You ever get struck by a bit of inspiration that won’t go away until you write it down? I got one of those today, and somehow wrung nine thousand and change words out of it.
If I had to sum this up, I’d say: Terrana tries to write dungeoncore fic and ends up with a touching story about trust, consent, transformation, and idealism.
So here it is. Dragon Cave.
“It’s a dragon shrine,” the kobold said with a nod. “Our people used to worship these. I didn’t know there were any in the Darradin.”
“This one’s pretty small,” I pointed out. “Could’ve easily been missed.”
General sounds of agreement rippled through the group.
“The workmanship is exquisite,” Vee said, the hand that wasn’t holding her lamp on her hip, making no attempt to disguise her admiration.
I couldn’t help but agree with that too. If anything it was a gross understatement. The little stone dragon looked like it could wake up at any moment. Each individual scale had been carved into the rock with astonishing care and attention to detail. Despite myself, I found I wanted to touch the little statue, feel the textures under my fingers.
“Careful, Dara,” Vee warned me. “The University would have our heads if we damaged one in this good condition.”
Chir nodded, but I caught the mischievous glint in his eye. “Besides, it’s supposed to be bad luck to touch these things.”
“Ah, come on, what’s it going to do, wake up and—”
I touched the statue, and then everything went black.
I didn’t know how long it’d been before I woke back up. Everything felt fuzzy and distant. I could hear voices, but they were indistinct at first.
Familiar voices. Chir and Vee, at a guess. I’d probably given them quite a scare when I…
What had I done? Fainted? The memory felt as hazy as everything else, like it wasn’t quite real.
Opening my eyes felt like a challenge I wasn’t quite ready for right now, but the voices slowly came into focus as my head began to clear.
“…could carry them back out, but it’s a long trek back down the Darradin.” That was Chir. Nice to know he cared enough to think about it.
“Hard going with just the two of us. I say we give it another hour, set off the flare, then camp out in here for the night.”
Another hour? I must’ve been out for a while. And Vee had to be worried if she was thinking of using our distress flare. Half the camp would come up looking for us, and lose most of a day’s progress in the survey as a result. Couldn’t let her do that, not when I was already waking up.
I lifted my head and blinked blurry eyes open, forcing down the wave of dizziness that came with that. “Hey,” I said, “what h—”
Wait. That didn’t sound right.
I saw two blurs of motion in the dark. That had to be them, reacting to my wrong-sounding voice.
“Oh crap. Run!” There was real fear in Chir’s voice. What was happening? I still couldn’t see properly!
“But Dara—” Vee started.
“No time, run!”
They were going to leave me here? No, no, that wasn’t right at all, I had to get up, had to follow them. I tried to force myself to my feet, but my legs didn’t want to move. I called out to them. “Chir, Vee, wait, I just need a little help!”
Chir had already started to move, but froze. “Great stars above, it knows our names…”
“What? But of course I…” my voice still sounded wrong. I blinked a couple more times, trying to see what was going on.
Chir was standing in the mouth of the passage back out. His body was turned away, but he was looking over his shoulder at me. Vee was a few steps closer, looking like she’d stopped in the middle of trying to lift… something? Her pack maybe?
Vee’s voice was suspicious, almost disbelieving. “Dara? Is that you?”
I was getting really confused now. “Who else would I be?”
Then I saw what she’d been trying to lift.
It was me.
I looked down at my hands. My hands, covered in tiny, exquisitely-carved stone scales. Oh, this was not good.
“Okay, Chir? You were right. Touching these things is very, very bad luck,” I said, trying to sound as close to my usual joking self as possible, despite the strange, squeaky little voice I was saying it in, and the lurking panic I could feel right behind my eyes.
Chir turned and came back over, every step vibrating with caution. “It certainly sounds like Dara.”
Vee laid the body she was lifting - my body - back down on the cave floor. Her voice held a note of wonder. “How is this even possible?”
“I have absolutely no idea but we’ve got to figure out how to reverse it. I can’t spend the rest of my life as a dragon statue!”
“Hardly a statue any more. I can see you moving your head around. The creepy red glowing eyes are kind of a nice touch, too, never seen a statue with those.” Was she actually enjoying this?
That was too much. I screwed my eyes shut, put my head back down, and put my hands over them. Or I tried. My arms were moving now, but my neck was completely the wrong length and I missed. I couldn’t quite suppress a whimper.
Chir let out his trademark long-suffering sigh. “This is far beyond anything we know how to deal with. Since it seems like we haven’t awakened an angry dragon spirit after all, I think we need to get Dara… ah, both Daras, back down to camp and talk to Prince. He knows much more about the old dragon cults than I do.”
Yes. Prince. He’d set up the entire Darradin expedition, he’d know what to do. If he didn’t, he’d know someone at the University who did.
“Guess I’d better figure out if I can walk like this.”
I tried to stand up, eyes still closed, but almost immediately lost my balance and toppled off the plinth the statue had rested on and onto the floor.
Vee didn’t even try to suppress a laugh at my misfortune. I opened my eyes again and glared up at her, but her grin still shone brightly in the lamplight.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” I spat at her.
“Oh, come on, you have to admit this is at least a little bit funny. Besides, if our positions were reversed, you’d be even worse and you know it.”
That was true, but it still felt like it was missing the point.
“All right, all right, help me up.”
