I stirred from my bunk after another half-night of restless sleep, tormented by dreams of fire. Careful not to wake the other guards, I stumbled outside to the well. Damp mist shrouded the camp, leaving only blurs of buildings and hazy orange globes that marked the torches of the night watch.
I tugged at the coarse rope hanging down into the cavernous, stone-lined pit in the center of the camp. A gentle splash echoed from below, and I hauled up a bucket of cool, crisp water that captured the moonlight in its sloshing waves. I drank deeply, filling my belly and soothing my parched throat. From the wall, I heard the chatter and laughs of the guards at their posts, no doubt sneaking mead from the kitchens and wasting arrows on shadows at the treeline. I had half a mind to go reprimand them, but I could save that task for tomorrow’s briefing.
After a final gulp of water, I padded back to my cabin. The mist closed in around me, growing so dense that I could barely see my own feet. Only the bright moon was able to pierce its nebulous veil. The rusty hinges of the barracks door squeaked as I pulled it open, as if protesting that I had woken them up with my nighttime sojourn. Just as I crossed the threshold, another sound trickled through the mists. A soft whisper, lighter than the flap of a bat’s wings at dusk. It was the sound that pursued me every night through my dreams. My beautiful wife’s voice as the beast carried her back to its lair; that haunting song that I knew would end in that final D-sharp. The mists seemed to swirl in excitement upon hearing it, and I wondered (not for the first time) whether I was truly awake.
The door slammed shut behind me with a clatter as I turned and ran back outside. I bounded down the path and bounded up the rough timber steps to the guard outpost overlooking the dense swamp that marked the border between Oltaria and the neighboring Kingdom of the Dead. The voice called to me again, coming from somewhere beyond the trees.
“Do you hear that?” I asked wildly to the guards as I burst through their door. They stood wide-eyed with fear and nodded, instantly sobered by the haunting sound. The song began to fade, receding deeper into the trees, luring me out. I knew it was likely a trap; all sorts of beasts lurked in these woods, and their magics had tempted many a traveler to stray from the road, ending in a grisly death. But how had it known to use that one song? How could it mimic the soft tone of her voice? How did it know about my obsession with that final note? I had to know if she was out there, no matter the cost.
I snatched my crossbow from its peg and vaulted over the rim of the rough timber wall that guarded our fort. The guards behind me called out, thinking that the sound had driven me mad. They didn’t know about her. They didn’t know what the sound meant. My bare feet squished into the mud as I sprinted into the swamp.
“I’m coming,” I whispered to her.
The dead forest, so called because of what was in it, and what failed to come out of it. Only hunters were crazy, greedy, or desperate enough to live on its borders, and even hunters knew not to venture into the woods without plenty of backup, and plenty of daylight left. So slim was the chance of survival after dark that soldiers who failed to answer roll call at sundown were automatically listed as KIA.
I could hear my men shouting at me from the fort, but now one venture after me. When I approached the tree line, their voices died down to avoid attracting monsters, and I dove into the darkness alone.
I dropped into a crouch and drew my knife. I held my knife hand in front of me and balanced my crossbow on it. If something came at me, I would only have one shot with my ranged weapon, and I needed my knife at the ready to ward off the teeth, poisons, and claws the waited for me here.
That note, that beautiful terrible note was still ringing in the air, calling to me. It was a trap. I knew it was, but I could not help it. I would not wait another year aching to hear that voice again. That memory died here tonight, one way or the other.
The voice is getting close now. Less than fifty paces off. I cannot make out anything distinct, but there is a faint heavenly glow in the distance. It was so hauntingly otherworldly that I almost thought the dead forest had already claimed me, but this was not my first hunt. It was going to take more than mind games to deter me.
I drop to the ground, keeping my arms out in front of me, and begin slowly moving forward. The voice and the glow are stationary, there’s no hurry. I take my time, tilting my head sideways to minimize my profile, and never lifting a limb more than an inch or two off the ground.
It’s excruciatingly slow going. Moving a few feet takes minutes, and I become painfully aware of how muddy the ground is, but the mud is not my main concern. My main concern is the hissing sound that’s uncomfortably close to my head.
Grateful for my slow pace I freeze in place, not even daring to move my eyes from the point they were fixed on.
I can now hear more than a hiss. I hear a slither moving towards me from the opposite direction I’m looking at. I try to guess the species of the snake. It sounds like it could be eight or even nine feet long. That was bad. It had to be poisonous at that length. Constrictors would be over fifteen feet, and less dangerous snakes would be under three. Nine was exactly the wrong length.
I hear the flicker of its tongue as it tastes the air, searching for prey. There are rapid swishing motions as its head must be turning left and right. It’s close now. I could kick it if I had a death wish.
