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RAR!

I – The Single Man

 

The Tredor Mountains were the bane of many a trader – its sharp peaks and its deep crags, its enormous roc-eagles and vicious orcs. Only a few traversable passages lead through them and even fewer were safe. Wise traders often sought strength in numbers and moved their goods in caravan with fellow entrepreneurs, as those who foolishly traveled alone frequently met an unpleasant end. They called it the Lonely Death, because the gods made few places more desolate than these cold, inhospitable chasms. The only truly safe passage through the mountains was through the Low Mountains, but only a scarce few ever dared take that route; the Low Mountains, it was well known, was the domain of the Dragon.

      So why would men risk their lives in such a terrible place? Because to the west, visible at night from the very tops of the mountains, was the warm glow of the city of Bassil. Situated perfectly on the far end of the Lem, at the mouth of the Lemla river and with ready access to the Western Sea, if goods did not come from Bassil it was almost certainly where they were going. It had done well for itself ever since its independence as a state, over one-hundred-and-twenty years ago. Gone were the days when its inhabitants glanced fearfully at the mountains and whispered of the beasts that lived there. Its citizens fared well by the riches that passed through their port and walls and had found greater concerns for themselves – concerns that only the best money could buy.

      In this place lived a man named Samuel, a man who’s concerns by some measures were small but nevertheless heartfelt. One day found him clutching a small bouquet of flowers in one sweaty hand and a time piece in the other, which he anxiously checked roughly every thirty seconds. The name of his concern was Nala. She was 29 years old – four years younger than him – and she worked as a seamstress at the boutique. She usually left between 6:15 and 6:30 after which she went straight home to her father’s house, though today she was running late.

      His patience was rewarded when the door finally opened and she appeared. To many people she might have seemed little more than ordinary, if a bit aloof, but to Samuel she was a thing of beauty. She was gentle, polite and always had a kind word at hand for him. He liked the way her brown hair draped over her shoulders, he liked the way she smelled with all her various little perfumes that she, ever hopefully, applied just a tad too liberally every morning. He liked the way she moved, like the whole world was a delicate piece of china. He liked…

      “Oh! Mister Samuel!” she uttered at the sight of him.

      “Ah!” Samuel exclaimed back at her. “Er, hi! Hi…”

      “Those are lovely flowers, mister Samuel. Who are they for?”

      For a moment Samuel was stumped. The words stuck somewhere deep down his chest.

      “Are they for your shop?” she asked.

      “… Y-yeah. Erm…” The word ‘actually’ never made it to his mouth.

      “Oh, they’d look really pretty there,” Nala said. “You have such a lovely shop.”

      Samuel nodded. His mind raced.

      “Unless you want them,” he suggested.

      “Really?” Nala said with a hint of awe. “Me?”

      He nodded again, with more enthusiasm this time.

      “I can get more. Why don’t you take them?”

      For a moment Nala seemed tempted, but in the end she was still Nala.

      “Oh, but what would father say?” she laughed. “I’d better go, he’s probably wondering what’s keeping me. Goodbye Mister Samuel!”

      She hurried off, leaving Samuel with his gift still in hand.

      “Goodbye…” He managed. He watched her go: a thing of beauty, disappearing in the crowd.

 

When he finally returned to the shop he found Bardleby waiting idly by the locked door with his supply cart.

      “Ah, Mister Whittler,” he beamed from behind his bushy moustache upon Samuel’s approached. “Back from an important errand, no doubt,” he suggested without a hint of sarcasm.

      “You might say,” Samuel said. He extended a hand which Bardleby immediately took in a firm grip; the traders that passed through the Tredor Mountains were not known for being delicate.

      “Well, we’re all here now,” Bardleby said generously. “Let’s get started, hm?”

      “Yes,” Samuel said. “Let me get the door.”

      “Business been good to you, I hope?”

      “Good enough.”

      “Good. Good.”

      “How were the mountains?”

      Samuel pushed open the door.

      “Also good. A few orcs, but they knew to keep their distance if you know what I mean.”

      Bardleby produced from under the bench of the cart a crossbow like a siege weapon. Samuel, having grown up in more civilized surroundings, suppressed his discomfort at the sight of the it.

      “Ha,” he said.

      The mountain trader stashed the crossbow back under the bench.

      “I got you more of those Aldenian candlesticks,” he announced heading for the back of the cart. “Same price.”

      “Oh, good.”

      “I got some crystal ones as well if you’re interested. And about half the stuff on your list.”

      Bardleby handed Samuel back the list he had made a month ago. There were tick marks behind little over half the items, though some of the numbers had been crossed out and lowered. He immediately scanned to the most important item and his heart jumped a little at the sight of the tick mark.

      “Can I see the elvin chairs?!” he asked.

      “Sorry,” Bardleby said.

      Samuel stared at the man as he hoisted a crate from the back of his cart.

      “What do you mean?” he asked. He showed the list. “You got them! You actually got them!”

      “Already bought,” Bardleby grunted under the weight of a second crate. Samuel’s mouth dropped open.

      “You sold them?!”

      “I brought’em here to sell’em, and I did,” Bardleby said as he carried the crate inside. “Seeing as how you weren’t even here I went over to Bellows’, and he bought’em soon as he laid eyes on’em.”

      Samuel rushed in after him.

      “Did he pay you more?” he demanded.

      “Well, as it happens…”

      “How much?”

      “Mister Whittler, if Bellows comes back from the bank with no money, you’ll be first on my list. But they’re spoken for and I can´t sell what’s not mine to sell. You know that.”

      “I told you where to get them,” Samuel argued in disbelief. “I looked for them. I wrote letters. I specifically asked for them!”

      Bardleby put the crate down in the back of the shop and rubbed his moustache.

      “Sorry,” he said. “No down payment, no claim. You know that.”

      Samuel knew of nothing left to say. He just stared at the crate.

      “Well…” Bardleby coughed eventually. “I’ll go and fetch the rest while you get your coin ready, right? Er, nice flowers anyway, Mister Whittler. Yellow and pink’n’all… Should look good in your shop, right?”

 

Wherever men live, they look for merriment, and there is a tavern to find it at. That, at least, was Jake Miller’s philosophy. There was something about the warmth, about conversation, laughter and friendship, the smell of beer, that pulled him through every workday. Truth be told, he probably would have settled for just the beer, but it would have been a lot more boring. And Jake  did not like ‘boring’.

      As soon as he entered, however, he was confronted by the sight of Samuel sitting by himself at a table near the wall. So he sighed, mentally squared his shoulders and headed over. He pulled up a chair, sat down beside his friend and said:

      “So? How did it go?”

      Samuel looked up.

      “Good!” he said. “She really liked the flowers.” He looked at Jake with a mirthless smile. “Want to to see them? They’re back home.”

