The door was cautiously opened by a gnome with red hair and large ears. A young fighter in well-worn plate armor removed his cloak to reveal the symbol of the Order of the Gauntlet. The gnome opened the door fully and allowed him to enter.
“I am Cale Fenwick,” the young man introduced himself, ducking under the low threshold. “The Order has sent me to retrieve a certain item.”
The gnome chuckled. “You needn’t have identified yourself. I know a Fenwick when I see one.” He closed the door behind him. “I am Charko Diament.” He offered a child-sized hand that Cale shook and then ushered him to a small wooden table at the back of the room.
The young man sat down awkwardly on the ill-sized furniture, his knees sticking up from the low chair and banging the edge of table.
“I knew your father, your grandfather, and even your great-grandfather, though he and I didn’t get along too well at first. Tried to kill me before he had the sense to realize I was on his side. It’s no lie to say I’ve known my fair share of Fenwicks.”
“I’ve also known my fair share of Fenwicks,” Cale said with a smile.
“That’s no lie either.” The gnome poured a gold liquid into a pewter mead cup and handed it to Cale. “Drink up. That’ll help fortify you for the fight ahead.”
“Fight? I thought I was just retrieving an item.”
“You are, but you’ll have to fight your way there.”
Cale finished the golden ale, which tasted like butterscotch. “When will the others arrive?”
“Others? There are no others. It’s just you, my boy.”
“And me, with whatever I can do.” Charko stood up. “We haven’t much time, so let’s get going.”The gnome led Cale out the back door of the house, into a tiny courtyard. He pushed aside a potted plant, revealing a trapdoor. The two climbed down a ladder into an earthy-smelling room. When the door shut, it was completely dark.
Cale could hear footsteps leaving, but could not see. “Is there a torch in here?”
Charko flicked his fingers into the air, casting several balls of light ahead of them. “Sorry. I don’t normally come down here with humans.”
The two walked for a good hour, Charko leading Cale through a series of damp underground tunnels, which eventually opened up into the lowest level of an ancient-looking temple. The walls and floor were partially natural and partially manmade.
“I’ll scout ahead to see how many guards there are,” Cale said and started to walk away.
“No,” said Charko, grabbing Cale’s arm. “Haven’t you any sense? They’ll hear you coming a mile away with that armor. I’ll scout.” He shook his head and muttered, “Takes after his great-grandfather.”
A few minutes later, Charko came back with a worried look on his face. “There are four orc guards. I will do what I can…”
Cale shook his head. He could not ask such a small creature to fight. “No, you stay here and wait. When I draw their attack, you sneak past them and retrieve the item.”
“Brave lad, you truly are a Fenwick. Luck be with you.”
Cale unsheathed his sword and boldly strode down the hallway, fully aware of the blaring metal clanking his armor produced. At that sound, all four orcs turned at once and ran toward the young fighter.
He was ready. His great sword plunged into the belly of the first orc before it even had a chance to swing at Cale. He pulled the sword out and swung again, connecting with another orc’s arm. A grunt of pain came from the orc, who in retaliation took a battle axe to Cale’s chest.
Cale dodged aside at the perfect moment, and the axe merely grazed his armor. But he wasn’t quite dexterous enough. As he dodged the axe, he slammed side-first into a studded mace. Cale staggered back as the wind was knocked from his body. He managed to raise his sword and take another swing, which sliced cleanly through a thick orc neck.
Ugh! Cale was blindsided by another hit from the mace. He fell to the ground and rolled away, just as the mace came crashing down on his previous position. A quick upward thrust of his sword killed a third orc who was charging him from the other side. Only one left.
Cale struggled to his feet, the pain in his side making it difficult to move. He was having trouble breathing. The orc seemed aware of this. He was swinging his bloody mace and eyeing Cale’s weak side. Cale supposed some orcs weren’t as dumb as they seemed. He didn’t want to find out.
Gathering all his remaining strength, Cale unfastened his metal shield and hurled it at the approaching orc. The orc’s muscled arm brushed it aside as if it were an annoying fly, but the distraction gave Cale a precious few seconds. That was all he needed. His blade cut through the orc’s right arm, and it (along with the mace) fell to the ground. Cale finished with a precisely aimed stab to the orc’s heart, and then collapsed.
The sound of pounding footsteps roused him. Five more orcs were rushing his way, followed by roughly a dozen kobolds and several robed humanoids with wands. Not good. Cale pressed a bloody hand to his side, and leaned heavily on his sword. Injured or not, it didn’t matter. Five orcs or a hundred, it didn’t matter. Cale would fight to the last breath. He stood up straight and took that last breath….
A loud, booming voice emanated from behind him.
“Leave, all of you. This one is mine.”
Cale turned around to see a demon standing in the doorway. A huge demon with red skin, over seven feet tall and wearing glowing plate armor. His eyes burned with a sinister glow.
