Smile! 3.

[part 3 – a winning smile]

I went on climbing the mountain, healing myself and repairing my clothes as I went, still thinking of that bard. There was something about him that I did not get. Something undefinable, a hunch it was but insubstantial, trying to escape me, just as I was fishing for it in my mind, never an easy task, but even more difficult now that I was so much in an inner uproar… I gave up finally, if it does not want to be found then I had more pressing matters outside my mind. Namely that my sense told me that I should continue proceeding into the mountain. Into solid rock. Well, somebody should have placed a cave or an opening here, it would be so much more easy… but then somebody did place the obstacles on the way this far, meaning that I should not expect it to be a triumphal procession. So, lacking any dwarves to mine an opening for me into the rock, and finding no secret controls for any portals to open, I had to chose the harder way, the more dangerous way. I bowed my head and started to sing. Fortunately nobody was nearby to die of shock, and the Others cared not for my voice, they were only interested about the magic contained within. I felt my remaining ties with reality snap and cast them aside… I started forward, still singing, still keeping the illusion of my body instead of the reality of it moving through the rock… I felt the rock, felt its hardness, its coldness, its slow, ponderous life, and rock became my body, it seeped into me, until it became difficult to sing, for rock and gravel have no voice that could intone the magic, it is the danger of this method, for one has to keep true self away and it lets the surroundings take over, and if it has to go on long, one simply becomes what is around one, I could freeze here, as part of the mountain, nobody would ever find my body for I would have no body just an interestingly bodylike piece of stone, so when I felt the rock becoming my mouth, I called on the flame of madness once more, my sense of being, my burning self opposing the cold death of the mountain, and it helped, it propelled me forward, strengthened my voice, steeled my will, and I fell forward on still more stone but it was now inside a cave. I got through once more… I smiled, and for once it was a real smile, a glad-to-be-living smile, a smile still warmed by my burning mind, but quieting it as well.

I waited a bit till my night vision took over again, and my body shuddering, straining, shook off the last bits of the magic, and I got my bearings. Underground cave, leading ever deeper into the mountain. Elves do not like places like this, our natural habitat is under the twinkling stars, in the green woods, fresh air and moonshine. But I am not mad without a reason… a dark, small rock cave it was where madness flamed first… I do not have to like it, I do not have to enjoy it, I do not even have to go into it… but I have chosen to go this far and I am not the kind that turns back for a small thing like an underground cave. After all, I did expect a dragon – if there was one at all – to sleep in a cave, encircled by layers of protection, not just lying on the mountainside, for anyone to find it… and so I walked into the cavern, into the reddish vision of rocks and - expectably – traps. They were old, very old, some could say they were ancient. Like me, an ancient and bastard shot from the tree of life… the traps brought back memories, recollections of a summer glade where our teacher, a deceptively frail-looking and kind old elf, taught us the dangers of traps – the kinds that were in fashion then. I haven’t seen such ones ever since. Half of them were not even functional, the rest I could disarm easily, with no more than scratches. Well, when I say scratches, I do not mean the one that went through the bone… have I became careless with all that familiarity? It shouldn’t have done this… anger rose in me, and with it madness. I fought them down, I fought with the memories to go away, and I fought with the traps… it was a long way and by the end I throughly forgot the sun-lit forest of my youth – there was nothing nice and pleasant in the springs and knives going for my life here and the sand-pits and the long-dead scorpions or in any of the other instruments intended to keep away or if it is not successful, kill any intruders. Just a long and sweaty and bloody tunnel going into nowhere, I felt… no smiles there, you smile now, I thought, you bloody woman, I have none now to give to you or anyone else.

But it did end after all. And yes, there was a dragon in the huge cavern, asleep – or seemingly asleep. And a hoard of course. Dragons incidentally are not magpies, they do not collect simply nice, sparkling, glittering things… they collect magical things, which are incidentally mostly glittering, because of the precious stones that are used to power the item in question. One of them is the goal of our – or rather it is now my mission. The helmet of the thousand diamonds, for a particularly ambitious wizard or warlock to have it on his head and be able to cast spell after spell after spell… it augments the natural capabilities and stores enough energy for them to reenact the battle of Moytura, and have a pipe afterwards. I wouldn’t have it on my head for a second… this kind of wizardry is not for me, not for elves, besides I am mad enough on my own, thank you. For the helmet makes men go mad in a short time – it shows clearly how power can disrupt the human mind’s pathways. But still, if they want it, it is their problem, the world can stand one more madmen, I can stand it too, so … so the only problem is the dragon, for no dragon can be so deeply asleep as to not to awaken immediately when a thing of theirs is taken from the hoard. I wouldn’t kill a dragon asleep and without provocation, for I am still an elf, even if it is only myself who grants me that fact, and if nobody else, then I alone remember and honor an old alliance that was never broken, just… well, maybe expired? I smiled and chuckled at my choice of the word, it seemed so unusual, so out of place here Does an alliance expire in a thousand years? Or in hundreds of thousands? How long does honour last? And when it ends, what is left afterwards? Friend or foe? Memories decide or instincts dominate?

