(And Yes, It’s Supposed To Be Spelt That Way)
Mystical power and pure, unadulterated magic have long since infused our world and those that reside there. All this has been going on since at least the prehistoric. Speaking of which....
Plumes of dark smoke billowed into the air across the broken and battered city as the sickly smell of death wafted on a gentle breeze across the market square, tugging at the canvas of the overturned market stalls scattered haphazardly amongst the raging fires and ruined buildings.
Off to one side stood the giant archway, which for hundreds of years had been regarded as the main thoroughfare to the city. Normally a giant monster of a retractable drawbridge with a thick steel portcullis hung, attached to the weathered archway, providing a reassuring air of safety to all the residents within. Fifteen minutes ago, that illusion had been shattered forever. All that now remained was the splintered outline of a ferocious beast, where it had casually walked through both drawbridge and portcullis, as a knife would slice through butter. Darkened steel had melted in places from the heat that it had radiated, the metal now looking like wax running down the side of a candle. It was odd that the creature had decided to do this; after all, it could have just flown over the walls and landed with ease anywhere it had wanted to. Currently the citizens had far too much on their minds to worry about details like that.
Steam rose from the dark cobbles of the square, the occasional one or two glowing bright orange from the heat. A faint trickle of water could just be heard from a pile of debris that not ten minutes ago had been an ornate fountain. Despite the burning buildings, the casualties and the corpses, those left alive were all mesmerised by the sight before them.
Near what was left of the drawbridge and portcullis, surrounded by piles of smouldering wreckage, hovering a few metres in the air, a gigantic, menacing dragon surveyed all the damage it had previously wreaked. Matt black all over, it seemed content enough with its progress to let snaking lines of flame dribble down both sides of its colossal jaws.
In spite of its size and formidable presence, it was clearly agitated, roaring occasionally, raking its talons along the top of the surrounding rubble and banging its tail into the ground with such force that the shock wave could be felt over a quarter of a mile away, terrifying residents trapped inside quaking houses and shops. The object of the dragon brute's agitation stood on the opposite side of the colossal square: out of breath, clad from head to toe in chainmail armour, clutching a rusty shield in one hand and a rather large, ordinary, dull blade in the other, the knight was sweating profusely. Random parts of his armour were blackened from fleeting encounters with the dragon's flame over the past few minutes. Onlookers couldn't decide if both were either having a rest, or had indeed reached a standoff. It didn't seem possible for that to be the case, but most would have said that for the knight to survive as long as he already had was nothing short of a miracle. Fear and terror gripped most of them, having lived through the nightmare that had come out of nowhere only a short time ago. But macabre as it may have seemed, they desperately wanted to witness the outcome of the most one-sided fight in history, despite knowing that the knight yonder had absolutely no chance at all.
His armour feeling mighty hot in places, the scorched knight seemed to have spent the last few seconds deciding on a course of action and, in one swift motion, dropped his rusty shield and pulled off his helm, tossing it far off to his right, revealing long, straggly, dark locks of hair. As if an almost everyday occurrence, he casually removed his gauntlets and the armour around his feet. Stifling a gasp, the entire crowd were unaware the best was yet to come. Waving his heavy sword around his body with such speed and athleticism that the blade was a constant blur, silently he mouthed a challenge to the, by now, very disappointed scaled monster. Impossible as it may seem, the beast appeared to understand the knight's whispered challenge from over four hundred metres away and with one huge flap of its wings, propelled itself forward, creating such down force that dust, stone, wood and even dead bodies scattered into the air in its wake. At exactly the same time, the knight started sprinting towards the dragon, with most of his armour removed and just his two handed sword for company. City folk collectively held their breath.
Time slowed as the speeding dragon travelled towards the knight, just above the ground, emitting a thunderous cone of fire out in front of it. Everyone was of the same opinion: the knight would be obliterated by the mighty dragon.
As the inevitable drew closer, the sprinting knight, arms and legs pumping, face full of anger and passion, managed to find just a little more speed, and at the split second before hitting the tip of the fiery cone, dived headlong towards the cobbles. Miraculously the knight's extra speed had caused the dragon to miscalculate and as the knight rolled underneath the dragon's exposed belly, he managed with all the dexterity and agility of an Olympic gymnast, to thrust the heavy two-handed sword into the beast with just one hand.
An almighty gurgle reverberated across the square as the flames instantly died away and the dragon thudded awkwardly to the ground, its massive body narrowly missing the exhausted knight. City dwellers covered their ears as the BOOM from the impact shuddered across the city. Massive cracks in the cobblestones rippled out from beneath the beast's body as a low-pitched holler echoed from the depths of its very being. Painfully the knight hauled himself up from the ground, visibly panting as he did so. Slowly, he strode along the side of the dragon as if inspecting it, only stopping when he reached its head. Kneeling, he started to recite the words of an ancient tongue, so that only he could hear.
Meanwhile citizens appeared to be recovering from the shock of the dragon having been defeated, rushing to the aid of the wounded, putting out fires, rescuing animals and comforting those mourning the loss of a loved one.
From out of a darkened alleyway between two of the remaining shops on the far side of the square, a small group of people led by the mayor, headed towards the knight, meandering through the burning rubble, the pillars of thick black smoke and the numerous cadavers. As they approached, the knight finished uttering the mysterious words, words which had caused a soft purple glow to spread from its head to the tip of the tail, finally encompassing its entire body, barely noticeable against the space-like black of the dragon's scales, but it was there.
Ignoring the people heading towards him, the knight walked back to the dragon's belly. Crouching, he put two hands on the hilt of the massive sword, and yanked it free. A dozen tiny scales, about the size of a man's fingernails, clattered onto the cobbles from around the entry wound that the sword had been pulled from. With a sleight of hand any magician would have been proud of, the knight scooped up the scales and poured them into a silk bag that hung from his belt. Sheathing his sword, he turned to face the newcomers.
"Is it dead?" asked the mayor, nervously.
"It is," replied the knight, taking a deep breath.
"How can we ever repay the debt we owe you for what you've done here today? That vile beast would surely have destroyed the entire city and everyone in it, if not for you."
"You have no debt to repay. I'm sorry for the loss of life and damage," the knight replied in a heartfelt manner. "I have companions who, as we speak, are on their way here to assist with what has happened this day, among them healers and engineers. I ask only that they are allowed to help as best they can."
"Of course, of course," mumbled the mayor. "May I ask your name, brave knight?"
"George. You can call me George."
Nodding in unison, the group of dignitaries told George that lookouts would be posted on the walls of the city to greet his companions, before hastily rushing off, frightened by the corpse of the twisted dragon.
Things started to come together over the next couple of days. Major fires were extinguished using water from the city's many surrounding rivers, with people forming giant human chains. Others helped the wounded, of which there were many. In fact barely anyone was left unscathed. Volunteers to help at the hospital, or with the collection of medicines in the form of herbs and roots from the nearby forest, were many. Every man, women and child chipped in. Copious amounts of corpses were collected and placed in huge pyres that had been erected outside the city's walls. Fortunately undamaged, the spire of the magnificent cathedral cast its long shadow over the city square, as if joining in the people's collective sorrow.
Throughout all this, George's companions started to arrive in dribs and drabs, some in small groups, others on their own. They were easily identifiable because they all wore the same tunic as George: white with a bright purple trident running diagonally across them. On arrival, the visitors were all escorted through the bloodstained boulevards to the overcrowded hospital, where George helped tend to the seriously wounded in a dark, dank, death-smelling ward.
Seemingly in charge, the dashing knight dished out assignments to the new arrivals straight away. Healers stayed in and around the hospital, while the planners and politicians worked closely with the mayor and the rest of the city's hierarchy to coordinate the rebuilding effort and temporarily re-house those who had lost their homes.
Meanwhile the engineers appeared to be achieving miracles. Working around the clock, they designed, built and maintained two massive conveyor belts spanning the entire circumference of the square, powered by an array of shire horses and ingenuity. They'd also taken the city's one decaying crane, reinforced it so that it could bear ten times the previous maximum weight, and made it mobile.
Citizens watched, in awe at the efforts of the newcomers. Some whispered in hushed tones that they were doing the impossible and that they must be using some kind of magic. This caught the attention of a few. Most couldn't care less, not with the amazing results that were being achieved. Repairs that should have taken years, looked now like being only a few days away at most.
Throughout all this, the giant, warped body of the matt black dragon lay broken in one corner of the square, eagerly avoided by everyone. Its magnificent wings lay at an excruciating angle, delicate flimsy arms tucked under its bulging belly, all having taken on a shimmering purple hue, not that anyone had looked closely enough to notice.
