A dragon hiding in human form. Working as a scientist, of all things, in that alien half-drowned world. Changing identities whenever it became obvious that he wasn’t growing old like everyone else.
He must have been hiding there—or somewhere like it—for a thousand years.
The old granny-rhyme was right. Save a dragon, slave a dragon, at least for a time. Cold flowed through the doorway from the dark of the passage beyond, and with that cold the harsh scents of dust and sand. John gathered the robe about himself—a King’s robe, certainly finer than anything he’d ever had as Thane of the Winterlands, the gods could only guess at where it came from—and limped barefoot and aching down the passageway, the cold growing sharper and more penetrating until he came out under desert stars.
The room was built into that huge granite foundation that rose like a mammoth bench in the midst of the ruined city. Sand had flowed in the inconspicuous doorway, duned against the walls and piled over the threshold so that John had to climb, feet slithering in freezing powder, and bend down under the lintel to emerge.
The city lay before him, reminding him of an old drawing sun-faded nearly to extinction. Between starlight and myopia he could see only suggestions of the nearer walls, and portions of three pillars that stood duty for some vanished palace. A dimple in the ground marked where a lake had been. Some distance away an immense plaza was demarcated from the desert by a ring of stones, water-shaped but uncut by human hand; a minor cavalry skirmish could have been fought inside it. He thought something glinted in the middle of that ring, like a palms-breadth of ice, but it was impossible to see what.
A dance floor? The temple to some god whose very name was forgotten? Wind skated across the barrens of hard-packed earth and around the snaggletoothed rock, everything either silver or blue-black in the moon’s blanched light. How long had it been since the smell of growing things had weighted the night here?
By the taste of the air, dawn wasn’t far off. The cold stung John’s bruises, and his scalp, raw where the guards had shaved off his hair. He wrapped the earth-smelling robe tighter around him and wished his vision were good enough to see stars, so he’d have some idea of where he might be. They’d be winter stars still, only a month or so advanced from where they had stood when he’d ridden out from Alyn Hold in the freezing sleet, to do Aohila’s bidding lest she harm his people and his son. The weeks he had spent following Amayon through the terrible Hell of the Shining Things, through the Hell of Winds and the ghastly dangers of Paradise, all these had dissolved like dreams. Only time had passed when he’d been in the other real world, with its bitter rain and its crowded streets and a woman he might have loved.
High above the first yellowish blush in the eastern sky a comet danced, bright enough to be visible even to him. He had to take it on faith that it was the split-tailed Dragonstar he’d been reading descriptions of, and observing since the summer. Jenny had put a spell on his spectacles that they wouldn’t get broken or lost: the guards had taken them off him when he’d been arrested, and he wondered where they were now and if the spell still worked.
Would a jackal appear in a day or two, carrying them in its mouth?
He’d be in serious trouble if it didn’t.
Not, he reflected, that he wasn’t in serious trouble now.
He retreated down the passageway to the painted chamber, sand whispering under his frozen feet. Save a dragon, slave a dragon, he thought again, and if this is his idea of savin’ me life I only hope he left a couple more rabbits and a map to the nearest subway. Subways were a thing he’d learned about in the Otherworld, strings of metal chambers that whipped along through tunnels in the earth propelled by the emanations of etheric plasma.
He’d have to ask Jenny about etheric plasma.
If she would speak to him again.
If he managed to get out of this place alive.
He added a couple more logs to the fire—marveling that he could come within three feet of the flame without flinching—and stretched out carefully on the bracken again. He thought he’d lie awake for hours worrying about Jenny, or trying to come up with a scheme to get himself back to the Realm of Belmarie from wherever the hell he was now, but the only thought that went through his mind was, Where’d he get the bracken? And that only lasted for the four seconds between lying down and sleep.
When he woke, Corvin was there. The dragon wore his human guise, the shape in which John had rescued him from demons in the flooded city that had seemed to extend forever: a spidery little man with a paunch, his hair dark-streaked silver. In that hammering chaos of burning laboratory and demon gunmen, John had gotten a brief glimpse of Corvin’s eyes, which were like green opals, but he knew better than to meet them now or allow them to meet his. One could get lost in a dragon’s eyes, and stand confused until it struck. Even at twenty-five and in full possession of his wits, John had barely escaped a much smaller dragon’s claws and tail. Fourteen years later he still carried the scars on his back and thighs.
