This was the thought that played over and over in King Eldrin's mind as he knelt in Istaria's temple, praying for guidance. The crone never failed to give sage and true advice, but she was wont to speak in riddles. Was this such a riddle, wrapped like a cloak around the truth, or did she speak plainly? And if it was the plain truth, how was he to equate himself with dragons, who frequently ravaged the settlements of his fellow humans? He looked down at his hands, and slowly removed a ring. He rose, approached the altar, and carefully placed the ring in the center of the granite slab. "This earthly thing I now remove from my life," he intoned, "that Thou mayst fill the void with Thy gifts of spirit. I beseech Thee, accept it!" His voice rose to a shout at the final words, and they echoed against the temple walls. Light blazed forth from the altar, as it always did when a sacrifice was accepted, but this time the light was so blindingly bright that King Eldrin was made to cower and wince.
When at last he dared open his eyes again, he perceived an angelic figure seated upon the altar. Awe overtook his senses, and he fell to his knees. "Arise, Eldrin," the angel purred. "Istaria hears the prayers of his faithful. If you wish for your kingdom to be safe from the dragons' fury, you must prove yourself an ally." "An ally?!" King Eldrin cried as he struggled to his feet. "Any one dragon could outlast my army where every soldier as strong as my brother Galad, and outwit my entire Council of Advice. What need would they have of me?" "Something that is neither strength nor wisdom, of course. Seek out the dragons' King and you shall discover what his kind lack." The angel seemed slightly annoyed, as if it had needed to point out an obvious fact. "Take the ring with you, as a reminder of Istaria's might and mercy." The blinding light flared again, and the angel vanished.
Marveling at the vision, King Eldrin timidly took the ring from the altar. It had been transfigured from silver to platinum, and the diamond set in it burned with a strange fire. Filled with wonder, he slowly slid it back on his finger. Hastily he left the temple and returned to his chambers. Within the hour, word had spread that King Eldrin and the best of his men would be braving a journey next sunrise to meet with Sharad-Waador, King of the Dragonkind. Dawn brought clouds and cool wind, and the armies felt little fatigue as they chanted and marched through the hills to Sharad-Waador's lair. At last they spied it: a cave set deep into the mountain range, yawning and gaping like the maws of its denizens. King Eldrin signaled, and the march ceased.
He looked over each of the fifty young men, then cast a glance to his brother Galad, who served him as General. He took a deep breath and addressed them. "You face uncertainty, men. But the nature of courage is to not quiver before uncertainty, but to look it it full in the face without flinching. Istaria is with you all. Now, we go onward." He turned away and walked into the cave. The cave was massive, as if the entire mountain's base had been deliberately hollowed out. The floors were littered with gold and other treasure. But nearly every inch of space was also occupied by a dragon of some color. Blues and reds lounged near the cave's mouth; the black dragons huddled in a corner as if discussing secrets. A pair of baby whites were playing at wrestling only a stone's throw away, and their mother lay protectively half-curled around them. And near the far wall, the dragons shimmered with all colors at once.
A small dais had been built up over the millenia, and upon it sat the largest of them all. The deference paid him by the other dragons marked him clearly as Sharad-Waador, their King. Sharad-Waador drew himself up to his full height, and stretched his rainbow-hued wings with a massive yawn. The dragons at his feet barely seemed to move, but suddenly a twisting aisle emerged between him and the tiny humans hovering near the entrance. "What manner of business would a pathetic snack like yourself have before the mighty Sharad-Waador?!" he roared, and King Eldrin cringed despite himself. He kissed the divine ring on his hand, took a deep breath, and roared his answer. "I am King Eldrin, ruler of the humans in this realm. I come to pay homage to the King of Dragonkind, and to offer alliance." His voice would have made any human tremble, but the words seemed feeble here as they escaped his lips. Still, the mighty wyrm seemed more intrigued than amused. "You are either courageous or foolish, human," he growled. "If you wish to be an ally to the dragonkind, then step forth and offer me the sword that hangs at your side." The lips parted and curled up in hideous mockery of a smile. "If you are strong enough to reach me, then I shall honour an alliance with your kind." Eldrin turned to his men and gestured for them to stay behind, but Galad shook his head. "I have never wished to be King, brother, and to gain the crown because I stood still while you faced danger alone would be the greatest shame of all. We are all doomed to perish someday; let us do so together. Men, turn your feet homeward, and pray for our safe return." The soldiers slowly began their retreat as the two brothers sheathed their swords and solemnly marched into the cave.
