In the time of the world’s youth there existed (and still exists) a sacred and pure valley known today as the Valley of the Finest, for anything and everything that succeeded in this valley was perfect. But of course, what is perfection without people to marvel at it? And so was born the first family to make residents in the Valley. This was in the time before names, therefore all offspring were referred to as First Son, First Daughter, and so forth.
Now it happened one day that the five children of the parents –three brothers and two sisters- went out among the shrubbery, playing with a medium-weight sphere woven with twigs and other such debris. As Third Son was attempting to pass the sphere to Second Daughter (she sometimes called it a ball), he accidentally put too much thrust into the kick and it flew up, narrowly missing Second Daughter’s face, and made a rainbow-like arc while somehow not hitting any trees. It flew, as if with wings, somewhere out of sight.
“Now look what you did!” cried First Son, glaring at his youngest brother.
“It’s not my fault our sister’s a terrible goalie.”
Second Daughter, who had been biting her nails and looking anxiously to where the ball had gone, suddenly whirled around to glare at her brother. Then she pointed in the general direction of where she had just been looking. “Well, come on, then! If we run, we might be able to catch it.” Before anyone could vote for or rebel against her idea, she sped off for the spherical toy. Third Son was fast on her heels and the other three followed as well. Much of the terrain was flat and grassy, but there were also both shallow and deep hills, and these gave the ball the advantage of speed and gravity. But not all was lost, for the children also took advantage of the steepness and soon caught up with the buoyant toy. It continued to bounce, and dead in its path was a large weeping willow.
‘What luck!’ thought Third Son, for he was beginning to grow weary from all the running. The ball hit the ground once more and leapt toward the tree. It should have bounced off the bark and rebounded to its pursers, but instead, it disappeared . . . inside the tree! The siblings all skidded to a stop several feet from the tree trunk –as if close proximity were hazardous- and gawked. They huffed and puffed in an effort to catch their breath while trying to rationalize what they had all just witnessed.
“Did you see…?”
“Maybe we just . . .” The theories went round like a water wheel, but there seemed to be no obvious answer.
“Let’s just go play something else,” First Daughter suggested. She had never been one for an adventure, preferring the picking of berries rather than the excitement of a scavenger hunt.
“But what about our ball?” whined Third Son.
“We’ll make another one tomorrow. It’s long gone by now.”
Third Son pouted and turned back to the tree. As strange as it sounded, he know that the ball had gone inside the tree trunk. He furrowed his brow, pursed his lips, and took a step towards the tree, for it seemed like something worthy of investigation. But as soon as his bare foot touched the ground in front of him, the bark of the trunk shifted like clay. It stretched upward, the folds elongating until it looked as if they would snap with the slightest pressure. But the bark also stretched horizontally, and in between the cracks were strands of flickering gold. There was a loud crack as the dry bark finally broke, revealing the most fantastic discovery: a tunnel. The whole of the conversion from tree trunk to tunnel entrance took a grand total of two and a half seconds. Inside the tunnel were torches on either side lighting the way through. Third Son, determined to fix the problem he had caused (losing the ball), started toward the tunnel, but a hand came down on his shoulder.
“Wait,” said Second Son cautiously. “We should go back.” How strange; Second Son was usually apathetic in these kinds of situations. He rarely put more favor in one choice than in the other.
“Why?” demanded Third Son petulantly.
The oldest flanked his succeeding brother. “There might be danger in there. Father should explore it first.”
“I think we should go in!” Second Daughter interjected abruptly.
First Son, as he did not fancy his place as the eldest sibling to be overlooked so cavalierly, once again said, “Father needs to explore it first.”
“Let’s go!” First Daughter pestered as she took hold of Third Son’s arm and began leading him away. It was just too unfortunate for her that Third Son was quite wriggly and managed to wrench his arm from his sister’s grip and sprint into the tunnel.
He heard his siblings in hot pursuit, which made the boy run faster. The tunnel multiplied, splitting into two more tunnels veering in opposite directions. As he neared them, he thought briefly of which one to follow. His feet carried him closer at remarkable speed, and his siblings were not far behind, but as he tried to slow down, he slipped and found one of his feet hidden beneath at least six inches of mud. He scrambled to his feet and ran down the path to the right, following the torches and watching for anymore surprise mud traps.
