The wind rasped past the four figures that emerged from the white-frosted trees. It tore at their clothes and snapped the branches above their heads. Two of the adventurers were human, cloaked and hooded with their faces wrapped in cloth to protect them from the harsh winter weather. Another was an elf, tall and slender, seemingly unhindered by the shrieking snow. The fourth was an animal, a large-cat like creature that stayed swathed around one of the human’s legs for warmth. All four craned their necks up at the bleak wall of ice and rock that lay between them and the unimaginable horde of the dragon. It was the dragon that had brought them to this isolated mountain, or more precisely, the death of the dragon. For one thousand years the terrible beast had ravaged the land, but now it had finally succumbed to its age, with rumour being spread of the lizard lying dead on its glittering mountain of gold.
The quest had begun, as many do, in the tavern. The two human adventurers, Tarquine the Ranger and Little Jimmy, the old veteran warrior were drinking together, along with Chairman Meow, Tarquine’s cat, who was lounging under the table, his paw stretched over Tarquine’s foot. The pair of human adventurers had inevitably heard of the dead dragon, and knew that such dragons usually had gathered much wealth in their magpie-like ways. So, after many a pot of ale and mead, they decided to travel to the dragon’s keep and take as much of the gold away as they possibly could. Yet, as Tarquine pointed out, they would need a mage, a wizard to help them on their quest. Little Jimmy had long learnt to trust Tarquine’s intelligence – although compared to an average human Tarquine was amongst the dunces, showing just how far down the intellectual scale Jimmy was. Luckily for the ambitious, albeit slow, pair, Jimmy knew an Elven wizard who he knew would be perfect for the journey. So, still intoxicated, the two men and their cat sought out the Elf, known as Otter, and convinced her to take part in their quest. Three days later, the adventurers stood at the base of the mountain, staring up at the cliff-face they would have to climb.
And climb they did, tied together they slowly inched their way up the hundred foot wall. Chairman Meow clung to Tarquine’s back as he sought another handhold, and pushed himself further up the jagged cliff. When the trio had reached almost half way, they began to hear a screeching noise from above, like that of an age-old animal. They continued to climb, hauling themselves up the rocky ice, heaving upwards towards a small ledge that thrust out of the hard ice above them. Jimmy reached it first, holding down a hand to help the others onto the slim shelf, where they collapsed, exhausted, their breath turning to vapour even before it left their gasping throats. It was at this moment, where the squawking animals above descended to drive the intruders from their territory. Four of the winged beasts dived towards the sprawling characters, screaming as they drove their putrid pink bodies towards the treasure hunters.
Tarquine and Jimmy leapt to their feet, Jimmy’s huge double-handed sword sliding out of its sheep-skin and leather scabbard. Tarquine put an arrow to his bowstring, but it was Otter who reacted quickest. The elf slumped back again, her eyes rolling up into her skull as she sought of the minds of the creatures. She managed to control one of the winged beasts, drawing it away from the others. Another of the monsters landed on the ledge with a skid. Chairman Meow hissed and leapt onto its back, sinking his teeth into its back. The beast stumbled backwards, towards the edge of the shelf. It tripped, falling back down the long steep cliff-face, dragging Chairman Meow with it. The mind-controlled winged beast swept down to stop the cat’s descent as the other two swept towards Otter.
Jimmy jumped towards Otter, swinging his sword in an arc to protect the Elven wizard. The heavy blade crashed through the air, holding the creatures at bay before smashing into the icy wall behind Jimmy. It stayed there, unmoving. One of the winged beasts crashed into Jimmy, forcing him to the ground. The creature raised its claw, ready to tear Jimmy in half. Suddenly an arrow whizzed past Jimmy to bury itself in the chest of the winged beast. It fell down dead before crashing down to the forested ground below.
