The Secrets of Castle Drakon is a magnificent collection of 11 stories in the Thortsruck Press Anthology. With our publisher's blessing we're holding a blog-hop whereby if you follow my links and go to the next blog due tomorrow, you will find the next short story. Or go back and read the one posted before this. Only readers who follow every link will get to read the full novel for free.
Isn't this a novel idea to read an anthology?
Put your feet up now and vanish into another world with Ancient Illumination.
Elaina J Davidson
There are only five of us now. We are the last of our kind.
This is the final narrative from Drakonis. If this account is lost, if we are lost, Drakonis will cease to exist even in memory.
We have one last opportunity to ensure at least memory survives, and it depends wholly upon an ancient legend. Our escape, (or the passing on of memory), lies in the belief that a tale from the past is a tangible concept, that legend was once based upon reality in some form.
We seek Castle Drakon.
It is our only hope. It is our ultimate act.
If we fail, if we find nothing, we beg of you, please remember us.
Fire in the Grotto
The flames are bright, because here it is safe; here no light is able to escape to reveal us. The fire is hot, and we are glad of it; most of us have been cold too long, most of us cannot now remember ever being warm.
We ran from fire, yes, into ice, but it feels as if that heat was a lifetime ago. We cannot recall a full stomach either or remember when last we drank of fresh water.
I reach my hands for the flames and for a moment I believe I can hold them and set them alight inside me. I am weary of cold. I am terribly weary of running.
This is why I am here.
I hope, now, with the end approaching, I may stop running. Although it may be that we dupe only what hope is left, in this desire I am not alone.
Opposite the fire there is Bastian; his head is bowed, his dark hair filthy, obscuring his face. We have now run together, but we have met before, once, in our old lives.
Next to him is Cole, also dark-haired, almost asleep due to the unaccustomed sense of release and comfort. They are brothers, but very different I think, despite similar appearance. I know Cole better; we have run rooftops together in that other life. I know he misses it as much as I do.
Crouched apart from us, fingers white around clumps of old straw – which is what we’re sitting on - there’s Halley, a dancer from a distant city … at least, this is what she claims. None of us have seen her dance. She appears the most frightened by our gathering; she does not trust easily. It will take years to undo her natural distrust.
Do any of us retain belief in these times, truth be told? Halley, particularly, is ever skittish, though. Her past weighs heavily on her. She is the most exotic of all of us, with curled golden locks, caramel skin, and the darkest eyes I have even seen. I like her and I think Cole does too, although his is a different kind of like.
And then there is Audri. Pale and fair and graceful; she looks like the dancer among us. No one has heard Audri speak. We do not know if she cannot or whether silence is a choice she made or was forced into some time in her past. She stares into the fire unafraid. As ever, she is self-possessed. I think she feels me looking, for she lifts her green gaze to me and smiles. I want to embrace her, for that smile tells me we made the right choice.
We have run far, from fire and death into this terrible cold, holding onto only hope, and here, if for a brief time, we may sit and experience the warmth of a comforting fire. This little blaze has not the power to destroy.
An instant later I wonder how far we would go to keep this respite inviolate. It is a respite only, whatever we choose to fool ourselves with. Bastian would kill for it, I know; he is the oldest and has run the longest … and seeks to protect his brother Cole.
Me? I would back him up and wield whatever weapon is to hand. In this I am no doubt a fool, but I am weary of running.
The grotto is deep below the surface of this ice-ridden plane.
Bastian found the entrance in the rubble underneath the cliffs that mark the start of the highlands. Already on the edge of life for months, we drew from the reserves that come only with desperation, and crawled in after him. We shuffled for hours, one behind the other, in absolute darkness, until flickers of amber light revealed we had not imagined the summons or directions, that trust was not misplaced.
All of us are adorned with ragged knees and shins, torn palms and broken nails, but we are also so dirty and tatty you cannot distinguish fresh wounds from old.
After an hour of sitting, an hour of heat, we wonder if trust led us right. Nothing moves other than the flames, and there are no sounds of occupation … and yet someone built this fire.
Bastian looks up at me, a question in his blue eyes. I wish we lived in a different time, for I want to lay my hands upon his cheeks and tell him not to worry. I, after all, led them across the plane. My words brought us here.
“Ah, I see you have thawed somewhat.”
A man enters from the shadows behind Bastian and Cole - the brothers jerk around - his movements slow and careful. He seeks to put us at ease, I realise. His hands are displayed as empty, a gesture of peace.
He is old, very old. Wrinkled, barely any hair, and what he has left is pure white. He wears a black robe, a frayed length of rope knotted around his middle. Pouches hang from it. There is a rustle from one as he moves, and another tinkles slightly.
His feet are bare and he has no beard. I am glad of it, a beard would be too much stereotype. I have seen his kind crouched on street corners in the cities, begging for alms, ignored. This old man is no tramp though, there is an air of confidence about him.
He cannot survive a climb into the highlands, I think. When we leave here, we leave behind a skeleton, for he will not survive the fate of Drakonis much longer.
We all stare at him as he walks around the fire to come to a halt beside me. A hand descends to my head and rests there.
“Welcome Brennan, and thank you for bringing your friends.”
I cannot react; I am paralysed by that touch. The last time someone touched me to impart only comfort is now almost lost to memory. I am undone by the pathos.
Bastian reacts swiftly. He hurtles to his feet. His eyes seem to flash in the dancing amber light. “We heard the summons and we listened to Brennan … but blind belief may have led us astray. Who are you, old man?”
“Bastian, all your questions will receive answer. Please sit. You are safe here.”
Cole reaches up and hauls his brother down. “We trust Brennan, brother. Relax.”
“You trust her.”
“And you trust me, right? Give it a chance.” Cole and Bastian trade stares for a while until Bastian eventually nods and looks away.
That hand is still on my head. It smoothes my hair with careful strokes and then it is removed. I feel … bereft. I look up to see pale eyes twinkling at me, and I smile. Perhaps it is alright. I hope with all my heart blind trust has not led me astray. How do I answer to that? If I came alone it would be my mistake, and I would have to live with it, but I am not alone, am I?
“Who are you?” I ask. My voice is hoarse.
The old man settles into the empty space beside me, hands resting on knees. A pouch thunks into the straw. There is something heavy in there.
“I am Winter.” He smiles and waves a hand. “Not my real name, but I’ve forgotten in the long march of years what my mother called me. Someone called me ‘Winter’ in jest as a lad, and it stuck. Some now believe it’s because I love the feel of a decent fire.”
“Which means you must be cold,” Bastian mutters. He does not mean cold of body.
Winter smiles, and chooses to take the comment as meaning his flesh. “I am, yes, all the time. This here is a cold land, young man. We are far north of the equator and it was cold even before the fires began in the south. I now believe fate gave to me this epitaph of ‘Winter’, for I am destined to live out my final hours under this ice field. We go together, a final symbiosis.”
“Why are we here?” Cole demands, and ignores the old man’s explanations. He does not do so out of disrespect, he simply understands we run out of time.
“You are here to know yourselves before your end march. Your time has come.”
When Bellies are Filled
Winter refuses to say more. He whistles and from the same shadows he entered from, two others come, bearing rough platters. One is a dwarf who shuffles sideways and does not look at anyone, also wearing a dark robe, and the other is a thin woman older than I am.
Her gown is homespun, but it looks warm. She smiles at me as if she has known me my whole life. I do not know her, but I am entranced by how her face transforms into a beacon of light in that one expression. I am intrigued. I feel as if I should know her. Her auburn hair matches mine, although it is far longer and tied up in a knot. Mine curls crazily about my face and is the bane of my life … or was. Mundane problems are no longer relevant.
How are they here? Are there others beyond the shadows?
I shift my gaze to Halley, marking her ominous frown. We thought we were the last five on Drakonis, and now there are three more.
The platters are full and smell of pure heaven. Fresh bread, butter. Wafting vegetables. Spiced wine. Our five stomachs growl unambiguously and not one of us says a word as food and drink is handed around. We ignore everything and everyone to eat as if our lives depend on it. Our lives have depended on less sustenance in the past; we will not and cannot pass this opportunity up.
The servers speak not a word.
After the dwarf has refilled our goblets, each of us holding it forth with alacrity once we discern his purpose, and has vanished back into the shadows with the woman, Winter begins to speak. His tone is musical and contains that strange quality that allows the listener merely the ability to attend. We cannot interrupt and, after a time, we do not want to.
“This world is ancient. It is also a maker and breaker of souls, for life here is extreme and only the tough survive. This land has suffered, and will suffer, cataclysms of nature, and thus is the past somewhat dim to those of us in this present, as it will be for the fortunate who see the future. I won’t be one of those, but it is my hope you will get there. I appreciate you are few, but even one is able to ensure a future. And I hope you get there with memory … for then you will be the teachers of new generations.”
“If that comes to pass, it won’t be on this world,” Cole says, and swallows down more wine. His brother nods beside him.
It is the final interruption, for thereafter we can do naught but listen.
“Drakonis will survive without us, but you are quite correct in your summation that any future our race has now will be perpetuated beyond the confines of this atmosphere. I find this extremely sad, but it is also reality. The fires will snuff eventually, but the sun will not return in time to engender life anew for us.”
Winter gazes into the shadows introspectively, while we look upon him with desperation. Every word he utters sounds death knells in our minds. Despite our disparity as a group, this is no doubt uppermost for all of us.
I notice how Audri begins to glare. Her eyes speak for her. Halley is now expressionless.
“The dwarf believes there is no worthy future, neither here or elsewhere, and the woman suffers an incurable disease, and thus I have beside me two companions until our time ends here.” Winter focuses on the fire. “I am blessed, after all.”
He begins to finger the pouches at his waist and five pairs of eyes fixate there.
“To find your escape you will need sustenance, light, warmth and markers on your path. You will also need to listen. Because Brennan listened, she knew to come here, although she did not understand why. Because you listened to Brennan, each of you, you are now here where there is respite and the possibility of a way forward. We have for centuries lived in a civilisation focused on building - do we not have the largest cities? Emptied now of beating hearts, but not deserted by the dead, poison to all who dared enter in the hope of succour. And yet we herald from a time and place before skyscrapers and highways, a time of legends, a place of whispers. When someone spoke, others listened. This is what Brennan heard, the whispers of a legend, and it calls now. I have heard it also and I whispered to the icy air outside, and thus, Brennan, a destination was given you.” He pauses there, and then adds, “Why do we hear now, you ask?”
Emphatic nods from all five of us answer him.
Winter smiles sadly. “Because we are the last who will hear. Because cities and highways are eternally stilled, and in this motionlessness we are again able to listen.”
Silence descends, but for the crackling of the fire. Our bellies are full for once, dare we hope our hearts may be filled also … with hope?
Whispers of a Legend
“What is Castle Drakon?” Bastian demands. “Until Brennan spoke of it I’d never heard of it, and neither did Cole.”
I never knew of it either, and thus are Bastian and Cole not the only ignorant ones here. We all are. I chose to follow that strange inner voice prompting me into this journey, for it was either that or curl up and be burned to a crisp, and met others along the way, revealing to them my quest when they asked where I was headed. Many laughed at me, and continued onwards to the nearest city where they hoped to find aid.
As Winter stated, they found only death, including their own. Others chose to accompany me, but most were not strong enough to survive the journey. It has been a long walk, running from eternal oblivion. And now we are five.
