|Word count 4508
Contest entry in "Invalid Item" ending Aug 30, 2012
The acidic stench of fire lingered heavy in the hall. All around her, the fallen timbers still smoldered, making each labored breath feel as if laced with the grit of ground glass.
A small voice called out in the darkness, “Master Tiaras, couugghh …, Master Tiaras, are you here? Master… it’s me, Cassie. Come out. They are all gone. Oh, please Dear Maker; do not leave me alone once more.” Cassandra scanned the dimly lit room and climbed past a group of broken chairs. She bent down, picking up a cloth from the floor. The wall tabard, the Highguard crest. What makes them hate his name with such disdain? She wrapped it around herself, trying to stave off the shivers that raked her wet frame.
Noises to the right drew her attention. Cassandra started in that direction, carefully picking her footing through the rubble; she pushed away an overturned table. “Whoosss therrrsss,” hissed a low angry voice. A thick, emerald, serpent-like tail swung passed her. Its heavy scales rasping on the stone floor, its thrashing brushed ashes into a small cloud that added to the weight of the air around them.
“Saraphina? It is only me, Cassandra. It’s Cassie, girl. Where is our master? Oh, please tell me, that he still lives.”
The wide-eyed beast locked its gaze on the figure before it. To the creature's view that figure resembled a huge, dirty, wet cat, with large bright eyes. The beast fell silent, though it still bared its long blood stained teeth at her. Then Cassandra stepped into the moonlight, and the spark of recognition moved into the creature’s eyes. She hopped forward knocking the table further aside. She edged out, hobbling towards Cassandra. That was when the arrow in her foreleg became apparent.
“Saraphina…you are hurt! Oh No, . . . Maker, please,” Cassandra raised her eyes to the starlit sky showing through the large section of missing roof. “I know we must endure, we must sacrifice for the sake of humanity, but she is only a young dragon, she is not yet strong enough.”
Cassandra knelt beside the mystical creature. The flicker of flames behind her gave little enough light to inspect her master’s life-long charge and companion.
“Saraphina, daughter of Icaria, I call upon your strength, I call upon your heart, be as your mother, trust in me, as she did in our master. I will do you no harm.” With both hands, Cassandra gently took hold of the feathered end of the long arrow sticking in the right foreleg of the green adolescent titian. Glancing into the dragon’s eyes, she looked for confirmation that she understood. The black diamond pupils surrounded by golden pools of light; reflected the flames around them but they showed no fear. Cassandra snapped off the arrow's tail sending a loud crack across the otherwise silent room.
“I must press it through girl, please don’t bite off my arms, I will need them to dig out the arrows in your back.” Cassandra took hold of the shaft and pushed, the dragon jerked with a sudden hop. “I know it hurts, but it is the only way, hold your breath, I will push harder, and faster this time, it is almost through.” With her declaration, she placed the heel of her palm on the end of the shaft and shoved hard.
“Yureee…garoow!” came a guttural moan from the beast. The room reverberated from the deep, primal cry. Saraphina let her neck brush up against Cassandra’s back, wrapping it around her as if she were hugging the girl of fifteen summers.
Cassandra reached out pulling the shaft free from the backside of the leg, she held out the arrow, looking closer at its pointed head, and then she brought it to her nose sniffing at it. Using her extended pinky, she touched the point and then touched her finger to the tip of her tongue.
“I don’t think it is poisoned.” Standing between her front legs, she let her weight press on the Saraphina’s chest as she leaned over to inspect the exit-wound. “It is clean through and not near the bone, it will be sore, but I think you will heal without trouble. Master, will know best once we find him.” Cassandra turned in place so that she now faced the dragon. Looking up at her, the tears welled in her eyes. Her brow sank as her pouty lips gave into a tremble. “Sara, do you know where he is, is he still alive?”
The dragon rose up onto her feet but did not bear weight on her wounded leg; gently she pushed her snout to Cassandra’s stomach drawing in her scent. Then she raised her wide nose to Cassandra’s face. The corners of her mouth pulled upward, if it is possible for dragons to smile, than this was what they looked like. “Seeeees hissss eyeeesssss, I dooo.”
“What? Where, tell me again, I didn’t understand. You know my dragon speak is weak.” Cassandra turned about quickly looking around the room; her shoulder length, reddish-brown hair swung across the dragon's nostrils. Saraphina snored at the tickle, her exhale blowing Cassandra's hair back to reveal her freckled face, high cheekbones, slender nose, and penetrating, deep-green eyes.
