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What Paths Men Take (Part 2 of 6)
Epic Fantasy / 2000 words
II - The dragon’s watch
For a moment, Hatash thought they had gone back to the same clearing they had been in before. Until he noticed subtle differences. The colors were off—slightly faded here; a tree he had spotted before, a twisted type of birch, was gone; rocks on the ground seemed arranged in a pattern; even the quality of the air was somehow not what it should have been.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“There is a path just beyond,” said Sebharan as he headed toward some trees.
Hatash continued to scan their surroundings as he followed. The strangeness of the experience just made him wonder again about the stranger—who he was, where he had come from...
“What was that monster you slew?” he asked.
“I have slain no monster.”
“The one you came in.”
“Ah. That.” Sebharan fell quiet for a moment as he pushed some branches aside. “It was no monster. It was a ship.”
“A ship? But there was no water!”
The stranger chuckled. “Not that sort of ship.”
“I don’t understand.” His guide failed to elaborate. “But it looked like a monster.”
“Appearances can be deceiving.”
Sebharan would say nothing more of it.
As they walked, Hatash heard a sound that sent a chill down his spine. It was one he had never heard before, but of which others had spoken. His father, in his youth, had fought in the wars, and he had mentioned the peculiar sense of dread that would overcome him when he heard the flapping of wings. Of enormous, sun-shading wings.
Presently, a great shadow came over them. And as he glanced up, he saw it. The dragon. With black scales and red stripes. It flew high above. He could not tell from here just how big it was, but he knew with a cold certainty that it had to be quite large indeed.
Shouting out the name was all he found the strength to do. As the stranger turned to look at him, he pointed to the sky with a trembling finger.
The man glanced up, nodded, then resumed his walk as if there was nothing unusual about the sight.
In all fairness, the dragon did not seem to care one way or another about their presence, though it did fly in the same direction they were headed.
“Should we not go somewhere else?”
Sebharan answered without looking back or even pausing.
“Do you no longer want wisdom?”
“Of course I do, but—”
“Then this is the path. There is no other.”
They walked on in silence. Hatash kept glancing up, but the beast was now only a dark spot in the distance. He thought he could still hear it, however unlikely it seemed.
The forest soon turned into jungle as the trees thickened, making it more difficult to move—or to see the sky. A part of his mind was relieved, equating this with safety. The dragon could not see them either, assuming it changed its mind and came back for them.
“Tell me of your childhood,” he heard Sebharan say from in front of him.
Though it was not unusual for the stranger to ask these types of questions, it felt out of place here. He wondered if the man was sensing his anxiety and trying to make him think of something different.
Well, perhaps it was not such a bad idea.
“You already know much of it,” he said with a sigh.
“Yes, I suppose so. You’ve often talked about your father and your mother. But never about your grandfather. Tell me about him.”
Hatash frowned. He didn’t want to talk about that. Not that he had known his grandfather too well—the man had died when he was only twelve—but he’d heard enough stories to curdle his blood.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he muttered.
“Have you ever talked about him with anyone?”
Though even as the words came out, he realized that was not entirely true. The man had been discussed, but always by others. Sometimes he would be a part of the conversation, albeit unwillingly, and sometimes—in his youth—he would overhear things. But always he had been more passive than active, listening rather than talking. And whenever he would talk, it would be to ask a small question to clarify a muddled point. Never had he, in fact, expressed his thoughts on the matter. Or shared with anyone what he knew. Not that there was much to share. Or that he cared to.
Why would he?
He nearly bumped into a cracked column of stone. Freezing, he glanced at it, looking up and down. It was clearly incomplete, the top having broken off. It likely lay somewhere, buried in the vegetation. The material was rough, worn, ancient.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
He jumped, only now realizing Sebharan stood behind him. He hadn’t heard him backtrack.
“What is it?”
“You tell me.”
Hatash frowned as he looked at the column again. There were symbols etched into the stone. Drawings, more like. Though they were faded and hard to make out.
“Shall we go on?” asked Sebharan.
He nodded and they started again.
As they advanced, he saw more stone structures popping around them. All broken, worn, cracked.
“Where are we?” he asked.
The stranger said nothing.
A few more steps, and through the trees appeared a larger structure. Some sort of edifice in a triangular shape, with its top sawn off.
He froze, staring.
This all felt familiar. Not like something he knew, more like something he had heard of. Something out of a distant past. Something out of a legend.
“Idhrim,” he whispered. “This is Idhrim! We can’t go in there.”
Sebharan stopped walking and stared at him.
“It is the city of the gods, that’s why!”
“Do you see any gods here?”
Hatash frowned. The place was in ruins, that much was clear. And how could that be, if this was Idhrim? And yet, those columns, that building, it all clicked in his mind. It could be nothing else.
What had happened here? Were the gods dead? Was that even possible? No. More likely they had moved. Gone some place else. And time had done the rest. Time and weather.
“Still,” he mumbled.