As the days passed, the progress in repairing the devastation was phenomenal. The crane moved around the square lifting debris onto the conveyor belt. Usable material was taken off at different points of the conveyor, while anything with no value was left until the very end, and then taken off out of the city by horse and cart. It was a little chaotic, but it worked. Planners had drawn up a blueprint of where new buildings should go, agreed it with the mayor and had passed it on to the engineers. It worked like a well oiled machine.
Everyone with a minor injury had been discharged from the hospital. Broken bones, concussions, burns and shock had all been dealt with swiftly, much to everybody's relief. Seven seriously ill patients remained, all but given up on by the doctors and nurses. During triage, these seven had been deemed to have no chance and their blood soaked bodies had been moved to a mouldy, shadow-ridden corner of the building. Each of the seven now owed their existence to the dedication and perseverance of one individual... GEORGE! He'd found them lying there, waiting for death's embrace. The doctors and nurses thought him insane for wasting his time on what they knew to be a lost cause, but he didn't give up on them. It wasn't in his nature, something that should have been obvious from his duel with the dragon. Having found them waiting to die, he'd tended to them personally. Remarkably, and much to the medical staff's amazement, one by one their conditions stabilised. It was just another of the miracles that seemed to be coming thick and fast these days.
Having done all he could at the hospital, George tasked himself with overseeing the rebuilding work, conversing regularly with the planners, politicians and the idiosyncratic engineers. As he moved through the streets from one part of the city to another, people would approach him, men shaking his hand, women kissing him on the cheek, all offering thanks for the seemingly amazing feats he and his colleagues had achieved, much to his ever increasing embarrassment. Everybody in the city remarked what a true and inspiring leader of men he was. If only they knew the truth...
In the early hours of the morning on the seventh day after the battle with the dragon, in the shadows of a partly rebuilt house on the edge of the square, George and his companions found themselves shivering with cold. Teeth chattering ever so slightly, he managed to ask the question.
"How long until everything here is complete?"
"Two full days from now the whole thing will be finished; the city will be as good as new, if not better," explained Hannah, the chief politician.
"What about the chamber?" whispered George. "Will it be ready on time?"
"As far as we know preparations are at an advanced stage, and it should be ready when we get there."
"Have we procured any transport for Troydenn?" George asked, directing the question towards the eclectic group of engineers sitting silently in one darkened corner. From out of the darkness behind them stepped a short, fat, balding man with a great big, thick, grey beard, as wide as it was long,. Although nothing special to look at, this man clearly commanded respect, as well he should, for he was renowned as one of the best engineers that had ever lived. His name was Axus.
Shoving his way through his fellow workers so that he could address George directly, he did his best to answer the question.
"We've asked the mayor if we can have two of the massive freight sleighs that they use in winter to transport goods up the main road and through the pass. I don't think there'll be a problem, given the time of year and with everything we've already done for them. We know how to convert the runners on the sleighs to work effectively on grass, mud and road. Our biggest issue is Troydenn's massive frame. Both sleighs will have to be attached so that they run side by side and must be reinforced dramatically. I don't have what I need here to even begin to solve that problem. I've sent word back with a view to them finding the mantras that we need. Hopefully they'll have a hunt around and come up with something useful. If need be they can always head on over to Gee Tee's Mantra Emporium and see if he has anything that fits the bill."
George let out a long, slow breath that he hadn't realised he'd been holding in. It immediately froze in front of him as the portly engineer continued.
"All seven miles of the route have been checked for any obstacles that may impede the sleighs, and the two miles inside the cave have been reinforced and lit up. Guards have been posted discreetly along the entire length of the journey."
Letting out a sigh of relief, George addressed everyone.
"You've all done an amazing job. You should be really proud of yourselves. Be under no illusion though, the toughest part is yet to come. Continue what you've started here, finish the city to the high and exacting standards that you're used to. Give the citizens something that will stand for centuries, and help negate some of the pain that they're feeling. Given what WE'VE put them through, they deserve nothing less. Don't forget: be constantly on the lookout for anything unusual, no matter how insignificant it may seem, because if they get him back, this will all have been for nothing, and the consequences will be felt across the planet."
What little light there was in the half constructed building showed a solemn looking group of individuals who fully understood the consequences that George had outlined.
"Let me know if there's anything else I can do," George stated.
Without a sound, the assembled group slinked off into the night, careful to stick to the shadows, all making their way back to the lodgings that had so kindly been provided for them.
Axus remained next to the dragon slayer until everyone else had disappeared.
"Is there any word on how or why he's changed colour?"
"Not so far," replied Axus. "The Council are working hard to try and find out though. They believe nothing like this has ever been documented, but are having libraries across the globe scoured for the tiniest of clues. That includes Rome, and the king's private library."
That caught George's attention. The monarch’s own library. As far as he knew, that was off limits to everyone but the king himself. Things must be bad if they'd got that far. But it was time to go. They'd already been out here too long, and George was worried about pushing his luck too much. So with a friendly slap on Axus' shoulder, the two of them slid out into the darkness.
The following day work continued at a frantic pace, with most of the buildings being finished by early afternoon. Intricate pieces of the totally rebuilt fountain, the square's magnificent centrepiece, were crafted expertly together in the glare of the afternoon sun. Signing off on the engineers taking the two freight sleighs, the mayor then, much to everyone's delight, announced that a feast like no other was to be put on that night, in remembrance of all those who had lost their lives, and as a thank you to their guests for the outstanding work they'd done. A muted buzz of excitement zipped its way around the city as preparations got underway.
Not long before sunset, a visitor arrived on a horse, asking for Axus. Guided through the hectic groundwork of the feast, the visitor dismounted on seeing the rotund engineer and handed him three large cylindrical objects from his saddlebags. Moving in to surround their leader, the engineers gathered, keen to see what had arrived. Axus opened the first cylinder, pulling a large sheet of parchment from it and inspecting the mantra for any irregularities as he did so. Hushed whispers ran around the rest of the group. From this point on, the engineers looked more like a gaggle of naughty school girls than the brains of the outfit. They remained huddled together, whispering, sighing and even giggling uncontrollably at times. This continued for the rest of the afternoon and evening, only pausing momentarily when they went to obtain food and drink from the superbly catered feast.
The celebration itself was a great success. Given the tragic circumstances of a week past, the variety and quality of not only the food, but the drink as well, was staggering and a credit to all of the craftsmen and women of the city and its surroundings. As the singing and dancing began against the backdrop of crackling fires and the tantalising aroma of every different kind of roasted meat, bands from all around filled the warm spring night air with an array of diverse sounds. Flutes, lutes, violins, guitars and tambourines played with unheard of enthusiasm. It was magnificent, and a night that no one there would ever forget. Towards the end of the evening, almost midnight in fact, the mayor gave an emotionally charged speech, naming those who had lost their lives in the attack, praising George's courage in confronting the dragon (much to the crowd's delight) and thanking the new arrivals for their part in restoring the city to its former glory. Before finishing he announced to everyone that George's entourage would be taking the dragon corpse with them when they left the next day.
As the sun rose the next morning, the city seemed to be a hive of activity, with the smell of freshly baked bread wafted down the streets and alleys as people cleaned up from the night before, some looking more the worse for wear than others. Stalls, marquees, and the bandstand in the centre of the square were all being dismantled. Some picked up litter, others were washing shop fronts, or the very streets themselves. It was good to see people take pride in the city that they lived in. George, a little fuzzy headed from too many glasses of beer, weaved his way through the streets, eager to see how much progress the engineers had made. Arriving in the main square he was confronted by a group beaming with pride, but looking very much under the weather after the previous night's merrymaking. Axus appeared off to one side of the group.
"Blimey, that wine was potent last night. My mouth feels like a badger’s bottom."
Some of the newer additions to the group of engineers wondered briefly how he knew what a badger’s bottom felt like.
Bedraggled, and with chunks of meat and bread littering his unkempt beard, he continued.
"Still, could have been worse I suppose. Poor old Hopkins spent most of last night whispering sweet nothings to the two sacks of flour over there, even coming over at one point to tell us that he thought one of them might even be marriage material. Haaaa haaaa! I don't think he's going to live that down for quite some time."
Hopkins, having already thrown up at least half a dozen times this morning, skulked even further back into the shadows than he already was.
"Anyhow," continued Axus, throwing a small chunk of cooked meat from his beard into the air, before gobbling it down like a well trained sea lion at a zoo, "onto more important matters. It's done! One of the mantras sent out did the trick nicely. Both sleighs are as one, and look as though they've always been that way. We've been up all night testing them to make sure they're okay. Only a matter of getting him on there now."
