“You know, Mons, you would think that, as a society that has discovered a way to fling the thousands of tonnes of gold and silver in a Terra Front from one fold of the world to another-“
“To say nothing of all the copper, steel and rockmelt.”
“To say nothing of them. In short, a society that can move buildings from world to world should be able to make a man a pair of boots he can use to climb a mountain without chafing his feet raw.”
Mons paused for a moment as they trudged up the side of the mountain in question. “You are still young, my doyen. They might no longer fit. Do you wish to stop for a rest?”
“What I want is a reevaluation of our priorities,” the doyen said, waving Mons on ahead of him. “We have magic enough to travel from one face of Terra to another, but we cannot solve the simple problem of cramped shoes.”
Mons resumed his hike and affected a lofty tone. “Perhaps you should apply yourself to that problem next. I’m sure the agenda of Terra Eternal shall suffer not a whit as it is put aside so that Doyen Dmitri Dostoevsky might pause and invent the Magic Boot – the universally acknowledged foundation of any civilized society.”
“Ha! That attitude is why I’m the doyen and not you,” Dmitri responded, allowing himself a slight limp now that Mons’ attention was once again focused forward.
“I remind you that many people don’t consider being a doyen a privilege.” Mons suddenly whipped around in time to catch his younger charge in mid limp. “A case in point: You frequently find yourself hiking all over unknown worlds in boots that no longer fit. We should pause for a bit.”
Mons didn’t wait for an acknowledgment, he just moved to the side of the narrow path they had been following and took a seat on a smallish boulder. Rather than squeeze in with him, Dmitri took a seat on a log that looked to be wedged in place by a pair of smaller rocks, pulled off his calf high boots and admitted, “That does feel much better.”
“Perhaps after this assignment you should look into the problem of keeping yourself supplied with the appropriate footgear,” Mons said, trying but not quite succeeding at hiding a smirk.
“Logistics is not my strong point,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “The fact that I have to draw out any teleport or sky folding matrix myself, rather than carry a pre-etched charm, is a real discouragement from learning anything in that school of magic.”
“A doyen shall not move himself from world to world,” Mons murmured, “nor take more with him than he may carry. I have to confess, even after watching you in action for over a year, I don’t understand the prohibition.”
“Can’t say as I do, either, but it’s one of the few things Locke and Goltermann agreed on, so I guess we can assume it makes sense.” He sighed and leaned back, resting his back against a larger stone behind the log. As he did, his elbow bumped into something and he turned to pick it up.
“Find something, my doyen?”
Dmitri turned the length of wood over in his hands. “Looks like part of the handle off a pickaxe.”
He passed it over to Mons, who gave the stick a glance and nodded. “We must be getting close to the mine.”
“You’re probably right. It looks like the magic is…” Dmitri pushed his sleeve up to let the bracelet on his wrist dangle freely. The copper disks there swung back and forth as if in a strong wind. He let the long sleeve slide back down and cover the bracelet again. “About half sail. The briefing said we can’t expect much more than that under this sky.”
“We should try to get there before the sun sets and the magic weakens,” Mons pointed out.
Dmitri pulled his boots back on. “Just as well. Short rests are fine, but once we’re done here we’ll actually get some relaxation in. Let’s go see what makes this mine so interesting to a herd of dragons, shall we?”
Kor’aj Thrinnaeveous snapped his head around when his seeg stepped into the tent of meeting unannounced. The talk had gone so well that Thrinnaeveous had hoped to finish the day without crisis, but he should have known better. His own kor’aj had warned him that life was one continuing crisis, and the one who did not hear the crisis of the moment was simply not listening hard enough.
Still, the interruption was frustrating. Thrinnaeveous set the small silver trinket he’d been examining down and gave Seeg Rallaj his full attention. The seeg’s posture and nervous sway spoke of discomfort, and not, he suspected, because he had interrupted his kor’aj. Thrinnaeveous pulled himself up to his full height. “I listen.”
Rallaj dipped his head once in acknowledgment. “A group of humans is climbing the mountain. Their methods speak of caution, but not open hostility.”
“Four in all. And…” The seeg’s tail swept across the ground nervously. “Some of them are quite strange.”
