The Fire and the Flower
The dragon turns maidens to bones and spins curses with their hair.
Once, in a city that lay before the azure sea and in the shadow of a great mountain, there was a young merchant princess named Sukhon. Sukhon was as beautiful as the heavens, with hair like silver starlight and skin as ebon as the darkest night's sky. But her eyes were like two golden suns, fierce and bright, and she burned those fools who crossed her with her glare.
On the day she was to be given to the dragon who lived in the mountain depths, Sukhon took the wicked knife she had laid beneath her mattress and hid it in her voluminous silken sleeves.
The path was long, and she walked it alone, with only her thoughts for company. With every step, stones dug into her feet, for she had been required to wear soft slippers and a gown that tangled her legs instead of sensible boots and tunics, but the pain of the blisters was burned away by the fire of her rage. Every year for as long as memory a girl or woman had been given to the deep dragon, but Sukhon was determined to be the last.
At last, as the first sun was rising to cast a chill golden light on the rocks, she reached the dragon's cavern.
She gripped the knife tight.
In the tunnels, at any moment she knew, she would step into the dragon's true lair, which was stuffed full of gold and jewels. The servants whispered that the dragon used the fine bones of the women to make shelves to display its wealth. Everyone knew it used their hair to spin curses.
A glimmer of golden reflection, sunlight a hundred thousand feet too deep, danced on a wall up ahead. Sukhon turned the corner into the dragon's lair.
In the middle of the vast, darkling cavern the dragon raised its head on a skeletal neck and blinked a fire-orange eye at her. Curved runes on the walls danced in the shadows thrown by the golden light.
"Welcome, child." The voice bounced off the bare stone walls and rattled along the dragon's ribs, each of which was visible like the gnarled branches of an ancient tree wrapped around its body. Sukhon stepped forwards, knife forgotten, horror slicing into her heart as deep as the golden chain cut into the dragon's stunted, mangled wings.
The glittering golden light came from an enormous gilded mirror which held pride of place in the centre of the cave. The chain snaked from the dragon to fuse seamlessly with the ornate frame.
"I have no food to offer you, child, but we must only wait for night."
"My name is Sukhon, of the mountain-shadow city, and I have come to to kill you." But the stone walls ate her words with teeth of granite, so that she herself barely heard her own voice.
"I am Antti and you would do better to slay the magician whom I hold here than to lay harm at my feet, child of the mountain's shadow."
"And why would I harm the man holding a beast such as you in check?" She demanded, forgotten knife now remembered but feeling like lead more than fine-finished steel.
And the dragon, with teeth like knives and ribs like a shipwreck, told her of the wizard who, when he was just a hatchling, had come to his nest in a flurry of ice and wind. With sad, fiery eyes he recounted how he was brought beneath the crushing earth and bound to the golden mirror, of how time stole his wings.
"You lie!" Sukhon screamed into the silent cave, because everybody knew dragons were evil and humans were good.
"Perhaps I do, but it does not matter. Because when night falls and the mirror turns to silver, I will ask you to step through it. And you will, as all before you have, and I will never see you again."
Sukhon stared at the mirror. It glittered gold in the darkness.
"I could kill a dragon, which is only an animal, but how do I kill a magician, who carries the sky like a cloak?"
"Child, come to me. You have fire in you, and it speaks to the spark of my fading soul. I will grant you aid."
And the dragon Antti, with one silver talon, prised up a crimson scale from over his heart. A drop of blood welled, brilliant and shining against the dark-dulled hide, and fell. Sukhon caught the ruby orb, and it was hard in her hands, like a gem, but it pulsed with warmth and life.
"Keep that with you, and when you call my name I will answer." Antti lowered his head, so that one great orange eye was level with her. "You have power; I will be able to answer your call three times. No more."
The golden light turned silver.
"Night has fallen. Step through the mirror, child of the mountain's shadow."
Sukhon stepped forwards, and found herself in a dull stone courtyard, crumbling from lack of care. An enormous statue, some ancient king in grand armour leaned drunkenly to the side like a jester capering at a festival.
The only thing that appeared intact was a great oaken door, wood blackened by time but shining with an oily sheen. Upon the door were words in a curling, cursive language Sukhon did not recognise. But she had seen a glimpse of similar writing in the dragon's cave.
Antii, Antii, lend me your aid. What are these words, cut in these long-dead trees? Antti, Antti, help me, please.
Her sinuses burned like ice and she sneezed seven times.
"Child of the mountain's shadow, this is the magician's story," spoke the dragon in her mind. "He gave up his heart to the moon, leaving him cold and empty. Power rushed to fill the void, and so he grew strong, but still he is cold. He seeks the fires of life to stop himself washing away with the power. But only weak sparks, for the moon shuns the sun and so any who carry fire within themselves. He does not wish to burn, only to be near flames."
"Thank you, Antti."