      “So you didn’t actually say anything to her, did you?” Jake said, gesturing at the bartender for a beer.

      “Mm.”

      “Just tell her already!” Jake said. “You get all bogged down complicating things with flowers and the way of it. Why not just talk with her?”

      A beer appeared on the table and traveled straight to Jake’s mouth without stopping.

      “I’m not like that,” Samuel said. “Maybe you are, but I’m not.”

      “Samuel, what are you afraid of, that she turns you down because you didn’t do it just right?” Jake asked. “Look, you run your own shop, people actually like you, you are the most excessively nice guy I know! Even when we were kids, of all the older kids, who was the only one who gave me the time of day? You! If she doesn’t want you, that’s her loss.” He took a swig of his beer and posited: “She should be coming to you is what she should be doing.”

      Samuel took a sip from his beer and stared wordlessly at it.

      “And that’s not a proposition, by the way,” Jake added. “Don’t make this weird.”

      A little smirk broke through on Samuel’s face.

      “Bardleby came by today,” he said. “Had with him two chairs I’d been looking for for half a year. Elvin chairs. You know how rare elvin chairs are?”

      “Can’t say that I do,” Jake said into his mug.

      “Elves don’t cut down trees,” Samuel said. “To them the trees are spiritual, so they leave them alone. They only collect wood that they find. And when they make something from it… It’s fantastic! Cause they respect the wood, you see?”

      “You know a lot of strange things about wood, you know that?”

      “Elven wooden furniture is… Is… You can’t find it. It’s so rare!”

      “But you found it.”

      “And I lost it,” Samuel said bitterly. “Bardleby sold them to Bellows. Run my own shop, ha…”

      “So they were expensive then?”

      “Incredibly!” Samuel said. “I mean, for the elves first, but they only want to be paid out of respect for the wood.”

      “Of course.”

      “But then these things are rare, so they just go up in price.”

      “Naturally. So how in hell were you going to pay for them?”

      “I set money aside,” Samuel said. “And with a loan.”

      “So, now you still have the money, and no debt,” Jake said. “So where’s the problem, hm?”

      “Now I have to give half the money to Ben.”

      “Ah. Well.” Jake finished his bear. He put down his mug and gave Samuel a stern, firm look as he spoke. “Your brother, Samuel, is an unwiped arse.”

       Samuel shrugged and finished his own beer.

      “You work for him…” he mentioned.

      “Under him. I work under him,” Jake corrected him. “That’s a very important difference.”

      Samuel stared at him, and after a brief while they both cracked up.

      “Why do you make me say that?!” Jake laughed. He gestured at the bartender again and called out: “’Keep! Two beer! Ben’s paying half!”

 

Few things truly matter in the grand scheme of things, though the things that do are often as small as a single man, a single decision, or a single love. As Samuel, abetted by his friend, drank his sorrows into submission, night quietly fell and low clouds moved in which smothered the moonlight. These were so low that they nearly touched the top of a mighty tower erected deep within the Low Mountains; a strange structure, with a large base and a single, wide column reaching up into the sky. From the top of a nearby peak a grim bearded figure surveyed it. He put up the hood of his robe, spoke a few arcane words, and vanished from sight.

      Something interesting was going to happen that night.

 

Meanwhile, after a few hours and more than a few beers later, Samuel was wheezing with laughter. Quite literally. He clutched his chest and tried to beg his friend for mercy, who pushed on relentlessly.

      “So-then–so-then–so-then Ben comes in and  he sees–he sees this pfffffwrr… This… This… This pyramid of crates! And he’s like… He’s like… Standing there! And Hendel…!” At this point Jake burst out laughing. He keeled over, laid his head down next to his mug and convulsed with merriment. After a minute he tried to give the story another go, but one look at Samuel’s face had them both collapsing back into pitiful piles of mirth gasping for air.

      “Ooooooh gods…” Samuel moaned after a while.

      Jake frowned.

      “Wha’?” he asked.

      “Why can’t I do things right, Jake?”

      Jake picked his head off the table.

      “Hmmm?”

      “Why?”

      “You do fiiiine.”

      “Noooo…”

      Jake sat himself straight. He straightened his hair, though it remained as unruly as ever, and cleared his head.

      “You know what you oughta do?” he said.

      “What?”

      “You oughta start paying yourself wages.”

      “Nooo…”

      Jake nodded feebly. “Yeah-eah!”

      “’s not right.”

      “Ben gets his wages from the trading company. You get nothing for your work. ‘s that right?”

      “’s trickery.”

      “It’s not trickery if everyone does it!”

      “It’s father’s shop, Jake. Father’s shop… He wouln’t… Wouldn’t…”

      Jake groaned.

      “It’s your shop.” He prodded Samuel in the ribs roughly where he was aiming. “Your shop.”

      “An’ I’ll run it my way,” Samuel said.

      Jake shook his head.

      “If that’s your way…”

 

The bearded figure now ran through the enormous hallways of the tower. Almost as soon as he had reached the tower both the invisibility spell and the flight spell had fizzled out. He had only just managed to make it to a window and grab hold at the expense of a few bruises that were hindering his gait. Obviously there was some dispel shield active. The amount of power required for such a thing must have been staggering, and made the man wheeze with envy, desire and, admittedly, fear. The vast open spaces left little opportunity for stealth, but he still had spells left and, if all failed, his dagger.

      His name was Master Cyrill, arch mage of Bastilon, and, in the grand scheme of things, he mattered. He had always known this, too. From the moment he began his studies and left his peers lagging behind him he had known down to his heart and soul that he was destined for greatness, that he would leave his mark upon this world before he was done. He was right, too, but only about one of these.

      There was no turning back now; this night he would either leave dead, or not at all. So far he had managed to evade what guards there were scattered in the enormous megalomaniac structure. So perhaps it was serendipity when he turned a corner and almost ran directly into a grey haired man, simply standing there, hands folded behind his back.

       Master Cyrill leapt back, drew his dagger and prepared a spell with his free hand. The man, however, only looked him straight in the eye as he took a single, theatrical step to the side.

      “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” Cyrill panted.

      “Because you will need me,” the man said.

      He scrutinized the man thoroughly.

      “Ovalby…” he concluded.

      The man returned slight, respectful nod. The arch mage responded by pointing the dagger at his throat.

      “Where is the dragon?!” he demanded.

      The man named Ovalby carefully said nothing, and since every second now counted, Cyrill gave up. He lowered the dagger and pressed on.

      “A word of warning!” Ovalby called after him, barely even raising his voice.  Master Cyrill stopped and turned around to listen.

      “You are not the first to try,” Ovalby said.

      “And?” Cyrill said irritably.

      “Neither will you be the last.”

      Aggravated, the arch mage turned away and ran on.

