Chapter Eight - Rhiannas
The dragon’s cloud world presence burned so unbelievably brightly that my mind was kind of dragged half way across. “Food!” I heard the thing thinking as it circled calmly through the chaos of the storm. “How convenient; I hunger.”
Suddenly it broke from its circle and swooped down towards us. I was thrown to the deck by some sort of overwhelming blow that seemed to come out of the cloud world and then the creature smashed the roof off the little cabin with a contemptuous flick of its tail. Megan let out a scream as the two of us were showered in a hail of splinters.
“Don’t hurt us!” I screamed at the dragon over the roar of the storm as I pulled myself unsteadily to my feet. “We need to talk.”
I guess the thing was surprised by my reaction.
“Does the wolf parley with the deer?” it demanded, “or the eagle make discourse with the hare?” Why, pray… why, prey… should I listen to you?” But it paused for a moment. “Nonetheless, you, too, show courage in standing before me to meet your doom. For this, you may say your piece before you die!” The awesome creature continued to wheel in tight circles round us.
“I had to come to the island,” I explained hurriedly. “I’ve been called here.”
“You had to come here?” it replied in mocking contempt. “What do I care for your petty ambitions and motivations? I am the mighty Rhiannas of the House of Rhian. Why should I suffer you to live?”
My mind raced, desperately trying to think of some way of saving my life. “Maybe I can do something for you… serve you in some way.” I tried to shout but, in my effort to make myself heard over the fury of the storm, I found myself sort of shouting my words out into the cloud world.
A hint of surprise flashed across the creature’s mind.
“Intriguing!” it said… and I could sort of tell that its thoughts were being pushed straight into my brain rather than said as proper words. “You are capable of cerebral communication, be it of a most primitive and unschooled nature. Such talent is uncommon in Outsiders… and, beyond question, you penetrated our defences to a disconcerting degree. My fellow border guards and I are not normally so lax in our duties. Mayhap you have serviceable talents after all.”
He continued to circle, deep in thought.
“However, none come to the island without paying the guard. What do you bring me by way of tribute?”
My eyes darted around the shattered wreck, looking for something… anything… I could offer to the thing to get it to spare my life. They landed on Megan who was still lying, whimpering, in the bottom of the boat.
“More intriguing still!” the creature observed. “You would sacrifice one of your own kind to save your hide. Such an unclouded perception of the price of survival is certainly not common amongst humans.”
“No!” I screamed. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Are you certain about that?” the creature demanded. “Let me be clear. You offer me nothing I do not already possess for both your lives were forfeit the instant you crossed the boundary of the guardian storm. If the offer stands you may, for a while at least, live. Rescind it and you die.”
I couldn’t do anything but stare at the monster, paralysed by the horror of the decision it was forcing me to make.
But the creature ceased its circling and turned to face me, hovering in the air like an enormous hummingbird. “I must soon resume my patrol duties and I can brook no further delay. My offer will not be improved. Decide now.”
I felt the refusal rising inside me but I just couldn’t say the words. For a moment I stared at the creature in horror before falling to my knees and covering my face with my hands.
“I accept,” I heard myself say.
With that, it swooped down once more. One of its enormous talons wrapped around me and I was ripped into the air. I found myself dangling there like some pathetic rag doll. Not far away I could hear Megan’s screams as she was seized, too.
The beast wheeled round and it completed the destruction of our boat with overwhelming blows from its tail and its mind. It then swung around and started to climb steeply.
Powerful wing strokes tore us up through the storm until we emerged into the calm, cold air above. I strained to turn in the beast’s grasp, trying to make some sense of what was going on.
But then, all of a sudden, Megan’s screams turned frantic… hysterical. I caught a fleeting glimpse of her pathetic body, tumbling back down towards the sea.
But the appalling creature still hadn’t finished with my friend. Folding its wings in, it rolled in the air and stooped down after her. I closed my eyes but that just made things worse. In her terror, Megan must have pulled me into her mind and, through her eyes, I caught a final glimpse of the enormous creature diving down towards us.
And I shared her final thoughts of flame… and of despair… and of betrayal.
Echoing across the waters, from way off to the south, there came a wordless, equally despairing wail in response. This seemed to surprise the creature as it circled round and eased effortlessly into the air.
I guess I was too stunned by the shock and horror of what had just happened to really think. I just dangled there, limp and hopeless under the great beast, and I only had the vaguest impressions of the rest of the journey…
We were skimming low over the thrashing black sea. The salt water was splashing up, mixing with the rain and the tears in my eyes…
We were over land, climbing hard up the side of a mountain and being passed by five dragons flying in a tight, V-shaped formation…
We were flashing through a narrow stone tunnel then exploding into an unthinkably vast space, filled with moonlight… and with dragons…
We were flying towards a wall which seemed to open to swallow us up.