Saraphina waited until the slender human once again focused on her. She let her tongue slide out, and licked the girl’s right cheek, swabbing the muddy tears away. “Weeee… finds.” With a gentle nudge, she pushed the girl back.
With her back arched high, the dragon moved forward with a kind of hopping motion. That is when, Cassandra, once more, took note of the three arrows in Saraphina's back. They were just below the long dorsal sail that ran down the center of her back. The first, stuck in behind her left shoulder, the other two, close together in her middle back, above the ribs, just behind her two-meter long wings that she held folded to her side.
“Wait, I think I should look at the arrows in your back first.” Cassandra edged along side the dragon letting her hands rub over the slick, hard scales as she moved down the four-meter long creature. She took hold of one of the shafts near the center and pulled it out without effort, then she tugged on the second, but it held fast, Cassandra put both hands on the arrow gripping tightly.
“It’s not deep; it is only just penetrating one of your scales.” She rocked the projectile back and forth until it gave-way. As with the other arrows, she checked it for poison then threw it aside.
“Three down, one to go. How did you get so many? Were you outside? Why didn’t you hide as the master ordered?”
The dragon pivoted only a step looking back to what had been the tower entry. Cassandra followed her gaze. In the darkness lay shadows of what were once whole men. Beside them, faint shapes of leg and limb lay in blackened pools from which steamy mists of vapor rose into the dim light of the cloud-shrouded moon. In the hand of one severed arm a broken longbow still lay propped aside the stool it landed on. The scent of death, fresh in the air, became discernible to Cassandra. She could not make out any faces, but she knew their kind, hard bristled curs with no honor. Just like the ones who had murdered her mother and father when she was little more than a toddler.
“I hope you made them suffer well, it is only right they paid for this betrayal. There was not treason from this tower. Prince Abracus is misled by the usurper's lies.”
Looking at the last arrow, Cassandra grimaced. “It is deeper than the others, I think we'll need to cut it out, and the scale is broken, it's cracked nearly in half, it may fall loose before I can get it high enough to remove the arrow head.”
Saraphina curled her long neck back to her side and touched her nose to Cassandra’s hand, then pushed up to her left cheek and licked it as she had the other.
“Stop that silly, I am dirty, I was hiding in the cistern, I am covered in slime, you might become ill. Though, from the stench of bowel on your breath, I doubt I should taste any worse. Cassandra glanced back at the men piled behind her. "You are not still hungry, are you?"
Saraphina snorted her mild contempt at the child before her. Then her glare softened. "Braavee yooou arr. Dooo not beeee friighteeened."
"Okay, I am not the one with arrows sticking out my backside, you are the one who is brave, Icaria would be so proud. I wish I could have known her. The Master, he made her sound so wonderful. I can barely remember my own mother. Perhaps one-day you will give me a ride among the stars as she did our Master. Maybe I can get close enough to hear my mother sing to me again.”
Cassandra broke off the arrow and then lifted the scale above the shaft’s stub. Beneath the dragon's hardened, armor scales lay a soft pelt of velvet fur. Below the wound, it was matted with her dark red blood. “It is not deep, less than ten centimeters; I wish I knew another way girl. But I must cut it free.”
Drawing a small dagger from her belt, she held the scale with one hand, the dagger in the other. “Rat droppings, it is too dark, I can barely see.” Cassandra reached for her witch willow wand, but her nervous fingers did not grip it securely and she dropped it. “Oh, horse-feathers, how can I do this, I am nothing, a clumsy wizard. No, I am a clumsy wizard want-to-be! Forgive me Sara, I will have it finished soon, I promise.” She picked up the wand and recited the charming command. “Ingnitus—illuminata,” and the end of the wand burst out with a glowing white spark. Cassandra placed the wand between her teeth and began her surgery once more. One short slice to lengthen the wound and then she pulled the stub of the arrow and its head free. She put away her dagger and tore a strip from the tail of her tunic. Folding it, she placed it over the wound and pressed down, and then she lowered the scale over the makeshift bandage.
“There you go girl, you are arrow free. What say you; shall we try to stay that way for a while? Now, where is Master Tiaras?”
Saraphina moved forward heading towards the stairs that led to the tower basement. Cassandra stopped and said. “Are you sure he is down there? I checked there first. Oh Sara, I am so worried, we need him.”
Saraphina looked upon Cassandra; her color paled, her arms trembling. She inhaled deeply, and then gently blew out over the girl. Her warm breath ruffled Cassandra’s clothes and hair, making it look as if she were standing in a summer gale.
"What are you doing?"
