The Tale of Ander Collins: Chapter Twelve
“I can’t believe Thraluic talked me into this,” Ander moaned the next morning, tugging at the shorn ends of his hair and looking into the dusty mirror above the cracked wash-basin.
Shyllen sat on the bed and looked at him in amusement, most of the traces of her earlier breakdown gone. There were still a few faint teary streaks on her face, but apparently the innkeeper’s wife had managed to calm her down.
Ander was smart enough not to ask any questions.
“It’s you, Clod. Perfectly you,” Shyllen said; her biting personality back in full force. She cocked her head. “That little tuft on top adds just the right touch, too.”
“Shut up,” Ander growled, dipping his hands into the basin’s water and trying to smooth down his hair – or what was left of it, anyway.
He peered at his reflection, hoping that somehow it would have changed in the last three seconds. No such luck – the short-cropped top still bristled unevenly over his ears, while the shaggy hair at the nape of his neck had hardly been touched by the barber’s dull sheers. The bangs over his eyebrows hung crookedly, longer on the left than the right; and a brand new cowlick stuck boldly up from the middle, waving like a flag of surrender.
“It’s a good thing we’re leaving soon,” he muttered. Shyllen just smirked.
“I’m going into the public room for breakfast,” she said, standing. “You coming?”
Ander felt his stomach growl at the very mention of food, but he shook his head, face flushing brightly. “No, I’m not hungry.”
She laughed a little. “I’ll bring you back a plate of something,” she offered.
Ander blinked at her. “You will?” he asked, surprised.
She looked away. “Yeah.”
“Alright then,” he said uncertainly, wondering if this was some new form of humiliation on her end.
She grunted. “Fine. Look, Clod,” she said harshly. “I was just trying to say thanks for you not mentioning…last night.” Her violet eyes turned on him, and Ander briefly thought that if looks could kill, Celzara would have nothing to worry about. “But you can get your own food if you want.”
Ander was taken aback, unsure of how to respond. “Um…you’re welcome?” he asked, and then added, “I like my bacon crispy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right,” she said, drawing out the word. She turned and was gone before he could say anything else, slamming the wooden door behind her.
“Girls,” Ander muttered. He never had understood them, and in his opinion he never would.
An hour and a half later, they had both eaten and were ready to return to the cave. A sick feeling of apprehension swirled in Ander’s stomach as they left Mor, and he wiped his sweaty hands on the side of his tunic. What would they find when they returned to Thraluic’s home? What would they do if Celzara had stolen the Vial?
Shyllen must have been just as anxious, because they were hardly out of sight of the last cottage when she shifted into her dragoness’ shape again. It was the first time that Ander had actually seen her do it, and he was a little surprised at the dizziness it gave him. He remembered when he had watched Celzara change; how it had been like wax melting and bubbling grotesquely. Shyllen’s shape-shift was more like a snake shedding its old skin, or a butterfly leaving the pupae. She simply…emerged.
Ander shook his head to clear the vertigo and leapt aboard the dragoness’ violet back. She swept into the sky, and in seconds they were far above the forest, with Mor quickly receding into the distance.
“Do we have a plan, Shyllen?” he shouted over the rushing wind. Shyllen seemed to be flying even faster than usual in her haste to get to her uncle.
“I thought that was your specialty,” she retorted.
Ander didn’t answer, narrowing his eyes at the back of her head.
The dragoness sighed hotly, the warm air flowing over her shoulder and catching Ander in the face. “I guess we just go in flaming and hope it works,” she said.
Unable to think of anything better, Ander merely nodded and said a silent, desperate prayer.
It only took them about fifteen minutes to fly from Mor to the clearing where Thraluic’s cave lay, but Shyllen chose to land a few hundred feet away from the actual clearing and walk in the rest of the way. “We’ll be able to see better,” she said in a hushed voice as they set down in a small copse of maple trees. “If Celzara’s there, we want to know about her before she knows about us.”
Ander hardly heard her, his attention fixed on the woods around him. Nervous anticipation stretched his nerves as tight as harp strings, and the merest crackle in the underbrush was enough to set his heart to racing and his hands to sweating. He slipped through the woods, following Shyllen’s silent steps. Every time a branch snapped underfoot, he winced, and wondered how the dragoness managed to move so quietly, even with her extra bulk; but he dared not ask, not this close to the cave.
Suddenly, they were there. At least, Ander thought that they were.
Sunlight streamed brightly through the gap in the trees above, illuminating the drifting clouds of smoke and dust that swirled low to the ground. Rubble – rocks, branches, and the remains of twisted metal – cluttered the once-mossy floor of the clearing.
The cave mouth was gone; and the only sign that it had ever existed was a small hill of broken stone and debris.
With a muted cry, Ander leaped into the clearing, fear churning in his gut. Where was Thraluic? Was he alright? Guilt for leaving the dragon behind rose like a poisonous cloud in his mind, blinding him to his surroundings. He stepped forward, and tripped over a blackened bit of metal that sent him sprawling to the ground. He landed with a grunt, and sucked in a shallow gasp of dusty air when he realized what the metal was.
“Shyllen,” he hissed. “Isn’t this the bowl we used to cook in?”
She glanced down, concern and confusion in her purple eyes. “Yes. And I distinctly remember that sword over there from the armor corner. How did these things get all the way out here?”
“Well, I assure you that I didn’t do it,” a grouchy voice said from behind them.
Ander and Shyllen whirled around, their hearts leaping into their throats.
“Thraluic!” Ander cried, leaping forward to embrace his master. The dragon held up a claw wearily.
“Careful of the burns, lad,” he said.
Ander froze and inch from the black dragon’s side. “Burns?” he asked worriedly.