 

In the dark, moonless night only the lanterns provided any light to walk by. At least the cold night air helped clear one’s addled mind.

      “I’m not drunk,” Samuel insisted, with clear diction and therefore some effort.

      “Yeah you are,” Jake countered. He waved a knowing finger at his companion. “When ye’re drunk, you always get all wet ‘n sobby. And then you throw up, but we’ven’t gotten that point yet.”

      “I’m not wet ‘n sobby…” Samuel protested.

      “Now,” Jake continued, ignoring him, “when I get drunk I get responsible, which is why I’m taking you home.”

      “I can… Stand on my feet.”

      “You sure?” Jake asked.

       “Uh-huh…”

      “Good, then you can walk me home…”

 

A ball of light streaked up along the tower’s mighty column, disappearing up into the clouds. Only mere moments later the dragon followed. It was an enormous creature, over sixty feet from head to the tip of the tail. It clawed its way up the column with such great speed that it might as well have been running. At the top it spread its enormous wings and took off after its quarry.

      Up in the cloud deck Master Cyrill was waiting and ready. As soon as the beast became visible he unleashed a bolt of magical energy. The great dragon, however, blocked the attack with a single claw and engulfed him in a gust of flame large enough raze entire houses. Sewn inside the man’s robe a life savings worth of magic runes sizzled and partially exploded as they took the brunt of the attack. With no time to strategize he launched another attack, which the creature nimbly avoided. Now its claw crackled as it sucked the electricity straight from the cloud layer and before Cyrill could ready a third attack the beast shot a bolt of lightning straight into the arch mage’s chest. With only the greatest of effort he managed to contain and dispel the blast. The runes under his robe went off like fireworks.

      As a lifetime of preparation went up in sparks and smoke the arch mage rocketed off through the cloud vapor, and the dragon gave chase with a mighty roar. With the dragon hot on his heals Master Cyrill desperately prepared his intended attack, and neither of them took notice of the fact that the city of Bassil lay straight ahead of them.

 

 “Goo’night,” Samuel said.

      “’Night,” Jake said. “Hey Samuel?”

      “Hn?”

      “Don’t throw up on my doorstep, ‘kay?”

      “Okay.”

      “Miss Callop gets really mad at me.”

      “Okay.”

      “And I don’t need her mad at me.”

      “Okay.”

      “’Night.”

      “’Night.”

      Jake closed the door. Samuel straightened himself, readied himself for the final stretch home and suddenly, to his own surprise, heaved and threw up half his allotment of beer for the evening.

      “I heard that!” Jake shouted through the door.

      “Sorry!” Samuel called back miserably. He looked up at the sky. The clouds were getting thicker, and there was the clear sound of approaching thunder in the air. “Maybe it’ll rain.”

      Jake said nothing, so Samuel decided to continue on. Cutting through Cat’s Alley he quickly made his way to The Artificer’s Lane, home of his father’s shop. Because it did not matter what Jake said or anyone said, to Samuel it would always be his father’s shop. Wandering unsteadily through the deserted street he fumbled for his key ring. Strangely, the last thing he remembered was a vague mental note to go water the flowers.

      Up in the clouds the arch mage readied his final spell. Every rune on him now burned with unbearable intensity; his robe was in flames and his skin was burning away. The dragon approached, rearing its head for another burst of flame.

      “You’re mine now!” the arch mage screamed triumphantly.

      From the clouds over Bassil came a mighty flash and a powerful boom. It seemed, as far up as it was, as if it hit Samuel straight into the chest. His limbs betrayed him, he fell down on the cobbles, and for a while everything went away.

 

Samuel awoke groggily to the feeling of something crawling over him.

       When he opened his eyes and looked down he saw a small, grey, somewhat spindly creature climbing up onto his… Belly? It panted with the effort; when it reached the top it looked up at him with big, blue eyes. Not big and blue as in the usual sense: these were nothing more than two disturbing bright blue globs, giving out a vague sheen.

      “Ah,” the creature said, upon finding him awake. “Don’t worry, Sire, this will only take a moment.”

      It produced two sharp, black stones from his backpack and poised to bang them together. Before he did so, though, he looked at Samuel again.

      “This may sting a bit, Sire.”

      It smashed the two stones together, and momentarily Samuel felt more agony than the sum of all other things he felt in his entire life. Then he passed out for real.

 

He eventually awoke again, this time with a vague sense of the passage of time. He was lying on his belly.

      He was indoors now; the floor felt slightly more comfortable than the street and there was a fairly pleasant warmth. When he opened his eyes he was greeted with the vision of a grey haired man in dark grey clothes. His hands were folded behind his back under a dark green cape. Upon being laid eyes on, the man produced a pleasant smile.

      “Good morning, Sire,” he said. “May I be the first to congratulate you?”

      Samuel stared at him. The man was awfully small, and what was more: he made no sense. The man looked back at him, politely gaging his reaction. But Samuel did not have one. Or rather, he had too many.

      “A glorious battle, if I may say so,” the man tried. “And a deserved victory.”

      Samuel pushed himself up on his knees. He immediately dwarfed the man before him, who seemed utterly unmoved by this state of affairs. He looked around; the room was remarkably empty, lacking chairs , a table, even a bed. It did, however, feature the small, spindly creature from before. It looked up at him from a black glass globe in its hand with a big smile on what passed for its mouth.

      “The Snodling offers his felicitations as well,” the man said.

      Samuel momentarily looked back at the man, and then back at the creature, which nodded emphatically.

      “What?” he said with a voice that wasn’t his. This immediately startled him back into silence. The creature’s smile morphed into express concern. The man’s smile faded as well.

      “Oh dear…” he muttered.

      “You see?” the little creature said anxiously. “I tell you!”

      The man pressed his hands together and said:

      “I would urge calm, Sire.”

      “Calm?” said Samuel, upon whom this word had the entirely predictable opposite effect. “Why calm?! What’s going–” He tried to stand up quickly, or at least sit on his knees, but found his arms to be too short and his legs in the wrong location, a sensation that he was ill-equipped to handle. He looked down at his arms, down to his hands, and uttered an incoherent sound at the sight.

      “Sire!”

      He pushed himself upright in terror and immediately struggled to retain his balance against an unexpectedly altered center of gravity.

      “Snodling!” the man urged. The creature immediately produced a syringe about half its own size that it turned out to have strapped on its back. As soon as Samuel fell back down it jabbed him with it just over the tailbone and injected him with a large dose of pale green fluid.

      A great and pleasant serenity came over Samuel. So great, in fact, that he barely minded when his jaw slammed into the brickwork on the floor and he retreated back into a deep, deep sleep.

 

Jake actually felt some trepidation when he knocked on Mister Audrickson’s door. He had never had cause to visit a solicitor before, and had entertained no notion of changing that.

