When the Dragonlords first came to the island of Thylea — with their ships and their armies and their incredible winged mounts — they were welcomed as gods. The men and women who lived on Thylea before their arrival were pathetic and wretched; descended from castaways and the survivors of shipwrecks. They scratched out a meager existence, living in constant fear of the centaurs, dryads, and fearsome gygans who populated the land.
But the Dragonlords knew no fear. They drove back the armies of the Titans and ushered in a new age on Thylea. They were heroes. Saviors. Conquerors. Led by the great Xander Hourath, they were magnificent. Glorious. Legends come to life...
Xander Hourath wiped the foamy mead from his lips and grinned, impressed with both the volume and resonance of his prodigious belch. The soldiers sitting with him around the bonfire of the war camp laughed and slapped their knees in ribald appreciation.
"Was that really necessary?"
The speaker was a tall, graceful woman with long silver hair. She had ethereal, almost too-perfect features and pale, porcelain skin offset by striking magenta eyes — a stark contrast to Xander's sleek, muscular frame, ebony complexion, and chestnut eyes. She stood outside the circle of soldiers, away from the flames and half-hidden in the night's shadows.
"Sorry, Tria. Next time I'll make sure it comes out the other end."
Xander's reply drew another round of drunken laughter from the soldiers.
"You’re an embarrassment," Tria replied, pursing her lips in disapproval.
One of the soldiers spat. "Quit being such a stick in the mud." This was Rizon, Xander's second-in-command and fellow Dragonlord.
Rizon was tall and beautiful like Tria... but that's where their similarities ended. She had dark skin, muscular limbs, and thick, curly locks, woven into wild, uneven braids. And, unlike Tria, she reveled in the army's victory celebrations with an appetite for drinking and feasting that made her very popular with the other soldiers.
"Come sit by the fire," Xander offered. "Have a drink with us."
"Someone in this camp has to stay sober," Tria replied. "We can't have our enemies catch us all passed-out drunk."
"Our enemies are routed," Rizon countered. "We tore through the centaur ranks today. Sent them running back to the forests. They won't be coming back anytime soon. We taught them to fear the Dragonlords!"
Tria raised an eyebrow. "What do you suppose they fear more? The Dragonlords — or the dragons?"
"The two go hand-in-hand," Xander said, interjecting before Rizon could reply.
"Why are you here?" Rizon demanded. "The battle’s over. Relax — have some fun.” She took a large swig from her wineskin. “If you even know how."
"You have a visitor," Tria explained, ignoring Rizon to address Xander directly. "A local woman. She wants to meet with you privately in your tent."
"If the locals are here to show us their appreciation, find out if she has a brother!" Rizon joked, setting off a round of crude laughter and lewd comments from the soldiers.
Tria endured the moment with stoic silence.
This could be important. I sense strong magic in her.
She didn't speak to Xander out loud this time. Instead, she reached out to him using their telepathic connection.
With heavy sigh, Xander got up to his feet.
"I better go see what this is all about."
"Tria calls and Xander comes running," Rizon teased, raising her mug. "It's like you two are married!"
Xander cocked his arm at the elbow and flashed a sharply up-thrust fist in her direction as a final goodbye insult, bringing another round of laughter from the circle of soldiers. Then he fell into step beside Tria.
"This couldn't wait until morning?" he asked as they made their way through the campfires, tents and supply wagons of the war camp. Time and time again soldiers called out hearty greetings as Xander passed; a testament to his popularity among the rank-and-file of his army.
"As I told you, this woman has powerful magic," Tria reminded him.
"What does she want?"
"She wouldn't say. She wants to speak to you alone."
"Do you think she's dangerous?"
"We are newcomers to Thylea. Strangers in a strange land. Everything here is potentially dangerous."
He rolled his eyes at the typical Tria non-answer.
Xander's massive private tent stood in the very center of the camp. Twelve feet tall and twenty feet on each side, it was divided in two by a curtain down the middle. On one side was the war table, where the Dragonlords would gather to discuss tactics and strategy before each battle. Behind the curtain were Xander's personal quarters, with a private dining table, two chairs, and a bed and mattress. The leader of the Dragonlords didn't sleep on a cot or the ground.
Apparently, neither did his visitor. The woman had pulled back the curtain and was lying on her side across the bed, propped up on one elbow, when Xander and Tria entered the tent.
"Comfortable?" the Dragonlord asked, mildly irritated at her casual familiarity.
"This mattress is exquisite," she answered. "Clearly you're a man who appreciates quality."
Her voice was soft and low, almost like a purr.
Xander took a moment to study her. Like Tria, she had pale skin, but her hair and eyes were as black as her dress. Her features were stunningly beautiful, but there was something unusual about them that Xander couldn't quite place. Something that made it difficult to pin down her age.
