Chapter 1

It was a good day to die. The sky resembled a bed of hot coals, as dense and glowing thunderheads rolled by in the shape of skulls, mindlessly watching the devastation below. Thick, stinking smoke hung in the humid air – smoke so acrid it stung the eyes and set the lungs afire. The caustic vapors curled about and rose lazily from the carnage below; a floating army of black snakes in disarray.

Ringlerun stirred. The powerful dwarven fighter had been badly burned – his long braided beard now shriveled away and his skin blackened by dragon fire. He grimaced, not from the burns but from the tremendous weight on his barrel-like chest, intent upon crushing him into the ground where he lay. He couldn’t breathe.

The bloody battle had lasted for three days – an eternity to the handful of weary survivors who lay scattered around the battlefield like shards of broken glass. Thousands had perished. Death stretched as far as the eye could see: hundreds of dismembered limbs, severed heads, mutilated and twisted bodies steeped in stagnant pools of blood – some burnt so badly they looked like large chunks of smoldering firewood. A steady, rhythmic dripping could be heard in uneven cadence as red raindrops fell slowly from the piles of the dead and dying, forming viscous puddles of foulness on the blood-soaked ground below.

Spear shafts, smeared deep with crimson along their lengths, jutted out like giant skewers from uneven piles of shredded flesh. Some of the wood had splintered apart, leaving a jagged jigsaw of mangled poles. Broken swords, knives and arrows peppered the carnage like a blanket of dingy snow, and walking among the dead was impossible without the sound of metal grinding against the heel with every step.

What little wind there was blew an ungodly stench around in sudden gusts; a stench so strong that it sucked the wetness from the mouth and left a rancid taste. Smoke, freshly churned dirt, blood, rotten meat, the sickening sweetness of burnt flesh, vomit, urine, sweat and feces rounded out the wretched odor of death lingering in the moist air. It captured the essence of what lay scattered across the soupy ground.

Ringlerun’s thick, callused hands pushed against the heavy cloak of death. He felt hard, chitinous scales. Big ones. He traced a few with his stubby fingers and then pushed hard enough against them to grab a gulp of air. With it, he began to laugh, causing his body to shake as his arms strained to keep the dead weight off of him. His trademark iron rings banded around his arms and throughout his long hair clanked together and rang out, giving rise to his name.

Too slow, he thought to himself.

As his laughter died, he twisted and wedged his shoulder against the pressing weight to free a hand, reaching out to grope the blood-soaked ground.

"Where ye be, Stoney?" he asked gruffly, through gritted teeth. He smiled as his fingers curled around the adamantine haft of his magical battle-axe.

Stoney was a monstrous weapon, as long as Ringlerun was tall. A four-inch metal spike protruded from its broad head, and the double-headed blade curved downward over the entire top half of the axe. The steel was thumb thick and etched with intricate runes up and down its drooping silver face. Stoney had vorpal edges, enchanted never to lose their keenness. What made its appearance even more ominous was its haft, made from the same shiny metal as the blade. It gave the entire weapon a sharp and polished reflection. Ringlerun had named it for this reason, for it cast a stone cold gaze upon his enemies.

He pulled it close, as if giving it a hug. "Good fight." Ringlerun tried for a few minutes to squirm his way out, but the crushing weight was too great. The intense pressure on his chest began to hurt, and his labored breathing came in short gasps. He would die here soon if he couldn’t escape. Only one way to go. Ringlerun turned his head and spoke to Stoney.

"If we can’t go ‘round, we be goin’ through."

Positioning his steel friend between the interlocking scales above him, the fearless dwarf turned his head and spoke the ancient weapon’s true name. The name, known only to Ringlerun, evoked a thermal magic within the weapon that had been the bane of many an enemy.

The battle-axe ignited in a brilliant flash of red and orange flames, and the blade sank deep into the mass of horny scales. Warm blood erupted from the wound, and Ringlerun held his breath to keep from drowning in it. Gallons of blood spewed forth as the axe continued to cleave a long vertical gash into the belly of the dead dragon. The veteran warrior continued to slice through the thing’s sandpaper carapace and deep into its body, as the area he lay in filled up like a tub beneath the stinking crimson waterfall. Moments later, he was completely submerged.

Me luck th’damn lizard died on a full belly!

The syrupy pool of blood, like quicksand, seeped through the links of Ringlerun’s chainmail and began to weigh him down even more. He struggled to keep moving, thrusting his arm over his head and feeling his axe scrape against bone. With a quick flick of his wrist, the blade rotated and hooked around a giant rib. He used that leverage as an anchor to haul himself up into the guts of the dragon.

Need air!

He grabbed hold of a rib, while his other hand propelled his axe through the hole it had made beyond. Suddenly, his grip on Stoney faltered. In an instant, the slick blood left him empty-handed. Ringlerun cursed inwardly. Gripping the adjacent rib, the dwarf pulled himself up through the ribcage and followed the path of his axe farther into the dragon. Moments later, his head broke the surface of the crude, carved-out channel.

A deep intake of breath resounded within the cavernous stomach walls of the great dragon. Ringlerun let his body bob in the warm, red waste as he lay breathing with his head and arms resting around the edge of the small hole he had just made. Coughing and spitting blood, he sucked great gasps of precious air into his lungs and back out again, until the noose around them loosened, and the burning sensation subsided. There wasn’t much air, but it was enough.

Stinks in here.

Digging his fingers into the slimy ground before him, Ringlerun pulled the rest of his body up into the dragon’s steamy stomach, leaving a trail of blood behind him. He slowly pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and looked around; dragon blood seeped from his armor in steady drops, pooling below in small puddles.

