The little girl had picked up the carrion bird’s feather, the only remains of her connection to the griffon vulture who had delivered the dire news of the Great Gray God, and tucked it in her pocket. For a few short minutes when their minds met, she had seen through his eyes, had seen the world from six miles up, flown through clouds and smoke, and witnessed the falling of a god to a vast army of demons. Zooey was only five years old, but in the space of a few weeks, she had seen so much of life and death.
“The Quag Lands.”
Dani stopped them at the edge of some unseen boundary. It was mid-morning and they had been walking through a grassy marsh since just after dawn. For the past hour of their journey, the grasses had become darker and the tree branches more twisted. The air was humid and thick with the smell of the dying, not that there weren’t living birds and animals here, but somehow that life didn’t belong solely in their bodies.
“It’s what I saw.” Jake was standing next to the dragonrider. She knew the way into this stinking pit because it was the one area of the Exile she had always been taught to avoid. The seven-year-old also knew by the dubious virtue of his dreams, both waking and sleeping.
“It gets darker ahead. She’s in there, Dani. Shay’s almost dead.”
They all turned as Paris shrieked. She had walked off to the edge of the trail and was gazing into a shallow pool when she saw it. Taylor was the first to reach her.
“What happened?” He pulled her back and then saw it in the water. “It’s a skeleton, but it’s on some sort of slab.”
Everyone except Zooey went over to look. She was staring up into the sky remembering what it was like to soar above the mist and the fog.
“Why would there be a skeleton on a stone slab in a pond?” Mandy had her arm around Paris and could feel her trembling.
“Hard to say. I didn’t think humans ever came to the Quag Lands.”
“Maybe he didn’t come willingly, Dani.” A distant memory of the warrior Azzorh rose in Taylor’s mind like smoke. “I think he was a sacrifice. Travelers from the west were sometimes waylaid by demons. It’s probably hundreds of years old.”
“How do you know?” She looked into Taylor’s haunted eyes.
“We have to keep going. Shay won’t last much longer.” Jake had returned to the trail and was standing by Zooey. She was still touching the feather in her pocket.
“He’s right. There’s nothing to see here.” Dani waited until the other three rejoined their siblings and then took the lead again.
The trail led into the low wetlands, and although the sun shone high above them, dark mist cloaked them like a shroud. The ground beneath their boots was dank and covered with moss and sludge. Tree branches reached over their heads reminding them of the arms of old wizened men. The sickly cry of ravens foretold misery and doom.
Zooey looked at the ravens and then the frogs and lizards. They all moved slowly, as if they only had the energy to breathe and eat. She could barely hear them or feel their existence. There was something else moving inside of the swamp animals, and it was dark and evil. She checked on her mouse Sapplehenning who had stayed close to her since returning from his long absence after the fire. He was fine for now, but being so little, the curse on this place might start hurting him, too.
Jake knew his dreams so well that the night dark shape looming in front of them seemed an old and distressing companion.
“It’s moving. I mean, how?” Dani put her hand on Witherbrand’s hilt but kept the sword sheathed.
“It’s alive.” Jake watched as turrets writhed like tentacles. There were moments when it seemed like a fortress, and then it shifted, becoming black steam; a miasma of anguish. “She’s inside.”
Dani put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Maybe you should wait out here with the rest.”
“We’re all going in.” Mandy was holding Zooey’s hand.
Taylor drew Celeste from its sheath and the blade faintly glowed. He could feel the sword vibrate for a moment as if it could experience the foreboding they were all feeling.
“Okay. We’re all going.”
Danijel began the descent into the dark effluvium and the others followed. It was the gaping maw of a ghastly monstrosity, a mouth with long, matted hairs dangling down that became vines, and then reptilian feelers. Inside, there was a dim, vomit yellow light emanating from an unseen source above, and the odor of putrid decay nearly overwhelmed them.
What Jake had thought were chains in his dreams, were now thick creepers, brambles, and briers, reaching out toward them and clinging at their clothes.
“My children.” Her voice was a feeble sob.
Dani ran forward into the gloom as fast as she could, yanking at the vines that tried to pull her back.
Desperate arms embraced her snout as hot tears wet the dragon’s chapped and molting scales.
“You should not have come, my little one.”
“I had to. I couldn’t leave you here. I couldn’t.”
“We’ve got to hurry.” Jake was looking all around, expecting any second to be engulfed in this living trap the same way as the dragon.