"Who are you?" he asked. He intended his words to be sharp and authoritative, but he couldn’t mask his curiosity.
"An admirer. I saw the battle today. A magnificent victory. Your reputation on the battlefield is well earned, Xander Hourath."
Xander nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Nice to know that you’re familiar with my... reputation." He gave her a wink and a sly smile.
"If you won't tell us who you are," Tria interjected, "then at least tell us why you're here."
The woman didn't bother to acknowledge Tria. She kept her focus on Xander as she replied.
"I was hoping to take a closer look at your dragons. Magnificent creatures. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that they are not here."
"They're nearby," Tria replied before Xander could speak. "They appear when needed."
"Fascinating," the woman whispered, sitting up in the bed.
"As much as I appreciate late-night visitations," Xander told her, "you still haven't told us what you want."
She raised her arms high above her head in a long, languid stretch.
"Perhaps it would be better if the two of us could speak in private," she suggested.
Careful, Xander, Tria cautioned with a telepathic warning. She's using some kind of glamour spell. She's not what she appears.
It takes more than a simple charm to make me lose my wits, Xander replied.
Out loud he said, "I agree. It would be better if we spoke alone."
Scowling, Tria nodded her head in agreement and turned to go.
"Close the curtain on your way out," Xander added. Give me a chance to find out who this woman is and what she's after. I'll call you if I need you.
Tria said nothing more. She yanked the curtain shut with a force that spoke volumes.
"She doesn't like me," the woman noted. "Are you two lovers?"
Xander laughed and sat down on the bed beside her.
"She's my advisor. It's her job to be suspicious."
He reached out to wrap an arm around the woman's waist, but she deftly turned and slid from his grasp, standing up near the edge of the bed.
"She's more than just an advisor," she noted as she began walking around the room, running fingers softly along the top of the small dinner table. "She radiates magic."
"Funny," Xander noted. "She said the same thing about you. Are you an enchantress?"
"Of a sort," the woman answered with a coy smile. "I'm here to make you an offer, Xander."
"What kind of offer?"
Instead of answering, the woman wandered slowly from the bed over to where Xander's battle-axe stood in the far corner of the tent. The Dragonlord watched her progress with bemused appreciation.
"An impressive weapon," she said, running her fingers gently along the blade. "I've heard you wield it quite well."
"Let none say otherwise," Xander assured her with a grin. Then he patted the bed beside him. "Now, about that offer..."
"I'm interested in your dragons. I could make you a very wealthy man if you'd be willing to part with one."
"I'm already wealthy," Xander reminded her.
"Then perhaps there is something else I can offer you?" she said as she slowly made her way back towards the bed. “My magic is strong. And I have thousands of loyal followers who would — “
Xander sighed and held up a hand for her to stop. "The dragons aren't for sale at any price. If that's why you're here, you should just go."
But the woman was not so easily dissuaded.
"If not a purchase, then perhaps a wager."
"A wager?" Xander raised an eyebrow, intrigued.
"I've heard it said that the only thing you like better than winning on the battlefield is winning a bet. Is this true, Xander? Are you a gambling man?"
"What are you proposing?"
"A challenge. A test of your strength, prowess, and courage. If you lose, you will give me one of your dragons."
"And if I win?"
"I will swear loyalty to you for one month. All that I have will be yours to command. My magic, my army...” She let the suggestion linger. “Do with them as you will."
"Intriguing. But what's the challenge?"
"I will show you." The woman reached out. "Take my hand!"
She spoke the words with a sudden, supernatural authority. Before Xander even realized what was happening, he'd obeyed her command.
The room began to spin, and he his stomach lurched as if he was falling from a great height.
The room continued to whirl around him, moving faster and faster until it became nothing but a blur. He heard Tria scream out, "Xander" just as everything erupted in brilliant flash of light.
Xander closed his eyes and threw his hand up to shield them from the glare, wrenching free of the woman's grasp. When he opened his eyes, his tent was gone.
Instead, he found himself standing in the middle of a large, hexagonal courtyard. Walls rose fifty feet up into the clear night sky on all six sides. By the light of the full moon, he could see it was empty, save for a massive hour-glass at its center, mounted in an iron cradle. The hour-glass stood nearly ten feet tall, and the bottom was filled with a mountain of black sand. The woman was nowhere to be found.
His battleaxe lay at his feet, and Xander quickly scooped the weapon up then turned in a slow circle, scanning the surrounding gloom for enemies.
Xander — where are you? Tria's voice in his head sounded faint and muted, as if coming from far away.
I don't know. Looks like some kind of arena.
I'll try to find you. Don't do anything foolish before I get there!
The heavy groan of metal hinges caused Xander to spin around in time to see the hour-glass flipping over. The sand was now on top, slowly siphoning down into the empty bottom half.
