The sunrise reminds me of a day back home, one where I had stayed up all night and watched the sunrise from my father’s office window. My mother had been gone on a trip to Asia, telling me that she would be back in two weeks. That trip was one of the few times she came back on time, only to leave the next day for an archeological dig in Egypt. That night I had stayed up not intentionally, but because it marked the tenth year my father had been gone. I remember looking through the mirror most of the night, watching my reflection as my eyes were bloodshot and my hair greasy. Accepted to my dream college that day, I had no one to celebrate with, and even through I knew in advance that night would be miserable, I thought the news of my college acceptance would allow me to relax.
This sunrise reminds me of that exact one, how the clouds to the west are bright with pink and orange shades, evergreen trees just grasping the sky, and the chill of the morning wind. Foolish as I was, to have believed back then that my father would have come home if he could find a way to. Now I know the harsh truth: my father knew how to return home for more than a decade and he never took the chance. Did he ever wonder about me, about mother, how we were coming along? When I met him four months ago after years of his absence, it was like your dreams becoming dead as reality hits you and cuts you down into tiny pieces. Kyril is lucky in one respect with his tainted parent because at least he knew his mother never cared to have a relationship with him and he never spent so much of his life crying and wondering if she thought of him. But I cannot allow myself to lose myself in the thoughts of what could have been and what has happened, but I must focus on what is happening now. I must thin ahead, to prepare, to not concentrate my thoughts on my father, but on the road ahead.
Looking back to the small camp Belen and I made only a few hours ago, the small fire slowly cooks the rabbit-like creature I have cooking. Belen skinned the creature for me and I told him to get some rest so I could prepare the meal. We made sure that Duke Gravon’s guards would be unsuccessful to hunt us down, Belen leading us through many shallow rivers and over rocky terrain as we climbed the mountains. Asleep with a cloak for a blanket, Belen allows the chilly morning air to nip at his face, his nose turning red and his cheeks a rosy pink. He asked me last night about how we would give the sword back to Dregh and I responded with a shrug of my shoulders and looking through my journal to find a way. What we decided on was the technique Kyril showed me months ago when I first met Dregh. We reached the top of the mountain only a few hours ago, deciding to summon Dregh this morning after we had a small meal and became rested. With my body finding it hard to relax, my shoulders ache as the crackling fire beings to die out.
Belen causes questions to arise in my head every time I look to him. He told me his age, how it is over a century and how his background in potions and magic have allowed him to barely age. Adventure is something everyone looks for from time to time, even if they stick to a more well-rooted life. Hell, adventure to me just months ago consisted of moving off to college and starting a new life for myself there. I can remember thinking about my dorm, the classes I would take, and the friends I would soon meet as I create a new home for myself. College was the home I wanted to make for myself to replace the one I have been accustomed to since I can remember. However, here I am, my new and hopefully temporary home made as I find myself staring at the silver hair of my possibly new friend. Adventure to Belen is so much more different than my own definition of it, how he seeks rick, thrill, danger, and perhaps the chance of inevitable death. Death that Dregh believes will never touch her with his icy fingers. Perhaps death has tried before, to just graze his bony fingers across her decaying flesh, but, like anyone like her would do, she cheated death. I had asked Belen about the sword, how it curses the soul who wields it, and his reply was that Dregh believes that things like curses and rules do not apply to a deity like her.
“Have you begun prepping for us to call Dregh or have you been allowing your thoughts to get the best of you?”
Meeting those vibrant eyes, I find that my body has only tensed more since I became lost in my thoughts. With the southern winds nipping at Belen’s nose, he pulls his cloak tighter around his body as I find myself wondering what the cold feels like. “It is a simple ritual to call her, it only takes a few minutes.”