"Yoou arrr coold ann weeet. Yoour teeeth givee awaayy oourr loocaaation." The dragon once more blew over the girl, being careful not to let her breath get too hot. After a third breath, she nudged Cassandra before her, towards the steps. “Hessss therrrreee.” Saraphina nodded, gesturing towards the steps.
“If you say so?” Said Cassandra, with the same look a child might give a nanny, when told, that Father Winter with his great bag of toys, entered the house through the fireplace chimney.
The pair moved down the circling stone steps until they reached the bottom. Before them, the large room, looked as if a massive explosion had rocked it.
"What could cause such damage, there is nothing untouched by destruction?"
"Wizarrd ooil, and Maaage liight, veeryy powerrr full."
Cassandra scanned the entire room once more. “See, there is no one here, only destruction remains.”
Saraphina pushed her towards the back of the room, at the rear wall the dragon touched her nose to the iron sconce and pushed it sideways. A dull, metal on stone scraping sounded behind the wall, culminating with a solid, “clung-kursnap.” As if, from magic, the wall gave way swinging open to reveal yet another set of stairs.
“I didn’t know there was yet another level.” Taking out her wand once more, she spoke, “Ingnitus-Illuminata.” The pair once more descended into the semidarkness. At the base of the stairs was a long corridor. No, it was more a narrow cliff-edge path. The dragon nudged Cassandra aside and moved down the length of the walkway without hesitation. After another three-hundred meters, Cassandra’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness and she saw what looked to be great iron bars across the width of the tunnel. She held up her wand higher in the air, straining to see ahead. Saraphina dashed off quickly and came to a stop at the iron bars. At her feet, a dark mass lay in shadow.
“No! Master Tiaras, it cannot be!” Cassandra screamed out in agony, she collapsed beside the fallen wizard as the tears began to stream down unabated.
Saraphina sniffed at her master, her friend, and then she put her nose on the wizards robe.
Cassandra stopped crying, frantically she dug at the robe trying to get at the inside pocket. From within, she retrieved the small vial. Carefully she removed the stopper and held the glass tube to the wizard’s lips. She turned up the contents into his mouth. A few seconds later and the body convulsed. Cassandra pulled on his robes and turned him over onto his back. It was then she could see the full extent of his injuries, he was burned and badly. His right side charred and the skin on his hand hung loose. The right side of his face a scarlet hue, his long gray hair, left only in melted patches.
“Master …master! What must I do, how can I help you?” From beneath her cassock, she tore cloth from her blouse and gently wrapped it around his right hand. She tried to push the hair near his eyes back. But it fell off into her hand. Her tears began to run once more.
“Auggh…ouugh! This is going to leave some marks . . . what smells of roast pig . . . Cassie is that you?”
“Master, oh, master you are alive! I thought you were dead, thank you Maker, praise you for hearing my prayer. Oh, thank you! Master Tiaras, what happened? Why are they doing this, why do they try to kill us?”
“It is a long story, but in the short of things, the dark side of existence looks to consume this world, to add it to the bowels of hell. They have hoodwinked our prince with their promises of power that he cannot truly hold. Evil entities work to open the portal that would let loose the demons of the underworld upon us.”
"But why do they attack us first, without warning?"
"Because, I possess things that can prevent the Dark lord’s rising."
"Oh Master give them what ever it is, they are not worth dying for. Why give your all for these people? They did nothing to help us."
"It is our test; nothing in this universe is free, save for the Makers love."
"If that is true, then why does he let this happen? Why does he not strike the evil down?"
"Because that he loves us, he gives us free will. We must endure this test. We must choose our own paths."
A long, wide nose pushed in and sniffed at the wounded man. “Tiarrrasssssss.”
The wizard held up his bandaged hand touching his friend’s snout. “Yes, Sara, the breath still rises. Though, I know not for how long.”
“Yes, my friend, I know. There is not much time.”
The wizard pulled his left hand from inside his robe, in it the hilt of a broken sword. He pushed it towards Cassandra. “Cassie, you must take this, it is one of the things they seek. Take it to the Draceri. They will reforge it. It is our hope against him.”
Cassandra took up the weapon; strangely, it was lighter than she thought it would be. The grip inlaid with the smooth pearl of Tuscan ivory. Engraved on the sides of the wide cross-guard, were ancient runes. In the pommel at the base of the grip, was a great azure sapphire encased in a silver cage. It looked like a hewed chunk of blue ice. As soon as Cassandra took hold of the handle, the stone began to glow and not long after the rest of the weapon begin to give off an aura of silver light.
