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Authors: Paul Collins

dragonfang

Paul Collins was born in England, raised in New Zealand and moved to Australia in 1972. In 1975 he launched
Void
, a science fiction magazine.

In 1978, Paul moved from magazine to book publishing, with a series of original Australian science fiction and fantasy novels and anthologies. During this time he published Australia’s first heroic fantasy novels.

He sold his first professional fantasy story in 1977 to the United States magazine
Weirdbook
. The best of his short stories have been collected in
The Government in Exile
(1994). A later collection,
Stalking Midnight
, was published by
cosmos.com
.

His first fantasy novel for younger readers was
The Wizard’s Torment
. Paul then edited the young adult anthology
Dream Weavers
, Australia’s first heroic fantasy anthology. This was followed by
Fantastic Worlds
, and
Tales from the Wasteland
.

Together with Michael Pryor, Paul is the co-editor of the highly successful fantasy series,
The Quentaris Chronicles
; he has also contributed to the series as an author. Paul’s recent works include
The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn War
trilogy and
The World of Grrym
trilogy in collaboration with Danny Willis.

Paul has been the recipient of several awards, notably the inaugural Peter McNamara, the Aurealis, and the William Atheling. He has been short-listed for many others, including the Aurealis and Ditmar awards.

Paul served time in the commandos, has a black belt in both tae kwon do and ju jitsu, he was a kickboxer, and trained with the Los Angeles Hell Drivers.

Visit him at
www.paulcollins.com.au
and
www.quentaris.com

Also by Paul Collins

Dragonlinks

Dragonsight

Wardragon

Swords of Quentaris

Slaves of Quentaris

Dragonlords of Quentaris

Princess of Shadows

The Forgotten Prince

Vampires of Quentaris

The Spell of Undoing

The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler

Allira’s Gift
(with Danny Willis)

Lords of Quibbitt
(with Danny Willis)

Morgassa’s Folly
(with Danny Willis)

The Wizard’s Torment

Cyberskin

The Earthborn

The Skyborn

The Hiveborn

Sneila

Metaworlds (ed)

Dream Weavers (ed)

Fantastic Worlds (ed)

The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy (ed)

BOOK TWO IN THE JELINDEL CHRONICLES

Paul Collins

Published by Ford Street Publishing, an imprint of Hybrid Publishers, PO Box 52, Ormond VIC 3204

Melbourne Victoria Australia

Text © Paul Collins 2004
4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3

This publication is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the publisher. Requests and enquiries concerning reproduction should be addressed to Ford Street Publishing Pty Ltd
2 Ford Street, Clifton Hill VIC 3068.
Ford Street website:
www.fordstreetpublishing.com

First published 2004
National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Author: Collins, Paul 1954–
Title: Dragonfang / Paul Collins

ISBN: 9781921665080 (pbk.)
Target Audience: Fantasy – Juvenile fiction
Dewey Number: A823.3

Cover design: Grant Gittus
Map: Marc McBride

Printed in Australia by
McPherson’s Printing Group, Maryborough, Victoria

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Sean McMullen for his constant generosity, and to others who have offered valued help: Meredith Costain, Randal Flynn, Liz Harper, Dmetri Kakmi, Louise Prout and Cathy Larsen

To Celeste Pryor, who loves dragons

From a concept by Sean McMullen

Contents

  
1
       
The Great Temple of Verity

  
2
       
The Tower Inviolate

  
3
       
Assassins

  
4
       
The
Dark Empress
Sails

  
5
       
To Save a World

  
6
       
The
Dragonfang

  
7
       
The Witches of Zaria

  
8
       
The Green Mountains

  
9
       
The Warrior Gate

10
       
Prince Ulad’s Lair

11
       
The Library of Hazaria

12
       
Chicken Run, Bat Flight

13
       
The Book of Alchemorum

14
       
Lady Forturian

15
       
Piracy

16
       
The Ringstone

17
       
Rescue

18
       
The Voyage Home

19
       
Dragon Versus Dragon

20
       
Homecoming

21
       
The Lindraks

22
       
Allies and Enemies

23
       
Epilogue

Chapter
1

       
THE GREAT TEMPLE OF VERITY

D
uring the night, someone had scrawled a slogan on the outer wall of the Great Temple of Verity in Arcadia. The two-foot tall letters were clumsily executed, as if the writer had clutched the brush in a tight-fisted grip rather than with the finer grasp needed for delicate penmanship. What surprised the former Countess Jelindel dek Mediesar even more was that a common street agitator could actually
write
. It didn’t make sense. And things that didn’t make sense worried her.

Writing was important to Jelindel. Years earlier, when the Preceptor murdered her family, she had escaped. Disguised as a boy, she had begun a new life as a market scribe. Writing had saved her that time. Writing was powerful; it could make lives or end them.

Jelindel always treated people who could write with respect, care, and sometimes suspicion.

The previous week she had discovered in the Temple’s library an obscure tome that spoke of five pentacle gems. It was written that, when brought together, they could bridge the gulf between
paraworlds. Was the chronicler retelling a myth or had he first hand knowledge of the gems? Jelindel had a very real need to visit one particular paraworld. Eyes still fixed on the graffiti, she failed to hear someone’s approach.

‘That will take hours to scrub off,’ said a worried voice.

Jelindel turned to find the Holy Priestess Kelricka, gazing at the slogan.

