Jerica crept to the door and peeped out into the hall. Aerik was nowhere in sight. She silently stepped into the hall and closed the door after herself, making her way towards the kitchen. Her breath was caught in her chest, unwilling to risk any chance of noise. She carefully let herself outside, then started around the side of the house and up the stairs.
She hesitated near the top of the stairs, glancing around the clearing to make sure Aerik wasn’t outside where he could stop her. Not that she’d have an excuse for why she was wandering around with a sword if he was up here. Thankfully she didn’t see him. She rushed across the open field, between the garden beds, until she got to the grassy outcrop between the gardens and the dragon’s cave.
There was a sharp incline between the level she stood on now and the entrance to the cave, a bit taller than she was herself. It wasn’t quite straight up and down, but it may as well have been for how well it would have gone trying to walk up it. Jerica reached as high as she could and scrambled up the hill, cringing as loose stones clattered to the ground beneath her, then hesitated outside the mouth of the cave.
The mouth was about fifty meters wide and twenty meters tall. Jerica stepped inside, left arm nearly brushing the wall as she silently padded down the length of the tunnel with no more noise than a cat stalking its prey. She held onto her sword tightly, but held it out behind her, well away from anywhere it might scrape against something and make noise.
The tunnel dimmed quickly. She paused when she was about fifty meters into the cave, waiting for her eyes to adjust before she continued on. It looked like she was about halfway. Ahead of her, the tunnel opened into what she assumed must be the dragon’s den. She continued on, careful to step over each and every tiny stone that might have crunched under her feet as she walked.
Jerica slowed as she neared the end of the tunnel. Her heart was loud in her ears, but she was careful to ensure her breathing was entirely silent. She swallowed hard and stepped forward, lurking in the shadow of the tunnel. The acerbic scent of reptile musk strong here, making her eyes burn and throat feel raw. She blinked the tears away.
A hazy blue light filled the entire area, even though there were no torches in sight. Jerica crept forward until she could peer into the cave. She saw a huge glowing orb on the wall directly opposite from her. It was large, plenty wide and tall enough to allow a caravan to pass through it all at once, shoulder to shoulder.
The orb seemed iridescent but dense, a solid curtain of glittery blue that trembled as it obscured the far wall. Various images flashed across the curtain in an instant. She blinked. Her eyes were deceiving her. The royal blue was broken by the impression of a tree for a fraction of a second; then a glimmer of a lake; then a strange red contraption that zoomed along a road faster than anything she’d ever seen in her life. She frowned, wondering what it was.
A rustling caught her attention. She edged forward until she could see down into the pit that the cave hollowed out into. Her jaw dropped. A magnificent beast was curled in the center, eyes closed and head resting on his forelimbs. She gaped. He was like nothing she’d ever seen before. And so much better than she’d ever dared to imagine.
Kaidren was massive.
Far larger than she’d thought it was possible for any creature to become. He took up nearly the entirety of the cave with his bulk and his muscular build was pronounced even in the dim light. He angled slightly away from her, showing the edge of his massive abdomen.
His scales were emerald. The fire in his belly illuminated his entire body from the insides; glowing bright red on his abdomen, and fading into creases of light peeping out from between his scales. His frame was covered in hardened plates, each individual scale on his neck bigger than her entire head, and they only got larger as they moved away from his head.
He had two massive horns protruding from the back of his skull. The horns extended backward and curled towards one another behind his head until they almost met in the center. A webbed spine crawled down his neck like an other-worldly crown, framing his magnificence. Additional spines with webbing between them protruded from either side of his jaw. Barbels dangled from his chin, even as he rested his head on his forelimb.
He let out a low, rumbling growl without so much as twitching a muscle. A tendril of smoke rose from his nostrils and filled the air. Jerica’s breath caught as the smoke reached her. Her throat burned. She swallowed hard. The itch turned into a tickle. Her eyes watered with the effort it took to keep silent. She pressed her left hand against her mouth as hard as she could.
Jerica took a step backward. She needed to make her escape before a cough betrayed her presence; or before the dragon happened to wake and see her. Her sword arm was dangling limply, all thoughts of being able to defend herself against such an awe-inspiring creature forgotten. He looked like he could eat five Chijurru for breakfast if he wanted to. She didn’t stand a chance. And she needed to go before he noticed her.
She took another step backward, desperate to get back to safety. The pressure of suppressing the cough built in her chest. Her torso ached. She bit back a cough before it could break free. She inhaled sharply. A mistake. The smoke lingering in the air burned her lungs and a cough broke free past her hand before she could stop it.
Her eyes snapped towards the dragon, panicked. He shifted his weight and another low grumble rose from his chest. Maybe he didn’t—His eyes snapped open. Jerica stared back in awe-struck terror. His eye was a perfect sphere, the pupil cat-like and the iris the most breathtaking mixture of green and blue she had ever seen in her life.
Then the eye narrowed and Kaidren lifted his head.
Jerica’s stupor was broken in an instant. She spun on her heel and sprinted towards the mouth of the cave as quickly as her legs would carry her. She’d never ran so fast in her entire life. The ground shook under her feet as Kaidren shifted his weight. A prolonged growl formed deep in his chest and made the entire area vibrate. The ground shook again and again with each step that he took.
Jerica stared behind her as she ran. She couldn’t tell how much distance she was putting between herself and Kaidren. She’d had a solid head start, but every single one of his steps seemed to erase ten of hers. He was fully in the tunnel now. His eyes flashed with rage as he stormed after her with a ferocious determination.
And then, she slammed into an immovable wall.
Jerica fell flat on her back. Heat crashed across her, burning her neck and chest. She blinked, disoriented, trying to make sense of the world as she scrambled to her feet. Her eyes darted up just long enough to process Aerik standing over her, nursing a spilled cup of coffee.
He raised an eyebrow. “What’s going on here?”
Jerica opened her mouth to answer, but the only noise that came out was a jagged breath. She turned to look down the tunnel. Kaidren was still storming towards them at an unwavering pace, entire world shaking beneath his massive feet. She darted around Aerik. She had to go.
She sprinted out of the mouth of the cave and onto the steep hill in the front. She slipped in the grass, ankle twisting and sending her tumbling down the incline. The sword was wrenched from her hands. It didn’t matter. She leapt to her feet and ran with every single ounce of strength she had. She didn’t need a sword. She needed a miracle.
A wall of air slammed into her back.
She heard a whoosh and looked back just in time to see Kaidren launch himself into the air on his powerful wings. An instant later he was almost to her. She put her head down, feet barely touching the ground she ran so fast. She didn’t know where she was heading. But every single instinct that she had screamed ‘not here’ was the best place to be.