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The Living Stone: The Mountain in the Vast


A rich sea of emerald surrounded Kra, in rolling hills as far as he could see. The giant frozen waves of this ocean of green rippled as the wind swept past. The ground beneath his claws was soft and loose, nothing like the hard packed ground he was used to. The wind brought no stinging sands but a gentle cool, heavy with the scent of water and salt. Kra knew there had to be a vast body of water nearby, but the sight of it eluded him.

Suddenly there was warmth on his face that made him feel like he was glowing. He could feel it penetrate the layer of thick, lifeless scale all around his head, shoulders and chest, warming him deeper than his flesh. Looking up, his eyes were greeted by a brilliance that they had never encountered. He could not look directly at it, for to do so seared his eyes, but if he looked out of the corner of his eye he could see it, a shining orb hanging overhead like the smiling eye of a watchful god.

Could that be the sun?

Kra shot awake, growling angrily. Even away from his sanctuary, he still dreamt! His heart beat furiously, he sensed them here. The voices had followed him since they found him with the goblins. They never spoke, but there was always the sensation at the edge of his consciousness that told him they were there. It was just a matter of time before they showed up again, and there was no telling what they would do.

Even more telling were the dreams. He always dreamed of that alien world he had never seen, and it frightened him. When he was there, the feeling of the voices was all around, and they all felt so strong. It was all he could feel there, and that loss of awareness was what scared him the most. What if he found one day that the dreams came true, how would he survive when all he could hear was a song of a thousand voices?

He had always felt the voices, always dreamed of the green world long ago. The dreams faded when he was exiled, as the voices faded after his anointment, when he had no time to spare his sleep on something as trivial as dreams. He had grown comfortable with their absence quickly; they were the reason for his exile after all. But now they haunted him again, and he feared there was no escape from them this time.

“Noisy sleeper, dragon,” said Bink, not far from him. The little goblin had a small fire going as he cooked a tiny lizard skewered on the end of his spear. “You so quiet for long time, then boom, growl like thunder.”

“You should quell those flames,” Kra grumbled, his dreams still at the edge of his mind.

“We safe,” Bink argued. “Fire only bring Darcats and Chiraptors, they not hunt near Rumblers.” He offered up his little meal to the dragon.

Kra half smiled at the humble gesture. Bink was a rare creature, he had an honest and noble soul for a goblin. “You eat, I’ll be fine.”

Bink shrugged, taking a big bite of the tiny thing. “You sleep, then. We close to edge of Argassa, make it tomorrow maybe.”

The dragon nodded, setting his head back down on the ground. “That will make the traveling easier, the land is more even there. But flying won’t be an option.”

Bink shook his head. “Not in dwarf land, nope.”

Kra grunted solemnly. If tales of the dwarves were to be believed, the ancient city of Norheim was still equipped with ancient siege weapons, any one of which could bring down a dragon mid flight. The smaller dragons of late might not even be a worthy target of such weapons. Kra was fairly certain that a small team of trained archers could tear through all of a modern dragon’s wings with a single volley.

“Bink’s friend Makky say dwarfs and mens are all big and mean now, some maybe big as three gobs!”

Kra rolled his head on its side. “I’ve never seen a man or dwarf. I only know them from stories.”

Bink nodded. “Maybe tomorrow.”

The large dragon sighed and closed his eyes again. “Let’s hope not.”

Kra awoke the next day to a sharp hissing sound. His instinct of staying still was quickly overpowered when he remembered his companion was not so camouflaged. His eyes snapped open and he lifted his head to look around. A haze filled the air around their secluded camp, and moisture clung to his scales and the stones. Confused at first, Kra then felt a tap on the end of his snout. He looked up to see where it came from.

A moment later, the dragon gave a great sigh of relief. It had been ages since the last time he saw or felt rain; this was a welcome surprise.

