by Sideshow Lew
©2002 Sideshow Lew -- all rights reserved
The adventurers rode into town one scorching day in early summer. I was in my office, looking over the town council's proposal to build a bridge over the western stream so the farmers wouldn't have to cut through the marsh to get to market when my assistant, young Coriander, peered in.
"Someone's coming, Mayor," she said. She bit her lip, showing her pretty overbite. "By the western road. Marshroot just came by and said so."
And here I'd thought the boy had only dropped by to flirt with her. "I'm coming, I'm coming."
By the time I dragged my old bones to the city gate, most of the town was aware of our visitors. It hadn't rained in three weeks, and the approaching adventurers raised a dust cloud that could be seen from miles away. I had to wipe my spectacles several times on my vest. They rode into town on horses big enough to eat our local ponies for breakfast, resplendent in their shining armor and fancy foreign clothes. There were four men and two women, all human by the look of them.
I nodded politely to them. "Welcome, travelers. I am Pinecone, the mayor of Mazetown."
The adventurers reined in their horses and gazed at me and the assembled townspeople in surprise.
"Extraordinary," one of the men murmured. "Are we in fact near the Labyrinth of the ancient dragon Chernozem?"
An excited murmur swept through the crowd. So they were treasure-seekers!
"Yes indeed," I said warmly. "The entrance lies just beyond the eastern town limits. The town was in fact named in honor of it. My people have dedicated ourselves to leading adventurers like yourselves through it as far as their talents will take them."
"And what if we refuse your offer of guidance?"
"No one ever has. But if you do, Riverstone here is a fine carver and will be more than happy to craft you each a beautiful tombstone."
Fortunately, the adventurers took this in the spirit it was intended and laughed.
"This is a wonderful surprise. No one told us there was a town here, and I certainly never expected a population of such helpful little... what-ever-you-are's." The man, who was dressed in dusty but expensive-looking mage's attire, dismounted gingerly and rubbed his backside. The shortest of the adventurers, he easily topped our tallest citizen by three heads. He pulled a thick, leather-bound notebook from his saddlebags and flipped through it. "What are you people, anyway, if you don't mind my asking? I don't recall seeing you listed in the Compendium of Speakable Kinds."
The tall redheaded woman with the broadsword strapped to her back wiped her beaded brow and groaned. "Sandelphon, why is it always with the bocks!"
"Books," he corrected.
"We've ridden hard for weeks," one of the other men said. He looked young despite his gray hair. "I'm ready for a nice soft bed and a leg of mutton big enough to choke a manticore with."
"The sun is nearly down. I would appreciate a quiet grove to prepare my evening adorations," said the smaller, older woman.
"We feast," bellowed the strapping man wearing only boots, bracers, a fur loincloth and a cape made from the whole pelt of a black dire wolf. He unsheathed his mighty sword and swung it overhead. The sunlight flashed off it in an impressively blinding way. "And delve the dungeon at daybreak!"
The hulk looked rather pleased with himself at this bit of alliteration. The others dismounted wearily and I directed some of the townsfolk to show them where they could stable their horses, store their belongings and get a bite to eat.
"Really, it is not a dungeon, Bloodhawk," the scholarly man protested. "Or a tomb. It's a maze designed quite specifically by the dragon Chernozem to guard his treasure. He probably started with a natural solution cave, since there is quite a bit of limestone bedrock in the area, and elaborated it with magic..."
The barbarian ignored him.
"We call ourselves myo," I said, still trying to be friendly. Mages were usually the leaders of adventuring parties, mainly because only they could read the rare, encrypted maps that led to us.
Sandelphon shot an irritated look at Bloodhawk's sweaty, retreating back and held a quill poised over a blank page in the notebook.
"Myo, eh? You're not any variation on any of the nine races of mankind that I'm familiar with."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Not winged folk or centaurs, I can see that. Hmmmmm... you're small enough to be dwarf-derived, but only goblins have tails, and they are short and tufted, not long and scaly like yours. And those ears -- big, like an elf's, but round instead of pointed. And are all your folk albinos?"
"I couldn't tell you," I said. "The origins of my people are lost in the mists of history. We have always looked the way we look. We have always led adventurers through the Labyrinth."
"That seems an odd sort of reason for existence. In all this time, the dragon has never once took umbrage at your existence and swarmed up from the heart of his Labyrinth to fry you all? And you folk have never gotten all the way through the Labyrinth?"
I reached up and took him firmly by the elbow. "Now, if you'll please follow my assistant, I have some forms you folk need to sign before you begin adventuring."
I let Coriander take Sandelphon back to my office to fill out the paperwork, which I hoped would keep him happily occupied for an hour or two, at least. I took a stroll down to the marketplace and bought a bag of popped corn and roasted nuts to munch on. Eating always helps me calm down.
Sandelphon's questions had tormented the myo from our beginnings. Which God did we belong to? Why had we been entrusted with the task of helping adventurers through the Labyrinth? And the most troubling question of all: If a group of adventurers ever did make it through the Labyrinth and slay Chernozem, what would be left for the myo to do then?
Near the outskirts of town I stumbled upon the group's elderly cleric. She knelt in a circle she'd scratched in the dust and held a crystal up to the setting sun. I tried to leave without bothering her, but she heard my shuffling. She stood with the creaky motions of the severely arthritic and fastidiously dusted and smoothed her vestments.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to bother you."
"The ritual is complete," she said with a beautific smile. "I thought your people might benefit from a little rain, so I called on the Gods on your behalf."
"Well, isn't that neighborly." I looked around. Dark clouds bulked on the horizon. The smoke from chimneys didn't rise but hung over the rooftops in a thick haze. The wind had died down completely. Were these her efforts, or had the clouds been gathering all afternoon? Which God would a myo ask for rain?
"Thank you," I said, just in case, and left her.
I wandered about aimlessly until the thunderheads swallowed the sun, then made my way back to the office. Fortunately for my peace of mind the only one there was Coriander, still emptying out the waste cans. The last thing I did before closing up my offices for the day was to look over the adventurer's forms. Only two could write. Sandelphon, who denoted himself a mage-scholar, filled in the forms for all of the others except one Tadeo Kelfeth. Kelfeth listed his occupation as 'small arms expert, scout, spy, and locksmith' by which he no doubt meant 'thief'. That wasn't unusual. After all, all treasure-seekers are thieves by definition, and the party almost always included one professional for the disarming of traps and picking of locks. What surprised me was that he also claimed to be the expedition's leader and financial backer.
I sent Coriander home and walked over to the Tooth and Nail, Maze's only tavern and the inevitable location of the adventurers. A chilly breeze stirred the hair on the back of my neck.
As expected, the Nail did booming business as the adventurers and their enormous human appetites made up for several weeks of road rations. Many of my townsfolk joined them to hear the latest gossip of the world. I threaded my way across the crowded floor, passing the one of the women.
This brawny, busty redhead in brass and leather armor was Amalthea of the Shining Shield. She had to be -- she certainly wasn't Ydra, the cleric, who in all likelihood retired to bed already. The swordswoman held a group of youngsters, including my nephew Marshroot, in rapt fascination as she described how she planned on bringing down Chernozem. Judging by the pink flush on her cheeks that glowed almost as brightly as her flaming hair, her audience had been lubricating her with hard cider. From what I knew of her fierce, matriarchal tribe, rulership not from mother to daughter but to the champion of each generation. Killing a dragon would certainly catapult Amalthea to the top of the contender's list.