“You got out of the Queen’s prison box, then,” said John, easing himself gingerly up onto his elbow again. “I didn’t know if that Gate-rune I had them put inside it would work. Thank you for coming for me.”
Corvin said nothing for a time. Nor did he turn his head from his study of the procession of painted tribute-bearers on the pink-tinted wall. His arms he had wrapped around his knees, lost in the folds of the plain, voluminous robes that seemed to be part of a dragon’s illusions of humanity: Morkeleb’s, when he appeared as human, were black, and so Corvin’s were black and gray mixed, merely something to satisfy the eyes and minds of human beholders.
Demons did the same thing, of course, and John was familiar with it. Still, at least he did not have the horrible feeling—as he did in his dealings with the Demon Queen—that the moment he took his eyes off her she reverted to her true appearance, like something in a ghastly dream.
In human form the dragon spoke in human voice, light and dry as bleached bone. “I did not think,” said Corvin slowly, “that I had been gone so long.”
Morning light filtered through the doorway. The fire had burned to ash. John felt a momentary flash of anger—Couldn’t you have banked it, you silly oic, so we won’t have to light it …? Then remembered that lighting fires was the least of his problems, as long as the dragon stayed around.
What had Corvin expected to find, returning to this abandoned city? What had he expected to see?
“I knew the lives of men were short.” In the hazy reflected brightness the scientist’s thin-boned human face did not appear very human at all. “Their memories shorter yet. Forever means, during my lifetime … And time is not the same, when one is in Hell. Yet I thought I would find this, of all places, still safe.”
He regarded John, who sat up very carefully, the bracken crunching under him, and pulled the cloak up over his shoulders against the morning cold.
“You were one of the dragons then,” said John conversationally, “weren’t you? One of those Isychros enslaved with the help of Aohila’s demons, when he took over the Realm of Ernine.”
“I was the only one to survive,” Corvin replied. “And that, only because the demon who dwelled within my brain understood that the Sea-wights could attack through the magic that was used against them. The others—dragons and wizards alike—died screaming, as the Sea-wights devoured the demons already in possession of those bodies. Devoured them as demons do, taking their substance into their own. Burning up themselves in the process, many of them. The war between demon and demon is too much for the flesh and the mind to survive. It was not pretty to see, even to a dragon who has seen the evils that lurk in the darkness behind the stars. The demon who rode within my brain turned me loose and fled. But afterward she called to me in dreams.”
“And that’s why we’re here?” John leaned his back against the wall and drank from the clay cup. The water was cold from the night air, even so near the fire, and tasted faintly of iron. “Because you thought in Prokep you’d be safe from Aohila? Or I’d be safe?”
“Even so.” The dragon rose in a fluid movement, like a dancer, and walked down the passageway toward the light. John wrapped the jeweled cloak around himself and limped at his heels. He ached in every muscle and limb but felt much better for last night’s food. And just as well, he thought. That Corvin owed him a life didn’t mean the dragon wouldn’t abandon him here, and half-blind and weaponless he didn’t suppose he’d last long.
Corvin had resumed his dragon form by the time John reached the outer air. In the brittle desert light he flashed like a mountain of ash and diamonds, every joint armored with silver spikes, the bird-like head tassled and tufted and horned in subtle colors, iridescent purples and stripes of ivory and red. In the Encyclopedia of Everything in the Material World (Volume III), Gantering Pellus had related that as they age, dragons’ colors and the patterns of their scales become more complex and beautiful, then grow simpler again, as their magic strengthens and shapes. John had seen Morkeleb the Black, eldest of the dragon kind on earth, colorless and powerful as night; had seen what neither Gantering Pellus nor any other human save Jenny had seen, how Morkeleb was passing now beyond even that darkness, into the realm of shadow and invisibility as his magic transformed past ordinary maturity to somthing else.