I was dropped casually to the floor and the dragon landed a dozen yards in front of me with surprising grace for such a huge creature. It stood there, squatting on its enormously powerful rear legs like a vast eagle. It had small front legs dangling down in front of it.
I dragged myself to my feet and turned to face it. I knew I didn’t have any choice.
“You presume to claim that you can be of service to me,” it said, pointing its long tail towards me. “Now is your opportunity to demonstrate your worth.”
I just wasn’t ready when the first blow landed. It came without warning out of the cloud world. The force smashed me to the ground. I couldn’t move or breathe… I could barely think.
It felt as if my cloud was being blasted apart. My hand grasped towards my mother’s bracelet as blow after blow came raining in. They were smashing their way towards the tiny kernel thing at the centre of my mind. And somehow I knew… just knew… that, if the appalling beast got there, it would all be over. So, as he pummeled closer and closer, I desperately tried to keep a grip on that tiny kernel in the cloud world just like I was gripping my bracelet in real life.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. I lay on the stone floor for a moment before trying to stand. “Pathetic,” came the voice in my head as I struggled to my feet. “Much more is required if you are to be of any use. Again!”
At least, this time, I knew what was coming and managed to flip into the cloud world before the first blow landed and so I managed to fend it off. Gasping at the effort and pain, I pushed it to one side.
I realised another one was coming in and managed to throw up a scrambling block to that one too. Grinding my teeth with the effort, I pushed that one away.
There was another blow and, after a wracking struggle, I stopped that one too. And I had no time to recover before the next was on its way.
As blow after blow landed, everything beyond my cloud lost any meaning. I sank into this primitive world of simplicity and pain. Attack; counter; recover… Attack; counter; recover.
I fought on and on, way beyond my limits. I knew what would happen to me if I failed. That gave me the strength to carry on. To survive, I had to endure.
Slowly I realised that the attack had stopped. I found I’d been thrown to my knees and I only just managed to catch myself on my arms as I collapsed forwards. I just hung there on my hands and knees, too stunned for any sort of feeling apart from a vague relief that it was over.
“Marginally better!” came the mocking voice. “Now let’s try this.”
Something as sharp as a knife plunged into my cloud and I had this almost detached feeling of a scream being torn from my own throat. I desperately searched for the last few shreds of strength which I kind of bound together to push the thing out again.
Another stab… I managed to parry this one a bit closer to the surface and pushed it away relatively easily.
And another…this time the attack succeeded in penetrating my cloud before I could block it. With another scream of pain and effort I managed to drive it away.
These sharper attacks required less brute strength to repel but the price of failure was much higher.
Then I was hit by a whole series of attacks, all landing at the same time but from different directions. I desperately scrambled from place to place, blocking the blows and driving them away. At least this time, none of them got through into my cloud.
“Adequate,” the creature said. “For now I shall suffer you to live.”
Then, with no warning, the dragon turned its full power on me. There was no question of fighting against the overwhelming force. I hardly noticed as I was thrown to the floor, consumed by the onslaught inside my head. I just curled up in a ball, wrapping myself around my mother’s bracelet.
I lost any sense of time or space as wave after wave crashed over me – flattening everything in its way with its devastating power. I couldn’t think of standing against it or even trying to deflect it. All I could do was cower, with the precious kernel of my inner self hidden behind my bracelet…
And then I gradually realised that the pain had stopped. I just lay there for a bit, too stunned for anything but a vague sense of relief that it was all over.
It was only when I tried to stand up that I realised I couldn’t move. The dragon had my head pinned to the floor with one of its short front legs.
It was obviously waiting for me to come back to my senses and, when it noticed me struggling, it spoke in a sort of formal tone, putting the words straight into my head. “I am your master Rhiannas. You belong to me utterly and for all time. Henceforth your name is Rhianadoc.”
And with that it released me.
I rose unsteadily to my knees and looked across the huge cave to Rhiannas who was moving towards the entrance.
“I must resume my bounden duties,” the enormous creature told me. Then he sort of pointed towards a small opening in one of the walls, up by the entrance. “In times past, my servants lodged there. Go and rest for you will be tested further on the morrow.”
With that, he disappeared into the space beyond the entrance.
I dragged myself painfully to my feet and stumbled through the opening. There was a small room with a simple wooden bed in the corner. As I lurched across to it, I tripped over something in the middle of the floor.
And it was only as I was falling asleep that I realised that the thing I’d tripped over was a scorched human skull.