Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
The light of the stars was just enough to see the silhouettes of rocks and obstacles. Although, sight was more or less unnecessary as he continued on. The tunnels were smooth, both ceilings and walls. No blood on the damp surfaces.
As he reached the end of the tunnel, the similar starlight lit up from beyond, only brighter. Ren sucked in a breath, almost choking from the iron in the air. It felt electric, buzzing against his skin.
Images of death didn’t play through his mind, but the prospect of it was frightening all the same. Ren attempted to shove that fear away, but he couldn’t stop it from seizing his chest and clenching it, almost choking the air from his lungs.
Ren peered into the next lit up chamber, shrinking against the wall of the tunnel. This cavern was even more grand than the last. The grooves that reflected the starlight reached up the ceiling and spread upon the ground. The lines all drew and connected to one place.
Ren’s breath caught as his eyes landed upon it. There it was. The sword. The stupid, fucking sword that had almost killed them to find. It was shoved into a crevice in the stone, directly in the center of the room. As though made by starlight as Rieka claimed, it glowed along with the grooves in the stone. The light emanating from the thick blade was almost blinding.
And the room was otherwise empty.
Ren couldn’t believe his luck. No dragon in sight. He did mark two branching tunnels on the opposing wall, but… it was the perfect chance. If there was anything Ren had ever learned in thieving, it was to take a chance when one was given.
He stepped into the cavern as gently as he could. Nothing happened. Holding his breath, he stepped closer until finally, he stood before the sword.
He had to squint against the blue light. It was difficult to believe it wasn’t magic. No wonder Arlan wanted it for themselves.
The hilt was smooth and unadorned as was the thick blade. The entire weapon seemed to be made of the same material.
The prince had been right. They didn’t know how the dragon would react once the sword was moved. But they had also set up the precaution of the explosive, and judging by Ren’s eternal clock, any minute they would set it off, causing the avalanche to distract the dragon. It would be the perfect moment for him to grab the sword and run.
Ren placed his bare palms upon the smooth hilt, the metal warm against his skin. He would just wait for the moment the explosive was set, then he would take the sword and go. Easy.
After several moments of waiting, Ren’s heart pounding in his chest, the explosive had yet to go off.
What if the dragon suddenly appeared for a little evening stretch? What if it decided Ren smelled delicious in all his rotten glory, and had a midnight snack?
The fear that followed his thoughts was tangible, blocking away the scent of iron and rot; blocking away the warm breezes that filled the cavern. It replaced it all with the choking sense of death, the pressure squeezing on his lungs and compressing his body until each breath felt tight.
Calm down, a cool voice said in the back of his mind. Ren released a slow and agonizing breath before closing his eyes. He began controlling his breaths as he had learned to do long ago. Fear seized his heart and throat, choking the air from his lungs. He inhaled, the air shoving past that tight barrier of fear. Calm down.
Just as he began to get a hold of his breath, the mountain shook. Ren’s eyes went wide and he grabbed the sword’s hilt for support.
It wasn’t the dragon waking. It was the explosive.
Now was his chance. Ren pulled at the sword, attempting to yank it from the ground. It didn’t even budge.
The rumble of the following avalanche the explosive caused continued to roar out any grunts or noises Ren issued as he braced his feet on the ground and tugged. The sound of the explosion was deafening compared to the silence he had been immersed in for so long.
Finally, he pulled the blade free. He didn’t try to lift it beyond where it dangled from his hands. It was far heavier than he had presumed, and he could hardly support it held out before him. Perhaps if he tucked it under his arm? Or cradled it? His clothing was padded enough that he likely wouldn’t cut himself. Settling upon the latter option, he released the hilt with one hand to nestle the blade in the crook of his elbow.
Once settled there, he began taking careful steps out of the cavern, following the path he had taken in. He kept his footfalls light and quiet, but quickened his pace, taking advantage of the still rumbling avalanche.
He hurried past the chamber with the lake, turning to scurry out the next tunnel. Once immersed in darkness, the blade continued to glow a dull blue, illuminating the path before him.
Indeed, the walls and ceilings were designed with freshly painted carvings and drawings, each depicting a story. Ren didn’t waste any time examining them, instead continuing forward.
As he turned back into the cooling halls, his stomach dropped. In the darkness, he hadn’t been able to see the tunnels fully, but now that he could, he almost wished he was once again in darkness.
Skeletons and piles of bones were scattered in the corners and in dead-ends as he passed. Bodies of warriors that had attempted to steal the sword and failed.
What made him any different? Why would he succeed and not them? The thought of his bones joining theirs, forever forgotten in the shadows only fueled his steps to continue.
The rumbling of the mountain ceased, the avalanche expending the last of its energy. As silence once again fell, Ren slowed his steps, falling back into his quiet, practiced procession.
