Kara’s hands were sticky. It was a thing she noticed absently, rubbing the sludge between two palms as she surveyed the tunnel. Half of it was wax, fallen from her candle. The other half, she didn’t want to think about. She noticed it, just as she noticed that there were three open doors, branching off, that there were ornate fixtures on the wall, now devoid of their torches, that there were bats squealing somewhere above. Then there was the dungeon vault, now behind her, cold and inky black.
She pinched a bit of slime off her palm and tossed it aside. She noticed many things this way nowadays.
The glass goblet now laid secure in her pack: she had first heard of it behind a tavern, where a drunk man was stumbling into a ditch. He’d been singing a song about the one who’d crafted it. It had been bawdy, it involved a goat. Kara remembered thinking if Father would like the iridescent transparency to compliment his golden goblets.
Vaguely, she also recalled when her first quests came from official postings, from the city guards, from noble ladies in their chambers. They had come on detailed documents, sealed scrolls, posters. They had come, and they had gone, once completed. She never saw any of those people again.
These things came to her like a snowball, like the hollow chill on the veranda of Father’s house. No one sat there anymore, no one played by the staircase. On her frequent returns home, Kara would try sweeping it, but dust accumulated quickly in this part of the town, this old quarter that Father refused to move from.
The last time she was there, she had been returning to Father with a dragon egg, another pedestal-type treasure to add to the pile. Oh, and what a pile it was. Upon entering the sitting room, one was greeted with the glittering stares of a hundred golden chalices, several goblets, jewels, legendary swords – polished, but unused, for neither Kara nor Father was a swordsman – and somewhere there lay an invisible cloak, coveted by many visitors, but never quite found. Neither of them minded that.
“I’ve brought the Egg of the Last Dragon,” she said. Father did not turn from his work.
Like an obsidian statue, he sat there blotting out the orange glow from the fireplace, where every other object in the room seemed to reflect it.
Kara continued. She told him of how she had found it underwater, where a siren had dragged it down to replace her own lost egg. She told him of the battle they fought, how she had won by backing the siren into the empty hull of a shipwreck, where she had become entangled in driftwood. She told him of how the Queen had not wanted it, had boiled it to ensure it would never hatch, claiming it would upset the balance of power between kingdoms – or something like that.
Then, as an afterthought: “It took me a week and three days. Shorter than the last time, I believe.”
“Change your clothes, you’ll catch cold.”
The Egg was left forgotten on the dining table, even through the next day.
Always, she tried to make camp around an exit. Dungeons were viper pits of terrors and traps, things that snuck up on one in the dark. Sometimes her bed was a staircase; other times, it was just around the door to another hall. This time, it seemed she had the luxury of leaving through where she had come.
An overhanging roof, curtained by thick lichen, sheltered her from the winds and rains that battered the forest outside. They said creatures had lived here, once, creatures not quite human and not quite animal. They said they came in the night, after the lights had gone out and they feasted on ashes and flesh. Kara felt their expired presence in the weight of the air that seemed to, like some nightmare tale told to a child, oppress her breathing and squeeze her heart. She was used to that.
Kara fed her diary, page by page, to the fire and watched it eat.
When they came for her, she was ready. Her heart pulsed in her chest.
Out came the poleaxe. This was replaced by knives, once the brittle wood gave way to a set of harsh clamping jaws. There was a rhythm, a pattern. At this point, each strike reminded her of another. Yesterday, she’d stabbed a goblin in the same junction between the wrist and arm. Last week, she’d gotten out of this hold by reversing her blade. A few months ago, she’d seen another beast with the same nose.
But then one of them jumped her.
It was a hard struggle. One of its gangly arms flew off. Blood sprayed the cave walls. Kara met the remaining claw with a sharp yank, threw it off balance. They both crashed to the ground. When the creature finally stopped squirming – some evil spirit or other escaping through the mouth in a sigh – a smile spread across her face. For a moment, blood roared in her ears. A sharp satisfaction sizzled within her, in this moment, where nothing else mattered. She was alive.
Giddily, she regarded the position of the full moon, brightly straddling the edge of the night sky, perfectly balanced. She could get some sleep yet.
Deep in restless slumber, she could reach her sister. Her sister, Elena, buried many years past, who would reach for her with clammy, soiled hands as she never had in life. Her mind would conjure up the feel of porcelain skin on her cheeks, the calloused fingertips, the smooth palms. They were hands built for the needle and prayer.
