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 8, Part 10)
The dog returned a few moments later, dragging a reluctant Tomas forward by the hem of his robe. When Kerethiana greeted the man with a sniff to his chest, the reluctance turned to fear as his face went ashen, but he didn't faint as Raff had feared his friend might. When the dragon made no hostile move, Tomas' color returned and he looked over at Raff quizzically. "She likes your amber," the half-elf quietly explained.
Looking down, Tomas seemed to finally take notice of the draconic-caused stickiness now staining his robe and Raff had to chuckle at his grimace of revulsion. "Congrats. You've been slimed, too," the shorter cleric whispered with a grin, hoping that if Tomas was thinking about the disgusting dragon snot, he would forget about being frightened.
When the dragon moved her head back to glance between the two Messengers, Raff caught on to what she wanted before the wood elf could translate. "Tom, pull out the map so we can explain what we need done," the half-elf instructed.
As the younger priest obeyed, his hands not shaking too much as he pulled out the metal scroll case containing the horrible artifact, Raff tried to explain the situation to the wood elf. "If it's possible, we need her to destroy the parchment that's inside the case. Does she have a way to set it on fire or the like?"
Caledhrad exchanged a few words with the dragon, then nodded. Switching to Common so that Tomas would understand, he answered, "Burning tree sap she says with which she can hit it. Fire it would not be, but melt most of the item she believes it would." He listened to another silent comment from the dragon before adding, "And in thick resin she says the remains encased would be."
After figuring out what the elf was saying through the strange sentence structure, Raff and Tomas nodded. Seeing that they agreed, the dragon began walking away- or, rather, began crashing through the underbrush as she headed in the opposite direction. The wood elf explained before the priests could question this action, "Set the woods on fire she does not want to do. An impervious spot she knows of which lead us to she will."
Raff shrugged and he and Tomas, along with Caledhrad, followed the dragon at a slow enough pace so the others could catch up with them. By the time the clerics had finished explaining what was to happen, Kerethiana had come to a stop. Unsure at first why this clearing was any different than the few others they'd passed in their travel through the forest, Raff noticed that the dragon was now partially obscuring a very large tree stump to the north of the clearing. "I suppose she wants you to place the map on that stump," the half-elf commented with a nod of his head in that direction.
Tomas nodded but looked terrified again. Raff was tempted to take the artifact from his hand and spare what obviously frightened his friend, but knew the others would never allow him to touch the map. Tomas took a deep breath to try to calm himself, then began slowly trudging towards the dragon, glancing behind a few times as if to check that the others were still there. Finally arriving at the stump, he removed the map from the scroll case and dropped both on the stump, bowed to the dragon, then quickly scuttled back to the group.
As they watched the dragon push the items into the center of the stump with a long claw, Mina caught movement out of the corner of her eye. "Hold Jonathan back," she whispered urgently. Charity and Caledhrad, the two standing closest to the once-cleric, grabbed hold of the boy's arms as his fidgeting was about to shift to bolting away. Being helpful for once, Mina's small dog grabbed onto the cuff of his pants.
The teenager glared and struggled to break free as the dragon started to spew forth what Raff could now, after having been coated with dragon-slime, only think of as the world's most awful and disgusting snot ball. The burning, honey-colored liquid doused the map, stump and all, leaving an overpowering scent of pine in an already evergreen-scented location.
The watchers were unable to observe this strange sight for long, however, as Jonathan's sudden shriek caught their attention. Raff glanced over to see that the boy was no longer trying to pull away from the woman and elf holding him in place, but had collapsed to the ground and was twitching slightly.
"I should have realized this would happen," Charity said as she knelt next to the boy, "I forgot he was so tied to that blasted map.... er... literally," she added when she realized the word she had used.
Biting her lip, Mina asked "Is he going to be okay?"
Charity shrugged. "I'd imagine he's feeling like something heavy is being dragged out of his head. He'll be fine when he snaps out of the backlash. Probably. Possibly. We can hope, anyway. He can't possibly end up any worse than he was."
When she caught sight of the expressions on the other Messengers' faces, she frowned. "What? I know you guys are thinking that."
Raff was saved from having to answer in the affirmative by the wood elf grabbing his arm and dragging him slightly away from the others. "Allow them to worry about the lad. Kerethiana says that you should get the map now."
The way the elf had said "you" made Raff think that Caledhrad hadn't grabbed him arbitrarily. "Why me? The others wouldn't even let me carry it."
"She says it's now safe to touch. I think her reasoning is that the map is, in essence, now amber, and you are the one she most trusts with such a stone."
Either she really does like me, or she'd just rather see it in the hands of someone not entirely human, Raff thought to himself. He gave a shrug; the reasoning didn't really matter, as long as they were able to break Jonathan free from the map's spell and somehow eliminate the object.
...but there was the flaw in this plan, which Raff saw as he and the elf walked over to where the dragon was using a great claw to carve the fossilized map out of the huge mass of amber that was once a tree stump and the surrounding grass. The large chunk of resin that Kerethiana held reflected magnificently in the sunlight, but a vague shape of what remained of the map and the still-intact metal scroll case could still be discerned inside- which would likely be a problem, as the half-elf now foresaw.
"So the map is harmless while in stasis, but what do we do with it to keep it that way?" Raff asked, frowning as he was hit with that concern.
The wood elf said something to the dragon then shook his head at Raff upon hearing the silent response. "She says that's not her problem now. You have the amber so you're responsible for its safekeeping" Caledhrad looked rather abashed under his green tattoos as he apologized, "I am sorry. If you wouldn't mind my company, I will join the group to help concoct a solution."
A helpful wood elf. Who would have thought such a thing existed? Raff couldn't help but smile as he replied "Of course; I have a feeling we could use all the help we could get. Tell Kerethiana thank you for her help. It may not be exactly the result we were looking for, but it's certainly a vast improvement."
As the two were walking away, a thought occurred to Raff. "I may need you to do me a favor."
"What would you need?"
"Don't let Charity throttle me when she learns that this solution isn't permanent."
Caledhrad snickered. "And I thought priests were supposed to be kind and gentle; perhaps you really should have been rangers."