This is the sequel to Hasina's Quest.
Hasina trekked north-west, by foot. Her horse had been killed by an arrow she identified as one made in House Styrke. So desperate had the doomed citizens been, they had done their best to bring her down with them. But there had been nothing Hasina could do, other than survive herself. Having escaped during Deathbringer's attack, she had few possessions on her. She had Armand's shield of dragon scales. Legends said it was made from the scales of Deathbringer himself, but they were in fact the scales of Dreadfire, an inferior Rage Dragon who Deathbringer had killed.
She also had a rough map of this area of Emiria. She had drawn it herself from what she knew, and added to it as she walked northwards. The map itself was carved into a large piece of bark she had peeled from a tree.
According to her map, the southern border was just a few days walk away. From then, she would be in neutral territory, and could hopefully cross the western border and find a small village to stay at.
However, she hadn't walked much further, before she came across a small clump of trees, which stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the grassy plains. The trees were average-sized, but at the bottom of them lay another, fallen, tree trunk. As Hasina made to step on and over it, it shook, and some of the earth around it was dislodged.
Using every ounce of her strength, Hasina pushed the tree trunk aside, then knelt down in exhaustion. In front of her was a large hole, big enough to let through a tall person. The earth around the edge was crumbly, suggesting the hole had once been much bigger. Hasina looked inside, but it was too dark to see far, though she could make out a three-way junction a little way in.
Hasina was tempted to explore, but she didn't what dangers lurked in there, and she had no food and water other than what she could find. If she got lost underground, she doubted she would find much. In addition, she really needed to find another village fast. Emiria was on the brink of war, and if she waited too long, she would not be allowed through the border.
She marked it clearly on her map, and decided to return to it when she had more time and was better equipped. For now she left it, though couldn't summon the energy to put the tree trunk back in place. More weary than ever, she trudged onwards.
Deep beneath the ground, Dreadfire stirred from his centuries-long slumber. In fact, it had been nearly two thousand years since he had settled down to sleep, after losing in a fierce battle against another Rage Dragon who called himself Deathbringer.
Now, he flexed his wings, now fully repaired. The ragged wound where the end of his tail had been had now healed over, and it was almost impossible to tell that there was anything missing from the tail at all. The scales on his feet and stomach had fallen off, and new, tough scales had grown in their place. The scars on his flank abd back had healed over, as had his neck wounds.
Now, he was finally recovered. But he had slept soundly like this for two thousand years, so what had awoken him? He felt a slight breeze on his scales, which a regular Rage Dragon would not have been able to feel. Someone had removed the log blocking the entrance to his caves. He snorted with contempt. Anyone foolish enough to enter would be torn apart by the nightmarish creatures that he allowed to make their homes in the tunnels.
Dreadfire got to his feet and wandered away from the cave where he was resting, into the tunnel system. A hideous, worm-like creature leapt from the wall at him, but he casually speared it on a claw and shoved it into his mouth, enjoying the taste of fresh meat for the first time in several centuries. As he fed, he thought back to his horrendous wounds from the fight with Deathbringer. His shattered teeth had fallen out and been replaced with new ones. He was once again healthy.
However, he was not about to make his presence known to world. Two millenium ago, he would have done so without fear, but now he knew that Deathbringer would simply slaughter him. He would have to rest more, and train. Only when he was ready would he reveal himself again.
He snatched another monster off the wall and ate it. He felt blood run down his lips for the first time in ages, and knew it would taste so much better when it was not just some creature's blood, but Deathbringer's himself.
A week later, Hasina caught site of a village, nestled in between two rolling hills, so that it was mostly sheltered from the wind. Hasina could still see the shore of Emiria, and estimated it was only around ten miles from the village. She might have seen sheep and cows on the slopes of the hills, but she couldn't tell for certain from this distance.
If she walked quickly without stopping, she could make the village before nightfall, and hopefully find a comfortable place to rest for the first time in a week. Until now, she'd been sleeping in the shelter of trees and in hollows. She had fed off roots, berries and what animals she could hunt, as she had taken no provsions with her.
She quickened her pace, despite the fact her legs were aching already. The sun was sinking, and she didn't want to have to spend another night in the wild. On the other hand, did she really want to be greeted by a mob of angry locals after sunset? In the end, her want for a comfortable bed decided it, and she didn't slow down for the last few hours of sunlight.
By the time she reached the village, just a small sliver of the sun hadn't sunk below the horizon. The sky was streaked purple and red, and the low sun cast long shadows over everything, including the village. As she approached, two men on horses rode out to greet her. One carried some loops of rope, and the other held a dagger.
"Who are you?" one of them asked.
"I'm Hasina. Hasina Styrke. I-"
"You come from the south? From House Styrke?"
"What news have you of the dragon?"
"He destroyed the entire town, all of House Styrke, and the castle too. My father and everyone I know are dead. And Deathbringer now has five children."
"You will leave!" one shouted.
"What? Why?" Hasina stuttered, with no idea what she had done wrong.
"You bring bad luck. We do not want you here. The Bringer of Death will follow you here. We will not survive if you stay!"
The one holding a dagger drew his arm back, ready to throw it at Hasina. She fumbled with the strap holding the dragonscale shield round her waist, and raised it to shield her face and stomach just as he threw the knife. It struck the shield and shattered, sending iron fragments flying. The shield was intact.
The two men were about to advance, when there was the sound of a third horse approaching. The men turned, and gasped as they realised who it was. They parted to allow his horse through. Hasina was looking at a boy about her age and size, but she could not make out much in the darkness. Hasina assumed he was someone important, like the son of the Lord of the house.
"What are you two doing?"
"She is from House Styrke. The Bringer of Death destroyed it, along with his... his children. She will bring bad luck upon our village if she stays here."
"That is nonsense. Deathbringer is nowhere near. At the very least, she will have to stay the night."
"But where, sir?"
"There is a spare bed in the Solus Spire."
"But that is only for-"
"Silence! We have left the young lady waiting long enough. What was your name?"
"OK. Hasina, you'll be spending the night in the spare bed in Solus Spire, our castle. Tomorrow morning, we will have to consider what to do with you."
"Thank you, sir."
"Please, do not call me sir. My name is Huo."
