“Of course once you’ve eaten you’ll need to rest. It’s best not to start a long journey with one’s head clouded from a sleepless night.” Ausfela sighed as if this were the most unfortunate of facts and rose slowly to her feet. “I’m guessing you brought a meal for yourselves? At least I hope you did. I don’t have much in the way of human food. I hardly have anything in the way of dragon food either, after all these years. Luckily, depending on how you look at it, dragons can go a very, very long time on very little food. I have more or less hibernated away entire centuries, dozing lightly in case you were born and grew up and arrived, but dozing all the same. And I guess I shouldn’t say I’ve been entirely without provisions or entirely trapped below ground. Rarely, I’ve snuck from my lair to do a bit of hunting in the dead of night.”
Lina raised an eyebrow at this news. This dragon, it seemed, had a flair for the dramatic if she’d gone on about being trapped underground for years, when she had been making trips above ground. This news considerably brightened her thoughts, however, since obviously there was a way out from this space deep within the mountains.
The dragon began to walk slowly away from them, motioning first with a tilt of her head that they should follow. “We’d best go this way. There are some human sized tables. And beds as well. We aren’t entirely without creature comforts for your kind here.”
“We have questions.” Quara said the words as she trailed after the dragon, glancing back one last time over her shoulder at the staircase that had led them into the chamber
“I’m sure you do, Child. And I have answers. Although I’m not sure, after all this time here that I have as many answers as you have questions. I have, on occasion, been able to get information from the world above, but not in a long while. It’s not as though I see anyone on my night hunts. But the main thing is that you’re here now and we have to get up above ground.”
“Above ground?” Quara’s voice sounded oddly strangled as though she were battling a wave of panic and failing to subdue it.
“You couldn’t have imagined that we were going to save the world from the safety of this cave, did you?”
“I didn’t really imagine that we were going to save the world at all. I mean I know you said it a moment ago, but I thought that maybe you were exaggerating.” Quara shook her head. “How can we save the world if we don’t even know what we’re saving it from?”
“You will know. Once you’re settled and eating. Why don’t you tell me while we’re walking what you already know? What do you girls know of the world above ground and about why you’ve spent your entire lives hidden away in caves?”
Quara turned the question over in her mind as she followed behind Ausfela, linking arms with Lina who was silent for the first time since they’d began their adventure earlier that morning. “We have a history class and we’ve studied the stories of the wars that took place above ground, before the Caverns were sealed away. We know that once, so long ago that no one remembers his name, there was a good king who ruled nearly all of the known world. But he was killed by an evil king and that evil king has sat on the thrown for hundreds of years, although no one really knows how he’s gone on living for quite so long.”
Ausfela was shaking her head slowly from side to side, but Quara ignored her and continued. “Our family was from the plains. Our ancestors were some of the only people who managed to escape from the massacres that took place there. They made it here and brought news of the death and destruction that had swept the land. They said that entire cities were blotted out, their names nearly forgotten although a decade earlier they had built delicate spires that reached up towards the heavens, because there was no one left to remember what they had once been called.”
“What do you know of the stories that are told of the end of these dark years? That is to say, what do you know about what’s gone on above ground in recent years?” They had reached a large arched opening and they followed the dragon into an enormous tunnel, wide enough for at least five dragons to walk down, side by side, with space between them.
“Nothing.” Lina took up speaking as they walked slowly, eyes wide as they took in the brightly shining walls. “The mood in the caverns of late has been rather morose. There’s some sort of a conflict coming, but no one will tell us anything. And the guards hardly seem optimistic about it, although some seem eager enough to go throwing their lives away at the earliest possible date.” They made their way further into the passage, lights racing alongside them, illuminating their way. Quara glanced back over her shoulder and saw the lights in the cavern behind them extinguished as the room fell again into darkness.
“The lights will follow us,” Ausfela explained as she glanced to the side, noting Quara’s expression. “It’s just how this place works. The cave itself was built to sense movement and when there’s a light source the room that’s occupied dances with light while the empty rooms fall dark. Although that little piece of fire energy you brought down here could easily light this entire complex of caves for ten thousand years. If it had been left here with me, as it should have been, I wouldn’t have spent all these years in the dark.”
“So the Egg was yours to begin with? It was stolen from you?” The words tumbled from Lina’s lips.
“Yes and no. That stone, which you call the Egg, did belong in these caves, although it certainly didn’t belong to me alone, unless you say that the caves belong to me now after I’ve spent these long years in them. It’s strange because usually a few thousand years isn’t all that long for a dragon, but these years that I’ve spent waiting have ticked by slowly. You’d think that sleeping in caves is sleeping in caves but I think that the fact that I was here waiting for you to arrive made time pass all the more slowly. Well that and also knowing about the hardships that nearly everyone was enduring above ground.”