A tiny flicker of movement from across the square caught George's eye as he listened intently to what Axus was saying. From between two shops on the far side of the square, a small boy appeared and started skulking towards the lonely dragon corpse. George stood riveted to the spot, having forgotten all about what his friend was saying. None of the city folk would go anywhere near the beast's carcass; most refused to even look at it.
As the boy got closer, he started to pull something from his belt. That was George's cue. As fast as was humanly possible (and maybe even a little faster) George moved to put himself between the boy and the dragon.
"Can I help you?" he asked curiously.
Looking more than a little sheepish, suddenly realising that not only had he attracted the attention of George, but everyone else in the square as well, the boy did his best to answer.
"Well... um, I, er... my name is Sam, Sam Smithers. My dad is Elron Smithers, the city's best known butcher. I um... thought it would be a waste, you know, what with some of the not so well off people in the city not having enough food and all. I thought it would save you the trouble of having to take it away as well."
"Let me get this straight," exclaimed George dubiously, "you were going to skin it!"
"To make sausages," added Sam.
The group of engineers, who had moved closer to back up George if needed, burst into laughter as one. Everyone else looked on in astonishment as Sam's face turned a deep shade of scarlet. George urged the crowd to quieten down.
"Sam, my young friend, you seem full of noble sentiment, which I admire greatly. But unfortunately there is a much bigger picture, which because of your age, you fail to grasp. Perhaps you'd like to take your knife and try and skin the dragon for me? If you succeed you can keep all the meat you like."
With the eyes of the entire crowd on him, Sam pulled a bright, shiny knife with a dull leather handle out from his belt and stepped determinedly towards the dragon. With the knife in his right hand, the muscles in both arms bulging and his left hand braced against the dragon's right thigh for purchase, he drew back his arm and, with all his might, thrust the knife towards the dragon's flesh.
At the first point of contact the knife buckled in on itself, the shock from the impact forcing Sam to drop the crumpled blade onto the cobbles. The clang echoed across the square as the onlookers and Sam all gasped in amazement at what had happened.
George put a comforting arm around Sam's burly shoulders.
"Sorry Sam, that was a bit mean of me, but I thought a demonstration would be more effective than anything I could say. One of the reasons we need to take the carcass away, is that it requires special measures to dispose of a dead dragon."
Sam gawped, open mouthed.
"I... I... I understand," he stuttered.
George smiled at the boy, pushing the lie he'd just told far to the back of his mind.
"But since you seem to have ruined your best knife, you can have mine as a token of how sorry I am that your very worthy idea hasn't come off," said George, slipping a gleaming dagger made from white gold, tiny jewels embedded into the hilt, into the youngster’s outstretched, quivering hands.
Managing to squeak a "Thank you," Sam rapidly slipped back through the crowd in the direction of his father's shop.
With the excitement over, everybody went back to their work with a quiet dignity, knowing they had all contributed to a job well done.
By early afternoon the building work was complete and the city's giant crane perched precariously over the body of the outstretched dragon, like a huge heron waiting to rip into the water to nab an unsuspecting fish. Leather harnesses crisscrossed the dragon's body, meeting in the centre above it to form a gigantic net. Horses that many of George’s companions had arrived on had been tethered together and attached to the front of the double freight sleighs that stood off to one side of the square. Axus was busy co-ordinating the efforts of all of the engineers. Time ticked by slowly as the crane took up the slack in the gigantic net. Creaking and groaning timbers whipped in the wind across the city as the dragon corpse was raised a foot into the air. Collectively, everyone held their breath as they watched from the city's walls, hanging out of windows, perched on balconies, or caught up in the six deep crowds that lined the square. Much like the feast from the previous night, it was something they would never forget. With the dragon suspended in mid-air, the sleighs were guided very slowly into position underneath. Gently, the monstrous beast was lowered onto the makeshift transport, to a resounding round of applause.
Checking the sleighs to make sure they were secure before lining up behind them, the engineers, politicians and planners created two lines in front, to form a convoy facing the south eastern exit of the city. George shook hands with the mayor and took his place at the head of the procession, leading them towards the exit to a fanfare of trumpeters, high up on the city's walls.
A small familiar figure broke ranks from the six deep crowd lining the route and sprinted towards George. Those surrounding him stood ready to act, but it wasn't necessary.
"Sam, my young friend, whatever are you doing?" enquired George as the city watched.
Slipping off a heavy backpack almost as big as he was, Sam offered it out to the gallant knight.
"For the journey," panted the youngster, having run all the way from his father's shop.
George looked at the young man quizzically.
"My dad's best sausages. You'll need something good to eat."
The dragon slayer's smile nearly outshone the sun as he accepted the backpack, passing it back over his shoulder to one of the planners, before ruffling Sam's hair playfully and then offering his thanks. For his part, Sam sprinted back to the edge of the crowd where his father duly waited. Excitement over, the journey continued.
It took an agonisingly long time to reach the gate, but when George finally crossed beneath it, he reflected on all that had happened in such a short space of time. The good folks of the city waved him off believing he'd conjured up some sort of miracle to defeat the murderous dragon. It had been a one-sided fight, that was for sure, but not quite as one-sided as the citizens believed. Truth was far stranger than fiction, and not really ready to be disclosed to the humans that he'd spent so much time with recently. Briefly, he wondered if it would ever be revealed... you see he and his fellow travellers were dragons as well, only they were currently in their mutatio form.
Being a dragon in human form (mutatio) gave George enormous advantages over normal humans. Superior strength, incredible stamina, off the scale intelligence, amazing agility and cat-like reflexes were just some of the many benefits. Those, along with his enhanced metabolism and a much higher tolerance for pain, made him tougher than old boots, very difficult to wound, and almost impossible to kill. That's not to say the battle of over a week ago was a fair fight. It clearly wasn't. A dragon in its natural solitus form is virtually impossible to kill. A normal human being would have no chance of killing a dragon in its natural state as there is only one spot on its entire body where it is vulnerable, and it would take a perfect strike to actually slay it. Even a blow to injure it would be remote, as generally the area of vulnerability is very small.
During the battle, George was able to discern exactly where Troydenn's susceptibility was because no matter what form they're in, dragons can always see another dragon's weak spot, as it's known. George very deliberately thrust his sword into that self same weak spot at an angle, knowing that a killing blow would have been avoided, but at the same time inflicting massive amounts of pain, and incapacitating his enemy for some time to come.
As he pondered all of this, the troop and the giant sleighs ferrying the matt black dragon passed out of the city and into the countryside.
For the next five hours they travelled, before finding a suitable place to stop for the night, just before sunset. Having not journeyed quickly enough to reach the spot they'd hoped to, they had to make do with a clearing near a small brook, off the main route, if you could call it that. As the horses were loosed from the burden of the sleighs and led to the brook to drink their fill, George told everyone what they needed to do.
"We need torches and lots of them. Plant them in the ground to form concentric circles all the way to the edge of the road with Troydenn at the centre. I don't want anyone sneaking up on us. If they're going to come for him, I want to see what we're facing. We will fight them here, and we WILL win. It's too important not to. Get used to this, because at our current speed, we're going to have at least two more nights in the countryside before we reach the cave's entrance."
It didn't take long for George's orders to be carried out. With guards posted all around the clearing, the horses fed and watered and a small fire set up in the middle of the ramshackle camp for cooking, some of the contingent settled down for rest, others to eat, while one or two sat together shooting the breeze. It was eerily quiet with everyone being so on edge.
As George sat off to one side, chomping on the best cooked sausage he’d ever tasted, Axus trudged past the fire to sit down beside him, sausage and bread in one hand, mug of water in the other.
"No bloody wine again," he moaned. "I know, I know. Need to be sharp and on the lookout. What's an old man supposed to do?"
George grinned at those words. He knew more than most just how ridiculous it was for the engineer to refer to himself as an old man. On two occasions he'd had the pleasure of meeting Axus in his natural form, and he was as colossal a dragon as he was an engineer. Just the thought of him being old and toothless made no sense whatsoever.
As they sat eating, Axus gave a nod towards the dragon at the centre of the camp.
"Slightly ironic that you were sent to bring him back I suppose, what with the two of you growing up in the same nursery ring and then being in the King's Guard together."
