From afar, the dragon hunters’ fortress looked nothing more than a humble shadow of a mountain with smoke rising from its high peaks. Now, however, the sheer size of the building was more intimidating than you had imagined. The sky was pitch black even though only a few minutes ago, the sky had been a bright white from the sun shining past the snowy clouds. Black and dark purple ashes were scattered everywhere, and a sickly sweet smelled filled the air as you and Emil approached the side entrance to the fortress.
“I don’t like this place,” you whispered to your dragon as you clung onto his blanket like a guiding rope.
“I don’t like it either, ___________,” Emil replied in the same volume of your voice. “I can sense a great amount of negative energy coming from inside this place. We’re going to have to be very careful.”
“I understand,” you said.
“__________, remember what I said about me not being myself anymore—”
“I know, I know,” you sighed. “If something happens, I have to run. I got it, Emil. You don’t have to tell me that. I’ve heard it enough times from you.”
“I keep telling you that because it’s important,” your fair-skinned dragon hissed. “If the dark being gets you, then it will be the end of Eliatha as we know it.”
You rolled your eyes. “If it’s so important that I remain free from capture, then shouldn’t you do this on your own?”
Emil sighed. “If it were up to me, I think I would fall victim to the shadow sooner than you’d think. I’m not safe from it, __________, but as long as you remain careful, then you will be.”
“Ah, I see,” you then said. “Let’s get going.”
“Let’s,” your dragon agreed.
Before long, the two of you had made your way deep inside the fortress. The outside of the building was constructed of strong carved stones just like the walls of the castle you had once lived inside. While the outside had a similar construction, the vibe the inside of the fortress gave off was completely different; the air was heavy with ashes, heat, and the heavy, sweet smell of dragons’ blood, the halls were alight with an unearthly glow amidst the generously lit corridors, and the eerie silence made you question whether or not you were going deaf within these deathly walls.
All the while, as the two of you stuck close to the shadows, you held tightly onto Emil’s hand as if you would be lost to the darkness forever if you let go.
“How come I don’t see anyone?” you whispered as loudly as you dared into Emil’s ear.
Emil shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps we just got lucky.”
You narrowed your eyes to try adjusting to the darkness. “I don’t like this place.”
“Neither do I, but my brother has to be somewhere around here.”
“I know…” you breathed and looked around. All of the halls looked the same. The place was practically void of life save for the two of you pinning yourself along a wall. At the very least, you would have thought that if someone was walking down these large halls, you would be able to hear them well before they would have a chance to spot you.
“_____________, do you think you can get a location of where my brother’s heart could be?” Emil asked.
You blinked. “I can’t. I lost his presence the moment he left his human body.”
“It was worth a try,” Emil sighed and turned his attention back on the empty halls. “If I remember correctly, while I was being possessed, I passed by a room that appeared to have a lot of blood trailing out from the corridors. That might be where they butchered the dragons up.”
“Oh, gods, don’t tell me that stuff, Emil,” you groaned and clamped your hand over your mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Your dragon squeezed your other hand. “____________, stay strong,” he said. “Once we rescue my brother, we’ll never have to come back here ever again, okay?”
You slowly nodded and allowed Emil to lead you towards that dreaded place.
The entire time you were twisting and turning down the aisles, you were afraid someone would pop out from one of the corners as you turned and capture you and Emil…but it never happened. The very emptiness of the fortress was starting to play a deadly role in draining your sanity. You could never be sure if someone was following you or not.
Occasionally, a flame would flicker from a sealed pocket of gas and make dancing shadows on the walls. During these times, you would jump and cling onto Emil’s back to keep you safe. Other times, the blistery winds outside would create noticeable wear on the doors and wooden structures supporting the insides of the fortress. Parts of the fortress’ foundation would groan under the weight of the stone, and doors would creak. Any wind that made its way inside through drafts whistled and moaned in such haunting notes that it would make the hairs on your spine tingle in fright.
“Emil, I can’t take this anymore…” you whimpered.
“Shh,” Emil hushed you with a light tap on your lips. “Just bear with me a little longer, _________. We’re almost there.”
You gripped onto his blanket and buried your face inside as if it would drown out the howling winds and flickering lights.
“That’s what you said seven minutes ago,” you groaned.
Emil sighed and rubbed your back to comfort you. “I’m telling the truth. We’re almost there. Just a little more.”
You weren’t completely ready to continue on your way just yet. It was a good thing Emil was more patient with you than Lukas because he had to wait for you to ease your breathing before summoning enough courage to start walking again.
“Right,” you exhaled after taking a deep breath. “I think I’m ready to go.”
