The heavy sound of one of Kralla's blades embedding itself into the side of a tree rebounded across the small clearing in front of the woodcutters wooden cottage.
"Tamryn must've done a real number on you lich." She snarled. "You're slow."
"Oh! Come now! One should always play with one's pets dear kitty."
The wood splintered heavily with a crack as she twisted the blade from the tree. She sprang at Marakel, brandishing both blades. He fell backwards and feinted to one side as one of them narrowly missed his arm.
"No magic yet?" She hissed, as she lunged again.
The monk ran across the courtyard with a large leather satchel and deposited it before Tamryn, before rushing off again. The old badger opened it to check its contents before looping it over his head. "Where's my horse!?" He bellowed before turning to Tellerick. "You think he's gone after your boy master Tellerick?"
"Aye. the woodcutter's boy. We need to get there quickly."
A shadow crossed the pair; Amethyst's head came close. "Point the way Master Tellerick." An enormous hand-paw grabbed him. "You too little bunny." As her other hand-paw engulfed Tamryn, cutting off his cry of indignation.
The small house of the woodcutter appeared cold and silent as Kralla came up the track. This was what she was born for. The hunt. Her nose flared, sampling the breeze. The boys scent was here, fresh; but mingled with the dust of ages. The musty smell of the tomb. Marakel, the lich, was here, somewhere.
Suddenly she span around, simultaneously unsheathing her swords with a loud metallic slish.
"Oh, ho! You are still a nimble little kitty aren't you!" Laughed Marakel behind her.
"Why don't you come here and find out bonesy. Taste the edge of my blades?"
Kralla sped off down the road. Right now, she needed strength when she got to the boy, so she quickly settled into a long loping run that her pride used when running down plains lizards. It conserved energy while still allowing a fair amount of speed. Of course, she was far faster than anyone at the monastery. Except maybe for the dragon as she could fly.
But the dragon didn't know where the boy lived. She did.
Pads and claws dug into the packed road dirt, kicking up little puffs of brown dust as she sped towards the woodcutters' house.
Tamryn continued to bark orders into the disarray until Tellerick placed his hand on Tamryn's shoulder. "What do you mean, the lich escaped you? Marakel?"
"Aye, Marakel. That smug, nasty un-life." Snarled Tamryn. "Gerald lost focus on him and fell asleep on the job, while that bundle of bones that calls itself a necromancer slid off into the night."
Tellerick paled and turned to Kralla. "Will." They said in Unison.
Skaran's jaw dropped open, "Oh shit..."
"He's at the woodcutter's on the edge of the old town Kralla." Said Tellerick. "Get to him quickly, I'll be right behind you!"
As they passed through the portal, returning to the hallowed ground of the monastery the bellowing of an angry honey badger filled the air.
"Where the blazes have you been boy!" Tamryn stomped across the courtyard. "What in hells teeth happened to our barn?!" He stopped as Amethyst squeezed through. "What!" He yelled at the fox. "Are you doing with a bloody dragon?!"
Barnabas opened his mouth to start. "Oh shut up boy! We have a situation here!" He turned. "You and you." He pointed at two monks. "Flasks and Candles" He turned back to Barnabas. "The lich escaped us."
"This is where we part ways master Albrecht. I look forwards to visiting your shop in the near future."
"Mistress." Albrecht bowed deeply before Amethyst. "I thank you for honoring the agreement. Also, for not broiling my idiot page."
"Think nothing of it. Although I would remind him that revealing the secret of Hoardmouthe has a deliciously... crispy ending." To which the page visibly turned pale as the blood drained from his face.
Albrecht wrapped a thick, muscle-bound arm around the page's shoulders. "Come along boy. Let's get settled in for the night. There's lots of work needs doing!"
Amethyst brushed at her wing, dislodging dust and dead scales. "We should not dally here. With automata abroad in the world it is clear that change is on the horizon."
Tellerick looked back at the portal. "I should return to the boy. There are forces at play that none of us are truly prepared for."
"Especially Will." Replied Kralla. "He's a just child Tellerick. He shouldn't have to deal with all... All this!"
"The augury simply won't have to mistress Kralla." Said Amethyst gently. "That is what we are here for. That is why we are bound to his presence."
"Wot the bleedin' hell's teef was that!" Screeched Skaran, as the group picked themselves up from the ground.
"That, rat." Said Amethyst. "Was a dragon slaying automaton. They are skin wearers.
"Skin wearers?" An edge of terror skirted Barnabas's voice. "Really?"
"Yes, fox. The flesh of a person stitched over the cold skeleton of iron cogs and springs. Intricate in their monstrousness. They are magical constructs of incredible ingenuity and require knowledge, that I thought was out of reach for a good thousand years."
"That was quite the light show." Tellerick brushed himself down. "A lot of magic used there."
As the creature inside the cage started whistling like a kettle beginning to boil, Amethyst quickly placed one enormous paw underneath the cart and launched it out over the bay.
"Shield your eyes!" She shouted as she brought a wing around the group. There was a brilliant flash, so bright the individual bones in Amethysts' wing were clearly visible. Followed by a hot wind that picked up grass and dust from the ground.
Amethyst looked down on the stunned group. "Is everyone alright?"
Everyone in the crook of her wing blinked the dark spots and dust away from their eyes.
