Grover took a swig from an unmarked glass bottle, bounding forward along the dirt trail in the snow. His barrel chest bore an array of skins and cloaks, but it seemed the real warmth came from his dwarven liquor. Blake’s teeth chattered against the cold wind, his scrappy leathers providing little insulation against the chill which gave these mountains their name.
“Got any spare for a brother?” he asked.
Grover’s reply was cut off by Theriosa, resplendent in a thick green cloak, striding with purpose along the trail.
“One drunkard is quite enough. If we meet the Lich King’s forces here on the road, what are you boys going to do? Ask them to join in your drinking songs?” she asked rhetorically. She was as cold as the wind itself, Blake thought.
It was barely a road, and more of a trail which wound up the slopes of the nameless peaks which made up the Chill Mountains. It could have been made by rabbits as readily as by people, judging from its condition. The wind howled, bringing a fresh wave of sleet, which battered into Blake’s face.
Behind, the slush melted as Marcello’s boots hit the ground. The magician had concocted some kind of spell to ward away the heat, but at least the git had the good sense to keep his black hood up, so as not to rub it in Blake’s face.
“Keep your eyes peeled. The Lich King’s cavern could be anywhere up here. Odd tracks, magical traces, anything of that sort could guide the way.” ordered Theriosa.
Blake was cold and miserable. The freezing sleet kept visibility down to barely fifty metres and covered any tracks. Wasn’t adventuring supposed to be more heroic than this?
He trudged on forwards, ever upwards.
From the sea of white, Blake spotted something at the edge of his vision. A gnarled old gnome sat by the side of the path, his mule laden with supplies by his side. The gnome stooped with a hunch, and his white beard was made even whiter by the chunks of ice and sleet which it held.
The gnome called out, shouting above the roar of the wind, “Welcome, travellers, to the finest apothecary in all the Chill Mountains. I’ve got a cure for what ails you. Stop for a while and warm yourselves with liquid fire.”
“What kind of madman sets up a shop here?” asked Blake.
“Someone who goes wherever help is needed most.” replied the gnome. “Some call me Providence, but Prov is fine. Rolls off a frozen tongue a little easier.”
The Defiant Dust gathered around this strange little vendor. It seemed, just for a moment, that the weather was a little milder, the wind a little calmer.
Theriosa stepped forward, cloak billowing in the breeze. “Unctions and ointments are all well and good, but what we’d really like is information. We’ve been sent by the Duke to find the Lich King’s lair. Any guidance you could give us would be much appreciated.”
Grover and Marcello exchanged whispers, standing back warily outside earshot of the vendor.
Blake, though, was keen to find any cure to these chills. “Prov, brother, you mentioned some liquid fire. Can I get some of that? I don’t have a lot of coin myself, but I’m sure Theriosa can cover it.”
“Certainly, my friend. Agents on such a noble mission deserve all the support I can give.” replied Prov. He fished into his mule’s bags and withdrew a glass tube of bubbling red liquid, handing it to Blake. “As for information, I have seen much activity near the old undermountain fortress of Ghun Righur. If the dwarves have not returned, then somebody else may have plans there.”
“Ghun Righur, of course! Why didn’t we just head straight there, instead of freezing our tits off up here?” asked Blake, clutching the potion with a shaking hand.
“Did you, perchance, forget the Great Quake, when the very earth was shaken by the clashes of the Hundred Years War?” said Marcello, his eyes glinting with mischief. “The whole Violia river was diverted, the cavern was smashed and flooded. Nothing could live there, it’s just a smattering of rubble. But maybe nothing does live there, eh Prov?”
Blake uncorked the potion, and raised it, struggling not to spill it with trembling fingers. As soon as he felt the trickle of heat upon his lips, it was suddenly gone. An invisible hand knocked the glass tube sideways, and it fell and cracked upon the ice, contents steaming as they poured out onto the ground.
“The fuck?” exclaimed Blake. “I was drinking that!”
He turned and saw Marcello muttering in concentration, then felt the slap of an invisible hand across his cheek.
“Try not to fall into your enemy’s plans, king.” said Marcello. “This isn’t a travelling merchant at all, but a diabolical ploy by the Lich King. You can’t fool me with magical disguises, fiend!” he exclaimed, drawing his wand.
Grover gave a cry as he pulled out his battleaxe and Theriosa took a quick skip backwards and knocked her bow.
The sleet turned icy, battering the Defiant Dust with hail, which pinged off Grover’s metal armour.
“Now, now, friends. There’s no need for hasty judgements. I am simply trying to help.” said Providence, his tone suddenly richer and deeper. “I do concede, though, that I have not been quite honest with you.”
A jolt of lightning flew from Marcello’s wand with a chant and a cry. It slammed straight into the chest of Providence with a thump. But the gnome was unmoved.
Then Providence stood up to his full height. No longer a frail old gnome, his disguise faded away into the wind. Before the Defiant Dust stood a full grown dragon, scales shining and claws glistening. He was twice as tall as a man, and at least five times as long, with huge scaly wings unfurled.
The dragon Providence bellowed out a roar, drowning out the sound of the wind. His scales shimmered silver in the reflected light of the ice. A spiny crest stuck up above his face, hard and firm, unbothered by the hail which still fell upon the Defiant Dust.
“We must stand firm against all the Duke’s enemies! Stand firm, for Galvania and the Defiant Dust!” cried out Theriosa, as she fired an arrow into the air at the dragon which towered above them.
It clattered into the dragon’s leg, bouncing off a shiny silver scale.
“Perhaps we should retreat, and find another, path?” asked Grover, as he was thrown back by the burst of air thrown by the dragon’s wings, as Providence flapped to take to the skies.
At the front, unmoved, Blake stared into the eyes of the dragon. They swum with intelligence and vigour, the colour of mercury. This was not an agent of the Lich King, he was sure of it. He saw a cunning, but also an empathy in the misunderstood dragon. Providence had not been lying about wanting to help. If Blake had ever been sure of anything, he was sure of this.
He felt the radiant heat of a fire above his head, looked up and saw a fireball bursting toward the dragon from the wand of Marcello. In reply, Providence opening his gaping mouth, full of huge serrated teeth, and it was suddenly even colder than before. The little heat which remained in the air disappeared, and the dragon’s breath turned the very air to ice.
The dragon’s breath encased Theriosa and Grover in icy tombs, like statues carved at the winter festival. Marcello quickly muttered an incantation which burst his body to flames. They were almost immediately extinguished by the icy cold dragon’s breath, leaving him drenched but standing.
Blake was unharmed. He continued to gaze deep into the dragon’s soul. Providence had spared him.
“Hit it with your fucking sword, king!” demanded Marcello.
The dragon flew up, well out of sword range. He bellowed out an exaltation. Though Blake couldn’t understand the words, he felt the dragon’s anger at these fools, those who had turned away his help.
“I will not fight the king of the mountains.” declared Blake, his whispered voice carrying above the suddenly calm wind.
Theriosa and Grover were still frozen, encased in ice. Marcello threw another fireball at Providence with a cursed incantation. But the dragon nimbly dodged it with a pirouette. He flapped his wings again, throwing up ice and sleet from the ground all over the wizard. Then he just flew away, silver scales blending into the icy white of the oncoming blizzard.
But Blake didn’t feel the cold. His soul was warm.