“It turned up?” said the voice. “You summoned it!”
“Yes, well, all I did-“
“You have the Power! “
“All I did was think of it.”
“That’s what the Power is. Have I already told you that I am Greicha the First? Or is that next? I’m sorry, but I haven’t had too much experience of transcendence. Anyway, yes -the Power. It summons dragons, you know.”
“I think you already told me that,” said Twoflower.
“Did I? I certainly intended to,” said the dead man.
“But how does it? I’ve been thinking about dragons all my life, but this is the first time one has turned up.”
“Oh well, you see, the truth of the matter is that dragons have never existed as you (and, until I was poisoned some three months ago,) I understand existence. I’m talking about the true dragon, draconis nobilis, you understand; the swamp dragon, draconis vulgaris, is a base creature and not worth our consideration. The true dragon, on the other hand, is a creature of such refinement of spirit that they can only take on form in this world if they are conceived by the most skilled imagination. And even then the said imagination must be in some place heavily impregnated with magic which helps to weaken the walls between the world of the seen and unseen. Then the dragons pop through, as it were, and impress their form on this world’s possibility matrix. I was very good at it when I was alive. I could imagine up to, oh, five hundred dragons at a time. Now Liessa, the most skilled of my children, can barely imagine fifty rather nondescript creatures. So much for a progressive education. She doesn’t really believe in them. That’s why her dragons are rather boring while yours,” said the voice of Greicha, “is almost as good as some of mine used to be. A sight for sore eyes, not that I have any to speak of now.”
Twoflower said hurriedly, “You keep saying you’re dead…”
“Well, the dead, er, they, you know, don’t talk much. As a rule.”
“I used to be an exceptionally powerful wizard. My daughter poisoned me, of course. It is the generally accepted method of succession in our family, but,” the corpse sighed, or at least a sigh came from the air a few feet above it, “it soon became obvious that none of my three children is sufficiently powerful to wrest the lordship of the Wyrmberg from the other two. A most unsatisfactory arrangement. A kingdom like ours has to have one ruler. So I resolved to remain alive in an unofficial capacity, which of course annoys them all immensely. I won’t give my children the satisfaction of burying me until there is only one of them left to perform the ceremony.” There was a nasty wheezing noise. Twoflower decided that it was meant to be a chuckle.
“So it was one of them that kidnapped us?” said Twoflower.
“Liessa,” said the dead wizard’s voice. “My daughter. Her power is strongest, you know. My sons’ dragons are incapable of flying more than a few miles before they fade.”
“Fade? I did notice that we could see through the one that brought us here,” said Twoflower. “I thought that was a bit odd.”
“Of course,” said Greicha. “The Power only works near the Wyrmberg. It’s the inverse square law you know. At least, I think it is. As the dragons fly further away they begin to dwindle. Otherwise my little Liessa would be ruling the whole world by now, if I know anything about it. But I can see I mustn’t keep you. I expect you’ll be wanting to rescue your friend.”
Twoflower gaped. “Hrun?” he said.
“Not him. The skinny wizard. My son Lio!rt is trying to hack him to pieces. I admired the way you rescued him. Will, I mean.”
Twoflower drew himself up to his full height, an easy task. “Where is he?” he said, heading towards the door with what he hoped was an heroic stride.
“Just follow the pathway in the dust,” said the voice. “Liessa comes to see me sometimes. She still comes to see her old dad, my little girl. She was the only one with the strength of character to murder me. A chip off the old block. Good luck, by the way. I seem to recall I said that. Will say it now, I mean.”
The rambling voice got lost in a maze of tenses as Twoflower ran along the dead tunnels, with the dragon loping along easily behind him. But soon he was leaning against a pillar, completely out of breath. It seemed ages since he’d had anything to eat.
Why don’t you fly? said Ninereeds, inside his head. The dragon spread its wings and gave an experimental flap, which lifted it momentarily off the ground. Twoflower stared for a moment, then ran forward and clambered quickly on to the beast’s neck. Soon they were airborne, the dragon skimming along easily a few feet from the floor and leaving a billowing cloud of dust in its wake.
Twoflower hung on as best he could as Ninereeds swooped through a succession of caverns and soared around a spiral staircase that could easily have accommodated a retreating army. At the top they emerged into the more inhabited regions, the mirrors at every corridor corner brightly polished and reflecting a pale light.
I smell other dragons.
The wings became a blur and Twoflower was jerked back as the dragon veered and sped off down a side corridor like a gnat-crazed swallow. Another sharp turn sent them soaring out of a tunnel mouth in the side of a vast cavern. There were rocks far below, and up above were broad shafts of light from great holes near the roof. A lot of activity on the ceiling, too… as Ninereeds hovered, thumping the air with his wings, Twoflower peered up at the shapes of roosting beasts and tiny men-shaped dots that were somehow walking upside down.