Chairman Meow curled back on the ledge as the final beast landed to attack Jimmy. However, despite now being unarmed, Jimmy was still the veteran of many a-battle (all of which he had been on the vanquished side). He rushed towards the beast empty-handed. Their bodies slammed together and they slid towards the edge as one thrashing beast. A talon ripped through Jimmy’s chainmail to scrape across his chest. The veteran punched the beast in its jaw. The beast snapped its teeth towards Jimmy’s face. Jimmy tried to grab the thing’s mouth and rip it apart, but the winged creature was too powerful and slowly began to sink its many hideous teeth towards Jimmy. Slowly but inexorably the ripping jaws were forced toward Jimmy’s face. With perhaps an inch left, a sword was thrust through the creature’s stomach, the blade crashing into Jimmy’s chainmail and forcing all the breath from his lungs. Jimmy wriggled out from under the beast to see Tarquine dragging his short sword from its body. Otter stood up unsteadily as the beast she had been controlling finally lost command of its senses and fell to follow its friends to the grave. The adventurer’s breath misted the air around them as they paused, staring at the blood smothered ice around them. Otter, exhausted from her psychic exertions, pleaded the others for a rest, but Jimmy and Tarquine knew the beasts would be back and so they pressed on, up the cliff.
The first to reach the top of the cliff was Jimmy, dragging himself over the lip. Otter followed with Tarquine and Chairman Meow nimbly scrambling over the icy rim. This high up the snow was even thicker, and not even Tarquine’s ranger-like skills could find an entrance into the mountain. In front of them was another cliff. They skirted the base, looking for an entrance into the dragon’s caves. After half an hour’s searching, the treasure hunters came upon a crack in the mountainside, just wide enough for a man to squeeze through.
They crossed the opening, into the dragon’s lair, and almost immediately were suffocated by the gloomy darkness of the cave. Apart from the sound of their breathing, the adventurers could hear a low, quiet chanting, as if from deep in the heart of the mountain. Otter picked up a pebble from the cave’s floor and, closing her eyes, caused a light golden glow to radiate from the small stone. The feeble light illuminated the ragged walls of the cave – barely two metres apart – and glinted off Jimmy’s armour. The veteran took the pebble and tossed it further down the tunnel, causing the shadows to flee and showing that the passage turned sharply to the right. Taking the pebble again Jimmy tossed it around the corner – a humanoid shadow was cast on the wall. Clearly someone, or something, was sitting mere metres away. The adventurers held their breath. Tarquine held back Chairman Meow. Otter tried to feel forward with her mind to see what sort of creature lay around the bend.
The shadow moved.
Confused by the light, the figure around the tunnel peered towards the pebble. The shadow showed it slowly drawing its sword and turning towards the adventurers. The four of them froze with fear as the shape edged towards them. It turned the corner. The light behind it threw the figure’s shadow over the treasure hunters, who crouched as still as statues in the narrow cave. Tarquine screamed for his cat to attack the creature. Chairman Meow made a spirited attempt, leaping onto the thing’s leg and scratching away, but it was fruitless. Jimmy waded in next, thrusting forward with his sword. The blade clattered off of the figure’s breast plate. The armoured shape was forced backwards, allowing the light to reveal him more clearly. It was an ordinary man, albeit very tall, wearing a rusted breast plate and helmet. Jimmy lunged forward again, this time being deflected by a swift stroke of the man’s sword. Tarquine and Otter hung back, unable to get close to the fight due to the claustrophobic tightness of the tunnel.
Jimmy parried a swinging blow from the guard’s sword, and then shoved forward. Chairman Meow sunk his teeth into the man’s leg, causing him to topple backwards. Jimmy rolled away to clamber back to his feet. Otter closed her eyes tight. The prone guard took a swing at the cat, but it sparked against the wall. The rock ceiling directly above the man twitched. He looked up towards it.
Otter open her eyes.
The section of the roof above the guard collapsed with an almighty crash. Chairman Meow managed to scramble away as a large boulder, twice the size of a man’s head, fell. It crushed the guard’s helmet flat. The man’s head was still inside it. The sound of falling masonry echoed around the walls. It slowly drifted into silence. The only sounds were the rapid breaths of the treasure hunters, the ominous drumming and the muttered chanting. Then the adventurers heard something new. Footsteps.
