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The Dragons

The Dragons


Douglas Niles The Dragons

Prologue

Fiery Beginnings

    Circa 8500 PC
    Crematia awakened to yearning, an awareness of a deep and fundamental need. She twitched, driven by knowledge that she lacked something… something essential to her comfort, even her life. Slowly, over a measureless span of time, that longing coalesced into a specific desire.
    Fire.
    Compelling but terribly distant, a blaze of heat called from somewhere beyond her tightly restricted universe. Seductive and alluring, powerfully radiant, the sensation tantalized her, until she knew without understanding that she had been summoned.
    She reacted by pure instinct, driven by an urge ingrained into every fiber of her being. Lashing out in sudden anger, Crematia pushed and struck the resistant barrier of her world, initial frustration only increasing her desperation. She stiffened her neck, straining mightily toward the draw of magnificent warmth.
    But still that radiance was masked by her enveloping barrier. With growing agitation, she pushed and prodded, squirming and flexing her supple body, then recoiling as the constraints of her universe pressed her back.
    And in that frustration, Crematia learned the power of fury. A snarl rattled her tiny body as rage gave her strength. She struck blindly, snapping, clawing, frenzy infusing the cramped, squirming body with irresistible determination.
    Pushing now, Crematia flexed, straightening her long neck, driving against the pernicious barrier. The front of her head was a sharpened beak, and when she pressed this hooked cutter against the leathery membrane, she felt the surface yield slightly. Compelled to new efforts by her fury, she swept against the barrier with her forelimbs, finding that, like her snout, her paws were equipped with sharp edges that tore and ripped at the stubborn impediment.
    And then that glorious heat was there, radiating against her face, warming her eyes and caressing her nostrils. But that teasing suggestion of life only made the enclosing barrier that much more infuriating. Desperately, frantically, Crematia clawed, pulling the tough fabric out of the way, widening the gap. Finally her head pushed through, and wonderful warmth stroked her neck, kissed her shoulders with the promise of full and immediate immersion.
    With a final push, driving with her rear limbs and clawing with her forelegs, the serpentine creature wriggled through the gap, leaving a hollow leathery sphere collapsing behind her. She blinked, straining to observe and study her surroundings, to clear away the film of murk that coated her eyes. At the same time, she stretched, feeling a glorious freedom, a lack of constraint that allowed her to extend her supple neck, to twist and lash her tail.
    The environment was cloaked in shadow, but everywhere Crematia felt magnificent warmth against her scales. Twisting instinctively, curling about, she let the heat wash over her, bringing a trembling vibrancy to her slender reptilian body. Awkwardly she stretched as wings still gummy from the egg slowly, stickily unfurled. The sensation of space was exhilarating, though almost immediately she sensed a new discomfort, a gnawing ache in her belly.
    As yet she could see nothing of shape or color, but she discerned a flaring brightness that she knew intuitively was the source of that wonderful heat. Deeply attracted, she hobbled toward the light. Her feet were unsteady beneath her, and she slipped, stumbling and jarring her chin painfully against a hard surface.
    Jabbing with instantaneous fury, she snapped her jaws on the obstacle. The bite was painful, but the expression of rage deeply satisfying. Again she lunged toward the bright flickers, her vision clearing with every heartbeat. She saw tongues of orange heat rise, waver, disappear, to be replaced immediately by more of the dancing flares. The bright tendrils encircled her, rising in a protective curtain, shimmering and pulsing with relentless infernal energy.
    A dark shape moved across the curtain of light, bringing another vigorous growl from Crematia’s chest, causing her scarlet scales to shiver. Feeling anew the hollow pain in her gut, she froze, sniffing, staring. She saw a round form, smaller than herself, covered with smooth fur. A pair of bright spots glowed, widening as her sharp snout jabbed forward.
    The furry creature shrieked when Crematia’s beaklike jaw stabbed through its soft pelt. A wonderfully intoxicating aroma engulfed the huntress, and she sensed the elixir mingled her enemy’s pain and its pathetic fear. As the dying form twitched a few times and then lay still, she knew with a thrill of anticipation that much of her life would be devoted to the re-creation in countless victims of these twin talismans of suffering.
    Warm wetness flowed across Crematia’s nostrils, and she discovered another tool of her body-a tongue, supple and forked, that could curl from her mouth to lick that wetness. The taste was sweet, so succulent that the serpentine body shivered in anticipation. Jabbing forward again, chewing and tearing, Crematia relished the tender meat and sweet blood of her first kill.
    There was very little meat in the tiny corpse, but in her hunger, she greedily swallowed the small, warm heart and crunched the frail bones, sucking the marrow from each. Shaking drops of blood and fur from her jaws, she lifted her head, peering around with increasingly sensitive eyes, ready to kill again.
    Crematia was vaguely aware of other shapes all around her, serpentine, scaly bodies emerging from a great nest of bones. With talon and fang they pulled ahead, climbing and clawing over each other, each striving instinctively to move beyond the others. In an atmosphere of seething intensity, hunger seemed to fill the air, driving the red dragon female with growing urgency. Uncertain why, she knew beyond doubt that as the wyrmlings explored outward, continued to move away from the nest, she would have to go first!
    She saw another huddled furry shape scuttle past, and her hunger flared anew. Pouncing quickly, she slashed with lightning-fast claws and brought the little four-legged creature to a halt. Each squirming twist of the body, each keening cry brought another shiver of pleasure through her body. Again there was that intoxicating scent of blood, and she tasted the sweet liquid, relished the struggles of the creature in her talons. Crematia was vaguely saddened when those struggles grew still, when the little heart ceased to pulse forth its crimson nectar.
    Once more she ate, this time focusing on the tastier morsels-flesh, heart, and brain. She left the bones and entrails behind, knowing that there would be more prey, more killing, just ahead. The food was good, warm and fulfilling in her belly, but she wanted-no, she needed — more.
    In a frenzy, she dashed after another of the creatures as the little furball scurried away in panic. Abruptly a green and scaly shape, similar to Crematia but a trifle smaller, darted in front of her, reaching talons toward the prey. But the red wyrmling caught her emerald nestmate by the rear foot, twisting the leg, sinking her fangs into the twitching thigh. With a hissing, hateful shriek, the emerald serpent thrashed on the ground. Ignoring the weakling, the crimson killer leapt ahead of her nestmate to bear the bundle of flesh to the ground.
    Again she was patient, investigating the wriggling creature, enjoying the sound of its plaintive, terrified bleats. Crematia quivered in pleasure as she took one of the stubby, kicking legs and twisted it off to a new crescendo of wailing. She snapped another leg and tore at the moist flesh with her jaws, holding the still breathing and trembling creature pinned with one of her forepaws.
    Then, deliberately, she gouged out the bright little eyes, savoring each as the pathetic being wriggled frantically. Only after the struggles had faded almost to nothing did the red jaws dart outward and pull chunks of meat from the dying torso, swallowing until she had her fill. The green wyrmling still wailed plaintively, crawling on her three good legs, dragging the limb mangled by Crematia until she reached the gristly waste left from the red’s feasting. The emerald serpent tore into the remains with greedy abandon.
    The crimson female loped forward on increasingly sturdy legs, circling a great pile of wriggling bodies and leaking, colorful shells. Chromatic dragons slithered over each other, while more sticky wyrmlings emerged in the midst of the massive bones that framed the nest. A low hissing rose from that tangled thatch, and it pleased Crematia to know that she listened to the hunger of many frantic nestmates.
    Dozens of little forms wriggled from the tangle of bones and webbing, dropping to the ground, trying to shake the muck of their birthing away. Serpents of black and green, white and blue-and a few more of red-crept forth, killing and devouring the furry creatures when they could, snapping at nestmates who dared venture too close.
    Slow-witted prey moved with desperate, waddling steps away from the deadly wyrmlings, but the creatures were unable to escape the vicinity of the nest. With the initial frenzy of starvation past, many of the serpents had, like Crematia, discovered the pleasure of torture, of a slow and leisurely kill. The survivors tried to get away but were trapped by a void of space, a precipice on all sides of the nest. Shrieks and wails echoed, drowning out the dull hissing of emerging wyrmlings.
    Crematia bulled forward, head high, chest outthrust, and everywhere her siblings gave way, forked tongues flickering along the ground before the red dragon’s feet. The illumination she had earlier observed now flared anew, rising higher and faster and brighter than ever, and the red wyrmling-followed by the creeping pack of her fellow nestlings-prowled closer. Her hunger sated, she sought to satisfy her curiosity.
    The tongues of fire resolved themselves into individual dancing pillars. Each was huge, rising from a chasm that Crematia perceived as a gulf completely encircling the lofty pillar supporting the nest. It was that same chasm that trapped the teeming pack of the hatchlings’ prey, holding the creatures together with their lethal hunters atop the spire. The flames leapt from the bottomless gulf surrounding the nest, soaring high into the air and shedding blistering heat across the newborn dragons.
    Crematia sensed a white sibling blinking, cowering away from the heat, and a sense of superiority curled her leathery lip into a sneer. The heat was a welcome embrace to her, and it was strange to contemplate that to this pale, colorless dragon, it seemed to be a discomfort.
    But now her eyes began to focus on images even beyond those lofty flames. She saw a dark landscape, scarred by peak and chasm, stretching into the smoky distance beneath a lightless sky. In places, flares leapt upward from an abyssal crevasse, or streams of liquid fire flowed and spilled and gathered into bubbling, hellish lakes. This was a vast expanse, and immediately Crematia wanted to see it all, to fly over it, to claim the entire realm as her own!
    A form took shape in the near distance, just beyond the circle of fire, and the scarlet serpent felt an awakening of new emotions-awe and fear. A massive, serpentine image writhed there, looming ever higher into the air, growing more distinct and omnipresent as vaporous tendrils of flesh came together, solidifying. The writhing pillars separated, twisting into supple sections.
    As the shape surged higher and closer, the wyrmling saw monstrous heads illuminated by the fire. Four… no, five great necks rose, each supporting a crocodilian head. The body below these heads was lost in the darkness of the chasm, but even so, the shadowy shape rivaled some of the distant mountains in size.
    Already Crematia perceived that the central, the mightiest of these visages was as pure a red as her own crimson scales. This awareness puffed out her chest with another dose of pride, and she lifted her head arrogantly above the huddled mass of her fellow hatchlings.
    “Welcome, my wyrmlings… my children,” came the whispered, rasping voice emerging from the scarlet jaws. “It pleases me to see you kill-to learn the rapture of bloodletting, and of terribly lethal might.”
    A green head beside the mighty red lowered, eyes blinking lazily as it regarded an emerald-colored wyrmling, the newt Crematia had mangled in the pursuit of her prey.
    “Weakness will not be tolerated.” The words dripped like venom from the crimson jaws while the green dragon head licked forward, the tongue hissing a soft sound.
    Immediately the crippled wyrmling uttered a yelp of pain, thrashing through a circle as its jaws snapped, claws swiped at an unseen enemy. Abruptly it froze, trembling, the tiny mouth gaping soundlessly, frothing with bubbles. The little dragon shrieked for a long moment until it vanished in an explosive shower of scales, flesh, and bones.
    “Mercy is weakness-and weakness is death!” hissed the green head.
    The wedge-shaped image of crimson drifted lower, leathery lids drooping lazily over the hot embers of twin eyes. Yet Crematia sensed that there was nothing sleepy, nothing but keen alertness, in the deceptively casual inspection. When the cruel jaws parted again, when more words rasped out, the red wyrmling tensed, as if the mighty being’s speech was directed at her alone.
    “You must never show mercy! Remember this, my wyrmlings: Mercy is weakness, and weakness is death!”
    “Mercy is weakness, and weakness is death!” The echoes came in harsh whispers as a hundred vibrant wyrmlings, profoundly moved, repeated the words of their mistress.
    Again came the rumbled lesson, and Crematia shivered to a thrill of learning. It was a teaching that she knew she would never forget.
    “Remember, my children… be strong!” hissed the crimson jaws. “For in strength shall you gain mastery, and in mastery shall come your vengeance!”
    Crematia’s mind flared at the thought of vengeance. She knew intuitively that it was a goal worth one’s whole being, one’s very life.
    “I am your mother and your queen,” continued the soft but forceful voice. “My will is your command; my pleasure gives reason to your lives. And my whim is instant death.”
    Abruptly the blue head darted toward a pair of white wyrmlings who twitched restlessly at the fringe of the pack. Mighty jaws gaped, and in an explosion of brightness, a crackling bolt of energy shot from the dragon’s mouth, sizzling into the distracted newborns, spattering them into a drifting haze of white scales.
    “You must be ruthless-always!” The voice dropped to a soft, almost gentle whisper, but there was no wyrmling who did not grant the queen full attention.
    “When you go forth into the world, your task will be to find your strongest enemy and kill him. When that foe is slain, you shall again find your strongest enemy and kill him. For every enemy that you slay, another will appear-and that one, in turn, must die.”
    The monstrous head inhaled, a measured drawing of breath that roared like a cyclone. After a long pause, the crimson jaws spoke again. “This shall be the course of your lives, my wyrmlings… knowing your foes, finding them, and bringing about their utter destruction.”
    “I will find my enemy and kill him,” Crematia murmured, a sense of destiny growing within her, seething and boiling into instinctive hatred, a fury that would provide passion and purpose to her life.
    All of the monstrous heads swung back and forth, five pairs of fiery eyes glittering with ambition and cruelty. Crematia shivered with joy at the power she beheld there. Once more the red dragon head rose above the others, fixing its penetrating gaze on the wyrmlings of the same color.
    “Your father was Furyion, mightiest of my sons,” rumbled the Queen of Darkness, and Crematia knew the words were meant for her and her crimson siblings. “He was tricked by the cunning of a gold dragon, lured to his death by the one known as Aurora. And though he claimed Aurora’s life with his last act, there will come to be children of the metal dragons.
    “Know this, my precious ones: These children, the metal wyrms of Paladine, are your enemies. Much time will pass before you journey to Krynn, but when you go there, you will do my bidding, seeking and slaying your enemies.” Another blast of fire exploded from the gaping jaws, a beautiful inferno raging, crackling in the air, slowly melting away.
    “Remember,” growled the queen, “mercy is weakness!”
    “And weakness,” Crematia echoed, her voice mimicking the Dark Queen’s menacing tone, “is death.”

PART I

Chapter 1

A Rest in the Brotto

    Circa 8000 PC
    In a place unimaginably far from the Abyssal home of the Dark Queen’s brood, a different world took shape, gradually emerging from the chaos of godly dreams. This was a realm of sunlight and water, of jagged mountain ranges, vast oceans, and verdant forests. Beneath one of the mightiest summits, within the bedrock of a stony massif, was hidden another, quite different nest. The eggs sheltered here gleamed in the colors of precious metals, remaining undisturbed for a timeless expanse.
    Finally movement stirred, metallic shells rupturing to allow scaly wyrmlings to emerge. Every bit as hungry, as keenly intelligent as Crematia and her kin-dragons, these creatures were also as different from the chromatic dragons as were the icebound mountains from the placid sea.
    From the beginning, there were thirteen in all, bright serpentine creatures of glistening metallic colors, pushing through the minor encumbrances of filmy metallic shells. Lazily stretching, uncoiling, curling gracefully, the wyrmlings clustered in the comfort and warmth and security of the nest. An aura of peace sheltered them, a soothing essence lingering from the great females, the five metallic matriarchs who had been dead for centuries.
    Here brass jaws gaped in a long, unconscious yawn, revealing rows of needle-sharp teeth. There a copper body stretched with lean, instinctive grace, perching with precise balance on the edge of the nest even as it continued to slumber. A wyrmling of bright bronze scales, squat and muscular, slowly pulled itself through the mass of the others, rising to curl in the midst of the mound of metal-colored scales and shimmering, folded wings.
    The thirteen included serpents both male and female, examples of copper and brass, silver, bronze, and gold. All were vigorous, active and strong, and with growing animation, each carved out a space for itself within the confines of the sheltering bowl that was their birthplace.
    Still, there was never any question but that Darlantan and Aurican would vie for mastery within the nest. Silver Darlantan’s lightning pounce killed the bat that was the hatchlings’ first prey, but it was Aurican’s audacious grasp that stole that morsel, allowing the golden serpent to enjoy the first feast. Then together the two quick, graceful serpents showed their nestmates how to snatch the elusive mammals from the air. It was a splendid game-a leap and grab as a great cloud of the fliers swept into or out of the grotto brought down a squirming, squeaking bundle of meat and blood. The hunting was easy and nearly always successful. Copper Blayze, with his lightning speed, soon became even more adept than Darlantan and Aurican, though poor, bronze Aysa never quite got the hang of it at all.
    Later it was Aurican who discovered that the water trickling onto the shelves of the grotto walls was the purest and sweetest to drink. But it was Darlantan who learned that a sharp tug on the tail would bring the precariously perched drinker tumbling down in a hissing bundle of scales, fangs, and claws. Thus was the first game created.
    Aurican was also the one who learned that they could pry gems loose from the nest. All the wyrmlings were fascinated by the bright, multicolored baubles that had been embedded into the finespun metal wire. Most of the nestmates played games, throwing the stones back and forth, but the golden male preferred simply to hold a single large gemstone, caressing and admiring it for a long period of reflection.
    These awakenings, gradual discoveries of sustenance and fellowship and competition in the grotto, were gradual things, occurrences that would be measured over many lifetimes by human standards. But to Darlantan, the wyrmlings were just here, within this grotto surrounding the deep nest of gemstones and finespun wire. Eating when they needed to, sleeping often and for long intervals, the nestmates passed the time and slowly grew.
    But as their size expanded, they also became more powerful, faster and keener of understanding. Curiosity grew as alert minds began to consider the possibilities of things other than bats, water, and the nest. The brass male, Smelt, was the first to voice these questions.
    “What’s there?” he wondered, straining to study the stalactites dangling from the ceiling. “Or down here?” when he scratched at the floor. Sometimes he scrutinized the shadowy tunnel leading away from the grotto. “And what about in there? Is it just the Darkness Beyond? Does somebody live in there? And where do the bats go when they fly out of here?”
    Of course, since Smelt persisted in asking questions for which his nestmates had no answers, they tended to regard him as a rather chatty pest. Still, chirping incessantly at any of the wyrmlings who would listen, the brass was always ready for a conversation.
    Together the thirteen nestmates explored over a timeless, sunless era, working their way through the wondrous springs, rivulets, rocks, and holes of the grotto. To the newtlings, the cave was a universe, a world of unparalleled adventure and timeless wonder. A soft glow permeated the air, arising in pale incandescence from the nest. The grotto was pleasantly warm, and the stony floor was lined in many places with beds of plush moss. No fewer than a dozen springs trilled splashing water down the walls, and this steady flowage filled numerous pools before the overflow drained away through niches and cracks in the floor.
    A lone passageway connected the grotto to a place the wyrmlings knew only as the Darkness Beyond. The corridor was wide and lofty, but cloaked in sinister shadows. Compared to the moist, airy grotto, the place seemed forlorn and frightening, and for a long time, neither Auri nor Dar dared to venture there.
    Naturally none of the other eleven had any inclination at all toward blazing such a new trail. For one thing, there was no water in this winding tunnel, and the entire brood delighted to play in and drink from the pools and trickles of clear liquid that sparkled throughout the grotto. But even more than this, the Darkness Beyond seemed a peculiarly uninviting place, and for the first span of their lives, the wyrmlings were content to remain in their cave.
    Of course, this span would be measured in centuries by human standards, but the serpentine neophytes had no such form of reckoning. To them, life was the unchanging, eternal grotto, and it was good. There was plenty to eat, for the bats dwelt all along the roof of the cave, and the serpents quickly became adept at upward pounces and deliberate, crawling stalks. Lightning-fast Blayze, the copper male, could even flip onto his back and snatch two bats with his forepaws-and, with luck, one or two more with the rear!
    Frequently Burll, an ever-hungry bronze male with more brawn than brains, waited for Blayze to perform his trick. Burll then jumped upon his copper nestmate, snatching as many bats as he could, fending off the enraged Blayze until the bronze wyrmling could gulp down his stolen morsels.
    Often Darlantan and the others killed bats for the sheer joy of the hunt, for the thrill of the fatal, spine-cracking bite. The silver male sometimes took more than he could eat, though hapless Aysa was generally ready to help finish off any surplus. Aurican, unlike his silver brother, was always more precise. He killed a bat and ate it, then killed and ate another, inevitably completing his repast without waste.
    Frequently the bats departed, swirling through the tunnel into the Darkness Beyond, their keening cries fading only slowly into the distance. Sometimes when their prey was gone, one or more of the dragons would suffer from gnawing hunger, going to the cavern entrance and waiting anxiously for the return of the bats. Inevitably the flying pack returned sooner or later, in a great, shrieking cloud of wings and fur.
    Upon these returns, the bats brought scents and tastes with them, clues that triggered in Darlantan’s mind the notion that perhaps there were things beyond the grotto worth knowing. A moist and loamy must sometimes coated the muzzle of a bat that the silver wyrmling slew, and it was a spoor that particularly intrigued him. He determined that one day he would follow the bats and learn the nature and origin of this scent.
    But that time remained some vague, unmeasurable interval in the future. For now, there were brothers and sisters to tug from the walls, games of stalk-and-tag around the looming, gem-studded bowl of the nest, and a growing measure of clicks, barks, woofs, and hoots, sounds that were becoming increasingly recognizable to one another.
    All thirteen of the metallic wyrmlings were active, killing and feeding with increasing frequency as larger bodies required ever greater supplies of meat. Their competition was fierce and instinctive-often a metallic scale or two flaked to the floor, pulled loose by a jealous slash or protective swipe. Aurican perfected a clever trick, pointing his snout in one direction while he was actually watching somewhere else from the corner of his eye. Lulling his nestmate into a false sense of security, he was frequently able to snatch away a bat or interrupt the drink of an unsuspecting sibling.
    The wyrmlings were finding that they had to eat many bats in order to keep from going hungry. For the first time, Darlantan became aware of a strange sensation: It seemed that this perfect enclosure, their paradise, was becoming too confining. Frequently he wrestled with this sensation, feeling it rise to a new level of urgency on one occasion when he crouched impatiently, waiting for the return of the bats, who had swarmed forth on one of their regular forays.
    “We’ll get some food soon?” squawked Aurican in the chirping dialect in which the nestmates conversed. The golden wyrmling padded up to Darlantan’s side. Auri’s proud head was upraised as he peered irritably into the shadowy tunnel.
    Darlantan looked, too, understanding exactly the sounds his brother had made. “Let’s stay here and listen,” he squawked in reply. “Bats will come.”
    Woofing, Aurican indicated his impatience, and Darlantan nodded, suddenly sharing a gnawing hunger that, before his brother’s suggestion, had been nonexistent. Together the two wyrmlings crept toward the yawning shadow, the winding tunnel leading outward from the grotto. Darlantan wasn’t really that hungry-and he knew the bats would be back soon, because they always came back-but for some reason, he suddenly pounced, landing with a rattling growl in the very mouth of the dark corridor.
    Aurican would not be outdone. He raced along the far wall, head and body held low against the floor, shimmering wings tight across his spiny back. Tongue flickering, tasting the air, he scuttled forward, belly low against the smooth floor while the golden wyrmling’s yellow eyes glittered brightly in the murky shadows.
    Then the grotto was a fading presence behind them. As chilly darkness settled around them, Darlantan realized he could still see, but there was a cloudy vagueness to this place that was very different from the cavern of the nest. That strangeness was not so much frightening as it was exciting, enticing. Auri was still a bright snake of color, darting along the base of the wall, then freezing, sniffing and tasting with a tongue that was like a flash of golden foil.
    The other side of the cavern was too far away from his brother, so Darlantan crept down the center of the passageway. Though the ceiling was high and the walls far apart, after the vaulted spaciousness of the grotto, this place seemed strangely confining. He crouched low, studying each gentle curve as they approached it, then charging forward in a clatter of claws on stone and finally halting, seeking sounds and scents.
    The cavern was long, and the two dragons paced each other around numerous bends. Despite the chill, Dar’s heart pounded with increasing exhilaration, his body trembling as they alternately lunged and froze, advancing in tandem with steadily increasing confidence.
    Awareness of a change grew gradually, until the pair abruptly came to a simultaneous, awe-stricken halt. Darlantan stared upward at such a gulf of shadowy space that he scarcely dared to breathe. For a brief moment, he felt dizzy, forcibly resisting an urge to spring forward, to launch himself into that void. He trembled in place for many heartbeats until, once more, curiosity allowed him to move. Again Auri hurried to keep up.
    Dar’s nostril’s itched suddenly, and he sneezed with a burst of sound that brought both of them to a halt.
    It was a good thing, too, because the gulf of space he had observed above also extended downward. The cavern floor ended abruptly about a half-pounce ahead of where the two dragons now crouched, once more overcome by awe.
    The space around them was as dark as the cavern they had just traversed, but it was also unspeakably, infinitely huge. Darlantan knew without a moment’s questioning that they had discovered the Darkness Beyond. If there was a surface, any object out there, he couldn’t see it.
    Looking up, he discerned that the connecting cavern emerged from the side of a rock surface, and the cliff arched outward, an unclimbable overhang looming into the distant shadows. To the right, the face of sheer stone curled away, bending back out of sight in a short distance. To the left, it did the same, though in that direction the shelf upon which they stood curved along the face of rock, offering a path along a wide, smooth ledge.
    Once again the silver nostrils twitched, teased by a tickling sensation, but this time Darlantan ducked his neck and shook his head, stifling any outburst. At the same time, he realized that the tickling sensation was caused by a smell, although it was an odor with a tangible presence unique among the many aromas in the nest.
    “Look!” Auri hissed, inclining the wedge of his head in a subtle pointing gesture.
    The odor was coming from around the cliff, in the direction of the continuing ledge. Darlantan was startled by an impression that he could actually see this scent-at least, he perceived a wisp of whitish vapor trailing through the air. When he blinked and stared again, it was gone. Still, he felt certain he had seen something.
    “The smell is from there,” he hissed in certainty, and Aurican nodded.
    “Be quiet-and be careful,” the gold replied.
    Side by side, heads low and bodies taut, the two dragons started along the ledge leading away from the cave mouth. The shelf of rock was mostly flat, though it sloped dangerously near the edge and was barely wide enough for the two to move without touching wings. Darlantan, on the outside, felt a vague sense of menace in having the Darkness Beyond so close at his side. He took care to place each foot with precision, gripping tightly with his needle-sharp claws.
    The wonders of this exciting excursion were not over. Darlantan squinted suddenly as the brightest light he had ever seen flared before him. Sparks trailed downward as the spot of brilliance remained poised in the air, then began to move very slowly.
    “Fire!” Auri gasped, and Darlantan knew the word was right.
    Instinct dropped filmy inner lids across the dragons’ eyes, and they stared in wonder and awe, but even now, as newtlings, neither felt any glimmer of fear. Instead, Dar’s heart pounded with anticipation. He felt an urge to leap forward, to gulp down that source of flame, but he resisted.
    The fire, Dar could see now, was on the end of a long, thin object. As the flare of first brightness faded, he discerned that the stick was in turn connected to another thing-and that thing was a creature! It radiated an inner warmth that reminded Darlantan of a bat, though it was much, much bigger than any of the winged fliers.
    The stick, with its flaming end trailing brightness through the air, moved up toward the being’s face. There the fire came to rest over a hooked protuberance, a curling stem that ended in a blunt, upturned bowl. Fire surged brightly again, and Dar sensed that it was being drawn into the protuberance. Moldy leaves seemed to smolder there, and vapors rose from the bowl in that tangible smell that Darlantan again realized he could see!
    Abruptly a huge cloud of that visible smell emerged from the being, and then the creature turned to regard the two serpents with eyes that were luminous in their own right-not like the fire, but possessing a certain soft brilliance that in a sense was even hotter. And in that gaze, Darlantan saw a kinship, an abiding intelligence that reached out to touch him deeply.
    Below those eyes was a snout. This was not nearly as magnificent a muzzle as a dragon’s, to be sure, but impressive enough. It hooked outward from the being’s face, curving forward to terminate in two massive, flexing nostrils. Darlantan watched in fascination as those twin apertures gave vent to additional puffs of the gray odor.
    Beneath the snout was a flexible hole where the curved, leaf-burning protuberance was attached-clearly a mouth, though the opening was pathetic and shriveled compared to a dragon’s maw. The rest of the creature’s front, so far as the silver wyrmling could see, was a cascade of wiry bristles, a shaggy mat similar to bat’s fur, only longer and bushier. This thick coating draped far down the being’s chest.
    Abruptly the smoking horn detached from the creature’s mouth, held in some sort of crude claw, a paw that lacked any talons, so far as Darlantan could see. That limb swept into a gesture, as if embracing the two dragons, drawing them forward with growing wonder.
    “Hello, little newtlings,” said the being. “I was wondering when you would get here…”

