Kelia laughed in shock, the sound breaking the trance of the moment.
“Excuse me? That’s-no. I am not the sacrificial lamb, nor will I ever be.”
Her eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms and looked at the Great Dragon. He growled low in his throat, and the butcher whimpered and cowered back down. Kelia wasn’t afraid, though, as she stared down at the Dragon.
He glowered at her.
“Are you refusing me, wrench?”
Kelia refused to look away.
“I am, Dragon. I don’t want to be your sacrifice, nor am I going to allow you to-ah!”
She was still talking as he leaped off the fountain and soared towards her, grabbing her with his claws.
“Let go of me!” Kelia yelled as the Dragon flapped his wings, carrying them high into the air. She looked down to see the frightened faces of the people she’d grown up with, getting smaller and smaller.
Screaming, she beat at the huge claws wrapping relatively gently, she was surprised, around her midsection. Each claw was half her size, twice as thick, and harder than brick. She groaned in frustration, clutching her bruised knuckles.
The Great Dragon chuckled, the vibrations nearly shaking her out of his grasp. She yelped in terror as she looked at the drop; they were easily hundreds of feet in the air, and the village had been replaced by the sharp peaks of the Sky Range. Kelia forgot her anger and clutched the claws tightly, realizing too late that she was scared of heights.
“Try as hard as you can, Kelia, daughter of Sagana, you will not escape my grip.”
“You don’t know unless you try, Great Dragon.”
He huffed, which shook his body once more, and her stomach leaped into her throat. She clutched his claws tightly once more.
“Do not worry, wrench, it is not far now.”
“I am not a wrench. Stop calling me that, it’s demeaning,” she grumbled, face hot. He ducked his head under his wing, so he was staring at her as he was flying, a disconcerting image.
“The last Maiden I took was a wrench. She didn’t mind me calling her that.”
“Yes, well, I am not a wrench. Homeless, yes, but wrench, no. And would you look where you’re flying, please, you’re frightening me.”
The Dragon scoffed, the expression oddly human. Kelia was reminded of when she corrected the baker’s son on his grammar. Male egos were over-inflated, she thought, no matter what species they were.
“I know these mountains,” the Dragon turned his head, straightening his neck, “like nobody else-”
“Look out!” Kelia screamed as he flew straight toward a cliff. At the last moment, he banked suddenly, slowing almost immediately, and the force threw her head back.
In this new position, she could see a golden chain encircling his ankle, brought together by a singular lock. She blinked, certain she hadn’t seen it on him before, but as she straightened and opened her mouth to ask him about it, the Dragon dove straight down, and her terror forced the question out of her mind.
She was too terrified to scream as the ground rushed towards them at dizzying speeds. At the moment when she thought they were going to splatter against the rocks, the Dragon flung out his wings, and they coasted into the shallow opening of a cave.
Almost too gently, the Dragon flew down the tunnel into a big cavern and landed, setting Kelia on the ground. She staggered out of his claws, her legs shaking and stomach weak. Her mouth was still open as her mind tried to process what had happened.
She sank to the ground, next to a small pool of water that had most likely formed from rain trickling through the skylight way overhead, trying to form words. Although her mouth opened and closed, she couldn’t seem to get words past the scream of terror frozen in her throat. She looked at the Dragon with a helpless gaze conveying the pure desperation in her mind. He tilted his head, an amused look on his face.
“Take your time.”
And with that, he sat and began scratching an itchy scale behind his right horn.
Words warred in Kelia’s head, trying to gain an audience with her mouth, but she shoved them all away and asked, “What is your name, Dragon?”
He shook himself as a dog would, and she ducked as the loose scale came flying towards her. It rattled near her feet, and she bent to pick it up. It was roughly the size of her hand and gleamed silver underneath the soft light of the moon coming in from the skylight. The Dragon noticed her peering at it and snorted, smoke curling from his nostrils.
“Pardon me, I’ll light the torches.”
And with a great whoosh, he blew out a stream of fire, lighting the torches lining the walls. Kelia winced at the sudden influx of light and shielded her eyes.
The Dragon settled himself on the floor and peered down at her. She blinked, eyes watering as he opened his mouth.
