Wrath of the Archdragon
Emilia waited until she was certain Fran was asleep, before she sat up in her bed, carefully avoiding the springs she knew creaked under her weight, and got up. She grabbed what clothes she could find in the dark, snatched her boots and the bag with the bestiary, then slipped to the door. Light shimmered in from the dorm hallway and she heard Fran rummage behind her.
“Whereugoing?” her roommate mumbled.
“Bathroom,” Emilia whispered back and closed the door behind her. She hoped Fran would fall right back to sleep and not notice she was leaving.
With quick steps, she made her way to the bathroom and put on the clothes she had grabbed – a rough spun skirt, she stuffed her nightdress into, a uniform vest and jacket, then her red warm coat and boots. She had her hair still in its bun and flipped her fur lined hood over it, then snuck out of the bathroom. Checking down both sides of the hallway to make sure the night warden was not patrolling, she made her way to the stairs and down to the exit.
The air was chilly outside, and unusually dry, not a cloud in the sky, just a bright moon and many stars on a deep black sky. She stuck to the shadows she knew so well from all her nightly ventures to the watchtower, and avoided where she knew militia was positioned for increased security.
The creature had still not been found.
Emilia made her way down Harbour Hill and around the town to avoid being seen by anyone. She passed farmsteads, agitating their watchdogs but staying far enough away to be just a shadow, some creature from the woods, a sprite, maybe a large bird, if the owners came out to check. She passed the stone wall encircling the Fahren estates and reached the road into the woods about an hour after leaving her bed.
Yesterday when she had gone out here, she had been convinced that had to be the most foolish, dangerous, ill-conceived thing any shortear had ever done in the history of their people. And that included revolutions, war for independence from the elvar, and the invention of corsets. Then she could still blame it on temporary insanity, on not thinking it through, on completely misjudging the dangers. But today, she knew exactly what she was doing. This was premeditated madness. But she needed to find her bag and Fran’s manuscript, or she would never be able to look her friend in the eye again.
So she had to return into the woods.
She trudged along the road for a while, until she could no longer see the town behind her. It had to be somewhere around here, where she had stumbled out of the forest yesterday night. She took out her lantern and slowly walked along the brushwood until she found something that looked like a path, one she might have stumbled along in her rush yesterday. It was as good a chance as any. She climbed over roots and off the road into the dark forest, past low reaching branches, prophet’s beards, cobwebs. There were cracked branches, making her hope she was on the right track, but it was not until she had that distinct voice ring in the back of her mind, telling her to turn back, that she was absolutely certain she was going the right way.
When she reached the fallen trees, she stopped and let her light wander. The tracks the dragon had left were gone, wiped away by magic surely and no sign he had ever been here. Even if the militia found this place now, there would be no telling the dragon had been here less than 24 hours prior.
There was her candle, the one she had dropped in her fright. She picked it up, stuffed it into her coat pocket and kept looking. The bag should be right next to it, or at least nearby. But it wasn’t there. It was gone. Vanished without a trace.
She cursed under her breath and leaned against one of the fallen trunks. What could she do? How could she fix this? This book was so important to Fran, she would never forgive her. How could she step in front of her and tell her she had lost it? She could not lie, Fran would never believe her. But the truth… the truth would break their friendship. What could she possibly do to-
He gaze fell to the distant formation of rocks where the old, abandoned mineshafts lay. She had told the dragon to go there. Had he? Was he hiding there now, in some tunnels. And, most importantly, had he taken her bag? That was the straw she was holding on to like a drowning woman. That for some reason, the dragon had thought ‘hey, if anyone finds this bag they will know I was here and so was this silly librarian girl, maybe I should take this with me to keep it hidden.’ Gods, she hoped that had been exactly his train of thought.
It was her only hope, and it was worth the insane risk she took for it. She left behind the fallen trees and followed the sight of the rock formation to where she knew the mines to be.
By the time she reached the mines, she was two hours away from home. Two hours she would have to go back again and she was already exhausted.