Chapter 2

Patersmith

    Circa 7500 PC
    “There should have been twenty of you,” Patersmith explained, his shoulders slumping in a posture of uncharacteristic sadness.
    The bewhiskered tutor stood at the rim of the jeweled nest, gazing at the seven tarnished orbs that remained within amid the litter of scraps and shells. For a moment, the sturdy, short-legged figure stood still, as if he had forgotten the attentive audience on the grotto floor.
    Darlantan and his nestmates were gathered in a circle about their tutor, who often addressed them from the height of the nest. Yet now Patersmith’s attention was turned inward, staring into the soft depression where the hatchlings had been protected for so long. The thirteen wyrmlings waiting to hear his next words might have been all but forgotten, so far as the silver male could tell. He remembered the spheres within that enchanted nest, knowing that there had been one each of gold, silver, and brass, and two of copper and of bronze. Long ago those eggs had resembled the brilliant metallic sheen of the wyrmlings’ scales. For some time, however, they had shriveled and dried, until now they were merely wrinkled balls in different shades of brown.
    “It is a sadness beyond measure that these wyrmlings never had the chance to live,” declared Patersmith.
    “But why didn’t they come out with the rest of us?” Smelt asked.
    “I cannot say for sure, but I suspect the cause is the fading of spell magic from Krynn. There was enough of your mothers’ sorcery left to protect the thirteen of you, but not the rest.”
    “But what is this magic? How did it protect us?” probed Aurican alertly.
    “You should have had your mothers here when you were born… but that was not to be. Instead, they wove this nest and cast their spells of sustenance and protection. It was all they could do.”
    “What is spell magic, and where did it go?” asked Aurican, perplexed as he tried to follow the lesson with his usual careful concentration.
    “Much of it is a mystery, vanished with the great queen dragons. Their spell magic was a thing of wonder, a power that could transcend the laws of the mortal world-until it disappeared. Perhaps this is another legacy of the Dark One’s lingering hatred.”
    “What is the Dark One?” queried Darlantan, shivering under an involuntary sense of menace.
    “She who is hated by Paladine and all goodness.”
    “Teacher, what is hate?” asked Aurican.
    “That is a good question, but not an easy one to answer. In truth, it requires another tale.”
    “Then tell us, please!” clamored Oro and Mydass, golden sisters who, like their brother Aurican, had an apparently endless appetite for stories, ballads, and legends.
    “I have a tale!” chirped Smelt. “When I was hunting a bat, it-”
    “Shhhh!” hissed Dar and Auri, anxious to stop the brass dragon before his story wandered into its inevitably complex and pointless course.
    Sulking, Smelt hung his head while Patersmith sighed and drew deeply on his pipe.
    “You dragons are the favored ones, the sons and daughters of Paladine himself. The Platinum Father watches over you. It was he who bade me come here to teach you.”
    “If we are the favored of the Platinum Father,” inquired Aurican pointedly, “that would indicate that there are those who are not so favored. Who are these others?”
    “Ah, always with the questions, my golden pupil. You will learn that Krynn is peopled with a multitude of lesser creatures, slow-witted, weak, and short-lived for the most part. Still, they strive to exist on the world, and when at last you come forth into daylight, you shall share the land with them.”
    “But who are these creatures?” Darlantan asked, trying to picture a being that was neither dragon nor bat nor Patersmith. At the same time, he tried to imagine what daylight was like. Patersmith had told the wyrmlings about the sun, and though Dar found the concept terribly intriguing, it was also almost impossible for him to imagine.
    “Perhaps first you will meet the griffons who glide through mountain skies. Of course, you are mightier than they and could make them your prey or your slaves. But perhaps you will have the wisdom to treat them with dignity and honor and will find that their service, rendered willingly, can be far greater than anything compelled.”
    “So long as the griffon doesn’t take my bats!” declared copper Blayze, with a hissing growl.
    “Ah, my quick-tempered one. I suspect that, when at last you fly above Krynn, you shall find yourself amazed that you once ate bats.”
    “But surely we will still need food,” growled Burll, drawing his bronze brows into deep furrows along the foreridge of his thick-boned skull.
    “Surely indeed, my hungry one,” said Patersmith with a deep chuckle. “It’s just that you have, as yet, no real awareness of the incredible banquet that awaits you. And this is the source of our lesson.”
    “More food?” Burll inquired hopefully.
    “No… more variety. You will learn that the diversity of the world is its greatest strength, just as it is among yourselves.”
    “You mean like the color of our scales?” probed Aurican, who, as usual, was a thought or two ahead of his nestmates.
    “That is an example, albeit a minor one. More to the point are the things that make you different, for these are the things that make you all, as a clan, strong.”
    “Like Aurican wondering about magic all the time?” Dar suggested. “He’s the only one who does that.”
    “Aye-or Smelt, who talks more than all the rest of you put together. Or you yourself, Darlantan. Always you must be doing something, going somewhere, stretching your legs. I can only imagine what it will be like when you learn to fly. And Blayze, so fast. Ever do you leave your nestmates behind.” The tutor’s gentle eyes smiled at the copper male and chuckled. “And with your temper, speed can be a useful attribute, as least while you live among bigger, stronger dragons.”
    “Am I different, like everybody else?” inquired Burll plaintively.
    “Look at your strapping shoulders, the muscles that pulse beneath your bronze scales. Is there another of your nestmates so strong?”
    “No,” concluded the bronze, with a pensive nod of his head. “I guess not.”
    “He’s even got muscles inside his skull!” cackled Blayze, provoking Burll to spit a sharp spark of lightning.
    Immediately the copper flew at his nestmate, spattering acid from his own jaws, until Aurican and Darlantan pulled the hissing, slashing serpents apart. Stiff-winged and growling, the two combatants settled back into their places while Patersmith cleared his throat sternly.
    “What other creatures shall we meet, teacher?” asked Aurican, impatient with the diversion.
    “Ogres are the oldest. They have erected mighty cities across the world. From these, they have gone forth to enslave humankind, perhaps the shortest-lived and most wretched of the two-legs.”
    “Are the humankinds like bats?” asked Burll, his earlier anger forgotten as his tongue flickered across ever-hungry jaws.
    “Bigger than bats,” Patersmith declared, “and more entertaining, though they are far lesser creatures than you dragons.”
    “But are there other beings who dwell long lives of proper meditation and reflection?” pressed Aurican, his brow furrowed by concern.
    “Ah yes. There are the elves, of course. Indeed, they are shy folk and hide in the thickest of forests. But I do not doubt you will find some common understandings with them, should you persuade one to emerge from his grove long enough to talk to you!”
    “I should like that. Or perhaps I shall go into their groves instead,” Auri murmured, so quietly that only Darlantan could hear.
    “But back to matters of Paladine and the dragons of metal. These eggs, here. I am afraid we shall never know what happened to the seven that remain unborn.”
    “Then tell us about our mothers!” pressed Oro. “What of them and their tale?”
    “Yes, a tale!” Aurican’s head rose from the scaly crowd of wyrmlings. “Will you share it with us?” The gold dragon held a large multifaceted ruby in his foreclaw. As his bright yellow eyes focused on the teacher, he unconsciously sat back and passed the bauble back and forth between his paws.
    “Ah, my Auri… ever the balladeer. In the case of this tale, however, I fear it is too dark for you wee nestlings. Nay, that one shall wait until later.”
    Patersmith turned back to his pupils, eyes sparkling above the cascading shower of whiskers. Pacing along the rim of the nest on his bowed legs, the tutor regarded each of the wyrmlings with a look of deep sympathy and warm understanding.
    It was a look they had come to know, and to cherish, very well. Since the coming of Patersmith, the lives of the nestmates had changed significantly.
    For one thing, the first tentative explorations in language had become whole volumes of words that the nestlings shared with each other and with their tutor. They had already heard of many adventures, ballads, and legends of Aurora and Argyn and their other mothers, the five matriarchs of metal dragonkind who had dwelt in peace and wisdom.
    Occasionally the tales had hinted of darker realities, of wyrms named Furyion or Korrill or Corrozus. But Patersmith would turn away their questions when the wyrmlings pressed about these mysterious hints.
    “Is this tale of our mothers also a tale of the chromatic dragons and the Dark One?” asked Darlantan, recognizing the tutor’s reticence.
    “Yes. You see well, my son.”
    “And will they come for us next?” asked Aysa, with a fearful look around the grotto.
    “I should say not, for the chromatic dragons are gone… driven from the world by the heroism of your mothers. With them went the power of spell magic, and many would say the tally is fair. No, the thing that harmed these eggs is not so much the coming of an enemy as the waning of a friend.”
    “And magic-that is the friend?” Auri pressed.
    “Aye, and the chromatic dragons are the enemies. Though you will learn, my nestlings, that still there are many other threats, dangers and evils of which you will one day be aware.”
    “What tale can you share, then, Patersmith?” asked Burll, the sturdy bronze wyrmling who was not at all shy about speaking up. Indeed, it was a good thing he was willing to question their tutor, since he often had to have things explained to him two or three times before he understood.
    “Perhaps… perhaps a tale of magic.”
    At his words, the brood of dragons sat as if on cue, stilling any jostling and restless shifting. For of all the tales told by Patersmith, those about magic were without fail the most entertaining.
    “Aurora was your mother,” began the teacher in the ritual singsong of a proper lesson. Smith nodded to Aurican, and to his golden sisters, Mydass and Oro. “She of the golden scales and mighty power… but, too, she who had captured the wisdom and poetry of the ages within her being and her mind.
    “Her magic was a wonder of the world. With a whispered word she could change her shape from dragon to eagle, soaring the skies of Krynn like a keen-eyed bird of prey.”
    Darlantan had neither seen nor heard about eagles, yet the word conjured an image of a sleek, feather-winged shape gliding through air that was not black, not cloaked in shadow. It was an image that inflamed his heart and caused his fledgling wings to twitch uncontrollably.
    “Ah, Dar… one day you will fly among the eagles,” murmured Smith, noticing the young dragon’s agitation. “But just as Aurican must wait for his tales of nightmare and horror, so must you spend time on the ground before you strain for the skies.”
    “Aye, teacher,” Darlantan pledged, bowing respectfully. Yet his wings still stretched as he settled himself more firmly among his siblings, determined to listen. He could scarcely stand to wait-he wanted to fly right now.
    One of those restless silver wings brushed against Blayze, who was still glowering at Burll through the pack of attentive wyrmlings. The copper spat, drops of acid searing into Darlantan’s wing, and the silver dragon whirled in a blur of scales and teeth. His own breath exploded, frosty ice gusting through the grotto as he hurled himself at the hot-tempered Blayze.
    For several seconds, they tumbled and rolled, tails lashing, scales of copper and silver flaking into the air. Blayze was quick, but Darlantan was big and strong, and he easily pressed the copper to the ground. Silver jaws clamped over the metallic brown neck, and it was then that Patersmith stopped them with a word spoken in a hushed and soothing tone.
    “Mercy,” he said, stepping down from the nest to balance on his bowed legs. He touched each of the battling dragons with his hand, and Darlantan felt the rage go out of him like an exhalation of breath.
    “Mercy,” repeated the tutor. “Always show mercy to each other, and even to your enemies.”
    “But does that not make me vulnerable?” asked Blayze, scowling darkly, hissing at Darlantan.
    “On the contrary, mercy makes you strong, for it creates loyalty and friendship. And you will learn that he who has loyal friends has great strength.
    “But I was speaking of Aurora’s magic… of her spells of fire that could raise a conflagration from a sodden forest, or hiss a small lake of water into steam.”
    Again the tutor used words that the dragons had never heard, but once more their tiny minds fashioned images to the sounds and began to picture a world that was beyond the enclosure even of the Darkness Beyond.
    “Aurora and her sisters used their spell magic to fashion this nest, breathing upon the most precious stones in the world, forming them into a suitable crib for their precious offspring. It was this enchantment that insured your bed was always warm, and that should have seen all of you to a birth undisturbed by dangers.
    “In those days of magic, all of your mothers knew great spells. But ever was Aurora the greatest.” At the continuing words, the golden wyrmlings puffed with visible pride.
    “It is said that she even caused a mountain to disappear once, bringing to death one of her mortal enemies when that dragon of white flew directly into an immovable cliff.”
    “Was that a dragon of our enemies?” asked Aysa.
    “Yes, my daughter. You should know that those were days of violence, for the Queen of Darkness was ever jealous of your beautiful mothers, of their metal scales and keen wisdom and, perhaps most of all, of their eternal patience.”
    “And that jealousy brought war?” stated Darlantan, who had deduced many facts about the past from things that Patersmith did not say.
    “That was the birth of war as such. The sons of the queen were so treacherous that even your mothers’ magic was barely enough to prevent their ultimate success.”
    “But spell magic let our mothers win!” Oro asserted, glaring about with a golden glint, challenging any of her nestmates to dispute her claim.
    “In the end, it did, though that struggle cost Aurora her life. Still, her spells were mighty. With them she could fly without wings, could at one time battle enemies in two different places.”
    “Master, you told us that you speak of ‘those days of magic.’ ” The questioner was Kenta, one of Darlantan’s silver sisters. “By that do you mean those days are over?”
    “Aye, my gleaming daughter. In that age of evil and dreams, when your mothers battled the five sons of the Dark Queen, sorcery was a power held by all dragons. It was inherent might that only served to prove your ancestors’ status as masters of all the world.”
    “But what happened to the magic?” asked Aurican, frowning, thrashing his golden tail. He glared about the grotto, as if he would fix with his sharp stare the culprit who had worked that audacious theft. In his hands, the ruby bauble had begun to glow faintly, casting a soft, fiery light between the wyrmling’s clutching golden claws.
    “Spell magic passed from Krynn with the death of Aurora,” declared Smith, with a sad shake of his whiskers and his head. “The only sorcery in the world now is that embodied by creatures such as yourselves-in the breath weapons that you spit at each other like petulant children, and in the might that will enable some of you to assume different shapes, to walk among the elves and men of the world as one of them.”
    “But there are no spells?” Aurican asked again.
    “No. Except, perhaps, in the tiniest vestiges-such as you yourself have brought to that piece of rock.”
    Aurican looked down in surprise, blinking at the soft illumination that radiated from the stone.
    “A nice trick, that-pretty to see, simple to work. But that is the extent of magic that remains in the world. There is no use in searching nor in seeking. The power of true, world-shaking sorcery has vanished, never to return. It faded with the passing of your mothers, leaving Krynn a colder, darker place.”
    “Perhaps I will bring it back,” Auri mused, so softly that only Darlantan could hear, though Patersmith looked at the golden wyrm sharply as Aurican spoke more firmly.
    “I will. I say this now, to my tutor and my nestmates: Spell magic will again belong to our world.”

Chapter 3

First Wings

    Circa 7000 PC
    Thirteen metallic shapes padded silently along the winding passageway, following the bow-legged figure of their mentor as he led them from the grotto at a surprisingly fast jog. Aurican was in the lead, of course. In fact, the sleek and golden dragon paced directly beside the tutor, his proud golden head upraised, nearly as high off the floor as Patersmith’s own bewhiskered visage.
    Darlantan was right behind. He strained to see past his brother’s shoulder, succeeding because he was slightly larger than Auri. The other eleven nestlings trailed behind, loping gracefully to keep up on what their tutor had promised would be a memorable excursion.
    Biting back a twitch of irritation, Dar saw Patersmith turn and speak softly to Aurican. The silver dragon couldn’t hear what was said, and he felt the familiar resentment Auri was always getting special tidbits of learning from their tutor.
    Usually it had something to do with magic. All the dragons had been impressed by the stories of the sorcerous powers of their matriarchs, but none had latched on to those tales with the obsessive intensity of Aurican. Many times had he boasted to Darlantan of his intention to discover the ancient magic that had been lost with the elder dragons, until at last the silver had grown short-tempered every time he heard about his brother’s pointless wish.
    Often Darlantan reminded himself of Patersmith’s lesson: Aurican’s obsession with magic made him different, and was therefore good. Even when it seemed bad, like Blayze’s temper, or Smelt’s endless chatter, these were the traits that would make them strong. At least, so the bearded tutor said.
    But Dar’s musings were interrupted as the procession approached the end of the tunnel. Before him. the Darkness Beyond expanded to overwhelm his senses. He advanced and stood poised lightly at the lip of the lofty precipice.
    The gulf of shadowy space had become familiar to the young dragons, and especially to Darlantan, in the vast expanse of time since Patersmith had come to join him. Whereas Auri was entranced by the tutor’s stories of magic, Dar found himself raptly listening to descriptions of the world beyond their vast but shadow-cloaked environment.
    He imagined an expanse of bright skies and was desperately curious about the sun, of which he had heard much but never seen even a trace. Too, he was intrigued and fascinated by the whole idea of weather-water and ice tumbling from above, heavy clouds billowing thicker than the smoke from Patersmith’s pipe across the sky. All of that sounded suspiciously like magic, and he wanted to see, to learn for himself, if these things that the tutor was suggesting were really true.
    “Darlantan, my silver son,” declared the tutor.
    Now it was his turn to enjoy the smith’s favor, and Dar wasted no time in nudging Auri aside.
    “You shall be the first. All the world awaits beyond, and now it is time for you to take wing.” His eyes rose and took in the rest of the brood. “Time for all of you to fly.”
    Several of the dragons, Aysa in particular, gasped nervously at the prospect, but Darlantan’s wings stood stiffly to the sides, beating rhythmically as he readied himself for that first leap. His heart pounded as he looked at the vast darkness with eagerness and anticipation.
    “Remember, your body will know what to do, though your mind will not. Therefore, don’t try to think. Let yourself sail through the air and fly, my children!”
    Without hesitation or reflection, Darlantan hurled himself into the void and, for a heart-stuttering second, commanded his wings to beat, to carry him upward. Immediately he plunged nose downward, then flipped over onto his back, careening wildly as wind whipped past his face, lashing across his scales. He strove to bend the unwilling membranes of his wings. Only then did he remember the words of Patersmith to relax, allowing his body to direct itself without interference from his mind.
    Instinct took over, and those leathery membranes, as shimmering bright as quicksilver, scooped into the air. Dar’s nose came up, and he felt the pressure of wind as his stroking wings found their natural pace. Soon he was climbing, banking, turning, feeling the air soar past with a rush of speed. He wheeled through a graceful arc, back toward the grotto’s ledge, and for the first time in his life, he regarded that sheltered cavern from a distant perspective.
    The nook was burrowed into the side of a massive stone pillar, a formation that was very wide above, then tapered to a narrow shaft below, so that the column dangled like a gigantic fang from the ceiling. Only the black tunnel was visible, but he knew that within lay the sacred grotto.
    Below was a giant lake, extending into the far distance of the Darkness Beyond. That darkness was much less threatening when one was a part of it, Darlantan reflected, rearing back as he approached the ledge. Flaring his wings, he landed in a skidding slide that knocked Oro and Aysa tumbling and hissing to the sides. Darlantan spun about and pranced to the edge of the cliff with the confident air of one who has just demonstrated his innate superiority.
    He was giddy with a consuming sense of exhilaration. Only the cautionary raising of Patersmith’s hand held him from lunging forth and once again taking flight. But the tutor was eminently fair, and his guidance was not to be questioned. Darlantan knew it was someone else’s turn.
    Gradually the silver dragon realized that his twelve nestmates regarded him with expressions ranging from awe to astonishment. Aurican’s inner eyelids lowered as his golden head swung appraisingly from the gulf of darkness to the taut, stiff-winged form of his silver Kin-dragon.
    “Splendid start,” Patersmith declared, puffing on his pipe and beaming at Darlantan, whose wings fanned excitedly. “Now, who’s to be next?”
    Kenta and Turq were ready and bobbed their silver heads, but it was Aurican who stepped to the rim of the cliff and sprang into space with a prodigious leap. He swept smoothly into a dive, spiraling and circling downward until he was lost in the shadows. After many heartbeats, he reappeared, slowly working his way back upward.
    By then Kenta had flown, like Darlantan in a momentary tumble of silvery scales before she found her natural rhythm. Turq followed her sister with similar success, and then one after another the young dragons threw themselves into space. With varying levels of struggle they took wing, gliding over the water and then swooping upward with steadily growing confidence.
    Copper Blayze, nimble as ever, swept outward with confidence. His wings stroked with keen and instinctive skill as he pressed them downward, banked easily, then climbed steadily toward the ceiling of the lofty cavern.
    Smelt, in a flash of brass scales, swept past Blayze and tugged at his wing, sending the hot-tempered copper spinning toward the lake in a spitting, twisting bundle of fangs and claws. It wasn’t until very much later that Smelt even dared return to the ledge, and even then the fuming Blayze hurled himself at his nestmate, almost sending both of them tumbling toward the dark waters of the lake.
    Aysa was the last to fly. Not surprisingly, she tumbled straight down from the perch. The bronze female fell so rapidly that Darlantan dived after her, certain she would smash into the waters far below. Though the silver male strained to catch up, in the end, Aysa learned on her own, spreading her wings and leveling off just a short distance above the still, inky-dark expanse of the giant pool.
    Soon the wyrms had gathered back at the ledge, where Patersmith regarded them with expressions of contentment. He puffed and smoked, smiling gently, though to Darlantan, the old teacher’s eyes seemed to moisten with melancholy.
    “Come with us!” urged the silver dragon. “We’ll fly throughout the Darkness Beyond!”
    “Alas.” Patersmith held up his arms. “These are very poor wings. No, without magic, it is impossible for me to fly with you. But it is time that all of you soared into the world and witnessed the wonders of which you have only heard.”
    “But how do we find the world through the darkness?” asked Kenta.
    “There is a cave, similar to the door cave of your own grotto.” The tutor pointed into the distant darkness. “Find it and fly, my wyrmlings, and you will find yourself in the world of light and sky.”
    “We go!” cried Darlantan, his wings buzzing audibly as he tensed for a leap into space. Excitement brought him to a fever pitch. It was fantastic to fly, but even more wonderful to think he would at last get a look at the sun and the sky and the whole world.
    “Yes, go! You will fly to the Valley of Paladine. Beyond the darkness, you shall see this sacred place, sheltered in the High Kharolis. There you may hunt and sleep and fly, safe from the intrusions of the world.”
    Darlantan led the way, though Aurican and the other two silvers flew just behind his tail. The others strung out through the darkness as the dragon followed his memory of Patersmith’s pointing finger. A light breeze moved the air of this vast place-a place that was really something far more concrete than the vague entity he had known as the Darkness Beyond. Already Dar could see the looming wall of this great, subterranean chamber. A sheet of dark rock rose from the edge of the still water, rising high overhead as it domed outward to form the cavern’s lofty, vaulted ceiling.
    Abruptly Aurican veered to the side, wings straining in a visible effort to gain speed. Darlantan tried to think, to remember… Was it possible he was mistaken in his memory of Patersmith’s indicated direction?
    Then he understood: It was the wind! Aurican had sensed that breeze and known that it must originate from the passageway to the outside world.
    Before the others could react, their golden sibling swept into a shadowy passage looming in the vast wall. Now it was Darlantan behind his nestmate’s tail, straining to overtake Aurican. Yet even in his frustration, he retained a measure of caution. He knew he couldn’t try to fly past Auri in this narrow passage, or more likely than not they’d both go crashing into the walls or ground.
    And then they were into a realm that was so broad, so breathtakingly open that the young dragon forgot all about his petty duel. The blue of the sky was deeper, more perfect than any color Darlantan had ever imagined. Clouds puffed, impossibly white and serene in the azure vault that swept overhead. Mountain peaks surrounded the file of gliding, awestruck dragons, and these summits were etched into such precise clarity that Dar felt as though he should be able to reach out and touch each one. He saw, however, that the valley was wide, and every one of the lofty peaks was a considerable distance away.
    The heights fully encircled this place. Even as they flew, the dragons looked upward to the horizon in all directions. Glaciers sparkled in the sunlight, draping the highest peaks in regal cloaks of ice. Cornices, like diamond-studded crowns, crested these ridges, and where the daylight sparkled along the summits, the gleaming reflection was brighter than fire.
    Best of all, brightening the scene everywhere, glowing from the heights of the sky, shone the ball of brilliant illumination… and Darlantan knew that he had at last discovered the sun.

