Chapter 7: Confrontation
The remaining members of the human party were trying to track down the dragon that had killed over half of their members. The human adventurers had all died, leaving only one of the human mages and his household elven knights alive, dragging along the two sobbing maids. Breaking up camp took the most time, even though the mage Ashton of the house Silverwood ordered to leave behind the belongings of the deceased. He didn’t want to waste any time in chasing down his chance at prestige, glory and power. Of course Ashton was somewhat sad about the death of his brother Edmund, yet this was the opportunity they had been begging the gods for, to obtain a real dragon as a contracted beast.
As they rushed along the beast’s tracks, he tried to recollect the things he knew about dragons.
The High Dragons had formed their own country at the Shrine of the Dragon God.They had been trying to protect all of their race members from getting enslaved, bound, by mages and warriors of other species. Ashton had never seen an adult dragon below the seventh rank roaming the Wilderness alone or even appear inside towns. And even on the rare occasion he could see one of the mighty beasts in a town or at the capital, they had surrounded themselves with an entourage of moon elves, a tribe solely dedicated to serving their protectors and masters, the High Dragons.
Their father once told Edmund and Ashton the tale of a barbarian horde slaughtering their way into the mountains housing the dragons kingdom and abducting several young dragons of the third rank. The ten thousand barbarians then managed to go back to the kingdom the two brothers were born in, Leander. Boasting about their exploits and slandering the reputation of the dragons for failing to protect their dynasty’s borders, the murderous band claimed a spot of land near the edge of the kingdom while attempting to sell one of the little creatures they had snatched to some nobility and enslaving the others.
The story had finished with the demise of the barbarians, when a group of twenty human figures marched into their encampment and boldly asked the young ones back. The savages laughed at the small number threatening them and charged at them, expecting a quick obliteration of the impudents.
On that day infernos and ice storms were unleashed on earth from the sky. The twenty pursuer turned into indomitable dragons to correct the puny beings that had abducted their precious children.
Lastly their father had warned them to never offend the High Dragon race, as he had personally witnessed the tale when he was young.The twenty dragons able to shapeshift should have been at least of the legend rank, if not higher. No country on this continent had the ability to resist the Raezar Dynasty, but luckily it had never showed ambition to conquer more than their tiny mountain range.
The ability to rain destruction upon the enemy played no small part when Ashton and his brother had chose to become mages. Together they had reenacted the story often as children’s play, and their plan was to become a famous team once they stepped into the legend rank together.
In any other situation, losing his brother would have deeply tormented Ashton, as the siblings had always heavily relied on each other. A wild dragon, however, was the one thing they had always dreamed of. After attending the royal academy for warriors and mages the brothers had researched this matter thoroughly and asked a teacher about it. They had pestered the instructor in charge of the library until they were given an answer, and even then had they only grasped one of the numerous ways to subdue a dragon into a contracted beast. The dynasty protected all of their subjects, so the only way around their safeguarding was to find a wild dragon. The king of the dragons himself had indeed once guaranteed a king of another country that there would be no persecution from the Dynasty after the discovery of a dragon’s egg by anon-dragon species. From then on wild dragons were officially unable to enjoy the same protection as High Dragons born on the mountain, and therefore counted among the rarest monsters and beasts, and the dynasty obviously couldn’t prohibit anyone from claiming wild monsters and beasts.
As long as Ashton could capture and subjugate the wild young dragon that had slain Edmund with the [Dragon Breath] ability, that proved the identity of an authentic high dragon from lesser monsters of the so-called dragon family, he could carry on their dream to enter the legend rank, and this thought alone managed to suppress all grief he might have felt over his brother’s death.
As Ashton was reminiscing over the past, the knights collected the belongings of their master and their own, extinguished the fire and ushered the crying maids to follow outside of the perimeter of the camp to shut them forever.
This woke him up from his ponderings, and he raised his voice to stop them from disposing of the witnesses. “Wait! We’ll bring them along … as bait. After receiving a wound like that the dragon should be craving for fresh meat.”
Chasing the fleeing dragon turned out to be an easier task than the knights had thought. The blood trail left from an authentic dragon drew out a considerable number of monsters from their resting spots, and allowed the elven members of the party to somewhat sense it through their close connection to nature. Running across the forest in a line, the only thing keeping them from catching up were the maids who barely qualified for the first aura rank.
Heading deeper into the dark woods allowed the elven knights to use their racial advantage, maneuvering easily their path between congestions of monsters thanks to their increased perception, while their master was prepared to slow down any beast that had spotted them as they rushed through. His backup plan consisted of injuring one of the maids and leaving her behind as a lure for a beast, outrunning any monster while the trail the savage scaled beast was leaving was still fresh. Thinking of the the dragon increased his desire and he unconsciously sped up again.