The mountain began to shake once more, though this time, it wasn’t from an avalanche.
Ren paused, his ears peeled. A low, steady hum vibrated through his legs and around his body. There was no roar indicating a dragon, only that deep tremble in the stone and in his bones.
The dragon was awake.
Ren wasted no more time and immediately bolted, not bothering with being quiet. He just had to get out. As soon as possible.
The skeletons and human carcasses along the walls went ignored as he ran, his cloth-wrapped feet sliding on the smooth stone. The sword lit his path and he relied on memory, hoping it was as good as it once was and he didn’t take a wrong turn. One wrong turn and…
No. He had to live. He had gotten this far as it was.
Fear thrummed through his body, spurring him to move faster. As he took a sharp turn down a separate hall, his feet slid and he slammed into the wall.
Cursing, he stumbled for traction, his makeshift shoes beginning to unravel.
Wasting precious seconds, he stooped to tear them from his feet. Before the cloth had come completely undone, he was running again, leaving a trail of fur and wool behind.
Then he heard it. A low hiss. It was so deep it was almost indiscernible, but the sound grated at Ren’s bones, throbbing through his flesh.
He made the mistake of glancing behind him. A flash of silver scales darted from the hallways Ren had just managed to vacate, the dragon on his tail.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shi—
Run, he commanded himself. His legs pumped faster, fear a good motivator. The bare skin of his feet tore against the rough, cold stone, but with the adrenaline flowing in his veins, he could hardly tell.
The scraping of scales on stone cut through the low hiss, reminding Ren how close the dragon truly was. Any moment now, it would lurch forward and capture him in its teeth. Ren wished he had relieved himself before lowering into the cavern because his bladder was screaming.
Only a few more turns. Only a few more turns and he would be in the main cavern.
Ren veered right, rocks tearing deeper into his feet. The scraping of scales only grew louder, the echoes assaulting him from all sides.
Finally, he ran into the open cavern. He bolted to the rope hanging in the center.
His progress was broken as he stepped on a tall, protruding rock from the ground, the stone stabbing deep. He cried out, this pain not muted by his adrenaline.
“Fuck!” he barked as he pulled at his leg. A sickening squelch sounded as he managed to yank his foot from the stone. He limped the last few steps to the rope and frantically harnessed himself.
“Pull me up!” he screamed, yanking on the rope. “Now!”
Just as he felt tension in the rope, the dragon burst into the cavern. All thoughts fled from Ren’s mind as his eyes latched on the beast.
It was long and sleek, its wings a papery white and tucked in close to its snake-like body. It’s head was diamond shaped and decorated with dark scales that closely resembled stars. It’s violet eyes were trained on Ren—on the sword tucked into his side. The pupils constricted and it lunged.
Ren screamed and kicked, swaying from where he hung. The dragon just missed, its head brushing past Ren’s body. “Gods above, pull faster!” Ren screamed up at the ceiling. He began to rise quicker, though not quickly enough.
The dragon spread its wings and stretched, reaching up its long, pale neck towards Ren. It’s teeth were half the size of his body. This was not where he was going to die. He was so damned close.
Ren grabbed the sword by the hilt and clenched his fists tight. His limbs were weak and limp, but he swung, using whatever momentum he could gather.
The blade connected with the neck of the beast and blood spewed, splattering over Ren. The dragon hissed that low sound that buzzed through his bones, and withdrew just enough.
Then, he was at the crevice. Ren shoved the sword through and scrambled up onto land, clawing at the rope around his chest. The others were all gathered, watching with wide eyes as the ground rumbled beneath their feet.
“It’s going to break out of the mountain,” Rieka said, palming her axe. Kai grabbed the new sword already stained with blood and readied his dagger in his other hand.
Ren scrambled away, crawling on all fours. His feet burned and his body ached, but he had to move. He had to get away—
The ground erupted. Ren cried out as the tremor sent him sprawling in snow. He pivoted to watch as the dragon rose from the ground, its silver and white body contrasting with the dark sky.
Arms at his shoulders helped him to his feet, and Ren turned to see the prince staring in horror at the beast. Despite his fear, he helped support Ren on his mauled and bare feet, and soon Amani was at his other side, her other arm tucking Shadya close. Neither seemed to care about the dried blood and flesh smeared over his clothes.
The dragon’s body writhed as it brought down its powerful wings and rose into the sky. It sat there for a brief and glorious second before plummeting.
Rieka met its dive with the head of her axe, swinging with quick precision. Her blade managed to come into contact with the beast’s shoulder, cutting through the scales and spewing blood. The dragon reared only to meet Kai’s raised blades.
It didn’t roar as it bled. Instead, it leveled those eyes to the two new threats. This time, when the dragon lunged, Rieka and Kai both knew to dive out of its way.