A quick look to his side revealed that Bink spent the previous evening curled up next to him. The meek little goblin was shivering slightly but remained asleep. Deciding that it would be better to keep moving through the storm, Kra nudged him slightly, and he stirred with a snort. Though he was grumpy at first from being wet, Bink adjusted quickly to the downpour. The resourceful scout used the flow of the rainwater to find low ground where they could avoid being spotted and pools to drink from while they walked.

The rain continued mercifully into the afternoon, a rare wasteland miracle. The rains only came in short bursts every few months or so, and the time in between storms was dry and thirsty. Most storms lasted only a few hours, and barely ever made more than a few puddles. That day saw narrow rivulets of runoff stream across the dusty stone, small pools forming under rocky ledges, and deep crevices filled to the top with water. The humid, cool air gave the travelers excellent conditions for their trek, and it was still raining when the companions came upon the rolling hills and valleys of Drakvald.

For all his life, Kra lived in Argassa, where the horizon was jagged and broken, and the ravines and spires made the world seem claustrophobic and small. Even with his wings taking him to the sky, he had never seen so much of the world as he left the rock field with Bink and experienced the open vastness of the dwarven hill country. The horizons to the east and west spread out almost flat, the gray sky melding with the hills below. On the north, though, was a monstrous mountain with a jagged skyline above, more ominous and oppressive than any spire in Argassa, which could only have been the fabled Rivenwall.

“Ground so flat here!” Bink exclaimed when they left the stonefield. “Must be many rumblers, many Darcats!”

“Yes,” Kra said, lifting his gaze skyward. The suggestion of a grin crossed his stony face. “I don’t see a single chiraptor nest. There might still be blade hawks, but I guess I was wrong before. I should be able to fly safely in this land, as long as we avoid settlements.”

Bink cackled with glee. “We fly! We go anywhere! Kra, we are free!”

“Free or not, we’ll fly when we’re further from the spires,” the dragon told him. Bink nodded, but still chortled mirthfully to himself.

Kra hardly had the will to tell him that they still needed to be careful; they were still strangers in a strange land. They had no way to know what was safe and what was not, or how different the rockfield was to the dwarven hills.

Kra had heard tales of Drakvald from other dragons, to be sure. The shadows of Cairn Korrodas in the northeast sheltered the largest settlement of any race south of the Rivenwall. There was a lot of space, but not so many landmarks, making it easy to become lost in the wasteland. Coupling the abundance of organized humanoids and the great swaths of space meant running into raiding parties was quite likely. Predator and prey alike more than likely adapted to the lack of cover, making finding food and avoiding hunters in this new environment yet another challenge.

In truth, dragon and goblin had only traded one set of dangers for a mysterious new set.

But was there hope in that mystery? True, they were still in danger, but who was to say it was worse than staying in Argassa, with a goblin tribe out for their blood? At least now the goblins would be foolish to chase them this far. All known threats were exhausted, and though the unknown was its own danger, Kra knew that even in the dark there was hope.

“We must press on,” the big dragon told Bink. “Shelter seems scarce and night will be upon us soon.”

Bink nodded firmly his agreement with Kra’s assessment, scanning the landscape. He pointed northwest toward a jutting mountain that seemed to spring up out of nowhere in the desert.

“We start looking there,” he said shouldering his spear. “High place good for dragon to hide.”

“Not if it is already home to a flock of blade hawks,” Kra grunted, starting forward at a pace Bink could match.

Bink scoffed. “If birdies have home, we take it! No one stand in dragon’s way!”

“Many creatures do not fear blindly as they did in ages past,” Kra said, thinking back to his encounter with the Darcats not long ago. “You might be used to that sort of thinking with your tribe, but on my own, even a small flock could be dangerous for me. A place like that could have a flock of thirty strong or more.”

The goblin gave Kra a curious look. “Thirty? Thirty is small! Bink kill hawks and chiraptors with Makky all the time!”

That gave Kra pause for thought. Just two goblins against such a big flock?