Sharad-Waador chuckled to see the two tiny creatures advance, and the other dragons snickered in response. As Eldrin and Galad made their way forward, a young red dragon reared up and belched a small gout of flame. He flapped his wings gleefully as they desperately jumped forward to avoid it, and breathed again toward them. Soon others nearby joined in the fun, and the two men found themselves dodging incessant bursts of ice and lightning as well. Had Eldrin not been preoccupied, he might have noticed Istaria's ring shining faintly. Still, he noticed that while he had certainly been scorched and shocked and frozen more often than the nimble Galad, he seemed to be less severely injured. His own wounds would take months to heal, he knew, but Galad's face was pale and bleeding, and Eldrin began praying that his brother would survive. Mercy smiled as they drew near the dais; the rainbow-hued dragons showed no interest in tormenting them. The reprieve soon proved sorely needed; Galad at last could go no further and collapsed. Eldrin reached for the bandages in his pack, but he found his hands were shaking and barely able to clench, let alone dress a wound. He threw his head back and cried to the heavens: "Istaria, deliver your faithful!" Brilliant golden light blazed around Eldrin, and the Dragon King flinched away from the glare. The pain flew from him like a shroud in a maelstrom, and Eldrin fell to tending his brother. Dampened bandages and a mild herbal brew were a frail fence between Galad and Death, but the brothers managed to struggle to the top of the dais side by side.
With a great flourish and bow, Eldrin drew his sword and presented it to Sharad-Waador. The Dragon King could find no words. A single swipe of his claws had robbed all life from so many of these minuscule beasts, yet here two had passed a veritable gauntlet of his subjects' powers. "You have greatly impressed me," he said at last. "As I pledged earlier, your people and mine shall act as friends from this day on." But once you are dead, he thought to himself, they are no longer your people and I am free from this oath. Certainly my people and I can restrain ourselves for a handful of decades; just keep the hatchlings away from these morsels, lest they become genuinely friendly. "The King of Dragonkind honours me with his oath," Eldrin murmured, bowing low. And once word of this oath reaches the petty barons and lords out there, he thought to himself, they'll be falling over themselves to pledge their allegiance to me. Indeed, my greatness will arrive on dragons' wings!
"I find that one thing still troubles my ancient mind. Though dozens have tried, I have never seen your kind wield such power as to survive the Trial and emerge unscathed. From where do you get your strength?" Eldrin was taken aback by the question, and it took him a moment to craft his reply. "I get my strength from my faith, and my God." Sharad-Waador blinked. A strange expression flickered across his face, and was gone. "To think, that I might have need to learn from you..."
*** *** ***
"Galad, are you certain it has to happen like this?" Eldrin cried, chasing ignominiously after his brother as he strode toward the stables. Galad paused. "Your Majesty - " he cut himself short in the face of Eldrin's glare. "Eldrin, you have confessed to me that you also feel the evil welling up in the heart of the Drakalor Mountains. I believe it will destroy us all if it is not stopped now. You have a good wife now, and a male heir. There is no more need for me to remain here, and a great need for me to battle the chaos that threatens in the south. I must go. Give me your blessing, brother; do not hold me here in a land that will lose nothing by my absence." Eldrin's face was visibly pained, and Galad repented of his harsh tone of voice. "Dear brother. Don't tell me your faith has fled you now of all times. Do you remember how I cried when I was sent away to military school and had to leave your side for six weeks? Do you remember what you said to me, nine years ago?" Eldrin nodded, but dared not look Galad in the face. Voice low and strained, he chanted the words of memory: "So long as God's wings span the sky / They'll be a bridge 'twixt you and I." Galad nodded, and moved to embrace Eldrin. When he spoke again, his voice was artificially cheerful. "This is not good-bye. I promise. I'll come back if you send for me. Just have a messenger follow in the wake of all that devastation I'll be wreaking on the evil nasty things in Drakalor." He nudged his brother, hoping to coax a smile, and failed. He sighed. "I have to go now. The longer I stay, the harder the task will be. But I will come back. I will see you again if I have to live forever to do it." Eldrin kept his head low and his eyes closed, and after a moment he heard Galad's boots crunching through the dry grass on the way to the stable. Slowly he turned and walked back to the castle door. "Istaria, hold him to his word...."