The young man shivered as an arctic gust blew in over the city walls and slammed into him. He pulled his heavy coat tighter in an attempt to keep the cold at bay, as snow swirled through the air around him.
As the wind died down around him the city beyond was revealed. Stone and wooden buildings lined the snow filled street that he was trudging down. Warm light leaked out from cracks in the doors and shutters of the nearby homes illuminating the surroundings as the sun set in the cloudy sky overhead.
Most of the inhabitants of the city had long ago taken shelter inside from the cold night. They were now undoubtedly huddled close to the tame flames of their household fireplaces. The man grumbled as he pictured it. He hoped he would soon be sitting down beside a cozy fire as well.
After shuffling through the snow and wind for several minutes the relieved young man found himself standing outside his destination, a tall well maintained two story home. It was located in the merchant's quarter, and while it wasn't quite a mansion the owner was obviously well to do.
Wasting no time, he walked off the street and over to the doorway to announce himself. He meant to knock politely, but instead his fist pounded against the door loudly. He really wanted out of the miserable cold; his fingers had started to burn at the tips.
Nothing happened for a few seconds. The man shivered and rubbed his hands together for warmth. Then the door opened and bathed the man and the path behind him in bright light. The visitor peered though the blinding glow to see that a tall well dressed man had opened the door for him.
“Jerack, by the gods man! Come on in and out of the weather. You must be absolutely freezing,” the master of the house exclaimed.
After quickly knocking some of the snow off of his cloak Jerack stepped eagerly inside. The reception room of the house was lit by a steady oil lamp on a small table and decorated by various portraits and paintings. After a quick glance at his guest and after taking in Jerack's sorry state, the wealthy man frowned and turned to look down the hallway.
“Aness, please get one of the servants to put some hot tea on for Jerack. The young fool walked here and is half frozen to death,” he yelled before turning back to his guest.
“Thank you, uncle Reighur. It's brutal out there. I almost thought I wasn't going to make it,” the young man replied gratefully.
His uncle gave him a questioning look and shook his head in exasperation.
“I honestly thought you'd be staying home tonight. I didn't expect you to have to brave the elements when I invited you over. We could have always done this another time,” Reighur told his nephew.
Jerack looked a little embarrassed as he hung his coat and cloak on the stand by the door.
“Oh well, it wasn't that bad out. Every real Coroulian can take a little ice and snow. Otherwise they would have moved south or back across the ocean to the Homelands,” Jerack joked.
“Be that as it may, it was still a somewhat foolish thing to do,” his uncle replied. “Well, you're here now so let's get you somewhere warmer while we talk. The library fireplace is lit. Follow me.”
As Reighur led his guest down the hallway towards the library. Jerack started feeling warmer. They arrived in the library and Reighur pointed him towards a large cushioned chair. Jerack sat down and his uncle took the seat opposite of him.
There was a small ornate table between them, and the fire place blazed cheerfully to his left. The wood within crackled as the flames consumed it, and a faint smell of smoke filled the air.
As Jerack was making himself comfortable and enjoying the heat, a young maid walked into the room with a porcelain teapot and two cups on a silver tray. She smoothly placed the tray on the table and poured him and his uncle a cup of tea, before curtsying and walking away.
Both Reighur and Jerack took a sip. Jerack shivered one last time as the heat from the warm liquid and the fire drove the last of the chill from his bones.
“So, your father tells me you want to join the guard. Why the sudden decision?” Reighur asked his nephew politely.
Jerack frowned in response. He didn't think it was a sudden decision at all.
“Well, you know what's going on in the world right now better than I do, uncle,” Jerack stated as his uncle nodded. “Teshura and Hulgaron have been at war for a while now, and while they are pretty far to the south it seems more than likely that Eloria and Deveshur will start fighting soon as well. If that happens we won’t be able to stay out of the fighting. It seems like we're going to need soldiers very soon.”
His uncle raised an eyebrow and displayed a questioning expression.
“So you want to join the Elorian army?” Reighur asked tentatively, but Jerack shook his head vehemently in response.
“No, uncle; I’m not a fool. I've heard you, father, and others talking. The king of Eloria may think he owns Coroulis but no one here wants to die for him. Half the city is from Deveshur,” Jerack explained.
His uncle sighed before responding. He seemed reluctant to speak but he spoke up anyway.
“I see you've put quite a bit of thought into this. So what do you think is going to happen then?” the older man asked.
“Coroulis is the greatest city of the North. It's barely garrisoned, pays pretty much no taxes, and is run by the city council. I know you and father think that the city will break away before getting caught up in a southern war, and I think you're right. If it does separate then it will pull the rest of the North with it into a new country. I think that country will need an army and someone in the Coroulian guard would be well placed to rise when that army is formed,” Jerack continued passionately.