A very awkward silence fell over the two human shaped dragons against the reassuring sound of the fire crackling, roasted meat sizzling and the odd whispered conversation. Not normally one to worry about holding back for fear of offending someone, Axus started to have serious misgivings about the situation because of the silence that had now stretched into minutes. For his part, George just sat there with a faraway look on his face. After only a few more moments, the city's hero let out a deep breath, the look on his face having turned to relief.
"It was no coincidence that I was sent to confront him and bring him back. The Council knew after what happened in Panama that it had to be me. Not only that, but apparently there are prophecy mantras that predicted that all of this would one day happen, depending on who you believe."
Axus, visibly stunned, sat on the ground shaking his head as George continued.
"What I don't understand Axus, is how anyone is capable of what he's done. As you said, we practically grew up together. I've fought alongside him for decades on the battlefield, letting him watch my back, while I covered his. I would have laid down my life for him in the blink of an eye. Not anymore. Believing he was capable of that level of deception and those atrocities was never really an option for me, until I witnessed firsthand what happened at Panama. It had to be me that confronted him and returned him to the others. I never really believed it before, but I know it now."
The noise in the camp had died down, with only the sound of the surrounding torches and the dying embers from the fire for company. After finishing their meagre meal quietly, George piped up with a question, moving all thoughts of the past, very much onto the future.
"Can I ask about the area in Antarctica?"
Axus, clearly happier talking about something engineering related replied,
"What would you like to know?"
"I know it's a containment area only to be used as a last resort, but that's all I really do know. If there's a chance we might have to go down that road, I'd really like to learn all about it."
Axus stroked his dishevelled beard as he composed his response.
"About fifty years ago, some of our top geologists were in southern Chile, scouting out new laminium deposits. They were looking at two volcanoes in particular, Monte Burney and the more southerly Fueguino. Although successful in finding the new deposits they were looking for, the state of the art equipment that they carried with them kept on giving off very strange readings. Instead of putting it down as a fault with the instruments as most would have done, the expedition decided to investigate and made a startling discovery. Running from southern Chile out towards the Falkland Islands, was a large underground channel. About half a mile wide, running approximately two miles under the ocean's surface, just before it reached the Falkland Islands, the channel divided, with one branch leading to a secluded surface entrance on the Islands themselves, while the other twisted sharply heading directly towards Antarctica. Staggered at the sheer size of the thing, the geologists had never seen anything remotely like it. Most bewildering of all to these highly skilled individuals was the fact that they couldn't tell whether or not the phenomenon was naturally occurring. Intrigued, the group followed the channel south and eventually came up against a problem they were not equipped, or prepared, to deal with."
"Of course," said George quick-wittedly, "the temperature."
Axus grinned wildly.
"That's right. And with low temperatures having such a detrimental effect on us dragons, sapping our strength, energy and stamina, as well as clouding our judgement and minds, wisely the group stopped before the temperature plummeted too low. At that point, they decided to set up camp, while two of them returned to collect specialist protective mantras. After discussions with all the leading experts (and more than one visit to Gee Tee's Mantra Emporium) appropriate mantras were found and were deemed most effective in human (mutatio) form. Once everything they needed was procured and the Council informed, the geologists set off into the channel in the direction of Antarctica, continuing for many days and nights, only able to survive because they were in human form, protected from the cold that would almost certainly have cost their lives, solely by the magical aura of the specialist mantras they had returned to get.
As the collective trudged on, temperatures plummeted even further and the channel became more precarious. Two of the team succumbed to frostbite in their feet and had to turn back, escorted by one of their healthy colleagues to make sure they returned safely. By now, things were looking really bleak, but their curiosity pushed them ever forward, determined to find out as much as they could about the phenomenon. Sitting around a makeshift fire, wolfing down the last of their provisions, they concluded that they could only travel for another day or so before having to turn back. Setting off early in what their body clocks told them was morning, quite quickly, the floor of the channel started to descend steeply into the darkness. Weaving their way around giant stalagmites growing up out of the floor and ducking down at times to avoid even bigger stalactites hanging from the ceiling, to the few remaining dragons left the entire route looked like gigantic jaws about to swallow them whole. At the point of no return, with defeat looming over them, the path ahead opened out into a vast cavern, like nothing any of them had ever seen before. This was as far as they got on that first expedition."
George let out a long breath that crystallised in what had become very chilly air, as he contemplated everything Axus had said.
"Any tales that have something to do with cold always send shivers down my tail, no matter what form I'm in."
"Aye," chuckled Axus, "but that's not the end of it. After that startling discovery, more expeditions, better equipped, were sent to explore and document the place. Six missions over a fifteen year period finally revealed all. The cavern that the original geologists came to the entrance of below Antarctica is believed to be the biggest of its kind on the planet. In excess of five hundred square miles, it has a depth in places of over two miles. Unusually it has half a dozen underground fresh water streams running through it, the source of which has yet to be determined. Another odd fact is that there is no geothermal activity whatsoever, with not a single trace of any known mineral deposit anywhere in or around the entire cavern system. Ideal for the purpose the Council has in mind, the channel appears to be the only entrance and the temperature never gets above -10°C."
Running his chapped hands through his long, matted, dark hair, George considered everything his friend had told him.
"It just feels so permanent, Axus. I understand the need to punish Troydenn and his followers for what they've done. I do. I really do. But I also hope it doesn't come to that and that the Council can find a more...” (he nearly said humane... that would have been ironic) “...suitable solution."
"Aye, I know what you mean son, but these are undoubtedly the darkest times we've ever faced as a race. Even all that trouble that went on in South America, pre Balfor, pales in comparison. None of this sits very comfortably with me George, but I trust in the wisdom of the Council, and so should you. Once they've made their decision, whatever that may be, we can be confident that the hard work of so many has left us well prepared. Should it be needed, the cavern is stocked with everything required to survive well into the future. It won't be easy, but it will be achievable. Starting at the exit of the cavern, going ten miles back into the channel at quarter mile intervals, the individual shaped charges have been laid and have been carefully tested so that they only bring the roof of the channel down and do not disturb the ocean above. If it's decided that Troydenn and his followers should be incarcerated then they will be, well and truly, in that cavern."
"I appreciate you filling me in on some of the details," George whispered to Axus. "Let's trust in the Council's judgement and wait to see what they decide."
With that the two parted company, George slipping off to guard duty, while his engineering friend headed for some well needed sleep.
As the bright morning sun cut through the early morning mist of the camp, those sleeping were woken, bread and cheese passed out, horses watered and fed, ready for the next stage of their unusual journey.
The next two days proved uneventful. Many people were passed as they made their way along the prescribed route, all shocked to come across the corpse of the massive ferocious dragon being dragged along by the giant sleighs. On occasion, sly hand signals or the briefest of telepathic touches were exchanged with passersby, those who were more than they seemed, anyway. All the cloak and dagger business showed that the way ahead was clear, something of a relief to those in the convoy.
In the middle of the afternoon on the third day, the convoy left the poor excuse for a muddy main road at the point where a purple trident had been inconspicuously painted onto a large boulder, and headed across an open field in the exact direction in which the trident pointed. Once through the field, they came to a coppice and noted the same trident carved into a tree, and adjusted their heading accordingly. This continued for four more hours, until they came over a rise and into a beautiful meadow full of tall green swaying grass, punctuated with gorgeous wild flowers. A large rocky outcrop could just be seen in the distance.
As the troop entered the meadow, hundreds of warriors and archers silently appeared from atop the outcrop and within the surrounding grass. Bows and swords appeared from nowhere in the hands of George's companions as they formed a defensive perimeter around the captured dragon. Those without weapons readied their magic. A tense silence enveloped the entire meadow; the only movement was that of the long grass rippling in the wind. George stood up from his kneeling position in front of Troydenn and sheathed his trusty sword. As he did so, a loud horn echoed across the surrounding countryside. One of the foremost warriors stepped forward from the long grass, stowed his sword and clasped George's proffered hand. Greetings were exchanged, magic dispelled and weapons lowered. Warriors in front of the convoy parted swiftly, forming a huge path straight to the rocky outcrop. At a snail’s pace, the convoy crawled along the corridor that had been laid out for them, the soldiers in the meadow closing in behind them, forming a giant impenetrable ring.
As everyone gathered at the cave's entrance, the exhausted horses were untethered and led off into the meadow to graze. Meanwhile ropes appeared from the well-illuminated cave entrance and were threaded through a series of pulleys on either side of the sleighs.
