Arnold felt himself plummeting through the recesses of a murky world. Though he could perceive little, he was all the same fully aware of his descent, dark bubbles rising from the depths as if he were diving down into some underwater ravine.
Viewing his body like an ethereal specter, the youth witnessed himself settle upon an invisible earth as a mysterious figure entered from the hazy abyss. Though Arnold could not completely make out the figure’s features, he cautioned his senses.
“What are you doing here Arnold?” the figure asked, bubbles frothing upward from its obscured mouth.
The youth tried moving his body though he was crippled by the restraints of an unforeseen force. Unable to answer the figure’s question, Arnold watched the shadowy form approach him evermore closely.
“Why’re you on this journey Arnold? What’s the point in it?” the apparition whispered, its voice not entirely coming from the figure’s direction.
Arnold thought it a strange question with an obvious answer, though he again couldn’t find the means of which to speak. The figure continued to approach, hollow footsteps resonating from all sides. The youth wafted through the capillaries of tinged muck to get a better look at the individual’s face, but couldn’t break through the haze.
“You’re tired Arnold. Rest now. Rest,” the phantom cooed, similarly echoing from all directions.
The figure nearly stood above the boy’s body now. Watching anxiously beside himself, Arnold tried as he may to arouse his sleeping form of the danger above it, but to no avail. Kneeling beside the sleeping youth, the figure placed a hand on his cheek as Arnold noticed a stream of new phantoms propagating from out the dusk.
“You should rest now Arnold. Give up and go home. Give up on this journey Arnold. Go home,” they all chanted in unison, their voices slurred under the heavy sheet of unperceivable liquid.
Arnold spun in all directions, the shaded impressions within the space before him gathering in a circle around the sleeping body. As the kneeling phantom caressed the youth’s cheek, Arnold thrusted at the other approaching figures, attempts to push them away, but instead phasing through them entirely.
“Rest now Arnold. No need to continue anymore. Just rest,” the apparitions encroached even closer. The sound of their combined chanting was maddeningly loud, like the roar of the dragon and reverberating from all sides.
Crawling back to his body, Arnold attempted one last time to wake his body as the other specters began grasping and pulling on its cloak and limbs. Futilely shaking at the boy’s head and chest, Arnold watched as the initial kneeling figure dipped forward, bringing its still darkened face close the boy’s.
The thick dye around the phantom’s form began fading into the air like a frosted windowpane melting with the sun’s heat. Underneath the misty disguise was revealed a bloody and bludgeoned face, the wisps of darkness quietly receding to reveal the figure’s mouth and chin. An ugly smile plastered upon the apparition’s half-exposed façade stayed Arnold’s eyes, locking them in place as the rest of the face slowly ebbed into focus.
The youth now found it impossible to breathe, his mind suspended like his body. So as the kneeling form cupped its hands around the Arnold’s ears and the other shadowy figures continued to poke and probe from every which direction, the boy’s eyes finally opened, taking in the phantom’s face in full view.
“Perhaps it’s time to give up and come home,” the beaten face smiled, “Come home and rest now. Come home to me. Come home my son.”
It took a few days for the youth to regain consciousness. Though greeted warmly by the smiling faces of the three men in the emporium, the boy had little time to gather his wits about him before Brandon ushered them to the next location.
“Now that Arnold’s awake we can take our leave. Despite having nothing to give, you housed us in our time of need and provided us with new supplies. Thank you again merchant,” the priest bowed.
Arnold’s mouth was parched from the days of his having been unconscious. Though, aside from this and some sensitive eyes, he felt mostly fine, strong even and surprised that his wounds had all but disappeared.
“I wish you luck on your journey,” the Hinsberger returned smiling, turning toward Arnold, “Please do write me when you can. I’d like to know as to whether or not you’re still alive out there.”
An aurous halo of light shimmered passed the merchant’s head, blinding the youth as he returned the confirmatory nod. Tristan, hulking a large satchel around his shoulder, firmly shook Kennie’s hand before adjusting his strap, and proceeding down the bustling street. Fastened tightly around Firefly’s tusks and abdomen as a new makeshift harness, the merchant’s rope stabilized Arnold as he rode atop Firefly’s back. The boy waved wearily, craning his neck back toward the shanty emporium as the giant man returned the gesture with a smile, waving and soon disappearing behind the flood of bartering fruit merchants and street-side vendors.
Shifting unsteadily from the boar’s undulating back muscles, the youth couldn’t help but recall the vivid imagery exhibited within his nightmare. The boy wasn’t one to dream, in fact, Arnold could hardly recall the instance in which his last dream had occurred. This along with the manifestation of the individual who’d made an appearance in his nightmare founded an anxiety that, had the youth been alone, would’ve likely heeded even greater severity.
Though not a particularly superstitious personality, Arnold thought it rather convenient that the dream had come to him at the time that it did. And, despite his efforts to neglect that ever chilling expression, the youth understood that the image from so many years ago still remained seared in his mind with little to no alteration.
The piteous smile, the blood soaked tears trailing long streaks down an emaciated cheek, and the low reverberant whisper that crowed his mind into a lull of illusory comfort. This, Arnold chose to forget. But like flies to rancid flesh, the memory stayed its welcome and refused to fade. So as the four travelers passed through the wooden gates of the mountain city once more, the youth shook the plague from his mind and set his sight upon the teetering dirt road before him. For here Arnold understood his path was clear, and it allowed him solace to think that here, he’d be able to opt out of his nightmare.
