Dragon Jemima darted down tunnel after tunnel, talons clicking against rock, following the gorgon’s terrifying screams. She knew Morwain had kept the gorgon asleep for several days. Now it was awake, it would be starving. She also knew gorgons only eat live flesh.
The tunnels were too narrow to spread her wings but her leg muscles were strong. Her lizard eyes made out every detail, every crevice of the rock walls clearly and distinctly in spite of the underground gloom. Jemima had never shifted into a magical creature before. She doubted if any Shifter had ever had the opportunity to shift into a dragon. It was an extraordinary sensation. She felt as if her veins were running with molten lava. Her heart was a ball of fire, hot as the sun. Her whole body vibrated with red-hot energy.
The gorgon screamed again, louder this time, the bone-chilling screech reverberated off the cave walls. Jemima turned and ran, turned and ran down the labyrinthine tunnels, tail swinging around corners behind her. With her dragon’s super-hearing, she could just make out the monster’s footsteps scurrying in her direction, talon on rock. Jemima knew she was close – just around the next bend.
Suddenly the tunnel ahead of her split in two. Looking down one of the forks, she saw a figure scampering towards her on all fours. The snakes on its head were thrashing and hissing furiously, its jaws were wide open, hooked fangs dripping with drool, its poisonous eyes wild with frenzy. When it caught sight of the dragon up ahead, the monster reared up, threw its head back and let loose an ear-splitting scream, swiping at the air with its venomous claws. Then it threw itself down the tunnel towards Jemima.
In a flash, Jemima bolted off down the other fork, legs pumping, feet dashing against the ground, flanks heaving as she inhaled and exhaled, inhaled and exhaled.
The gorgon’s claws scrabbled as it skidded to a halt at the intersection, wheeled round and charged off in pursuit of Jemima, hunger redoubling its speed now its prey was in sight. Jemima bounded along the tunnel, faster than the wind, she was ten times bigger than the gorgon, she felt more powerful than she ever had before.
But somehow the gorgon was gaining on her.
She twisted her head to look over her shoulder. It was closer than it should be. How can this be happening? She lowered her head, flared her nostrils and ran even harder. Dragon Jemima was sprinting down the tunnel at top speed now, legs moving so fast, they were a blur. But the clacking of the gorgon’s talons was getting louder. It was closing the gap between them.
Goddess protect me! she screamed inwardly. Faster and faster she ran, left down this tunnel, right down that one, desperately hoping to shake the monster off.
And then she felt it – a drop of drool from the gorgon’s mouth landed on her tail.
Quick as lightning, Jemima whirled round and snaked her head upwards, sucking in air through her snout, filling her enormous lungs. Then she opened her jaws and exhaled a blazing torrent of fire onto the gorgon – yellow and orange flames cascaded out of her mouth, engulfing the monster in a fiery inferno.
The gorgon straightened up from all fours and spread its arms wide as if embracing the flames. It stood still for a second, burning like a torch, then leant forward and started to inhale. Jemima watched in horror as it sucked all the flames in through its mouth until all the fire was gone and the gorgon was left standing – arms wide, not a single scorch mark on it. Totally unharmed.
In a panic, Jemima turned on her heels and took off, running for her life now, heart thumping like a hammer. Goddess protect me! She threw herself blindly down this tunnel and then that tunnel.
But the fire seemed to have made the gorgon stronger. It was right on her heels now. And as the gorgon grew stronger, Jemima sensed she was growing weaker. Somehow it was feeding off her energy. With every step, she felt her strength leaving her. Her muscles began to tremble, her head began to swim, a wave of nausea swept over her.
Desperately she flung herself down one more tunnel. This one sloped down dramatically. Her feet slipped from under her and the next thing she knew, she was tumbling downwards, head over tail, her scaled skin dashing against the hard rock. With a thump, she landed on her back on flat ground. As she scrabbled to her feet, she realized with horror that she was back where she had started — in the dragon’s cave. Unwittingly, she had led the gorgon exactly where Morwain wanted it to go.