Emil gave you a warm smile that helped calm your nervous wreck even more. “Let’s continue, then.”
“Mm-hmm,” you nodded and squeezed his hand.
True to your dragon’s words, the two of you were getting closer to the room he had referred to. The smell of sweet, rotting Dragonarian fruit (at least, that was what you predicted rotting Dragonarian fruit would smell like) grew stronger and stronger the further you walked. In contrast to the increasing concentration of the odor, the temperature began to dramatically drop like you were walking outside again. At this point, you couldn’t decided whether or not you preferred the subtle smell of dragons’ flesh and blood in a hot, dark hall or a butcher room, with a strong smell and a refreshing cold temperature. Both were quite awful in their own regards.
“I think this is it,” Emil said bringing you up to a sealed door. Already, you could see that the ground was littered with strange pieces of purple flesh and dark black stains of aged dragons’ blood. From your assumptions, the only source of the smell had to be coming from Lukas. There was no other dragon that you could have thought of that would have fallen into the hands of the dragon hunters.
Oh, Lukas… you miserably thought.
“I’m going to go first, alright?” Emil said pushing you back. “If the coast is clear, then we can both go inside.”
“Okay,” you agreed and allowed him to release your hand so he could open the door.
As Emil pulled open the heavy wooden door, you held your breath. You couldn’t imagine what sorts of smells would be emerging from that room. Just the thought of seeing all that purple would make your sanity shatter. As the door gave way and opened, a rush of cold air came flooding out chilling your bones to the core. You were stilling holding your breath.
Then, to your mild relief, Emil gave you a quick reassuring nod and beckoned you to come inside.
“I don’t know…” you squeaked, your hand pinching your nose.
“It’s not as bad as you think, __________,” Emil hastily said. “The temperature makes the smell bearable.”
Yes, but what about the images? you wondered. Nevertheless, you gathered up what little courage you had left and inched your way to the open room.
Oddly enough, the scales were familiar, but not from the dragon you had known—of course Lukas had died as a human so there wouldn’t be any possibility of the butchered dragon lying on the large stone table being him.
“It’s the sea serpent Tino killed…” you whispered in shock.
The once large and magnificent sea serpent had already been reduced to nothing but segmented pieces of flesh and bones. There were some discarded scales lying in a pile in the corner, and there was purple blood everywhere you looked. Even so, you didn’t think you would be able to forget the light blue-green color of the sea serpent’s shimmering scales. You wondered how much people would be willing to pay for the scales of such a rare—and most likely extinct—dragon.
“So they’ve already brought it here…” Emil mumbled. “I was hoping we could find some traces of my brother still around.”
“Maybe…” you muttered unsure if you felt the same way as your dragon.
“We might as well look around while we’re here,” Emil suggested and began turning over frozen chunks of meat and kicking some scales around.
Your lips twisted into a frown. It didn’t look like there was anything interesting in this place except for a few amounts of frozen-over mounds of flesh and sea serpent scales. None of this looked like it could have belonged to Lukas’ body.
Oh well, you thought. Might as well see if we can find anything before moving on.
After a few minutes of searching, though, you were beginning to lose hope. Whatever might have been worth salvaging was probably no longer here.
“Emil, this is a waste of time,” you frowned and threw down a handful of large scales.
“I figured as much,” he sighed. “I didn’t find anything.” He looked past your shoulder. “Did you check that crate over there?”
You furrowed your eyebrows. “Crate?”
True to Emil’s observations, when you looked to where he was pointing at, there was a hidden create buried among piles of flesh in a lone corner. There was so much frost already accumulated over the pile that you would have missed it completely if Emil hadn’t pointed it out to you.
“Oh, I didn’t see this here,” you said and went over to the crate. Fortunately, with the powers of the Sapphire Flames in your heart, you were able to easily pry open the frozen mounds of flesh and pop open the crate’s top. What you weren’t strong enough for, however, was what you saw inside.
“_____________...?” Emil said walking over to you. He must have been worried. You had been frozen in the same spot for at least a good minute. When he did walk over to you, he nearly flinched at what he was looking at.
At the sound of Emil’s voice, your body began to shift in place, and your hands and lips trembled. The insides of your mouth had gone dry from dread, and your eyes couldn’t tear themselves away from the spellbinding sight.
The other contents of the crate were insignificant, but the one thing that caught your attention, the thing that stood out most of all, was a small sealed jar that had nearly fogged over from condensation. You were able to make out the shapes bobbing up and down the sickly colored green liquid that must have been brine or some other liquid preservatives.
Floating inside the jar where two round orbs staring wide open at you with their clouded sapphire blue irises. You knew whose eyes those were. They belonged to Lukas.