The Burnt World of Athas

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The crimson sun beat down mercilessly on the dry backs of the wandering desert pirates. Waves of choking silt filled the olive tinged sky, coating their mouths and throats with thick, pearly white loess. Many of them looked South at the Estuary of the forked tongue, their looks of disgust quite evident on their dry and cracked faces. Visibility was at most six feet in front of them, with their leader, Dematrix, holding a stolen King’s Eye, a small tube of glass that provided vision through the churning storm of dust, standing confidently in front. The sun was temporarily masked behind a curtain of debris as a strong gust of wind stirred the sands high into the atmosphere.

Yet they continued on, without a mumble or a grunt. They were veteran nomads, and the harsh conditions of the Athasian desert were nothing new to them. Each man had little more than half a canteen of water, but it would not be used until their tongues became too swollen for air to pass. Already their blood thickened with the beginnings of dehydration, their heart pumping harder and slower in an effort to circulate it through their tired bodies. This was everyday life on the wasteland planet.

The pirates’ leader, Dematrix, paused, grinding the dreary procession to a halt. He sniffed the air in front of him. Raising a hand on which the two center fingers were pinned together by a large, precious bronze ring, a symbol of his wizardly status, he motioned for five of his warrior pirates to step forward.

Uttering a quick incantation which rendered all six of them invisible, Dematrix opened his bronzed palm and began to gather the energy he would need for his next spell. He thrust his hand toward the sands, magically draining the precious life force out of the surrounding area. The few desert plants that inhabited the area slowly withered, their blackening leaves silently begging for mercy. The very sand around his boots turned a sickly gray, degenerating into lifeless soot. All non-animal life force in the immediate vicinity was absorbed into the defiler wizard’s opened palm, furthering the deterioration of the already dying planet. On Athas, magic and life were inexorably intertwined. One could not advance in one without damaging the other.

Yet Dematrix was oblivious to it all. He was a defiler, a wizard bereft of feeling, and infused with the power of evil. Yet his power was far from complete. Without the empowering life force of plants, he was nothing, less than nothing. He longed for the day when the stories told in taverns and bathhouses across the land would become a reality for him. When the tales told to naughty children to terrify them into obedience would become the stuff of his life. When the day finally came that he would begin the transformation into a dragon.

The Dragon, the legendary Borys of Ebe, the most terrible of all, had inexplicably disappeared, and a power vacuum had formed very quickly. The sorcerer-kings, all dragons upon some step of the transformation, were too immersed in the internal affairs of their city-states to notice that a position of power had opened, and if they had noticed, they didn’t care. A dragon was a being who did not need the life force of anything to power his spells. He infused the Way of the Unseen, the power of the mind, with the force of magic to produce spells of incredible magnitude. Dematrix’s eyes burned with lust, filled with a lifetime of unquenchable yearning, a desire for a power beyond that reserved for mortal man. There was only one roadblock from his ultimate dream. He had no idea where to start.

Dematrix abruptly cut off the flow of life into his palm with a sharp flick of his wrist. All around, he dead husks of silverscrubb and arrowweed dropped lifeless to the soot encrusted ground. Dematrix’s mouth twisted into an evil smile. Deep within his mind, he justified his actions by telling himself that they were only plants, and no one cares about them. But truly within the deep recesses of his blackened heart, he understood that dead soil meant no farmland for wandering humans. It meant no food for the grazing erdlu herds, he understood that the destruction of even this insignificant link in the food chain crept upward like a silent predator, a predator which he had released to feed.

It was possible to spare the land the agony of the intense violation, by drawing the life force slowly and carefully, not taking too much, and replacing that which is not used. Such was known as the Way of the Preserver. But it was a slow, tedious, and far less powerful path to tread. Dematrix’s limbs tingled with the power of life force, and he laughed aloud at the ignorance of the Preservers. They would never experience the ecstasy of real power, taste the flow of pure energy through their veins. He could have joined the ranks of these, and had he the patience and the ignorance of the followers of good, he may very well have done this. But he did not. He was a defiler, a dragon in its infancy, and this was the path he had chosen to follow.

As the life force merged with Dematrix’s body, he crouched low, and motioned for his invisible warriors to do the same. What he had sniffed earlier was the powerful stench of mekillot dung. He knew that where the giant lizards were, a caravan of trade goods was likely to follow. He raised his black eyes over the crest of the dune. He saw something that made his pirate’s mind tingle with delight.

Motionless, and seemingly bereft of activity, a caravan bearing the standard of the merchant house Wavir lay in the center of the winding road toward the free city-state of Tyr. Several guards, who apparently seemed asleep, flanked the large fortress-wagon. Several arrow slits lined the walls of the wagon, but no nocked arrows served warning to any would-be raiders. There was nothing to indicate the wagon was prepared for an attack. Which was exactly what Dematrix planned to do.