‘Hours?’ Jelindel shook her head. ‘Better make that days. I can smell binding magic from here. The ink has depth-bonded with the mortar.’

Kelricka sighed. ‘Why Has Verity Forsaken Us?’ She read the slogan aloud. ‘Why indeed?’ she asked of herself.

‘Pardon?’

‘Do not mind me. Lindkeer slips deeper into sickness, and I fear that she will not last this night …’ After a moment, she continued. ‘She has always been as a mother to me. The new Dean of Human Powers is – aggravating, to say the least. She acts as if she is in charge. As if Lindkeer were already gone …’ A single tear ran down her cheek.

‘I am sorry, Kelricka.’

‘Never mind. All things pass, as they say.’ She changed the subject. ‘What do you make of it then?’

‘The slogan? It’s the work of the Preceptor, of course.’

‘Why of course? Why not some empty-headed navvy who has lost his job and blames us for it?’

‘This is not the work of the merely disenchanted,’ Jelindel said. ‘For a start, the author can
write
. That alone sets him apart. It means he is educated, reasonably intelligent. Even the wording is cleverly phrased: “Why Has Verity Forsaken Us?” Not: “
Has
Verity Forsaken Us?” but a question that presumes established guilt. And then …’

‘Yes?’

‘The clumsiness of the writing is too – calculated.’ Jelindel paused. ‘The Preceptor moves against us, Kelricka. He has sworn a vendetta against the Verital Priestesses, and he is not a man to be easily thwarted. If he cannot get what he wants one way, then he will do it another.’

‘By stirring up the people against us?’ Kelricka asked, alarmed.

‘With professional agitators – why not? His forces are perilously stretched across the continent. I would guess that he is discovering just how costly it is to maintain his newfound empire. He can ill afford a major push right now, certainly not one that might prove unpopular with the people.’

‘So he will make it popular with the people first?’

‘That is my guess,’ Jelindel replied.

She did not admit that she might be partly to blame. That part of the Preceptor’s bile was actually aimed at her. She and her former companions, Daretor and Zimak, had eluded the Preceptor’s grasp once too often. History had proven that emperors – especially tyrants – were unforgiving.

Kelricka expelled another deep sigh. ‘These are dangerous times. I will send some neophytes to start scrubbing.’ She turned on her heel and departed.

That night, the first of month four 2132, Jelindel walked the battlements of the Arcadian temple. It was already a full year since her dedication to the Sisters of Verity. Life had been rich in learning and meditation; she had healed many old wounds, those on the outside more quickly than those on the inside. Even in this beautiful retreat, shut off from the outside world, the nightmares continued unabated. Some nights she screamed in her sleep, or
lunged up out of deep dreaming, frantically smothering imaginary fires. The same fires which had consumed her family when she was but a girl of fourteen.

Yet Jelindel was not content. She felt stifled. She gazed out over the battlements at the busy town below, and heard laughter and singing. Somewhere close, a fight had broken out.

The sounds of life. She shook her head in annoyance.

‘Tch! What is wrong with me?’ she asked herself, querulously. And that’s when she saw it. Something dark blotting out the stars.

She stood very still, relaxed her breathing as she had been taught, and scrutinised the star- strewn firmament.
To seek a thing in the dark, the central field of vision is useless,
droned the voice of old Surreanten, her father’s spellcaster.
The dark of the eye cannot penetrate the darkness; for that the peripheral vision must be employed.

She stared into the sky but switched her attention to her side vision. And saw them. They came swooping out of the darkest quarter of the moonless night like so many bats, only larger, and vaguely man-shaped.

Jelindel did not know what the creatures were, but she knew evil intent when she saw it. She raced along the battlement, leaped the eight-foot gap to the roof of the chancery, then swung herself over the railing of the belfry and onto the narrow platform that ringed the great bell and allowed the maintenance men to perform their duties. However, the bell could only be rung from the floor of the belfry several storeys below. By the time she reached the ground floor, it might be too late, despite the guard spells that protected the Temple. Such spells were usually designed to thwart would-be intruders who came afoot; aerial attackers were a rare consideration.

Jelindel knew she must warn the sisterhood. But how? The
great bell, fully nine feet across at the base, bulged above her in the darkness. A braided rope dangled from a giant brass clapper to the flagstoned floor sixty feet below.

‘White Quell protect me,’ Jelindel whispered.

She spat on her hands and leaped into the darkness. And almost missed the rope. She plunged through the air, smothering a cry, twisted like a cat and clutched the thick rope. Her grip was poor and the rope snaked through her fists, burning her palms. She muttered a small binding spell. The electric blue lights danced briefly around her fists and her grip held. She dangled thirty feet in the air.

Above her the great clapper crashed against the sides of the bell – but emitted no sound. That’s impossible – unless a dampening spell had been cast! But who would do such a thing?

Far below she caught sight of a small figure, barely more than a blacker patch of darkness, huddled on the floor. As she watched, the figure raised a hand and inscribed a hexagram in the air. A low muttering reached Jelindel’s ears.

A traitor, Jelindel thought. And she hasn’t spotted me yet, so preoccupied with her dampening spell must she be.

Jelindel let go of the rope and dropped. She muttered a cushioning spell and landed on the huddled figure, smashing it to the ground with a loud ‘Oomph!’

Instantly, the Temple bell boomed out its basso profundo warning as the dampening spell broke, its author either dead or unconscious. Gasping for breath, Jelindel picked herself up and limped over to the still figure. She tugged back the cowl and grunted in surprise.