“Hawks dive fast, but fly away slow,” the little hunter continued. “Make ‘em dive wrong, catch ‘em when they slow and weak.”

“How would you make them dive without getting attacked?”

Bink giggled and stooped over to pick up a pebble, one that was round and flat. He wound up and threw it lateral and low, and Kra watched as it skipped over the ground, almost as though it were an ashrabbit.

“Little trick works always,” Bink said. “Hawks see pebble move like jump rat, they dive. Gotta hide first, though. If not hiding, they might dive on you instead.”

Kra considered the goblin with amused bewilderment. The dragon thought himself a fair hunter, but it seemed that Bink and his people had developed superb tactics to hunt and even thrive in the wastes.

“Bink’s pappy a good hunter, taught Bink lots of nasty tricks for stupid animals,” the goblin continued, then sighed. “Then he got torn up by Darcats when hunting for Rumbler. Poor pappy, he hated them cats; made him sneeze like crazy. Just think, he not even able to blow nose before dying!” Bink shook his head shamefully. “Bink hope not to go like that.”

Kra could not decide whether or not Bink was trying to make a joke or if he was sincerely worried about dying in such a fashion. “But you’re certain that a flock of blade hawks will be easy prey?”

Bink nodded vigorously. “No problem for Bink! Makky and Bink once caught whole flock, forty hawks.” The goblin grinned. “No Makky now, but Kra is here! We catch lots more with you, Bink says.”

Kra considered his own tactics, engaging them in the sky where they could not dive. The bladed crests of the hawks were still dangerous, but less so to his hide. In fact, the only reason he did not successfully hunt them was he was a less agile flyer. The flock could swarm around him easily while he tried to catch one, and just one cut to his wings could leave him at a great disadvantage.

“You might be right, little friend,” Kra said, looking back toward the mountain. His dread at its approach gave way to a glimmer of hope. Things were starting to look promising somehow, despite the tragedy of recent days. Kra never dreamt that he would find such hope in the wastes, or that he would find it in the shape of a scrawny goblin.

Not all of the waste’s surprises were unpleasant, it seemed.

Wardan felt his heart sink as Borlan shook his head.

“Sir, there is plenty of evidence that there are more cultists out there,” he argued insistently, though he kept his voice low so the raiders outside Borlan’s tent would not suspect the argument. “My crew have already agreed to come with me, all we need is your command.”

“Yer daft, boy. I need you and the others back in Norheim.” The dwarf crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. “Besides, how will you find these other camps?”

“This camp was using fire,” Wardan said. “The others might be as well.”

“They used a fire cause they had walls to hide behind!” Borlan said incredulously. “Little camps with no walls ain’t gonna do that, it’d be suicide!”

“No,” Rilea said, interrupting. “These fires are fed with a special fuel that repels the creatures of the wastes. If these monsters had access to it, their allies may as well.”

Wardan could almost taste the bile she spoke those words with. She had been difficult to persuade to see Borlan in the first place, but now that she was here she showed a resolve that few people could muster in the face of the blustery old dwarf.

Borlan considered her words. “Look, missy, I don’t have a problem if you go and look for camps of deranged madmen, but Wardan’s group is far too important to waste their energy on scouting missions and such.”

Rilea grinned, possibly one of the most disquieting things Wardan had ever seen. “Well, master dwarf, we have a problem, as the information I’ve already given you is not worth the debt you owe me.”

“We’ve already agreed to send word to yer village,” Borlan insisted.

She brought a hand up to her cheek in amusement. “That is kind, indeed, but I cannot feed my family with good intentions. I’m here for more material gains, and since the Destructors had nothing, I have to find something to make my time here worth it.”

Borlan grumbled a bit, puffing on his pipe. Wardan did all he could not to clamp his hand around her mouth; he’d seen Borlan give his own men a black eye for speaking so disrespectfully. But it seems that honor had him beholden to this thief, and such a thing was almost too much to bear.

“Why don’t you take some of the stuff they used to make their fire safe?” Borlan growled.

