The caravan eased to a stop, Rails sparking beneath it, and the car doors were unsealed with a soft hiss. One popped open and Billie leaped out, landing on the platform beyond with her fists raised exultantly in the air.
“WHOOHOO!” she bellowed. “Aw, man I love those things! I need to get one, buy myself a patch of land and build a Rail that just goes around in a big circle. How expensive d’ye think that’d be?”
She turned to grin at the others as they disembarked. McGraw leaned stiffly on his staff; Joe stepped very carefully, concentrating on keeping his balance and keeping his breakfast down. Weaver staggered out, arms wrapped protectively around his guitar case, and squinted balefully down at the gnome.
“Y’know what?” he said. “I really hate you.”
“Don’t care,” Billie said cheerfully. “Welp! Here we are, then.”
Their caravan had been slightly better equipped than most of the frontier lines; not that it possessed all of the rumored “safety features” being installed on the interior Rail lines, but it did at least have seatbelts. Those were not optional. This particular line passed into hilly territory at the base of the Wyrnrange—in fact, these hills were the same formation that rose gradually into the rounded old mountains of Viridill, far to the south. Here, they were little more than decoration around the much younger, craggier Wyrns, but were still plenty tall enough that riding over them at the speed at which the Rails traveled (digging through the hills had apparently not been in the Imperial budget) would have dashed passengers’ brains out against the roofs of their caravans without some restraints.
The crow fluttered her wings, detaching herself from Joe’s shoulder, and an instant later Mary stood beside them, calm and inscrutable as always. “We can rest for a time in this town, if you wish,” she said. “Some recuperation might not be amiss, and in any case, the divinations that will lead me to Khadizroth will take time.”
“How much time, if I may ask?” McGraw inquired. He still leaned heavily on his staff, though only with one hand, now.
“The magic in question is very like tracking a creature through the wilds,” she replied. “The trail ends when it ends. I expect it to be hours…possibly days. It does not seem likely that our quarry will have settled near human-occupied territory, and Darling’s intelligence was not able to place him more precisely than ‘the Wyrnrange.’ That is not a small region to inspect.”
“Lovely,” Weaver growled.
“Yeah, let’s call that Plan B,” said Billie. “I got a better one. There’s a gnomish settlement not too far from here, ’bout half a day’s ride up the hills. I guaran-damn-tee they’ll know the exact whereabouts of any dragon livin’ in their territory, probably be able to tell us all about his movements, how widely he ranges, who’s with him, how many sheep he eats fer breakfast an’ what are his favorite kind.”
“Why would gnomes care about a dragon?” Weaver snorted.
“Lad, how utterly daft is it possible for ye to be? What sort a’ feckin’ imbecile wouldn’t care about a dragon?”
“You know your accent gets thicker the farther from civilization we get?”
“Aye, too much comfort make me allergies act up, gets the nose all stuffy.”
“That is a good plan,” said Mary. “I have found gnomes to be reliable sources when it comes to dangers in their territory. At the worst, if Khadizroth has evaded their detection, we will be closer to the mountains and I can still try my…” She glanced down at Billie. “Plan B.”
“Right, then!” the gnome declared, sitting down right on the platform and reaching into her pockets. She evidently had formidable bag-of-holding spells on her various pouches, to judge by the sheer quantity of wood, metal, tools and enchanting equipment she now began to lay out around herself. In moments, the pile was more massive than she.
“What in the fell hell do you think you’re doing?” Weaver demanded. “This is a public Rail platform.”
“Oh, quit yer bellyachin’,” Billie said dismissively, fastening lengths of steel rods together. “Nobody cares. Not like they do a brisk business around here in… Anything, from the look of it.”
Joe had been carefully checking the other people nearby at every mention of Khadizroth’s name, but no one was paying them any mind. Billie’s performance now garnered a few curious glances, but nothing more. Hollowfield was a considerably larger settlement than Sarasio, big enough to be considered a small city, for all that it was only a few decades old. Evidently, the crush of people here was enough that one did not expect to be involved in the business of one’s neighbors, for all that it seemed sleepily quiet at the moment.
