The wind rushes by my ears as we drop like a stone towards the waters far below. Desperately, I try to think. Is there anything I know– any spells, any tricks, anything!
I draw a blank. The wind yanks at my hair and clothes as I can only watch the white capped waves draw closer. Closer. Desperately I cling to my sword, which is still stuck in the dragon’s neck. I knew my stupid decisions would get me killed one day, but I’d hoped it would be some time far off in the future! Not right now! I can almost taste the salty spray, when suddenly we are jerked to a stop.
My chin hits the pommel of my sword. Briefly, I see stars, and then nothing.
When I wake up again, we’re landing. The dragon I’m riding has passed out. It’s dark now. Other winged beasts, just shadows in the fading light that look vaguely like dragons, lay us gently on a stone floor of a cavern. I blink, trying to adjust my eyes, and moving my swollen tongue around in my mouth.
Good news, I’m probably still alive. Judging by the taste of blood in my mouth and my aching muscles.
Bad news, I have no clue where I am, and I doubt anyone else does either.
“That’s it?” A familiar voice rumbles disappointedly. It is deep, almost soothingly so, but my fuzzy head can’t quite place it. “You lost that many trying to take one puny Outpost? What are you, Dragons or Wyverns?” There is a snort of derision as one of the dragons carrying me chortles a reply. I can’t understand it though. Vague thumps, a few snarls and the occasional chirruped exclamation. A few large flaps, a gust of wind as some leave.
“Well, at least you fools remembered to bring back the wounded…” The deep voice mutters, and I see a pair of glowing red eyes flicker towards me in the darkness. “Let’s see. Who’s salvageable here…” The voice trails off and then there is a brilliant spark of flames. Red, gold, blue, and even green flames light up the huge cavern I’m in. I’m blinded for a few seconds. I stumble off my dragon, letting go of my sword. My eyes quickly adjust though, just in time for a larger dragon with bronze and copper scaling to lower his head to sniff at the dragon I just vacated.
Sighing he shakes his head at the other dragons, a lilac and a silver, who glance at each other nervously. “Idiots,” he mumbles, although I’m certain anyone nearby could have heard that. Raising his voice to a more normal pitch for a dragon– although it sets my poor head a-pounding– Smayhellionthostvalleysonknoll announces “This one’s useless, even if he does recover, he’ll be paralyzed for the rest of his life. He’s a waste of resources. Better to have let him die in the endless waters than bring him back here.”
My dragon turns watery blue eyes to Smay, who stares back with his red ones coldly. Leaning down, he takes the end of the long skinny neck carefully in his jaws, and breaks it cleanly. The life leaves the other dragon’s eyes, and I stare at him horrified.
This isn’t like Smay at all. His eyes were green, not red. And he was supposed to be back home. Not trapped in the mountains, just unable to fit through any doors anymore. And now he’s out here, waging war, killing other dragons, and apparently ordering them around! “Smay?” I croak out, my voice hoarse and quiet. I’m actually surprised when his head jolts up, and those uncanny red eyes search me out.
“Briareth!” He exclaims, grinning with teeth still dripping blood. “What on earth are you doing here? Did you come to help us out? Goodness, it’s been so long. We have so much to talk about.”
“Yes, we most certainly do.” I agree weakly, watching the dead dragon’s blood dribble from his mouth onto the floor. “Have you grown, Smay?” I don’t remember him being nearly as large as these dragons, much less larger. But it has been almost a decade…
“Oh yes!” Smay says happily. “Once I got out from under that claustrophobic mountain I started growing like crazy. I shed three skins in the past month. Three! But, come now, you sound quite weak. Would you like something to eat? Or drink perhaps? You’ll have to tell me how you got here. I’m sure you have quite the story.”
“Yes.” I reply, “Quite the story.” I grin at him, determined that if he’s going to pretend everything is fine and dandy, I will too. I won’t mention the red eyes or sudden bloodthirst. I’ll just pretend that it’s the me and him from a decade ago talking, and get all the information out of him that I can.
“Go on.” Smay says to the lilac and silver dragons, who are stalking around restlessly. “Shoo! Go back to your dens! Go cauterize your wounds or something!” He waves his forclaws and tail at them in a clear ‘go away!’ gesture. They blink at him stupidly. He sighs, clearly fed up with them. “You may want to cover your ears.” He says to me out of the side of his mouth. Curiously, I comply.
