The dragon stood still for so long that my legs ached. A nervous sweat began to form in beads along my spine and the palms of my hands. I tried to tell my body to suck those beads right back in for fear that he would smell it.
My body didn't listen. Sweat built up, dripped into my eyes, forcing me to blink rapidly in time to my quivering heart.
Then, finally, he made his decision and let out a snarl that was almost a bark before he turned away sharply, climbing his mountain of riches once again.
“Y-yes, Master. Right away, Master,” said the Keeper quickly and rushed off through a door I had not known was there. It was small and used only for Keepers, I was sure, barely in the reach of the light.
I remained perfectly still and did not dare move nor speak another word – I was confident, perhaps, but not stupid.
By the time the Keeper returned, the dragon had curled back down into his mountain and appeared to be sleeping.
The Keeper rushed over to me, holding out a large but flattened wooden box with a clasping lid toward me with something like an exaggerated bow. I felt more than heard the Shadows come up behind me with curiosity as I lifted the lid.
Inside sat a small carving that looked to be made of regular stone. Set into a leather chain, the carving was of a dragon in flight. There was very little detail and altogether looked like nothing special. In fact, if I were to see it elsewhere, I may have thought a child whittled it then threw it away because it wasn’t good enough even for them.
But I knew that this sorry-looking thing was by far one of the most powerful charms ever created by an ancient mage whose name is - quite sadly - long forgotten. The carving, in fact, was from a simple story, one most believed was children tales. Even Jovian had not known it truly existed until I insisted that it was, shaking the note my father left with me at him. “He says all the stories are true, Jovi! So it has to be real!”
“I’m sure your father didn’t mean that even the children stories were-"
“Why else would he want me to go to the North Mountains then? Surely not just for a stupid map!”
And I’d been absolutely correct, because here it was, sitting before me.
It was not the carving itself of course that was powerful, but the magic that it had been coated with.
This tiny figurine controlled the dragons. So long as the one whose blood was shed upon it was still alive, no dragon would dare touch him.
I could be blind to the dragons completely if I so chose.
Possibly (I almost whispered the word in my mind, not daring to fully think the thought for fear it would somehow make it impossible). Possibly even turn them on Marqis.
Next to the charm was a small knife that was nothing special at all. I used it without hesitation and cut my arm, letting the blood flow over the carving and into the pine box it sat in. I felt a flare of magic deep inside myself that was both uncomfortable and refreshing, like being doused in hot water on a cool day and...
I suddenly knew that we were surrounded by dragons! Several dozens of them, listening through the walls and several more dozen waiting for the sound of my death and hoping for food. The king was not sleeping, but instead feigning sleep and listening warily. Very warily; he had just given me a weapon that even he was not immune to. He handed me more power over him and his than should ever exist. But he did so for one final, desperate attempt at revenge, and I would make sure he would not regret his decision.
I looked to the box again as there was one more thing inside it. This was flat and delicate, with faded ink and parchment so old it had cracked in some places.
“This is the way through the maze?” I confirmed.
“Well, it is actually more of a labyrinth really... yes,” said the Keeper when I raised an eyebrow at him. “Those are the ways and passages to bring you safely through to the center.” He placed the box into my hands. “You have the night to safely study it, but the map cannot be removed from this mountain, nor will Master allow it to be copied with ink.”
“You are welcome to stay until light touches the lake. Shadows in the lake are not safe. Come,” he motioned, “I will show you to your rooms.”
He led us through the door which revealed a simple corridor, small enough so that it was obviously not made for dragons to walk. I knew the way through the mountains, but I had not known of these small places at all, yet I knew where we were going – the guest chambers.
While we walked, quietly following the Keeper, I kept my nose down, looking at the map and trying to get it into my head. Left, left, right, left, straight for three spaces, right... through the wall about half way, immediate right, through another wall a few paces forward, straight for three, left...
“A fellow Keeper had brought you baths to rest and revive if you wish it.” I looked up to see him motioning through a room as we passed, I could feel heat and steam coming out. “We Keepers bathe together in the pools, but I have ordered all Keepers away to give you and your companions privacy. The waters are always hot and scented, and so perhaps it would be best you bathe as your kind tends to smell overtime, especially after being emerged in the kraken waters.”
I heard Jaz whisper a giggle of amusement and I felt my own lip twitching. We stink, got it.
Just ahead to our left, there were several doors but one at the end had two Keepers standing tall. The one on the left I could tell was a woman by her delicate features, the other I wasn’t so sure about. Here, when the Keeper spoke, he sounded confused as if he’d been given the orders to say it but had no idea why.
“This room to your right is for your female companion, to the left is for your male companion, each so that they can better guard you. This is Keeper Gah, and this is Keeper Mai, they will take it from here and see that you are comfortable.”