After Axus was satisfied, the warriors in the meadow picked up the slack on the ropes in two lines as a large horn echoed deep within the cave. Slowly the rope in and around the pulleys began to go taut, pulling the sleighs and their giant burden forward through the cave's entrance and into the massive interior. All this happened at a funereal pace, with the daylight from outside gradually fading, being replaced by dull yellow lights from stony protrusions both on the cave's floor and in the surrounding walls that carried on down the winding slope, as far as the eye could see. Occasionally a hairpin bend would have to be negotiated, which meant that distance became measured more in inches, rather than miles per hour.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually just over eighteen hours, the weary travellers reached their destination. Opening out into a colossal grotto, filled with dragons in both their natural and human forms, the same light producing protrusions lined the walls and the floor, fading up above, the ceiling some way off in the distance, shrouded in darkness. Far from being damp and cold, the chamber was filled with toasty warm air that tickled and prodded, washed and wavered, all the time carried on a subtle breeze. Brilliant red lava oozed down mineral laden walls sporadically throughout, in complete contrast to the countryside through which the convoy had travelled.
Shuffling feet could be heard in the dimly lit arena as the beings let the sleighs through. Those who had accompanied the sleighs drifted off to join the already gathered crowd, with the exception of George who stayed where he was. Little shapes scurried out of the shadows, surrounding and inspecting the sleighs purposefully.
After much whispering, George was asked to step back, which he duly did, while others surrounded the prehistoric arrival, chanting in hushed tones. Starting low, it didn't take long to reach a crescendo of raised voices, all in unison. Abruptly there was an almighty BANG, startling all of those not paying attention.
In the subsequent near silence, it would appear that instead of a scene of utter devastation and carnage which they nearly all expected, all that had happened was that the double sleigh on which Troydenn had been resting completely disappeared, leaving him lying on the cold stone floor.
Unexpectedly, huge stone doors swung in on themselves right in front of George and the captured dragon. Through them walked a tall, lean man leading twenty four other men. I say “men”... they were of course dragons in their human guises. As one, the crowd started to kneel and bow their heads, realising it was the king and his councillors.
In his mutatio form, the king looked nothing short of magnificent. Standing seven feet tall with long golden hair flowing down past his shoulders, rippling muscles threatening to burst through his clothing, which was all white with a bright purple trident running across the tunic. Most stunning of all though was the real trident the king carried by his side. It was as tall as he was and appeared to be made of a bright purple metal that seemed to be constantly moving within the form of the trident. An eye-catching ring that seemed to be visible one moment and then gone the next, constantly phasing in and out of existence, decorated the king's left hand.
Abruptly the monarch thumped the trident's base onto the stone floor, the resulting sound hurting everyone's ears.
"Be upstanding," he declared. "You should know why we are all here. Let the proceedings begin."
One of the councillors strode over to Troydenn, pulled some parchment from beneath his robes, and began reciting the words from it. The purple glow on the dragon's body receded. Finishing the mantra and slipping the parchment back in his robes, the councillor addressed Troydenn for everyone to hear.
"Will you voluntarily turn back into human form for this trial?"
Gradually the dragon's mighty skull moved slightly from side to side, dragging its massive chin along the cold stone floor, while dribbles of flame squirted contemptibly from each nostril.
"I'll take that as a 'no' shall I?" fumed the councillor, stepping aside to let the king through. On noticing the king, a little quiver of fear ran through the defiant dragon.
Face contorted with rage, the king addressed the rogue dragon.
"Since you won't change of your own free will, I will force the change upon you, which unfortunately for you will be most unpleasant... something I'd hoped to avoid."
Shimmering beams of brilliant blue energy lanced out from the tip of the trident as the king levelled it at Troydenn. Just as the first beam connected, the helpless dragon let out a YELP, much like a frightened dog. Onlookers in the shadows could barely watch something that hadn't happened in over three hundred years. History was quite literally unfolding before their very eyes. As the separate beams hit Troydenn's body, they formed straight lines all along it from head to toe, encircling the circumference of his belly. All the while he remained motionless, determined, resolute, apart from his eyes which flickered from side to side, betraying the fear coursing through him.
By now the lines of energy had started to crisscross each other, giving the impression of an all encompassing giant net. Without warning, Troydenn panicked and, mustering all his remaining strength, tried desperately to get to his feet, clearly sensing what was to come. Crackling ferociously, the shimmering net of blue energy surrounding him began to shrink, causing the captive dragon to let out a blood-curdling wail.
As the contracting lines of energy sparked, crackled and smoked, and Troydenn's pain echoed around the underground space, it became much harder to determine what was happening inside the energy net. Certainly a change of some sort was occurring because the area the net covered had diminished to about a third of its original size, and the howling and screaming coming from within now sounded much less like an animal, and much more like a human.
After a few more seconds, the transformation was complete. Lying slumped on the chilly stone floor, gasping for breath, a stocky, bald-headed man with a brown goatee beard and strange black tattoos on his cheeks and neck looked up menacingly at the audience before him.
A low murmur of disbelief rippled through the crowd. Unsteadily, the fully naked man before them got to his feet, taking in his surroundings as though he'd been asleep for many years. Gazing over the king's left shoulder, his eyes locked onto a pale blue pair he knew very well. George!
"Traitor!" he screamed, lunging towards his former brother-in-arms with a crazed look on his face, only to be stopped inches away by hulking great guards who had appeared as if from nowhere. Troydenn spat in George's face, all the time wriggling and kicking in an attempt to break free from the guard's vice-like grip.
Wiping his face with the back of his hand, George desperately tried to maintain an illusion of calm and serenity, even though every muscle in his body screamed at him to fight. With Troydenn’s feet dragging along the ground, the guards hauled him back to the spot in front of the king that he had previously occupied. This time a red beam of energy shot out of the trident at the king's command, hitting the imprisoned dragon in the right foot before curling upwards and around his entire body, finally stopping at the top of his head, forcing him to stand bolt upright.
"ENOUGH!" roared the king. "You will stand and listen to the charges brought against you and your supporters.”
From the darkness above the stone doors a balcony suddenly appeared, illuminated by an eerie green light. Dressed in scarlet robes, lined with purple piping and a matching hood over her head, the magistrate slinked into view, gavel in hand. Smacking it onto the stone balustrade in front of her, causing a distinctive THUD to resound around the cavern, she commanded everyone's attention.
"Troydenn, formerly of the High Council's Royal Guard, you are hereby charged with one of our race's gravest crimes. Your followers have already admitted that they murdered, maimed, kidnapped, stole, threatened and embezzled, all on your orders, all in your name. The one thing that is sacred to us as dragons, taught to us throughout our formative years in the nursery rings, is that we as a society are here to protect and guide the human race at all times because of their potential, and because of THAT prophecy. Throughout dragonkind’s history, nearly all dragons have strived to obey this underlying principle laid down in our law.
I declare that you, Troydenn, are not only guilty of the crimes previously mentioned, but of the most heinous crime our civilisation recognises... manipulation of the human race for your own selfish purposes. Since nothing on this scale has happened in over fifteen hundred years, the punishment will be decided by the king and his Council," she announced, clutching her gavel tightly.
As the magistrate stood up, the eerie green light illuminating her faded away, making her indistinguishable from the stone walls behind. Simultaneously, the same green light appeared around the king and Troydenn.
With his long golden locks, backlit by the light, the noble features of the king's face turned from quiet contemplation to steely determination as he prepared to speak.
"Over the last two days the Council and I have discussed the sentence that should be imposed on you, Troydenn. I can honestly say that this has been the hardest thing I've had to do throughout my entire reign. I believe the outcome was reached in a fair and unbiased manner, considering all the relevant options and circumstances along the way, although it should be noted that the decision was not unanimous, but reached by a majority of twenty four to one. The Council hereby decrees that, YOU, Troydenn, and all of your conspirators currently in custody, will be transferred forthwith to our secure, remote detention facility, where you will remain for the rest of your natural lives."
A combined GASP from those looking on echoed around the chamber. A few feet behind the king, George stood rooted to the spot, absolutely shell-shocked. Not for a moment had he believed the sentence would be so harsh, despite his earlier conversation with Axus.
Throughout the proceedings Troydenn remained totally impassive with his jaw jutting out, his piercing eyes not moving from the king.
"Because of the natural constrictions of the detainment facility, you will all be extremely limited in using your magical powers. Provisions and equipment will be on hand to prevent any unwanted fatalities; however you will have to work hard and constantly manage the limited resources available to you, to ensure your continued existence. Life will be very difficult for all of you. If you have anything meaningful to say Troydenn, any words of regret or apologies you'd like to offer up, now is your chance to do so.”