This is a roosting hall, said the dragon in a satisfied tone.
As Twoflower watched, one of the shapes far above detached itself from the roof and began to grow larger…
Rincewind watched as Lio!rt’s pale face dropped away from him. This is funny, gibbered a small part of his mind, why am I rising?
Then he began to tumble in the air and reality took over. He was dropping to the distant, guano-speckled rocks.
His brain reeled with the thought. The words of the Spell picked just that moment to surface from the depths of his mind, as they always did in time of crisis. Why not say us, they seemed to urge. What have you got to lose?
Rincewind waved a hand in the gathering slipstream.
“Ashonai,” he called. The word formed in front of him in a cold blue flame that streamed in the wind.
He waved the other hand, drunk with terror and magic.
“Ebiris,” he intoned. The sound froze into a flickering orange word that hung beside its companion.
“Urshoring. Kvanti. Pythan. N’gurad. Feringomalee.” As the words blazed their rainbow colours around him he flung his hands back and prepared to say the eighth and final word that would appear in corruscating octarine and seal the spell. The imminent rocks were forgotten.
“-” he began.
The breath was knocked out of him, the spell scattered and snuffed out. A pair of arms locked around his waist and the whole world jerked sideways as the dragon rose out of its long dive claws grazing just for a moment the topmost rock on the Wyrmberg’s noisome floor. Twoflower laughed triumphantly.
And the dragon, curving gracefully at the top of his flight, gave a lazy flip of his wings and soared through a cavemouth into the morning air.
At noon, in a wide green meadow on the lush tableland that was the top of the impossibly-balanced Wyrmberg, the dragons and their riders formed a wide circle. There was room beyond them for a rabble of servants and slaves and others who scratched a living here on the roof of the world, and they were all watching the figures clustered in the centre of the grassy arena.
The group contained a number of senior dragon lords, and among them were Lio!rt and his brother Liartes. The former was still rubbing his legs, with Small grimaces of pain. Slightly to one side stood Liessa and Hrun, with some of the woman’s own followers. Between the two factions stood the Wyrmberg’s hereditary Loremaster.
“As you know,” he said uncertainly, “the not-fully-late Lord of the Wyrmberg, Greicha the First, has stipulated that there will be no succession until one of his children feels himself – or as it might be, herself – powerful enough to challenge and defeat his or her siblings in mortal combat.”
“Yes”, yes, we know all that. Get on with it,” said a thin peevish voice from the air beside him.
The loremaster swallowed. He had never come to terms with his former master’s failure to expire properly. Is the old buzzard dead or isn’t he? he wondered.
“It is not certain,” he quavered, “whether it is allowable to issue a challenge by proxy-“
“It is, it is,” snapped Greicha’s disembodied voice. “It shows intelligence. Don’t take all day about it.”
“I challenge you,” said Hrun, glaring at the brothers, “both at once.”
Lio!rt and Liartes exchanged looks.
“You’ll fight us both together?” said Liartes, a tall, wiry man with long black hair.
“That’s pretty uneven odds, isn’t it?”
“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”
Lio!rt scowled. “You arrogant barbarian-“
“That just about does it,” growled Hrun. “I’ll-“
The Loremaster put out a blue-veined hand to restrain him.
“It is forbidden to fight on the Killing Ground,” he said, and paused while he considered the sense of this. “You know what I mean, anyway,” he hazarded, giving up, and added “As the challenged parties my lords Lio!rt and Liartes have choice of weapons.”
“Dragons,” they said together. Liessa snorted.
“Dragons can be used offensively, therefore they are weapons,” said Lio!rt firmly. “if you disagree we can fight over it.”
“Yah,” said his brother, nodding at Hrun.
The Loremaster felt a ghostly finger prod him in the chest “Don’t stand there with your mouth open,” said Greicha’s graveyard voice.
“Just hurry up, will you?”
Hrun stepped back, shaking his head.
“Oh no,” he said. “Once was enough. I’d rather be dead than fight on one of those things.”
“Die, then,” said the Loremaster, as kindly as he could manage.
Lio!rt and Liartes were already striding back across the turf to where the servants stood waiting with their mounts. Hrun turned to Liessa. She shrugged.
“Don’t I even get a sword?” he pleaded. “A knife, even?”
“No,” she said. “I didn’t expect this.” She suddenly looked smaller, all defiance gone. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Yes, I thought you said you’re sorry.”
“Don’t glare at me like that! I can imagine you the finest dragon to ride”
The Loremaster wiped his nose on a handkerchief, held the little silken square aloft for a moment, then let it fall.
A boom of wings made Hrun spin around.
Lio!rt’s dragon was already airborne and circling around towards them. As it swooped low over the turf a billow of flame shot from its mouth, scoring a black streak across the grass that rushed towards Hrun.