The rest of the journey happened without incident and by the time they reached the final town Jeff was 5 days sober and a mix of proud and grumpy. They rested for the night and early the next morning set off to hike up the mountain in search of the cave rumoured to house an ancient red dragon, and for Jeff to face off against his destiny. To his surprise, it wasn’t that hard to find, but feeling the energy that pulsed from the entire mountain it was clear why no one else had apparently ever tried. Even Genevieve, who’d been his guiding spirit of courage through the entire ordeal, stopped at the entrance and seemed incapable of taking another step.
“I… I think I’m going to wait here.”
He smiled, hoping it would make him feel better about what was about to happen, then started into the darkness alone, until he couldn’t take another step either.
Fire hit the ground in front of him, and a voice that exploded like thunder boomed around the cave.
“How dare you enter my domain.”
Jeff squared his shoulders to face it fully, then cracked his neck to try to make himself feel tougher and more confident.
“I’ve come to ask you for a favour.”
The sound of a deep sniff filled the cave and Jeff felt his hair rush past his face, while outside Genevieve could see some trees and bushes lean.
“You reek of my kind, warlock, of their blood.’
The corner of Jeff’s mouth turned up at the word warlock, then there was another long sniff and the boom of the voice turned into a terrifying growl as it said.
Jeff took a long breath in, and mentally started preparing his defences, but managed to say without squeaking.
“It’s true, I was that, but I hated it. And it was that which has brought me here, brought me to ask this favour. A favour in the form of a gift.”
He slipped one of the straps of his bag off his shoulder and in a single motion pulled Bertie out of his bag and held it up.
“When the others started breaking eggs, I could no longer stand by what we did. I managed to save this one. I… I was hoping you would take it, hatch it, and raise it as your own.”
As a dragon hunter, Jeff had seen dozens of dragons, ranging from young to adult, even once an old dragon. He’d seen them in all different colours and elemental powers. As a warlock studying at the School of Magic, he’d read about many more types and sizes. All of which frightened him, but none so much as the ancient red dragons. Where a dragon made a person look like an ant, an ancient red dragon made a normal dragon look like a glowing bug that shot sparks and caused a slight tickle when they flapped their wings. Out of the darkness in front of him, a single eye opened and it filled his vision and his mind. Any hope of standing a chance in a fight vanished, any hope of even being able to defend himself long enough to escape vanished. He was totally at the mercy of the whims of this creature and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. For a moment, an ice-cold panic gripped him, then a strange warm calm took its place. He was powerless against what would happen; he could only do what he could do. His fears all washed away as he accepted his fate and his shoulders dropped, finding comfort in his total lack of control. The eye moved back and Jeff, unafraid, stepped forward to see the space being revealed. The cave seemed to empty out in front of him as if the entire mountain was hollow. Its scope so vast that it took his breath away. Then he saw the full size and power of the dragon, beautiful and deadly. He saw past its physical form into the intense magic of its creation, and despite himself, a childlike grin ran across his face. Its voice echoed and reached him more gently than before.
“You stood up to your own to save one of mine, then ventured here to confront me and ask me to raise it, as a favour?”
Jeff’s smile faded and his eyes flashed back to the confrontation with his family.
“I had been sold on the idea that we were protecting people, saving towns, only ever working when it was a last resort. But when I saw what they were doing, taking an axe to a nest… No… it was wrong and needed to stop. And you are the only dragon I know who always lives in the same place. I wasn’t sure if eggs from other nests might be something offensive, or disrespectful, but I had to try. Gods know I can’t raise a dragon.”
The dragon moved closer.
“You mean, not only do you freely admit that you used your powers to hunt my kind, but at the risk of offending me, you brought me this egg anyway, in the hopes that I could keep it safe?”
Jeff smiled and wondered to himself if he could hear just the smallest hint of femininity in its voice.
The dragon moved, and a claw the size of a building opened up in front of him.
“Please. I will not risk hurting the egg and I’d like you to place it somewhere specific for me.”
Jeff looked down at the claw, took a deep breath and stepped on. It closed around him and he was moved across faster than he could have imagined, and in the next instant, he found himself in front of a small gurgling stream of liquid gold.
“There is no place better or safer for a dragon egg. And after everything this little one has been through; I think it needs as much safety and comfort as it can get. Please, place it in the stream.”
Jeff did as he was told and watched as the egg sank down, gold now flowing over it.
“Goodbye Bertie, you’ll be safe here.”
The dragon flicked its tail curiously.
“Oh, it’s something my father used to call me, Egbert, no idea what it meant but I figured Egbert, egg, Bertie.”
The dragon smiled and let out a snort that almost knocked Jeff off his feet. Then the claw quickly rose and Jeff found himself face to mountain-like face. The dragon stared hard at him for a moment and he could feel the gaze penetrate his very soul.
“For everything you’ve done I should end you, but for everything I see to come, I should do what I can to keep you alive. So, I will let you go, but know this, warlock. Standing up to your family and coming to me here will not be the last nor the largest trial of your life.”
The cold shiver of fear found its way back into Jeff’s heart, but for the first time in his life, it wasn’t dragon-related.
“But I will tell her about you, and what you did, and what it cost you.”
Jeff looked at the stream of gold and smiled, and then bowed. A moment later he was delivered back to the cave with one final warning.
“Do not feel that this means you can come back here safely. I still might kill you for what you’ve done to my kind.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you still frighten the life out of me.”
“Good. Now leave.”
Jeff bowed again, then started walking to the cave entrance. When he arrived, Genevieve jumped to her feet.
“You’re alive! How did it go?”
“About as well as it could have.”
“Is it going to look after Bertie?”
Jeff’s face had taken a distant stern look.
“Then why do you look like that?”
“Because it said that worse things were coming my way.”
The same cold fear leapt into Genevieve’s heart and she stared at him.
“So, what are we going to do?”
He looked up at her and forced a smile.
“Go for a drink at the Magic School down the hill.”
“They serve tea as well you know!”
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