Suddenly something tackled him from behind and he fell to the ground with a muffled boom. As desperately as he wanted to push up from the ground and start running again, his lung capacity was pushed to its’ maximum ability, leaving the boy breathless as he lay pinned to the hard and dusty tunnel ground.
“Finally,” Second Son huffed, just as winded. They heard their brother and sisters come to a halt behind the miniature dog pile.
“You caught him,” stated First Son, also catching his breath. “Father’s going to murder you when he hears about this.”
Second Son assisted his little brother in finding his balance again. Third Son brushed off the dust from his nightshirt, which he hadn’t bothered changing out of. “Well, as long as we’re this far in,” he said, “can’t we just explore a bit? There might be a secret garden or a treasure keep.” He gasped with childish anticipation. “Or maybe we’ll find a dragon!”
“We live in a garden, Athena,” First Son pointed out mockingly.
Second Daughter looked up at him and quivered her lower lip. “Pleeease? Just for a little while?”
“No,” he said, but his tone of finality cracked just a bit. After a moment of reconsideration he breathed out a huge puff of air. “Fine, but only for a little while.”
First Daughter looked at him with a panicky eye and she bit her lip in anxiety.
“You don’t have to come,” he informed her as they rest of them continued down the narrow tunnel. Her careful footsteps never veered from the small group.
It was unfortunate for the curious onlookers that the unfamiliar tunnel did not have many artifacts to speak of. Occasionally there would be a piece of jewelry or colorful rocks wedged in the cavity walls that would excite their senses and make them think there really was some sort of buried treasure, but as time went on, the discovery of such riches seemed very unlikely.
“We should head back now. We’ve been gone long enough. The ball isn’t here.” First Son began leading them away.
“Wait,” Second Daughter insisted as she pointed further along. “Look! I see a light up ahead!”
They all turned and saw she was correct. Just around the corner the tunnel illuminated with a light brighter than a mere torch could conjure. The siblings anxiously followed the light. At the end of the tunnel was a large crescent opening to the left of the blunted passageway. It led to a large, hollowed-out cavity half a mile long and a mile high. The light was coming from a huge source at the ceiling in the shape of an enormous bee hive. More torches lined the perimeter of the room, amplifying its magnitude. Had all this been the only discoveries upturned by the siblings, the tragedy might not have occurred. Alas, the tunnel and all its’ narrow passages had served a great purpose. First Son and First Daughter gasped in unison, and Third Son quickly discovered why. Sure he might have expected the capacious cavity, but when he’d talked about finding a dragon, the intent was not literal.
First Son and First Daughter’s mantras of “Hurry” and “Get out of here” were tangled, but as they were making little progress, their hissing whispers rose to loud demands, and they all struggled to turn back. There was a loud snort that made everyone freeze, afraid to even blink. The dragon, which had a moment ago been in a peaceful slumber, shook its’ giant head and blinked away exhaustion. It’s eyes, a dark, pearlescent color with a wide iris, combed the room lazily but stopped abruptly on the five strangers. It stood up and leaned closer to the rounded opening, observing the children. And when it stood up, an egg about the size of a panther cub, black in shade and like marble in texture. Second Daughter, though her eyes barely left the monster for more than a split second, noted the egg and pointed to it while tugging gently on her oldest brother’s arm. The dragon’s curiosity turned to rage as it saw this attention to it’s offspring and immediately deduced the intruders as threats. It gave a mighty roar, sending shots of adrenaline racing through the veins of the intruders. The dragon bared it’s teeth and a deep growl rumbled in her chest (for it was clear that the dragon was female). It clawed at the dirt ground and something came loose from one of the legs; a dark red stone of some kind. But through all the confusion and fear, the brothers and sisters started pushing each other out of the way, desperate to run from the furious monster, and by these means did Third Son slip from the drastic ledge and fall a steep fall into the dragon’s lair.
He landed painfully on his side and when he opened his eyes, he saw the dragon’s feet mere inches from his body. He sat up hastily and glanced up at the place where he had fallen. Third Son could not see the faces of his siblings. It appeared they had deserted him. His heart broke and he sobbed uncontrollably. The dragon, whose mood swings were quite unpredictable, tilted her head curiously at the weeping figure. She inhaled slowly, nearly inhaling the boy in the process, and poked him slightly with her claw. Third Son cried out and slapped the claw away. He momentarily saw the dragon’s face contort back into rage as she saw violence in this small being. Another rock, the color of blood, fell from her neck and landed in the child’s lap. He lived long enough to recognize the rock as reminiscent to those he and his siblings had found throughout the tunnel.
