Hope. Was it even a word, did it truly exist? Naira shivered involuntarily. The cold seemed to seep through her skin, down until it reached her bones. A single tear fell to the lifeless stone floor. She felt empty, lonely, and depressed. She sniffled, her arms wrapped around herself. There is no word to describe the emptiness she experienced inside her soul. It had been long since she had hope. For six of the twenty one years of her life, she had lived in the darkness of the cold rock hallways. Even outside the dark parapets, many tall grey towers, and massive steel walls surrounding the fortress, everything was shadowed in grey. No one had escaped from the Dark Fortress of Teldon, a name synonymous with evil and lifelessness. Everything outside was either scorched by fire, or dead from lack of sun.
This had all been caused by the Dragon, also known as Death-in-life. He was cunning and wicked beyond all description. Legend said that he had been bound to a gold stone for years. Now, he had returned, filled with more hatred and malice. The Dragon had come from the Wood Between one fateful day. Plenoria had been in peace, enjoying the grassy open plains it had been built on. Then, a man with ghostly pale skin, black hair, and malice filled eyes had walked through the city’s gates. He grabbed a servant. “Where is your leader!” He growled with a menacing snarl. The servant was so stunned and horrified that he could only point. The Dragon tossed the man aside with unnatural strength. A sickening crack followed. The palace where the king lived was not far away. It was made of tangerine stonework, and though not excessively beautiful, was strong and powerful looking. The ten guards at the entrance shook. One screamed and ran. The poor mortals fought the dragon to no avail. In less than a minute, nine lay dead on the ground. The Dragon smiled and licked his cold lips, revealing pointed teeth. This was going to be easier than he had thought it would be.
He marched in the palace, his sadistic grin growing. Yes, he thought, way too easy. The pathetic humans would run or fight, but he cared not which they decided on. Screams filled the high arched dome. They were powerless against him. At last, the only one left was Plenoria’s ruler. The noble man looked the dragon in the face with fury in his eyes. The dragon laughed. “What are you going to do, little man!" The pale grin grew into a smirk. “You could have stayed with me, become powerful, filled the world with your fire.”
“I chose the Prince long ago!” The king shouted. “I am no longer yours! You can kill me, but the Prince will not leave you unjudged!” The Dragon quickly morphed into the great winged beast he was called after. The king was incinerated, leaving nothing but a pile of black ashes. They may be allied with Farthestshore, but this place is just waiting to be taken over. He can’t save them now. The dragon took the kingship, and forced the humans to create the Dark Fortress of Teldon. Many of the mortals became dragons like their new master. Everyone eventually had to take the Dragon’s fire. The Dragon chose one human a day to become his child. Every day the dragon children watched their dreams burn and die.
Naira sighed. Her disobedience had caused her to become a triple traitor. She had betrayed her king by abandoning him; disregarded the treaty with the Prince of Farthestshore by joining the dragon- therefore turning her back on the Prince; and now she had disobeyed the Dragon. The Dragon had commanded her to kill a man, and she had refused. The Dragon had been furious, and decided to kill her for her disobedience. Naira had run from the guards, and hid in the guest conference room (why the Dragon had built it was a mystery- he never had any guests). They would find her sooner or later. There was nowhere to run. It turned out to be sooner. Suddenly, Naira heard something. But it was a strange sound indeed. A wood thrush? Birds had fled soon after the Dragon arrived.
Had it been her imagination? The sweet song had been full of life and hope. It must have been in my imagination. There is no hope here. She heard the click of boots against the solid floor. She could only see a glimpse of the shoes through the crack between the stone and the couch, but she stared at them, surprised. They were certainly not the Dragon’s. His were black. These were brown. Whoever it was sat on the couch opposite of Naira.