Halley, without warning, is on her feet, beginning to gyrate as pole dancers do in the cities. Her exotic looks fit, and I begin to understand why she does not mention her past. I have seen these gyrations on the screens, but clearly Bastian and Cole have seen the like in the flesh, for both ogle her immediately. Audri hisses at them in disgust. Dark eyes roll back and Halley’s hands commence a peculiar pattern of movement, as if they too are dancing. This isn’t pole twisting, I sense; this is more like temple worship.
Winter murmurs, softly, “Please listen to her. This is the Movement of Memory.”
It is not as if we have the power of speech anyway, for we are all of us mesmerised by Halley’s flowing hands and sinuous body. She is indeed a dancer.
Halley begins to speak in a hypnotic tone. “The Giants laid down the great stones and carved upon them words of power. The Masons settled rock upon rock upon these foundations, revelling in the perfection. The Magicians created arches for ingress and spheres for light in the sheer edifice, and were satisfied. The Mistress waved her wand and, lo, a star appeared in the marvellous ceiling. The Artists played with gold and gems and covered the very walls and floors with otherworldly ostentation. Many came to gawk, it was that beautiful. The Master was displeased and sealed mighty Castle Drakon for all time, to all outsiders.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand stiffly to attention. Somewhere, perhaps in a dream, I have heard this before. I know this legend.
That singsong voice stills and Halley crumples as if she is depleted of all muscle strength. She nearly collapses into the flames, but Audri darts forward and yanks her back into the straw beside her. Halley lies as if she is dead. My heart nearly stops.
“She is fine,” Winter says, “I promise. She merely requires time to rejuvenate.” He continues immediately, clearly to distract us from Halley’s motionless state. “That is how Castle Drakon was raised. Once everyone knew the tale. But Drakonis suffered many natural disasters and we have had to restart civilisation numerous times, and thus we forgot. In the old temples there are glyphs that still speak of it, but few knew of it.”
I glance again at Halley. She sits now, breathing shallow breaths. “Halley is a temple dancer?” I ask of Winter.
“My mother was,” Halley answers. “She taught me, but I used the dance for gain in places of … disrepute.” She shrugs, meeting no one’s eyes. “Money was my god. And I paid the price of that worship over and over.”
“Temple worship is against the law,” Bastian snaps.
Halley glares at him. “And how does that possibly matter now?” She is less skittish, as if by revealing her past she has also laid to rest her distrust. Maybe she feels unburdened as well.
“Calm, my friends,” Winter murmurs. “The past and its prejudices no longer have bearing.”
“But an ancient legend does?” Bastian snarls.
Poor Bastian. He is out of his depth. Truth be told, he only followed me into the ice field because Cole would not turn back. I hope he followed for other reasons also, but dare not dwell on it. Bastian will not be thinking of a relationship, for such matters also have no bearing now.
Cole and I, we were pickpockets and cat burglars, and often ended up in the same rich lady’s boudoir to snatch a casket of jewellery. Eventually, instead of wrangling over the spoils, often ending up in a fist fight, we agreed to work together. Yes, Cole and I ran many roofs, snatched countless purses, and we know we can trust each other. This is why Cole followed … and thus so did his reluctant older brother. We met once before, when I helped Cole home after he fell from a collapsed parapet. Bastian no doubt thought I duped his brother into a life of crime.
“Indeed, this ancient legend is all that remains. It is original, from First Time,” Winter says, ignoring the undercurrents. “It has bearing now, because we are beyond every past … and every future.”
“Why was the so-called ‘Master’ displeased?” Halley asks. “He was so peeved he sealed the castle? He didn’t like it? Or he didn’t like people coming to gawp?”
The dwarf enters from the shadows before Winter is able to answer, swinging a golden orb from which incense pours in great wafts of fragrant smoke.
“You think too much and thus you do not listen or hear,” he says in a gruff voice.
His voice is far bigger than he is. It should be amusing, but it isn’t. He is actually a little frightening.
“How do you expect to survive the highlands with this attitude?” He stares at us one by one. “Sleep!”
To Know Thyself
I awake to find Bastian glaring into embers. The flames are absent and it is darker in the grotto than before. Glancing around, I note the others are asleep. It seems we have been slumbering for awhile.
What did the dwarf do to us?
There is no sign of him, the woman or Winter.
Whatever he did, I find myself grateful to him. We needed this rest as much as we needed warmth and food. Most of us have been too wary to sleep, snatching a few minutes only here and there on the long walk.
When I stir Bastian’s gaze lifts to me.
“Brennan, what is this?” he asks, and in his voice there is a plea. He seeks something to hold onto. “Cole gave me some garbled story about you knowing how to get off Drakonis, but couldn’t tell me how.”
What do I tell him? In these final days only truth is worth anything, I suppose, though it will explain little. “It’s like this,” I say. “I was in Genoar when the first volcano erupted, far from its terrible power, but folk on the streets started muttering about lack of light and I was afraid. When the others exploded and day turned into night within hours, I understood what they meant. Drakonis would die without sunlight. We would soon starve, those of us far enough away from the actual physical destruction. I remember thinking those that died in the eruptions were actually the lucky ones, for we would die slowly while they knew no more.”
Bastian nodded. Panic set in everywhere, rioting, looting, assaults and the like. The people of Drakonis were swiftly unmasked. Civilisation, at the best of times, is still a mask. In the worst moments every mask is ripped off.
“Genoar is massive, as you know, and it was chaos … well, I stole a four-wheeler and rode hell for leather back to Farris.”
Bastian’s shoulders slumped. Farris was our city; his, mine and Cole’s. It lay in ruin from the fireballs that flew through the heavens, spewed from the volcano not far away. They still flew, although there was nothing left to burn.
“Folk wandered covered in soot, highlighted against flames,” I murmur, my voice catching.
The others are now awake also, and listening.
“There was no hope, I thought. We were all going to die. I decided to walk away, just walk until either a burning rock flattened me or starvation killed me. What else was there to do? Then, as I went through the temple district, I noticed a strange design on the floor of one of the larger shrines. No one ever went in, worship being outlawed, and no one knew what those forbidding walls hid, but the destruction hadn’t spared anything. What was inside was outside.”
I shift my gaze to Halley.
She shrugs. “Every temple has something on the floor. My mother said once that it’s like a word of power, or something.”
“Well, that word whispered to me about a place in the highlands where there are secret ways of leaving Drakonis.”
Bastian lifts a brow. “And you went with it?”
I lean forward to give my next words emphasis. “It said we came here from elsewhere, and thus is there a way to reverse the journey. It told me very specifically to find Castle Drakon.”
Bastian spreads his hands. “That’s not enough to go on. You probably never heard of that place before.”
“I’m aware of that, but when I stumbled back into the street I heard a voice in my head telling me to cross the growing ice field as swiftly as possible. North, it said, go north, and go as fast as you can.”
“That was me,” Winter says, entering the darkened grotto from the shadows. He does not look at me, instead he focuses on Bastian. “Young man, you are able to tell truth from lie, not so?” Bastian glares at him. “And you are well aware that the temple patterns are able to speak. Was not your father a priest?”
Cole’s head swivels. “Bas, what’s he talking about?”
“Your father initiated Bastian into the priesthood before he died, Cole. You were meant to do so as well, but unluckily time ran out,” Winter says. He sits wearily on a straw bale. Again a pouch thunks loudly.
“Bastian?” Cole whispers.
“It no longer matters, brother, as Halley said earlier. Dad died before it went further and I never really understood what he did or what he worshipped. I was initiated and I know some of the tales, but …” and Bastian turns to me, “I never heard the word of power speak.”
“You were too young,” Winter says. “You are able to tell truth from lie, however, for that particular gift is the reason your father had you entered into the temple register.”
I decide it is time to be the voice of reason, and reason dictates that I ask a particular question. “How do you know of Bastian’s history?”
Both Cole and Bastian immediately nod their support. “Yes, how?” Cole demands.
Winter smiles. It is a sincere and compassionate gesture. He is not here to cause us distress, his smile says. “Sweep the straw away Brennan, there under your feet.”
A moment of loaded silence ensues, and then I bend convulsively and use both my hands to move the dry stalks aside. Dust rises and I sneeze, but I persevere … and then I see it.
I lift a shocked gaze to Winter. At least, I think it is a look of shock, it’s quite possible my entire face has frozen.
Winter inclines his head. “A floor design. Yes, this is a temple.”
Audri gargles then, a horrible sound akin to a noise made when vocal chords are severed. It hurts my ears, and it scares me too. She spits repeatedly, and then she stands. An instant later she snaps her fingers. The embers burst into flame.
Cole leans away, hissing under his breath, but Bastian, I notice peripherally, looks at me. His blue eyes are akin to headlights, and I wonder what he is thinking. I dare not ask. I cannot ask, for Audri speaks for the first time.
“Every temple is a stepping stone to Castle Drakon. Stand on one design and it will lead you to the next, and the next, an instinct for direction you cannot deny, and so forth until the ancient legend is before you. This,” and she sweeps her arms in a flowing movement, “is the final stepping stone. Beyond is Castle Drakon.”
Cole mouths like a fish. I think I do too. Bastian stares at the floor.
“It’s sorcery, you idiots,” Audri says. “It’s not about worship, it’s about keeping a secret as old as Drakonis is.” She looks down upon a shocked Halley beside her. “You were taught the dances, I was taught the rest.”
“Like magic and stuff?” Cole whispers.
“Don’t you get it yet? We all have it, or we would not have heard Brennan and followed. We survived the journey to here because we have it. Not only are we the final five beings, but we are the last sorcerers.” She stamps her foot when Bastian hurtles up. “Sit!”
Sheepishly Bastian does exactly that. Winter’s eyes, I notice, are gleaming, and then I see the dwarf standing in the shadows, listening.
“I do not speak,” Audri says more quietly, “because it is too dangerous for me to open my mouth. When I do, my talents assume the upper hand. I am able to control elemental forces … as I did with the fire there.” She takes a deep breath and releases. “It is good to speak once more.” She looks at Halley again. “You are able to dance the hidden tales back into words. Despite what you believe of your life to this point, the time you spent in disrepute probably saved your skin many times. There were those who killed anybody with talent.”
Halley stares at her hands.
“Bastian, as Winter says, you tell truth from lie. Am I lying now? Have I lied about anything?”
Bastian shakes his head in silence.
“Cole, the nimble one, able to hide in plain sight sometimes, and certainly able to go unseen and unannounced into places and spaces others would immediately be trapped in,” Audri continues.
Cole mumbles under his breath.
Audri’s gaze then rests squarely upon me.
“And Brennan, then there is you. Fleet of foot, like to Cole, able to know if something is right or wrong, like to Bastian, and able to hear when there is only silence. More than this, however, is your presence.”
“My what?” I blurt.
Without removing her gaze from me, Audri says, “Halley, what does the Echo of Time dance reveal?”
Halley lifts her head to stare at me also. “That only an ancient lineage is able to find Castle Drakon. One will step forward to lead the others there.”
Audri spreads her hands. “You, Brennan.”
“Morning comes,” Winter says. “My biological clock tells me I should have slept hours ago, and thus it is will be dawn soon, if only visible beyond our skies.”
Standing with some difficulty, he begins to pull at the pouches we are all intrigued by. It is clearly a distraction from what went before. Winter seeks to ease us into knowledge, not have it dumped into our laps. I think he must be a master at reading people. And he knows we are fascinated by the pouches, for he grins at us somewhat naughtily before returning to his mission. Soon there are five little leather sacks nestled in the straw at his sandalled feet. I frown. He wears sandals now? Earlier his feet were bare.
Two pouches remain attached to the rope around his waist, including the heavy one. I notice Cole eyeing it and grin behind my hand. In another time one of us would have nicked it already.
