Riding off, I could see she had the remains of our lunch packed away, excepting one more glass of Imyr's wine. She had pulled out what looked like an ancient hard copy paperback, and started reading. She was sticking around then? Should I allow myself to feel comfortable?
No. That instruction at least had been clear. I was supposed to be distinctly uncomfortable. I should assume hot flaming death, but not exclude the possibility of claws.
The counter Talora personality was quite awkward. It had done it's job. It had achieved hugs, even. It had also buffered Boy and Jackie from the emotional impact of what she said. Trouble was, it was too objective. It was very uncomfortable, looking at a budding career in the hero business, only to discover one had messed up. I could take that, though. God knows, I had messed up often enough, though not on a scale the Masters would notice. The hard part was the fact that Itharias had messed up. Jackie, and especially Boy, wanted very badly to cry. This was not how I wanted to remember Itharias.
"Crying isn't going to solve it, Boy!" Yes, M'lord. Right away, M'lord. You messed up, M'lord. Fine. I decided to let the new counter Talora persona talk to the dragon. For the last few miles, I alternated dry running the conversation with the worm and attempting to figure out what Imyr had in mind that 'we' hadn't guessed. The worm personas, modified by Talora's dragon lore, got fascinatingly complex and very intimidating. I got burned once, clawed twice, eaten alive once, and pulled off Talora's deal three times.
I was so involved in mental debates, I didn't notice the two mellon sized yellow eyes opening in the woods until they were half way open. When I did notice, the world went black.
Talora had muffed it. She had seen I built and lived in multiple characters. She had even seen I could separate off my emotions, and think her way, objectively, like worms and Masters. It had been too long, though, since she'd been human. This worm had ravaged the country I was sworn to protect. He had burned my tower. He had massacred my first command. He had killed Itharias. Sorry, Talora. He met me in open sunlight. If he had stayed in his lair, I'd play it your way. With sunlight, I want victory.
I stretched out the blackness a hundred yards. I grabbed every photon. I sent them right at those eyes. Having achieved a good solid initial thrust, I reached further for more power. Someone was screaming. Boy, I think. I hadn't seemed to have died yet. My very potent highly focused beams passed right through those dragon eyes as if nothing was there. I briefly considered improving my opinion of myself, but decided on a more prudent course. I had apparently missed. I dropped the light absorbing sphere that was feeding me power so I could see what was happening.
I had started a very small but intense fire, and melted two large holes in the bottom of the forest. The dragon was gone. A tall elderly elf smiled at me kindly. "Very good, m'dear. But have..."
The world went black again. The dragon had chosen to fight in his humanoid shape, rather than the armored and fanged great form? That surprised me. I started reaching, expanding my sphere, reaching for power, directing it at the ancient elf. I had to win this one, or the dragon's retribution on my people would be tremendous. ("Boy," whispered Itharias's voice in my imagination. "How old must an immortal elf get before he shows signs of aging?")
Mirrors? I was fighting another illusionist? The old dragon/elf had shielded himself with an illusion of mirrors? I considered reaching for more power, but decided to try for angles instead. I swung my beams right and left, up and down, focused them and spread. Was he more powerful than I? I didn't know. He didn't need power. He blocked everything I tried with no effort at all.
Through the darkness I heard a challenge, a familiar challenge, echoing back from the cavern. The dragon was coming. The elf wasn't the dragon. Darkness down. I needed to see this. ("Needed, Boy. Forced moves! Are you still jumping through Imyr's hoops, Boy?") Glance ahead. Dragon in daylight. Occidental wings, oriental slender body, young, supple and fast. He was coming at full speed, with a flame trickle emphasizing a full voice bellow. He is very angry, on an all out roast and slice run. The difference between this and the prior night fights was extraordinary. I was very aware of how controlled and planned he had worked before. Now he was just plain angry, coming in for a power run. Nothing subtle. I was very glad I was not the old elf, who was about to get hit hard. The dragon's near eye was closed, and the far one turned away from me. I had no vulnerable shot. I could also feel a touch of the same illusion magic that had turned back my strikes on the elf. The old elf was protecting the dragon.
Glance right. Old elf. He smiled, nodded in approval at me as I stood there in confusion doing nothing, tracking the incoming dragon out of the corner of his eye. I got the distinct impression that he hadn't had so much fun in years. Who matches that description? Elf. Illusionist. Plays with dragons like toys. Likely Master or Past Master. That makes him Dardan Eltarin, also known as the Dark Lord. ("Good guess, Boy. Imitation asshole.") He would do until the real thing arrived. Suddenly, I felt pity for the dragon.
Glance back. A storm front is approaching at low altitude and absurd speed. The weather is turning lousy. Talora must be pissed.
Look down. The ground is approaching fast. The mayor's horse couldn't make sense of all this, any more than I. He had decided to run, which made him the smarter of the two of us. My assumption that I'd never live long enough to get killed by the horse was about to be tested. The ground looked to be rather hard.
I came out of my roll in time to see and feel Dardan teleport clear. The universe rang like a bell as the Dark Lord was no longer Over There, but is instead Right Behind Me. The dragon's magnificent flame and claw through attack was wasted on a poor defenseless tree. I rolled, ignoring loud complaints from all over my body. Dardan's defensive mirror spell was still there. No gun, no sword, no knife. Could I strangle the Dark Lord with an antique necklace?
"Are you all right?" I looked up. An elderly elfin hand offered me a hand up out of the dust. In my head, Boy, Jackie and Jaquiline were each informing the other that this wasn't their department. Whomever was in charge told Boy to take it, and neglected to inform him that the Dark Lord was a harmless old coot. ("ME??!" "Shut up, Boy! Pretend you're scared!" "PRETEND??!") Boy backed away on all fours, horrified.
"Ahh. You've recognized me then." Laughter. "A quick one. Good!" He touched the tips of his fingers together, and considered how to twist this latest development so my demise would be slower and more amusing.
Enough is enough. "Oh, shut up, asshole!" I stood, shot the suddenly indignant old elf a look of disdain, and turned to face the dragon. I positioned my body to protect the Dark Lord from dragon fire, and issued a firm command to that great terrible worm. "Stop!"
("Do you know what you're doing, Boy?")
An amazing thing happened. The dragon stopped. I almost trusted Talora's reading of Imyr's script. The solution to this mess was not brute force. I figured if the Dark Lord was protecting the dragon, and the dragon was trying to protect me, then the correct move was for me to protect the Dark Lord, who really was a kindly gentle lovely old asshole.
With a roar, the world's fastest storm front rolled in, hopefully to straighten out this mess. For a brief moment there was wind, rain, hail, thunder, and lighting. Then there was swirling fog. Then there was a gentle mist, followed by calm air and a blue sky. It was beautiful day. "Talora?" If I was pretending to be in charge here, should I allow myself to sound so wistful and small?
A chipmunk high in a neighboring oak tree didn't like all the commotion. He started to complain.