Situated far to the warm north, Hollowfield was a trading and mining establishment—the two were heavily mixed, as close as this was to the dwarven kingdoms. To the southeast, the land gradually flattened into the Great Plains, though they weren’t close enough to the frontier to see the Golden Sea itself. The foothills rose to the Wyrnrange to the west, the spiky mountains forming an oppressive wall running from the south to the north, blocking the whole horizon from view. Far to the north, across more prairie, was the distant rise of the Spine, the ancient mountain range that stretched across the entire northern coast of the continent, with nowhere a harbor or beach—nothing but cliffs and treacherous rocks. Those mountains housed the dwarven kingdoms beneath them, and the homes of the reclusive high elves above.
Hollowfield itself was a rather drab expanse of square, stone structures, but standing here and looking around, Joe couldn’t help but feel he was at the intersection of several distinct realms of adventure. That, of course, was a silly thought in this day and age. The dwarven kingdoms were teetering on economic disaster and had been since the Narisian Treaty, the Great Plains saw farms and herds of cattle where once there had been nothing but nomadic elves, and the Wyrnrange was industriously mined and quarried; it had been decades since anyone had seen a yeti or direwolf come prowling down from their heights. Trying to bring his flights of fancy to heel in this way only made him feel slightly melancholy, as if he’d been born half a century too late.
He looked back over at his companions and had to blink and shake his head. Billie had already expanded her construction to a wood and metal frame about the size and shape of a small wagon and attached heavy sheets of canvas to its floors and sides. It was now upside-down; she was installing axles. Four wheels, made from bolted-together lengths of curved steel, sat stacked nearby, next to a heap of enchanting materials. Joe recognized power crystals, a golem logic controller and a runic spell interface. He was no carriage buff, but it wasn’t hard to piece together what she was doing.
“A carriage?” he said, fascinated. “You carry a collapsible enchanted carriage in your pockets?”
“Nah,” she said brightly, tightening bolts. “I carry a bunch of scraps suitable for piecin’ together into whatever configuration I need. Today, it’s transportation! Trust me, we don’t wanna hike into those hills, and the hell I’m shellin’ out whatever it takes to rent mounts out here. She won’t be a Falconer, but she’ll get us there.”
“I’m gonna go find us something to eat,” said Weaver, turning and stepping away toward the far end of the platform, where several vendor stalls had been set up to serve Rail travelers.
“How can you think of food after that ride?” McGraw asked, grimacing.
“Something that’ll keep for later,” Weaver clarified. “No, I’m not hungry either, but it beats standing around here like a goddamn tourist while she puts together that rattletrap.”
“Language,” Joe said automatically.
“Kid, that was barely cute the first time. You are padding my list of reasons to shoot you in the back.”
Joe watched him slouch off. “How serious do you reckon he was?” he asked finally.
McGraw chuckled. “Don’t pay him any mind, son. That one’s a complainer. Adventurers don’t live long enough to earn a reputation like his by casually murdering their companions.”
“In fact,” Mary said pleasantly, “some make their reputations that way.”
“Boy’s all talk,” Billie said brightly, grunting as she tipped the now-wheeled vehicle over to sit right way up. She worked with truly astonishing speed and efficiency, now clambering underneath it and beginning to install the enchanting components that would make the wheels move.
“With all due respect,” McGraw noted, “that thing doesn’t look awfully…sturdy.”
“Well, I wouldn’t take ‘er on a drive from here to Shaathvar or nothin’,” Billie grunted, “but she’ll get us to Venomfont safe enough.”
Joe, who was again peering around at the scenery, whipped back to stare down at her. “Wait, we’re going where?”
It was actually Joe’s first ride in a horseless carriage, so he lacked a basis for comparison, but from Weaver’s very educational complaints he learned that Billie’s hastily-assembled contraption lacked several features that were considered essential, such as shock absorption enchantments. Indeed, it was a very bumpy ride; there apparently were no roads leading where they were going, forcing them to ride up and down scrubby hills, running over rocks and small bushes and detouring around anything too big for the cart to overcome. There weren’t many of those; this was a singularly barren landscape.
