Dragon wizard, p.19
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       Dragon Wizard, p.19

           S. Andrew Swann
 
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  “Never mind that. Who could have recovered that scroll?”

  Elhared shook his head and chuckled. He gave Lucille a pitying look. “You don’t know? Isn’t it obvious?”

  Something in his face made me sick to my stomach. I suddenly knew what was coming.

  “Who?”

  “Sebastian of course.”

  “Who in the Seven Hells is Sebastian?”

  Elhared looked at her, and I swear his expression showed shock. I couldn’t bear to hear the reproach in his voice. Not from an evil, scheming bastard like him. Especially since, in some sense, it was justified.

  “After all you took from him, you don’t even know his name?”

  “Whose name?” Krys said.

  Elhared waited for Lucille to make the connection herself. After a moment she started to say, “Who . . .”

  She trailed off as it sank in. I knew when she understood, because I felt her stomach lurch, her heart accelerate, and her muscles clench.

  Elhared’s plan had been fairly simple. He hired a dragon to kidnap the princess of Lendowyn. Once the king offered said princess’s hand in marriage, Elhared had hired a patsy from a dockside bar—yours truly—to suit up in armor to go “save” the princess. Once everyone had assembled in the same spot, he showed up to play round robin with everyone’s souls. I had ended up as the princess, he had ended up as me, and the princess had ended up as the dragon. The plan had been to slay the dragon, now containing an inconvenient princess, so the newly minted hero Elhared would return with a newly compliant princess, and the head of a dragon. Instant peerage.

  The dragon himself had always seemed the odd lizard out in that scenario.

  The dragon had said that Elhared had bought his service with a promise to cover his marker for a gambling debt to the elves. Elves took those debts seriously. That promise seemed as fraudulent as everything else, given the state of the Lendowyn treasury. Even with the funds Elhared had been skimming from the crown, it seemed obvious in retrospect that he couldn’t have possibly covered a gambling debt that had already consumed the whole of a dragon’s hoard.

  After Elhared’s spell the dragon was no richer and he was stuck in Elhared’s body. No prize that.

  Lucille and I had always assumed that he’d been double-crossed as well as everyone else.

  But what if he hadn’t been?

  What if that had been part of the plan? Had Elhared’s plot gone as intended, the dragon who was in debt to the elves would be dead.

  But what better way to cover that debt?

  The dragon would be left in the body of Elhared the Unwise. Maybe not ideal, but free of any liens. He would have been established with a position, a title, and allies in the court to help enable the continuing fraud.

  “The dragon’s name is Sebastian,” Lucille finally said.

  “There you go,” Elhared said. “After all that effort, and he still ends up in the hands of the elves. I suspect he was very annoyed.”

  “What? The dragon had your scroll?”

  Elhared snorted and patted his robes. “No, I did. Just in case things went wrong. But Francis’s interruption separated all of us, and I suspect Sebastian did not know whether to continue our plan or not. Besides, he didn’t have the talent to invoke it.”

  So he had gone to the one place where it was certain that there would be someone who could, the wizard town of Fell Green. I felt sick. I remembered tackling him outside a gambling hall. I remember demanding to know the location of Elhared and the book, which he didn’t know.

  When I had been screaming in the faux Elhared’s face, I hadn’t known that, somewhere in his wizard’s robes had been a scroll that could have reversed the whole mess.

  If I had—

  Something of the realization must have colored my thoughts, because Lucille interrupted them. No! Frank, it’s not your fault!

  I could have stopped all this before it got so out of hand.

  Don’t you dare blame yourself.

  I really didn’t want to. I even tried to excuse it, explain it. After Elhared’s spell misfired, I had only a few uninterrupted moments with the dragon—Sebastian—before the elves had shown up. After they had grabbed us, putting us on trial, Sebastian-as-Elhared had committed completely to the wizard fraud. Of course, in that context, he couldn’t let on about the spell, much less the scroll that could reverse it. He didn’t even let on who he really was until after sentence was passed.