Then he roars. And I mean ROARS. It’s so loud that it seems to shake the whole cavern, echoing off the ceiling thousands of feet above, and shaking the ground beneath me. My legs crumple. Black starts to invade my vision. But it’s done just as abruptly as it started. I blink and find myself cowering in a pile on the floor. Quickly I get back to my feet, head still ringing with the echoes of that all encompassing sound.
“I tell you, they never listen when I ask nicely.” Smay says sourly as he watches the lilac and silver dragons retreat out of a hole high in the wall. “It’s all blank gazes and confused scrambling if they think to do anything. Honestly, it’s like they don’t have one brain between any of them. They’re practically impossible to work with!” He shakes his head in disgust. “If we weren’t related, I don’t think I’d waste my time helping them.”
“Wait, you’re related?” I ask, astonished, and scrambling to keep up as Smay starts moving down the long hallway. “But you’re so…” I trail off. I was going to say ‘different’ but really, this violent ‘let’s kill those who would waste our resources’ Smay isn’t that much different from these ‘lets wage war on all these people for no apparent reason’ dragons.
“Smart? I know. It’s hard for me to see it too. They’re dumber than pseudodragons after all!” Smay says with a bitter laugh. His steps are so long, it’s difficult for me to keep up with his pace. “But they’re the right size. I remember an age when true thunders of dragons still flew the skies, and these are the closest I’ve ever met.” His gaze still glued towards the hole where the other dragons left. “Well, besides myself of course. If I had to guess, we’re cousins of a sort. They just lost most of their intelligence. I don’t know how. Perhaps it was bred out, or perhaps they’re all that remained after the intelligent ones were wiped out. Maybe it was some malicious spell that slowly robbed them of their minds. Whatever the cause, this is how I found them. And I couldn’t just leave them like this, striking towns only to be driven back and slaughtered like mindless beasts. They needed a leader. A tactician. Someone to make them all work together and achieve victory over those jerks in the flying boats.”
“The…” I hesitate starting to feel sick to my stomach. “Jerks in the flying boats you say?”
“Oh, you haven’t met them yet?” Smay pauses and turns to grin at me. The path we’re following splits in two here, with one dark tunnel being guarded by two of the dragons. Smay takes the brightly lit tunnel in the opposite direction. “I don’t know what they’re called, but they’re quite nasty creatures. No manners at all. They were practically wiping the dragons here out, trying to hunt them all the way back to their dens! I tried to talk to one once, and she wouldn’t stop screaming. Eventually, I bit her head off, just to shut her up.”
I stare at him aghast. “You bit her head off?!”
Smay shrugs. “It’s not like I ate her.” He says, “She would’ve tasted terrible. Too much leather armor. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I never thought of you as the head biting type.” I reply honestly.
“True, I wouldn’t have expected it of me either.” Smay says thoughtfully. “But you kinda get a taste for the blood after a while. It’s quite nice, spurting into your mouth like a little fountain of warm flavor. Far better than any tea I’ve ever had. You should try it some time.”
I pause and stare at him, hoping he’ll start laughing. But he just continues moving ahead through the winding corridors of this massive cavern. I don’t think he’s joking. And although the nasty curdling feeling in my stomach is gone, now it’s twisting in worry. Just how much has Smay changed? What brought it all on? “What caused you to come out here, Smay?” I ask, “How did you even leave the mountain?”
Smay answers the second question only, skipping the first one.
“It wasn’t that hard actually, I just had to break through the glaciers at the top of my cave system. It took a bit of fire, a bit of endurance. I think I actually caused a bit of a mess, avalanches and the like. I don’t understand why I didn’t think of it sooner.”
“But the portal here was buried.” I press, as we enter into a much larger kitchen than the one he had under the mountain. The fireplace– furnace really– is big enough for my bed! The counter in the center of the ovular room is as tall as I am, but only arm height to Smay, who offers me a stool so I can watch as he sets about preparing me a nice little salad. It has some rather weird purple tubers in it. But seeing Smay fearlessly pop one in his mouth, I doubt that I’ll have another mushroom-experience from it.
Handing me a small glass of water, Smay continues prepping like I haven’t just asked a question. So I ask again.
He stares at me, red eyes piercing and unnerving as he says. “All spells eventually fail, Briareth. And the ones separating worlds are quite old. Is it really that surprising to you that there could be more than one portal?” His knife cleanly cuts through the tuber, and hits the cutting board with an ominous thunk. “But enough about me and my journey, how did you get here?”
I hesitate, not sure how much to tell him. The old Smay I could have safely told anything to. We just understood each other. Each of us was as ridiculous and easy-going as the other. Now, I’m worried that if I say the wrong thing, if I admit to helping out ‘Those jerks in the flying boats’ as he calls them, he’ll stick that very large knife into my gut. Or worse, bite my head off!