Scales, he realized. Not rocks, but scales.
The dragon roared and Third Son looked up in horror as she raised her foot, claws barred, teeth showing. She slashed at the boy and he felt the scream in his throat briefly echo throughout the cavern walls before it cut off abruptly. At first the pain was like nothing he had ever experienced before, but, curiously, it vanished a moment later and was replaced with a bizarre feeling of fatigue. Cautiously –so cautiously- he opened his eyes and looked down at himself. Where there should have been a ghastly wound, there was nothing but an unscathed, pearlescent child’s body. But it was not right. Something about this whole ordeal was very, very wrong. Third Son examined his hands. They were pale and translucent, but somehow still solid. Like a warped crossbreed of fog, water, and smoke. What kind of a death was this? How was he still in one piece? Third Son stood and examined the rest of himself. It came only as a slight surprise that the rest of his self was in the same condition as his hands: flawless, glowing, oddly pearlescent and sheer. He felt something move at his feet and looked to see what it was. A heap of mangled flesh and clothing, drenched in blood, was lying in a useless bundle beside him. He shirked away, half in fear and half in disgust. How had he not noticed it before? The dirt sticking and smudging where blood was present, the disheveled blonde hair, the tattered nightdress . . .
Wait, he thought suddenly and inspected the heap more closely, his eyes widening with intuition. Horrorstruck, he tried to jump back… and realized that his feet were not touching the ground! Third Son looked in disbelief from his floating feet to the dead body; to his dead body. He gripped his head as he tried to make sense of it all, and when he tried to run, he could not feel the ground beneath his feet. Third Son attempted to climb the wall he’d fallen from, to the ledge where he could find his way out, but his muscles –he somehow still had them in this curious state of nonbeing- were locked and the ghost boy found himself all but immobile. Would he be stuck in this place forever? Stuck here with –
Something rumbled behind him and Third Son whipped around to see the dragon staring down at him in suspicion. Third Son couldn’t blame her, for how many of her victims had stared back after being killed? She did not make another attempt on his life again, and he had no choice but to admit to himself what this creature had inadvertently made him.
A ghost. The thought made him shiver. Not living, but somehow still roaming the earth in a convoluted interpretation of life after death. It was strange because he could now see reason defending this monster. She had no bloodlust, nor was she killing for sport. Eyeing the black egg which had really been the cause of his demise, Third Son realized it was the dragon’s motherly instincts that had caused her to lash out at the threat. Had they remained calm, the dragon might not have reacted so adversely. In fact, the boy almost had a certain respect for the creature. Third Son slowly reached out his star-like hand to the dragon, but when he went to touch the monster’s snout, the limb fell through as if the animal were a hallucination.
Third Son turned from the dragon and paced thoughtfully. Was this to be it, then? Would he spend the rest of eternity as a specter of these caverns? He looked up the height of the wall to the rounded entrance, wondering if he would feel the injury if he fell from it in an attempt at repelling. Or would he merely phase through the ground into darkness, never finding the end of underground? Third Son remembered his father telling stories of the gods and goddesses who dwelt at the summit of Mount Olympus. He especially liked ones of adventure, like those Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades took part in. He thought of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. How he wished he’d been more like Athena, or at least had a bit more intelligence.
During Third Son’s stay in the caverns, time was just an object flowing like a river. He saw the dragon’s curiosity of him extinguish until she ignored him as a wolf shuns a hummingbird. He witnessed the hatching of the dragon’s egg, and the maturing of the black creature grow like a shadow in the setting sun. Also during this unmeasured amount of time, the ghost boy went on many expeditions throughout the passageways, seeking anything and finding curious artifacts such as a tubular object with a fascinating lens. When he observed through the lens one way and then the other, the facets in the crystal fold and bloom like the phases of a tulip. He discovered how easy it was to climb walls or crawl through small spaces. It felt something like being a bird, for all he had to do was push off an object and gravity no longer held him down. Upon realizing this, it was not long before he retraced his steps to where he had originally entered. But, alas, the only thing that greeted the ghost was a wall of unusually sturdy tree bark. He could not even phase through as he had done his first minutes of being a ghost. There was no escaping this magic tree which would forever be his tomb. There were not enough artifacts in the world to keep him occupied for eternity.