Tria? You better hurry.
"What is this?" Xander shouted into the darkness. "Where are you?"
In reply came a loud, grunting snort. From the shadows, a giant minotaur strode forward, brandishing an axe far larger than Xander's own.
"This is my champion."
The woman's voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once, echoing off the walls of the courtyard.
"If you can survive against him until all the sand runs out of the hour glass, then you win the challenge. If he defeats you — or you surrender — then victory belongs to me. These are my terms. Do you accept?"
Xander was crouched down in a fighting stance, braced for battle. But the minotaur stood calm and relaxed, as if waiting for his decision.
"What if I refuse?" Xander called out. "What if I don't accept the challenge?"
"Then I return you to your camp unharmed," the woman promised. "And there is no wager. My terms are only binding if you accept the challenge."
Xander looked over at the hourglass. The sand was draining at a slow but steady pace; it would probably take several hours for it to pass through completely. He looked over at the minotaur, studying his opponent. The beast was much larger than Xander. Probably stronger. But Xander knew that he himself was quicker, and probably more skilled. Plus, he had a secret advantage: his weapon was enchanted.
Xander? What's going on? Remember — don't do anything foolish!
Relax, Tria. I can handle this.
Xander raised his axe high above his head, grasping it with one hand.
"I am Xander Hourath! Greatest of the Dragonlords!" he shouted to the night sky above. "And I accept your challenge!"
The minotaur bellowed as it lowered its horned head and charged forward, its axe carving wide swaths through the air. Xander charged forward as well, as if meeting his opponent head on. At the last moment before impact, however, he dropped to the ground and rolled off to the side. The minotaur reacted to his dodge by making an awkward one-handed slash with its axe... just as Xander had planned.
The Dragonlord brought his own axe up to parry the blow. As the two weapons collided, there was flash of blue light, and the powerful glyphs inscribed onto Xander's blade flared to life. There was a crack of thunder as the handle of the minotaur's axe exploded in a shower of wooden splinters that sent the metal head flying off into the night.
The momentum of the minotaur's charge had carried it past Xander. Unarmed, it turned around to face its human opponent again, bellowing its rage. Once more it lowered its head and charged, this time looking to impale Xander on its deadly horns.
Xander again waited until the beast was nearly upon him before making his move. But this time, instead of dodging, he lashed out with his axe, carving a deep wound into the beast's heavily muscled shoulder. But the wound did little to slow the charge, and the minotaur slammed into him with such force that he was sent flying through the air.
He landed hard on the ground, jarring his axe loose from his grip and sending it skittering away across the arena floor. Before he could recover, the minotaur was on him, trying to gore him with its horns and trample him with its hooves.
Rolling out of the way, Xander kicked out and swept the legs from beneath his foe, giving him time to retrieve his axe as the top-heavy beast struggled back to its feet.
On the next charge, Xander feinted like he was going to sidestep yet again, but at the last instant, he lunged in low and hacked at the minotaur's knee. His axe bit deep, slicing through flesh and tendon until it struck bone.
The beast howled in pain and fell to the ground, unable to support its weight. Hefting his axe over his shoulder, Xander calmly walked up to his fallen foe and finished it off with three quick blows to the head.
Breathing hard, he looked up to see the woman walking towards him from the shadows.
"Your champion is beaten," he said. "Victory is mine!"
"There is still sand in the hourglass ," the woman countered, pointing to the center of the arena.
Looking over, Xander saw maybe a tenth of the grains had run through so far.
"But your champion is dead. The battle is over."
"Is it?" she said with a sly smile.
The minotaur groaned — a long, mournful sound. And then, to Xander's amazement, it slowly stood up again. His first assumption was that the woman was a necromancer; that the beast had been transformed into some kind of undead abomination. But the minotaur was still breathing. And somehow, its wounds had all been instantly healed.
"You're not an enchantress," Xander gasped as the pieces fell into place. "You're...”
“Lutheria. Mistress of the Underworld. Goddess of Revelry... and Death!" Lutheria tipped her head in acknowledgement and smiled. Her body shimmered, then rapidly grew in size as she stripped away the illusion of mortality, revealing her true form: a twenty-foot tall Empyrean.
Awestruck, Xander gaped in wonder at the woman now towering over him. Despite her enormous stature, she maintained the proportions and features of her mortal form. But now that she was no longer using magic to disguise herself, there was something cruel and terrifying in her ageless visage.
"Now you know the truth, Xander Hourath," the Empyrean said, her words echoing throughout the arena. "And now you know that you cannot win."
Xander looked back over at the minotaur, who was patiently waiting to do battle once more. But while his foe was completely healed and refreshed, the Dragonlord was still panting and fatigued from their first encounter.