So I start off with the easy things, explaining just how boring life was in a time of peace, and telling him about how I remembered an old librarian mentioning an outside world and convincing everyone to go along with my plans to check it out.
Smay’s chopping increases in speed steadily until I stop talking in awe as his claws clutch the knife in a death grip and blur his cut speed. When he’s done, he perfunctorily swipes the perfectly chopped veggies into a large bowl and huffs out a breath.
“So that old cracks’ still alive, eh?” His voice is cool.
“Actually, he’s the one who said you were dead.” I grin, remembering that strange conversation. “He’s such an odd character, not quite insane, but close.”
Smay snorts, “That’s a good way to describe him. I wouldn’t put too much trust in him if I were you. His rules are more important than anything else in his life, but he never tells anyone what they are exactly.”
I frown. “I hope his rules will allow him to take care of Myrddin. I left him in his care.”
Smay hesitates. “Myrddin, that was your horse, yes?” I nod an affirmative. “He has a soft spot for animals, he’ll probably take good care of the horse. If he can find it anything to eat up in those windy crags he calls a home.”
I don’t want to go much further in my story, so I cast around for other topics to switch to as he stares introspectively into his salad bowl. My eyes fall on the bare countertops. The only decor there is a silver set of scales, with some nice rubies set into the base. In fact, a lot of the decor around here is silver and ruby. Silver veins in the walls, rubies in the furniture. The scales seem to be some sort of focal point for it though, and the only non-attached decoration in this kitchen.
“What happened to all your collectibles Smay? Did you leave them all behind when you left?” I ask.
“Oh, them?” Smay asks, offhandedly. “Couldn’t carry them, so they had to stay behind. A sad loss, but I’m well on my way to building up my hoard again, don’t you worry. Although, I think I’ll store it in a more traditional fashion this time around. None of those boxes or other nonsense. Just piles of gems to sleep on.” He carries the salad to a different room, and places it on a table. Then, he frowns apologetically. “I don’t think I have any chairs, I wasn’t expecting any tiny sized guests. Do you mind sitting on a large stool?” I wave my hand. “A stool is fine. Could I get a refill on water as well?”
“But of course.” Smay says, the very appearance of his gracious normal self. He takes my glass and disappears back into the kitchen.
I glance around the dining room. It is equally as bare as clutter as the kitchen was. Very unlike Smay. He loved his neatness, but he also loved decor, and organizing things. That’s why he put it all in boxes. That, and because the Pseudodragons kept robbing him. I remind myself. Perhaps now that he’s away from them, he feels free to spread out more? Or perhaps I’m wrong, and this is connected with his personality changes. Either way, something has changed him, and I still don’t know what. But if I can convince him to go back to his usual self, the dragons won’t be led anymore. He himself admits that it was mainly him powering this ‘dragon army’ that Fin, Silv, Elen, and all their families and friends fight so desperately against. Of course, that would mean the dumb dragons might die out, but that should be fine. Smay has been alone before, he can be alone again.
Smay reenters the dining room, carrying a stool and water in one claw, and a set of silver scales which he puts on the dining room table smoothly as he plops the stool down on my side and puts my glass and the bowl of salad in front of me, snagging one lettuce leaf with a claw and popping it in his mouth.
I gulp, the bloody jaws reminding me of just how violent this new Smay can be. I sure hope this is something I can fix, but I’m not quite sure I’m up to the task. What if this is just a facet of his real personality, and not some sort of grave error the universe has made or the result of drugs or bad influences? What if I can’t fix it? Will I have to pick a side? Possibly kill him?
I’m physically capable of killing him, definitely. But killing a friend takes a lot more than physical strength.
I eat my salad, trying to talk about mundane things. Things he might be interested in. He asks where Faladel is, I truthfully reply that I don’t know, we got separated. He asks how I got here, I spin a lie about hopping on one of his dragons at an island where it had stopped to drink, and it being so dumb that it didn’t even notice me riding it. He has a good laugh at that. I ask about his strange Icer, a device that kept food cold no matter the outside temperature. He grows quiet and eventually admits to leaving it behind. I ask why. He only shrugs, not answering. So I try to swap to another topic– the funky silver scales. And that’s where things get interesting.
He freezes, unnatural red eyes turning to stare at me coldly. “Why are you interested in it?” He asks.
“Well, it seems important.” I grin lackadaisically. “It seems to be the only thing you brought with you, and you just carried it in here from the kitchen. It’s like you can’t let it out of your sight for one second.” I lean a little closer to it, reaching out a hand to touch it. “It’s pretty, but what’s so special about it? Is it another doomsday device?”