Further on, the barbarian Bloodhawk slumped across most of the bar, also deep into his cups and sobbing quietly to our long-suffering bartender, Seedpod.
"She's beautiful. Oh, Gods, she's so beautiful. All woman. Lots of all woman," he slurred, waving his hand as if it still held a sword. From what I overheard, the hulking blonde northerner was deeply in love with the spirited Amalthea, and hoped to impress her by presenting her with the severed head of Chernozem. These barbarians, I thought. If they wouldn't do most of their thinking with the brain in their fur loincloths, they wouldn't get into so much trouble. I had a brief mental image of the two warriors squaring off to determine who would slay the dragon while Chernozem looked on and laughed.
I was still chuckling to myself when Sandelphon cornered me to ply me with more questions about the myo. He nearly trod upon my tail in the process.
"I have this theory, you see, that the human God created his Children first, and the other eight Gods created their Children -- the trolls, dwarves, elves, centaurs, ogres, goblins, winged folk and shapeshifters -- in imitation of his work."
"That's interesting," I said mildly, holding my tail for safekeeping. "Have you heard the one about how dragons are the true First Race and humans are just a hybrid of elf and goblin?"
I steered the scowling mage-scholar toward our town healer, old Fernleaf, who sat alone nursing a foamy mug of spiced cider. She rolled her eyes at me when she saw Sandelphon coming, but I knew she'd soon be cheerfully boring him to death with the intricacies of the function and malfunction of the myoan body. Very few folk could stomach a dinnertime conversation with Fernleaf. The company would do her good.
I came to the smiling young man with rumpled clothes and prematurely gray hair who seemed too busy eating to do anything else. I introduced myself, and he shook my hand. "Would you by chance be Tadeo Kelfeth?"
"Me? Oh, gosh, no. I'm Ragrith Moonrunner -- call me Rags. I'm the party's professional therioanthropomorph."
"A professional werewolf?" I yelped, trying to snatch my hand back. As if on cue, thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning flickered in the window behind him.
"Oh, gosh, no." He pumped my hand even harder. "I'm not a lycanthrope, I'm a kynanthrope, a were-dog. Much more friendly. Kelfeth is the hooded fellow in the corner, there."
Rags finally freed my hand and turned his attention back to dinner. As I thanked him, rubbing my aching wrist, I noticed his meal was all meat and that it was very, very rare.
I finally reached the thief, who was indeed sprawled at the darkest corner table, balancing one dagger on the tip of another. He seemed to be a youngish human, with a sharp beak of a nose and a narrow face. His clothes were simple and dark-colored and he wore no jewelry or sword. I realized he was the only one of the adventurers who hadn't spoken when they arrived. He saw me approach and with a quick, practiced flick of his wrist the two daggers became one and slipped into the sheath.
"Clever," I said, pulling up a chair. "Some sort of magic?"
"No magic at all. It's merely a trick knife. I designed it myself." He drew it from the sheath and showed me how the two daggers fitted together neatly to become what appeared to be a single, solid whole. "You wouldn't believe how many times this little sweetheart saved my life. Some thug searches you, finds one knife and takes it. But a little press here --" he thumbed the part of the carving on the hilt. "And it pops in two, leaving you still armed."
"Very clever," I said sincerely. "Is Tadeo Kelfeth your name?"
"Ask me again and I'll tell you the same." Kelfeth cocked his head and stared at me first with one brilliant hazel eye, then the other, an endearingly myoan gesture. "Most folk would be rather... unnerved... by a dagger like that."
"I'm not most folk."
"So I see."
I made a steeple with my fingers and regarded him closely. "I know why the barbarians are here. Slaying a dragon is the ultimate thrill for that type. The weredog is here because he's paid. Sandelphon no doubt wants to be the first man to write about his first-hand account with a dragon. He'll probably talk Chernozem to death before Amalthea or Bloodhawk decapitates it. I'm not so sure about the cleric --"
"Ydra wants to build an orphanage. Her cut of the profits will more than cover that."
"And you? What draws you here?"
"Gold, of course," he said with a sly grin that bared surprisingly sharp eyeteeth. "Dragon's gold. Lots and lots of it. That's all dragons are interested in, correct? And everyone tells me this Chernozem creature has been around for centuries. Plenty of time to collect a small avalanche's worth of gold."
"Gold, of course," I repeated. "You know, Sandelphon signed a document giving us a share. I assumed he was the leader of the expedition because he spoke to us first. I didn't know he always speaks first."
"And last," Kelfeth laughed.
"If you object to the terms of our agreement, I'll be more than happy to shred those papers and make out a new agreement."
He gave a lazy wave of his hand. "No, no, no. There'll be scads of gold. Plenty to go around. You know, I'm surprised you people haven't worked harder to secure the gold yourselves instead of waiting for adventurers to waddle into town and grab the lion's share. Sandelphon tells us that guiding adventurers is what you devote your lives to here in Mazetown."
I nodded. "Every adult male trains as a mazerunner. Some of the females, too, those who want to. It's not just something we have to do. We like it. We feel most fulfilled as we run the maze, dodging traps, darting through tunnels..." I trailed off blissfully.
"What about this mysterious final room?"
"The Question Room, we call it. It might not be the final room, it's just the last one we've been able to get through. You walk in and it Asks you a Question. So far, no one's been able to answer it correctly. A wrong answer is certain death. The myo gave up trying -- we're mazerunners, not puzzlesolvers. But really, we don't so much want to solve the Labyrinth. We just enjoy running it."
The man tapped his teeth with the dagger thoughtfully. "It's what myo were created to do?"
"If we were created to do it, it wasn't by any of the Nine Gods," I said ruefully.
Kelfeth dropped the dagger and leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table so tight his knuckles turned white. I regretted my words. Most humans are very touchy about their religion. I braced myself for an outpouring of righteous indignation.
Instead, he hissed in a low whisper. "You know of the Tenth God?"
"Tenth?" I shook my head.
"You might think me mad..."
"All adventurers are mad."
He grinned again and put his face close to mine. It wasn't necessary, but I don't think humans realize how much better myoan hearing is than theirs. "The Tenth God spoke to me. You can believe me or not. I only ask you don't tell my traveling companions. Some of them might not take the news well."
"I imagine so. You'll definitely need Ydra's ability to banish undead if you hope to get through the Labyrinth tomorrow."
Kelfeth gripped my hand, his big human one covering my small myoan one completely. "I'm glad I can finally tell someone this. It has been gnawing at me since I first heard the Tenth God, almost a year ago. I knew no human would consent to listen to me. But you aren't human. It doesn't matter to you, does it?"
Despite myself, I was becoming interested. "So this Tenth God -- who is it? You don't think he created the myo, do you?"
"No. The Tenth God is the God of Thieves."
"That sounds a bit, ah, odd." I patted Kelfeth on the hand still holding mine. "Did the God tell you this?"
"Not in so many words," he said, shaking his head slowly. "The God told me about this Labyrinth. It's the biggest dragon horde in existence. I must have it for my own!"
"Then... I will be the greatest thief in all history, I guess, for all that's worth." He sat back and put his face in his hands. "I know. It sounds like utter madness, even to me. But the voice was right. I'd never heard of Chernozem or his Labyrinth, yet here it is, just like the voice said. What else could it be but a God?"
I couldn't answer that for him. The first heavy drops of rain began pattering outside, and I had forgotten my parasol at the office. I told Seedpod to send a mug of fermented milk to Kelfeth's table and left for home.