  My blame came later.

  The elves had freed me, but had imprisoned the fake Elhared and Lucille the dragon. I had made a deal with the elf-king to buy Lucille’s freedom.

  Just hers.

  I could have bought Sebastian’s freedom with the same act. It had been clear that the elves valued the dragon as a dragon more than Sebastian in his then-current state. In hindsight I could have freed him as well as Lucille without any extra cost on my part.

  For reasons hard to justify in retrospect, I hadn’t bothered. Sure, Lucille had been my priority, but at that point I’d believed the ex-dragon Sebastian had been as much a victim of Elhared’s schemes as we’d been. Ignoring his plight had been, at best, petty vindictiveness on my part.

  Worse, my pettiness had trumped logic that should have been clear to me at the time. Even though I had no idea of the scroll carried on his person, I should have realized that a former ally of Elhared might have been somewhat useful in tracking down the wizard.

  Whatever Lucille may have thought, it had been my fault. I had abandoned Sebastian because I had been too blind to understand what I’d been doing. I had not only given up the undoing of Elhared’s spell however unknowingly; I had also quite knowingly created an enemy when I could have created an ally.

  It was all my fault.

  CHAPTER 24

  I think the chief problem in being a silent passenger in someone else’s skull is how easy it makes it for you to disappear into your own thoughts, especially dark ones involving guilt and self-pity. For the past year or so, those latter ones had been a specialty of mine. Might-have-beens and self-recriminations can be even more addictive when you can’t actually do anything physical.

  I lost track of the conversation, huddling back in Lucille’s skull and thinking quiet thoughts of my own uselessness. I tried to sulk in silence, because even long after the influence of the tea, Lucille still seemed to hear me. I didn’t want her interrupting my depression telling me how she had come to terms with her life as a dragon, or how without me Grünwald would have conquered Lendowyn long before now. I’d heard her arguments before, and at better moments I could find them compelling.

  But right now I couldn’t help thinking of Sebastian the Dragon loosing his fury on an unsuspecting ballroom full of innocent people. Yes, I know, a bunch of nobles and diplomats, so they were really far from innocent. But they were innocent of the crime that fired Sebastian’s wrath. Only one person in that room could claim credit for that. I didn’t think Lucille could come up with a counter for my complicity in that.

  Worse, now Sebastian was attacking villages with actual innocent people, pushing everything toward open war where even more would die. For all we knew, that war may have started already, the massed armies from my dream-vision marching for Lendowyn based on actions I had provoked.

  I know Lucille would argue the point, and I didn’t want to force her to. She had more important things to think about than inventing reasons to absolve me.

  I should tell you that, at this point, it is perfectly acceptable to want to slap me. I share the sentiment. I know it’s not all about me, but, then again, this is my story I’m telling, so, in a sense, it is, isn’t it?

  • • •

  After Lucille’s conversation with Elhared, there was a lot more back and forth as Lucille tried to form our group into something that might work as a team, and tried to craft something that might work as a
plan. Too much time had been lost already, and they needed Sebastian the Dragon to fulfill the elf-king’s ultimatum.

  Elhared’s rationale for working with us was, knowing what we did of where the scroll came from, that Sebastian would suffice as the one at root bearing responsibility for the death of the prince. Thanks to Elhared, we also had some clue to where he might have gone. Sebastian wasn’t native to Lendowyn, and Elhared knew the mountain pass that his one-time coconspirator called home. It was back where we had come, a straight-line route that passed through the Northern Palace and kept going to the mountains beyond.

  A few days ride at best. Given the state of the hourglass, we had little more than one mortal day left.

  Fortunately we had alternate transportation now.