Taylor joined the girl and the dragon and began hacking at the encrusted restraints binding Shay. Dani drew out Witherbrand and they both worked on freeing the wounded creature. As the vines weakened, her weight snapped several and she sank to the moss-covered stone floor. The enclosure quaked, and not only from the dragon’s fall.
“You have to get up. We can’t carry you and there’s no telling when the demons will come back.”
“Run. Save yourselves. I am too weak.”
“She’s right. You should never have come alone.”
Everyone turned and faced the nightmare who had just entered the cavern behind them.
“Sakhr!” Dani could feel her skin grow cold as her murderous opponent approached. “Stay away from them. Your fight is with me.”
“Your fight has always been with yourself, Danijel. That’s why I have been confronting you. Are you ready to stop endangering your charges, or are you finally finished with them?” The visage of the demon lacked its typical menace.
“What are you talking about?” Dani raised Witherbrand, but four of the Davidsons were between her and her foe.
“Go with her, my children. You can’t stay here.” Dani almost jumped when Shay spoke from behind.
“Follow her?” Dani didn’t take her eyes off of Sakhr who was now standing next to a terrified Mandy, but the demon had yet to draw her sword.
Taylor looked into the dragon’s eyes and they were clear and focused. “What are you looking at?”
There was a rumbling from all around them and the ceiling began to drip and ooze.
“Please, we have to go,” pleaded Sakhr.
“Run, my children. I will follow.”
Taylor sheathed Celeste and then pushed Dani toward the others as the dragon ponderously rose from the dank and fetid ground.
“She’s right. Run.” The scarlet-clad figure, so much like the dragonrider, turned and struggled toward the entrance. Mandy took Jake and Zooey by their hands and pulled them after her, as Taylor and Dani caught up with Paris.
The dragon’s uneven steps pounded and echoed behind the seven of them as they approached the daylight streaming through their only exit.
Dani was behind the others when Shay spoke again, but in a demon’s voice. “You should never have brought them here, you fool. Now you will all die.”
“No. Not you.” Before Dani could turn around, she saw Sakhr at the cave’s entrance, but she was blocking it, keeping the children inside.
“It was never me, Danijel. You and the dragon were always the true enemy. We can escape this pit, but to do that, you must end this fool’s errand. Leave these children to their fate and let me slay the dragon for you.”
Dani was paralyzed by indecision. She had vowed to trust Shay no matter what and to save her life at the cost of her own, but was the demon right? This might not even be Shay but another trick. Had Shay ever been with them at all? When she turned around, she would face either the mother dragon or a monster.
Sakhr drew her blade, mirroring the young dragonrider. “What do you say?”
Taylor had Celeste out again, standing in front of his brother and sisters, knowing he was no match for a demon or a dragon.
The dripping ooze in the back of the cavern was flowing toward them like blood and would first engulf Shay and then the rest of them. She could feel the dragon’s hot breath on her neck as she spoke in two voices, the demon’s and the dragon’s.
“What will you do to them and to me, my child?”
The vision of herself dressed in the demon’s armor with the dead bodies of the Davidson children littered at her feet surged in her memory.
Sakhr spoke as if she could see the dream too. “Stand aside and I will end the threat of the dragon forever. She never loved you. She just used you like she would have these others to achieve her own selfish goals.”
“No matter what, I love you Shay,” she whispered. Then she shouted, “I won’t let you hurt any of them!” This was Dani’s battle cry as she rushed forward and attacked her demonic reflection.
“So you’ve decided at last, have you?”
Steel struck steel sending forth sparks and the sounds of lightning strikes. The persistent voice within Taylor cautioned him this once not to join the fight, but to stand with the others, for something horrible was happening to the dragon.
Dani had failed to defeat her demon in all of her dreams, and had even seen herself become her enemy. At Orholt, she survived, but just barely, and only because Sakhr had fled. If she didn’t stop her this time, they would all die.
“It’s not Shay, it’s you. It’s always been you.”
She had cut Sakhr in a dozen places, but the demon stood her ground. Dani must have been wounded as well, but she couldn’t feel any pain, only the desperate need to save her friends and her mother.
“You’ll never defeat me alone.”
“I’ve never been alone.”
The demon faltered only once, but in that instant, Dani drove Witherbrand through the center of her chest, impaling Sahkr on the gleaming ebony blade. She slid backward off of the sword and then rolled to one side.
“Hurry! Get out!” Her sword again sheathed, she pushed at the nearest of the children and rushed them all out. Then she finally turned. It was Shay but it wasn’t. She was punctured in a dozen places by vines that were tentacles. They were crawling under her scales which were turning from pale yellow to gray as the infestation took her over.