Huo and the two guards led Hasina inside the village, and they dropped the horses off at the stables. The guards returned to their homes, and Huo took Hasina to Solus Spire.
It was an enormous structure, made from large stone blocks, and clearly divided into four floors. It was much taller than anything she'd seen in House Styrke.
"You will be staying on the third floor, where there are two bedrooms. I sleep in the other one, and Intisara, the Lord of the house, sleeps on the top floor."
"So, are you his son?"
The question clearly made Huo uncomfortable. "I don't know my parents. My father left before I was born, and my mother died before my first birthday. I was raised as an orphan. Intisara has no wife or heir, and so he devised the Trial of Strength, a trial every boy must take when they turn twelve, to find himself a strong heir. I passed, and since then, I've trained daily. Two years ago, he declared me his heir."
"Ah," Hasina said, deciding not to question him more. If she got the chance, she could ask about more tomorrow.
Huo showed Hasina where she would stay. He warned her not to try and escape during the night, as he would lock the door. As Hasina laid down on the soft mattress, with a warm duvet covering her, she nearly laughed at the mere thought of trying to escape.
Hasina woke early the next morning, to find rough hands shaking her awake.
"Wha-? I don't wanna get up..." Hasina mumbled sleepily, turning over and trying to get back to sleep. The shaking continued, and in the end she gave up trying to return to sleep, and sat up.
"What is it?" she asked.
One of the guards she had met yesterday had been shaking her, and was now waiting impatiently for her by the door.
"Intisara wants an audience with you. Now," he said with great emphasis.
Still rubbing her eyes to clear them of sleep, Hasina followed the guard up to the top floor of Solus Spire, where someone - she assumed Intisara - was sitting on an exquisitely carved wooden throne. Huo was standing beside him.
"So, you are Hasina Styrke?"
"Tell me the news on House Styrke and the Deathbringer. I have heard from Huo and the guards, but I would like to hear it from you."
"Deathbringer has had five eggs for I don't know how long. Recently, all five have hatched, and we suspect they'll grow to full size in a few years. We sent messengers to World's End, the east, west and north, but we don't know if they got there. After that, Deathbringer as his children completely destroyed House Styrke, and I was the only survivor."
"In that case, I think you should stay here for a while."
"But-" the guard began.
"Silence!" Intisara ordered.
"That had originally been my intention."
"To come here? To House Solus?"
"Not exactly. To head into western territory and find a small village to settle down in was my intention."
"We can construct you a hut within a week or two. You can stay here in Solus Spire until then."
"Thank you, sir."
"You may call me Intisara. But be warned, while you stay here, you will be expected to help in the farming industry."
"Of course I will. But there is one thing I request, if you would grant me it."
"What is your request?"
"I found a tunnel entrance, about a week's walk from here. I didn't explore very deep, but there's a whole network of tunnels down there, and I think they may be the Dread Catacombs talked about in the ancient scrolls we had at House Styrke. All I need is a horse to get me their quicker."
"You may have a horse. And if you wish so, I can have some of my men accompany you."
"I will be fine going alone, if that is alright," Hasina replied.
"Then so be it."
"If I could go and get some provisions, prepare to set off...?"
"Of course you can."
Hasina left the room, and the guard followed, to return to his wife and kids. After they had left, Huo had a whispered conversation with Intisara. They came to some sort of agreement, and Huo left the room as well.
Hasina had collected some bags of food, bottles of water, and bought herself a new sword in exchange for one of the scales on her shield. She had considered buying a bow for another scale, but it would be no use in the tunnels, so she decided to leave that until she had some proper currency.
She was just tying the bags onto the horse's saddle, when she became aware of someone watching her. She finished the knot, then turned to see Huo.
"Hi," she said. "Here to wish me good luck?"
"Actually, I was wondering if I could come with you."
"You want to come with me?"
"Yes. I'm good with a spear and a shield, and I'm OK with a sword."
"It's not that I doubt your talent, it's just..."
"It's to do with Deathbringer, isn't it?"
"I went on a quest, up the Citadel to fight him. Led by a fake prophecy I'd been given - long story. I had two friends. One died in the citadel. Then, in the attack, I lost everyone. My trainer, my father; my other friend - Trey, he was called - returned to the north, where he came from. I've no idea if he made it. I just don't want to lose any more friends."
"I understand. But I still think I should come with you. I train every day, but in a small farming village, there's little call for action. Especially for us."
"What do you mean?"
"Of course!" Huo realised. "You haven't met Tectia yet, have you?"
"I haven't heard his name said."
Hasina felt herself go red with embarrassment, but she smiled anyway.
"Who is she, then?"
"She's a Rage Dragon. A normal one," he added quickly.
"Our settlement's pretty old - dating back to 1107ish. Tectia's grandmother took pity on our small and weak settlement, and the females in her family have been our guardians ever since."
"Yeah. Rage Dragons live for about one thousand years, don't they?"
"Yes, you're right. Now, I'll take you to see Tectia, and then we can set off."
"You don't mind me coming?"
"No," Hasina said, smiling.
"Then let's go and see Tectia."
Huo took Hasina to a cave dug out of the hill just a few minutes walk from the village. It was a large, cavernous space, decorated with various gems - Hasina identified rubies, emeralds, saphires, and many others she couldn't put a name to. A pile of gold lay against the back wall, but it wasn't an enormous hoard that some dragons liked to collect.
A large Rage Dragon lay curled up in the centre of the cavern. As they entered, its eyelids fluttered open, it stirred and stood up.
"Who is this?" Tectia asked, speaking to Huo.
"Hasina. She comes from the south," he said, shooting a glance at Hasina that said, Don't mention Deathbringer or House Styrke.
"Why is she here?"
"It's... complicated. But she's come to settle down here."
"And why has she come here?"
"I thought I should introduce you two."
"Hello, Hasina," Tectia said, speaking as if Hasina existed for the first time.
"You try to hide it from me, but I know things of you. You are Hasina Styrke. The lone survivor after the House was destroyed by Deathbringer and his children."
"What? How do you know that?"
"After spending a long time in the company of humans, I am relatively skilled at reading their thoughts."
"So you can see what I'm thinking?"
"Is there any way I can keep you out."