The storm kept me up the rest of the night but morning broke sweet and clear. The dry spell was finally broken.
We woke the adventurers at dawn the next day, as promised, and Seedpod shored them up with a hearty breakfast of fried peacock eggs, acorn flour pancakes and aphid honey (the bitterness of the acorn balanced the extreme sweetness of the honey) and plenty of pungent black tea. The tension in the air was palpable as I made my way to the town square for the choosing of the mazerunner. Rather enjoying myself, I made a great show of rolling back my sleeves and rustling for a long time in the big fishbowl full of name-tiles, my eyes screwed tightly shut. I withdrew a tile with a dramatic flourish and read the name aloud the name of the lucky mazerunner.
I was surprised myself -- it was my nephew Marshroot. I didn't realize he was old enough yet to be a full mazerunner. My, how time seems to fly nowadays.
Marshroot could barely make his way through the crowd of back-patting, slightly jealous well wishers. I clapped him on the shoulder myself, smiling through a mist of nostalgia for my own mazerunning years.
"You'll do fine, my boy. I wish I was young enough to put my tile in that bowl. Those were good times. I'm right proud to see one of my bloodline carrying the torch now. Just remember your lessons, keep to the back, and --"
"Don't enter the Question Room," he finished. His eyes were already distant, no doubt running through the maze layout he'd learned by heart. I chuckled and we touched noses for luck.
The adventurers made their own preparations in the clearing we maintained in front of the Labyrinth's cave mouth entrance. I wondered if they appreciated the freshly trimmed lawn sparkling with dew and the neatly raked path bordered in white quartz pebbles. The image of Chernozem over the cave entrance, in all his scaly, fanged, bat-winged glory, predated Mazetown and we myo. It might even have been carved by the dragon itself.
Amalthea and Bloodhawk put a final bit of polish on their respective swords while Sandelphon checked the bookmarks in his grimoire one last time. Cleric Ydra bid them to stand in a circle, hands joined, as she once more entreated the Nine Gods for luck and protection. After they amen'd, Rags stripped down to his skin, folded his clothes in a neat pile, and began transforming. He grimaced, contorting his body into bizarre postures as his bones twisted and his muscles swelled. His face stretched into a snout and thick, gray fur sprouted on his skin like moss on a smooth stone. He dropped onto all fours, and a colossal shaggy dog stood in the place of the smiling young man.
Only Kelfeth made no special preparations. He'd been ready for this moment a long time.
We waved and cheered and threw paper flowers as Marshroot led the adventurers to the entrance of Chernozem's Labyrinth. They disappeared inside.
Then we all returned to Mazetown -- except for Treesap and Mudpool, who had to clean up the flowers -- and went back to work.
It was such a shame. The adventurers seemed like nice people. Too bad they were all doomed, except, of course, Marshroot.
It took an average adventuring party almost two days to fight their way down to the center of the Labyrinth. It took a little less than a day for the mazerunner to come back out. After the fourth day passed and no Marshroot, I began to get a worried.
My sister Hayflower, Marshroot's mother, showed up at the office just as I was slipping into my old mazerunning outfit. I needed to let my belt out a notch, but otherwise they fit perfectly.
"No, Pinecone, really. You can't be serious. Couldn't you send one of the other men in after them," she asked me, tugging at my sleeve. "Someone young and strong?"
"You forget, I taught most of those sprouts the way through," I chided her. "I can get in and out quicker than anyone. And if something horrible does happen in there, well, like you say, I'm an old man. I don't want to risk anyone else. I'm replaceable, but we need all the mazerunners we can."
"The mayor may be replaceable, but my brother is not," Hayflower sniffled.
We touched noses tenderly. My sister always did have a worrying streak. Not a comfortable trait in a houseful of mazerunners.
I wasn't idly boasting when I said I knew the way through Chernozem's Labyrinth better than anyone. I personally led more than seventeen expeditions in my day, more than any other man in Mazetown. The Labyrinth had consumed me all of my life, taking the place of a family of my own. I was the one who discovered the Question Room, and one of my first acts as mayor was to ban any more myo from entering it.
I padded along, breathing in the dank, mushroomy-smelling air. The packed dirt floor of the first hundred feet gave way to cool stone. Patches of carefully cultivated foxfire fungus lit the way with a murky greenish glare. In passing I noted the familiar limestone formations -- looking here like water frozen in midsplash, here like fairy flowers, here like fried eggs, sunny side up -- that so amazed me my first time down guided by old Birchbriar.
It hadn't changed a bit. What I'd told Marshroot was true. I really did miss the old Labyrinth.
I made much better time without any humans slowing me down. After all, the Labyrinth was set up to challenge humans, no myo. The arrows, stone fists, blasts of flame and other such things issuing from concealed holes passed harmlessly overhead. My weight wasn't enough to trigger most of the pitfalls, and the swinging rope bridge over the lake of fire was firm as a sidewalk under my broad bare feet and long prehensile toes. I flitted past the lumbering golems, skirted the pool that harbored kelpies and mudmen, avoided the clutch of the thresherbeast hiding it its lair with a skillful wriggling cringe. All these horrors were as comfortable and threadbare as the overstuffed chair in my living room.
We met about halfway down, just beyond the corridor that changes fleas into hellhounds but a few turns before the spiked-ceiling room where gravity reverses itself. He was dragging the limp body of one of the human adventurers.
"Gods above, Marshroot, what happened," I cried, hugging him. "We were so worried! I thought for sure you'd gone into the Question Room!"
"I did, uncle. Into the Question Room and beyond! I'll tell you all about it, but first we better get him up to Fernleaf." He patted the human on the head. I saw it was the thin-faced thief, Kelfeth. "I didn't see what happened. Whatever hit him, hit him pretty bad. His hand is only burnt, I think, but I can't make him wake up."
I gave the human a quick once over. All mazerunners train in basic first aid. His pulse was thready, rapid but weak, and his skin felt cold to the touch. I pried his eyelids open. The pupils were uneven in size,and did not constrict when I brought my lantern close to them. I pinched his earlobe and he didn't even twitch. Finally I unwrapped the crude bandage Marshroot had tied around Kelfeth's injured hand. The wound, a weeping sore in his palm, surrounded by cracked, reddened skin, didn't quite look like anything I'd ever seen before.
With the two of us dragging Kelfeth, the way back went much faster. Hayflower and many of Marshroot's friends and siblings, including a weeping Coriander, were waiting for us at the Labyrinth's entrance. My family and I went back to my house for a quick bath and change of clothes while some strong-backed youths loaded the still-inert Kelfeth into a cart and took him to Fernleaf's.
I let my sister fuss over us, alternately scolding and stuffing her son and I with catmint tea and anise cookies. Finally, rested, refreshed and replete, Marshroot told us as much as he knew of what happened.
Most of the trip progressed without untoward event. Amalthea, Bloodhawk and dog-form Rags fought their way through animated statues, cave monsters and other obstacles, Ydra blessed away wraiths and healed wounds, Sandelphon deciphered puzzles and provided magical back-up, while Tadeo sprung traps and picked locks. Marshroot stayed to the back and pointed out the way as I'd taught him. Then they came to the Question Room.
The adventurers entered and instead of following my instructions and immediately running back home, Marshroot hid outside. He heard a sonorous voice asking the Question no myo has ever heard and lived to tell.