Chapter 4

Abyssal Flames

    Circa 5000 PC
    The crude rabble of Crematia’s quarry huddled in a small alcove in the floor of the Abyss. These creatures, however, were not like the furry rodents that had sustained her upon her emergence from the egg. Now the mighty red dragon held sway throughout the realm of her queen, taking any of the inhabitants she desired for the pleasure of her feasting.
    Tail lashing in leisurely arrogance, Crematia eyed the wretched creatures with cruel detachment. This was a family of them, wide-eyed creatures who walked upright and wore the skins of animals over their own hairless hide. Now a male strutted and growled, brandishing his pathetic club while the female huddled against the wall, three or four nit-like children clinging to her skirts, her hands, and her hair.
    “Please, O mighty one!” wailed the mother. “Show us mercy!”
    Crematia’s crimson maw curled into a sneer.
    “Mercy is weakness,” she declared, then made a slow intake of breath. “And weakness is death.”
    Finally the red dragon’s jaws opened, and the expulsion of fire blossomed into an oily, searing bundle of flames around the helpless victims. The roaring of the blaze drowned the pathetic wails of the dying creatures, a fact that invariably held true, except when Crematia incinerated a very large number of victims at once. In these cases, she had been amused to discover that the dying could raise a wail loud enough to carry above the infernal din.
    But such opportunities for mass execution were very rare indeed. Crematia had become the scourge of the Dark Queen’s hellish realm, but so effective was her killing that there were only occasional targets left upon which she could vent her wrath. She had learned her lessons well, remembering the queen’s commands as if they had been seared into her mind with the fiery force of dragonbreath.
    “Find your strongest enemy and kill him,” Takhisis had ordered. “Then find your new strongest enemy-for there will be one-and kill him.”
    To that end, Crematia had slain all the other red dragons that had emerged from the nest of her birth. With cunning and cruelty, she had tracked them down, males and females alike, and killed by fang or talon or fire. Occasionally she prolonged the suffering of a victim for her own entertainment, but never did she do so out of mercy.
    The other chromatic dragons, the blacks, whites, blues and greens, had been taken elsewhere by the queen, or else Crematia would certainly have killed them as well. Now she was left with pathetic beings like these warm-blooded creatures clad in furs. They died at her whim, but were scarcely deserving of the term “enemy.”
    “Crematia… my Scarlet Daughter.”
    “Yes, my queen.” The red dragon bowed low when she heard the voice of her mistress. The obedience was ingrained-she had seen too many nestmates perish because they had been slow to respond to the Dark Queen’s abiding need for fealty and worshipful fawning.
    The great five-headed image of Takhisis reared from the chasm in the base of the Abyss. Naturally it was the crimson head that fixed its twin eyes upon Crematia, that spread the mighty jaws to speak in a low and rumbling voice.
    “It is time for your journey to commence.”
    The words were exciting, bringing twin wisps of sooty flame snorting from the crimson nostrils. For eons, Crematia had known that her mistress had some destiny, some great task, for her, and it was thrilling to hope the time had finally come for her commencement.
    “My journey of vengeance, Honored Matriarch?” Crematia’s heart flared into a blaze of anticipation. For too long had she been sharpening her cruelty and her skills against such pathetic targets as these primitives.
    “Indeed. Know that others of your nest will journey through the planes behind you, but you are the one I have chosen to lead my children in their return to Krynn. You shall pave the way, and the others I will send when you are ready.”
    “I am prepared to go now, mistress,” the red dragon pledged with a low, wide-winged bow.
    “You must be courageous, my daughter, but not foolhardy. You shall know killing, and wreak terrible destruction in my name. Seek the wyrms of Paladine; learn their habits and their lairs. But do not risk yourself. Leave the dangers to your sisters and brothers, my lesser wyrms.”
    “I obey, my queen.”
    “Then it is time for you to depart.”
    Fire surged as the queen’s crimson jaws gaped, billowing a cloud of infernal flame that swelled and crackled in the air. For several heartbeats, the flames raged, and when they faded, a smudge of oily smoke lingered like a tangible sphere floating in the air.
    The smoke gathered into a swirling vortex, a tiny funnel that twisted with a gusty roar on the red stone of the ground. With a tightly focused spiral, the whirlwind spun like a grinding drill against the rock until it dissipated with an audible pop of sound.
    In the space where it had been, a bright red ruby gleamed. Multiple facets flared and sparkled, reflecting the myriad fires rising from the horizons of the queen’s realm.
    “Eat this Talonstone and my blessing shall infuse you.”
    Crematia’s head darted forward, and the huge ruby disappeared, rippling its way down the snaky length of her scaly throat.
    “With this gem of potent enchantment shall you carry magic to Krynn. You will bear a power greater than that of any good dragon, for sorcery has been lost to them for many ages. You, the first of my children, shall be a creature mightier than any in that world, and with that power you shall commence to claim all of Krynn for me!”
    “Aye, mistress!” pledged Crematia, her belly seething and flaming at the prospects of destruction and killing.
    “Follow the passage. Make way to a world of lesser mortals and let them know your wrath and your will!” commanded the Dark Queen, her crimson head rearing like a mountain above. Five pairs of jaws spread wide, acid and lightning, gas and frost and flame all erupting skyward in a quintuple fanfare.
    “Mercy is weakness, and weakness is death!” Crematia repeated reverently.
    Her crimson wings spread wide, and the red dragon took to the air. Before her, the gate flamed into existence, a great circle of fire poised in space, burning with raging fury. Through that gap she saw a smoldering but sun-brightened sky and a landscape scarred by deep gorges and heaving, fiery mountains. Tucking her wings, narrowing into a streamlined dive, the red dragon swept through the gate, departing forever the Abyss that was her mistress’s realm.
    She emerged from a shower of flames and immediately pulled upward, straining for height. The gate had passed her into the bottom of a deep shaft of rock, but the space was so broad that she was able to swing through lazy spirals, gradually climbing up and out. Riding the upsurge of scalding gases past sheer walls of flame-scorched stone, the crimson serpent rose steadily higher.
    Finally Crematia emerged from the top of a great smoldering mountain, the greatest summit in a vast and tangled range of such peaks. She knew intuitively that this was Darklady Mountain, a massif that had risen from the tortured land in honor of her queen’s awful might. Slopes of dark debris, streaked with rusty red and trailing spumes of tar, marked the conical summit in slashes of color, like a crown encircling a lofty brow.
    Smoke and ash filled the sky, whipped by the wind, trailing like horsetails from many of the loftiest summits. Wings spread wide, Crematia soared, looking into a volcano that seethed and pulsed with the rage of internal fire, then flying above another with a caldera that lay still and snowbound below. Rivers of lava scored some of the valleys, while others were shrouded in great, apparently eternal blankets of ice, frost, and snow.
    The sun was a fire in the heavens, but the warmth of that great orb was muted by the clouds of smoke roiling through the skies. Everywhere mountains spumed and exploded, and great billowing expulsions of ash and toxic vapors layered the sky. The stench of the air was thick and acrid, and comfortingly familiar to the Abyss-bred serpent. She soared with a sense of serene exhilaration over soot-stained glaciers and peered with aloof condescension into deep, eternally shaded gorges.
    After flying for a long time, the red dragon swept between the steep shoulders of two massive mountains and found herself over a region of foothills. The ground was rough and rocky, but lacked the height and the flaming intensity of the volcanic reach she had just traversed.
    It was in a valley between a pair of rolling crests that she saw the first signs of life, walking figures that shuffled outward from a deep, well-protected cave mouth. Immediately she cloaked herself with a spell of invisibility, soaring low for a closer look, knowing she was safe from observation. Several upright figures tromped along the ground, each hulking body borne by a pair of gnarled legs. Some of the brutes clutched large limbs of wood-apparently weapons, the red dragon deduced as she watched the creatures suddenly close in on a mountain sheep, bashing the animal between them until it was slain.
    Intrigued, Crematia continued her explorations, discovering many of these creatures inhabiting the foothills around the High Khalkists. She observed that they dwelled in clans and took shelter in high, shallow caves. They had scored a series of crude tracks, linking many of the tribes over these torturous mountain pathways. Her observations suggested that the clans were led by the biggest of the brutes, who seemed to be rough, crude folk, readily prone to violence.
    In one place, she discovered a deep valley sheltered between the sheer walls below two lofty summits. Along the floor of the gorge were no fewer than a half dozen great caves, and a large number of the two-legged brutes seemed to dwell there.
    Still invisible, the red dragon flew back and forth, finally discovering one gathering that intrigued her. Several of the largest of the bull warriors gathered here, and from these bristled headdresses of bright feathers, while ornaments of gold dangled over their broad chests. Whispering a word of magic, she canceled her spell of invisibility, appearing suddenly when she was just overhead. The dragon settled to the ground before the adorned beings, the downward blasts of her wings driving dust and debris into their faces.
    Crematia saw the gnarled legs, hulking bodies, and strapping arms of these humanoids. She studied the sloping brows, the wide, tusked mouths, and the massive hands clutching knobbed clubs or boulders. The creatures cowered back from her but did not run away, except for one female who, clutching a squalling infant, darted from the pack.
    The red dragon lowered her head, jaws gaping, and spat a blast of searing flame around the lumbering, terrified creature. The victim’s scream rose to a piercing ring as the female, now a living torch, tumbled and thrashed across the ground. In a heartbeat, her life and that of her babe were snuffed away, leaving as a remnant two intermingled, blackened shapes. Satisfied that the smoldering corpses were ample demonstration of her might, Crematia regally swung back to regard the abject creatures cowering before her.
    “How are you called?” she asked the largest of the band, who scarcely dared to raise a fearful eye from the ground when he heard her question.
    “We are ogres, O mighty one! And we are your miserable servants.”
    “Do you expect my mercy?” demanded the red dragon.
    “No, O mighty one. Mercy is weakness!”
    “And weakness is death,” she concluded with a grim nod. “Your answers please me. You will make me welcome and show me honor. And you, my hulking one, you shall be my general and my slave. What is your name?”
    “I am the battle chieftain known as Ironfist, and my enemies quail at the sound of my approach!”
    “That is good. Now, Ironfist, send messengers. You must prepare your fellow tribes for the arrival of my kin. Your clans will gather to my call. Know that I shall lead you to a mastery of the world!”

Chapter 5

Lords of Peak and Blade

    circa 5000 PC
    The stag lunged through the thicket, crushing brittle branches with the force of its headlong flight. Nostrils flaring, hooves drumming the ground, the mighty deer lowered branching antlers and bulled ahead, breaking into the clear with a snorting toss of its proud head. Now the animal galloped across a marshy meadow, each leaping step kicking up great clods of moist dirt. Stretching, reaching in long strides, the stag accelerated with a frantic burst of speed. Darting and veering, the great creature lunged over the muddy terrain, its hoofprints a scar of darkness across the wet landscape.
    And following that advancing scar was a fast-moving shadow in the form of a serpentine body, with a long tail and broad, tapering wings.
    Darlantan saw immediately that the clearing would be the animal’s undoing. The silver dragon tucked his wings and dropped precipitously to land on the stag’s heaving back. Metal-hard talons flexed, argent tips gripping the flesh of shaggy haunches, while Darlantan’s forefeet drove their claws into the stag’s powerful shoulders. The mighty deer stumbled, collapsing from the dragon’s weight, but by then Dar’s jaws had closed around the muscular neck, biting down hard, breaking the hapless animal’s spine.
    Tumbling to the ground, the stag rolled through the mud and shuddered to a halt. Darlantan pitched forward, but the graceful dragon spread his wings and glided very low. Blades of marsh grass brushed his belly for a moment, but then he swept upward, finally rising high enough above the ground that he could once more flap his wings and safely gain elevation.
    Circling back to the bleeding body of the antlered deer, he bugled his success into the clear, crisp air of the High Kharolis. The blue sky, an azure so deep that it never failed to move Darlantan, fully enclosed the vast valley, vaulting overhead like a magical dome of turquoise resting upon the ring of mighty peaks. How he loved to soar through that sky, to experience the utter, liberating freedom of flight.
    Now Kenta and Aysa, silver and bronze shapes against the snowfields, glided into view, and Darlantan knew the others would be following soon. His chest puffed outward in unconscious pride, and again he bellowed word of his triumph with a cry that echoed back and forth between the lofty summits. He saw another speck of brown metal and recognized Burll. Darlantan chuckled, knowing his bronze kin-dragon would never be late for an offering of food.
    Proudly the silver male settled beside the corpse of his kill. His chest thrust outward as he watched his nestmates gliding closer. Darlantan’s tail curled around the motionless body as he lifted his head as high as the elk’s antlers had been when the animal was alive. The mighty denizen of the forest weighed more than the winged hunter that had brought it down, and the silver dragon knew this was the largest single kill in the history of his nestmates’ lives.
    Kenta, the first to land, dipped her head in a nod of approval, flexing her wings and straightening her tail in a display that Darlantan found strangely intoxicating. She had done the same thing before, this silver female, and he had come to relish the fleeting, uncanny sensation. Uncertain of why he did so, Darlantan felt compelled to offer her the tenderest morsel, ripping the tongue from the elk’s mouth and extending it to her in a silver claw.
    “Do you remember when we used to eat bats?” asked Kenta, gulping the tongue in a smooth slurp, rippling the scales all the way down her sinuous neck.
    Darlantan chuckled as he tore away a hindquarter of the massive elk. “It would take as many bats as Patersmith has stories to equal the meat in this single haunch.”
    He tore into the meat, relishing the taste of the fresh blood, the warm fullness of each bite as he gulped it down. More of the band came into view now-Oro and Mydass, the golden females, with brass Smelt gliding swiftly behind them-so the silver took a generous portion of the kill and withdrew, allowing his nestmates a chance to share the proof of his hunting skill.
    “You killed this?” Smelt asked. Darlantan nodded serenely, and the brass dragon continued. “I like deer-especially the big ones. They have so much meat. Do you want the heart, or can I have it?”
    The silver dragon’s attention remained upon Kenta, so Smelt pulled the bloody muscle from the stag’s chest and swallowed it in a rippling gulp. “Too bad Aurican can’t see this,” he said, wiping a forked tongue across his crimson jaws.
    “Where is our golden kin-dragon?” Darlantan asked, amused by the serpentine metallic shapes clustered around the rapidly diminishing corpse. It pleased him to feed his nestmates, but he wanted Aurican to behold his trophy before it was merely a clean-picked skeleton.
    “Oh, I saw him flying toward the sunset, maybe a dozen sunrises ago,” Smelt explained while gulping a mouthful of venison. “He was in the foothills, and I flew along with him for a while. But it seemed as if he didn’t want to talk.” With another convulsive gulp, he swallowed, then swiveled his long neck toward the west. “He should have heard your summons, but maybe he’s too far away. Or perhaps he made a kill of his own.”
    “Yes… perhaps,” declared Darlantan, disappointed. Still, he brightened at the sight of the stag’s bristling antlers as Smelt lifted the skull and used his serpentine tongue to slurp out the tender brain. It was as though the ghost of the great deer danced before them. At least that rack would provide some proof of his accomplishment. He could take the trophy into the cavern to show Patersmith, who still took pride in the accomplishments of his growing charges.
    Restlessness soon took the place of reflection. Darlantan stood stiff-legged, flexing his wings. He would remember this place and return for the antlers, but for now he was ready to fly. Without a farewell, he departed, leaving his nestmates to break the joints and suck the marrow from the remnants of the kill.
    A short time later, as he flew beside a high mountain ridge, he heard a squawk of outrage from the other side of the rocks, followed by a dragonlike bellow of anger. Tipping his wing, Darlantan veered up and over the crest, coming to rest on the jagged but solid summit of the ridge.
    Below he saw Blayze crouched on a shoulder of rock, jaws gaping as he faced a fluttering, feather-winged creature that the copper dragon had trapped against the mountainside. The birdlike beast shrieked again, hooked beak widespread. Blayze’s jaws spread wider, and Dar saw his nestmate’s belly swell, ready to hurl forward the deadly acid of his breath weapon.
    Before that lethal spume emerged, Darlantan pounced, sweeping downward, reaching with his claws as he swept past the ledge. He snatched the griffon-he recognized the feathered flier by its tawny feline hindquarters-in his claws and pulled it away, allowing his momentum to carry both the fliers down the mountainside, away from Blayze. The copper’s blast of acid seared the rocky wall, trickling downward, hissing and burning against Darlantan’s tail as the silver dragon swept the struggling creature to safety. Landing on his haunches on a lower shoulder of the slope, Darlantan held the squirming griffon off the rocks to avoid crushing the creature with his own weight.
    “That wyrm took my prey!” hissed the griffon, twisting with surprising strength. A sharp beak jabbed Darlantan’s neck, and with a yelp, the silver dragon threw the hawk-faced flyer to the side, struggling to hold his balance on the steep mountainside.
    “That was my fight, Darlantan!” snarled Blayze, still crouched over the mountain sheep. “I don’t need your help!”
    “I’m not trying to help you,” Darlantan replied. “I just wanted to talk to the griffon.”
    That feather-winged flier, meanwhile, had spiraled away and come to rest on a knob of rock. Now it straightened powerful wings, smoothing ruffled feathers with long strokes of its hooked beak. Darlantan crouched above, studying the creature curiously. Blayze, after glaring at his silver nestmate, decided to eat instead of pursue the quarrel.
    “Don’t think you can kill me just because you saved me from that snake!” spat the griffon, rearing back on its feline hindquarters and flailing the air with powerful, taloned foreclaws.
    “Why would I save you to kill you?” Dar asked, puzzled by the statement.
    “Who knows? Why would your kin-dragon take my sheep when he could easily kill one of his own?” huffed the creature, casting a nervous glance up the mountainside. Darlantan saw that Blayze was crouched there, and when the copper raised his head, he saw jaws dripping with fresh blood.
    “I saw the ewe first,” huffed the half-hawk, half-lion creature, fixing bright yellow eyes upon the silver dragon. The griffon blinked appraisingly, and Darlantan sensed it was more curious than angry.
    “Blayze never was much for waiting his turn,” the silver serpent explained. “Was that courage or foolishness that was leading you to fight him?”
    The griffon blinked in surprise, then settled back on all fours. Apparently he had decided Darlantan wasn’t an immediate threat, for he began grooming his chest and shoulders with one foreleg’s talons as he spoke.
    “Actually, I didn’t think I could escape. And I wouldn’t have, if you hadn’t swept me away. Why did you do that?”
    “I’ve never met a griffon. My name is Darlantan. Do you have a name?”
    “Ravenclaw, at your service. And I will remember you, silver Darlantan. But now, since my kill was taken, I must fly to the hunt.”
    With that, the griffon took wing, eagle feathers streaming in the mountain air, the sleek form gliding toward the lower valleys, where presumably he could hunt without interference from bullying dragons.
    Darlantan also flew, but his course took him upward, not down, until he soared over the ramparts of the lofty range. He left behind the High Kharolis, the vast mountain range that domed over the grotto and its surrounding cavern. Dar’s flight took him away from that timeless home, into lower regions of forest that the dragon had flown above, but rarely inspected.
    As he flew he reflected on an old lesson-“Mercy is strength,” Patersmith had said, “for it breeds friendship.” Indeed, he felt a kinship with the griffon, a warm pleasure that the creature was still alive. He was glad he had been merciful; Blayze would have killed the creature.
    Through many sunrises, he soared above vast woodlands, awed by the extent of forest. In places, ponds, streams, or lakes sparkled blue amid swaths of greenery. Occasionally a knob of rocky bluff jutted upward, and when he grew tired, the silver dragon invariably came to rest upon one of these. He relished the pastoral swath of green, vaster by far than the Valley of Paladine. The lush forests seemed to blanket an entire portion of the world with their deceptively soft-looking foliage.
    Game was plentiful here, and each night he was able to kill a deer or pig for his sustenance. For sunrises that stretched into seasons and even longer he remained in the forest. If it hadn’t been for the continuing absence of Aurican, Darlantan’s exploration would have been a marvelous adventure. Yet the fact that his golden brother had been gone so long he found increasingly disturbing-either because something bad had happened, or because the gold had perhaps discovered something extremely fascinating. Aurican was quite capable of becoming so distracted by a wondrous discovery that he would quite forget to inform his nestmates.
    Dar’s emotions wrestled constantly between concern and envy. He wasn’t at all certain if he hoped Aurican had been distracted by some discovery, for there were times when it would have satisfied him to find his brother in some kind of real distress-nothing so serious that Darlantan couldn’t have immediately come to his aid, however. The silver dragon flew on in growing agitation, his concerns slowly gaining prominence over suspicion and jealousy.
    Finally his persistence was rewarded by a glimpse of shimmering golden scales, a serpentine shape coiled in a small, tree-shaded clearing. Braying a greeting, Darlantan tucked his wings and angled between lofty pines to land precisely in front of his brother. The draft of his wings drove a great cloud of dust and pine needles into Auri’s face, an effect that Darlantan found not displeasing.
    “Greetings, Cousin,” declared Aurican, blinking his eyelids, then sneezing a cloud of dust back at Darlantan. The gold dragon’s head reached high above the ground, while his sinuous body curled between several trees.
    The silver chuckled, wrapping his tail around a tree trunk and squatting on the loam beside the sinuous golden form. “The ground here is soft, but surely there’s more than that to bring you so far.”
    “Shhh.” Auri’s inner eyelids lowered lazily, his snout subtly gesturing toward the woods.
    Darlantan mimicked his brother’s air of indolence, allowing his gaze to shift far to the side in their childhood game of misdirection. He sniffed with casual curiosity, startled by a strange and intriguing smell wafting through the air. The odor was curiously sweet and complex, suggesting a variety of sources.
    But nothing unusual was visible.
    For a long time, the two serpents remained still. Finally Darlantan saw movement. Several figures skulked through the forest, advancing cautiously amid the shelter of the trees, drawing closer to the meadow, clearly interested in observing the dragons. The beings were quite pathetic-looking. They walked on two legs like Patersmith, but were skinny, if perhaps a little taller than the tutor. Though hair dangled from the scalps of these creatures, their faces were completely barren of whiskers. They wore skins of supple leather around their loins; their legs and arms were bare, with additional leather strapped to their feet. Darlantan could smell the skin of elk and deer.
    Finally the strangers emerged into the open, and Aurican tipped his head regally toward the newcomers, then turned to regard his nestmate, an expression of gentle rebuke in the downward curl of his snout.
    “You startled them rather badly, you know,” Auri explained. “I’ve spent many seasons trying to tame them. Actually, I’m rather impressed they returned so readily.”
    Darlantan studied the approaching figures, realizing that, despite the uniform slenderness of their physiques, they were well muscled, wiry sinew rippling visibly beneath their pale skin. They carried curved wooden weapons in their hands, and several were girded with slender blades worn at the waist. Their eyes were bright and curious, reflecting a certain natural intelligence.
    Then the silver dragon noticed the ornaments. Dar blinked in astonishment and envy as he saw a chain of golden links, the metal smooth and polished to the same sheen as Auri’s scales. The gold dragon inclined his head low, and one of the two-footed beings placed the beautiful chain over his head. Rising again, Aurican looked about proudly, letting the glimmering metal jangle down to his broad chest.
    Then the gold dragon turned over his forepaw, and Darlantan saw that Auri clutched one of the gemstones he was so fond of caressing. This stone seemed to be a large, smooth-surfaced opal, and it remained floating in the air after the golden talons withdrew. Slowly, reverently, one of the two-legged creatures advanced, reaching out to stroke the opal, then finally drawing the stone to his skinny chest. With a bow at the onlooking dragons, the little being stepped backward to show the gift to his companions.
    “They are called elves,” Auri explained as more and more of the pale figures emerged from the woods. “Remember? Patersmith told us about them. They are possessed of certain skills that even a dragon might find useful-and, Dar, I think they have a knowledge of magic!”
    Awed and once more a little jealous, Darlantan raised his own sinuous neck, his head rising just a bit higher than Aurican’s. He looked at the gathering of Aurican’s pets-his elves-and he found himself admiring their courage. He saw that they whispered and muttered among themselves, pointing at the two dragons, clearly conversing in some sort of crude language.
    “They even speak,” Auri explained, as if reading his nestmate’s mind. “In fact, they have a wealth of lore. I have met a chieftain who tells tales of my mother, Aurora!”
    “That seems an unusual discovery,” Dar agreed, “for beings so small, with neither scales nor hair, to have lore of the ancients. It is strange that Patersmith did not tell us more about them.”
    “Perhaps he did not know, for he believes magic to be vanished from Krynn, and yet these elves can work magic on metal.”
    Darlantan watched and listened attentively as Aurican said something to one of the elves in a strange tongue. The elf then opened a satchel at his side and held up a powder of bright flakes in his hand. Darlantan stared, intrigued, as the elf let the stuff trickle back into the leather sack, a shower of miniature sparkles, each as bright as Aurican’s scales.
    “They bring the gold from the rivers like this, but then they work a spell of magic, weaving the dust into these links that adorn me.”
    “That is a wonder,” Darlantan agreed. “But are you certain it is magic?”
    “Look.” Auri nodded toward the woods, where another elf was emerging into view. This was a tall, proud male, whose hair was dark, in contrast to the strawlike yellow of his fellows. He strode boldly up to Darlantan and raised a shimmering object in his hands, a thing so beautiful that the mighty dragon all but gasped in astonishment.
    It was a necklace of links, a gently chiming chain as perfectly brilliant as Aurican’s, save that it was made out of pure, gleaming silver.
    Darlantan lowered his head in imitation of Auri’s gesture of acceptance, allowing the elf to place the chain over his head. He felt the weight against his scales as he rose and allowed the chain to jangle down the length of his long neck. Now he, too, felt the adornment of the elves, and his earlier envy was replaced by a twinge of shame.
    “Can you tell them I am grateful?” he asked Aurican, looking with renewed interest into the elf’s deep, emerald-colored eyes.
    “I will tell them for now, but soon you will know their language as well.” The gold made a declaration in that lilting, musical tongue-it wasn’t primitive at all, Dar realized-and the elves bowed toward Darlantan. The dark-haired male who had bestowed the silver necklace made a soft, pleasant-sounding reply.
    “Now they invite us to journey into the forest with them,” Aurican explained. “They were just about to take me there when you arrived, but they have extended the invitation to us both.”
    Darlantan eyed the woodlands skeptically. “The trunks are close together, Cousin,” he said. “How do you intend to pass? Magic?”
    Aurican smiled slyly, rearing back on his haunches and placing his foreclaws onto the golden chain. “You are closer to the truth than you might think. Of course, spell magic was lost with our mothers, but we have within us the means.”
    Abruptly Darlantan wasn’t looking at Aurican, but at a tall, handsome elf who stood in the place where the gold dragon had been. The elf threw back his head and laughed, and only then did Dar recognize his nestmate.
    “That is magic!” he gasped. It was strange, even incomprehensible, to try to understand that this little creature was actually the mighty Aurican!
    “You must join us,” the gold dragon in the body of the elf said, bowing low and sweeping a hand before Darlantan.
    “But…”
    Unwilling to appear ignorant before Aurican and his pets, Darlantan reared back in the posture his golden nestmate had assumed, but nothing happened.
    “Perhaps it is a gift only of gold dragons,” Dar suggested, trying to conceal his disappointment.
    “No, I suspect that it will work for you-albeit not for our nestmates of the brown metals. You must form a picture of your new shape,” Aurican encouraged. “Choose what you will. I became an elf, in honor of our hosts. But any form is available. Just be sure it’s something that will fit between the trees,” he added with a grin.
    And then Darlantan knew. His claws closed around the chain, and he felt the world expanding. In a heartbeat, he stood among the elves, securely balanced on his clawless feet. His stature was broader than the elves, though he was their equal in height.
    “Very appropriate,” Aurican declared with a pleased nod.
    Darlantan touched the whiskers that cascaded from his chin, strangely delighted by the arcane transformation and pleased that he could make his shape a tribute to Patersmith. A moment later the sturdy figure of the tutor, his gnarled hand still touching the silver chain, followed the file of elves into the forest shadows.

