I stared at the pool in silence.
I had spent another day of fighting off creatures I’d only heard of and ghosts with a violence I could barely comprehend. I’d even come across a baby werm that chased me through the tangled roots for two hours until I managed to figure out how to kill the tiny thing.
I’d left a trail of blood through Eastwood and so now, standing here, I knew it had to be harder than it looked. I just knew it.
The pool was black and menacing, stretching at least an arm both to my left and right. Straight ahead of me, about fifty twigs across the pool and not much more, there was a staircase set into an otherwise completely flat stone wall that was the entrance to the North Mountains. Between me and that staircase was a single line of stone about the width of my foot. I had balanced on things thinner than this in training and could walk it easily. Many, I’m sure, could walk it easily. Some children could no doubt skip across it.
So that couldn’t be all that was between me and my second destination.
Something was in the water. I was sure of it.
But the water was completely still, giving no hints as to what could be in there. I stood at the edge of darkness, and I waited, but there was nothing. I saw no other way across, no way around, and no other options.
I would have to risk it.
But... it couldn’t be this easy. It couldn’t.
I stepped on the stone ahead of me, then jumped back on to solid land quickly, hand on the hilt of my sword. Ready to fight. To defend.
Nothing tried to kill me.
I frowned at the water suspiciously.
Behind me, I sensed something creeping up on me. In my two days in the northern part of Eastwood, my instincts were sharpened to a capital T and I had a feeling I used the second level of my brain more than my first for almost everything since leaving the boulder. I have learned to trust them and so though I turned and saw nothing, I trusted that there was something coming.
My suspicions were more than likely correct, and if there was something in the water – there was, I just knew it – than I would rather cross it in as much silence as possible and not have the sound of fighting wake it up.
I put the light-crystal in my mouth, stepped onto the stone walkway with a grimace, and with my sword gripped firmly in hand, I started across.
I walked. Two steps... three.
My feet did not touch the water, only the stone which sat just a quarter twig above it. My steps on the stone did not make ripples in the alarmingly still water. There was nothing.
Four steps... five... six...
Before I knew it, I was half the way across. Still, I did not feel safe. In fact, I was in the middle of debating with myself on running across the last half to get off this walkway as quickly as possible when it happened.
A tentacle, much like the sirens’ but with no claw at the end and much, much larger, burst out of the water with a splash and wrapped around my ankle. I did not jump in fright or shock (not after so long in Eastwood), but instead, I cut down at it instantly without a drop of hesitation. As if I’d known it was there all along.
However, it had managed to knock me off balance and I struggled to regain it. I thought I heard a human shout from somewhere – more than likely mine – and then another tentacle came out, then another, and both went for me.
I swiped at them, cutting off both in one strike, but a third tentacle came up behind me as I did and encased both legs in a hard, snake-like grip. Before I could cut it off, I was being yanked into the water.
My first thought was: I knew there was something in here!
Then, I was fighting.
My blade went down, cutting off the tentacle around my waist and leaving a splash of black ink behind which burned my eyes, but not enough for me to close them. Of course, I then tried to swim up, but several more came at me. With the light-crystal, I was able to see my surroundings somewhat, but though I was fast, I was not fast enough.
One wrapped around my waist like a muscled arm with no bone, gripping me tight enough to hurt my ribs and threaten breaking. I would have cut it off, except another went for my neck and that became my priority. I then cut the one around my waist as my ears popped from the pressure of being dragged beneath the water too deep, too fast, and I realized I would need to breath very soon. Free, I started swimming up again, hoping for just a single gasp of air...
I was not surprised when it grabbed me again, the black tentacle reaching out around my ankle, then another from behind. I fought and tried to cut them off again, but the owner of the tentacles had learned the first time and one grabbed my wrist to prevent me from moving. Before I could move my left arm to take the sword from my entrapped right, another shot out from behind me and snatched the other wrist as well, leaving me helpless.
I felt panic creep in, hinting at overwhelming me.
No more weapons. I had no more weapons. Only an unreachable sword.