The rush of footsteps from the other direction suddenly stopped, as though they had hit an invisible barrier. Without a word, the orcs, kobolds, and wizards turned around and retreated as quickly as they had come.
Maybe he shouldn’t have taken on this mission by himself. Cale certainly could have used the assistance of more fighters right about now. But it didn’t matter.
With a hearty yell, Cale charged down the hall toward the demon. Fifty feet, thirty feet, ten feet….he drew back his mighty great sword and swung with all the strength he could muster.
And fell flat on his face.
He must have been more hurt than he realized, to miss so badly. Cale scrambled to his feet and readied himself for an attack, but there was no sign of the demon. The only thing Cale saw in the hallway was a small creature crouched in the corner.
“Charko?” he asked.
“Ha ha!” the gnome replied with a grin. “Pretty good illusion, don’t you think? It even fooled you!”
“Yes indeed, a little too good.” But this was not the time to praise Charko’s sorcery. They still had work to do. “Come, let us finish our mission.”
The human and the gnome continued down the hall, which ended in a rough, natural stone wall. Charko pulled a small red talisman from his pocket, held it against the wall, and chanted in a language unfamiliar to Cale. The wall dissolved before his very eyes, revealing a deep space that was pitch black.
Charko walked confidently into the blackness, but Cale hesitated, as the gnome disappeared from his sight after a few steps.
“Are you coming or not? We don’t have much time.”
“Coming where? I can’t even…”
Four small balls of light popped up in front of Cale, illuminating the way ahead.
“I keep forgetting you humans can’t see in the dark,” Charko said, moving the lights with a wave of his hand.
Cale could now see a small stony room, which appeared to be a natural occurring recess that had been enlarged. Directly in front of them was a crudely carved statue of a giant drake or a dragon or worm. Its teeth were bared as if to attack and there were five bumps sticking out from the head. Cale supposed it might have been a crown at some point, but the stone was so old and worn, it was impossible to tell.
“Yes, yes!” Charko said, his eyes glittering at the statue. “It’s true, it was all true.”
It seemed this was the item the Order had sent Cale to get, so he reached out to pick it up.
“No! Don’t touch it!” Charko grabbed Cale’s arm before it could reach its destination. He glared at the human. “Don’t you know Tiamat is evil?”
“Tiamat….so those bumps are the five heads?” Cale asked, pointing to the dragon’s head.
“Those ‘bumps’….” Charko sighed. “Do you know where we are? What this is?”
Cale shook his head.
“Obviously not, why did I even ask?” the gnome muttered to himself. “This room here, this statue….this is the original temple of Tiamat, the original. The very first altar and very first statue. It’s so old, even the elves can’t remember.”
“Is this the item the Order asked me to retrieve?”
Charko nodded. “It is, but you won’t be retrieving it.”
“What do you mean?”
“No one will be retrieving it. I will be destroying it.”
“That’s not what I was sent to do. I was sent to bring it back.” Cale narrowed his eyes at the gnome and slid his hand to the hilt of his sword.
Charko noticed the movement. “Listen to me before you use that. I know you are aware of the dragon cult and their attempt to resurrect Tiamat,” he said. “There are five altars at the Well of Dragons that must be destroyed. This original altar binds the other altars together and gives them even greater power. We must destroy this one or destroying the others will be useless.”
“The Order thinks removing the statue is sufficient. It is not. The altar must be cleansed and destroyed.”
“We can take it back to the Order and they can do that.”
Charko shook his head. “Trust me, Cale Fenwick. Trust me as your family has trusted me all these years.”
Many thoughts ran through Cale’s mind. Was it a coincidence he had personally been asked by the Order to take on this task? Was it a coincidence he’d already been on a mission to help stop Tiamat? He was beginning to think it was not.
Cale nodded his assent.
Charko took out a small pouch and poured yellow powder over the altar and statue. He mumbled again in that strange language, moved his hands in a strange pattern, and the yellow powder suddenly ignited, bathing the altar in a vertical beam of bright, radiant light. Charko placed a clear crystal into the light and the altar and statue crumbled to the ground.
“It is done.”
“I don’t know what to tell….” Cale stopped mid-sentence, feeling dizzy. He blinked, and Charko was gone. That little trickster teleported out without him? How’s that for trust? He blinked again and the room was gone. Why did he feel like he was floating? Cale closed his eyes and pressed his hands to his temple.
When he opened his eyes, Cale saw a familiar tall elf conversing with a dragon born creature sprouting big gold wings.
“Cale!” LeShana cried with surprise. “What are you doing here?”
A bright light covered him and he felt a rush of warmth spread through his body. The wound in his side was gone and he felt fully restored. “I don’t know. And uh….where is here exactly?”
“The Well of Dragons. We are preparing to destroy Tiamat. Will you help us?”
He knew had done the right thing by trusting Charko. Cale pulled his sword out and smiled. “Evil dragon goddess? Sure.”
It didn’t matter. It never did.