To Thrinnaeveous, such a careless choice of words was strange. The differences between humans and the tribes were many and obvious. Why speak of them at all? “Strange how?”
Rallaj dipped his head once again, this time in apology. “Perhaps it is best if you saw for yourself, Kor’aj.”
With a quick bob of his head and sweep of his tail, Thrinnaeveous asked his guest to excuse him. On his way out of the tent he paused to gently bump his seeg with his shoulder, sending the younger one out first in a mild reproof. Then he stepped out into the cold mountain air and followed his seeg down the side of the peak.
It turned out that they were even closer to the mine than Mons had originally suspected.
Not more than five minutes after they resumed the trek up the mountainside they were stopped short by a sound vaguely like a hunting horn, only much deeper and richer, that seemed to roll down the mountain like an avalanche. In fact, for a brief moment that’s exactly what Dmitri though was happening. The note sounded as they approached a narrow pass through a much steeper wall of rock, and as soon as it rang out the air was full of the sounds of breaking stone.
Except no rock came rolling down the mountainside. Instead, the narrow pass disappeared as the rock on either side seemed to bend inward and seal off the path entirely. As soon as that was accomplished the note faded from the air and, once the echoes had died away, the mountain seemed quiet again.
Dmitri stared at the solid rock wall for a moment, slowly relaxing his guarded stance as it became clear there wasn’t any immediate danger. “Mons.”
“I think the natives are getting restless.”
He quickly ducked the swipe Mons took at the back of his head and moved to a safer distance. “Is this really the time for that?”
Rather than rise to the bait, Mons was focusing his attention on the top of the newly formed stone wall. And why not? There was definitely something worth seeing there.
The first dragon recorded in the history of Terra Eternal was chanced upon by Veronica Locke, who took very detailed notes on how not to be eaten by one and included them in her Bestiary of Two Worlds, the revised and expanded version of which was still required reading in many institutions of higher learning. Since then, many different things had been discovered on other worlds which were at least somewhat similar, and generally classified as a dragon (although scholarly debate on that grouping continued.)
Although dragons tended to be much more different than one another than, say, dogs or horses or even humans, they all shared a few basic characteristics. They tended to be built like reptiles, although some had feathers instead of scales, they had voracious appetites and they were big.
Really, really big.
So big, early versions of Locke’s Bestiary actually devoted a page to sketches that showed a dragon with various other animals to press home just how big they were. (Later versions used the Great Clock Tower on the Throneworlds instead of animals.) When Dmitri had been told the locals were complaining of a herd of dragons he had laughed. Whether they were intelligent or stupid, it was common knowledge that dragons were too big and hungry to be able to move in groups. A herd of dragons would strip continents of food in a matter of days.
Of course, what Dmitri had forgotten in that moment, but remembered once he got out on the mountainside, was the first rule every person who crossed the horizon into a new world learned: Never laugh at the natives.
There was a trio of creatures crouching on the top of the stone wall and staring down at the two of them. The best word for them was long. Long, snakelike necks, long, powerful arms, long, sleek torsos and a long, restless tail. Almost hidden behind the rest of their bodies were short but well muscled legs. When two of them rose off their haunches and moved along the ledge of rock, spreading out in either direction, Dmitri realized they walked as much with their arms as with their legs, almost like a gorilla. From the tip of their tails to the end of their nose, Dmitri guess they couldn’t be more than ten to twelve feet long.
Dmitri tapped his chin absently and said, “Mons. I think we’ve found that herd of dragons.”
The spare scrub grasses slid past Thrinnaeveous in a constant susurrus, the whispers of late autumn. If not for Rallaj’s nervousness the entire mountain would seem to be at peace. Still, a seeg did not come to his station for nothing, and Rallaj’s caution was a powerful warning and Thrinnaeveous reminded himself that he would be wise to heed it.
The tribe was already gathering at the low wall, it’s strongest voices watching over the side of the stone barrier and quietly harmonizing with the songs of the earth. Thrinnaeveous paused to rear back and dip his head to them in acknowledgement. Humans had been coming to the mountain for the last two seasons of the moon, ever since his people had arrived, this batch could very well wait long enough for him to acknowledge his kin.