His uncle looked thoughtful as he considered his nephews words.
“You're not completely wrong,” his uncle replied after several drawn out seconds. "Very well, I will help you get into the guard. I think that yours is not a bad plan.”
Jerack eyes opened in surprise. He had not expected his uncle to support him. His father had been set against it.
“Thank you, uncle. By the gods I swear I will return the favor someday!” Jerack exclaimed excitedly as his uncle chuckled.
“No need to be so melodramatic, Jerack. I know your father disapproves of how much time you spend outside, instead of working with him. The gods know it's dangerous outside the walls, but you should do what you want with your life. That's how I became a merchant after all,” Reighur told Jerack.
After that both of them made small talk and discussed the latest events. Soon however the tea had grown cold, the fire had burned down, and they both grew tired. Jerack yawned as fatigue caught up with him.
“Well, I really should be getting back. Thank you for having me over, and again thank you so much for your support,” Jerack said.
His uncle looked surprised at the younger man's words. His tea cup clanked lightly against his plate as he set it down.
“Nonsense, nephew; I won't have you going back out in such terrible weather at this time of night. You will stay over tonight and head back tomorrow morning. I will have the servants prepare a room for you,” Reighur insisted.
Jerack thought about it. He didn't want his father to worry about him, but at this time of night he was undoubtedly already in bed. As long as headed home at dawn before his father awoke it shouldn't be a problem.
“Very well. Thank you again, uncle,” Jerack answered.
Both the men then got up and shook hands as they said goodnight. Reighur called for a servant to take Jerack to his chamber and the young man went to bed. His earlier walk must have tired him out more than he knew because he was asleep almost before he hit the sheets.
Jerack was awoken by the clanging of bells early the next morning. That wasn't right. What time was it? Groggily he got to his feet and opened the window's shutters.
Outside, the dawn sun was still rising over the snow covered city and had yet to banish the last of the night's darkness. Why were the city bells ringing so early? It made no sense. With a yawn, Jerack quickly got dressed and walked out into the halls.
He didn't see anyone around so he marched to the kitchen. There several servants were chatting excitedly amongst themselves. Most looked either very tired or very worried.
“What's going on?” he asked loudly and authoritatively as he entered the room.
He hoped someone here could explain things. A sense of unease had been slowly building within him ever since he had woken up and he didn't know why.
All the servants turned to him as he spoke. They cast each other nervous glances before one answered.
“We don't know, sir. All we know is the city bells are ringing and Marial says it's the call to arms. Although, the rest of us aren't so sure,” one older woman answered hesitantly. Jerack thought she was his uncle's cook.
Was it an attack? That made no sense. Who would or even could attack them in the dead of winter? Even traders stopped arriving for the most part when the roads filled with snow.. .
“Are my uncle and aunt awake?” Jerack asked as he frowned.
“We were just deciding whether to wake them, sir,” the woman answered nervously.
“Do so, and tell them I'm heading out to find out what's going on and should be back soon with some answers,” Jerack commanded them.
The young man then turned around and swiftly made for the entrance. His hurried footsteps caused the wooden floor to creak beneath him.
Wrapping his coat tightly around himself, he stepped out the front door and back into the frigid white city streets. With a sigh he then started stomping through the snow drifts towards the road.
His breath was white and visible in the cold air, but at least the morning sun warmed him a little and the wind had died down.
The streets were mostly deserted, as was normal for this early in the morning. However, a small group of people were huddled together in a nearby sheltered doorway. They looked apprehensive and uneasy to Jerack.
He was just about to head over to them, when he heard the clutter of horseshoes on stone. Looking over he saw riders wearing guard uniforms coming down the street. The guardsmen didn't seem to be slowing as they approached, so Jerack called out to them.
“Why are the bells ringing? What's going on?” he yelled as loudly as he could.
The riders blew past him as they raced toward their destination, but one turned towards Jerack and quickly replied.
“There's a drake lose in the city. It was last seen around Lowpoint. Please return to your homes citizens,” the guardsman yelled back before he and his fellow riders disappeared down the road. They left nothing but a long cloud of swirling snow behind them.
A drake! That made no sense; everyone knew they went underground into the Deeps for the winter. Wait, had the guard said Lowpoint? That was where his father's house was! The bells probably wouldn't have woken him; he had always been a sound sleeper.
Jerack took off down the street towards his home. As he ran the snow crunched under his feet, and the quality of the buildings around him dropped. They became smaller and less ornate, with more wood and less stone or brick, as he approached workman's area of the city where his father lived.