“You’ve mentioned waiting for us before, but how can it possibly be? How could you have been waiting for us millennia before we were actually born?” Quara tore her eyes from the dancing lights around her and fixed her gaze firmly on the dragon’s sharp profile.
“It is quite the question, isn’t it? And it’s going to take some time to explain. And I daresay that it will take some time to convince you in particular that we need to do exactly what we need to do.” The dragon’s nostrils flared for a moment and she turned to gaze at Quara before moving her head away from the girls, to the left and tapping a claw on a bright blue spot of light. “Here we are. Come right this way,” as Ausfela spoke a door appeared in the midst of what had appeared to be solid crystal a moment before. A door appeared and they entered a cave, which was much larger than their entire family’s living space back home, but which they sensed must be considered small by the dragons, although it was still large enough for Ausfela to stroll easily about the room without knocking into anything, even when she turned about with her tail swishing behind her.
On their right side as they entered the room there was a table, with chairs lined up around it. A bit further in there were four large, overstuffed sofas, all made of a luxurious red velvet. Lina immediately walked across the room and threw herself into one of the sofas, running her fingers back and forth across the arms with a smile. “Remember when Abintha wore a purple velvet dress to the Christmas party in the Heart and then she wouldn’t let anyone come near her because she was afraid someone was going to spill something on it.”
“Her mother would have killed her if she’d gotten it stained. I couldn’t have imagined wanting to wear something that would cause so much trouble if something happened to it.” Quara walked around the room slowly, peering from side to side. Beyond the chairs that Lina had immediately gone to there was a large freestanding fireplace in the middle of the room with a stone chimney that appeared to be made of river rocks that swept upwards towards the ceiling and disappeared out of sight. As Quara’s eyes followed the chimney into the darkness she noticed that the space above them was not lit entirely, but was covered in tiny twinkling lights, so that she imagined what she was seeing was very much what the night sky must look like when you laid on your back and gazed up at it after the sun had long since set.
Tearing her eyes from the ceiling she looked past the fireplace where there was a smaller passageway, which she knew that most dragons would not be able to fit through, and beyond the far doorway through a corridor she could see a bed. “There are sleeping quarters down that way,” Ausfela explained, following Quara’s gaze.
The left side of the room that they were standing in, where Ausfela had settled, was a wide open space, nearly twice as wide as the furnished portion of the room. The floor on this side of the room, which was smooth grey granite and more like the Caverns back home than any other place they’d seen since they descended through the spiral staircase, rolled and rose so that both girls suspected it had been shaped into enormous chairs and beds for any dragons who came to visit human guests. Quara had noticed that Ausfela had a tendency to lounge when she wasn’t moving about and already the dragon had settled herself onto one of the rock formations and was laying with her eyes half closed as she watched the girls take in their surroundings.
“You would lounge about too if you were a cold blooded Star Seeker. Our home planet is quite a bit warmer than this one and while we’ve adapted, at least during our youth, we never quite get entirely used to it, unlike most of the native dragon species from your planet.” Ausfela seemed to answer Quara’s unspoken thought and she turned sharply to look at the dragon.
“I thought you didn’t listen in on thoughts.” Lina looked up at her sister’s tone, surprised that she was already so comfortable around such a large creature and that she had no qualms about speaking with annoyance to the enormous flaxen dragon.
“I don’t listen in,” the dragon replied, her voice tinged with amusement, “but you were practically shouting your thoughts for all the world to hear so I couldn’t help but hear them. If you don’t want me to reply you might want to try thinking a little more quietly.” The dragon’s eyes had widened for a moment and then she relaxed again, resting her head on top of her front claws. “If I were you two I would start unpacking whatever food it is that you’ve packed in those bags. Unless you’d like me to dig out some of my store of food. But I have to warn you, it’s been down here for a good long time and it’s all salted.”
“Are you saying that you have meat down here that’s three thousand years old?” Now it was Lina’s eyes that had grown wide.
“Not quite, as I mentioned before, now and then I have had news of the outside world and they’ve brought me supplies. But they’ve come all too rarely in the last centuries for me to have anything here that I might offer you with pride. Although if you’re starving it would be enough to sustain you until we got up above ground. As long as you didn’t break any teeth.” Ausfela chuckled to herself as Quara locked eyes with her sister and hoped that whatever she had packed was a hearty meal. They hadn’t expected to be gone very long, so she wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if her sister had packed only bread and a water flask. Quara knew that sometimes Lina’s idea of what a meal should consist of was sorely lacking.