Billie sat up front on an elevated little platform bolted to the cart’s frame; the control interface, rather than being attached as any carriage’s would be, was connected to the axles by wires. She held it in one hand, pressing runes as needed with the other, and Joe fervently hoped she knew where they were going. “Toward the mountains” wasn’t difficult, but the mountains, as Mary had pointed out, were enormous.
Mary saved them some precious passenger space by remaining in bird form; she seemed to have chosen Joe’s left shoulder as her default perch. Being appropriated as furniture by a legendary immortal was so surreal he hadn’t bothered to work out how he felt about it. Joe and McGraw sat side by side with their backs against the front of the cart, Weaver slouching opposite them. There were no benches, and it was short enough that their legs tended to entangle in the middle, altogether not a very comfortable way to ride. Weaver had taken out his guitar and was plucking aimlessly. He had tried, briefly, to actually play, but the vehicle’s bouncing and jostling had proven too severe to allow that. It was hard to tell how disappointed he was by this; the man was so perpetually grouchy it was pointless to wonder about what.
“This is that moment,” Joe mused aloud.
“Well, it’s a moment,” McGraw ruminated. “Can’t say I expect to look fondly back on this one as one of my favorites.” Mary croaked softly.
Joe shook his head. “It’s…a literary device that’s started cropping up in modern adventure fiction. Your heroes will be in the middle of something tedious and uncomfortable, and will comment about how it’s never like that in the stories, and someone more experienced will say most of adventuring is the long, boring stretches between the action.”
“Read a lot of adventure fiction, do you?” Weaver asked, arching an eyebrow superciliously.
“There’s not a whole lot to do in a frontier town once the bandits are driven out,” Joe said somewhat defensively. He wasn’t about to tell the man he lived in a bordello.
“It was a rhetorical question,” said Weaver, openly grinning now. “We’ve all met you.”
“Happens to be true, though,” McGraw noted. “I doubt there’s any job or path in life that’s all excitement, all the time. Nobody could handle it if there was.”
“Anyhow, I don’t think it’s wrong to be thinking in terms of stories and sagas,” Joe added. “We’re on the way to fight a dragon. It’s just about the most traditionally mythic thing a person can do.”
“Don’t romanticize it, boy,” Weaver said, looking even grimmer than usual. “This is a political dispute between two powerful individuals over two women. We’re a group of thugs who are being well-paid to rub out one of the parties. Nobody’s gonna write a saga about this, and you should be thankful for it.”
“I think you’re oversimplifying a little,” said Joe, frowning. “You heard the Bishop about what that dragon was doing with those elves.”
“Yeah?” Weaver plucked a discordant arpeggio. “What was he doing? Rescuing a group of refugees who likely would’ve faced internment camps or summary execution if the Empire had caught them? Starting a family?”
“Using women as breeding stock!”
“Yeah, that’s fairly sinister,” Weaver allowed, “assuming Darling told us the full story about that, which I doubt, and assuming he was told the full story, which is pretty much unthinkable. And even if so, how is Khadizroth the villain in this tale? I’m a librarian and former bard; I know about stories. The best ones force the protagonist to confront his own ethics and make painful choices. Khadizroth the Green is known for being honorable to the point of stupidity. He has also lived to see fractious human kingdoms be absorbed into an all-devouring Empire. He was alive when that Empire unleashed hell itself on Athan’Khar. If you saw the mice in your walls take up enchanting and start burning down your neighbors’ houses… What might you be willing to compromise to stop them?”
“I… Still think you’re oversimplifying,” Joe said, somewhat subdued.
“Am I?” Weaver grinned unpleasantly. “How?”
“He’s not entirely wrong,” Billie said from behind them, sounding not particularly concerned. “This is why I make a point never to delve into the motives and values of every person in a dispute I’m hired to intervene in. That shit’s for diplomats and priests. If ye make yer living by cracking heads and blowin’ shit up, understanding why everyone’s doing what they’re doing is a handicap, not an asset. Everybody’s got their reasons.”
“But…he’s a dragon,” Joe protested. “You know what they’re like. Especially about women!” Mary ruffled her feathers and cawed sharply, startling him.
“Yeah,” Weaver mused. “And what’s so terrible about that?”