He passed several small groups of talking people as he ran. One group even called out to him, but he ignored them as he hurried home. He had no time for them; he had to make sure his father was safe!
As he turned the corner towards Lowpoint, a sudden terrible roar blasted through the city and overwhelmed him. He stumbled in surprise and fright as the deep scream cascaded over him. Even his bones seemed to shake for a second.
Jerack had heard the howl of a drake before and seen their tracks out in the forest but he had never seen one face to face. Few people had and lived.
With a shiver of dread he realized that this drake sounded very close and very large. He paused in his run. Did he really want to head towards the beast? He had no choice though; he had get his father to safety.
He was startled by a unexpected bang. The sound of buildings being torn apart and collapsing rubble exploded over him. Screams of horror and pain quickly followed.
With a start Jerack realized people were dying. The very idea shocked him; he had never been around much violence. Then an unexpected splash of color up against a nearby wall caught his eye.
It was a shredded corpse. Its blue guardsman uniform and the crimson blood dripping from its ripped open stomach were the source of the vivid colors that had attracted his attention.
Jerack froze and gagged. Desperately he tried not to vomit. Looking about he spotted another discarded human body and then another. His eyes went wide with fear and he choked painfully as he spewed vomit onto the snow at his feet uncontrollably.
What was going on here? The terrible scene before him made no sense. He felt sick. Even a large drake shouldn't be this big of a problem for the guards, and it certainly shouldn't be crushing buildings! Jerack began to twitch and go pale as he panicked. He shouldn't be here!
Suddenly, he heard more screams from alarmingly close by. His head jerked to the right to see a small group of people run past him. They were a man and a woman clutching a small child to her breast; a family.
The terror on their faces was plain and struck Jerack hard, drawing out his own fear. They weren't even dressed for the weather. Something dreadful must have driven them from their home without giving them any time to plan whatsoever. He couldn't even imagine...
Jerack was terrified now. He wanted to continue on, but he couldn't take another step forward no matter how hard he tried. He was frozen in fear, and it shamed him deeply.
A sudden gust whipped past and blew snow into the air all around him. He felt goose bumps rise on his skin as the temperature plummeted.
From somewhere out in the white haze that had risen around him a explosive cracking sound erupted. Blindly, Jerack blindly spun around in fright as his heart tried to leap out of his chest. Horror awaited him as the wind died down.
For a second he didn't believe his eyes. Crouched on the still crumbling remains of a casually demolished house sat the drake. The size of its grey scaled bulk defied belief. Surely it couldn't be real. It had to be a dream... a nightmare.
The beast dwarfed some of the homes around it. It balanced upon the rubble with four stocky legs that ended in curled claws meant for catching and ripping open prey.
Its long thin tail swished behind it, throwing thick white clouds of snow up into the air. Its head sat upon a thick neck and bore a blue feathered crest. A line of blue feathers also ran down its back and stuck out from the back of its knees and the end of its tail.
However it was the dreadful beast's lizard like head that Jerack couldn't tear his gaze away from. The humongous drake calmly surveyed its surroundings with intelligent hungry yellow eyes. It seemed totally unconcerned that it was currently right in the middle of a human city.
Long sharp teeth flashed and blood dripped from its maw as it chewed its latest meal, the family that had just run past. It must have burst through the building and snatched them up in one lightning quick snap of its jaws. They hadn't had a chance.
Blood was splattered across the once pure snow where they had been just seconds ago, and stained bits of cloth fluttered away in the wind. If there had been anything left in Jerack's stomach he would have thrown up again. As it was he could only stand there and shudder uncontrollably with his eyes wide in horror.
One yellow eye of the beast flickered and Jerack thought it focused on him for a second. The beast continued leisurely chewing but Jerack had no doubt whatsoever that it was aware of him. It simply wasn't in a hurry, or maybe he didn't look that appetizing.
Time seemed to have gone still for Jerack, or maybe it was stuck in an endless twisted loop. There was only the fluttering snow and the gnashing of the drake's teeth, over and over again; every bite and chomping sound brought Jerack one step closer to losing his mind. It wore on him, like a countdown to his own demise spoken in a language he didn't understand. He was going to die.
Then the beast swallowed the last of its grizzly meal and to Jerack's surprise looked away down another street. Was it playing with him? Surely it wouldn't just leave him there. A buzzing sound built up in his ears. He didn't register it at first but as soon as he realized it was there a hail of arrows tore down from the sky upon the drake.