Still she was starving and so she carried her bag over to the smooth wooden table and sat heavily on one of the chairs as she pulled at the drawstrings and pushed back the flap. Lina was still sitting in her red chair, one leg flung over the arm rest, her bag sitting at her feet. “Aren’t you hungry?” Quara asked as she pulled out the water skin that Lina had packed in her bag, along with a large slice of bread wrapped in paper, a hunk of cheese, two thick slices of onion and an apple.
“Not really. Not yet. I’m too curious to be hungry.” Quara nodded. Lina had always gone long stretches hardly touching a bite of the meals their mother prepared, usually followed by a day when she consumed every piece of food that came near her plate. “So Ausfela, you didn’t seem all that impressed with what we’d learned in our history classes, so why don’t you give us your version.”
“I will soon. But I would rather you ate something now. We have much to do in the coming days and the road before us will not be easy. You need your strength and your rest. And I need to gather my thoughts because while I don’t know entirely what I expected, I know that I didn’t expect you to be so entirely ignorant of both where you had come from and of the places that you are bound to go.”
“You say the oddest things.” Quara murmured the words as she nibbled on the piece of bread, taking small bites to make the food last longer. She’d already decided that she would only eat a portion of what she had since she wasn’t entirely certain when they would have access to more food and Ausfela hadn’t made the dragon stockpile sound very appealing.
“Well if you won’t start the history lesson just yet, then perhaps you can tell us another story while we eat.” Lina stood slowly from the sofa she’d sunk into and joined her sister at the table.
“Do you have something in mind?” the dragon asked.
“When I first came to the room down in the bottom of the library I found a book. A journal of sorts.” Ausfela raised her head abruptly, her large eyes narrowing for a moment as Lina paused. “It was very incomplete. But it told the story of a princess who-”
“Who was poisoned.” The dragon interrupted, speaking in an oddly flat voice.
“So you do know the story.” Lina beamed as she said the words for she hadn’t yet learned the art of reading a dragon’s facial expressions and so she didn’t know that Ausfela looked quite miserable as she let her chin rest again on the stone of the seat she was reclining upon.
“Everyone knows the story.” She muttered the words, mostly to herself. “At least everyone I’d ever met until this day knows the story.”
“So was the princess really killed? And if she was, then was she avenged?” The curiosity bubbled up in Lina, who had waited long to learn the end of the story that she had first read in the depths of the library years earlier.
“She was killed. But as to whether she was avenged, that is a more difficult question to answer.”
“Can you tell us the story?” Now it was Quara who spoke and again the dragon shook her head.
“I always expected that you would know all of this. To be the one to tell you and to try to explain, well I’m not entirely sure I’m up to the task. My job was simply to deliver you safely north, but this is much, much more complicated than that.”
“How can telling us a story be so complicated?” Lina smiled at the dragon who looked rather alarmed at the prospect of explaining to the girls the events of the previous millennia.
“Because this is one of the most complex stories I know and I’ve read enough dragon sagas to fill a wing in your precious City library. Where to even begin?”
“I’d go with the beginning.” Quara suggested as she brushed a crumb from her lap, not noticing the dragon’s ever deepening frown.
“You know, as long as I’m telling a story I might as well be telling the story that you most need to know. It began when an evil King, who was not always evil, took the throne. He lived in the palace in the City above us. The true King, that is to say, the former King’s eldest son, went into hiding. He fled first to what seemed to many of us to be the most unlikely of places. A dragon from this very cave complex smuggled him to Za’Reek and there he stayed for many years.”
“Did he fight for his kingdom?” Lina interjected and the dragon frowned at her.
“It depends on what you mean by fight. He didn’t fight in the way you’re picturing it, at least not in the beginning. He tried to convince the evil King to be the kind and wise leader that he might have been if he had been able to listen to his heart and forgive the attempted rebellion. He would have gladly given up the thrown to see that happen. Instead the evil King hardened his heart against the voices of all of the people that remained near him in those last days of order before the chaos completely took hold of his mind. And then it was too late. The evil King had become too powerful and his heart had turned to darkness. He withdrew more and more into his plots and treachery. And he became obsessed with the true King, with hunting him down and finding him in the place that he had escaped to.”
“For a time we feared that the King was going to give himself up. He would have too I think, if we dragons hadn’t watched him very closely. He seemed to think that his life wasn’t worth all that much and that perhaps, if he turned himself over to the evil King and accepted his fate, and what he had begun to believe was his inevitable death, the evil King’s heart might still turn towards justice, if not compassion. But then he had a daughter and he became less eager to leave this world. And while ultimately, a few years later, he would fall in battle against his rival, it was not because he had surrendered. He passed from this life in his full armor, in the heat of battle, riding upon one of the greatest Star Seekers who ever lived, the legendary Inarhel, a fiery crimson dragon, with scales like finely polished steel. Inarhel had already lived long years on your planet, for he had shunned returning to the place from whence we came, since he had vowed to fight until the light and hope was restored to the people of this land, and especially to the inhabitants of Za’Reek.”