That’s when I saw the mouth that waited for me, coming towards me in the murky water.
I screamed around the light-crystal; black spots covering my vision as I stupidly let out half my air on such a useless gesture.
Werm, I thought, seeing the double set of teeth, opening and closing at different speeds, both open just for me.
But then I remembered the tentacles and understood: not a werm, but instead its’ far-more-feared water-cousin.
The kraken were extinct. We’d killed their kind off years ago. Before my time. Before my fathers’ time!
Obviously, we’d missed one.
Terror. That is what I felt. I thought I’d felt it before. Many times, I thought I had felt it, but I realize now it was simply a heightened sense of fear or panic. This... this was true terror. If one were to describe to a child what terror felt like, an apt description would simply be this: what you would feel looking into the mouth of a kraken. That is terror. Helpless, screaming, excruciating terror.
Kraken did not merrily chew and swallow, they took one in the mouth whole and allowed the acids inside the throat to burn and dissolve the body as it crush it under immense pressure. It is said death-by-kraken in the most painful death imaginable.
I tried yanking. Yanking uselessly against the hold. I felt both my wrists creak like tree before it falls then a sharp snap as the grip tightened on them past the pressure point of what any bone could withstand. Even the pain of two breathing wrists did not slow my struggle though. I screamed again, letting loose the last of the air that was once so precious to me but no longer – I would rather drown then die such a death. I hoped for such a death of drowning rather than the one gaping below me, ever moving me closer in the slow motion of – not joining minds – but of a nightmare.
This is not real. It cannot be real.
That is what true terror did to you; it forces you to believe that what was before you was not real so that it did not break your mind, but I felt that mine was beginning to crack open anyway.
When the figure came before me in the water, swimming between me and the kraken of which was only twigs away from me now, close enough to see the throat filled with ragged sores of white as if there were a hundred rows of teeth hidden in its throat, just waiting to come out and crush me... when the figure came, I did not believe the figure was real either. I thought it was one last desperate attempt for my mind to give me peace before the most painful death imaginable.
Even as my eyes saw a tentacle wrap around the figures’ waist and pull it into its mouth before me; even as I saw the flash of steel glint and slice up between the two rows of teeth before those teeth could crush the figure; even as the kraken jerked violently and the tentacles loosened their grip on me... I still did not believe it to be real.
It was false.
A fairy tale.
A final, desperate hallucination from my mind as it attempted to keep me sane.
The scream though, the scream of the kraken dying was so alarming in the silence of the water that it woke me from the haze I was in; I started like someone waking from a bad dream, sucking in a breath of water unexpectedly, to which I gagged on and heaved as I felt that arms were replacing the tentacles.
Using only my arms, as my hands hung uselessly from my wrists, I gripped onto the shoulders that were somehow so familiar and I thought, this is impossible, but my mind was telling me now that it was real. That the impossible had happened.
When my face broke the surface, I sucked in air, only to gag and almost drown on the water still heavy in my lungs. I was lifted up and dragged onto stone and I immediately turned over and went to my knees and elbows as I gagged and threw up the inky water, shaking and shivering violently as I did so. Not from cold as the water had been oddly warm but shivering instead from the leftovers of such a terror – my minds’ way of trying to physically expel the memory.
As the gagging stopped and I could finally breathe, pain from my wrists creeped into my mind and I remembered they were both broken, crushed, and mangled things. I felt detached as I saw my leather gloves looked like empty things sewn onto the hem of my cloak instead of holding skin and bone inside.
“The gem.” I managed to gasp hoarsely before I hacked up water again, somehow my words having found more in my body that needed to be expelled. “Left... pocket.”
A hand dug into my cloak and found the gem then pressed it gently to my face as I rolled onto my side, trying to breathe properly. The Ruberous Faun had had the time to recharge a bit and so my wrists screamed as they mended themselves back into place piece by painful piece. Until, finally, I was able to reach up and take the gem and hold it to my face myself, replacing those warm, rough fingers.