Vee came over and bent down over me, and I was suddenly struck by how small the dragon statue was. How small I was now. Vee was always kind of short, but apparently even that looks huge when you’re the size of a cat.
That’s when it struck me. The statue hadn’t just been the size of a cat, it was built a lot like one too. Four legs. “Wait, hold on… I’m going to try once more.”
This time I didn’t go for upright, keeping hands and feet on the ground. I felt myself wobble a bit, corrected, and stayed up. This felt stable, almost easy, even. An experimental first step. Then a second. Then another, and another. Now I was the one laughing.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this! Look at me, learning to walk like a cat.”
Chir looked down at me thoughtfully. “More like a dog, I’d say. You see how your back legs are alternating with your front ones?”
I stopped mid-step. I hadn’t even been thinking about that. How had I known to do it? For that matter, even standing on all fours should have felt at least a bit awkward. “Huh. I guess it must be one of those… what are they called, instinct things? Like this body comes with a manual or something.”
Chir smiled. “One of those things, yes. Do you think you can keep up with us while we’re carrying your real body?”
“I can give it a damn good shot.”
It was still very strange watching the two of them pick up what I knew was really me, one each end. They dumped my pack on the floor, agreed we’d come back for it once I was myself again, and started back out. It was a long and twisting way back to the cave entrance.
We didn’t even get that far. As they rounded the first corner ahead of me, I smacked face-first into something very solid. I sat back on the floor and rubbed my… snout? I supposed that’s what it was. “Oww… hold up a moment, I think I just banged into something.”
I heard the footsteps around the corner stop, and Vee’s voice carry back. “Maybe you should stick closer, the lamps don’t cast as much light clipped onto our belts.”
That was the funny thing, though. I could see just fine. Better than fine, it almost felt like daylight in here. Something to do with that glow in my eyes, maybe? I got back up, carefully picked my way forward, being very sure to watch where I was going this time.
And bumped my nose right into something again. “Uh, could you come back here? I’m having some trouble.”
There was a shuffling sound. Chir and Vee putting my body down, I supposed, as they then took the few steps back around the tight corner without it.
“Honestly, you big baby,” Vee chuckled. “I know you’re smaller than you’re used to but the cave’s not that rough.”
“No seriously, there’s something stopping me getting through here.”
I lifted a hand off the ground and held it forward. Sure enough, I felt it touch something solid, as though the air itself had turned to stone.
Vee looked unconvinced. She waved her hand back and forth in front of me. “I don’t see or feel anything.”
I pushed forward and leaned my shoulder against the invisible barrier. “I’m telling you, it’s here. Something’s keeping me from leaving.”
Chir nodded thoughtfully. Always the problem-solver, I could already hear the wheels in his head turning. “It’s not the strangest thing we’ve seen today. New plan: we go back to the entrance and use a flare. Get Prince to come to us.”
Vee just gave him a look. “Oh, great plan, why didn’t I think of that earlier.”
Chir’s voice rose. “I’m agreeing with you! Can we focus, please?” He paused, then sighed. “Sorry, I’m still a bit on edge. If you’d heard the stories I had…”
I couldn’t resist a sarcastic jab. “I don’t think I’m an angry dragon spirit or whatever you thought I was.”
“And I don’t think you’ve got any business being more on edge than I am. So you two, what you’re going to do is, you’re going to bring, er, me back in here, then you’re going to head back out and set the distress flare. This is what we’ve got them for, and this is why we work in teams of three: so if someone gets stuck, the other two can safely get out and get help. All right?” I managed to sound a lot more confident than I felt.
Vee cracked another grin. “You heard the angry dragon spirit, let’s get moving!”
As I sat alone with myself in that cave, waiting for Chir and Vee to return, I started noticing things. It’s hard not to notice things when you’ve got nothing else to do.
The first thing was that this cavern felt a lot bigger than it had when I’d first come in here. That made sense, I was smaller. The stray thought did come to me that I could curl up in my own lap to wait, since my real body was here with me, but that just felt too strange to even try.
That got me really looking, though. I did still very much look alive, my human body’s skin retaining its usual tone, and visibly continuing to breathe. My hand was warm when I touched it.
This new body, though. I wasn’t entirely sure it was alive. It moved, but I couldn’t feel myself breathing. I couldn’t feel a heartbeat. When I spoke, sounds just came out of my throat. Was I really just a stone statue that had got up, started moving around and calling itself Dara?
Was I really still who I thought I was? Or was I just remembering someone else’s life? Would the real Dara suddenly wake up and demand to know who I was?
I didn’t like that thought at all.
But my body just lay there, giving every appearance of peaceful sleep, as if waiting for me to figure out a way back in.
Curious, I pressed on my skin - my body’s skin - with a stone claw. No, couldn’t feel that. But now I was paying attention, I could feel something else.
This cavern I was in, it felt like it held some sort of presence. Something alive. Well, it definitely held something alive, both of me were in here, but something else besides that. More of a feeling than anything concrete. A feeling of…
Now I’d noticed it, I could feel it very strongly. It was like the cave itself wanted something from me. It was hard to argue with the feeling when the plinth and the little stone dragon had so obviously been made with a purpose, even if this dead-end cave looked natural.
Or did it? I recalled my geology. Caves don’t just magically appear on their own, they’re worked into the rock by natural processes over the span of ages. But I couldn’t think of anything that would have formed this smooth hollow at the end of a dead-end tunnel. A suspiciously human-sized tunnel, at that. I couldn’t see tool marks on the walls, but this place was very much starting to look like it had been worked.