Joe boggled at him.
“Some time ago, before I got out of the business, I was along with a group kind of like this one, including a priestess of Avei,” Weaver said, gazing unfocused at the passing horizon. Seemingly of their own accord, his fingers began plucking out a dour tune, jangling here and there as the cart bumped over the treacherous ground. “We were sitting around a campfire one night and I happened to make a comment very much like that. I don’t even remember how the conversation got around to dragons; I mostly just remember the way she lit into me. Tell me, Joe, have you ever given any thought to dragons and women, and why everyone gets so worked up about it?”
“I would think an Avenist of all people would be disgusted by the subject,” Joe said.
Weaver shrugged. “What do they do? They’re an all-male species; they mate with humanoid females to propagate. That’s just their nature. Nothing particularly evil about it.”
“It’s in the nature of dire wolves to eat people. Nothing evil about that, either, but we still kill them for it.”
“But eating people and having sex with them is hardly in the same territory,” Weaver said wryly.
“The line blurs if you do it right!” Billie cackled. Joe flushed.
“But…don’t they rape women?” he asked, flustered.
“Sometimes, occasionally,” said Weaver with a shrug. “Actually quite rarely; as I understand it, the pursuit, the seduction is a big part of the appeal for them. But yes, very young dragons pursuing their first mate have been known to use either force or magical coercion. Let’s consider that, shall we? How many dragons are even alive on this continent?”
“Thirty-one,” said Billie without turning around. “Thirty-two if you count Razzavinax the Red; he lives on an island off the east coast. Actually, it’s probably less than half of that. We only take ’em off the roster if the death is confirmed, and… Well, that’s tricky. A sick dragon who knows he’s dying pretty much always crawls off to do so in secret. An’ the ones that get done in by adventurers in their own lairs, well, the adventurers usually don’t let on what happened, so as to keep the location of the dragon’s hoard secret. Yeah, there’s names on the active list who haven’t been seen in centuries.”
“Right,” said Weaver equably, uncharacteristically sanguine about the lengthy interruption. “So, let’s say, probably about a dozen dragons in the entire Empire, maybe a few more. Most of them have probably never committed a rape; any that have, probably only did so once or twice. Sure, that’s a horrible thing for the victims, but statistically? If we’re going to get worked up about rape, dragons are pretty much not even a consideration. That focus belongs on humans, and all the ways in which we are horrible creatures. Rape is an excuse, Mr. Jenkins.” He grinned wolfishly. “We hate dragons because they come for our women. They’re immensely powerful and they are taking our stuff. Mention dragon mating habits in polite company sometime, and pay attention to all the delicate shudders and expressions of revulsion. That, my little friend, is the look of pure, ass-backward Shaathist sexism. It’s all about the conception of women as things we own, not people with agency over their own choices. There’s pretty much no other way to explain getting irate if a lady wants to fuck a dragon. Or anything else.”
“Funny,” McGraw said mildly. “I’d never have taken you for a feminist, Mr. Weaver.”
“You can understand a philosophy without subscribing to it, Longshot. I know enough to persuade a Silver Legionnaire I don’t need my ass kicked.”
“That comes up a lot, I’ll bet,” Billie said cheerfully.
“It’s a vital survival skill,” Weaver agreed.
Joe didn’t respond. He was staring at the distant horizon behind them, frowning in thought.
Before they reached their destination, the group learned to be grateful for Weaver’s hastily purchased fried and breaded sausages, unappetizing as they had seemed at the time. As the day wore on and noon passed, even the cold sausages made for a passable lunch. McGraw won the brief, fairly civil disagreement over which of them would provide relief from the sun; he actually conjured a small cloud above the cart, which provided not only shade but a faint, pleasant little mist. Weaver complained bitterly about this as he protectively tucked his guitar away.
Billie’s navigational sense proved correct, however; shortly after noon, the ride had evened out as she found an actual track. A faded and patchy one, to be sure, but the old marks of wheel ruts were unmistakeable. As they ascended into the hills, the track had evolved into an authentic road, unpaved but blessedly smooth after the morning’s jostling, winding between the increasingly tall hills to either side while the mountains up ahead loomed ever higher. Eventually McGraw dismissed his increasingly superfluous cloud, as they rode in shade more often than sun.
