Rough: Book Cover for A Grim Awakening

Thanks to the incredible talents of artist Alex Child you can new get a sneak preview at the cover for my fantasy epic: A Grim Awakening. This is only a rough draft and has not been accepted by a publisher as of yet. The complete design will also include the spine and back cover as well.

TFC: AGA Cover

Kung-Fu? Dragons? Dinosaurs? Pirates? Samurai? Ninja? Airships? A crazy new world? A fun new magic system? That’s just the side dish…

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Tempting Fate: An Idea

by 

D.L. Timmerman

Lying at the base of the Caluna Mountains (in the shadow of the fabled Shumnok Mountain), to the west of the Sleepy Forest, and situated along the Hannola River, was the village of Aldena. A quiet farming village, it was far enough away from the Lichlow Plains that the Hollow War between man and high elves came and went without providing much more than fodder for bar gossip.

As small as Aldena would appear to a city dweller, it still filled its britches to the brim.  The local viscount, a man by the name of Thebur, had chosen to dwell there. His fortress, known to the locals as Wyrmir Fortress, for reasons that dated back too far to be recalled with much accuracy, was stationed not many miles to the northwest.

Though night had descended upon the town, the creaking and groaning of the watermills could be heard by the two travelers while they were still farther than a giant’s boulder toss away.  Stars littered a clear sky and a quarter moon sat directly overhead. The fragrance of Snolo plants, who release their honey flavored aroma when conditions were dark and cool, was thick enough to awaken a bear from its hibernation.

This region was known for its harsh winters which caused the travelers to be thankful they had been summoned in the middle of spring. The air was a bit chilly, but the journey had been pleasant; even if not a bit dull. They had ventured from the beautiful city of Perebella, home to the world’s only known library. It boasted of an ever-growing collection of books that now numbered well over one hundred thousand and was run by the famous warrior known as ‘Dark Bane’; his legacy sealed during the Hollow Wars.

Formerly known would be a better description since he had been now long ago retired from his days of dragon slaying and warmongering. His new title was that of Uncle Leem, and his nephew, Eshton, had set out for Aldena the moment he received the Viscount’s letter.

Eshton’s travel companion, a childhood friend named Nyl, was equal parts elf and equal part human, meaning he was hated by both and had few acquaintances. So, he secretly practiced magic, a thing outlawed by man but encouraged by elves, and accompanied the infamous Eshton on more than an occasional adventure.

The two were young: Eshton in his teens and Nyl not quite two hundred which made him only slightly older from an elf’s perspective. His practice of magic had always been a thing of contention between the two. Nyl was a believer in magic, in fate, in destiny, and in all things spiritual.  Eshton, well, he is more of what one may call a skeptic.

If it couldn’t be explained by science then it had no place in the mind of a rational man, or so he would say.  Eshton was an inventor, a thinker, and above all else, a cynic when it came to anything remotely magical. He deemed the very notion of magic to be very ill. In his humble opinion, fairy tales like magic were for children and science was for the matured mind.

In as much as his Uncle was revered for his skills in battle, Eshton had become known for his wits. He had used his superior prowess in deduction and observation for the benefit of others by becoming a detective, a phrase he had coined. His methods were borderline lunacy, and most wrote him off as stark crazy, but the lad managed to master the art of mystery solving to near perfection.

This made him both a hero and a menace. Few understood his line of work. Others ridiculed his age. He did not yet have the stature of his lumbering Uncle. Eshton was tall and lanky. His teeth were slightly crooked, freckles covered his cheeks, and his hair was always messy. He wore a pair of homemade spectacles whose lens could be mechanically “enhanced” by the tap of a button to increase magnification. They made him look funny to the casual observer, but Eshton swore they aided his eyesight.

They both were draped in brown cloaks that fluttered wildly as they galloped down the final stretch of the road that led into Aldena. Their horses’ were due for a nice rest. Eshton was glad they were arriving under the cover of night. A daytime entrance would have likely evolved into a circus atmosphere and only hindered their reason for being here in the first place.

Upon tying their horses, they immediately spotted the torches. A middle-aged man named Asid, captain of the viscount’s guard, was there to meet them with half a dozen of his men. Asid was a man of good build, dastardly good looks, and commanded respect with a single glance. It was apparent that he was not a fan of their arrival, but he escorted them to the Viscount’s chambers nonetheless, where he wasted no time in venting his disapproval.