But even an artificial cave wouldn’t have a feeling of expectation about it. Caves, as a rule, don’t want anything. Whatever strange force had pulled me into this stone body was obviously still around and waiting for something.
Maybe I should climb back up onto the plinth? That’s where we found the statue, after all.
Well, now I was still alone with myself in a cave that somehow expects something, but I was a little higher up. Very enlightening.
I could feel something else up here. An awareness of something right on the edge of my consciousness. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on that feeling.
It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. An image in my mind, a grand image of a city carved from the rock itself. No sky above, but a grand rock dome with twinkling lights embedded in it. Every road led to the center, where a grand tower rose up to meet the dome ceiling at its apex. Down each of the main avenues, a grand army marched, glorious in their shining bronze armour, human and kobold side by side in perfect order.
Suddenly my perspective was inside the tower. A huge dragon sat in the middle, glittering granite scales inlaid with gold and silver. A kobold in a flowing robe speaking to it, words I couldn’t hear but could feel the meaning of: all this is yours.
Then I was back in the cave. That feeling of expectation still lingered. If anything, it was stronger now.
Oh, great stars above, no. I was NOT starting one of those dragon cults Chir talked about. I had to find a way back into my own body.
I wasn’t sure how long I spent curled up next to myself. It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours.
Okay, maybe not hours. It only took a couple of hours to get in here in the first place when we didn’t know the way, and if it had been that long, Chir and Vee would have been back to check on me after setting the flare.
I just kept remembering the sound of terror in his voice. The stories he’d talked about. Something in here wanted me to be that and it wouldn’t let me leave.
Prince would know what to do. The rescue party would come up, find us, we’d tell them what had happened, and then they’d go and get him.
It’d probably be a couple of days, maybe three, with all that back and forth.
I couldn’t help but laugh a little at the thought of a prince, or at least someone named Prince, coming to rescue me from a dragon cave. It wasn’t usually the dragon that needed rescuing in those stories, but you work with what you have.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait three days. What did this body eat? Would I like finding out? Did it even eat at all? I certainly hadn’t felt hungry since I’d got in here. And what would I even do while I waited? What would happen to my real body in that time?
Even if I couldn’t get my own body back, I at least had to get out of this dull, featureless cave and start doing something. I had to talk to whatever was keeping me here, somehow, and convince it to let me out. Maybe tell it that I’m not interested in its grand visions and that I just want to go back home and get my degree.
Maybe I could write my thesis on dragon cults.
Smiling to myself, I climbed back up onto the plinth. Wouldn’t that sound good? Oh, I got turned into a dragon statue for a while, and that’s how I found all this out…
I could feel the presence again. It was different now. Still expectant, but… wary?
“I didn’t react how you expected me to, huh?” I felt a little silly talking to an empty cave, but…
Wariness turning to puzzlement. No, I hadn’t been what it expected.
“You know this was an accident, right? I had no idea this would happen. I certainly didn’t want it.”
Puzzlement turning to confusion. Expectation? No, that was fading. Despair. Despair.
“Whoa, hey, calm down. You made a mistake, it happens. Just put me back and—”
Fear. White-hot fear, tearing at the edges of my soul. And under it, was that…
“You’re afraid I’ll leave you alone?”
…loneliness. Loneliness stretching through ages. Longing for an unfulfilled purpose. A tiny thread of hope. Expectation?
“I think I get it. That promise of power. You were trying to tempt me to stay.”
Relief. Hope. Still that little edge of fear.
“That’s not who I am. It’s not who I want to be, who I ever could be. Could you… see the others at all? Could you hear how afraid Chir was? I saw the armies you showed me. I couldn’t turn that sort of thing on the world, on the people I care about.”
Despair. Longing. Hope?
Suddenly I was in the city again. The streets hummed with people. No shining armour, no neat rows of troops, just people going about their lives. Shouting, laughter, the sounds of a living place.
Jump into the tower again. The robed kobold is still there, but they stand before a chalkboard, sketching geometric symbols as the dragon nods knowingly.
Back to the cave.
“Okay. That got my attention.”
A tentative feeling of… satisfaction? Not quite. More like seeking approval.
“I still don’t think you’ve got the right person. I’m just a student at the University, I don’t have the resources to build some grand city for you, even if it is one that people come to by choice rather than out of fear. Even if it is a place I might like to come to and study for myself.”
This time it definitely was satisfaction I could feel from the presence, along with a measure of pride. It had something else to show me.
I didn’t understand the image that appeared at first. It was the cave, with me - both of me - inside it, but somehow viewed from all around, as though the walls themselves were covered in invisible eyes. It seemed like it should have been disorienting, but the feeling I got was one of clarity, like I was seeing all this for the first time. And in a way I was.
I hadn’t really properly looked at my new body from every angle, but now I could see them all at once. It was kind of cute in its own pointy, speckled-granite sort of way. The plinth I sat on, that had held the statue for who knew how long, seemed almost comically plain in comparison, little more than a blocky oblong protruding from the floor.
Yet I could see that it wasn’t a worked block that had been placed there. It joined seamlessly with the floor. It had been carved there. As I focused on the stone protrusion, noting its sloppily carved edges in comparison to the flawless detail of the dragon, I felt something coming from it. Something like a smaller version of the presence I had been talking to, and it was feeling…
Embarrassment? Was I seriously embarrassing a rock by silently judging its construction?
