything you felt obligated to… Even still, it does not explain your presence here. Tell me what it is you want, Starchaser.”
“The one who did… that do you servant, is one of great interest to me and mine. I would like to ask your cooperation in capturing a construct.”
“A construct did that?” Nargol said, quite surprised. He knew what the little elves had been cooking up lately, using Maker technology to create primitive puppets, which they arrogantly deemed ‘constructs’, as if they were equal to their former overlords. One of these weak constructs could not have done such damage to one of Nargol’s Drakkas, not even five of them in unison.
“The construct was of Elder make, those you call ‘Makers’,” Bann said, his slithering voice caressing the word ‘Elder’ as if it was a sharp weapon, or a poisonous snake, while spitting out the second title in disgust.
Nargol took careful note of this. The elves and Demons called these the Old Ones, in both reverence and fear, and went so far as infusing their own power into the name whenever they spoke it. When Nargol had dealt with that hateful race, they had only ever presented themselves as ‘Makers’, and here a Starchaser had given them an entirely different name.
How many names could a single race have? It was not important at the moment, but Nargol filed the curiosity away nonetheless.
He was more interested in this construct. He knew the Makers had left several behind in their flight from this world, but most of them were supposedly inoperable or too damaged to be of any use. Unless something had changed?
“Let’s assume I helped you out,” Nargol said, making sure his tone was apathetic as possible, despite the desire to possess that welled up in him, “What could I possibly gain from doing so?”
“I will offer you the construct itself.”
Nargol could not stop the jerk that went through his body at these words, but he forced himself to stay calm and collected. “Then, what do you gain from it? Do not tell me a Starchaser is just going to hunt down a construct for fun.”
Bann shook his head, the red eyes within shadow gleaming, “I require something the construct possesses, not the construct itself. Give me time to retrieve what I want, and the construct will be yours afterward.”
Nargol put a talon to his chin and scratched. This was too good a deal, if what the Starchaser said was true. His ancient memories kept urging him to keep away from this deal, but Nargol could not help himself.
“And what, pray tell, do you need my help with? Surely, a Starchaser such as yourself have all the resources you require. What can a simple, planet-locked Dragon do that you cannot?”
Bann chuckled and said, “You do not give yourself enough credit, Great Dragon. I am in a… tenuous position, and cannot act as I please at the moment. I barely survived the last encounter with this construct, and I took a considerable risk in getting your drakkas out of there with me.”
“You don’t say…” Nargol glared at the pitiful drakkas, who was sneakily trying to stare daggers in the Starchaser’s direction. With a huff of smoke, Nargol reminded Behmet of his place.
“Indeed,” Bann agreed, continuing, “It is currently in a place I cannot reach in Ammedia, and I am certain it has grown too strong for me to handle at the moment. I therefore need you to get me an army.”
“An army?” Nargol chuckled; where was he supposed to find an army. Although…
“I am sure you know that any army of mine will be in immediate conflict with the Fanghunters, once it enters Ammedia. I doubt it will be conducive to your mission.” Nargol studied one of his talons as he spoke, inspecting it for any hint of dirt. It was perfect, of course, as always.
“A Great Dragon, such as yourself, surely has away around such a problem,” Bann said, placing both hands behind his back, “I can offer you some resources from the outer system, if you can make an army appear for me.”
Clicking his tongue, Nargol could feel his excitement grow. A construct of the Makers and resources to boot. How could he reject such an offer?
“It just so happens I know of an army that will land upon Ammedian shores within a short span of time. I am certain that, with the right incentives, they can be convinced to lend you some of their forces. The price for brokering such an agreement, however…”
“Name your price, Great Dragon.”
Grinning, Nargol’s wide mouth almost splitting his head in twain, he gave his asking price. Bann accepted without a hint of hesitation.
“We are in agreement, then,” Nargol said, reaching out and plucking Behmet up from the floor, “I will lend you this one as a liaison. He will make sure you get exactly what you want. Do you understand, Behmet?”
He threw the lizardman at Bann’s feet, and the servant scrambled to get into a kneeling position before he dared to say, “Yes, Great Dragon. Thank you for giving me another chance; I will not fail you.”
“No… you won’t,” Nargol drawled, “You will make sure to die before you fail me again, won’t you, Behmet?”
“This servant hears and obeys, Great Dragon.”
“Good, now leave me. I have put off my accounting for too long.”
Bann gave that slight bow of his and immediately turned his back to leave. Behmet, on the other hand, crawled backward all the way to the entrance, not even daring to stand up to exit the chamber.
Nargol watched them leave with a satisfied smirk on his face. This one move would induce more chaos into the world, more instability, more fighting. While everyone fought around him, Nargol accrued more power, more wealth, and more fire.
When the time came from ascension, none of his brothers or sisters would be able to stand against him. All of them would burn in his flame, as would this world, in sacrifice to his coming of age. When he finally shed the confinement of this small planet, and left for the wide expanse of the cosmos, he might even do so with the backing of the powerful Starchasers.
Flashing his perfect fangs, Nargol could not help a slight chuckle at the thought. He wondered if he one day would have as many names as the Makers. Since they were gone, should he perhaps take one of theirs?
Being an ‘Elder’ sounded quite nice to his ears.