Shyllen examined her uncle as he sat down in his customary, cat-like position. “How badly are you hurt?” she asked.
Thraluic shook his head. “Not as badly as I might have been,” he said. “But badly enough. And I can’t seem to find that salve of Grandfather Willis’ either.”
The first thought that entered Ander’s mind was Thraluic’s grandfather was named Willis? And the second was the realization that this must have been the salve he used on his burns from the Vial. He looked more closely at Thraluic, and saw several large, raw burns running down the dragon’s side, almost hidden by the black scales.
“What did she do?” he asked, looking around warily, as though the queen might leap out from the trees at any second. She had surprised them once before, after all.
Thraluic shrugged his wings. “She made herself into a dragon,” he said, as though it were obvious. “But she couldn’t hold the form long enough to actually defeat me. Sure did enough other damage, though,” he looked mournfully around at the destroyed clearing.
“Did she get the Vial?” Shyllen asked in a low voice.
Thraluic shook his head, and Ander sagged with relief. “No. But I don’t even know where it is now. And I doubt I could get in to look either.”
“There’s a way in?” Ander asked.
Motioning with one wing, Thraluic pointed at the pile of stone that marked the ruined entrance to the cave. “There are several places where the rocks have left crevices large enough to fit my claws through, but not much else. You and Shyllen might be able to get in, but I don’t know how badly the cave is damaged underneath. I chased Celzara out of there before she did all this.”
Ander looked at Shyllen. “We need that Vial,” he said.
She nodded, shrinking down until she was human again, barely taller than himself. “Where should we look, Uncle?”
He smiled a weak, toothy grin. “I hid the Vial behind a stack of books on dragon history,” he said. “You know where the section is?”
Ander nodded. “Back left in the western corner.”
Shyllen was already striding across the clearing, carelessly sidestepping the mess of debris. “Come on, Clod,” she ordered.
Ander looked up at Thraluic, who winked at him conspiratorially. “Feisty, remember?” he murmured.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright,” Ander asked, ignoring the dragon’s jab.
“I’ll be fine, lad.”
Nodding once, and glancing around at the nearby trees one more time, Ander followed Shyllen across to the mound.
Close up, he could see many gaps between the stones and boulders, some of which were larger than Thraluic’s head. Ander found one that looked larger than the others and wriggled in, scraping his head on the rough stone and nearly falling into the pit that suddenly opened up beneath him.
“Shyllen!” he called, straddling the gap. “I think I found a way in.”
She poked her head in, and studied the gaping maw under his feet. “It looks promising,” she agreed. “Can you see the bottom?”
Dimly, Ander thought he could. “I’m going to lower myself down,” he said. “I’ll call up if it’s safe.”
He wedged his fingers into a crack, preparing to climb down, but Shyllen grabbed his arm. He looked up, and met her eyes, barely a foot from his own.
“Be careful,” she said, her voice soft. Then, seeming to remember her image, she cleared her throat and released him. “Don’t be stupid enough to collapse what’s left of the cave before we can get that Vial, Clod.”
He stepped down from his perch, flailing in the darkness for a moment until he found purchase on a ledge further down. “See you in a minute,” he told the dragoness, glancing upward one last time before stepping down once again, and moving out of the light.
It really wasn’t that difficult of a descent. There were plenty of ledges and crevices to grip, and the entire shaft probably wasn’t much deeper than twice Ander’s height. He reached the bottom swiftly, confirmed that he was actually in the cave with no further blockage, and called up to Shyllen. “It’s the way in, alright. Come on down.”
She joined him quickly, clambering down the sheer sides of the shaft with skill. Dusting her hands off, she motioned toward the bowels of the cave. “After you.”
Ander turned and felt his way through the thick blackness, reminded of the first time he had walked this path. The dim light from the shaft quickly vanishing, swallowed up by the dark.
As he felt along the wall, Ander’s hand suddenly met empty air on the right side of the tunnel. “Hold on a second,” he said to Shyllen, his voice strangely muffled in the dark. He knelt down and reached into the nook – his “bedroom”. Quickly gathering up his meager possessions and stuffing them into the flannel sack he had fashioned, he stood back up. “Sorry about that. Ready?”
She grunted, and they continued on.
Long before he expected it, Ander felt the cool, gel-like substance that was the magical entrance to the treasure cavern. He froze.
“Wait,” he cautioned in a whisper, slipping through the door. Shyllen followed him stealthily. “Do you smell that?”
“What?” she breathed in his ear. Ander fumbled around for a second on the wall behind him and pulled a half-burnt torch from the wall sconce.
“Do you have a light?” he asked, holding the torch out to her.
She felt for the torch, and blew softly on it. The flame caught, and flickering orange light sputtered from the oil-soaked reeds. Ander blinked against the light, and took the light. “Thanks.”
He began walking, slowly around the scattered piles of treasure, in what seemed to be an aimless fashion. Shyllen watched for a moment before asking, in a slightly exasperated voice, “What are you doing, Clod?”
He held up a hand for quiet. “Something’s not right,” he said in a low voice. “Do you smell that?”
She snorted. “I smell many things, human. Not the least of which would be you. When was the last time you bathed?”
Ander rolled his eyes. “No,” he protested. “Something smells…charred. Like meat.” He remembered smelling something similar back in the kitchen, many times. “Burnt meat.” Sometimes the cooks had to sniff around a bit before figuring out where smells were coming from – Ander had been pretty good at it.
“Oh, by all means,” Shyllen snorted. “When Celzara attacks us again, you can sniff her to death.”
Ander ignored her, following his nose – literally – around a still-standing pile of gold coins. “Oh no,” he muttered. Shyllen joined him, and sucked in a low gasp.
The library was gone. Only ashes – black and smoking – remained.