Marshroot grinned at me like a weasel caught in a henhouse. "I hope you aren't mad at me, uncle. I just had to know what the Question was."
"Well," I grumbled. "Don't keep us hanging, boy. What did it Ask?"
"'What does a dragon keep closest to his heart?'."
"And?" Hayflower and I leaned forward, our ears fanning wide.
The boy frowned. "I didn't hear what the answer was, unfortunately. The echoes and dripping water are pretty bad outside the Room. I did recognize Kelfeth's voice answering it."
I couldn't help a sigh of disappointment. All my life, I'd wanted to know the Question. I felt in my heart a deep personal obligation to be the one who Answered. It was not an uncommon desire. Most of the mazerunners felt the same way. But I discovered the Room, and many of my friends and brothers went to their deaths trying to unlock its secret. With difficulty, I attended to Marshroot again.
"Whatever Answer they gave, it was right. I heard a gnashing,
creaking sound, and when I looked in, the back wall of the Question
Room had slid aside to reveal another room."
If anything could numb my pain over the Answer, it was this.
"I didn't follow them through the Question Room immediately, and
I guess they were too excited to notice my absence. I spent a
while debating whether to follow them or not. After all, if you
had entered the Question Room as soon as you found it, uncle,
you would have been killed."
I nodded. It was heartwarming to know the younger generation considered my actions forethought and not cowardice.
"I could hear the humans arguing about something. Then there were a few moments of quiet shuffling around, then a flash of light that nearly blinded me. It was several minutes before I could hold my eyes open. The humans didn't respond when I called to them. I decided I might as well see what happened. The Question Room let me through without Asking me anything. I suppose it considered me one of the adventurers so the Answer they gave still functioned as a password. Anyways, I tiptoed into the room beyond."
Which would probably be referred to as Marshroot's Room, I thought, at least among his friends. My friends knew never to call what history knew as the Question Room by its original name, Pinecone's Room.
"It was a small room," Marshroot continued, his garnet eyes widening in remembered awe. "Unfurnished except for six pillars of what looked like pure white marble, arranged in a circle of about four feet diameter around a seventh pillar of what seemed to be glass or crystal. Each pillar had a hollow depression in it at the height of a human's head, and above the depression was a inset square of dark glass. The glass pillar was incomplete -- it was attached to the ceiling and the floor, but there was a gap in the middle."
"What about the humans," Hayflower interjected. "Were they there, too?"
Her son sipped a bit of his cooling tea, looking troubled. "Yes. All dead, except for Kelfeth of course. They seemed to have been flung up against the wall. Not a mark on them, at least nothing apparent to the eye."
"Don't feel too bad," I said. "After all, we expected them to be killed by the Question Room."
"They got further than anyone has ever gotten, and you were leading them. And that one man may still make it," his mother said, tousling his hair. "Wouldn't that be a treat? You not only discovered a new part of the Labyrinth, you brought a human out alive from it! Songs will be sung about you, darling. I'm very proud of you."
"I suppose," he murmured into his cup. "I still feel awful."
"Tell you what. Let's go down to old Fernleaf's first thing tomorrow. She may have good news for us. Now you ought to be getting to bed. It's been quite a day for all of us."
I slept better that night than I had in ages. Even thought the damp and cold stiffened my joints, I was full of energy and ready to greet the challenges of a new day. Perhaps, I told myself as I plowed through an unusually hearty breakfast, I ought to run the Labyrinth every once in a while just for fun and exercise.
Full of good spirits and sugared figs, I met Marshroot at Fernleaf's offices. He was perched on a stool watching anxiously as the healer scowled at the catatonic human. With the help of some of the youngsters who carted him there last night, she'd managed to sponge Kelfeth off and wrestle him into a simple cotton garment salvaged from the human's stored belongings.
Fernleaf had unwrapped his injured arm to apply a sticky unguent, and was shocked by the wound's appearance. It looked much worse than last night. The ugly sore faded to a thin scar crossing his palm, but the area of dry, cracked skin now reached up past his elbow. He looked peaked, the sharp edges of his facial bones pressing so tight against his skin that it was stretched white.
"I don't know what to make of it," she said. She grabbed the tip of her tail and used it to scratch inside her ear, a nervous habit she'd had since she was a child. "It definitely isn't a burn, but it doesn't seem to be any kind of infection I've ever seen."
"Maybe it's something peculiar to humans," Marshroot offered.
The healer snorted. "Most of my medical books are for humans, by humans and about humans. Haven't you ever wondered why they're so big?"
"I thought it was so they'd look impressive," he said meekly.
"The few myo book my teacher passed down to me were derivations of these human ones, and who knows where they came from. I've been pawing through them all night, looking for something even remotely like this." Grinding her teeth in frustration, Fernleaf swabbed the irritated skin with salve. "All I can do is keep hitting it with sulfa powder to keep normal infections at bay and emollients to ease the desiccated skin. And he still refuses to wake up! I'm no mage, but I'll bet my nipples this is the work of magic."
Marshroot looked away, his cheeks reddening under the white down.
I cleared my throat. "Perhaps the Answer would provide a clue."
"What was the Question?" Fernleaf snapped. She began deftly rebandaging the thief's arm. "No one ever tells me anything."
"What does a dragon keep closest to his heart?" Marshroot shrugged. "Gold, I suppose."
"No, that can't be right," Fernleaf said. "It's too obvious. It's what everyone would think of first. And since no one yet has made it, the Answer must be something else."
"Why don't you ask the one who gave the Answer?"
I pointed to Kelfeth. His pale hazel eyes were open and fixed on us.
"Yes, tell us," Marshroot said, scuttling over to his side and jumping up and down in place. It was all Fernleaf and I could do to keep from acting just as silly. If the Question Room was indeed not the penultimate chamber of the Labyrinth, the Answer would be vital to the safety of future mazerunners.
Kelfeth blinked. His lips moved soundlessly, and we leaned closer. He put his tongue out to wet his trembling lips, and rasped a single word.
"Blood? That's what a dragon keeps closest to his heart?" Marshroot stomped his foot in disgust. "That's not a riddle! Riddles are supposed to be clever and sneaky. That's just stupid. "
"Of course. It's cleverness is in it's stupidity," I chuckled. Marshroot glared at me. "Don't you see, boy? People expect riddles to be 'sneaky'. Gold is the cleverest thing most people could think of. But the riddle isn't a riddle, it's a plain, honest question. And naturally the thing closest to a dragons heart is its blood."
"You men and your Labyrinth," Fernleaf clucked her tongue as she inspected Kelfeth.
Coriander knocked on the door, peering in. She looked worried.
"Am I late again? Don't worry, Coriander, I'll be along in a few minutes."
You'd better come now, Mayor," she said. "Some more humans have shown up in town. A knight in black armor and a bunch of hooded horsemen. They're in the town square demanding to be taken to Chernozem!"
Marshroot dashed out the door before I could say a word. I groaned and got to my feet. All the cheer I'd felt this morning had curdled and my joints seemed twice as sore as before. Most of the other myo made it to the square before me and were gaping at our visitors.
The leader was a tall knight clad in matte black armor covered in wicked spikes. Even the sword hanging at his hip was black as coal. His helm, which completely obscured his face, was shaped to look like the head of a scowling dragon but the ridiculous ostrich plumes sticking out from the top rather soiled the resemblance. He rode an enormous black stallion with a wolf's tawny eyes and sharp fangs. Behind him rode four more men in hooded cloaks mounted on slightly smaller rusty black horses. All that could be seen of their faces were a pair of glowing red eyes. This was probably quite frightening to humans, but as all myo are red eyed, I wasn't as scared as I should have been.