With propriety observed, Thrinnaeveous loped out to the edge of the ridge to look down and see what had so excited his seeg. At first glance they were nothing more than four humans, as Rallaj had said. The size and face of one spoke of youth, not yet come into its full strength or wisdom. But young or no, he stood with a stillness and watchfulness that Thrinnaeveous knew humans often considered a mark of a listening ear and thoughtful words. He carried no weapon and wore a long cloak or coat. In fact, the garment was so long it nearly touched the tops of his boots and the sleeves covered his hands, as if saying that the man who wore the coat had no need to use his own hands.
As for the other three… Thrinaeveous looked from one to another, then back across the three again. They were dressed much like the younger man, except their sleeves were not as long. Beyond that, he saw few differences. Even their appearance… He looked once more, this time stretching his knowledge of humanity to its limits. It was hard to be entirely sure. “Their faces are identical?”
“It seemed so to me,” Rallaj answered immediately. “And every other who has seen them. I do not know what it says of them.”
Thrinnaeveous narrowed his eyes and drew a deep lungful of air, tasting the skies nervously and stretching his senses to the utmost. But no new revelation came to him. Defeated, he let the breath out in a rush. “Neither do I.”
“I listen.” Rallaj slid a half pace back and waited to follow his kor’aj’s lead.
Unfortunately, Thrinnaeveous wasn’t quite sure where they were going to go. The other humans who had come up the mountain had come under arms or making angry demands. These were simply waiting.
Then again, they were so few, and lightly armed. Two of the three identical humans carried weapons, one a spear the other a pair of odd looking swords, but it wouldn’t be enough to fight a small chorus, to say nothing of a full tribe. Hardly the approach of thinking creatures who had come looking for a fight. He pulled his head back over the ridge and looked up at Rallaj. “We shall go and hear them.”
“Why do you think they’re humming?” Mons asked softly.
Dmitri wasn’t sure he would call it humming, but the deep, bone rattling sound that the dragons had been making for the last two or three minutes certainly had something in common with that kind of music. With over a dozen dragons in sight, all apparently making noise together, it was hard not to wind up thinking about it. “I think it’s a kind of magic. Except, instead of placing a sail to catch magic and syphon it storage, the sounds make a pattern that can hold the magic ready at hand.”
Mons did a double take. “You mean like power words?”
“Except I’m willing to bet they have more than a half a dozen of them. And they probably don’t have to work for years to get the pronunciation just right.” He waved a hand at the line of dragons who were singing, pacing and keeping watch all without apparent strain on their faculties. “Look at that, Mons. These dragons must have a natural affinity for sound and-“
He was cut off when two dragons suddenly dropped down the ridge in a single graceful and seemingly effortless leap. It was easily a twenty foot drop, if not more, but neither creature seemed the least put off by it as they flowed towards the two humans like some strange dun and green liquid. That alone wouldn’t have prompted Dmitri to stop, but Mons had quickly pushed him back a few steps and taken up a position between the dragons and the doyen. Dmitri suppressed a huff and watched what the dragons would do next.
What they chose to do was come to a stop about ten feet away and pull themselves up on their hind legs. With them so close at hand Dmitri was forced to increase his estimate of their size by another foot or two. Or perhaps these were just unusually large specimens. Both dragons dipped their heads down on their long, sinuous necks until they dropped lower than their shoulders, then snapped them back up again, almost like a snake preparing to strike.
Except instead of lunging forward the dragon with scales of a darker green started to talk. At first Dmitri didn’t realize that was what was happening. It wasn’t until the dragon made it’s second attempt that he recognized that the dragon was speaking a human language. The first time around the dragon had chosen a language from some phoneme he wasn’t familiar enough with to identify on hearing it. But the second time he could identify obvious shades of the twelfth phoneme, Mons’ native tongue. The third attempt was a recognizable greeting in the fourth phoneme. The dragon was apparently determined to run through languages until it found something they both spoke.
Highly unusual but not necessarily a bad thing. Dmitri waited until the dragon paused for a response, then said, “Do you speak the language of the Throneworlds?”
The creature stopped for a moment and canted its head to one side. “Little.”
Dmitri stifled a sigh and switched to his native language. “Then how about Cyrillic?”
