Chapter 18: In The Lair of the Dragon
A horrible, dull ache rang in Cassandra’s head, and there was shooting pain up her left leg and through her back. She was quite sure her whole body was bruised, and suspected the wet feeling on her forehead was blood from her own scalp. The Dragon had quite decisively stopped her from fleeing the moment It had set her down in the deep, dank caverns of Its lair. She had tried to escape, but her hands and feet were still bound, and the Dragon had needed to do little more than swat her with Its long, wicked tail.
She had collapsed in a heap against a wall, her whole body filled with pain. This comparatively mild aching business wasn’t as bad, but she still made no efforts to move quickly. From her position facing the wall, she couldn’t tell if she was being watched. She could hear the Dragon moving and breathing somewhere, but not in the room she was in. She feared that so much as rolling over would draw Its attention, so she laid very still.
The walls around her were faintly lit, but she couldn’t quite make out where the light source was. She couldn’t fathom why it seemed to be coming from everywhere, although it was very dim. She pondered this quietly for a time, moving her head slowly around to see if she could work out where she was and whether she was visible from a distance. She was struck by the thought of a cat playing with a mouse, which caused her to shiver inwardly.
It was many long tedious moments of nothing happening and a very sore neck before she decided to finally brave rolling over to see her surroundings better. The first thing she noticed was something sharp digging into her palm. She fought back a yelp and then twisted herself away from the wall, her hands feeling around for the sharp instrument. It took a few seconds of furtive scrambling, but her hands finally fell upon her father’s dagger. It seemed impossible when she thought about it, but she had apparently held onto the dagger through everything. Taking this bit of fortune as a sign, she got back to work cutting her way out of her bonds.
She couldn’t tell how many moments passed as she slowly sawed her way through the rope. There were a number of moments where she stopped for fear of the Dragon returning too soon, so agitated was It in Its den. However, after much hard work and a few new cuts and bruises, she succeeded in freeing her hands. Quietly, achingly, she sat up, removed the gag from her aching mouth, and started working on her feet.
When she was finished, she sat very still for a time, trying to work out how she could escape. In the low light, it was impossible to see anything clearly. The lack of total darkness merely fooled her eyes into believing she could make out shapes and depth. Peering long and steadily into the dark, she did finally work out where her light sources were. Scattered across the floor at various distances were steaming, stagnant pools of shimmering silver. She was in fact very nearly sitting in one.
Leaning forward gingerly, she reached out and touched the pool. The liquid on her hands felt viscous, like molten tallow. It stuck to her fingers very much like wax, and she was forced to wipe it off on her skirts. She noted from the way the dry surface beneath the pool had bubbled and puckered that the liquid must have been very hot when it dropped here.
Looking across the vast expanse of the room, she noted that the walls seemed dark and pitted, but were otherwise still visibly intact as walls. The ceiling was barely visible from the floor, so dim the light and so high the ceiling, but she suspected it too was virtually intact. However, the floor rolled and bubbled everywhere she looked. Puddles of the liquid were in various states of cooling, and she finally deduced that the floor beneath her was in fact cooled liquid as well. In another moment, she deduced what the source of these pools was, and found herself revolted to think that she had been left not in some primitive larder but on the cold remains of the Dragon’s own bodily waste. She compulsively wiped her fingers on her skirts once more.
Just then, the sounds from the room beyond grew louder, and the Dragon seemed to be drawing nearer. Cassandra climbed to her feet and started searching desperately for a place to hide, not quite sure it was even possible to hide from the Dragon. She had a growing sense that the Dragon was fully aware of her wakefulness, even as she was aware that the Dragon was upset about something other than her.
Running blindly through the room, which now seemed to her very much to be like a grand hallway, she made her way around a corner and started running towards what looked from a distance to be some sort of door. When she drew closer, she realized it had been a trick of the dim light, and was in fact a grand staircase. Looking backwards, she couldn’t see if the Dragon followed, but she got the sense that the Dragon knew exactly where she was. She bolted up the stairs as quickly as she could, fearing her feet might slip from beneath her as she worked to avoid stepping in any of the intermittent silvery pools.
As she neared the top of the stairs, she heard a noise below and turned her head to see the Dragon scrambling after her, using the claws on Its wings to hold It off of the ground while Its powerful hind legs pushed it forward in jerking motions. It grabbed hold of the banister and pulled Itself up onto the stairs, and she looked down and realized she had stopped running, so shocked was she at the Dragon’s movement. Spinning around, she started to sprint down the hallway, only to trip on a bubbled patch of dried waste, and landing in yet another glowing pool.