He went to turn away, but I stopped him. “Wait, there are only three rooms but there are four of us.”
He tilted his head to the side, with the scales it made him look like a reptilian bird of some kind. “Are you two not a mated pair?” He motioned to me and then to Arion who spluttered and choked slightly.
“No.” I said simply, more curious then insulted. “Why would you think it?”
He bowed. “Forgive me, when Master threatened you, I could not help but notice the scent of fear coming from him.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Fear?”
“No offence, lizard man,” said Jazera. “But I nearly pissed myself back there, we were all afraid.”
He shook his head. “Not fear for life, fear for her. Usually one with that sort of protective instinct is one in love, or a parent. He is much too young to be her parent, and so I wrongfully assumed the former.”
While Arion looked like he was about to strike the Keeper with his dagger for even suggesting such a thing, I chuckled, understanding now. “He’s had to save my life more times than I care to admit, Keeper, that is the reasoning behind it.” I patted his arm – he seemed surprised at the casual contact, as if he had never been touched in such a way. “It’s fine, I won’t be sleeping anyway. Thank you for escorting us, I know you must be busy.”
He smiled, relaxing. “It has been a long time since we have had company. It is good to have some again, even though you smell terribly and are not anyone important.”
With that, he left, and Jazera snorted again. “It’s easy to tell.” Then to me, “are we actually safe here?”
“Completely.” I vowed with a nod. “The dragons know we’re here and are curious, but not angered by it. We can rest soundly.”
Keeper Mai stepped forward. “And bathe.” She insisted. “And we will feed you as well. You eat things from ground and tree as do you meats?”
Her accent was gruntled a bit as if unused to speaking the common tongue, but we could understand her.
“Fruits and vegetables,” said Aitch with enthusiasm. “But meats too, oh yes. Meats good.”
Jazera shot Aitch an amused look but Keeper Mai only nodded. “Then it will be prepared.”
Keeper Gah then motioned to Jazera and Aitch to follow him, while Keeper Mai stepped forward toward the furthest door, her hand on the handle. “Come and enter the rooms of which you will sleep.”
And the room was a grand one. With a great bed of velvet sheets and heavy furs with a canopy of silk above. A table, carved with flames, was to the far end. A chandelier was above with light-crystals where all but two were dead. Otherwise, the room was stunning and fresh and beautiful. It was impossible to tell if they had rushed to make it this way, or if they had kept up with it all these years, but I could recognize that this was a room for a king. We were given the highest honor of staying here.
This was why the Head Keeper had been confused – why was this stinky girl given the room of a royal?
If only he knew.
The Keepers made sure that we were comfortable, with warm blankets and robes for us to change into while our clothing was to be taken and washed. I denied this, however, until Arion left to bathe in the steam pool and I had Keeper Mai bring water to me in a private bath.
I washed quickly and changed into the robe, applying the ointment to my neck and legs and hands as fast as I could with a wary stomach; I was beginning to run out of the ointment and that was making me nervous, but I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter except to cover all my marks with it as there was nothing else to cover them until my clothing was returned.
Food was brought – cow steak, ash potatoes and a mix of vegetables, all cooked perfectly and smothered in gravy. How creature that ate only raw meat could cook so well I didn’t know, but never complained. When all was finally settled, I sat at the table with the map and Arion paced the rug on the floor with his bare feet, clearly uncomfortable.
“Just sleep, Arion, I can’t concentrate with you hovering like that.”
“We’re inside the most dangerous mountain in Nahdiera surrounded by the most dangerous creatures and we are being… being pampered of all things and told to rest?” His voice was incredulous and nearly a question.
I nodded. “They will not harm us, I can feel that they do not wish to harm us.”
Like I had suspected, he had no idea what that carving had been. Well, I wasn’t going to tell him in case the Grey Stone was searching for that as well. It was doubtful seeing as Marqis already had some odd sort of control over the dragons, but it wasn't worth unnecessary risk. “Please trust me, we are safe for now. Rest while you can.”
“Who are you?” he demanded, suddenly facing me, his eyes alight and narrowed. Wild. “Why such treatment from the dragon king? What happened out there?”
Instantly, I felt naked and exposed without my hood. Luckily, I knew these questions were coming before I’d even entered the mountain and already spent half a stair-climb thinking of what my answers would be so did not hesitate.
“I come from a long line of witches who suppressed their power. The more in the bloodline that do so, the more powerful their children. If I were to use my power, I’d be stronger than a mage at this point.”
Lies. All lies. Every bit of it.
He let out a hissing sound. “So, you do plan on using your magic?”
“Eventually.” I shrugged, “I have things to do, and I plan on using what I can to succeed.” This, at least, was the truth.