Mister Audrickson opened the door himself. He was a fairly tall man, with straight, pitch black hair and the beginnings of wrinkles along lines that suggested a chronically serious disposition. From atop his elevated doorstep he looked down at his visitor.

      “Yes?” he asked.

      “Mister Audrickson?” Jake tried.

      The solicitor nodded slightly.

      “Mister Audrickson, I would like to speak to your daughter.”

      Mister Audrickson continued to gaze at Jake. It was clear the prospect did not fill him with joy.

      “We have a common friend, sir, Mister Samuel Whittler? I’m concerned for him and would like to ask your daughter some questions.”

      “Mister Whittler,” the solicitor said. “Very well. Nala!”

      Nala entered the hallway from the living room and peeked curiously around her father as he headed back inside.

      “Oh, hello Mister Miller,” she said pleasantly. “You’re a friend of Mister Samuel, right?”

      “Call me Jake,” Jake had wanted to say, but in the proximity of the girl’s father he thought better of it. Instead, he said: “Yes. I’m concerned for him. Have you seen him today?”

      “No. Is he not in his shop?”

      “The shop’s closed. According to Mister Wheat it hasn’t opened all day.”

      Nala’s forehead formed a concerned frown.

      “That’s not like Mister Samuel,” she said.

      “Look, he came–ran into you yesterday outside the boutique. You did not see him since then?”

      “He told you about that? No, I didn’t.”

      “Right, thank you,” Jake said. “I’m going to go check up on him. Good night, ma’am.”

      “Wait!” Nala called out. “I’ll come with you. Let me fetch my coat.”

 

“Did he really talk about me?” Nala asked.

      “… Sure. Why?”

      “Oh, nothing,” Nala said, exuding a quiet, modest delight.

      “Soooo… You didn’t think he would?” Jake asked, as innocent as he could manage.

      “Well…” She looked away and shrugged bashfully. “Oh, I shouldn’t be discussing this with you, Mister Miller.”

      “Call me Jake,” Jake said. “Please, do.”

      “… Jake?”

      He shrugged. “It’s what my mom calls me.”

      Nala looked doubtful.

      “Or, just… Mull it over,” He said. “So how long do you know each other?”

      She pondered for a moment.

      “Oh, fifteen years? I think I was fourteen when we moved here.”

      “Fifteen years,” Jake mused. “And you still call him Mister Samuel?”

      “It’s what I call him…” Nala admitted. “I guess I always have… He’s a gentleman, you know? I’ve always loved looking at the beautiful things he has, and he always lets me. Sometimes I buy some little thing…”

      Jake stared at her. It was amazing; their courtship was like a mating dance between a pair of blind songbirds, stumbling around and chirping in all the wrong directions. They were perfect for each other.

      They turned into the Artificer’s Lane and found that the shutters and the door of Samuel’s shop were still closed.

      “That’s so strange,” Nala said. “He only stays closed when he’s really sick.”

      “Well, we did have a bit too much to drink last night,” Jake said.

      “But he normally has a sign on the door. Did you knock?”

      “Uh-huh. I’ll try again.”

      Jake knocked on the door. After a little while he tried again, to no response. When that failed he tried giving the door a good pounding.

      “Mister–Ah… Jake!”

      Nala came running towards him, waving a shredded rag. She looked genuinely upset as she handed it to him.

      “What’s this?” he asked.

      “I think it’s his shirt,” she breathed.

      Jake stared at it. He thought to ask how she could know, then realized that Nala was probably exactly the kind of woman who would. The door remained unanswered, and a sense of dread crept over him.

      “Samuel!” he shouted at the shop. “Samuel! Samuel!

      There was no response. He pounded the door again.

      “He’s not here…” Nala said quietly.

      “Samuel!

 

When Samuel woke up again he was still lying in the empty room. The main difference with last time, however, was that this time he was chained to the floor. He was also greeted, once more, by the sight of the spindly little creature. It sat akimbo right in front of him and watched him attentively. It perked up almost immediately when Samuel laid eyes on it.

      “Oh!” it cried out, and it jumped up. “Please wait one moment, Your Gloriousness!”

      It ran off, leaving Samuel by himself. This gave him some time to think, which was unfortunate given the circumstances. He realized with a shock that there was no one to open the shop and that he had to get back there at once. There appeared to be some kind of misunderstanding going on, however. He could think of no other reason why anyone would want to chain him to the floor.

      After a while the miniature man from before entered the room. He stopped in front of Samuel and produced the faintest of mirthless smiles.

      “Good evening, Sire,” he said. “I trust you rested well. Please forgive the chains; we believed them to be in your best interest. I assure you they will be removed shortly.”

      With that reassurance, Samuel spoke the first thing on his mind.

      “I need to open the shop. What time is it?”

      The man gazed wordlessly in his eyes for a few moments.

      “… Of course, Sire,” he then said. “It is shortly after sunset. You have been with us nearly a full day.”

      “A day?!” Samuel exclaimed. He tried to stand up but was immediately yanked back down by his bonds. “I need to get back!”

      The man pressed his fingertips together in a pleading manner.

      “Please, Sire, a few minutes of your time first, to help you understand.”

      Samuel lay back down. He eyed the man anxiously.

      “My name is Ovalby,” he explained. “For now you might think of me as an assistant. May I inquire as to your name, Sire?”

      “Samuel. Samuel Whittler.”

      “Ah,” Ovalby said. “Mister… Whitler,” he continued, and it was clear that the word ‘mister’ came from his mouth only with the greatest of reluctance, with a long, drawn out ‘M’ and an unenthusiastic delivery. “It appears you have been caught up in affairs… Unfamiliar to you, am I correct?”

      “Yes!” Samuel cried out with relief. At last some understanding.

      “Then I will explain the situation as succinctly as is within my abilities. If Sire would be so good to refrain from overly emotional responses as I do so?”

      And now Samuel was worried again, though he nodded nevertheless.

      “Very well. Now, firstly, you may wish to be aware that you are currently not in Bassil.”

      “I’m not?”

      “You are, in fact, in the Low Mountains, Sire,” Ovalby said. “You are familiar with them?”

      Samuel gaped, but nodded slowly.

      “And are you familiar with the Dragon of the Low Mountains, Sire?”

      “No one… Goes through the Low Mountains,” Samuel said, and he suddenly feared that he was in great trouble indeed.

      “Indeed,” Ovalby said flatly. “Now, we have taken you from Bassil to the Dragon’s tower, for an important reason. Last night a man, an arch mage of some sort, gained access to this very tower and assaulted the Dragon.”

      “I had nothing to do with that!” Samuel pleaded with rising panic.