“Do you no longer want wisdom?”
Hatash grimaced. “Stop asking me that, old man! You know the answer.”
Sebharan pointed at the triangular structure.
“Then we must go on.”
He turned and walked toward the pyramid without waiting.
Hatash sighed and followed, casting worried glances around him.
The building was in a small clearing with several other structures around it. There was a dark opening on its surface.
As they moved out of the trees and toward it, Hatash heard again the dreaded sound of flapping wings. Coming closer and closer.
The blood drained from his face.
Its wings blotted out the sun, casting a growing shadow upon them.
And then it was there.
The dragon landed between them and the pyramid.
Its wings spanned sixty feet, if not more, before they started to slowly fold. The creature loomed high above them, staring down with fiery eyes. Hatash felt like that gaze bore into his very soul.
It opened its mouth and, for a moment, he thought he was about to die. It would breathe fire and they would be consumed by the flames, flesh and bones melted by the intensity of the heat.
And yet... what came out of that jaw were not flames, but words. Deep, guttural, hoarse.
“What come you here seeking, human?” it boomed.
Sebharan stood quietly to the side, looking at neither of them, unperturbed by the events, simply waiting.
Hatash sensed more than he understood that he was expected to provide an answer.
But what was he supposed to say?
This was the city of the gods. No human was meant to come here. He wasn’t sure even a dragon would be allowed.
Then again, allowed by who? The place was empty.
“I come to...” Now that he tried to say it, he felt how ridiculous it would sound. Seeking wisdom? How foolish a notion. It was not a physical thing that one could find and hold. Granted, there were immaterial things one could find—happiness, love, freedom... But wisdom?
“I don’t know,” he finally blurted out. “Answers.”
He had tried hard to keep his voice steady, but failed.
The dragon stared at him for a moment.
And then it bopped its gigantic, impossible head up and down. Spreading its wings, it sprung into the sky faster than he would have thought possible. His eyes followed the shape as it grew more distant and finally disappeared.
When he looked back down, he saw Sebharan was already going through the opening into the pyramid, as if nothing had happened.
“Hey! Wait up!”
He ran after him.
“What just happened?” he asked after he’d caught up with the stranger.
The other said nothing, as he was wont to do.
Annoyed, Hatash grabbed the man’s arm and pulled until he stopped and turned around.
“I want answers!”
Sebharan quirked a brow. “I thought you wanted wisdom?”
“Don’t be smart with me!”
“Why did you lie to the dragon?”
“If you say so.”
He pulled away and started down the hall again.
It was dark and narrow and musty.
Hatash cursed as he followed.
“You’ll have to tell me what’s going on sooner or later, you know!”
The stranger kept walking in silence.
Soon they arrived in a square room with three doors, and he stopped.
Hatash looked around. “Well? Where do we go now?”
“It is for you to decide.”
“What? Are you kidding me? You’re the one with all the answers. And you obviously know this place...”
The other remained quiet.
Shaking his head, Hatash went to each door, opening them one after the other to peer at the other side.
The first had stairs going up. The second opened on a large room that smelled like old paper. The third had stairs going down.
He decided to go through the middle door first, to look at the room.
As soon as he stepped in, torches lit up on the walls.
The first thing he saw was a large chest at the foot of a bed. It was open, and inside was a mountain of items, all made of gold—coins, cups, chains, bracelets, and a variety of trinkets. On each side of the bed were a dozen shelves covered with weapons—daggers, swords, axes, spears, and a wide assortment of blades. Against the east wall was a desk with maps and books. On the opposite wall hung the portrait of a woman—though she did not smile, a sense of joy emanated from her beautiful face; she had long silvery hair, rosy cheeks, and for a moment he wondered if she might not be an elf.
His eyes went back to the desk. He reached it with a few quick steps and started going through the books. They were all historical volumes, recounting the feats of great men of the past. Hatash knew of all these stories already.
He then turned to the maps and studied them with keen interest. He recognized the features, the names, the borders... but there was something wrong here as well. Differences that he couldn’t quite place. One spot, in particular, drew his attention. A valley he knew well. Not even a day’s march away. He had gone there often as a child. Often with his father. It was a peaceful place. But there was something about how it was depicted here that was off. If only he—
A low, distant rumble made him jerk his head up.
He looked around and noticed Sebharan standing a few feet away, watching him.
“Did you hear that?”
The stranger said nothing.
As he was about to look at the map again, the ground shook and the rumbling grew louder. The stone walls quivered.
Came a loud clap. Dust fell from the ceiling. He looked up and saw cracks forming quickly on the surface.
Before he could say or do anything, the ceiling collapsed.
Want to read more of my Fantasy stories? Check out these titles, if you haven’t already:
Beyond the Dark (a farmer dives into darkness while chasing his sheep)
Under a Violet Sky (the odd journey of a haunted man in a fantastical world)
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Text (c) 2023 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock images, edited by me.
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