"Oh my! I haven't seen one of these in nearly a thousand years!"
As it approached the group, the man inside the cage hissed and clanked as he railed against the bars of his cage.
Amethyst sat down and peered through the bars as the cart stopped in front of them.
The man wasn't a man. Underneath the ragged clothes the skin hung loose, revealing filigree iron metalwork. Artisan nuts and rivets, over precision gears levers and hissing pipework.
It reached and scrabbled for the dragon, intent on getting to her but unable to understand the bars blocking its way.
Towering above them all the apex, Machiavellian, predator that was Amethyst looked smug. "Yes rat. Yes I am."
She looked down the towards the village as a small cart approached. On the back was a cage containing a man.
"What is this Siegmund?"
"Ah. The children captured a pirate. As you are here, I thought you would want to talk with him before he's put down."
"I'm tired Siegmund, and I have a raging headache. Why do I need to talk to a pirate of all people?"
"Well, this one is a little odd Ma'am."
"Really? How odd?"
Skaran sat down with an audible thud. His tail straight out and a look of disbelief on his face, as the audacity of the whole thing sank in.
The dragon had infiltrated the dragon slayers guild completely, hoarded the best and even started supplying the guild with the most highly trained dragon slayers in the world. She'd then used those self-same dragon slayers as her personal police force to keep the other dragons in line.
It was... Spectacular. Not to mention, as an elder, the guild would only send her the best to slay her.
"Dammit Missy. You're good!"
Skaran's jaw dropped open. "You wot?" Everyone else looked at Amethyst aghast.
"I hoard Dragon Slayers." She said with a smile. "All the best come from here and retire here. Occasionally we get new blood." She waved at Sir Albrecht. "But generally we supply the Dragon Slayers' guild with the best slayers around."
"But, but... Don't that mean you're killin' your own kin?" Skaran was very obviously struggling with the concept.
"When your kind step out of line, you reign them in, so do I. It's a highly regarded service within dragon social circles. My slayers are, basically, dragon police."
Donner scratched his beard; it was his turn to frown. "And what would Mistress Amethyst want with all those gold coins and jewels and things?"
Skaran turned to Amethyst. "Don't you use these guys to collect your hoard of gold stuff together then missy?"
Amethyst laughed out loud before collapsing into a cloud of hissing black smoke. She took a moment to compose herself. "Oh my Goddess! You think I hoard golden trinkets?"
"Ain't that what all dragons hoard?"
"Oh mister Skaran. You absolute dear! That's like humans hoarding mattresses and pillows! I don't hoard gold! I hoard Dragon Slayers!"
Amethyst turned to the newcomer. "So... News mister Donner?"
"Nothing of muchness mistress dragon. Another pirate raid this last week, taken care of by the children. All were dispatched and their ship rendered into parts for the fishing fleet. That one was good for the town coffers."
Kralla, Telleric, Barnabas and Skaran looked at him. "Er, the litt'le kiddies took down a ship full of pirates?" Frowned Skaran.
"Aye! 'Tis a fun part of their training as dragon slayers mister rat."
"Trainin'? I'm er, gettin' real confused now. Don't missy dragon-draws ere get the gold from the ship then?"
As Amethyst finished her announcement, the boy collapsed like a matchstick tower into a pile of youthful, spindly, arms and legs.
"Well, he certainly had the fear of dragons put in him." Master Tellerick looked on as Albrecht picked up the boy.
"Some are meant to be slayers, and some are not." Replied Albrecht. "This one was not. His father had ideas above his station involving nobility; and sending his son to the guild was his way of getting on the ladder... So-to-speak." Albrecht looked down. "But he's a good lad, with a big heart. He'll learn quickly."
"I might have a suggestion there Dragon... Come here boy and stop cowering, this one's not going to kill you." Albrecht pulled his squire up. "Stand straight." Trying to control his terror, the page boy stood bolt straight as if he'd been turned to stone where he stood. "Gagh!" Exclaimed the slayer. "This one's father is a spirits smith. A distiller of renown, and terrible father having placed his boy in the guild."
Amethyst eyed the boy. "Is this true?"
He nodded. She sniffed. "We have a distiller amongst us! Well done Albrecht. Now I won't have to eat him."
A horse approached on the path to the village.
"Hail! Hail Dragon Amethyst!" Shouted the bearded man.
"I try and keep it informal around here." She winked.
"It is good to see you again Mistress of the Magma."
"And you too Siegmund. We have a new resident to our town. Do please ensure he has lodgings on the Bakers street."
Siegmund dismounted and looked at the others. "Ma'am?"
"Oh, these are just visitors." She sniffed and wiped her nose.
"You still have your cold Mistress?"
"Yes!" She grumbled. "If only the brewery could produce a half decent Whiskey." She sighed.
In the distance a small town snuggled down into a bay that formed a natural harbour. The hills dipped down towards the town, but also rose towards the sea forming tall cliffs that looked out over a cerulean blue ocean. On one end an imposing tower stood, its top clad in glass.
Amethyst cleared her throat and made a face before coughing again and spouting black smoke. "Welcome..." She said, wheezing. "To Hoardmouthe."
Tellerick looked down on the village. "Hoardmouthe? This isn't where you keep your hoard is it?!"
Amethyst nodded. "Don't go spreading it around alright? It's a secret."