by Trevor Hopkins

I glanced around at Doonira. She was standing in the entrance, taking in the scene with a quizzical look on her face while I was busily making myself at home.

"Well, this is all very cosy," she said finally, "How long have you been staying here?"

"Off and on, about six months," Bragrum replied vaguely, adding, "Come in, come in, make yourself comfortable."

He emphasised his welcome by brushing some miniscule amount of dust off the canvas seat of the folding chair and looking encouragingly at Doonira. She took the hint. As she was settling herself, she caught my eye with a puzzled expression. She was right to be unsettled: the dragon-stalker had been hanging around for half a year, he claimed, but there had only been a missing dragon in the vicinity for a few weeks. Was he suffering from some undiagnosed case of premonition?

In case you don't know, premonition is regarded as a disease and seems to be an occupational hazard for some Goblins. Predicting the future, to a limited extent, is perfectly feasible with the inexpensive glamours available to denizens of the Lower Realms, and some of us find ourselves to be naturally adept even in the absence of specific commercial magic. The Old Ones are reputed to have even more abilities in this area, of course.

For well-defined futures - like those indicated by the roll of a dice - these predictive capabilities work well. The trouble is that, unless the outcomes are rigidly constrained, the user of such a spell is likely to sense a shifting fog of probabilities and maybes, different from moment to moment. And, if you have a predilection for premonition, you don't need a glamour; this murky knowledge can fill your head day and night with dark images and obtuse possibilities. Incessantly, without surcease. It is, unsurprisingly, a condition that can lead to madness, an insanity from which few recover.

Still, Bragrum seemed to be functioning at a social and intellectual level - if a trifle intense, even manic on occasions - and was far from being a gibbering wreck. He seemed to have his condition under control, more or less. I wasn't too worried. At least for the moment.

"Six months? So you knew that one of the Old Ones would hide hereabouts?" I asked gently.

"Of course," he replied, looking mildly affronted, "But this is not an original insight. Even the humans have sensed it. Why else would this area have been known for centuries as Valle los Dragones?"

He was right, of course. I had spotted that name on the map that Gumshoe had bought. But I had considered it just a name, until the meaning of the Spanish phrase had been pointed out to me.

"And you've been watching the Old One?" Doonira interjected, "Recently?"

Bragrum turned in her direction, his eyes gleaming with an interior fire.

"That is my life's purpose," he replied airily, "It's what I do. And, yes, there is an Old One is close by. Perhaps closer than you imagine."

The combination of the glamour which protected the entrance - which had reactivated itself automatically after we had entered - and the rawhide curtain hanging in front of it meant that the little cave was warm and comfy enough. It would be entirely possible to live here even in the depths of winter. But there was still a draft - one which didn't see to originate with the doorway, but appeared to emanate from somewhere deeper in the hillside, from someplace hidden in the gloom in the darkest recesses.

"So you could get us closer to the Old One?" I asked, affecting a casualness I did not really feel. Doonira was watching the old Goblin with an unwavering stare.

"I could," Bragrum said, returning Doonira's gaze challengingly, "But first I need to return to a debate we were having last time we met. Do you remember?"

She looked away, clearly puzzled. He shook his head, dismayed.

"You presented a paper," he said, his voice suddenly low and earnest, his eyes still boring into Doonira, "You claimed that the Old Ones had been in existence since the dawn of time, and that they must therefore be immortal. That the Old Ones live forever."

Her face wrinkled even more as she tried to recall.

"I don't remember. But it's obviously true, isn't it?" she answered eventually.

"Oh no," Bragrum said with another sad shake of his head, "They live for a very long time, but they do eventually die of old age. And they can be killed too."

"Yes, that's true," I interjected, "An Old One told me so himself."

Part 25 Part 27