I tense my muscles as it closes the last few inches and touches my ribcage. I want to feel like a rock so I keep my muscles as tense as possible. Feel like stone, not flesh. I tell myself. Stone, not earth. I’m literally holding my breath as the weight of it moves onto my back, like a giant hand pressing against my side, and slowly, easily moving up my back to my shoulder.
Earth, not flesh, earth not flesh. I said it like a prayer as the head of the thing reached my shoulder blade, and out of the corner of my eye I got a glimpse of its sleek glittering black eyes. I dared not look at it lest it become startled by the sudden movement of my eyes.
The thing was pressing on me so hard that I almost exhaled from the weight of it. It was becoming a strain to keep my breath in and as the thing passed so close to my face I could’ve kissed it, a bead of sweat began to form on my head.
The feeling of the thing moving on my back, the sight of its eyes as close as those of a lover, and the tell tale drop of sweat on my head made we want to cry out and try and bring my knife to bare.
Then I hear that D# cutting through the night again, reminding me why I’m reminding. Reminding me that some things are worth kissing a viper for.
It’s just barely enough for me to hold on as the head of the thing passes by, and begins to move back into the brush. There are a few more seconds where my lungs begin to burn as the remaining few feet of serpent move off of me and into the night.
I start breathing again after I no longer hear its slithering sound, and begin my hunt for the thing crying out with my wife’s voice.
I reached a clearing in the trees: a wide, open space pitted by bogs of stagnant marsh water. The parts that were solid earth were covered by a tall, dry grass that rattled lightly in the wind. Across the field, I could see that same light glowing through the mist, brilliantly white like an angel.
I stepped forward onto the field, and the ground crunched beneath me. Bones, bleached white by centuries in the sun. Skeletal fingers still gripped a rotten wooden spear, tipped by a rusted metal diamond that had fallen into the dirt. A wicked curved dagger was stuck between two of the ribs. Patches of spiky grass poked through rusted-out holes in the armor, and moss grew over the remnants of his shield. I gingerly tried to avoid disturbing the corpse, but there was another right next to it. Dozens more, everywhere I stepped. The whole clearing was a graveyard; a forgotten battlefield of some long-ago war lost to history. They were in no shape to rise against me, but I unslung my crossbow and notched a bolt regardless; maybe the stories about the Kingdom of the Dead were true after all.
But I would have fought through the entire undead army to cross that field. The luminescent glow through the mists taunted me, urging me forward. Whatever was singing my wife’s song was waiting for me across the clearing, basking in that glow. Armor crumbled under my feet as empty eye sockets stared up at me accusingly. I felt a thousand eyes watching me from the trees as beasts lurked under the boughs; even they didn’t dare enter this clearing.
I came close enough to make it out the object. It was a box made of gleaming steel with thick rivets built to contain tremenous force; The top, however, was a translucent bubble gleaming in the night. I stepped closer, able to view the interior. Gleaming golden gears and cranking shafts scurried around frantically, around one enormous central cylinder, dotted tiny metal notches. The glow came from glass bottles with what seemed like bottled lightning.
“BEAUTIFUL, ISN’T IT?” roared a voice from behind me as the ground beneath me rattled violently.
I spun, almost dropping my crossbow. The dragon had swooped in behind me and landed with a crash that sent bone fragments into the air along with a cloud of dust. His veiny red wings spread wide, blocking out the moon that was just beginning to fall. That same, scaly demon who had taken my wife all those years ago. Without another thought, I fired my crossbow bolt with a twang. It didn’t even pierce his thick, chitinous scales; the bolt just veered off, sending a shower of sparks into the mist.
“**That thing won’t help you,” he said with a smirk obvious even across his reptilian face.
“Where is she?” I answered. “I heard her!”
“Touch that button next to you,” The dragon told me. I kept one eye on him, but did what he said. The device inside whirred and spun, and the soft notes of my wife’s song drifted out. I turned away from the dragon, pressing my palms against the glass. What is this device?
“She’s still alive, you know,” A tear sprang to my eye as her voice became stronger, just as sweet as when she used to sing to the birds in the garden of our cottage. “Wouldn’t you want to see her again?”
I fell to my knees before the beast.
“As I told you. Simply touch the button.” The dragon ordered. It was clearly enjoying itself. Dragons were very patient beings. They could spend an entire human lifetime setting up a moment such as this. An ‘entertainment’ they called it. A sick joke that they spent unfathomable amounts of effort into just to see a mortal squirm.
“What happens then?” I asked.
“Then you take her place mortal.” The dragon crushed several skulls under his feet. I hoped he wasn’t foreshadowing what was to come.