      “Sire, please,” Ovalby said. “This is not an unusual occurrence. Many people are after the essence of the Dragon. They wish to slay the Dragon and take its power for themselves. They mostly fail because the dragon’s power is great indeed, but sometimes –perhaps ‘eventually’ would be the better word – one succeeds.”

      Samuel tried to process this.

      “The dragon is dead?”

      “Slain, Sire, yes. Not dead.”

      “How…” Samuel began, but he was too befuddled to finish the sentence.

      “When the dragon is slain,” Ovalby lectured, “its essence is transferred to the person who killed it. The body dies, but the Dragon forever remains. It is a little known fact, I will gladly grant you, Sire. Successive Dragons have meant to keep it that way.”

      Samuel puzzled for a while, as Ovalby patiently waited.

      “What does this have to do with me?” he finally ventured with some trepidation.

      “Ah, the most pertinent part,” Ovalby said. “Our latest attacker managed to destroy the Dragon over the city of Bassil. We believe, however, that he also destroyed himself in the process. The Dragon’s essence then went… elsewhere…”

      He walked away to the corner of the room where there now stood a small standing mirror. Samuel’s eyes followed him as he pulled the mirror, on wheels, in front of him. Ovalby adjusted it accordingly so that Samuel could get a good look at himself. He immediately recoiled into the chains.

      “AAH!” he exclaimed.

      “This is, of course, a novel situation for all of us,” Ovalby agreed.

      “AAH!” Samuel exclaimed again. “AH!”

      The mirror showed a lizard’s face, its mouth lined with sharp, horrid teeth. There were scales and eyes and ears that did not fit him. He tried turning his head this way and that, but the mirror image relentlessly followed his motions. Samuel had never hyperventilated before in his life, but this seemed like an excellent moment to start. Before he could do so, though, Ovalby hastily pushed the mirror aside.

      “Perhaps Sire would like to try standing up,” he said.

      “… I’m chained to the floor!” Samuel squeaked.

      “Indeed. In that case Sire would like to try standing up with some force, I imagine.”

      Samuel stared at Ovalby, who simply stepped back and watched him with interest. So, with little else to try, he squared his shoulders and pushed up hard against the chains. He expected at least a struggle of some kind, but instead there was a simple pair of clinks and a chunk as the chains snapped and one of the mooring rings was torn from the floor. His bonds slid off of his back like cut ribbons, and he stared incredulously at them as they noisily coiled onto the floor. Ovalby remained unmoved.

      “The Dragon is unbound, Sire” he said. “If you will follow me, please?”

 

Walking turned out to be difficult. Samuel’s new serpentine body did not support the civilized form of walking on one’s hind legs very well; the effect was something of a precarious waddle. Ovalby had gently suggested the use of legs and arms and while the animalistic gait was uncomfortably alien to Samuel and required a measure of concentration, it did work better – and had the added benefit that now he fit through the door. The only thing saving him from madness at this point was a firm belief in authority; the belief that reasonable men, somewhere, would take note of his predicament and set things right. He only hoped it was in time for him to open up the shop.

      “Who’s in charge here?” he asked. Knowing who to turn to was vital in a situation such as this.

      “You are, Sire,” Ovalby said matter-of-factly.

      Samuel stopped. It was a slightly involved process with more limbs than he was used to.

      “… Me?”

      “Yes, Sire. ”

      Ovalby waited with profound patience for Samuel to formulate a reply.

      “… Me?” he asked again.

      “Indeed, Sire. The Dragon rules the Low Mountains.”

      “But I’m not the dragon!” Samuel insisted.

      “The world may not share that opinion with you right now, Sire.”

      “I’m not Sire,” Samuel said. “I’m Samuel!” He was growing irritable with the increasing absurdity of the situation.

      “Beg your pardon, Sire,” Ovalby said, “but I suspect you will discover that things go smoother when you’re not Samuel. Shall we continue?”

      The question mark was wasted on the sentence; Ovalby continued on his way as soon as was polite, leaving Samuel to follow as best as he could.

      “Well, who else is in charge?” he asked.

      “Hmmm,” Ovalby mused, adopting a thinking pose. “That would be me, I suppose. In a strictly informal sense, naturally.”

      “You. You’re in charge?”

      “I’m as surprised as you are, Sire.”

      Samuel moved closer and lowered his head, so as to be level with the old man. Ovalby remained mostly unmoved, but he did subtly move away from him, eyeing him warily.

      “Then how do we fix this?” Samuel asked anxiously.

      “You ask an unusual question in these halls, Sire,” Ovalby admitted. “For many people your… Predicament… Is a life’s dream. Many men have died for that dream. But, if you wish an answer to that question, I suggest you speak with the Snodling.”

      “That… Creature. That’s what you call him? The Snotling?”

      “Snodling, Sire, with a ‘d’. More fit for polite conversation. He is a gifted alchemist, Sire. Other than that I would suggest a sorcerer. Our last sorceress left on poor terms, I’m afraid, and since we never replaced her, for that I would also refer you to the Snodling.”

      “Snodling…” Samuel said to himself. More and more this all started to sound like a bad joke.

      “You may find him through the Great Hall, Sire, straight ahead of us.”

      The Great Hall was indeed appropriately named. The hallway opened up into the largest indoor open space that Samuel had ever seen. The walls – smooth beige stone – stood higher than even he did now. There were few columns; instead the chamber was capped by a dome that came to a peculiar circular opening somewhere a bit off from the middle of the room. One immensely thick column – about as wide as the dragon itself –rose through the opening and out of sight. Small windows along the whole of the dome allowed daylight to enter, though right now they showed a clear night sky. The chamber was instead lit by several glass balls suspended from the ceiling that shone with a strange but pleasant yellowish light. Magic!

      There where there were no doors the walls were lined with large dark green banners, each one adorned with a stylized yellow dragon silhouette. At the far end of the chamber stood what appeared to be a giant throne of some sort. A large green carpet, again adorned with an even larger version of the yellow dragon, lay before it.

      At the other end, far in the back, was a great entrance that led into a hallway that in turn ended in a wide staircase down. Other than all that the enormous room actually had few features that he could tell. Halfway down, off to the side, there was an ornamental pool of water and along the walls some pedestals showed off various vases and sculptures. Some simple furniture was placed beside the dais of the throne: a chair, a small desk, some paperwork scattered around, and an oil lamp. As far as Samuel could tell, the vast space was an architectural masterpiece with no actual purpose other than to impress and intimidate, which, truth be told, it did in spades.

      After some time Ovalby cleared his throat, finally distracting Samuel from the sight.

      “The Great Hall serves several functions,” Ovalby explained. “But its primary function is for entertaining guests.”

      Samuel looked at Ovalby.

      “You have guests?”

      “Of course, Sire. This is where matters of state are conducted.”

      “Matters of state?”

