Sacred Mountain

Chapter 26: Under The Mountain

‘We have to go after her!’ Annifer yelled.

‘There’s no time! We have a dragon to heal!’ Jemima grabbed Annifer by the arm and pulled her up over the hillock they’d been hiding behind. ‘I’ll get the crystal. Remember not to look at the gorgon,’

They ran side by side, kicking up the virgin snow, towards the cave’s entrance. Jemima crouched down and scooped up the murky coloured crystal from where it lay in a pile of its own flakes. ‘Ouch! It’s burning my hands!’ She winced and dropped it quickly into Annifer’s knapsack which she slung over her shoulders.

Bending to pick up a handful of snow to soothe her burning hands, she noticed out of the corner of her eye, the tiniest signs of movement from the mesmerized wolf pack. They lay still on the ground, their eyes frozen open, but as she watched she saw a pair of eyes blink, a paw twitch, a pair of nostrils flutter.

‘Look! The wolves are waking up from their trance! Morwain can’t control them from afar.’

‘What about the gorgon?’ Annifer stared wild-eyed at the motionless, snake-haired figure lying face down in the mouth of the cave, green scaled hands ending in yellow talonned fingers roped together behind its back. Annifer’s voice trembled with nerves. ‘Will she wake too?’

‘No, he’s given her the long sleep draught. She’ll stay asleep till he gives her the antidote.’

‘Come on! We need to go inside!’ Annifer grasped Jemima’s wrist and dragged her into the cave. They took care to avert their eyes as they dashed past the gorgon’s prone form into the darkness of the tunnel.

The two girls slowed to a walk as their eyes adjusted to the low light, holding their hands out in front of them, the sunlight decreasing until only the eerie phosphorescent glow from the cave walls lit their way. The sounds of the forest vanished too and before long all they could hear was the echoing clump of their footsteps on the rock.

Hearts thudding in their chests, the subterranean air cool and damp against their skin, they hurried on. Soon openings appeared in the rock walls revealing more tunnels that stretched off in different directions.

‘Which way do we go?’ Annifer turned in a circle, her shrill voice reverberating all around them.

‘We’ll keep to this tunnel. It slopes downwards. The dragon will have buried himself as deep underground as possible. Follow me.’

Jemima made to continue but Annifer had stopped and at the entrance of one of the tunnels and was gazing into it transfixed, eyes wide, mouth open in amazement.

‘What is it?’ Jemima asked, coming to stand next to her and peer inside. It was the same cave she and Daisy had seen in the fire, its floor littered with scorched bones that might have been human if not for their size – charred skulls the size of boulders, soot-blackened ribcages as big as rowing boats, thigh bones as long as Jemima was tall.

‘These are giants’ bones!’ Annifer whispered awestruck. Jemima blinked. She knew she had no choice but to tell the truth.

‘It’s a secret known only to the Wise Women. The giants were never wiped out. They’re still alive in the wilderness north of Crosstain. It’s the dragon that keeps them from getting too close to human settlements. This is why we have to save him.’ Annifer gulped and stared at Jemima. Even in the underground gloom, Jemima could tell, her face was ashen, her eyes glassy with horror. ‘We’ve no time to waste, Annie.’ She seized her arm again and hauled her down the tunnel.

Suddenly, Jemima stopped dead in her tracks and cupped her ears. ‘Sh!’ Just audible in the silence was the low, deep rumble of a large creature breathing. The rhythm was irregular – one long deep breath followed by a few short pants. Their Wise Women senses told them these were the gasping breaths of very ill animal. ‘This way!’ Jemima darted off, following the sound along a side tunnel that led sharply downwards.

Together they hurtled down the tunnel, faster and faster, gravity increasing their speed, the breathing getting louder all the time. The rock floor here was slick with moss. All at once, they both lost their footing, their stomachs rising to their throat as they fell forward, tumbling head over heels down the slope, landing in a painful heap on the sand-covered floor of a gigantic cave.

Wincing, they scrambled to their feet. Instantly their eyes were drawn upwards, their mouths gaped open. The cave was vast, huger even that the Ancient Library of Jamain – the biggest building in the whole of Tarth.