With a slight nod of his head, Belen rises to his feet, looking to the meal I have prepared as he rummages through his satchel. “Blood of the innocent? That does not strike me as something easy to find for a ritual.” I cock my head at a slight angle, wondering where Belen is headed with this as I have come to expect short speeches about the corruption of morals. “Every soul is born tainted by the sins that they will commit. Every being in this realm has been engulfed by the wings of sin. I may not know much of your homeland either, dragon, but I know no one is innocent in your world either.” He is right, but he does not use the definition of innocent that Dregh does. To a god, innocence holds an altered meaning that many would find corrupt.
“Innocent to Dregh does not mean a simple act of sin. Innocence to her means a reflection of the soul, of their most intense deeds.” I rise to my feet as well, grabbing a small dagger from my bag as I begin to take our meal off the fire. “When I met Dregh for the first time, my blood was presented to her because I was innocent in her eyes. King Kyril was not the one to shed blood because of those he had killed in the past, because of the blood running through his body was much more tainted compared to mine. I had not killed anyone before that night. Duke Gravon was not the one to give his blood because of the wars he had fought, for the men he had slain.”
Belen scoffs. “So innocence to Dregh is a total of the lives you have taken. The more you kill, the more rotten your soul becomes?” I give my reply to Belen’s question with a simple nod. “But your soul is not your own anymore, for the soul of a dragon has taken place within it.”
I had never thought of that. Could Belen be right, that the soul of the dragon would taint my own enough to where we perhaps could not summon Dregh? “It is worth a try to summon her.”
“Were limitations placed on the days to get this sword back to her?” Handing the dagger to Belen, he begins to cut up the meat of the animal as I reach into my bag, grabbing the leather-bound journal Dregh had given me. Flipping to the page where she details this task I have just complete, I see nothing of her placing deadlines. Then again, she does not need to place deadlines because she knows I will try and do this as fast as I can. Not because I have a rush to return home, but because she knows my body is a ticking time bomb, that I will work as hard as I can to get this dragon’s soul out of my body. “Candice?”
I am drawn back to Belen, trying to think of how to word my answer. “We have to work as fast as we can to do these things for her because my survival depends on it.”
Stopping from cutting our meal, Belen raises an eyebrow as he shakes his head as he lets out a soft chuckle. “Dregh really knows how to motivate people to do what she wants then.”
With that remark from Belen, we eat in silence as our stomachs only grow in hunger. My mouth full of a meat that is tough and sour, my eyes skim over the journal, looking to the list of potions Dregh included in the journal. From potions to see in the dark to being able to heal my body faster, as I turn the page, a cluster of letters surround the drawing of a terrifying dragon. The ink a dark green, the wings detailed, and the eyes belonging to the mad mind of a creature. The eyes are crazed, looking straight forward, as if to stare the reader right in the face. The letters surrounding the dragon appear as gibberish, causing my head to ache as I try and read them. I know the language is not English, but Idunian; however, I am always able to decipher this language. It is like my eyes are trying to focus on the words, the letters only distorting as I get closer to reading it. What is this page? Flipping to the next, it does the same thing, as if it is some player in a video game I have yet to unlock. Could these be the next tasks Dregh has for me?
Finding myself shutting the journal with speed, Belen looks up to me, curious as to my sudden actions. As our eyes share a quick glance, we both look away, deciding to not question my action any further as I try and focus on how we will call Dregh.
With breakfast complete and the fire being put out, we pack up the small amount of gear that we have, Belen having come prepared for an adventure as I see things like rope and stakes for making a tent shoved into his bag of wonders. Wonders because I have seen potion bottles in there that he did not take from Duke Gravon. Potions are things I was always interested in as a child because of fairytales, but now, I wonder all the types out there.
Belen and I find a cleared patch of grass upon the mountain top, looking up to the sky as the gray clouds cause me to hope they will soon darken as Dregh is called. Taking Belen’s short sword, I clean it once more, knowing that this has to work because this is the only way I know how to get ahold on Dregh by. Raising the sword to my left hand, I press the blade into my palm, hissing as I drag it across my palm, raising my cut hand as I do so. Blood runs down my exposed arm, the dark scales on my arm to suddenly turn a fiery red, almost glowing as the blood runs over them. My fist clenched and the sword back in Belen’s hand, I call out Dregh’s name, holing her cursed sword in my other hand as I hope she notices my voice.