The rock formation towered into the darkness of the sky, not a single light to be seen but her tiny lantern. How much oil did she have left? Did she have enough for two hours journey back? She had her leftover candle, that could save her over the last few steps, but she had to be careful with this. She approached the rocks, looking for signs of where the dragon might have gone. And of the many tunnel openings she could see in the light of her lantern, there was only one reasonably large enough to fit the dragon inside.
Emilia stood outside the opening for a moment, hands trembling. It was not fear, it was something else that kept her from walking into that cave and she could not quite name what it was. But eventually, she shook the though and walked forward into the darkness.
The light of her lantern was swallowed almost entirely by the darkness as she walked slowly into the cave, one hand on the damp wall to avoid falling or getting lost. This was not a mineshaft, it had not been treated by tools, there were no lights installed, no scaffolding to hold up the ceiling. This was a natural cave, cut into the rock by something else. But as she walked, her fingers brushed crevices in the rock. She cast light on it. Something had left marks here, so her guess had worked out. The dragon had been here.
She turned a corner and gasped surprised when the cave opened into a wide open space in the heart of the rocks. The formation seemed to have been a dome once, but had collapsed, and then vegetation had settled, and someone had built something there because she could see crumbling ruins of a stone building overgrown with ivy and nearly completely hidden behind tall, pale grass.
There was something magical about this place she stepped into with her mouth agape. Fireflies were dancing above a small pond with crystal clear water, the trees were hanging with golden and red leaves, everything seemed lit with a fire that did not burn. It was beautiful and it made her completely unaware of the potential danger. She wandered forwards, turned twice and shut down her lantern. She did not need it here. There was a strange, natural light about this place, as if the earth itself was glowing under her feet.
Something moved in the corner of her eye and she turned abruptly.
There he was.
The dragon had moved atop one of the stone arches, majestically covering the entire building and his wings stretched out wide. That way, it took her only one glance to see they had healed seamlessly, not a scar left on them.
There was a pause, then the dragon leapt off its vantage point, right over her, and landed by the shore of the pond, then turned to face her, sitting on his hind legs with his wings folded and his tail curled around him. He looked down at her, judging her reason for being here. “I… lost my bag, last time I was in the… yesterday. I searched for it where we met yesterday but…”
The dragon did not even let her finish, but nodded with a slow blink. It made her mouth close, teeth clicking together. A slow blink from a cat was a sign of trust. What did it mean from a dragon?
His head tilted a little and he nodded to the ruin where he had just come from. Emilia hesitated a moment, then set down her lantern and headed towards the ruin, never once taking her eyes off the dragon. He was still sitting by the water, watching her just as intently.
When she reached the wall, she had to turn and walk through the stone arch into the old building. It might have been a chapel once, or some other religious refuge, the architecture most likely elvar, so it had been here long before the first shortears had settled. She was not sure what she expected when she walked in, but what she saw made her take a step back and she hit the wall.
There was gold.
A ridiculous amount of gold and jewels, piling up on the grass between the ruin walls. A hoard. A real dragon hoard, like she had only ever read about in books that told of these ancient beasts and their hidden treasure. And there, right next to the pile of gold, sat her bag. It took her a moment to waken from her paralysis and overcome the fact that she had never in her life been near this much gold. She took three large steps towards it, reached for the strap of her bag and pulled it into her arms then stepped away quickly, not to get to close to the treasure. She was not sure how dragons took it when you touched their treasure uninvited, and of course there were just as many legends of curses resting on dragon gold that would claim the happiness of anyone who dared touch it or remove even a single piece of the precious metal and gems.
She back away carefully until she was outside of the ruin again and turned back to the dragon, who had not moved.
“I see you… um… are settling in nicely,” she said. The dragon nodded again with a blink. “I guess… I don’t know, I thought you would… be long gone by now. I didn’t think you had a reason to stay once your wings had recovered.”
There was no reaction on his part, whatsoever. He stood still as a statue, a mighty and serene statue. Emilia clutched her bag closer for a moment, looking around nervously before she slipped her bag over her shoulder and took her lantern.
“Will you… stay then?”
Another slow nod. “For how long?”
