Ben watched the expression on his companions’ faces twist to one of horror as he lifted the magic light high above his head. The heated wind that brushed across his back hinted that it wasn’t his magic they were responding to.
The whole cave smelt of an animalistic must mixed with retching decay. For the first time, Ben could make out the haphazard shapes of what seemed to be remains of various creatures – nothing but bone, scraps of cloth and steel.
An unfamiliar hissing scrape filled his ears as something moved from the depth of the cavern behind him. Something large. The source of the heated wind.
Before the boy could turn to look, a large, powerful tendril of darkness lashed out of the shadows, wrapping around Ben’s body and lifting him from the ground with no effort. He shouted as he felt himself yanked, his stomach bottoming out from the sudden motion.
Distantly, he could hear Rook’s frightened shout of, “Dragon!”
That was the only warning he had before the huge creature lifted him, wrapped in the crushing coils of its tail, so that Ben could see it face to face. The boy had only heard stories of dragons on the Blue Planet. Some were vicious creatures who feasted on livestock and villagers. However, others were different, like the tales his father used to tell of the valiant creatures who once bore dragon knights on their backs and defended the people of Baron.
Ben didn’t know enough about dragons to tell what kind this one was.
It was very long and slender, somewhat like a snake, the scales smooth and glittering pitch black. Two long whiskers extended from either side of the creature’s muzzle, which was rather thin and delicately made. Though the dragon’s limbs were small for its body, they looked powerful, each tipped with black talons that could easily rend a boy from head to toe.
The yellow eyes glowed with a primal energy, pupils nothing but slits of white on gold. Though this dragon had no wings, it was chained to the ground with enchanted steel, as if it could fly through the power of its mind alone.
Ben winced back as the muzzle came close. The two slitted nostrils parted and the dragon sniffed him intently, like a curious puppy. Then, the voice of the dragon filled his mind. It was much younger sounding than Ben imagined it would be on first glance.
-You are the Tower’s Master.-
Not sure of what else to say, Ben just agreed, “Ah… that’s right!”
Maybe the dragon will do what I tell it to if it knows I’m the Master! It’s worth a try!
-You are nothing but a boy.-
His stomach fell.
Or… maybe not.
Then, to Ben’s surprise, the dragon’s voice hinted a sound of concern.
-What is Zemus thinking?-
Seeing that as long as the creature was talking, he wasn’t eating, Ben tried to capture the conversation, “Uh, Zemus? What’s that?”
-You do not know, then.-
“Know? Know what?” This was slowly turning from holding conversation to something more serious.
–It is just as well, I suppose,- the dragon didn’t answer. Instead, it continued with its puzzling talk. –So, this is the culmination of the lineage of Dreigiau.-
“Drei—what?” Ben furrowed his brow. He knew the word. It mean “dragon” in Lunar.
-You will come to understand in time,- the creature didn’t answer again. Instead, it did something unexpected. It gently uncoiled from Ben and placed him on the ground. –But for now, your companions are correct. You should not be here.-
That little voice of intelligent reason was shouting that Ben should run as far away from this strange dragon as he could. After all, the bones of less fortunate things lay littered as far as he could see within the chamber. This dragon was not harmless, no matter how polite it spoke.
That’s when the glow of blue chains caught his eye again. Chains that wrapped around the creature’s body and held it there, a prisoner like he once was.
“You’re locked up. Who did this?” Ben inquired, a sense of sympathy overcoming the voice of reason. This may have been a dragon, but it should be free to fly, not chained in the depths of the Tower. “I bet it was TsuMe, wasn’t it?”
The dragon’s ears flopped backwards as it gave a very person-ish expression of disdain. –The Marked one has no power over me.-
Ben wasn’t exactly sure what “Marked one” meant. He didn’t have time to ponder that before the dragon said something more curious.
-I am the Keeper of the Tower.-
“Ben,” Aur’s voice interrupted the conversation. “We should go now.”
“Just a second,” he responded. There were too many questions left unanswered. Ben wanted to understand it all. His eyes never left the dragon as he asked, “What’s a Keeper?”