“There is one for each of you. Now that you know who and what you are, you may more readily accept the small gifts contained within them.” Winter gestures at them. “Choose one each.”
Very clever. Just like that he tells us to accept what we heard.
Halley is the first to move. She clambers from her straw pile and crawls closer to snatch one. Holding it to her chest, she scuttles back. She does not look at anybody.
Bastian nudges Cole, who bends nearer to take two, passing one to his brother. Both heft in curiosity, glancing at each other to grin in conspiracy.
Audri and myself lock gazes. Two left in the straw. “Take yours first,” I murmur a moment later.
I am weary of running, because it feels as if we’ve done it for so long; running from death, from fear, running towards something there is no guarantee for, even as our flight to this place was no more than a slow, exhausting and hungry walk.
We have now stopped running. And it has nothing to do with respite, for despite the wish to rest here in the warmth, we know we must move on. The recent revelations are part of the prompting telling us we cannot stay. As are these five ‘gifts’. To grab something now simply because it is there to grab feels akin to disrespect. Now it isn’t running, now it’s a destination. And whatever these little sacks contain forms part of it.
We have a goal.
Audri steps forward and retrieves the final two pouches. After passing one to me without looking at either, she retreats to sit beside Halley. Her movements are so graceful I am still convinced she is a dancer also. Perhaps it is inherent in temple training. I now wish I had taken the time in the past to learn more about the enigmatic shrines spread about our cities. I do know Cole and I tried to break into one once, but for the life of us we could not slide through the bars or lift roof tiles. I remember how surprised we both were at the time. We assumed riches beyond imagination.
I realise Winter dropped his enigmatic pouches to take my mind off the most astonishing revelation of all. He desires to distract the others from it also. Perhaps Audri spoke too soon.
As I think about an ancient lineage, the dwarf moves into the renewed light created by Audri’s magic. He ignores everyone to stand before me. We are at eye-level with each other, and he stares unblinking into mine and, yes, I’ll admit, it frightens me, this kind of intensity.
“You are the master here,” I say.
He inclines his head slightly, although his eyes do not shift. “Perhaps.”
“What is your name?”
“What is your name, Brennan?”
I blink. “I am Brennan.”
“Last names are unimportant at this late hour,” Cole says, and I could kiss him. A small inner voice tells me I would rather kiss Bastian and I shut it down immediately.
The dwarf does not move. “Hers remains important. What is your name, Brennan?”
I shake my head. My mother died giving birth to my sister, but before she did, while she was pregnant, she told me never to tell another my last name. I remember that clearly.
My father warned of the same, telling my little sister to heed as well. She did not … and they stoned her in Farris’ main public square. She did not survive it, and neither did my father. They came for him in the night and dragged him away. When we heard the pounding on our door, he told me to go through the back window, to hide, to stay away … and never to tell another my last name. Thereafter I lived on the streets and became a thief.
“Leave her alone,” Bastian snarls.
Yes, I could kiss him.
“Oh,” Halley breathes out, the sound long and imbued with an enlightened quality. “Echo of Time. It says …”
“Hush,” Audri interrupts. “The choice must be Brennan’s.”
I am unable to break the dwarf’s stare and am now thoroughly unnerved. I thus compromise. “I will say it before we leave here. I cannot do it now.”
The dwarf immediately nods and breaks the stare. “And then I shall tell you mine.”
A shiver overcomes me again. I understand that his name will be as revealing as mine. How do I know that?
Winter clears his throat in the abnormal silence that follows after the dwarf vanishes once more. “Open your pouches.”
Halley does it first. Perhaps she requires distraction even more than I do. Perhaps she feels guilty about her grabbing attitude earlier. Holding her left hand out, she tips the contents into her palm.
Five shiny stones lie there, all of them black and round. They are almost identical in size too.
“Stones?” she says in a disappointed tone.
“Food,” Winter says. “One stone for each day you remain now on Drakonis. Place them in water and they will alter substance.” He smiles. “Thus keep them dry until needed. Yes, it is magic.”
She stares at him and then hurriedly drops them back into the pouch and secrets it about her person. Even Bastian laughs then. He opens his pouch next to discover five stones also, but these are red.
“Heat,” Winter murmurs, “either to warm yourselves when the cold is beyond endurance or to melt ice that stands in your way. We have no idea what the ash clouds have done to the freeze this far north. Use wisely, and remove only one at a given time from the receptacle, or they will set each other off. That would be too much heat, even for Drakonis in this icy state.”
The red stones vanish in an instant. This time none of us laugh, although Winter smiles, if sadly. “They are quite safe until you leave here,” he adds.
Cole pulls his drawstring next and peers inside. “Five white stones,” he declares.
“For light. Use with caution, for light reveals.”
Audri makes a face and swiftly opens her pouch. She blinks and lifts her head to Winter. Without looking at it, she tips one large blue stone into the palm of her hand and holds it out.
“Marker stone,” Winter says. “That one is quite safe to keep out. It will vibrate somewhat violently when you head in the wrong direction. It is from Castle Drakon itself, and is called home. When unsure of direction, hold it before you on the palm of your hands as you are now, and the point will assume the required direction.”
We all crane closer to look. It has a decided point, yes.
Audri nods stiffly and conceals the stone. “Your turn, Brennan,” she murmurs, knowing I am reluctant. “Don’t be afraid. We are in this together.”
She has a way about her. When she was silent, her smile and her eyes would speak for her. Now that she has revealed her voice and her truth, her tone does the same. She seems to smile less now, but it will no doubt still be a comfort.
My pouch contains two stones. I feel them.
“Show us,” Bastian says.
I do so. There are two stones indeed, and they are angular and transparent.
“Keys,” Winter says on a sigh, “to Castle Drakon, but where exactly they fit into and what they open is beyond my knowledge.”
“A door, surely?” Cole says.
“One would think so, yes.”
I am cold. “What does the dwarf say?”
Winter looks at me and I detect a hint of fear in his eyes. “He says only that Castle Drakon has no doors.”
“It’s sealed,” Halley whispers.
“Isn’t it funny how we took pouches suited to us?” Cole mutters.
Bastian is frowning. “What are in those two you still have there?” he demands of Winter
“One contains the last of our sustenance stones and the other …” Winter hefts the heavy one. “This one will seal us in after you leave here.”
He has astonished us again.
“Why?” I whisper.
“We must not follow, Brennan. That is why. You see, the survival instinct remains strong in each of us, even now at the end of all things, and we would desire to follow in the hope of that survival.”
“You are more than welcome!”
“You will never find Castle Drakon if we do.”
"And why not?” Audri asks.
Of course the dwarf pops in then. “Because the woman will not survive the journey even for an hour and Winter is too old to carry forth the tale of Drakonis to others. We shall seal ourselves in and eat our last food, and then we are no more.”
“You appear pretty strong to me,” Bastian mutters. “Why do you not accompany us?”
“Loyalty. The woman is my mother.”
Bastian inclines his head. “Very noble of you and yet I state there is another reason to explain your reluctance.”
The dwarf’s dark eyes gleam. I think, had our situation not been so dire, he may have slapped Bastian.
“I was born in Castle Drakon and am never to return. I am not permitted to.”
Now that, in anybody’s book, is quite a revelation.
What Lies in a Name?
I guess, as I gauge the mood of our small company in the aftermath of the Dwarf’s words, this is where the issue of names comes forth once more. In fact, it assumes ultimate importance and relevance.
The dwarf’s name is as revealing as mine, I recall thinking earlier, and now I know exactly why. We are connected, him and me, because we carry the same last name. He was born in the mythical castle and forced away, for whatever reason, which hopefully he will now share, and it seems one of my line was born inside Castle Drakon also, kicked out some time further back in the past. We, me and him, are kin.
How utterly strange.
There is silence in the fire lit grotto. Most stare at the dwarf, for none of them expected him to reveal what he now has. Most. Audri is looking at me, I feel it. I dare to switch my gaze from the dwarf to her … and she winks at me.
You have no idea how relieved that makes me feel. She is telling me it is all right. No one will now judge me. No one will even think of killing me in this space. Those killers are now as dead as Drakonis is to us.
She inclines her head at the dwarf and offers me a smile and a shrug as if to say, well, it may not be all right for him. Maybe we might want to kill him.
I laugh, I cannot help it.
Every pair of eyes swivels in my direction.
“Have you found your courage yet?” the little man demands.
“I’ll tell mine if you tell yours,” I mutter. I actually do feel like murdering him.
He bows. “As you say.” Then, incongruously, he smiles wickedly. Naughty wickedly, not the evil grimace kind. He appears to be teasing, and I suddenly like him a whole lot better.
I grin back.
Cole kicks a spare straw bale at the dwarf, and he plops down, his short legs swinging free. I believe this is more surprising to us than his revelations are. He has now, clearly, chosen to partake, to become in a sense part of the team.
Right, so I like him even more.
We will now listen to him, I think, and believe him, because he is no longer hiding in those shadows. His mother is, though. I see her there, watching him. It occurs to me that she was also born in the legendary castle, and anything her son reveals in fact reveals her too. I notice Winter is watching her with a worried cast to his face. He knows this secret.
She is kin to me also and I now understand why I felt as if I should know her. In fact, with this knowledge in place, I see myself in her. She is an older version of me. We share hair colour and the same grey eyes.
The dwarf starts to speak. “Castle Drakon is real. There are mighty foundations and massive walls, with all the Movement of Memory revealed to Halley earlier. Gems, a star in the apex of the great dome, and so forth. Did Giants lay down those foundations? Maybe, maybe not, but fact remains they are there. There are also many suites for the family in residence … and they are ever in residence. These are as splendorous as imagination is able to suggest to you, with every comfort. It is a fact that no one wants for anything inside Castle Drakon.”
He draws breath and glances around, but looks at no one in particular, unless you count the swift glance he passes over his mother in the shadows. I wonder what lies beyond those shadows. Another grotto?
“This level of luxury sounds like paradise, but is far from it, for Castle Drakon possesses one great drawback. Can you guess what that is?”
“It’s a prison,” Bastian mutters.
“Exactly right. Although you may have every freedom within those walls, you cannot, may not, dare not, step out from under the mighty arch into the outside world.”
“I thought there were no doors,” Audri points out.
“There are none visible in the outer walls. They are in clear sight inside, but open them to leave, dare to try, and death is your reward. This is not death by hunt, this is death by sorcery. Step out and you are felled by the sealing enchantment that surrounds the castle.”
“Yet you claim birth there, and here you are,” Cole states belligerently.
The dwarf begins to nod slowly, multiple times, as if carefully weighing his words. “This is true.” He says no more.
Bastian is now watching me. “Brennan?”
I sigh. “Him first.”
The dwarf explodes into words. “The enchantment fells normal people only! I could no longer bear the derision of the family and chose escape, even if it meant death beyond the great arch. A dwarf? Bandy-legged, crow-armed, and ugly? I am as less than nothing to the touted perfection the family aspires to, and they made me very aware of it. We are so inbred now I am beyond astonished we are not all deformed in some manner. My mother,” and he turns his head to give her a searching look before facing the fire again, “was mocked morning to night and ended up ostracised, excluded from family meals and discussions. She gave birth to an abomination, although she is not the first to do so. She begged me not to attempt escape. She would rather live with the taunts than see me die.”
He pauses there to take a deep breath. “That was not something I could promise her, for I could not live like that. We may be sealed in and terribly isolated, but we are not unaware of the outside world. Point of fact, everything about Drakonis past and present is known, and thus I knew there was a life to be had beyond those precincts. And chose to take the risk. Death, after all, was also stepping into the unknown.”
