The Dragon's Challenge
PART 1 – Visions of the Future
Of all the colors, he remembered the gold most of all. It glittered in the sunlight, reflecting the power of the light all around the room. Even as a child, he remembered thinking that it was odd that all that power could be seemingly stolen and reflected, as if it came from the gold itself. People didn’t covet sunlight, but they coveted the gold because of what it did with the sunlight…
The loud clopping of hooves on paving stones broke the prince from his memories. A white horse sauntered up next to him slowly. A grey bearded figure with a gleaming crown turned to him, “Are you ready?”
“Truly? I don’t think you fully understand the danger you face, or the risk you take. No king has managed to complete the ancient trials in a hundred years…or felt he needed to.”
The words hung in the air, heavy with meaning. The prince sat up a bit straighter in his saddle, and gripped the pommel harder.
“I am ready, father, truly. Trust me.”
“I hope so, you’re taking an awfully large risk with the future of this kingdom, and with my legacy, to satisfy your notions of ‘tradition’. Now go, satisfy your ego and return to take your place on the throne.”
The prince urged the horse forward, it took a few tentative steps and then began trotting towards the gate. Sensing freedom was near, it picked up speed as it passed through the gatehouse, and as soon as its hooves hit grass and mud it took off at full gallop. The horse seemed to sense the freedom its master felt and relished in it.
The huge castle soon faded from view as he entered the tree line, but behind him about a half-mile was a long line of mounted troops following behind; however, for now, for a little bit, he was alone with his thoughts. He had studied the ancient texts for months, reading of the daring exploits of past kings, how they tracked the elusive creatures, cornered them, and then slew them. How it had taken some of them months to find them, others weeks, and some mere days, and he didn't know if he would measure up. He also knew that his father and grandfather had never bothered with the challenge, and ruled in spite of it. However, he had determined early on that he would not rule as his father had, hiding behind the walls of that mighty castle. He yearned for something bigger, something more intangible, something that could only be found beyond the walls, and beyond the forests outside them, beyond even the furthest borders of the kingdom. His father did not understand, and he was sure he never would.
The day passed quickly, and they set camp for the night. The knights and soldiers were spread out around the campsites, laughing, joking and eating as they huddled round the fires. The prince stood alone, staring at the dancing flames, the firelight illuminating his face, and visions of blood, fire, and claws flickering in his mind’s eye. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and shook his head to clear his thoughts.
“I didn’t hear you come up behind me,” the prince said.
“Neither do your enemies, my lord.”
“Hahaha, I’m sure more than a few wished they had. It’s been months since I’ve seen you at the castle. How’s my father’s favorite ranger? Were you headed back?”
“No, I long ago made a vow to protect you, and your father, from danger. I would be without honor if I let you go without my help. Several months ago I began tracking what I thought was a large wyvern, but instead turned out to be a fierce black dragon. This particular dragon is old, old enough to be mentioned in the Elven texts from the last age. You face a dark winged nightmare, my lord, one that hasn’t been seen in a hundred years. This dragon is clever to, it will not be easy.”
“How can I fail? I’ve got you, my men, and this large sword!” the prince said, swinging his hips and grinning.
“Indeed, my lord. The tracks I’ve been following the last week lead to the deserts of the West.”
“Do you know what we’ll find there? You must have some idea.”
“I do not, but with any luck, it’ll be big and angry.”
“Was that…did you just make a joke?” The prince turned to the ranger with a sly grin, only to find there was no one behind him.
PART 2 - Desert Skirmish
They marched for days, first south, then west, around the great mountains that divided the northeast from the northwest. Crossing the rugged foothills as they turned west, they soon came to the central plains. The grassland was a welcome respite from the torturous route they’d taken through the foothills, and the men seemed more relaxed in the sunshine and on flat ground. They made good time, covering great distances each day, until they finally spotted the vast stretch of desert on the horizon that meant they were close to their destination, even if they were not entirely sure where it might be. A day’s walk into the desert and they came up on a caravan that had obviously been the site of a fierce battle, though little remained but the smoking hulk of the wagons, and the dead bodies of the traders.
One of the soldiers walked up to the wreck and grabbed a scorched, roughly hewn arrow from where it was embedded in the wagon frame. Looking it up and down, he turned to the captain and said “Definitely goblins, sir, though they are rarely seen in the desert lands. What were they doing here?”
The prince walked up to the group examining the wreckage slowly. “Give me your spear,” he said to one of his elite spearmen who was looking over his shoulder. “Of course, my prince, here you are,” and handed it over.
The prince jammed the butt of the spear into the sand just under one of the crossbeams of the wagon and pushed it up, handing the spear off to the soldier as he peered underneath. He reached under and slowly dragged a hard piece of something dark, jagged, and shiny out from under it.
“Desert glass…the dragon must have been here, and not long ago…it’s still warm…”
The prince, turning to order the spearmen to clear the wreckage, felt the rush of an arrow as it flew past his head and struck the elite spearmen whose spear he had borrowed, dropping him to the desert floor instantly. The dunes around the prince and his guard were soon ringed with growling goblins, barking, screeching, and gnashing their teeth.
“Finally some action!” one of the elite axeman roared as he swung his axe back and forth impatiently.
The kings guard ringed the prince, as the axemen and spearmen fell into line on the outer perimeter. Digging their feet into the sand they prepared for the rush of charging goblins, when suddenly the top of the dune literally exploded, shredding the goblins.