"I'm telling you, we don't know where Chernozem is," Marshroot was saying. That foolish, overconfident boy.
"Three blind mice, three blind mice," the black knight chanted. "A whole town full of blind mice. And yet I don't see them running. Even though they know what happens if they don't run. That whole nasty business with the farmer's wife and her carving knife."
"What on this green earth are you talking about," Marshroot asked.
The knight suddenly spurred his fanged horse. Snorting and bucking, it plunged into the crowd of townsfolk. They scattered, squealing. In the confusion, the black knight leaned out from the saddle and grabbed someone.
"No!" I screamed, trying to shove my way through the panicked crowd. The knight hefted my nephew high overhead by his tail. To Marshroot's credit, he did his best to twist around and bite the hand holding him.
With a swift, savage slash of his black sword, the knight severed Marshroot's tail. The boy dropped to the dust, writhing in pain. The sad, limp rope of his tail landed a few feet away.
"I command you again, take me to the Dragon!"
Coriander knelt by Marshroot, stroking his head and murmuring encouragements. She glared at Vadziel like she planned on biting him. I couldn't blame her. I felt the same way myself, but I didn't need any more of my folk getting hurt.
"Marshroot, are you able to walk? Good. Coriander, help him to Fernleaf's. We need to get the bleeding stopped. Think you can do that? Good girl. Now, get moving."
I turned to confront Vadziel, wondering what I was going to say.
As it turned out, I didn't need to say anything. A human voice shouted, "Out of my way, you bucktoothed little cheese-eaters!"
"Kelfeth?" I gasped.
Seedpod nudged my elbow and said, "I don't think that's Kelfeth. That bit about cheese-eaters? That's what Bloodhawk kept calling us that night in the Tooth and Nail. I didn't hear any of the other humans use the term."
"That's absurd. Bloodhawk's dead."
"Look, I know my customers. That's my job. And I tell you that is not Kelfeth."
I strained to see over all the other white, fuzzy heads and fanned ears.
It certainly looked like Kelfeth. He still wore the cotton underclothes with a blanket tied round his shoulders like a cape, to which he'd added a conical bronze helm lined with wolverine fur and decorated with aurochs horns. Much to large for him, it slid down at an angle and obscured half his vision. He strode forward in a zig-zagging path with his narrow chest outthrust. As he came closer I saw he was dragging one of Bloodhawk's spare swords. He must have broken into the storage building on the way here.
When he espied the black knight, Kelfeth bellowed a tenor version of Bloodhawk's barbarian war cry and made a valiant attempt to wave the sword overhead. But the ten pound two-handed bastard sword of Kellerish crimson steel which Bloodhawk wielded as if it were a lady's parasol proved too much for the thief. Teeth gritted, veins popping from his temple and neck, Kelfeth grunted and strained and finally managed to heft it almost to waist level. He staggered toward the black knight yelling, "Die, hexknight scum!"
Before the black knight could react, Kelfeth stepped on the swirling edge of his blanket cape and nearly succeeded in cutting his own head off with a swing of the sword.
One of the Hooded Horsemen let out a high-pitched titter. The dragon-helmed knight swung around and the Horseman silenced himself.
Meanwhile, Kelfeth regained his footing and was trying a different approach. Literally. He'd wrapped the blanket around himself like a sarong, though he still dragged the sword. But now instead of marching and bellowing, he advanced with a hip-swiveling gait. He pursed his thin lips and cast a sultry come-hither look at the knight, caressing his non-existent charms with his free hand.
"Whee-hay," someone called. "That's not Bloodhawk!"
Indeed it wasn't. Unlike many of the matriarchal tribes, Amalthea's must have been well-versed in the womanly arts of enticing males with their natural enchantments -- at which point they would take advantage of his distraction to disembowel him. In Amalthea's own well built body, the strategy must have succeed well. But Kelfeth's gangly male body gave 'her' a lot less to work with.
The giggly Horseman laughed again, and I detected sounds of muffled merriment from at least two of the others.
Apparently deciding the black knight was sufficiently seduced, Kelfeth again tried to raise the sword for a killing stroke. Without warning, he switched personalities again. He stared at the sword in his hand with horror and exclaimed, "Oh, my! Where did this vile thing come from?"
He's Sandelphon now, I decided. Mages are forbidden to touch bladed weapons other than their athames. Kelfeth tried to toss the sword as far away as possible. It didn't go far. In fact, it landed hilt-first on his foot. Kelfeth howled in agony and hopped in a circle, swearing in nine languages.
That did it. Now all four Hooded Horsemen were guffawing outright, and even the black knight's dragon helm seemed to smile instead of snarl.
I rushed forward to help Kelfeth, but before I could reach him the man grew suddenly still. He began grimacing and contorting his face, hooking his fingers like claws. The black knight's hand hovered near his sword hilt. Kelfeth had segued into Rags the were-dog, but all his effort came to naught. Unmindful of the fact he remained perfectly human, he threw back his head, howled, dropped to all fours and bounced forward clumsily. He grabbed the ragged edge of the black knight's cape in his teeth and shook it like a puppy attacking a sock. I collared him and dragged him away. A little piece of the cape came with us, clenched in Kelfeth's jaws.
"Enough," the black knight said, cutting off the hilarity with a sharp gesture. "Your clown amuses me, little man. Few things amuse me. For this I will let him live."
"But I must insist you take us to the center of the Labyrinth. For hundreds of years we of the Order of the Dragon have awaited the Call that would tell us Great Chernozem had awakened to lead us to victory in the battle for dominion of the world. Two nights ago the Call finally came!"
Two nights, I thought. About when the adventurers reached the pillar room.
"I'm sorry we got off to such a rocky start, sir knight," I said smoothly. "Please don't hold my nephew's stubbornness against the rest of our fair town. Now, why don't you rest for a moment at the tavern so I can fill you in on the details of the Labyrinth while you refresh yourself after what I'm sure was a hard ride."
"That's more like it," the knight huffed.
"Seedpod," I called. "Would you be good enough to take this poor madman back to Fernleaf?"
"Sure, I always liked dogs." She took Kelfeth by the collar and herded him away.
Now that the black knight was getting his way, he seemed much more relaxed. I coaxed him to the Tooth and Nail -- a much easier exercise without Seedpod there to protest. We had a few drinks of her finest dandelion wine (he drank his with a straw through a slot in his helm) while the Hooded Horsemen stabled their mounts. Even through the Nail's thick walls I heard our little ponies and the adventurer's steeds whinnying in fear of their new roommates.
I discovered the stranger's name was Vadziel Shadowson and he was apparently the Hexknight of the Dragon Clan. This was news to me. Mazetown is necessarily isolated from much of the world, but I'd never heard of a someone being a mage and a knight at the same time. Magic and fighting skills? It was a scary thought.
"And you say this Question Room kills everyone who enters it?" He pored over a map of the labyrinth I'd sketched on a napkin.
"It used to, but the last group solved the riddle. Assuming the Question remains the same, we should have no problem getting you through it."
