They were hours from the nearest camp when the first roars and cries echoed over the mountains, an unfortunately familiar sound. Faraday looked up from the painted jar he’d been turning over in his hands—he’d called it a Jar of Bees, capital letters and all, and Vasquez would have taken it as a joke if it weren’t for the obvious buzzing that started up every time Faraday shook it a little too hard—and turned a wolfish grin over at Vasquez. “Hey. Hey, V—”
“No,” Vasquez said reflexively. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Red Harvest shaking his head in fervent agreement, but then again, he knew just as well as Vasquez did how important it was to nip this line of thinking in the bud. If Chisolm or any of the others were there, they’d do the same.
They were not going to fight the dragon, and that was final.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say!” Faraday protested, his eyes going wide and wounded.
Vasquez had known him for too long now to fall for that bullshit. “Don’t even think about it,” he warned.
The dragon screeched again, and this time the sound was much, much closer. When Vasquez looked up, he could actually see it darting overhead in a bright burst of colorful scales and fire.
Faraday’s eyes were shining, his hands already inching toward his staff—a heavy length of wood, but with a wickedly long blade at the end that turned what should have been a magical stick into an actual melee weapon. Vasquez had lost this fight before he’d even opened his mouth. “Come on, you know we have to fight it!” Faraday said, practically thrumming with excitement. Little sparks, fire and electricity, danced across his fingertips. “It’s a high dragon.”
He said this with the sort of awe most people reserved for phrases like the Maker himself, or maybe, if one lived in Faraday’s world, free ale.
“Guero, no,” Vasquez said firmly, hoping against hope that common sense might win out.
It did not. “Uh, guero, yes.”
Before Vasquez could open his mouth to argue, Red Harvest slung his bow free, a beautifully carved length of wood that could send an arrow off with enough force to punch through even the heaviest plate armor. “Too late,” he said, a dry edge of humor creeping into his voice. He pointed up, gesturing with a broadhead arrow that he quickly set to the string. “It’s coming this way.”
Indeed, it was. It seemed their dragon had spotted them.
“Fuck,” Vasquez hissed, shooting Faraday a narrow-eyed glare that the mage cheerfully ignored. His own sword and shield settled easily in his hands; he found himself hoping that the fire resistance Chisolm had worked out after the last dragon would hold up on their armor. “Fine. But if I get eaten, I’m coming back as a ghost to haunt your estúpido ass forever.”
Faraday finally tucked away his Jar of Bees, thank the Maker, because Vasquez did not want to learn what happened when they mixed bees with an already pissed-off high dragon. He brought out his staff instead, spinning it lazily with one hand as he watched the dragon approach. “My ass, huh?” he said, absent-minded, most of his wild-eyed enthusiasm saved for the winged lizard bearing down on them. “Kinky.”
Vasquez seethed. Red Harvest stifled a laugh. The dragon gave one last screaming shriek and dropped out of the sky, wings pounding and a blast of flames spewing toward them. None of them flinched, Faraday’s barrier springing up around them in a cool wash of blue just in time to send the fire rushing harmlessly past.
The dragon landed heavily enough to send them stumbling. When it opened its mouth, Vasquez could just about count every one of its enormous teeth.
“I hate you so much,” he decided, and charged forward, fire and arrows leaping past him on either side.
It wasn’t like they hadn’t fought dragons before, in groups of every size and composition. They’d quickly learned it was always a good idea to bring at least one mage, because barriers were just about the only way to keep themselves from getting roasted alive the minute that the giant lizards opened their mouths. Still, Vasquez preferred it when there was at least one more warrior in the party, or even a rogue who liked to get up close and personal, because otherwise, they got stuck fighting like this.
Dragonlings swarmed out of the caves, and Vasquez had to trust that Faraday and Red Harvest could take care of them, because he was busy making himself the sole point of focus for a furious high dragon. Really, it was hard enough to avoid getting roasted without trying to split his attention. There was no one left to act as a distraction, and nothing to keep this particular beast from doing its level best to swat, chomp, or roast the annoying little pest buzzing around its ankles, hacking away at the tough scales that kept the dragon safe from any real damage.
It was, frankly, terrifying.
He could manage maybe another five, ten seconds like this, and then he was going become either dragon chow or a crispy corpse. Ducking under the massive belly bought him a little time and gave him the change to slice deep into the softer under-scales, sending steaming hot blood spattering down while the dragon wailed and thrashed. Vasquez had to dive and roll out of the way to avoid being crushed, which was a sound enough idea until he realized just how close it put him to the dragon’s head and its many, many sharp teeth.
“Oh, shit,” he said.
Faraday screamed something; Vasquez ignored it in favor of throwing himself out of range, hating how slow his heavy armor made him and knowing it was the only chance he had of surviving if the dragon did manage to take a bite. The massive jaws missed by a matter of inches, and Vasquez managed a sweeping slash that made the dragon rear back with another offended shriek.