“See Sara, I was not wrong. I told you he would provide the means, he always provides for his faithful. See, it is exactly as it is written in his holy word!”
Cassandra held out the weapon she seemed oblivious to anything special about it or the reaction of it in her hand. “I don’t understand master, take it to the Draceri? Who are they, where are they? I am not a hero. Master, I will find us help, I will go find Willow, or Yuri. They will know what to do!” She started to rise but the wizard's hand took a firm grip of her arm.
“There is no time, General Togar and his trolls will be upon us soon enough. Besides, Yuri is dead, and I fear Willow is, as well. There is, only you. If our world is to survive, it is up to you to succeed in this quest.”
“But master how? I cannot walk across the yard without falling on my arse. Why do you think they name me the stumbling wizard, and that is kind, I know ten spells and can claim myself master of less than five, how can the fate of the world be trusted to an unwashed orphan?”
“You were never named that by my lips, and you are no orphan!”
“What, I don’t understand, how is the fate of the world to be changed by a young dragon, a broken sword, and a clumsy wizard?” A loud clank rolled down the tunnel, followed by distant voices.
The wizard reached into his pocket and took out a key. “Here, Cassie, open the gate. . . Sara, help me to my feet.” The dragon moved beside her friend letting her head hang low. The wizard wrapped his arm over her neck and the dragon pulled him to standing.
Cassandra stuck the sword hilt into her belt, unlocked the gate, and pulled it open. “I can hear them, hurry we must go,”
“My staff I need my staff. Give me the key and hand me my staff.”
Cassandra did, as she was instructed, then stepped passed the opening to the other side of the iron bar barricade.
The gate was not wide enough for both Tiaras and Saraphina to pass together. The wizard took hold of the bars to steady him. “You first my friend.” Once the dragon had passed, the wizard pushed the gate closed behind them and locked it.
“Master what are you doing? You cannot fight them alone; you are too weak, too injured. Master, please listen to me!”
“No, I will be fine; you must trust in me, you must trust in yourself, there is more to you than you know. I will be fine, now get going there is little time. Get to the Efren wood, trust what is in your heart, trust in Saraphina.”
“No, I will not leave you. Open this gate! Open it this instant. I command you, do you hear me, open it.”
“See, already you take charge and command Tiaras Highguard, the Most Worshipful Grandmaster of the Guild of Harmon.” The voices from behind them began to grow louder, and their torches grew in the darkness. “Cassie hear me, the second obstacle before the coming evil, is Saraphina. She is of Heaven's wood, without her there is no magic in this world. They will do everything within their power to prevent her maturing. You must take charge of her now; see to her raising until she can take flight."
"Master, I can't do this, I am not a real wizard. I don't know how to care for a dragon. I can't even care for myself! How am I to do these things you ask of me?"
“It will all work out Cassie, because there is yet one more piece to the Dark lord's undoing, a hand to wield the Sword of Destiny."
Cassandra held out the hilt of the broken sword, "The Sword of Destiny is this it? I thought it was supposed to be invincible, unbreakable."
"Yes, it failed once before. Because the hand that commanded it was weak; his heart gave in to the lust of flesh and desire, into greed, you must guard against these sins."
"Theeeyy sooon beeee hereeee."
Tiaras looked back over his shoulder, and then he spoke to the dragon. "Sara, guard well the secret, 'No ‘man’ of this world, may hold the true power of Destiny.' Watch over her. You have everything you need to succeed, but the time is short, you must leave now.”
The dragon looked at Cassandra, then back to Tiaras; she let her long tongue slide out to touch the wizards hand as it clenched the bars. “I weeep foor yoou. But I undeeerstaand.”
The corners of his mouth pulled closer to his ears, and a spark moved into his eyes, Tiaras whispered to Saraphina. “Trust in her, as she must in you. The quest remains as before. Only my path is changed, yours is the same. Now go, please.”
With his command, the dragon moved forward pushing Cassandra down the path. The girl tried desperately to get around the dragon, but she was no match for the strength of the beast.
The wizard turned and started walking with a staggering step in the opposite direction, back toward his approaching enemies. Cassandra watched over Saraphina’s shoulder as the dragon pushed her reluctantly down the path. After a few minutes, there was the ring of battle, sword on staff, waning screams of falling men as they descended into the empty darkness of the valley beside the stone path. There came a flash of blinding light, followed by a rolling thunder. Then there was nothing, no sounds, no voices, only dark silence.
“Massttter…!” came one last scream from Cassandra.
