"He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you."
The world descended into madness.
Under a rain of dragonfire and destruction, Elijah and the remaining group attempted to make their escape back to Shadowmoon Keep. Thick smoke hung heavy in the air, obscuring his vision as he tried to keep Vivian in his sights.
Without warning, an angry dragon crashed into the ground right in front of him in a flurry of leathery wings and writhing scales, separating Elijah from the group.
It was Arsyr.
The creature roared furiously, his serpentine head striking at Elijah, razor teeth barred.
Hastily, Elijah backtracked to the amphitheater, ducking inside just before a ball of fire was hurled at him from the raging dragon. He tripped over the charred body of Vivian’s fallen soldier, nearly falling on top of the smoldering remains.
The whole building shook around him. It felt as if the very mountain itself were being torn apart by a massive earthquake. Great beams from above came crashing down around him, plaster and dust coating his hair and sticking to his sweat-slickened skin in a thick, gritty layer. Behind him, Arsyr peered through the hole in the ceiling, intent on spying Elijah in the rubble.
“C’mon, Thorn, do what Vivian woke you up to do. Distract this bastard already!” Elijah muttered, ducking behind one of the six stone pillars bordering what once was the amphitheater arena. He clung precariously to the slick pillar, trying hard not to look down into the abyss that had once been the arena floor. That large chasm in the ground had housed a dragon larger than Elijah thought possible. The gaping hole in the roof of the amphitheater was testament to just how large Thorn was. Vivian had informed him that dragons never stopped growing and that Thorn was ancient in the world of dragons. That explained his behemoth size. Additionally, Thorn was still very much alive; a fact that had surprised Elijah when he’d first gazed upon the living, breathing dragon. This wasn’t just the land of the undead, after all.
“You can’t escape from me, little worm. When I’m finished with you, your comrades will smell the smoke of your torment.” Arsyr hissed, his voice echoing through the ruined amphitheater.
Sweat beaded Elijah’s brow as he stood frozen, afraid to move, afraid to breathe. Even in his perilous predicament, he didn’t miss the absurdity of his situation. Of all the scenarios he had thought he’d find himself in one day, this was never one of them: cowering behind a pillar while hiding from a talking dragon.
The minutes ticked by as Elijah hid within the arena’s darkness. In a moment of repose from the dragon’s verbal onslaught, something stirred deep within the arena’s abyss. “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” A raspy voice called from the bowels of the arena.
The dragon momentarily forgotten, Elijah gazed into the black abyss, his eyes squinting to make out anything in the darkness. Who in the world could possibly be down in a dragon’s lair? “Hello?” He called softly. “Is someone there?”
Two glowing orbs appeared near the edge of the abyss, seemingly floating alone in the darkness. They were focused right on the spot where Elijah stood. The unease that Elijah had grown accustomed to since finding himself in this strange world reared its head again. Would the nightmare ever end?
Momentarily, a gray, withered hand - mere bone covered by a thin layer of desiccated flesh - grasped the ledge near Elijah’s feet. It was followed by another hand. Elijah backed away, unsure if the undead would be hostile or not. A shriveled head emerged next, eyes glowing the same sickly green as all the other undead in Ellesmere, wisps of slate gray hair clinging to the skull, followed by the man’s thin, skeletal body.
“I knew she’d come back. Long have I lain in darkness, haunted by images of her sad demise. The piercing teeth of the dragon that ended my life didn’t hurt me half as bad as watching sweet Vivian being murdered in cold blood.” The corpse of an old man came to stand before Elijah. They were nearly the same height, though Elijah supposed the man may have shrunk since his demise.
As if summoned by the undead’s voice, Vivian called out to Elijah from the opening of the amphitheater.
“Thief! Where are you? Are you still alive?”
“Ah, that voice is music to my ears.” The undead sighed. “I was witness to Vivian’s final breath leaving her body and yet she now walks again, infused with that same unholy magic that binds our King and all his subjects to this mortal realm. A blessing and a curse all in one. But let me tell you,” The undead drew so close to Elijah that he could smell the musty decay of the man’s body. “Vivian is bound to a different source of magic than the rest of us are, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed. Her life force comes directly from the Well of Eternity, while the rest of us are merely bound by nethralmancy.”
The arena shook and trembled violently around them, interrupting the undead’s tale. “Look, I don’t know who the heck you are, but we better get out of here now.” Elijah turned toward where the door had been, hoping the stranger would follow him.
“Wait.” A thin hand grabbed Elijah’s shoulder, vice-like in its grip despite its frail appearance. Elijah turned back to look into the gaunt, skull-like face of the man. “If I don’t make it out of here, make sure that Vivian knows my King didn’t betray her. She died believing he’d forsaken her, but it simply isn’t true.”