The dragon whirled, his wings snapping out. One came into contact with Rieka’s chest, sending her flying into rocks and snow. She didn’t rise.
Kai’s eyes darted from her to the beast. Slowly, he squared his shoulders and attacked. He managed to get all of one minor scratch in before the beast knocked him down.
“You have weapons, use them!” Amani shouted. Ren turned to her, bewildered, only to find her gaze set on Zain.
Zain stiffened, meeting her eyes. Amani’s face was stone cold, as though unaffected by any fear the rest of them suffered. All there was was rage. Rage directed towards Zain.
The dragon set its short and agile legs upon the ground and turned its head to an unconscious Rieka. Kai was attempting to rise, his arms reaching for his fallen weapons. Ren had to help. How could he help? He would be better off running and forgetting the prophecy altogether.
Cold fingers touched his hand and Ren flinched, glancing down. Shadya was before him, examining the dragon’s blood tracing its way down his fingers. Ren blinked as she held out her palm. A drop of the blood fell onto her skin.
“Shadya,” Amani warned, her voice fearful and full of reproach.
Shadya brought her hand to her lips, tasting the blood. It shone red on her lips.
“Shadya,” Amani repeated, this time louder.
Just as the beast lunged towards Rieka, mouth open, Shadya closed her eyes.
The dragon froze. Ren glanced between it and Shadya. The girl’s fingers were curled into fists at her sides, her brows furrowed in concentration. The dragon’s wings snapped in and its neck elongated.
Ren saw movement from the corner of his eye. Kai was rising to unsteady feet, the sword in hand. When he saw the dragon raised and still, he vaulted towards it, weapon raised.
The dragon didn’t attempt to protect itself as he swung, the blade sinking into the beast’s neck. It stopped halfway, blood spewing and pouring from the gash. Kai yanked the blade free. The dragon remained still for a brief moment longer before crumpling, its scarlet blood pooling across the white snow.
Ren stood, his chest heaving. The beast was still, not a breath leaving its nostrils. The low hiss that had buzzed against his bones ceased. He waited. Waited for the beast to rise and finish the job it was intended to do. It didn’t.
Kai was the first to move. The sword fell from his grip and he ran around the still beast to Rieka, who was still unconscious in the snow.
Everyone unfroze, then. Everyone but Ren. Zain and the prince joined Kai while Amani knelt to speak in hushed tones to Shadya, leaving Ren to hold his weight entirely on his torn feet.
What the fuck just happened? The dragon was going to kill Rieka and then it stopped. It froze as though it were being pulled by strings. Was it Shadya’s doing? It seemed entirely improbable—impossible—yet he could find no explanation.
Amani rose, Shadya beside her. The young girl stared at the dead beast with impassive eyes. The blood that had been on her lips had vanished. Perhaps he had imagined the whole thing. The thought wasn’t a comforting one. He was through with delusions.
“Are you okay?” Amani asked, placing a hand on Ren’s shoulder.
Ren stiffened and dragged his eyes to her. Was he okay? Well, he had almost just been eaten by a dragon within a dark cave with nothing but a sword he could hardly carry. He had never been better.
Suddenly, the pain in his feet hit him at full force. With a hiss, he fell back onto his ass, grabbing his ankles. The base of his feet were bloodied and torn, pieces of stone and bone lodged within.
Kai and Zain were hefting Rieka between them. Her head had rolled onto her shoulder. Even through her layers, Ren could see blood staining the wool at her side. She had been cut.
As they made their way back, the prince followed behind, grabbing the sword. Like Ren, he struggled to hold it properly.
“Let’s get back to the cave so we can patch up and rest before moving on,” Kai said. His forehead wrinkled with worry.
Amani held out a hand for Ren. He grabbed her wrist, remembering the cuts on her palms, and hefted himself up, wincing and hissing.
He murmured curses under his breath, each one worse than the last. The prince caught up and shot Ren a concerned glance. Ren forced a grin that utterly failed to appear sincere.
“I am sorry,” the prince murmured, allowing Ren to use him as support as well as Amani.
“Why’s that, Your Highness?” Ren said through gritted teeth. He breathed out a muted screech at each contact of his feet against the cold ground.
“I am sorry for all of this. Going into the mountain.” His words were careful and quiet, as though he were confessing some terrible secret.
Ren chuckled through his teeth. “Unless you are the gods, I hardly see how this is your fault.”
The prince didn’t answer, his eyes falling to the ground. To the bloody foot-prints left in Ren’s wake.
Truthfully, Ren only had himself to blame for any pain that came to him. He had accepted this damned prophecy, he had signed the contract, and he had gone into that cave alone. And because he was a greedy bastard, he would do it again if it meant gaining that gold. Because that gold wasn’t just gold. It was a life. A life of peace and of freedom. A life without pain and without fear. A life where he could finally rest.