The ghost spent the majority of his days exploring the passageways. It seemed like the caverns had grown into narrow tunnels, countless torches never dimming or even flickering when he tried to blow it out. Probably the most fascinating place in the tree was where the two dragons resided. It truly was like a bee hive in that place. Numerous rounded entrances leading to sudden drops, wide ridges that could act like a ramp leading up and downward, a towering ceiling that stretched higher than the ghost boy cared to climb. Though the outermost walls of the tree were indeed some kind of impenetrable bark, the inside was the strangest kind of rock. It was red, a rusty color, and particles of sand arose with every step as if the ground was just a platform of sand pressed closely together, but still waning under pressure. The place was a mountain inside a weeping willow. In the dragon’s lair rested an enormous swamp that festered and churned, the color constantly changing from white to blue to an unhealthy and unnatural green. He once tried skipping a stone across the surface, but after two hops it simmered into the crust of hazardous water material. The second time he experimented with stones and swamp gunk, the pebbles just settled on top of the water like the liquid was earth. When the ghost was feeling either extremely bored or extremely confident he gave himself a running start, leapt into the air, curled into a ball, and splashed into the swamp. He didn’t feel a change in temperature, but that could have been because he was not affected by it anymore. He never felt too hot or too cold, but neither was he warm. As far as body temperature extended, that area of human nature was an empty space in a pool of nothingness. The ghost boy instinctively closed his eyes when he crashed through the surface of the swamp, but he opened them to something which shocked him for the first time in who knows how long. The swamp –at least it looked like a swamp from up above- was not only clear, but clean. It was like swimming in the sky but with a strange atmosphere as the water did little to resist his quasi-solid ghost form. The boy spent a long time in the swamp-lake, but soon it too piqued little interest to him.
By this time the blood red dragon had died of very old age and her carcass slowly deteriorated until only a few ribs and a caudal spade remained. Now the black dragon, whose snout, claws, and horn core blurred into grey, was almost as big as it’s mother. It regarded the ghost boy with little more than a glance except a snort here and there.
Once upon an unknown time, the ghost boy found he was no longer alone in his tomb. The first thing which had alerted him to this fact was the tiny click-clack echoing like a whisper off the dusty red walls. But his mind had been for so long removed from civilization that it took him quite a while to name the sound as footsteps. He righted himself –having been hanging upside down from one of the rounded drop-off entrances for no reason- and listened closely. The footsteps were nearing him and he was sure he heard someone mumbling. There was a short cry which was followed by a string of curses, and then someone entered the dragon’s lair. The ghost boy had been resting above the entrance this stranger came through, so at first he only saw the top of the person’s head. From behind, the ghost boy noted the person’s outlandish linens and rolls of stiff ivory things overflowing a large pouch that had a long strap worn over the shoulder.
The ghost boy came down from his hiding place with a slow and graceful glide and he followed the stranger as they inspected the cavern. He could tell when they finally saw the dragon –luckily in a deep slumber- because they stood frozen for quite some time. When they turned around, a tiny shriek escaped their lips.
The stranger was a man, a few feet shorter than a standing bear, an aesthetic hood resting on his shoulders. His face was well chiseled, a square jaw beneath an angular but slightly pointy nose and brown eyes that danced with excitement.
“Who are you?” the ghost boy inquired with true curiosity.
The man swallowed as he observed the boy with an expression of utter fascination. “I am Rupert, a scholar from Delle Terra.”
“Del-where?” The ghost crinkled his face at the odd name.
“It’s a kingdom far from this place. But who are you?”
Surprised by this question, the boy prattled off whatever sounded convincing. “I am the ghost of the weeping willow, protector of all its inner contents and companion to the fierce dragon.”
“But what is your name, young ghost?”
The ghost boy blinked, uncomprehending at first, but then he slowly realized what the scholar had meant. A name. He knew he’d had one of those once, a long time ago. What was it, again? Thirson; Thrised; Sondirth?
The scholar waited for the boy’s reply, but he somehow realized he wasn’t going to get an answer. “Very well,” he sufficed and looked around the great cavern. He sighed in awe. “This place is amazing! It’s like a cathedral.”
“What’s a cathedral?”