“Are you going to come out?” The person asked. Naira nearly jumped from fright. She hesitantly crept out. Something in that voice made the question seem like a call. She shook at his feet. His dark eyes seemed to see through her, beyond flesh- to her very soul. This was unnerving, but his expression was not condemning, only kind. “Why were you hiding?” He asked. “The Dragon wants me dead,” she sobbed. “I disobeyed orders to kill someone. The punishment for treason is death. Already I am in darkness, but how much greater the deep shadows of the grave? I fear the unknown.” She bowed her head, tears falling unheeded to the floor. To her surprise, the man took her hand. “You betrayed me, but I still love you. Won’t you return to me?” Naira understood. She whispered “Yes” softly.
The door swung open, and the Dragon strode in with some burly looking guards, cursing, his black cape billowing behind. He stopped abruptly, looking shocked at the sight of the man. “You!” He said with vehement revulsion. Then he laughed. “My enemy, the Prince of Farthestshore,” he smiled, “nothing more than a man! I had heard rumor that you had appeared among Men, calling yourself Aethelbald. I never believed it to be true. You who walk where mortals cannot; you who bound me to the gold stone, a man! But alas, I have something you covet perhaps? I already have her soul. Its mine by rights. It’s too late to try to save her now! I took her soul when she was born, Eshkan!” The Dragon’s cynical laugh sounded again. But the Prince looked undeterred. “I will trade you my life for her soul and all who wish to follow me.” The Dragon looked furious. A flame smoldered deep within the pupil of each of his eyes. “What kind of joke is that! Your father set you up to this, didn’t he? Your life for mortal souls? Ridiculous.” He smiled. “Well, your father won’t fool me.”
“My father never lies.” Eshkan stated gravely. The Dragon looked at the dead serious expression on the Prince’s face, and decided this was no trickery. The Dragon seemed appalled and confused, for he could not understand love. He then decided he should take advantage of the situation, no matter that there seemed to be some sort of lunacy surrounding this subject.
“If you mean what you said, then surrender up your sword,” Death-in-life hissed skeptically. The Prince of Farthestshore looked at Naira’s fearful face with a love beyond all the love of mortals combined. Eshkan complied, taking off the belt holding the sword and sheath. Immediately, the guards took hold of Eshkan and begin tying him up. “Why do you love me?” Naira whispered.
“Because I choose to,” the Creator replied. The guards begin shoving him down the corridor leading out of the room. The Dragon laughed wickedly, his face a picture of pure evil. “Bring the girl along too!” He shouted. “We wouldn’t want her to miss a good show!” His loud laughter attracted some of the dragons and wicked humans from the other parts of the castle.
“Victory!” They screeched and laughed. The hall ended at an open doorway leading to the stairway that circled the outside of the building. Cold air blasted through the entry way. They stepped outside onto the wide stairway that circled the main tower. The wind howled violently, and sheets of rain pelted their every move. Grey mist swirled silently around the group. Some of the dragons transformed from their small human-like bodies to their scale covered ones, and took off, circling the tower. To Naira, every step felt like a thousand years slowly dragging by.
Finally, they arrived at the pinnacle of the tower- the door leading to the torture chamber. The guards shoved the Prince through the doorway mercilessly. Naira was left outside, chained to the landing, two dragons watching her. The cold stone froze her heart, but the horrifying screams of pure suffering and agony caused her to believe her heart would shatter. The ghastly sounds travelled through the icy wind, creating an eerie effect. Sinister laughter mixed with pain filled screams of anguish. Never before had such evil, pain, and love been blended together. “Father,” the Prince screamed, “forgive them, for they know not what they do!” The suffering filled cries lasted for what seemed an eternity. “Bring the girl in!” The dragon shouted. Naira’s dragon guards acted immediately, and she was yanked unwillingly to the crowded room. She gasped, her eyes wide with horror. The Prince of Fartestshore, the one who had brought to her a glimmer of hope, was now shoved into a kneeling position, blood dripping down his bare back. His breeches were splattered with scarlet. A puddle of blood begin to form.