Chapter 6

Restmates

    3553 PC
    Darlantan coiled along the crest of the high Kharolis, content to allow the sun to glisten from his silver scales. He felt the warm breeze of summer ruffling his wings and tugging at the mane that had begun to bristle around his jowls. Lord of all within his sight, the silver dragon was pleased to reflect on his own invincibility.
    The Valley of Paladine was a sprawling landscape below, vast and peaceful, but somehow confining as well. Darlantan realized the great mountain-flanked vale was shrinking in the same way the grotto had seemed to diminish so many centuries ago.
    He knew it would soon be time to move, to once more fly toward new corners of Krynn. Of course, he had often explored the regions beyond the valley. He and his nestmates were well known among the griffons, Ravenclaw’s descendants, who dwelt in the High Kharolis, as well as to the elves of the vast woodlands. Touching the curling bell of a ram’s horn that Darlantan wore on his silver chain, he thought with deep affection of one elf in particular.
    As to his nestmates, in the last dozen centuries, the growing dragons had spread far from the grotto. Smelt had learned a multitude of languages and become a fixture among mankind. Dar knew that many a city or town considered the benevolent brass dragon to be its special benefactor. Whole realms had been freed from the threat of ogres or lizard men, and Smelt was welcomed far and wide, feted to feasting and drinking whenever he appeared, and always finding partners for the conversation that was as important as food to the sociable brass dragon.
    Burll and Blayze had taken more solitary paths. The bronze male had at last grown tired of the competition with his more quick-witted brothers. Burll had disappeared once, more than a thousand winters ago, returning only after many centuries, smelling of brine and fish. Now he spent much of his time in some distant, secret lair, revealing to Darlantan only that he dwelt beside an unimaginably huge tract of water.
    Blayze had become increasingly irritable, taunting and fighting his nestmates relentlessly. He had killed many of the griffons of the High Kharolis, so that even Darlantan, who had always gotten along with the hawk-faced predators, had ultimately lost track of Ravenclaw’s clan. Finally, after an acid-spitting incident in the grotto itself, Aurican, Darlantan, and Smelt had together chased the hot-tempered copper away from the high ridges. Occasionally one of the others encountered him in the Kharolis foothills, but always the copper dragon had fled these meetings, using his superior quickness to escape.
    Certainly Blayze, too, had established a secret lair and probably gathered treasures there. Darlantan and the others would have welcomed him back at any time-in fact, the silver dragon couldn’t even recall the nature of the argument that had resulted in Blayze’s hasty exile. But it had been a hundred or more winters since the other nestmates had so much as seen their copper kin-dragon.
    The females of all the metals had remained close to the grotto, bringing Patersmith morsels of food and dwelling in the ancestral cavern of their kind. The last time Darlantan had visited was scores of winters ago, and then he had been surprised to discover his sisters, under the guidance of Kenta and Oro, gathering metals and gems with which they were expanding the size of the nest.
    For their own parts, Darlantan and his golden brother had taken to spending much time in the woods. Assuming the bodies of the elf and the bearded sage, they had dwelt for long seasons among the sylvan folk. Aurican, in fact, spent most of his time in the guise of his elven body, speaking, meditating, and debating with the elders of the clans. Together Auri and the elves had composed ballads and epics that they delighted in re-creating, much to Darlantan’s boredom. The silver dragon enjoyed the elves, but he could never remain on the ground for long periods of time. As always, the glory of flight, the spread of his silver wings in the uncontested skies, was the thing that truly brought him to life.
    The elves who had most appealed to the silver dragon were the clans of the dark-haired Elderwild, the tribes that refused to gather in the towns favored by the golden elves. The silver dragon had befriended one of the wild elves, a stoic warrior named Kagonos, and now his thoughts stirred with the memory of that friendship, a suggestion that he should fly to the east and seek out the brave in his forest haunts. Again Darlantan touched the ram’s horn, thinking of its mate, borne by Kagonos, knowing that with the horn, the wild elf could summon him if he needed the dragon’s aid. It was a symbol, a mark of the deep bond between them.
    A strange scent came to him on the breeze, a spoor subtle and alluring. His head came up, and immediately he detected a flash of silver along the lower slope of the mountain. It was Kenta, and the female dragon’s scent carried a shockingly powerful allure. She looked at him with a sidelong glance and then, tail twitching, darted away. Urgent emotion thrummed within Darlantan-not fear, nor even alarm, but instead a kind of tingling excitement he had never before experienced.
    Instinctively he pounced toward that metallic gleam, racing down the mountainside in a series of gliding leaps, then springing upward, seizing a crest of rock with his forefeet, pulling himself through a tight turn. He raced over the ground with explosive, catlike leaps, reluctant to take to the air for fear he would be unable to turn quickly to pursue his evasive quarry in a new direction.
    But Kenta was crouching there, waiting for him. Head down, wings buzzing excitedly at his sudden approach, she leapt upward and glided away, trilling laughter in the air behind her… and leaving a trace of that wondrous, intoxicating elixir that had aroused Darlantan from his rest atop the mountain.
    The silver male flew in earnest, body arrowed, long, powerful wing strokes quickly narrowing the gap between himself and the silver female. In fact, he gained on her so fast that-despite the game she had apparently initiated-he had the clear impression she wasn’t actively trying to get away. Kenta’s flight took her over white-capped peaks, around the ridges of lofty divides, and finally above a serenely rolling glacier piled deep with fresh, powdery snow.
    The alluring silver female veered around a looming shoulder of rock, making a surprisingly sharp turn that Darlantan was unable to follow. He brushed the mossy knoll, but scrambled for footing and once again hurled himself into the air. The force of his pounce sent him soaring after Kenta, overtaking her in a quick rush of flapping wings.
    Just before he caught her, she rolled, gliding on her back and rising before the diving Darlantan. He reared but was unable to avoid her as her jaws gaped and she hissed a frosty cloud of musk into Darlantan’s face. The scent drove him further into his frenzy, and he reached for her with all four legs, even spreading his wings to try to clutch her to him.
    The two silver bodies clashed with violent force, but there was a subtle grace to their entangling. Kenta’s tail wrapped around Darlantan’s, pulling him close. Instinctively he reciprocated, coiling his neck about hers, clawing at her silver scales in an attempt to merge the two mighty forms. Wings thrashed and scales gleamed and shimmered, frothing through the snow. Together the two large serpents skidded into the sloping glacier, tumbling down the incline in an avalanche of loose snow and flailing silver coils. Dragonwings beat rhythmically, driving up great drifts of powdery whiteness, and the pair rolled over and over, sliding for an eternity down the vast, rippling incline.
    They reached the bottom and lay together as waves of loose, light snow cascaded around them. Still entangled, Darlantan shook his head, clearing away enough snow that they could breathe. His glistening brow was draped with tufts of frost as he looked over the surroundings, secure for the moment that the skies and snowfields were free of danger. Content with the icy landscape, he lowered his head to lie beside Kenta in the depression they had worn in the snow.
    When next he awakened, spring had warmed the glacier, melting the loose powder into slush. Kenta was stirring beneath him, and stiffly, awkwardly, Darlantan dug them out of the deep trough their bodies had impressed into the snow. He shook himself, sending a cascade of ice crystals flying, and blinked at the bright skyline. He knew where he was, but how he had gotten here remained a hazy memory.
    The draft of Kenta’s wings pulled his attention around, and he watched the silver female take wing with serene, aloof grace. She made no move to look backward as she flew toward the mountains on the northern horizon. Restlessly Darlantan took to the air himself, choosing to fly in a southeasterly direction, possessed of an urge to find Aurican again.
    Many winters had come and gone since last he had spent time at his golden nestmate’s side, but even so, it wasn’t hard to know where to look. Flying steadily, Darlantan soon left the mountains behind. He enjoyed the sight of the woodland blanketing the landscape below. A layer of treetops, lush and green in the ripeness of early summer, stretched to all sides, fading into the distant flatlands. He knew from earlier reconnaissance that this forest extended from the Kharolis Mountains to the glaciers in the south, the jagged Khalkists to the east, and countless leagues to the north, until the forestlands gradually merged into the plains.
    Now, as he crossed over a broad river of clear aquamarine waters, his eyes were attracted by something in the distance, a bright image that broke the serene perfection of the forest. Soon he discerned spires, like giant, leafless tree trunks jutting high from a vast clearing. These towers were made of metal and shiny crystal, and it was the reflection of sunlight from these surfaces that had first drawn his eye.
    Closer still, Darlantan saw that many elves labored in this clearing, bustling like ants with blocks of stone, sluices of water, and panels of glimmering metal or clear crystal. Only as he saw other elves working at the forest’s edge with axe and chisel did he perceive the whole truth: The elves had created this clearing on purpose and were actively removing a great swath of formerly pastoral woodland.
    Indeed, much had already been changed. Darlantan flew low, ignoring the waves of welcome from elven watchmen, gliding over an expanse of carefully formed ponds and bright gardens scored by paths of crushed white marble. Figures walked along these paths or gathered in sheltered groves around ponds and fountains, and the silver dragon knew instinctively that he would find Aurican here.
    Settling to the ground on one of the few patches of grass broad enough to accommodate his arching wings, Darlantan lifted his head above the surrounding greenery.
    “Hello, my silver friend. The elves wish to thank you for sparing their flowers.”
    The figure of a tall, golden-haired elven patriarch emerged from a nearby bower, striding toward Darlantan with long, graceful steps. In his hands, the elf held a large emerald, passing the stone back and forth with smooth, well-practiced gestures. Though his eyebrows were the snowy white of an elder’s, his face scored by the lines of many centuries of life, Dar knew this was not an aged elf-indeed, it was not an elf at all.
    “Greetings, Aurican. It is not hard to find the tribe now that they have smashed such a spread of forest.”
    “It is already a wonder, is it not?” asked Auri, gesturing with both hands to the gardens, the vista of lakes and swans and fountains. “Perhaps you would find a smaller form more comfortable while you have a look around.”
    Darlantan agreed his real body would be a liability here, and so he smoothly shifted into his favored alternate guise, the bearded elder he had selected for his first shapeshifting.
    Aurican led his kinsman through a bower of roses, where another elf, tall and elegantly clad in golden robes, rose to meet them.
    “Welcome, Darlantan,” declared the serene patriarch, with a dignified bow.
    “I thank you, Silvanos.”
    “He is the architect of this great project,” Aurican said. “The elf who has brought his people together under one clan… and now would create a city as a proper holding for that clan.”
    “You do me great honor, Auri,” declared the handsome elf, startling the silver dragon with the familiar nickname. “As you do, Darlantan. It is a rare privilege to entertain you as our guest.”
    “Thank you,” replied Dar, nodding with the bearded sage’s head. “Your transformation is extensive and… remarkable.” Patersmith had trained him well. He wouldn’t allow himself to be rude. Still, he found himself wondering at the vast scope of the construction. Why did these elves find it necessary, and why did Aurican seem to like it so much?
    The silver dragon in the guise of the sage allowed himself to be shown the network of gardens. He accepted an invitation to dinner and enjoyed the finest feast of his life in a grand outdoor pavilion. Succulent roasts of meat were accompanied by breads and cheese, fruits and wines and puddings, until even the hungriest of the guests, which arguably was Darlantan, had been fully sated.
    “Have you been to see the grotto recently?” asked Aurican, leaning back easily as the guests relaxed after the meal.
    “It has been many winters,” admitted the silver dragon through the sage’s whiskers.
    “For me as well,” Auri said dreamily. “But I will go to see Patersmith… soon.”
    “That is a good idea,” declared Darlantan, touched by a surprising wave of melancholy. “He has the females to keep him company, but I suspect he misses us.”
    “Yes… and there are changes, things occurring in Krynn, that I must bring to his attention.”
    Darlantan was about to ask what his Kin-dragon meant when a trill of flute music wafted through the pavilion. Aurican’s elven eyelids closed, and the music so clearly pleased him that Dar found it impossible to interrupt his nestmate’s contentment. Later, elven dancers enacted a graceful epic beneath a canopy of stars, and finally, around midnight, the balladeers began their interminable labors. Strings were tuned, and flutes chirped their light and airy notes in a growing melody of joyous music.
    Aurican had already risen, his eyes fixed upon a chorus of male elves. The emerald he had been holding floated in the air, trailing after him as the gold dragon stepped precisely toward the gathered musicians. “I… I must join them,” he declared absently as Darlantan stood at his side.
    “I understand,” the silver serpent replied to his ancient nestmate. “But you will understand, too, that it is time for me to depart.”
    The lyrics of the song had barely passed into their second verse by the time the body of the elder sage had carried Darlantan to the edge of the grove. Stepping into the middle of a large, grassy swath, he suddenly shimmered as starlight reflected in dazzling array from his silver wings, his cold and gleaming scales. And then he was in the air, leaving the swath of the city behind, a wound that was at last masked by a bandage of distance.
    For many seasons, he flew aimlessly, following the great woodlands toward the foothills of the Khalkists. Where the plains began, he saw the distant blot on the horizon of a great, sprawling city, a place far larger than Silvanos’s gathering of his clans. He had heard Smelt speak of this place, calling it Xak Tsaroth, and he had no desire to fly closer to it. Let the brass dragon serve as ambassador to man.
    He skirted to the east, flying above the snow-frosted foothills of the Khalkists. Finally he came to one of his favorite places, a high mountain far to the south of the smoking heartland of the range. Upon this peak, Darlantan came to rest. He crouched on the shoulder of the lofty summit, eyes staring across the realms to the south. Soon he saw that which he sought: the wild elf Kagonos, alone, away from his people, running on one of his pathfinding treks, which often lasted for many days.
    The warrior was painted with swirls of dark ink. His black hair trailed in a long braid, and he was naked and unarmed. Yet there was a lethal capability in his gait, in the calm assurance with which he crossed precipitous heights and trotted down loose, slippery, shale that belied his apparent helplessness. At his side, he bore the ram’s horn, twin to the instrument hanging on Darlantan’s silver chain.
    Atop a nearby lower summit, the brave halted. The wind whipped his hair to the side as he stared at the mighty dragon, locking eyes with Darlantan for many long heartbeats. And then the Elderwild elf was gone, trotting around the shoulder of the mountain, following his private path as he worked his way through these lofty reaches.
    Farther down, at the foot of the massif, Darlantan could see the clans of the wild elves in their great Gathering. The tribe’s encampment filled the sheltered swale of a small, well-watered valley. Just beyond were the pristine forests of the great wilderness.
    Darlantan was already restless. He trotted around the slopes of the great mountain, easily picking his way over steep cliffs and loose rock piles. Soon he came into view of the northern Khalkists, a reach of looming peaks and deep, shadowy valleys. The horizon there seemed always masked by a haze of smoke, which originated from fires within some of the mountains themselves. It was a place that had always intrigued the mighty silver dragon, but he had never explored it.
    Nor did he feel that inclination now. Still not sure where he would fly, he eased forward and jumped from the ridge. As his wings spread, scooping into the air, he noticed movement close beside the foot of this mountain.
    Gliding downward, he discerned a file of monstrous warriors skulking through a shadowy defile. The dragon quickly came to rest behind a ridge, cautiously raising his head for a look. He saw the hulking physiques, the hunched posture of these warriors, and though he had never seen their like before, he knew they could be only one thing.
    Ogres.
    In the next instant, he studied the direction followed by the monstrous band and realized that if they continued to circle around the base of the mountain, the ogres would be able to fall upon the Gathering of the Elderwild from above.
    Now the silver dragon took to the air and spread his shimmering wings, great leathery sails so broad that they cast the gorge occupied by the ogre raiding party into shadows. One of the brutes, a great, tusked bull at the head of the file, pointed upward and bellowed, waving a large feather-draped staff. Others threw stones that sailed past the gliding dragon or bounced harmlessly off his silver scales. Darlantan looped back, seeing that the ogres were all within the deep ravine. The walls might have kept them safe from observation, he reflected grimly, but now the confining barrier would prove to be the ogres’ undoing.
    Darlantan’s breath exploded as a blast of deadly frost, an eruption of ice that billowed through the gorge, rebounding from the enclosing walls to fill the entire length of the ravine. Icicles formed instantly on the stone walls, and the roaring of dragonbreath was matched by a chorus of wails, shouts, and howls-the cries of the dying ogres ringing upward from the rock-lined channel.
    He swept past again, once more spewing his deadly frost against the ogre column, this time concentrating the attack against the front of the band, where he had spotted several stragglers trying to crawl away. The explosive chill once more filled the trough of the ravine, penetrating into the cracks and crannies where desperate ogres had sought shelter.
    Quickly the mountain winds blew the frost away, revealing a pathway littered with dead, frozen ogres. The entire column was slain, the brutish warriors cast about on the ground, some stiffened as they tried to climb to safety, others huddled in bundles of miserable terror. All of the corpses were draped by the heavy cake of frost, leaving a landscape of lifelike creatures that were all clearly dead.
    This was different killing, Darlantan realized as he flew across the plains toward the Kharolis Mountains. The slaying of the ogres was very unlike the taking of an elk or a deer; it was even a distinct change from the violence he had directed against an occasional rogue griffon who didn’t show proper respect for a dragon’s prey. This was very serious business, he realized, as it dawned on him that he was battling creatures who were fully capable of killing him in return.
    The sensation was not unpleasant. In fact, the silver dragon knew he had done the right thing. It gladdened his heart that his might could be used for such a cause. Mercy, after all, must be tempered by strength.
    Gliding onward, he toyed with the idea of looking for more ogres, of perhaps striking dead another war party of these brutish creatures. Certainly he knew they were the enemies of the elves, and it pleased him to do things that were of service-at least, to the Elderwild.
    Ultimately he decided against that course. His wings tilted, carrying him back to the wide plain. For a while, he drifted dreamily, riding updrafts like a lazy condor, working his wings only when the air grew still.
    But a focus quickly took shape in his mind, and he realized it was time to go to see Patersmith.

Chapter 7

A Farewell

    3532 PC
    The high Kharolis was in the full vibrancy of late spring. Streams gushed through valleys and canyons, and swaths of green extended upward, encroaching on terrain revealed by melting snowfields. As always, the heights dazzled and inspired Darlantan as he winged his way toward the grotto.
    A flash of metallic scales, gleaming brown, attracted the silver dragon’s attention to a deep gorge. Tucking his wings, he dived and swiftly banked around a cliff to see a slender copper shape winging rapidly away. Blayze flew low, following the course of the canyon. The copper dragon cast a quick glance behind him, saw Darlantan, and swept into an immediate dive.
    The silver came after him, driving his wings hard, anxious to talk to his nestmate. Many hundreds of winters had passed since last these two ancient beings had exchanged a word, and Darlantan felt a strong urge to bring that stretch to an end.
    “Blayze-wait!” he called when another bend in the canyon brought his cousin into view.
    With a slashing turn, far tighter than Darlantan could have made, the supple copper dragon banked around and came to rest on a ledge of the canyon wall. Spitting in frustration, Darlantan settled on a nearby knob, a perch much too small for his giant body. Wings flapping, foreclaws clutching at rocks as they crumbled under his grip, Darlantan confronted Blayze.
    The copper stared back, wings spread wide, neck outstretched. He hissed loudly, but Dar was relieved that his nestmate at least held his corrosive acid breath in check.
    “I mean you no harm. I want to talk to you… to ask if you’re going to see Patersmith,” the silver dragon grunted, still trying to hold his balance. With a mutter of frustration, he changed shape, sitting easily in the body of the ancient sage.
    “I see your big body has grown too clumsy for you!” sneered Blayze, flexing his wings arrogantly. “Now I could knock you off there with one claw!”
    “But why?” Darlantan countered. He was tempted to point out that this frail-looking body was every bit as strong as his dragon form. Instead, he held his tongue, knowing his purpose was not to argue.
    “I would kill you to spare my treasures, to keep your plundering claws from my lair!”
    “I care nothing for your treasure! And I don’t know where your lair is!”
    “For hundreds of winters, I have gathered wealth there-baubles and metals and trinkets I have taken from ogres, from the lizard people, even from rich humans, the fools who prey on their own kind. Now the treasures are mine!”
    “And yours they shall remain,” Darlantan said gently. “But I’m going to see our old teacher, and Aurican is, too. All I wanted to do was talk, to invite you to come with us.”
    The stiff copper wings relaxed slightly. “It… it has been a very long time… since I have visited the grotto and our tutor.”
    “Then come with me!”
    For a moment, Darlantan thought Blayze would fly away. The copper lifted his serpentine neck, looking into the distance. Then he sighed and lowered his head.
    “Very well. It’s true that I miss our teacher’s company… and yours as well, my kin-dragon,” he admitted.
    For the first time in centuries, the nestmates flew side by side, steady wing strokes bearing them to the Valley of Paladine and into the shadowy cavern. As Darlantan led Blayze through the long tunnel leading into the cavern of the lake and the sacred grotto, he sensed another serpentine form in the darkness before him. A sniff confirmed the acrid scent of well-burned soot, and he knew he followed in the wake of Burll. By the time the three metal dragons winged their way over the lake, they caught Aurican, also in flight, and moments later they met Smelt, the brass having just landed at the ledge leading to the grotto’s entryway.
    Upon entering, they found the females already gathered, the aged tutor standing dotingly over the huge basket of the nest. Though several of these dragons hadn’t been here for centuries, there was no great ceremony to mark their arrival.
    “These are your eggs,” Patersmith explained as Aurican, Darlantan, Smelt, and the other males gathered around the gem-studded nest in the grotto. The mighty wyrms of metal, long necks arched high, stared in awe at the glittering array of perfect baubles lining the sacred bowl.
    Darlantan saw numerous orbs of silver, and only then did his eyes go to Kenta, who, along with the other females, coiled regally across the mossy cushion of the grotto’s floor. She was uninterested in meeting his gaze, holding her attention instead upon the tutor and the nest that had somehow become full of eggs.
    Now Patersmith lectured in his most sonorous tones, and out of old habit, Darlantan paid full attention to his mentor.
    “You must guard them well. This is the sacred trust of every metal dragon. You are serpents of Paladine, and as such, these are your treasured artifacts. They represent your future and give proof to your past.”
    “There are so many of them,” Auri declared in awe. “Our numbers shall grow.”
    “It is the Platinum Father’s wish that your descendants should populate Krynn, should make this a world of halcyon peace, of celebrated beauty, goodness, and high learning beyond compare. No task is more important than that you guard them well and protect these eggs against any danger.”
    At Patersmith’s words, Darlantan suddenly remembered his frosty blast when he slayed the multitude of ogres.
    “Are they safe here?” he asked, raising his silver head to regard the tutor.
    “Their mothers will remain here until the eggs have hatched,” Patersmith explained. “They will be as well protected as anything on Krynn.”
    “And you… you will be here as well?” asked Aurican, his gilded brow furrowing with concern. “You will remain with our precious eggs?”
    “Alas, that is not to be,” declared the bewhiskered tutor. For the first time, Dar noticed that Patersmith had somehow grown very, very old. His whiskers were white as snow, his posture stooped and frail.
    “You are going away?” asked Darlantan, while the other males lifted their heads in mute question.
    “In a sense, yes… yes, I am. My journey will not be a physical one. To you, my sons and daughters, I will appear to sleep. And my sojourn shall indeed be restful, if good fortune will only follow me.”
    Darlantan was seized by a startlingly strong emotion, a tug of melancholy that seemed quite out of place in his massive, powerful self. He knew he would miss the aged tutor, and though his visits to the grotto had been rare in recent centuries, he found it difficult to imagine a life without the sage’s patient insight and wise counsel.
    “But what of us?” asked Aurican, his deep voice rising in a plaintive question. “While our sisters guard the eggs, what would you have us do?”
    “Ah, Auri,” chuckled Patersmith. “Here is where your brother Darlantan’s wisdom may even have exceeded your own, for he has always understood that you should not do the things that I would have you do, but that you would do for yourself.”
    The silver dragon tried to speak but found that his throat was thickened in an awkward fashion. He couldn’t shape the words, couldn’t even think of what to say.
    Patersmith came to stand before Smelt, reaching up to stroke the brass scales of his neck. “You always understood me,” the old tutor declared. “Of all your nestmates, you have best learned the value of mercy and of friendship. Go back to your humans, my chatty one, and lead them in the ways of wisdom and goodness.”
    Next he came to Blayze, whose copper head drooped sadly in the face of the smith’s departure. “Mind that temper, my quick one. But do not vanquish it entirely, for it is a force that lies at the heart of your clan’s might. All of you could learn something from Blayze, for there may come a time when you need to fight. Then you shall find that anger can be a useful force, a thing that can enhance your strength and even overawe your enemies.”
    Patersmith chuckled. “Our copper nestmate has only to learn to wait for that time,” he concluded gently.
    “And Burll, my mighty one. Know that your strength is as the bedrock of the world, an underlying force upon which the dragons of Paladine can always depend. Do not think too hard, for you are a doer of deeds, not a philosopher.”
    Next the bearded elder came to Darlantan. He placed a weathered hand on the shoulder of silver scales, blinking back at the moisture that began to form in the watery old eyes.
    “And Darlantan, my silver pride… you are the one who best knows the world as it was meant to be. You will see what must be done and do it. With your strength, there is hope that goodness may stand for many ages. And never forget the pure joy of flight.”
    The tutor’s words moved the silver dragon, but already Patersmith had moved on to Aurican, the last of his hatchlings to say farewell.
    “We owe you much, our teacher,” murmured the gold dragon. Aurican had picked up a diamond from the nest, clutching it in his foreclaw as he gently nuzzled the sage’s beard. Darlantan hung his head low, but couldn’t help listening to the exchange.
    “Hold your gems, my golden one. Share them well, for those stones may become the proof of your life, even the hope of the world. And your songs, too, are ballads that will endure.”
    “I would like you to carry this on your journey,” Aurican said softly. He extended a golden forepaw, in the clasp of which he held a bright diamond. When he pulled his claws away, the stone floated in the air. “It is all the magic I have been able to work.”
    Patersmith took the stone, blinking back the moisture of his emotion. “Hold your faith, my golden one. You may find the means of greater power yet. I only regret that I shall not be here to share in your triumph.”
    Finally Patersmith laid himself upon a bier of fine stones in the rear of the sacred cave. He settled back peacefully, clasping his hands over his chest while his eyelids drooped shut. With a deep, shuddering sigh, he went to sleep. Then, as the thirteen dragons watched with breath held in check, the frail and weathered body slowly faded from sight until it had completely disappeared.