“What is a –it’s a church, boy!” the man explained, shocked. The ghost boy did not want to tell Rupert he did not know what a church was. “What is your business here, anyways?”
Dryly, the ghost answered, “I died here.” He gave a significant look to the slumbering monster.
“Oh… Oh. I see. Well, ahem, what say you tell me a bit about these tunnels, eh?”
The ghost boy shrugged apathetically. “I don’t know what you’re looking for, but I doubt you will find it here.”
“I am searching for knowledge of any kind I can get,” Rupert explained. “Your discovery alone has proved my journey was a success. Tell me, ghost boy, do you eat?”
“I’m dead. Guess.”
“Fascinating! And can you walk through solid objects like all the scrolls say?”
He didn’t know what ‘all the scrolls’ meant, but he led Rupert to where the man had just entered and extended his hand through the rust-colored walls. The scholar took one of the many stiff ivory objects from his large pouch and scribbled something with a feather and what looked like black blood.
“What are these?” asked the ghost, gesturing to the ivory things.
“Scrolls, dear boy; one of man’s greatest gifts is the gift of knowledge, and they’re all found in scrolls. I plan to add my discoveries to libraries everywhere.”
“Why do you carry them around in animal skin?”
The man glanced down at his pouch with furrowed brows, and then he looked up. “It’s a satchel. Haven’t you ever seen one of these?”
“Never,” the ghost shook his head.
Rupert paused and observed his specimen with new eyes. “How long have you been dead?”
“I don’t know. There’s no way for me to keep track of time. Awhile I would assume since I died before this dragon hatched.”
“Dragons have incredibly long life spans. They can live for centuries. And before you ask, a century is one hundred years.”
He hadn’t known this fact, but he wasn’t going to ask. “Then I guess I’ve been dead a few centuries.”
“But throughout all that time you didn’t bother to leave this place? Could you not find the exit, or did time seem to blur as if it had no hold on you anymore?”
“I did try to leave. I know exactly where I first entered, and that I cannot leave.”
“Why not?” There was pity in Rupert’s eyes.
“You’re the scholar. You tell me.”
Rupert pursed his lips and his brow furrowed as he made several attempts at an explanation, without avail. Upon this, the scholar begged the ghost to show him all the caverns and secret tunnels. “It’s for my research,” he explained, saying how the world deserved to know about this place. When the boy seemed skeptical, Rupert gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “If you show me all the wonders of this place, I promise to not rest until I get you out of here.” So the ghost boy led the scholar through many tunnels, the tall and the small, nodding to artifacts as they came across them. And as they searched the last cavern, and the scholar was on his way out, the ghost boy reminded him of his pledge. Though anxious to return to wherever he came from, Rupert stayed and thought hard. He experimented many times with what he had handy, but without avail. He then suggested leaving all his present possessions –save for the clothes on his back and the scrolls, of course- with the ghost while he searched every library for an answer to this incredible mystery. He promised to return when he found an answer.
Over the years –decades, centuries, perhaps even millennium- the ghost boy was visited by other beings of many shapes, sizes, and origins, but Rupert never did return. The dragon proved to be a dismal companion, always grumbling with boredom and casting the ghost boy weary glances when he drew near. The only real entertainment the creature received was the occasional poor soul who would wander into the caves. Every one of them had promised the ghost freedom, but only few were able to break their promise as the rest were put to other dragonish use.
But there came a day not destined to ebb and flow like usual. The ghost boy could feel a change in atmosphere on this day, and he recalled a long-unfamiliar emotion from when he was not a ghost. It felt like something swelling in his head, and like pressure was being applied behind his eyes. His vision became white and there was a hollow ringing in his ears. The sensation only lasted a few moments, however, before all was well again. The ghost boy’s eyes sought out the dragon, but he was quite bemused to see the monster still sleeping as it had been doing all morning. He knew it was not just resting, but also protecting. It had happened some time ago (again, the ghost boy had no way of determining time) that he noticed the dragon’s erratic behavior. It was by sheer luck he had caught the briefest glimpse of a black, oval object larger than a regular rock, but much smaller than a boulder.
An egg, he had suddenly deduced. From that moment on, the ghost made a point not to disrupt the dragon.
