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26.12.2018

“You will see your friends soon enough,” said the dragonlord airily. “If you are religious, I mean. None who enter the Wyrmberg ever leave again. Except metaphorically, of course. Show him how to reach the rings, K!sdra.”

“Look what you’ve got me into!” Rincewind hissed.

Kring vibrated in his hand. “Remember that I am a magic sword,” it hummed.

“How can I forget?”

“Climb the ladder and grab a ring,” said the dragonrider, “then bring your feet up until the hooks catch.” He helped the protesting wizard climb until he was hanging upside down, robe tucked into his britches, Kring dangling from one hand. At this angle the dragonfolk looked reasonably bearable but the dragons themselves, hanging from their perches, loomed over the scene like immense gargoyles. Their eyes glowed with interest.

“Attention, please,” said Lio!rt. A dragonrider handed him a long shape, wrapped in red silk.

“We fight to the death,” he said. “Yours.”

“And I suppose I earn my freedom if I win?” said Rincewind, without much hope.

Lio!rt indicated the assembled dragonriders with a tilt of his head.

“Don’t be naive, he said.

Rincewind took a deep breath “I suppose I should warn you,” he said, his voice hardly quavering at all, “that this is a magic sword.”

Lio!rt let the red silk wrapping drop away into the gloom and flourished a jet-black blade. Runes glowed on its surface.

“What a coincidence,” he said, and lunged.

Rincewind went rigid with fright, but his arm swung out as Kring shot forward. The swords met in an explosion of octarine light.

Lio!rt swung himself backwards, his eyes narrowing. Kring leapt past his guard and, although the dragonlord’s sword jerked up to deflect most of the force, the result was a thin red line across its master’s torso.

With a growl he launched himself at the wizard boots clattering as he slid from ring to ring. The swords met again in another violent discharge of magic and, at the same time, Lio!rt brought his other hand down against Rincewind’s head, jarring him so hard that one foot jerked out of its ring and flailed desperately.

Rincewind knew himself to be almost certainly the worst wizard on the Discworld since he knew but one spell; yet for all that he was still a wizard, and thus by the inexorable laws of magic this meant that upon his demise it would be Death himself who appeared to claim him (instead of sending one of his numerous servants, as is usually the case). Thus it was that, as a grinning Lio!rt swung back and brought his sword around in a lazy arc, time ran into treacle.

To Rincewind’s eyes the world was suddenly lit by a flickering octarine light, tinged with violet as photons impacted on the sudden magical aura. Inside it the dragonlord was a ghastly-hued statue, his sword moving at a snail’s pace in the glow.

Beside Lio!rt was another figure, visible only to those who can see into the extra four dimensions of magic. It was tall and dark and thin and, against a sudden night of frosty stars, it swung a two-handed scythe of proverbial sharpness…

Rincewind ducked. The blade hissed coldly through the air beside his head and entered the rock of the cavern roof without slowing. Death screamed a curse in his cold crypt voice. The scene vanished. What passed for reality on the Discworld reasserted itself with a rush of sound. Lio!rt gasped at the sudden turn of speed with which the wizard had dodged his killing stroke and, with that desperation only available to the really terrified, Rincewind uncoiled like a snake and launched himself across the space between them. He locked both hands around the dragonlord’s sword arm, and wrenched.

It was at that moment that Rincewind’s one remaining ring, already overburdened, slid out of the rock with a nasty little metal sound.

He plunged down, swung wildly, and ended up dangling over a bone-splintering death with his hands gripping the dragonlord’s arm so tightly that the man screamed.

Lio!rt looked up at his feet. Small flakes of rock were dropping out of the roof around the ring pitons.

“Let go, damn you.” he screamed. “Or we’ll both die!”

Rincewind said nothing. He was concentrating on maintaining his grip and keeping his mind closed to the pressing images of his fate on the rocks below.

“Shoot him!” bellowed Lio!rt.

Out of the corner of his eye Rincewind saw several crossbows levelled at him. Lio!rt chose that moment to flail down with his free hand, and a fistful of rings stabbed into the wizard’s fingers.

He let go.

Twoflower grabbed the bars and pulled himself up.

“See anything?” said Hrun, from the region of his feet.

“Just clouds.”

Hrun lifted him down again, and sat on the edge of one of the wooden beds that were the only furnishings in the cell. “Bloody hell,” he said.

“Don’t despair,” said Twoflower.

“I’m not despairing.”

“I expect it’s all some sort of misunderstanding. I expect they’ll release us soon. They seem very civilised.”

Hrun stared at him from under bushy eyebrows. He started to say something, then appeared to think better of it. He sighed instead.

“And when we get back we can say we’ve seen dragons,” Twoflower continued. “What about that, eh?”

“Dragons don’t exist,” said Hrun flatly. “Codice of Chimeria killed the last one two hundred years ago. I don’t know what we’re seeing, but they aren’t dragons.”