And yet, as I watched it from my peculiar all-around view, I saw it change. It flowed almost like a slow liquid, the edges sharpening, forming into a perfect cuboid sticking seamlessly out of the floor. And then its vertical sides rippled, and formed into a crude scale pattern. Then it was still. And through it all, the top surface I sat on had not shifted even the tiniest amount.
The plinth felt SO pleased with itself.
I opened my eyes, and my vision was my own again. Or at least restricted to this strange little dragon body’s eyes. “Did I do that?”
I jumped back down to the floor, turned, and ran my stony fingers over the plinth’s new patterned surface. It felt real.
“Did I… no. You did that, for me, didn’t you?”
The presence wasn’t as strong down here, but I could feel its pride again. Maybe being stuck in this cave wouldn’t be so boring after all.
I heard them coming long before I could see them.
“No, I’m telling you, it was left back there. This one loops back around to the flooded section.” Vee was grumbling, though there was no malice in her voice.
“And I’m telling you, trust a kobold about caves. We’ve got a great innate sense of direction. This is the right rope to follow.”
I called out to them, “Hey, in here! I’m here!” I still wasn’t used to this little body’s high-pitched voice.
Chir laughed. “See, told you.”
And then they rounded the final corner and I could see them coming down the final passage.
“How are you holding up, Dara? We set the fla— what in the world happened in here?”
I couldn’t help but look a little bit smug. “What do you think? I’ve been redecorating while you were out.”
And I had, too. Once I’d figured out what I was doing, the cave was practically begging to be told to reshape itself. The floor was nice and flat now, and the walls had pulled themselves into an octagonal shape, with nice, crisp corners. The plinth remained in its spot dead center, with me atop it.
Vee’s mouth hung open as she looked around at the now neatly geometric chamber, lamp held high over her head. “How did you even… what IS this place?”
I jumped down and trotted over to her, excited to show off my new toy. “Oh, this place is amazing! You just have to sit over there, imagine what you want, and it reshapes itself for you.
Chir stared at me for a moment. “I want to tell you that’s impossible, and yet I’ve witnessed other impossible things today and I see the result with my own eyes…”
Vee made her mind up in that moment. “I want to try it.” She thrust her lamp into Chir’s free hand, then walked over to the plinth. “Ooh, fancy. It didn’t have this pattern when we were here before. What do I do?”
“Just sit on it.”
“What, like a stool?”
Vee turned and sat, looking around at the walls expectantly. “Nothing’s happening.”
“Okay, so. Just close your eyes. There’s a… a presence here, try to feel it.”
Vee did as she was told, closing her eyes, her expression slowly turning downward towards irritation. “I’m not feeling anything. Are you sure—”
She stopped. We could all feel it. A low vibration in the floor, slowly building in intensity. Vee jumped back to her feet, and the vibration abruptly stopped. “Whoa, okay, yes, I felt that. I don’t think your new cave buddy likes me.”
Chir shook his head. “I’m not convinced it likes you either, Dara. Think about it. Something physically stopped you from leaving, and I am increasingly of the feeling that we should not have left you here alone.”
I shook mine in turn. “I don’t think it wants to hurt me. It’s more like…” I paused to try and think of how to explain what had happened. “It’s more like it needs me. I mean, not specifically me, just… someone.”
“Stars help us, we did awaken a dragon spirit. I was so certain they were only myths. We need to get away from here, as soon as possible.”
I jumped back up onto my plinth, since that’s where I felt the presence most strongly, and I had questions for it. “Is that what you are? A dragon spirit?”
Confusion, as though it didn’t understand the question.
Chir’s concern deepened. “It’s actually talking to you?”
“Not talking as such. Just… feelings. Emotions. Sometimes images.”
“Perhaps you’d like to ask it how it feels about you leaving.”
“I did earlier when you were out.”
“And it would not be happy about that.”
Chir’s eyeridges went back up. “Afraid? Of what?”
“Of being alone again.”
Relief. Gratitude. No words, but I got what it was trying to say: thank you for understanding.
“And so it intends to keep you prisoner?”
Vee put a hand up, as though asking permission to speak, though she went on anyway. “Hey, uh… I did have an ex like that. Super controlling, didn’t want me to ever go out. Not a good time.”
Chir smiled. “I don’t imagine that ended well for him. I’d fancy my chances better of containing a volcano than you, my friend.”
“I think I remember her,” I said. “What was her name? Karen?”
“Kari,” Vee corrected. “Nasty piece of work, she was. Only she didn’t put up magic invisible walls over the front door to keep me and only me in, so I think this one might be worse.”
I felt a reaction to that. Ah, so it was listening. Or maybe it was feeling my reaction to the name? Because I did remember Kari, and I didn’t have any fonder feelings about her than Vee did. Kari had been lucky Vee hadn’t killed her when she finally snapped.
I felt my attention being drawn outward. Outward? How would that work?
Oh. I closed my eyes and visualised the cave. Saw it from all angles, took in its new shape, the sight of my friends in here with me. And I saw something else, a solid blue plane cutting off the entrance tunnel, right where I’d run into the invisible barrier. The plane turned translucent as I watched it.
I opened my eyes. “…I think it’s letting me go.”
