Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,
Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 9)
"When are we going to meet him? We've been walking forever," Jonathan complained as he dragged his feet along.
It's your stupid map, Raff thought, but wisely kept silent as that statement would just irk the boy who wasn't actually in possession of it at the moment. One of the other three had it hidden away, but the half-elf couldn't remember whose turn it was to keep it hidden. Even though he'd offered to help, they were trying to keep it away from him, as well. Sheesh, one lapse in control and you'd think I was the one possessed by it. Raff sighed and simply corrected, "Her."
"Her. The dragon's a female. Calling her male pronouns won't exactly endear her to our presence." And you likely would get yourself eaten; maybe you should try it. Raff wasn't feeling quite callous enough to say that last part aloud, but he was getting close to it.
"How do you know that?" Jonathan asked doubtfully, clearly not believing him, although what reason Raff would have for lying about this would have been anyone's guess.
"The elf told us that her name was Kerethiana. If you knew any Elvish, you'd know that was a female name. Even in Common, that's not exactly masculine-sounding." Raff knew he was being petty, but this youth was enough to try the patience of a saint. He almost wished the boy would go back to being evil because Annoying Neutrality didn't seem to be much of an improvement.
"She should be around here somewhere close," Mina commented, her voice quiet.
"How do you know that?" Raff asked incredulously. He was beginning to think that his ranger training had gone rusty because nothing short of a large flashing sign that read "Dragon is here!" would have clued him in to the location of the object of their search.
Still nearly whispering she supplied, "Look at the trees- there's an odd mark there."
Raff looked closely at the evergreen trees surrounding them. Sure enough, there was a strange triangular mark high up in the bark of some of them, which he'd completely failed to notice. Pines, of course. It's always pines that elude me. "How'd you see that? And how do you know it's from a dragon?"
Mina looked bashful. "I read a lot and I find dragons intriguing. If memory serves me right, we're going to be looking for an amber one."
"Hey, don't blush. If you're right, then that's incredibly helpful," Raff told her kindly, then admitted, "I certainly don't know what we're looking for."
As Raff's newly acquired dog gave a low whine, Tomas, who had been leading the group with the silent help of the canine, froze in place. "Umm... something like that, I would bet."
"Like what?" Charity asked, dragging the still reluctant Jonathan with her to join the group, "I don't see anything-"
Then, much like how the wood elf had blended into the forest, the shadow of the trees a few yards ahead of them morphed into a large- and unmistakably dragon-shaped- figure as the dragon moved. Stepping away from the tree from which she had been feeding, Kerethiana moved to stab another one with the large horn atop her head.
"That's an amber dragon, all right," Mina sounded in awe, "although the book didn't give a good idea of the sheer size of one..."
"Yes, she's very large," Charity agreed, quickly stopping what would likely be the scholarly ramblings of an intellectual. "But what do we do to get her attention?"
She looked over at the rest of the party. Jonathan had taken a step back and was shaking his head emphatically while Tomas bit his thumbnail, clearly looking worried. Mina was still staring wide-eyed at the dragon as if trying to memorize what she looked like for an exam and wasn't paying the older woman any attention. Obviously those three weren't going to be any help. Raff shrugged and reasoned silently, Well, I'll just have to hope that being half an elf will help here...
As Raff closed the short distance between the group and the dragon, trying to put enough space between them that his traveling companions wouldn't be hurt should the dragon try to attack him with … fire? Acid? I should have asked Mina what they breathe, not that the knowledge would have helped- anything short of fluffy pillow breath would be lethal, he was pleased to notice that the dog had resumed its place at his side. The dog didn't look frightened, so hopefully that was a good sign; Raff for one was certainly worried.
"Hey, great dragon!" he called, his voice cracking slightly under the strain, then mentally kicked himself. That was not the right way to greet a dragon. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I mean, hail, great Kerethiana. My friends and I ask for your aid with the task we must fulfill. We were sent to you by the wood elf Caledhrad."
The dragon raised her bark-colored head and, dripping tree sap, looked at the half-elf standing nearby with what appeared to be a mixture of disdain (probably at an interrupted lunch) and curiosity. She didn't seem to have a response for Raff, though, so he repeated the same thing, minus the error at the beginning, in Elvish, figuring that would be a better approach for a forest-dwelling dragon.
This time the dragon reacted, but not in the way Raff would have guessed. She cocked her head to the side, clearly confused, and the half-elf heard in his head, "Humans... Elf... Caledhrad... Aid... My..." He'd had no idea how dragons communicated, but having spent the past fifteen or so years talking telepathically to animals, this didn't startle him. What did bother him was the fact that he seemed to be getting only about half of the conversation.
Unconsciously mirroring Kerethiana's head tilt, Raff tried again, this time trying to simplify. "You- great dragon. Us, Messengers. Clerics. We need help to destroy bad thing. Bad thing is very bad." After saying that he thought, I feel ridiculous.
"Priests... aid... bad? Sap... thing?"
Raff was torn between laughing at the asininity of this exchange and pulling his hair in frustration. "Priests need help. Need to get rid of bad thing-" his ramblings were interrupted by the sound of laughter coming from a different direction than where he'd left his companions. Both the cleric and the dragon looked up to see the wood elf Raff had suspected of following the group approaching. The elf bowed to the dragon and said in Raff's language, "My friends are asking for your assistance, great and wise Kerethiana," before switching over to Wood Elvish to say something else that the cleric was unable to follow.
Now I know how Charity feels when I'm talking to the dog, Raff mused while Caledhrad looked shocked, then thoughtful as the dragon was able to successfully communicate with him. The green-tinted elf and the dragon seemed to exchange a few more pieces of dialog before the half-elf was brought back into the conversation. "Take a look for yourself," the wood elf said, gesturing at Raff.
The cleric had time to think all of Huh? before the brown-hued dragon brought her head down to stare into his eyes, then moved to sniff at his chest, making sounds much like a large dog and dribbling tree sap down his robe in the process, staining the deep red fabric an even darker color. Oh, wonderful. Dragon snot, Raff thought, wrinkling his nose as his mouse scampered out of his chest pocket and back onto his shoulder, chittering in protest. The dragon continued smelling the robe for a moment and Raff heard a distinct "Amber" in his head before she turned her head to look at Caledhrad.
"She says you smell like amber and wants to know why," the wood elf explained.
Raff nodded. "Yes, I got that from her. Thanks, though." He reached into his robe to grab his feather-in-amber holy symbol; after managing to get the necklace tangled in the chain of his other pendant, his hair, and the miffed mouse, he was finally able to remove it. Holding it in his hand, and hoping she didn't decide to eat it, he said to Caledhrad, "Tell her it's the holy symbol of my order. All the Messengers are given one of these."
Once again there was a conversation Raff couldn't take part in before the elf said, "She wants to know by whom?"
Raff was silent for a moment. This was a subject the Messengers were told to keep hushed, but the truth would probably be best and would hopefully keep her from deciding it (or he) was a good snack. Still, he kept his answer short, "By our god, essentially."
The wood elf just nodded and didn't press for more, to Raff's relief, and appeared to pass this information on to the dragon. "She'll help with this item you're talking about; she says she likes your bit of amber and your audacity," he translated.
Just so long as I don't have to give her the amber and she won't eat me for being audacious, that works for me, Raff thought, then told his dog, "Go get whoever has the map and bring them over." He hoped that the dog would be able to suss out who this was; though the dragon seemed friendly enough, he didn't want to turn his back on her.