“But they carried us up in the air! In that hall there must have been hundreds-“

“I expect it was just magic,” said Hrun, dismissively.

“Well, they looked like dragons,” said Twoflower, an air of defiance about him. “I always wanted to see dragons, ever since I was a little lad. Dragons flying around in the sky, breathing flames…”

“They just used to crawl around in swamps and stuff, and all they breathed was stink,” said Hrun lying down in the bunk. “They weren’t very big either. They used to collect firewood.”

“I heard they used to collect treasure,” said Twoflower.

“And firewood. Hey,” Hrun added, brightening “did you notice all those rooms they brought us through? Pretty impressive, I thought. Lot of good stuff about, plus some of those tapestries have got to be worth a fortune.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully, making a noise like a porcupine shouldering its way through gorse.

“What happens next?” asked Twoflower.

Hrun screwed a finger in his ear and inspected it absently. “Oh,” he said, “I expect in a minute the door will be flung back and I’ll be dragged off to some sort of temple arena where I’ll fight maybe a couple of giant spiders and an eight-foot slave from the jungles of Klatch and then I’ll rescue some kind of a princess from the altar and then kill off a few guards or whatever and then this girl will show me the secret passage out of the place and we’ll liberate a couple of horses and escape with the treasure.” Hrun leaned his head back on his hands and looked at the ceiling, whistling tunelessly.

“All that?” said Twoflower.

“Usually.”

Twoflower sat down on his bunk and tried to think. This proved difficult, because his mind was awash with dragons.

Dragons!

Ever since he was two years old he had been captivated by the pictures of the fiery beasts in The Octarine Fairy Book. His sister had told him they didn’t really exist, and he recalled the bitter disappointment. If the world didn’t contain those beautiful creatures, he’d decided, it wasn’t half the world it ought to be. And then later he had been bound apprentice to Ninereeds the Masteraccount, who in his grey-mindedness was everything that dragons were not, and there was no time for dreaming.

But there was something wrong with these dragons. They were too small and sleek, compared to the ones in his mind’s eye. Dragons ought to be big and green and clawed and exotic and firebreathing big and green with long sharp… Something moved at the edge of his vision, in the furthest, darkest corner of the dungeon. When he turned his head it vanished, although he thought he heard the faintest of noises that might have been made by claws scrabbling on stone.

“Hrun?” he said.

There was a snore from the other bunk.

Twoflower padded over to the corner, peering gingerly at the stones in case there was a secret panel. At that moment the door was flung back thumping against the wall. Half a dozen guards hurtled through it, spread out and flung them selves down on one knee. Their weapons were aimed exclusively at Hrun. When he thought about this later, Twoflower felt quite offended.

Hrun snored.

A woman strode into the room. Not many women can stride convincingly, but she managed it. She glanced briefly at Twoflower, as one might look at a piece of furniture, then glared down at the man on the bed.

She was wearing the same sort of leather harness that the dragonriders had been wearing but in her case it was much briefer. That, and the magnificent mane of chestnut-red hair that fell to her waist, was her only concession to what even on the Discworld passed for decency. She was also wearing a thoughtful expression.

Hrun made a glubbing noise, turned over, and slept on.

With a careful movement, as though handling some instrument of rare delicacy, the woman drew a slim black dagger from her belt and stabbed downward.

Before it was halfway through its arc Hrun’s right hand moved so fast that it appeared to travel between two points in space without at any time occupying the intervening air. It closed around the woman’s wrist with a dull smack. His other hand groped feverishly for a sword that wasn’t there… Hrun awoke.

“Gngh?” he said, looking up at the woman with a puzzled frown. Then he caught sight of the bowmen.

“Let go,” said the woman, in a voice that was calm and quiet and edged with diamonds. Hrun released his grip slowly.

She stepped back, massaging her wrist and looking at Hrun in much the same way that a cat watches a mousehole.

“So,” she said at last. “You pass the first test. What is your name, barbarian?”

“Who are you calling a barbarian?” snarled Hrun.

“That is what I want to know.”

Hrun counted the bowmen slowly and made a brief calculation. His shoulders relaxed.

“I am Hrun of Chimeria. And you?”

“Liessa Dragonlady.”

“You are the lord of this place?”

“That remains to be seen. You have the look about you of a hired sword, Hrun of Chimeria. I could use you -if you pass the tests, of course. There are three of them. You have passed the first.”

“What are the other-” Hrun paused, his lips moved soundlessly and then he hazarded, “two?”

“Perilous.”

“And the fee?”

“Valuable.”

“Excuse me,” said Twoflower

“And if I fail these tests?” said Hrun, ignoring him. The air between Hrun and Liessa crackled with small explosions of charisma as their gazes sought for a hold.

“If you had failed the first test you would now be dead. This may be considered a typical penalty.”