“It’s… how do you know?” Chir looked confused.
I didn’t answer him. I wanted to see for myself first. I jumped down from my plinth, walked towards the tunnel, carefully stepped over the invisible threshold… and nothing. I was out.
And suddenly it was very, very dark. I could see my shadow on the wall, cast in the dim lamplight from behind me, but the tunnel around the corner to my left was pitch black. Apparently whatever let me see in the dark only worked in that room, which made it less helpful.
But I was still a little stone dragon. Somehow I’d hoped I’d snap back into my old body, but it was still sleeping without me in the octagon.
There was a feeling behind me. Regret. Fear. It was afraid I wouldn’t come back. But I remembered the what-if vision it showed me, the loneliness, and the giddy power of reshaping that chamber. Somehow, I had a feeling I’d be back.
Navigating the cave system by someone else’s lamplight while they were hauling a heavy body wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but we did get back to the surface. There, staked to the ground, the distress flare burned a painful green against the dying orange daylight, and we settled near it so Vee and Chir could catch their breath.
The view was quite impressive. Beyond the harsh shadows cast by the flare, I could see down into the valley below the Darradin, the fires of our base camp lively little points of light in the orange-stained landscape. Even without hauling my body along, we’d never have got back down there before nightfall. But it looked like we wouldn’t have long to wait. The matching green flare held up by the rescue party was almost here.
Vee obviously spotted it too. She jumped up, waving her arms and yelling, an answering call coming from below. Too far away for words, but the message was clear: we hear you. Help is coming.
I had no idea what sort of help they could possibly give me, but it feels good to know you’re not alone.
At that thought, I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder with my weirdly long neck. I haven’t forgotten your promise of what we could build together. I’m coming back, just as soon as we figure all this out.
The three of us sat down and talked about exactly what we were going to tell the rescue party. We needed to get Prince up here as quickly as possible, and we agreed we didn’t want to hide anything, but getting things out in the right order so they made sense was important, and there was the question of how much needed to be shared up front, and how much could wait until we had everyone together.
We’d just about settled on something when we saw who was leading the party up the mountainside.
“Prince is with the rescue team?” I was pretty sure I sounded as surprised as I felt.
“Yeah, wasn’t expecting that,” Vee agreed. “Makes sense, though. Almost everyone’s out with their own teams, there would only have been a few people at camp.”
“Or they were a couple of hours ago when I set the flare,” Chir said. “We’re probably the only ones still out this late.”
“Why is base camp so far from the caves, anyway?” I complained.
My question went unanswered. It wasn’t anything any of us hadn’t wondered about before.
The silence hung for a minute before the party approached, waving their flares. “Fear not, comrades, rescue is at hand! Or you might be fucked, seeing as it’s us that came.”
I grinned as I recognised the human voice. “Gabby!”
Everyone went quiet again.
Oh. Right. My voice.
Vee stood back up. “Hey, Gabby. Pretty wild story, and we’re glad you’re here. Especially glad you brought Prince.”
The older kobold in the back held his hands up. “Hey, now, Gabby’s the team lead on this. I’m just here as an extra pair of hands and eyes.”
Gabby nodded and brushed their hair back. “So what’s up with Dara and your new friend? I don’t see any bleeding or—”
“I’m Dara,” I interrupted. We’d been planning to build up to that, but I couldn’t wait. “Really. And you would not believe the day I’ve had.”
Prince, Gabby, and Lu, who hadn’t spoken yet, looked from me, up to Chir and Vee, who nodded. “Yeah. We were there. No other injuries,” she confirmed, “but this is plenty bad enough.”
Then Prince surprised me. He laughed, that giant, roaring belly laugh that you wouldn’t expect would even fit in a kobold. “Well, Dara, I always knew you’d go far in the field, but this? This is new, even for me.”
We ran through what happened. There wasn’t really that much to tell when you got down to it. Lu kept making little notes in his notebook, as usual, saying little. Gabby looked and sounded like she couldn’t quite believe what we were telling them which, to be fair, I wasn’t entirely sure I could, and I was the one it had happened to and had the stone scales to prove it.
But Prince, he was drinking it up. Everything we told him brought another question. I took that as a good sign. This is what we wanted him here for.
“And your… body, it’s remained comatose throughout?” he asked.
I nodded. “Still breathing. I’m still hoping I can get back into it somehow.”
“Well, we must plan for the possibility that this will not be resolved in the next few days.”
I started to say something, but he held up a hand to stop me.
“Team leader Gabby, I recommend that we return to camp and arrange care for Dara’s body until they can properly return to it. It wouldn’t do to have them starving to death while otherwise occupied.” That recommendation had the weight of an order behind it, and Gabby nodded.
“Agreed,” they said. “Then, with your permission, we’ll have some extra people up here tomorrow to properly examine this cave.”
“Permission? Gabby, my friend, I intend to lead the team myself.”
It was much faster going back down the hill than it had been through the cave, with the stretcher the rescue party had brought. It was dark and the terrain was rough, but we made good time.
The camp felt strange. Everything was larger than I remembered, and while everyone at least outwardly agreed I really was Dara after being told a few times, no one was really treating me the same.
I mean, how could they? Your friend and colleague suddenly comes back as a small stone dragon, you’re going to feel a little weird about it.
Then everyone settled down, and I discovered that small stone dragons don’t sleep.