After the ghost’s head sensation subsided, he decided to investigate the reasoning behind it. The ghost fazed through the reddish walls and listened with all his might. It was not hard to discern the careful progression of footsteps. He discreetly found his way to where the visitor was, hovering above them. He saw, with borderline surprise, that the foreigner was a female, still young, but also mature. She looked terribly frightened, as if wishing for a miracle. The ghost boy found it all quite entertaining. He followed her to where the path divided into diagonal passageways in opposite directions. The girl paused for a moment, glancing from one path to the other. She foolishly chose the path to the left –short, muddy, and somehow always humid- but after her foot sank into the ground, she quickly yanked it out and proceeded with new urgency and determination down the longer, drier path. It was here where the ghost boy fazed through the rocks again until he came to the place the girl would eventually come to. He hid his floating body mostly in the rock, but kept an eye slightly exposed to watch the goings on. It seemed a lifetime had gone by before the girl’s face emerged in the rounded entrance several feet above the ground. The ghost observed as she quickly turned around to repel the rock wall like a confused insect. Just as the female reached the bottom of the wall, the slumbering dragon stirred, and the action felt large and sounded loud. The girl cowered behind a large boulder and waited there a few seconds. Slowly she peeked around the boulder and froze when her eyes recognized the figure. The ghost boy watched with some remembered emotion (what he felt was suspense, but the boy was quickly regaining memory of the rest of his emotions) as the girl refused to make as much as the sound of breathing. The ghost soared up and over the visitor and dove into the ground, keeping his eyes above ground to observe everything. Suddenly a horrible noise –some drawn out snap like the tearing of wood- rang out for a few seconds, and the ghost clapped his hands over his ears. Once it died out, he came back up. The dragon’s eyes fluttered, and for a moment the ghost thought the creature had seen the girl, but it closed its’ glassy eye once more. The girl made a slow advance on the creature, her body reluctant to move forward, her shaky hands removing a knightly sword from its scabbard. But no sooner had she taken her next step then the dragon’s furious eyes flew open and focused on her prey. The girl was petrified for a few moments, during which time the dragon stood to her full height and gave a mighty roar. (The ghost boy, paying very close attention, also saw the dragon’s tail flick the egg into the middle of the swamp-lake.) The girl jumped back and fled the scene, the dragon in hot pursuit.
He followed the action, but when the intruder dove out of the caves, he could go no further. Some force unknown prevented his presence outside the willow tree. He heard the dragon behind him and hid quickly. As the creature and the girl circled each other, streaks of golden sunlight streamed in from between the boughs. He reached out, as if to touch the light, but he could not feel anything. No warmth or sense of achievement. Feeling quite bitter, he flew as fast as he could back to the swamp-lake, his eyes stinging with a familiar human emotion.
From deep inside the caves he could just barely hear the occurrences outside. Voices cheered or screamed, the dragon roared, the ground shook. But the ghost boy simply sat in the middle of the dragon’s domain, hugging his knees and feeling ghost-tears stream from his eyes. He stared blankly ahead, or sometimes at the bubbling body of liquid, or at his toes. What would become of the offspring, he thought, glancing to the middle of the lake where the unborn creature had been thrust to. Would it hatch in the water? Could dragons even swim? A booming sound erupted from where the battle was taking place, and suddenly an impossible thought presented itself.
Had the girl beaten the dragon?
It certainly seemed impossible, but soon after the booming sound dyed down, cheers were heard –very loud; the ghost had no idea humans had such great lung capacity- and he knew they weren’t cheering for any scaly monster’s victory.
So this was to be it. Now he didn’t even have a dragon to keep him company. Loneliness until the next fool came along promising him freedom. The cheers died down and there was a muffled sound from above, as if someone were speaking. A minute later the ghost heard the girl’s footsteps for the second time that day.
She’s returning? he thought, truly baffled. But then he realized the only other treasure worth returning for. The egg.
No dragon, no egg . . . being alone was already beginning to dampen his mood. He sniffled, feeling the weight of eternity rest on his boyish shoulders. Then someone touched his shoulder, and he looked up to see the girl staring down at him with wide eyes, having snatched her hand back almost the instant she’d made contact.
“Are you all right?” she asked quietly after regaining her composure.
The ghost boy made no attempt to lower his voice. After all, who would hear? “Why do you worry of me when you seek the black egg of the dragon?” he demanded.
She drew in an astonished breath. “How do you know about that?”
