|The journey is instantaneous and seeming without transition – one moment he is in the laboratory of Dr. Darr, the next he is above the Plateau – several feet above, in fact.|
He does not land well, so astonished is he to find the floor missing beneath his feet. ‘Tricky to calibrate’, indeed.
Perilous Jack drags himself painfully to his feet, blinking in the dazzling light of day. All around, the stony plain rolls away, flat as a board. There is no doubt that he is on the Plateau of the Endless, once the center of the Emerald Dynasty’s civilization, for the ground is entirely paved with the stonework of the Old Ones, and FloatStone platforms, CacheStones, GreenShafts, and sudden pits are everywhere to be seen. For a moment, Jack struggles with some oddity in the surroundings, and at last, it resolves – there is nothing moving as far as he can see. There are shrubs and trees scattered about, and the odd grassy hill. A few clouds drift overhead, but otherwise nothing moves, nothing lives.
“It is curious,” says a profoundly deep voice nearby and overhead. Jack turns and finds himself dazzled by the midday sun. He raises a hand to shield his eyes, but can see hardly better that way. “I have seen people and objects fall out of the sky, but in all my centuries I have never seen anything fall out of reality itself.”
The speaker shifts, briefly blocking the sunlight, and by the size and shape of the body and the quality of the voice, there is no doubt that it is a Dragon. A hint of suspicion assails Jack – did Dr. Darr intentionally drop him in front of such a foe? Is this another ‘miscalibration’? Or perhaps the Doctor did not deceive him; perhaps the hall of the dwarves is nigh, and this encounter is accidental.
The huge creature drops from its platform into a patch of shade, and now Jack can see more of its body. It is far from the largest example of its type, but certainly large enough to pose a serious threat to a solitary warrior. It is green and gold of scale, green in the wings, and frilled around the head with at least a dozen golden spikes tipped with green. The shape of the ears and the broadness of the head indicate to Jack that the Dragon is male. He looks, Jack thinks, rather like a type of desert dragon he once encountered in hot Arih far to the south, but what a Sand Dragon would be doing on the cold Plateau of the Endless he cannot imagine.
Yet this latter line of thought inspires him. The fact that the Dragon has not already tried to eat him is promising; if he can keep the Dragon engaged in other business, there may be a way out.
“Rather rare thing these days, isn’t it?” Jack comments, casual as if he were making conversation with the serving girl at one of Furud’s famous outdoor cafes. “The sunshine, I mean. Getting dark sooner and staying dark longer, isn’t it?”
The Dragon turns and stares directly into the Sun without blinking for a moment or two. “Aye,” he says at last. He turns back and stares at Jack with eyes as gold and brilliant as the Sun. “The Nightcrystal is broken,” the Dragon says, as if that were common knowledge, but there is a gleam of interest in the Dragon’s eyes as he watches Jack’s reaction.
“I know,” the warrior says at last. “I watched it happen, in a realm beyond the borders of sanity. I seek the Shards even now, although there is a task I must perform first.” He screws up his courage and forges on. “Do you know of a Pyrohydra about? Or the castle of a Cloud Giant?”
“This is the Plateau of the Endless,” the Dragon says indifferently, and Jack can read the answer in his words: there are plenty of both to be found here.
The Dragon utters an irritable click and draws himself upright. “Do you know who I am?”
This is a delicate situation, Jack reflects. Simply to say ‘no’ would imply that the Dragon’s fame is insufficient to warrant the human’s attention, an affront that would certainly lead to combat.
“Of course, my lord,” he replies. “Your reputation overshadows even that of Old Xan Himself. I fear I am incapable of speaking your name with the facility required, however. My tongue is insufficient to the task.”
The Dragon gives further signs of irritation, but Jack can tell by the flush inside the creature’s ears that he is pleased with the answer.
“Agolozzagheridolihaabilzoloakengheri,” the Dragon pronounces regally.
“I am deeply honored to hear your name spoken by your own tongue, my lord. My name is Jack.”
The Dragon frowns in distaste. “A poor name. No music.”
Agolozzagheridolihaabilzoloakengheri suddenly brightens, as if a fine idea had just occurred to him. “Have you any treasure?”
Jack conceals a smile. There are few things more predictable than a Dragon.