Darkness. Ringlerun couldn’t see a thing. Without a light source, his hands became weak eyes as they swept the ground in semicircles before him, each in opposite direction as he advanced. His armor continued to leak like a sieve. Blood splattered around him, and he smeared it into the ground with every sweeping arc. He needed his axe to get him out. Stoney couldn’t be far away.

Ringlerun laughed at his predicament. In his lifetime spanning ten centuries, he never thought he’d see a dragon from the inside. With a chuckle, he continued on until his fingers clipped something, sending it spinning out of reach. He listened to its muffled roll along the spongy floor. Two rotations and then it clanked against something and fell silent. Clanked? The crawling dwarf hastily shuffled forward in anticipation of finding his axe.

Suddenly, his left hand swiped something gooey. The air sizzled. No, not the air – his hand! Searing pain engulfed his left arm and Ringlerun screamed. Instinctively, he jerked his hand up and began shaking it furiously, trying to get the burning slime off his fingers. He rubbed them violently against his armor, and although the acid ate at the metal, the magical links withstood its corrosive assault. His fingers weren’t so lucky. Even though he couldn’t see them, he knew he had lost the tips of his index and middle fingers. He sat back on his haunches and cradled his hand, now balled up in a fist against his chest.

I’m in the lizard’s belly, all right.

He sat in the middle of a minefield. He imagined puddles of stomach acid scattered throughout the dragon’s belly. It would be one thing to carefully sidestep them, but he couldn’t see. He couldn’t smell them either. Worse yet, he couldn’t even prod the ground to detect them. Ringlerun cursed.

It seemed the dragon was having the last laugh now. He pondered his next move. Backtrack to the hole and find another exit? And leave his axe here? Forget it. But, how would he traverse the acid traps? The dwarf inhaled deeply and closed his eyes to think. He lowered his head and then rotated it up and around, allowing his neck to crack a few times as he exhaled slowly. His fingers throbbed in pain, like hornets were stinging them. He curled his hand tighter against himself and stared down at his chest. He fingered a few of the fine links of his armor. The metallic chinking brought back bittersweet memories.

"NO!" Ringlerun had screamed, as he saw the black dragon’s tree-trunk-sized tail whip around and smash into Daergal. There was a sickening crack as the stocky dwarf sailed through the air. Ringlerun watched in horror as his friend landed lifelessly, his limbs twisting and snapping around him uncontrollably. Anger welled up inside Ringlerun making his teeth rattle. With a look of pure hatred, he turned and charged the foul dragon.

He raced under a vicious bite and swung his axe as though he was cutting down an ancient oak with a single blow. All of his anger and pain and fury went into that swing. It was a swing that would be told by storytellers for years to come.

The axe sliced cleanly through the scaled neck of the beast in a dazzling arc of fire. The dragon was dead before it hit the ground. Ringlerun briefly watched the thing topple away from him under a hot shower of crimson rain. He stood unmoving, his chest heaving as his hands relaxed their chokehold around his flaming weapon. Satisfied, he turned and raced to where his companion had fallen.

He stopped a few feet short, unsure of whether Daergal still lived. He was hesitant to go further. Daergal had been his best friend for centuries. They had been to Hell and back together. The thought of Daergal not being around anymore was too great to bear.

"J’get him?" Daergal asked.

Relieved, Ringlerun smiled and knelt beside him.


"S’bout time," Daergal said, grinning.

They both laughed, but Daergal trailed off quickly and began coughing, spitting up blood.

"Dammit. Don’t wanna die yet," Daergal grumbled.

Ringlerun fought back tears and shook his head. "Ye willna die."

"Can’t feel nothin’. S’not s’bad."

"Yeah? Good. Get y’arse up n’let’s b’off."

Daergal laughed again. "No, kinda like it here. S’quiet. Peaceful." The little dwarf closed his eyes.

"Ring, do me a favor."

"Aye," Ringlerun said hoarsely.

"Take a piece o’me with ye. Wear me armor."

Ringlerun shook his head again. "Nope. Ye need it more than I. Besides, ye stunk it up pretty good – can smell it from here."

Daergal smiled. "Don’t need it now. Will protect ye better than I ever could."

Daergal’s armor was one of the last adamantine chainmail sets ever forged by the great dwarven blacksmith, Kneggok. No blade had ever penetrated its metal hide, and it had saved Daergal’s life on more than one occasion. What Daergal asked now was more of an honor than anything else.

Ringlerun couldn’t speak. He lay down beside Daergal and hugged him tightly, tears running down his face. It was an emotion rarely seen coming from the hardened warrior of a thousand battles.

Daergal died that day, and a piece of Ringlerun died with him. He never looked at a dragon quite the same way again. From that day forward, he proudly wore Daergal’s armor, becoming nearly invulnerable to his opponents. Some said it went beyond the physical, that Daergal himself had become his guardian angel. One thing was certain: Daergal’s spirit lived on in Ringlerun. Every link of the armor he wore was a memory of him.

S’how would ye get outta this one, Daergal?

Ringlerun asked, as he continued touching the links. He needed a way to prod the ground in front of him to find his axe. Stoney would guide him out. He continued picking at the metal links as if they were weeds. Then, his eyes widened. Of course!

Right again, Daergal!

Ringlerun began pulling off his armor.

Moments later, he had the mail wrapped tightly around his hand. He used it as a gauntlet, sweeping the ground as he continued crawling forward. Whenever the links sizzled, he backed up and found another path. As far as he could tell, the place was peppered with pockets of deadly acid, some in small, concentrated puddles while others formed giant pools. It was slow going. Dozens of detours and backtracks were necessary as the blinded dwarf maneuvered through the dragon’s stomach, crawling and listening intently. His slow pace soon caused another problem – lack of air.

Oh no, not again...