Rilea’s face became stony and blanched. “I would rather burn alive than take it. You can use it to make your city and the innocent people that dwell there safe, but I cannot accept it.”

Borlan’s face scrunched up in confusion, but a moment later he simply nodded. “I take it you’ve got some idea of where you want to take my people?”

The thief’s features lost their edge, regaining the pleasant guise she had before. “Of course, master dwarf. Not far from your home, in fact, is Black Needles. I intend to start my search there.”

He scrutinized her once more, looked to Wardan, and then back to her. “Let’s say you find more of those lunatics. What if they have nothing for you either?”

“After that, it will be up to him,” Rilea responded, turning her covered eyes to the very uncomfortable raider sitting next to her across from Borlan.

Borlan’s craggy features shifted as his gaze traveled to his subordinate for an eternal moment. Wardan could almost see the understanding scratching the surface of his stubborn features. It was as though the old dwarf hid something under his dusty beard that he did not the young raider to see.

After the longest two breaths in Wardan’s life, Borlan sighed, a puff of smoke escaping his nostrils, or it might have been dust from his mustache. He waved dismissively toward the flap of the tent. “Take no more than three raiders, Wardan included. Ye’ve got a week! Any longer than that, and I’ll come after you … make no mistake, I’ll find you!”

Wardan tried to disguise his relief, but Rilea’s smile was not hiding anything.

Once they were out of the tent, Wardan started to say something about how crazy she was to address Borlan like a witless fool, but she interrupted him.

“We will leave as soon as your friends are ready,” she said quickly, moving with great haste past the raiders in the camp tending their wounds and transporting spoils from the keep. “Meet me to the west of camp with two of your best raiders.”

He was about to agree when what she said clicked in his mind. He glanced at the other raiders, to make sure no one was listening. “The west? We’re bound for the northeast,” he said, his voice low.

She gave him a severe look. “We’re bound for where I say we’re bound. We’re going west, to the Mountain in the Vast.”

“But you told Borlan …”

“I told him what he wanted to hear. There’s nothing in Black Needles. I have a fair idea where to go next but that place is not on the travel plan.”

Wardan wanted to be surprised, but he really just could not bring himself to it logically. He had lied to Borlan not long ago, and it was for a good reason. He had to believe it was the same with her, at least for now.

“Why the mountain?” he asked instead. “There’s certainly nothing there.”

She turned to him and put her hands on her hips, considering him a moment. “I suppose if I said you’d see when we get there, you wouldn’t come with me. I’ll just say for now that my particular method of tracking these monsters will need me to be in a high place that catches the wind.”

Warran crossed his arms. “Alright, that warrants an explanation.”

“I don’t believe you really haven’t figured it out,” she half smiled. “You watched me fight, even with my eyes covered by a strap of sackcloth. You cannot be so empty headed to have not noticed.”

The raider paused a moment. “Yes, I know you’re gifted. You see without your eyes somehow.”

“I see only with my eyes, but my other senses can tell me all I need to know without using my eyes.”

“You can still see, though.”

“The point is that I trust my other senses more.” She started to turn away, saying, “If you could see like me, you wouldn’t think seeing was so important.” She left him there with those words, where he started to wonder if there was something she saw that he could not.

The relatively even ground of Drakvald made travel for Bink and Kra as easy as they could have wanted. Bare, dry earth cracked and crumbled under the dragon’s massive paws, and soft, flat footprints marked the goblin’s trail, each step worth about five steps through the terrain of Argassa. The time they made was incredible, by the onset of dusk they were almost upon the mountain. Kra insisted they keep moving until they reached the shelter of the mountain, he shunned the idea of sleeping out in the open in a new land.

Kra actually began to feel guilty as they were plodding along. They had not seen a single thing in the air since they started walking, but Kra’s paranoia had dissuaded him from suggesting they start flying. However, Bink had not once mentioned flying, and was able to keep a reasonable stride beside the huge dragon, which either meant the goblin was too preoccupied to notice the lack of threat in the sky, or he honestly did not care about the hike.