"I can train you to shield your mind, if you wish. Of course, I would never normally probe around uninvited."
"I think I'll have the lessons anyway."
Huo was smiling. Apparently, he had taken these lessons too.
"You are a remarkable individual, Hasina. You have accomplished more than most people of your age. Take this as a gift. It will guide you in your times of need."
Tectia stood to her full height, and took several large steps over to one wall of the cavern. Using her claws far more dexterously than Hasina would expect, she prised a decent-sized emerald from the wall, and gave it to Hasina.
"Guard it with your life, and it will guard yours," Tectia said. "Now, I need more rest. I am only a minute's ride away if you desperately need me."
Tectia curled up again, and Hasina stared in wonder at the emerald she held in her cupped hands. It was as large as both her fists bunched together, and rather heavy too. A faint green glow appeared to come from the centre. She suddenly became aware of Huo waiting for her at the entrance to the cavern, and turned and walked out with him.
"Will she really give me lessons?" Hasina asked.
Huo smiled. "Unlikely. But she speaks the truth. She will not probe uninvited unless the circumstances are exceptional."
"Oh. That's alright then."
"And you really should guard that emerald with your life. Tectia has never given away anything of her family's hoard since her mother gave away a small amethyst to be placed in Intisara's throne."
"I wil guard it. I really will."
A few minutes later, they were back in the village. Hasina, as advised by Hua, hid the emerald from view, and when they arrived at the stables, she placed it in the saddlebags. Then she got her leg up over the horse, and sat herself on its saddle. Huo got on his horse, and together, they left the stables. A small crowd had somehow gained news of their departure, and was waiting at the gates to say farewell.
Hasina suspected the majority, if not all of them, were there to say goodbye to Huo. However, she had only arrived last night and didn't know anyone in the village, so she couldn't blame them, and wasn't hurt in any way.
They passed through the gates, and headed south, Hasina occassionally referring to her scratched map of Emiria for guidance.
They had been riding for just two days, compared to Hasina's one-week trek, when they came upon the clump of trees the marked the entrance.
"We're here," Hasina said.
They slowed the horses to a stop, then tethered them to one of the trees. Hasina untied the saddlebags from her horse, and gave one to Huo and kept the one containing the emerald herself.
"Will the horses be safe here?" Hasina asked.
"There are very few monsters round here. I am sure they will be safe. There is plenty of grass for them to feed on while we are inside."
"Then in we go, I suppose."
Between them, they found it much easier to push the log out of the way, giving them access to the tunnel system. The hole had enlarged considerably since Hasina had seen it last, but she assumed it was naturally erosion. She glanced at Huo.
"If you are."
Together, they stepped into the hole, and walked towards the junction. As there had been last time, there were three different tunnels to go down, but by the time they had got that far, it was already rather dark, and difficult to see.
"Left, right or centre?" Hasina asked.
"Right," Huo replied, almost without hesitation.
As they walked down the right tunnel, Hasina didn't even notice that when she had left the tunnel entrance last time, she hadn't covered it up with the log.
"THE FEMALE THAT DARED ENTER THE HIGHEST POINT OF THIS CITADEL ESCAPED THE DESTRUCTION OF HER VILLAGE. I WANT HER HUNTED DOWN AND KILLED. GREEN DEATH, YOU WILL SEARCH FOR HER."
"You will not be disappointed, father."
Deathbringer opened the hole in the citadel wall, and Green Death hopped out, opening his wings as he did so. Then, he disappeared into the distance on his search for Hasina.
From his cavern, Dreadfire stiffened.
"There are humans in my caves," he growled. "No matter. They shall meet their deaths trying to find me, and if not, I can finish them."
A medium-sized Volucris stumbled into Dreadfire's cave. It squealed as one of Dreadfire's claws pierced its armour plating and stabbed straight down through its heart. Dreadfire put it in his mouth and chewed on it, ignoring the sound of crunching armour and bone as he wondered what humans would be foolish enough to enter his lair.
The tunnel was dark and twisting. The walls, floor and roof were made of soil, occasionally studded with rocks. The soil was often wet and slippery, but other times it would crumble from the ceiling and they would think the entire tunnel was coming down.
After the first time, there was no light at all. Hasina and Huo fumbled their way along the tunnel for a few metres, when Hasina remembered the green glow the emerald had been emitting. She pulled it out of her saddlebag, and in the darkness, it glowed brilliantly, illuminating the area a few metres in all directions while bathing it in a strange green tinge.
"It's already come in useful," Huo observed.
"Yeah," Hasina agreed.
The tunnel continued its winding path. Eventually, they came to a nearly invisible junction. The tunnel seemed to continue to curve left, but well hidden behind a wall of soil was a path going right. Huo insisted on going right like the last time, and Hasina didn't argue, as the direction seemed to have some sort of sentimental value to him.
The next thing they knew, they were in what appeared to be a long, straight stretch of tunnel. The ceiling was quite high, and the emerald could barely illuminate it even when Hasina held it high above her head. It was also rather wide; Hasina estimated three large adults could walk side-by-side along it.
There was a sudden sound of scuttling ahead. Hasina paused, as did Huo, who had clearly heard it too.
"Did the scrolls say anything about what was inside the catacombs?" he asked, nervousness creeping into his voice.
"No," Hasina whispered back. "Not that I can remember, anyway."
Hasina drew her sword, and Huo grabbed his spear. The scuttling came again, but this time louder and closer. Hasina wished the emerald could illuminate further down the tunnel, but it couldn't.
A large, insectoid creature suddenly scurried into the edge of the emerald's range. It had a large body, long legs and small head, all covered in an exoskeleton-like armour. It had a long, armoured tail with two feathery clubs on the end, and two strange feathery antennae on its head. It had small eyes, which Hasina doubted would be much use seeing underground.
It suddenly launched itself at them. Hasina barely had time to sidestep the attack, and sliced wildly in its direction, but her sword clanged harmlessly of its armour. Huo had dodged the other way and thrust his spear at the creature's side, but the blow had also been deflected.
The creature turned round, and Huo cried out as its tail smashed into his jaw. It quickly turned the other way, to face Huo, and Hasina barely ducked under the tail herself. She brought her sword down hard on the creature's back, but the armour remained undamaged and the impact jarred Hasina's arm.