When my breathing was steady, and my injuries were healed, and when the Ruberous Faun gave me much-needed energy, I was able to stand and put away the gem. Though it had succeeded in healing my body, my mind was still not healed, and I continued to shake and shudder as I faced the three people I thought I’d seen the last of for a long while.
“How?” It was all I could ask at that point. One-word questions.
Aitch snorted. “That ’twas easy, Little One, we just had to follow the blood, weapons, and dead bodies. We needed to memorize no map when you made a trail right through Eastwood for us.”
I blinked at that a moment, then, “Why?”
Jazera pursed her lips, looking only irritated. “Because Arion is an idiot and we couldn’t let him get himself killed following you.”
I looked to Arion who stood, soaking wet, at the edge of the platform, tugging at the leather cord around his neck as it seemed to have gotten turned around during his swim. When he saw me looking, he crossed his arms and glared at me, his eyes hostile. “Your uncles’ plan worked.” He said with obvious irritation. “We weren’t fifty twigs away when I had to turn back because I bloody knew well you weren’t going to make it if I didn’t.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I made it this far without you!”
He snorted but said nothing, however, his eyes began to lose their anger and surprise seeped in. “I can’t figure out how.” He said honestly.
The honesty in that statement was insulting, but I was getting used to that from him. I sighed and dropped the subject, pulling up my hood and turning towards the stairs. “Well, if you’re coming, stay behind me.” I snapped.
But before I could even climb a single stair, I felt guilty for being so angry with him. It suddenly dawned on me that they had actually followed me through Northern Eastwood; that they were right here; that I was no longer alone, all because of Arion.
I turned and – surprising us both equally – I leaped into Arion’s arms, wrapping my arms around his neck as I did, hard enough that he nearly stumbled back into the water. He didn’t hug me back, instead choosing to stand there in shock, but that was alright because I hadn’t expected him to.
I pulled away and turned without looking at his face. I cleared my throat. “Let’s go.” I said and started up the deadly climb to the entrance of the North Mountains.
The climb was long and laborious and exhausting, and I was beginning to understand why the Ruberous Faun had been lawed only to be used in times of great need as there were several times that I had to force myself to not touch it. I’d become used to having that energy fill me and even the soreness that I could usually ignore and forget about seemed to make me want to touch the gem. I told myself right then that I would only use the Ruberous in life or death situations from then on.
But that was hard to remember when I basically rolled onto the top ledge in physical exhaustion. My hand went into my pocket and I almost pulled it out to touch it to my face but had to force my fingers to let it go. In the end, I did pull it out, but only to hand it to Arion. “Hold onto this for me.”
He frowned with confusion but pocketed it and nodded once.
Before us, sat the gaping hole of a cave. I knew the map in my mind and knew very well that this cave only widened the further it went it, but the lack of light made it seem narrow and endlessly blackened. My light-crystal had been dropped from my mouth into the waters below, as was my sword. I felt naked without my weapons but knew that my weapons would be useless inside this cave anyway. Unlike in Eastwood, what was inside the cave were creatures that could not be defeated. Not without several powerful mages and an army at least.
Unlike the entrance of the Black Mountains, this entrance looked menacing. You could not stand before this cave of jagged rock jutting out like hungry teeth and wonder if the blackness beyond was safe or not. You knew it was deadly.
I had to remind myself that, unlike most everyone else in Nahdiera, I had nothing to fear. I repeated those words, then repeated them again.
I am Meira Greyov, Nahdiera is my kingdom, and because of this I am safe here. I have nothing to fear from these creatures. Nothing.
The lack of light though, made me nervous. The entire reason why I had taken the elf blood from the king and the light-crystal from the Black Mountains was for this very reason right now. It was a maze in there...
But the light-crystal was gone forever, and I could do nothing about it now.
I turned to the Shadows. “I’ll have to guide you blindly. I can see nothing with my eyes. But I must still lead.” Or the dragon king would not hesitate to kill the lot of us. With me at the front, he would hesitate long enough for me to speak, at the very least.
I did not say this; it would bring up too many questions I could not answer.
Arion huffed out an irritated breath and gripped my arm. “Straight ahead.” He said sarcastically. I gave him a glare, but we entered the darkness.