“I am the ghost of the tunnels,” he said, as if this were obvious. “I know it’s’ every secret content and every content’s secret. But . . . I do long for a bit of sunlight,” he suddenly confided. Why? The answer was a mystery even to him. Perhaps it was her eyes, so lost in these new surroundings. It might have been her wide open face, or the way she carried herself. For some reason the word overachiever came to the ghost’s mind. Yet he felt he could confide everything to her. She had vanquished the dragon, after all. Anyone of that power has earned some trust. “I have rested in these caverns, and for centuries and centuries I have wandered in darkness. Oh, what I would give to see the sun and its radiance one last time.”
“Do you know where the egg is?” she demanded with too much eagerness for the ghost’s taste.
“Of course. But why in the name of Zeus would I tell you where it is? Every dept I’ve made to every fool to enter here has left me here to wallow and wait.” Wasn’t Zeus some high-to-do monarch in the mortal realm?
He could see the girl’s eyes alight with excitement, but she tried to keep her face impassive. “You tell me where the egg is and how to retrieve it in exchange that I will take you outside with me where it is a very sunny day.”
So she would be the next fool.
“You may remain there forever if you wish,” she proceeded, as if the ghost needed her permission to exist. “I will also introduce you to my sister, who can command light. I’m sure she would be more than happy to put a little light in a pouch for you to carry around, always.”
“Why should I believe anything you say?” he asked, wiping the cuff of his sleeve beneath his eyelashes.
“Because I have no reason to trick you. And you said that you have been here for centuries, so you must know the difference between and petty liar and a truthful being.” He did know the difference. “You should also realize that there is no disadvantage to my offer. It would be foolish to refuse.”
He wasn’t sure about that, but the girl almost seemed incapable of lying. Perhaps he was always supposed to be the one to help people, or maybe he was a glutton for disappointment, but he felt himself nod in agreement.
“Good. Excellent. Now come on, as you promised. Where is the egg?” she commanded, an air of authority in her voice.
The ghost answered without inflection or emphasis. “The egg is within the swamp.”
She rolled her eyes impatiently as apparently she’d already deduced this. “Where in the swamp?” she clarified.
“It’s at the heart of the swamp at the very bottom.”
“Is it guarded by any magic or creatures?”
He thought for a moment. Come to think of it he did remember dragon eggs having a special protection surrounding them should the mother fail in her maternal duties. “It is protected by a crystal blue field which will paralyze you if it is not disabled correctly.”
She gulped and asked shakily, “How do I get past the field?”
He shrugged. “You must merely tell the shield to open. But you must say it in the language of the dwarves.”
She grimaced then and asked reluctantly, “Must I swim to the prize in which I seek?”
“What is the word for open in the dwarf’s tongue?” she asked after a moment.
The ghost recalled one of his previous visitors who had kindly taught him a few words in this language . . . before angering the dragon with his loud chatter. “The word is simple and short. It is pronounced ah-ja-tra-nin-gia.”
The girl’s face momentarily held exasperation, but she nonetheless repeated the word until it was flawless escaping from her lips. “I now face one more dilemma,” she admitted sheepishly. “I don’t know how to say the word without choking on muck and slime from the swamp.”
“How could you not know how to breathe beneath the swamp while wearing a belt full of magic?” demanded the ghost, pointing to the girl’s utility belt.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I’ve never used magic except when I was having lessons with my mentor.”
The ghost felt her justification was weak. He grumbled nonsense about scholars and then asked, “Do you have any Molly Bark?”
“What’s Molly Bark?” she asked, shrugging.
“It comes from the Molly Tree,” he explained, feeling like the only intellectual for miles. He spoke a little slower. “The Molly Tree is an exceedingly rare tree. It only grows in the Valley of the Finest. If you cut off a piece of the bark and rub it on your skin, then it will grant you one of three things: wings, speed, or gills.”
“Would you be able to ask specifically what you wanted?”
“Of course. However, to obtain the specimen, you would either have to steal it from a merchant, go to the Valley and cut it of yourself . . . or just be very, very lucky.”
With a dubious expression, the girl scoured her belt, sighing at every failure. But then she drew out a shriveled piece of something, amber in color. “Is this it?”
The boy snatched the bark in disbelief and examined it closely, but there was no denying it. “You are very fortunate, indeed.” He offered it back and she took it in her hand, grinning stupidly –and waited. “Well,” he urged after a few seconds of inaction. She looked at him blankly. “Rub it on your skin, you slow girl. The sooner you retrieve that egg, the sooner we can get out of these wretched caverns.”