Chapter 8

Rising Fury

    3493 PC
    The ogres gathered in a mighty throng around their mistress, shouting, roaring, and cheering in a monstrous din. The stomping of their feet shook the ground as greatly as did the rumbles of the nearby volcanoes. Accolades and battle cries rang through the night in a rising tide of martial thunder. Hulking Blacktusk, the battle chieftain who was descended directly from Ironfist himself, led the hailing of their mistress’s name, of her power and her might.
    Crematia coiled in their midst, her crimson neck and head rising high into the air. The dragon’s serpentine tail snaked through the legs of a massive bull ogre, and a dozen more of the brutes, clad in armor of stiffened leather studded with bronze spikes, stood arrayed in a stance of honor around her. They were armed with swords and held these weapons high, allowing the red dragon to temper the keen edges with a great explosion of her flaming breath.
    Beyond the elite bodyguards were thousands more of the burly tusked warriors. Great knobbed clubs waved through the air like a sea of grass flowing back and forth in the currents of the wind. Numerous chieftains were bedecked in feathers and ornaments of gold. Instead of crude clubs, many of these leaders brandished long swords or axes with blades of jagged-edged bronze. They all thronged forward, praising their leader, sharing in the glory of her presence while they displayed their bravery and devotion.
    “You are brave, my ogres!” crowed the red dragon, and a roaring chorus of approbation rose from the gathered throng. “And soon you shall vent your courage against the legions of our Dark Lady’s enemies!”
    The shouts rose to a thunderous crescendo, resounding from the high stone walls of the barren valley. Crematia allowed her leathery eyelids to droop lazily as she swept her gaze over the frenzied, noisy mob. Ogre skin was slicked with sweat, and tiny eyes gleamed furiously from many a flat-skulled face. She saw the spittle dripping from tusks, heard the pure hatred in so many of those lusty shouts.
    In the center of the throng, a huge fire blazed upward, spilling a wash of bright light through the deep canyon. The black, smoky skies of the Khalkists glowered overhead as a pile of whole pine trunks crackled and flared with greedy flames. Fiery tendrils roared eagerly upward, as if they would challenge the sun with their heat and brightness.
    As encouraging to Crematia as the frenzy of her own tribe was the fact that similar gatherings were occurring in other valleys throughout the Khalkist Range. The dragon clans of blue, black, white, and green had each claimed realms in the mountains and foothills. Her cousins were more numerous, of course, a dozen or more of each color to her solitary crimson presence. Yet still she was acknowledged as their lord, for she alone had received the blessing of the Dark Lady herself.
    So it was only appropriate that none of those other ogre bands was quite so large, nor were any of their dragon masters her equal in size, sorcery, or savagery. It pleased her to know this legion was but the vanguard of a mighty force that in time would sweep across Ansalon and spread the yoke of the Dark Queen’s rule to all corners of the world.
    And at last that time had come.
    “Blacktusk,” she growled in a rumbling purr. Her word settled the roaring and pulled the attention of the massive bull ogre to the red serpent coiled on the high rock.
    “I am your slave, mistress!” cried that brute, whose maw was distinguished by a single, upward-jutting fang, an ivory tusk dark and discolored enough to have given the mighty chieftain his name.
    “Tell me what the scouts have reported,” demanded Crematia.
    “The elves of the woodlands have spread throughout the forestlands of Ansalon,” growled the hulking brute. “While we have been busy slaughtering and enslaving the humans on the plains, their long-lived allies have been establishing strong footholds to the south.”
    “Are they dangerous?”
    “My crimson lady, barely two moons ago an entire war party, commanded by my own brother, Fire-eye, was destroyed by ice magic as it circled the southern mountain. From this we have learned that the elves possess the power of sorcery, the power the humans have told us has been lost for ages.”
    “I know this tale,” Crematia said slowly. Her hooded eyes narrowed still further as she considered the disturbing implications. “Yet the skill of your Painmasters is sufficient to insure that your human slaves are not lying, is it not?”
    “Aye, mistress. My torturers possess exquisite abilities. I believe these humans spoke the truth as they knew it, up until the time their tongues were ripped from their mouths. They believe that magic is gone from Krynn.”
    “So if the elves possess magic, they have kept it secret from their allies?”
    “Well… we know that the alliance between humans and elves is tenuous at best. Would it not be natural for such a mighty truth to remain concealed from the short-lived, irresponsible men?”
    “That is one possibility,” the red dragon agreed.
    Privately, she placed more credence in another theory. After all, she and her chromatic kin-dragons had been granted magic in the Abyss by the Queen of Darkness herself. Crematia was fairly certain that the elves had not, in fact, discovered a way to bring magic back to Krynn on their own. She knew it was far more likely that the icy attack had a different origin, and it was one the nature of which her ogres did not as yet need to know.
    “Do you have prisoners?”
    Blacktusk nodded. “Bring out the elves!” he roared.
    Immediately strapping ogres rolled away a rock that had been placed to block the mouth of a small cave. A hulking warrior seized a chain and pulled forth a trio of golden-haired figures-elven warriors, unarmed but still clad in their supple chain mail. The tallest of these stepped before the others, who were obviously younger and very frightened. But the leader crossed his arms over his chest and glared defiantly up at the dragon.
    “Shall I show mercy?” Crematia brayed the question so it could be heard by her entire gathered horde.
    “Mercy is weakness!” The cry came back as a resounding chant, echoing from the mountain walls, thundering through the valley. “And weakness is death!”
    Crematia’s blast of fire exploded outward, engulfing the elves as the roar of the conflagration drowned out the echoes of the chant. By the time the oily flames had dispersed, the place where the three elves had died was marked only by a few cinders. Even these tumbled and drifted away, carried away by a light wind.
    “When you sweep upon the elves, you shall have the aid of my dragonfire-and, too, of the ice and acid, the lightning and toxins, of my cousins. Even the mightiest elven warrior will be unable to face us!”
    Once again the cheers rang out, reflected along with the torchlight from the high walls of the gorge, until the entire deep chasm resounded with thunderous shouts and flaring, surging flames. The bonfire surged higher as ogres threw dried pine trunks onto the mound of coals, and these timbers were quickly engulfed by renewed flames.
    “Soon we march!” bellowed Crematia. “But before then, we feast!”
    Now the roars swelled into a cheer, raucous shouts whooping upward, echoing from the high walls. A file of naked humans, linked by heavy bronze chains, was led into the chasm. Wailing and crying, cringing from the brutes roaring and slavering on every side, the hapless prisoners were dragged into the very center of the throng.
    “Let the feasting commence!” crowed the red dragon.
    Immediately the ogres surged toward the captives, burying the humans in a throng of heaving, burly bodies. Screams rose to hysteria, then swiftly faded. There had been nearly a hundred of the human sacrifices, so Crematia knew the feasting would continue for some time.
    She herself had little interest in the gory proceedings. Instead, she launched into the air, flying above the throng, winging her way upward until she circled out of the gorge and flew among the lofty peaks that cast the canyon into an eternal shadow.
    On a high ledge of a mountain she came to rest, tucking her wings and passing into a shadowy alcove. She inspected the surface of the stone, seeing only her own footprints in the soot she had scattered there. That was as it should be, since no other creature would even know that the level surface was here. Crematia’s magic had concealed the entrance, causing it to blend in with the surrounding cliff so perfectly that even a passing eagle wouldn’t be aware the place offered the possibility of a perch.
    Probing inward with her head, Crematia quickly found the wall of stone across the narrow passage. Like the soot, this barrier was undisturbed. A single word blinked the magical barrier out of existence, and now the red dragon crept into a cavernous space deeper within the mountain. The familiar odor of magma was a refreshing balm, and she recognized the reptilian hint in the scent that was suggestive of her own spoor.
    Twin pools of lava flared and bubbled, one each at opposite edges of the vaguely oval chamber. A stream of liquid rock, glowing bright yellow at the top and cooling to muted crimson near the bottom, spilled from a chute on the far wall, gathering in a trough that divided the stream and carried it to each of the two pools. Lava and flame cast the entire chamber in a glare of muted orange, accented by brighter swaths of red near the flowing rock itself.
    The light of the fires was reflected in a multitude of gold and silver surfaces, coins and platters and statues that were scattered across the cavern floor. Among these treasures winked many a gem, viridescent emerald vying with scarlet ruby, both fading in the shadow of sparkling diamonds. These were the precious baubles she had brought from all corners of the Khalkists-or, more accurately, that the ogres had brought her in response to her demands.
    But the true beauty of the cave lay in the nest, the basket of bones Crematia had woven with such care. It lay upon a large knob of dark rock, fully encircled by the streams of flowing lava. The red dragon stepped over that obstacle and climbed to the nest, her head soon rising above the upper rim, which was formed entirely of the staring skulls of human captives taken by the ogres and offered to Crematia in sacrifice.
    She counted them, all thirteen of the crimson orbs, sleek and perfect, unblemished by any sign of cracking or discoloration.
    “Be patient, my wyrmlings,” she whispered, her long tongue slipping forth to stroke lovingly over each scarlet surface. “You will grow stronger for many years, but you are safe here. Know that your mother shall bring you into a world where your clan is master of all.”
    Only then did she turn, restoring the wall of stone with a casting of her magic. Finally she wove a greater spell, insuring that the illusion continued to mask the outside of the lair. With her wings spread wide into the night sky, Crematia took to the air, ready to lead her armies southward, toward the lands of the elves.

Chapter 9

First War

    3489 PC
    “Join me in a flight to the southern forests… and together we shall see the new wonders raised by House Silvanos,” urged Aurican.
    “Ah, the elves,” said Smelt quickly. “I haven’t visited among them for a long time. I will come.”
    “I have a lair to tend,” Burll growled, shaking his head while Blayze looked around suspiciously, as though he thought his treasures were in danger that very moment.
    The five male dragons were coiled atop the crest of the High Kharolis, each claiming one of a series of closely gathered peaks. The windless weather, and the fact that an overcast of gray clouds lurked not very far overhead, allowed them to converse with ease. They had spent a period of reflection and contemplation following the departure of their mentor, until the females had begun to make it clear that it was time for their mates to depart the grotto.
    Darlantan had heard his brother’s words, but his own heart was lingering toward the eastern wilds-a place of no cities, nothing but wilderness and plentiful prey.
    “Even you, Darlantan…” It was as if Auri were reading his silver kin’s mind. “Though we have only been in the grotto for a short time, you’ll be amazed to see what these elves can accomplish in the space of a dozen winters!”
    “I can fully imagine,” declared Darlantan sourly, picturing how much of the woodland might have been flattened by now. He had never found a proper answer to the question of why the elves cloistered themselves so readily in that silent, aloof city?
    Still, after this long period among his nestmates, he was not quite ready to vanish by himself, so he consented to join the flight. Even Burll and Blayze seemed to have some lingering need for communion, and in the end, five metal dragons took to the air, riding the high currents, coursing through empty skies. They were lords of air and land, following a leisurely course that gave them much time for hunting and for resting in pleasant bowers and shaded valleys.
    Yet as they drew southward, Darlantan sensed an increasing urgency in Aurican’s manner. The gold dragon resisted a suggestion that the flying nestmates spend a day lolling beside a perfect mountain hot spring, and when the others grudgingly took wing, he led them on with unseemly haste.
    “What’s your hurry, my cousin?” asked the silver dragon, straining to keep up with the fast-flying gold.
    “Don’t you smell it?” asked Auri, speaking through taut jaws as he maintained his streamlined flight.
    And then Darlantan did notice the taint of soot and char, a bleak hint of smell rising from an expanse that appeared to be lush forest. The odor was out of place here, strange and menacing, with evil portent, though the woodland below still appeared pristine and undisturbed.
    But as they flew on, this notion was proved to be a cruel deception. They saw one clearing that was utterly black, smelling of ash, and they knew that a great fire had raged there. Soon they passed over more such swaths of destruction, and when they reached the broad river that intersected these woodlands, Aurican uttered a groan of pure, heartbreaking dismay.
    Darlantan swept low over waters he remembered as crystalline and pure, which had once flowed over a bed of pristine gravel. Now the surface was a scum of mud and grime, with blackened timbers floating everywhere. More than once he saw a body, bloated by decay but still draped with the long golden hair of an elf.
    Farther they flew, and now the destruction was more common than the undisturbed forests. A great landscape had burned, and the blackened trunks jutted from the charred ground in a mocking remembrance of the verdant carpet that once had blanketed the ground. Once-green trees were scarred and scorched, leaves withered away. In places, even mighty trunks had been smashed to the ground by unimaginable force.
    Then Aurican uttered a strangled wail, and Darlantan saw what was left of the domes and towers that had distinguished Silvanos’s once-splendid city. The spires of crystal had been smashed, their circular bases jutting from the ruins like broken bottles. Finally the anguished gold dragon banked, swooping low, coming to rest in the midst of a broad, dust-blown square of bare dirt. The other four serpents silently accompanied their mighty brother, each of them looking around grimly, formulating images and speculation about the cause of the destruction.
    Aurican padded away, shifting shape almost absently into the body of the lean, elderly elven sage he had so frequently favored. Darlantan came behind, stalking like a prowling cat in the silvery serpent that was his natural form. Only as Auri knelt beside a charred object, brushing away the soot to reveal a portion of a white marble bust and its cracked supporting pillar, did Dar realize that they were in the elegant garden his brother had shown him before.
    And even with that memory, the place was unrecognizable. Only when the silver dragon stepped into a murky pit of mud did he realize that one of the elegant fountains had been filled with ashes and dirt. Shaking his foot, flicking the sticky goo from his talons, Dar followed the shambling form of Aurican through the ruins.
    In one place, the frail figure who was the gold dragon scratched at the ground, clearing away muck to reveal a slab of white stone. Without visible effort, the elf’s body lifted the object back onto a pair of pedestals that stood nearby, restoring a once-elegant bench. Only when he saw the stubs of the rosebushes jutting upward from the soot, forming a perfect ring, did Darlantan realize that this had been the sheltered nook where he had been welcomed by Silvanos.
    For the first time, he wondered about that elven leader, and it was a startling thought: Where were all the elves? There were some bodies here, true, but not nearly enough to account for the city’s population. Had they escaped into what remained of the forests? Or had they been hauled into captivity, perhaps slavery, by the invaders?
    And that led to the natural consideration of who, or what, had done this, and here Darlantan had some specific ideas. He was tired of mourning, of probing through the wrack and ruin, and he decided that it was time to talk to Aurican. He found his brother, still in elven form, slumped over a splintered frame of wood entangled with slender wires. Aurican was weeping, tears streaking down the skin of his elven face. He looked up as the mighty silver dragon loomed over him, but his eyes remained distant and unfocused.
    “This was a harp, Dar… it could make music sweet enough to break your heart. And now it’s smashed… like this whole place, this whole people, smashed!” Auri collapsed, burying his face in his hands as his shoulders shook with the convulsive force of his sobbing.
    “Remember, my brother, you are a dragon!” Darlantan insisted forcefully, embarrassed by the wrenching display of emotion. “A mighty gold-patriarch of your clan!”
    “And where was I when this was happening!” cried Auri, turning his face to the sky. “Where?”
    “Stop it!”
    Darlantan reached forward with a great forepaw and swept his brother’s elven form off the ground. He lifted Auri into the air and shook him forcefully. “Who knows, or cares, where you were? You’re here now, and you’ve seen what happened! What are you going to do about it?”
    “Put me down.” Aurican’s voice was deadly calm, his face blank of emotion.
    Darlantan gingerly set the elven body back on the ground and immediately reared back as he was confronted by a bristling serpent of gold, wings stiff and flapping with menace, lip curled into a fanged sneer. Raising his silver neck in response, Dar met his brother’s furious glare, saw the hatred in the gold dragon’s eyes flare and then, slowly, focus.
    Aurican raised his taloned forepaws, revealing that he held several of his baubles, the gemstones he delighted in caressing, infusing them with the minor enchantments that were the limits of his sorcerous power. Now he took these stones, a bright diamond, crimson ruby, scintillating emerald, and smooth jade, and hurled them into the murk of the destruction. When he turned back to Darlantan, his reptilian face was blank of emotion.
    “Who has done this?” Auri asked intently, his voice a rumbling growl.
    “I have a guess that it was ogres,” Darlantan replied grimly. Burll and Smelt joined them, and he described the large war party that he had destroyed in the southern Khalkists.
    “And you think the target of their strike was the Elderwild?” asked Smelt.
    “They were on a march to approach the elven camp and fall upon them unawares.” Darlantan remembered the weapons bristling from the belts and fists of the mighty brutes and was more certain than ever that they had been plotting violence against the elves. With that memory came another fear: Had the wild elves suffered the same violence as the house elves of Silvanos? He pictured the serene wilderness with a shudder, wondering how much of it remained.
    “I suggest we fly north, toward the Smoking Mountains,” Blayze said, using their old nickname for the volcanic Khalkists. “We will find ogres there, and I am thinking that they will give us answers first, and then perhaps a measure of vengeance.”
    “Aye,” growled Smelt, with Burll and Darlantan nodding in grim agreement. All turned their eyes to Aurican, who looked once more across the swath of destruction, then lifted his eyes toward the northern horizon.
    “Let us fly, then,” he declared. With regal grace and grim purpose, he took to the air, rising in a powerful downdraft of wind. Golden wings shimmered, shifting with the force of his long strokes, as the mighty serpent pulled himself into the sky.
    The others followed, and it was a grim and silent quintet that winged over the wasted forestland. Darlantan flew at Aurican’s right wing, for it was the silver’s memory that guided them toward the realms of the ogres. Smelt, Blayze, and Burll trailed slightly to the rear, a little lower than the leading pair.
    Before nightfall, Burll spotted a deer and took the hapless creature in a sudden dive. The group shared the feast and then once more, without speaking, took wing into the darkness. They flew through the following dawn, and still they soared on. Everywhere the wrack of war, the litter of chaos and destruction, had spread through the woods. In some places, the devastation was limited to isolated outposts, but elsewhere it had reduced huge swaths of forestland or meadow into burned char.
    Darlantan lost track of the dawns and sunsets, the quickly killed deer or buffalo that sustained them in their steadfast flight. Gradually the ground rippled below them, the forests still claiming the surface of the land, yet yielding to the distinctive texture of hills. And then a range of mountains took shape before them, at first indistinguishable from dark cloud on the horizon, soon growing in definition and relief.
    The distant Khalkists were a mass of conical peaks, shrouded by their eternal wreath of smoky cloud. Closer, rising as a lone summit away from the great center of the range, stood a single peak. The pyramidal block of stone lofted above a realm of lakes and woods, and Darlantan remembered the Gathering of the Elderwild he had seen among those pristine waters.
    “It was on the other side of this mountain,” he told Aurican.
    “Then let us be ready to do battle,” the gold replied with a low growl.
    The red dragon appeared with shocking suddenness, a scarlet form that was, in an eyeblink of an instant, just there, hanging in the air, directly in Darlantan’s path. The silver started to twist as his flight took him past the crimson wyrm. He saw the jaws gape and tried to bellow a warning to Burll.
    But the first sound was the roar of an infernal furnace. Dar’s head came around in time to see the bronze dragon fly fully into the hellish blossom of the dragonfire. Burll cried out, his wail a piercing, cloud-shaking keen of impossible pain-and then the cruelly burned dragon twisted and shriveled before Darlantan’s horrified eyes. The once-powerful neck tucked and curled, metallic scales burned away to reveal charred and blackened flesh. The two wings of rippling membrane hissed away in an instant, leaving the horribly burned body looking even more unnatural as it tumbled from the dissipating ball of fire.
    Now Darlantan’s roar of warning was propelled by pure rage, echoed by the cries of Smelt and Blayze. Aurican, grimly silent, had already curled upward to reverse his course at the vicious red.
    And then there were blue dragons there, nearly a dozen of them appearing as shockingly as had the lone red. It’s magic — they’re using sorcery against us! A portion of Dar’s mind shouted the frightening realization even as his body reacted with pure violence.
    Jaws gaping, Darlantan blasted the nearest blue dragon, freezing the monster’s wings with the icy onslaught. Shrieking in fury and pain, the azure serpent twisted frantically before tumbling out of the sky. The silver body arrowed forward, crashing into the blue, and Dar bit down hard, snapping the hateful neck.
    By then a roaring wave of fire crackled through the air as Smelt blasted his incendiary breath at one of the blues, while his fellow attackers spit crackling spears of lightning. Fire and electricity roared together in convulsive explosions, pounding with sound, quickly dissipating into a lingering aura of smoke. The stench of killing and destruction spread even faster than the visible vapors of lingering dragonbreath.
    One of the blues shrieked and fell away, one wing burned off while the other flapped desperately, fruitlessly as the creature plunged to its doom. Even as it dwindled below, the echoes of its dying scream rose from the dusty ground to linger in the air.
    But at least three of the lethal lightning blasts had torn into the roaring brass dragon, stilling his valiant maneuvers. Metallic scales flaked into the air as Smelt jerked violently, fatally around. Killed immediately, burned to a blackened corpse, he fell out of the sky with shocking finality.
    Aurican swept into the melee with a bellowing cry of fury. His golden jaws spread wide as he spewed a massive fireball, a searing cloud of swirling flames that encompassed two of the blues. Oily fire licked across blue scales, scalding and burning. Both of the monstrous serpents screamed and writhed away. Fatally wounded, they struggled and wailed all the way to the ground far below.
    Darlantan drove forward, taking position on Aurican’s flank as the gold plunged after the diving, frantically twisting red. That murderous serpent, a monstrous female, crowed in an exultation of triumph as she banked sharply, driving toward a gap in the looming foothills.
    “Kill her!” rasped Aurican as Darlantan, wings scooping great beats out of the air, passed his golden brother, desperately straining for altitude and speed.
    The silver pressed onward, pulling to draw within range of their foe’s crimson tail. His belly seethed, ready with a blast of frost, and he intuitively knew that the frigid blast would be deadly to the fire-breathing red. Just a bit closer and she would be his, frozen from the skies by the lethal blast of his icy breath.
    But then the hateful serpent was gone — she simply vanished in the air as quickly as she had first appeared. Dar could only hope that she was still there, screened by some sort of invisibility magic. He strained forward, blasting the air with his lethal frost. A moment later he flew through the frigid wake of his own attack to find only empty space. The red had escaped.
    Or had she? A cry of alarm pulled the silver dragon around in time to see the savage crimson wyrm land full on the back of Blayze, who strained to keep up a short distance behind Aurican. Her lethal breath surrounded the copper dragon’s head as cruel claws ripped into Blayze’s shoulders and wings. He screamed, twisting desperately to pull free from the inferno, but his scales had been scalded away, his jaws barren of flesh in a blackened, fang-baring snarl.
    The red cast the dying copper away with a contemptuous gesture as another blue slashed in. Again lightning flickered in the cloudless sky, tearing into Blayze’s ribs, ripping flesh and scales away in a gory slash. Spiraling lazily, as if he were learning to fly all over again, Blayze whirled downward-but this time he never pulled out of the dive.
    Aurican and Darlantan flew at the blue dragon that had delivered the lethal blast. Darlantan’s fury nearly blinded him, but a small portion of his mind reminded him that they were outnumbered, that it was wise to be cautious. Both dragons of metal swept apart as if on an unspoken command, veering out of the blue’s path as a second bolt of lightning hissed through the air between them.
    Twisting back, Darlantan drew a deep breath, feeling the surging power of deadly frost fill his chest. His neck darted forward, pointing his head straight at the azure serpent. Argent jaws gaped as the explosion of dragonbreath wracked Darlantan’s body, spuming forward to engulf one side of the Dark Queen’s mighty wyrm.
    The combined blasts of gold dragonfire and silver dragon ice pinned the blue in a fatal vise, burning away one wing as the other froze, then snapped into a thousand shards when the shrieking serpent tried to flex the once-powerful limb. The cry took on a piteous keen as the wyrm tumbled away, writhing in pain through the long fall to the ground.
    “Flee!” Aurican gasped.
    Darlantan was about to whirl around, to seek the red dragon with the last ounce of his vengeful determination. He whipped his head back, seeking some sign of the threat that had brought forth Auri’s desperate command. He saw many targets, great serpents of new colors, black and white and green, sweeping through the sky.
    Snarling, Darlantan realized they had no choice. Sweeping into a shallow dive behind Aurican, he cast another glance backward and watched the chromatic shapes dwindle in the distance.
    Yet even when they had disappeared from view, he looked around anxiously, wondering where these new and deadly enemies had gone-and when they would be back.