Lying on the floor was Kelricka.

A raspy voice erupted from the darkness. ‘You have damaged my tool. It is only fitting that you should replace her.’

Morgat, the new Dean of Human Powers, stepped from the shadows. Her hands were already weaving a spell of control. Jelindel took a step backwards, ransacking her mind for the appropriate counter-spell. Behind her, the Temple was rousing. Lesser bells were tolling, emphasising the danger. But there were also hideous cries, and screams of agony.

‘Concern yourself not with what is happening out there, Jelindel. A danger greater than any you have faced stands before you now!’

Jelindel was too preoccupied to answer. Her mind was busy dredging up bits and pieces of mage lore. She was still barely an Adept 9, whereas Morgat was at least an Adept 11. But Jelindel was different to other Adepts: she had worn the dragonlink mailshirt, and absorbed some of the skills and knowledge it had stolen from its legion of wearers.

Jelindel uttered a sharp cry as she felt the blackness invade her mind. Morgat cackled, enjoying herself. ‘You shall become my personal mind-slave, my dear. How does that please you?’

‘It pleases me little, Morgat,’ Jelindel managed to say between clenched jaws. The blackness, a sentient control spell, extended cold penetrating tendrils deep into her being. In a few more seconds, it would control her, and her doom would be sealed.

Then she saw it. It stood out against the control spell like a small and lonely lighthouse. An ancient word, not of this world. And like Morgat’s black spell, it possessed an existence of its own, though unlike anything human.

As the control spell squeezed tightly about Jelindel’s mind, she grunted, almost spitting out the word: ‘
Eskusk-il-Querl!

Morgat screamed, her bony hands darting out and feverishly inscribing a counter-spell. But, before she could complete it, a blob of Stygian blackness flung itself from Jelindel’s forehead,
crossing the gap between them in a blurring blink, and dived into the old mage’s open mouth. Morgat gulped, partly in surprise and partly from necessity. Her eyes opened wide with fear.

A moment later her face caved in, as if the brain had been consumed and a voracious vacuum created. The rest of her skull imploded; her arms and legs telescoped backwards into her trunk even as the body itself crumpled inwards with a sound like crunching glass. A moment later, there was nothing left of Morgat except a pea-sized bead of luminescence. Then that too shrank to a pinpoint and disappeared with a pop.

Four silvery globes floated where Morgat had been. They coalesced and hovered above Jelindel. Their single voice was whisper-fine. ‘We await your command to enter, Lord Adept.’

Jelindel waved them away. ‘You are free, slave spirits. Return to your paraplane with my blessing.’

The globes rained a shower of multi-hued energy and healing over her. ‘Be thee well, Lord Adept, and accept our undying gratitude,’ the slave spirits said, and vanished.

If clothes maketh the man, Jelindel thought, then paraplane spirits maketh the Adept. But she wanted no part in enslaving spirits for her own gain. Taking a deep breath, she turned to the growing clamour outside. She hurried towards the door just as Metriele, a novice, cannoned into her.

‘Run!’ Metriele screamed at her. ‘Lindraks! They fly –!’ She collapsed in a blubbering heap. Jelindel pushed her between two latticed columns and stepped outside. A black shape swooped at her from above and she dived to one side; she hit the ground rolling and came gracefully to her feet as would an acrobat.

The attacker wheeled in the air and came back for her.

‘Not a lindrak,’ she muttered to herself. ‘A deadmoon warrior. A
levitating
deadmoon warrior.’

The deadmoon warriors were a creation of an Adept 12 mage called Fa’red. Having engineered the lindraks’ downfall, themselves a formidable enemy employed by the former King of Skelt, Fa’red had turned the deadmoon warriors into an implacable fighting force in the service of the Preceptor. And now this new ability:
levitation.

Jelindel uttered a binding spell that arced out to wrap around the attacker’s legs, but it made no difference. He wasn’t using his legs.

Jelindel muttered a quick curse and ducked aside as a throwing star sluiced the air where she had been standing a second before. All over the Temple compound similar confrontations were taking place. The deadmoon warriors, supernaturally superior fighters against whom few could stand and even fewer succeed, were butchering novices and priestesses virtually unopposed.

As Jelindel watched, a young girl ran screaming across the central courtyard, her arms covering her head in a futile attempt to ward off attack. Like a dark and silent shark of the air, a levitating warrior sliced down out of the night sky and gutted her on his sword. Her screaming ended in a ragged wet gurgle deep in her throat and she collapsed on the mossy flagstones, her arms flung out before her as if beseeching some higher power.

Meanwhile, Jelindel’s attacker banked sharply and came diving in again, a thin tight-lipped smile on his otherwise expressionless face. In this engagement, he had the ‘high ground’ and he knew it.

Jelindel flung herself backwards and upwards in a somersaulting spinning kick that Zimak had taught her, and which she had rarely had cause to use. It caught the deadmoon warrior completely by surprise. Her left foot, punching out like a piston, slammed into his face, breaking his nose and stunning him for
vital moments. By the time he blinked back to consciousness, it was too late. He rocketed headfirst into the Temple wall and dropped like a stone into one of Kelricka’s prized flowerbeds.

Acting on instinct, Jelindel scooped up the fallen warrior’s sword and raced across the apron. Piled high in the centre of the courtyard was a large cairn composed of dried logs and kindling. It had once been kept in readiness to signal for aid, a remnant from centuries earlier, before magic spells replaced the need for crude signal fires.