“Noo, … masssterrrr,” said Saraphina in her hissing reply.
“What? …What do you mean, NO, Master!”
“Heeesssss…Graannnfatheerrrrr. Yoou… arrr Cassiee Highguarrrrrd.
“Sara, where is he, what do you mean grandfather, was the master my grandfather?
“Yoou arr daughteer of Peeter Highguarrrrd, son of Tiarrras.”
Cassandra stopped walking, the tears blinding her, she fell against the wall. “Now, I am orphaned a second time. Oh, why does he hate me so? What have I done to deserve such wrath from our god?”
“Not Orrphaan, wee goo tooo Beeeceera.”
The name sparked recognition in Cassandra’s mind. She pushed herself off the wall. “Becerra? Do you mean Becerra Swan, The Elf Queen?
“Yoou arr noo orrphaan, yoou arr Cassiee Highguarrrrd, daughteer of Cassaandrraa Swaaan.
“What! That cannot be! No, I cannot be the granddaughter of the elfin queen. I am not elf. I don’t have pointed ears. Why would the master not tell me before?”
“Seecreet too keeep yoou safee.”
“A good secret it is, nobody would ever believe it, even if I told them, there is no proof, nothing that says I am who you say I am.”
Saraphina snorted, then she pushed Cassandra to the ground, she took hold of her pants between her teeth and began dragging the girl down the path until her pant were around her knees. Then she stopped and put her snout on the birthmark on her upper thigh.
“Creesent moon of Saansdor,” next she pressed her nose down in the center of Cassandra’s chest, she pushed hard, and the amulet beneath her blouse dug into her skin. She raised up and Cassandra’s hand moved to the jeweled necklace, as she took it out. Saraphina said, “Iss thee Compaass of Eeenoch.” The dragon sniffed at the girls pants then she punched her leg with her nose on top of the bunched up pocket. Cassandra felt where she had touched and to her surprise, she found inside her pocket a ring, a signet ring.
“Thee hoouse oof Tiarras.”
“This is the master’s ring, how did it get in my pocket; he must have slipped it in at the gate. But why I still don’t understand.”
“Creesent moon, Coompaass oof Eenoch, House of Tiarras, Saraphina, theee last draagoon of thiiss world. Whoo wiill haave moore proof. Yoou arr noo orrphaan. Yoou arrr Massterrr now.”
“Oh Sara, I am so scared, I am so stupid, how can I do what you and the master ask of me. I don’t know how to be what you say I am. Help me! Please help me?”
“Yees, puut on paants, puut on riing, puut away coompaass. Ann geet oon.” Then the dragon lowered her head and knelt on one knee beside the weeping child.
Cassandra wiped her face with the sleeve of her cassock, she put the ring on her hand but it was to loose to stay on her ring finger, she moved it to her thumb. She stepped out of her pants and picked them up shaking out the sand, and then she put them back on. Pulling them up beneath her robe, she took the amulet hanging around her neck and held it up in front of her; it was a circle of gold, around a star with twenty-six points, in the center a ruby eye. “And, what is this called again?”
“iss coompass of Eeenoch.”
“The compass of Enoch? What is it for?”
“Iit shoows waayy to walk with Faatheer.”
“I really need to get better at my dragon speak, because I thought you said, this shows the way to walk with my father.”
“Noot your faatheer, Oour faatheer. Hee whoo made uus all.”
Cassandra put the amulet inside her blouse, and then she stepped close to Saraphina, put her arms around her neck, and hugged her as tightly as she could and said. "Okay, I am not an orphan, I am Cassie . . . daughter of Saraphina.” Then she turned and put her foot on the dragon’s knee and began trying to climb up onto her back. Saraphina looked back then set her nose under the girl buttocks and gave her a shove upward. Once Cassie was sitting squarely over the dragon’s shoulders, with her legs hanging down in front of her wings. Sara rose and began walking.
“Seee, told yoou arr noo Orrphaaan. Now wee find Beeeceerra. Theen wee goo too Draceri. Theen wee saavees thiis world. Laay baack ann sleep now . . . daughter.”
Word count 4508
contest entry in "Invalid Item"
Authors Note: Many of my reviewers have asked what happens to this pair, I dusted off my PS-10 model crystal ball and managed to pull in this image of them two-years from now. Cassie no longer stumbles, at least not much, Saraphina can now fly and has promised that if they survive the encounter with their nemesis Lucius, who they appear to be hot on the trail of, she will take Cassie for that ride to the stars she asked for in the beginning of their adventure..