With a mighty yell, he spurred his men forward. They rushed down the hill with the fury of a desert cyclone, all traces of their battered state fleeing as the battle rage entered their blood. But the guards did not respond. They seemed totally unaware that the attack was taking place, so the raiders paid them a puzzled glance, and fell upon the booty within the wooden walls of the argosy.

Dematrix allowed his men to gather the riches of the caravan, a drill practiced hundreds of times, and walked over to one of the motionless guards. They could not be sleeping, as no one could have slept through the din of the pirate’s raid. He stood over a guard whose helm had fallen over his face, masking his features. Dematrix cocked his leg back, and with a grunt, pummeled the guard in the ribs. He heard the satisfying crack of breaking bone. There was no response from the man. Dematrix cocked his leg again, and kicked the man even harder. This time, a laceration opened up, and cold, dark blood oozed from the wound like crimson molasses. As if in mocking delight, a strong gust of wind dislodged the guard’s leather helm. Dematrix stood motionless at what he saw, years of watching horrors only a dark mage could know stifling the gasp within his throat.

The guards features were barely distinguishable as humanoid. His skin was dried and cracked horribly, and his eyes looked like raisins in the vast void of his empty eyes sockets. Bleached and cracked teeth stared outward, colored white like pale angels of death.

"Dehydration," Dematrix mumbled.

Dematrix scowled as he saw his men exit the main cargo hold with several copper and silver coins. Several more were heading toward the treasure hold. Dematrix knew the law he had created, first come, first serve. Even he abided by that rule. He tore open the hinged bone door of the wagon, and began to fill his pack with feathers, jewels, kola nuts, and other trinkets. He opened up his erdlu hide water skin, and began to fill it with water from a large cistern in the middle of the floor.

Dematrix stopped and stared dumbfounded into the murky brown liquid. If this was water, then those men could NOT have died from dehydration! But what other than the punishing orb of the sun could kill a man in such a way? Nothing natural under the two moons could do such a thing! He burst from the cargo hold, a powerful spell of destruction already on his dried lips. He called for his men to draw all weapons, and stand ready for battle.

It was then that he noticed the footprint. It was large, almost 3 feet long. It began in a knobby heel, and arched incredibly one fourth of the way in. Three claws tore into the rocks around it, ripping them apart like an old dishrag. The ball of the foot sank nearly 3 inches into the sand, and considering the winds, it was reasonable to assume it was originally even deeper. Such a creature would have to have the strength of a giant, and the weight of a mountain. He had never seen anything remotely like this. Except......

"What by Ral is that!" shouted Kyrastin, his dwarven third in command. With strength that defied his stringy appearance, Dematrix grabbed the dwarf, who looked more like a boulder wrapped in a bronzed skin and molded into a short, stocky humanoid form, and lifted him from the ground by his leather tunic.

"Tell no one of this," Dematrix hissed in his deep, gravely voice, "otherwise I will cut out your tongue and pour hot sand down your bleeding throat!"

The dwarf nodded, no fear showing in his gray eyes, only stark and utter hatred for his commander. But the dwarf held his rage in check, for he knew that defiance led to a swift though agonizing death. Once Dematrix put him on the ground, the proud dwarf vented his frustration on his subordinates.

A wry grin spread across Dematrix’s face as he look a long drink of water, an idea of what this creature was already taking form in his twisted mind.

Later that night, after the moons had fallen behind the barrier of the Ringing Mountains, and the camp of the desert pirates was thick with the stench of unwashed bodies and stale beer, Dematrix sat alone, apart from the drunkenness of his men. His eyes held a dark, withdrawn look. He knew his men hated him, and he did not blame them. Yet within that hate lived fear. And it was that fear which caused him to remain their leader.

In small leather pouches, Dematrix examined his vile spell components. Kes’tre’kel dung, inix tongue, and other disgusting concoctions. Finally, he withdrew a parchment scroll from an especially deep recess in his robe. The worn paper was thick with the smell of death and the sweet smell of decay.

Dematrix hunched over the sheet of dried skin, his brow furrowing in deep concentration. His eyes ran left to right, dissecting the words over and over again, until they became imprinted in his mind.

The destroyers of life, the slayers of goodness, the killers of the desert. How few of us there are, we omnipotent terrors. Our very name invokes fear into souls of mortal beings. We were once inferior nature benders, as you who are reading this now are, we once were forced to rely on twig and leaf, husk and thorn, but now we are all powerful, capable of being destroyed only by each other. Woe come to Athas should we start a war with each other. We are the Dragons.

With a smile of triumph, Dematrix rolled the two ends of the parchment together and clasped it with a bone ring. He shoved it deep into his inix hide backpack. An evil grin took shape across his wicked face, the abrasive wind scouring his blackened teeth A Dragon! He thought. There was a dragon possibly within a hundred miles of his position! He had to find it and study it! He had to ask it where it drew its power from! There were so many questions he had to ask. The pace of his tiny heart quickened as the realization of his entire dark career began to coalesce before his fingertips. But he must not get ahead of himself, before he could ravage the beast with his hundreds of men, he must find it.