“I don’t see how his presence here helps matters,” said Captain Asid.

“Captain, Eshton is our guest. Please understand–” said Thebur the Viscount of Aldena.

“Sire, my deepest apologies, but it is universally known that Eshton is a pest and a nuisance wherever he is found.”

“I don’t pay heed to rumors Captain and neither should–”

“He’s an oddity, I tell you. A trouble maker in every sense of the word. A real–”

“Spoiler of mysteries, speaker of truth, proponent of science,” said Eshton, who caught a peek of the Captain’s face which was a flush red. “Oh, excuse me gentlemen. Do continue on as if I’m not in the room.”

Eshton noticed a strand of grey-hair in what was otherwise a full head of thick black hair on Asid’s scalp.  Likely caused by stress. Dark circles under his eyes and a tingle of grumpiness in his voice.  Lacked sleep. He had tracked in traces of a yellow mush into the viscount’s hall.  Possibly stepped in…a plant, perhaps? 

            “I meant no disrespect, but seeing as you are but a youth–”

“Enough, Captain Asid,” Thebur’s tone had grown darker. He had the elderly appearance of a grandfather about him and a whimsical look to his eyes. “Eshton has been invited by me and will serve as our honored guest.”

“What of the mage?”

The Captain is quick to stretch out his finger and aim it at Nyl. Nyl had stood in silence up to this point. Some would mistake this for incredible patience. Eshton knew better. Nyl had likely been daydreaming, having grown bored of the Captain’s ranting.

“I am no mage, of that you can be assured.” He threw Eshton a smirk.

“Then what of the staff?”

Nyl did carry a staff, or as he would reply, “A walking stick,” with him at all times. The end had been mounted with a mechanical device that Eshton had made to ‘better channel the electromagnetic field that Nyl could manipulate at will,” which was Eshton’s way to avoid even saying the word magic. For magic was a thing he detested very much.

Captain Asid was beside himself and Eshton felt now was the time to get down to business. Before Asid could speak another word, Eshton informed the viscount of his urgent need to visit the scene of the crime. Thebur obliged and arrangements were put into place to make that happen first thing in the morning. Eshton only hoped the Hamgar residence wouldn’t be overly contaminated by the amount of traffic the area had probably seen the past two weeks.

#

The early morning had come with a harmonized chorus of signing birds and a gradual downpour of sunlight that had chased away the blackness of the night. Eshton and Nyl walked just out of earshot of Captain Asid, who had begrudgingly agreed to be their personal escort for the day. Eshton made use of this opportunity.

“You lied,” said Eshton with a smile.

“Not so,” Nyl said, his face painted with shock. “What humor do you find in this?”

“Plenty, believe me…but explain what you call one who practices magic if not a mage?”

“You have no faith in magic; therefore, what is this to you?”

“I do not deny its existence, Nyl. I merely offer up the logical explanation for its presence. And I have concluded its presence is never helpful. None of which justifies your lie.”

“I-but-ok, so I error’ed-but why do you insist on vexing me?”

“Relax, my friend,” Eshton said and then proceeded to pat the blue colored satchel that hung off of Nyl’s shoulder. “Your religious hypocrisy assists in building my faith in science.  Take satisfaction in that.”

“None of this is fair.”

“Life isn’t fair,” said Eshton who could tell his friend was rather annoyed. “I had no idea elves were so sensitive?”

“Must be one of my human traits.”

“Touche.”

Just then a short, round fellow with a wrinkly face, bushy eyebrows, and his breath laced with the smell of mead came barraging into their path. Upon noticing the two friends, he came to an abrupt halt, blocking their passage.

“Them Borri be stealing bodies from the grave!”

His silver hair was matted; damp. He must have bathed in the alcohol. He could barely keep open his bloodshot eyes and his cheeks were rosy red.  Definitely drunk. The Borri were tunnel dwarves. While they were incredible at mining the depths of the earth, Eshton had never heard of any who ate corpses. It’s amazing what effects an addicting substance can have on the mind of its victim.

“Onvor!” Captain Asid was bearing down on the man in a hurry.

“Can’t trust a one of them. They be eating our dead! Go see fer yourselves. I ain’t lying.  Ain’t never been no liar.”

“Onvor, enough,” The Captain placed a hand on Onvor and “gently” nudged him out of the way. “Now go home and sleep it off before I have you spend the day in the keep.”