He has all our attention.
“I simply walked out in the dead of night. My mother pleaded with me to stop, whispers of desperation in the dark silence of the dome, but I opened the great doors and stepped into the mountain air … and survived.” He starts to laugh. “It appears there is a loophole, although I only figured it out afterward. My mother reasoned it out that same night and thus followed me … after crawling out through the doors. The enchantment is effective from four feet up, leaving the ground clear for crawlers … and little people.”
He claps his hands in delight, and I like him even more. His mother, I notice, is smiling. Winter slumps in relief.
“If we were seen, we would now be dead. Others would have crawled out after us. No one did, and thus no one is aware of the loophole. No doubt the family debates even now the thoroughness of our disappearance. Until the two of us, no others have managed to shake the opulent stardust of Castle Drakon from their feet ...”
“That’s an untruth,” Bastian says immediately.
The dwarf looks at me. “Is he right?”
“My grandfather,” I whisper. From the dregs of youthful memory I recall whispered words I overheard. It was a late night conversation between my mother and my father. My father said to mother that the highlands were terrible to climb and traverse - I remember wondering what ‘traverse’ meant - and that those highlands almost killed his father when he left the castle behind.
My father’s father apparently crawled over rock for miles before he felt he was safe enough from its influence in order to stand and walk the rest of the way.
“Your grandfather was my uncle,” the dwarf states. “Because he escaped, I knew there was a way. I never found an answer inside, of course, because there was no answer to be found, but now I know he must have crawled as my mother did.”
“For miles,” I whisper.
“Brennan?” It is Cole, his eyes wide. Next to him Bastian’s are hooded, but he is looking at me also.
“My name is Brennan Wyvern.”
Halley’s hands immediately start to dance, as if they are outside of her control. Words are torn from her, and it is clear she is unwilling, for she tries to move her head as if in denial and only her eyes swivel madly. The twitches in her cheeks tell us how hard she tries. It really scares us, especially me.
“Wyvern is fire, Wyvern is blood, Wyvern is stone, Wyvern is ether, Wyvern is drake, Wyvern is Drakon.”
She flops back, gargling. Audri bends over her in concern. The rest of us wait, and then Audri sighs, a sound of relief.
“My name is Galint Wyvern,” the dwarf murmurs. “And I cannot return to Castle Drakon, for that would herald my execution. It will also broadcast to the watchers on the walls there that someone approaches. They know my signature in the ether and they will never stop sniffing for it, as they continue to do for Gregorus Wyvern.” He glances at me. “Your grandfather.”
He sighs then. “Although the survival instinct is strong within me, I do not wish to see that prison again. More than that, however, is that I shall reveal you simply by my presence, and then all hope for Drakonis memory is lost. When you leave here, we shall seal ourselves in, not to prevent ourselves following, but to prevent the watchers tracking your trail from this point. We do not believe we have been marked, but this is the final temple before the castle, and thus we will hide you also when we hide ourselves.”
Winter stands then with some purpose. “Sleep now. It is day outside. Allow your unconscious to sift through all this new information. It will prepare you better than words are now able to, for you leave with nightfall. Prepare for that as well.”
“Even in the gloom there are shadows others will mark,” Galint adds, “and thus it is safer to go in darkness. Sleep.”
To Part is to Abandon
Many hours later we are dressed in furs. Each of us washed as best we could in a shallow basin of warm water, using only the cleanest bit of rag torn from our discarded clothes.
We will now carry nothing extra. It feels like heaven, this sense of cleanliness, deficient as it is. The furs too feel like the greatest luxury.
We have eaten and drank, and each carries a vessel filled with water … and a magical pouch. We are well rested.
It is time to leave the grotto.
Five of us remain.
We have five days left to us on Drakonis.
However it comes to pass, whether by escape or death, at the end of five days we will be done, as Drakonis’ civilisation will be at an end.
Does Castle Drakon have an answer for us?
As we prepare to crouch for the crawl back along the winding tunnel into the icy world above, our three saviours array before us, each with last words, perhaps even from the woman. Will she tell us her name, for memory to include her?
Winter is first. His remaining white hair appears frazzled as if he rubbed it in some agitation. I hope it does not reflect his view of our chances.
“You are made of stardust, all of you, and each has a form of magic that helps the others. Trust your instincts. We are proud to have known you even for this brief a time. May ancient light illuminate your path.” Winter places his hands over his heart and bows low before stepping back into the shadows.
I swallow, for I see the wink he sends me before his features vanish into gloom.
Galint is next. He stands arms akimbo looking each of us in the eye, and for each he has parting wisdom. I wish I knew him earlier. He is family. Long have I been without family.
“Halley, your past makes you strong now. Face whoever stands before you barring your path, and tell them where to get lost to. Can you do that?” Halley smiles and nods emphatically. Yes, she has found her purpose at last.
“Audri, use your voice. Do not be afraid of your gifts.” She touches her forehead, a sign of respect.
“Cole, use the shadows well to slip past watchers, but remain ever wary. Whenever you feel prompted to snatch something, do so.”
“What does that mean?” Cole demands.
“Every object in Castle Drakon is a receptacle for something. It can be mundane, as in a vessel for fruit, but it can also contain an aspect of magic. Allow your instincts to guide you. Whatever you take may be needed.”
“I won’t know what it does!” Cole blurts, no doubt feeling hounded by that kind of responsibility.
“Brennan will know.” Galint moves onto Bastian. “Watch your brother’s back, study the shadows. You will discern a true shadow from a manufactured one. And, Bastian, release what holds you back.”
Bastian glares at him. He refuses to ask for an explanation of that last statement.
“You know what I refer to.” Galint sends me a swift glance and then lifts his brows at Bastian. The inference is so obvious that both Halley and Audri splutter laughter, while Cole frowns darkly.
Bastian’s face is like stone … and so is mine. Mine is a very hot stone though, and I pray the firelight serves to hide the red bloom upon my cheeks.
I snap back into awareness of our parting.
Galint takes my hands in his surprisingly large ones and strokes them with rough thumbs. "Brennan, I wish we had met sooner.”
I clear my throat and blink rapidly. I have not cried for years, and now desire to sob my loss.
He smiles up at me. “Not all Wyvern are bad. None of it started out with bad intentions. We are merely cursed by our blood.”
Abruptly my knees hit the straw strewn floor and I look at him upon his level. I am still holding his hands and I tighten our grasp. “Why did they do this? How many of them are there? Why hide away and keep this secret?”
“What is the secret?” Bastian says, and that is indeed as pertinent.
“It is what lies in the shadows beyond the golden arches that surround the great dome. Always we have been told we come from elsewhere and are thus able to reverse the journey to leave again. This is fiction. That castle would be deserted if it were true, for no one desires to be bound to one place. Some say the arches are portals to other worlds, but had that been so, again, many Wyvern would have left Drakonis already. How many of us are there, you ask, Brennan? We are a contradiction, really. There are too many for that castle and too few for the numbers needed to leave it and live freely upon Drakonis, not that the latter is now an option anyway.”
Galint removes one hand from our clasp to lay it upon my brow, fingers splayed. It feels as if he imparts knowledge directly into my mind, and perhaps that is the way of it. Maybe when I need what he shares now I will be able to access it. Strange, is it not, how that does not frighten me? Maybe it does and I am in denial.
“You will escape this world only when the keys are placed correctly, and that receptacle, it is rumoured, hides in the shadows beyond the arches.” His hand falls from my brow, while the other almost crushes my fingers. “I don’t know what it is Brennan, but Cole will find it among whatever else he sees fit to take, and Bastian will know which shadows are safe. Do not hesitate even for a moment when the keyhole summons you to action.”
Galint releases my hands, gently apologising for the pressure he inadvertently applied. “Wyvern blood has protected this secret for time beyond measure, sealing that castle to keep it inviolate. Unfortunately not even the blood knows what it does, and they have been too afraid to unravel it.”
“So many secrets,” Halley whispers. “Temples, words of power, memory dances, this place, the legend of Castle Drakon …”
“And none now have bearing,” Galint states. “Forget that past and focus on this last opportunity at a future. Brennan, ancient light is able to illuminate your path. Go well.”
He steps away and is entirely hidden in the greater shadow thrown by Winter. I think he does so deliberately. I feel he has not lied - or Bastian would have called him on it - but he has not told us everything.
It is the woman’s turn. Will she speak now?
She does not. Instead she places her left hand on every head, bows hers and murmurs a silent benediction. We see her lips move and we feel stronger after, and therefore we know it is a prayer she gifts to each. Perhaps it is an enchantment of some kind.
The woman is about to turn away from me, her last offered supplication, when she hesitates. Silence envelopes us.
“Mother?” Galint breaks it, and I am relieved.
Convulsively she places one hand at the back of my neck and draws me near. The other hand she presses flat against my gut, adding pressure. With her lips at my ear, she whispers, “Wyvern future requires new blood. One of the keys fits the man who will help you create it. He is marked, Brennan. You must view his body unclothed. And if he is unwilling, his brother has it too. You may have to settle for the younger one. Do it soon.”
She releases me and steps away, her face devoid of all expression. I am beyond astonished. In fact, I am terrified. Did anyone else hear those words? I gaze around, but everyone is completely flummoxed. Audri and Bastian stare at me, frowning, while the others, including Winter and Galint, stare at the woman.
“It’s time to go,” I say, and duck into the tunnel. I start crawling. It feels immediately as if I am abandoning three souls to eternal darkness, but I require as much distance between that grotto and myself as I am able to construct now. I also need to get away from Bastian and Cole.
I do not hear her finally speak her name.
How Empty is the Wild?
We huddle at the base of the cliff without speaking. Five pairs of eyes seek to pierce the utter darkness in every direction and ears attempt to hear beyond the enveloping silence.
There is nothing. There is only darkness.
Not even a wind whistles.
“Drakonis is dead,” Halley murmurs.
I know I am not the only one who wants to keel over from fright simply because she dared to say something. Her whisper is so loud, it is as if she has screamed the words.
She is right, though. Drakonis is dead. We are the final beating hearts this world will know before it is forgotten.
Bastian says in a lower tone, “This way. Link hands.”
We do so, reaching out to each other in the dark, and then feel a tug as the link stretches to follow Bastian. Winter told us which way to go, left along the cliff, and Bastian has chosen to lead. Apparently the marker stone will vibrate for Audri when we reach the place where we should start climbing.
Minutes later she whispers, “Here. Go up.”
In the pitch, we stumble as we face the cliff and clamber over rocks sharp and smooth and start to ascend. Not long after we lift feet from level territory, gentle light surrounds us. Cole has taken one of his stones out. Winter said to wait until we were into the cliff, which we now are. Unlinking, we are able to clamber ever upward with greater ease. We add many scrapes along the way.
It is when Bastian says, “I think we’re on top,” that we hear a hollow boom. It has the sound of an internal explosion, contained by either distance … or depth.
We freeze in position.
“They’ve sealed themselves in,” Cole sighs.
Right. And thus is there no going back and every chance at respite is now gone. We must go forward.
We do so with heavy hearts. I wish now I had said farewell.
The gentle glows from the stone light our path and the one in Audri’s hand leads us ever onward. We are surrounded by rocks and move through defile after defile. Hopefully no one marks the progress of our light.
Morning is merely a gloom lighter than the utter darkness, but there is enough of it for us to see a fair distance ahead.
We agree to rest for an hour and then to go on. Walking in daylight is easier and also less revealing. Sleep will have to wait until nightfall, if any of us is able to actually sleep that is. We agree also to eat later.