“Ok, you have my word.” Elijah replied, turning away from the undead once more to find a way out of the doomed building. Despite the chaos ensuing around him, he couldn’t help but be intrigued by the stranger’s words. Now he knew that Vivian had died in a terrible fashion and now believed herself to have been betrayed by the King of Ellesmere. Clearly, there had been something there between Vivian and the undead King if he’d had the ability to betray her in the first place.
“Thief! Come to me now! The dragons are distracted and fighting one another.” The soft glow of Vivian’s eyes materialized in the dust and smoke ahead. “Good, you’re still alive. And it looks like you’ve brought company.” She nodded at the undead that trailed behind him.
Without another word, she turned, leading them out of the amphitheater just as Thorn and Arsyr crashed into the building in a ball of dragonfire and deafening roars. The building caved in on itself, a wave of debris chasing Elijah, Vivian and the undead man all the way back to the side entrance of Shadowmoon Keep.
Elijah couldn’t help himself, he paused in his retreat, turning back to watch the two adversaries battling one another viciously. He’d never imagined in a million years that he’d be able to witness a real, live dragon battle.
Red-hot flames erupted from the dragons, bathing each other in wave after wave of dragon fire. When they weren’t trying to burn one another to a crisp, they bit and snarled at one another like two rabid dogs. While Thorn was three times the size of Arsyr, the younger dragon was much more agile and fast, dodging Thorn’s blows easily. Thorn’s massive, horned head would rear back to strike and just as he nearly made contact with the smaller dragon, Arsyr would slither around Thorn and bite at his back and wings. The larger dragon roared and thrashed thunderously, spinning around only for Arsyr to circle him again.
This continued for several minutes while Elijah stood gazing upon them in fascination, his safety momentarily forgotten. It was almost as if they were dancing around one another, with Arsyr getting many more bites in than the much-larger Thorn could manage. Red blood seeped from multiple wounds on Thorn’s green-scaled back. The younger dragon seemed to gloat as he danced around Thorn, wings outstretched and mouth opened, barring his razor sharp teeth now coated with blood.
“What are you doing? Do you have a death wish?” Vivian came to stand beside him, her attention drifting from Elijah to the warring dragons. They watched in silence for a few moments more before Vivian stepped forward, pulling an arrow from the quiver hanging between her shoulders. “It’s time to end this. Thorn hasn’t reached full power yet; he’s still trying to wake up from his long slumber. We just need to get the other dragon’s attention, which will give Thorn the opportunity to strike.” A blue flame erupted from the arrow’s tip as she notched it in her crossbow. As soon as the arrow was released from the crossbow, she immediately notched another arrow, firing several in swift succession.
The arrows found their mark, burying themselves in the red scales of Arsyr’s serpentine neck. While it wasn’t enough to cause much injury to the dragon, it was enough to distract him. He turned toward Vivian and Elijah, roaring furiously.
“Oh crap.” Elijah mumbled as the dragon rose into the air, aiming his body in their direction.
“It’s okay, Thorn will be able to get him now.” Vivian whispered as they started to back up in the direction of the castle’s arched doorway.
“I sure hope you’re right, because he’s coming straight for us.” Arsyr was flying at them, his chest glowing red as he prepared to bathe them in a rain of fire. Elijah turned to run the final few meters to the door when he heard a sickening crunch from above him. He looked up just in time to be showered in metallic-smelling, warm liquid. Blood ran into Elijah’s eyes, burning them as the sticky liquid found its way into his mouth and soaked into his clothes.
A large object nearly struck him as it fell directly in front of the castle’s door, barring his entrance into the building. The severed head of Arsyr lay before them, his dead eyes fixed and dilated on a point beyond Elijah’s line of sight. The creature’s massive tongue lolled out of his mouth, shredded by his own razor sharp teeth.
Elijah spat the blood from his mouth, feeling as if he would vomit for a second time that night. He looked up to see Thorn’s enormous body hovering over them. The other half of Arsyr’s limp body dangled from Thorn’s mouth as he chewed on the ruined neck of the smaller dragon.
“See, I told you Thorn would take care of him for us.” Vivian laughed as she wiped blood from her eyes. “Now, let’s get inside and get cleaned up. I don’t particularly relish soaking in dragon blood, though I hear it does wonders for the skin.” She winked at Elijah. “But what am I saying? I’m already dead. There’s no helping my skin from this point on.” She chuckled before turning back to Thorn. “Hey, big guy, can you get this head out of the way for us?”
Thorn tossed Arsyr’s lifeless body off to his right, away from the castle and its surrounding buildings. He proceeded to scoop the severed head in his mouth before taking flight in the direction he’d thrown the rest of Arsyr’s remains.
“Thorn is going to have himself a feast and that should restore him to full power.” Vivian disappeared through the doorway. “Come, Thief, let’s get cleaned up and then you can rest.”
