Midnight, the time in which men lived and died. A shrouded full moon, hanging low in the sky, reflected the fires from the fiercely burning fortress. The dense clinging smoke from the inferno, and the smoldering burnt out defense works, drifted aimlessly, so thick men could taste it, eyes watered relentlessly. Everywhere fiery embers floated like black and red snowflakes singeing bare skin. The cries of the lost, the fearful, and dying echoed eerily off the stonewalls, in hostile obscurity, like the souls of the damned. In the acrid smoke blanketed ruins, men hunted each other; some dying quickly, others so grievously wounded they lay quiet, dying alone.

A man moved carefully in the drifting choking smoke, for to be seen would mean his death, as every shadow harbored a potential enemy. The mercenary company he had been attached to was gone; destroyed, as was the prince’s army. The man moved awkwardly, favoring his shoulder; a crude sling supporting the broken arm. The collapse of a dry riverbed bank had cost him his horse, his only means of escape. Breaking his arm in the fall, his sword had clattered off in the darkness from his suddenly useless hand. Unable to take the time to locate it, he scrambled for cover, cradling his injury. The pungent tainted air made him terribly thirsty. He knew there was a tiny spring near the embankment where his company had been dug in. Now, in the threatening sinister shadows, he tried to find this same place.

Sounds were all around, and he hugged the bank. His head cocked sideways, eyes bloodshot and stinging, he stared hard, trying to pierce the gloom; hoping to identify any threatening noise amongst the myriad assortment of sounds echoing about. He pushed up against the bank trying to blend into the darkness, making himself invisible. It was then he found the water he sought. Wearily dropping to his knees, he plunged his face through the floating ash and dirt to gulp warm brackish water. The snorting of a horse made him jump. Unable to tell if the rider was friend or foe, he frantically looked for a way to escape, but there was none. The wounded soldier dived for the hole the spring flowed from. He painfully squirmed on his stomach through the wet, grimy muck, and found himself in narrow tunnel. The claustrophobic crawlway tightened threateningly about him, and twice his body became firmly wedged. The injured man fought down the panic that hovered, ready to consume him. He fumbled awkwardly at his belt, his questing fingers grasping the dagger that hung there. His rapidly pounding heart skipping a beat as his arm lodged against his chest, stuck. Frantically working to free the trapped limb in the confining space, he whimpered when the strap on his haversack broke, quite unintentionally cut by the moving blade. He lay still, forehead in the grime as he steadied his breathing, waiting for his racing heart to steady and slow, then, he attacked the soft earth with the desperately won bit of metal. However, elation swiftly turned to despair when the dagger clinked on a hidden stone, shattering. His clawed fingers, digging frantically made headway. His breathing was harsh in the confined space; he could feel his blood pounding in his ears. Small rocks trickled onto him, and bits of earth wafted gently down. He blinked his rapidly tearing eyes to clear the grime that stuck there.

After wiping his face with a quick brush, from his torn and bloody sleeve and with an almost child-like sob he cried, “Please God, help me!”

Again, he attacked the debris holding him from freedom. He peered at the overhead, inches from his up turned face, and involuntarily thought of all the hundreds, or even thousands of feet of rock and earth that towered menacingly above him. Panic again threatened to rear its ugly head, and he had to ruthlessly fight down the terror of being buried alive, deep in the womb of the uncaring mountain; which would surely kill him, as quickly as any enemy’s sword.

After a fierce titanic struggle, he broke through into the bigger watercourse, falling into a torrent of rushing water. He gasped at the sudden coldness. The icy water quickly numbed his bruises, his torn bleeding fingers with shredded nails, and his broken arm.  Gulping in great breaths of ‘fresh’ air, he lay, letting the soothing water wash over him. Suddenly gratefully to be alive he started laughing. The laugher started building, soon the hysterical noise echoed alarmingly off the stone tunnel. He rolled onto his stomach, eyes streaming tears from the fit he seemed unable to stop. Suddenly off balance, he toppled sideways, his injury smacking cruelly against the stone. Instantly blinding pain, shooting through every fiber of his body sobered him, allowing him to now to rein in the hysteria. After drinking his fill, the man stood awkwardly under the low ceiling, leaning against the uneven wall, supporting his injured arm. He stumbled off; it was time to make his way out of the hellish blackness. The man soon lost all sense of time or direction, but he kept moving. To quit now, would be to die, and the man had a strong desire to live.