Chapter 10

Hope and Fear

    3489 PC
    The treetops of the eastern forest grazed his belly as Darlantan strained for speed, driving his wings with all the power in his mighty shoulders. Beside him, Aurican rushed through the air in a blur of pulsing wings and sparkling metallic scales. The chromatic dragons had been left far behind, though the lingering images and smells and hurts of battle-and the knowledge of their tragic, horrifying defeat-jangled resoundingly in a chorus of grief and shock within Darlantan’s memory.
    “We can’t go to the grotto. We don’t dare,” Aurican said, his voice startlingly calm, in contrast to the cacophony of emotions storming through Darlantan’s mind.
    “Why?” demanded the silver, until another moment’s thought made clear the danger-to the females, and, more importantly, to their eggs. “Where, then?”
    “Let’s find a place to talk. Remember, I’m not one who can fly all night,” replied Aurican.
    “Our meeting bluff is nearby,” Dar remembered, recalling a promontory where he and Auri had held several councils with the elves.
    The pair of dragons glided silently toward the sunset, looking for the knoll. Everywhere tall pines covered the ground, and though it was a relief to see an area where the terrain had not been scorched, Darlantan was so tired he would have welcomed a swath of devastation just for the chance to land and rest his wings. His side ached where blue dragon lightning had seared the scales from his flesh and cruel claws had torn into his flank. The deep gouges burned with an agony that threatened to drag him down, to fold him into a ball of suffering that would plunge, unlamented, into the tangled foliage below.
    Never had he been hurt like this before! Through all the hunting that had marked his life, he had never considered the possibility that, somehow, serious injury could be inflicted upon him, the mighty Darlantan! His memory of the battle was still wrapped in a numbing cloud of disbelief. Perhaps this detachment was a blessing-at least he was able to continue the fast, desperate flight.
    But the numbness did not extend to thoughts of his brothers, his ancient nestmates. Darlantan moaned aloud as his mind turned to the speedy Smelt’s last moments, or the horrible barrage of flame that had knocked powerful Burll from the sky. His jaws curled into a snarl, claws clenching unconsciously as he pictured the crimson dragon of the Dark Queen slaying Blayze from behind. With an unconscious growl, he imagined the killing he would work against them… someday.
    “Magic… dragons of evil and magic,” mused Aurican. His golden wings stroked easily and gracefully, showing no sign of fatigue as the flight extended through the long hours of the night. “How did these things come to Krynn?”
    “Perhaps the dragons have always been here, but they were hiding,” growled Darlantan. “Waiting for the chance to attack.”
    “I don’t think so. We have flown this world for thousands of winters. I cannot believe they could have escaped our notice for so long. And remember, it was only their use of spell magic that gave them their first advantage. I think the magic and the chromatic dragons came to Krynn together.”
    “A plague on together!” spat Dar. “Unless you know a way that we could steal the magic and kill the wyrms!”
    “No… not yet. We must think, plan.”
    “A plague on plans as well!” barked Darlantan. “I say we should turn around and attack, take them by surprise.”
    “I share your desire for vengeance, Cousin. But we cannot win this fight alone. It is time that we counseled with others.”
    “Who?” demanded the silver dragon, but as he spoke he knew: the elves, of course. “We fly to the council knoll, do we not?”
    Aurican nodded, straining visibly to lift his head again. Dar’s own wounds pained him, and he knew the long flight was taking its toll upon his kin-dragon.
    “But how did they get the magic?”
    “It could only have come from a god or gods,” Aurican declared. “The Dark Queen herself must have blessed them with sorcery in some distant place, then released them to carry that power to Krynn!”
    “And another plague on how they did it!” snarled Darlantan, his fury at last pulling Aurican’s golden head around. The silver dragon’s pain had faded into the background of his awareness, replaced by a grim fire, an emotion more chilling than any he had ever felt.
    He was learning to hate, he knew.
    “Beware!” The sound was like the keening cry of an eagle, but Darlantan recognized the word spoken in the language of the griffons. Immediately he banked, and Aurican followed in a lazy spiral over the forest.
    “Up there,” the gold dragon said, and his silver cousin angled his head, observing the winged creature diving toward them.
    “A scion of Ravenclaw,” Darlantan said as the griffon slowed with a rearing gesture. The massive feathered wings bore the creature easily between the two mighty serpents. “Have a care, my friend. There are new dangers in the skies.”
    “This I know, and I have come in turn to warn you. There are two dragons, deep black in color, who have claimed the meeting knoll. They disturbed one of my young a short time ago, when they landed there.”
    The pillar of cliff-draped rock was already in view, thrusting upward from the surrounding forest.
    “We will kill them!” Dar pledged, his belly tightening at the prospects of revenge.
    “But first you must find them, and that is why I warn you. After they landed, they changed… disappeared so that they cannot be seen. But still my nestling could smell them. He knew they were there.”
    “Invisibility magic!” hissed the silver dragon, feeling another surge of outrage.
    “We will deal with them,” said Aurican. “Of that you may be sure. And thank you for the warning.”
    “Be careful!” urged the griffon, banking into a gentle dive. Soon he was a speck fading into the distance.
    They approached the craggy knoll of granite, the barren summit perhaps twice as high as the loftiest of the pines. The dragons of Paladine scrutinized the place, seeking some sign of the invisible dragons.
    “There, to the left,” murmured Darlantan, indicating a clearing where several saplings had been flattened.
    “Right-and there, on the rocks, is the second,” Auri said.
    “Where the bushes are crushed,” Darlantan agreed, feeling the killing frost swell in his belly.
    Side by side, the two metal dragons winged toward the bluff. Darlantan lowered himself into a gentle glide, as if looking for a good place to land. He marked both dragons, not because he could see them but because their massive bodies had inevitably disturbed the crowded terrain. Nearing the flattened patch of grove, Dar abruptly lashed his head downward, exploding with a blast of surging, churning frost.
    The enemy dragon shrilled its pain and fury, and Dar veered away as a fountain of acid exploded from frost-coated jaws. The black dragon, clearly outlined in rime, twisted upward, but the vengeful silver was too fast. Darlantan settled onto the snakelike serpent, crushing with his silver claws, squeezing his powerful jaws over the squirming throat. With a shudder, the black dragon grew still.
    Aurican, Darlantan saw, had dispatched his foe with similar quickness. The pair of metal dragons tossed the limp corpses into the forest below and finally settled to rest on the rocky crest, tucking their wings and squatting between rough outcrops. With a shrug, Aurican shifted into his more compact two-legged form, and Darlantan quickly followed.
    He found it a relief to tend to some mundane affairs, gathering some brush for a fire while Auri cleared the stones from the area where they had chosen to sleep. Finally they settled before a small blaze, both of them reflecting on the many centuries of their brothers’ lives… and their violent ends. They talked of Burll’s strength, of Smelt’s lightning quickness. Together they imagined the deadly menace that hot-tempered Blayze would have become, should he have survived the first ambush long enough to embark on a quest for vengeance.
    “That revenge shall be our task now,” Aurican murmured, still speaking with the serene detachment that, under the circumstances, Darlantan found profoundly disturbing.
    “Sssst!” The body of the bearded sage hissed the warning as the silver dragon heard an almost silent footfall from the thicket near the precipitous edge of the knoll.
    Darlantan rose to his feet, unafraid. In fact, he almost hoped to see an ogre, or even a dragon, of the Dark Queen burst into view and give him a vent for his fury. He felt a swelling in his human chest, but he resisted the impulse to expand to his full size.
    Instead of ogres, a pair of lithe figures emerged from the shadows, moving toward the welcoming warmth of the fire. Only elves could have approached so quietly, and the dragons recognized both of the sylvan visitors. One had hair of harvest-straw gold and was dressed in silken leggings and tunic, while the other was dark-haired, nearly naked, his body covered in swirls of dark war paint. At his side, he bore the horn of a mighty ram. Silvanos and Kagonos advanced and squatted beside the small fire, soaking up the welcome radiance, saying nothing as their ancient friends settled back beside them.
    “We grieve for your splendid city,” Aurican said, solemnly addressing the proud Silvanos.
    “One of a hundred, a thousand tragedies of a scope too grand to comprehend,” declared the revered leader of the elves. “And in truth, the destruction of buildings and lands and constructs is as nothing compared to the losses of fathers and mothers, sons and sisters, that have ravaged our people since the coming of the dragons.”
    Silvanos looked squarely across the fire, meeting the eyes of Auri and Dar as he struggled to blink back tears. His voice, when he spoke, was strangled by a very unelven passion.
    “The coming of the ogres was a thing we could fight, and we did-but dragons! By all the gods, when they swept from the sky, breathing lightning and ice, burning acid and deadly poisonous gas, we could only flee to the woods.”
    “We are all elves of the forest now,” said Kagonos, furrowing his dark eyebrows. His face and body were painted in the whorls and lines of the inky dye favored by his tribe, and his gray eyes were serious as they regarded the flesh cloaking the two dragons. “We would have warned you of the danger had we received word of your return in time. As it was, by the time the news arrived from the south, you had already been lured into Crematia’s ambush.”
    “Ah… a good name for that fiery killer,” Aurican observed, still speaking in the same infuriating tone of detachment. “What about the spell magic that she used? Did this Crematia creature bring it from the Abyss?”
    “Aye, my friend,” Silvanos agreed, his golden eyes keen as they studied Aurican. “What does that mean to you?”
    “Simply that spell magic resides in the realms of the gods… that if we want to fight the power of sorcery, we shall have to seek powers of our own-powers that come from the gods.”
    “But not from the Abyss…” The golden-haired elf spoke with certainty.
    “No… no, of course not.” Auri’s manner was breezy.
    Silvanos held up a hand. “There are others, perhaps, who can help. Do not be alarmed by their appearance, for they travel under our protection.”
    Three elves, a trio of lithe but apparently elderly males, advanced into the clearing. Except for the colors of their robes, which were red, black, and white, respectively, the three might have been mirror images of each other. Each had long hair of iron gray, and they regarded the quartet with dark eyes that flashed with curiosity and something else.
    The black-robed elf hung back, his gaze glaring with almost physical brightness, while the two in white and red took hesitant steps forward, bowing, regarding the transformed dragons with inscrutable expressions.
    “I present Fayal Padran and Parys Dayl,” murmured Silvanos, indicating the elves in red and white, respectively. The dark-garbed figure in the back stared silently. “And Kayn Wytsnall as well.”
    “Welcome to our humble fire,” Dar offered.
    “These are elves who would be mages. They have studied the ways of the gods.” Silvanos stood and gestured the trio forward to the fire.
    “We have already lived longer than most of our kind,” cautioned red-robed Fayal Padran, raising a hand that was tipped with unusually long, slender fingers.
    “How have you done this?” asked Aurican in honest curiosity.
    “More pointedly, why are you here?” Darlantan interjected, fearing that his cousin might be about to embark on a long and pointless conversation.
    It was Kayn Wytsnall, the elf in black, who replied.
    “We are here because we have devoted our lives to the quest for magic-to bring the power of sorcery and spellcasting back to Krynn. Now it would seem that there is magic to be gained, and we have an idea where to look.”
    “And where is that?” pressed Aurican excitedly. He felt a strong affinity for these elves who would be wizards, Dar could tell.
    “We have assembled the wisest men and elves to help us answer that question.” Parys Dayl took over the explanation. His manner was easy, and the white robe swirled like smoke from his arms as he gestured expansively. “For years, priests have meditated, sages researched…”
    “And you have learned the answer?” Auri probed gently.
    “We have learned that we shall have to seek from the gods themselves. But here we are limited, for we cannot look to the Platinum Father, nor the Queen of Darkness. They are the mighty gods who have chosen to withhold magic from the world, and they would be hostile to our pleas.”
    “Where, then?” demanded Darlantan.
    The white robe replied, directing his dark and intense gaze exclusively at Aurican. “We believe the gods who might be more sympathetic to our… request can be reached, but to do so will require a long flight-a journey into realms beyond our world. That is why Silvanos suggested we speak to you.”
    “Yes… perhaps I could carry you. This is a quest I have always longed to undertake.”
    “It was our hope that you would feel this way,” Parys Dayl said.
    When his cousin turned to regard him, Darlantan had the distinct feeling he was looking into the face of the massive golden serpent, though Auri was still in the form of the elven sage. He knew, too, that Aurican had made up his mind with certain finality.
    “We may be gone for a long time. Until we return, the cause of our vengeance will fall to you. Are you prepared?”
    For a long time, Darlantan was silent. He wondered, hoped, thought about the future and the past. The silver dragon was ready to carry the war against the serpents of the Dark Queen, and he knew that he could exact revenge.
    He was less certain about Aurican’s quest. For all of his life, the gold dragon had spoken of gaining magic, of returning the power of sorcery to the peoples of Krynn. Yet now, when he considered the task, it seemed like an impossible deed. Still, there was the presence of magic in the evil dragons, and suddenly Darlantan could only hope that Aurican and the three brother mages were right: With the help of gods, spell magic could be brought to Krynn.
    “Aye, my cousin.”
    Darlantan felt a quickening of hope as Aurican once again shimmered and grew, uncoiling across the top of the little knoll. The golden neck lowered, and the three mages climbed aboard, resting securely in the hollow between the gold dragon’s shoulders. With a powerful, graceful leap, Aurican took to the air, and Silvanos, the wild elf, and the silver dragon watched until the fliers had vanished into the gathering dusk.

Chapter 11

Silver Death

    3488–3480 PC
    The ogre’s face was lined with sweat, and be wiped a burly paw across his forehead, casting a spray of salty drops into the dense bushes beside the winding pathway. Behind him, a file of similar brutes, panting and dust-covered warriors clearly weary from a long march, plodded listlessly along the trail. Frustration and fatigue pervaded the air, rising like a stench from the mute, shuffling ogres.
    This was the spearhead of a vast army, but for many weeks, the weary brutes had been embarked on a fruitless campaign against an invisible woodland foe. They had found one elven camp, long abandoned, but had encountered none of the sylvan warriors who were their quarry. Now, bored and apathetic, the brutish troops plodded listlessly through the summer heat.
    A braying cry rang through the woods, like the sudden call of some trumpet-billed bird. Then the sound was repeated, and again, with a force that made clear this was no winged creature of the forest. The ogre halted, growling suspiciously as his eyes peered into the shadows. Movement slashed across his vision, too quick for the brute to recognize, but then he looked down and grunted in surprise.
    A short arrow jutted from his chest. Another of the shafts struck him in the belly, and two more in the neck. With a gurgling, choking cry, the lead ogre fell face first onto the path.
    Other ogres charged past the corpse of their comrade, bronze swords upraised. Three of the monsters advanced abreast, growling and snapping at the dense foliage, until a hailstorm of arrows greeted them. Death showered silently from the woods, slaying the trio, more arrows striking the brutes that were farther back in the file.
    Then the wild elves were everywhere, attacking in answer to the sound of the ram’s horn. Axes chopped and spears jabbed as the painted braves swarmed from the woods on both sides of the trail, striking ogres in their sagging gullets or muscled backs, slashing necks and hamstrings with quick, deadly blows. Shouts and cries from ogre and elf mingled with the clatter of blows, the deadly din of battle.
    In seconds, the veteran ogre company dissolved into chaos. Those brutes still alive and unwounded turned toward the rear, stampeding down the path in a bellowing mass of terror. The wild elves killed those who fled too slowly, but showed little eagerness to press the pursuit. Soon the ogres who led the rout-those who had been at the rear of the marching column-slowed their pace to a shambling trot. The immediate threat was past, they sensed.
    Until they came around a bend and found a massive, silver serpent coiled in their path. The lumbering ogres came to an abrupt halt, but before they could reverse their course, a blast of frost swirled from the gaping jaws. Icy air wilted the trees and slew the monstrous troops in a gusty wave of frigid death.
    When the last of the ogres had been slain, the silver form shifted as Darlantan assumed the white-bearded body of the sage. Wild elves emerged from the brush and gathered around, looking at the frozen corpses littering the forest floor.
    “It was a good trap,” Kagonos announced approvingly as the wild elves gathered around the dragon in the depths of the forest clearing. “My braves counted more than a hundred slain, versus none of our own warriors.”
    “That is indeed good news,” Darlantan said, momentarily wearied by the weight of wartime memories.
    For many winters since the departure of Aurican, the elves had remained in the deepest woods, harassing the ogres who dared to penetrate into those forest homes, hiding from the chromatic dragons beneath the overwhelming canopy of trees. A long period of wet seasons prevented the drying that would have allowed the ogres to burn entire forests away, and the elves continued to take their toll among the enemy invaders. Kagonos himself led many sudden strikes, his painted Elderwild warriors appeared from the woods like apparitions, slaying ogres, pillaging treasure and supplies, then vanishing into the forest pathways.
    Sometimes Darlantan joined in these strikes in the guise of a lean elven warrior. He fought using his hands or elven weapons, killing ogres with the stab of a spear or the twist of his powerful fingers. Often he employed a great, jagged-edged longsword that he had claimed from a slain enemy. There was no counting the number of brutish ogres who had been fatally gashed by that implacable blade.
    During these years, Darlantan camped with Kagonos and his braves, stalking under the trees, using his sensitive nostrils and hearing to aid the wild elves in their seeking of prey and enemies. Of course, the keen senses of the elves were nearly as fine as his own, and Darlantan had grown used to young Elderwild braves calling his attention to a nearby doe or alerting him to the surreptitious movement of an enemy column.
    Still, the elves accepted this strange warrior, followed him as he killed on his relentless quest for vengeance. Darlantan devised intricate ambushes, attacks that inflicted great damage on the foe while protecting the braves of the tribe. Leading these assaults with reckless abandon, the silver dragon in elven guise would strike hard, kill many ogres, then vanish before the brutish warriors could organize a counterattack.
    At other times, Darlantan assumed his natural form and took his war to the dragons of the Dark Queen. He prepared ambushes of his own, and since Aurican’s departure he had killed serpents of blue and black, of green and white. He became a mighty dragonslayer, vengeful and swift, attacking with power, speed, and implacable determination to surprise and confound the enemy serpents. He remained always alert, ready to foil even a teleporting dragon from making a surprise attack, and word of his deadly presence spread rapidly through the ranks of the Dark Queen’s wyrms.
    Always he hoped to strike at red Crematia, but that wily and hateful serpent consistently avoided the silver dragon’s traps. Instead, she left for Darlantan many signs of her destruction, cities and villages and towns of elvenkind laid to waste. She delighted in the slaughter of whole herds of livestock. After selecting a few morsels for her own feast, she inevitably incinerated the rest of the hapless beasts with an expulsion of her hellish breath.
    Still, in return, Darlantan laid waste to many an ogre’s lair, becoming a scourge of the clans, viewed with every bit as much abhorrence by his enemies as the elves regarded Crematia and her villainous kin-dragons. He blasted marching columns of the brutes with his frosty breath, collapsed the caves and dens of their lairs with his brute strength.
    Too, he aided the army of Silvanos-now under the command of the fierce and vengeful Quithas Griffontamer and the diminutive but resolute Balif-when it took to the field against the ogres. Though the elves fought under divided command, their tactics were effective. Quithas led his flying archers, mounted on fleet griffons, through a series of fast raids, while Balif led the troops on the ground, appearing when they were least expected, fighting solidly when the ogres expected them to run, and vanishing when the ogre chieftain Blacktusk, scion of Ironfist, drew up his legions for an offensive.
    After the successful ambush, the elves once again scattered to the deep forest, and Darlantan took flight over the Plain of Vingaard. On the third day after the battle, he came upon a skirmish raging around a small, isolated farmstead. Hundreds of ogres had the place surrounded, while a small band of defenders had raised wooden barricades and sealed themselves into a compound of stone-walled courtyards and wooden barns.
    The silver dragon flew low, blasting the attacking ogres with repeated explosions of lethal frost. The warriors within the makeshift fortress counterattacked, driving the rest of the brutes away as the silver serpent settled onto the muddy, trampled field.
    One of the defenders approached the silver dragon without visible fear. The warrior was not, as Dar had first suspected, an elf. Instead, this leader had a thick beard and was wearing a costume of crudely tanned furs. The silver dragon knew that this was a human.
    “I am called Tarn Iceblade,” said the warrior. “We thank you for killing the ogres.” He bowed quickly, then regarded Darlantan with sparkling, ice-blue eyes.
    The silver dragon nodded in return, noting that the man was missing several fingers from his left hand. “And I am Darlantan. The ogres are my enemies as well. It pleases me to kill them when I can. But how did they catch you here on the open plain?”
    “These are my people. We sought to defend this place, but it seemed as though we were going to be overwhelmed.”
    “You fight well. But the ogres were many, and they fight well also.”
    “We try to kill the bastards when we can-that’s all. But thanks for your help. We owe you our lives.”
    “We share an enemy. But why are you here, on this plain?”
    “We’re going to try to grow a crop. Only thus can the next winter be more prosperous than the last. Many are the elders and wee ones we buried in the high valleys with the spring thaw.”
    “But out here… surely the dragons will find you, if the ogres don’t.”
    “My people must eat,” Tarn replied, with a shrug of resignation that Darlantan found strangely moving. “But as I said, we thank you for your help in our fight.”
    The silver dragon took to the air again, impressed by this human. The Darlantan was pleased to scatter an entire legion of ogres that was apparently marching to reinforce the doomed attackers, and he returned to the forests with a sincere hope that Tarn Iceblade’s tribe would have a successful harvest.
    Then, finally, came a time when Darlantan and Kagonos met again upon the council knoll, the place where Aurican had departed from on his journey to the gods. The pair of venerable warriors sat in pensive silence around a fading fire, the dragon in his bearded human form. They had talked of strategies and battle plans, for Blacktusk was embarking on a new and implacable drive against the south. Yet their thoughts and hopes were elsewhere.
    A rustling in the greenery silenced the two warriors’ discussion, and they stared in taut anticipation as Silvanos emerged into view. He was somber, but stepped forward to embrace his kinsman with a hug of desperate, almost frenzied affection.
    “They will come… tonight,” murmured the elven patriarch.
    Darlantan had sensed this as well, and now his eyes turned with intuitive direction toward the sky, knowing that they didn’t have long to wait. He saw the winged form almost immediately, outlined against the stars, and his heart surged with a pulse of hope.
    Aurican landed, and his change of shape was such a smooth transition that by the time the golden wings had brushed down to the ground, four figures stood before the trio and their small campfire.
    “Greetings, kin-dragon,” said Auri in the voice of his elven body. Darlantan looked for some sign of his news, but the serene face was impassive.
    Fayal Padran, in his robe of red, stood at Aurican’s left, while white-garbed Parys Dayl advanced to his left. A fourth figure remained behind them, cloaked by the shadows, but Darlantan knew that Kayn Wytsnal was there as well.
    “I am glad to see you,” said Darlantan, his emotions overwhelming any attempt to speak further.
    “And I.” Auri’s elven face was suddenly creased by a tight smile, as if he had seen things that had inspired him to wonder, and perhaps awe. His posture was proud, and the light of triumph gleamed in his eyes as he looked at Darlantan.
    The newcomers knelt upon the ground, and Parys Dayl opened a satchel that Aurican had carried, revealing five large, glowing gems. The colors of the stones were clear and matched the array of hues Darlantan had come to despise: red, blue, black, white, and green.
    “Behold the dragongems,” said Fayal, his voice hushed with wonder. “And the means to defeat the wyrms of the Dark Queen.”
    “And welcome the return of magic to Krynn,” added Aurican, eyes rising toward the distant, stormy sky.

Chapter 12

A Trap

    3472 PC
    Darlantan came to rest in a sheltered valley, secure behind the rising ridges of the Khalkist foothills. Years of war had inculcated him with careful habits. No sooner had his talons touched the loam of the meadow than he changed shape. He had carried the carcass of a small deer in his claws, and now he hoisted the fresh meat easily, resting the animal over his shoulders as he looked around.
    The white-bearded human figure moved easily through the trees, skirting the clearing, insuring that he was unobserved. Only then did Darlantan proceed along the narrow, winding trail through the deep ravine. Sheer walls rose far over his head, barely an arm’s length to either side, but instead of constricting him, they represented security to the transformed silver serpent. He was masked from the skies above by the overhanging walls, and any dragon that tried to pursue him would be greatly hampered by the narrow confines.
    Of course, an ogre or two could squeeze in here, but then Darlantan almost hoped he would encounter a few of the brutish warriors. On another occasion some winters before, several heavily armed ogres had come upon an apparently frail, elderly human, and it had been the last mistake those particular monsters ever made.
    Once he reached the cave, Darlantan sniffed the air, probing for any sign of danger. The shelter was large, with a ceiling arching high overhead. Though it was not deep, it remained dry and sheltered from the weather and was large enough that the silver dragon could have assumed his normal form if he had desired to do so. Yet he was content to remain in his two-legged guise.
    The shadows were thick, but his golden eyes penetrated the darkness with ease, determining that the place was empty. Retaining his body in the shape of the bearded human elder, Darlantan advanced into the cave, shuffling through the dark recesses, insuring that nothing unsuspected lurked in concealment. Crouching beside a pile of dried wood that had apparently remained undisturbed since his last visit, the ancient dragon used his dexterous fingers to find the shard of flint and the steel knife blade that Kagonos had left here. With a few quick strikes, Dar started a fire-not because he was cold, but because he knew that Kagonos, when he came, would appreciate the warmth.
    Flames crackled from the tinder, rising with cheery warmth and brightness, spreading light throughout the stone-walled shelter. For some time, Darlantan amused himself by watching his own human-shaped shadow cavort and gesture on the smooth stone of the cave wall. Finally he heard the almost silent sound of a footfall along the trail that ran along the ravine floor, and Darlantan looked up to see the wild elf jog into view. Kagonos bore the long-hafted axe that was his favored weapon, the ram’s horn on its thong of leather, and was garbed in a supple breechcloth of doeskin. Otherwise he was naked, unadorned except for the elaborate designs of ink streaked across his chest, cheeks, and forehead.
    He entered the alcove with a nod, squatting before the fire and absorbing the warmth from the small bed of coals. Unlike humans or other short-lived creatures meeting again after a winter’s separation, these two long-lived beings felt no need for conversation to distill the silence of the wilderness. Instead, they sat in worldless fellowship around the heartening blaze.
    After a time, the two friends shared the fresh venison Darlantan had brought, drinking water from a pure spring at the back of the cave. A feeling of kinship grew between them, rising in the air like heat radiating from the coals. With the addition of a few dry sticks, the fire became their balladeer, crackling bold lyrics, then fading into a soft postlude.
    “Word comes by runner from the east.” Kagonos, with his eyes closed, leaned back and laid his head against the rock wall of the little cave. He spoke slowly, reluctant to dispel the serene aura. “The blue dragons attack toward the coast. They fight in support of a large army, so all indications are that they will remain there for some time.”
    “And Crematia?” Darlantan’s calm broke with the mention of his enemy’s name. His voice quivered and his jaw clenched at the thought of the red dragon, who had eluded his best efforts over so many winters.
    Kagonos only shook his head. “Perhaps she has been swallowed by Aurican’s magic gems-the same way those stones ate the souls of the white and green dragons.”
    “Do you know what happened to those gems?” Darlantan asked.
    “Silvanos tells me the griffons carried them deep into the mountains,” Kagonos replied. “There they were buried so they would never be found. And with them are buried two of the Dark Queen’s clans.”
    “It is only to be wished that Crematia could have been trapped as well,” Dar agreed. “But I was with my brother a dozen sunrises ago, and he has seen not so much as a single crimson scale.”
    Still, the wild elf’s words reminded him of something else as well, something more hopeful than he would have believed ten winters earlier. Darlantan reflected on the success that Aurican and he had with the dragongems. The stones possessed a powerful allure, the fundamental essence of magic bestowed by the gods themselves. Aurican had never explained much about the harrowing quest that had brought them to the dragongems, only hinting that the cost might prove to be high.
    Yet the stones of life-trapping had proven to be potent and effective, so long as the evil dragons could be lured close enough for the magic to take effect. To this end, Darlantan and Aurican had devised an effective tactic, one that had served them well in two distinct campaigns. Darlantan had located the wyrms and goaded them into a reckless pursuit. Aurican completed the other portion of the trap, waiting somewhere in ambush, concealed in his elven guise and waiting for his kin-dragon to lead the chromatic serpents to him.
    As the enraged wyrms swept past, Aurican brandished the magical gem and worked the spell of life-trapping. Powerful sorcery exploded in a cyclone of magic, pulling the dragons into the stone. Twice the plan had worked to perfection, and the dragons of white and green had been imprisoned.
    “Any word as to the black dragons?” asked the wild elf.
    “There is some good news,” Dar replied, heartened by the prospects for imminent battle. “They are gathered in the mountains above Blacktusk, and the ogres are already marching against Sylvanos. Aurican is ready with the black dragongem. It is my plan to fly there from here.”
    “Have a care, my friend,” Kagonos urged, his gray eyes serious within the spirals of his war paint.
    “I shall. I am grateful that these serpents of black seem to lack some of the mastery of magic of Crematia and the blues.”
    “I will join you later. Good luck,” said the elf.
    “And to you, as well, my friend.”
    In silence, the white-bearded sage tottered into the darkness. By the time Kagonos had curled up for a few hours’ sleep, silver wings parted the night air, and Darlantan soared toward the foothills and the gathered armies of the ogre Blacktusk and the elvenking Silvanos.
    Before dawn, he passed the low, cratered mountain where Aurican was hidden. Darlantan marked the spot well, but did not fly too closely nor make any attempt to spot the gold dragon, who would undoubtedly be concealed in the body of the elven patriarch.
    By then, the great mass of the ogre army had come into view. The monstrous horde swarmed over the plain like ants crossing a vast field, and even from his lofty vantage, Darlantan was impressed by the speed of their advance. Then he saw tiny forms soaring over the treetops far below and knew that the elven griffonriders were sweeping in to attack. More antlike figures emerged from the forest, and the army of Silvanos took up positions of defense.
    But Darlantan’s eyes were fixed upon higher targets. He couldn’t hear the clash of weaponry, elven steel against ogre bronze, ringing from the melee below. The screams of the wounded and dying, the hoarse bellows of Blacktusk’s subcommanders and the lyrical trumpets of Silvanos’s signalmen-all were carried away by the wind long before they rose to Darlantan’s lofty vantage.
    In any event, Darlantan knew those sounds and their attending violence were only peripherally important. The success or failure of this day would not be measured by elven and ogre dead, but by the results of his and Aurican’s efforts to entrap the dragons of black.
    Then he saw his targets: seven black shapes winging out of the mountains, flying high, but not quite at the lofty altitude of their silver foe. The dragons of the Dark Queen veered along the descending slopes of the foothills, intent upon the battle developing at the edge of the plains. They flew a straight course, in a gentle descent that steadily increased the speed of their approach.
    Darlantan stroked the air, flying his fastest as he curled around to approach the black dragons from the side. He flew in deadly silence, wondering if these arrogant wyrms would allow him the luxury of a surprise attack. Winging onward, he closed the distance, still apparently unobserved.
    Abruptly one of the black dragons looked up and spotted the swiftly diving silver, braying a warning to its six companions. Fully alerted, the formation swerved toward Darlantan, individual black dragons diverging slightly, confronting him with an array of talons and fangs, holding their searing, acidic breath ready for a deadly crossfire.
    It would be death to fly into that vortex of fury. Darlantan could well imagine the corrosive cloud of acid that would rot his scales and dissolve his wings. Instead, the silver dragon dived straight down, so fast that wind whistled through his mane and battered his body. He veered away from the blacks, daring but one look back to see that they had all swept into the pursuit.
    The distance separating pursuers from pursued was great, and Darlantan allowed himself to relax a little, sweeping along from the force of his momentum alone. He watched the conical mountain where Aurican was waiting grow larger in his view, looming to dominate all the lesser peaks around it. Finally the level flight began to slow him, and his silver wings once again worked through the air, reaching, propelling the shimmering dragon through the skies.
    A stream of acid burned into his left wing with vicious, searing intensity, and Darlantan veered away with a bellow of pain. He strained for more speed, but each wing stroke brought another bolt of agony shooting into his side. In disbelief, he turned to see one of the black dragons curving away with startling agility and speed, whipping through a tight, curling turn to make another pass at him. While its fellows remained well back, the leading wyrm had somehow far outdistanced the others.
    Darlantan noticed the quick, almost fluttering motion of the dragon’s wings as it swerved away, cautious of the now-alerted silver. When the black made a quick loop, darting in to resume the attack, he understood: The black serpent was hastened by magic. The wyrm’s speed was so great, its maneuvers so quick and nimble, that it seemed more like a bat or a bee than a great dragon.
    Spewing a swath of freezing breath into the air, Darlantan forced the black to veer aside, but was unable to damage his enemy. With renewed determination, the silver dragon turned toward his mountaintop goal, wings straining, trying to build up speed against the sorcerously quickened pursuit of his foe. He ignored the pain in his scarred wing, using the injured flap to pull himself forward.
    Then the rim of the high crater was approaching. Climbing gently, Darlantan pulled himself over the top, briefly spotting a tall elf who faced the pursuing dragons with a large gem of black clutched in his hands. Aurican was ready, and Dar would bring him his victims.
    The silver dragon felt the pulse of magic as the first of the blacks, the magically hastened serpent, was swallowed by the powerful essence of the stone. The monster simply vanished from the air, the sound of a whirling vortex roaring through the crater of the lofty mountain. The rest of the midnight-dark dragons swept onward, bellowing in rage at the disappearance of their fellow.
    A blast of magic swirled through the caldera, much stronger this time as Aurican’s spell captured the spiritual force of six black dragons. Spray rose from the wet snowfields as the wind focused, whirling, rising into a raging funnel cloud. Aurican stood, his feet firmly planted, holding up the gem as the wind curled and blustered.
    Abruptly Darlantan saw a flash of crimson, like a slash of living flame in the sky, and he knew that Crematia had arrived. The red was poised above the circular crater, and the silver dragon saw her tuck her wings and arrow toward Aurican-who had his back to the scarlet horror, his full attention still riveted upon the black stone pulsing in his hands. She rushed downward, jaws gaping, foreclaws outstretched.
    “Beware!” cried Darlantan, veering through a sharp turn. Aurican still took no notice; his concentration was focused upon the swirling storm and the enchanted gem.
    Crematia swept lower, jaws gaping as she approached the figure of the elf, but suddenly she noticed the silver form racing toward her from the side. At the same moment, the whirlwind of sound rose to a thunder, echoing and roaring through the crater, casting a cloud of debris through the air. The red dragon banked away as the swelling crescendo of magic roared in Darlantan’s ears.
    And Crematia disappeared, vanished as abruptly as the seven black dragons. The power of the dragongem was a surging wave in the bowl of the valley, a resonant force echoing with sorcery, magic potent enough to swallow the black dragons… and apparently Crematia as well.
    The vortex of the cloud swept up the steep slope of the crater, finally rising to whirl around Aurican. The buffeting of the storm was tremendous, but still the elven figure didn’t budge.
    And then the wind was gone, snuffed out like a small candle by the pure magic of the dragongem. Aurican held the black stone in his hands, smiling at the silver serpent who wheeled overhead. The skies were clear of chromatic dragons.
    “Now,” Aurican shouted, his tone swelling with exultation, “bring me the blues!”