  • • •

  If there was any consolation to my status as an invisible rider in Lucille’s skull, it was in that flight back to the Northern Palace. I had ridden via dragon before, and it would not be on any list I’d ever draft of fun things to do. Enough so that if it was a choice between escaping in the clutches of a friendly dragon and being immolated by an approaching forest fire, it would require at least a moment or two of thought on my part.

  I had also, in my one prior episode in a dragon’s skull, been used as a mount by a half-dozen teenage girls. That had been disconcerting in its own way. From a dragon’s perspective, humans seem so tiny and fragile I couldn’t help feeling that any wrong move would reduce them to a thin smear on my scaled backside.

  Lucille being in control of the dragon freed me from both concerns.

  Rabbit and Krys managed to quickly return to Fell Green and, in less than half an hour, trade the now-superfluous horses and return with a considerable amount of rope and leather. They used the supplies to knot together a rope harness around Lucille’s chest and neck, giving the four humans something with which to anchor themselves.

  Elhared was the only one to express any reluctance, but Robin said something to him and laughed. After that Robin sprang up to straddle the dragon’s neck. A grim-faced Elhared followed.

  Krys and Rabbit sat forward, Rabbit in front.

  Lucille launched herself into the moonlit night.

  She was fast. I do not know what image that word conjures in your mind, but whatever it is, I can attest it is inadequate to convey the sheer velocity of her movement.

  Wind tore by us as our passengers screamed.

  Passenger, actually. I think it was Elhared. I’m not entirely sure, since Lucille did not move her head from the wire-straight path she followed. The ground blurred by below us, the hills and forest passing by so quickly that it almost seemed the earth undulated with our passage.

  It must have been close to midnight when she’d launched from the island of Fell Green, the moon high in the sky. It was still night when we reached the Northern Palace, the moon low on the horizon and the dawn still hours away.

  She circled the building, high up, and saw the guardsmen rallying.

  “Krys, I’m going to land outside of longbow range. Run up and announce us.”

  “Yes, Your Highness!” Krys’s shouted response was nearly inaudible over the rushing wind.

  Less than a handful of minutes after we’d landed, Krys had returned with most of the Lysean guard; Mary, along with Laya and Thea, who had successfully made it away from Lendowyn Castle after our abrupt departure. Grace was evidently still hobbled by the injuries she had received during the banquet.

  Krys had obviously filled them in, but it was clear they didn’t know exactly what to make of Lucille.

  “It is you?” Laya said nervously as she approached Lucille’s crimson form.

  “Who else would I be?”

  Laya looked back at the Northern Palace nervously.

  “There have been a lot of dragon attacks,” Mary said.

  “Sebastian is still attacking villages?”

  “Who’s Sebastian?”

  Lucille explained and got more of the story from Mary.

  Sebastian had been a busy dragon. He’d been torching farms and villages in a widening arc across Lendowyn’s northern border and beyond. Places had been attacked three kingdoms away. It was obvious he was doing his best to incite as many nations against Lendowyn as he could.

  “It’s to the point that rumor has taken over,” Mary said.

  “Meaning?”

  “It’s impossible that one dragon could accomplish all the attacks we’re hearing about. Three farms leveled at all points of the compass within a single day? Someone’s making this stuff up.”

  It turned out that the Northern Palace was a garrison now, fortified with a hundred extra troops that Lendowyn couldn’t afford. The only reason that no one had tried to shoot Lucille out of the sky was because none of the dragon attacks had so far focused on Lendowyn, and King Alfred had standing orders not to summarily attack the dragon that, as far as he knew, could still be his daughter.

  Oh . . .

  Lucille?

  I never thought of . . . Letting Father think I was still the dragon, what if someone got killed because he ordered them not to attack?

  No one has.

  Yet. That we know of.

  We’ll stop Sebastian before it comes to that.

  Yes. She didn’t sound convinced.

  Other news was predictable, but not reassuring. King Alfred was angry and conscripting every able-bodied man in the kingdom. Rumors of an anti-Lendowyn alliance had already reached the Northern Palace. And everyone seemed to realize that something was not quite right with the fae. No mortal had seen an elf for days, anywhere.