The creature turned again, now unsure who to attack first. It was facing right at Hasina and Huo, and Hasina took the opportunity. She slashed her sword horizontally above the creature's head. It sliced straight through one of the creature's antennae, and the severed stalk dropped to the ground in a puddle of black blood. The creature shrieked in agony, and Hasina was forced to drop her sword and emerald as she covered her ears. Hua did the same, dropping his spear.
Even though the two of them were now defenceless, the creature dared not attack again. It turned tail and scuttled off down the tunnel the way Hasina and Huo had came. Hasina crossed the width of the tunnel and knelt by Huo.
"Are you OK?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm... I'm fine. Just a little knock to the head, that's all. And I'm going deaf," he added, smiling.
Hasina smiled too. "Come on," she said, picking up her sword and emerald. "We don't want to be here if that thing comes back, with or without reinforcements."
"Volucris," Huo said as he picked up his spear.
"Insectoid creatures depicted in our myths, as manifestations and servants of evil. I think we found the inspiration."
"Hmm," Hasina considered. "Servants of evil. Servants of who? What evil would live down here?"
"I don't know. Perhaps that part was just made up."
"Maybe," Hasina said distractedly. She wasn't convinced, but they needed to make progress, so she dropped the matter for now. "Let's keep moving."
"Yeah. This place is creepy."
"Can't disagree with you there."
They continued along the tunnel for what must have been at least ten minutes, and just as Hasina started to wonder if it was endless, it finally made a turn. They followed the turn, straight into a four-way junction, including the way they had just came.
"Right?" Hasina asked.
"Yep," Huo agreed. Again, Hasina didn't argue. She just hoped they wouldn't end up back where they started, because she knew if you made four right turns with the same amount of walking in between, you'd end up right back at the beginning.
This tunnel was much shorter than the last, and soon came to another junction, this time either left or right.
"Right?" Hasina asked.
"Normally I would, but I think I can see light down that way," Huo replied. "Normal sunlight. That might lead us down the left path right to where we started."
"Good point. Left then?"
"I guess it'll have to be."
They went left. This was an even shorter tunnel before reaching the next junction. There was the option to go right in this junction, and that was the option they took. After walking for a while, a tunnel branched off and curved gently to the left. Huo wanted to stay on the same track, and so did Hasina, so they ignored the branching tunnel.
Soon after, there was a tunnel branching off right. They went down it, and before long came to another four-way junction. But looking down the right turn, they could see sunlight again.
"That must be the centre tunnel from the start," Huo said.
"So the centre tunnel is the left path," Hasina finished. "Shall we go that way?"
"Yes. We might find something interesting going straight down the middle."
"I sure hope so. As long as it isn't more monsters."
They both smiled, and set off down the main path. They came across one other junction, but rather than turn right, they decided to go straight down the centre path. They had not travelled for long when Hasina suddenly stopped.
"What is it?" Huo asked, taking a few steps back to stand equal with Hasina. "I didn't hear anything."
Hasina relaxed. "I thought I heard the soil rustling."
"How does soil rustle?"
"I don't know. It just made that sort of sound. I'm sure it's nothing."
"Still, we should stay alert."
"Yeah. I guess you can't be too careful."
They walked further along the tunnel, and for the first time, Hasina noticed her legs were aching. Throughout exploring the tunnel network, they must have walked several miles. She had done this before, while making her way to House Solus in the first place, but that didn't take away the pain or the weariness second time round.
"I'm sure it can't be much-" Huo began, but Hasina cut him off with a wave of her hand.
"I heard something again," she whispered. "In the soil."
"But how-" Huo began, before being interrupted a second time. But this time, it wasn't Hasina. Just as he started speaking, a dark shape launched itself literally out of the wall and straight at them.
Something that looked like a large, fat worm launched itself at Huo, fastening the 'petals' that made its mouth around his head. Hasina drew her sword and slashed at the worm. She felt the blade dig into the skin, but it was too thick and she did no significant damage.
Huo was flailing around, trying to use his arms to push the worm off. Hasina took her sword out the worm's hide and slashed at its fleshy mouth. She cut straight through one petal, and the creature screeched, relinquishing its hold on Huo. Huo's face was covered in small scars, and there was a larger one on his cheek where Hasina had cut too far to severe the petal.
The worm launched itself at Hasina, and she sidestepped while making a wild stab at the worm. She heard another squeal so assumed she had struck it again, even though the worm was barely in the emerald's range. The worm launched itself at Hasina again, and she suddenly realised it didn't want her; it wanted the emerald. As she dodged its charge, it swung its tail out, smashing into her shins and knocking her to the floor.
The emerald rolled from her grasp, coming to rest against the wall. Hasina scrabbled for it desperately, just as the worm launched itself at it. It was obvious Hasina wouldn't make it in time. The worm's mouth began to close as the emerald came into its reach.
Suddenly, Huo threw his spear, right at the worm. It cut straight through its fleshy neck and came out the other side, thudding into the earth and pinning the worm where it was. Hasina cautiously got closer, then snatched the emerald away from it.
"Nice thinking," Hasina said, lopping off the head of the worm and allowing Huo to withdraw his spear.
"It's nothing. By the way, those things are in the legends too. They're called Wurms."
"Oh, right. So are they similar to Volucris?"
"If you mean they are servants and manifestations of evil, then yes."
"Wurms in particular were primary food sources for several greater evils in the myths. Dragons, giants, you name it."
"Well then, let's find out which one of those it is, and keep walking," Hasina said.
They set off down the tunnel, which continued to twist and turn. They saw no more junctions, yet they were walking down the tunnel for what must have been hours, However, they eventually came to the end of the tunnel. They had barely noticed it slowly widening, but they arrived at a pair of two enormous wooden doors built into the soil that must have been twenty metres high and at least half that wide.
"Shall we go in?" Huo asked.
"Good luck opening the door," Hasina replied, smiling.
They both pushed as hard as they could against one door, but it refused to budge. Suddenly, a booming voice reverberated around the tunnel. It reminded Hasina of Deathbringer, but he couldn't possibly be down here.
"You will release the doors to my chambers!" the voice boomed. Without thinking, both Hasina and Huo obeyed, and the enormous doors swung open.