“But, the Borri,” Onvor gave a weak protest. His state of mind too clouded to offer much reason. “What about the Borri?”

“Now, Onvor. I won’t tell you again,” Captain Asid watched Onvor hobble away before he turned to Eshton and Nyl. “The residence is right around this bend.”

The finely crafted cedar, the elegant carvings etched into its trimmings, the uniqueness of its structure; it all spoke of wealth and importance. The Hamgar residence lay before them and looked nothing like the home of farmers but instead resembled a kind of palace. It was very much out of place and Eshton could tell this had been a purposeful intent.

“Mrs. Hamgar designed this herself!” Captain Asid said and looked like a kid who had just been told he could eat all the sweet grain he could stomach.

“Did she?” said Eshton who took a survey of the grounds. No forced entry of any kind was visible.

“Yes, yes.  Isn’t it magnificent?”

“A waste of money, if you ask me,” Nyl said, and he took up leaning on his ‘walking stick.’

“Well, who asked you then, elf?” The Captain’s face had twisted into a knot. Eshton made no hesitation in intervening.

“The Hamgar’s are both farmers, correct?”

“Mr. Hamgar was. His land stretches for several hundred acres, I imagine.”

“What does Mrs. Hamgar do?”

The Captain delivered Eshton a look of disdain. “What do you mean by that? She tends to the living quarters as any good wife would! She also happens to be an exceptional cook and is always brewing up new recipes.”

“She has no children?

“No…what does this have to do with anything?” Captain Asid placed his hands onto his hips and stomped his feet in protest. “Mr. Hamgar is good and dead, may his soul rest in peace.  It’s plainly obvious bandits–”

“But no sign of forced entry?”

“Forced-what?” Captain Asid scratched his head.

“Did Mr. Hamgar have a lot of enemies?”

“No–not that I am aware of,” The Captain let his voice tail off. “He was a good man.”

“A fortunate one as well.”

The Captain was speechless. Eshton had done his homework on the way up to Aldena.  The expansion of Mr. Hamgar’s land had come suddenly and at the expense of his neighbors.  All of them had met “unlucky” circumstances over the past year. Some had died in great house fires.  Others had been ripped to pieces by wild animals that were never identified. And still others had been crushed when a mighty wind had blown the very walls of their home right on top of them. The probability of this being a coincidence seemed highly unlikely.

Eshton observed the front doors to the Hamgar residence and saw that they were abnormally tall. “Mr. Hamgar was rather large?”

“Well…yes…he was head and shoulders above the rest of us,” Captain Asid said, his face scrunched up like a wadded towel. “Mr. Hamgar was killed outside Aldena by a group of bandits–”

“Have any bandits been spotted in this area?”

“Well, no.”

“Did anyone see bandits actually kill Mr. Hamgar?”

“No, but we haven’t even found the body yet–”

“Captain, you must introduce me to our visitors!”

A soft, angelic voice cut their dialogue short. Mrs. Hamgar had come around from the side of the home and now stood not four feet from Eshton and Nyl. She was delicate in frame, gorgeous in appearance, and had a slight glow about her. Her skin was pale and tender, her golden curls ran down the length of her back, and she stood in perfect posture at all times.

If Eshton had not known better he would had been fooled into thinking he was in the presence of a queen and not the widow of a farmer. Her fragrance was suffocating to the point that Eshton began to get nauseated.

“My lady, sorry for the intrusion,” said Captain Asid, and he followed it with a polite bow.  “This is Eshton of Perebelle and his little elf friend.”

Nyl cringed, but had no time to respond because Mrs. Hamgar leapt right in.

“The Eshton of Perebelle?  What is it they call you?”

“A detective,” Eshton said. He spotted a broken flask. Did they use that for farming?

“De-tect-ive?  What an ugly, ugly word,” She spoke more with her arms then with her words.  “Especially for one as handsome as yourself.”

“I gave the title to myself, actually.” She was taken back. Very flirtatious.  Socialite. She wore a lavish purple gown that did well to accentuate her physical features. Sometimes the way to deal with grief is to keep your mind off of it anyway you can. 

            “Oh, dear.  I am so sorry. You are awfully young to have done all that I have heard! I am sure much is exaggerated.”

“You’re probably right,” said Eshton, who noted a yellow substance on one of Mrs. Hamgar’s lavender rubber boots.