As it happens the dragon was certainly awake by the time I have finished my musings – or rather the sound made by softly shifting scales disrupted them. One should not engage in idle pondering while a dragon moves in close proximity, not if one wants to live for awhile yet. It was awake, I saw the head, as big as a decent house detaching itself from its pillow of gold an pretty things, its huge, green eyes – the size of me, I was their pupil in them - open, the breathing loosing its sleeplike rhythm, and a terrible intellect, contained within spearing me with its full force… It saw me for an elf, took in my unmoving, deathlike stillness, my ostensible lack of dangerous intent, and did not flame me on the spot. I won the first round. I smiled and it saw… saw it through the mask, like no other being can. Dragons have good eyes and they are terribly, dangerously intelligent – for their intentions do not often include caring for lesser beings. I smiled but a slight tremble shook my body – a dragon’s stare is not an easy thing to bear - not even for me. He asked me about my name, asking in the language of the mind, about my true name, the name that few even know and even fewer tell to anybody, for it gives power over them… but I dared to answer. I’d been to the Hall of Portals, I asked the right questions, I went through to the right place, where I could find my name and I came back alive – and with knowledge… but that is another story for the telling. I gave the dragon my name and with it a terrible purpose… and I was rewarded with a sight that not many being alive have seen… a dragon’s body shook by a fearful shudder, hiding its reaction immediately but my eyes are good too and I have seen it. It was it now who smiled, all dragons like daring, even though they put no stock in it – and when a dragon smiles, you smile too, it is a rare sigh, so one can surely enjoy those last few moments of one’s life…

It was a pencil-thin, beautifully rainbow-coloured flame that touched my mask… dragon-flame is about the hottest thing that can be found nearby, unless one goes to the closest sun for something hotter. My mask was white-hot in a split second, and my skin underneath started to burn, my eyes water in self-preservation as I shut them tightly – fast as I was it still took me this much time to activate a talisman that I bought just for this occasion. Not many charms can do this, mostly they are a simple water elemental put into a suitable receptacle, enough to counter a simple, everyday flame or fire, but I went to great lengths to find a sorcerer, daring to work with space itself and its deadly cold and making me a talisman that can protect me from dragonfire. It worked. The dragon did not want to kill me yet – it was just a test, a measure of me, my nerve and reaction, and I have passed this round too. I dared not smile now, for my skin was as dry as parchment and I feared that even with the mask it would crack and fell off from my face… I called out to it, again, defiant, in my mind, and it answered. A bargain it asked unbelievably, what do you want to bargain with? You are nothing and you have nothing that would be of value to me. And don’t even try to give me that crap with elves and honour and debt, because I care for neither of them. Its voice shook me inside, its wrath was so close to the surface now that I could imagine touching it, like it was a solid thing, and its shaking and still-contained but hinting of danger rumble resonated in me, rousing my inner struggle and threatening me to loose sanity just as I needed it most, more than ever…

I desperately needed a few more minutes, but I could see that I was running out of time and its patience – it did not want any of the witty conversation, dragons are so often fond of and on which I counted a little more time. So I tried the smile again, but it would have none of it. A ball of the same, beautiful flame roared to the spot, where I was standing just before - it took all my skill and muscle and instinct to jump just in time, for this flame would make short work of my talisman, he tested it, and gauged the level correctly, so if its fire found me even for an instant, I would be puffs of smoke and perhaps a little ash on the floor… so I kept on jumping and scrambling and dodging of the fireballs, and thinking fast in the meanwhile, I still wasn’t sure, but I cannot keep it up any longer, not even me with my abilities can outrun a dragon for long, so I had to take the chance. I called out as loud, as I could, giving it everything that anyone ever taught me about mindspeech, hurling it at the dragon, my last resort and the only one as well… and it worked. We stopped just as suddenly as we started, and our frozen tableau amongst the burning and smoking and the melting rocks was so very funny that I could not help but smile again, would have laughed if I have any energy and air left enough for that - I knew that I have won the third and final round, and the victory flamed in me, its exultant fire consuming me more surely than the dragon’s… how did you know it asked, the question weighing a ton on my exuberant mind, wanting to crush me, but knowing that it could not, for I had its name just as It had mine, I guessed correctly, took the risk and won. No matter how I came to its name, but it had to agree to the bargain now. I was willing to throw my life into it as well and it confused it for a little, but it would not want it to; just its name, and begone, it was more than angry, it was furious, but I knew it would keep the bargain, it had to, dragons can and often cheat in lesser things but are completely bound by their name, so burnt, wounded, dry, sweaty and covered with the ruins of my clothes, I soon was on my way to the sunlight, or moonlight if it was that time of the day, smiling as I went, knowing that whatever or whoever was waiting for me outside – I wasn’t stupid to think that there were noone - it would be much easier than dealing with an angered dragon, still rumbling behind me, fireballing and in other noisy ways venting its impotent rage. In the last part of the tunnel, safely away from the dragon, still safely away from the surface, I screamed once, howling long and hard with all my remaining voice, venting all the pain and weight off me, giving in finally to madness, which quickly took the chance and engulfed me. Darkness came and took me at last.

[to be continued]

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