Chapter 13

Blues in Battle

    3357 PC
    Campaigns raged across the face of Ansalon, scoring bloody scars over each summer season. During the colder times, the vast armies rested, recouped, and prepared for the upcoming offensives. The tide of battle flowed over the plains of Vingaard, lapped at the foothills of the mountain ranges flanking that great flatland, and washed deep into lands that had once been hallowed forests.
    However, with three clans of evil dragonkind imprisoned in the stones of life-trapping and Crematia nowhere to be seen, the blue wyrms had become more cautious. They still sent their lightning against helpless mortals on the ground, but no longer did they join in the great campaigns of Blacktusk’s-and later his heir, Talonian’s-vast army. Thus the elves of Silvanos and the elven leader’s human allies were able to gradually drive back the evil force’s most aggressive spearheads.
    Crematia, by all reports, had disappeared at the time of the ambush of the black dragons, and Aurican had quietly voiced the hope that she had somehow been entrapped with her inky cousins. Still, the gems had been specifically forged for a particular kind of dragon, and in darker moments, the gold dragon speculated that the red female had simply teleported away to spare herself from Darlantan’s attack. Thus, she could be biding her time, waiting for her revenge.
    Yet finally, after a campaign of more than a hundred winters, victory lay within the grasp of Aurican, Darlantan, and their elven and human allies. Only the blue serpents remained, and the silver and gold had patiently awaited a chance to trap them within the remaining dragongem, the enchanted stone of blue.
    Until that stone was stolen.
    For once, the ogres used cunning instead of brute force. Bribed by great treasures, some humans had betrayed the rest of their kind, enabling the ogres to penetrate the heart of the army camp where the bluestone was being held for safekeeping. The monsters had made off with the orb, carrying the precious treasure somewhere into the Khalkists.
    Now the army of elves and humans was encamped across a vast plain, several days’ march from the forest that had been their only protection in the days before the dragongems. Silvanos and his human allies had taken this position with audacity, in a blatant attempt to lure Talonian into a final battle-a contest that would almost certainly decide the outcome of the war.
    Beside that position rose a single, steep-sided mountain, and it was atop this peak that two long, serpentine forms sprawled with regal ease. Starlight reflected from glittering scales of silver, rippled along sleek wings of gold, as the ancient nestmates overlooked the flatland and its burden of twin armies.
    The blot of Talonian’s horde lay to the north, a dark stain on the dark land. Moving hastily, camping without fires, the ogre chieftain had brought his troops on a brutal forced march, so desperate was he to meet the elves while the enchanted gem was unavailable to them. Now that massive swarm was encamped along the northern horizon, and even in the darkness, the two dragons could smell the stench of many thousand ogres, a bitter and acrid blight on the night wind.
    On the plain below, sprawling for as far as they could see, were the innumerable sparkling cookfires of the human and elven force. Pickets were placed and the formations were encamped in company order, ready to fall into line in the morning. From the mountaintop, the glittering specks marking Silvanos’s massive army stretched almost to the far horizon.
    “Or is it even Silvanos’s army anymore?” mused Aurican pensively. “He tells me there are ten humans for every elf in his ranks.”
    “That is good for the elves, then,” Darlantan noted dryly, “for the humans will likely do ten times as much dying.”
    “Indeed,” Auri agreed sagely, missing the irony his nestmate had intended.
    Even to Darlantan humans, were short-lived and reckless beings, lacking the dignity and wisdom inherent in elves. Yet increasingly the silver dragon had discovered that he not only found humans to be fascinating, but that he also actually enjoyed their company. Perhaps because of the memories and legends of the benefactor Smelt, the humans had welcomed the assistance of the silver serpent with enthusiasm and gratitude, and Darlantan had been eager to help when he could. He had walked among humans many times during more recent years, finding a peculiar and enervating excitement in the chaotic tangles of their messy, disorganized cities. Many men seemed to be industrious and unpredictable folk, and though he couldn’t explain his reaction, the silver dragon had long ago realized that he was fascinated by them. He also wanted to protect them, insofar as it was possible, from the depredations of the Dark Queen’s wyrms.
    “Tell me,” Aurican asked, interrupting his kin-dragon’s musings, “has the wild elf heard any word about the bluestone?”
    “The news is hopeful. Kagonos has located it, and has a chance of returning it to Silvanos. Unless he can do so-until he does, in any event-it will be up to us to stand against the Dark Queen’s blues.”
    “It is fitting enough, if only to get the war over with,” Aurican said with a sigh. “There are ballads to compose, lyrics to record… too many things that have been put aside for this priority of violence.”
    “And nestlings,” said Darlantan, with a regretful sigh of his own. Increasingly he had been thinking about those silver eggs in the grotto. Long ago he had resolved that as soon as the war was won, he would return to that sacred cavern. He even entertained hopes of being present to see the wyrmlings crawl forth from their eggs, but of course that would depend on many things that were beyond the ability of even an ancient dragon to control.
    “Do you remember how Kenta and Oro chased us away?” mused Aurican.
    “The grotto has become a place for females and eggs,” Dar agreed with a nod. “As though they forgot that we, too, had dwelt there for thousands of winters!”
    “Not forgotten, no.” The gold dragon was pensive. “Rather, it was as though they understand that it was time for us to leave, to move into this world as its permanent inhabitants. In fact, there is a rightness to what our females did.”
    “Have you heard word from them… our mates?” asked the silver.
    “Oro finds ways to send me news, often by griffon. I heard over the last winter that the eggs are safe.”
    Content for the moment, Darlantan sighed and closed his eyes. Throughout the cool night, the nestmates rested side by side, Dar’s neck lying on Auri’s wing, silver tail curled around to make a pillow for golden head. The ancient dragons didn’t sleep, but nevertheless were alert and ready with the dawn. At first light, Darlantan’s eyes played across the field as the combined elven and human camp stirred, great regiments and legions taking shape, commencing a crawling advance to the north. Now Talonian’s horde hove into view, angling down the bank of a great river, turning to meet the advancing foe.
    Daylight spread across the plains as the sun rose, bright rays breaking through the patchwork of clouds in many places, leaving a blotchy pattern of shadow and light across the sweeping plain. Abruptly a flash of crimson splashed across the scene like a huge stain of blood, but Darlantan recognized her instantly.
    “Crematia!” he hissed, pointing with the angle of his flaring snout.
    Aurican, who had been scanning the north in search of the blue dragons, whipped his head around and stared. “It is as I surmised,” the gold declared. “She was not trapped in the black gem. She merely wished us to believe so.”
    “I will kill her now,” declared the silver dragon, crouching, wings spread, ready to fly.
    “Wait, my brother.” Aurican’s voice held Dar back. “My scales cannot be burned by her fire. Let me go after her. You watch here for the blues, or wait for word from Kagonos.”
    Darlantan growled, but he knew Auri was right. The gold dragon’s gilded scales were proof against Crematia’s fiery breath, a protection that Darlantan could not claim.
    “Fly with the speed of sorcery and the Platinum Father,” Dar urged.
    “I shall.”
    In the echo of that word, Aurican was gone, a rush of air swirling in his wake. Darlantan squinted and saw the golden form diving toward the red dragon. Crematia darted away at impossible speed, and Auri, though unenchanted, pursued like a shooting star. Rapidly the two dragons dwindled to tiny specks of color far out over the dusty plain.
    Returning his taut, uneasy inspections to the north, Dar squinted along the horizon. The scourge of the blue dragons had been well reported by elven scouts as the vicious serpents spread a swath of devastation along the eastern coast of the world. Moving northward, they had continued their way along the shoreline of the great ocean. Recent reports told of their intentions to rejoin Talonian.
    So they would have to come from the north, Darlantan knew.
    Soon his certainty was rewarded as tiny flecks of azure appeared in the distance against the rusty brown of the plains. The blue dragons swept toward the field with relentless determination, flying in a broad wing. There were five of the serpents in all, soaring below the level of the puffy clouds that scudded through the sky.
    Darlantan took wing immediately, climbing through the clouds into the thin, frosty regions where he had rarely ventured. He took an evasive, wayward course, using the largest of the cumulus clouds as concealment from the onrushing serpents. Finally, far above them, he circled and waited.
    Every once in a while he glimpsed a blue wing or the trailing flick of a tail through the obscuring vapor. Mostly the view below was blocked by the thickening overcast, and this concealment suited Darlantan. The wyrms were flying well below the clouds, doubtless to insure that they would have plenty of time to react to an attack from above.
    That is, an ordinary attack. But Darlantan had a new plan in mind, a tactic that would require careful timing and a measure of luck. The leading blue dragon blinked into view again in the gap between two nearby clouds, and the silver dragon put his plan into action.
    The body of metallic sheen shifted and grew smaller in the instant of his thought, and in an eyeblink, it was the body of a frail, white-bearded sage poised high in the air. Lacking wings, the body naturally began to fall straight down, and here Darlantan hoped for the intervention of luck.
    He plunged through the clouds, blinking away the tears that formed in his eyes from the buffeting force of the wind. Tucking his arms around his skinny legs, he made himself as small an object as possible, a tiny ball of humanity plunging from the lofty clouds, directly toward the back of the leading blue dragon. Doubtless the following serpents would have noticed something as huge and visible as a dragon of gleaming silver, but none of them took notice of this insignificant fleck of nothing tumbling downward.
    But in another eyeblink Darlantan became a dragon again, poised directly above the back of the massive blue. He struck his target with crushing force as the silver head whipped around. Jaws gaping, he blasted an explosion of killing frost into the startled face of the next blue in line.
    Beneath him, the wyrm snapped and writhed, trying to bring those lethal jaws-and that deadly lightning-to bear. Darlantan’s claws closed around the blue’s throat, crushing and tearing, until his own fangs ripped through its scales. Slowing the descent with his outspread wings, the silver dragon twisted once more to make sure his foe was dead.
    Then he released the lifeless carcass and dived toward the ground, sweeping away from the two armies clenched in their distant, sprawling struggle. Bellows of rage still echoed, and the acrid scent of spent lightning stung his nostrils as he drew deep breaths and strove for altitude.
    Three blue arrows plunged from the sky in vengeful pursuit as Darlantan headed for the scant concealment of a range of rugged foothills. He dodged into a chasm, flying around a massive bluff and swinging over the plains again, leaving the blues straining to keep him in sight. Upward and still upward he rose, the powerful strokes of his wings carrying him high above the land, higher than he had ever flown before. Passing through the tenuous layer of clouds, Darlantan found himself in a realm of twilight chill, though the sun burned from just past zenith overhead. The wetness on his scales turned to frost, and he sensed that the blues struggled with the uncomfortable chill as they labored in pursuit.
    But they still had their magic, and in a heart-stopping moment, the three blue serpents materialized in the air before him-and Darlantan knew he was defeated. A trio of cruel maws gaped as the mighty silver tried to veer aside, knowing he was too late. The blue dragons were arrayed in lethal formation, poised to kill no matter which way he turned.
    Then a great rock was there, a massive orb that was somehow suspended in the sky. The surface was silvery and bright, coated with frost, and the great sphere was moving very fast, tumbling crazily into the midst of the aerial melee. Darlantan veered, dodging as the massive globe swirled past the chromatic dragons.
    Lightning blasted, and shards of white-silver stones flew past Darlantan. But the blue dragon’s aim had been thrown off by the great sphere of stone. His shot missed the silver serpent, instead splintering into the great, floating mass of rock. Dar had no time to ponder the mystery of the flying stone. He curled around the gradually rounded surface, realizing that the body of rock was monstrously huge. Certainly it would be visible to those on the ground, though he had never seen nor heard of such a body in the skies above Krynn.
    Sudden darkness loomed, as if something had abruptly doused the sun. But then he saw that it was another sphere of rock streaking after the first, this one midnight black in color. Indeed, the stone was so dark as to resemble a hole in the sky more than any solid surface of rock. Again lightning blasted, and this time shards of the black orb exploded upward as the blue’s bolt missed its target and gouged into the mysterious globe.
    Flying faster, Darlantan curled away from the black object, now seeing another great rock heave into view. This one was as red as blood, and it seemed to trail the other two through the sky. With three blue dragons in pursuit, the silver veered toward this third massive sphere, hoping beyond belief the good fortune that had blessed him until now would hold firm.
    Sensing the blues close on his tail, the silver serpent curved sharply, driving his wings through long strokes, almost skimming the surface of bright, blood-red rock. The monstrous orb hurled past, obviously trailing the other two on a trajectory that would carry it even higher into the sky-above the clouds, above the loftiest dragon-flight, seemingly beyond the very air itself.
    Darlantan twisted instinctively, warned by familiarity with his foes. Once more lightning spurted past, driving into the surface of the cosmic rock, missing the silver dragon by a mere hairsbreadth. Then the crimson orb was streaking away, leaving a trail of shards from the lightning strike that, like the black and silver debris from earlier blasts, tumbled lazily through the air, falling with deceptive grace toward the ground below. The three great spheres, white and black and red, coursed quickly upward and away.
    Without the moons for cover, Darlantan relied on his speed once more. He pushed himself through the air, blinking against the onrush of wind, tilting into a plummeting headlong dive. The snaky line of the Vingaard River expanded into clarity, and once again the dragon of metal outdistanced his azure foes.
    But there was still that magic, and abruptly two of the blue serpents popped into view below him. Jaws agape, they waited in perfect attack position as Darlantan curved his neck and stretched his wings, striving desperately to pull away.
    The lightning exploded with a violent flash, though curiously the silver dragon heard no sound. For a moment, everything was impossibly bright.
    And then there was no light at all.

Chapter 14

Darlantan’s Triumph

    3357 PC
    Aurican dived, the scarlet-winged form of Crematia growing broad in his vision. With a bellow, he lunged, arrowing his body into a deadly spear, driving toward that hateful crimson matriarch. The long pursuit was over, he sensed… now they would finish their feud.
    But the red dragon suddenly whipped about, halting in space, suspended by magic. Aurican veered, slashing at a crimson wing, and the two dragons met in the midst of a raging fireball, the combined blast of their lethal breath weapons. Still, neither of these mighty serpents could be badly hurt by fire, and so they broke apart, diving to regain speed, then swerving upward to recommence the fight.
    Once again they clashed, Crematia now abandoning magic for the fury of fang and talon. Rending and tearing, they dived and coiled and twisted through the air. Aurican’s fangs tore into the crimson scales of his enemy’s belly. She screamed, folding her wings and dropping like a falling rock to escape the golden claws. As she plummeted, Aurican heard her muttering strange words, knew that she was casting a spell.
    Abruptly a whirling shape materialized in the air, an elemental summoned by Crematia from a distant plane. Like a whirlwind, it roared after the gold dragon, tearing at Aurican’s wing, ripping the leathery membrane. Twisting, he snapped at the bizarre creature, but it dodged nimbly away-until he incinerated the elemental by belching a cloud of furiously churning flame.
    Crematia again took flight, diving and then flying with desperate speed, but Aurican closed the distance with his quarry. For long hours, they raced and fought through deep canyons, over lofty ridges, and among the jagged peaks of the southern Khalkists. Slowly the gold dragon drew close, sensing that victory was imminent.
    Then, in the blink of an instant, she was gone, leaving a hole in the sky. Aurican knew that she had teleported away, but he had no way of tracking her. Grimly furious, he banked to the side, squinting into the distance as he sought any sign of crimson scales… but there was nothing.
    A squawk from below drew his attention to a griffon. As the creature flew closer, Aurican banked toward the hawk-faced flyer.
    “What is the word from the east?” asked Auri as the griffon curled around to match his course and altitude.
    “The battle was raging. Darlantan was in battle with the blues, flying high above the field, until at last we lost sight of him.”
    “And the elves?”
    “They did not fare badly. It looked as though Talonian might at last meet his defeat.”
    “If the blues can be trapped… all our hopes depend on that,” Aurican said. “Forgive me, my friend, but I must hasten back there. But I would ask a question of you first.”
    “As you wish,” declared the griffon, with a polite dip of its hawklike head.
    “Your kind and ours have had many conflicts, many rivalries. Why, in the midst of all this, have you been such a loyal friend to my brother?”
    “He showed my ancestor mercy once,” replied the descendant of Ravenclaw simply. “I am grateful.”
    “Patersmith would be proud,” murmured Aurican, not surprised. Leaving the griffon wondering what he meant, the gold dragon turned back to the east. He flew for many hours until, near sunset, he found himself above the two armies.
    The battlefield was a scar across the greensward below, a great wound in the world that glistened with flesh and blood, with the debris of broken weapons and punctured bodies. Fires blazed in many places, where war machines had been overtaken and put to the torch by victorious elves, or the ogres’ supply wagons had been captured and subsequently destroyed.
    Aurican dived lower, wishing he could celebrate the victory, could share the joy that must be rampant in the elven camps by now. But there were good reasons why the gold dragon felt a lingering sense of melancholy. For one thing, Crematia had eluded him. For another, he was deeply concerned about his silver nestmate.
    The gold dragon settled into the midst of the elven encampment, maintaining his true form as Silvanos and his chief general, Balif, came forward to greet him.
    “What of the blues?” inquired Aurican with precipitate haste. His concern for his ancient nestmate forced him to set aside proper patience for formalities.
    In reply, Silvanos pulled forth a stone of deepest turquoise. The large sphere pulsed with vitality as the hateful spirits of dragons thrummed and struggled within.
    “There were but three of them left,” explained the elven patriarch. “My Elderwild cousin regained the stone barely in time. Quithas, astride his griffon, returned it to me here. When the three blue dragons swept downward to aid the battle on the ground, they approached me carelessly, and I was able to capture their spirits in the stone.”
    “Darlantan…?” Auri felt a sense of bleak despair, knowing that his silver brother would have given his life to prevent the blues from getting through. “Did he know that you had the stone… or…?”
    “He fought throughout the morning, killing two of the blues before they could reach us. But, no, he did not know that Kagonos had regained the gem.”
    “Where is he?”
    Silvanos pointed toward the riverbank beyond the camp. Night’s shadows had stretched across the plain, but in the glow of firelight, Auri saw the grief in his old friend’s eyes.
    “I’m sorry. You had best go now if you hope to speak with him.”
    The elven patriarch’s words were a murmur, barely whispered through the evening breeze, following the gold dragon who had already taken wing.
    Aurican flew fast and low, and quickly he found the battered silver form stretched in the soft mud flats of the riverbank. Darlantan lay beside the broad flowage, the Vingaard, that drained this whole vast plain. Now the mighty head rose stiffly as the golden dragon swept through the night skies, gliding toward his nestmate.
    Then Aurican was at Darlantan’s side, the serpentine body of pure gold coiling protectively around the battered silver flesh. With a glimmer of change, almost invisible in the starlight, the gilded serpent became again the kindly elven sage. Darlantan sighed as the hand, soft and soothing with the wisdom of millennia, gently stroked the gouged and burned scales at the base of his neck.
    “The mud is cooling balm, and it helps to soften the pain,” the silver dragon admitted, allowing his head to settle once again to the ground. Still, Aurican knew that the soft dirt could do nothing to ease the various wounds gouged into the mighty serpentine body.
    “Did… did the blues reach Silvanos?” Darlantan asked.
    “No, my cousin. You killed two of them. And by the time the other three turned their attentions to the ground, Kagonos and his wild elves had regained the Bluestone. It was returned to Silvanos in time for him to capture the rest of the Dark Queen’s wyrms.”
    “Crematia… as well?”
    “Alas, no. I chased her across the plain, and through realms of smoke and sky, but she managed to elude me. The best I can claim is that she has gone to ground again. We can only hope that, with the loss of all her kin, she will remain aloof from the affairs of Krynn.”
    “She does not know of the grotto, the eggs?” whispered Darlantan, suddenly stiffening.
    “They are safe,” said Aurican. “Already some of the eggs are showing signs of motion. I understand that the females have their eye on a silver. They expect it will be the first of the hatchlings to emerge.”
    Darlantan nodded, trying to absorb this suggestion of a future destiny.
    “My son…” Darlantan’s voice trailed away with the wind, but Aurican sensed his nestmate’s joy at the thought of his own offspring coming forth into the world. The gold took some comfort from this knowledge, finding that it helped him to ignore the cruel wounds.
    “Kenta is there, watching?” the silver serpent asked, his tongue flicking between his long fangs as he stirred weakly in the mud.
    “Of course.”
    “My son… the first of the hatchlings,” Darlantan declared dreamily. “He shall be named Callak. Here… please see that he has this when he comes of age.”
    The silver wing shifted, revealing the curling ram’s horn and its chain of fine links. Aurican gently lifted the artifact, cradling it reverently in his two hands.
    “It is done, my cousin,” declared the gold dragon with the body of the ancient elf. Drops of warm wetness trickled onto Darlantan’s brow and snout as Auri failed to restrain his weeping.
    Darlantan’s eyes turned upward, toward the dark vault of the skies. He saw two moons there, a circle of red and another of white. Behind them trailed an orb of blackness, visible only as it blotted out the light of the stars.
    “Even the heavens mark the passing of war,” he said softly, “for they have placed their lights in our sky.”
    “Those moons mark more than the passing of war,” Aurican said. Even through the haze of his wounds, Dar realized that his brother spoke very seriously. “They are the tombs of nothing less than gods-Lunitari, Solinari, and Nuitari.”
    “What gods are these?” Darlantan, who knew of few deities other than their own Platinum Father and his antithesis, the Queen of Darkness, asked.
    “These were the three gods that gave magic to the world-the trio I visited with the brother mages. It was they who gave us the dragongems, that we might battle the scourge of the Dark Queen’s dragons,” said Auri regretfully, shaking his head in despair. “They are being punished by the greater gods for their transgression, though that transgression gave us our means for winning this war.”
    “I will join them soon,” Darlantan said, once again yielding to that dreamy sense of departure. Then apparently something fought to bring his attention back to the present, and he forced himself to raise his head, to focus the increasingly vague center of his mind.
    “Here,” he said weakly, lifting his wing to reveal the three shards of moon that had tumbled to the ground with him.
    “But how did these…?” The gold dragon looked in wonder, shaking his head as he struggled to accept the reality of the stony fragments.
    “The final battle took me… far,” Darlantan explained. “Even to what I now see are these godmoons. The lightning of the blues blasted the shards loose from the very bedrock of the spheres.”
    “And these pieces…?”
    “They tumbled back to Krynn with me… but now I give them to you. Or perhaps I give them to the future.” The silver head was upraised, the voice stronger than before. Those deep yellow eyes glowed, compelling the gold dragon to hear and obey as Darlantan gestured to the three large stones. One was as black as the encroaching night, another silver-white, while the third was as slickly red as fresh blood.
    Aurican stood upright then, and in a shimmering of golden scales, he returned to his serpentine body. “I understand,” he said softly.
    Crouching over the stones, Auri reached out with open jaws. His tongue snaked forward and scooped up the black shard, quickly drawing it into the gaping maw. Tossing his head high, the gold dragon gulped down the stone, an awkward bulge rippling the shimmering scales along the length of the sinuous neck. With swift stabs of his mighty head, Aurican took the white, and finally the red segments of stone, swallowing them after the black.
    “Good,” Darlantan said as the silver head once again settled to the mud. “It is nearly finished. But it is time for you to fly.”
    “Soon.” The great golden form settled beside the ravaged body of his ancient nestmate, and in silence, the great serpents felt the kinship of touch, a sensation familiar to them over scores of centuries.
    “Your elf is coming,” Aurican said some time later. Darlantan couldn’t see, couldn’t raise his head, but the scent of Kagonos came to him on the evening breeze. In the distance, the camp of Silvanos rang with cheers and celebration.
    “I will speak with him alone before I go,” Dar whispered. “Now, fly back to our grotto, my brother, and have an eye for my wyrmlings as well as your own.”
    “You have my promise that I shall do that, and I shall compose a ballad that will live for the ages: the tale of brave Darlantan’s last battle.”
    “I think I would like that, to have a ballad. And now it is time.”
    With a nod and a last gentle touch to the silver-scaled neck, Aurican reared tall and shimmered in the pale starlight. Golden wings arced outward, scooped down to compress the air, and then he was gone, vanishing into the sky before the painted figure of the wild elf emerged from the darkness.