Once again he performed the age-old ritual of stealing life force from the desert sands. The earth blackened all around his boots. He drew a compass from his pouch, and placed it in the center of his open palm. He spoke the magic spell, and mouthed the word "Dragon" at the end. The metal compass sank into his hand, and his fingers began to radiate a pinkish glow. Which extended into his hand. Dematrix frowned, as that was not supposed to happen. It continued up into his wrist. Dematrix could not explain the behavior of his spell. The glow now enveloped his entire right forearm, where it stopped its expansion.

Two evil red eyes appeared within the heart of the glow. Then Dematrix’s entire arm broke into a maelstrom of fiery agony, as if someone had transformed his blood into molten steel. As he watched in horror through clenched and quivering eyes, he could see his forearm being torn off at the elbow. In a further blink, the limb became detached from his body, and the last tendon was severed. Through dim vision obscured by a red haze, he viewed his arm flying off toward the North.

Now you know where to look, upstart, whispered a raspy, reptilian voice in his mind.

Dematrix lapsed into unconsciousness.

When the evil mage woke, his entire shoulder was filled with the pain of a dull ache. Through his blurred vision, he could see that a large amount of his blood had flowed into the thirsty sands before his wound had finally clotted.

He sat up with a great deal of grunting, and examined his arm. The sands had covered it in a thick but lifesaving mass. He opened his canteen and cleaned the wound, wrapping a thick strip of cloth around it. He could still feel his hand, even though he knew it was not there, so he knew it was not to late for him to save his arm by magical means.

He quickly surveyed the campsite and picked up a piece of deadwood that approximately matched the size of his forearm. He took a deep breath, and shoved the sharpened end into the end of his stub. Dematrix’s entire body exploded into a world of endless pain, but he continued to push. He screamed aloud as the wood wound upward into his body. His legs twitched violently from the agony being pumped into him. Finally, he ceased to push, and the pain diminished slightly. Very slightly.

With his good hand, he extracted a pinch of ash. He placed it into the wound, and uttered something unintelligible. At once, the wound began to close over the piece of wood, and the tip of the branch sprouted into fingers, and slowly, flesh began to form around them. Dematrix flexed his animated arm, and quickly uttered a permanency spell. The fingers did not respond like his original arm, but it would do just fine.

Now Dematrix knew where to find his quarry, but still more threatening, it knew where to find him.

Dematrix rounded the corner of the immense argosy, and looked upon his men, who had completely consumed the caravan’s alcohol stores, and drunken themselves into a coma like stupor. Dematrix sneered his disgust. Even his screams of pain had not awakened them. For that at least he was thankful.

The mage looked toward the rising sun, which had just begun to clear the horizon, turning the sky its cruel olive color. He then looked to the North, where he would begin his search. Once again he began his practice of robbing the desert of its precious life energy. A shimmer appeared beneath his hand as the energy flowed up into his palm. He pulled a small bone tube from his pouch and held it up to his lips. His whispered his spell, and yelled into the tube. His voice was amplified nearly one hundred times its normal volume, and could be heard for miles all around.

Still the men did not stir. Incredulous, Dematrix examined them. They were indeed alive, just drunk out of their skulls. He uttered anther spell, and making sure their own barrels were full, levitated the cistern of water from the cargo hold of the wagon. Guiding it with his hand over the men’s heads, he quickly inverted his palm. and the gushing liquid poured onto the pirates.

They sat bolt upright, shaking their heads in surprise. They quickly regretted the action, as their heads banged with a dull ache. The cold water, which had nearly frozen during the freezing desert nights of the sun-descending season, was more than incentive for the men to begin preparations to move out. They carried out the age-old ritual of loading what they needed or wanted, and burned the rest, so other rival tribes would not benefit from what they could not carry.

Dematrix walked through the camp, inspecting the pack kanks, and the cargo inixes. The kanks were mildly overloaded, but that never bothered him. The six-legged giant insects were hearty creatures, made to survive in the desert. He then looked over the huge iguana like inix lizards, which were loaded with the heavier cargo, such as hunks of raw obsidian, and even a small quantity of priceless steel, which was rarer than water on the metal depleted world.

Satisfied that all was in order, he mounted his own kank, BlackClaw, and signaled for the raiders to move out. He turned to the North and ordered double speed. He left a small contingent behind to see to the pack animals, and placed a powerful protection spell around them to keep the merchandise safe from raiding elf tribes. At a full gallop, they began the march.

The mid morning sun was a fist, pounding down upon the brows of the men with the force of a thousand giants. The clenched paw of the star robbed their bodies of precious fluid, the hungry sands absorbing their sweat instantly. Round upon round they battled the flaming hand, yet they knew that only the bell of night would save them. The punishing orb laughed its cruel laugh and loose another barrage of blasting heat. The men didn’t know how they possibly bared it, they simply did.