They stepped through, into an enormous cavern. The walls were studded every metre or so with rubies of varying sizes. There was a huge pile of gold and gems lying against the back wall, as well as several other valuable items. On the roof were large clusters of some kind of glow worm, which illuminated the whole room. Hasina quickly slipped her emerald in her saddlebag.
In the centre of the cavern stood a huge Rage Dragon. It must have been twice the size of Tectia, but it was still nowhere near as big as Deathbringer. "Who are you to make it to my innermost chamber!" the dragon boomed.
"Hasina Styrke and Huo Lyall," Hasina said boldly.
"Well I am Dreadfire, and your journey ends here!"
Dreadfire launched himself at them, spraying a jet of bright flame. Hasina pushed Huo behind her, then hunkered behind her dragonscale shield, which took the blast undamaged. She then dodged out of Dreadfire's way, attempting to smash him round the leg with the shield as she did so. The force of the impact and Dreadfire's momentum ripped the shield from her hand, and it clattered to the ground, way out of reach.
Huo had dodged the other way, and ran for the shield. Dreadfire turned to him and lashed out with an enormous paw, smashing into Huo and knocking him flying. He wound up dazed at the bottom of Dreadfire's gold pile.
Hasina slashed at Dreadfire's flank, but the sword bounced of the scales like it had when she fought Deathbringer. Dreadfire turned to face her, lashing out with his claws. Hasina dropped flat to the floor, and heard Dreadfire's claws whistle above her head. She bounded back to her feet, just as Dreadfire's claws swiped back towards her. She raised her sword and pointed it straight at the centre of his paw.
As he struck her, the sword point went straight between two scales, and dug deep into the flesh. Even so, the force of the blow knocked Hasina to the floor. She quickly released the sword before she ended up wrenching it out of Dreadfire's paw.
Dreadfire howled in agony, shaking his paw and trying to dislodge the sword.
"I'd stop that if I were you," Hasina said simply.
"Why!?" Dreadfire howled.
"All you can do is snap the handle off. Then it will definitely stay stuck in there. Huo and I are the only people in here with the ability to take that out. So you'd better keep is alive."
"So I only need one of you," Dreadfire snarled. "You shall die now, and the male will withdraw the sword."
"Not if you kill Hasina, I won't," Huo called.
"Insolent pest!" He grabbed Huo in his good front paw, and lobbed him across the room straight into Hasina, away from his treasure pile.
Hasina was bowled over, and nearly snapped her neck as she flipped over backwards. Huo came to rest against the back wall just behind her. As Hasina turned to ask him if he was alright, she noticed the doors had shut.
"You OK?" she asked.
"As OK as you are."
"Be silent!" Dreadfire roared. "One of you will remove the blade!"
"No," Hasina said defiantly. "We won't."
"If you refuse, you are useless to me!" he roared. He smashed his paw against the wall, snapping the sword handle off. Dreadfire put his weight on the paw again, and decided it would take his weight just fine. He roared ferociously, and swiped at Hasina and Huo.
They bothed ducked the blow, and Huo thrust his spear at Dreadfire chest. The metal head bent off, and the wooden pole split down the middle.
Hasina grabbed his hand, and they ran round to Dreadfire's side. There was just one flaw with this plan; they no longer had any weapons. Dreadfire turned to face them again, and punched Hasina with a closed fist, knocking her into the wall. Winded, she lay on the floor and half curled up.
Huo was about to go to her aid, but then he remembered something. When he had been thrown against Dreadfire's gold pile, he had landed by a large, golden sword with a ruby embedded in the hilt. If he could get at it, he might be able to fend off Dreadfire.
He ducked Dreadfire's next attack, and had made one step for the gold pile, when he realised he was just a few steps in the other direction from the dragonscale shield. He ducked another swipe, and leapt for it. Dreadfire's paw smashed down towards him, but Huo just managed to grab the shield and raise it to block the blow. The impact jarred his arm, but the shield held. He scrambled to his feet, just as Dreadfire launched another jet of flame at him.
The shield easily withstood the flames, and Huo began to edge round Dreadfire towards the gold pile. Dreadfire continued his wild attack, so Huo assumed he had not noticed.
The dragon shield took every blow Dreadfire threw at Huo. Often, the impact would jar his arm or knock him backwards, but the shield never faultered, and as far as Huo could tell, not a single scale had flaked away.
By now, he was nearing the gold pile, and Dreadfire seemed to notice what he was doing. He coiled his back legs, and launched himself at Huo, front paws outstretched. Huo knew that even behind the shield the blow would knock him to the floor. But the golden sword was just by him. Quick is possible, he knelt, grabbed it, then held it like a spear. Just before Dreadfire's paws smashed into the shield, Huo threw the sword straight at its chest.
Dreadfire smashed into Huo. He was knocked into the gold pile on his back, and felt something sharp digging into his back. He cried out in pain, and felt his arm go numb. Dreadfire also let out an ear-piercing scream, as the sword penetrated his scales. Angrily, Dreadfire grabbed the sword in one paw, and yanked it out. He cried in pain again, dropping to all fours and nearly piercing his good paw. Dark blood dripped from the wound, but Huo could tell it was nothing fatal.
Dreadfire threw the sword at Huo. He raised the shield again, but the sword cut right through it, though its momentum was halted just before it stabbed straight into Huo. He discarded the useless shield, and tried to get to his feet, but stumbled. He looked at his right knee, and saw blood pouring from a wound. He must have landed on something sharp there as well.
Dreadfire loomed above him, knowing now the Huo was defenceless and could not escape. In defiance, Huo grabbed a few gold coins from th pile and lobbed them uselessly at Dreadfire, who just laughed. However, just before he snapped down on Huo, something large and red hit Dreadfire on the side of the head. They both turned, to see Hasina had prised a few rubies from the wall, and was throwing them at Dreadfire. As the next one came, Dreadfire raised his claw and shattered it into many fragments.
This apparently gave Hasina an idea. As Dreadfire launched himself towards her, she smashed two rubies against each other, shattering them. She picked up one razor-sharp shard, and turned to face Dreadfire. She waited until he was literally on top of her, then threw it straight at his eye.