Corvin was probably as old as Morkeleb, and as strong. But the difference was there, in the flashing shape of silver muscle and sable wing.
“What does she want of you?” John asked.
The serpent head slewed around, but John was gazing out across the dun formless land to the circle of stones.
“Aohila,” said John. Most men would have been intimidated by the mere presence of fifty-five feet of lethal strength and magic anywhere in their view, let alone within a yard of them, and he suspected Corvin thought that he would be, too. And he was, for he knew better than most men what a dragon could do. But he’d participated in the killing of one dragon, and had more or less befriended another, and he was damned if he’d let Corvin know his fear. After one has had dealings with the Demon Queen, even dragons lose some of their terrors. Besides, he reflected, at this point he didn’t have a hell of a lot to lose.
“She possessed you, yes. But why take the trouble to send me to Hell and back to destroy you? To keep you out of Adromelech’s hands, or Folcalor’s, obviously … but how could they use you against her? You weren’t her servant in Hell, were you?”
No. The dragon’s voice was a drift of wind in his mind, but even so was remote with distaste. When one gives one’s service in Hell, one does not emerge.
John had guessed that. He wondered how many other men had, given that choice of being burned alive, or calling on a Demon-Lord’s name. He turned his eyes from the dragon back toward the stone circle, but could not find it. He thought—he wasn’t sure without spectacles—that the lay of the ground had not changed, and somewhere had the impression of that blink of reflected light, but when he looked in the direction he thought it was, there was nothing there.
It appeared to him, though, that the dust-devils veered aside as they neared the place. But that could only be the result of wind currents channeled through the dark-stained broken hills.
“Why take that trouble to trap one dragon,” he went on, “when the Skerries of Light are creepin’ with ’em, and all young and bright and too stupid to fly the other way when a demon starts sendin’ ’em dreams? They’re all creatures of magic. If the demons could trap you, they can trap them twice as easy.”
He felt the flex of contempt in Corvin’s mind, like dark music flowing through his. Most of the dragons with whom he had spoken had talked thus, with few words, like images in a dream. He wondered what their voices sounded like to one another.
But Corvin had masqueraded as human for many years, and the words that came into his mind still rang in that sand-whisper voice.
They? I would crush them. This Aohila knows.
And with the images of his mind John saw clearly what he had guessed before, that it had been the Demon Queen who had possessed this dragon. That her mind had taken root within his. She had used Corvin’s magic, and his lore, and his memories as Amayon had used Jenny’s.
Looking up at the small bird-like head in its cloud of green-and-silver mane, he wondered if Corvin had longed for the Demon Queen after she had fled, the way Jenny—in spite of herself and in spite of her hatred for the demon and what he had done to her—had longed for Amayon.
Long before Isychros wrought his unholy mirror to open the gate of Hell, I was the most powerful of the star-drakes of the earth. Corvin’s antennae flicked, bright-hued whips in the wind. My lore is the deepest. Now added to that lore is the knowledge I have gained in the years of guising myself as human. Alone among the dragons or demons or mages of this world I understand ether-magic. This magic demons cannot touch, for it is sourced from other realities, in the other world. That will be what the demons want of me.
“You think so?”
The green-opal eye slid sidelong to regard John, and the Dragonsbane felt the heat of Corvin’s annoyance at the query, but the dragon deigned no reply.
“If demons can’t touch ether-magic—don’t ken it at all—why would they want it? They’re dead lazy, y’know. I can’t see ’em takin’ the trouble to learn about it from you.”
You speak like a human, Dragonsbane. All the demons have to do is enter into my brain again, to learn all that I know. And this I will never permit, if I have to remain here in Prokep forever. The dragon bristled his scales haughtily, for all the world like one of Jenny’s cats, and turned away.
Then, after a time of silence, he asked, In the other world, you told the wizardlings—the League of the White Black Bird—to make the Sigil of the Gate upon a piece of dragon-bone, and put a like mark within the Queen’s prison box, that I could pass from one to the other, and so be free. What did you think to gain by cheating her?