Scouring sand blew into Dematrix’s face as he led his pirate tribe toward the Dragon he now knew was there. His kank was beginning to show signs of fatigue since the run this morning. The sun was beginning to reach its zenith, and the heat was nearly unbearable. BlackClaw slowed to a walk, and, to Dematrix’s frustration, no amount of pushing or prodding could get him to resume the run. Dematrix saw that the other animals were beginning to tire, so, reluctantly, he called a short rest. Sighing in relief, the men and the kanks began to drink from the large barrel mounted on the back of the one inix they had brought with them. Dematrix sighed and turned his attention to the setting sun. He was loath to make this rest with the dragon so close, but the men were close to exhaustion, he did not want an all out revolt. He fell to the sands, took a long draught from his water skin, and once again pondered his situation. What did he expect to do anyway if he did catch up to it? Capture it? Not likely! Probably fall to his knees and beg forgiveness for his impudence. But perhaps with the aid of his men, he could physically overpower the creature, and then use a powerful spell to extract the knowledge he needed. Of course, none of the men would survive, but once Dematrix had what he wanted, that mattered little to him. Still the men had been implicitly loyal, and would not have thrown their lives away needlessly. However, he did have great need.

The creature stared upward from its vantagepoint, which was twenty yards beneath the feet of the impudent magician who sought to usurp his position. He chuckled as he listened to the little man’s thoughts. Capture him? Extract knowledge from him? For the very notion he should tear the little man’s mind apart with the Way, pull every piece of knowledge from his brain, and allow him to wander drooling and listless through the desert until he died.

But not yet. He was interested in what the future brought. He was eager to see the expression of the defiler’s face when he destroyed his men one at a time, each one in a different, torturous way. Then, he would turn upon the defiler, and terrify him with sweet promises of pain. But, if the defiler and his company proved to be uninteresting, he would bore quickly, and simply kill them with a single mystic syllable.

The sun rose once again, and cast the sky in an olive tinged hue. Grumbling, the pirates hitched their luggage onto the armored abdomens of the pack kanks, and mounted the soldier insects that had been designated for riding. Dematrix motioned for them to move out, licking his chapped lips as an arid wind kissed his face. His thoughts still dwelt on the Dragon. He would simply have to deal with that issue when faced with it. He gave no thought to the consequences he might face. His insatiable lust for power blocked out all thoughts of turning back, stifled and killed any nuance of rationality. The day trudged wearily on, the same way every other day did. As the pirates prepared to end the day’s marching their mounts slowed and then stopped altogether. Their antennae rose from sleek black skulls as if probing the air for something. Dematrix sensed it too, though his men stared about in confusion. It was little less than a feeling at first, then it grew into a thick aura of power coalescing around them. It became difficult to breathe, the air thickening like soup. The kanks fell to the sands, squirming in a desperate attempt to remove the discomfort. Then a physical weight bore down on them, and the dirt around blackened into soot, absorbed by an unknown assailant. Dematrix moaned as he was forced to the ground. Weakly, he muttered an incantation that produced a magical shield, but quickly felt it swatted aside the same way he might swat at an insect. Dematrix knew the cause of it, he knew what was behind the incredible magic. He wailed in defeat as he felt his eyes being squeezed out of the sockets, as he felt his jaw collapse under the stress, as his lungs became a conglomeration of putty lodged within his chest. Dematrix and his men prepared for death.

And then it was over. As quickly as it had begun, it ended. The pain slowly slid away, and to Dematrix’s surprise, not a single scar marred his features.

"Such power!" he exclaimed.

This show of force did not deter the insane wizard, it merely drew him like a moth to a flame. The men slowly stirred, rising from their torture. They went to their kanks and mounted them, turning back in fear.

Dematrix yelled to them, "Wait!" he cried, " Do you realize what you are giving up! Don’t you realize what has happened! We are drawing close to what you have been promised! The lair of the beast lies within our grasp! Its hoards will be ours! I have the power to protect you!" Dematrix spoke his last sentence with no small amount of apprehension, afraid he might call down the wrath of the Dragon, which he was not yet prepared to deal with.

The men milled about in confusion, looking worriedly at the corpses of those who did not survive the magical onslaught, but in the end, their want for wealth overpowered their want for life. They mounted their kanks and continued after the crazed leader.

Dematrix sighed his relief as the men resumed their trek. He was of course lying about the treasure. At least, he thought he was. How was he to know whether or not the beast held a horde? If he did, the men were free to take it. Such mundane pleasures meant little to him now. He smiled at the small ambitions of the pirates, and continued forward, quickening the pace.

