So, I meant to publish the whole thing, but it is getting kind of big, so I’m just going to let it out a bit at a time. After Damsel and the Riff, I’ve certainly gave you enough to read today. Sorry for the ADHD, I’m trying to become one of those people that focus on one thing at a time. Unfortunately, I’ve been trying to do that since I was ten, so… Yeah.
I stared up at the dragon, curled up on his gold, his eyelids half lowered. Now that I was standing right in front of him, I was at a loss. He seemed disinclined to tell my anything without being prodded and I wasn’t sure which question to ask first. I could tell, though, that he was sort of personality that would make you fumble around in the dark rather than give you hints on which direction to take.
Finally, I cleared my throat. “I need to save Jess,” I said. “You said I was a hero, but you haven’t explained anything. Is there some elixir of healing? A magic sword? A yellow brick road?”
The dragon chuckled, his green eyes squeezing shut. I frowned at him, thinking he seemed to be enjoying this far too much. Like it was a game. “You? A hero?” He laughed again.
“Um, gee thanks?”
He made a sound low in his throat, a sound like a cough crossed with a laugh. “Dear child. You are certainly tenacious, but you lack a few things.”
“Knowledge of spells and enchantments and the power to break them.”
I scowled at him. “Well, if I’m not the hero, who is?”
He began to uncurl, lifting himself slow and graceful, yawning and stretching until his scales rattled, unbending his back and rippling his long tail down in a wave, like a cat uncurling from its afternoon nap. He shook his head and sighed. “Come with me.”
We walked past the gold and the skeletons, following the darkness through several more caverns, each one more full of gold than the last. I didn’t touch so much as a single one of the large, golden coins scattered about; just because I wasn’t as crazy about fairytales as Jess didn’t mean I hadn’t picked up the rules. Even when I saw a tiara laced with stones that shimmered with every color of the rainbow that made me ache to hold it up to the light, I kept my hands primly tucked into a knot in front of me.
We came into a cavern that was half lit and I could see that the small exit at the other end opened on the outside world. There were no skeletons, no sign of thieves. “They can’t get in this way,” the dragon said, as if plucking the thought from my mind. I didn’t ask; I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “This is only for going out.” He grinned at me and something in the rows of bright, sharp teeth made me suspect I didn’t want to fully understand that comment. I stepped out on a tiny ledge and caught my breath. I was standing on the side of a cliff that looked as smooth and shiny as polished black glass. The dragon slid through the hole, now no bigger than a cocker spaniel. Down below, so far than the there were actual clouds drifting along the side of the wall, I could see the suggestion of neat fields and small clusters of houses.
“You need to get there,” the dragon said, sitting down and pointing off into the blue gray distance. I saw a many turreted castle.
“Let me guess,” I said dryly. “I need the prince to come kiss my sister.”
The dragon made a scoffing hiss in his throat. “Don’t be a dunce. Princes aren’t good for much. Forget kissing the sickness from anyone. They can’t even find their own feet to put their boots on, most days. No. You need the Cursed King. And there will be no kissing about it. Or swords. Or some random fantastical item indued with powerful magic. Get to the king, tell your sister’s tale. And, if the king wishes to help you, then your sister will be saved.”
“And if he doesn’t wish to help?” I asked.
“Then she won’t.” He peered at me and I was sure my sense of betrayal showed on my face. “It’s a chance, isn’t it? Which is one more chance than you’d have had if I didn’t come to you. Your sister will die if the king does not help you. She would have died if I did not send you the dream. It is not my fault if you are refused.”
I looked away; he was right. “Is there anything I can do to better my chances?”
“You can ask for help,” the dragon said.
“And?” I asked.
“Well… won’t I need to do something for him? Or….” I stopped, caught; I had no idea what I should be asking.
The dragon regarded me with glittering eyes. “You have to get there first. And that will be plenty difficult. If you get there, I suggest complete honesty. If you tell the smallest of lies, the Cursed King will refuse you.”
