"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."
In a blaze of light, they were suddenly engulfed in an offshore wind. The sweet smell of the ocean flooded out of the new gateway.
"Come along. And don't forget your page Albrecht. He was your charge before, but now your responsibility for him is profoundly serious. This is a secret that has been kept for generations of slayers over a thousand years."
She turned to the others. "Don't discuss this with anyone on pain of a brief, but very fiery, death." They all nodded.
"Good. Please go through. It will be nice to get some sea air for'a bit."
Kralla gently put Barnabas down, where he promptly collapsed to the floor gasping for air. "What, exactly, is going on here Amethyst?" She asked.
"It's probably better that I show you, than try and explain." She started rummaging in the rubble. "Ah! There you are!" She pulled a worn looking branch of a tree from beneath the remains of the barn.
"Yes Master Tellerick. It's a gateway wand." She stood, a little unsteadily, and proceeded to draw a door on the side of the nearby chapel, before tapping lightly at the four corners and bringing it to life.
Amethyst rolled over and vomited noisily into an empty sheep pen, before slowly sitting up.
The eyes of Albrecht's page widened in terror as Amethyst brought her head around to scowl at the group.
"What's going on?" She squinted at Barnabas. "I told you to stay out of this fox. It's my business."
Barnabas's ears flattened and he hung limp in Kralla's vice-like grip as Albrecht stood between them. "Please Ma'am. His intentions were obviously noble. Plus he has a fairly decent right hook." He sniffed. "Nearly broke my nose!" He turned to Kralla. "Put him down madam Tigress."
Albrecht's page boy vaulted the short wall and ran to him. "Sire, please, let me help you."
Albrecht stood and wiped the blood from his face, before sighing heavily. "Boy, you will have to come with me now."
Everyone looked quizzically at Albrecht. "Sire?"
"I did not come here to slay the Dragon. I came here to retire."
"Sire? I. I don't understand! Did you mean to let the Dragon kill you?"
"Hah!" Bellowed Albrecht. "No. There is an 'arrangement' that the elder slayers have with this Dragon."
Behind him there was a groan, followed by the scraping of masonry.
"Oh... No... Shouldn't have done that!" Amethyst's eyes rolled up, her wings pulled in and she collapsed onto the ruined masonry of the barn beneath her.
"Sir Albrecht! Sir Albrecht! You have slain the dragon! Oh, praises be!" Came a shout from behind the short-wall bordering the monastery. Albrecht looked round, as did Kralla, Tellerick and Skaran. Barnabas struggled uselessly in the tigresses vice-like grip, huffing loudy through his nose as he struggled to breath.
"Boy! No! What have you done? I told you to return to the guild. You cannot follow me to where I am going!"
"DROP HIM NOW!" Roared Amethyst. Her huge wings outstretched blacked out the sun behind her as she towered over the remains of the barn.
Barnabas's Jaw dropped, as the enormity of having a dragon close by rammed itself home. Amethyst had shifted from friend to dangerous entity in a matter of seconds. It was something none of them were prepared for. Friend or foe, Amethyst was a force to be reckoned with.
Suddenly his mouth was clamped shut by a huge white paw as Kralla's arm wrapped around his chest and he was hoisted into the air by the tigress.
Albrecht's horse galloped, screeching, at full speed out of the black cloud. Dust, debris and huge chunks of masonry rained down in the field. The barns' cornerstone landed with a wet thud, throwing up dirt and clods of grass.
Albrecht staggered from the cloud, covered in a layer of thick black dust. Coughing, he managed to open his eyes as Barnabas's fist met his jaw with everything the fox had. Albrecht span, and landed heavily on the floor.
"St.. stop! I... " He cried, pushing himself up, as the giant black silhouette of Amethyst rose up. Coughing and spluttering herself.
"So, Albrecht. I hear you make a mean pastry." Amethyst smacked her lips.
"Ooh. I always enjoy a good sweet. We should be able to accommodate your talent for baking."
She rose and towered over Albrecht. "Fortunately, this is a wand spell. I have a cold if you hadn't noticed." She rummaged around in a pocket and brought out a gnarly stick before drawing a door on the wall of the barn. "Give the others a shout, would you?" She coughed, and then sneezed blowing the end off of the barn in a giant gout of blue fire.