A trio of even more guards rushed round the corner. None were as well armoured as the first, but all were armed, two with swords and one with a spear. They rushed past Chairman Meow, hurtling towards the exhausted Otter. Jimmy swung his huge sword in an arc to keep them at bay. One of the guards stabbed forward with his sword. Jimmy knocked the blade to one side and swept his own lunge forward. The guard took a step back. The blade grazed his chainmail. The guard stamped a foot forward and thrust at Jimmy’s face again. Jimmy twisted to one side, away from the blow. Jimmy fell heavily against the wall. The guard drew his sword back for a huge killing hack. Jimmy, his blade too long to strike again, simply thrust forward with the hilt, pushing the guard back and giving himself room to fight. A second guard tried to rush past Jimmy to attack Tarquine, who stood in front of Otter with an arrow on his bowstring. Jimmy struck out with his sword. The tip of the blade neatly caught the man’s throat. He fell, blood pulsing to drench the cave wall. Tarquine loosed an arrow past Jimmy at the guard with the spear, who had begun to attack Chairman Meow.
The arrow clattered helplessly off the man’s steel helmet. With a ferocious glance towards Tarquine, the man thrust his spear downward. Chairman Meow tried to twist out of the way. The glinting blade sliced into the cat’s rear leg. Jimmy made another thrust towards the guard in front of him. The guard tried to dodge to the side, but hit the wall. Jimmy’s sword ground through the man’s chainmail and into his shoulder. The swordsman grabbed Jimmy’s wrist and pulled him forward, lunging forwards with his own weapon.
The iron point thrust aside the links of Jimmy’s armour. It carried on through the cloak underneath. Still further through Jimmy’s skin. As the blade widened it ripped apart the veteran’s chainmail. The sword still travelled forward. A drop of blood formed in Jimmy’s screaming mouth. The point of the blade was finally stopped by the iron rings on the back of Jimmy’s armour. The drop of blood ran down Jimmy’s chin to drop onto the floor. More blood pulsed along the blade of the guard’s sword. Releasing Jimmy’s wrist, the victorious guard dragged his sword from the veteran’s gut. He switched his gaze to Tarquine who stood aghast. The ranger drew his short sword and flung himself at the guard. The man parried and battered the hilt of his sword into Tarquine’s face. Droplets of Jimmy’s blood flew from the blade to splatter over the archer. The gore was soon joined by yet more blood, Tarquine’s blood, which dribbled from his nose after the guard’s attack. Tarquine fell against the wall. Chairman Meow had crawled into a dark corner of the cave. Otter stood still, seemingly in shock of Jimmy’s defeat. The guard drew his sword back to finish off Tarquine as well.
Jimmy had fallen to his knees as Tarquine attacked. His head was bowed. He opened his eyes to see his sword lying on the ground beside him. It was sticky with his enemy’s blood. Jimmy clasped his hands to his stomach. He saw the blood squirt between his fingers. Slowly, his vision darkened. He felt Tarquine be smashed against the wall. The drumming seemed to rise in volume until Jimmy could hear no other sound. He could smell the overpowering odour of blood, and underneath, the rotting stench of the guards, the sweat of his companions. He could see the two bodies of the guards they had killed. He could see the pools of their blood mixing with a dark stream of his own. He fell forward, the darkness finally claiming him.
Jimmy opened his eyes again. Instinctively they snapped back shut, blinded by the light all around him. There was no more drumming, no shouts of violence or pools of blood. There was just Jimmy, face flat on the floor, in his rusty, battered and bloodstained chainmail. He heaved himself to his feet. Despite the heavy armour, he felt as light as a feather. All around him was immaculate light; he seemed to be standing on it, as if in a brightly painted white room. A figure slowly descended from the light above him. It looked as though it had been made to look like a human by someone who had never actually seen one before. Its feet had no toes, and its body was completely flat. At first Jimmy thought it was wearing a white suit, but as he looked closer he saw that the thing was wearing nothing, and it was just that its skin was pure white and perfectly smooth. Only its bald face – or at least, where its face should be, for instead of human features, the thing’s visage was just blank – was a different colour, the deepest shade of black, a black so dark that to stare at it was to feel as if you were staring into absolute nothingness, an empty void that seemed to draw the eye.