Their arrival at Venomfont was sudden, though there had been signs here and there as they approached. They passed old pieces of armor and broken weapons, worn to little more than scraps by the elements and only visible due to the lack of vegetation. Twice they glimpsed partial skeletons.
“You’d think they could clean up the place, if they’re actually living there now,” Weaver said critically.
“We like the ambiance,” Billie said with a shrug.
The entrance to Venomfont itself loomed up as they rounded a sharp curve, taking them by surprise. Billie stopped the cart in a small, flat valley which terminated in a cliff face. From this protruded an enormous carved snake head, mouth gaping wide and lined with cruelly sharp stalactites and stalagmites, representing far more fangs than snakes actually had. Fire flickered sullenly in the stone beast’s eye sockets—green fire. Its open mouth, set flush with the floor of the little valley, formed a tunnel deep into the mountainside.
“Lovely,” Weaver said sourly.
“If tone of voice could be recorded in writing, they’d put that on your tombstone,” said Joe, lifting himself over the side of the cart and hopping down.
They weren’t alone; a gnome sitting before a small campfire rose and approached them, grinning broadly. He carried a halberd that looked huge on him and wouldn’t have been long enough to form the haft of a serviceable human-sized broom.
“As I live and breathe, Billie Fallowstone!” the guard declared. “This is a right honor, an’ no mistake.”
“Why it’s…it’s, uh…” She tilted her head, peering quizzically at him. “Sorry, do I know you?”
“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “I’m Collins, but don’t you worry about the likes o’ me. I hope you’re not lookin’ ta take a dive into the depths? Venomfont’s not open for delving for another six years this cycle.”
“Oh, I know all about that, don’t worry. Actually we’re just lookin’ to stay the night, re-supply an’ get information.”
“Well, then you’ve come t’the right place!” Collins proclaimed, bowing extravagantly. “You go right on in, make yerselves at home. Venomfont welcomes you!”
“Damn right,” she said with a grin, and nudged the cart forward.
Joe elected not to hop back in; Billie kept its speed low as she guided the vehicle into the snake’s mouth, and he had no trouble keeping up at a walk. He stayed close, though, trying and failing not to be intimidated by the looming darkness and massive stone fangs. The place had been designed to be oppressive, and designed well.
“I have to say,” he remarked, mostly to fill the silence, “when you said that gnomes had settled in Venomfont, I pictured… Well, a settlement. Outside the dungeon, around the entrance.”
“What? That’d be completely barmy,” Billie snorted. “Why throw up a rickety-ass shantytown out there where it’s all exposed to the elements when there’s a perfectly serviceable underground structure to be used? The upper levels have been cleared out fer centuries, safe as houses. Don’t mind the original stonework—it’s all there for historical value. This is gnome territory now, you’ll be as safe as if you were home in yer little bed.”
Venomfont was a notorious dungeon, one of those never truly conquered; right up until the end of the Age of Adventures, it had been a source of occasional plunder and frequent trouble. No sooner was one snake cult cleared out by heroes than another took root, raiding the surrounding countryside and performing…well, whatever unspeakable rites snake cultists got up to in the privacy of their evil lair. Billie was right about historical accuracy, Joe reflected as they creaked along to the end of the long tunnel and emerged into an enormous cavern. He hadn’t thought such elaborately sinister architecture could exist outside the illustrations of particularly cheesy adventure books.
Snakes were everywhere. The huge columns supporting the space were carved snakes; they coiled around the entrances to side chambers, were patterned in mosaics on the walls and even the floor. Their fanged mouths formed fountains from which water splashed with an incongruously cheerful sound. From all directions, serpentine eyes carved from faintly reflective green stone glinted suspiciously down at them.