Jelindel reached the cairn and hurled a word of conflagration into it. The woodpile caught instantly and blazed up into the night. Within moments it was roaring fiercely, lighting the night sky – and a swarm of deadmoon warriors. Now that all could see them clearly, a significant part of their advantage had been removed. But how to remove the next?

Jelindel hunted desperately through her mind for a spell that might undo the power that kept the deadly warriors airborne. But all that came to her aid was another binding spell.

Although the spell itself was useless against the attackers, she knew her mind was trying to tell her something.

Dismissing it for the moment, Jelindel rallied several priestesses and novices to her side. She sent two of the more fleet footed ones racing to the Temple armoury to bring back the ceremonial swords and pikes. The rest she organised into a small fighting unit and armed them with flaming brands, and the surprisingly successful Siluvian kick-fist techniques that Jelindel had taught them, to temporarily hold back the enemy.

‘There are so many of them!’ wailed a young neophyte.

‘So there are,’ Jelindel admitted, tightly. ‘And see how they crowd one another with their inexperience?’

The girl sagged to her knees in prayer.

‘We’re not finished yet,’ Jelindel said, heaving the girl to her feet. She wove a quick spell of confusion and an aerial attacker dived straight into the blazing bonfire. Jelindel’s moment of glory became decidedly less triumphant a moment later when she threw herself into a pile of goat dung to narrowly avoid a hissing sword stroke.

The novices who had been sent to the armoury returned, laden with ancient pikes, halberds, and swords. More priestesses rallied to Jelindel’s side, grabbing weapons. Together they created a wall of deadly blades raised against the sky.

‘Here, I found this,’ one of the novices said, thrusting a crossbow at Jelindel. It was the old-fashioned sort that used a cranking arm. Jelindel’s heart sank. There were only three bolts.

She quickly fitted an iron bolt into the fluted channel of the crossbow, cranked up the string, and aimed. Muttering a spell of true-aim, she let fly. The bolt found its mark and a deadmoon warrior plummeted from the sky.

‘Oh Mother of Redemption, lead us …’ prayed several novices in quavering voices.

‘We’re holding our own,’ Jelindel reassured them. As if to mock her words, twenty deadmoon warriors that had been held in reserve outside the walls of the Temple suddenly rose into view above the battlements, hovering like a terrible veil of blackness. Their sheer number shattered the spirits of all in the courtyard. Novices and priestesses alike cried out in horror and flung their weapons from them, demoralised.

Jelindel realised it was part of the enemy’s strategy. In all wars and confrontations, the psychological edge was often the one that bit the sharpest.

The new reinforcements emitted an eerie cry that paralysed many who heard it with abject fear, and gave all others a sense of
their own danger. The warriors swooped in for the final all-out kill.

‘Hold your ground!’ Jelindel ordered. Some broke rank, but others held firm.

The same binding spell as before presented itself to Jelindel, but this time it appeared with the symbol for ‘like but unlike’. For an instant it meant absolutely nothing to her. Then she
saw
what it was trying to tell her. She shouted a new spell at the massed horde screaming down upon them from above.


Ketar unsa kitab!

At her utterance the airborne warriors were momentarily blinded.

Unable to see, and blasting down with speed, they smashed in wave after wave upon the flagstoned walls and battlements, till the Temple was dotted with the broken remains of the aerial assassins. In the light of the bonfire, they looked like so many squashed raisins.

‘Back,’ Jelindel cried out to the startled women. ‘Get back!’

Deadmoon warriors plummeted. But some veered away, eluding Jelindel’s snare. Others managed to save some of their falling brethren.

Within moments it was all over. But Jelindel was deaf to the praise raining down on her. She was too busy pondering what little difference there was between the words ‘binding’ and ‘blinding’.

She untangled herself from the clutching novices, who clearly saw her as a newborn messiah, and hurried to the bell tower to check on Kelricka. The crumpled form of the Holy Priestess was still sprawled on the cold stone. But she was breathing and her pulse, though weak, was steady. Jelindel expelled a deep sigh of relief. She fumbled her way to the rearmost wall and felt along
it till she came upon a torch embrasure. She was about to use a lighting spell to ignite the torch when she was struck on the back of the head, and she knew no more.

Chapter
2

       
THE TOWER INVIOLATE

T
he thing about being transported to another world via magic is that there are no guarantees where you may land, or if you will land at all. Nor can you pick and choose which reality will be your host.

When Daretor and Zimak were first flung across the paraworlds, they landed reasonably softly and with few ill effects. It was unfortunate that they arrived at a recent massacre and had had to defend themselves against two brawny victors. Having survived that encounter, Daretor decided that they would attack the freebooters and free their prisoners.

‘Daretor, what are you thinking of? There must be a dozen of them, maybe fifteen,’ Zimak remonstrated.

‘Maybe more,’ Daretor replied.

‘This is the end, this is the beginning,’ thought a resigned Zimak.

In the next instant, a vortex of bluish light spotlighted them. In that split second their screams were cut off and they were
hurled up at such fantastical speed that both men passed out.

Moments later, a terrifying blast of sound broke like a thunderclap across a darkening sky in which three pale moons rode high in their orbits. A crack appeared, a rent in the fabric of reality, and a chaotic spasm of blue light spewed forth once more. Two shapes belched outwards with insane violence, and they began to tumble towards the ground far below.