I stand like a mad woman at the top of the mountain, blood soaked into my dress as my wound heals up fast, the blood stopping from running down my arm as it becomes dry. The clouds are still gray, no change present as I shake my head. Grabbing the sword from Belen again, I repeat the process, shouting Dregh’s name as I begin to wonder if the dragon’s soul has tainted mine enough to keep her from hearing my cries. “Dregh!” I scream into the thin air, blood drying on my arm as it is covered in the substance, my scales becoming dark again as a darkness stirs in my heart. My chest rises and falls, my mind going insane as I scream her name out again, fear causing me to wonder if I will perish with a dragon’s soul ripping me into oblivion as the pain will drive me mad.
“Candice, will you calm- “
I silence Belen with another one of my cries for Dregh.
“Candice!” Belen snaps, causing my mind to go straight once more as I can feel my face wet with tears I had no idea I was allowing to run loose. “Look.”
Directions followed, I look to the clouds, seeing them begin to turn a dark purple tint, swirling around as if a hurricane. A smile spreads across my face, my clean hand wiping away my tears as I take back her sword in my hands, read to offer it to her as I see flashes of lightening that wrap around the sky.
In a flash of light, the goddess stands before Belen and me, her hair pulled back over her shoulders, a white dress draped around her body as she proudly displays the valley of her breasts where her heart can be seen beating in her chest. The white dress is strange to see her in, something you would expect a goddess from the Greek era to wear, but not a goddess of dragons and fire, but something with a more calming ring to it. The dress just reaches her feet, a golden blend fashioned around her waist as her slender arms extend out. Her hands hold a relaxed curve as they are not telling me to give her the sword, but to greet her instead. “Candice, I expected you to be done just as fast as I had hoped,” Dregh greets, her smile making me feel uneasy before her. Those eyes look to the sword in my hand, the corners of her lips pulling upwards even more as her smile reminds me of Lucretia’s, how it made me feel uncomfortable.
“I have the sword as you asked so I am asking for my potion in return,” I inform, hoping she understands that I am here for business only.
“And I have it as promised.” Dregh pulls from thin air the same crimson potion, holding it out for me to take as I offer her the sword. She takes her weapon, inspecting it as she merely tosses the potion bottle to me. Belen has his eyes glued to not the goddess, but the bottle in my hands. “You have made a friend I see.”
Looking to the goddess, I nod my head, not wanting to expand on what I have done in my time away from her. “You did not mention Duke Gravon ran that town,” I comment, unscrewing the cap of the bottle. As Dregh is about to respond to my comment, I down the potion fast, the taste strong as I shudder at the last drop.
“I did not find that valuable information.”
“Gravon said Kyril needed my help,” I point out. “He said Kyril never asks for help and that him needing me means the upmost importance.”
Dregh smirks, finding it funny as she keeps the sword at her side, using it as a cane almost as the tip is dug into the dirt, her body leaning on the weapon. “You would be foolish to return to Kyril at this time.”
“He would not kill me, you and I both know he could never do harm to me,” I remind her. “Something tells me that something is happening within Iduna right now, something that is scaring you.”
“And something tells me that your new friend has tried to convince you that the mortals will once again rise up against the gods.” Dregh looks to Belen, striking fear into his heart as I can see him lower his gaze, not daring look her right in the eyes. “I would not be foolish here, Candice, for you should not overlook the warnings that your friend gives you.” So times are changing within Iduna. “I was around when the Norse gods were created by man. How these people made these gods to worship as gods like myself disappeared and they needed new ones to praise. There were women who fought on the battlefield, those who chose who died in battle and those who would survive.”
“What do Valkyries have to do with what is going on right now?” I ask, knowing Dregh will leave me with only more questions to be answered when she leaves.