      “There is little a dragon can do that does not matter to states, Sire. Dragons tend to be noticed. In fact, I’ve reserved some time tomorrow morning for the ambassador of Bassil. I expect him to be upset.”

      Ovalby saw the look on the dragon’s face.

      “Ambassador to the Dragon, Sire,” Ovalby explained. “All nations have one, albeit under different names. The Ton Empire has an ‘inquisitor’, the orcs send us their ransomer and Alden dispatches emissaries. They may wish to placate the Dragon, to make demands or simply to maintain relations.”

      “But we have nothing to do with… With you!”

      “Indeed, Sire,” Ovalby said, allowing a hint of satisfaction in his voice. “So there is a constant need to communicate to keep it that way.”

      Samuel’s confusion must have shown, because Ovalby decided to end the topic.

      “You are exhausted, Sire,” he said. “I will provide a full explanation tomorrow. For now, I should leave you in the capable hands of the Snodling. He will be anxious to speak with you.”

 

Ovalby took Samuel down a staircase in the back of the Great Hall. It was wide enough for his dragon self, but only barely. Samuel had to practically squeeze himself around the bend. It was a strange and somewhat alarming sensation to feel his wings and his tail, limbs he had never had a need nor desire for, scrape along the brickwork.

      One floor down the quality of the masonry had gone down significantly. Certainly the grandeur of the Great Hall had taken leave of the place entirely. Samuel instinctively understood that this was not the domain of the servants, not of the master. He had delivered to such places before, and even his brother Ben had a similar set-up in his basement for their nanny Rosalinde – as if a lack of status was infectious.

      “Down here, Sire,” Ovalby said as he turned a corner. “We call these the catacombs, which is… An inaccurate name, but it stuck.”

      “Are these the cellars?” Samuel asked.

      “Yes, and no, Sire. There are still several floors beneath us which are used for storage and troop garrison. There is no actual cellar since the tower was built on solid rock.” After a moment’s contemplation, he added: “So, in a factual sense, mostly ‘no’, Sire.”

      “But it feels like one,” Samuel noted. “It acts like one.”

      “Precisely, Sire, though with less fungi. Most astute.”

      “Then what is below the catacombs?”

      “Whatever the Dragon has collected, Sire” Ovalby said. “Attempts to create a full manifest have so far failed, I’m afraid.”

      Though he said nothing, the shopkeeper in the dragon was stung by this state of affairs. An organization that had no working inventory system did not inspire confidence at all. He ignored the topic over more pressing concerns, however, and followed Ovalby to a pair of reinforced double doors down another hallway.

      “I will leave you here with the Snodling, Sire,” Ovably said. “He should be able to answer all your most immediate questions to your satisfaction. You will find me at my desk in the Great Hall should you have further need of me.”

      “Wait, wait…” Samuel stopped him.

      “Sire?”

      “The Snodling… What is… What is he?”

      “He’s a Snodling, Sire. I fear I know little more. You may wish to ask him for details.”

      Samuel looked doubtfully at the doors. He pushed gingerly at one of them with a talon and it opened smoothly. He cast a glance back at Ovalby, only to see the back of him just turning the corner, back to the Great Hall. So, with few other sensible options left to him, he peered inside.

      It was an alchemist’s workshop. Samuel had seen one once, out on a delivery. That one stunk of burnt coal and acid, however, while this one did not seem so bad. The walls were lined with shelves and bookcases, most of which contained beakers and bottles of varying size and shape containing fluids that he could not begin to recognize. Most of them were clear or some type of yellowish brown, but there were some quite cheerfully colorful liquids as well. There were lumps of rock and other substances, books, complicated looking equipment and pieces of various animals, all seemingly organized if not ordered in any recognizable way.

      The Snodling sat at a desk at the back wall, hunched over a book about one third its own size, in which it was carefully writing something. If there was one thing Samuel hated it was the feeling that he was interrupting something. He carefully pushed open the doors – which required the dexterity of standing on three remaining claws – and padded inside, monitoring his new limbs closely in the confined space. His right wing brushed a pair of shelves and most of the contents came down crashing and shattering, followed by one of the shelves itself.

      “Ah! Sorry!” He exclaimed. The Snodling spun around on its stool – which appeared to have some kind of mechanism in it specifically for spinning – and surveyed the disaster. It opened its mouth and then formed a big, open smile.

      “Oh, very interesting, Your Gloriousness!” it proclaimed. “The combination of alkaline based distillations and thaumic extract will surely produce a masterful result. Most interesting!”

      While it spoke it got up, grabbed a long pole and started prodding open wooden hatches high up along the wall. Samuel stepped away from the interesting combination of alkaline based distillations, thaumic extract and shards of glass and cringed as he felt his tail, operating on its own volition, slam into a bookcase. More liquids came crashing down, as well as various books and an expensive looking device with no obvious purpose. The Snodling cast but a glance at the next assault on his possessions, prodded open the final vent and headed for his desk.

      “Again, very intriguing, Your Magnificence!” the Snodling squealed as it quickly shut the large book and evacuated it to a corner. From there it leapt up at a solitary shelf and swung itself on its surface, where it grabbed a large, metal bottle which it hugged close to its chest. “Perhaps Sire would like to use my alchemy desk?” he suggested hopefully.

      “I won’t move…” Samuel promised. He held his breath.

      “… Yes, Your Motionlessness,” said the Snodling, bobbing its head with tiny little nods. “Yes…”

      It leapt down, placed the bottle in the corner behind the book and carefully surveyed the damage.

      “Is it dangerous?” Samuel asked.

      “One moment, Sire.” The creature crawled over with its spindly arms and cautiously sniffed the pool of chemicals. Next it extended a finger, dipped it in the solution and put it in its mouth. It tasted critically.

      “… Safe?” Samuel asked.

      The Snodling shook its head. “No, Sire. Very bad. Don’t touch.” It skittered off again and this time fetched what looked to Samuel like a rubber flap on a broomstick. On the way back it opened a little trap door that revealed a small drain and proceeded to use the device to sweep the liquid towards it. The glass shards that came along for the ride tinkled on the way down. It was odd, seeing the creature in action. Samuel could not quite put a finger on it, but its body did not seem to move quite right.

      “But very interesting!” the creature insisted when it noticed it was being scrutinized.

      “I did not mean to do that,” Samuel admitted honestly. This only seemed to distress the creature; Samuel could practically see the gears in the poor thing’s head grind as it tried to find a fitting response.

      “Yes, Sire,” it ended up saying.

      “Er – Can I help?” he offered.

      Now Samuel saw abject terror, so he quickly retracted the offer.

      “Actually, I’ll just stand right here.”

      “Indeed, Your Gloriousness,” the Snodling said anxiously. “Thank you, Sire.”