Instantaneously the red coil of energy holding the guilty dragon in place faded to nothing. Troydenn held his finely honed arms high above his head and turned three hundred and sixty degrees, addressing everyone in the cavern as the green light cast an ominous shadow over his malevolent face. Snarling like a rabid dog, he spat,
"We will break free from whatever prison you confine us in, and when we do, we will destroy your precious dragon domain and visit a terror like none other on all your little human pets. Whether it takes ten years or five hundred, we WILL find a way."
Having heard enough, the king, in one lightning fast swipe, knocked the over-confident dragon firmly to the ground with the end of his trident. Blood poured from his mouth and nose as the urge to get up and strike back overwhelmed the dark dragon. But it was too late. Six guards appeared out of the shadows, completely surrounding him. It was then that he knew any chance he might have had was long since gone.
"Sentence has been passed," announced the king. "Secure him for his flight with the rest of them."
The guards duly hauled Troydenn off into the darkness by his arms, the sound of his bare feet dragging along the ground gradually fading into nothingness.
A booming THUD reverberated around the chamber as the magistrate smashed her gavel once more against the stone balustrade in the darkness, high above them all, and declared,
"This tribunal has ended."
Dragons in various guises shuffled out via several concealed exits. George remained with a heavy heart, on his own in the darkness, tears streaming down his face. He struggled to understand why. Of course he understood that the crimes committed by his former comrade in arms and friend were amongst the most serious his kind had ever seen, and on a purely intellectual level he understood that the punishment was probably the best thing for dragons, humans and the whole planet in general. But somehow he couldn't help thinking that this was a sad day in dragon history, and something that could possibly have been avoided if he and others had acted sooner, to stop Troydenn's actions before they'd got so far out of hand. As he wiped away a few of the tears with the edge of his shirt sleeve, he couldn't help think that today's events might have repercussions well into the future.
Suddenly a well muscled arm appeared around George's shoulder. Instinct and training taking over, he became immediately alert and ready to fight. Dropping, he pulled away, turned and squared up to... the king.
"I'm, I'm, I'm sorry Your Majesty," he stuttered, caught entirely by surprise.
"George, less of the ‘Majesty’ please."
"Sorry," replied the forlorn knight, wiping his tear stained face on his sweat covered tunic.
"Listen, son, I know you have reservations about what's happened here, and you wouldn't be half the dragon I know you to be if you didn't. It's understandable, it really is. I also know what a wonderful job you did in bringing him in, keeping the carnage and loss of life to a minimum, and in repairing that wonderful old city. You are a credit not only to that uniform, but to the entire dragon race. It's no surprise that what's happened is affecting you so badly. It's nothing to be ashamed of. But try and think about the bigger picture. The pain will ease over time, and gradually fade altogether, but it might take a while.
You're a good dragon George, one of the best in fact. One day you will make it onto the Council and I think you'll go on to make a great king, mark my words. But tell anyone I said that and I'll have to have your tongue cut out, as I'm supposed to be entirely neutral in these matters," said the king, winking and smirking at the same time.
Finally breaking into a smile for the first time in days, George replied,
"Thank you Majesty," with the emphasis very much on the ‘Majesty’.
Smiling back, the king said,
"That's more like it," before breaking into a great big belly laugh.
Over as quickly as it had begun, the light-hearted moment and the bond of friendship between the two immediately became concealed as one of the councillors approached.
"The flight has gathered with all the prisoners, Majesty, and is ready to take off on your command. A tracking station has been set up in the magistrate’s main office so that we can all monitor their progress."
"Thank you for letting us know, Osvaldo. Give the order. George and I will be there shortly," replied the king.
The councillor nodded and disappeared back into the shadows, but not before giving George a disapproving look.
"Hmmm..." whispered the king. "There's something about that dragon that's always bothered me, but I just can't seem to put my finger on what it is. He's always worked tirelessly for those he's responsible for, helped others, been a model councillor in fact. But just recently, the way he's acted and some of the things he's said have been really out of character. You're not to mention this to anyone else, but Osvaldo Rosebloom was the one councillor that opposed Troydenn's sentence."
George tried to take in the importance of what the king had just told him, but there was no time.
"We'd better get moving youngster," whispered the king.
Fleet of foot, the two of them headed off in the same direction as Osvaldo, the king leading, in near total darkness, through a maze of narrow corridors. After a minute or so, the monarch stopped abruptly. Running his hands along one wall, high above his head, George could just make out the tiniest of 'clicks', before the wall parted in front of them to reveal a bustling, brightly lit control room. As they stepped forward, the young knight told himself that he had to get a secret entrance like that of his own.
At least the size of two tennis courts put side by side, the square office was gigantic. Huge long counters that acted as desks for the dragons in their human form ran the entire length of every wall. Taut, white, stretched canvases covered every inch of the walls above the desks. Dozens of dragons darted about, most either holding clip boards, strangely shaped tools, bunches of different coloured wiring, or an array of different dragon snacks. In the middle of them all, Axus stalked about, adjusting, double checking, and generally moving things along, his muted, gruff tones gave some idea of the stress he was under. Many dragons sat at the lengthy desks along each wall, only one per wall though, wore a shiny, copper coloured helmet with a dizzying array of multicoloured wires coming out of it. Wires ran in a big bunch, down the back of the chairs, along the floor and then up to an odd looking machine in the centre of each desk, lights flashed, parts whirred, while all the time a faint tap-tapping could be heard. It was unlike anything George had ever seen. All connected together by an even bigger bunch of wires thicker than a weightlifter's arm, 'advanced' didn't begin to cover the machines. George wondered if he was getting a small glimpse into the future. If only he knew.
In the centre of the room, two dozen leather clad stools had been scattered about for the councillors to sit on. Most chose to stand.
Axus, shaking his head and tutting, made his way across the room to the gathered councillors and the king. George listened off to one side.
"We have four dragons flying separately from the rest of the convoy, Majesty. They will transmit the images they are seeing directly to their opposite number in this room. Those telepathic images will be passed through the wires in the receiver's helmet, and then projected onto the canvas on the walls. We should have nearly real-time images from four different viewpoints, one on each wall."
Glancing around the room, George tried to get his head around what Axus had just said. The flying dragons would travel with the guards carrying the prisoners to the detention facility, but their job would be to transmit telepathically the images that they were seeing so that everyone here could make sure the rogue dragons were successfully incarcerated. Every dragon had telepathic abilities, but George figured these four were probably handpicked for the job given the importance of this mission, maybe from the pool of dragons that worked for the Daily Telepath itself.
The Daily Telepath was known to every dragon outside the nursery rings (because those still studying there were deemed too immature to receive it) as a daily news bulletin transmitted telepathically throughout the world. Remote or cold places might be the only exceptions. Reporters collated the news before it was then edited into a telepathic version of a broadsheet. Those that worked at the Daily Telepath were generally accepted as being exceptional in their chosen field of study, particularly if the field was telepathy. The Daily Telepath's offices were situated in the dragon domain, ironically directly beneath the Daily Telegraph's offices in Fleet Street, London. Dragons in their human guises worked for both, making sure news items from the dragon and human world were available to the editor of the telepathic news bulletin.
Once edited, the bulletin was broadcast at precisely five fifty eight am GMT daily, via humongous thought-amplifying transmitters located in the basement of the offices. On leaving Fleet Street, the information would flow freely throughout the underground world of the dragons, using massive crystal boosters on a local level, each individual one powered by geothermal energy. After it had been made available on that day, it was then stored in much smaller crystals throughout the land, so that those who had missed the original transmission through either sleep or work, could catch up. A typical Daily Telepath bulletin consisted of the main news story (either dragon or human, occasionally the same story but from the two different points of view) usually with a bold headline. Global weather warnings played a part... typhoons, blizzards, tidal waves, that kind of thing. Sport was also on the agenda. Not human sport of course... what dragon on the planet would want to know about that? None of course. No, we're talking about dragon sport, and in particular... LAMINIUM BALL! There also featured a letters section where dragons could air their feelings, as well as an obituary column where dragon death notices were placed. This was one of the most important functions of the bulletin as dragons rarely die, but when they do their kin, and of course their friends and colleagues, travel far and wide for the normally extravagant funeral proceedings. Coverage of the Council's activity normally featured high on the list of what the dragon in the street wanted to know, while the king himself normally took something of a back seat unless there was a special occasion of some sort.
It seemed to work quite well for the most part, with dragons often being overheard in both their human and natural form discussing the day's events from the bulletin. Recently the Telepath had been experimenting with images and had tried incorporating them, with varying degrees of success. These experiments had taken the form of black and white pictures, but by the time the bulletin had reached the readers, information drop out had caused the pictures to become blurred and unrecognisable. They hadn't given up though, with dragons right at this very moment working on how best to incorporate pictures so that regular readers could get a glimpse of their favourite laminium ball players scoring, winning that vital point. The future was not that far off.