And yet, around and on top of all the snakes, the gnomes had clearly made their mark. Burnished steel poles held up modern fairy lamps, illuminating the cavern with a bright, steady glow that made what would once have been shadowy, half-glimpsed sculptures seem washed out and rather silly. Snake-carved doorways were hung with cheerfully patterned curtains and strings of beads, metal and wooden structures had been added to the fronts of some chambers to form storefronts and free-standing structures. Sounds of talk and laughter echoed, even music from somewhere distant, and the smells of cooking food and burning wood hovered over all. The sprawling cavern had become a town, bright and pleasant, filled with gnomes going this way and that about their business. The looming, oppressive evil around it, the vibrant modern village ignoring it, and the fact that the latter was half-sized… It was the most surreal thing Joe had ever seen.
Not far beyond the mouth of the tunnel was a square of sorts, in the center of which stood a bronze sculpture, roughly human-sized, of a three-headed cobra with arms, its fingers ending in talons. He stepped over to this to read the plaque set up before it.
“Svinthriss, first and greatest Boss of the Venomfont, once master of this cavern. Slain by Talia Valradi of Calderaas.”
“Rub the tip of ‘is tail fer luck,” Billie said cheerfully, hopping down. “All right, everybody out! I gotta break this sucker down before she falls apart. We’ll need ta go on foot from here; cart’s not gonna be any use in the mountains.”
“This is amazing,” Joe murmured, turning to peer around at the gnomish town. Its residents were present but not numerous; they regarded the newcomers with interest, but seemed to hang back from approaching them. He revised his first assessment; the town in Venomfont was modern, clean and bright, but rather sleepy in terms of the activity going on.
“Yup,” said Billie cheerfully. “Wouldja believe gnomes used to be nomadic? Like plains elves! Only in the last hundred years or so have we started really settling inta places, every last one of ’em in one o’ the old dungeons. Best way to control access to the deeper catacombs, not ta mention the loot therein.” She looked up and winked at him. “Course, the Empire caught onto that pretty quick; they’re not quite so brutish as to root honest gnomes out o’ their homes, but they did snag a few dungeons fer themselves. Those are basically Army bases now; the ones that still have anything good are plumbed by Imperial strike teams.”
“Are most of the old dungeons partially cleared out?” he asked, fascinated.
“A good few are entirely cleared out,” said McGraw, stretching and knuckling his lower back. “Some of ’em, though, are the kind of places that can’t ever be truly quelled. Just contained. The gnomes are doing the world a favor by keeping a lid on them; I say it’s well worthwhile to let ’em have first crack at the loot. Specially since their economy pretty much depends on it now.”
“Aye, there are some that’re empty now,” Billie agreed, focusing on detaching bolts. “Some permanently as dangerous as the day they were opened, like the man said. Those mostly date right from the time of the Elder Gods. Only one that’s mostly untouched is the Crawl, under Last Rock; Tellwyrn uses that to train her University kids an’ doesn’t let anybody else have a crack at it anymore. An’ then there are those like the Venomfont, in between. This dungeon is fallow right now. Gates ta the lower levels are sealed, an’ no delving permitted until the monsters ‘ave had a chance ta rebuild their populations. This one’s mostly goblins on the bottom; they do some primitive mining and enchanting work, so it’s fairly profitable still when delving is reopened.”
“You cultivate dungeons,” Joe said wonderingly.
“Yeah,” Weaver said disdainfully. “What an age of wonders we live in. Are we seriously just going to stand around here explaining the modern age to the kid?”
“Keep yer pants on, I’m workin’, here,” Billie said without rancor. “I’ll show ye around in a minute. There’s no supplies like gnomish supplies, an’ we can get a good meal and a place to sleep for pretty cheap, with the dungeon itself not actually open. First an’ foremost, of course, we gotta get our intel on where our boy’s set up shop.”
“We have supplies,” the bard said petulantly.
“There’s better ones here,” she replied. The cart was already fully reduced to pieces; really, the speed with which she worked was astonishing. Billie was now occupied sorting its parts and stowing them back away in their various pouches. “Seriously, even without the dungeon active, Venomfont’s a fantastic source fer rare reagents! They got all kinds o’ good shit in the shops here. Naiya beans! Nimbus boots! Hellhound breath!”
“No!” A gnome with a bushy white beard came dashing up to them, waving his arms. “No hellhound breath! Arachne’s boots, Fallowstone, will you stop telling people that?! Do you know how many warlocks we’ve had try to break in here and get at the secret stash of non-existent hellhound breath?!”