Mind burning pain seared through her body. Hasina tried to scream, but couldn't find the breath and let out just a strangled gasp. She collapsed to the floor, as Dreadfire stumbled away, rolling up into a ball and making low moaning noises.
Dreadfire stumbled back, roaring in pure rage and pain. The shard had gone straight into his eye, blinding him instantly. He fell against one wall with a tremendous crash, then his legs went limp and he collapsed. His roars were soon reduced to low moans, and then nothing. Soon after, his body stopped twitching.
Huo ran over Hasina.
"Are you... Are you alright?"
Hasina continued moaning, shaking her head.
Hasina nodded, and unrolled herself, wincing as she did so.
Huo had to steel himself, stop himself from staring away, vomiting, or both. Dreadfire's claw had stabbed straight into the right side of her stomach, leaving a large, deep wound which was bleeding profusely. Huo ripped several pieces of fabric from his top, and did his best to staunch the bleeding, but his efforts were futile. Hasina eyelids fluttered, and Huo could see she wouldn't last long.
"The emerald!" he realised. "Guard it with your life and it will guard yours!"
He fumbled in the saddlebags for it, eventually retrieving it and bringing it to Hasina. Her eyes had closed. Huo had also brought some medicinal herbs and the like, and after placing the emerald by the wound, proceeded to do his best to clean it.
After a few minutes, Huo watched the wound visibly begin to repair itself. It had to be the emerald, fulfilling Tectia's promise. However, Hasina's eyes still didn't open, and Huo wondered if it was too late.
The wound stopped bleeding and healed over. There was still a nasty scar, but Hasina's clothing would cover it. The emerald shattered, making a noise and startling Huo. Still, Hasina didn't wake up.
"Come on," Huo said. "Come on, Hasina."
There was still nothing. Huo put his head in his hands, and began to cry.
Tectia got to her feet in her cavern, and sniffed the air for something. She strolled out of the cavern, then, using her magical powers, she created a barrier of soil and grass that rendered the entrance to the cave invisible. She then flew over to House Solus, in less than a minute.
At the gates, she was greeted by Intisara and two guards.
"What is it, Tectia?" he asked.
"I must travel. I shall be back by nightfall, but until then you must cope by yourselves."
"We will, Tectia."
"Then I shall leave as quickly as possible."
She turned, and launched herself into the air, heading south. Soon, she was just a speck on the horizon to the people of House Solus. Still she continued. After just over an hour, she arrived at the entrance to the Dread Catacombs. With her paws, she smashed open the entrance until it was large enough to fit her in. Then, she went straight down the centre tunnel, which was the largest.
At one point, she speared a Volucris that came towards her, and crunched on it thoughtfully. Halfway along, she met Huo.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"What are you doing here?" Tectia replied.
"Dreadfire was at the end of the tunnel. He's-"
"I know who he is."
"Hasina didn't make it. She hasn't stirred for an hour and a half. I had to-"
"You mustn't give up. Come with me now."
They walked together, back to Dreadfire's chamber. His corpse still lay against the wall, so Huo was pretty sure he was dead. Hasina was also still lying on the ground. Huo had placed the dragonscale shield, sword still embedded in it, by her side.
"She is dead," Tectia confirmed.
"I- I told you."
"Do not despair. Rage Dragons are able casters of healing magic. Except for... those who choose the path of destruction. Their magic focuses on attack."
Tectia closed her eyes, and her mouth moved slightly, forming words Huo could not hear or understand. A bright light enveloped Hasina until Huo could not see her at all. There was a bright flash, and the light cleared. Hasina coughed, then sat up, sucking in deep lungfuls of air.
"Huo," she said, smiling. "And Tectia."
"She brought you back to life," Huo explained.
"I died?" Hasina asked, genuinely surprised. Huo bursted out laughing, and even Tectia made a tinkling sound that may have been dragon laughter.
"Yes, you died."
"We should leave now," Tectia said. "This is a bad place."
Not too long after, Tectia, Hasina and Huo were standing outside the entrance to the catacombs. Huo was just about to untie the horses, and Tectia was just about to take off, when Tectia froze suddenly.
"What is it?" Hasina asked.
"Do you not hear that?" Tectia replied.
"Of course. I forget. Human ears are not as sensitive as dragon ears. Even to me, the sound is faint."
"What is it?"
"So? What of it?"
"It is a distress call. Coming from House Solus."
"What?" Huo interrupted. "Then we have to get back, now!"
"You're right," Hasina agreed. "But it took us days to get here."
"Riding will not be quick enough. Jump on my back. We shall fly, and arrive in an hour or less."
Hasina gave Huo a leg up, and then with his help, climbed onto Tectia's back herself.
"Hold on tight."
With no more warning, Tectia leapt into the air, and with two powerful wingbeats was at flying height. She powered forwards, and the ground whizzed past beneath her. Hasina found it hard to hold on and keep herself still, and she could tell Huo did too. However, for twenty minutes, Tectia did not stop. Then, in the middle of nowhere, she stopped flapping, and they dropped to the ground, landing gently enough.
"Stay on my back," Tectia said.
"Why have we stopped?" Huo asked.
"Somewhere along my family line, I am part Laji, and possibly part Titan Dragon. They both mastered the skill of teleportation. We are close enough now that I can teleport without wearing myself out too much."
"Titan Dragon..." Hasina murmured. She had never heard of Laji, but had sort of met the last of the Titan Dragons - met, as in seen him incinerated.
There was a sudden bright flash, and Hasina entire world went white. She closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands to block out the glare, and failed miserably. Thankfully, a few seconds later, the real world faded into existence, and just ahead of them Hasina could see House Solus.
Tectia shook Hasina and Huo off none too gracefully, then flew over to House Solus, leaving the two of them lying on the ground. Hasina got up first, and dusted herself down, before helping Huo to her feet.
"Come on," she said. "We need to go help Tectia."
"Because I'm 99 percent sure who's causing the trouble."
"No..." Huo said in disbelief, as he realised what Hasina was implying. "Surely..."
"It might not be as bad as you think. It could only be one of his children, and I'm sure it'll be after me."
"That won't stop it destroying the village afterwards, will it?"
Hasina paused for a second. "Good point. So let's move it!"