But the skies had indeed been clear. The dragon’s analytical mind had come up with two possible solutions to this curious circumstance during the long walk. First, winged predators lacked places to roost in the plains, and therefore were scarce in Drakvald. Second, there were no sky hunters because other predators – the dwarves and men – had driven them all south to the rock fields to search for more prey. But if the skies were empty today, they would be empty tomorrow most likely. That meant the pickings would be slim for the odd pair, and that had Kra concerned.

The night air was cool and raw, and Bink shivered as he dug out a little burrow in the darkness at the base of the mountain. Kra lay not far from him on a patch of earth softened by the recent rain, observing the strange behavior. After Bink judged the hole satisfactory, as though his meager scrapes had made his day, the goblin climbed in, crouching down in the little pit. Kra watched curiously as Bink’s chill seemed to be alleviated by his tiny shelter over time. Barely affected by the cold himself, he never considered it a detriment to his health; judging by Bink’s continued spasms, it was clearly something other races had to consider.

It was then Kra realized that he had not prayed since his discovery of the water cave. He sat up, putting one paw atop the other, and prayed. “Praise to the Mother, she has made me strong. Great is my strength, tempered to true power by my heart. My heart is guided by my pride, the pride of a dragon. Dragons are proud because we are proud of our Mother. Praise to the Mother.”

“Thank you Mother, for your love. You guide my path through the wasteland, and give me the strength to endure its hardships. Bless this new home you have lead me to, and let the strength you give me keep it safe.” A moment later, he added, “Thank you for the new blessing of friendship, this goblin that saved my life. May he walk under my wings safely, with you.”

In idle thought, Kra let his eyes drift back to the mountain. They were close enough now that it dominated the horizon, and every crevice and cliff were clear to Kra in the dying light. A flicker of movement on the mountainside drew his eye, and his stomach growled. It had been a long day to go without much food, and he was certainly not ready for sleep. Quietly, he stood up and skulked off into the night.

As he slipped into the dark, he kept his eye on the tiny flicker of movement on the mountain. Even in the all consuming dark, the dragon’s eyes could still make out the tiny movements traveling up a trail on the eastern side. As he got closer, the movements seemed more deliberate than he first thought. Whatever was on the mountainside was moving at a steady, intentional pace. His stomach’s hunger slipped away, replaced by a cold, heavy dread of what he was sure to discover.

Kra was now close enough to make out the details of his quarry. A group of tall, bipedal creatures marching in single file descended from the trail. Even having never seen them before, Kra had more than a good idea of what these creatures were.

“Men!” hissed a voice from behind Kra. The startled dragon whipped his head around to see a meek little goblin slinking in the shadows behind him. Kra stifled a surprised and angry growl, but still Bink cowered. “I sorry! Bink saw you go, followed to see why!”

“Just be quiet,” Kra whispered, turning back to the men still steadily approaching.

“No! Men here, we go now!” Bink whimpered, and he began to yank Kra’s tail away from the trail. “If they see us, they not stop hunting us ‘til we dead! Even if we kill all, more still come!”

The dragon knew there was a seed of truth to the goblin’s unabashed hysteria. Humankind historically had something of a vindictive streak when it came to dragons invading their space. But this might be their only chance at a meal for days, and even Bink would not deny the bounty of such a meal. Kra sniffed the air, letting his hunger decide what they should do next.

“That smell…!”

“It’s horrible!”

“What have they done?”

Kra flinched at the sound of the voices. His shock was quickly superseded by an overwhelming nausea. He could not smell anything disturbing, what were they talking about?

“They’re dangerous!”

“They must be stopped!”

“Quickly, do something!”

Waves of emotion cascaded over the unfortunate dragon. Unexplainable rage replaced all apprehension, and the pride in his heart pounded inside his head. Suddenly, these men seemed only as despoilers, wicked and awful. They were here to do something detestable, to make a mockery of the natural world. This was going to be his home, and he wanted these monsters out.