“They say you slew a forest troll!  Caught many a murderer, thief, and necromancer.  That you even solved the ridicule of Lirel and the mystery of the Culrish!” She feigned disbelief as if she sought a rebuttal.

“He did,” said Nyl and Mrs. Hamgar’s eyes locked on him in a heartbeat and gave him a cold stare. “I can vouch for it, as I was an eye witness.”

“Oh…is that so?”

“Well,” Captain Asid stepped in, “You need be doing none of that here.”

“Tell me, Mrs. Hamgar,” Eshton said as his eyes continued to scour the property, “Your recollection of the events in question, if you don’t mind?”

Mrs. Hamgar cleared her throat before she answered.  “Certainly, I would be delighted.”

Then Eshton spotted what he had been searching for: big, giant footprints. The kind that would belong to a man of Mr. Hamgar’s stature. It was spring and from what Eshton had been able to gather, it had not rained for at least two weeks. The ground had been muddy and had then dried up; encasing the footprints. Eshton promptly followed them without so much as giving any warning.  Instead, Nyl, Captain Asid, and Mrs. Hamgar played catch-up.

“Please, do go on Mrs. Hamgar,” said Eshton who discovered a strange pattern in the footprints had begun to develop.

“Yes, well, it was our routine, you see, in the wee hours of the morning, I fix breakfast, my husband eats it, then heads out to work in the fields.”

The footprints showed a staggered walk. Was he drunk?

            “Was Mr. Hamgar much of a drinker?”

“Goodness, no.  And certainly not before his work.”

They had come to the edge of town where the footprints stopped not far from the path that lead straight into the Caluna Mountains.

“You say he left in the morning to go out to his fields?”

“Yes, of course, and he never came home so I reported it to Captain Asid,” said Mrs. Hamgar who crossed her arms.“Where else would he have gone?”

“Well, his footprints have led us straight to the mountains.”

“Well, he was plainly abducted by bandits like I have been saying,” said Captain Asid who sounded out of breath.

“Not likely. I saw no evidence of drag marks,” Eshton said as he rubbed his chin. “I did notice he had trouble walking in a straight line the farther he ventured from his home.”

Eshton turned to Mrs. Hamgar whose eyes were wide in astonishment. “You said that Mr. Hamgar was a large fellow?”

“Yes, my husband was a very big man. Why do you ask?”

“And you think he was killed by bandits?”

“How many times have I told you?” said Captain Asid.

“Then why do the footprints stop here without any sign of a struggle?”

Captain Asid and Mrs. Hamgar appeared to have been reduced to gawking. Nyl’s lips broke into a big grin as he strolled up next to Eshton.

“It’s almost like he had been taken up by magic?” said Nyl.

“No, but I do detect something a bit more sinister.”

“I suppose this means we are hiking up the mountain?” Nyle said.

Eshton nodded and turned to Captain Asid and said, “Why do you assume bandits?”

Captain Asid shook his head.  “What else could it be?”

Eshton gazed up at Shumnok Mountain for a moment.Its majestic peak looked like a blade carved out of solid rock. Its shoulders were thick and menacing; far wider than any of the Caluna Mountains. It was also the only known mountain in all the land of Thamalor that floated some ten feet off the ground. Legend says that the carcass of Caluna, a two-headed demigod that the mountain range was named after and who was considered to be the mother of all dragons, magically caused the mountain to rise slightly off the ground. The fable was rubbish as far as Eshton was concerned. Although he hadn’t yet concluded a more scientific theory, he had already written off the myth as hogwash.

A staircase chiseled out of stone connected it to the earth and allowed for travelers to journey up its twisty path. The thought of walking up that path sent a shiver down his spine. If what he suspected were true…

Eshton turned to Nyl and said, “Open the satchel, we best be prepared for a hike.”

#

Quiet. Painfully quiet. A silence so thick you could drink it up with a mug. It made the clumping of footsteps that much louder. It magnified not only their breathing but their isolation.  The rocky path itself lacked any sign of life and gave no explanation for how such a thing was possible.

The icy air nipped at their cheeks and cooled their lungs. The sun had risen to its full glory and that only added to their fatigue. Their clothes were wet with sweat and both were in need of a good bath. They had been in such a hurry to tackle the case bright and early that they had skipped breakfast. Their tummies growled and their tongues clave mercilessly to the roofs of their mouths.

