Welcome back to the regularly scheduled Dragonlance Chronicles Reread! Last week, our companions had gotten drunk in a swamp, then captured by draconians, whom they escaped by setting fire to a wicker dragon. Best. D&D. Ever.
But, all kidding aside, this week’s chapters are where things really kick off—join in, if you dare.
As always, we’re going to keep the reread post spoiler-free, but the comments are open to any and all discussion, so proceed with caution!
Escape. The well. Death on black wings. A bitter choice. The greatest gift.
All the mirth and chuckles from last week are gone—the party are doing what they do best, that is, wander through the wilderness. Fretfully. Whilst the draconians flounder around putting out their wicker dragon, Tanis gets the group lost in a swamp.
Things go from bad to worse (that is, damp to stormy), when Raistlin stumbles on a fallen obelisk—the inscriptions on which welcome the party to the ‘great city of Xak Tsaroth’ and the beauty that surrounds it. They rummage around, hoping to find more shelter, and instead they find draconian tracks—lots of them.
With a heavy heart, the group follow the tracks. Army of evil or not, they’ve got a quest to fulfill. Apparently Tanis’ stunning lack of wilderness lore has left an impression on Riverwind as, before ending the city, Riverwind takes a moment to say that Tanis is his friend. Even though he’s an elf. Which is to say, some of his best friends are elves, so now you can’t call him elfist.
The party poke around in the ruins of Xak Tsaroth, mostly admiring how completely old and ruined the city is. They find an open courtyard with a well in it—nearby stands a temple, the only building that’s somehow escaped the ruins (hmm). As they continue their poking and prodding, Tas spots a draconian—but before anyone can do anything, it hops down the well, gliding into the darkness.
The party realise this is probably a bad thing. But they have no idea…
It starts with fear—Raistlin, Tanis, Riverwind, all feel a tangible sense of evil.
Then the screaming—an ungodly shriek comes from the well, stunning the party with its noise, and making speech impossible.
And the trembling—the ground itself begins to throb and burst, the stones grumble, the ancient walls tumble to the ground.
And then? THE DRAGON.
She (weird narrative misstep—the dragon is gendered? Who in the party would know how to sex a dragon?) rises from the shattered well. While they tremble and are struck by her awesomeness (in the literal sense), the dragon circles far above the party and then… casts a spell, summoning darkness.
There’s total blackness and silence—which isn’t helping with the fear, to be honest. The party can do nothing but cower as the dragon dives down and sprays acid everywhere.
It splashes on Tanis and hurts like hell, but Riverwind has gotten the bulk of it. The party all stay down until dragon swoops back into the well, presumably congratulating herself on a job well done.
The lights come back on, and the party sprint to the gooey remains of Riverwind. It ain’t pretty and after a brief discussion, they agree that Sturm should put him out of his mercy. This calls for an ancient Solamnic chant, which drags out Riverwind’s pain somewhat, but is so far the best poetry we’ve had. And the delay is a good thing—just as Sturm is finally ready to do his thing—Goldmoon commands him to halt, and instead bring Riverwind to her. Raistlin agrees.
As Riverwind is carried into the temple, we then swap to Goldmoon’s point of view. She was drawn into the temple before the dragon rose from the well, and spent the combat having an awkward conversation with her mother’s ghost. Yes, nice to hear from her mother, but to Goldmoon’s credit, she’s upset about being separated from the rest of the party, and wants to help.
All they (she and Riverwind) ever wanted, Goldmoon points out, was to be together. And instead they’ve been wrapped up in this silly, silly quest. After a bit of soul-searching, Goldmoon decides the quest is important, if for Riverwind’s sake, if nothing else. That choice, er, chosen, she goes into the temple.
Where she makes new friends… Goldmoon’s disembodied mother introduces a glowing statue, that of Mishakal, goddess of healing. The statue (missing a staff! AHA!) delivers some welcome exposition:
Humanity turned from the gods, but now they have returned. The Queen of Darkness seems to have the advantage though, and is looking for something that will her return in physical form (which sounds bad). The first step to stopping her is getting the Disks of Mishakal from underneath the city. But they’re guarded by Khisanth, the dragon.
The statue ends on an encouraging note, blessing the staff (further?) and exhorting Goldmoon to “present it boldly, never wavering”.
Meanwhile, back in the now, Riverwind is goozing out all over the place. But the party are pleasantly impressed by the temple, as it seems awfully calm and nice.
There’s a bit of tension, then—surprise!—Goldmoon heals Riverwind. We’re all very happy for them.
That unpleasantness sorted, everyone explores the temple (small, empty, devoid of draconians) and sits down for dinner. Tas finds a helmet, Flint takes it. They argue about it, because that’s what they do.
There’s discussion about taking watches (what with being in a draconian city), but they all decide that they’re in a nice safe place and zonk out. Tactical brilliance again. Sturm tries to stay up, because he’s Sturm, and therefore not always a complete dingbat, but the goddess (presumably) sends him nice memories of his mom, and he falls asleep too.
Whew. What a day.
Monster(s) of the Week
A few sneaky ones—Tanis talks about having fought trolls in the past, Flint argues that his helmet has a ‘griffon-mane’ decoration, and there are tracks in the temple of a draconian and ‘some other creature’. But that’s all incidental, because…
Dragon. Dragon. Dragon. And what a glorious beastie she is. Remember how last week’s wicker dragon was a bit of a ‘meh’ sort of creature? Khisanth (‘Onyx’ to her mortal admirers) is anything but… the fear, the shaking, the crumbling of the city, the magic, the swooping, the acid breath, the cold, glorious beauty. Now that is a dragon!