He had ordered both of the knights to use their affinity to keep an eye on the surroundings and look for unusual elements. Ashton had no idea how long the chase would go on, so sparing their power would allow them to remain on the traces of their prey longer. After running throughout the night, their vigilance paid off the next morning when the knight on duty sensed a strong life sign on their path disappear. The overall mood drastically improved when they guessed that their hunt came to an end and hurried over to the place the knight last felt the life sign.
After Eldrin had covered up the entrance to the cave with his [Water Wall] he headed deeper inside the rock shelter, following the single blood trail. The corridor leading deeper into the cave curved slightly to the left after the entrance. After a first few steps the shaft opened into a wide, but crude hall ran through by small cracks, lighting up the place, and possibly the living place the [Stone Breaker Trolls] occupied before they got evicted from their home.
The blood trail had formed a more or less straight line so far, however the pattern changed. The continuous splatters of blood were drawing a zigzag pattern of separated puddles on the bare floor, as whatever was leaving the blood had increased its speed drastically and flown to the back of the cavern. Cautioned by the sudden difference in the marks on the ground, Eldrin circulated his mana in his body and prepared a defensive spell, slowly advancing further towards the origin of the disturbance. The eery stone rubbles and ragged ceiling made it difficult for him to catch a glimpse on whatever was currently creating loud cracking sounds at the far end of the room. Startled by the gruesome noises he also gathered some more of his mana into the pattern around his staff, slightly lighting up the gem set on top of the staff in a soothing pale blue shimmer.
With that many preparations he was ready to confront whatever foul creature had claimed this lair as its own and preyed upon the former powerless inhabitants. Usually he was refraining from meddling in the relations between different monsters and beasts in the hunting grounds, but this one was powerful enough to send a whole band of monsters between the third and fourth rank fleeing, and therefore represented a potential threat for the land’s peace. As Eldrin was walking along the rough edges of the stone wall, the light emitted by his staff caused him to notice a slight gleam in the blood puddle on the ground. He hadn’t detected it as first, but the thin glow in the darkness of the cavern contained a deep dark red and black hue, barely distinguishable from the sanguine liquid.
Stepping slowly from behind the shadows, Eldrin confronted the wounded predator, trying not to make any harsh or fast moves that would incite the other party to attack. His first impression of the situation quickly became full of pity because of the pond of blood the wretched creature was pouring around itself. His second judgement turned this notion around when he appraised the supple scales and lean muscles covering the limbs and body of the beast dwelling in the obscurity, blending into the darkness by cladding its own body with blood and night. When the monster looked up from its meal, the old elf got instantly stunned by the golden eyes piercing throughout the twilight of the grotto straight into his eyes. Instead of charging at him, the golden-eyed hunter tilted its head slightly, appraising him in a similar way Eldrin did before. A feeling of familiarity passed through the unique gaze pinning him in place, prior to resuming its feast. The motion caused a slight trickle of scarlet to seep out of nasty wounds covering its torso and neck. Looking carefully, Eldrin was able to detect a dim grey and black sheen covering the wounds and recovering them at a slow pace.
He had seen this extraordinary being before and it had been showing no signs of aggression at the time. However the elf had to quickly abstain himself from releasing his defensive spell or the mana swirling around the enchantment patterns on his staff when he suddenly identified the thing the dragon was ripping to pieces and devouring as a [Iron Eater Troll]. The elf had assumed that there only lived [Stone Breaker Trolls] in this den, ranging from the third to the fourth rank. Ranking up to the fifth tier signified a major change, and most [Stone Breaker Trolls] evolved into [Iron Eater Trolls], becoming therefore the leader of the pack. Much like their strong fists on the previous tier, tough teeth embodied the prominent feature of a Iron Eater Troll and their name gave a good idea of what could be their favourite meal apart from meat. Working together, a pack of [Stone Breaker Trolls] would dig the lair, while their leader would eat any iron ores they could find, taking advantage of his higher rank to control and command the others into a type of slavery.
Eldrin had recognized the large, yellow teeth protruding from the ragged jaw of the dead body, but the thing that astonished him was the condition of the body. Apart from the meat missing on the torso of the monster, no other signs of injury were visible besides a large tear almost separating the fallen troll’s head from its neck, while the wounds’ shape on the scaled fiend did not match either of the claws or fangs of the troll.
The surroundings lacked the traces of a fight too, enabling the elf to easily deduce that a single assault was all it had taken to settle the confrontation, and the winner was currently rightfully tearing apart the loser.