“That is a more comfortable language for us to speak in,” the dragon said. “I am Thrinnaeveous, the Kor’aj of this tribe. I will listen to your words and speak on our behalf.”
Dmitri easily recognized a ritual greeting when he heard one. Since it seemed the polite thing to do, he did his best to match the dragon’s earlier nod with a bow and said, “I am Dmitri Dostoevsky, a Doyen of Terra Eternal. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers, and my father and his brothers.”
Thrinnaeveous tried to pick apart the human’s greeting. He knew that humans naturally respected family, although they did not go so far as to band together into tribes as dragons did. But he wasn’t sure what this human’s father or brothers had to do with the situation at hand, if anything. By the same token, any fool could see that the earth would last forever, but what a doyen was or what it had to do with that was not something he could fathom.
Worse, it was the younger human who was speaking. Not only would a younger dragon never think of speaking before his elders, at least in matters such as these, until that moment Thrinnaeveous had assumed that the same was true for humans. Now, he was not so sure. And Dmitri had made no move to explain his strange trio of companions as of yet.
“I welcome you to this dragon’s mount,” Thrinnaeveous said, shifting his feet slightly to display his desire to get to the point. “And ask what brings you to it.”
“Simply this: It is not your mountain.” The doyen gestured to encompass the path they stood on and everything above it. “This territory belongs to the city of Lienz, in the nation of Ligare, who’s king and nobles have sworn loyalty to the Throne. You are trespassing here, and preventing the people from working the mines and enriching the kingdom.”
Thrinnaeveous shifted back a step, surprised. “No humans lived here when we arrived.”
“Of course not,” the young human replied. “They work here, but live at the foot of the mountain.”
“How can you claim land you do not live on?” Thrinnaeveous demanded.
“Whether you acknowledge our claim or not, the fact is we have made it.” He gestured back down the mountain. “I admit the Ligarans were not exactly diplomatic when they initially approached you. Perhaps if they had explained the situation before you became settled here there would have been less of a conflict.”
Thrinnaeveous dropped his hands to the ground and rested on all fours, prompting the doyen’s two armed companions to bring their weapons up, showing a surprising degree of synchronization. Rallaj slid forward and bared his teeth but Thrinnaeveous waved him back. “Dmitri Dostoevsky. My people have traveled long and hard. We have come to this mountain, who’s stone does not sing the song of our home, and now you wish us to continue on our way?” Behind them, the voices of the tribe rose in unison, their objection adding force to his words. “Where are we to find rest and a welcoming voice from the earth if not here?”
For a moment the doyen was silent, although whether he was considering what Thrinnaeveous had said or simply marveling at the chorus of dragons was not clear. “Kor’aj Thrinaeveous. I cannot say where you will find a home, or if it will be soon or far in the future. But this cannot be your home. I have a duty to the people of Lienz, to restore their livelihood to them before they are forced to leave their homes. You will not allow them to return to their mines?”
“You know as well as I that such work weakens the mountain and makes it unsafe.” The chorus shifted key and matched his derisive tone. “To allow you to undermine the mountain is to allow you to undermine our homes.”
“Then I’m sorry.” For the first time the doyen took notice of his companions, gesturing for them to lower their own weapons and line up to his left. Once they had done so, Dmitri turned his attention back to Thrinnaeveous and said, “This is Solomon ben-Gideon.”
Thrinnaeveous waited for a moment, expecting to hear the names of the rest. When the young human said nothing more he swept his neck to include all three. “Which?”
“Yes.” The three men answered as one. Thrinnaeveous jerked away as if confronted by a wolf, but the three ignored his reaction. “I am Solomon ben-Gideon. A soul of One. Thrice I have been born under different skies but now I walk the worlds as one.”
“I am impressed with what your people are capable of,” Dmitri said, once again encompassing the mountaintop with one hand, the sleeve that covered it flapping in the breeze. “But I assure you that the souls of One are capable of much more. Mons has prepared a demonstration for you, I believe.”