“My name is Aryzath of Sky Mountain, though I have other titles given by you humans, and I am called Ary by my friends.”
She scoffed, crossing her arms. “So, Ary, wh-”
“Where in your tiny brain did you come to the conclusion you are my friend?”
He lowered his head to peer into her eyes. Kelia glowered at him.
“Since you kidnapped me, brought me to your glorified man-cave, and proceeded to itch yourself in front of me like a dog, I believe we’re well past friends.”
Aryzath started growling, a deep rumble that echoed throughout the cave. She held her hands up in surrender.
“Fine, have it your way. Aryzath, as your sacrifice, what do you intend for me to do?”
Aryzath’s blue eyes misted as he seemed to stare through her. After a long moment, he shook his head and blew a ring of smoke into the pool of water at his feet. He dipped a claw in and stirred the water as an image surfaced. Kelia peered into the pool in amazement. A golden sword was driven into a huge stone, its hilt the only part sticking out of the rock.
“For the past six-hundred years I have been leashed by the wizard who made this chain and it’s subsequent sword, and for the past six-hundred years I have waited to get free. I need you to free the sword from the stone and break this chain.”
Aryzath’s voice grew somber as he stirred the water once again. This time, a roaring dragon appeared, three times the size of Aryzath, coiled around a massive spike of rock. Her copper-colored scales were rusty with age and lack of sunlight, and her milky-white eyes seemed to stare right through Kelia.
“The way to the Sword is not through a field of daisies, however. You need to get past Ragua the Deadly. Most of the Maidens do not make it past her.” The image in the pool drew back, showing Ragua surrounded by gleaming white bones.
“How many Maidens have made it past her?” Kelia gulped, staring at the rows of teeth inside Ragua’s gaping maw.
“Only two.” Aryzath said heavily. He stirred the pool again, and a third image revolved into view. A man in white robes with a long red beard stood, eyes closed, hands joined in front of his chest, fingers wrapped around a jeweled dagger.
“Is that-?” Kelia let the question hang, the answer clear as day in front of her.
“Yes, that is Cormac. The Wizard who trapped me. If you can make it past him, only then are you allowed to see the Sword. And the Sword holds its own test, but none of my Maidens have ever made it that far yet, so I do not know what it is.”
Kelia digested this information.
“If you’ve never had a Maiden succeed, why do you keep trying?” she asked. Aryzath snorted, stirring the pool absently.
“You humans live such short lives. It seemed that with every breath I took, another one of your lives was over. And you kill each other over such small issues. Money, food, land. Is it so selfish of me to utilize one of you every year to help free me?”
His blue eyes bored into hers.
“But these girls are dying.”
“You die over nothing anyways. At least these Maidens were dying for something.”
Kelia crossed her arms.
“Well, I believe it’s stupid. There is no other way out, is there?”
Aryzath bared his gleaming white teeth, putting his face right next to hers. His hot breath wafted over her, and she resisted the urge to run, screaming, in the opposite direction.
“There is one. And only one Maiden has ever chosen that way.”
In the firelight, he looked sinister, and she shivered, remembering he was a Dragon, and she was only a human.
“I’ll help you,” she declared, “but on one condition.”
Aryzath drew back, tilting his head curiously. Kelia was reminded of a puppy, albeit a giant, enthusiastic puppy, who could fly, speak, and rip a human into minuscule pieces in less than a second.
“Supposing you survive all three trials, and manage to free me, I will grant this condition to you.”
“Leave people alone.”
Aryzath laughed, the sound echoing throughout the cave.
“So be it, Kelia, so be it.”
She nodded, pleased.
“Now, where is this Ragua?”
In answer, Aryzath pointed one claw to the floor. Kelia’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“Why do you believe I live on Sky Mountain?” he asked. She sighed in realization.
“She’s underneath us, isn't she?”
“Do I get anything that might help me?” Kelia asked him, her hands on her hips.
“Only your wit and your body.” Aryzath shook his head. “The Wizard was explicit in his instructions. I can only be freed by a Maiden working alone.”
“You know, I’m starting to realize why peasant girls and farmers girls aren’t making it past this first test.”
“Shall we go?”
Aryzath curled his claws around her again and lifted off the ground, flying out of the cave and down the mountain.
