Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The minute Ren had stepped out of the cavern and into the connecting tunnels, he had been doused in darkness. Even after several steps, his eyes had yet to adjust to it, leaving him staring into nothing.
Fear began a steady pound in Ren’s chest as he took each careful step. He couldn’t see. Gods, he couldn’t see. The dragon could be right in front of him, and he wouldn’t even know—
Happy thoughts, he reminded himself. Think happy thoughts. Think of mounds of gold and luxurious rooms filled to the brim with freshly made food.
Suddenly, the plates laden with food were served to a dragon, and his head was the main course.
Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts.
The mantra did little to abate the fear that choked up Ren’s throat and threatened to send him running back to the rope. Whether he would use that rope to be pulled up or to be put down, he didn’t know.
His cold from each environmental assault was worsening, and his nose began to run. He was far too afraid to sniffle, so snot dribbled onto his lip, the salt of it clinging to his tongue. His head felt stuffed with cotton, useless and fuzzy. Gods, he wanted a hot bath. And a nap. Perhaps both at the same time.
Ren took another silent step forward, his eyes wide, though doing so was useless. It was like swimming through ink, only he was on foot and a single noise very well might get him killed.
Ren focused on the path before him, trying to shove aside his fear. He placed his bare, goat blood-stained hand upon the wall, trailing his fingers along it to lead his path. His makeshift shoes held together—his sole consolation—although his toes grew colder by the minute.
Despite the chill air nipping at his skin, it was little compared to that above the mountain. He supposed with the wind blocked in the tunnels, it was no wonder it wasn’t so harsh, but it wasn’t just a lack of wind. No, the air within the cave was warmer. Like the dragon had heated it by its presence.
Suddenly, Ren realized that was likely why the goat whose intestines were slathered over his body wasn’t frozen solid.
Ren memorized each turn he took, though the series of tunnels was a maze he very well might be lost in for hours. He encountered dead-ends and circled paths, and only knew his relative direction from years of memorizing layouts and steps he took as a thief. That, and his memory was known for being quite extraordinary.
But with a great memory also meant remembering each wretched detail of what occurred within this gods-damned cave. If he survived, of course.
After walking for what felt like days, he had still gotten nowhere. Instead, the map in his mind grew all the more extensive, full of twists, turns, and endings. It was no wonder the Styrkish didn’t bother posting men to guard the sword. Ren didn’t doubt thieves had gotten lost in the labyrinth, left to die of starvation.
His foot occasionally nudged something loose upon the ground. Ren would immediately draw his foot away, placing it somewhere empty of obstacles. For once, he was glad for lacking sight, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to see what lined the tunnels’ walls.
Happy thoughts. How was he supposed to think happy thoughts when he couldn’t see a damned thing in the home of a dragon that was superior to him in every single way? A dragon that could smell his presence, hear his presence, see his presence, and feel his presence. What the fuck was Ren supposed to do about that?
Run, he decided. He would be far better off turning around and bolting now. He would tug on that rope and announce it was a fool’s mission.
Ren’s foot stepped down on something hard. Though it didn’t make a noise, he stilled, his heart pounding. Stepping on this felt very similar to stepping on the rodent’s bones within the cavern.
Bones, all the way out here? He understood in the cavern. Rieka had informed him the Styrkish came to drop goats and ‘treats’ for their little dragon pet. What had died so deep in the maze?
Ren took a deep breath, the fear shaking his lungs and twirling in his stomach. His legs itched to move, anxious from his slow pace. His head pulsed with increasing pain, his sinuses full of built up pressure. If there wasn’t goat blood on his hands, he would massage that spot between his eyes.
How long had he been walking for? The knowledge of the explosive was like a ticking clock in his mind. He had an hour and a half to find the sword and return. By now, he likely had closer to half an hour left, maybe more.
He had come this far. He couldn’t turn back now. He only had to hurry.
With that in mind, he regained his pace, the fear thrumming in his bones, threatening to send him to his knees. He kept his eyes wide, hoping for something to see. Instead, there was only darkness. Darkness and silence, as he held in each breath before releasing them; as he took each step with such precaution, not one slip-up was possible.
The stench of rot on his skin that had been so abhorrent earlier was not only a forgotten shred in the back of his mind. Zain had been right. He had grown acclimated to it. The entire cavern stank of decay and blood. It hung low in each hallway, pungent and reminding him of his proximity to death.
Ren turned down a hall, one with three forks, two already explored and dead-ends. As he walked, he kept his steps light, touching down his toes first then his heels. After a few steps, the air began to warm.
Ren slowed, breathing deeply and quietly through his nose. Cutting through the smell of rot was something metallic—iron. It enshrouded him with a thick perfume. The tunnel’s floor smoothed and…
Ren jerked. Water was dripping on his head.
He lifted his hand gently to touch the damp ceiling. It was water, he assured himself. It had to be water. If it was blood…
No, it was water.
The tunnel's walls were pressing close on all sides, leaving little room to move but forward and backward. While he had never been the claustrophobic type, that paired with the darkness that pressed upon him, it was difficult not to feel suffocated. Difficult not to think of anything other than his fears.
Gods, he wanted to be anywhere but there. He wanted to be back in Reindale, housed in his luxurious apartment, soaking in a warm bath. He wanted to be thieving in a tavern, scamming wealthy men for their money. He wanted to be tucked into a grand bed with no plans for the next day and the next.