Bastian makes his way to where I sit silently contemplating the landscape of shadows we now traverse.
Before the volcanoes spewed their doom this place was not visited often, but it was a haven of emerald beauty for the wildlife of the mountains. None of that now remains. I hope some of the creatures endemic to Drakonis have delved deep in order to emerge again when the surface of this world is more wholesome for them. Perhaps they are able to weather this; I know we cannot.
He sits beside me without looking at me. I try hard to ignore him. “Her name is Brinthin Wyvern.”
I jerk my head to him upon hearing his words. “And so? What must I do with that?”
“What did she say Brennan, that has you so angry?” He still does not look at me.
I cannot answer that, because I want too much to see his body unclothed as that woman suggested. “Nothing of import,” I say. “Just family curse stuff.”
He nods slowly. I am very aware he is able to tell truth from lie, and thus snort under my breath.
“Rest,” he murmurs. “I’ll take this watch.”
Stumbling down a steep decline later, loose-footed on ancient shale, Cole in the front with Halley, we discover the highlands are not as unpopulated as they appear.
Cole goes down, tripped up by sharp stones, and Halley stops to help him. The look on her face moments later freezes every atom of our blood.
Convulsively we snap to the direction she gazes into with that expression of absolute fear.
It is a bear, or at least I think it is a bear. The gloom causes it to appear massive and entirely alien. It rumbles closer walking on two legs and every step causes the shale to shift.
“Halley!” Bastian shouts from behind me. “Get down! And Cole, don’t you dare move!”
His shouting attracts the creature’s attention and it falls to all fours and starts to run … at us.
Halley fumbles at her waist. Her pouch. Jerking it free, she tosses it up slope to Audri.
“What is she doing?” Audri says in a voice as brittle as old glass. She catches the pouch as it sails towards her. “Halley!”
I am cold inside. Galint told Halley to face whoever stands in her path, did he not, and did she not agree to do just that? This is a wild creature, but the same rules apply. She intends to stand in its path. “No!” I scream.
It is too late.
I think she wants to put herself in the way of this creature, perhaps to prove she is worthy. Perhaps to die first.
Halley stumbles forward and then appears to find her courage, for swiftly she is stalking onward into the animal’s path as if she has an army behind her.
I move to scramble after her … and Bastian grabs me around the waist from behind and hauls me back. “Don’t,” he says. I struggle in his grip, but he whispers in my ear, “Brennan, we can’t lose you.”
Halley screams at the bear, waving her arms insanely. In the tales for children they always say this will turn the creature around, waving and shouting, it is a bit of a coward, but this is dead Drakonis and that creature is no doubt starving.
One moment Halley is screaming and dancing, the next she is flying through the air like a senseless rag. It took a single swipe from one of the bear’s great paws.
Swift and without mercy.
She lands in a heap, and is silent. Motionless.
The creature lifts her with his strong jaws, a crunch that causes Bastian to flinch hard against me, and lumbers off.
Absolute silence reigns.
Bastian, still holding me, calls out, “Cole, are you all right?”
Cole stands to stare into the direction Halley vanished. He lifts a hand to signify his answer. There are no words.
I collapse into Bastian and tears I have not spilled in years now unleash. He turns me until my face is buried in the furs at his chest and holds me as I cry quietly, then sob loudly, and then weep great gulps of sadness. Audri’s breath is on my cheek, her body shuddering beside mine, and I realise through a haze of agony that she is with me and Bastian holds both of us.
When we eventually break free Cole is there also. Bastian swallows convulsively, trying to remain strong. Seeing his strength, his compassion, I tell him the truth, even though Cole and Audri are with us and hear every word.
“She told me to sleep with you,” I say hoarsely.
Briefly he closes his eyes and then he nods. “That’s what I thought.”
“Why?” Cole says. “It sounds like manipulation, not a relationship.”
Audri is silent, her gaze moving from one to the other as she wipes her wet cheeks.
“You have a mark,” I murmur, looking only at Bastian.
He blinks. “My birthmark? Cole has one too.”
“I know,” I say, gazing at him steadily.
He is swift to understanding. His eyelids lower and he takes a step back. “Why, Brennan?”
“One of the keys fit your marks.”
Slowly, with heavy intent and slow anger, Bastian undoes the buttons of his fur and then frees his tunic from his breeches. Hauling the warm fabric up, he shifts to show us an area of skin to his right upon his ribs near his armpit. A diamond-shaped discolouration sits there.
“Mine’s on the left,” Cole mutters, thankfully breaking the terrible tension.
“Put the key stone there, Brennan,” Bastian snaps out.
I stare at him. “It doesn’t work like that.”
He makes a sound in his throat, jerks his tunic down and stalks past all of us. Abruptly he halts and turns.
“I want to sleep with you Brennan, but not because some Wyvern curse expects it.”
He snaps around and walks on.
“Oh,” Cole murmurs.
“Quiet,” Audri says and pulls him with her as they follow Bastian. I do too after a moment, and notice how each of us touches our foreheads in the direction of Halley’s last sighting.
Perhaps it is better to die first, I muse. Halley no longer needs to battle either conscience or hope.
Red and White Stones
The new day dawns with its gloom, after a fitful night of watch in turns. Audri used one of Halley’s black stones after we stopped to create a meal and we ate our fill, although it was not easy.
We require strength to accomplish our goal, whatever that is, and that is why we eat. The leftovers from that meal we have for breakfast before we set out. No one spoke during the night, and Bastian ensured Cole and Audri were between the two of us at all times.
We have four days left.
We are only four.
I pray there is no parallel in that.
As we walk following the stone’s occasional prompting, Audri begins to speak. She and I walk side by side, while Bastian is ahead and Cole watches our backs.
“Wyvern is a way of saying Drakon, according to our tales a powerful creature of fire. This is why we named this world Drakonis, a place, after all, formed of fire that spewed year by year … until every vent chose to erupt within the same timeframe. We think we are unique in this, but it has happened in the past, and we began again. I’ve given this some thought, and I think the Wyvern family survived in Castle Drakon time after time and thus are they the blood that restarts Drakonis again and again.”
Audri halts and lays a hand on my arm.
“Brennan, I don’t believe we are able to escape Drakonis in any form or manner. I think memory of this time will survive if you enter Castle Drakon … with the new generation in your womb. And that castle will withstand this current onslaught long enough for it to be reborn.”
I am incapable of words, for hers resonates too much. I feel shivers of recognition inside me. Bastian has not the same problem with words.
He turns on his heels and heads back to us to stand there heaving. “And how do I fit into that, Audri? Or will it be my brother who creates this child of the future?” He glares Cole into silence when he attempts to speak.
She inclines her head, eyes narrowing. This is Audri’s thoughtful pose. “If we were to research the records inside Castle Drakon, if they have such things, I have a feeling we will discover other Wyvern over millennia have ‘escaped’ those walls. It forms part of their secret ways. Why? Always there must be Wyvern blood out in the world … and that blood is summoned to return when apocalypse descends. Wait, Bastian, I’m thinking.”
About to remonstrate, Bastian subsides.
“But Wyvern blood requires mates of a certain distinction in order to continue as undiluted as possible.”
We will probably hear a distant star go supernova, it is now that silent.
Audri jabs Bastian with one extended finger. “In original settlement two lines were superior. One line possessed the sorcery to ensure survival eternally, while the other carried the genetics that would ensure the biology of the ruling family kept apace.” She pauses there and shifts her gaze to me. “I am now unravelling the tales from the temples, and there is lore about two powerful bloodlines from an ancient time. Yours Brennan, and the line known as Riginar.”
Bastian pales so badly I think he will collapse, while behind us Cole gasps the kind of sound that moves through marrow and bone like a knife of intent.
I assume Riginar is their family name.
Cole and I never shared last names with each other, not even when holed up in a small space for hours waiting for the heat to die down. One can then also assume every Riginar is born with a diamond-shaped birthmark.
Audri smiles. “One of you boys had better get your act together or the Drakon heritage ends in four days.”
Cursing under his breath, Bastian turns … and then comes to an abrupt halt when Cole says, “I’ll do it. I want to survive.”
Bastian is about to hit his brother, that much is obvious.
I snap around and slap Cole in his stead. “The decision is mine.” I shove Bastian aside next and take point for the rest of the day.
As the gloom of the day starts descending into utter darkness we notice an alteration on a far ridge. Yes, it appears to be a castle.
And it is of epic proportion. The size of a city on a skyline.
How many Wyvern do actually reside there? Too many and too few was Galint’s answer to that question. What exactly does that infer?
Swiftly, as if the watchers on those walls have sensed us looking, the pitch of night obscures it. It happens so fast we are wholly unprepared to deal with the consequences. Thinking we still had an hour to find a suitable place to spend the night, that option is now removed. Without speaking we link hands, and mine is in Bastian’s, I feel it in my blood, and we shuffle forward together.
A moment after that hesitant movement there is a gargling sound - pure shock, that causes ice to race into my veins - and Bastian’s hand is torn from mine.
“Bas!” Cole hisses.
A few tense moments pass as we listen for evidence of calamity.
“I’m fine. I fell,” Bastian’s sheepish tone eventually arrives, much to our relief. “Step carefully, there’s a space at your feet.”
That’s akin to saying ‘watch your step or you’ll fall’ when we can watch nothing. Guess what? We all fall, and land up in a heap atop of Bastian.
It is immediately bone-chillingly cold. We are always cold, but this is the deadly kind. If we linger we will literally freeze.
“Ice shelf,” Bastian murmurs, still prone after being flattened a second time.
We untangle slowly, until I am the last. Moving to shuffle sideways off him, I am restricted in my attempt. Bastian’s arms have encircled me.
“Brennan,” he whispers. There is a thread of longing in his voice.
I give in to impulse. I answer to that summons. I kiss him. His lips are soft and immediately demanding. I feel the kind of fire in my belly that may warm me enough on this frozen field.
He rolls me over and kisses me again.
It isn’t a slow burn; it’s instant ignition.
“Bas, not now,” Cole mutters.
We still as one … and then disentangle from each other.
I hear Audri laugh softly.
“Cole, use a stone,” Bastian says as he helps me rise, “but shield it. If we can see that castle, they can see light out here.”
We hear rustles and then a low glow appears. Cole is crouching over the stone, covering most of the light with his body.
Indeed, it is an ice shelf, and it stretches sheer and flat almost to the base of Castle Drakon. We do not actually see this with eyes, but we certainly know it. Other perceptions now hurtle to the fore. We are sorcerers, after all, according to Audri. It does not need a sorcerer however, to reveal in what a precarious position we are, not only to discovery, but to freezing where we stand.
This exposed position heralds only trouble. It may not be the terrible cold that kills us first.
“Tunnel,” Cole says. “We go under the ice right now. Bastian, give me the red stones.”
Cole removes one red pebble and places it beside the white one giving us light. Instantly there is a sizzling sound and a round hole appears under him. Surprised, he hisses, and then pushes at the red dot. It descends, creating a perfect and circular depression. He does it again, and the excavation deepens.
The next moment Cole tumbles in, taking the light with him.
We peer over the edge.
“Push more,” Bastian says. “Deepen the hole before guiding it into horizontal.”
It is as simple as that.
Guide the stone and its heat creates direction and space. Sometimes a bolthole is not as complicated as one thinks. Cole and I know this well. How many times did we not employ a darkened doorway as one, only to watch the guards go by unseeing?
We clamber in and follow Cole’s tunnelling. The light is now stronger as we don’t need to hide it, and it follows as we move forward.