“Something is missing.” Quara muttered the words to herself as she rewrapped her lunch in the papers that Lina had used the night before when she had put everything together.
“Well of course, much is missing. I can’t give you the entire history of our kingdoms in the course of a single night. We could spend years discussing it all. So I can only promise you the highlights. And we must push forward if you two are going to see a wink of sleep tonight.”
“After the King’s death the evil King declared himself Emperor of the Planet, although this was not really true on any level, because Za’Reek had always defied his rule and armies, as did a few other countries that had not yet fallen. Our walls have stayed strong, although to be honest we hardly needed walls since few humans, even of the soldier variety, are all that eager to go to war with dragons and griffins, even if they greatly feared the king who was ordering them to move forward. It is said that sometime in those years he made a deal of some sort with an evil specter that is credited with his unreasonably long lifespan.”
“Whatever it was that happened, it was around this time that the Emperor’s appearance changed drastically. Up until this point of time, for all the evil that he had done and atrocities that he had committed, he was still undeniably handsome, at least that’s what I’ve been told since human and dragon standards of beauty are obviously quite different. I must admit that I could never really see it, because once you knew what he had done it was hard to see past the evil acts and the hunger for power. But objectively humans seemed to think he was still fair to look at. However the bargain that gave him immortal life, or something very close to immortal life, cost him greatly. While he was still a strong leader who rode out in battle with his men, his skin and hair were bleached a snowy white, and his features were said to be nearly frozen into an expression of terror. Many men said that it was because in making his little deal he had spent time with beings who are not meant to be in this world, and he had bargained with them and paid a high price in exchange for what he gained.”
“Meanwhile in Za’Reek, the young princess, the daughter of the True King, grew in grace and beauty. For years the King and Queen of that country sheltered her as best they were able, but everyone knew that someday she would have to be told the truth about the reason her father fell in battle and the loss of the kingdom that was rightfully hers. The people prayed that someday she would rise up and over throw the emperor and take her rightful place on the throne of Charcha so that order, the world over, would be restored. Obviously that did not happen.”
“She and her heirs fought against the Emperor with varying levels of success. Some generations have seen the tide turn back to a greater degree. And then came the long years when it appeared that all was lost. We had a series of defeats that cost us greatly. Many members of the blood line were killed long before their time, although there was always at least one member of the family who survived each generation all the way down to the present.”
“Finally the Emperor became so powerful that he rained down fire from the sky on the regions in which his enemies, the remaining members of the true royal family, were hiding. Because of a warning from a very small, very quick dragon, the family was spared, but they have been in hiding for several generations now, and we in Za’Reek have waited for the day when the prophecy which was spoken not long after they went into hiding would be fulfilled.”
“Can you tell us of this prophecy?” Quara was leaning forward towards the dragon, a peculiar expression on her face. Ausfela could see that the pieces of the puzzle were coming together within the older girl’s mind, but she wasn’t quite ready to ask the question that she knew she should ask before the night drew to a close.
“In Za’Reek there is an old woman, Lonala, who has been a dreamer of true dreams since her youth. The dreams come to her unbidden. Sometimes she sees many things and her dreams take her far into the future. Other times the path before us twists and the things that she sees don’t come entirely to pass. And then there are dark years when the dreams seem to have left her for a time and the future is elusive and dark, the window to it closed to us.”
“Lonala dreamed, as have many before her, that the time when the Emperor might be overthrown would be at hand when two…” the dragon’s voice trailed off as though she were searching for the right word, “girls, came down through twisting steps and set the world alight again.”
“And you think that that’s us?” Quara had been leaning forward but now she sat back hard against the bench and then stood and began to pace the length of the room, running one hand roughly through the golden tendrils of hair that had escaped her braid since she’d bound it back that morning.
“I know that it’s you. It’s why I’ve waited here all these years.”
“This is insane.” Quara said the words to herself, glancing at Lina who was still sitting at the table, slowly eating the food in front of her, as she stared hard at a spot on the wall. Quara was quite certain that she was so lost in her own thoughts that she wasn’t actually seeing what was before her at all.
“I know that it must seem that way to you. But it really isn’t. I mean, it’s not any more insane than all of the moments that led up to this one. Three thousand years have passed, every moment has come together exactly as it must for you to find your way here. And now you need to go into that room and get a good night’s rest, because in the morning, we’re going to rise up above the ground and begin to set things aright.”