      Samuel watched in silence as the creature meticulously cleaned the floor. Once most of the puddle was gone it produced two buckets of sand from under its desk, the contents of which it evenly distributed on the stricken area. Then it sat down and watched its work critically.

      “Is it safe now?” Samuel asked.

      “Oh, yes Sire! If you would step over the sand…”

      Samuel gingerly tried to coordinate his various limbs to undertake this task. In the meantime the Snodling went to fetch its book from the corner.

      “My name is Samuel,” Samuel said when he was safe. “Samuel Whittler.”

      “Yes, Sire,” The Snodling said. It hoisted the book on the desk where it landed with a heavy thump.

      “You are…The… ‘Snodling’?”

      The Snodling nodded. “Yes, Sire.” He sat back down and watched Samuel with great interest.

      “Erm… Do you have a name?”

      “Yes, Sire. I’m the Snodling,” the Snodling said helpfully.

      Samuel sat down. This too was a somewhat novel process, but he managed to connect his rear end to the ground without too much trouble.

      “Erm,” he said, “Mister Ovalby brought me to you. He said you could answer my questions?”

      The Snodling became the very picture of eagerness. “Oh, yes Your Gloriousness!” it said, nodding vigorously again.

      “I’d like to know–” Just in time Samuel felt his tail shift. He grabbed it with a front claw, struggled a little to maintain balance for a moment and then clutched it in both claws in front of his chest. The Snodling watched the whole scene with an unwaveringly eager smile.

      “… What happened to me?” Samuel asked. “Can you explain?”

      “Yes, Sire!” The Snodling exclaimed happily. It then cleared its throat and said “You have been possessed by the essence of the Dragon.”

      “Right, Ovalby said that, but what is this essence. What happened?”

      The Snodling looked genuinely concerned.

      “You don’t know, Your Gloriousness?”

      “No. And please don’t call me that.”

      “Ah,” it said. “Ah…” For a few moments the creature looked lost, but it perked up almost instantly. It slid off of the stool and headed for the far end of the desk where it opened a small metal box. It took a black, glass orb from the box and laid it down reverently between himself and the dragon.

      “Maybe… Think of a bear, Sire,” it said.

      “A bear?”

      “Yes, Sire. A bear is a bear, Sire.”

      “… Yes?”

      “But a bear is a bear because it’s essentially a bear. It’s essence is a bear. It is imbued with… Bearness, if you will, Sire.” The Snodling gave the dragon a hopeful smile. Samuel just looked back with little comprehension.

      “But there is an outside bear, and an inside bear,” the Snodling continued. “A bear on the outside is fur and teeth and claws and eyes and the eating of raw fish! But on the inside it’s also a bear… It has bear thoughts, bear feelings and bear instincts. It has a bear soul, Your Attentiveness.”

      Samuel mulled this over for a moment.

      “Okay,” he said uncertainly.

      “This,” the Snodling said, gesturing at the black orb, “Is the dragon’s soul…”

      Samuel stared at it. It was an exquisite orb, a dark black with a vague mist swirling around inside if he looked closely.

       “We call it the soul ball,” The Snodling volunteered.

      “… Soul… Ball?” Samuel said quietly.

      “Yes, Sire,” the Snodling said reverently. “Many, many, many, many years ago – four- hundred-and-thirty-seven – it was separated from the dragon. The inside dragon went into the soul ball, so that the outside, the essence of it, had to find a new soul. It went to Master Zeldar, the second Dragon.” It picked up the soul ball and held it up at Samuel. “Whenever the Dragon dies, its essence finds a new soul. Until it is reunited with its own.”

      Samuel realized he was subconsciously leaning away from the ball. A ball filled with dragon thoughts, feelings and instincts. He imagined he could feel the rage radiate off of its surface.

      “… But why me?” he asked.

      “Why not, Sire?” the Snodling asked, lowering the soul ball. “The old Dragon and his attacker both died. When the old Dragon dies, there must be a new Dragon, that is the way of things. This time it is you, Your Serpentineness!”

      “So how do we fix it?”

      The Snodling’s enduring smile froze in place. It stared up uncomprehendingly at Samuel.

      “… I need to get out of here,” Samuel explained. “The shop needs to be opened. And you probably want your dragon back, I’m sure…”

      “We already have our dragon back,” The Snodling said, clearly struggling with the notion.

      “Would you want to be a dragon?” Samuel tried. This too did not have the desired effect.

      “I am the Snodling, Sire,” the Snodling explained. Samuel was starting to get irritable again.

      “Exactly. Now what if you suddenly were the Dragon instead?”

      The Snodling’s mouth opened. A lot of thinking seemed to be going on inside the creature’s strange little head.

      “You are the Dragon, Your Gloriousness,” it finally said.

      Samuel gave up. He tried a more direct approach.

      “Do you know how I can go back to being me?” he asked.

      The Snodling frowned nervously.

      “You’re not you, Sire?” it asked.

      “No!”

      “For-forgive me, Your Exalted Might, I am but a humble Snodling. If you are not you, then… Who is you?”

      Samuel buried his face in his claws – or the Dragon’s face in the Dragon’s claws, or whatever! He raised a talon at the Snodling, who watched it with interest.

      “I am not the Dragon,” he explained slowly. “I am Samuel Whittler, I run a shop in Bassil, and I need to get home. This” – he gestured at his entire being – “is an accident. Please, how do I go back to being myself? Human?”

      The Snodling thought long and hard.

      “You… Die, Sire,” it eventually suggested uncertainly.

      “No, without dying.”

      The creature’s expression slowly changed, like it was having an epiphany of some sort. Its eyes lit up with interest.

      “Oh! That is a very interesting question, Your Inquisitiveness!” it exclaimed with genuine enthusiasm. It got up from its stool and started pacing. “I should consult the Andar Journals – maybe reread the Oldera era. They would know, Sire!”

      The Snodling’s enthusiasm came as something of a relief to Samuel. It was always good to know that someone was taking care of things. His frustration was already draining away from him.

      “So you can fix this?” he asked, to be sure.

      “I will have read the Journals, Sire,” The Snodling said. “I expect this will only take a few days. I’ve read them many times!”

      “Days?!”

      “Yes, Your Gloriousness. This is a new question! The Dragon usually wants to know how to be more dragon, not less. Thank you, Your Gloriousness!”

      Samuel sighed. There was, after all, nothing he could do but cooperate, was there?

      “… What do I do in the mean time?” he asked.

      “Be the Dragon, Sire,” the Snodling said, its expressions settling back down to a state of minor confusion.

      “And how do I do that?”

      “Ah!” The Snodling beamed, as if the question itself was a wonderful present, giftwrapped and tied with a bow. It sat back down excitedly on its stool, folded its hands together and looked up at the dragon. “What would you like to know first, Your Serpentineness?”