"But this next room, it killed all of them except for the one it drove mad. I don't like the sound of that. And where is the Dragon?" He seemed peevishly disappointed that no one had actually seen Chernozem. There was something childlike about the fellow besides his mercurial temper. If I had strolled into a hostile town, chopped up its citizenry and shouted out demands I certainly wouldn't then sit down to a light lunch without at least testing the wine for poison. He was either very naive or very self-assured.
"You said yourself the dragon Called to you. Why would he reveal himself to any old folks who happened along? He must be waiting for you."
"True," Vadziel mused, blowing bubbles through his straw. "I'll tell you what, little creature. I'm going to go over this map with my Horsemen and ready a few spells. Catch up with me again at sundown, and you yourself can lead us to Chernozem."
I bowed and scraped as I left, trying to ignore Seedpod's outraged stare when she saw Vadziel crack open another bottle of dandelion wine.
As soon as the Nail's door swung shut behind me, I hurried back to Fernleaf's. Something told me Kelfeth's madness was the key to all of this.
The healer, looking sweaty and disheveled, met me at the door.
"About time you showed up! As soon as you left the thief jumped out of bed, yodeled like a barbarian and went running for the storehouse. I couldn't keep up with those long human legs of his. I was halfway to the square when I met Coriander and Marshroot. Then Seedpod shows up with Kelfeth again, only he thinks he's a dog. And now he thinks he's -- well, see for yourself."
Another personality had emerged in Kelfeth, with impeccable timing. I recognized the arthritic way he stood, the careful smoothing his clothes. As the cleric and healer Ydra, he was helping Fernleaf tend to my poor nephew.
No -- more than helping. Kelfeth's long fingered hands were making mystical passes over Marshroot's newly regrown tail. It was a few inches shorter and still looked a bit raw, but Kelfeth/Ydra had performed a miracle.
"How do you feel, boy?"
He looked up at me, his bright garnet eyes sparkling with returned good humor. "It tingles some, sir, but I don't mind. What happened with that jerk in the black armor?"
"We talked. No one else was hurt."
"That's good. What a scatnibbler that guy was." Marshroot bounced up and hugged Kelfeth. "Thanks!"
"I can't thank you enough... ah, Ydra?"
"Only her poor shade, I'm afraid," he said with a serene smile. "Fortunately, the Gods condescended to honor the request of this mismatched thing I have become on behalf of your brave young Marshroot."
"What have you become? Are you folk now ghosts possessing poor Kelfeth? What happened down there?"
"I cannot answer your questions, Mayor, for I am unsure of the mechanism of this spell. Perhaps it was triggered by the Question Room. I remember that strange voice asking us what a dragon keeps closest to it's heart. We all looked at each other, afraid to answer, when young Tadeo blurted, 'Blood'. I recall looking into the marble pillars of the room past the Question room, then all is blackness and confusion. My fellow healer appraised me of what followed, but I confess the symptoms this body displays are confusing to me also." Kelfeth tugged down the collar of his tunic down a few demure inches to show the creeping skin condition now encompassed his chest.
"Can you feel anyone in there with you? Kelfeth seems to be switching between the personalities of all your party members."
"It is hard to describe. I feel a great pressure, a presence. Something vast, and ancient, and cold... businesslike." Kelfeth shuddered, hugging himself and rocking slightly. "Something channeling formidable forces through this body. Tadeo is here, too, I believe, but dormant."
"Kelfeth said something to me about a voice that spoke to him, something he referred to as a Tenth God," I said carefully. "A God of thieves. Think that might have something to do with this?"
Kelfeth looked outraged. "A Tenth God? That is blasphemy of the worst sort. Gods don't simply pop into existence overnight like mushroom in a wet field. The child must have been touched."
I had to agree. Perhaps nothing magical had happened down in the Labyrinth. Perhaps the sight of seeing his companions slaughtered before his eyes simply pushed an already mentally unstable young man over the edge.
"I must pray," Kelfeth said.
"Well, say a prayer for the myo while you are at it, dear. I'm going to deal with this Vadziel Shadowson," I said.
"Vadziel?" Kelfeth's head snapped up. "Not the Dragon Hexknight?"
"You've heard of him?"
"The Order of the Dragon has plagued the human lands for centuries now. They are independent of any church or king, a law unto their own. They are greedy as their namesakes, caring only for the accumulation of gold. And Vadziel is their leader. If he has come to Mazetown I'm afraid you folk will need more than an old woman's prayers to save you." Kelfeth turned his back on me and began performing some sort of arcane ritual.
"Well, that's comforting," I murmured. Fernleaf and Marshroot walked me to the door.
"Does he look odd to you," Fernleaf whispered.
I glanced back. Kelfeth looked like any human to me: compared to a myo he had squinty eyes, immobile ears, too much chin and not enough nose, peculiar colored hair and eyes, strangely smooth skin like a newborn's. I shrugged.
"Want me to come with, Uncle?"
"No, Marshroot. You better lay low until this blows over. We don't want them questioning how your tail grew back. And Fernleaf, see if you can't somehow get that poor madman back into restraints. We can't expect Shadowson to be as forgiving next time he goes on a rampage."
We all touched noses and I headed out to deal again with our unwanted guests.
The dandelion wine had worked its magic on Vadziel. The human was asleep, still dressed in his armor. A Hooded Horseman stood at each corner of his cot. I tried to strike up a conversation with them, but they only stared and occasionally blinked.
The next morning, Marshroot barged into my room, brandishing a torn bit of cloth that I recognized as part of the thief's tunic.
"Kelfeth escaped again last night," he said.
I sat up and groped for my spectacles. "Well, I can't do anything about that now. I have to lead that damnable black knight into the Labyrinth."
"I thought I was leading him," Marshroot pouted. "After all, I found the new room."
"Absolutely not. And no arguments," I added quickly. "I may have a little snow on the roof, but I'm still Mazetown's top mazerunner. The hexknight is my responsibility."
Vadziel was surprisingly agreeable about his unplanned nap. The thought of meeting Chernozem did wonders for his temperament. With me at the head of the group, We descended into the Labyrinth.
Not wanting to drag this out longer than possible, I obligingly set off the traps before they could harm us. The monsters and wraiths reacted to my mood like puppies that knew they'd get spanked for piddling on the carpet and stayed away. Vadziel, the Hooded Horsemen and myself reached the Question Room in record time. A superstitious reflex held me back, but Vadziel passed through the Room unmolested. I hurried to catch up, but they had already passed through the room beyond, Marshroot's pillar room.
A subspecies of foxfire fungus lit the scene in an eerie blue glow. It was just as he described it, six marble pillars surrounding a seventh of crystal. The sad bodies of Amalthea, Bloodhawk, Sandelphon, Ydra and Ragrith were strewn across the floor like discarded rag dolls. beneath them were a few layers of powdered bones fragments, rotted rags and tarnished armor, presumably the bodies of adventurers who's reached the this room before the myo existed.
As much as the sight upset me, I noticed something peculiar about their arrangement. All lay on their backs with their feet nearly touching the base of a pillar. Even Ragrith was on his back with his hind paws stretched out unnaturally. From the few bits of the ancient skeletons remaining, they seem to have died the same way. As Marshroot said, the depressions in the pillars were about the height of a human's head.
I piled a few shields and backpacks until I was able to reach
the depression on the pillar.
"There's no fool like an old fool," I told myself as I put my face into it. I waited but nothing happened. Finally, I pulled my face out.
To my surprise, words writ in glowing green letters appeared on the dark plate of glass. The spelling and typeface were archaic but readable.