The sun was sinking beneath the distant sands on the horizon as Dematrix halted the party and set up camp. Once again the men crashed to the desert floor from the exhausting day of travel. Dematrix took his seat beyond the firelight of the camp, and once again retreated into his black covered spell book. He knew from his experiences as a wielder of dark magic that power of such stunning force had to have been drawn from somewhere, the meager life force of a few square feet of sand was nothing. The very laws of nature did not allow such magic to be drawn from oblivion. But what? Dematrix had no idea. He knew that a Dragon did not draw the bulk of its power from plants, power of that kind would be far too limiting. The sun? No, Sadira of Tyr was the only one capable of using that magic. The moon? No, Ral and Guthay were not living entities, as were the sun and the land, merely extensions of the Dark Sun.

Faced with a problem with no solution, Dematrix experimentally flexed his illusionary hand. It was becoming more and more difficult as the potency of the spell diminished. Dematrix banished the spell in order to conserve his strength, and cringed at the blackened stub that was his forearm. He tucked away his spellbook, contented to the solution wait until morning.

Dematrix dreamed that night, but not of pleasant things such as power, women or liquor. He dreamed horrors of such unspeakable magnitude, that he was unable to escape their dark web. The Dragon came to him in his sleep, its massive reptilian maw stretched wide in a horrible grin, and its razor talon extended out to him like knives of fury. Dematrix turned to run, but knew that the effort was futile. The great beast had enough psionic energy within its body to wipe out an entire city! How could a lowly wizard like he escape its wrath? Nevertheless , Dematrix’s instincts overtook him ,and he charged into the dense copse of arrowweed and silverscrub bushes. He could hear the Dragon howling in laughter behind him, but it only served to drive him further on. He could feel the hot breath of the beast upon his neck. The great juggernaut was moving closer and closer. A taloned fore claw stretched out.......

Dematrix woke in a cold sweat, and a massive grip relinquished its hold upon his mind. Dematrix wiped the salty liquid from his brow. Something had injected that dark vision into his mind. Years of tutelage at the Way of the Unseen told him that. He was amazed he was not alerted to it. But what? No wild beast had psychic talent of such magnitude to escape the notice of a master. He held his head in his palm as the answer dawned upon him. Psionics! The Dragon, and all other dragons were masters of the Way of the Unseen! How else could such powerful magics flow form their hands? Psionics acted as a tuner, so the mind could harness and act as a conduit for the unspeakable energies of the most powerful spells of all! Psionic Enchantments!

Dematrix heart raced with this newfound discovery. Could this be the answer to the mystery of dragon magic? Was the energy of the inner self focused like light through a magnifying glass and converted to magical force? he himself was no stranger to the Way of the Mind, he merely chose to use his more powerful skills of sorcery. Now he was closer to the final answer, he could almost taste the victory upon his lips as the men rose from their slumber.

Enjoy your victory while you can, nature bender, thought the Dragon from its vantagepoint far above the desert sands, soon you will feel the bite of the Psionic Enchantments! The Beast could not believe the arrogance of the man. The wizard was aware of his power, yet chose to come toward destruction nonetheless. The Dragon coughed. A deep rumbling cough, and upon his breath ran the vapors of death. It ran its clawed hand over its mental image of Dematrix.......

Dematrix fell to the ground, clutching at his heart. He gasped raggedly for a taste of oxygen, but his lungs would not respond. With the air already in his lungs, he gasped out the words to a spell....

The Dragon felt its magic dispelled, and it cursed at its inability to re-activate it. The wizard was good, no doubt about that. He would undoubtedly have the ability and mental capacity to assume Dragon form with time and training. The Beast did indeed possess the knowledge Dematrix sought. Oh, yes, it knew what the little nature bender was after. It had so subtly probed his mind that he did not even detect the Dragon’s presence. The wizard did indeed have power and training in the Way of the Unseen, and this would most defiantly be necessary to complete the metamorphosis into a Dragon. But more competition was the last thing it needed. Why, only two centuries ago it had driven out a rival. The rival dragon had once been the Sorcerer King of the City-State of Bodach, but the ruler of Balic, Andropinis had long since destroyed the city before its ancient monarch had finally come to a slow and burning end. The Beast smiled in retrospect. Now that had been a battle. The Dragon had considered several times challenging Andropinis after it had defeated the fallen ruler of Bodach, but even if it could defeat the Sorcerer-King one on one, the monarch still had thousands of armed soldiers and templar lackeys to rely on, while it had no such luxury. But perhaps this little nature bender could provide a beginning of such a force. Perhaps the fallen, evil deities of old were providing him a sign! The Dragon stroked its chin with a twisted claw. Perhaps it could aid this little man in becoming a Dragon of sorts. It would be small work to limit his power. It could turn the wizard’s men into templars of sorts, by training them in the ways of the elements, it could send out its call across the Tablelands for soldiers and mercenaries! Then it would destroy the remaining Sorcerer-Kings! Hamanu of Urik! Lalali-Puy of Gulg! Nibenay of Nibenay! It would be the undisputed ruler of the Tyr Region! But the wizard had given him a bit of trouble.......