I turned, regarding the long distance. I would have to walk it, but it wasn’t that far. No more than a hike through the country. “It looks simple enough.” Inwardly, I groaned; just saying the words reminded me that I was no longer in my own world. I was in place where it might well be possible to put a princess into an enchanted sleep and saying those words was the same as shouting at the playground bully to hit me as hard as he could.
“What makes you think being in your own world means your princess is any safer? That she isn’t in an enchanted sleep? It is not likely you’d need us, were that the case, or that we could help you if you came looking.”
“Why would she be in an enchanted sleep?” I scoffed.
“Maybe she went poking into things that did not concern her. Or maybe a passing witch took and interest. Princes have gotten turned into frogs for a little side-eye at the wrong old woman. Your sister is an actively nosy force.”
I turned slowly. I’d caught the idea a few times before since my first dream of him. Now I felt my insides twisting a little. But it wasn’t and entirely bad thing; enchantments can be broken. Unlike certain sicknesses that promise death without any loopholes. “You know an awful lot about my sister,” I said.
The dragon’s sly smile wasn’t unpleasant, but I still felt like he was hiding something not very nice. “I know everything about her,” the dragon said.
“Did you enchant her?” I asked.
“Not exactly. Though it is my game you are playing.”
“Your game?” I felt my temper rising, a black tide of fury that wanted to push him right off the ledge, despite suspecting he’d just spread his wings and fly. “My sister is dying and this is a game to you?”
He sighed and, with barely a sound, stepped off the ledge, opening his wings and stroking the air with long, lazy sweeps to keep him hovering there. He swelled up slowly until he was twice again his original size and I slid back a few steps because he could have swallowed me whole. “Everything is a game, little girl. Life, death, everything you choose, it is all just one, giant game. Either you win or you lose but it doesn’t matter because there are always other games to play.” His rumbling voice had become, like his body, enormous. He reached out, snake quick, and curled his clawed front foot around me. I screamed, but he didn’t crush me and he didn’t drop me. Instead, he tucked his wings back against him and began the long dive down the side of the cliff. Once I stopped waiting to be tossed into thin air to fall to my death, I realized it was beautiful; the cliff looked like smoky black glass, but it shifted as the light did, casting off sapphire blue, pink, pale orange, pale blue, green, and gold, as if it was a rainbow frozen into the form of this slick wall.
The land, which had looked so flat, began to take on the shape of rolling hills. The villages closest were no longer just neat, house shaped clusters. Now I could see that they were ruins. Walls were crumbling and roofs were gone, the squares overgrown with weeds and the fountains full of leaves rather than water. The land itself looked wrong; there was no grass and what I’d thought were fields were really just vines that had closed around square shaped foundations. The vines were the only obvious signs of life; they were thick and twining, and full of a rich, green foliage. Fat buds hung from them, each as long as my forearm, hinting at a pale, pink flower, but they had not yet bloomed.
“You want to be well away from the vine before dark,” the dragon said. He’d taken on a much more manageable size when we landed. “The flowers are called night walkers. The vine is all part of a singular organism and it is carnivorous.” He showed me his sharp teeth again. “Stick around too long, and you’ll be its next meal.”
“So I must get to the castle by dark?”
“Just away from the vine. You’ll need something else before you can find the castle. It may look very simple, but it is enchanted as well.”
“Of course,” I grumbled fisting my hands and propping them on my hips. “So what do I do from here?”
“You go looking for a guide.”
“Who might that be?” I asked and I couldn’t keep the annoyance out of my voice; I was getting really tired of him adding things in and his comment about this being a game was still twisting in my gut.
“You need to find the Raven.” He didn’t wait for me to ask. He leapt into the air, wings cracking against the air as they caught him, and he was halfway back up to his ledge before I could find my voice.
“Hey!” I yelled after him. He did not look back or pause. He just kept going. “I don’t think I like him,” I said, staring daggers up at the pace where he’d vanished. And then I turned around. I could spend all day being angry or I could get going. Since sitting around trying to curse the dragon was more likely to get me eaten by a plant than cause him any discomfort, I decided to start looking for a way out of the tangled landscape of vines.