Velor stared, his mind testing each of the mage’s words as though there were some deep truths hidden within. He’d prepared himself for many encounters in this high pass, but never had it occurred to him he would find himself staring at a coward.
The reality couldn’t be denied. Every sense Velor trusted to keep him alive told the same story. The wide eyes and the trembling voice could be faked easily enough, but his shadow-sharpened senses caught the quick pounding of the mage’s heart and the sharp breaths that verged on panic. Though the mage wore thick robes appropriate for the bitter cold of the mountain pass, he moved like a man whose every muscle was tight.
In the cave, the dragon became more agitated, pacing back and forth so quickly it almost looked as though it was spinning in circles.
The motion drew Velor’s eye, and a sharp awareness seized his attention. He’d felt no magic as he approached, and now that he was close, he was certain no barrier protected him from the awesome creature. His palms longed to grip his blades, but any sudden movement seemed ill advised. The dragon and the mage, by either design or coincidence, had struck a precarious balance. His presence threatened to upset that balance, but in what way, he couldn’t tell.
Uncertainty made him seek more information. He turned his senses to the dragon while directing his question at the mage. “Perhaps it would be for the best if you started at the beginning.”
The mage’s eyes flicked fearfully toward the dragon, but he seemed to take some comfort in Velor’s presence. “Of course. My name is Eleric, and I’ve been training for years to become a mage.”
Eleric hesitated, and Velor noted the signs of an impending lie. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Velor considered pressing the matter, but saw no obvious benefit. If the mage wanted to obscure his path, he was welcome to try. All Velor cared about was what strengths the other man would bring to the fight. At first glance, the answer seemed to be very few. He returned his attention to the dragon, allowing his silence to invite Eleric to elaborate.
The mage did after only a moment. “Anyway, I had just made the journey through the pass and was descending into Gandy when this youngling attacked.”
Again, the mage skipped all the details Velor was interested in. Why had he traveled the pass alone? Why was he in this region at all? How had he survived the journey without support? But Velor let the questions die before they reached his lips. If the mage thought he could obscure his path when a battle with a dragon was imminent, there was little chance he’d willingly part with other pieces of his history. Besides, Velor wasn’t one to pry. So long as a person’s secrets didn’t threaten him, they could remain hidden.
“I wish there is more I could tell you, but I know little more than the villagers do. The youngling landed before me. All I could think of doing was running, but I was petrified. I was certain that if I turned my back, it would snap me up in its jaws. I tried to retreat, but my feet wouldn’t move. After a bit, the youngling took off and returned to the mountains.”
Velor noticed the shame rising in Eleric’s cheeks, but said nothing.
“The villagers, as you’ve noticed, thought I was a hero. I’ll confess I’ve never been the center of such attention, and I reacted poorly. I accepted their praise as though it was deserved, and I took every gift they offered. The journey over the pass brought me to the brink of starvation, and I had little coin to pay for what I took.” Eleric's shoulder's slumped before he continued.
“Fool that I am, I never expected they would expect me to come here and slay it. But the beast had been tormenting their village, and I’d taken advantage of their generosity. I couldn't say no.”
“Why did you not say you would hunt the dragon and then escape?”
Eleric’s look was dark, the first sign of inner strength the mage had shown. “I told them I would hunt the dragon.”
That seemed insufficient. But Velor's greater concern was with the dragon. Its pacing hadn’t abated, and it looked like it was preparing to strike. But every time Velor thought it would attack, it would instead stare at Eleric and reconsider. Velor didn’t think he had much time before the situation demanded action, but the stalemate would continue for a few moments longer. Eleric’s story had revealed much, and Velor was almost certain of the truth. “What do you know of dragons?”
The mage flinched as though Velor had struck him. “Not much more than what is spoken of in legend.”
The more Velor learned of Eleric, the more curious he was. On one hand, there could be little doubt the mage was young and inexperienced. Velor didn’t hold that against Eleric. Others would say the same about him. But there was much more to Eleric than a first or even a second glance would reveal. Only one piece of crucial evidence remained.
Velor reached out as though comforting a friend. He laid a hand on Eleric’s shoulder and squeezed. “There’s little to fear. Together, I believe we are more than a match for this youngling.”
He dropped his hand from Eleric’s shoulder and extended it. “My name is Velor.”
Eleric took Velor’s hand and clasped it. “I’m grateful to meet a friend in a place like this.”
Velor heard Eleric’s words, but his attention was drawn to the enormous power he felt within the mage. The shadows within him couldn’t identify the mage’s path, but that was a question for another day.
Velor had studied shadow for almost five years, and his strength was little more than a drop in the bucket compared to Eleric’s.
He’d expected to sense strength, but never had he imagined so much.
It made his next choice a simple one.
He released Eleric’s hand. “I will attack the dragon. Can you fight it if it passes me?”
Eleric stood. “I will try.”
Behind them, the dragon shifted back and forth, preparing to act.
Velor allowed the slightest hint of a smile to reach his lips.
He turned and drew his daggers. He took one deep breath and repeated his mantra silently. Prepared, he charged at the dragon, his footsteps light and quick.
The dragon reacted with all the speed one would expect from a youngling. It snapped out with its long neck, its teeth as sharp as the daggers Velor brandished.
Velor pushed hard off his left foot, and the jaws closed to his side. Had he meant to kill the dragon, he would have planted his other foot and slid his daggers in between the armored scales of the creature. Instead, he kept running, passing into the cave.
The dragon swiped at him with a claw, but Velor saw the strike coming. Shadow lent him speed, and he slid away from the attack. The dragon wanted to turn, but Eleric’s presence outside the cave prevented it from doing so. A moment later, Velor was behind the dragon.
From outside the cave, he heard a startled cry. “What are you—"
He didn’t hear the rest as the dragon roared. Velor took one of his daggers and slid it into the thick muscle where leg met torso. There was nothing vital he could hope to hit, but that was exactly the point.
The dragon’s roar became a cry of pain.
Then, properly encouraged, it leaped out of the cave like an arrow shot from a bow, aimed right at Eleric.