The doyen drew a small pendant from inside his coat and did something with it. A second later the sound of the earth and the air changed, as if a a storm had flown up the side of the mountain and was now about to break. Though Thrinnaeveous felt no wind, the cloth of their coats seemed to fill and drift as if the earth itself was exhaling beneath them. The three identical men, no, perhaps it was better to say the man who was in three places, swept an intricate pattern through the air before them, deftly avoiding one another and completing the movements in less than two full heartbeats.
The one with a spear touched it’s point to the ground and the side of the mountain shook. A great crack formed across the path, separating the humans and the dragons, and from the depths of it Thrinnaeveous could hear the sound of liquid earth roaring. As the tremors faded away the doyen called across the chasm. “Know that a threefold soul is not the greatest of the souls of One, nor are they the most dangerous weapons in our arsenal. In two weeks time, Terra Eternal will come and seal this gap. If we still find you beyond it, we will cast you from these mountains by force. Until then, Kor’aj Thrinnaeveous.”
The young human tucked away his pendant and the air fell still again. Then both he and his companion turned and walked back down the path they had come by.
Rallaj and Thrinnaeveous watched them go, then Rallaj went to the crevasse and peered into it. “This is beyond even our stone songs, Kor’aj.”
“Well said, Rallaj.” Thrinnaeveous went to stand by his seeg, joining him in his grim contemplation for a moment. Then he gently dripped his head down to be level with Rallaj’s and nudged him away from the gap. “Come. We have much to do, it seems.”
The guest from the tent of meeting was waiting for them at the top of the ridge. Like the other two, he was human, but he carried no weapons, but rather a heavy sack of trade goods. He had already packed it away, perhaps having sensed that there would be little market for what he brought now. “Quite a difficult choice your people face now, Thrinnaeveous.”
“And we must make it on our own,” he replied. “We will take no more of your time. Perhaps the people of Lienz will be more interested in your wares.”
The man set aside his heavy sack, carefully holding his long hair to one side so as to ensure it would not get tangled in the strap. Then he straightened up and fished around in the pockets of his coat until he produced a scroll. “You may be right, old dragon. But before I go, let me ask you one last thing. Have you ever heard of the Jovian League?”
“You know, if they stick around they might cause more problems for whoever’s sent to evict them.” Mons looked up from the matrix he was carefully monitoring. “It’s not like the Throneworlds are likely to dispatch a group that includes a soul of One to deal with them.” He nodded his heads towards the pendant at the center of the spellwork. “To say nothing of a full blown Coretap.”
“Maybe not,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “But overestimating the opposition is just as crippling as underestimating them. In the mean time, our side will have a decent idea what to expect. I mean, a race that can create power words out of music? Can you imagine the panic that would cause if it caught you by surprise?”
“What really gets me is the way the back up was harmonizing with the lead dragon.” Mons’ heads shook in sequence, one of the weirdest gestures in his admittedly weird repertoire. “They either work on it from birth or do it intuitively. I’m not sure which possibility scares me more. They may not be able to match me for precision, but there’s far more raw power there than I’d ever like to see up close.”
Dmitri sighed and got up from the log where he’d been happily resting his feet just before their confrontation with the dragons and started pacing the path. He was fairly sure the tribe wouldn’t follow them down the mountain, but if this was going to take much longer they’d need to move further along. He wasn’t sure if the dragons were native to this face of Terra or not, but if they were there was no point revealing how they traveled from one point on the horizon to the next. “Are you still not ready, Mons?”
“Properly calibrating to the beacons can take time,” he said. “But I prefer to take that then to wildly jump to an unexplored Terra. Why, are you in a hurry?”
Dmitri shrugged. “It just wasn’t a very difficult problem. I’m ready to move on.”
“And let the other shoe drop in someone else’s lap?” Mons asked teasingly.
“If your worries become a problem, I deal with it then.” Dmitri shrugged. “In the mean time, there’s fifty two worlds that offer fealty to the Throne, and only five doyen to smooth out the problems that come with all that implies. There’s still plenty for us to do.”
“Always so serious,” Mons said. But it was gentle and good natured, not teasing or sarcastic. “Well, then I suppose we should move on.”
The spell he had been holding collapsed in on itself, and the horizon line bent until it seemed it would swallow them. Then, as soon as it had happened it all snapped back into place. And with that, they were gone.