Eventually the red stone is depleted and Cole continues with another. Two hours later he begins to circle the stone before him, as if waving at an invisible friend, and a bigger space develops around us.
An ice cave. A place to rest.
Admittedly, despite danger, we sleep like the dead.
I awaken once, to find Bastian beside me. His gloved hand rests upon my furry hip.
I like it.
Shadows have Presence
Of course we cannot determine night or day while asleep under an ice shelf, but the time comes when we are all again aware.
This is our third day into the journey and we are still four. Perhaps there is no parallel.
Our conundrum now is whether to go forward with the tunnel, or go up. Audri’s marker stone does not react for either, thus both directions are the right ones.
I suggest we go forward until we hit rock. At least that will mark the end of ice. With alacrity the others agree, and we proceed with the delving after having something to eat.
We hit rock within an hour. And thus we go up. An absolute surprise awaits us when we break through to the surface.
The sun is shining.
We are like creatures caught in headlights. We freeze in position and stare at the impossible glare highlighting us.
“Down!” Bastian says, first to find his wits, and we cower swiftly. Still, that achieves little, for we are dark dots in a white landscape of both ice and light.
Castle Drakon towers over us. Bathed in light.
It cannot be sunshine. It is therefore sorcery.
“Two can play this game,” Audri mutters, and begins to murmur words under her breath. Strung together, they sound like chants.
There is no entry into the castle, according to legend. It is sealed eternally. There are no doors visible on the outside, according to Galint back in the grotto. And, it appears, these two keys I carry with me have nothing to do with actual locks.
We have to get in. The only way to hide now is to enter the monolith towering over us, and Audri has realised that.
She has control over the elements, she claims, but other than snapping embers into flame in the grotto we have not seen proof of it. The first night in these highlands she said she dare not employ her gifts for fire, for it would reveal us. Last night no doubt she thought it safer to hold herself in check. She could have melted the ice, I suppose, but that would have seen us dead in a heartbeat.
Is she able to manipulate rock?
I feel Bastian at my back and wish we lived in a different time. I notice Cole sending us a look. He cannot be jealous, because we were never that way inclined with each other, but it is a strange look. I wonder what is going on in his mind. How far will he go to survive?
Then none of that matters.
An arch has appeared in the rock before us. The bizarre light that emanates from Castle Drakon overhead picks out the planes of a stairway within going up.
“It’s a real doorway,” Audri says in a hoarse voice, as if strained beyond bearing, “made of solid rock. I can’t hold it at bay long. Are we going in or not?”
Cole answers for us. He sets foot to the first step beyond the arch. We follow. Audri brings up the rear, muttering once more, probably closing the arch to hide our point of entry.
Darkness envelopes us, but I know I experience elation. We are inside when everyone said there was no way to enter.
It smells of antiquity here and has the aroma of rampant magic. What else is there to do but employ another light stone? This is the second to last one, but we have to see to climb.
In the glow that results, Audri clutches at her throat and falls to her knees. “Can’t … breathe …” She falls sideways, landing awkwardly on the stairs … staring starkly up.
I gasp for air myself, but it isn’t a manipulation as she has suffered; it is sorrow. Audri, pretty supportive friend, is dead.
Between one eye blink and the next.
Bastian slaps a hand over my mouth and shakes his head emphatically at Cole. Do not make a sound, his actions imply.
He stares up into the gloom beyond the stone’s light, there where the stairs seems to level off. A moment later he holds up two fingers. Clearly, two await our unwary entry into the halls of Castle Drakon itself.
We stare at each other, then down at Audri, and then upwards. We do not make a sound, but it is beyond clear that we have no choice. We shall meet whatever awaits us with whatever means and courage we possess.
I kneel beside Audri, kiss her forehead, close her eyes, and remove her marker stone. Bastian and Cole briefly each grip one of her hands, and then we rise together and start climbing ancient timeworn steps carved from rock.
When we reach the top we discover a solid iron door. Strange glyphs mark the surface, as if in warning. Bastian pushes at it, very gently. I think we expect it not to budge at all, but it swings soundlessly open. Now, if that was a warning etched into the metal, it is less than effective.
Cole peers to the left and shakes his head at us. Carefully he steps in and peers around the opened door to the right. He shrugs. He sees no one.
Bastian drags him back, takes the lighted stone from him and tosses it over his shoulder. He holds up two fingers again, nodding his head emphatically. Thus, we cannot see the watchers, but they are there and they are waiting for us.
What to do now?
There is light beyond the door, enough to reveal a stone wall opposite and a black floor. It’s dusty … and Bastian points to where there is a clear footprint in the powder. It reveals a shiny substance underneath, and it also reveals one of those waiting for us is huge.
Right. So what do we do?
We stare at each other in consternation.
And then it comes to me. If Audri was right about Wyvern blood returning during calamity in order to restart Drakonis as civilisation, there is absolutely no way they will harm me. And, and I wince as I think this, I have the last two with me bearing the Riginar blood. One of them will be my mate, according to their thinking. They will not cause harm to come to either, not until a babe is conceived.
It is a mighty risk.
When I look at Bastian, he winks at me. Clearly the same thoughts have occurred to him. He spreads his hands, asking if we’re going to chance it on a rumour from a temple legend.
What else is there to do?
We can’t stagnate at the top of ancient stairs because fear holds us back. We will be dead in less than three days anyway.
I glance over my shoulder a final time, but Audri is lost to view. Farewell, friend.
I grin then at Bastian … and step boldly into the passage.
Cole hisses, he loves doing that, always has, but Bastian pulls him along with him as he follows. Audri’s stone tells me to go right. We do so, treading carefully in the dust, lest one of us slips. Bastian gazes over his shoulder, only the once.
“Two behind us,” he mutters. Then he whispers in Cole’s ear, no doubt telling him what we figured out. Cole gives both of us a wide-eyed stare, and grins.
“Can you see them?” I ask, leading the way.
“Feel only,” Bastian responds. “But they’re big.”
Many silent minutes later we come to an arch without a door. Beyond is a large space lit by flames in an ancient hearth. There are multiple alcoves, but we cannot discern detail.
As we search the chamber from the arch, wondering whether to enter or go on, there is a sense of pressure building behind us. All three of us snap around to find shadows coalescing. The fabric of light and dark appears to be taking on tangible presence and growing in size and intent by the second. Suddenly this massed presence rushes at us, and we stumble in our haste to escape it into the fire lit chamber. Cole falls, Bastian flails, and I am shoved forward by an unseen hand.
A door slams with an almighty crash. There was no door in that arch, and now it has one and it has locked us into this space.
Cole hurtles at it … and bounces back.
Right. We are trapped.
We are inside Castle Drakon and everyone knows we are here.
Nothing works now. The heat stones are inactive. Cole attempts to burn the door down with them, and the last light stone is no longer white. We hear a crackling sound and find it reduced to a papery brown thing.
Audri’s marker stone, when I check it, disintegrates into blue sprinkles. We dare not open the pouch with the last black sustenance stones, just in case the act of ignoring them ensures their continued existence.
“I bet the key stones work, though,” Cole mutters, and he is probably right. They are still needed. No one will interfere with those … yet.
After investigating the shadowy alcoves, we understand two things. One is that we are meant to stay here, for there is a bed awaiting us, as there is food under metal domes upon a table, and two is that we are meant to sleep together … there is only the one bed.
Bastian stares at it a long while before saying, “Brennan, something will force this upon us if we don’t do so willingly.”
“You’re saying Audri had it right about the blood thing?” Cole frowns. I know Cole; he hates the thought of someone telling him what to do.
Bastian nods and sits on the edge of the big bed. “Dad told me every Riginar born is inducted into the temple, because we have special genetics Drakonis requires. I forgot about all that until Audri started speaking. While we haven’t needed to hide our last names as the Wyverns have had to, we were all of us marked at birth and told to keep the mark ever hidden.”
“I thought it was a birthing defect,” Cole says.
“It is at birth, but it is placed upon us, it isn’t a natural mark. Why did I forget all this?” Bastian mutters.
“Life,” I say. “You had to survive after your dad died and keep an eye on cat burglar Cole here. A mark on your skin is of little consequence then.”
“True.” He meets my eyes. “I don’t like being forced.”
“And I don’t like having witnesses around,” I say.
The smile he bestows upon me then races my blood. “Are we on the same page? We refuse to do as is expected?”
I want to kiss him and I’m sure it shows in my face, for his eyelids flicker a bit. “Look, don’t touch, I say.”
He laughs under his breath. “Cole was right all those years ago. He said then you would never turn your back on what is right.”
Cole laughs aloud. “I remember! Brennan brought me home and you thought she was a bad influence, hauling your little brother about on rooftops.”
“A burglar and purse snatcher isn’t actually on the side of right, Bastian,” I murmur.
“Why did you do so?” he asks, his blue gaze bright.
I shrug. “To eat.” It was as simple as that, then.
“And had Cole not come home with ill-gotten gains I would have starved. It was necessity, Brennan, not right or wrong.”
“It was fun, too,” Cole laughs.
I grin his way. We had fun, yes, many days, many nights. We also nearly lost our lives on many occasions. My smile vanishes as I remember that.
Cole shrugs, perhaps thinking the same.
“Destroy the keys, Brennan,” Bastian suggests. “Any choices we make now must be ours to make, not at the will of an old manipulation.”
Someone is listening and watching, no doubt, and that someone must have heard all that was said, including that final statement. Someone would come soon to enforce his or her will.
I have moments only.
Nodding at Bastian, I swiftly remove the two transparent stones from the pouch … and hurtle across the space from bed to fireplace, lifting my arm as I run. Skidding, I launch the two cold objects directly into the blaze, and fall to my knees there … watching, hoping, waiting …
A bright flash.
And then darkness takes us.
Chamber of Arches
I cannot now tell you how much time passed between that flash of light, the last event I remember before all sight vanished, and becoming aware of a grey glow upon the ceiling. It feels as if an eternity went by, as if I have lived a thousand lives.
Groaning, I uncurl from the cold stone floor, straightening legs bent at an odd angle. Every nerve in my body protests this. Feeling as if someone beat every inch of my body using a metal rod, I grit my teeth and manage to stand. Stumbling, I look around.
Cole lies in a crumpled heap at the foot of the bed.
Bastian is … where is Bastian?
Convulsively I search every shadow, falling over my own feet as renewed circulation causes agony to shoot up my legs with every movement.
Bastian is gone.
By the time I realise this, Cole is groaning into awareness. Falling to my knees beside him, I help him sit. He blinks at me and then starts looking around …
“He’s not here,” I say gruffly. I cannot believe how much it hurts.
Cole freezes for a moment and I notice the pain that moves across his face, and then he says, unequivocally, “We must find him.”
I nod. That we will. Now it is me and Cole again, like old times, sneaks in the night as we seek our prize. This we will do, no matter if it kills us.
He sees my resolve and clasps my hand. “We can do this.”
A tear rolls over my cheek. Yes, we can.
“The keys? Are they gone?” he whispers.
For a moment I am nonplussed and then I head to the fireplace. Mere embers now remain, and two hard-baked angular stones nestle there, like blank eyes.
“They are powerless now, I think.”
“Good,” Cole says at my shoulder. “Now we are in charge. Let’s go.”
“The door …” I begin to remonstrate, only to notice there is no door. It is again an open arch. “Right. Let’s go.”
We walk without subterfuge. Let them see us coming.
