The day was misty and strangely warm, the air stuffy and a sulphuric scent lingered in the air. It was making me edgy, something didn’t seem quite right. I could feel it pressing against my mind like a dark cloud, but I couldn’t quite work out what it was. The horses were aware of it too. They shifted nervously, nostrils flared and ears twitching back and forth. Karina too was acting strange, and kept flitting between pictures. They didn’t make much sense though, so I blocked him out, causing him to go into a sulk.
After a light breakfast we turned the horses from the village loose. Telion contemplated bringing them so we could swap mounts, and thus cover more ground, but he decided against it. The fireflies were strong, and the normal horses would struggle to keep up even riderless. We saddled up the strange creatures, and filled the saddlebags with our plundered loot. By the time we were ready to break camp, the sun must have been high behind its blanket of cloud.
A sound like a battle axe being removed from a full suit of armour, crossed with the rumble emitted from a volcano's stomach before it erupts echoed around the forest and I froze. It all made sense, the smell of brimstone and sulphur. The muggy heat, the unusual mist. But it couldn’t be. I haven’t heard of one of these beasts alive in years. The last time I heard it was a long time ago, but it’s not a day I could ever forget. Its cry was unmistakable.
Telion frowned and looked up at the cloud ridden sky.
“That doesn’t sound like any thunder I’ve ever heard.” He mused thoughtfully, before turning to face me, “What do you think it…” He trailed off.
“Get on the horse.” I ordered him, quickly fastening the last buckles.
“But…” He started, but I interrupted him shouting.
He jumped, surprised by my sudden outburst, but nodded mutely and swung into the saddle.
I climbed onto my own horse, and Karina, who’d been weaving between the horse’s hooves, leapt onto my shoulder. A deep orange glow was shining through the mist, and I could hear the sounds of cracking fire.
I spurred the mare forward, and it complied only too willingly. We sped past Telion, who quickly bought his horse into step beside me.
“What’s going on?” He asked, almost shouting to be heard.
“We have to get away. That noise you heard? That’s no thunder, but rather the cry of an old and evil dragon. Or at least what’s left of it. Look, I’ll explain later, just make sure you keep up. If you fall behind there is nothing I can do. You will die, and…” I coughed, the air tasted dry and dusty. Almost like…
“Smoke!” I exclaimed, my eyes widened in fear. It was faster than I remembered. “Already? Oh Tamir! These horses had better be as fast as you say they are!”
We sped through the trees, barely ahead of the chasing tendrils of smoke, following the hill down until we reached a river. We heard the cry many more times as we made our way downstream. Sometimes it seemed to be fading into the distance, yet other times almost upon us. The fear of the horses stumbling was almost overpowering, but they were surefooted, and didn’t seem to tire.
The terror of the beast behind was so familiar. I could feel the swirl of painful memories battering against my skull, but then in the far distance, I spied a glimmer of hope. Far down the valley, on the bank of the river, stood the wall of a fortified town.
“There!” I cried, my voice hoarse I pointed toward it, “That town. We need to make it to the town!”
Telion followed the line of my gaze, and nodded. I knew only too well how the poor boy must have felt.
By the time we reached the shadow of the town, I could feel the intense heat on my back, and the flames were lighting in the horses’ hoof prints. We made our way round the walls searching for the gate, and I screamed as a tree exploded beside me.
“Help!” I shrieked up at the town as we turned a corner a caught sight of the gate. It was large and sturdy, and completely closed. “Help!” I screamed again, “Open the gates! We need help! Please! Let us in!”
We reached the gate, and stopped. The flames and smoke blotted out the horizon, and the entire land seemed to be burning. I caught sight of a dark shape moving in a sick dance, and shuddered. It let out another earth shattering roar, and I edged my horse backwards toward the gate. The creature did not seem to be coming any closer though, and I exhaled slowly.
Behind the gate I could hear shouts, and a wave of relief washed over me as the gates creaked open. We slipped inside as soon as they were wide enough, the panic already subsiding.
Inside stood a large crowd, watching our every move with suspicion.
“Who are you?” A voice called from somewhere among them, and I swung down from the saddle, and looked around.
“Hello,” I said, “My name is Kat, and we’re looking for somewhere to stay the night. We can pay.” I let the change chink as I moved. The townsfolk’s eyes widened.
A tall boy of about seventeen stepped forward, and held out his hand.
“I’m Jacob. I know a place you can stay.”
I hesitated, and then tentatively shook it. Telion came up behind me, and smiled at the boy.
“Telion. Nice to meet you.” Jacob grinned.
We followed him through a maze of winding streets and alleyways, until we came to a grotty looking tavern. A pale and peeling sign above the door claimed it was the finest establishment in Ironforge. I shuddered at the thought of the state of the rest of the town, if this were really true. I mean, times had certainly been hard, but this place looked like a pigsty, and stank worse!
We handed the horses reins to a redheaded stable boy lounging outside with strict instructions to take care of them. He yes widened at the sight of them, and he nodded before leading them round to the stables. I scooped Karina up in my arms before ducking through the Inn door.
Inside it was dark, the small light with windows would’ve let in blocked out by a thick layer of grime and dust.
The landlord smiled when we entered, showing of a mouthful of missing teeth and tobacco stained gums.
“Jacob my boy!” He exclaimed, throwing his arms out, “Where in the name of Tamir have you been? You’ve been sending your old witch of a mother insane, and she the rest of us!”
A voice suddenly bellowed from the kitchen.
“I heard that! You want to watch your mouth Ned, or I shall remove your remaining teeth!”
The man, Ned, flinched and turned back to us.
“Now please, where are my manners.” He smiled in a sickly sweet manner, “Jacob, who are these fine young people you have bought to my humble inn?”
“Father,” The boy said, a grimace of a smile passing across his face. “This is Kat and Telion. They need a place to stay, and can pay.”
I nodded behind him, and I could see Ned’s eyes glint softly in the dusky light.
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Here, come with me, and I’ll show you upstairs, and Jacob watch the bar.” He stepped out from behind the counter, and hollered toward the kitchen. “I’m taking them to upstairs, then we need to offer these fine people some food, so get a move on.”
Muttering came from behind the stained curtain separating the two rooms. It swung back releasing a cloud of steam, to reveal a plump and hard looking woman in her mid-thirties. She had thick dark hair braided up around her face, and tanned skin. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, and she held a rather dangerous looking knife in her hand.
The man turned and smiled slowly at her.
“Yes, dear?” he asked, tentatively.
“Would you mind telling me what, by the Dragonfather, do you think I’ve been doing for the past eighteen years?”
“Working hard?” The man asked, shrinking into himself.
“Yes, which is more than you’ve ever done, you lazy skullet!”
“I…” Ned started, before thinking better of it, “Sorry...”
She shook her head and turned back to the kitchen. Jacob smiled apologetically at us as he stepped behind the counter, and we followed Ned up the stairs.
“That woman is the scariest person I have ever met, and I am the luckiest man alive.” He said. I could see Telion’s eyebrows shoot up momentarily, and I shrugged at him.
At the top of the stairs we were lead to a small room, just as filthy as the rest of the tavern, and handed a key. After we'd payed him Ned left, and I dropped everything I'd been carrying, and collapsed into a chair.
Telion slowly sat himself down beside me, frowning. After a moment he spoke, asking softly.
"So... What was that?"