Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
“Dragons have superior senses in all aspects,” the prince was saying, though Ren found it difficult to focus on a single word as Rieka, Zain, and Kai were busy attempting to pull a goat’s carcass from the thin crevice with nothing but a looped rope. “It is likely accurate to assume the Styrkish would deign the task of protecting the sword with the most powerful dragon—”
“Wait,” Ren murmured, cutting him off. “Strong senses, yeah, I get it. But why, exactly, is the dead goat necessary?”
Ren cringed as Rieka whooped triumphantly and Kai grinned. They began tugging up the rope, the dead creature likely weighing down the end.
“The dragon will not only be able to see you in darkness,” the prince said, drawing Ren’s attention back to him. “It will be able to hear a scrape of your foot against the ground. It will be able to feel the vibrations of your steps as you near it. It will be able to smell the minute something foreign enters its tunnels.”
“So the goat…”
“The goat has been in that cave for who knows how long. If you smell like the goat, you smell like something that has pre-existed within the dragon’s lair.”
It slowly dawned on Ren, and he began shaking his head. “No way. No fucking way.”
The prince grimaced, his jaw twitching. “It is the best way to ensure you go unseen.”
“I think I’d rather be seen.”
The prince paused, examining Ren in silence. Finally, he said, “You do not have to do this.”
Ren sighed and met the prince’s eyes. They were genuine and unmoving, holding Ren’s gaze. Despite the vigor with which the prince had gone about completing this prophecy, Ren knew he would find another way if he so much as asked for it. He would discard the whole idea, allowing Ren safety and rest in the cave if that was Ren’s decision. Perhaps it was that very reason why Ren shrugged.
“What difference does it make? First a barrel of fish and now a dead goat. It can’t be that bad.”
The prince seemed to ease with the slightest bit of relief. He pulled out the stick of explosive that Ren had stolen and said, “As a precaution, we will set this off an hour after you have entered.”
Ren sniffed and shook his head. “Save it for later. It will go to better use against the dragon.”
The prince mulled it over before saying, “An hour and a half. You should have returned by then. If you have not, it will be the distraction to get you out. The trick to thieving is the diversion.” The latter words were ones Ren had said in Aryotsk. He couldn’t help but grin at the sound of them from the prince’s lips.
“If you find the sword,” the prince said, moving on as though Ren weren’t smiling broadly, “do not take it. Just get back as soon as you can. We do not know whether or not the dragon will be able to sense the moment it is moved, and we should not risk it unless there is someone there to fight the dragon the moment it is required.”
Ren nodded. He opened his mouth to make some jest about himself wielding the sword, but was interrupted by Rieka.
“We’ve got it!” she called. Ren glanced up to see a half decayed carcass at their feet, the rib cage sunken in and the eye sockets of the goat pitted out. Ren cringed, nausea creeping up his throat.
“Wonderful,” he muttered, standing from the rock he had been perched upon. His head throbbed as he stood, and he swayed, blinking the sudden spots from his eyes. Perhaps if he was better hydrated and well-rested, he would have the sense to take the prince on his offer and refuse going into the cave alone. Or at all, preferably. Unfortunately, Ren’s sense of reason had all but vanished in the Kiertsk slopes because he continued forward, stopping beside the goat’s carcass.
“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered.
Ren had not been fully aware of what he was signing up for. The goat was nothing at all like the barrel of fish. The fish’s odor had clung to his nostrils and sent a sour taste to his mouth. The dead goat was something else altogether.
As Rieka hacked at the ribcage of the frozen carcass, the decaying flesh squelching with each strike until the cavity was open, internal organs spilling out. The smell was so putrid Ren almost vomited. It was like sulfur, sugar, and rot all wrapped into one.
Rieka paused in her hacking to back away, wrist pressed to her mouth. Both Kai and Zain had turned away from the carcass, facing the open breezes to clear their nostrils.
“Maybe this smell is too strong?” Ren squeaked. “I mean, don’t you think it would be a bit obvious if the dragon smelled his dead goat roaming the tunnels?”
“The dragon drags the goats through his tunnels to eat them,” Rieka said, stepping back up to the carcass. “The smell will have traced all throughout the cave.”
Ren gulped. It was a good attempt at avoiding what seemed to be the inevitable.
“Well,” Rieka said, placing her hand up to her mouth as she swallowed hard. “There you go. One chopped up goat carcass.”
Ren’s lip curled in disgust, then he instantly shut his mouth. He could almost taste the smell of rotten flesh.
“Go on,” Rieka prodded, waving a hand towards the snow coated in congealed blood, chunks of flesh, and mangled internal organs. “Apply your perfume.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Ren muttered, backing away. “Why is it always me? All the worst things are always happening to me.”
“You did volunteer for this mission,” Rieka reminded him.
Ren lifted a finger. “Nobody asked for your input, Rieka.”
“It smells bad now,” Zain said, his voice quiet. “But soon you will become acclimated to it and won’t even notice.”
Ren’s brow lifted as he and the others all turned to gaze at Zain. The man merely stood, his eyes steady upon the carcass.
“That’s comforting to hear,” Ren muttered sardonically.
With an abrupt shake of his head, he stepped forward, resigning himself to what he had agreed to do. He had been in worse situations before. Once, he had hidden in the underground sewers to escape the authorities and was left to trudge knee-deep in shit for hours. This couldn’t be worse than that.