George's mind, having wandered off, was brought back to the room by hearing Axus finish off telling the king about the projection system.
"So you see Majesty, this was the only way to use the boosters in that area and keep the transmission secure. We certainly don't want every dragon in the world viewing the captives on their way to Antarctica, do we?"
"Not with some of Troydenn's followers still unaccounted for, no we don't," replied the king gravely.
Axus clapped his hands to get everyone's attention.
"Could you all move to the centre of the room please, as that's where you'll get the best view of all four projections."
Turning to one of his subordinates, Axus ordered,
"Dim the lights and start the projectors please."
Everyone gathered in the centre, most still choosing to stand. Osvaldo, though, was conspicuous by his absence. Abruptly the room plunged into darkness, before the walls came alive with moving images that took George a little while to process.
On the main wall, the one he thought of as 'in front', was an image from the middle of the pack, showing dragons left, right, above and below, all flapping their gigantic wings, propelling themselves along. It was just possible to make out the tightly fitting harnesses they all had strapped on, each able to transport one, two or three sedated dragons in human guise. Nearly all of the visible prehistoric beasts carried three unwilling prisoners.
On the left wall the view was clearly from a dragon flying at the back of the pack, high up on the right hand side. It showed all of the dragons and their cargo from above, moving at break-neck speeds through a large open cavern.
On the right wall the view was from a dragon skimming along the surface, underneath the left side of the flight. As this particular winged behemoth looked up, he could see giant underbellies with prisoners strapped to them, bones and muscles in the dragons' wings working furiously to keep them aloft, speeding them along at nearly five hundred miles an hour.
Behind, the scene showed the convoy from quite some distance back. The dragon projecting this image must have been trailing the group by about a mile and a half, with the group only really showing up as small dots, ones which appeared in corresponding shades and positions to those in the convoy. The carried captives weren't visible at this range.
Those gathered in the control room all seemed to have a different idea about which was the best projection to view the proceedings from, the majority watched the main wall, with a few looking at the side views, while even fewer flicked between the different images, just like George. Currently the limited light in the cavern made the convoy look like stars in a dusky night sky.
Progress was slow, but dragons were renowned for their patience and understanding. Even so, the events unfolding today were testing this, almost to breaking point. Everyone watching knew that this was only the start of the epic journey. The convoy's underground route involved flying south west from Europe, towards Africa's eastern coast. Once there, the dragons would head south under the coast until they reached the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown. Turning south west again, they would then fly beneath the south Atlantic for about three thousand miles, before arriving under the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Following the coast of Uruguay, they would head towards Buenos Aires in Argentina, then turn directly south towards the Falkland Islands before joining the huge trench there, following it all the way to the containment facility. In all the entire journey was over eleven thousand miles and would take about twenty two hours in total.
"So far the convoy has flown under the Mediterranean and along the coast of Morocco," piped up Axus, tearing away the silence of the last few minutes. "They have just passed beneath Casablanca and shortly you will see from the projections, increased magma activity as the group skirt around the newly reopened geothermal power plant in the Canary Islands."
From his preferred view, the long distance one, George could see that the bottom of the cutting now being traversed by the party was growing increasingly bright. Giant slivers of molten lava weaved along the floor and lower part of the walls, making it look as though a massive spider had spun a mammoth fluorescent web.
Like all dragons, George knew everything there was to know about geothermal power; he had after all spent months studying it in the nursery rings. Subterranean dragon cities were all heated using geothermal power, and had been for many centuries. Vast underground areas had also been specifically heated to exacting temperatures, so that a diverse range of crops could be grown all across the world, acting as giant greenhouses. Although all of this was amazingly clever, advanced and interesting, most dragons' favourite part of the geothermal process was the HOT SPRINGS...
Just thinking about hot springs made George's tail twitch in delight, despite the fact that he was currently in his human form, a tail of course nowhere to be seen. That didn't stop the twitching though. Whatever form he was in, George remained convinced that a dragon's tail was like its soul, always there. So much so, that sometimes he even had to look behind him to check that he wasn't dragging it along the ground when he was disguised as a human. This thought, it must be said, was totally private and not something he would ever want other dragons knowing, for fear of ridicule.
'Hot springs,' he thought, 'are just pleasure personified, that, and chewing your way through a whole block of charcoal... totally the best dragony things to do on the whole planet.'
If there's one other thing that dragons like, it's gossip. They can often be found sharing the latest rumours and shooting the breeze about pretty much everything. Talk about the next big project was commonplace amongst groups such as the engineers. George had overheard some of them back in the city above ground speculating on rumours of a planet-wide transport system being built, harnessing geothermal power.
'Pure fantasy of course,' he thought. 'Just like the idea of different flavoured charcoal and that absurd rumour about each city getting its own automated dragon wash. Utter madness!!!'
With others in the room starting to get a little bored because of pretty much the same views on all the walls, George returned to his thoughts about geothermal power. It was widely hoped within the dragon community that with the right guidance and a gentle nudge or two, humans in the coming decades and centuries, as they develop, will become more advanced technologically and take up the mantle of geothermal power because of its abundance and pollution-free properties. Most dragons hark back to the Roman times and point out that the Romans themselves were subtly nudged in the same direction and achieved great success, especially at Pompeii, that is until the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
One of the regular updates, once again interrupted George's wandering mind.
"They've nearly reached Freetown and will soon be changing to a south westerly heading," muttered Axus, with distinctly less enthusiasm than an hour earlier.
Over the course of the rest of the day, the prisoners and guards followed the planned route exactly and made relatively good time. Axus continued with the regular updates, with many in the room paying more attention than others; some closed their eyes and meditated, while others, chiefly Osvaldo, left for short periods, before returning later.
Once the convoy entered the trench at the Falkland Islands, the tension in the room ratcheted up another level or two. Some paced and held whispered conversations, dragon bottoms shifted on stools, betraying the nervousness they all felt. Even Axus was more agitated than George had ever seen him, something he would have thought impossible only a few hours ago. Not able to stand still for more than two seconds at a time, constantly berating the technicians for the smallest of things, and flitting in and out of the room like a headless chicken, the famed engineer was the total opposite to the cool, calm pool of radiance that was the king. The monarch seemed totally unaffected by the tension and pressure, standing next to the stools in the middle of the room, looking like he didn't have a care in the world: the calm centre of a hurricane raging all around him.
"Majesty," called Axus over the hustle and bustle of the control room, "the group are about five hundred miles out from the entrance and should arrive in approximately one hour."
The king gave the engineer a nod of understanding. Axus continued.
"The facility is fully provisioned for the prisoners; it should just be a matter of the guards releasing them from their harnesses, and then using the mantras they're equipped with to bring them round. There should be a short crossover period after the mantras have been used, between the fugitives waking, and being fully conscious and aware. During that time the guards will be able to make their getaway and blow the shaped charges beyond the entrance of the tunnel, sealing it with thousands of tonnes of rock and ice for all time.
George knew that the whole sorry episode was nearly at an end now, but as he glanced around the room at the different projections, he couldn't help but pity those dragons being carried to their internment, to live out the remainder of their days in that horrifying environment, so totally alien to any and all dragons. Even worse, to know that you would end up dying there as well, with absolutely no chance of ever successfully mating or reproducing at all. A wave of sorrow washed over him and once again he thought of Troydenn and wondered exactly how things had gone so horribly wrong.
Everybody's focus was with the here and now, given that the group were on their approach to what was effectively their jail for the rest of their natural lives. As minutes passed, the images on the walls started to deteriorate... becoming blurred, or cutting out altogether. Unbelievably, Axus became even more frantic, something that had to be seen to be believed.
"What seems to be the problem Axus?" asked the king, calmly.
"It's the telepathic booster Majesty. We've increased the power output to beyond maximum, but the range is just too great. It might be that the cold is having an effect as well. I'm afraid the images will continue to break down. There's nothing more that can be done."
"How long before the convoy reaches the cavern?" enquired the king.
Striding over to a great map on the desk at the very front of the room, Axus began to study it carefully, just as the projections on the walls began to flicker more frequently. Turning from the king, the touch of a grin beamed past his scraggy beard.
"They're only a few minutes from the entrance, Majesty," he sighed, sounding relieved.
As the king nodded, everyone went back to work, focusing their efforts on getting everything they could from the projections.