I sat outside my tent, the one I shared with Vee, who was snoring up a thunderstorm as usual, and stared up at the Darradin, the mountain that was my namesake. Was that a coincidence, or had that had something to do with what happened today.
Every time I blinked, I could almost see a hazy blue glow about it. One that looked a lot like the barrier had when the spirit of the cave had shown me it was letting me out. I could feel it calling me back, and I wasn’t sure if that was my imagination or if the presence really was reaching out to me all the way down here.
They didn’t really need me down here, did they? Prince would be bringing the whole expedition up in the morning, after all. I could make an early start, get back there and keep the poor thing company. If I set off now, I could set my own pace and be up there before dawn.
I’d need a light, though. Carrying a lamp wasn’t really practical at this size, since they were almost as big as I was, but that bulk was mostly protection and optics. I darted for the equipment crates, yanked a lantern off the pile, and unscrewed the bottom. These little hands were surprisingly dextrous, and it didn’t take me long to extract the lampglow.
One of these little glass vials would, once started, glow decently for days, and this one was started fresh this morning. I’d just have to be careful with it. The light wasn’t great without the mirrors to properly focus it, but it’d do the job until I got back to my chamber and could see in the dark again.
Huh. When had I started thinking of it as my chamber? I supposed it was in a way.
I held the lampglow in my teeth, as gently as I could, and trotted back off up the mountainside. I was already half way there before it occurred that I should have left a note, but it was too late to turn back now.
The cave hadn’t been as hard to navigate as I thought. I remembered the rough layout from surveying it with Chir and Vee, but as well as that, there was just a sense that this was the right way to go. That did make sense, the presence or spirit, or whatever it was, was calling me back after all.
That didn’t make the sense of joy I felt coming from it when I stepped into the the chamber any less overwhelming. So happy, so happy you’re home.
Home? That was maybe going a little far, but… it did feel good to be back here.
It did occur to me, not for the first time, that I wasn’t completely acting of my own volition. I don’t think the me of yesterday would have come up here on their own like this. I was acting on a set of instincts not my own, and yet somehow still a part of me.
Maybe Chir had been right to fear this place. And yet, the possibilities of what I had been shown felt like they justified it. This was a creature made for people, but it had been alone. Had it made this body too? So desparate to have its dragon back that it made a new one?
With its ability to reshape the rock, had it even caused the earthquakes that opened these caves up?
I sat on my plinth to talk to it again. “You called me here, didn’t you? I don’t mean tonight. A lot of things had to line up for me to go on this expedition to map the new caves.”
It responded as it always did, not with words but with emotions. A forlorn hope. A desperate desire now answered.
“I understand. You called, not to me, but to anyone who’d listen. I was just the one who answered.”
And now a feeling of peace, and yet of hope, of expectation.
“And now you have what you wanted. Someone to help you build your future.”
There was a sense of curiosity now. Not at me, but at… I closed my eyes, let it draw my attention within the chamber. The lampglow. It had never seen one. How could it have? The chemicals that make lampglow were unknown even twenty years ago. I could feel the little glass vial sitting on my chamber floor, see the glow it cast.
What was I supposed to do with the lampglow? The presence showed me. A stone bowl rose around the lampglow, solid and sturdy around the edges, but porous in the bottom. It wanted to feel what was inside, taste the lampglow itself.
Well, that was easy enough. I hopped down from the plinth, took one look at the lampglow in the bowl, and crushed it with a stone hand. The glowing fluid spilled out, pooling in the bottom of the bowl, slowly soaking into the porous rock in the middle.
Was that rock? Up close it looked more like something alive, more like moss than stone. And now it glowed with the chemicals slowly combining inside it.
I returned to my perch and closed my eyes again. Yes, this was right. I could feel the stuff now, feel the components. Sulfur, and phosphorus, and other things I didn’t know the names of, but all becoming known to me like old friends. All of these things lived in the rock.
And, now that I thought about it, wouldn’t it be nice for the expedition to have some light to work by? I cast my vision out from the cave, through the rock walls. I wasn’t even questioning it now. I just knew what I had to find. Sulfates, phosphates, buried carbon. There was so little in the walls of my chamber, though.
I could only feel out so far… yes. I could feel the boundary. A translucent blue thing, a perfect sphere centered on my plinth, out as far as the barrier that had kept me here at first. No, not as far as. This was the barrier, the edge of my perception. It seemed so small, next to the vastness of the Darradin that I knew sat all around me. How could I make it larger?
The answer came to me in the memory of a vision. Of course. It had been there right in the middle of the city. I settled on my plinth, got comfortable, and started to build the room which would sit at the center of my tower. This was going to take a while.
This was going pretty well, I thought. The spirit of the cave was certainly pleased with our progress, and considering it was doing most of the work, it had a right to be. It seemed cruelly unfair to give it such power but not the ability to use it on its own.
I thought about Kari again. How she’d wanted to control Vee completely. That’s what this creature’s creator had forced on it. Hadn’t even given it a voice.
I began to understand then why the dragons of Chir’s stories, the ones I still had never heard, had been so feared. The thought of forcing that control on someone made me feel sick.
It needed me to give it that direction, so it could become what it needed to be. It thought it had to force that on me, with barriers and foreign instincts, because it had never known any other way. I felt at once used and sorry for it. There had to be a way to do this so that we could both have our freedom.