“There he is!” Billie crowed, approaching the man with her arms held wide as if for a hug. “Mapmaster Bagwell, just the fella we need to see! Give us a kiss!”
“Off with ye, trollop!” he shouted, whipping off his baggy hat and swatting her over the head with it.
“What’s the deal with hellhound breath?” Joe asked McGraw quietly.
“Extremely rare reagent,” the old wizard replied in the same tone. “Used in necromancy. You pretty much can’t get it on the mortal plane.”
“All right, all right, don’t get yer beard up yer bum,” Billie was saying, still grinning. “Look, we’ll be outta your way by tomorrow, just need a little info and you’re exactly the man to supply it. We’re after a dragon!”
Bagwell planted his fists on his hips, scowling. “Dragons? Would that be the old dragons, or the new dragon?”
“Old dragons?” Weaver asked, clearly curious in spite of himself.
“Aye!” Bagwell transferred his irate stare to the human, having to lean backward to make eye contact. “Varsinostro the Green has his glade in the southern part of the Wyrnrange, an’ Telithamilon the Blue lives far to the west of here. They’re good neighbors, never cause any trouble. Very polite when they come visit. You leave those dragons alone,” he commanded, aiming an admonishing finger up at the bemused bard.
“Relax, we don’t care about them,” Billie assured him. “By ‘new dragon,’ did ye hopefully mean Khadizroth the Green?”
“Oh. Him.” Bagwell huffed disdainfully into his beard. “Sure, by all means, get rid of that one.”
“What’s he done?” Joe inquired.
“Not a thing! Not so much as introduced himself, just arrived at a prime settling spot on Mount Blackbreath, declared it was his new home and took to hunting the area. That dragon’s entirely too full of himself, if you ask me.”
“Smashing!” Billie proclaimed. “We’ll need a map to Mount Blackbreath, an’ any notes you’ve compiled on Khadizroth’s habits.”
Bagwell huffed again. “Those services aren’t free, Fallowstone.”
“Why, Mapmaster, you wound me! Me feelin’s are very nearly affronted. Do I have a reputation for cheating honest gnomes?”
He snorted. “All right, all right, fine. You go about yer business, I’ll come find ye when I have your maps and notes collected. That’ll take me some hours, they’re in my personal cipher. Meantime, enjoy Venomfont’s legendary hospitality, an’ do try not to burn the place down this time.”
He pointed to both his eyes, then at Billie with the same two fingers, glaring, before turning and stomping off back into the crowd.
“You’re popular,” Joe noted.
“This time?” Weaver demanded.
“Bah, he exaggerates. I burned down one tavern. Honestly, a gnomish inkeeper who waters his drinks is askin’ fer whatever he gets. All right!” She rubbed her hands together and resumed collecting up her parts and tools. “That’s taken care of. Easy as fallin’ outta bed! We’ll pick up some new supplied, get some dinner, find an inn…”
“At the expense of repeating myself, which I’m increasingly accustomed to,” said Weaver, “we have supplies.”
“Lemme rephrase that.” Billie gave him a long look. “Venomfont is a fallow dungeon. The major source of economic growth around here is in a coma, so to speak. A bunch a’ fancy big-city adventurers after a particularly rich target on a mission from a wealthy Imperial agent? We don’t drop some coin in this town, well, there’s like to be trouble.”
There was a beat of silence while the party glanced around them. They were still being watched, the faces of passing gnomes curious, open and not the least bit hostile, but subtly calculating.
“That’s the kind of thing that, for future reference, we’d appreciate knowing about before getting into the thick of it,” McGraw said finally.
“Right, gotcha. Humans are slow on the uptake. No matter how many times I get reminded, I always have trouble with that.” She buttoned her last belt pouch with a flourish and folded her arms, grinning up at them.
“Why is it,” Weaver asked, “that every time we go anywhere, do anything or have a conversation, I end up hating you more?”
“Aye, that’d be because I’m made of awesome, and you’re a big steaming wanker.”
“Yeah, that must be it.”