~ Data gem missing or full. Please replace and try again ~
"Now what is that supposed to mean," I wondered. Gem? Part of
the crystal pillar? I tossed a pebble into the gap and it floated
there, caught in a beam of light that filled the pillar's gap.
The words on the glass now read ~ Cannot read. Incorrect gem type. Please replace and try again ~
"Well, well, well." No doubt this gem had looked valuable and important hovering in there. A human's arm would be long enough to reach the crystal pillar even if he was standing with their face in the marble pillar. And judging from the gap in the crystal pillar, the 'data gem' was exactly the right size to make the burn we'd first seen on Kelfeth's hand.
The adventurers must have all put their faces into the marble pillars, triggering some sort of spell. Then Kelfeth grabbed this data crystal thing while they were all preoccupied and somehow messed up the spell.
There would be plenty of time to solve this mystery later. The longer I fussed with the pillars, the further away Vadziel and his Hooded friends got. The only other way out of the pillar room proved to be the entrance to a tubular, twisting tunnel. I ran down it as fast as my old bones would allow, slowing as I perceived voices up ahead.
I peered around the last curve.
The tunnel opened up into a grand chamber large enough to hold all of Mazetown. The superior breed of foxfire fungus cultivated here bathed the chamber in an actinic white light. Waterfalls gushed down the sides of purple and green stalagmites, flooding the floor. Weird rock formations rose like islands from tiered pools. And scattered everywhere was a wealth of gold beyond dreams of avarice -- cups and rings glimmered from nooks and crannies, stalagmites were roped round with chains and topped with crowns. There were a few precious jewels and other metals -- diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, platinum and silver -- dotted here and there for variety, but more than anything there shined the gold.
In the center of the chamber was a throne of dripstone that looked like a pot of porridge frozen in the act of boiling over. And seated on it was a dragon.
I had always pictured Chernozem as a lumbering thing with mossy scales, rheumy eyes and rolls of fat. After all, he'd spent centuries down here counting out his horde. But this dragon was long and compactly muscular. His scales were bright and sharp-edged, as if freshly minted. His ferocious head was vivid peacock blue, and his coppery hide was streaked with tiger stripes of darker blue. There was a savage grace about the arch of his neck and flare of his wings.
I was so entranced by the dragon I did not at first see Vadziel standing before it, his ostrich plume bobbing petulantly with the dragon's foetid exhalations. The black knight had his fists on his hips and tapped an ironclad foot impatiently. The Hooded Horsemen huddled behind him.
The echoes of running water distorted Vadziel's words. I crept closer in time to hear the dragon speak.
"The way I see it, you Dragon Knights have ruled every land you settled in for three hundred years, collecting gold as a tribute," the dragon drawled. "You've done pretty well for yourselves. Surely the first thing you thought when you heard the Call was that you'd keep on doing perfectly fine without a dragon. I mean, why share the wealth?"
Vadziel Shadowson stood for a moment, quivering in the grip of some unknowable emotion. Finally he drew his black sword and advanced threateningly on the dragon, who yawned in his face.
"Prepare to die, beast," Vadziel shouted.
The dragon curved its neck to look over its shoulder, as if wondering who he was referring to.
"This sword is magicked to cut through the toughest dragon scales," the hexknight boasted. "And my flesh is able to resist the hottest flame!"
"But your armor can't," the dragon said.
In answer, the dragon sucked in air through its flared nostrils. Its belly rumbled, and a bulge ran up its throat. The long jaws gaped, the pointed eyeteeth rasping against each other and sending off sparks that ignited the poisonous-smelling gasses blasting out from its throat. A burst of dragonfire engulfed the hexknight. His armor glowed red hot for a moment, the seams fusing together. The dragon coughed, and his flame flicked out. Vadziel Shadowson, encasing in a molten coffin of solid steel, clattered to the floor and lay there smoking. If his magicked flesh had indeed let him survive the ordeal he was probably regretting it right now.
"As for you imminently combustible jokers," the dragon growled and pointed to the groveling Hooded Horsemen. "Toddle back to your headquarters and inform the other Dragon Knights that the real dragon's back in town, and he expects three hundred years' worth of back tribute delivered here, immediately."
The dragon roared. The Hooded Horsemen took off like a flock of startled pigeons. They ran into each other a few times, but eventually managed to squeeze past me and disappear back up the tunnel.
The dragon licked its chops, the long purple tongue stretching to its crown. It snapped its jaws a few times then bent its head to drink sloppily from a gold-lined pool.
"Ugh," it grunted, raising its head. Water sluiced from between its fangs. "Very nifty weapon, but the taste..." One golden, green-flecked eye locked on me, the slit pupil widening. "Who's there? Pinecone?"
A fear unlike anything I'd ever experienced swept through me. Something about that massive crouching form and glittering slit-pupiled eye awakened ancient terrors that the Labyrinth's monsters and traps never did. I stumbled backwards, tripped over my own tail and fell. The dragon's head, longer than my whole body, hovered above me.
"Don't you recognize me, my friend?" The dragon sat up on its haunches and cocked its blue head.
"No --" I started to say, but then reconsidered.
There was indeed something familiar about the beast. Although it was obviously a dragon, even owing for artistic interpretation its features did not much resemble those of the dragon carved above the entrance. Both had lean torsos and muscular legs, broad paws with catlike talons, a ridge of scales down their spines and short, s-curved necks, but the resemblance ended there. Chernozem's horns curved under like a ram's, and his broad, flat crocodilian snout was decorated with jutting boar tusks and catfish tendrils dangling from his lower jaws. This dragon had a deep, narrow snout balanced by twisted, backswept horns. The distinct patrician profile of its muzzle was emphasized by a little row of hornlets. Its fangs were much more even, with only the two sharp eyeteeth exposed. The brilliant gold-green eyes in that hatchet face...
"Are... are you Kelfeth?" I ventured.
The dragon spread his short arms. "Ask me again and I'll tell you the same."
"What happened to you? I assume you set off some sort of trap in the pillar when you grabbed the gem."
"Only to have it blow up in my face," the dragon snorted. "The room with the pillars was a trap, but not the one we thought it was. I have Chernozem's memories available to me. You see, he truly was an ancient dragon. Back when he constructed the labyrinth, he was near the end of his natural lifespan. But Chernozem was greedier than the average dragon. He set the pillar trap up to snare himself a new body in which to begin all over again. He stored the essence of himself, his soul and memories, in that tiny gem. When we put our faces in those depressions, he sucked our essences into the gem. You see, he knew it might be a long, long time before anyone defeated the Labyrinth, and he wanted to catch up on what had been going on in the world."
"How did he decide which one of you to, ah, possess?"
Kelfeth grinned. An unpleasant sight, considering his rows of glittering fangs. "Chernozem wanted a body that would be compatible to his soul. That dragon had been around for a long time, fought off a lot of humans. He knew how we think. He knew that at least one of any group of humans who defeated his Labyrinth would be a thief, a born thief -- like he himself. Greedy. One who, when the other's faces were buried in the pillars, would have the presence of mind to reach out and swipe the gem."
"I see you've already guessed what happened."
"I have a fairly good idea."
"Chernozem's essence as well as the essence of the others flowed into me. They weren't the first to reach the pillars. A few others made it in, including your creators, but none of them was stupid enough to try and steal the triggering gem." Kelfeth shook his long head, eyes squinted closed. "At first, Chernozem was too busy remaking my body into a suitably draconic one to worry about taking over my mind. While the other's essences fought to control the body, I sat back and watched, learning from their struggles. When Chernozem finally had me as draconic as he wanted, he attempted to flush out the useless human souls cluttering his mind, leaving only the valuable memories for information. But I hung on and fought him using what I'd learned from observing him."