Eshton dived ever deeper into an endlessly stream of thought and was quite content with solitude much to Nyl’s dismay. Nyl was forced to find companionship with the four-legged, mechanical contraption that Eshton called a macranea. Eshton had built the device to test for some mystical thing he called “DNA,” and used the thing to break down the “components” of just about anything. Steam-powered, loaded with twisting gears and turning knobs; it barely came up to Nyl’s knees. It could not offer discourse; but it did whistle as it walked and that was sufficient for Nyl.

Tuk-Tuk-Bweep!

“Finally,” Eshton spun around and promptly opened up the disc top of the macranea.

“What are the results?” said Nyl, who took the opportunity to catch a breather by leaning up against the mountain’s side.

“As expected,” Eshton said and then he frowned. “It’s highly toxic.”

“So the snolo plants are poisonous?”

“To humans, yes,” Eshton said as he examined the yellowish goop. “But my theory is that with a larger creature the effects may be a bit more psychological.”

“Meaning?”

Eshton closed the top and rose to his feet. “It could be used to produce a potent drug that could enslave or addict a subject.”

“Are you sure this is the substance you saw on the feet of Mrs. Hamgar and Captain Asid?”

“Quite positive.  The snolo plants are native to this area and widespread,” said Eshton who walked to the edge of the trail and peered out over the cliffs.

“And what exactly does it prove?”

Eshton shook his head. “Nothing.”

Nyl took firm hold of his staff, cracked a stiffened neck, and drew up beside Eshton. “Then what are we doing?”

“Solving a murder,” Eshton said and he broke from his gaze and proceeded again up the path that became increasingly narrow.

“What proof have you of murder?”

“The proof will come in due time. The real question is why?”

“Why?”

“Motive, my dear Nyl, motive.”

“Not this again.”

“The question of desire is every bit as crucial as the act itself.”

“If you say so,” Nyl rolled his eyes. “What motive are you looking for?”

“Why did Mrs. Hamgar kill her husband?”

Nyl scratched his head. “How did you arrive at that?”

“I thought it was obvious.”

“Please explain.”

Eshton stopped the moment he made it around the bend. Nyl nearly crashed into him.  Before them was the gigantic mouth of a cavern.

“Many answers await us in there,” Eshton said as he pointed towards the black abyss that was the cave’s interior. “But to answer your question, why did the Viscount summon us if not for distrust in the account relayed to us by Captain Asid?”

“You think the Viscount suspects him of murder?”

“No, but he has little faith in the man’s wealth of sense. He’s love struck, don’t you see?”

“Love struck? By whom?”

“Mrs. Hamgar. Or suppose we should call her Ms. Hamgar?”

“I don’t-”

“The Captain’s good judgment is clouded by his interest in Ms. Hamgar,” Eshton said as began to fish through the many pockets that layered his cloak. “His gloating of her estate, his defensiveness when questioned of her character, the tender squeeze he gave her arm…”

“Surely it is not expressed by both parties?”

“I doubt it is anything beyond manipulation,” said Eshton whose search had become more frantic. “She is a flirt who is determined to use any and all tools at her disposal to get what she wants. A big home, fine clothes, a dead husband.”

“So you believe her capable of murder?”

“I believe all of us are capable…AH HA,” Eshton said as he pulled out what looked like a short metal rod comprised of mirrors and gears.

“I suppose but you also allow prejudice to blind your better judgment when it comes to magic. Shall I suspect you of murdering Mr. Hamgar?”

Eshton’s eyes became dark. “Magic is utter nonsense; the fables of foolish children who have the unfortunate tendency to become ignorant adults by continuing to believe in such hogwash. Tell me, when is magic ever helpful to anyone? It is a crutch and nothing more. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were not the evil behind this madness.”

“Then what of your parents, Eshton?”

Eshton’s face grew a shade of red; flushed with anger. “Fine, you can go there if you like, what shall I say? Yes, they too were ignorant and it was that very ignorance that got them killed. Magic never does anyone a lick of good. It is only best at ruining lives and destroying…that’s it!”

Nyl was perplexed.

“The broken flask, the yellow substance on her boots…boots, why would she be wearing boots?” Eshton said and he clicked a square button on the metal rod that caused the gears to creak and groan. “She poisoned her husband with the snolo plant because he was living in ignorance but became suspicious.”

“Suspicious of what?”

“She killed her neighbors. She was behind their tragic deaths.”