This gruesome spectacle caused the elf to consider the fast and strong predator with all the respect it deserved, but still fearlessly. For one, he was stronger than most creatures that were able to pass through the warding borders of the hunting ground. Furthermore the old elf also had a pretty good grasp on what kind of beast the black and red dragon was. Despite that he hadn’t seen it in quite a while and the fact that it had the skills required to kill a monster in the early stages of the fifth rank in one move still surprised him.
Before the chance to call for the creature came, a frown appeared on his face as someone forcefully tore down the [Water Wall] he had covered the entrance with. With a grim expression, he turned his back on the large animal and waited for the other unknown force to make their way through the short path into the main room of the cave. The creature behind him also jerked its head in direction of the entrance, alerted by something. It stopped eating and slowly walked up to the two-legged helper’s side. The cuts on its neck and torso had ceased bleeding a short time ago, albeit they still showed the raw meat and muscles beneath the scales.
Eldrin had hoped to avoid a meeting with the trackers of the beast, even more so if they were the ones responsible for its injuries. He was not the kind to play the hero or stand up for an injured monster, nonetheless he was at least acquainted with the dragon. When the party moved into the central hall, he couldn’t help but tense up a bit and straightened his back, in spite of the tinge of pain due to his old bones. In order to avert a too violent reaction from the intruders, he waited in silence while fighting down the urge to stroke the head of the golden-eyed statue besides him.
His attention was unfortunately slipping as he watched the smooth and rippling muscles of the little adorable one by his side and got lost in the beautiful spectacle. When his defensive magic lightened up, Eldrin jolted out of his trance “What the -”
Two bodies impacted the [Water Circle] he had set up before facing the possible fiends since his body couldn’t quite keep up with the requirements to move at a rapid pace under aura enhancement anymore, and rebounded from the water mana back into the stone wall behind them.
He immediately enhanced carefully his brittle bones with earth aura, converting them into cold steel, a single slip up would be all it takes to break more than just a leg. And with only the cultivation of the fourth rank in aura he knew couldn’t keep the enhancement up indefinitely.
Looking closely at the assaulters, he noticed that their hands were bound and their mouths gagged, and even their cultivation in either mana or aura didn’t exceed the first rank. Eldrin puzzledly pondered who could do such a thing and in his bewilderment he missed the heavy steps of plated boots ringing quietly behind them.
Two elves in silver armor emerged from the corner with their weapons drawn, a steel longsword and a shield in the hands of one knight, a long black two-hander wielded by the other. Shielded by the bodies of the two knights stood a young human male, wearing the grey robes of a mage seamed with a red hem, exhibiting his status as a noble.
“The monster didn’t take the bait? The plan failed?” The young noble swept his eyes over the situation with a perplexed look on his face as he addressed his knights, raising a hand to stroke his pale blue hair in confusion. Instead of answering, they tensed up, eyeing with utmost unease the man standing besides their prey.
When the young mage realized his plan had failed, he noticed Eldrin for the first time and a short expression of disdain flashed on his face, quickly replaced by a bright fake smile.
“Old fellow, move away from that wyvern. It was the companion monster of my brother, but he sadly ran away after his death by the hands of bandits. We’re here to capture it and bring it back to our house.”
Hearing this youngster brazenly lie to this face, the thin but numerous wrinkles on Eldrin’s skin distorted as he frowned. He knew how much of a temptation a wild dragon was and a younger version of himself would have done everything to contract such a rarity. In a way, he could understand the young noble. But they had tried to sacrifice a pair of helpless humans to gain a small advantage against the dangerous beast they hunted.
Acts like these had driven Eldrin to leave the capital and wish to live the rest of his days alone. Instead of acting as a protection for common folk and taking it as a part of their noble duty, those so-called “elites” trampled down on the commoners and destroyed their lives on a whim.
Lying, deceiving, cheating, betraying, plotting, assassinating … all of these despicable acts were a common occurrence for any noble in the kingdom and yet they still dared to believe themselves to be better than the common man, and looked down on him as they stole his money through heavy taxes, and never lost an opportunity to fool those they thought to be inferior in any way possible.
The boy in front of Eldrin was thinking his opponent to be a weak old man because he couldn’t feel a shred of aura or mana emitting from the frail body, despite the staff in his hands, instead of getting wary like the knights forced into serving his whims. In any other situation he would have try to avoid getting caught in human relations or disputes.
But today he had catched a glimpse of a place he had wanted to leave behind so much that he was left with nothing but an endless waiting for his own demise.
Today the inhuman nobles wouldn’t take anything else from him.
Today Eldrin would fight back.