As long as he wanted, she guessed. There was no one who could order him otherwise.
“I… I should let you know that there will be Inquisition hunters roaming the area soon. Our Mayor called them here and they will try to find you. They specialise in hunting down forbidden magic, so they might have a way to… you know, bypass your spell. Just thought you should know. I probably won’t… I probably won’t see you again so… I hope you will be fine, and I hope no one finds you here, and I hope you won’t attack and destroy my village anytime soon, because that would be a bummer.”
She was rambling, she noticed it but she was unable to get a hold of her tongue anymore. Why was she rambling?! Why could she not just… turn and leave? Why justify leaving, when clearly, that was the most sensible thing to do? Why try finding a reason to stay longer rather than just put this behind her? Behind them both.
She licked her lips and made her way back to the tunnel.
But before walking in, she turned on her heels. The dragon still sat by the pond, still watched her.
“Emilia Baines. That’s my name. Everyone calls me Em. I… is this… something that happens? Dragons and shortear, just… getting along?”
She stood there a long time, expecting to get no response at all. But then, very slowly, the dragon shook his head. Emilia hesitated, took reluctant steps back towards him and there was a frown on her face. “So… this is… not normal?”
He shook his head again. Not normal at all. Not normal by any definition of the world. She clutched to the bestiary in her bag, then slowly pulled it out.
“Would you… would you mind if I stayed another moment? There is something I am trying to figure out,” she inquired carefully. The dragon blew steam out of his nostrils, then rolled up comfortably on the brass, his tail tipping into the pond, letting more steam rise from it. She took that as a ‘yes, feel free to stay’ and returned back into the secret place with careful steps. She sat down on a low, broken piece of brick wall far enough away to not crowd him, legs pulled up and back resting against the stones behind her. The bestiary bedded on her knees she began flipping through the pages. Past countless magical creatures – including the stag she had seen here just two nights ago – and ordinary beasts that were known to roam the lands. Past mythical creatures that were considered extinct altogether. Finally to a section specifically dedicated to dragons and their various forms.
The research the Grand Librarian had conducted showed that most dragons they knew about seemed to be born from rock. Their eggs, it said, resembled large crystal orbs, were sturdy as rock as well, and needed excessive heat to hatch – like the heart of a volcano. It was why, according to research, dragons lived in the Great North, where there was not only ice and snow, but also an abundance of volcanos. And the first dragons, it said, had lived on this world long before continents and oceans had formed, when everything had just been boiling and no other life had been possible.
There were many different kinds of dragons. Their outer appearance was depending on the gemstone that was most prevalent during their time in the egg, and looking at the black scaled beast curled up by the pond she made the wild guess that he had some onyx in there. But there also seemed to be a genetic component too it. ‘Further research is necessary but, sadly, impossible’.
Then it went on to introduce various types of dragons. The flying ones, the grounded ones, the hard shelled ones, the soft scaled ones, the ones breathing water or ice or having some indefinite form of magical ‘voice’ and of course the fire breathing ones. Dragons that were proven to exist – as in, had been witnessed by people and reported on – and mythical dragons whose existence could not be proven. Dragons that were only mentioned in legends and lore, in songs from bards of old but had never actually been seen. She found mention of the ‘Elder dragons’ there, in the introduction to the mythical chapter. Again, no one had ever actually seen them. There were entries on such legendary beasts as Tyamuzuum, the first serpent who wound himself around a star, his body melting and forming the first, boiling land from which the first dragons were born. Of Kaalabat the Enormous, and when she died her blood became the oceans, her flesh the lands, and the ridges of her back became the mountains that are still to this day referred to as the Drake’s – a range of mountains at the most northern edge of the continent inhabited by the shortears. Of Gorgan the Terrible, a dragon who was supposed to personify war itself and so powerful that he was said to have crushed entire cities underfoot. But he was said to have been put into a magical slumber by his own daughter – a powerful sorceress even among the dragons, who had been banished from her lands for her crimes against her people. And his stirring in his sleep was said to be the cause of earthquakes. His daughter, Yatamara, was said to be a dragon of such utter beauty that the mere sight of her could drive one mad, and she had seduced the King of dragons and brought ruin on her people, therefore being cast out, never to be seen again.