He looked positively furious. “And this labyrinth? I’m assuming this is the labyrinth built by King Boun in the west?”
He threw up his hands. “The Kings Maze has been cleared of its trophies for a hundred years! All that’s left are goblins and bugs.”
“Only if you don’t know where to look.” I motioned to the box. “This map has been hidden here for as long as the dragons went into hiding. It is the only map, and with this, I will find what I need without a problem.”
“So, you expect us to simply follow you there as well?”
“I never asked for you to follow me here,” I reminded him, getting frustrated now. “You are free to leave whenever you wish.”
He threw up his hands again. “Whatever bloody power trip you’re on, just leave it before you get yourself bloody killed!”
“I cannot.” I said simply. Calmly. My voice final.
Then it went near-pleading. “I’m almost there. Just one more thing, one more item and I’ll have what I need.” Just one more and I would bring the fight to Marqis. One more and I would kill him. One more and I would finally become queen.
I looked at the map and that tiny spot that was the center, the spot at the end of the single line drawn throughout which was where the hidden Stone sat beneath the carving none would think possible to move. There. It was right there, and then I could go home.
After a while, Arion went to bed, irritated and frustrated and annoyed by my lack of answers, while I went back to memorizing the map, imprinting it to my memory using techniques taught to me by great scholars overseas, my heart was pounding as I did.
I was so very close.
There was a quiet knock on the door and then it opened to reveal the Keepers face. “It is first light and safe for your leave.”
I nodded and stood from the table with the box, handing it to him. “Thank you, we’ll be right out.” I whispered, exchanging the box for clothing he held. He nodded and left to wake the others.
My leathers seemed almost new. Mended where the creatures had left their many marks and cleaned in a way I never thought would be possible after so long of wearing the same clothing – they felt wonderful to put on. My cloak, too, was mended, and everything I wore smelled of pine wood smoke in the most wonderful way. After I tightened the belt and put on my weapons, I went to Arion who slept soundly sprawled across the bed.
I had never seen him sleep comfortably. He always seemed to sleep on the ground so tense that I was sure a whisper would have him standing with his blade in his hand, but having a bed after such an exhausting trip seemed to rob him of that, and I caught a glimpse of what this man would look like if he has not chosen to take the occupation of a mercenary and a hunter as most Shadows did.
Sprawled across the bed, taking up both sides of the massive mattress, his face looked peaceful for once. A dark curl – much longer now than it had been when I first met him though it had only been a few moons – tangled with one of his eyelashes. In one arm, he clutched a pillow as if it were a comfort, his other arm was his own pillow, curled under his head.
I almost didn’t want to wake him, for when I did, that glare of his would surely return, and he would be irritating me yet again. But I sighed to myself: it must be done.
“Arion,” I spoke. When there was no response, I said it louder. ”Arion.” His foot twitched but otherwise he did not move.
I rolled my eyes and crawled onto the bed with a sigh then shook his shoulder. “Wak—”
Moving at a speed only a Shadow could move upon waking, I was suddenly grabbed and twisted and in the next moment, found myself on my back, pinned down by the muscle of the Shadow, with a very sharp knife pressed against my neck.
He froze there. Then his face turned from absolutely, terrifyingly hostile to merrily irritated.
"Never wake a Shadow with a touch,” he warned me firmly. ”Never.”
I swallowed against the blade. “Lesson learned," I promised.
He gave me a nod, but then seemed to realize the position that we were in, with him sprawled atop me, one hand gripping my wrist above my head, his legs pinning mine. We were so close that I could feel every inch of him and my heart beat against his chest. Our breaths were mingled and though I still had a knife at my throat, I felt no fear at all from him. This was Arion, and he would never hurt me, no matter how often he craved to.
He seemed to grow almost confused as he searched my face for something. His frown morphing into the same one he had given me in that clearing after dancing around the fire, and I felt the same confusion at his features now as I had then – why was he looking at me like that?
And why was I not moving?
Then the knife slowly moved from my neck to scrape up against the skin of my jaw, then over my chin until it traced my lower lip. His eyes followed the movement while my lips parted for easier breathing as I was suddenly having difficulty.
As he watched the knife, I watched his eyes, wondering if he knew what he was doing to me. If he understood it. I was afraid but not with the same fear I was used to feeling. This was fear of the unknown. Fear of these other more foreign feelings I was not used to.
I wondered if it was intentional, or only fragments of a dream I'd somehow forgotten.
Then the door banged in a way only Aitch could knock, causing me to jump, though Arion did not. “Hurry up you two!” Aitch shouted through the door.
Further confusion went over Arion’s face, then quickly changed to irritation as if whatever had crossed his mind was my fault. He pulled back, yanking me to my feet in the same movement.