In front of them on the cavern’s floor, lay the colossal form of the last of the immortals: the dragon. The creature was curled almost into a ball, eyes closed under filmy eyelids, mouth slightly open, revealing rows of sharp, pointed teeth. It breathed raggedly, flanks lifting and falling as it painfully sucked in air. Its red and gold scales were dull, spines lay flat across its back, leathery wings were folded against its sides. The poor beast trembled all over as it lay there suffering, weak and ill from Morwain’s curses.

Frozen in wonder, Annifer and Jemima gazed at the awesome creature. Jemima was the first to shake herself out of her trance and snap into action. She ran to where the dragon’s head lay, undid the knapsack and held it upside down so the crystal slid out onto the ground, just in front of the dragon’s forehead. Then the two girls took up their positions. Jemima knelt beside the dragon’s neck, Annifer opposite her across the dragon’s curled body beside its hind leg. Together, they turned their palms upwards, raised them heavenwards and spoke the prayer of healing in unison.

‘Sweet Goddess, may Your Healing Light flow through us. We are Your servants.’

As one, the two princesses shut their eyes and focused on the healing fire in their hearts. They concentrated, willing the fire to burn brighter, stronger, hotter. Gradually they felt their heart-flames intensify until they blazed with a fierce glow, warming their chests from within. Now they were ready. They opened up the healing channels within themselves and sent the energy to their hands. Their palms tingled, electrified. They looked at one another across the dragon’s body. Jemima nodded and, at the exact same moment, they touched their hands to the dragon’s flesh.

White hot healing energy flowed from the healers into the creature. Its body began to glow with a white aura. The girls concentrated with all their might. They sent wave after wave of brilliant white light into the dragon’s body. The dragon glowed more and more brightly, pulsing with healing energy.

And then the light went out.

Annifer sagged forward, gasping for breath. ‘Something’s wrong.’

Jemima furrowed her brows. ‘The crystal’s not lighting up. It can’t channel healing energy any more. Morwain’s polluted it – that’s why it burned my hands.’

‘How will we heal a creature this size without the crystal’s power?’ Annifer wailed, her voice high-pitched and desperate.

‘We’ll have to try harder,’ Jemima’s nostrils flared, her eyes flashed with determination. ‘Goddess, please help us heal this dragon!’

Once again, they focused on their inner flames, sent the fire to their palms and touched them to the dragon’s scaly skin. They grimaced, they gritted their teeth, mustering all their will power, all their strength, trying their hardest to flood the dragon with healing light. Veins on their temples throbbed, muscles in their necks corded, sweat poured down their faces. Once again, the dragon glowed briefly before the light faded and went out.

‘We can’t do it!’ Annifer cried, choking down the wave of nausea that threatened to engulf her.

‘We have to! Try again!’

Just then a bloodcurdling scream echoed through the cave sending a jolt of panic through both girls.

‘What was that?’ Annifer’s voice shook with fear and exhaustion.

‘Morwain’s back. He’s given the gorgon the antidote and sent her after us. We have to stop her before she gets here. The dragon’s too weak to fight back now. If she bites him, he’ll die.’

Annifer let out a strangled cry.

‘You stay here.’ Jemima swiped her sweaty forehead with the heel of her hand. ‘Keep trying to heal the dragon. I’ll head her off.’

‘But, Jemima, if you look at her you’ll die.’

‘Dragons are immune to the gorgon’s poisonous glare.’ Jemima grinned and winked. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and muttered the reclothing spell.

Annifer’s eyes rounded, her head tipped back as she watched her red-haired friend’s body grow and grow. Red and gold scales spread over Jemima’s skin, spines poked out all along her backbone, red-skinned wings sprouted from her shoulder blades. Her nails extended into hooked talons, a heavy spiked tail curled on the floor behind her. Her eyes bulged and turned orange, the pupils elongated into slits, her lower face extended into a snout, its jaw filled with spiky teeth.

Dragon Jemima reared on her hind legs and let out an almighty roar that echoed around the cavern, then twisted, fell forward onto all fours and galloped away up the tunnel they had come in through.

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