The inner tunnels were literally a maze, with hundreds of dead ends, drop-offs in the floor, and places where you needed to climb to reach another level. Without light, it was impossible for anyone to find their way, even if they knew where they were going, but fire only drew the attention of the dragons and was considered a threat. Without a light-crystal, I had no way of seeing. It made me nervous that I would need to go into this entirely blind.
No one had been inside the North Mountain in centuries, not since it was often visited by the Elves from the Black Mountains when the Black Mountains was a kingdom itself, so it was impossible to know just how many dragons resided inside the mountains now, but I was surprised when we walked the maze for hours with me silently leading the way under Arion’s description of our surrounding and we did not come across a single one.
The mountain was huge, I knew, covering over ninety arms of space at least, but I had expected to be confronted near the very beginning.
However, we were very nearly at the Kings Nest before we were approached, and by this time, I had begun to suspect that they had all died off.
“There’s someone ahead.” Arion whispered, pulling me to a stop. No sooner had he said the words did a voice come from the darkness.
“Leave. You are not welcome here. This is the only warning you will receive before death strikes you.”
I pulled my arm from Arion’s and stepped blindly forward. “Bhoik gra ghaire Doro Kaung.” I said loudly, my voice clear and precise. I had no idea what the first part meant, but I had memorized those words long ago and repeated them in a gruff tone for practice so many times over the years for this moment that the foreign words came out as naturally as if I knew the ancient tongue of Dragon Keepers fluently.
There was a long pause, one filled with such silence that I thought we were left alone once more. Then: “That password of welcome brings you welcome no longer.”
I stared stupidly.
I hadn’t expected that at all, and it caught me off guard.
But then I grimaced, knowing there was no way I could turn back. “I come to beg ears of the great dragon king.” I said with Keeper formality. “I vow bring no harm to he, nor greed with me.” I paused and when there was no response, I continued. “The Great Doro Kaung will not be disappointed by my presence. Of this, I assure you, Dragon Keeper.”
Once more there was a long silence, and this time, it lasted so long that I feared I was completely alone. That even the Shadows – silent as always – had left me standing there alone in the darkness.
Then there was light. So white and so bright that I winced and grimaced, flinching away from it. It was a light-crystal, but it was filled with incredible energy and blinding after so many hours of absolute darkness.
When I was finally able to blink away the tears and pain of strain to see, that was when the Dragon Keeper turned and said simply, “Follow.”
And so, after a shared look, we did.
Dragon Keepers looked like a cross between a mage and a reptile. They were naturally tall, like mages, and thin as well, wearing robes of white over their forms.
But there was no way they could be mistaken for mages.
Their skin grew out scaled, starting from their feet and hands and faces, then working its way inward. The Dragon Keepers were immortal in the way that once they reached a certain age, they never aged physically any longer and were very difficult to kill.
With this said, they were generally weak creatures. Their only reason for survival was to serve the dragons of which they had bonded with and nothing more. These Keepers could translate the minds of a dragon as well as their sounds, and they cleaned and groomed their scales.
This was all I knew of them, and I doubted they were much more than that at all, seeing as they were known in the history books simply as a ‘natural slave’.
The creature walked swiftly with its long legs, but seemingly unhurried. I did detect a nervous energy about him though (at least, I thought it was a him – as all Keepers were hairless and flat chested, it was hard to tell, and the neutral voice hadn’t helped either) and I wondered if he were nervous about us, or his kings’ reaction to us.
I felt nervous, of course, for we were about to see an irritable creature that could kill all four of us as easily as I could kill a huddled group of ants on a stone with my finger. Black Dragons could be killed, but it was so difficult that many gave them the name of immortals anyway. They had earned that name thousands of years ago, and still it was believed.
But I was confident that this would go as planned. Though the others had no idea how I was possibly going to talk myself out of is one, they did not know who I was, so I did not blame them. Yes, we were in danger of course... but not even nearly as much as they thought. This was actually the safest place we’d gone to yet. While the others were no doubt terrified of the death they expected to come, my only honest worry was that I would walk out of here empty-handed.