A deep cavern yawned within the trees, and the Dragon set her on the ground by the edge. She peered into it.
“I wonder how likely it is she’s dead?”
Aryzath opened his mouth to answer but a roar much deeper than his sounded from the depths below.
“I’ll take that as a no,” she muttered, turning to the Great Dragon, “Well, this is it. Hopefully I’ll see you on the other side.”
“The Winds go with you,” he murmured, ducking his head. She returned to the edge.
“How far is it-ah!”
Faster than she could react, Aryzath shoved her with his great head and sent her tumbling into the cave.
“It is easier this way!” he promised as she dropped into the darkness. She didn’t have the breath to respond.
Luckily, the fall wasn’t too long, and she landed on something springy, absorbing the brunt of her fall. Clambering to her feet, she stared into the pitch black in front of her, and then up at the tiny circle of light above, where she could see Aryzath’s silver head peering anxiously down.
“You need to stop doing that!” she yelled, then added for the dithering hen up there, “I’m okay!”
She turned back to the darkness and jumped in surprise as torchlights flickered on at the sound of her voice. They illuminated a tunnel before her, and with a deep sense of foreboding, she walked down it.
The springy stuff, she realized, was moss, clinging to the rocks with surprising force. There must be water here, Kelia thought, and lots of it. As if in answer, the farther into the earth she walked, she could hear the sounds of trickling water growing louder.
The tunnel must have been long, but Kelia couldn’t tell because every time she turned a corner, she was amazed by the new sights awaiting her. In one cavern, diamonds the size of her entire body grew from the ceiling and out of the floor. In the next, the walls glittered with sapphires bigger than her head. Further in the tunnel, red rubies winked at her from within stalactites and stalagmites.
The gemstones whispered to Kelia, wanting her to rescue them from this dark cave. She was sorely tempted to grab all she could and run in the opposite direction. They could feed her entire village for a year. But she remembered the pain on Aryzath’s face, and the golden chain around his ankle and forced herself to continue walking.
All too soon, she emerged from the tunnel into a cavern wider than all the others before and ducked as a stream of fire shot at her. She could hear Ragua roaring in anger as she crept into the cavern and hid behind a pillar of rock as another blast of fire scorched the air above her.
“I know you’re there, Maiden.”
Ragua’s voice was nothing like Aryzath’s. While the Great Dragon’s roar reminded Kelia of mountains, stoic and proud, Ragua’s voice was Hell incarnate. Raspy and consumed with the eternal fires of damnation.
Kelia wisely didn’t respond.
“Come out and face me, Maiden, and I’ll make your death painless like all those who came before you.”
Ragua’s voice softened as if she could tempt Kelia. Before she could stop herself, she snorted in derision and immediately winced as heat licked at her once again as Ragua shot another blast of fire in Kelia’s direction.
The Dragon was blind, and she used her senses of smell and hearing to kill her prey. As long as Kelia didn’t make noise and didn’t smell too enticing, she would make it past Ragua.
She silently peered around the rock and saw the Dragon staring in her general direction.
Ragua was tied to the spike of rock with a rusted chain that, from the way it was creaking ominously every time the Dragon reached the end of her tether, wasn’t long for this world. Directly above Ragua, sharp stalactites gripped the cavern ceiling.
Kelia knew what she had to do.
The young woman crept from her hiding spot, picking up a few rocks as she circled the cavern, trying to get behind Ragua. She threw one rock where she had hidden, and immediately, the Dragon roared and shot fire at the spot. Heat swept over Kelia, and she wiped away the sweat beading on her forehead. She continued this pattern as she worked her way around to Ragua.
Each time Ragua shot fire at the spot she threw the rock, her chains tightened infinitesimally. Soon, it was short enough that the Dragon couldn’t twist her head far enough to breathe fire, and she roared in anger.
“Come out, Maiden.”
In response, Kelia threw her last rock straight up, hitting the stalactites squarely in the center, causing them to break apart and fall. Ragua looked up and roared, this time in fear, as the sharp rocks pierced her scaly armor. With a sickening squelch, the Dragon collapsed. Blood was already starting to blacken around the stones embedded in her body.
“One dead,” Kelia muttered to herself, dusting her hands off, “one to go.”