I stood there, half numb for a moment as he turned away and went to the pile of clothes. The odd heat in my lower belly shifted and changed, moving up to my cheeks with an embarrassment I didn’t fully understand as I watched him.
Then he looked at me over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “Mind waiting in the hall?” he asked dryly.
I broke out of my shock and embarrassment to glare at him. “Hurry up then, we’re waiting,” I snapped as I went out the door and slammed it behind me.
A while later, the four of us were walking through corridors and grand caverns following the Head Keeper. We did not see a single dragon, but I could sense them watching and wondered how they were so hidden.
When the sound of water reached my ears, I couldn’t help but grimace – water didn’t seem to agree with me very well.
Jazera seemed to be of the same mind as I and sighed. “Why is it always water?”
The Keeper spoke. “The waters are the safest and many lakes were created for a quick escape from high places. In times of old when the world was good, many who visited would leap from the highest of places or go down the chute for something called ′fun’, encouraging children to be brave and men to be courageous.” He said smiling a little, then sighed and shook his head. “Ah, but those days are long gone.”
“This chute that you’re taking us to, tis not filled with any kraken or anything, no?” Asked Aitch.
The Keeper laughed, a squeaky sound better suited for an over-sized giggling mouse. “Be assured, my Master keeps Eastwood out and away from his territory with the force of sheer will. It is difficult, but he manages. Master is strong.”
I frowned at that. “Are you saying that Eastwood is not grown because of the dragons?”
He looked surprised, “you do not know what brought the Eastwood into existence?” Then he shook his head. “If you do not know, then I’ll not be the one who tells you. Master would not be pleased. Now, I do hope you had the time to memorize the map?”
I was curious, but I would not push. One day, I would ask the dragon king himself, but I had enough to think on at the moment. Enough worries. Enough goals. These things could wait. “I did. I have a lot of practice memorizing maps and that one was an easy one in comparison to some.”
“Good. That is good. Then I wish you luck on your journey and though I do not know what it is or why, you brought Master hope for a better future, this much I can sense. I hope that you do not die until you are old, young one.”
I snorted. “Me, too.”
We turned a corner to where a funnel of water was flowing down and out, disappearing into a low cave Aitch would barely fit through. I knew this was the chute, and the water rushing by made me nervous, but I tried not to show it. I was beginning to hate water as it always seemed to bring me to near-death.
“This will lead you to a lake beneath the mountain. Find the furthest point and follow the path up. It will bring you to the west, just outside of Eastwood.” He motioned, “whenever you are ready, but best keep a few minutes between each of you as sometimes the current can be quite unpredictable.”
That didn’t make me feel very good, but I sighed and went to go ahead. Arion gave me a look and pushed ahead himself, that look called me an idiot again. I wondered how I managed to have so much confidence with that man following me around.
A few minutes went by, then the Keeper nodded. “It should be safe now.”
I reached out to squeeze his fingers, scaled as they were. “Thank you for the rest and comfort.” I told him and then sat down in the icy water which flowed directly from the snow-caps at the top of the mountain, then laid down with a grimace and let myself slide into the chute.
It was not fun at first, as I was surrounded by blackness and seemed to be unable to breathe for some time and I feared I would drown, but then I fell through air, gasped in a breath, and hit water again. Once more I was sucked into a chute and my arms flailed a moment before I grasped my arms around myself, trying to keep as still as possible.
It was cold, it was dark, and it was terrifying... but it was kind of fun, too.
By the time I stilled, minutes later, I was surprised by it and opened my eyes to see I was in a deep lake somewhere. I could see the vague glow of light-crystals and swam toward it; my arms numb and shivering from the icy cold but my body so much lighter from the absence of gold.
Arion helped pull me up onto shore, which was a narrow ledge of rock furrowed in the underground lake. High above, small slits shot sunshine down, partially blinding me. Squinting away from it, I rolled onto my back and laughed, feeling the excitement of the ride despite my frozen state. My laughter - loud with lingering thrill - echoed in the chamber as Arion took my arm, yanking me to my feet with mild amusement splashed across his face.
Then his eyes shot to my neck and they widened, his jaw going slack.
My hair had been pulled back, as well as my hood when he pulled me from the water, and before I could pull up my hood, he had seen my marks.
I'd forgotten for one moment. Just one. And I would die because of it.
My feeling of euphoria fled instantly, and horror replaced it.
My hand went to my sword and though my heart clenched tightly at having to do so, I attacked.
He quickly dodged and brought up his own sword to block my next attack, almost as if he hadn’t thought of doing it. His eyes were still widened in wonder.
His voice, when he spoke, was of pure shock and awe.
“You,” he whispered over the lingering echo of our swords clashing. “You are the Lost Princess.”