He was trapped, buried alive deep beneath Darkroth Forest. It didn’t worry him much. He was sure there’d be another way out. Even if there wasn’t, it paid to have a back-up plan. If he didn’t return to Elbrooke within three days his mentor Elthas would notify Aefion’s superiors. It was a good system, one that strengthened a society built around teamwork. In the last six cycles there had been no mishaps within the Fire Arrows, Elbrooke’s messenger guild. Aefion had proved himself to be reasonably reliable, having completed almost every mission entrusted to him since his inception five cycles ago. He smiled inwardly, thinking of his many female companions who would shed tears over him if they thought he was in danger.
It felt good to be admired by the females of the species.
A large, circular cave stretched out before him, at least fifty metres from wall to wall, and it was lit all about its edges by spiky clusters of giant crystals. They glowed dully with a red light. High up on small ledges jutting from the opposite wall stood ten statues. It looked like they were carved from white marble. Each formed the shape of a rising serpent, their whip-like tongues flickering from cavernous mouths. Their bright ruby eyes seemed to glare down at him threateningly. The air was dank, and smelled of something musty, and long forgotten. A faint dripping sounded, somewhere out of sight. The centre of the cave was draped in deep shadow.
‘Locked tween earth and serpent-cave,’ Aefion murmured, harkening back to the crude, satyr poem.
Picking up his sword, he crouched down by a clump of quartz and reached for his knife.
His hand closed on the empty sheath. He had left his knife in the archer’s throat. That had been foolish, although the action could have saved him a grave injury. He lashed out with his boot. One of the smaller crystals came free and he picked it up in his left hand. It gave off a decent light, illuminating the immediate area around him. Holding his sword outwards, he strode warily towards the centre of the cave.
The floor was covered in a layer of loosely packed earth. There were no rocks or other debris, and the dirt shifted beneath his feet. What was this place, he thought, what purpose did it serve here? He looked up, but he couldn’t see anything except for a veil of blackness.
Suddenly it was obvious. Just as he realised what this place was, Aefion’s boot caught on something. He kneeled, using the crystal to dig around. It wasn’t long before he unearthed something he wished he hadn’t.
It was a skull.
And beneath that were even more bones, layer upon layer of them. Gouging out a hole, his jaw tightened as he unearthed more and more rotting remains of what looked like the victims of a centuries’ old massacre. Looking closer, he noticed strange depressions on either side of the skull, near the forehead.
Immediately he dropped the crystal and spun around, scanning for enemies. For once he nearly felt afraid. This was a prime place for a trap. It was dark, spacious enough to swing a sword in and big enough for at least thirty warriors. Feet planted firmly on the floor, he gripped his sword in two hands and held it in a guard position, over his head. This was his first freelance mission. He knew it wouldn’t be his last. But if something did go wrong, at least he had vowed to aid a girl in need. That was what mattered.
‘Come on, creatures, where are you?’
He was answered by a lengthy silence. But somebody or something had to be guarding the princess; he knew it.
Moments passed and he remained motionless, his ears and eyes straining to detect the slightest movement. He heard nothing.
‘This is ridiculous,’ he hissed, ‘they say the worst part of a battle is the waiting. Come out and fight, beast!’ His voice rang loudly like a tolling bell, the echoes bouncing off the walls. With a slight shifting of the shadows, something moved up ahead. It was like a pile of stones, a murky heap looming against the far wall.
‘Finally,’ the elf snarled, seizing up the crystal and sprinting towards the shape. The light reflected from shiny, rounded discs that glinted with a metallic sheen. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and stepped closer. Shining the crystal as close as he dared, he mentally acknowledged what he was looking at.
These weren’t rocks. They were scales.
Quietly now, he told himself, quietly. The beast yet sleeps. Perhaps he could get around it somehow…
He crept alongside the gigantic, red-glinting mass towards where he supposed the creature’s head lay. Suppressing the urge to run his hand tenderly along the scales, he could just make out a deep rumbling.
A bit further and he’d see the face of the majestic creature he’d disturbed.
A massive, draconic head reared into view, eyes flashing dangerously. Two horns curved upwards from its noble brow and its jaws parted slightly to reveal a set of vicious teeth, each one the size of a short sword. Instantly the vast body began to move, and Aefion stood still, emotionless, as the monster towered above him on four powerful limbs tipped with paws ending in curved talons. Dimly, he could make out the canopy of the creature’s vast, bat-like wings spreading out above, and the uncoiling, serpentine tail tipped with a fearsome arrowhead.
‘Well elf,’ a deep voice boomed, ‘you certainly took your time.’