Nyl took a step back. “You have conjured up a lot of theories before, but there is no way that can be. Are you saying that little woman burned down a home, tore a family to pieces, and blew another house down?”

Eshton rubbed his chin and a light shot out of the metal rod. “She had help. I won’t fool you into thinking I have all the details worked out, but I believe we shall find her accomplice in there.”

“In a cave? You think a troll was assisting her?”

“No, it would need to be something bigger. Something the effects of the drug would work on,” Eshton said and he marched toward the mouth of the cave.

“Bigger? How lovely.” Nyl said and he too followed hard after Eshton straight into the bitter cold of the cave that ran right into the heart of Shumnok Mountain.

Eshton came to a halt not half a foot before entering. He stooped down and scooped up a piece of blue fabric smeared with blood and fed it to the macranea.

“What is that?”

“A clue, I hope.” And with that, the two of them, with the macranea in tow, ventured into the cave.

#

The cave seemed to go on forever and concealed within it a powerful wind that caused goose bumps to cover their arms and legs. However, Eshton’s “mechanical torch” worked its magic and enabled them to be led directly to a very large pile of feces. Oddly, it had no stench whatsoever, which was helpful considering Eshton was insistent on collecting a sample. He plopped a spoonful of the stuff into the macranea and patiently awaited the results.

“Did you notice the scorch marks along the sides of the mountain on the way up?”

“I seem to remember areas of blackened rock,” Nyl said; his nerves were on edge. As he spoke his eyes darted to and fro as if he expected to be assaulted by some ghoulish creature at any given moment. “You think it was scorched?”

“Perhaps, quite possibly by whatever left this here,” said Eshton who motioned toward the feces. “So she brews potions, using her husband’s farmland as a resource. He becomes suspicious so she poisons him.”

“You think he was poisoned because of the staggering footprints?” Nyl said who clutched his staff in both hands like a spear. “Ok, then what of when they came to an end and showed neither signs of struggle nor signs of other footprints?”

Tuk-Tuk-Bweep squealed the macranea.

“It can fly?” Eshton popped open the lid of the macranea and immediately closed it after a thorough examination of the results. “We must leave this cave NOW.”

Nyl offered no argument. Instead, he gathered up the macranea back into his satchel and hurried after Eshton up the path that they had come.

“What is it, Eshton?” Nyl said who had become short on breath.

“The DNA from the blood on the fabric matches the DNA found in the feces,” Eshton said whose voice now carried a hint of worry in it. “I cannot verify it to be Mr. Hamgar’s, of course, but I can assume the worse. In any event, I have concluded the identity of the creature Ms. Hamgar has been using.”

“Which is?”

The moment the light from Eshton’s metal rod landed upon it, their hearts stopped. Its figure was massive; menacing. Its skin, if you were to label it as such, was greenish and slimy and barely able to cover its bones because it was void of any scales. Its powerful jaws were littered with teeth; each the size of a man’s arm. Puffs of smoke shot out from its nostrils. Its wings were carefully tucked behind its lengthy, slimy back. Its beady red eyes rested on them.

“A dragon,” Eshton said who then noticed something rather peculiar. The dragon did not come at them with ferocious speed but appeared to shake uncontrollably and stagger slightly as it moved. Nyl made to strike at it with an offensive spell but Eshton held him back.

“You seek to reason with it?”

“It’s scaleless…I think it’s a Nithogar,” said Eshton. The Nithogar were a cursed race of dragons that were forced to roam the earth without scales and feast on corpses much like a vulture. Rarely did they pose a threat to a living thing unless provoked. “It wasn’t the Borri who were digging up bodies from the grave. It was a Nithogar.”

The dragon merely gazed at them with indifference. A great droplet of yellow spit fell from its lips.

“She addicted you, didn’t she?” Eshton said as he took several steps toward the dragon. Nyl decided it would be best for him to keep his distance, but continued to hold his staff in a defensive manner. The dragon, however, remained silent.

“She found out that a Nithogar was using the local gravesite as a feeding trough,” Eshton said; partially to himself and partially to the dragon. “She filled some of the bodies with the drug she had brewed using the snolo plants. Then she forced you to do her biding.”

The dragon continued to stare at Eshton as he walked right up within reach of its claws.

“The house fire? You caused it. She made you rip that family to pieces? She ordered you to blow the other home down by the flapping of your wings?” Eshton said as he looked straight up into the dragon’s steely gaze. “And then she had you eat her poisoned husband.”