She frantically pushed herself to her feet and started running once more, looking for a place to hide from the Dragon, even as It pulled itself up into the hall after her. The Dragon’s body fairly filled the narrow passage, but was yet able to claw and push Itself after her. She could feel something malevolent in her mind, and somehow knew that it was the thoughts of the Dragon. She didn’t understand how It could be inside of her head, but Its very proximity to her seemed to make It stronger, and her weaker.
She ran without thought, turning corners and moving further down the wood-paneled hallways. It occurred to her that the castle fortress must have been very beautiful once, before the Dragon came. She tried several doors in passing, but most seemed to be locked or jammed shut from the other side, and would not budge. She was moving towards another when she heard the Dragon claw Its way around the corner to catch up with her. Turning to run once more, she slammed straight into a wall which had a tapestry hanging raggedly from frayed corners. Looking around, she could see nowhere left to run. The hall was a dead end.
A man seemed to be standing nearby, wearing a suit of metal. Instinctively, she scrambled closer. When she looked more closely, she noticed that the suit was empty, as the metal man made no move to protect her or himself from the oncoming Dragon. Frightened out of her wits, she curled up behind the suit of armour, the last desperate refuge of a doomed girl who had barely had time to live.
She attempted to brace herself between the suit and the wall, hoping against hope to keep the Dragon from getting a hold on her. What her feet found instead made her yelp. Her feet passed beneath the tattered remains of the tapestry, finding no wall beyond. She lurched forward and heaved at the hem, lifting the knotted fabric high enough to find a hole in the wall just about the size of one large man turned sideways. Without thinking, she pressed herself into the space and made her way backwards into total darkness. Behind her, the suit of armour exploded with a great clatter as the Dragon swept it aside. The tapestry It tore away with Its teeth, and It began to wedge Its head into the passage after her.
Its head was slightly too large to fit, and Cassandra began to imagine that she had in fact escaped her fate, until she came up against a hard surface. The passage was too deep and narrow for the Dragon to pursue her, but it was another dead end, and she was fearfully certain the Dragon could outwait her. As if sensing her fear, the Dragon breathed in deeply, and then opened Its mouth just inside the passage. The air inside the passage seemed to grow hot, and a bright reddish light seemed to emit from the Dragon’s mouth. Suddenly, a column of red mist billowed from Its mouth, filling the passageway, and engulfing Cassandra.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Cassandra felt herself being pulled tight, like raw wool being spun into thread. It was an eerie sensation, and her heart pounded in her chest, even as a deathly calm descended over her. Looking down at her body, she could see her arms reaching out for the Dragon’s mouth, and her feet seemed bidden to walk forward. She felt herself stretched so thin and tight, she hadn’t the strength of will to resist. There was only compulsion, and the only direction seemed to be into the Dragon’s waiting mouth. She was but a few steps from the Dragon’s mouth, and felt herself somehow diminishing, the mist working on her skin beneath her clothes, compressing her in some way she couldn’t understand, and barely had the presence of mind to question.
Just then, the Dragon jerked Its head backward out of the passageway, and the mist began to dissipate. Not sure what was happening, Cassandra looked down at herself and noted that the slime from the pool she had fallen in was glowing brightly once more. In her head, she felt a thought of great revulsion, accompanied by an anger most assuredly not her own. The pools. The waste. Whatever its nature, the silvery muck was like a poison to the Dragon. So long as she wore these clothes, the Dragon could not, would not devour her.
One of Its clawed wings began to jut into the passageway, talons clattering against the stony masonry after her retreating body. She once again came up hard against the barrier at the end of the passage, this time frantically reaching for handholds to keep from being dragged out of the passageway. The Dragon’s collapsed wing was aimlessly swinging around in the narrow space just before her, and she drew in her breath, flattening herself against the barrier in hope that It might miss Its mark. One of Its talons did in fact catch against the fabric of her dress, tearing a hole in the loose cloth just beneath her bosom. However, the wing could go no further, the claw no nearer. A flash of rage washed through her mind, and the Dragon roared in frustration as It pulled the wing from the hole.
Exhausted and shattered, Cassandra felt her knees weaken, and she collapsed against the right side of the passage. Her hands clawed desperately at the rock surface, and landed on a rough stone standing up from the relatively flat face of the wall. Under her weight, the jutting stone seemed to give way, and a noise erupted behind her. Twisting around, she found the barrier has swung away, and beyond was more darkness.
As if sensing what had happened, the Dragon’s wing was frantically clawing its way back into the passage. She quickly jumped through the opened passage and into the space beyond. She landed hard on a set of stone stairs leading downward, painfully picking herself up. With a great whoosh of hot air, the stairway seemed to fill with the same reddish mist as before, but it was weaker, and the Dragon’s hold on her mind seemed to be slipping. She started feeling her way down into the darkness, step by step. She only hoped that the stairway did not lead to some place the Dragon could find her.
© 2011 Lee Edward McIlmoyle