Pulling back out of my own thoughts, I felt it. It was paying very close attention to me. Curious, uncertain.
“You could feel what I was thinking, couldn’t you?”
A warm feeling of confidence, as sure a confirmation as if it had stood up in my face and screamed the word yes at me.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, you know. I’m still learning how we work together, but I’m certain we can find a way for you to do this without me. Become the bustling city you dreamed of, filled with people who will always keep you company, but never force you.”
“I know. You’ve always had a dragon, haven’t you? When you didn’t, all you could do was wait for another one. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”
I wasn’t sure it believed me. But I did know this: if we were going to build the shining city under the mountain that it dreamed of, the beacon of truth and learning from my own dreams, it could only be founded on trust, not fear, or it would inevitably unravel. Perhaps not quickly, but as soon as the object of that fear showed any weakness… I had a feeling I knew why none of the dragon cults from Chir’s stories were still around.
Something to work on. Trust, I knew, didn’t come overnight. The presence… no it should be the Presence if I was going to think of it this way. It needed me, but it didn’t trust me, and I didn’t really trust it when I got down to it. But even if it had, in a way, tricked me here, I could still believe in what we were trying to do. In doing it right.
We had been doing some interesting things. It kept nudging me to shape angular columns into the stone, and I’d seen them everywhere back in the University. It was a motif that was everywhere in kobold architecture. They symbolised strength and industry, I’d been told, but I was beginning to suspect that there was more to them than that. The Presence was having me place them regularly as I grew the chamber, and every time we finished a ring of them, our field of view grew.
And it was working. We were finding the right minerals, the things we needed for lampglow. It was as simple as a thought to draw the elements through the bulk silicate rock containing them, pull them into the pillars that brought me sight and make their surfaces shine like the sun. The Presence liked that. Its visions had all contained towering flames in bronze cages providing light, but the thought of all that fire in an enclosed space made me nervous.
But lampglow had that same orange-white light without the heat, or at least not with much of it, and without consuming the air. Everyone knew that a fire in a closed cavern would cause problems with bad air. I wasn’t sure how the old dragon had solved the problem, but it must have been a big one.
It must have been morning already. I could hear voices approaching my tunnels. My awareness spread so much further than it had a few hours ago. Prince and the expedition were coming. I lit the lines of lampglow I’d laid out to show them the way.
They certainly sounded surprised to see it.
“Okay, it definitely wasn’t glowing like this yesterday.” Vee. It made me smile to know she was leading the way.
“There’s something bigger going on here than one cavern that changes shape,” Chir agreed. I wasn’t sure if he’d want to come back up here, given his worries, but I should have known he’d want to do it to help me. Chir always had a good heart.
“I do believe this rather confirms our speculation, does it not?” I could see Prince now. That confident swagger had no place in a poorly mapped cave with a history of earthquakes, but he’d brought it anyway. Lucky the Presence and I had thought to lay out lights for him.
I saw Chir nod to him. “I’d hoped you were wrong, but lampglow isn’t natural. This is an active Dragon Cave all right. I hate to think what it’s done to Dara.”
“No,” I cried out, “I’m all right! I’m here!” But he couldn’t hear me. He was out at the edge of my cave and I was just a little dragon in the middle of it. The walls wouldn’t speak for me no matter how hard I willed them to.
The rest of the group followed into view. Twelve people, half the expedition, and all of them my friends. I didn’t want them to fear for me. I had to go out and meet them.
I leapt off my comfortable plinth and charged down the passageway, its neatly cut limestone walls lit evenly by angular pillars that even now filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I had to let them know I was all right, and then they could come and see what the Presence and I had built together. They’d know it was all fine then.
They were ahead. I could still sense them, even though they were quiet now. I’d meet them just as the neatly-cut corridors ended and the natural cave began. That was good, they’d see it then.
I turned the corner and - there was Prince, standing out in front of the group, waiting right at the edge of the smoothed stone. He had a matchlock pistol pointed at me. Why..?
“That’s far enough,” he growled. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Prince? What’s going on?” This wasn’t right. They were here to help me. And why did he even have a pistol, much less pointed at me?
“When you vanished last night, we feared the worst. And as soon as I saw the lampglow, I knew that the dragon spirit had corrupted you. But I hear your voice and I pray to any god listening that there is still some of Dara in there.”
He knew. He knew that it had drawn me back here, but… how could he be so, so wrong?
“I’m still the same person I was yesterday!” I almost shouted the words, but even as I did I could feel some doubt. Was I? I hadn’t had grand dreams of an underground city this time yesterday, and I had sneaked off in the middle of the night.
He must have heard it. “I wish I could believe you, but you cannot expect me to see you as… this and believe nothing has changed.”
“I didn’t say nothing had changed! I only said I’m still me. I’m still Dara! And why are you pointing a gun at me? Why do you even have a gun? Why would a mapping expedition need a gun?”
Would it even hurt me? I was made of stone, after all. I decided I didn’t want to find out.
“It’s as well that I do have it. Can’t you see what the spirit is doing? How it’s tempting you? This… palace you’re building–”
“It’s not a palace! It’s a road. A little one, but everything starts small, doesn’t it? I wanted you to find me, to see your way, to stay safe.”
Vee canted her head. “Still sounds like Dara. There’s a reason we had them head up the team. Always cared about us first.”