“And to slay any foolish enough to enter my lair,” said the dragon whose voiced boomed so loudly it caused the very ground they stood on to quake.

“You don’t want to do that now do you? If you did, we would be dead already.”

The dragon let out a monstrous roar that caused the hair on the back of Nyl’s neck to stand on edge. He nearly shouted out a spell but held back to allow Eshton to continue his exchange. If only because he was not confident his magic would do much more than make the dragon mad.

“I perceive you to be a wise one, indeed,” said the dragon.

“I am one who can cure you of your addiction and set you free if you give me the chance. That’s what you truly want, isn’t it? To be set free.”

The dragon roared again but this time it sounded like laughter.

“It will take me a few hours, but let me help you.”

“There is great power sealed within you. A wizard by chance?”

“No, I do not believe in magic,” Eshton said and he returned to the dragon a defiant look.

“The fates would say otherwise.”

“I carve my own path. My will is my own and not for destiny to command.”

“Tempting fate are you? A dangerous game you play,” said the dragon as it lowered its long neck to the cavern floor so that it could be on eye level with Eshton. “Tell me your name?”

Eshton did not flinch. “Eshton of Perebella.”

“Eshton of Perebella?” The dragon let the words hang in the air for while as if it had become lost in thought. “Your name is well known, even among my kin.”

“Then you know I can do it.”

A sickly smile formed on the dragon’s mouth as more of the yellowish goop fell from its jaws. “So be it, Eshton of Perebella. If you can set me free, I shall let you live.”

Nyl gave Eshton a puzzled look of disbelief as he lowered his staff. The dragon kept his word and Eshton spent the better part of the afternoon working on a cure. The dragon gladly fetched herbs and other ingredients that Eshton deemed necessary. Unfortunately, he had forgotten his Big Book of Medical Remedies back home at Perebella. The first couple of batches of his cure proved only momentarily effective at best and useless at worst.

Eshton’s frustration mounted. He had forgotten a key ingredient. The harder he attempted to grasp at the memory, the stronger it pushed away; out of his reach. He did not fear the dragon so much as he did coming face-to-face with his own failure. A failure is exactly what he was if he could not come up with a cure that worked.

The first batch of the cure caused the dragon to hiccup profusely but did little else. The second batch resulted in a breakout of hives the size of Eshton’s head. The third batch made the dragon queasy to the point of vomiting. The fourth patch did absolutely nothing…except turn the dragon’s skin bright pink for the space of an hour.

That’s when Nyl stepped in. Before Eshton could administer his fifth batch of medicine, Nyl inserted a magical charm into it; much to Eshton’s annoyance. He made to protest but when the cure worked to perfection, he was cut at the stub. The dragon let out a thunderous roar of approval before it soared into the early evening sky. The sun had begun to set but the trip back down the mountain would be easier than the climb up it, thought Eshton.

“I shall have need of your staff, Nyl,” Eshton said.

Nyl was surprised. “Has the world stopped spinning? Does hate no longer exist between elf and man? Have you become a believer in magic?”

Eshton playfully yanked the staff from Nyl’s hand and descended down the path. “No, but I do believe that I will have use of its metal end before this night is through.”

#

Captain Asid and two of his men awaited them at the base of the mountain. They were well armed and dressed for war. Their hands sat on the hilts of their swords. When Eshton spotted the devious look in the Captain’s eyes, it all clicked in his mind.

“What did you find up there?” said Captain Asid with disdain in his voice. His attack hounds remained emotionless; ready to pounce upon order.

“I think you already know the answer, Captain,” Eshton said and he took note that there was no way around them. It was either through them or back up the mountain.

Captain Asid gave a chuckle before he curled his lips into a snarl. “Nothing but a trouble-maker is what you are. We have no room for trouble-makers in my town.”

“That’s why you were so quick to point to bandits,” Eshton said as he spiked the staff into the ground, clasped his hands behind his back, and paced. “That explains the yellow substance on your shoes. You were not just love struck by Ms. Hamgar, were you?”

“What are you suggesting?” said Captain Asid whose lips curled into a snarl.

“You were having an affair. You even helped her gather the supplies she needed to brew the drug.”

“You need to learn manners, lad,” said Captain Asid who drew out his sword. His men followed suit. “Saying stuff like that will get you hurt.”