They ran through the gates, and stopped in horror.
At least three mud huts were lying in ruins. Another four had their thatched rooves alight. Even Solus Spire was alight. And amidst all the carnage, snapping at people and breathing gouts of fire, was Deathbringer's green child. When Hasina had last seen it, she was sure it could only have been a couple of metres long. Now, it was larger than a house.
Tectia was already upon it. She swiped at its flank, but its scales remained undamaged. Green Death whirled round and clawed three gashes in Tectia's left flank. Shocked and in pain, Tectia swung wildly at Green Death, smacking it round the head and knocking it spinning into one of the flaming houses, which collapsed around it. Green Death squealed; clearly its scales were not yet fully-fireproof. Tectia picked up on this, bathing the house and Green Death in flames.
The squealing intensified, but Tectia couldn't risk letting loose another blast for fear of damaging the village. Green Death rubbed the fire off of it, then spread its wings and launched into the air, flying straight into Tectia.
More shocked than hurt, Tectia's concentration wavered and she crashed to the ground, narrowly avoiding a row of houses. Green Death snapped its jaws eagerly, flying in for the kill.
Tectia raised her claws, swiping at Green Death and keeping it at bay. However, one swipe went wide, and Green Death snapped its jaw shut around Tectia's lower leg. Tectia howled as the scales were penetrated, and Green Death tried to lift her from the ground, but failed miserably.
Tectia swept her tail towards Green Death, smashing it into its stomach and winding it. Green Death let go of her leg, and Tectia lowered it gently to the ground. Now, getting up was out of the question.
Green Death recovered quickly. It was just about to launch another assault, when two arrows clatttered off its scales. It turned to face Hasina and Huo, who had already reloaded and fired another round, which also bounced harmlessly off Green Death's scales.
Just as Green Death began to advance for Hasina and Huo, it was struck by a jet of flame. In the air, Tectia could get a better shot at Green Death, and had managed to hit it even from her lying down position. Green Death squealed again, and changed course, flying into another house and knocking down its northern wall as it put out the flames. Then, with a final roar of defiance, it flapped its wings and disappeared into the distance. Hasina noticed it went south.
With the immediate threat gone, villagers streamed out from their hiding places. Some headed straight for the well to get buckets of water to put out the numerous fires, while others ran for Tectia. Hasina and Huo both followed those going to Tectia. They pushed through the crowd, and knelt down by the great dragon's head.
"Tectia, are you alright?" Huo asked.
"I will survive. That dragon was strong... very strong for its size and age. Am I to presume it was a child of Deathbringer?"
Hasina nodded sadly. "Yes, it was."
"Well. While I am wounded, I will survive. The wounds will take quite a while to stop bleeding, but it will be fine."
"Can't you heal yourself?" Huo asked.
"When I am rested, and can concentrate, yes. Until then, these must heal naturally."
"Well, we'll leave you to return to your cave, then?"
The two of them stood, and began to walk off.
"Oh, and Hasina," Tectia called.
"Come my cave when you have helped restore the village. I have something to show you."
"OK. I'll come."
They walked off, and left the villagers to treat Tectia's leg wound so she could stand and return to her cave. They went over to the well, and picked up another two buckets of water. Most of the nearby houses had been doused, but Solus Spire itself was still alight. Wooden ladders were being set against it a safe distance from the blaze, and water was being thrown somewhat inaccurately over the flames.
"Do you think you could take both the buckets?" Huo asked.
"You know I said I was raised an orphan?"
"Well, that's their house there," Huo said, pointing at one lying in ruins, flames licking at broken clumps of mud.
"Ah, right," Hasina said, no further explanation needed. She took both the buckets, and headed for Solus Spire, while Huo walked away in the opposite direction.
The damage to Solus Spire had been merely external, so Hasina and Huo, along with Intisara, were able to stay the night there as usual. The fires had all been put out before nightfall, but rebuilding destroyed houses would be much more lengthy work.
Hasina woke early, but upon looking in Huo's room, found he had already left. She had no doubt where she would find him, but now, she was going to find someone else; Tectia.
As Hasina passed through the village, she realised many people were already awake and working, perhaps because many didn't have a roof over their heads. She had risen comparatively late. Huo was, as Hasina had expected, working at rebuilding his foster-parents' house. She waved hello to him, but he made only a small wave back before returning to work. Hasina supposed, given his memories of the house, that it was only right he worked hard to restore it.
She left the village without being questioned, and made the short walk to Tectia's cave. The entrance was wide open again, which meant Tectia was in. She walked in quietly, not wanting the dragon if she was asleep.
It turned out, she was wide awake like most of the villagers, fussing around with something in her gold pile.
"So you have come," Tectia said.
"I didn't want to come yesterday," Hasina explained, "Given your wounds and the state of the village."
"That is fine. Now, I have something to show you."
Tectia brushed aside a heap of gold coins, and picked up something that had been lying hidden underneath them. It was a long, sharp blade, made of some kind of blue metal that glinted in the sunlight.
"I don't need another sword," Hasina said hurriedly, unwilling to take something she could buy herself from Tectia's treasure hoard.
"This is not any sword," Tectia said, laying it gently on the floor. "It is destined for you, I am sure of it."
"Yes. The sword is made from a rare mineral, Meteorite, that falls from the sky. It falls rarely, but I have been colecting it for a long time. When I had enough, I sought out master elven craftsmen, to shape it into this blade."
"And you believe it should belong to me?"
"I know, as I shall explain later. Meteorite is lighter and harder than most, if not all, other materials. Lift the sword."
Hasina did, and was surprised. It weighed less than her old sword, made of steel.
"Its lightness may take getting used to, but do not worry. To demonstrate its hardness, we will need something else."
She swiped aside a second gold pile, beneath which lay a Meteorite shield.
"Take the shield," Tectia said, "It is also yours."
Hasina picked up the shield in one hand. Again, it was lighter than even the dragonscale shield.
"Lift the shield to protect your body," Tectia instructed, and Hasina did.
Tectia suddenly turned side on, and her tail smashed into the shield. The impact jarred Hasina's arm, but the shield showed little sign, if any, of damage.
"It is a poor substitute for a shield of Dreadfire's scales," Tectia admitted, "But it was shattered by a Dragonsbane Sword recovered by Huo from Dreadfire's treasure trove."