There are many passages, halls and chambers, and they have no pattern that makes sense. There is no logic to any of it. I would say, if someone had to ask me in a time beyond this strangeness, that spaces were created according to need, inserted as required without a grander design in mind.
The grandness is all around, make no mistake. Everything is ostentatious, from mirror floors to dressed walls and artistic ceilings. Great framed artworks adorn already fancified walls, oils made by great masters in times gone by. I recognise some of the names and know they are old and beyond priceless, and wonder how they came to be hanging in place where no one would ever see them again. Beautiful statues and carvings of rare wood, bright crystal and polished metal repose in every nook or soar into massive spaces. It feels akin to wandering through a museum or gallery, but none of it makes sense, as I said.
If these spaces were added as per need, it means the residents of Castle Drakon grew in number at some stage, fast, and a willy-nilly mindset took hold to accommodate all of them. That is absolutely terrifying. How many of those great numbers now remain to waylay us?
“You know what, Brennan?” Cole mutters as we traverse a chamber filled with object d’art. “We’ve been in some pretty wealthy mansions in our time, but nothing like this. Know what else? This is ugly. It is riches for the sake of display, not class.”
Indeed. Here no sense of style is present. It is ugly.
We walk on, and I notice Cole secrets an object under his fur here and there. Galint told him to follow his instincts about it and that I would know what these items are able to achieve in the realms of sorcery … oh dear. I suddenly remember that every object inside Castle Drakon is a receptacle for something. Now the ‘art’ we see on display wherever we go is not mere ostentation; it is frightening and I want to howl my distress.
Still, considering the rules changed the instant we stepped inside these creepy halls, there is also a chance what Cole snatches is no more than worthless junk. I hope so. That kind of responsibility does not sit right with me.
And then we enter an enormous space, and I know we have arrived at our destination.
Blue walls glow in the light emanating from a star-shaped aperture overhead.
The Magicians created arches for ingress and spheres for light in the sheer edifice, and were satisfied. The Mistress waved her wand and, lo, a star appeared in the marvellous ceiling. The Artists played with gold and gems and covered the very walls and floors with otherworldly ostentation. Many came to gawk, it was that beautiful.
Halley’s words in the grotto. Words Galint confirmed and we now have made real before us.
I see a great arch beyond the shadows thrown by the gold rimmed curves in this space. There is the doorway to the world outside, the one that cannot be seen from beyond these walls, the one that will kill … unless we crawl out.
I nudge Cole to point it out. There lies our escape.
First we have to find Bastian. He is here; I feel it, and so does Cole. After nodding at me, his gaze starts trying to pierce the shadows beyond the arches, as if searching.
“We’ve been herded here,” I murmur. “They failed in the attempt to manipulate us into creating new Wyvern life in that chamber, and thus they have brought us to this place.”
“Who? I see no one. I don’t get this,” Cole mutters.
“This is the oldest part of the castle. This is where it began all those ages ago, and this is where it starts anew every time. That’s why the exit is there for all to see. It tempts. And sometimes it tempts the right ones into leaving, the failsafe of Wyvern blood. This is also where it ends in this time.”
Cole is staring at me.
“No one should remember us, Cole. We do not merit even memory to remain.”
“I refuse to give up,” Cole snarls. “My brother and I do not deserve this!”
It is Bastian’s voice, and we start running, even knowing it could be a trap. The three of us together, trapped, is better than two of us searching.
We find him strapped to an ebony platform. He has been divested of his furs and lies in his filthy shirt and breeches, his feet bare. Great twists of leather wrap around his wrists and ankles.
We skid to a halt alongside him.
He is unharmed, at least, although shivering in the chill of this manipulative space. The slab under him is icy also; I feel it when I lean upon my hands to draw breaths of relief.
Cole starts messing with the ties. “We’ll get you out,” he mutters.
Bastian’s gaze moves from him to me, twin blue lights that transfix me. “There are hundreds of them, Brennan.”
“You saw …” I croak as if unfamiliar with speech, sounding for a moment as Audri did in the grotto. I clear my throat. “You saw them?”
Cole, still seeking an end to the rope to start unravelling, flicks his gaze between us and then concentrates on his chosen task.
Bastian nods. “Most were shadows in the background, but I felt them massing together, like we did at that chamber. The ones who carried me here and tied me down, I saw them.” He blinks. “I could not fight them. There was no power in me to even move a toe.”
Cole ceases his efforts and glares at his brother. “And now? Can you move?”
Yes, Bastian does appear sort of nerveless. He grins at his brother … and wiggles his fingers. “I’m still in one piece.”
Cole nods emphatically and renews his efforts.
“Brennan, come closer,” Bastian whispers.
I move to the other side of the slab and lean in. My hands rest upon his chest. His heartbeat is strong and I take comfort from that.
“Listen,” he whispers into my ear. “I noticed how they kept looking up at that star hole above the main part of this dome. It’s as if they expect something to come through there any minute. And, Brennan, they were afraid.”
I pull back thoughtfully, leaving my hands upon him. The beat under my fingers feels like life, and we need to concentrate on life right now.
“What did they look like?” I hear Cole ask.
Bastian looks only at me. “Tall, lean and strong, dressed in gear we would not recognise on Drakonis. The material moves and changes and you can’t quite fix on it and call it something with certainty. I think that’s how they use the shadows.”
“But how do they look?” Cole insists. His efforts get him nowhere. It is not leather cord in the sense we would understand. It is of sorcery, but I say nothing. Rather let Cole go on; it gives him focus right now. Bastian knows it, too, and doesn’t mention it.
“Like us, only taller, with long dark hair.”
Cole is relieved by that description, we both sense it. But that’s not the whole of it, I realise, for Bastian stares steadily at me.
I draw a breath. It is better to know, is it not? “What else, Bastian?” I dare to ask.
“They are real when they need to touch something, but become fluid when they remove themselves from the tangible.” He lifts his head and whispers, “Like liquid skeletons, Brennan, able to twist in any direction.” There is fear in his eyes and the cords in his neck are hard and tight.
Taking a shaking breath, I lay my one hand gently upon his forehead and carefully push his head down. I lay my lips upon his.
“Hush. We deal with it,” I whisper.
“How?” he asks.
Cole suddenly swears and stands back. A moment later he delves into his pockets and starts hauling objects from them. Some fall to the floor, others roll about in his hands.
“Choose one to cut the bonds, Brennan,” he commands.
Yes! That feels so right it’s actually alarming. I round the platform and bend over his offerings. One begins to rattle in Cole’s palm.
He drops everything but that one thing, holding it aloft between two fingers. He holds it out to me.
It looks like a buckle. Something to keep a belt tied and breeches up. I cannot see anyone on Drakonis ever wearing something like it, but a buckle it appears to be. Of gold inlaid with sparkling white gemstones. A vicious spike nestles under the clasp.
Gingerly I take it from Cole, with the brothers watching my every move. I release the catch … the spike hurtles up as if released from a spring. This thing can kill a man, I realise.
Carefully I place the sharp point against the leather wrapping at Bastian’s wrist, the one Cole had been trying to unravel.
The bonds fall away.
“Yes!” Cole crows.
"Quiet!” Bastian whispers.
I place the spike at the ties at Bastian’s ankles and they fall away in turn and then I round the slab to touch the final binding at his other wrist.
As I throw the buckle over my shoulder Bastian sits and drags me into his arms.
It is strong within us yet.
Life fights for its continuance only moments thereafter.
“Now we know where her choice lies!” a mighty voice booms out from the shadows.
We cannot say how many converged on us from those shadows, but Bastian is abruptly hauled from the slab, Cole suddenly twirls as if in a whirlwind’s grip, his furs scattering from his body like little creatures escaping from terror, and arms grip me from behind and start dragging me away.
We fight. Bastian starts throwing punches and kicks wildly. Cole screams and his arms flail seeking target. I head butt whatever is holding me and stamp my feet, hoping for unwary feet.
To no avail.
There are too many of them and they are impossible to pin down even with only eyes. They are fluid as Bastian said, bending according to the needs of an instant, flowing back into position the next. Hair whips about like needles and material rustles as it shimmers through colours and movement. It is quite nauseating, causes unbalance, and I am the first to hurtle the contents of my stomach upon the floor. Cole is next, shuddering in position as if buffeted by wind. Bastian curses and then doubles over. His captors allow him to fall as he pukes.
In this strangeness and despite the acidic smells that make me want to hurl again, I notice something. Where puke touches our assailants, they smoke. It sounds weird and it is. Whatever material they wear begins to curl and smoulder as if burning.
Suddenly one of them starts smacking at himself as if to put flames out. Bending, I scoop up some of the vile concoction from the floor and toss it into the crowd of shadows and dark hair.
There is a screech. I see a blob of yellow hit a pale face … and burn a hole.
I bend again … and just like that we are alone.
We cannot speak. It is too much for mere words. Cole retrieves clean pieces of his furs from the floor and hands them around; we use it to clean our hands and faces and spatters from our clothes. I have removed my furs also; they are too cumbersome.
“Man, this is disgusting,” Cole says after a while.
Bastian starts to laugh. “Who would have thought puke would get them!” he chortles. “Man, no one will ever believe us.”
We have a weapon, it appears. Not puke, per se, but bodily fluids. I bet you if we spit at them it would burn holes in the fabric of whatever they are made of. Urine would gouge craters, no doubt. Blood would probably annihilate them.
By consensus, we leave that alcove, mostly to get away from the smell and the evidence of that smell, but also to go where we can change our fates.
“This is a place of ghosts,” Cole says as we walk away.
“Immortals,” I state, knowing it now with every certainty. “Every Wyvern ever born in Castle Drakon is still in Castle Drakon. That’s why this place makes no sense. As their numbers grew, thus had the castle to make space for them. It’s not hundreds we face, it’s thousands.”
“What they do with their bodies is part of the sorcery that keeps them alive,” Bastian says.
“Except it’s not living, it’s existing.” I mutter. “When someone escapes, they become again mortal and properly biological. They may like the idea of possessing again a body that is real, but the mortal part holds them within these walls. I think Galint’s mother did not transfer as well from one state to the other, and that’s why she suffers an incurable disease.”
“A disease called mortality?” Cole quips.
Yes, it is funny, a bit.
We come to a halt under the star-shaped aperture and crane our heads back in order to see what lies beyond.
Here the gloom that has descended upon Drakonis is absent.
The encompassing light we experienced after coming up from under the ice is gone also.
Billions of them.
It is entrancing. We never saw the like even when Drakonis was a habitable place. Our city lights entirely obscured the beauty of the heavens.
Why are they afraid of this hole in a dome? Surely beauty cannot undo immortality?
It is time to move on.
I am thinking we should simply open that great arched door and return to the outside world. The only choice now is whether to crawl out in order to survive the hours Drakonis still has left, or whether to walk out upright, to die the moment we exit, to thus end this cycle. To end even memory.
As I lower my head to state these options, a shudder passes through me. It is uncontrollable and affects every nerve and muscle. I fall to my hands and knees. Hearing a thud beside me, I know Bastian is felled also. Expecting to hear a third thump, I wait for it, but it never comes. Lifting my head with great difficulty, I manage to see Bastian beside me … but no Cole.
Bastian’s blue gaze is stricken. He mouths, but no words come. I see Cole then. He floats before us and, as we watch unable to move, he is lifted upon that cushioning air towards the aperture. I think he is still alive, but unconscious.
Bastian screams then. “COLE!”
I can only witness as my dearest friend is taken up to the stars. Briefly his body is a shadow within the aperture and then he simply vanishes.
A sacrifice? To whatever the residents of Castle Drakon are afraid will come through that hole into their hallowed halls?
