The bridge’s stone was gray, but it wavered between orange and red in the angry glow of the great magma river beneath it. The massive stone doors at the far end stood shut. The slide of molten stone beneath the bridge created a tremendous rumble throughout the cavern that made it hard to think. The scene was as imposing as anyone could imagine.
Devis felt a bit like he had to pee.
“Look here,” Kifu said, leading his students out onto the bridge. “There is a rail, but it is built for dwarf height. Just touching the magma is likely to incinerate any one of us. However, we have not yet discovered the teleportation circle to carry us back out of the hold, so there is nothing for it but to go forward. Lesson? Do not let present failure impede future success.” Kifu nodded to Rakith, who read a scroll that vanished from his hands. A moment later a dreadful roar mixed with the rumble of the magma and a dragon swooped down overhead. Devis and Bela both took involuntary steps back as it passed over the bridge and dove into the magma.”
“Right,” said Kifu. “Devis, what sort of dragon was that?”
Devis gulped. The moisture was gone from his mouth, which he found quite unfair considering how much he was sweating. “Black scales…but the fiery lines. Magma Dragon?”
Kifu smiled broadly, “Excellent! Bela, if it is a magma dragon, what do we know?”
Bela was doing her best to appear unconcerned, though her cat twitched periodically as thought it was being compressed back to kitten size. “Other dragons think they’re crazy.”
Kifu cocked an eyebrow. “True, now something that may prove of use when facing one over a magma flow?”
Bela’s eyes narrowed. “Primarily fire-based attacks, also immune to flame of any sort.”
Kifu nodded, “Better. So, fireball is out, as is scorching ray. What do we have at hand?”
Devis’ eyes brightened, “Snowball!”
Bela looked askance, “Would that even last long enough to damage it?”
Kifu pressed his fingertip to his chin, “Probably. Heat doesn’t disrupt elemental magic the way, say, water does. The challenge in using cold magics, or any time you exploit a dragon’s vulnerability, is that you instantly make yourself its primary target. What I did ended up saving my life, but, ironically, not from the dragon.” Kifu said a chain of syllables from when the world was new and he seemed to split, becoming half a dozen Kifus, constantly shifting through one another. “I encourage you to consider your offensive options, but we may not rely on armor or physical training to protect us. Magic must suffice.” He walked over to the doors and threw them open.
The mountain of molten iron surged and heaved, but was otherwise silent. Kifu gestured, “Had I not prepared with mirror image, this Shard Slag would have been the end of me. The lesson in this is twofold, the first is to think broadly about defense. It’s often better to simply not be where the enemy’s hammer blow falls. The second…”
Rakith interrupted, “…is not to go first.”
Kifu smirked slightly. “Quite. I made an error, based on my use of the haste spell, in attempting to get across the bridge. I failed to consider what I couldn’t see. But for my preparations, that would have been a fatal lesson to learn.” He looked at his students gravely, “If all you want out of life is the knowledge that others have accumulated, the libraries are well-stocked and I wish you well. On the other hand, if there is knowledge lost to mankind, we acknowledge that there are reasons it is lost and, in all likelihood, risks in seeking it. But it is, in my estimation, usually worth it.” He nodded to Rakith and the dragon’s head appeared at the side of the bridge. Both Devis and Bela jumped.
Kifu walked over to the side of the bridge, standing close enough to the dragon’s snout to touch it. “From here, he intends to breathe on us. This represents the first of two mistakes that would cost our ancient scaly nemesis his life. Bela?”
Bela forced down her nerves and regarded the dragon’s head wryly. “He’s awfully close to need to breathe on you.”
Kifu smiled. “Full marks for Miss Zagreda. In fact, it was not I standing here, but General Ironbeard. He taught the dragon the error of its ways with a resounding hammer strike that, I confess, resounded throughout the cavern. I would reproduce it for you here, but we are near the limits of my ability to generate images at the moment. At any rate…” He gestured to Rakith and the dragon flew toward the upper reaches of the cavern. “His Grace, the Duke, cast a spell of flying on General Ironbeard, who flew in pursuit of the badly wounded dragon. I, also, flew after them, in the hopes of possibly enchanting the dragon to our side against the Shard Slag. The dragon attempted to dissuade us with a fireball. Devis, what should he have done instead?”
Devis’ eyes were saucers as he took in the story, but he shook his head and looked at his teacher. “Umm…he can fly and you can fly but you need spells… dispel magic!”
Kifu stepped back to his students and put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Precisely, full marks all around today. If you have a capability that your opponent does not, you have an advantage. If you can deny them that capability, that is a surer road to victory than simply trading back and forth like two soldiers battering each other with swords. To be a magician is, more than anything, to outthink your enemies.”
A tiny, blonde-haired doll walked out of the Shard Slag and approached the group. She bowed and gestured towards the molten ooze. Kifu sighed and, with a wave of his hand, the images of fire and combat vanished like smoke, revealing a large study. The heat vanished, replaced with a chill in the air.
“Settareh says lunch is ready. We’ll discuss this later. Eating is not for business conversation. Come!” Rakith and the students followed him towards the dining room.