"I killed your champion once," Xander snarled up at her. "I can do it again."
"And I will just bring him back," Lutheria countered. "Again and again. Eventually, you will succumb to exhaustion and fall. This is inevitable.
"But if you surrender now, I will let you live — and return you to your camp."
Xander sighed. "In exchange for one of my dragons."
Lutheria stared down at him with a cunning smile. "That was the wager."
"I won't surrender," Xander warned. "Your beast will have to kill me. And then how will you collect?"
"I brought my champion back. I can do the same to you."
The minotaur stomped its hooves, growing restless.
"You tricked me," Xander accused. "You cheated!"
"I told you my terms," Lutheria countered. "Survive against my champion until all the sand is gone from the top of the hourglass. And you accepted the wager."
The minotaur roared, drawing Xander's attention away from the towering Goddess. The beast shook its head from side to side and charged him again.
Xander tried to dodge the beast as before, but his tired muscles were a fraction slow. The tip of one of the minotaur's horns caught him across the left bicep, leaving a deep gash. Blood began to flow from the wound, crawling its way down Xander's arm.
Tria? Where in the hells are you?
His companion didn't answer. Xander knew he couldn't just keep battling a foe that wouldn't die. He needed another plan. Something desperate.
Instead of waiting for the beast to charge again, he turned and ran. The minotaur snorted and gave chase. Xander knew that the beast was gaining on him, but he didn't intend on outrunning it all night. He just needed enough of a head start for his real plan.
Sprinting at full speed, Xander made a direct line for the hourglass in the center of the arena. As he neared it, he didn't slow — instead, he raised his axe high above his head. From behind him he heard Lutheria scream as he brought his enchanted weapon smashing down on the sand-filled bowl at the top of the hourglass.
On impact, there was another brilliant flash. The axe shattered the glass, causing an explosion of tiny shards and black grains of sand. They rained down from the sky like ash from a volcano, pelting Xander and the minotaur.
The beast stood in shocked amazement, its massive head turning from side-to-side in bewilderment at the scene of destruction. Taking advantage of his foe's confusion, Xander slammed his axe deep into the minotaur's skull, directly between the horns. The blow cleaved deep into the bone, and the beast toppled over — dead by Xander's hand for the second time.
"I believe I just won our bet," Xander said, gazing up at the Empyrean with a satisfied smile.
Lutheria's face was twisted into a mask of pure rage.
"You have broken the terms of the deal," she spat down at him. "Our deal is forfeit!"
"You said I had to survive until all the sand at the top of the hourglass was gone. Well... it’s gone."
"Impertinent mortal," Lutheria hissed, taking a long stride towards him. "I will rip your soul from your body and rend it into a thousand pieces!"
The goddess raised her hand, preparing some spell that Xander knew would be his doom. But before she could unleash it, there was a massive roar from above. Both Lutheria and Xander looked upward at the massive silver dragon circling above them.
Tria! About time you got here!
You’re a real pain in the neck, Xander. You weren't easy to find.
"Magnificent," Lutheria whispered, staring up in wonder at the new arrival as her hand dropped to her side.
"You remember Tria," Xander said. "Balmytria, if you want her full name."
The dragon circled once more, then tucked her wings and began a steep dive towards the figures below. The Empyrean raised her hand again, preparing a spell in her defense. But before she could finish, Balmytria opened her jaws and unleashed a blast of bone-chilling frost. The frigid air engulfed Lutheria, imprisoning her in a twenty-foot tall block of solid ice.
That won't hold her for long, Balmytria warned as she landed in the center of the arena. Let's go!
Xander leapt up onto the dragon's foreleg and then climbed to his usual spot, between her winged shoulders. Already, he could hear the sharp sound of cracks forming in the block of ice that encased the goddess.
As Balmytria took to the sky, the Empyrean burst free from her prison with a thunderous explosion that echoed from the courtyard walls. But the dragon was already a hundred feet in the air and safely away. Lutheria could do little but bellow a curse as she watched her prize fly off into the night.
You've made a powerful enemy, Xander Hourath, Balmytria noted, beating her tired wings against the wind as they flew back toward the Heartlands. One of these days, you’re going to get yourself killed.
Comes with the job, thought Xander. But somehow I’ve survived this long. He tightened his grip around the dragon’s shoulders. In spite of his victory, something in her voice troubled him.
You’d never leave me behind, would you, Tria?
Balmytria was quiet for a moment, gliding above the clouds. Her breathing was labored, and Xander could tell that she’d pushed herself past the limits of her endurance in speeding to his rescue.
No, Xander, she sighed. I’ll always be there for you.
The Dragonlord relaxed, resting his ear against her scales to listen to her heartbeat. The two of them watched in silence as the sun began to break over the far horizon.
End: Dragonlord’s WAGER
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