She continued through the door, and found herself in a bare room with a single high stone window. When she turned back, the door was gone.
The window was edged with a thick wooden frame, but was far too high for her to reach. She quickly tore off her outer skirts and fashioned them into a long, knotted rope, which she tied to her knife. She threw the knife towards the window with all her strength, and on the sixth attempt it stuck in the frame. The knife held her weight as she climbed, and eventually she found herself through the window and in a small garden.
A small stand of white trunked trees stood at the end of a twisting path. Five, proud and taller than the others, stood in a line, and against the middle tree there lay a ladder. Before each of the other trees in the line lay a great wolf, four in total, each a different aspect of the sky. One cloudy white and baby blue; one the purple of a bruised stormy sky; one pink and gold and red like a sunset aflame and the last the deep blue-black of a starless night. They growled as she approached.
"Antti, Antti, lend me your aid. Vicious and quick, these wolves guard the way. Antii, Antii, help me, I pray."
Her hands and feet felt numb and all at once on fire as the dragon spoke into her mind. "Child of the mountain's shadow, these wolves will not bow to steel or iron, for they are not of nature. I give you my claws and my speed, for they will bow to me."
Sukhon looked down at her hands and saw that they were now tipped with cruelly curved silver talons. As the wolves rose and leaped towards her it was as though they were moving through water; they were graceful but slow. Not so Sukhon, who danced nimbly between them and left their blood staining the ground.
"Thank you, Antti," she said as she placed her foot on the ladder.
Three by three by three steps up the ladder and it became a long staircase, which curved and climbed such that she couldn't see the top. As she ascended the floor became slick and treacherous, the steps like ice and the walls too smooth for handholds.
At last the stairs ended in a landing, a short stone room with two doors at the end. One led to stairs leading downwards, and a gust of warm air chased colour back into Sukhon's icy cheeks. The other led ever upwards, but was even colder than the stairway had been. Sukhon's limbs felt sluggish and heavy; her fingers could barely hold the knife or Antti's ruby, but she knew the wizard would be up.
"Antti, Antii, lend me your aid. I can't feel my hands, my lips or my toes. Antti, Antii, stay with me while I follow this stair, wherever it goes."
Her words came out as frosted mist and ice crystals, and her chest squeezed as though she had just fallen into icy water.
"Sukhon, I will keep you company while you climb," the dragon spoke into her mind. "Will you tell me of your home?"
The ice was thick and white when she reached the wizard, and her limbs had stopped shaking many steps ago. She had stopped talking to Antti, for her lips felt stiff and bled when she spoke, but the dragon had continued talking to her, encouraging her to take every step. When she finally reached the top of the stairs and saw the wizard in his long white robes and long black beard, she fell to her knees and did not rise.
The wizard laughed, the sound rolling like great glaciers grinding through the bedrock.
"There you are, little snowflake. I was wondering where you'd gone." He stepped closer and the cold intensified. The air itself crackled and froze, hanging in rainbows between them. Sukhon lifted her head with effort, and saw that although the wizard dressed all in white, there was a gaping black wound where his heart should have been. It bled like ink, trailing black streaks down his pristine robes and leaving smears on the ice.
"Little snowflake, give me your spark." The wizard reached out a withered hand tipped with golden nails to cup her cheek. Her entire face went numb.
Her lips were clumsy, wouldn't do what she wanted and the ice-cold ruby slipped through her fingers and rolled away.
The knife felt frozen to her hand.
"Why don't you lie down with the others, snowflake?" Sukhon's head dropped back down; it was much too hard to keep it upright with the cold pressing down like a tonne of stone. Below her, the ice had turned just clear enough for her to make out bodies frozen in the ice. Other girls. Wasn't she supposed to be the last? Wasn't that why she was here?
The wizard had turned away, was walking away. Sukhon stumbled to her feet. Slipped on the ice. Fell. Pushed herself up with arms she could no longer feel. The wizard turned back, his eyes met hers and she stared at him with all the ferocity her frozen brain could muster.
"Just lie down, snowflake."
"Not. Snow." The words tripped over her sluggish, stupid tongue as she stepped forwards, raising the knife. "Fire."
Flames sprang to life along the blade as she thrust it into the wizard's chest. Her fingers burned from the heat, but she felt nothing as they twisted and blackened. The screams of the wizard split the cold air, sent a billion rainbows shooting over the ice as it cracked and heaved. Snapped.
The wizard, flames burning where his heart once beat, turned as if to run and then, all at once, he was nothing more than a cloud of mist on a warm breeze.
Sukhon fell to the ground, and lay there, with ice cracking all around her. It was warm, now, and the rook had fallen in to show they sky above. One of the suns was just peeking over the edge.
“Sukhon, Sukhon, flower-child. Can you, too, see the sun? Sukhon, Sukhon, it is done.”
"I can," she smiled, the words almost lost in the crack of ice.
"Thank you, Sukhon."