Chapter 15

Legacy

    3357 PC
    Aurican’s chest swelled with warm power, a fulfilling goodness unique in the gold dragon’s experience. He felt an impulse to breathe out, to spew an explosion of gas that would unleash this invigorating, barely contained power of magic within him.
    Instead, he clenched his jaws and felt the pressure rise, a glow of sublime might swelling him, bearing his golden body through midnight skies. His wings carried him higher and higher, parting the cool, dark air, gleaming with shining brightness under the night skies. At first, he passed through wispy clouds, an ethereal atmosphere that masked the vast plain of Vingaard below and obscured the soft starlight glowing above. But still the golden wings drove downward, and Aurican rose, splitting the mists, shimmering like a metallic ghost in the formless space. The cool, moist air felt good against his wings and his scales, and droplets of water glowed like gems against the metallic sheen of his body.
    And then the clouds were a soft blanket below him, rolling crests and swells, shadowy kettles and swales that seemed deceptively solid under the muted light from above. Still the pressure expanded within him, and though the force was great, the feeling was not unpleasant.
    Looking upward, Aurican beheld the three moons in close alignment, rising in the east, preceding the arrival of dawn by many hours. First came crimson Lunitari, then the dark shadow of Nuitari, and finally the brightness of Solinari. The loss of the three magical shards that now seethed within Aurican had left no visible scars, at least none that the gold dragon could see, yet he keenly sensed their influence within him as the magic surged.
    Faster flew Aurican, soaring through the skies like an arrow launched from a monstrous bow. The distant ridge of the High Kharolis came into view as the plains passed away beneath him, as a flight that would normally take him three days was accomplished in the space of a single night. On wings of the gods he glided, serene and aloof, grieving but triumphant.
    With a keen sense of destiny, he dived toward the secret entrance to the Valley of Paladine. He wasted no time coming to rest on the ground, instead flying with deliberate speed through the long entry tunnel, then racing over the still and silent waters of the subterranean lake. Like a golden arrow, he shot through the secret cavern, gliding toward the sacred grotto and its precious trove.
    Only when he reached the rim of rock beyond that sheltered cavern did he come to rest, and even then he paused only long enough to fold his massive wings against his flanks. He crept into the winding passage, smelling the familiar warmth of the grotto. Drawing that presence through his nostrils and into his deep chest, he was overwhelmed with thoughts of Darlantan, and of Smelt, Burll, and Blayze. He knew that he carried the legacy of them all.
    Approaching the nest, he lifted his head, conscious of the metallic females gathered along the cavern walls, watching him with bright, golden eyes. Gold and silver, brass, bronze, and copper dragons, all studied their patriarch as he rose above the precious clutch of eggs. Shifting restlessly, wings fluttering in barely contained agitation, the females rose and crept closer, surrounding Aurican and the nest in a ring of metallic scales and intensely staring eyes.
    Kenta curled protectively around one side of the nest, and Oro framed her silver sister on the other side. Aurican nodded at each of them, then turned his attention to the precious orbs protected within the sheltered confines. Carefully curling his tail behind him, he sat with precise dignity. Only then did he arc his long neck and lift his head to stare at the clutch of metallic spheres, his heart swelling with a sense of profound wonder.
    The pressure within him grew stronger, and Aurican clearly understood what would happen next, yet this understanding did nothing to cool his wonder. The golden jaws spread wide, and Aurican breathed softly, sharing the essence of magic, the power that was a part of every dragon’s being but that, in Aurican, had been expanded and amplified by the effect of the shards of the three moons of magic.
    A glowing mist floated forth, coalescing in the air, seething and roiling with colors that varied from black to silver to red. The gases swirled more rapidly, spiraling about the nest, slowly settling downward, touching the surfaces of the eggs, stroking the metal shells with ethereal fingers. The vapor sparkled with a glimmering wetness, slowly vanishing, as if absorbed by the pulsing, living treasures.
    For a long time, the glow remained, shifting from one egg to another, sometimes bright and focused, other times diffused, but always possessing a vibrant and inherent brilliance that would have shamed any light born of flame or sun. The brightness danced and swayed, cavorting back and forth like a living thing, and when the brilliance faded, it left a lingering aura within the eggs that was perfectly clear to Aurican and the female dragons. The tiny serpents sheltered within those eggs had been blessed by the essence of magic. The enchantment contained in the bodies of the three gods was bestowed upon the young dragons in the breath of their golden patriarch. It settled on the eggs, infusing the shells and the wyrmlings, enchanting them with a power that had been absent for millennia.
    Time, in seasons and then in years, passed while Aurican and the females waited with the serene patience of their kind. Watching and expectant, the great serpents held their attention upon the nest. Beyond the grotto, winters and springs and summers cycled through the High Kharolis in succession, a pattern mounting into the dozens, then the scores.
    Still the eggs glowed, and gradually the brightness increased until the entire grotto was illuminated as under a noonday sun. Very slowly and gradually, several of the eggs began to pulse and shimmer. A silver surface throbbed, and a golden membrane shimmered under the internal pressure of a sharp beak.
    Ultimately the two eggs ruptured, tiny metal newtlings crawling forth. Shaking away the muck of the eggs, clawing each other roughly aside, the dragons struggled toward the edge of the nest. Another egg, a brass, twitched and thrashed, and then several copper spheres began to show signs of movement.
    And then they were coming from everywhere. Enchanted by the breath of Aurican, surrounded by the aura of magic, the next generation of metal dragons poked and pushed their way into the world.

PART II

Chapter 16

Crematia’s Lair

    Circa 3000 PC
    The cavern of fire lay deep in the heart of the mountain, beneath an active volcano, with plunging roots descending into a tangled network of seething lava, searing gases, and barren, scorched rock. A vast lake of fire bubbled and surged here, waves of liquid lava rumbling and tossing in the grip of an eternal gale, propelled by the regular convulsions of heaving bedrock. From many places across the expanse of molten rock, black pillars of stone rose to merge with a lofty ceiling. Sheer rock walls, melted smooth by eons of infernal heat, surrounded the expanse, broken only by an occasional ledge or outcrop.
    A layer of soot darkened the vast ceiling. Many crevasses and gaps pocked that irregular face of cracked stone, giving vent to the buildup of heat and pressure. Far above, invisible from the huge subterranean chamber, geysers of gas, flame, and ash scarred the landscape in the rugged heart of the Khalkists.
    Yet those external signs had no significance to the great crimson being who coiled, torpid, deep within the hellish cavern. Here Crematia had come to recoup, to heal and to hide in complete safety. She knew that not even Aurican could follow her into this searing environment, and any lesser flesh, such as cloaked man or elf or ogre, would blister away within moments of arrival.
    The red dragon was a tangled, snaky coil gathered along a narrow ledge above the lake of lava. Crematia’s back and wings rested against the cliff wall, and the double lids remained closed over her eyes. The long tail curled back over her feet to end just before her wide nostrils. Those twin apertures flared slightly in a gradual cadence, the only clear proof that the mighty creature still lived.
    Soot and ash had settled over the serpentine shape over the course of a long hibernation. The stuff was a sticky goo that gummed Crematia’s eyelids and encumbered her wings. Yet even that murk couldn’t conceal the vibrant crimson of the dragon’s scales or the blood-red flaps of her massive, folded wings.
    She slept as she had slumbered for hundreds of years. Perhaps it was the lethal heat that drove her into this lethargy, but more likely her evil spirit needed time to restore itself following the wretched conclusion of her initial campaign. While she slumbered, her body healed the wounds inflicted by the mighty gold dragon, and even at her ancient age, she continued to grow.
    She knew that the other chromatic dragons were gone from Krynn, their souls swallowed by the gems of life-trapping. Certainly Crematia had vivid dreams while she lay all-unknowing, and there is no doubt but that in those dreams she saw, and feared, a gleaming serpent of gold. Her enemy spewed breath as fiery as her own, attacking with power and skill-the deadliest foe she had ever known. She recalled her queen’s command… find her strongest enemy and kill him.
    And Crematia knew she had failed.
    Frequently the red body quivered in a sense of betrayal, an outrage at the fact that she had found such potent magic in the hands of her enemies. Sorcery was to have been her domain; the queen herself had promised this. And though Crematia had seen the three moons and knew that the gods who had given magic to the dragons of metal had been punished, the knowledge did nothing to soothe her hatred-or her desire for vengeance.
    But when finally the scarlet serpent stirred, it was not in response to any dream. Though no sound could penetrate to the depths of her fiery lair, there came a deep and inaudible message, a summons on a purely magical level. She lifted her head slowly, blinking a film of dust and soot from her eyes. When she could see, the hot illumination of the cavern reminded her instantly of where she was.
    Her first thought was of Aurican, and with that memory came a renewed pumping of her heart, a taut eagerness stiffening her body and her wings. These recollections came with a full measure of hatred, and when she was fueled by hatred, Crematia came truly, completely alive.
    The red dragon’s tail uncurled with a whiplike crack, lashing back and forth as she rose to stand, stiff-legged, at the brink of the ledge. A reflexive pounce hurled her into the air, wings spread wide to catch the updrafts raging from the lava lake below. These rising currents lifted her as she glided effortlessly around the vast chamber, and without stroking her wings, she was soon carried near to the ceiling. She veered easily between down-jutting spikes of rock, relishing the vibrant energy of returning vitality.
    She banked and dived, delighting in the dizzying speed, the onrush of molten rock as she plunged toward the crimson liquid. Bubbles expanded and burst in the thick surface, and the serpent relished the spattering of lava as droplets flew into the air. At the last moment, she pulled out of her dive, skimming low over the roiling lake, arching her back to rise toward the ceiling again.
    Once more she rode the fast-rising updrafts, but this time she helped herself as well, climbing with powerful strokes, angling toward a black slit in the ceiling of the cavern. She knew that, once within the chimney, she wouldn’t have the space to turn around, so she drove herself with increasing urgency, making an arrow of her body-an arrow with large, very powerful wings.
    Then the stone walls were close beside her, the rush of venting air roaring in her ears, bearing her higher and higher. Still she flew, straining for altitude, reaching for greater lift and pushing down with relentless strength. Her momentum slowed, the walls of the shaft visible now as more than a blurred backdrop, but she also saw a gap overhead, sensed that the darkness churning beyond was the ash-laden sky of the Khalkists.
    Belatedly Crematia thought of magic-she could easily levitate out of this deep lair-but she cast aside the notion in the instant it arose. She would do this with her strength, and with her hatred. Again she thought of Aurican, imagining the gold dragon winging through the mountainous skies beyond, relishing the picture of his surprise when his crimson nemesis suddenly appeared. Her wings pulsed, driving through the air, and she exploded upward with renewed speed.
    Abruptly the chimney walls gave way to a breathtaking expanse of air-she was free again, soaring into the skies over Krynn. Banking, sideslipping away from the venting gases, she plunged crazily along the steeply descending slope of the volcano that had sheltered her for so long. Darklady Mountain was a massive peak, and she couldn’t help but see her queen’s majesty reflected in the vast conical summit. She shrieked a cry of fierce exultation, skimming through a pass between the great mountain and a lesser neighbor, rocketing into the chilly air of an eternally shadowed gorge.
    In the depths, she flew above a roiling river, watching the brown waters churn into whitecaps, thunder through rapids, steadily erode a deeper and deeper channel. Again she roared, the sound of her voice forceful enough to break rocks loose from the overhanging cliffs, bringing miniature landslides cascading into the torrent.
    Upward she flew again, working hard now, relishing her own labors as she cut from realm of spray and shadow into the gusty heights. Veering back and forth like a wyrmling, she dodged through the smoke and ash that streamed from the smoldering summits in long plumes. A hundred great mountains were visible from this high vantage, but all the peaks except Darklady herself were far below. She banked regally, gliding with the serene arrogance of one who is mistress of everything in her sight.
    A swift reconnaissance showed her a deep valley where several caves lined the walls. Tiny beings scuttled between these caves or worked their way up and down the steep trails leading to the stream at the foot of the plunging mountainsides. Crematia wheeled into the murk of the clouds, unseen from the ground, content for now to know that ogres still dwelt in these mountains. She would make herself known to them soon enough, but first she had an even more urgent task.
    Flying above a treeless but well-watered swale, she observed several spots of whiteness on the green grass of the high tundra. She swept closer with silent, deliberate speed, and before the mountain sheep knew they were under attack, she had crushed a plump ewe to the soft ground. The blood was sweet on her tongue, the scent intoxicating in her nostrils, and she tore off the head of her prey, swallowing the morsel in one convulsive gulp. The rest of the mutton was fresh and warm in her claws, but she would not eat further at the moment.
    Instead, she clutched the carcass and took to the air again, winging with renewed purpose, a crimson arrow flying straight toward a specific destination. Crematia curved from her path only when a looming crag rose high enough to block her flight, but after each digression, she returned to the course she marked from ancient memory, reacquainting herself with the highest reaches of the Khalkists. Flying toward another great volcano, one almost massive enough to vie with Darklady for mastery of the range, she set her sights upon the lofty summit. In fact, her target was an even more specific location, a specific spot on the high cliff. Closer now, she banked slightly, making a direct line toward the magically enchanted place on the mountainside.
    She saw with satisfaction that her concealment spell remained in effect, masking the ledge as a patch of inaccessible cliff. Landing there, she found the sturdy barrier of her wall of stone spell similarly undisturbed. Though hundreds of winters had passed since her last visit, she was not surprised that her arcane protections remained unaltered. For the first time in centuries, she called up the magic to negate that spell, and the surface of stone melted smoothly away in the breath of her dispelling, revealing the mouth of her secret cave.
    Within, Crematia crept through the vast treasure chamber to the precious skull basket that was her nest. Trembling with anxiety, knowing that the future of her kind depended upon what she found, she looked over the brink of the bony container… and expelled a flicker of tender flame in an outburst of relief.
    The clutch of crimson eggs lay perfect and unspoiled within, except for an irregular pulsing she detected in one, the largest of the orbs. Before her eyes, a slit appeared in that shell, a tiny beak pressing outward, tearing down. Frantic claws emerged, tugging, trying to widen the gap-until the little wyrmling fell back, exhausted.
    For several heartbeats, Crematia watched the egg. Finally she ripped into the carcass of the sheep, raising a piece of meat over the nest. With a deliberate squeeze, she let a trickle of fresh blood splash onto the egg, aiming carefully so that the stream of red liquid spilled into the tear in the shell of the first hatchling. Immediately that leathery orb throbbed and pulsed, and then those claws were there again, tearing and slashing at the narrow gap. The little beak thrust outward, and Crematia dribbled more sweet blood, driving the wyrmling into a frenzy. Another inch of eggshell tore, and now two forefeet pushed outward, pulling, making room for the sharp-beaked head on its long, skinny neck.
    Finally, with a heaving thrust of awkward rear legs, the little creature pushed itself free of the restraining shell. It stood, wobbly, flexing two mucus-coated wings, though one of the membranes remained creased and gooey, still bound from centuries of gestation. The red tail stood stiffly upright, and an instinctive growl rumbled from the scaly chest.
    Crematia gobbled the rest of the mutton then, but only long enough to chew it thoroughly and to let the juices of her belly begin the process of digestion. Then, with a heave that rippled along the length of her supple, scarlet-scaled neck, she regurgitated the gory remains into the nest.
    Immediately the sole wyrmling threw himself at the messy food, rending and growling with instinctive fury. Several other eggs now showed signs of movement, pulses and jabs as the blood-red spheres throbbed slightly, rocking from the labors of hatchlings trapped within. Soon another slit appeared, then another. Crematia saw more snouts and claws come into view, but she paid scant attention to these flailing efforts. Her attentions remained fixed upon the firstborn of the wyrmlings, which still gnawed ravenously on the gruesome mess of the ram’s carcass.
    “Enjoy your feast, my son.” Crematia bent low over the savagely growling little dragon, puffing a wisp of flame around the scarlet shape. “Hear me, my proud wyrmling. Your name is Deathfyre, and you shall lead my serpents back to their mastery of Krynn.”
    The dragon paused in its feasting long enough to regard his mother with bright, hungry eyes. By the time the monstrous crimson matriarch had turned to the cave mouth, the wyrmling had already gone back to its feast.
    Once back on the mountainside, Crematia restored her spells of protection, leaving the wall of stone as a physical barrier and the other illusion as full concealment for the secret niche. Only then did she launch herself into a sky that had been cloaked by the shadows of nightfall.
    The red dragon flew with a different destination now, one that had been born in her dreams and set with the long centuries of hatred within her fiery cavern. Her targets were strangers, creatures she had never attacked before, but she felt no fear, only a growing onslaught of fresh, hot hatred. Her dreams had shown her that her newest victims possessed no magic-indeed, they abhorred sorcery in all its forms-so it was with sublime confidence that she sought out their lair.
    A black mountain, long and slender, with a ridge crest like the edge of a serrated knife, rose into the darkness before her. She swept through the clouds, her dark-sensitive eyes staring along the slopes of the massif. Soon she saw it: a small crack, narrow and lightless, plunging into the depths of the world. Masking herself with a spell of invisibility, the red dragon flew low over the aperture.
    Despite her distance from the source, she could sense the magical emanations rising from the opening, and she knew of the rare and enchanted treasures that lay within. Her inspection showed her other creatures-small, busy figures laboring at the mountain’s foot, the quarry that had been shown to her in her dreams.
    They were called dwarves, she knew, and they had come to the Khalkists during the time of her hibernation. Now they delved the stone, seeking to create great underground lairs, an entire city sculpted from the living bedrock of the mountain range. But Crematia knew there was another reason for their digging as well, and this was the key to the red dragon’s hopes.
    She settled downward beyond the gathering of dwarves. Despite the darkness, many of the little creatures labored in terraced fields, using massive horses to pull plows and till crops. Others worked with a clattering of picks and hammers on the construction of a great tower. Nearby, massive granite blocks were being dragged over smooth pathways by teams of horses and dwarves. On a stone-paved plaza nearby, another group, apparently novice warriors, worked under the tutelage of a sharp-tongued trainer, learning the use of hammer and shield in battle tactics.
    It was before this latter group that Crematia appeared, negating her invisibility as she dropped to the ground. Rearing before the startled dwarves, she spread her jaws and belched out a great cloud of fire. Flames spurted and crackled across the training field, instantly incinerating those dwarves caught in the full blast, then spreading outward like a slick of oily liquid, surrounding, dragging down the hapless victims on the periphery of the gathering who had turned, far too slowly, in an attempt to run away.
    The smoke cleared away to reveal dozens of charred, blackened bodies smoldering and sizzling in the wake of the inferno. Near the edge of the swath of darkness, a pathetic figure crawled, reaching with blackened, clawlike hands, then shuddering to the stillness of death. Only the soot and char moved, drifting away on the wind. Crematia turned toward the great doors of the tower, sensing that hundreds of pairs of eyes regarded her with a mixture of terror and awe.
    “Here me, dwarven delvers! I am the angel of magic, and four of my eggs lurk in the bowels of your realms!”
    The words echoed through the valley, rebounding from the surrounding heights as the tiny bearded figures quaked and trembled in awe.
    “These are spheres of blue and black, of white and green. They belong to me, and they are death to any other who would steal them.”
    She snorted another cloud of flame, watched the soot scar the great doors before she continued. “You must find these orbs of magic, these baubles that are my eggs, and bring them forth. If you do not remove them from your mountain, the taint of my sorcery will spread inward to infest you all! And the fires of my breath shall be nothing compared to the awful plague wrought by my eggs!”
    She heard a groan, as if from the mountain itself, and knew that her words created real horror in the dwarves, for they hated magic above all else.
    “I shall return in one hundred sunrises,” she declared with a growl. “Present these stones to me then, or face my wrath!”
    Again she took wing, a scarlet killer whispering into the night, knowing that the dwarves would work hard to do her bidding.

Chapter 17

Lessons

    Circa 3000 PC
    “And what is the effect of the teleport spell?” Aurican, in the guise he favored as the elven sage, scowled archly at the twisting silver form on the floor before him.
    “I–I don’t know, Master.”
    Callak was miserable, and certainly his mentor understood this-but, with equal certainty, the young silver dragon knew that misery was no excuse in his golden tutor’s eyes. Indeed, sometimes it seemed to Callak that Aurican liked his wyrmling pupils to be miserable.
    All of them except Auricus, that is, though even as he had the jealous thought, Callak felt a glimmer of guilt. In truth, his golden nestmate was more than a kin-dragon bonded by the linkage of a shared nest. He was his greatest friend, his best companion. Indeed, in the matter of magical tutoring, Aurican showed favoritism to his firstborn son only because Auricus had so clearly earned it.
    Already the young gold dragon was able to make himself invisible. He could create minor illusions that would amuse, frighten, or-most likely-irritate his numerous siblings. Arrogantly he levitated his prey, ignited fires in the grotto, disguised nuisances, like chips of ice, that he used to trip up his fellow nestmates. And his sense of magic detection was so well attuned that he was able to penetrate to the truth of just about every trick the other wyrmlings tried to play upon him.
    Still, as the largest and most aggressive of the nestlings, Callak had been able to avoid the worst of Auricus’s pranks. Indeed, with his size and quickness, there was no one who could best the silver wyrmling in any contest of physical skill, though his nestmates, and particularly copper Flash, never hesitated to try.
    “If my question is too complicated, perhaps you would like me to write it out? On your snout, perhaps?” growled Aurican, the penetrating stare of his yellow eyes quickly bringing the young dragon’s attention into focus.
    “Teleportation!” he said brightly. “I–I think I remember… It is the transportation of the caster from one point to another in the instant of casting!”
    “Very good-though it is one thing to know the effect of a spell, and another, quite more involved, to be able to cast that same enchantment. The Platinum Father alone knows when the latter studies might open themselves to you.”
    “Aye, lord.” Callak hung his head, with a sidelong glance to insure that none of the other nestlings mocked his discomfiture. But the dozens of wyrmlings-bronze, copper, brass, silver, and gold-sitting rigidly behind the silver made no gesture that could remotely be construed as rude. After all, even at the young age of three hundred winters, Callak was much larger than any of his fellow nestmates, a physical supremacy that now served to intimidate the wyrmlings from making any mocking or insulting remarks.
    Yet it was far more than his size that accounted for Callak’s aloof mastery-in matters nonmagical, at least-of the grotto. His eyes drifted to the nest and saw the curled ram’s horn suspended there on its fine silver chain. Kenta had placed it there, and none of the wyrmlings could look at it without recalling the esteemed heritage of the silver dragons.
    All the young dragons had been schooled on the tales of brave Darlantan, whose final sacrifice had brought victory to the metal dragons and their allies during the Dragon War. For one thing, the silver matriarch, Kenta, had insured that her mate’s valor was known to all the hatchlings. Aurican himself often spoke of the mighty serpent, invariably in tones both impassioned and affectionate. With great ceremony, he explained the legacy of the ram’s horn, told them that someday the greatest of the silver serpents would bear that artifact as proof of their sire’s legacy and wisdom.
    It was a collection of tales that never failed to move Darlantan’s offspring, Callak and his proud brother Arjen, and his sisters Daria, Starr, and Splendor. Even tiny Agon, crippled and malformed since emerging from his silver egg, allowed his chest to puff out when the name of their heroic sire was invoked.
    All knew, too, of Smelt and Burll and Blayze. The silvers were not the only wyrmlings who had lost their sire before hatching. But it was Callak who felt the greatest burden of that history. Natural master of all the lesser wyrms, he engaged in constant rivalry with Auricus, while at the same time striving to learn the lore of magic as taught by the wise elder.
    Now, however, as Aurican lectured sternly, the wyrms of the brown metals were content to let the silver absorb the browbeating. Bronze Bolt and brass Dazzall carefully averted their eyes as Callak mutely looked for support.
    Copper-scaled Tharn, meanwhile, merely smirked and flexed his wings, no doubt still seething because of a recent trick the silver male had played. Indeed, Callak couldn’t suppress a smile as he remembered his deception. The copper had eagerly pounced upon an object that looked like the plump carcass of a newly slain deer, only to discover that the silver dragon had used a minor illusion to create that appearance over a muckhole of brackish water and quicksand. The prank had resulted in a week of careful watching, as Callak had spent each waking moment since in wary anticipation of Tharn’s revenge.
    “The teleport spell works like this!” declared Auricus, suddenly appearing in the midst of the gathered wyrmlings. The golden dragon was poised in the air a good high jump off the ground, and before he could start flying, he plunged to the floor, sending several of the coppers tumbling and scrambling to get out of his way.
    “And it’s a good thing you can teleport!” Callak jabbed with a delighted sneer. “That way you won’t have to learn how to use your wings!”
    “I can fly!” Auricus insisted, sitting up and flexing the shimmering flaps of brilliant gold. “It’s just that it’s not as much fun as magic.”
    Callak knew his kin-dragon spoke the truth-at least, the truth as it appeared from Auric’s perception-but just the same, the whole notion seemed crazy to the young silver. After all, he had learned that flying was simply the best thing there could possibly be, and no mastery of magic would ever make him feel any different.
    “I think that’s enough of our lessons for now,” declared the tutor, with a stern glare between Auricus and Callak. “I suggest you fly to the valley, perhaps paying visits to your mothers.”
    In the moment of the suggestion, the wyrmlings were off, flashes of metal gleaming down the corridor and into the cavern of the great lake. The race evolved as always, with Callak in the lead, head and neck arrow-straight, wings all but buzzing from the strain of his flight. The others trailed behind, darts of metal hurtling through the air. Wind whistled over their scales, and the darkness passed in a blur.
    The flash of gold went by him so quickly that the silver dragon wobbled in the air, almost losing control. In disbelief, he strained even harder, but could only watch as the golden tail pulled away. Within moments, Auricus had disappeared into the distance.
    By the time Callak had led the rest of the brood into the sunlight warming the Valley of Paladine, Auricus had assumed a posi