“Those damn cannons taking all the glory! I don’t want to sit here and miss all the fun again! ”
Another fusillade destroyed the tops of the dunes and left everyone covering their faces from the dust. “If didn’t love them so much, I’d have them whipped,” muttered the prince.
The prince waved the dust away from his face and barked at the axeman to go check out the goblins, and make sure they weren’t planning any more surprises. “My prince! Come take a look at this!” one of the axemen shouted. The prince struggled up the hill in the loose, fine sand until he got a hand up from one of the infantry. The axemen handed him a folded piece of parchment that was torn and bloody. Carefully unfolding it, the prince smiled.
On the parchment was a map of the whole continent, and the X’s marked the spots. “Too bad we don’t know which one he will be at next. But this is better than searching every city and town in the land. Mount up, we’re done here!” the Prince ordered.
A short distance away, a figure cloaked in fur and skins watched as the army and the prince searched the area and then mounted up to leave. His eyes narrowed, and he grimaced wickedly. His mount growled and pawed the sand, eager for a taste of manflesh and blood, while the goblins around him clicked their fangs and growled with impatience. He stroked the mottled hair and flesh on his mounts head, and whispered menacingly, “Patience, my dear, we will take them while they sleep…”
The fire had died a short time ago, and with only coals remaining a trail of smoke lazily wafted into the inky black desert sky. There was no moon this night, but the stars glimmered and shined as if to make up for it. The army was curled up in the soft sand, comfortable and warm, getting the best rest they’d had in weeks.
Suddenly, growling and snarling filled the air, and the sharp ringing of metal on metal broke the silent night. Goblins swarmed from all sides, slashing the soldiers who were slow to rise. Many never made it out of bed before being stabbed while they slept.
The hulking figure rode into the camp and dismounted. “Urizen, we have taken the camp. Those humans are so easy to slaughter when they are sleeping. Hehehe…” The goblin chuckled. Urizen pulled his long thick blade off his back and walked past the goblin with a low growl. As he walked slowly towards the camp, goblins all around him were going through bags looking for valuables. Urizen came up to one sleeping roll, and using the tip of his sword, peeled the blanket back. Rolled and bunched up underneath the blanket were clothes. His head began scanning the campsite, and after spotting a wounded soldier, Urizen walked over to him. Putting his huge boot on the man’s leg, he pressed down, eliciting screams of agony from the man.
“Where are the rest of them?” Urizen asked with a menacing growl. “Where are they!?” he shouted, spit raining down on the poor wounded soldier. “I…don’t know. They are…here…dead…aren’t they?” the wounded man gasped out between heavy breaths. “Kill him. Find the others!” Urizen ordered, walking away.
The prince now surveyed the goblins, as they had once surveyed him. “Time to go,” he said. Grabbing his sword, he yanked it from his sheath and started to jog through the sand, until he finally crested the dune next to the camp. The goblins hadn’t yet noticed them yet, as his army slowly joined him. Screaming, the prince ran down the slope of the dune with his army right behind and swarmed the campsite. Crashing into the goblins, the prince parried one attack after another, slowly moving forward through the lines. Seeing the tall figure of Urizen the Bloody standing behind a ring of axe goblins, he called for his guards.
“Uri-zen! You dirty swamprat! You’re going to die today!” With that the prince charged forward, dodging the first swing of the goblins axe and slaying him viciously. The king’s guards then charged into the fray and began working on the rest of the axe goblins, as the prince stood up tall and faced Urizen unafraid, goblin blood still dripping from his blade. “They call me Urizen the Bloody after that campaign in the eastern forests. Come take a swing and find out why,” he sneered. “You first,” the prince replied. Urizen growled, and rushed the prince, bringing his huge blade up and then swinging it down at the princes head, hoping to break his blade. The prince’s right foot moved around behind him as he deftly sidestepped both the sword and Urizen, letting him charge past. As his momentum took him past, the prince slashed him along the leg with one quick movement. Urizen’s leg began gushing blood, and he was limping badly as he turned to face the prince once more. “Urizen the Bloody, indeed,” the prince sneered. Roaring mightily, Urizen swung mightily at the princes head, which he ducked under and with a quick step forward thrust his blade up and into the monsters head. Twisting the blade and bringing it down and out with a flourish, he turned back to face the goblins that remained. Urizen’s body fell over as the prince took a portion of his cape and used it to wipe the blood from his sword, and then sheathed it. Everyone had slowly stopped fighting and turned to look at him. “Who knows how he found us?” The prince’s voice rang out over the crowd. “You will d…” one of the goblins started to shout, before being cut off, literally, by one of the king’s guard. “Anyone else?” the prince asked again. One goblin stepped forward.
“The bandits, in the Northeastern forests.”
The endless dunes that had dominated their vision for weeks seemed to be giving way to the grasslands of the central plains. It was a welcoming sight for most, but the prince had grown more irritated with every step they took back towards home. “All roads lead home…” he muttered as they took their first steps off the sand and back onto the soft grass. As the army wound its way northeast and into the forests, the men were restless, and confused why they hadn’t stopped to resupply and visit the castle. MK ignored them, insisting to his generals that the forest would supply what they needed.
As the army left the burning sand behind, and returned the way they came, Prince MK had refused to return to resupply at his father’s Citadel.