Velor had fought two other dragons in his life, both of them younglings barely separated from their mother’s care. The first time he’d been fighting to defend his life, and the second time he’d had something to prove. They had been smaller than this, but both had brought him to the brink of death.
They both shared another quality with this dragon, one detail that caught him by surprise once again. For all their massive bulk, dragons were so much faster than he expected. Even the elder dragons, whose age was beyond human reckoning, moved with all the grace and agility of a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. Younglings were even more terrifying, as they combined size and speed with a distinct lack of restraint.
When this youngling shot out of the cave, the speed of its departure caught Velor flat-footed and holding a dagger no longer embedded in the creature’s flank. He had intended to keep pace with the dragon, ready to aid Eleric if such aid proved necessary. But his surprise cost him the opportunity to be of help.
The mysterious young mage had no strength to rely on except his own. Velor imagined the dragon's jaws closing across the mage’s torso, snapping him in half like a ranger snapping dry twigs to start a fire. Now that the dragon was on the move, Velor didn’t think the mage would even slow it down. It would be in the air in moments, and Velor’s contract with Sir Godfrey would be in danger.
Velor still held shadow tightly in his grasp, and he swore as he sprinted after the fleeing dragon. He would be too late to save the mage, but better to fail than never try at all. And if the mage did somehow delay the dragon, Velor might still kill it and complete his contract.
For a moment, though, it all looked hopeless. Even at a full sprint, shadow coursing through his veins and strengthening his limbs, the youngling had too much of a lead. It would be in the air before Velor reached it.
A sudden buildup of focused magical force almost sent him diving for the edges of the cave. It was as unexpected as it was powerful.
In his years of travel, he'd crossed paths with several mages, many of whom he never wished to cross paths with again. Their skill, arcane knowledge, and wiles made even a weak mage a dangerous enemy. But Velor couldn't remember ever sensing such a raw release of strength. Even more alarming, he still couldn't identify the path. He tasted hints of light and strength, but the complete flavor wasn’t one he recognized. The shadow within him recoiled instinctively against it.
Just a few moments ago, he'd been certain that Eleric was an inexperienced mage. Strong, yes, but lacking in focus, knowledge, and practice. But the strength he felt ahead of him seemed to put lie to that belief. Such power only came from decades, if not centuries, of experience.
He’d hoped to draw the strength out of the mage, to force him to reveal something more about himself. But he’d expected nothing like this. Had Eleric cast some illusion that hid not just his appearance, but his strength as well?
Velor had no answers, but the only way to find them was to survive the next few moments of battle. Hiding in the cave would do him no good, especially as he had not yet figured out the mage’s path. A shout from the mage could either kill the dragon or bring the mountain down on top of both him and the beast. With his daggers in hand, the safest place for him was as close to the mage as possible. Even mages died when Velor’s cold steel approached.
The plan was barely reasoned. There was no time. Velor relied instead on the instincts he had developed over his years of training, and his experiences told him that to retreat was to die. With this revelation of power, Velor’s purpose for being here had changed. He charged forward, not to help with slaying the dragon, but to use the dragon as a moving shield for him to attack the mage.
The dragon’s protection lasted less time than Velor expected. One brief, blinding flash of light preceded a roll of thunder that shook the stone under Velor’s feet. The assassin kept his balance, but the unfocused blast tripped the dragon up. Had the dragon been his target, Velor was certain he could have caught it. But the true danger wasn’t the beast, but the human beyond.
In the moments after the blast dissipated, the dragon stumbled several steps forward. From where Velor stood, the dragon seemed dazed. He didn't dally. He raced around the side of the dragon, putting all his focus into his speed. The dragon fell, and Velor ran under the wings as they folded in close to the dragon’s body. Two more steps brought him to its massive chest, and in the corner of his vision, he saw that everything above the neck was simply gone, as though it had never existed. The incision had cut through soft tissue, spine, and armored scale with equal ease, not leaving so much as the smallest ragged edge.
Fortunately, Velor didn't have time to understand what he saw. It was too impossible to be true. He focused only on Eleric, still standing in the open, holding up one hand as though he had only shouted at the dragon to stop.
Velor noted several details. Eleric’s eyes were wide, his vitals exposed, his weight barely balanced. The mage carried all the marks of an easy kill. Then Eleric’s gaze tracked down, and somehow, his eyes became even wider. He brought his hand down, but Velor felt no gatherings of power.
Still, Velor pushed harder, closing the distance as though his life depended on it. The power that had erupted from that hand had killed a dragon in ways that should not be possible.
The mage was too slow. By the time Eleric had aimed his palm at where Velor had once stood, the assassin was behind him, dagger held tight to his throat. A trickle of blood dripped down Eleric’s neck.
Velor snarled. "If I sense the slightest focusing of your strength, I will kill you without warning. Do you understand?” The mage barely nodded his head. His breath came in short, ragged gasps.
A mage wasn’t beaten until they were dead, but Velor felt confident. The dragon was dead, and he could claim the bounty. This mage was in his power. All in all, it was proving to be a fortuitous night.
"Now. Tell me who you are and why you're really here before I decide you aren't worth the air that you breathe.”