Annifer! she thought, terror gripping her heart in a vice. If Annifer looked at the gorgon she’d be killed instantaneously. She whipped her long neck around. Annifer was lying unconscious on the ground beside the dragon, worn out from exertion. Thank the Goddess! she thought, relief washing over her.
With a dreadful cry, the gorgon appeared at the tunnel’s mouth.
And in this moment, Jemima knew there was only one thing left to do. She would have to use what little strength remained to her and fight it to the death. She raised her head and offered a final prayer, Goddess, my life is yours. Do with it as you see fit.
Dragon Jemima sucked in a lungful of air and wheeled around to face the gorgon.
The gorgon screamed its banshee wail and rose up onto its feet, teeth bared, talons extended. Their eyes locked.
And then . . .
Something passed between them.
Looking into those orange reptilian eyes, bulging with anger and hatred, Jemima was suddenly conscious that underneath this monstrous exterior, there was a woman.
A woman like her.
A woman into whose eyes no one had looked for decades.
A woman called Isolda.
She felt Isolda’s gaze boring into her soul. Her heart responded. Their two hearts connected. Time stood still.
Isolda stared into Dragon Jemima’s eyes. She blinked and cocked her head to one side. The snakes’ hissing quietened, the fury drained out of her face.
In that instant, Jemima understood Isolda’s pain – those long years of isolation, that soul-deep loneliness, that ardent yearning for connection, the guilt that haunted her, the long-held remorse. How long they stood gazing at each other, Jemima couldn’t tell but suddenly something woke Isolda from her trance. Her gaze shifted over Jemima’s shoulder. Her scaly eyebrows rose when she saw the other dragon, curled up on the cavern floor. Before Jemima could stop her, she was on all fours, bounding towards it. Dragon Jemima gave chase, adrenaline forcing her exhausted body forward.
But she stopped abruptly when she saw what Isolda was doing.
The gorgon was kneeling by the dragon’s side and raising her palms to the heavens in a familiar gesture. Filmy eyelids closed over her bulbous eyes. She opened her fanged jaws and silently mouthed the prayer of healing. Isolda bowed her snake-covered head and slowly lowered her clawed hands to the dragon’s flank.
As soon as she touched it, the dragon lit up, glowing with an aura so blindingly white, Jemima jammed her dragon eyes shut. She could feel the power and intensity vibrating all around her. She drew back her head and cracked one eye open. Isolda and the dragon were glowing so brightly, their features were indistinguishable. The whole cave shone as if lit by lightning. Dragon Jemima shrank back, hunkering down on the cavern floor as the force of it rippled through her body. If she hadn’t been in dragon form, she felt sure it would have knocked her out. She thanked the Goddess that Annifer was already out cold.
There was a thud as the dragon lifted its tail and thumped it down again. Isolda’s hands broke contact with the dragon’s body, the light went out and she fell backwards onto the ground. Jemima watched in amazement as the green scales that covered her melted into skin, the soft lined skin of an old, old woman. Her talons and fangs receded, the snakes on her head transformed into long, flowing white hair, her bulging eyes shrank back to normal size and finally, after decades as a hideous monster, Isolda was a woman once more.
Jemima gazed at the figure lying on the ground in front of her, eyes closed in a gentle, delicately wrinkled face, white hair spread out on the ground around her head, mouth hanging open. She was the mirror image of Cressida.
Jemima shifted back to her human form, her stomach swooping as she shrank back to her normal size and regained her human body. She fell to her knees beside her Cressida’s twin and stroked her silky hair. Isolda opened her eyes, her deep, emerald eyes. When they saw Jemima looking down at her, face full of kindness, they filled with tears.
‘You saved the dragon, Isolda!’ Jemima’s voice cracked. ‘You saved us all!’ Isolda’s lips stretched into a smile. Her eyes crinkled and the tears ran down, flowing in rivulets down the creases of her face. Her head dropped to one side and her eyes closed.