Emilia could draw parallels to their own mythology and pantheon. Kaalabat the Enormous was equivalent to the Mother Goddess Bijwidd, who had birthed all life in the world and watched over them, the sky her realm where she watched over her creation from her magnificent castle. Gorgan the Terrible could be Gh’law, who was said to be a dangerous strategist and a wise leader, and like Gorgan, he was betrayed by his and Bijwidd’s daughter, Marvolaet. Cast in the body of a fragile old man, he was trapped inside a well where all he could do was offer council to those who took up the perilous journey to meet him. And like Yatamara, Marvolaet too, was said to be breathtakingly beautiful, making men (and women, some said) fall all over themselves to please her. She was said to have been Bijwidd’s most beloved child until the day she had seduced a powerful warlord of her time – Gaius Vandas – and drove him mad with his lust for power so he could wrap the world as a gift and present it to her, making her the highest Goddess even above Bijwidd. He declared war on all the world and made history as the Mag King, until he was eventually felled by a powerful dragon. Marvolaet in turn was punished for the chaos she had caused, was cast out of the pantheon by her mother, and became the Queen of the Beyond, where she now watched over the souls of the departed.
Reading the dragon mythology, Emilia wondered if the dragon Gods and the Gods the shortears worshipped after adopting the elvar Gospel were in reality the same entities, just with different names given to them, and different interpretations by different cultures.
A huff of hot air startled Emilia and made her look up. Something dark moved in the corner of her eye and when she turned, she found the dragon had moved from his comfortable spot by the fire and snuck up on her, peeking over her shoulder into the pages she had been so enraptured in.
Emilia shrieked with surprise and jumped off the wall she had been sitting on.
“Gods preserve me, don’t sneak up on me like that!” she called out, clutching a hand over her heart. The dragon sat back on his hind legs and raised one brow sceptically, as if to say ‘I am over nine foot tall, if I can sneak up on you, you have bigger problems’. Emilia huffed and sat back down. In a fit of bravery she lightly nudged the dragon against the knee she could reach, like she would have no doubt done with Andrew of Fran if they had teased her. She probably hurt herself more in the process than him. His scales may have been soft and surprisingly light, but they were still stronger than most metal she had passed through her hands so far. She rubbed her knuckles as she opened the book again.
“I am trying to figure out who you are,” she explained, pointing at the artistic depictions of such beasts as Gorgan. The dragon moved a little closer still, head tilted as he curious inspected the page. She wondered if he was… reading? Could he read their language? Well, she supposed if one lived as long as dragons seemed to do, that gave them plenty of time to learn literally every language.
There was a sound akin to a chuckle from the dragon as he nodded. Emilia looked up at him.
“Have you heard of him?”
Another nod. Her brows rose.
“Have you met him?”
He glanced at her for a long moment, as if to assess how honest he could be. Then he nodded. Emilia nodded back.
“Some people at the library have speculated you may be one of the Elder dragons it mentions here. I guess they-”
She turned the page, and the words were caught in her throat.
He was no Elder dragon. He was far, far more than that.
The double pages after Gorgan were dedicated to a beautifully intricate painting of a bloody war, an endless wasteland covered in the bones of the dead, in blood, and two armies clashing over them – an army of Adarre with their advanced weapons and war machines, and of dragons in their intricate armour, swooping down from the sky, turning it red with the fire and the magic they used to strike down the mighty armies of the Adarre. Above them, two individuals were clashing. One was Gaius Vandas, the Mad King, wielding his cursed blades Marvolaet had given him to tempt him to power. The other was a dragon. Her dragon. Black as the night and incredibly powerful, wrapped in golden and black armour and in his claws a spear of pure light, forged by the Goddess Bijwidd herself to grant the power to kill Gaius the Mad King. That dragon, who had been the most recent of the legendary dragons, was the Archdragon. Eraiyo Drakyrioth.