Smay’s claw shoots across the table and slaps my arm down just before I can touch my shiny reflection in the silver. I stare at him, shocked, as my arm begins to bleed where his claws raked it. His bloodred eyes glare at me, and his lips are pulled back, baring rows and rows of sharp teeth, still stained in another dragon’s blood.
“Don’t touch that!” He snarls out. A threat and a promise in those three words.
“Okay, okay, no touching!” I yank my right arm back immediately, holding it up with my left in a show of non-hostility. Blood leaks down it in a small, bright red stream.
Smay hesitates, looking slightly apologetic. “If you must know,” He says, turning away from his handiwork, “I got it from the pseudodragons. Although it’s likely they stole it from Sus-Ciel, you remember him? The leader of the Jakaweres? They were practically desperate to make me take it, I suspect he was looking for it.” He grabs a roll of clean white cloth from one of the cabinets. It is far too large for my arm, but he hands it to me anyway. “You should probably get off to bed. It’s been quite the day for you. I’ll show you to your room and you can get that patched up.” He doesn’t quite apologize, but I realize that it’s the closest I’ll get. I follow him to my room, surprised it has an elf-sized bed. As he steps out he says, “You know, you didn’t have to lie to me. I recognized your sword on the dead dragon.” I open my mouth, aghast. “I have a good eye for weaponry,” He says, waving a claw as if that explains everything. “The sword was clearly elven made, and the Triumvirate uses pistols and cannons, not swords to fight. The only question I have is why you didn’t use the bow I gave you instead. You know, the one I couldn’t figure out? Word got back to me that it shot lightning. It would have worked far better on most dragons than jumping and trying to stab them. So what stopped you from using it?”
I sputter trying to figure everything out all at once and failing miserably.
He knew. This entire time. He knew I was lying to him and not once let it on.
And here I thought I was being clever with my acting skills. He completely outplayed me!
“Of course,” Smay continues, not deterred by my lack of conversational skills at all. “I can’t let you out. You’d just go back to the Triumvirate and tell them exactly where we are. And then they’d muster up all their ships to try and blow these caverns to smithereens. But I really don’t want to kill you. So, you’ll just be staying here till the war ends. That was probably the first time you’ve ever killed a dragon, right? I can tell the others it was simply a mistake, they won’t be hard to convince. So after we’ve defeated the Triumvirate, I can let you and Faladel go back to Elvish Territories.”
He closes the door, and I hear a heavy bar drop on the other side. I groan and fall face first onto the bed, smothering my face in the nicely fluffy pillow. I’m such an idiot.
I’d kept that old bow unstrung all this time because I didn’t want to charr my meat when I was hunting. In fact, I’d completely forgotten it was on my pack. I’d had it right next to me on that stupid ship and didn’t even think to use it!
I groan and roll over, sitting up. Well, at least one thing’s certain. Smay is definitely not his normal self. If it had just been the personality, I’d have had my doubts. But obsession over that strange set of scales? The need to carry it everywhere with him despite it having no clear significance?
I start wrapping my wound as I consider the problem. Something is definitely up with Smay. And I’m convinced the scales are behind it. The question is, how to best separate the two? And how to escape after stealing it? And will a separation even work? I frown, scratching at an itchy spot on my head, and imagining Smay chasing me down as I try to escape with his precious measuring device of questionable morality. There’s no way that ends well.
That does it. A grin splits my face, and I flop back on the bed and laugh. I might be able to steal it, and perhaps even break out of this place. It’s certainly not the worst prison I’ve had to break out of. However, to break Smay out of whatever funk the scales have twisted his personality into, I’m going to have to call in a specialist.
I lift my legs up to my face and peel off my shoes, Ripping into the sole of my left one, I pull out an ornamental beetle I stashed in there years ago. It’s a delightfully shiny blue, with delicate silver swirls embedded in it, a testament to the creator’s craftsmanship. I press the carapace. The silver whorls turn to a soft glowing gold, starting at the eyes and quickly traveling to the very tip of the abdomen. Still grinning, I return it to its place in the sole of the shoe and patch the hole as best as possible.
With the time dilation, who knows how long it will take them to get here. But Adamar did say that the length of the spell was larger than the world we knew. So I have no doubts he, Valkalyn and Folas will be here to help eventually. All I need to do is escape, steal the scales on the way out, and then play the most high-stakes game of keepaway this world has ever seen.
This is going to be so much fun!