The thing’s feet touched the floor, and it tilted its head to one side, leering towards Jimmy, who stood in front of it, too frightened to speak. They stayed there for almost a minute, looking at one another. Finally it spoke, spreading its arms in welcome,
“I am Death, Jimmy, and welcome to my kingdom.” Jimmy stayed silent. “I have seen you many times, Jimmy, although you never knew it. Every time your life came close to ending, there I was, ready to reap your soul, and each time you have escaped me. Yet here you are, Jimmy, at the gates of my Kingdom.” The thing tilted its head to the other side, as if assessing Jimmy, who remained stationary, returning the gaze of Death. “And how lucky you are Jimmy. Perhaps my Kingdom is not ready for your soul? Perhaps there is another who would be better suited to join the legions of the dead? Ah, I see your thoughts; you have already guessed what I am to ask of you. Either you join the legion, or I allow you to live, with one condition. You bring to me a different soul, more suitable than your own. Your old friend Lance has eluded me more times than even you.” Death finally straightened his head, and seemed to stare deep into Jimmy’s mind. “Send him to my Kingdom, and I will return you to your life.” Jimmy gazed back at Death. There was still silence for a few seconds, and then Death made a contented chuckle.
Jimmy opened his eyes again. He could hear the drumming, the muttering and a great shout of anger. He could see the corpses of the two guards, the great pools of blood. He felt a huge pain from his stomach, enough to force him to stay curled on the ground.
The guard that stabbed him stood over Tarquine, ready to strike down when suddenly his mouth opened wide with shock. He stood stock still as all of his veins began to stand vividly out from his skin. He collapsed onto the floor. Otter also collapsed, blood dripping from her hand where she’d cut herself in a desperate attempt to achieve the high magic than enable her to reach into the guard’s body with her mind and stop his heart from beating. Seeing this, the final guard, his spear dripping with Chairman Meow’s blood, turned to run. He managed to make it around the corner before Otter lashed out with magic again, slowing the man down. Tarquine, seeing his injured cat, snatched up his bow and leapt around the corner, loosing arrows towards the fleeing figure. His anger caused his aim to waver, and his first two shots missed before he took a deep breath and carefully put an arrow through the back of the man’s neck. The man collapsed to the ground and silence, apart from the drumming and chanting, ruled once more.
Otter rushed forward to Jimmy as Tarquine turned to bandage Chairman Meow’s leg. Otter took a healing potion from Jimmy’s pack and poured it over the wound. Jimmy felt the pain leave him, but still felt tired and weak. The group headed down the corridor, past the body of the guard with a spear, to a doorway at its end. The chanting bounced through the entrance. Tarquine took the lead, with Jimmy and Otter following and Chairman Meow sulkily brought up the rear. The archer peered through the doorway. On the other side was a huge cavernous cave, with a staircase leading from the doorway Tarquine was standing at down to the ground, far below, that wrapped around the wall. Below them was the huge skeleton of the dragon, lying upon its horde of trash. A group of twenty or so robed figures stood round in circle about the vast corpse.
It was these men that were chanting, and one held the vast drum. As the others caught up with Tarquine, they saw a ball of light rise from the thing’s ribcage and rise into the air. One of the men walked up to it and produced a large bag. The light shrank into the sack. The drumming and chanted stopped. Just as the robed wizards turned to leave, several of them began to walk up the staircase towards the treasure hunters. In a panic, the adventurers looked around for a hiding place. Otter pointed to a hole in the roof, but it was too small for them to wriggle through. Tarquine and Jimmy had to strip from their armour and tuck it under the corpse of the dead guard lying in the corridor, then struggle through the gap. The wizards peer in through the doorway. They see the body and look to each other, before rushing back down the stairs. The adventurers hear a hurried discussion, and then the wizards filed through a tunnel away from the horde.
The treasure hunters waited a few minutes for the footsteps to fade away then lowered themselves from the hole and re-donned their armour.