It would just kill him and be done with it. Dematrix collapsed to the ground, his power completely drained from countering the Dragon’s supreme magic. At least the spell could not be activated again for another couple of hours. He knew that he do to whatever it was he was going to do within that time. The Dragon was through toying with him. His illusionary arm was a painful reminder of that. Although it was a potent greater illusion, he could not control it completely as well as a real one. He cursed his inability to overcome The Beast. He knew now that he could not hope to subdue it. That it was vanity to even think so. Dragons were known to lay waste to entire City-States, stopping only at the powerful Sorcerer Kings. He had one option left. Dematrix could not hope to counter or even annoy the Dragon’s magic, but perhaps he could psionically extract the information he needed from the Dragon’s consciousness. Now Dematrix knew from his painful telepathic contact with the Dragon that it was a master of psionic mastery, but the defiler still had a chance. Years ago, he discovered that he had a talent for psionics, as well as magic. He immediately began training under the Urikite Master. He had studied barely one third as long as the other students had when Dematrix had beaten his teacher in a contest of wills and left for other conquests. Since then, there were few ordinary mortals who could match his skill in the Way. Dematrix knew that the Dragon was one of these, but the Dragon was not ordinary, and most certainly not mortal. But psionics worked quite differently than magic. Magic was mostly head on head direct combat, which relied little on strategy or subtlety. The Way of the Unseen was directly the opposite. If Dematrix could enter the Dragon’s mind while his men attacked it physically, stealthily tread across the beast’s psychic trails, he could get the knowledge he craved, and then whisk himself and his men to safety. Well, maybe not the men, but he would do his best.

The nature bender rose to his feet, and a quick wave of pain danced through his head, which held the hand of a quick wave of nausea, making him double over for a second. He brushed off his leather coverings, and watched as his men did the same. Dematrix winced as he received their icy stares of suspicion. He knew that the soldiers would not take anymore of this. They knew that powerful magics were nearby. Dematrix knew how the men felt about magic. They despised it. Nothing he could say would keep them here now. They were tired of the "wild goose chase".

The pirates, without a word, turned, and walked away from Dematrix, pulling the kanks and inixes behind them. They did not care what happened to their fool of a leader, they followed him only because there were few in the sands who would challenge him. But the were aware that they had come across such a one. Kyrastin’s silence had explained that much. But they hated Dematrix anyway, he would never truly be one of them. While they celebrated a plunder, and ran their fingers through jewels, gold, and roast erdlu flank, their skinny boned leader had his nose stuck in whatever books and scrolls they found on the plundered caravan. him go on to his death. They all saw what simply dispelling the recent onslaught of foreign magic had done to him. But still, he had protected them from harm, and led them into countless plunders. He was indeed the most powerful magic-user in the Tyr region. Perhaps he was not so bad after all. Indeed, they would follow him to the Shores of the Silt Sea, if he but commanded it.

Dematrix watched his men walk away through squinted eyes. Perhaps he would have an opportunity to practice his mental art, after all! The men provided him with a perfect opportunity for an exercise in telepathy. He could not allow them to leave now, during this desperate hour of a dream he had so long harbored. Silently, he prepared himself for his use of the Way of the Unseen. He visualized a line of hot fire rising up from his bowels, which began intertwining his three inner selves, the mental, the spiritual, and the physical. It was this conjunction of the humanoid psyche that allowed the Way to manifest itself. It was the knowledge that all three of these entities, the spiritual, mental, and physical, were hopelessly interwoven with each other, upon astral threads of insubstantiality that brought the power of the mind into being. Slowly, he visualized the three selves converge upon the nerve synapse which triggered the power to come forth, the Energy Nexus. The psychic winds blew them together. Like magnetism, they were converging, closer, closer. They coalesced. He could feel his psionic strength explode into his subconscious. He began the process that shaped the energies of the Way. He retreated into his mind.

He quickly visualized a large net of the finest silk wrap around his Energy Nexus, lest he lose control of his incredible psychic energy, and be reduced to a drooling idiot. Such were the risks involved with the Way. He visualized a great ladle, which soared out of the gray sky that was Dematrix’s subconscious mind and filled it to the brim with psionic energy. He then cast the remaining power deep within his Nexus. As he focused upon the ladle of psychic strength, he visualized hundreds upon hundreds of Kedgen Flies. Tiny insects, which make their nests within a victim’s nose. The flies spread out across the confusing landscape of Dematrix’s mind, and down upon the men, for whom they were meant. Dozens of Kedgen Flies flew into each man’s nose, carrying with them thoughts of obedience. gratitude, and respect. Thoughts which the psionicist, Dematrix had implanted upon them.

Dematrix did not even smile in surprise as his men happily resumed their march.