And then the head kept drawing back, the huge chest inflating as it drew in a breath, and Vasquez knew what that meant. He scrambled to his feet, but there was no damn way he was getting clear in time—
The barrier spell washed over him a split second before the flames did, Faraday’s magic familiar and comforting as it blocked the worst of the attack. Vasquez took the rest of that second to acknowledge that maybe he didn’t hate Faraday so much after all, and then he shook himself off and dove back in.
This time, when he needed a distraction, there was a quick cluster of arrows from Red Harvest to draw the dragon’s attention off in another direction. Lightning arced between the massive wings, keeping it grounded, and quick bursts of fire and ice forced it to stay mostly in one place, mixed in with barriers that Faraday threw over Vasquez and Red Harvest in turn. Vasquez made himself into a wall, a battering ram, chipping away at the weakest points in the dragon’s armor whenever an opening presented itself, and the others followed his lead.
Slow and steady, that was the way to do it. When they had to do it at all, anyway, and Vasquez was definitely blaming Faraday and his almost contagious insanity for that one.
And when he inevitably got caught up in those massive jaws, shaken like a rag doll, and then tossed away hard and far enough that he wouldn’t be entirely surprised to wake up in Minrathous—well, that was Faraday’s fault, too, no matter how many barriers kept those massive teeth from punching holes through him all the way from one side to the other. It was the principle of the thing.
* * *
Eventually, the dragon fell. The colossal crash as the body hit the ground wasn’t nearly enough to drown out the sound of Faraday’s cheers as Vasquez landed the finishing blow, or the worrying groans and creaks of the ice wall that made sure the remains didn’t fall directly onto Vasquez’s head. Red Harvest, who'd danced closer to the thing as its movements had started to slow, had still had plenty of space to stand clear.
Despite himself, Vasquez surveyed the massive body with something like pride. It wasn’t every day that only three men could stand their ground against a dragon, let alone actually take the thing down. Of course, he’d never, ever admit it in Faraday’s hearing. “Now what?” he said, when he figured they had taken enough time to celebrate.
“Well, can’t just leave it here,” Faraday said. He thought for a second. “Hey, wait, can we? Is that a thing we can do?”
"No," Red Harvest said immediately.
Vasquez shrugged. Technically speaking, they definitely could, but this was a commonly used path and it probably wouldn’t take long before the thing would start to smell. “The Inquisition might want the parts.”
Faraday nodded decisively, tapping the blade of his staff lightly against the dirt. "So we'll move it. Okay."
“But how?” Red Harvest asked, ever-practical.
They all paused to think about that. Vasquez eyed the dead dragon critically, finally deciding that, no, it really was just as big and impossible to carry as it seemed at first glance. He supposed they could go back to the nearest Inquisition camp and see if the scouts were willing to help, but he really didn't think the Nightingale would be forgiving if they co-opted her agents for dragon corpse removal.
“You know, I’ve been practicing,” Faraday announced, seemingly out of nowhere. “And I think I know something that’ll work.”
Vasquez sighed. “I think I’m going to regret asking this,” he said, “but what is it?”
* * *
Somehow, it ended up being Vasquez’s job to explain to Chisolm why they were receiving reports of a bleeding and battered high dragon corpse shambling through the wilderness and into an Inquisition camp.
Really, it wasn’t his fault; Faraday had been the one secretly teaching himself the necromancy specialty, and he told Chisolm as much.
“At least tell me you three didn’t really ride it into camp,” Chisolm said, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers.
Vasquez shifted uncomfortably in place. “Um.”
Chisolm gave in and put his head in his hands. “And none of you thought this was a bad idea? Seriously?”
Vasquez shrugged, and didn’t bother trying to explain that after all the rest of the crazy, that part hadn’t seemed so bad.
“I’m never letting the three of you go anywhere alone together ever again,” Chisolm told him.
“That seems fair,” Vasquez said, with complete sincerity.
* * *
Faraday spent the next few weeks telling everyone the story of their dragon-slaying adventures, and then dramatically re-enacting the fight in the tavern with anyone who would sit still long enough to listen. He presented Red Harvest with arrows tipped with dragon bone, and gave Vasquez a massive dragon tooth amulet.
“It won’t happen again,” he told them both, but he was grinning like a lunatic when he’d said it, and he’d somehow convinced the armorer to start making them all armor out of dragon scales, claiming the new fireproofing was just in case whenever anyone tried to question it.
Vasquez gave up, and invested in the best dragon-slaying runes money could buy. At least they’d be prepared for anything the next time it happened.
* * *
Almost as if he’d heard the thought, the next time Faraday really did break out the Jar of Bees.