The girl rolled up her sleeve and rubbed the bark on it thrice. Her human form rapidly shifted to some hybrid human-fish creature.
When the transformation was complete, the girl opened her eyes in fascination. The boy took her hand, unafraid of her inhuman appearance. “Remember what you have to do. Don’t be gone too long; the enchantment only lasts for five minutes. And remember the word.”
The girl nodded, walked to the edge of the lake, and dove in.
They were the longest five minutes of the ghost boy’s existence. He couldn’t see past the barrier of… stuff on the lake surface, so he paced from one end of the cave to the other several times. Suddenly the lake shifted abnormally. It swayed like something was disturbing its under-layer. And then, abruptly, the girl burst through the surface, tossing the egg up the shore, her human form reinstated. She flopped to her back and breathed the free air.
Tick-tick, tick-tock, the ghost bounced his heel impatiently. All right, she’d had her fill of oxygen. There was plenty more outside, but she seemed intent on absorbing all that was present in the caverns. He tried to soften his voice and appearance as he touched her arm, knowing his cold touch would bring her attention back. It did. She looked at him with a start. “We must leave,” he said after she’d caught her breath. “They’ll be wondering what has happened.”
She nodded and took up the egg in her arms. “Let’s go.”
They walked leisurely, as if on a stroll, and the ghost reminisced about how long he’d spent here. He wondered what the world was like now. He wanted to see it all.
Once through the snake-like halls, the tunnels were becoming lighter. “Look,” the girl pointed up ahead. “It’s still daylight.”
He did see it, and at that moment, he felt a great sense of joy. He was so close, he could almost taste it.
“I want to see it!”
Their walk became a race to see who could reach the sunlight first. The girl won, and she all but dragged the ghost boy out. For the first time in centuries he could feel the course ground beneath him. His bare feet, though not physically affected, could feel the slightly uneven terrain. Best of all, he could feel the sun beat down on his face, the heat like a friend embracing a long lost brother.
Two strange men, one tall and one short –their faces could not be seen- appeared before them, but the ghost paid them no mind. They spoke to the girl, anyway, calling her Lady Xyline and mentioning some riffraff about a test.
“Isha?” the princess called as hundreds of people poured out of some kind of enclosed sports structure. The ghost looked around and spotted a mahogany girl with dark hair and a gold dress skip towards them. She was smaller –and younger, than Princess Xyline, and she practically threw herself on the other girl, embracing her in a tremendous hug. They both turned to the ghost boy. “I never did catch you name,” she said.
He could feel his expression darken in a sad way. “I have forgotten my name,” he admitted with some difficulty. He felt something wet roll down his cheek.
“Well then I think it’s time we give you a new one,” Isha chirped. The boy looked at her eagerly. Could something like a name really be given or replaced so freely and easily? The dark girl thought for a moment, stroking her chin curiously, and then she held up her finger in victory. She smiled broadly. “I know just what to call you, little ghost boy,” she said, but then hit her forehead with the palm of her hand and giggled. “I mean, with all due respect, you’re not a ghost.”
For a moment the ghost thought this girl might have been a bit cloudy in the brain.
But the she explained, “You are Angelo; like Angel.”
The boy –Angelo bounced excitedly on his heels, his hand still in Xyline’s.
“Isha,” she interrupted, “Angelo was hoping you could give him light to keep. He doesn’t like the dark.”
“Nor do I,” said Isha shamelessly. She then held up both hands parallel to her head and spread her fingers apart. Then, as if shielding her eyes from the sun, she raised one hand up, brought it back to meet with the other, blew in them twice, and then presented her result. In her hand lay a golden star with eight points, the bottom stretching further than the others. It glowed with a brightness only the sun could produce, and glittered in the slowly fading daylight. The star was attached to a long leather string which Isha held out for Angelo to put his head through. After thus had occurred, the boy’s ghostly shimmer changed into a newer, sun-kissed glow.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said to her and then, removing his hand from hers, turned to Xyline. “And thank you, Xyline, for keeping your promise.” He bowed to them both, positive that this was the respectable way to bid farewell to royalty, and faded into the air. But his presence was carried with the wind, and he intended to explore every inch of the world. From the deepest sea to the darkest corner. He need not fear the dark, for now the sun would always be with him.
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