There was a murmur of agreement, but Prince stayed tense. This wasn’t like him. Under all that swagger, I’d always known him to be the soul of reason itself. That’s why I’d been so sure he’d know what to do. But this wasn’t it.
I could feel the Presence worrying at the back of my mind. It was certainly afraid Prince could hurt me. Or was it afraid that Prince could hurt it?
“Look,” I said, trying to project calm I didn’t feel, “just put that away and come with me? I’ve got so many things I wanted to show you and…”
“And lead us right into a trap, no doubt,” Prince finished as I trailed off.
“No. No! I could never… you don’t understand at all. It isn’t like that! It’s just afraid!”
“That’s what you said yesterday,” Chir confirmed. “You told us it was afraid of being alone.”
I shook my head. “It’s not just that. It’s afraid of being hurt, of being used. Again. But… yes, most of all it’s afraid of being alone. Can’t you understand?
“When its old dragon died, when all the old dragons died, it lost a tormentor. But it also lost the only person it had ever really known.” I didn’t even really know where the words were coming from any more. They just kept coming. “Can you even imagine what that’s like? Sealed up alone in the dark for hundreds of years? So desperate for any company at all that you’d even try to build a new dragon to rule you again?”
I was in tears now. I had no idea how a stone statue could cry, but still they came. “But it didn’t work. The dragon was just a dead statue, and it was still alone. Can you imagine an anguish so great that it would split a mountain? Can you?” I almost screamed those last two words.
Silence hung in the cave. Prince’s hand was shaking.
Like trying to drag myself out of an icy lake, I struggled to find my voice again. It came out as little more than a whisper. “It tried to tempt me, you know. It tried to show me an empire. Armies marching in my name. But I didn’t want that. That’s never who I was. So it… offered something better instead. Something good. That’s what I wanted to show you.”
Prince didn’t lower his pistol. But he did speak, voice carefully level. “Show me.”
So I led them, in silence, through my careful corridors, to the octagon. To what the Presence and I had worked all night on, once we’d found the lampglow.
It was a model. Shaped in intricate detail by a patient mind who’d had endless time alone to imagine exactly how it might do this. A model in tiny scale, sculpted from hard granite so finely that you could lean in close and see the people of the grand city.
People frozen in stone as they lived and went about their days. People walking up the grand roads towards the tower in the centre, not in ranks but in chaotic ones and twos. Towards the University at the heart of the city.
And how it shone. Every tiny pillar was lit up with lampglow, just as we’d done with the full size ones.
“This,” I said softly, “is what it promised me. This is what it tempted me with. The shining city of truth and learning. But there’s something it didn’t know.”
Prince was leaning over the model, the weapon in his hand pointed to the floor almost forgotten. “And what’s that?”
“You can’t build a place like that and have a dragon rule over it. The Presence here, it’s never known anything but being controlled, or being alone. But that couldn’t ever really work. After all, where are all the dragons?”
Chir spoke up for the first time since the entryway. “We killed them. I mean, our ancestors did. It’s a hard thing to kill, one of the old dragons, but once we knew it could be done…”
Prince straightened. “And our people swore we’d never live in fear again. Something the humans could still stand to learn from us.”
Vee stepped forward. “Some of us have.” That I knew. Vee was one of the bravest people I’d ever known. When I’d had the Presence reshape this chamber, she’d wanted to try it and find out how it worked. She’d stood and wondered when ever Chir had wanted to turn and run.
“It’s not an easy lesson,” I said. “But… I think the Presence here is starting to get it. We’re going to find out how it works, make it so it doesn’t need a dragon at all. The city can run itself.”
Prince surprised me again with that laugh of his. “You actually think that’s going to work? The dragon spirit can’t change what it is. It’ll twist you and use you, and then we’ll have another dragon to kill, nothing more.”
“You were quick enough to believe it had changed me. Why not believe that I could change it too? And why,” I demanded, “did you even bring a gun here in the first place? Only the Royal Army should even have those!”
“Because,” he said, matter-of-factly, “I knew that I might have a dragon to kill.”
“But… how could you have even known to bring—”
“You knew this place was here!” Chir shouted. Everyone turned to stare at him. “You knew what was under this mountain and you sent us in here anyway.”
Prince straightened. “Well. We, that is the faculty, certainly had our suspicions. Did you not think it odd a cave mapping expedition was so well funded? Of course I never imagined that any of you would be fool enough to TOUCH the cursed thing…”
I could feel a cold fury building behind my eyes, and I didn’t like it. “You knew. Exactly what had happened to me. And you didn’t say anything.”
“Great stars, man, where did you think dragons came from? They don’t hatch from eggs like us. But this cave, if we caught it early, could be contained and studied. But look what you’ve done! It reaches half way to the surface now.”
“Well, maybe if you’d bothered to TELL me any of this last night. Or yesterday morning before we came in here, for that matter!”
“We couldn’t risk any of you trying to take the power for yourselves. The danger was far lesser this way.”
“And yet you brought a gun.”
“So I did. And I’m sorry, Dara. I cannot let the dragon spirit take you, and this fantasy you’ve shown me has done nothing to change that. I only hope that you’ll return to your old self after I—”
That was as far as he got. A moment later, he was screaming and clutching his snout, which had just had a rather sharp and sudden encounter with Vee’s elbow.
“On the other hand, maybe we should hear more about this fantasy,” she said. “Because I like where you’re going with it.”