Ancient Light Illuminates the Path
Bastian screams again, hurtling to his feet and threatening the air with raised fists. Who can blame him? That was his brother that just vanished in a puff of air. Cole was Bastian’s last connection to a life as we once knew it.
I remain kneeling, tears streaming over my cheeks. I have known Cole for over ten years. He was my only true friend in the entire, imploding world. This is not like losing Halley or Audri, or any of the others along the way. This is personal, and it really hurts. Why was he sacrificed in that manner?
“Only hours remain before the future window is closed,” a voice rumbles from somewhere behind us. “Will you end it? Is there nothing to look ahead to?”
Bastian turns, snarling. “You take my brother and you ask that?”
“It needs only two to begin anew,” the voice responds. “That is life, Bastian Riginar, not death. If you live you will remember him. If you die he is as forgotten as you will be.”
Bastian gives the finger, and turns his back.
This voice is the reason for the sacrifice. A star death gifts this creature, whatever it is, voice. It has been summoned to this final obligation.
“Brennan Wyvern, how are you able to deny your ancient calling? It is your duty to restart Drakonis.”
I discover I am as full of rage as Bastian is. “You idiots should have learned the lesson of transparency a long time ago! Maybe, had we grown up knowing what was coming, we’d not now stand here and deny you! Ancient calling, my eye. I think you know what you can do with your ancient calling. And stuff duty too! Restart Drakonis? Have you looked outside recently? There’s nothing to restart. If Bastian and I choose life, how long will it last? A day? What kind of duty is that?”
There is silence.
And then a woman’s voice says, “She is right about the transparency part. Had she at least known what was expected, it might not now be this complicated.”
I snort. Too little too late, madam whoever you are.
Cole’s death brought two out of the stonework. Even if they prove to be the sweetest creatures in the universe, they deserve only death.
The woman’s voice comes again. “Brennan, you do not understand what happens when we mean restart Drakonis. That world outside there is beyond repair for sentient habitation and will be thus for centuries.”
Well, that gets my attention. It grabs Bastian’s as well, for he turns and comes to stand beside me. Both of us stare into the shadows under a multitude of arches. I’m willing to wager each curve hosts a gathering of fluid immortals. It is how they travel this otherworldly space.
A glimmer of understanding comes to me then.
Things are not what they seem here.
“If you tell her, you give her the power of decision,” the gruff male voice says.
“She already has that power,” the woman replies, with a hint of amusement.
A shadow grows in darkness before us, before merging into a shape vaguely recognisable as a woman. It then takes on firmer form, until a beautiful, ageless woman, with the longest red tresses I have ever seen stands before us. She wears a shimmering gown of the same shifting patterns as we have seen, but her patterns remain in place. I think it will alter as soon as she gives it leave to.
“I am Aflan Wyvern,” she says in that lovely voice. “The legends name me as Mistress.” Glancing up, she adds, “That is indeed my handiwork.”
We are too astonished at first to form words, but Bastian finds the strength to say, “Cole died for you to appear?”
Beside her other shadows begin to gather … until a man stands there, as glorious as she is. His apparel is all dark; there are no patterns. His long hair is white, and his pale face does not have even one mark on it. Both have grey eyes, like mine.
“I am Starsin Riginar,” he murmurs, his voice less gruff now, but still with the aura of power. “By now I think you have realised it is both our bloodlines that keep this place alive. Yes, we are the original two.”
“You are the Master,” Bastian says, finding his voice. “Did Cole die for this?”
“He did, yes, and our hope is that you will understand why soon. I am the Master, but I was very pleased with what we created together in the dawn of time. The only reason Castle Drakon was sealed was to protect it from the ravages that come with too lengthy a period of existence. We are meant, after all, to last forever.”
I discover that glimmer of something growing into certainty. “It isn’t where you are that is important, it is when you are. This castle is merely the vessel, one you hoped would be eternally unassailable.”
Aflan smiles. “Correct.”
Bastian looks at me. “Meaning?”
“Drakonis isn’t a place, Bastian, it’s a concept imposed on a world for a while, and while they are in symbiosis time is irrelevant. Calamity is irrelevant.”
“When a benign world is chosen, we send out Wyvern and Riginar to live among the locals, and thus ensure our genetics do not weaken. Some escape these walls and are allowed to get away, while others need to be coerced into leaving,” Starsin murmurs. “Every new birth serves to strengthen all.”
“What? You feed on new blood?” Bastian snaps.
I shake my head. “Every newborn is the first born child, every single time, and thus are you two parents again and again and time narrows from then to now in an instant. The length of the ages no longer matter, for time is created new.”
Starsin bows over his hands. “And you are the last two able to create the first born blood. When you do, you gift us the power to move Drakonis to another benign world, as your brother has gifted us form to do so.”
“Another world where you will build those temples and stuff to keep everyone guessing,” Bastian murmurs. “They live in fear while you party in this fancy place. Forgive me, but that isn’t right. You shouldn’t alter another world’s natural future.”
I hear the suppressed rage in his voice. He wants to lash out. “I agree with Bastian,” I say, arms akimbo.
“Yes, we have realised that,” Aflan laughs. “When you destroyed the keys, you shouted it out aloud to every resident in Castle Drakon.”
“We cannot force you; we no longer have the power to do so,” Starsin says. ‘Thus we now await your choice.”
“What happens if we choose death?” Bastian demands.
“It vanishes, all of this.” Starsin shrugs. “I find, here at the end of all our machinations, I am not too concerned.” He gently lifts Aflan’s hand and brings it to his lips. After placing a soft kiss in her palm, he says, “My darling, it has been too long since I have seen your true face and form. Have we not lived long enough? Why continue if the best we can expect of time is a bunch of shadows inside ancient walls?”
She smiles softly at him. “My love, the romantic.”
“We shall meet again, my beautiful wife, in another time and place, for our love cannot ever be severed.”
The words are beautiful and bring tears to my eyes, but I see something growing in Starsin’s demeanour. There is an expectant set to his shoulders, as if he is gathering himself for some kind of action. Perhaps Aflan does not see it, unfamiliar as she must now be with biological form, but it is there.
I find myself stepping back, and I pull Bastian with me.
Aflan Wyvern believes she holds the power of Castle Darkon in her hands and perhaps she does, but Starsin Riginar has control over time itself. He is the Giant who laid the foundations, and only he has the power to unmake it.
If he does, even Bastian will admit Cole did not die in vain. There will be redemption for all of us.
Aflan frowns. “My love? I feel as if you are about to betray me.” Thus she begins to sense a shift as well.
“Run!” I yell at Bastian, and I turn tail to sprint towards the great arch.
He is right behind me.
Again, in this contrary place, darkness takes us before we have managed even two steps. How ridiculously unfair. Who wrote this script? If I cannot run away from what comes next, I would at least like to see it come to pass.
Whispers race around inside my skull.
The path, Brennan, know the path!
Remember ancient light is able to illuminate the path! Remember, Brennan!
I jerk into awareness.
Bastian stands guard over me, braced legs, arms folded, his face like thunder.
“What happened?” I ask.
He gestures, pulling a face.
Aflan and Starsin are where we last saw them. He holds her hand and bends over it. Her head is quirked to one side and there is a quizzical smile upon her face. Behind them is an outlandish fireplace. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere and looks like it belongs in a time of gods and swords and battles.
“What’s wrong with that picture?” I mutter, and take hold of Bastian to stand.
Helping me, he says, “They are statues.”
That is what is otherworldly about the scene, besides the fireplace. They are unmoving. “Did you see how it happened?”
“A flash of light, then darkness, as if it burned sight away. We fell. It was seconds only and when I turned that was there.”
Ancient light. Well.
Drawing in breath and courage, we approach.
Standing before the two statues, it feels as if they are alive, merely in stasis. I reach out and place only the tip of one finger on those clasped hands, seeking to find out if they are warm … or not.
The instant I touch, they crumple to dust.
That is my path, I realise with outstanding clarity. To sever the link to ancient times, embodied in these two. Stardust to masonry dust.
The fireplace explodes into massive flame, and smoke billows out from the hearth. Immense tendrils curl around the interior of the dome, like arms, twirling into every shadowy arch. They become like fingers reaching out to touch … what?
The first scream raises every hair on my body.
It is filled with agony and rage and desperation.
This is what Bastian saw when he noticed the fear in his captors when they looked up at the aperture. They knew if Aflan and Starsin chose form, everything would change. I do not think they expected this, though.
The second shriek sees me cowering holding my ears, Bastian with me. Both of us have eyes that appear about to pop from our skulls. It is agony, yes, and we wish desperately for it to end.
Scream after scream erupts until Castle Drakon is made up of sound not matter. The curling smoke tendrils search for, find and snatch at every shadow, to drag it shrieking back to the fire in the hearth. There the shadows are swallowed, one after the other, and poof! Skulls explode from the flames, but they are not of bone. They are exhalations of flash and smoulder in the shape of skulls. As the ‘head’ hits air it disintegrates.
The screams continue.
This is, after all, a castle filled with Wyverns and Riginars over time beyond measure and there are thousands of them, all now existing as immortal shadows. Every shade is pulled into the fire to exhale as an ethereal skull.
I wonder if this is the final sight of what remains of their essence, or is it the trapped souls finally finding freedom? Is it simply sorcery ending in a manner it cannot return from?
It takes a long time. Emptying a castle of its residents is not something that happens with a finger snap. No, it takes an ancient man with the guts to know that the time for ultimate change has arrived, with the courage to follow through, and to unleash his final coercion in surrendering to time itself.
He grew weary of existing. He hopes he will rediscover life somewhere new. Perhaps Aflan and Starsin will meet in another realm and begin this again, but we will never hear of it. I hope they fail, for this is as twisted at it gets.
Gradually the screaming lessens, although that sorcerous fire burns ever hotter. Bastian and I clamber to our feet, and then turn our backs on it.
Hand in hand we head to the great arch.
It is over.
A legend is dying behind us.
And here we are, the final two. We are literally the last of our kind. And what a strange kind we are.
This is the final narrative from Drakonis and will remain only in our minds. Drakonis will cease to exist even in memory. Never will we breathe a word about this to anyone. There is no one to tell it to.
An ancient legend is undone. There is no escape, not for us.
We have sought Castle Drakon and we found it.
It was our only hope. Destroying it is our ultimate act.
Please do not remember us.
Contributors: Jeff Blackmer, Richard Rhys Jones, Jillian Ward, Bev Allen, Elaina J Davidson, Suzanna Burke, Paul Rudd, Hannah Warren, Joanne Sexton, Tee Geering, and Poppet.
Castle Drakon is a mysterious place. A portal to offworld, a haven for the ancients, a receptacle for nightmares, and a residence where the weird and bizarre are the norm. In this anthology of eleven short stories you will experience a smorgasbord of phenomenal tales that will entertain and leave a lingering mulling over the profound and macabre.
Welcome to Castle Drakon, enter the sacrosanct halls at your own peril.
Castle Drakon is a mysterious place. A portal to offworld, a haven for the ancients, a receptacle for nightmares, and a residence where the weird and bizarre are the norm. In this anthology of eleven short stories you will experience a smorgasbord of phenomenal tales that will entertain and leave a lingering mulling over the profound and macabre.
Welcome to Castle Drakon, enter the sacrosanct halls at your own peril.
To read more you can see Tee's Blog p highlighting her story in the anthology, titled Sleeping with the Gods, and tomorrow make sure you check out Jo's Blog with her short story The Dragon's Mate!
You can get the entire collection from Amazon.