“And what happens to her?” I ask. Forgetting that I don’t know where she is.
“She takes your place.” The dragon drags out the last word like it’s a final note in a song. He knows what drew me here. He’s mocking me.
“So you can just take her away again? And leave me trapped wherever she is?” There’s no way that I’ll let her out here. She has to be safer where she is. A whole squad of my best men couldn’t escort her safely out of here without the dragon. With the monstrosity here anything short of a legion of troops would be insufficient.
“I’ll see that she’s….taken care of.” The beast snapped its jaws. It could break grown trees in two with those powerful jaws.
“You know I can’t believe you.” I tell the flying serpent.
Fire shot skyward from its mouth, billowing upward larger than I’d seen any pillar made by human hands. It roared loud enough to wake the heaviest sleeper three leagues off, and swatted its tail through the trees, cutting down a row of strong oaks.
You also know you can’t win. So I can make a meal of you right now. Or. The thing leaned down as its face was close to me. You can make it sporting for me.
I’d have to fight the beast. There was nothing for it. My love would be in far greater danger here than any she could possibly be facing in her current location. I’d force the great brute to fight me, and then maybe when the sport was out of it he’d let her go. She’d still have to make her way through the dead forest, but perhaps the creatures would think she was under the dragon’s protection, and leave her alone.
I reach for a bolt, readying my crossbow for one final stand. Smoke rises from the dragon’s nostrils as he prepares to end this fight as soon as I start it.
Then, I hear the words. The words to the song that I hadn’t remembered for years. The tune that had followed me into spider’s caves and dragon’s lairs now finally had words to it again. My wife’s words.
Hearth and home have I prepared for you
Rest you now, your slumber’s overdue.
Seek ye peace, the world’s troubles will I mend.
And when you wake, my face will you see again.
And now I know what I must do.
I lowered my bow, defeated. The dragon looked down at me with smoldering amber eyes, savoring his victory. His massive clawed feet dug into the ground as he stomped closer, and the red, scaled tail slithered through the grass behind him, leaving a furrowed trail of dirt and bones.
“Wise choice, farmer,” it told me with a heavy emphasis on the last word, mocking me. Dragons savored only the hunt; those who raised food peacefully were the lowest of the low, only good for sport. “Surrender yourself, and I will let her free”
I did as I was instructed, pressing the ruby gemstone button in the center of the device. The glass covering seemed to melt, vanishing into thin air. From the interior, the gears whirred and clanked, moving quickly. The dragon leaned closer, so near that I could smell the sulphur on his breath. The large metal cylinder in the middle of the machine rose slowly and popped open with an explosion of green sparks. From inside that golden shell, a long, slender handle appeared. Carved of dark wood, almost black, tipped with a metal ball in the shape of a flower bulb.
“We call it a soul rose,” The dragon explained, with a hint of awe in his voice. “It will be your home until I find my next plaything. Or until you break.” He seemed to relish the thought of the latter.
I took it from the cannister and held it gently, admiring the craftsmanship even as I felt the dark power emanating from it. The dragon scooted closer for a better look, surrounding me with his enormous leathery wings. His scaly underbelly loomed above me, blotting out the night’s stars.
“What do I do with it?”
He hummed something in his own tongue, a harsh guttural language that sounded like an avalanche. The rose sprang to life, spreading apart into delicately crafted petals of white ivory. In the center,though, razor-edged golden teeth revealed a gaping black maw.
“Now, press it to your heart. Your soul will inhabit the Rose, and your wife shall return in your place.”
I looked down at the device, stalling. I could still hear my wife’s song, reassuring me. Soothing my spirit. She was the strong one, putting on a brave face for my own benefit. She would be willing to make this sacrifice, going into the unknown just to save me. A tear rolled down my cheek, causing the dragon to stand tall and cackle, a ferocious noise that sounded like he was coughing up rocks.
Seek ye peace, the world’s troubles will I mend.
With one swift motion, I loaded the rose into my crossbow. I turned back to the dragon, still stretched high into the night in front of me. His eyes narrowed as he suddenly realized what I had done, and his broad wings flapped to protect his exposed belly, but it was too late. The crossbow cable snapped, and the rose soared straight through the air. Maybe not as fast as a sleek arrow would have, but it did the trick. It struck the dragon’s scaly skin right where I knew his heart would be.
A gusting wind swept through the field, rattling the tall grasses and swirling through the tree branches on the edges. The dragon stood petrified for a moment, then began to glow. First only a bit, like a far-off glimmer. Then brighter and brighter until it was more intense than the sun itself, and I had to shield my eyes.
When I looked back, the dragon had disappeared and my wife stood in the field before me.