An hour later, Elijah sat before a large hearth where a blazing fire danced in the grate, a bowl of parsnip and lamb stew perched on his knee. He ignored the pain in his shoulder as he soaked a large hunk of brown bread in the soup before stuffing it into his mouth, chewing hungrily. By his calculations, it had been over a whole day since he’d last eaten.
Bathed and clothed in clean, borrowed clothes that were a bit too snug on his muscular frame, Elijah felt bone weariness creeping over him. He only hoped the pain in his shoulder would subside enough to let him sleep. The castle’s cook had brewed him a cup of bitter-tasting tea that supposedly had an herb from the castle medicinal garden that worked as a very powerful pain killer. Elijah kept this in the forefront of his mind as he forced himself to swallow the unsavory brew.
“Excuse me, sir, but Vivian wishes to see you on the castle’s parapets when you are done eating.” A tiny, middle-aged woman who was very much alive appeared beside him carrying a pewter mug. “Here, take this with you. Combined with the tea that Cook brewed, it’ll help relax you and put you to sleep.”
Elijah accepted the mug, noting the amber liquid sloshing around inside. “Thanks. Umm, what is in this cup and how do I find my way to the parapet?”
“That is honey mead, made right here at Shadowmoon Keep.” She stated proudly, as if she’d made it herself. “And you just take the main staircase all the way up to the fourth floor and the doorway to the castle’s parapets is right there. You can’t miss it.” She nodded towards the grand staircase that dominated the center of the Great Hall.
Elijah hastily slurped down the rest of his soup, washing it down with the honey mead. The sweet liquid burned all the way down, but it wasn’t an altogether unpleasant feeling. Leaving his empty soup bowl behind, he forced his aching body up the stairs, his weariness so strong that he felt as if we were wading upstream. He would be thrilled to crash for a few hours after he spoke to Vivian.
Elijah emerged from the stairwell into the cool night air to find Vivian leaning over the edge of a stone parapet, staring off into the distance. Eerie shadows, cast by flickering torchlight, danced along the castle’s walls in a mesmerizing cadence.
“You survived the day, Thief. How do you feel about that?” Vivian didn’t even bother looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on a wicked thunderstorm brewing in the distance. She didn’t wait for him to answer. “He is out tonight, hunting new prey. I suspect it’s my distant relative that has drawn Kallum’s attention.” She muttered absently.
Elijah joined her on the castle’s ledge, peering out towards the angry thunderheads gathering in the distance. “How do you know he is hunting?”
“Kallum is very dramatic. He loves to put his power on display. That is no mere thunderstorm in the distance. It was summoned. It reeks of Twilight Magic. Note the bluish glow in the clouds; the unnatural lightning. No, my friend, that is all Kallum’s doing. This very minute he is making sure that someone knows just how powerful he is and what he is capable of.”
Rage mingled with fear brewed in Elijah’s chest as he thought of Olive in the center of the storm’s fury, facing a foe whose power she couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Maybe Vivian was wrong. Maybe Olive was nowhere near that nightmare of a storm. Elijah could only hope. The alternative was too much for him to bear.
“Tomorrow, at sunrise, we will head to Nightvale. We are going to storm the keep and put an end to Kallum’s reign.”
“If he’s as powerful as you claim he is, I find it highly unlikely that we will simply storm the keep and end him. I certainly hope you have some hidden ace up your sleeve to defeat him that I don’t know about.”
Vivian laughed. “I AM that hidden ace, Thief. When I was murdered, I was somehow infused with the very magic that keeps Kallum alive. Twilight magic. It’s much more powerful than the nethralmancy flowing through the rest of the undead here. It grants its wielders unimaginable power. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I’m truly capable of; of what I can do. I’ve been bound in the chains of darkness far too long. I was a prisoner locked away in a tomb until you and your wretched sister freed me. I do owe you my gratitude for that, by the way.”
Elijah shrugged. “We literally thought we were stealing a family fortune, not waking up an ancient curse. I never even believed such things were possible until now. To me, it was all a game. I had no idea…” His voice trailed off. “I’d give anything to go back and undo what we did. Olive is never going to forgive me.”
“You care for her, don’t you?” Vivian turned to face him, her silver eyes studying him curiously. “Love is risky business, as you have learned. It can cost us everything. It cost me everything. You should always be careful who you give your heart to.”
“When you say love cost you everything, are you talking about the love you had for Kallum?”
“That’s a very insolent question coming from your mouth, Thief.” Vivian pushed away from the wall in irritation, walking away from Elijah down the parapet’s perimeter. Elijah followed closely at her heels.
“I’m not going to leave you alone until you tell me what happened.” Elijah called after her. “So you might as well just tell me now.”
Vivian turned on him without warning, her silver eyes boring holes through him. “Fine.” She spat the words at him, plopping unceremoniously onto the stony ledge of the parapet. “It’s really a rather common tale, truth be told. I lost my life because of forbidden love…”
Writer of speculative fiction.