Yet, again, the dragon didn’t answer. Instead, he mused to himself, -You are a brave boy, aren’t you? You have the spirit of your fathers before you.-
“You knew my father?” he asked, not hiding his interest.
-Know of him? ALL dragons know of him. He is the Ap’Dreigiau.-
“The what?” Ben choked a bit in surprise.
That’s Lunar for “Son of the Dragon.”
-That is correct, Young Master,- the dragon responded to his thought.
Ben turned quickly voicing the matter, “You can hear mind-thought, too?”
The creature chuckled, -It is a natural thing.-
Maybe for dragons… but not for most people.
If the dragon heard that, he didn’t respond.
That’s when Rook interjected, “Young Master, the big, scary, nasty-looking dragon is right. We should be leaving now.”
Ben turned with a frown, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he realized it.
“I’m not leaving him all chained up like this!”
Aur gave him a look of shock. Rook’s face just contorted to one of subtle depression.
It was the dragon’s turn to sound surprised. –Young Master… you don’t mean to free me, do you?-
“Of course I do. Why?” Ben crossed his arms trying to look tough and capable.
-I am the Keeper of the Tower. This is where I must remain until the day of the Rite of Passage.-
“I don’t know what all that means, but I think it’s wrong to leave anyone locked up in a dark cave,” the boy said.
The dragon seemed taken aback, and did not speak for a moment. When it did, it chose its words slowly, self-lessly. –I am not exactly a creature that deserves the pity of others.-
For some reason, that statement only made Ben all the more certain of his choice. “Oh? And why not?”
-I am a beast of shadows and darkness.-
“You don’t seem so bad to me.”
It’s true. The dragon had not once tried to harm him or any of his friends. Nor had it spoken with anything but riddles and distant concern. Shadows and darkness aside, it obviously was not choosing to be a beast of destruction and war.
“Do you have a name?” Ben asked. It was much easier to connect to something with a name.
-I am known simply as the Shadow Dragon.-
“Shadow it is, then! Don’t worry, Shadow. I’m gonna bust you out of here!” the boy responded cheerfully. Then he squinted a bit, “And… hold on… if you’re a dragon, can you fly?”
-Indeed,- Shadow responded, seeming more curious than convinced.
“Then, how about we make a deal?”
The dragon’s head tilted slightly. Shadow was listening.
“If I set you free, you will fly Aur and I back to my home in Mysidia,” Ben bargained.
Shadow took a moment to ponder this. Then, the dragon responded slowly, -It is against my purpose for being here. However, a freedom for a freedom is a fair exchange. I agree.-
“Great!” the boy gave a great big smirk back to where Aur was watching all this unfold with awe.
After his initial wave of confidence, Ben realized he then had to make good on his words. Shadow was chained to what looked like a cave-like rock structure, but it was tall for a boy of his size to reach. Of course, the dragon could have helped him, but that defeated the concept of working to set him free.
Besides, I don’t know what kind of enchantment was cast on those chains. I won’t be able to break them until I do.
Whatever it was, it was strong enough to hold a dragon of Shadow’s size. Ben didn’t let that put him off, though. He grabbed the stone and slowly began climbing, thankful that the area closest to the dragon wasn’t littered with bones or anything more grotesque. He was really trying hard not to think about that.
Hand over hand he pulled himself up, until he was within reach of the nearest chain. It was driven down into the stone in a strange way – as if it was fused to be part of the stone itself. Sucking in his breath, Ben reached one hand out towards the chain.
That’s when it happened.
He should have expected the chains to be trapped. He should have known there was more magic hidden within the chamber than just crystals and dragons. Or, maybe, it was because of the overwhelming presence of these larger magics that the runes went unnoticed.
The area was protected by a runic ward meant to keep people like himself from reaching the dragon. Even Shadow seemed surprised about the light that sprang up along the floor, quickly spreading under the boy’s feet.
“What!” Rook exclaimed, reeling back as the glow shot along the stone throughout the room.
“Ben! Watch out!” Aur shouted.
That’s the last thing he heard as the ground melted out from underneath him. Just like that, they were all falling deeper into the darkness of the forbidden areas of the Tower.