The shapes were Daretor and Zimak, still bearing the flash-burns of magic used violently and at point-blank range. Zimak screamed as they were flung through, their new world lunging crazily. Zimak clutched frantically for something to grab hold of. But there was nothing but air, and thin air at that.

‘What in White Quell’s name is happening?’ shrieked Zimak.

Daretor, who was just as scared and confused but constitutionally unable to show weakness, said nothing. He clenched his teeth to stifle any errant cry and grabbed hold of his equally terrified companion.

‘Black Quell means to have us this time!’ he said, tightening his grip on Zimak.

They plummeted earthward, punching through thin patches of cloud that slapped them wetly, making them shiver as the cold airstream pummelled them.

‘She betrayed us,’ Daretor snarled. He had to shout to be heard.

Zimak clenched his eyes shut. He was getting himself back under control, or trying to – not an easy feat when the distant ground was becoming exceedingly less distant by the second. ‘Gah, Daretor! Is that all you can think about?’

‘She sent us here to die, the miserable witch. We survived the first landing, so she’s hit us again.’

‘Agreed. But how about being more constructive, like how by all the truenames of all the true gods do we get out of this?’

‘Fool!’ Daretor hissed. ‘We are not meant to “get out of this”. We are meant to die. That’s the vixen’s intention.’

‘I don’t want to die, Daretor!’

‘I intend to pass this life with honour, not squealing like a stuck pig.’

‘I’ll stick to my squealing …’

It was growing dark. The land below, still a good league down, was already in shadow. An encampment could be seen as campfires sprang up in a great ring reflected from the surface of a lake or slow-moving river.

Zimak peered down. ‘Hie, those yayas are still there.’

‘Well, you’ll soon be joining them,’ said Daretor.

‘Hope they don’t mind company dropping in.’

Daretor’s hand tightened around Zimak’s. Humour was not usually Zimak’s strong point. ‘I’m sorry about the squealing pig remark. It was … unfair. You appear to have some honour after all.’

Zimak opened his eyes. It wasn’t often that Daretor apologised.

‘Sometimes I forget that you, at least, are one who never betrayed me,’ Daretor continued.

Zimak opened his mouth to say something when a shadow passed over them. Then a gout of jagged flame ripped past like livid-green lightning. The flame lit up the pale underbody of a vast aerial creature that banked sharply away, screeching hideously.

Zimak screamed again, quickly forfeiting honour for sheer terror. The creature swooped back and suddenly a giant net swept towards them.

Daretor spun in the air, trying to get a glimpse of their attacker. The net closed around them and they found themselves no longer falling but swinging in sickening gyrations inside the huge sack-like mesh.

‘We’re alive!’ Zimak yelled. ‘We’re saved!’

Staring upwards, Daretor shook his head slowly. ‘Saved for what, I wonder?’

‘You’re such a pessimist.’ Zimak squirmed around, trying to get a look at their saviour. When he did so his mouth fell open. Nothing came out save a strangled sound deep in his throat.

‘That what I think it is?’ he asked finally.

Daretor nodded. ‘Aye. It is.’

Flying above them, its huge bat-like wings sawing the air with massive downstrokes, was a crimson armour-encrusted dragon that was at least a hundred yards from wingtip to wingtip. Trailing behind for balance was a long, thin, forked tail.

‘I don’t believe it. Dragons aren’t
real
. They’re just in … dummart fairytales.’

‘Then,’ said Daretor, ‘you’ve been ensnared by a fairytale.’

On the dragon’s back, riding in a sleek streamlined cockpit, were several armed warriors who grinned down at them. Each man was richly outfitted in the harness and accoutrements of battle, and small metal ingots that appeared to be insignia.

Dropping from the sky above, a dozen more dragons came crashing into view, swarming in apparent chaos before quickly forming into aerial ranks. Each dragon trailed a net similar to the one that held Daretor and Zimak. In most of them small figures could be seen clutching the mesh, and wailing mournfully.

‘At least,’ said Zimak, ‘we’re not going to die immediately.’

Meanwhile, Daretor was testing the strength of the mesh and looking for a way out. All too quickly he concluded that they were well and truly trapped – for now.

The dragon squad flew at staggering speed towards a vast high wall of rock that towered above them for a hundred furlongs, its topmost pinnacle lost in dark swirling clouds. The noise of the
leathery wings pounding the air was overwhelming. Every now and then, as if in triumph or ire, a dragon spewed forth a greenish gout of flame that seared the optic nerve and created a minor thunderclap as the air was annihilated.

Nervously staring ahead, Zimak gulped. ‘Do you think they know what they’re doing?’

Lit up by the three orbiting moons, the rock wall appeared unbroken; yet the dragon squad raced towards it with no sign of veering aside.

Daretor shrugged. ‘It’s their world. Unless, of course, we’ve fallen into the hands of a tribe of lunatics.’

‘I’m always surrounded by them,’ Zimak said, miserably.

Daretor pointed. ‘Steady yourself, Zimak – the wall is upon us!’

Zimak steadied himself to scream yet again as the squadron shot towards a jagged rampart of rock that jutted from the wall, and which swelled quickly into view. Surely the dragons would dash themselves to pieces on the rock. But, at the last second, they banked hard and swerved around it, rocketing into a narrow canyon of sheer walls that revealed themselves at the last moment. The canyon, which disappeared above into dizzying heights and below into darkness, was barely wide enough to accommodate the dragons’ massive wingspans. The slipstream from the dragons in front and above sucked the air from the men’s lungs and violently buffeted the net, till they were sick, bruised and dazed.

