Chapter 36 - The Found Dragon
Night fell, and Clandestine stumbled in the dark for hours. She didn't know what was propelling her forward anymore. All she could feel was the mind-numbing need to keep going, or something bad was going to happen. She kept picturing Svida in her head, and her piercing green eyes, and the smoke coming out of her nostrils. "I'm dying" became an echoing phrase in her head and she couldn't tell anymore if that was her body telling her what she already felt or if it was Svida.
It felt like forever until she finally collapsed again, leaning against a dark wall of rock. She couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her. The moon was like a sliver in the sky, barely providing light.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, feeling the cloud of her breath around her nose.
She felt along the rock wall, trying to find a flat place to sit and curl up, but the rocks quickly arched in a decline. Before she knew it, she was sliding down a rock onto her butt. She grunted as she barely caught herself at the bottom of what felt like a crevice.
Something about it felt familiar.
She started climbing and stumbling forward, groping in the dark. It was too late to turn back when she realized she was swallowed by a cave, and the last hint of light was gone.
Creating light was up to her.
"Okay," she shivered. "Light. Fire. Just a little. You can do this."
She took in a deep breath and blew out a puff of fire, burning red and dull, but just enough for her to tell she really was in a tunnel.
Wait. A tunnel.
She'd been here before.
With a renewed sense of focus she pushed herself one last time, scraping against the rocks and sliding forward until she lost her footing and tumbled. Rolling, rolling, rolling, until she hit flat earth, and flopped her arms and legs out, splayed on the cave floor.
The was light. Firelight. It seemed to surround the edges of the cavern and dance on the walls in paintings of yellow, orange, and red. Pulsing like a living being.
And then she saw her. Svida, standing over her, though the vision of her was blurry. Clandestine felt her mind fogging up like a mist-covered swamp. She was slipping.
"You found me," Svida said, with tears in her eyes. She knelt down beside Clandestine, and sat her up, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders. Clandestine got a better view of the cavern and the wall of fire dancing around the room, contained somehow among the jagged icicles. Two opposite elements living together, yet apart.
There was what looked like a small camp, and a campfire burning hot. Clandestine yearned for the heat. She longed for warmth to return to her skin, and she could smell something stewing over the fire - a meaty soup that made her stomach groan.
Svida helped her to her feet, and Clandestine focused on one thing: walking. One foot. Two foot. Step by step, until the campfire was merely a foot in front of her, and Svida guided her back down.
Clandestine curled up in a ball, pulling the blanket over her shoulders, and leaned in, letting everything sting as the heat hit her face - it was a welcome sensation. It meant she hadn't frozen completely. She was not an icicle.
Svida walked past Clandestine on light feet and sat down beside her quietly.
As Clandestine's head started to clear and she started warming up, she got a closer look at her.
Svida looked old.
In her dream, there was this strength about her that was terrifying, but now, up close, Clandestine could tell that strength was fading fast. Svida looked weary, and her eyes looked like they were sinking into her skull. Though Svida didn't look sick, there was a look in her eyes that said she was barely holding on.
"Are you okay?" Clandestine asked. She paused, and lifted up her blanket, offering for Svida to join her, not sure if she was cold.
Svida shook her head, and instead reached into the pot over the fire with a ladle, and poured Clandestine a bowl of soup and handed it to her.
"Drink up," Svida said. "You need your strength too."
Clandestine wanted to ask more questions, but her stomach begged, and she relented, slurping up the soup quickly, not caring that she was burning her tongue.
"I'm sorry if this is overwhelming for you," Svida said, and Clandestine continued to slurp. "But I have to explain it quickly. I'm a dragon, and you're my inheritor. My magic and all of its power will be passed down to you."
Clandestine stopped mid-gulp and almost choked. She had swallowed the soup down the wrong way. She started hacking and coughing until she finally caught her breath after a minute or two.
Svida put a hand on Clandestine's shoulder, with her eyebrows raised and the corners of her lips pulled back.
"I promise, it's not as scary as it seems," Svida assured her.
Clandestine stared at her, meeting her eyes. "How is that not as scary as it seems?!" she almost shouted, her voice strained.
Svida grinned, just a little.
"You're going to be okay," Svida said. "My friend, Mickey. He's the earth dragon. He can help you."
"I don't know who that is!" Clandestine retorted.
"He'll find you. I know it," Svida replied.
"Really not liking how ominous that sounds right now."
Svida sighed. "Look. I really wish things could have played out differently. I tried reaching out years ago, but there was something blocking our connection. It was almost like you were dead, but you weren't. I couldn't find you."
Clandestine's eye twitched, and she let out a nervous laugh. She tapped the soup bowl with her fingers. This was the only time since she'd woken up that her being stuck in the ground had become relevant, and she wasn't sure if she liked the reason.
"Oh. Yeah. I was unconscious for like, 100 years or something." Her voice wavered. "I was kind of uh. Buried in a coffin."
It was Svida's turn to stare.
"That's terrible," Svida said quietly.
Clandestine laughed again, but the laughs were hollow. "Yeah! It's old news, now. I'm okay. Uh..."
She trailed off, and pursed her lips into an uncomfortable almost-smile as she stared into the fire. It was silent for a moment, and Clandestine finished her soup, slurping down the last of the broth. She was tempted to lick the bowl, but she didn't. That felt wrong, even though she was desperate enough to do it. She should just ask for more soup at that point.
When she finally worked up the courage to ask, Svida spoke up.
"I... I don't know how much longer I can hold on."
Clandestine looked over at her and gulped.
"Are you ready?" Svida asked.
Clandestine shook her head. "Honestly, no."
"I don't expect you to be. Like I said, I can never say sorry enough. I wish we could've had more time together."
Clandestine wasn't even sure what was happening, or what was about to happen. What did that mean? Inherit her magic? Did Svida really mean that? Clandestine had so many questions that began flooding her head, and she couldn't seem to put any of them to words as Svida scooted closer, and leaned forward, grabbing Clandestine's hand and putting her other hand on her forehead.
"You're going to be okay," Svida said slowly. It sounded like she was pushing to get the words out. It almost sounded like Svida was falling asleep. "I'm proud of you. Goodbye."
Clandestine cracked her mouth open to reply but was stopped short when a rush of energy hit her like a wall. In an instant, it was like life had been breathed back into her tenfold, and she was warm again. Her heart was a raging flame. Her hands were burning coals. Her throat like a fiery furnace - and it all felt right. Her hunger faded into a mild ache and, as if a great wind had come, the fog around her mind cleared away. Bursts of light danced across her vision in a way she couldn't quite describe.
Clandestine found herself smiling, and she took in a deep breath.
She felt... bigger. More full, even though her stomach wasn't full. Her energy was rejuvenated.
"Wow," she whispered and looked across at Svida.
Her smile quickly fell.
Svida's eyes were closed, and after a second's delay of her wavering, her body slumped forward into Clandestine's arms.
Svida really meant it.
Svida was dead.
Her eyes stung, and this time, she was actually able to cry. Tears streamed down her face, and she let out a sob, curling over Svida's body.
She was alone. And lost. Again.