 

“So, to summarize, your friend Samuel Whittler has not been seen since last night, when he left for home from Mister Jake Miller’s house. At the time both he and Mister Miller were in an inebriated state. He does not answer his door, his furniture shop in the Artificer’s Lane is closed without notice, and you found what you believe are his clothes in the street nearby. His clothes have been shredded…”

      The guard corporal picked up the pile of rags on his desk and showed them to Jake and Nala.

      “… You know of no enemies or trouble that he might be into. You know of no other places where he might be.”

      Jake nodded once, Nala several times, small, nervous nods.

      “He’s a very kind man,” she volunteered.

      “Yes, ma’am,” the corporal said. “If you would both sign your statement, please.” He put his paper down and pushed it across the desk along with his quill.

      “What happens now?” Jake asked, gently pulling the writing implements towards him.

      “We will look into the matter,” the corporal said. “You just leave that to us, sir.”

      “Mm-mm,” Jake said. He read his statement carefully, twice, and affixed his signature. He then handed it to Nala, who carefully printed her own signature and handed it back to the corporal.

      “Let us know if you find out more,” he said. “Janns, have these delivered to Captain Strate.”

      A minute later Jake and Nala found themselves standing outside the guard house, on a night that seemed particularly bleak and cold.

      “I’ll walk you home,” Jake said.

      “Thank you.”

      They walked in silence for the first few streets. Jake allowed himself be lost in thought. Of all the people to get in trouble, he suspected Samuel the least. And, at the same time, in some ways, the most. With these thoughts on his mind, he was interrupted by Nala.

      “You know Mister Samuel very well, don’t you?” she asked.

      “Sure,” he said. “Don’t you?”

      “Maybe, a little,” she admitted. “He’s a good man.”

      “So you keep saying.”

      “I can’t think how he would be in trouble,” she said. “Everyone likes him!”

      “That’s one way to get in trouble,” Jake said.

      “How do you mean?”

      Jake shrugged.

      “Samuel’s a decent person. He really tries to be decent to everyone. People will always take advantage of that.”

      Nala seemed shocked at the suggestion.

      “That’s a horrible thought!” she snubbed. “I don’t believe that. He has so many friends.”

      “Nah, just one,” Jake said. “Just cause people like you doesn’t mean they’re your friends. You find that out the day you learn to say ‘no’.”

      For a while they walked on in thoughtful silence. The streets were almost abandoned at this time of night. The docks, the stock, downtown, that’s where it all happened in Bassil when the sun went down. The larger part of it simply went to sleep till the next sunrise. Sometimes it drove Jake up the wall, but this neighborhood was his home, and he never had the heart, or the stomach, to leave it.

      “Samuel’s got a good heart,” he eventually mused. “But he’s… Private. He doesn’t often tell you what he thinks or feels.” He glanced at Nala. “Maybe he has two friends, and he just doesn’t know it, hm?”

 

Samuel squeezed his way back up the stairs after having learned more about his body than he ever thought to learn past the age of three. He learned, to his embarrassment, how to pee, as well as… Other bodily functions. Theoretically anyway. It stood to reason, naturally, that he would have to learn about these things and that someone would need to point out all the necessary equipment and how best to use it. It was just that… He had kind of gotten used to not having to think about these things anymore. It also rather drove home the point that he was, for all intents and purposes, completely naked, and while no one had made any comment on the subject so far it had suddenly made him feel particularly self-conscious.

      The Snodling had also explained to him, in general terms, the concepts of dragon flight and dragon fire, but it was understandably reluctant to have him try these out indoors. What Samuel had understood, which was not much to be honest, was that they were magically augmented and that he shouldn’t think about it in the sense that he did, which, in Samuel’s mind, was ‘logically’.

       Yes, magic… Apparently a dragon was a creature of magic. Presumably the dragon’s essence was drenched in it, which was a big draw for all the mages and sorcerers – the difference between which escaped him, to be honest – but without any training of his own he would have a difficult time making more than a… Biological use of it. Which was fine as far as Samuel was concerned. The Snodling did make it clear that even in this state he was still useful, however. With unsettling enthusiasm it had explained how practically anything the dragon body excretes, exudes or sheds has some sort of alchemical or magical purpose. It added a whole new dimension to the potty training.

      When he reached the Great Hall he found Ovalby still sitting at his desk, next to the enormous throne, where he was carefully crafting a copy of a letter that he had written earlier. Again not wishing to disturb, Samuel moved closer in what he hoped was a discrete manner.

      “… I barely noticed you there, Sire,” Ovalby said without a trace of sarcasm before Samuel was even halfway. He spoke slowly and deliberately, focusing mostly on his work. “Please forgive me.”

      “Erm…” Samuel said.

      Ovalby put down his quill, sat up straight and regarded the dragon with acute obedient alertness.

      “I’m…” Samuel began. “… Do I have a room?”

      “Right this way, Sire.”

      Behind the throne, beside the staircase, were two enormous, heavy steel doors. An attempt had been make them more decorative – the familiar silhouette of the dragon was applied as a copper relief on each door. One was mirrored and, as an apparent touch of whimsy, the claws of each were placed as if holding the pull ring.

      “Your personal chambers, Sire,” Ovalby said.

      Samuel gazed uncertainly at the intimidating doors. It all felt so wrong, as if any moment the master of the house might come home, demand to know who’s been wandering his hallways and sleeping in his bed, and then incinerate him.

      “Only your can open them, Sire,” Ovably said. “They are quite heavy and they only lock from the inside. The mechanism has melted in the attack, but the Snodling will have it repaired tomorrow. I understand he has been working on the parts. You will have absolute privacy here, Your Gloriousness.”

      Samuel padded over to the doors and tried to grab one of the pull rings with a front claw. At the first attempt he missed; the second attempt had him clawing the door with his talons, producing a most unpleasant sound that made his fanned ears twitch. He wondered how dragons got anything done having to grab anything they want to hold with, essentially, their feet. It was like having to stand on one leg every time you wanted to drink tea! On his third attempt, however, he managed to hook two toes in the ring, which gave him a small and sad sense of achievement. When he pulled at the door it actually opened with relative ease. He felt the weight of the door; the momentum was clearly that of a massive object. It just did not seem very heavy, even on two digits.

      The door revealed a large, magnificent room. Two rows of columns led away towards what appeared to be a padded dais up against a small wall. On each side of the elongated chamber there were several doors.

      “I’m afraid the main chamber in its current state is rather bare,” Ovalby said. “Last night’s battle regretfully did great damage to the furnishings.”

      This was true. Samuel noticed that the columns were chipped and the chamber was mostly empty.

      “Will I be safe?” he asked.

      “Absolutely, Your Gloriousness,” Ovalby replied reassuringly. “You are, after all, the mighty Dragon Lord of the Low Mountains. Er, good night, Sire.”