I could not leave empty handed.
So long as the elven king had been right, and Doro Kaung was still king. If Doro was not king, then we were dead, and that was that.
Now able to see, I watched the great cave come before us. It was a cave inside another cave, one in which we needed to climb up a steep hill of smooth stone to reach. The floors were smooth and polished and well kept, and not a single dust mote was in sight. It was beautiful, and grand, and glorious, and just as stunning as it had surely been a thousand years ago with its simplicity.
Inside the great cave was the Kings’ Nest. The nest of the dragon king.
A single light-crystal – dim but still with much life in it – hung from the great ceiling with a thousand dead ones. The floor was round and polished except for a single walkway cutting through to the center, which is where we stopped, and this walkway was of gritted stone that held onto our leathers so that we did not slip. To the left and right were great pillars freckled with gold. It was grand but simple, even in its’ expense.
But straight ahead, there was a mountain of gold.
Coins, necklaces, chalices, rings, and even crowns there were, glinting yellow in the white of the crystal. There was so much there that it would take a hundred thousand people to carry it out in one trip, and only if they each were strong, well-rested men used to heavy lifting. Even after seeing the elves’ treasury, this pile of gold was by far the most riches anyone had ever seen.
And after straining my neck to look to the top of this immense mountain, I saw that the dragon king was sleeping in it.
“M-master?” The dragon keeper shuddered out and swallowed heavily before continuing. “You have guests.”
For a moment, there was no movement at all. No sound. No twitch or murmur.
Then the body rose and stretched, muscled legs coiling and recoiling as it brushed off sleep and it grumbled.
The Keeper winced, hearing something in the dragons’ thoughts. “I—I bring greatest apologies, Master. This one spoke the password of the kings of old and... y-yes, Master. Of course, Master. Never again.”
I stepped forward a single step and I heard Jazera curse behind me quietly due to this action but ignored her, speaking clearly.
“I have brought you gifts to beg you simply hear me, Great Dragon King by name of Doro Kaung. If you hear my words and still deny our presence, then we will leave forevermore, or may you bring us death, as be your pleasure.”
“Speak for yourself.” Aitch grumbled in a whisper.
I ignored him, as did the dragon who turned to face me. I could see only a glimpse of yellow eyes and black horns in the dim light, but it was enough for sweat to break out beneath my leather gloves. I didn’t hesitate though in reaching into my pockets and pulling out the gold from the Black Mountains.
First, I emptied three purses of coins, letting them fall upon the floor in clanks and tinkles. Then from my inner pockets, I pulled more gold – rings and rarer coins and solid, raw pieces. From around my waist I pulled loose a golden dress chain, and from around my neck I snapped the several fine chains that held a hundred pieces of gold on its strings, which fell upon the other riches around me with heavy clinks and clanks.
Then, I simply waited.
The dragon king grumbled.
“A-and... my Master asks you this: And the others?” Translated the Keeper.
I looked to the Shadows who were all grimacing now. “I’ll repay you double what you give.” I vowed simply.
Arion grumbled but began pulling out his coins – which was all he had taken. Jaz almost cried when she broke the several necklaces that she’s managed to keep around her neck. Aitch, I’m quite sure, did cry a bit as he began pulling piece after piece from his self, dropping them onto the floor. For the first time, I was quite sure Aitch hated me, at least for that moment.
When gold glinted all around our group, circling us like a spot of sunlight through leaves, I turned to the dragon again. “That is all on our persons, O’ Great King, unless you have a taste for the crystals in which you create so well with your strong and mighty breath.”
He grumbled again, then was silent.
Slowly – so very slowly – he began to move down the mountain of gold with calm and easy, monstrous steps.
The sound of gold falling down a hill of it was a sound I doubt any had heard before me, but that was what I heard on each step and it would not be easily forgotten. Arion gripped my arm as if to pull me back from danger, then let go, remembering that he could do nothing to protect me wherever it was that I stood. Even Arion could not protect me from this.
But I could protect him. He just didn’t know it.