“Stay safe, Bink,” Kra growled, and Bink stared blankly for a moment before noticing the glint in the dragon’s eyes, and he very wisely backed off.

Spreading his wings wide, Kra pushed off the ground and beat down once, twice. The men were off the mountain now, but they were not heading toward him. Through the night, he could make out a small camp where the men must have been staying. They would head that way.

He wheeled around to the side of the path, watching as the men passed by. He drew his wings and limbs in close, lending his full, immense weight to the dive. He heard the men exclaim moments before he landed. The roar of his crash rang in his ears, but soon he could also hear the men.

“What was that?” one said, after the dust had settled.

“Look at the size of that boulder!” shouted another.

“Did that fall all the way from the mountain?” a third voice asked.

Kra kept perfectly still with his eyes closed, like the day not long ago when he had first met Bink. In the deep dark of the wasteland night, he resembled little more than a piece of rock that had fallen from the mountainside. He heard the crackle of fire as torches were lit and the stamp of a dozen pairs of feet as they approached. Though he was fairly confident in his deception and camouflage, Kra tensed in anticipation of their discovery. He heard stories of the cleverness of men, and had to be prepared for his disguise to be lifted at any time.

The dormant dragon was soon surrounded by the footsteps of men. The heat of their torches glowed on his thick scales, the light probing the edges of his illusion for a seam of the truth. He felt the panic, but denied it purchase in his mind, pushing it away with pride and anger. All around him danced the whispers of the men, words Kra could only guess at.

Finally, one of the men made a critical mistake. Kra smelled the stink of the man as he came mere feet from his head. Kra knew this one had found something suspicious, perhaps it was the craterlike nostrils or the discoloration of his horns. This one looked for quite a while, still and curious.

The horror on his face when Kra’s eyes flashed open was delectable, the best he had ever smelled or seen. The man inhaled to scream in the instant that Kra lunged for him. His muffled, agonized scream came from inside the dragon’s mouth as Kra clamped his jaw shut on his ribcage. In moments the strangled scream desisted, and the dragon spat the lifeless body from his mouth.

All the men watched him now, so Kra gave them something worth looking at. He drew himself up from the ground slowly and powerfully, lashing his tail back and forth. Great stony wings spread out and up, cutting through the torchlight with slicing black shadows. Once he had fully stood up, he reared back on his hind legs and threw his head back in a roar, proclaiming this land as his, and daring the men to make the first move.

“Get away!” one man shouted fearfully.

“The stone dragon the prophet warned of!” another shouted in awe.

“Run before it destroys us all!”

Half the men had scattered to the wind before Kra’s front paws had even touched the ground again. Soon all the torches were in the distance, fleeing from the dragon and their camp.

Kra had barely a moment to breathe a sigh of relief before he heard the excited cheering and hollering of his goblin companion. Bink came running to him from behind a rocky outcropping, the little creature obviously just as impressed as the men.

“Roar so loud!” Bink said breathlessly as he approached. “Kra show men he big, strong, and scary, and they all run like rats!” The goblin cackled as he danced around. “This place ours now! All ours!”

Kra nodded, giving a halfhearted smile at the goblin’s enthusiasm. He was not so confident about the men’s reactions. They had not even attempted to fight back. Everything he knew of men said that they would at least have attempted token resistance, even to a dragon. Something about their immediate reaction of flight and their words of a prophet told him these men were not raiders or hunters. They were much more dangerous, and there were more where they came from.

The dragon looked down at the corpse at his feet. He could still taste the man’s blood in his mouth, bitter and wretched. He did not like the taste of man-flesh as much as the smell of their emotions. Still he would need to eat what he had killed, if he was to defend his new home.

This story is the property of Tyler Clapp, Author (AKA "Cael") Copyright DarkFireGraphics.com