“Run, child. Please.” Shay was rapidly losing the battle for her life and her soul as the demon of the Quag Lands fed. Vile digestive juices flooded around the dragon’s feet and the mouth the six of them had just fled was closing.
“No!” Pulling out Witherbrand, she rushed to the edge, but the opening was too narrow to enter now. Dani struck again and again at the hardening tissue until it felt as if she were striking stone.
“We have to get out of here or it will get us too.”
“Mandy, get them out of here. I’m not leaving Shay!”
“It’s too late. She’s gone.”
The sword wielder stopped and stared. There was nothing here but a vast mound of rock that might have once been a castle, turrets extending above her like mute sentinels.
She stood back and lowered her blade, which was should have still been covered with the Sakhr’s blood but somehow wasn’t.
“I’m sorry.” Mandy’s voice softly spoke of Shay’s eulogy and Dani’s grief.
“Guys, we’ve got a problem.” Taylor was the furthest away, having led the others to freedom, and was looking back down the trail to the edge of the Quag Lands. It was the horde. There were thousands of them and not just the Imps. There were larger and more imposing hellspawn, ranging from mischievous Pucks, to vampiric Bajang, and driving them forward, Pazuzu and Humbaba, demons of wind and storm.
Dani knew of them all, but only from legend. Paris had read of them, but she never dared recite their tales to the other children.
“Sakhr didn’t come alone.” It felt like a useless gesture, but Dani raised her sword.
The instincts and experiences of Azzorh, which Taylor now possessed, told him this would be his last battle as he held Celeste in his fist.
The six of them gathered together in courage and despair.
“I’m trying, Mandy, but they don’t want to come, not all of them.”
“But in the swamp, there must be…”
“The life in the swamp is so weak. The demon is eating them from the inside, and the animals outside the Quag Lands are scared.” The five year old fingered the solitary feather in her pocket as if it were a holy talisman aiding her prayers for a miracle. She felt Sapplehenning trembling in her shirt.
Jake wasn’t praying for a miracle, but instead for a dream, but all he could see was grim reality and the promise of sure death.
When the ground started shaking, they thought it was because of the storm demons and the marching of the vast army less than half a mile away, but then they realized it was coming from behind them. The rumbling intensified to a quake, and the citadel of darkness began to glow, first dull red, then orange, and then bright amber.
“We’ve got to get away from here.” Dani grabbed Zooey’s hand.
“But the only way to go is toward the demons.” Paris was right behind them with Taylor, and the others following. They were trapped, running away from one doom and to another.
The dragon’s stone prison tried to turn to flesh, but then it stopped melting and started smoking and burning. A thousand flaming spirits wailed and cried and then there was nothing but an enormous column of flame.
Zooey tripped and fell, and as Dani helped her up, they all looked back. Something was moving in the enormous pyre and it was terrible to behold. Like the mythical Phoenix, Shay, the great golden one, the mother dragon of her race, the last surviving queen, rose, but was not whole. Her wounds had not healed, and she limped, but even then, magnificently emerged, leaving behind the ashes of the hideous devourer.
She wasn’t alone.
“Sakhr,” Dani uttered in a hushed whisper. “But I killed you. Shay?”
The children stood transfixed, the demon swarm on one side, the dragon and Sakhr on the other, and surrounding them, the boundless wastes of the Quag Lands. Danijel lamented that their descent into darkness had become final.
I wrote this for Thursday photo prompt: Remains #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos as a prompt for anyone who wants to participate to craft a poem, short story, or some other creative work. Today, Sue gave us a choice of two, so I used both.
I’ve been using Sue’s prompts week by week, to write my fantasy novel, one chapter at a time. The Table of Contents of my novel so far is:
- The Forest
- A Tale Shared Among Friends
- Mr. Covingham’s Secret
- Wilderness Pilgrims
- The God of the Dark Hills
- Hall of the Mountain Kings
- Sojourn in Direhaven
- Trial at Sakhr
- What Secrets We Keep
- The Uneasy Pact
- The Tracker
- Duel at Orholt
- Valley of Blood
- The Fallen
Finally, the children have rescued Shay, but what has happened to the great dragon and why is she standing at the side of the impossibly resurrected Sakhr? Even if the dragon is with them, how will they escape the endless demonic army that is descending upon them? Believe it or not, this isn’t the end, but the climax is coming soon.
Addendum: This is the 20th chapter of my novel and I’m sitting at a word count of 72,638, which is roughly three-fourths of a novel. Probably won’t get to 100,000, but it’ll be close.
The next chapter is Dire Beginning.