Nyl made to spring on the offense but the Nithogar dragon swooped in and spit out a fireball that consumed all three men in an instant. It circled overhead while it gave out a triumphant roar and then it disappeared over the mountain peaks.

The commotion, particularly the dragon’s roar, stirred up the entire town of Aldena and its residents spilled out to where Eshton and Nyl still stood. Some were notably frightened and even visibly shaken. Others carried pitchforks and torches; itching for a fight. Thebur, the Viscount himself, also arrived on the scene with at least a dozen of his men.  And at the forefront of the mob stood Ms. Hamgar; dressed every bit the part of the seductress.

“Arrest that woman,” Eshton said with an outstretched finger aimed at Ms. Hamgar. Thebur looked confused, but Ms. Hamgar only laughed.

“Foolish, foolish boy. What have you gotten yourself into?” Ms. Hamgar said with her eyes as black as coal.

“What is this all about? I demand answers,” Thebur said as he exchanged glances between Eshton and Ms. Hamgar who were locked in a stare down.

“Ms. Hamgar has been dabbling with the dark arts–pseudoscience. She was using her husband’s farmland as a means to brew potions. She stumbled upon the addictive and potentially toxic properties of the snolo plants,” Eshton said and then he pointed towards the direction the dragon had flown off to. “She addicted a dragon and used it to kill off her neighbors so she could take their land. Her husband grew suspicious, so she poisoned him and fed him to the dragon.”

Ms. Hamgar cackled. “If anyone is in cohorts with a dragon it would be you, my dear. I see the ashes from the burning fire of a dragon at your feet. It killed Captain Asid and his brave men, so you and your elf friend could make an escape.”

“Captain Asid was having an affair with her, Viscount. Whether or not he was under a spell I do not know.”

“What do you think I am? A witch?”

“Precisely.”

That proved to be too much for Ms. Hamgar to take as she screamed with blind rage.  She threw her hands up and out flew sparks of electricity. However, not a single spark endangered either Nyl or Eshton. Instead, they collided harmlessly with the metal end of Nyl’s staff.

“You wore rubber boots this morning. My theory was that you specialized in lightning. Chalk that one up as accurate.”

She gave a bloodcurdling cry as she withdrew a knife from beneath her blouse and lunged right at Eshton. Before Eshton had time to react, Ms. Hamgar gave out a YELP and slammed into the frame of what must have felt like a brick wall. That brick wall was Uncle Leem who remained obvious to what had taken place. He stepped forward, book in hand, and a warm smile on his face. Whispers of ‘Dark Bane’ traveled throughout the gathering of people.

“Eshton, you forgot your book of remedies back home and, oh my,” said Uncle Leem who finally noticed the unconscious body of Ms. Hamgar at his feet. “I hope she’s alright.”

Eshton then spotted Aria, his pet dragon. He had saved her from a life threatening injury when she was a baby. It stunted her growth and she couldn’t speak, but she was the smartest creature he had ever met. She had caused Ms. Hamgar to yelp when she had bit the woman in her backside.

“Yes, yes, I had to bring her along,” said Uncle Leem whom, to this day, remained a self-declared hater of dragons. It was likely caused by all the years he spent hunting them. Out from between his legs strolled the purring Tiwaz, an overgrown fur ball of a cat. Uncle Leem’s prized little pet whom, to his dismay, was also good buddies with Aria.

“Thank you Uncle,” said Eshton, who handed the staff back to Nyl. “But I think we are about done here.”

“You know, one of these days I will get to show off my magic prowess,” said Nyl, apparently disappointed he had lacked opportunity to fire out a magic spell.

Eshton simply shook his head as Thebur the Viscount of Aldena ran up to him and said, “You have not only solved a tragic murder but saved the town from both a dragon and a witch! How can we repay back such a debt?”

“You can start by placing torches in that scary cavern in the mountain up there,” said Nyl, likely only half joking.

“Continual support of the Perebella library will suffice, Viscount.”

And with that, Uncle Leem, Aria, Tiwaz, Nyl, and Eshton made their way to the outskirts of town, loaded up their horses, and headed back to Perebella. All along the way Nyl reminded Eshton that magic had to be used to ultimately cure the dragon of its addiction. He pressed on the point of how helpful magic was. Eshton never gave a response. He simply smiled and listened to his friend ramble on about the benefits of magic. Nothing could spoil Eshton’s mood after a case had been solved. Not even magic.