Although George could see the left and right side projections out of the corner of his eyes, his concentration remained on the back wall and the view from the dragon flying far behind. It seemed there was less interference with this projection, maybe because it wasn't quite as far up the trench as the others. As far as he was concerned, it was also easier to make out exactly what was going on.
All of a sudden Axus pointed at the front projection and excitedly cried,
"There it is, the entrance to the cavern!"
Everyone in the room, even George, turned to face the projection on the front wall. Through the distortion and interference they could just make out the gaping entrance to the containment facility, backlit by the artificial lights that Axus and the other engineers had installed for the prisoners' benefit.
At that exact moment... ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE!!!!!
It was difficult to tell where, or how, it all started because of the poor quality of the images, but one thing was for sure... the supposedly sedated prisoners were all transforming from their human guises back into their natural dragon forms. Everybody in the room looked slack-jawed and stunned at this shocking revelation, everybody but the king, and Osvaldo Rosebloom.
Some of the prisoners had broken free of their restraints and had changed back into dragons while dropping towards the ground at perilous speeds. Heading towards the ground as tiny black dots on the projections, arms waving precariously on either side, they dropped like a stone, only to blur and transform before hitting the bottom, swooping back up as a dragon, fully ready to join the fight against their captors. Other were changing while still attached to the guards that were carrying them, some bursting free, taking their subjugators by surprise, others spiralling out of control towards the ground, their new found bulk too much to maintain steady flight. Mundane had turned to chaos in the blink of an eye, as magic ricocheted around the cavern.
Every projection in the control room was the same: dragon fighting dragon. Flame spewed from the mouths of different beasts, talons raked, heads butted, tails thumped, with putrid green blood splashing everywhere. It was difficult to make out from the black and white images exactly who had the advantage, as wings were punctured, sending guards corkscrewing down to their deaths, momentum used to skewer the enemy onto stalactites and stalagmites indiscriminately, and razor-sharp teeth slashing mighty chunks of scale and flesh throughout the aerial battle. Deep in the middle of the skirmish was the terror-inducing sight that they all feared... the huge matt black dragon that was Troydenn, going on an absolute rampage.
Back in the control room, the king, not taking his eyes off the scene of carnage and mayhem before them all, asked what they were all thinking.
"Where are the closest reinforcements Axus?"
"Not close enough I'm afraid, Majesty. The prisoners would easily be able to get back to the Falkland Islands and escape in plenty of time before we could gather even a meagre force together," he replied, shaking his head gloomily.
With his attention, like everyone else’s, firmly focused on Axus, George caught a glimpse of something odd out the corner of his left eye. Totally the opposite of all the other onlookers, who were unanimously shocked and horrified by the surprising turn of events, leaning against one of the elongated desks off to one side, Osvaldo just looked... SMUG!
Abruptly the projection on the left wall cut out totally. The dragon operator on that wall dropped to the floor, howling in pain, hands wrapped around the shiny metal helmet with wires in it that sat firmly fixed on his head, trying with all his might to remove it, without any luck, which might have had something to do with the smoke and acrid smell that it was giving off. From out of nowhere, two medics arrived and started treating the stricken dragon, but not before he'd let out a blood-curdling scream and lost consciousness. Every being there could see what had happened from the images on the back wall. There, through a crowd of wrangling dragons all fighting for their lives, smack bang in the middle of the cavern's entrance was a pale dragon with bright flecks up its back and tail. One of the dragons that had been specifically selected to telepathically send back the black and white images, its long slender neck was now being crushed by the giant vice-like jaws of... Troydenn. Both dragons hovered in mid-air as the chaos ensued all around them, long after the life had left the innocent pale projectionist. Drawing a short, sharp gasp of horror from every being in the control room, Troydenn's gigantic jaws finally clasped together, totally severing the poor dragon's neck, letting the two pieces of the decapitated body tumble uncontrollably towards the bottom of the cavern. The dragon sending images back who was furthest away from the action, focused in on the crazed figure of Troydenn. Flapping his massive matt black wings furiously, head shaking violently from side to side, his angled face turned in the exact same direction from which he was being pictured, almost as if he knew that the king and councillors were watching, something that just couldn't be possible. Could it? More than a hint of insanity clouding his eyes, the charismatic leader's face broke into the biggest, scariest grin in the world. In that moment, in everyone's minds, things changed forever.
The atmosphere in the monitoring room at that very moment could be cut with a knife. Enveloped in stony silence, everyone there looked towards the king for an answer. Suddenly he stood, and in a move so quick nobody could have seen it coming, he smashed a vacant stool halfway across the room with his left forearm.
"ENOUGH!" bellowed the king. "Blow the explosive charges... NOW!"
Shaking somewhat, Axus turned towards the king.
"But Majesty, what about the guards? They'll be trapped along with all the prisoners."
With a look of absolute fury on his face, the king roared,
"DO YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW THAT? TRAPPED AND LOST FOREVER. DO YOU THINK THAT'S WHAT I WANT FOR THEM? THINK HOW MANY HUMANS AND DRAGONS ALIKE WILL BE KILLED IF TROYDENN AND HIS FOLLOWERS ARE ALLOWED TO LEAVE THAT PLACE. THE WHOLE WORLD WILL BE THROWN INTO PERIL, AND I WON'T ALLOW THAT. I COMMAND YOU TO BLOW ALL OF THE CHARGES AT ONCE. NOWWWW!!!!"
Despite the fact that all the blood had totally drained from his face, ever the professional, Axus turned and walked over to the table with the giant map on it. Pulling open a drawer, he withdrew a small box and flipped open the lid. Closing his eyes, and with a small shake of the head, he depressed the red button inside, knowing that there really was no other choice.
Bright explosions blossomed simultaneously across all three of the remaining projections. Dragons from both sides were pulverised by superheated exploding rock and ice. The detonation encompassed everything in sight, causing two of the remaining images to cease almost instantly, signalling the deaths of two more of the projectionist dragons. Back in the dragon domain, the control room darkened considerably with only the back wall now showing anything at all from the outlandish events in Antarctica.
George felt helpless as the incident on the other side of the planet spiralled out of control. Despite his feelings, and so desperately wanting to, he couldn't look away from the images that started to turn his green blood cold.
Turning away from the cavern entrance, the lone surviving projectionist was now heading at breakneck speed along the trench, back towards the Falkland Islands. Swerving erratically to avoid enormous stalactites and stalagmites, the dragon appeared to be flying as fast as was dragonly possible in the comparative darkness, clearly aware of the fate of those behind him. While still flying ahead in the trench, briefly he glanced over his shoulder, projecting the image back to the others. Fleeing dragons being dashed by rock and ice, all following hot on his tail, as well as a cascading barrage of explosions bursting up from the trench floor, shone onto the taut canvass as everyone looked on, speechless. Incredibly, the fleeing projectionist seemed to have found a little more speed from somewhere, offering up just a smidgen of hope to those in the darkness. Silently they willed him on, willed him to live.
Soaring incredibly fast now, it seemed the only possible outcome was for the dragon they all now had so much invested in, to outrun the wave of death behind him and cheat his certain demise. Until, that is, an explosion detonated about ten metres in front of him. The last thing those in the room saw before the wall went dark, was a torrent of rock, ice and fire closing in on all sides of the brave dragon. Plunged fully into darkness, the control room was as silent as a crypt in the dead of night.
"Lights," commanded Axus.
Immediately they came on. Glancing around, George had never seen members of his own race look so sombre. The shock and horror at what they'd witnessed here today would stay with them forever.
"REPORT!" commanded the king.
Axus studied the information on the map table before turning around and addressing the monarch.
"All the charges detonated successfully Majesty. Anyone still alive will remain encased in that icy hell hole for the rest of their lives."
Emotional turmoil threatened to drop George to his knees. The trial of Troydenn himself was bad enough but this... this was beyond belief. Guilt, sadness, remorse, relief... was it even possible to feel all of these things at once, he asked himself. On reflection, he knew his emotions would always overwhelm him when he thought of the events that surrounded the last week or so of his life. But today the greatest threat his race had ever faced had been thwarted for good, finally. And that in itself must be the most important thing. At least that's what he continued to tell himself.
* * *
"And so students, for those of you who didn't already know it, that is the true story of George and the Dragon. Nothing like, you may note, the dismal and dreary tales you will hear on the surface from the misinformed humans, if and when you finally make it up there. That will be all for today. Don't forget this week's homework. Lessons will resume in the morning. Do not be late!" said the tor.
Young dragons from across the marble covered courtyard eagerly leapt to their feet, pushing and shoving each other out of the way, to see just who would be the first to leave the classroom.