We’ve been building up to the introduction of one of these wonderful monsters and, you know what? Khisanth isn’t a let-down at all. Even the combat, however brief, shows how magnificently terrifying she is—essentially they just quiver while she hovers, like a “great, black bird of prey”. That is, before she dives like a storm, a “hurricane”…
And this, frankly, is the quintessence of dragons: stupendous, tyrannical; the greatest of calamities; mighty and magnificent. And if Weis and Hickman’s language is slightly less poetic than Tolkien’s, Dragonlance’s authors still get their point across: there are monsters, and there are dragons, and there is simply nothing else that combines the beauty and the horror.
“The gods have not turned away from man—it is man who turned away from the true gods.”
That is patently a lie, Mishakal. See, thing is about a systemised fantasy world where gods demonstrably exist, is that you have actual evidence of when they’re not doing their jobs. 300 years after the gods (ahem) threw a mountain at the world in the Cataclysm, there are still true believers wandering around—Tanis, Sturm, the Majere brothers, Riverwind’s whole family—and, guess what? Nothing. Not a cantrip nor a healing potion.
Tanis and Flint debate this notion, about how the elves and dwarves still honour the gods. But Tanis accuses the dwarves of, um, whining. And says the elves are more ‘mourning’ than honouring. In both cases though, these seem completely justifiable responses to the gods being unresponsive.
“Your people were shut out of the Kingdom under the Mountain.”
“This isn’t fair! We never wanted this! We only wanted to love each other, and now—now we may lose that! We have sacrificed so much and none of it has made any difference. I am thirty years old, mother! Thirty and childless. They have taken my youth, they have taken my people. And I have nothing to show in return!”
Goldmoon, institutionalised sexism aside, has a point here—and it is worth remembering that the ‘Heroes’ of the Lance are a reluctant group. For Tanis, et al, it began with a ruined reunion. For Goldmoon, the co-instigator with Riverwind, it goes back even further. She wanted an uneventful life—to marry, to take care of her family and the Que-Shu. Instead, she gets wrapped up in a silly sequence of events: Riverwind’s initial quest was already unwanted and uncalled for, and it has spiralled out of control from there.
First, Tanis. He can’t climb down a rope, he can’t shoot goblins and now he gets the party lost in a swamp. Good thing he’s charming, right? Because as a ranger, he needs to brush up on the basics.
Second, the plot. After a few chapters of leaving town—and a few more of flailing about in the woods—the party have been given quest after quest, each bigger than the one before. What was ‘take Goldmoon to Haven’ (fail) became ‘take a staff to Xak Tsaroth’ (completed!) and is now ‘save the world from the Queen of Darkness’ (underway) [Press ‘Q’ at any point to see active quests]. This last one might be the most abstract of them all, but at least Mishakal has laid out a few stepping stones along the way: first up—steal some disks from beneath the dragon’s horde. Which is both Tolkienesque and helplessly out of date. Should the gods be using cloud storage? (Sorry.)
Third, dragon! I mean, dragons are 50% of the series title and we’re, so far, lance-free—so I feel justified in talking (more) about her. I love—and I mean that in the full ‘passionate emotional response’ way—the entrance of Onyx. Incredible, and delightfully cinematic, build-up, plus, the use of Tanis’s perspective really brings the monumental grandeur of the dragon to life.
To be fussy, I think the one misstep is possibly the monstercam—the short section from Onyx’s own POV—I want the dragon to be unknowable and vast and alien in its immensity. Plot-wise, I see why this has to happen. Khisanth is so overpowered, that we need a reason for her to not wipe out the party in this early chapter. And that comes from her perspective: Khisanth thinks that one pass is all she needs. Draconic overconfidence is believable, but there’s something that’s disappointing about knowing the dragon; or even being able to know the dragon.
Oh darling, darling dragon! I have waited a looooong time for you! And you have been everything I wanted—vast and violent and magnificent. Death on black wings indeed—kill ’em all, you glorious creature!
Except of course, she can’t—we still need this lot to keep on questing don’t we? And we don’t want this to be the last time we see Khisanth/Onyx!
In principle, I agree with Jared that Onyx is so incredible that I don’t want her perspective, I don’t want to know what she’s thinking—or that she’s thinking at all. I just want her to do her thing, blast that killer acid venom all over the place and shake this shit up, you know? But I don’t mind the little dragoncam paragraph too much, not really. Other than the very first line ‘She could not see through the darkness she had cast’—seriously?! Are you telling me this fantastic beast doesn’t have night vision? Or that she makes rookie mistakes like oh I don’t know—rendering herself effectively blind before a major kill? I admit—that line hung around in my head annoying me for a while.
But regardless, the dragon is amazing, even if her well does smell. I love the impending doom she casts over everyone before she appears, I love the acid venom, the single white talon at the end of each wing, the gleaming scales—I even love the full body horror of what happens to poor Riverwind, who is essentially reduced into a blackened human barbecue. What I find ridiculous and unbelievable is how everyone suddenly forgets Goldmoon and her magical healing staff even exist. They go from ‘dragon, run!’ to ‘poor Riverwind’ to‘oh just finish him off’ in less time than it took for Onyx to spread her wings and obliterate the sun. I refuse to accept that they are just shell shocked from the attack. If Goldmoon hadn’t come to from her little temple-dream at that exact time, Riverwind would be headless barbecue. It is Raistlin who points out that it is not for them to choose Riverwind’s death and of course, that makes me like him all the more.
I don’t have much to say about the little Goldmoon temple interlude here. She’s frustrated, I get that. She’s resolute to finish the quest, I get that too. Mainly, I’m annoyed that she gets sidelined during Riverwind’s big should he stay or should he go moment.
P.S.—OF COURSE the dragon is female, of course she is! For the longest time (or until I read Anne McCaffery), I thought all dragons were female.
Next week—no more dragons, but I hear Raistlin may be around a bit more…let’s have some magic, mage!
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.