But as Ren dipped his hands into the cold, rotten mess of the goat, his skin brushing against the broken rib cage, bile rose up in his throat. He was lying to himself. This could very much be worse.
“It’s official,” Ren said, looking down into the crevice, a rope secured around his torso. He had finished lathering himself with the blood and guts of the dead goat, though not after releasing the contents of his stomach at least twice. Not that there was much for him to purge, leaving him to gag on stomach acid. “I despise this country.”
“We will leave this rope here,” the prince said. “And someone will be near it constantly until you get back. Just give it a tug when you are ready.”
Ren nodded stiffly and clutched the rope. The blood was cold on the exposed skin of his face and hands, and it stiffened the wool fabric of his coat. If he shifted, he could hear the slimy flesh sliding between the cloth. Gods, he could hardly enjoy the last rays of sun in the setting dusk, even though they very well might’ve been his last.
Rieka tossed him their last water skein, the pouch also smeared in goat’s blood. “Don’t want you having delusions again.”
A joke rested on the tip of Ren’s tongue but his lips refused to part. Instead, he nodded again.
“Don’t die,” Rieka said as he readied to lower himself into the cave. She said the words as though they brought her physical pain.
A joke did surface this time. “That almost felt genuine.”
Rieka chuckled and grabbed hold of the rope along with Kai. And they began lowering him into what might just be a tomb.
Darkness encompassed him. With his sight gone, all other senses amplified. The delicate sounds of his breaths as they bounced from the walls of the cave. The rope digging into his chest and armpits. The smell of mildew, rot, and iron. The sharp cold against his skin.
Ren took a deep breath, trying to calm his heart. He needed all of his wits about him if he wished to survive. And he would survive.
After agonizing minutes, his feet finally touched the ground. He undid the makeshift harness and tugged once.
He stood there for a brief moment, gathering his breaths and letting his eyes adjust to the dark. A torch couldn’t be afforded to him within the cave as the fire would undoubtedly be noticed by the dragon’s ‘superior senses’. Ren grimaced and lifted his chin, trying to distance himself from the gore slathered over his coat and body. It did nothing.
His eyes began to adjust, though only barely for the sole light came from the thin crevice high above. In the darkness, he could make out silhouettes of his surroundings. Jagged columns of stone protruded from the ground before him, a few other skeletons and carcasses of goats pierced upon them.
Ren took a step forward, gathering his nerves. It was just another heist. Map the layout and get back. Easy.
Something crunched lightly under his boot and Ren jolted back. Bones of a rodent.
Ren quieted his breathing and stood still for a moment. The prince had said any noise too loud would alert the dragon. Was the crunch of bones enough?
Shoving aside his fears, Ren began forward again. He kept each footfall as silent as possible, but the tall, cavernous walls echoed each slight noise, even the lightest brush of leather against stone.
After just three steps, Ren knew he couldn’t make it through the cave with the sound his feet were issuing. Wasting precious time, he sat upon the cold stone, right next to a dead goat. The creature’s eyes peered at him, the irises reflecting the minute light that lit the cavern from the crevice above.
Ren grimaced, bile rising in his throat once more. Gods, he just knew he was going to see that goat’s unseeing eyes in his next dreams.
He turned back to his feet, trying to ignore the thought. His shoes were made of leather, the soles thick and sturdy. Beneath that sole was layers of fur to keep his feet warm. While they were wonderful shoes for hiking through the mountains and keeping his toes from getting frostbite, they were not wonderful shoes for sneaking around.
Ren felt a sudden flood of nostalgia for his shoes back in Reindale. He had plenty of them, some made of rich leather with thick soles and colored ties, and others made of suede, the material smooth and classy. Then, there was his favorite pair of shoes. These shoes were flexible and molded to his feet. They were silent on almost every surface and had been a constant companion to him for years of thieving. Or, at least since his feet had ceased to grow. If only he had those shoes now.
Ren shoved the thought aside and picked up a sharp stone beside him to begin cutting at the seams of his sole. He attempted to work swiftly and silently, scraping the stone in earnest as threads snapped. He held in his breath as he gripped the toe of his boot and pulled at the sole. He had to be silent. Silent while he completely disassembled and reassembled his shoes. He gritted his teeth, bracing for the moment the sole would come undone. The boot began to slide from his foot and then, finally, the sole ripped free.
The tearing sound that issued from his shoe echoed about the cavern, reminding him of all the noise he was causing. Ren grimaced, turning away, as though ignoring the sound would make it nonexistent. It didn’t work.
When the echo finally faded, Ren turned back to the shoe.
All the fur was taken with the sole, leaving the bottom of his foot completely bare.
Shit. Ren scrubbed a hand through his hair and tried to think.
Settling himself on a new plan, he began tearing at the bottom of his coat, using the rock to cut jagged strips of wool. He worked slowly, silently cursing each time the fabric tore and the sound echoed. After he was finished, he shucked off his boots, setting them upon the stone ground and began pulling the fur from them. After he had piles of fur and cloth, he wrapped his feet and stuffed the fur within.
It was nowhere near as warm as his boots had been, but he stood and took one careful step forward. Then another. Not a single sound.
Ren grinned in the shadows. Now he would begin his search.