The beast hunched its shoulders and turned its face from the unexpected barrage. The projectiles bounced and shattered on its grey scaly head. It was uninjured but as it raised its head Jerack thought it looked infuriated. The beast roared again and the sound of its displeasure tore through the city blasting away all other lesser sounds.
“Run you blasted idiot!” Jerack heard someone yell from behind him.
It took a second for him to recognize the sound as language, and another to move his stiff body and look for the source. He turned to see a squad of guardsmen. The sergeant in front was mounted on a horse and bore a long hunting spear. He was motioning for Jerack to run.
Jerack cast a terrified look back at the beast; he was too afraid to move while it was still there. The beast however seemed to be descending from its perch among the rubble, and was moving away from him towards the source of the arrows.
Jerack bolted. He didn't even think about it, he just did it. His feet carried him. Without looking back he rushed towards the soldiers. Please don't let it be following me! Please gods I beg you!
As he reached the soldiers in their blue uniforms the sergeant spoke again.
“Keep running, lad! Head for the fort,” he told Jerack before motioning to his men and leading them after the beast.
Doing as he was told, Jerack ran past them. He scampered desperately through the snow towards the end of the street.
Surely he was safe now? The guards were here and they had mounts and spears for hunting drakes. The beasts were far from invincible, even unusually large ones.
Jerack ran over to a barrel someone had placed up against a house and threw himself behind it. There he began to suck down air as he tried to catch his breath. When his lungs no longer felt like they were burning and the dark terror that had clouded his mind begun to die down he risked a look out from his hiding spot.
Dozens of guardsmen had the drake surrounded. Several groups with swords and spears circled it, working in unison to keep it at bay. Every time it tried to go after one group then archers hidden among the buildings would distract it with a rain of arrows.
The drake was hissing and growling as it twisted and turned madly in an attempt to catch its tormentors, but they hadn't hurt it yet. Its hide remained unbreached.
Suddenly one man got too close and the drake lashed out viciously. Its teeth closed down on the unlucky man and with a jerk of its neck it sent his corpse sailing through the air and over a building in a rain of blood.
The sergeant didn't waste the opportunity his man's death had created. He lowered his spear and spurred his horse into a charge at the beast's unprotected flank.
Jerack felt his heart soar. He was seeing something out of a story! He wanted to join the guard more than ever now. He wanted to be like the sergeant, fearless and skilled.
The mounted officer's horse launched itself forward and the clatter of horse hooves echoed through the streets. As he approached the drake it turned towards him. Jerack knew that was alright; its head was even more of target than its flank. A good strike there would bring it down instantly!
Jerack watched with anticipation as the two combatants closed. Surely the guardsman would be victorious.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye Jerack noticed something strange. An odd breeze had begun to blow around the drake. It circled it like a slow whirlwind. The guardsmen closest to the beast begun to falter and retreat; some pulled back while others simply collapsed onto the ground and curled up in the snow.
With what seemed like a vicious smile, the great grey drake then opened its mouth and roared towards the charging guardsman.
Its breath picked up the snow and blew it forward. What was it doing? Opening its mouth just made it an even better target. What was going on? Jerack felt his earlier dread creep back up his spine. Something was very wrong.
As the wave of blown snow reached the mounted officer he seemed to stiffen and his horse slowed. Jerack almost thought he saw white frost build up on them. Then they both stopped moving completely, right before impacting the drake. Jerack gasped in uncomprehending horror as the brave soldier and his mount toppled over stiffly to lay unmoving at the beast’s feet.
With a hissing noise that sounded almost like a snicker the terrible monster flicked its tail out and smashed the guardsman. Frozen chunks of meat were thrown into the air as he shattered. The crimson broken pieces of the man then fell to the ground and rolled through the snow.
The drake turned towards the other guardsmen and blew another blast of freezing breath towards them. They struggled futilely and fell as Jerack looked on trembling in numb despair. This couldn't be happening!
No wonder the beast was so large and active during the winter. It was a mutant. That wasn't fair. What were the chances of such a huge beast surviving being twisted by such powerful magic! How could the gods allow such a cruel joke?
As Jerack watched the mutant drake scatter the remains of the guardsman he had a dreadful premonition. The entire city would be brought to its knees by this unholy beast. It would feed freely on men, women, and children. The guardsmen, nobles, and probably even the mages would be helpless before it and its killing magical cold.
Some of his neighbors would die as they cowered in their homes until they starved, froze, or were eaten. Others would try and evacuate only to collapse along the road one by one as they struggled futilely to make the dangerous journey through the snow filled roads to safety.
Coroulis was doomed. Soon it would be a place of bloody terror, and soon after that it would be a frozen graveyard. Jerack began to weep in despair as he stumbled blindly away through the snow.