As thunder roars and lightening strikes once more, Dregh smiles. “Iduna is a changing realm, Candice, and it has only been altered more since you arrived. Be prepared to pick a side when the time comes, Candice, to ask yourself who you will fight beside because you returning home relies on your choice.” Nothing I have done makes sense to how it would affect Iduna’s future. My father has done the most damage I have heard of in the past years, and his actions are nothing as heavy as war. “Stop questioning how someone like you could kill a god, could do things you never thought possible, Candice. Think not of how, but focus on trying.”
Belen steps forward, meeting the goddess eye to eye as he is still tense, scared of what she could do. “Iduna has been changing for decades now, Dregh,” Belen begins, about to give an argument or ask her a series of questions. “Candice’s presence has not changed the path Iduna has been destined to follow. You know what you gods are doing is only trying to change destiny.”
“Destiny does nothing to change gods, mage, but gods change destiny.” Belen told me how the gods believe no curse or anything that decides their fate could affect them. The sword Dregh wields that curses her soul, the very fact that she has just informed us that the gods determine destiny, perhaps the gods believing that they are invincible will be their downfall.
Belen stands his ground, raising his chin high as I see he is not happy with the response that Dregh gave him. “Do you remember Avyn, the god that the town we just stole from was named after?” Dregh’s jaw clenches, her lips pursed together as I wonder what story Avyn’s was. “He was cursed when he scaled a mermaid as all men who scale those creatures are. He was out fishing for them with a group of elves when he saw a beautiful mermaid with scales the color of a pale sunrise. He seduced her with words soaked in honey. His poetic words drew her in, making her think he was not a predator.”
“And he scaled her, all gods know this story,” Dregh bites back, words sharp as the sky darkens around us. Dregh walks forward, the ground shaking as she does so, her eyes burning a bright red as I can see her fingers dig into her dress, burning the material. Heading for Belen, just as she comes in range of burning him with her hands, Belen takes out his sword, holding it out as the tip is positioned right at her neck. “You dare challenge a god?”
“Belen, back down,” I snap, grabbing his arm as I try and take it down. Belen breaks my hold on him, backing up from Dregh as he looks like a man determined to get the final word.
“Avyn scaled that mermaid without a second though, hearing her screams as they only made him laugh. He knew the stories, the rumors, that scaling a creature so innocent will only drive you mad and watch your world become filled with an inescapable darkness. Avyn was one the god who recorded the creation of Iduna, who wrote about the gods and created the most beautiful temples for all of your kind. After that day, when his hands became tainted, he became the god of madness.” Dregh only stands firm, her face displaying a bitter feeling as I can tell she does not like this story not because she knows it already, but because it reminds her that gods can be weak.
Dregh takes a step towards Belen, grabbing the blade of his sword. The metal turns red, burning up as Belen finds his hands burned, the sword falling into the dirt at his feet as Dregh walks closer. Her head tilted downward to look at Belen, to intimidate him, the goddess offers the mage a simple yet terrifying smile. It reminds me of Lucretia’s smiles, how they caused an unsettling feeling to stir within your stomach. “Avyn drove himself insane, creating a breed of creatures so terrifying that their faces are cloaked to hide their demon eyes. He waged war upon the vampires three centuries ago with these monsters, driving their kind out of Iduna and into realms unheard of. We gods decided it was time for his powers to be suppressed, for no more harm to come of the world we gifted you people with,” Dregh finishes up the story, tying it up for Belen as she wants his mouth to remain shut.
“What was his punishment?” I ask. “Death?”
Belen shakes his head, backing away from the goddess as a soft smile tugs at his lips. “No, he was locked away in an abandoned stronghold in the North, where the air becomes thin and sunlight has not touched the stones since the world was created. Deep within the bottom of the mountains, where dragons once sored over the clouds and elves built a marble stronghold back when the mortals waged war on the gods.” Dregh looks back to me, her eyes dark as I can only picture a mad man locked away in a tiny cell, going insane as he screams out and laughs. “Cursed and locked away not because he could not be killed, but because the gods wanted this to be a sign, a warning, to other gods.”