From time to time, they cast a look outwards to see the canyon walls blurring past. The speed of the dragons, not apparent in the open air, was here revealed as truly incredible, as was the precise nature of the flying. One small mistake would have dashed a dragon into a wall. Yet the entourage flew with nerveless disregard of the danger, deeper and deeper into the mountain.

Occasionally, other canyons veered off at sharp angles, and into some of these a dragon sometimes darted, dragging its human cargo to whatever fate awaited it. At one point the canyon closed in tightly, a blank wall looming ahead. Zimak cried out, flinging his arms over his head.

The dragon carrying them lunged abruptly upwards, towards a narrow cleft. Zimak peeked out and was sorry he did so, for the cleft was far too narrow for the dragon to pass.

‘We’re done for!’ he wailed.

Daretor grunted, refusing to look away.

The dragon banked steeply, turning almost sideways so that one wingtip pointed at the sky and the other at the dark canyon depths, before shooting through the cleft and levelling off on the other side.

The view that greeted them was breathtaking. A vast crater, at least fifty miles from rim to rim, had been scooped from the earth by an aeons-old cataclysm. In the crater’s centre reared a single pinnacle of dark basalt, sheer and daunting for over five thousand feet.

Carved into the pinnacle’s peak was a dark and foreboding castle. Its narrow turrets and battlements, thrusting upwards and outwards in a tumult of chaotic design, spewed steam and flame.

‘I fear that is our destination,’ said Daretor.

Zimak regarded the castle with a shudder. Its aspect was illomened. Around its base were massive holes or ‘hangars’. As he watched, a dragon shot towards one. Folding its wings at the last minute, it plunged inside.

‘Pigeon holes for dragons,’ Zimak mumbled.

Twenty minutes later their own dragon swooped towards one of the dark entrances. The net containing them was hauled in
tight to the dragon’s flank, the wings snapped up with a creaking crash, and suddenly they were inside, the dragon alighting with unexpected grace.

‘Well,’ said Daretor, ‘we’re here.’

‘Here’ was a vast hangar at least a hundred feet high and twice that width. The walls were pockmarked with tunnel entrances and staircases cut into the rock. As the dragon settled on its haunches, the net was unceremoniously dumped on the floor. A squad of soldiers jogged out and surrounded them. Meanwhile, ‘engineers’ saw to the dragon itself, removing the flying harness and ‘cockpit’ apparatus.

As the soldiers dragged the net containing Daretor and Zimak to a holding pen, the dragon was guided further into the hangar to what appeared to be a feeding trough. The pitiful screams coming from the trough left little to the imagination as to what composed the dragon’s diet. Zimak paled visibly.

‘I don’t think I’m going to like it here,’ he groaned.

‘For once, we are in complete agreement,’ Daretor growled.

The soldiers spoke little, though when they did it was oddly intelligible to the two Q’zarans.

‘I don’t get it,’ Zimak remarked. ‘How come we can understand them?’

Daretor shrugged. ‘It is my belief that a paraworld is a different world from whence you started, and it exists on a completely different
plane
. A different cosmos even.’

‘Well, if it is anything like our world, then we are in for it,’ Zimak said.

‘It is a world of men,’ Daretor stated plainly. ‘When did men ever treat other men with anything but savagery?’

‘There you go again. Always the optimist.’

‘Pay attention, Zimak. There are other things to note.’

‘Such as?’

‘Have you noticed anything about our weight?’

Zimak looked at him, mystified.

Daretor gnashed his teeth. ‘You have the brains of a mule. We weigh less here. We are much lighter!’

Zimak bounced from foot to foot, testing Daretor’s observation. ‘You’re right. I feel like I could jump over their heads! Do you think that’s possible?’

‘The laws of this world may be different from Q’zar’s. If so, do nothing suddenly. It may give us an advantage later on. There is something else I have observed. The soldiers are small. Their arms and legs are thin; their musculature is like yours.’

‘Being small and lithe has its advantages,’ Zimak replied.

‘It may be that we are stronger than they,’ Daretor continued.

If so, they did not get a chance to prove it. Still draped inside the net, they were taken to a stone chute where the net was opened and its protesting contents dumped. Daretor and Zimak hit the slippery chute and slid out of sight, Zimak’s echoing wail fading in the distance.

‘I don’t like this one little biiiiiitttttt –’

Oomph!
They landed hard, face down in a shallow pool of scum-covered water that reeked of refuse and worse. They scrambled to their knees, retching.

The head and snout of a small dragon poked through an archway. Smoke coiled from its nostrils. ‘Down.
Get down!
’ a voice shouted.

Such was the urgency of the voice that neither Zimak nor Daretor sought to argue. They plunged beneath the water as an inferno of green fire erupted across the pool’s surface. Superheated by the
dragon’s fiery breath, the water exploded into steam. If they had still been above water, they would have been fried then broiled instantly.

As it was, they stayed under till their lungs were bursting, then surfaced, gasping for air. The voice now broke into laughter.

‘What a bedraggled pair of candidates!’

In place of the dragon stood a youth of about fourteen years. He helped them out of the pool and they sat on a stone ledge, catching their breath.

‘My name is Osric. I am Candidate Keeper to the Sacred Worms.’ He said it proudly, obviously expecting them to be awed by his status. When they gazed at him with incomprehension, his face fell. ‘You are strangers from afar, I fear.’