The crimson sun once again fell behind the mountains, allowing its counterparts Ral and Guthay to assume the responsibilities of lighting the night sky. Dematrix knew, even as he set up camp, that the final hour was approaching. Perhaps it was the stagnancy of the air. Perhaps it was the silence of the night. Perhaps it was the light of the sky. But it was something. The men noticed it too. They were on alert since the freak magic had nearly crushed them out of existence. They slowly drew obsidian and bone weapons from makeshift scabbards, in a feeble attempt to defend themselves from whatever awaited them.

The night assumed a deathly pallor. No living creature engaged in such a luxury as a breath, a blink, or even a heartbeat. It has come, thought the Psionic Wizard. The Beast has come. It has come to put me in my place. To show me how insignificant I am.

The nighttime sands exploded into white-hot fury, powered by the massive roar of some unseen juggernaut. Dematrix screamed as the first wave of scalding sand tore at his skin, leaving horrible abrasions and oozing blisters. Thanks only instinctual reaction and years of wizardly discipline, Dematrix uttered a spell which completely isolated him from all outside influence. The pirates, however, were not so lucky. They had no such magics to protect them from the punishing torture of the desert maelstrom. Dematrix watched in silent horror as the skin was stripped from their bones like tattered rags, and strewn about the desert sands. The thick hide of the inix resisted for only seconds longer than the humans. The huge beasts toppled to the sands, as their flesh simply melted away. Even the thickly exoskeletoned kanks succumbed to the intense heat and pressure of the onslaught. They simply ceased to live, their lives carried away on the punishing winds. As the intensity of the blast diminished, and the white-hot sands became a deep red, Dematrix stole a peek over the dune.

There it was, in all of its infernal glory. The Dragon. The Slayer of Life, The Terror of the Desert. Its icy cold gaze took hold of Dematrix as it slowly finished the blast of its devastating breath weapon. The Beast looked upon the little man with a wicked gleam in its reptilian eye. A forked tongue ran across rows of razor sharp teeth that protruded from a twisted muzzle. It stood almost twelve feet tall, with long gangly arms that nearly dragged on the ground. Its knee was actually its foot lodged in a horrible reversed joint position, yet the Beast seemed to walk on it comfortably. Horrible brown scales covered the reptile’s body, a solid coat of impenetrable armor. Its vertical pupils froze. It ran its knife like stare over Dematrix’s body, deciding how to counter the wizard, the over use of its breath weapon leaving it physically drained. It had not depended on Dematrix surviving the onslaught, even though he was horribly blistered.

After a brief second of absolute terror, Dematrix began to plot his strategy against the Beast. Drawing upon his psionic reserves, Dematrix constructed his harbinger in the form of a giant fire drake. He sent it from the recesses of his mind and into the screaming pits of the Dragon’s consciousness. The Dragon’s maw seemed to twist into a raw grin as it lowered its mental defense, and allowed Dematrix’s fire drake in without resistance.

The evil mage’s harbinger entered the Dragon’s mind with surprisingly little resistance. He sent it deep into the Beast’s memory. As the Drake soared across the cracked landscape of the Dragon’s mind, it saw something far in the distance, far back into the Beast’s past. It banked in for a closer look. It was a caravan of people, screaming for mercy. They fell to their knees as they tore at their hair. Several of them doubled over in pain, clutching at their abdomens in some horrible torment. Dematrix did not understand what was happening as he viewed this memory, so he left it in the past, and flew elsewhere. His mind cringed in recognition as the people’s skin shriveled, clinging to their bones like ancient scraps of parchment. The Dragon had indeed done this to the caravan, and apparently to countless others, but to what end?

Dematrix’s harbinger noticed a crevasse in the Dragon’s consciousness, so he glided downward, into the Dragon’s distant memories. Suddenly, Dematrix noticed a large, black shadow flying overhead. It's was the psionic construct of the Dragon, and it was watching him.

"Dive deeper, foolish mortal, " it chided, calling out from its razor toothed maw.

Dematrix hesitated, his Kes'tre'kel hovering uncertainly as he wondered why the Dragon allowed him to dive into its innermost thoughts instead of stamping him out like a candle flame. The harbinger, with a final moment of contemplation, released a violent blast toward the form that was the construct of the Dragon. He could see the creature twitch ever so slightly as the mental energy slammed into its chest, but it quickly recovered and snarled in protest. Dematrix knew now how powerful the Dragon’s psionics were.

Do not test me, mortal. You live and die only as long as I allow you to. I say again, dive deeper.