Elena would sing to her the songs she used to in their childhood, honeyed and soothing, her familiar warmth pressed up against Kara’s side, ghostly in the way sensation often was in dreams. Then, always with the same lightning-strike suddenness, the warmth would disappear.
“Where are you going?” she would ask.
“Do you want to hear a story? You must be tired of singing.”
In the dream, she would have the distinct feeling that she wanted no stories, only wanted her sister to crawl back under the covers with her, so she would not sleep cold.
But Elena would continue:
“On the streets of the capital, with flowers and beautiful dresses on display, there was a girl . . . “
At that point she would awaken. She would sit up, chest heaving, pull the glass goblet from her back and watch the campfire dance in it until she could fall asleep again.
Usually, before leaving a dungeon, she would search every scrap, every corner of the room. She had to. The haze of dark dusty air, weighing heavy with an inexplicable smokiness, helped to hide little nooks and crannies – crannies that could possibly, with enough luck, hold the thing she was looking for. She had to do this until she found it. Or until she didn’t. Whichever came first.
Things were supposed to be clearer the second time around. The melting corpses of last night’s creatures gave way to the trail of carnage from last week’s creatures, and so on. She could map every hidden passageway in her mind instead of just the common ones (those behind paintings, creepers or statues). Even then, there lingered a grey uncertainty. There lingered the picture of Father, surrounded by all her bounties, all her golden treasures, still silent, still unresponsive.
Of course, even in her young life she had seen them: the pale, shaking faces of so many children under the belt or whip, their supposed caretakers looming like dragons overhead. She had seen how children, young and small and in their first years of life, clamoured to please, clamoured for smiles and gentle pats and hugs. She could not make sense of her situation through theirs. Father was kind. Father being kind made it all the worse. The cold cragginess of his silence – even now she could hear it! – stabbed her flesh deeper than any monster; the hollow in his room sent a chill down her spine where any number of dungeons could not.
Kara shook her head. She bent down, ransacked the same altar for treasure, for the third time in a row. Despite all that, the clench in her chest did not lessen, and she continued to think.
Father never took off the coat Elena had made for him. By this time, it was threadbare, worn and faded from years of sitting hunched over by the fire, accompanying a master that did nothing all day but file reports for a living. Kara had never been good at writing. So it was that the ghost of Elena’s form would linger there, in the empty chair beside him in both their minds, adding in a quip or two at each sprawl of letters, such as: “Lost wares, again? My word, this group.” Or “You’d think they would have cut them off by now.” Instead, Kara was the one cut off by now, Father’s writing was wordless, and Elena was gone.
She had sewn far better in her later days, when she would send Father shirts from the capital she had stitched with golden threads. Sometimes Kara wondered why he insisted on wearing that one, the imperfect one.
“You wish I were dead instead.”
“No, Kara, I don’t.”
“Do you need to me to fetch the firewood?”
“Are you cold?”
He drew the coat tighter around himself, but said nothing.
Another dream she often had: the burial. In this one there was not just sister, but also Father, who took up most of the space and the precious edges of colour in the blurriness of Kara’s dreamscape.
Speaking in a language of impressions and ideas, he mourned Elena with a crimson ferocity. He was a shivering stone weight in her sleeping mind, one of those glowing living rocks from legend, burning and sputtering, strangely sympathetic until he scorched her, leaving her awake in bed, soaking with sweat.
But Kara would wake up the next day, eat, and dress, as Elena never would once more. She would go on these little adventures, fight monsters, walk through caves, see trees . . . And perhaps, it would not be so tedious looking at it this way. That was the fact of it.
Dawn bloomed on her. Suddenly, Kara was aware of a deep-seated, voracious hunger, which she gorged herself on scraps of stale bread and smoked meat. Those were the last of her provisions. It didn’t matter. She could get more on the way out.
Instead, she found herself standing, aimless, in the forest clearing before the dungeon entrance. She noticed all the smaller rock formations, the sprigs of white flowers atop grass she had not seen before, when she had first discovered the place. The goblet felt light in her hand as she took it out of her pack and raised it up to the sky.
Kara gazed into the glass, where sunlight was shivering, shimmering, fading in and out of reflection, coy. Or, she imagined, perhaps it was just unprepared for the morning.
The goblet shattered when it fell. Was dropped. Was discarded. She looked out beyond the jade line of treetops, up into the mountains, where whitish caps shimmered invitingly. Was it snow? Ice? She thought of the sizzling she had felt, taking down the beast. The tavern songs always spoke of conquering mountains.
Maybe Father could wait this time.