I had to admire him. "Whatever other failings you might have, Tadeo Kelfeth, you aren't a fool. Imagine, all this time people have been fighting dragons body-to-body, and you fought one mind-to-mind!"
"Call it being greedy. Scales or no, this is my body and I didn't want to give it up. I sent Chernozem spiraling off to whatever passes for the dragon afterlife and found myself here. I was still taking stock of the situation when that knight in the silly-looking helmet and his hooded friends showed up. Apparently, Chernozem started the Order of the Dragon before crystallizing himself, hoping they'd grow in power to be an army that would defend him when he walked the earth again."
"Vadziel claimed Chernozem called to him. Your 'Tenth God' and the Call must have been one and the same. The canny old beast lured you here to be his new body, then planned for Vadziel to show up when he assumed he would be ready."
"But as you can see human avarice won out over loyalty." Kelfeth settled down on his belly, his whiplash tail curled around his haunches and forelimbs tucked under his chest like a giant house cat. He sighed a gust of hot, foul smelling wind. "So here I am."
"But aren't you a little... upset?"
"At becoming a dragon? You know, it's funny. I haven't had time to think much about it, yet."
Kelfeth considered himself.
"You're a very nice-looking dragon," I ventured. He really was. "If you can find yourself a lady dragon, I'm sure she'd be favorably impressed."
"You're flattering me," Kelfeth said, preening under one outstretched wing. "Ah, well. It's my fault, I guess. All my life I dreamed of dragon's gold. Never once stopping to consider that only a dragon can own dragon gold. It's not a bad body, in its way. It will certainly last longer than the other one. More time to collect gold. I was always a greedy little wretch. Now my outer nature matches my inner."
"You know, in a way, the Answer hinted at this. Chernozem's gold was as precious to him as it is to any dragon, but even more precious was his blood. And what is blood? Blood is life. The lure of the gold, for him, was a way to get even more life." Perhaps the Question was sneakier than Marshroot suspected.
We sat that way for a while, myo and dragon, dangling our toes in the coin-lined pool. But I couldn't keep quiet for long. Something Kelfeth said bothered me.
"You know, Kelfeth, you mentioned you have the memories of everyone who got caught in the gem trap."
"Yes. It's like remembering a bunch of long, detailed sagas told to me long ago. I'm glad their souls aren't there anymore. I didn't enjoy my brief career as the village loony."
"You said something about our creators. You know how we came to be and what our purpose in mazerunning is?"
Kelfeth nodded slowly. "If you're sure you want to hear this."
"The mage who created you was a myomancer --"
"It's a specialization of wizardry. There are quite a few. I learned all about them when I first entered the thieves' guild. Necromancers deal with the dead, pyromancers are mainly involved with fire, oneiromancers control dreams, rhapsodomancers cast spells by songs and poetry, cheiromancers read palms. Myomancy is the art of divination through the interpretation of the movements of rats and mice. The rodents are placed in a maze and the mage can learn things by tracing their paths."
"I still don't see what this has to do with us."
"Pinecone, have you ever seen a rat?"
"No," I said. "Although many adventurers called us rat-people. I never knew what they meant."
"Trust me, you folk are obviously of rat origin. The ears, the tails, the downy skin. Well, the myomancer got the bright idea that since rats are so good at running mazes and evading traps, a humanoid rat would be perfect for getting through Chernozem's Labyrinth."
I cried out. "We were created as trap sweepers! Living tools!"
Kelfeth said gently, "Don't feel too bad. The folks who created you were destroyed by the pillars. You folk couldn't reach up to the pillars and so you survived. Your ancestors made a life for themselves free of their human masters, and from what I saw it's a pretty damn good one, too. The love of mazerunning remained, but your origins were forgotten, perhaps deliberately."
"And now we are tools without a purpose," I said bitterly. "How will I tell my people? What sort of future do Marshroot and Coriander and their generation have now?"
Kelfeth's wings swept open, and the gust knocked me off my feet.
"Sorry. I'm still not sure exactly how to use these things. No matter what position I fold them in, I get cramps. Now, what were you saying about having no purpose? I can think of lots of things for the myo to do for me!"
"Us? But we're merely glorified vermin. Those knights would've protected you much better."
Kelfeth stuck out his forked purple tongue and made a rude noise. "If that Vadziel was the pick of the litter, who needs 'em? Look, I like you little fellows. Marshroot could have left me lying by the pillar trap, but he dragged me all the way back out. Fernleaf stayed up all night searching those books for a cure. You ran forward to stop me when my crazy act almost got me decapitated. You myo are brave, smart and trustworthy, and that's more valuable to me than a bunch of sweaty lunkheads with pretty swords. Trust me, as soon as word gets out that a dragon is active in the Labyrinth again, adventurers and treasure-seekers are going to be tripping over themselves to get in here."
"You want us to lead them to you," I said doubtfully.
"No, I want you to lead them astray. There are hundreds of blind alleys you can lose them down."
"And there's the maintenance," I said, brightening.
"Well, certainly. You don't think the Labyrinth kept itself in such good shape for three centuries? There's plenty to do. Sharpening the spikes in the shrinking room, cultivating the mushroom men, exercising the pit fiend, trimming the kelpie's claws, refilling the arrow traps, watering the fungus, and general oiling, polishing, dusting, tightening of screws, moving cobwebs around to a nice effect." I grinned. "We just don't mention that to adventurers. They wouldn't understand why we keep a Labyrinth that's trying to kill them in tiptop condition."
"I see." Kelfeth tapped his eyeteeth with a sabre claw. "I can also put a few tarnished coins and worthless semiprecious stones with a firelizard or some such some beast guarding them to keep the adventurers happy. After all, most people don't really know what a dragon looks like. I certainly didn't. And I'm sure with your experience in mazerunning that you can think of all kinds of new traps to take care of the better quality of adventurers."
"Well... I always did think it would be fun if there were a room where you teamed up a medusa and a gargoyle. The adventurers would slay the medusa then walk past all the statues of her former victims to get to the other end, only one of the statues would really be a gargoyle, so they would be totally off guard when it sprang --"
"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Kelfeth roared enthusiastically. "Come along."
He lowered a wing so I could use it as a ladder to ascend to his back. I fitted myself between two spinal spikes and nudged him with my heel. Now that I wasn't so frightened, I saw he wasn't nearly as huge as I'd first thought. He was perhaps thirty feet long, half of that length tail. He was built long and low to the ground, like a lizard. With his wings clamped tightly to his back, we was perfectly able to fit through the tunnels of the Labyrinth. He swarmed up the tunnel, moving at a good clip. The monsters peered out at us, their eyes glowing in respect.
We emerged into the bright morning. Marshroot and Coriander sprang up from the picnic lunch they were enjoying -- nice to see the boy wasn't too worried about his old uncle -- and rushed over to us. Kelfeth endured their hesitant petting as I explained what had transpired down in the Labyrinth.
"Go get the others and have them meet us here on this nice little lawn so I can explain the new deal here," Kelfeth suggested. As the two youngsters scampered off, he leaned in and whispered to me. "I think this being a dragon thing is going to work out great."
I agreed. After all, who can argue with a dragon, even if he is your friend?