The Prince struggled to breath, his thin body weak. The Dragon laughed wickedly, his chilling voice echoing through the room. His dark smile matched his clothes and cape. The master of evil took the Prince’s ornate sword and unsheathed it. “What a strange thing,” the Dragon said scornfully, “that a prince should die by his own power. Of course, it is mine now.” He paused dramatically, drawing the sword out of its silver sheath. “All for the sake of a few mortal souls.” The Dragon smiled and sighed tauntingly. He then proceeded to drive the sword through the Prince’s heart. The evil one pulled it out, and Eshkhan’s lifeless body crumpled in a heap. Naira screamed. The dragons erupted in cheers. “Victory!” They shouted.
The room became wild and uncontrollable. The dragons morphed into their full sized bodies, fire billowing from their mouths, almost singeing Naira. Their yellow eyes burned with delight. Naira was pulled by her guards down the thousands of stairs encircling the main tower. The rain caused the steps to become slippery, making them dangerous. If the way up had seemed to take forever, the journey down took an eternity and more. They traveled through the swirling mists, getting drenched. Naira could hear the sounds of pain and suffering traveling once again through the eerie breeze. This was a nightmare.
Down, down, down, they moved, at last coming to the last landing- the one leading to the dungeon cells. The metal door squeaked open. It was so dark, Naira was not able to see three feet ahead. One of the guards found a torch, lighting it with his own fire. They placed her in the one furthest from the door. She examined it in her dream-like state. There was not much to see. There was straw in a corner, some rags for blankets, a dented tin water cup and plate, and a single window with a horizontal and vertical bar. They left her there in the dark. Naira glided to the blankets in a daze. Curling up in a corner, she fell asleep to the rain drumming outside.
When she woke up, she figured it was sometime the next day. It was impossible to tell in the Dragon’s shadowland. She bumped into a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, and some meat. She pushed the plate away miserably. The Dragon must want me alive, she thought. Naira huddled in her corner, attempting to stay warm. Her clothes were still damp from the previous night. Why did you do it, my dear Prince? Why? Why for one soul? The world needs you, not me. Why did you love me so much? Naira’s troubled mind wondered. Then she remembered what he had said. “Because I choose to.” Her tears slid slowly down her face until hitting the stone floor. If it was days or hours that went by, she did not know.
She awoke to the sound of a wood thrush. To her complete surprise, warm sunshine poured through the window, warming her body and soul. A small speckled bird appeared on her window, then flitted away. The sun was bright, real, and warm. She peered out, and the blue sky she had forgotten about shone with crystal clarity. She backed away. Unbelievable… Her thoughts were interrupted by a crumbling sound. The wall with the window collapsed, causing a fury of dust. What she saw when the dust cleared blew her mind. “Naira,” he called.
She ran to him with tears streaming down her face. Such an embrace is the definition of true love. “They killed you! I saw the sword…” She burst into fits of sobs. “I have defeated even the grip of death. I have come back from the abyss itself. Death cannot hold me, and neither can Death-in-life.” He let go. “But now, I do believe there is the Dragon to take care of.” They found the Dragon outside, cursing the sunlight. Then he saw them approaching.
If anyone tells you the Dragon cannot possibly become any paler, do not believe them. The Dragon trembled, and begin to grow. His body covered with hard scales, and his nose grew longer. “You were dead!” He said shakily. “Yes, I was.” The Prince of Farthestshore answered with amazing calmness. The Dragon backed off, and took to the sky. Hundreds of his children followed. But some stayed. “Will you follow me?” The Prince asked. A few verbal yes’s were heard, but most were silent nods. Even the ones who had tortured the Prince were forgiven. He touched each of them, and their half dragon bodies became completely human again. The Prince led them to the path leading to a small town outside of Parumivar. Naira became a dame, and served the Prince for the rest of her life. But that did not mean she was without adventure…
The End (for now)