  “We don’t have any time,” Lucille told them. “We need to go after Sebastian immediately. We may have less than a day. Did you bring Dracheslayer?”

  “And the Tear of Nâtlac!” Thea said enthusiastically.

  Oh great, I thought unenthusiastically.

  “Back at the palace,” Laya said.

  “Fetch the sword. We’ll head out at dawn.”

  Elhared looked up at Lucille. “Your Highness? What exactly is your plan here?”

  “We take the dragon and return him to the elf-king, and hope that’s enough for him to call off a war.”

  “Uh-huh. Do you have any specific ideas on how you’re going to do this?”

  “We have the sword and our own dragon. We’ll bring him back.”

  Elhared nodded. “I thought not. You expect to coerce an unwilling dragon?”

  “If necessary, we will kill him!” Lucile snapped. Everyone but Elhared stepped back from her.

  “Might I make a suggestion?” I recognized the glint in his eye, and I didn’t much like it.

  Don’t trust him, I thought at Lucille.

  I know, Lucille thought back at me.

  “What?”

  “If I heard correctly, you have a Tear of Nâtlac?”

  I didn’t like where this was going. Using that artifact the last time ended in a disaster nearly as severe as the one we were embroiled in right now.

  “So?”

  “Your task would be considerably easier if Sebastian was easily restrained and the dragon had a more willing disposition.”

  “What are you suggesting?”

  “The spells that placed you in Sebastian’s skin, and returned him to it. They can swap him with a more . . . cooperative identity.”

  “You can do that without your spellbook, or that scroll?”

  “Not usually. But with the Tear of Nâtlac as a focus, it would be trivial. That jewel is nothing but a solid manifestation of the same magics, distilled to their purest essence.”

  “Exchange Sebastian for an ally?”

  “And return him when the elves have their dragon again.”

  I did not like the way Elhared smiled when he said that.

  • • •

  As th
e girls took our two guests back to the palace to equip for the trek into the mountains, I mentally yelled at Lucille, You can’t be thinking of going along with Elhared?

  Frank, he’s right. We’re on a deadline.

  She spread her wings and lifted off to fly in the direction of the palace. You can’t trust him.

  Of course not. But I remember that dragon—even with Dracheslayer backing me up, I want every advantage available.

  I don’t feel good using Nâtlac’s little trinket for anything. Not after last time.

  She swooped around the top of the palace. The few guards gave us a salute as we passed. Better than an arrow in the eye, I guess.

  You won’t be using it.

  But that kind of magical “gift” always has unintended—

  I felt a queasy half-familiar sensation in Lucille’s gut. Our gut. From the corner of our eye I saw that the moon was completely below the horizon. Everything fell into place as I had an instantaneous flash of perfect understanding.

  “LAND!”

  My panicked mental scream carried with such force that the word left Lucille’s mouth in a small burst of sulfurous fire.

  What?

  Land now! Land now! Landnowlandnowlandnow . . .

  We were too high up, way too high, and I could feel the cramps in our stomach radiating out to every part of our body. Lucille’s flight became less controlled and we started tumbling down.

  This wasn’t going to be good.

  I should have realized the risk much earlier, but I’d been distracted by Elhared’s presence. Lothan had promised us each our own body, and he was, among other things, the patron of transformation. The potion he had provided was imbibed by moonlight, and the moon had been over our heads until this moment.

  The full moon.

  The Wizard Crumley had said that having dual personas in a single body would result in some sort of merging of our identities—except in certain cases of lycanthropy.

  Lothan had an unfortunate sense of humor.

  The potion hadn’t turned us into a dragon. It had turned us into a were-dragon. Though not the solution I would have chosen, I probably would have admired its twisted elegance if the realization—and the transformation—hadn’t hit me midflight.

 
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