How long she stared at the pages, how often she had to repeat the words written underneath the scene of the battle, she could not recall. After what felt like an eternity, she looked up at him, the dragon who had decidedly moved away from her when he had seen what she had found in the book. He gave her a mystified look. She realised her mouth had to stand agape with awe. The thought of him being an Elder dragon had been terrifying enough. But the Archdragon? The one who had struck the final blow to the Fifth Adarre Nation a thousand years ago and had effectively rung in the destruction of an entire people at the height of their culture. There had never been a greater people than the Adarre, until they had been violently cast down by the dragons, reclaiming their world from the intruders who had come generations before to make Arcaria their own. And then, after that absolute victory that had left the world in devastation and chaos, the dragons had vanished, just like that. When Gaius had risen in his tyranny, the world had called for a hero, and they had been given Eraiyo Drakyrioth, who had been meant to lead the, had been meant to be part of the future, take the place of the God he had slain. Instead, he vanished along with his people, leaving them in despair and confusion in a world afraid of magic and technology alike. Arcaria was as it was today because he disappeared, because he had refused to lead them. All because of him.
“You’re… him…” was the only part of her incredibly long train of thought she said out loud.
The dragon grumbled and turned away from her, moved away as if to avoid the confrontation. Clearly his way of coping, and Emilia would have none of it. She closed the bestiary, put it aside and leapt off the wall to follow him.
“You’re him, aren’t you?!” she called again. Her skirts gathered she stomped after him as he tried to get away. “You were a hero! You saved all of Arcaria, and we looked to you! The people of this world needed a leader, and you just up and disappeared, all of you! Do you have any idea of the chaos you left behind? How long it took to rebuild after the war? Our cultures had been destroyed by a war we had no part in, simply because your people and the Adarre couldn’t settle who was in charge. We had nothing left, and what we rebuilt is an empty shell of a world where no one really knows where they belong anymore, we lost our identity as a people because dragons and Adarre were playing tug-of-war over our world! You put yourself in charge, you were someone the people turned to, and you abandoned everyone! How could you just leave us?!”
She was yelling. At the Archdragon! Yelling out an anger she had not even been sure where it had been hiding, like part of her had personally experienced the loss the people of Arcaria had experienced after that Great War, like she had been there, left to survive in a world after what could only be described as an Apocalypse. She felt like he owed her, personally, a purpose. Like he had stolen something from her and had left such a gaping, bleeding wound in her that would never heal, she felt like he had done this to her, like he was the reason why she did not feel at home in Par’bain anymore. This had gotten very personal, very fast.
“Answer me, dammit!” she yelled. She demanded. Demanded an explanation, an apology, anything. What she got was not what she expected. The Archdragon abruptly turned and roared at her so furiously it knocked her off her feet, made her stumble onto the soft grass and she shuffled backwards as he fully turned, growling, teeth bared and fire boiling in his throat.
“DON’T SPEAK TO ME OF LOSS!!!”
His voice came from everywhere, all at once, so loud, so clear, so powerful it made her cry out in pain, eardrums tearing before she could clutch her hands over her ears. Emilia was left a whimpering coil on the ground. He was everywhere, around her, in her head, in her heart. Everything he felt, she felt. And it was breaking her. “YOU KNOW NOTHING OF LOSS!! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT ITS LIKE. TO CARRY THE WORLD ON YOUR SHOULDERS! TO BE THE LAST ONE LEFT!!”
She whimpered, sobbed, and the moment passed. The feeling ebbed away, the heartbreak, the pain, the loss of everything, the anger, it just washed over, like it had never been there. Like it had never been her own to begin with.
It took her several minutes to recover, for her heart to steady, for the high pitched noise in her ears to blend into background noise so she could uncover her ears. Tears were still running down her cheeks when she sat up, but the bulk of the pain had dissipated.
