The meeting with the mysterious man unsettled Velor more than he cared to admit. Picking a fight with a dragon was challenge enough. He didn't need unnecessary complications.
He cast out his night-sharpened senses, seeking any sign his visitor tracked his movements. Though he found none, he wasn't reassured. The display of the man's power, if it had been a man, was impressive. If he (or it) wanted to watch Velor this night, there wasn't much he could do about it.
Velor clenched his fists. Someday, he'd be strong enough to stand his own against any threat.
He shook his head and focused his mind. He'd be nothing but a dragon's next meal if he wasn't sharp tonight. The visitor threatened to pull to the surface memories Velor had tied heavy stones to and thrown into the deepest waters of his mental sea.
Velor stopped and shook out his limbs. Despite his hurry, focus was more important. He whispered the first mantra written in the book of shadows. The phrase was in no tongue spoken today, a soft and musical language, barely louder than a whisper. He repeated the phrase until his mind and limbs stilled.
The mantra was nothing but the very first step on the Path of Shadow, but learning even that much had cost him dearly.
Once again, the last warning from the visitor echoed in his memories. What cost he had already paid would pale in comparison to what he would sacrifice if he continued along the path. Such was the way of all paths, but shadow was particularly demanding.
Then he repeated the mantra again, and the fear fell away. Darkness embraced him, and there was nothing but the dragon ahead. He resumed his journey, his steps fast and light.
The road followed a series of ridgelines for another two miles, rising and falling with the terrain, but never forcing travelers into another grueling series of switchbacks like the ones that had started the journey. Velor traveled quickly, his sense of the dragon growing brighter. He kept close track of the moon and the stars, always aware of when the sun would rise and steal the greater portion of his strength.
He would find the dragon this night. The strange visit hadn't delayed him too long.
Though the road changed little in elevation, the surrounding terrain grew more rugged and impassable. The road parted from the ridge as the peaks grew taller, both to the north and south. Before long, he found himself in a valley between two imposing mountains. The road climbed gently here, following a stream that cut through the rock.
Finally, he reached the top of the rise and could look down on the next stretch of the journey. From his vantage point, he could see for miles. And he could see a dragon.
A dragon that was, much to his dismay, still very much alive.
It had nested off the road. A narrow draw ran up the side of a mountain, and on the west side of the draw, there was a cave. The dragon moved within. Velor only caught glimpses of it, but it was an agitated youngling. It paced circles in its cave. Occasionally, it would stick its snout out, but never for more than a few moments.
Velor frowned. He didn't sense any magic beyond the dragon's, but it was possible he was too far away. He watched for a moment longer, but there was little to be learned from distant observation. Godfrey had hired him to kill the dragon, so his next choice was easy enough. He mapped out a route, then set upon it.
He planned to follow the road until he reached the narrow draw, then search for a way to approach the dragon's cave without attracting attention. He didn't fear the youngling much, but only a fool attacked a dragon head-on. His plan changed when he noticed the mage.
Fool that he'd been, he'd not gotten a physical description of the man when he'd been in Gandy, but there could be no doubt this was him. Velor saw the mage before he sensed him, which also struck him as odd. Any mage strong enough to stare down a dragon without flinching should have burned like a beacon against Velor's awareness.
The mage sat on a rock no more than fifty paces outside the cave. Velor paused, hiding behind a tree to watch.
It didn't take long to witness the same bravery the villagers had been so enamored with. The mage sat on the stone, perfectly calm, even as the dragon raged and snapped in its cave. No magic sealed the dragon in, so the mage intimidated the dragon through sheer force of will.
Velor had heard of similar stories, but he'd doubted. Now he believed.
The only fact he couldn't reconcile was that he couldn't sense the mage's power. Was he an acolyte of a path that shadow couldn't sense? Velor didn't think such a path existed, but he was barely a few steps along his own, so he couldn't claim any certainty.
He watched for a few moments longer, but the scene remained unchanged. He debated how to proceed. The mage promised to be a powerful ally.
In the end, his curiosity won. If the mage could sit there, unharmed, the dragon posed no special danger to Velor. And Velor wanted to know more about this mage.
He took a moment to open himself fully to shadow's influence, prepared for battle if necessary. Then he stepped away from the tree and toward the mage.
As he drew closer, he picked out more details. He was a tall man, and thin, and far younger than Velor had imagined. Though it was hard to say, the man appeared to be almost of an age with him.
Velor made no effort to mask his approach. If the mage was as strong as he suspected, he lacked the ability anyway. But the mage didn't so much as turn his head toward the approaching assassin.
A confident man, indeed.
Velor stopped next to the mage, trying to understand the mix of sensations that played against his awareness. There was far more happening in this place than he had realized.
Before he could come to any conclusion, the mage slowly turned his face toward Velor. Velor met his gaze and took half a step back when he saw the mage's eyes wide with fear.
"Have you come to help?" the mage asked. His voice quivered, as though he was close to tears.
Velor stared at the man for a moment, uncomprehending. "I came to confirm the death of the dragon. The villagers in Gandy were confident you would kill it. They claimed you stood face-to-face with it and didn't run."
The mage shuddered, and then his shoulders shook. It took Velor a moment to realize the man was silently laughing.
When the mage spoke again, every word dripped with bitterness and scorn. "True, I suppose. It made a wonderful tale at the inn, that's for sure. But it was not courage that rooted my feet."
He paused, and Velor saw the plea in his eyes.
The mage swallowed hard, then confessed, "When this dragon landed in front of me, I didn't run because I was too scared to move."
Read Chapter 4