‘Very far,’ said Zimak. ‘But thanks for saving our lives. I appreciate it. He probably doesn’t, but I do.’ Zimak gestured at Daretor.

‘You called us candidates. Are we to be like you, and tend to the dragons?’

Osric laughed. ‘You are too old to be mind-melded to a Wormling. No, you are to be gladiators and you will fight in the next Games and win much honour for your native country before dying gloriously.’

Daretor nodded. ‘That is good news.’

Zimak stared at him nonplussed. ‘
That’s
good news? What about escaping? What about being made royal guests? What about winding up in a harem instead of an abattoir? Huh? Any of those remotely qualify as “good news” to you?’

Osric stared at Zimak, amazed by the flow of words. ‘Your friend must be a scribe, to talk so,’ he said to Daretor.

‘Not at all. He is simply deranged. It would be best if you ignore most of what he says.’

Zimak stood, brushing bits of muck from his skin. ‘Can we get some clothes? And maybe something to eat?’

‘Of course,’ said Osric. ‘Those-Who-Will-Soon-Be-Dead are always afforded every comfort. But you cannot tarry. Training begins at once.’

‘When are the next Games?’ Daretor asked.

‘Five days. I hope you are good fighters. I wish you a speedy and painless death.’

‘Can you stop saying that stuff?’ Zimak snapped. ‘It’s defeatist.’

They saw little of the castle over the next five days. The gladiatorial training was tough and dangerous, especially for Zimak who seemed to have lost some of his swordsmanship and Siluvian kick-fist abilities. But the food was good and so were the women. As Those-Who-Will-Soon-Be-Dead – or ‘gladiator fodder’, as Zimak put it – they were provided with an endless supply of courtesans, each of whom felt it was her unique privilege to bed a gladiator about to die in battle. Zimak took full advantage, while Daretor spent his time conversing with Osric.

The only fly in the ointment was the Master-at-Arms, a short heavily scarred man with an utterly cavalier attitude towards death, mainly that of others. He drilled Daretor and Zimak relentlessly along with the other ‘candidates’ – men captured in battle. It was from just such a battle that the dragon squad was returning when one of their number spotted Daretor and Zimak tumbling through the air. It was generally believed that they had fallen from another dragon cruising at a higher altitude. Daretor and Zimak did not correct this view.

By day they trained with mock weapons, sometimes alone, sometimes in teams. For some reason it was assumed that Daretor
and Zimak were a fighting unit. However, it was not long before their unique abilities were discovered.

On one occasion, Zimak was attacked by a horned half-human creature, its lower half not unlike that of a goat. Zimak feinted, stabbed, and was jumping back to feint again when he tripped. The goat-man lunged for the kill. Zimak snap-rolled aside but the goat-man was on him in a flash. Hardly thinking, Zimak managed to get to his feet and jump.

He sailed over the head of his assailant, who stared up at him in amazement. Fighting stopped everywhere in the arena as gladiators caught sight of the prodigious feat.

The Master-at-Arms hurried over, looking Zimak up and down.

‘Do it again,’ he said.

Zimak stared at him for a moment. The Master-at-Arms raised his shortsword and plunged it towards Zimak’s genitals – or where they would have been had he not sprung back. Zimak sailed a good thirty feet before landing and stumbling.

After a long moment the Master-at-Arms clapped his hands. ‘Back to work!’ he roared. He said nothing more about the incident.

Daretor helped Zimak to his feet. ‘I’ll warrant something nasty is going through that fellow’s brain right now,’ he said. ‘And I would say he will keep your skills a secret, and bet heavily on you in the Games.’

They went back to their training. The other advantage that Daretor had noticed on the first day was also borne out soon enough. With an ease that soon had the other candidates talking, they won all their fights. They
were
significantly stronger than the men of this world. Their bones would not break as easily, nor did they bruise as quickly. One punch from Daretor could flatten the
strongest adversary, while even Zimak outclassed all the other candidates in speed, strength, and stamina.

One evening Osric pointed out that this would prove a wonderful boon, as the winning gladiator or gladiator-team was always freed.

‘You mean we can just walk out of here?’ asked Zimak in amazement.

Osric shook his head. ‘No, of course not. None who enter the Tower Inviolate, except the Freemen, may ever leave. But you will be given a position of status and comfort, probably in the harem –’ Zimak’s eyes lit up. ‘As a eunuch,’ Osric finished off. Zimak’s face fell so quickly that even Daretor laughed.

‘Well, we must try to preserve Zimak’s patrimony at whatever cost. Tell me, Osric, how are the dragons controlled? They seem like wild beasts much of the time, yet the dragonriders fly them fearlessly.’

‘The Riders are chosen when young and are mind-melded to a particular dragon. Only then will a dragon allow a human to approach it. No others will it permit unless by request of its mind-melded companion. The dragons are a very proud and ancient race.’

‘You have also been mind-melded to one, have you not?’ Daretor asked, casually.

Osric nodded. ‘It is necessary for those charged with the care of the creatures to be mind-melded, otherwise they could not carry out their duties.’

‘Have you ever thought of escaping on your dragon?’

Osric stared at Daretor. ‘Escape? But where would I escape
to?
And why?’

‘Were you not brought here as a prisoner?’ Daretor demanded. ‘Do you not have a home, a family? They must miss you.’