He would even take Reindale’s streets over this. He would take the days he spent begging for coin, surviving off of scraps and garbage. At least then, he had been able to see the road before him.
Ren paused, that water dripping steadily upon the stone. It was the only thing he had heard in what felt like an hour.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Then, he imagined that drip was not water upon stone, but blood. He saw the narrow tunnel, the hallways creeping smaller and smaller until it was so narrow not even a mouse could fit through. And drenched along all four walls was dripping blood. Blood that his own would soon add to.
Ren was not a religious man. He never truly had been. Yet, he silently prayed to anyone that would listen that through all his awful deeds, death by dragon—one he couldn’t even see—was a fate too cruel.
Ren started forward once more, replacing his hand upon the warm, damp wall. As he crept along, his fingers brushed against engraved patterns. He took a moment to explore the carvings there, trying to get a feel for the images. Whether to distract him or postpone reaching the sword, he didn’t know.
The carvings were made in swirls and swoops, and some were distinct forms though Ren couldn’t tell exactly what by feeling alone. What he could distinguish was the engraved stars all across the top of the wall and even the ceiling. He wondered vaguely if they were painted as well. Maybe in blood, he thought wryly, then immediately cast the thought away as new gruesome images appeared in his mind.
The carvings felt fresh, the ones upon damp stone sharp and defined. It was nowhere near the muted and eroded rock of an ancient series of tunnels.
Placing his hand back upon the wall, Ren started his quiet steps once more. The Styrkish had continued to travel down into the cave. Not just to relocate the sword or feed the dragon that protected it. They resculpted the stars on the walls and ceiling.
Whenever Ren made it back to the surface, he was going to tell Rieka just how insane her people were. For now, he had to make it that far.
The tunnel finally ended, and Ren stood at the face of it, peering into nothing. From the gentle, warm breeze within, he knew it had to be an open cavern. The scent of iron was so strong he almost gagged.
He closed his eyes briefly, gathering his nerves. This was it. It had to be. This was where the sword was. Maybe where the dragon was, too.
All images of dragons appeared behind his closed eyelids. Dragons with wicked fangs as large as him. Dragons with wings that could span mountains. Each dragon his mind created was more dangerous than the last.
Gods, if the dragon didn’t kill him, his own imagination might with the fear it brought. Happy thoughts, he reminded himself. The only happy thought he could conjure was of death, and that was no happy thought at all. Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods… It became the new mantra, the summary of all his fear.
A flicker of light shone against his eyelids, and he slowly opened them, preparing for the worst.
The cavern was bright. His eyes widened as he took in the sight. He had to blink several times to grow accustomed to the new light, which was blinding after what felt like an hour in darkness.
Grooves had been etched into the walls surrounding the wide, circular cavern, and reflecting from them was a vivid, icy blue light. In the center of the open chamber was a deep pond filled with silver fish. No dragon in sight.
Ren stepped forward and peered up at the high ceiling to find speckled holes in the stone, bright, silver light shining through.
It wasn’t sunlight. It was from the stars.
In the chamber with his sight returned, Ren suddenly felt at ease. He could breathe for what felt like the first time since he had entered the cave, and he took advantage of it, inhaling deeply and slowly and exhaling the same.
He turned back to the pond and stared down into it. He could see no end, only the water sinking into darkness. He dipped his hands into the cool water and scrubbed the blood and gore from them, careful not to cause any noisy disruptions in the water. After he had washed them thoroughly, the crusted, brown-red dispersing among the silver fish, he brought his hands to his lips. Fresh water. If he had to guess, it was from the snow that melted at the peak of the mountain.
Ren drank the remainder within his skein and refilled it, catching any drips of water before it splashed upon the stone floor. There was a strong possibility the water was contaminated, but it was better than nothing.
After replacing the cap on the skein, he looked into the water. His reflection peered back, fragmented by ripples. His cheeks were red and blistered, his hair in disarray. His eyes seemed almost sunken from their past week of malnutrition and his jaw looked leaner. Ren reached up to touch his face.
Only weeks ago, he was living in a lavish apartment in Reindale with enough wealth to buy him the most luxurious clothing. His skin had been unblemished and washed and his hair gelled. Yet, looking at his reflection, it was only those simple, vain aspects that had changed.
Ren met his reflection’s gaze. The same, deep-set eyes stared back. Eyes that, whenever alone, always drooped. Always filled with fear.
Ren pulled his lips back in a forced grin, watching those eyes crinkle and his lips stretch. It was the same grin he had worn in Reindale.
He didn’t know what he had expected. Of course he looked the same. Why wouldn’t he? He should be glad he had never changed, for the face in Reindale was one he loved dearly.
Ren let his grin fall, his face aching from the effort of it. He was exhausted. Not just exhausted, he was bone weary; each muscle, each thought a strain. He was so damned tired. If only he could finish the damn prophecy and collect his gold, perhaps he could rest once and for all. He was tired of being afraid. He was tired of pretending he wasn’t.
His reflection was him, in Reindale or out of it. It was the real him. Maybe that was why he despised it.
Ren pressed his fist to his forehead, his eyes clenching shut. He pushed into his skin until a dull pain thrummed, adding to the pulsing already beating against his skull. Such pitiful thoughts. Stupid, pitiful thoughts. If he didn’t have to be so quiet, he might just hit his head to knock some sense back into it.
Ren released his hand and stood, turning to the branching tunnel abruptly. Let’s just get this shit over with, he thought to himself. Then he stepped inside.