The Kes’tre’kel, the Fire Drake unnecessary now, descended down into the black pit that was the Dragon’s memory pool, and the black wing was quick to follow, making sure that the harbinger did no damage. The scavenger bird landed upon the cracked landscape of the Dragon’s mind, millions of tiny lights that were the Dragon’s perfect memories dancing all around. The bird reached out and grabbed one by the tail. Dematrix’s mind erupted into a flow of images. He could see the Dragon’s ascension from a defiling psionicist to Dragonhood. He could see the careful and precise spell preparations involved. He watched in horror at the painful metamorphosis as the Dragon ascended the ladder of Dragondom. Horrible scales broke through the surface of cracked and bleeding skin. Claws sprouted from the shredded stumps that had been human fingers. His face elongated and split into an animalistic maw. Thousands of betrayals, murders, and lies had been the rungs the beast had climbed. The all powerful sorcerer monarchs then hunted it. The Kings and Queens were afraid of the new Dragon, fearful of the imbalance its arrival might bring. One of them caught him. The memory became fuzzy. Dematrix realized that the Dragon’s mind had nearly been obliterated by the power of the Dragon-King. But when the Beast had recovered, Dematrix saw it standing upon the broken shell of the King’s city, and the twisted form of its dead body. It needed to go home for a while, to rest. It must go to- The Black Wing pushed Dematrix out of that memory. The Dragon’s recovery had taken years, decades. And it required power. A power that the Dragon craved, that it needed to fuel its magic. It crossed planes of existence to cities upon other worlds. Innocent people who had no idea magic even existed, alone that their lives were about to be digested by one of its masters, were slaughtered, their life energy absorbed into the reptilian body. He then saw with painful clarity the horrific damage that the Dragon had done. Entire countries had been laid waste by this horrible being. Entire cultures and civilizations had been wiped out. The few survivors of the Dragon’s havoc sifted through the broken fragments of their lives, their minds destroyed by the fearsome psionic energies released by the beast. So much destruction. So many lives lost. The images of the six mighty Sorcerer-Kings rose up before him next, hurling spells of unspeakable power at the Dragon, who desperately fled their cruel vengeance. Always the beast was hunted by the dread monarchs, always the beast was seeking those who might displace him, and hurtling their souls into oblivion, always the hierarchy of Dragons preyed upon one another, never finding rest, always looking over their scaly, bent, twisted shoulders.

But then he saw the most horrible image he could ever imagine. He saw once again the shriveled husks of thousands of men, women and children. Blacked, cracked, dried. It was as if they were plants that had been recently defiled, their precious life force absorbed into a wizard’s palm.

Or perhaps a Dragon’s. Fuel for his incredible magic. But that was not possible! Animal life force could not be tapped into magical energy! Such a thing was unspeakable! Even with his dark soul, his unreachable evil, he could not fathom stealing someone’s child, someone’s mother, and someone's family to simply power a spell! But that was what a dragon did. Limitless power indeed! It was as dependent on others as everyone else. It slaughtered innocent people by the thousands, by the millions to feed its insatiable appetite. Dematrix gasped in horror, tears spilling down his wrinkled cheeks. Then the image he sought appeared before him. It was nothing more than a spinning ball of green light.

The road to Dragonhood lay before him. The beast apparently giving him accesses to that which he sought. His lifelong dream lay spinning before him, a viridian sphere of energy. He had only to touch it, and the keys to the knowledge of Dragonhood would be his.

The taloned forepaw of the Kes’tre’kel, Dematrix’s harbinger, reached out.

And plunged deep into the soft membrane of the Dragon’s consciousness.

Dematrix harbinger was expelled from the Dragon’s mind with dizzying force as the beast screamed in agony. The Dragon used the forefront of its power to explode Dematrix out of his mind, but the damage had been done. The beast writhed in pain on the desert sands, his vulnerable mind totally unprepared for the viscous and all out attack. But his eyes remained clear and focused, trained directly on Dematrix. Those eyes promised a death so slow and so painful that it would make even a god weep in agony.

As soon as Dematrix realized the Dragon would only allow him to descend into his private thoughts if he meant to kill him after the knowledge he sought was found, Dematrix used the only option available to him, and attacked the Dragon. And there was another reason he did not reach out and grasp the thing he had craved his entire career.

He did not want it anymore. He despised everything the Dragon represented.

Dematrix quickly looked back for any survivors of his destroyed tribe. There were, of course, none. With a pang of remorse for leading those men into a hopeless battle, Dematrix reached into his pouch and extracted the components for a teleportation spell. As he uttered the arcane words, and even as the spell began to take effect and he began to fade, he heard one thought projected into his mind from the tortured Dragon.

Never sleep. Know that you have a Dragon hunting you for vengeance.

Dematrix reappeared on the other side of the Tablelands, nearly one thousand miles Northeast of his encounter with the Dragon. Uttering a quick word to cover his tracks, and prevent the beast from following him, Dematrix took a moment to consider his next move. He knew one thing that it wouldn’t involve. Dematrix loosened his belt buckle, allowing his spell book, spell components, and every scroll he owned to fall to the desert sands. He started down the road toward the City State of Tyr. He did not look back.


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