‘I come from the mighty Bazite High Plains.’ But then Osric closed down. ‘We must not talk of this,’ he said, and left.

Zimak studied Daretor in admiration. After a long silence, he said, ‘So tell me, O Wise One, what is the plan?’

The night before the Games commenced, the gladiator candidates were led up a spiral hallway to the main hall of the castle. Here they were feted in grand style. They were served exotic dishes and sweet-meats, and two flagons of mead per table. For entertainment, they watched jugglers, jesters, and a troupe of women dancers whose long hair managed to partially, and teasingly, conceal their nudity.

As the evening drew to a close, Daretor spied the Master-at-Arms conversing with an unsavoury looking man and pointing in their direction. The man then approached the gaunt-faced King Amida III, who sat on a raised dais at the head of the hall.

The next day they were awakened early. Each candidate was led by two nubile women into a private bath and there bathed with exquisite care, before being rubbed with aromatic oils, and dressed in full fighting harness. Finally, they were bedecked with garlands of bright flowers and led to a staging pen from whence they would be taken into the gladiatorial stadium.

From where they waited, Daretor and Zimak could see a portion of the stadium. It was easily eight hundred feet across and rose in tier after tier, the thousands of seats jammed with a howling, exuberant crowd.

As the day wore on, gladiators and gladiator-teams and squads jogged onto the bloody floor of the stadium and did battle. Sometimes they fought with other gladiators. Sometimes with wild men. But just as often with savage beasts, the like of which the Q’zarans had never seen.

Finally, it was their turn. Zimak was pale and shaking. He turned to Daretor. ‘I’ll see you in the Halls of the Dead,’ he said.

‘Just do as I tell you. Keep your eyes open,’ Daretor replied.

They walked into the stadium. As they had been taught, they turned and bowed towards the King, who signalled for the match to begin.

‘See the pulsing red orb medallion about the King’s neck?’ Zimak said. ‘I’ll wager that’s worth his ransom.’

‘I said keep your eyes open for danger,’ Daretor seethed. ‘And keep your thieving thoughts to yourself!’

‘Daretor, I’ve got nothing else to hang on to.’

Daretor raised his broadsword in anger at Zimak. The crowd mistook his action as one of gladiatorial defiance and roared its approval.

‘Hie,’ Zimak said. ‘I think they like us.’

The first round was against two gladiators who were quickly dispatched. Then came a knot of longhaired wild men waving cudgels and screaming incoherently. They, too, were easily slain. The crowd roared at each success. Though the first time Zimak leaped over the heads of their assailants the stadium fell silent, then roared again, louder than before.

Two hours later, Daretor and Zimak were still undefeated. The King collected significant wagers off several of his noblemen, who glared at the pair of gladiators. Then a trumpet sounded and a page stepped forth and bellowed for all to hear: ‘King Amida has commanded that the final battle shall be against the mantid.’

The crowd hushed and a ripple of unease swept the gallery. Archers appeared on the lower stand, fixing arrows to bows, and aiming them down into the arena.

‘A mantid? What in White Quell’s name is that?’ asked Zimak.

Daretor wiped blood from his brow and dried his hands with sand. ‘I rather think we shall find out soon enough.’

At the far end of the stadium a heavy portcullis was slowly being raised. Even before it was a foot off the ground something impacted with it on the other side, almost tearing it from its oiled runners. A fierce roar erupted from the holding pen and again the portcullis shook from a massive splintering impact.

Zimak tried to swallow his fear. The blood had drained from his face. ‘I was thinking, we could easily leap the wall into the lower stands, and take our chance in the chasms.’

‘You should have thought of that before the archers were positioned there.’

‘Well
you
think of something,’ Zimak countered.

Daretor waved Zimak aside and took several steps away himself. His eyes never left the cranking portcullis. ‘Whatever is coming will be very hard to kill. If there is a chance at all, we will have to co-ordinate our attack. Look, there’s Osric, in the stand above the portcullis.’

Osric was standing beside a thick column. ‘Great,’ said Zimak. ‘I thought you were befriending him to help us.’

A sudden commotion drew their attention back to the portcullis. It was now half way up. With a great roar, something exploded through the wooden gate and hurtled towards them in a blur of speed. It looked like a giant crab only it had the mandibles of an insect or spider. Its six legs smashed into the ground like pistons as it whirled towards them.

‘Jump!’ shouted Daretor.

Zimak complied. Fortunately, they jumped in opposite directions, confusing the walnut-sized brain of the creature. It skidded to a stop, then cocked its head first one way then the other to glare at each of them.

With amazing speed it darted towards Zimak. Its forward pincers snapped the air where he’d been a second before. Instead, he was sailing through the air to land some forty feet behind the creature.

It spun round and charged for Daretor, who stood his ground till almost the last second. Then he darted between the creature’s legs, peering up at its underbelly, seeking a vulnerable point. But there was none. Its entire body seemed to be encased in rock-hard armour plating. He slashed at it anyway, then darted out again and jumped for safety. The whole manoeuvre took only seconds.

The crowd went wild, cheering the gladiators till they were hoarse. No one had ever lasted this long against the mantid. The fact that they had done so was miraculous; the fact that they still had all their limbs was unprecedented.

Daretor caught sight of Osric still standing by the column. The dragon guardian’s face was tense as he leaned against the balustrade. He raised his hand and made quick jabbing movements towards his nose. Daretor frowned, then something dawned on him. He called to Zimak.