Suddenly, rock began to shake and rumble. Dirt and other debris fell, accompanied by an ominous grinding noise from all around him. Without any warning, the stone gave way underneath him and he plunged down. His cry of surprise soon became one of pain. The thundering, crashing rocks and roaring, rushing water inundated his senses. The falling mass booming all around him drove out any fear in the need to survive. Battered and bruised, he desperately fought his way clear, then sank to the cold unyielding rock, and let darkness claim him.

Time had lost any meaning when he regained consciousness. The only thing that had any significance was pain. His body was racked with it. Everything he either touched or moved hurt, but the pain meant he was alive, for which he was grateful and gave silent thanks. Weakly he sat up. The water had drained away to form a small stream nearby. The man was thankful, for now at least his uniform had started to dry. He coughed in the cool air, blinking as sunlight probed his sensitive eyes. He glanced up at the light streaming in from a crack in the rock high above. From here it looked far too small for him to get out. He looked around. Seeing the cavern disappearing into the dark, the man dug into his bag and awkwardly pulled out a small candle, then the flint and steel. After a frustrating, agonizing few minutes, he succeeded in generating a comforting light to explore his new surroundings with.  He followed the tunnel upwards, till he came to a pile of bones. From the look of them, they had been humanoid. The armor was now rotted and decayed, the weapons rusted. The man squatted on his heels and poked through the remains. He saw a glint in the flickering candlelight, so he moved closer, and putting the candle on the ground, picked up a crown. It was elaborately worked in the graceful flowing shape and design that the elves were noted for. It was a bit tarnished, but the rubies appeared flawless. He recovered the rapidly disappearing light source, now just a ball of wax. He found some half rotted torches in the pile of rubbish, and soon had the torches lit. The soldier, quickly casting around, found two more crowns of the same design; one with a black pearl and the third with a diamond. These looked to be extremely valuable. He took all three with him.

What attracted the man now, was the huge winged skeleton; it must have been close to thirty feet long where it disappeared under tons of rock. An ancient cave-in must have killed the dragon during the fight along with the hunters. The soldier idly wondered what titanic forces had been used. Maybe the combatants themselves had caused the collapse. But one thing was clear, the tunnel was blocked for good and there would be no way out. Despairing, the man turned and headed in the opposite direction. The tunnel opened into a massive cavern. Light poured from an oval hole in the roof, big enough for the dragon to fly through. This must be the crater of the silent giant that dominated the skyline near Marcastle Keep. It was this sleeping volcano that was responsible for the earthquakes in the area. That must be why the dragon had made its lair here, trusting that men would be afraid of an eruption.

Sun glittered off thousands of coins, some in chests, some in barrels and much, much more just scattered over the ground. The solider could see a couple wagons and even the remains of a mastless ship. The hoard also had armor, weapons of every sort from longbows to bastard swords. And what made the man’s heart leap; there was no rust that he could see. That could only mean one thing; they were magic. This dragon hoard would make any king give up his kingdom. The man sank to the ground, stunned by the enormity of what he had found. The sputtering torch started to singe his fingers, making him yelp in pain and surprise. He had enough money to buy and sell many of the kingdoms in the known world. Now, he could be the man he had always wanted to be.

Raiders had plundered his family’s coastal estate years ago. They had slaughtered most of the workers and his friends, taken his sisters and other girls captive, the same ones who had made him a slave for those many years. Things would change; someone would pay.

Sitting on the small mound of debris looking at the wealth strewn all around, he knew he was rich beyond his wildest dreams. Now, he began to think about what he could do with all this money. He was suddenly conscious of the stench of death that clung to him, the odor of dried blood and the smell of soot from the fires. The smeared mess down the front of his charred tunic was his friend, already dead even as the solider pulled him from the burning breastworks. The gruesome muck now dry and hardened. He suddenly gagged and bent forward, throwing up. Sitting back on his heels, his head sagged, and he closed his eyes in sorrow as he wiped the foul mess from his lips, spitting once to clear the fetid taste from his mouth.

He thought back over the last few months, the battle in the Meadow, the massacre at the Keep. He saw in his mind’s eye all the men he knew who had died. He re-lived again the day when his cavalry had run down the fleeing Dun-lyn soldiers, hacking and stabbing in a killing frenzy till they were all sickened by what they had done. There had been far too many deaths, and in light of all the death and destruction he had either witnessed or had been a part of, revenge didn’t seem so important now. No one could ever bring back his missing family, another dead friend, or give him back the fifteen years that had been stolen from him. For the first time in his life he had the ways and means to really make a difference. He straightened his back, suddenly determined that he would.

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