The dragon was long and agile, like a snake who grew so much muscle that it was eventually forced to sprout legs. The face though, was nothing like a snake, with two great horns curving forwards threateningly and a long snout and a thin line of a mouth beneath two slits of nostrils. Something like whiskers were set there as well, flowing down past his jaw and quivering with each breath. I had a moment where I thought that those hairs must get in the way as he ate, then dropped the thought and focused.
“M—my master says he will hear your words, Daughter of Man.”
I nodded once to the Keeper in thanks and looked at the dragon king, tilting my head to the side. “I have heard that I can trust you with secrets.” I began and then took a risk I knew long ago I would need to take by asking him a direct question. “Does this mean that your mind is safe from the Grey Stone?” I knew it already, but I needed it confirmed, for only Doro Kaung had this natural ability inside of Nahdiera, and so I wished to have his identity confirmed.
“Yes.” Said the Keeper for the dragon king.
I felt myself grow confidant again and I stepped forward, my leathers rustling the gold at my feet.
I stepped off the rough walkway and onto the polished stone until I was very near this beast. Until I was passed the easy view of the Keeper whose mind was not protected. Until there was no way the Shadows nor anyone else would possibly see what I would show this king.
The dragon bent its head to nearly my level. He was much larger than the white dragons – at least twenty twigs in height without stretching upwards. His mouth was as wide as I could stretch my arms, and I could fit my hand inside his nostril if I so chose to.
I reached up to my hood instead – which had mostly dried during the walk – and pushed it back, revealing my curly hair and my grey-green eyes and, most importantly, revealing the marks on my neck. The red catching the dragons’ eye before any other creature would have noticed.
The giant of a beast jerked its head back, sucked in a sharp breath which ruffled my hair, and let out a rumble that was near a growl. Agitation palpable, it abruptly began to pace the large chamber.
“You know who I am.” I stated as I pulled my hood up over my head again before I turned so my eyes could follow the beast who roamed like a caged animal. The dark wings ruffled behind him, dragging upon the polished stone. The Keeper leaned back against the wall, nearly huddled and obviously afraid, but confused as well – clearly the dragon had blocked the Keeper from hearing his thoughts as I had hoped.
“You know what it is I am capable of.” I continued, my eyes watching this king with wary determination and great expectation. His body coiled in slightly as he thought on it, understanding what I meant by those words, then continued its pace.
“You know what it is that I can give you.” I pulled my hair over my shoulders again to hide the marks from the others, then I turned even further to follow the dragon with my eyes as he began to circle the room instead of pace it. Its tail – spiked and deadly – whipped and coiled in emotion. He passed the way we had come in, passed the Shadows on the walkway who stood in fighting stances but did not dare touch their weapons, passed the Keeper who cowered inward with fear.
I lifted my chin as it nearly passed me once again and spoke clearly. My voice purposely demanding.
“You know what it is I need from you, Dragon King.”
At that, he stopped and turned swiftly, snarling, revealing sharp, pointed teeth made for ripping but not for chewing. No, because why chew something when you had a mouth big enough to swallow it as it still screamed and begged for mercy?
He snarled something, then growled out another noise but seeing as the Keeper did not translate, I assumed the king was talking to himself. He resumed its circling, once more passing the three Shadows who were rooted to the spot and not daring to move even their heads to watch him pass.
“Give me what I want.” I demanded as it approached me again.
It snapped its teeth a twig from my face.
But I continued as I stared up into those yellow eyes that narrowed down at me. Bravely or foolishly, I wasn’t sure. “Give me what I came here for, or waste away your final chance at revenge and kill me and be done with it all!”
He was breathing heavily, its breath hot on my face. He made no sound nor any movement, but I knew it was processing my words and debating.
I should have been terrified, perhaps, but I knew what had been done to the dragons so long ago, and I knew how long they held their thirst for revenge. I also knew that a dragons’ pride was almost as strong as its greed. It would agree with me and give me what I wanted, it was only a matter of time.
It was its nature, and so it must be so.
At least... that was what the elven king said.