“A warning to never cross a god with bad intentions,” I comment, watching Belen nod as Dregh crosses her arms. Something tells me that there is more to this story than Belen has informed me or perhaps knows. Perhaps Dregh has personal ties to this mad god. “His story is a reminder to the gods that they are not as untouchable as they believe themselves to be.”
Belen nods, picking back up his sword as he slides it back into its holder by his side. Looking back to Dregh, I toss her back the bottle of the potion I just drank. “Refill it, I will get your second task done before the next full moon,” I promise, knowing the next full moon is a good twenty days away.
“Then you better get started the moment I leave you, for the journey will take you half that time.” I nod, knowing the faster Dregh is gone the more I can relax. “And Candice,” Dregh begins, taking her sword in her hands as she runs a finger over the sharp edge, “what you did with that dragon made of fire earlier, that is just the beginning.”
Dregh is gone, the sky clearing as the sunlight shines down on the pale mountain side, as if Dregh was never here. Looking over my shoulder to Belen, he is already packing up, mumbling to himself as he rolls up the sleeves of his knitter and worn-down sweater. “Are you still wishing to continue this quest with me?” I ask, worried that meeting Dregh may have scared away the only friend I have made in these past four months. Belen shakes his head, chuckling to himself as his satchel is swung over his shoulders and he is ready to go.
“No, I am not leaving,” Belen explains, allowing relief to flood over me. “If anything I want to continue this, to see what Dregh has up her sleeves. What are we to do next?”
Opening the journal Dregh gave me about a week ago, the pages flip past as I see the same dragon, the words that were once gibberish now clear as my eyes adjust to the words. I can translate the words, reading the first sentences as my mind becomes filled with questions. “How can you read original Idunian? Avyn was the god who wrote in that language and all the translators died ages ago.” Dregh wrote in the language that Avyn used in the first years of creation, is there some connection other than it just being a language she has known for ages?
“I have been able to since I got here. I have been able to read any language from Iduna,” I explain, trying to understand where Dregh is going with all of these tasks. “Have you ever heard of the Temple of Nidstang?” I ask, the name of the temple located right next to the striking eyes of the dragon.
“It is a temple lost in time, the name fading out of importance since the elves lost their influence in the realm. A temple filled with darkness and black magic. Is that our next destination?”
I nod, handing Belen the journal as I point to the words beside the dragon. “It says there is something, some scroll or tablet that Dregh wants us to bring her. Why can she not go there herself?” I ask, watching Belen inspect the drawing of the dragon.
“The temple is not a fan of gods, nor of anyone. Legends of the dead brought back to life. Many used to take their dead or diseased there in hopes of healing or revival, only, a darkness trapped them within. Few have ever returned alive, and if they did, their flesh was scorched.”
“So perhaps a dragon is what we are facing. Dregh made dragons, they would not harm her,” I comment.
“When Avyn was going mad he built the temple and allowed a dark soul to decorate the temple, only for curses to be written on every pillar and things blessed to become cursed. Avyn knew the gods would one day come after him for what he had done, so he also made sure no god could ever enter the temple.”
Worry fills my body, my heart beating fast as I look to the still rising sun. “What are the chances of us getting out alive?”
Belen motions for me to follow him back to the horses. “We should not be concerned with those chances yet, but the chances of us making it there safely.”
“Why the chances of us getting there?”
Belen mounts his horse, motioning for me to mount mine as well. “Have you ever stowed away on a ship?” I shake my head no. “Let us worry about crossing a sea filled with monsters before we reach the island where the temple is.”
As we ride off from the mountain and in the direction to a port Belen says could allow us the best chance of being stowaways on a ship, I only ask myself if these tasks are worth going home.