It had never been her own. The realisation came slow when she watched the dark, enormous figure of the Archdragon with his back turned to her, staring into the pond as if questioning his own reflection. It had all been him. His anger at abandonment, his fear, his pain, his disappointment. Just like that night on the watchtower, she had felt everything he felt. Like he was a part of her. And when they had been that connected, she had understood him, too, had been able to translate his words. She knew everything. About him, about his people, about what had happened. About just how much younger he was that she had thought. Barely two thousand years. In a dragon’s lifespan, he had been nothing but a boy when he fought Gaius Vandas, when the world had turned to him and demanded him to be their leaders. And he was barely more than a young adult now, plagued with all the uncertainty that came with it. A lost child in the body of a legendary beast. It had all been there, in the blink of an eye it had overwhelmed her, so powerful she could barely make any sense of thousands of years of memory crammed into her mind. And just as quickly it had been gone again.
She wiped the tears from her face, but the understanding remained. She understood how he felt, wondered if they had been connected all along. Was she the way she was because deep, deep down, part of her was connected to him and felt all he felt? Had this feeling been so magnified now that he was so close? Maybe feeling out of place in her own life had not been her at all, maybe it had been him all along.
Emilia pushed herself up from the ground when she was certain enough her body would not betray her by knees giving in or trembling hands. Step by step, she came closer, listening for any sign of him in the depth of her mind. She carefully reached out her hands, as if feeling for some trace of his essence around them until eventually, fingertips brushed scales. The Archdragon flinched, barely noticeable and turned to face her. She came closer until her fingertips were at his shoulder.
“I… I’m sorry. I am sorry I yelled at you. I didn’t understand. But now I do… I think…”
She could see herself in his eyes again. That small, unimportant little girl she was, standing face to face with Arcaria’s greatest hero and greatest threat, who had for some completely incomprehensible reason formed a connection with her. A connection so deep that she could feel his emotions. And she hoped, if that worked both ways, that he could feel her compassion right now, could feel that she truly was sorry, for everything that had happened to him.
The moment did not last long before she was overcome by fear. A fear that suffocated her, that made her go dizzy and made her skin burn. She pulled away with a gasp, looked down at her fingers and the small blisters that had formed where she had touched the hot scales. When she looked up again, the Archdragon was on fire. From every gap between his scales, light was pouring out, the air around him flurrying with heat and when she met his gaze, his pupils had constricted to thin slits in bright gold. For a second, her mind went completely blank. She was no longer sure where she ended and he began, no longer sure if ‘Emilia Baines’ still existed, or if she was merely a manifestation of his fears and weaknesses, taken form in a pale shadow of the enemy he had once defeated. She saw his reflection, through his eyes, in her eyes, in the green and gold he knew.
He bared his teeth and growled, and the next moment there was fire.
Emilia threw herself to the ground and rolled away just in time as the flames struck where she had stood only a heartbeat earlier. It was so hot she could barely breath, and the dry grass around them was devoured within seconds.
She gasped for air as she got to all fours and looked up to see the dragon dig his claws into the burnt earth. He roared, the furious sound filled the secret garden, before a gurgle of renewed fire snapped her back into motion. She had to get away. Now! No matter what! No matter how connected they had been just moments ago, he would kill her, without question, without mercy, if she did not get away right now.
She pushed to her feet and ran. Without looking where, only fuelled by adrenalin and fear, she ran for the tunnel. She crashed into the wall once, before bouncing back and running for the tunnel, not even feeling the pain from the bruises she no doubt took with her from that. She ran in the darkness, hand reached out to not run into more walls, always straight ahead, running for her life. The roars of the Archdragon echoed through the tunnel until she eventually stumbled back outside into the forest.
She fell once, scraped her knees on rocky ground before she was back in moss and clover and leapt over tree roots. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw flames shoot up above the rock formation, and then the dark, winged figure of the Archdragon as he leapt into the air. She sobbed and ran, out of breath already, muscles aching, but blank fear driving her forward. Fight or flight. And this was a fight she knew she could not win.
When she faced forward again, she gasped in shock. The tree had come out of nowhere for all she know. She tried to jump out of the way, but her foot hit just slope, making her cry out in shock as she stumbled forward. Arms flailing, she tried to catch herself as her skirts caught on branches and her own boots got in the way of themselves, until she lost all balance and flew forward.
Out of nowhere, a pair of arms caught her.