"It is still better than any shield I could have bought."
"That is true. Now, to complete the set, and explain how I know this is yours, a suit of Meteorite armour."
Beneath a third, taller pile of gold, was indeed a suit of Meteorite armour.
"When I asked the elves to craft this armour, I told them to 'make it fit a true hero'. Try the armour on."
Hasina carefully placed the Meteorite sword and shield on the floor, and picked up the armour. It was lighter than anything she had worn before, so she lifted it easily. She put the armour on - and it fit, almost perfectly.
"You are the hero," Tectia said softly. "Ever since the origins of Deathbringer himself, Rage Dragons have had a legend, of a true hero who rides into combat with Deathbringer on the back of a dragon, an army beneath them. I shall gladly fly into battle with you, and Huo and Intisara no doubt form the basis of your army."
"But I had a Telling, back at House Styrke, which said I would be the one to kill Deathbringer, and Drabardi admitted it was false."
"It is a prophecy hidden deep inside you," Tectia said. "After you have slain Dreadfire and driven off Green Death, only now does the prophecy show clearly. At the time, it was buried too deeply even for Drabardi's crystal ball to see."
"I think I'll go back to the Spire now," Hasina said. "I have a lot to think about."
"Indeed. Indeed you should."
Hasina had asked Tectia to look after the Meteorite equipment for now, then had returned to help rebuild the houses. She left Huo to help on rebuild his foster parents' house, and instead picked another one, with less people working on it. She asked where she could be helpful, and was soon helping to collect thatch to use for the new roof, the old one having been burnt away.
She returned from her third thatch-gathering trip, to see Huo had broken away from the group of people helping restore his foster parents' house. He came over to her.
"I'd like to have a quick word with you, if that's OK," he said nervously.
"Yeah, sure, that's fine," Hasina replied.
"Alright then. Come to Solus Spire."
They walked together to the Spire, then entered and went up to Huo's room on the third floor. He sat down on the bed, and waved Hasina into a chair.
"I've been thinking," Huo began, "and I've come to a decision. Of sorts."
"OK. What decision?"
"Well, you know I'm heir to Intisara?"
"It's just, when I become Lord of this village, I don't want to end up like Intisara and have to use a trial of strength to decide my heir. So, I was wondering..."
Then, it dawned on Hasina.
"You mean... you'd like us..."
"Yes," he said. "Obviously, if that's agreeable with you..."
"Well... the thing is, I have a lot to think about now. Tectia's just revealed some secrets to me, and there's so much going on..."
"I see," Huo said, doing his best not to sound disappointed. "Not a good time, then?"
"Not really. I'm sorry, but, that doesn't mean it won't happen. I just... need some more time to think."
"That's alright, then."
"I knew you'd understand. So, shall we go and help the villagers again?"
"Yes, we should. Do you think you could help with..."
"Yeah. Of course."
They left the Spire, and returned to where Huo had been working. The house was coming along well, and they were now using stools to reach high enough to add mud to the walls. They worked for many more hours, before the sun began to sink again, and they were forced to abandon work. Later on in the evening, Huo went to see Hasina again.
"Those secrets Tectia told you about. How secret are they? Could you tell me, or Intisara?"
"I think I should tell both of you. Now, if Intisara doesn't mind."
"I can check."
Huo left the room, but came back a minute later.
"Intisara is happy to hear you speak now, seeing as you saved the life of Tectia and possibly everyone in the village."
Huo took her to the top floor of the Spire, where she had stood only once before.
"I hear you have news to tell me," Intisara said.
"Yes," Hasina agreed. "Quite a lot."
She outlined to him briefly how the journey through the catacombs had gone, and told him about the fight with Dreadfire, and the purpose of Tectia's journey. She explained why Green Death was after her, and went on to speak about the Meteorite equipment Tectia had saved for her, and how it had somehow fit her perfectly.
"If Tectia is willing to fly you into battle, then all the pieces of this puzzle appear to be falling into place. Huo, myself and the rest of the village would happily fight alongside you, I am sure."
"Yes, but I think the army refers to more than just soldiers. Perhaps other friends; like Trey, though he's in the north at the moment. If I'm going to strike, I can't wait too long. If the children are full grown, it will be like facing six Deathbringers at once."
"Perhaps you should consult Tectia on the timing of the attack," Intisara suggested.
"That sounds like a good idea," Hasina agreed.
"The legends speak of two armies fighting," Tectia said. "Deathbringer cannot raise an army; no-one would follow him. That can only mean you must fight when his children are full-grown."
"But that'll be suicide!"
"It must be done. Besides, your army is incomplete. It must be larger than this. It may take years before your army is ready, anyway."
"Can you stop calling it my army? It doesn't sound right."
"Why not? You are the Lady of House Styrke, even if it lies in ruins, and you may soon become Lady of House Solus as well."
"Hm, I suppose you have a point. But where am I to get more friends to fight for me? All of Emiria will be at war soon!"
"It already is."
"But I also know all three messengers made it to their destinations with the news of Deathbringer."
"What about Trey?"
"That I cannot tell you."
"Alright. I guess I should be going. I'll take the Meteorite stuff now."
Tectia swept aside the large gold mound she'd hidden all three pieces under, and allowed Hasina to pick them up. She placed the meteorite sword in her sheath, and carried the shield and armour back to House Solus, as it was so light.
Huo and Intisara were waiting at the gate.
"This is the Meteorite equipment?" Intisara asked.
"Yes. Meteorite comes in two colours; black and blue. All of my equipment is made of blue Meteorite."
She placed the shield and armour on the ground, and drew her sword, which glinted in the sunlight. Intisara ran his fingers gently along the blade, and when he withdrew them, they were bleeding.
"No doubt this sword, and armour, will serve you well."
"And what of the timing of the attack?"
"Tectia says we must wait. For two years, until Deathbringer's children are full grown."
"But then we'll stand no chance," Huo exclaimed.
"That's what I thought. But apparently, it could take that long just to gather my 'army'."
"Well," Intisara said. "If we are not to act now, it will indeed take a long time to gather allies. A messenger passed by not too long ago. Emiria is at war."
To be Continued