The craftsman notified Arnold as to the events that occurred during the youth’s momentary incapacitation. Aside from the standard supply runs, the boy too found it perplexing as to how the priest’s staff returned to them in the emporium. This and also that after multiple explanations of the happenings atop the Holy Jim, the merchant never seemed able to recall many details shortly after the mentioning of the dragon.
When out gathering supplies within the city, Tristan admitted to conversing with several of the tradespeople in town about the dragon. Every one of them, within just minutes of mentioning the great beast, had a complete lapse in memory about that portion of the conversation though they retained most everything else.
“Most likely another spell cast by the dragon,” the priest had suggested, though the youth wasn’t so sure, “I believe it affects anyone who’s told about the creature’s whereabouts or existence.”
It wasn’t that Arnold didn’t believe the dragon capable of casting a spell such as this, but rather that the boy was unsure as to what extent the curse was able to encompass. If anyone told about the dragon’s existence proceeded to lose their memory shortly thereafter, then the same curse should apply to the four of them, though it clearly did not.
Arnold came to the conclusion that the spell likely broke upon sight of the great beast. However, upon further scrutiny, the youth realized that this theory then brought into question exactly who was being cursed. Was it everyone who wouldn’t know of the dragon’s existence until they laid eyes upon it? Or the people who saw the dragon themselves who proceeded to have their words cursed?
“Does it matter? No one remembers the dragon either way, regardless of who the cursed individual is,” Tristan reasoned after Arnold shared his thoughts around a campfire one night.
“This might be true, but it’s interesting to consider. If the dragon’s spell did indeed affect every individual in the land until he or she had laid eyes upon the beast, then just how powerful is this monster?” Arnold wondered. The priest eyed his two companions thoughtfully and shrugged his shoulders, slumping back against the boar as he readied himself to go to sleep.
“Dragons are extremely powerful creatures. Legends of the past have described entire armies of holy knights being unable to subjugate just one due to its immense magical power. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one were capable of casting a spell of that magnitude,” Brandon explained, nodding off soon after.
Arnold stirred at this thought for a considerable amount of time. It was later that the priest mentioned that the upkeep of such powerful magic likely drained the individual caster considerably, but reaffirmed that since the caster was a dragon, it could probably maintain itself. But despite having ended the discussion, the youth couldn’t verily bring himself to put the thought to rest.
Several days later the group found themselves passing through a small trading village similar to that of Tristan’s old home. As the craftsman went off to barter the woven baskets he’d made from materials on the road, Arnold decided to reintroduce the topic to the priest.
“I’m still unsure as to what else you’d like to know. Why does this intrigue you so young Arnold?” Brandon asked curiously, passersby eyeing the large boar beside the two.
“I feel it impractical for the dragon to cast a spell on absolutely everyone in the world instead of simply those who the beast encounters,” Arnold exclaimed. The priest shrugged, taking a moment to comb through his straggly hair before continuing.
“You’re right. It does seem impractical. However, what if only the people within that city were those affected? What if it wasn’t just one dragon? Seeing as how the beast is the watch hound for the Hell Gate, who’s to say that the forces of Hell aren’t enacting their magic across the world?” the priest forwarded, “But like the craftsman said, what difference does it make? Whether the dragon cursed us or cursed the people, no one will remember our story no matter how many times we retell it.”
“But that’s just it, if that is the case and we are the ones who’re affected by the curse, why don’t we forget immediately? Also, if only the city was afflicted with by the spell, the past climbers could’ve simply told a holy knight from outside the city and recruited an army to eliminate the threat. The proximity of the curse must reach beyond the city limit. And what of the past climbers as well? The Hinsberger told us that every one of them went mad shortly after descending the Holy Jim. Why haven’t we gone mad?” Arnold questioned briskly, shaking his head in confusion. The priest nodded, considering each of the youth’s points.
“Perhaps Barrientos of Mark had something to do with that. Perhaps we’re protected since we’re part of his supposed prophecy. Or perhaps, unbeknownst to us, we’ve already fallen to madness and are simply wallowing in self-pity,” Brandon chuckled lightly.
Arnold slid down the mud brick wall he’d been leaning against, cupping his mouth in thought. Firefly laid himself down as well, nuzzling up against the boy, the priest smiling gently at the sight. He knelt beside the conflicted youth.
“If it bothers you so, then why not find out? Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to find out more about the spell while we wait for the craftsman,” Brandon suggested. The boy turned his head, conveying a questioning glance but not outwardly responding. “If the dragon had indeed cast its curse across all people within the land, then the people of this village should lose their memory of the beast as well, seeing as how we’re several days out from the Holy Jim. If we are the cursed individuals, anything we say or write should cause the people to lose their memory. However assuming that the invocation requires one of us to enact the spell, if we write about the existence of the dragon and have one of the townspeople read it, it might yield different results.”
Arnold ran through the experiment in his mind, not entirely sure of what the priest was proposing, but grappling with the idea to settle his inquiry.
“So if we write about the dragon and allow for one of the townspeople to read it… wouldn’t that individual forget about the dragon as well?” the boy asked. The priest smirked.
“Yes, but if that townsperson reads the message out loud to someone else, assuming that we are needed to perpetuate the curse, the other villager should remember. If neither person remembers then the dragon cursed everyone in the world. If the other villager remembers, then that would mean the spell has been cast on us,” Brandon explained carefully.
Arnold’s eyes widened with understanding as he stood rapidly, tapping his foot in contemplation.
“Do you have a quill?” the boy asked.