Below is the second of my three-part series on one of the intrigue plots in The Nine Empires. Unlike the first and third posts, however, this one is not currently slated to be any specific chapter. This is an old draft, and I plan to stretch this part of the story over eight chapters, with the first being the final chapter of book 3, Machinations of Crowns and Chains, while the other seven are scattered throughout book 4, Songs of Steam and Steel, taking place at the same time that other characters in other countries are caught up in the same over-arching conflict.
The trail went cold at Professor Kelmek’s office. He was certainly knowledgeable, but he was also old and frail. Any new information he could offer was in the form of rare books or articles in obscure journals. The last society to have any known interaction with these “chuyinka” was Skhara. The time had come to leave her comfort zone and make the journey deep into the Blackwood, where most of the old Skharan castles stood.
“An adventure that every sensible person you know has called ‘suicide?'” Idrailu seemed as enthusiastic as ever. “I’m in!” Marcus and Bedalia seemed more nonchalant, with Marcus lamenting that he could never go back to his own country anyway, and Bedalia grumbling about the consequences of having wasted so much time. “Shall we take Frehr’s airship?” Idrailu’s old friend Frehr had just built an old-style airship, using an old boat, no less, and Idrailu was itching to see the balloon inflate. All agreed, as a home-built airship was the least likely to be intercepted. Still, the train would have been faster, even if there was no direct line. After all, they still had half a continent to cross.
Frehr’s airship was already inflated by the time they arrived. It looked to be a rickety contraption, and Rubina sincerely hoped that the dubious-looking platform was just to hold the hull upright on the ground, and not Frehr’s idea of landing struts. “Cap’n’s waitin’ fo ya!” That barely intelligible voice could be of only one person: Lannes, the mischievous ‘street rat’ whom Idrailu had taken under his wing during has days in the ne’er-do-well theatre troupe. He was calling down from the top deck of the airship, which Rubina could see was an open platform high above the boat hull. Lannes appeared to be checking the tension in the lines connecting the balloon to the boat hull, making sure none of them were loose or broken. The balloon itself, though plain and unpainted, seemed to be well-made, without the crude patches that Rubina had first pictured, given the crude construction of nearly everything else Frehr had ever built. “It’s amazing how nice a man’s creations can be with a woman nagging him about décor.” Rubina whipped around to see a wiry brunette in filthy dungarees. “And you are…?” “Dasi!” Idrailu shouted. “Finally got the old man to finish his airship, did you?” Idrailu introduced the young, filthy albeit attractive woman as “Frehr’s better half.” Then again, compared to the greasy, frizzy-haired inventor Frehr, Dasi was probably still cleaner. “Are we going to stand around talking about who hasn’t met whom,” Bedalia snapped, “or are we going to pack up and take off?”
After a week in the air, the merry bunch landed in Seremtis, Kantossa. Idrailu said he had an old friend in Seremtis who “knew the business” of getting people into the abandoned Skharan castles. “I’m not going to lie to you, Knives,” he told Rubina, “this is dangerous business, so we had to come to a dangerous place.” Rubina was not one bit worried, since everything she had heard made the Blackwood sound like a far more dangerous place than any dark alley in the seedy part of town. The group followed Idrailu down a damp alleyway, trying not to trip on the badly shifted cobblestones that were covered with slime. In a way, it was good that the stones had shifted so much, because any smooth road with this much slime on it would have been worse to walk on than a frozen pond. “First left, third right, second right, left, left, left,” Idrailu kept repeating to himself, clearly recalling directions he had been given. At last, the group reached their door. The scruffy man who answered said few words, but seemed quite fond of Idrailu. The rest, however, he looked at very suspiciously, particularly Bedalia. The group all gathered at the bar, which was empty but for one dark and quiet fellow at the end. Idrailu, meanwhile, sat down at a table with Berran, whom Rubina recognised from the old theatre troupe. This was not normally the route one would take when trying to get a tour of a castle, but then, Holgar was no ordinary castle.
After they left the dark pub and made it to a decent hotel, Idrailu told them what was going on. “There’s an abandoned village immediately south of here called Somnask,” he said, “our guide will meet us there.” Was it that simple? For now, it was. However, they had not even entered the woods. Getting out was not an issue… yet. The next day, the group left the hotel and hired a carriage to take them to Somnask. Idrailu haggled over the fare to a town not on any normal route until Bedalia grabbed the cabbie’s hand and dropped ten ducats in it. No-one argued, and the five went on their way, with Frehr and Dasi having gone back to stay with the airship.
The group arrived in Somnask in the evening. The town was rather unusual, with not a single light to break up the black silhouette in the deep blue evening sky. It was abandoned, all right. A long time too, by the looks of it. Several centuries, in fact. Stone skeletons were all that remained of the buildings. Doors were gone, turned to dust and scattered to the wind. The dirt streets were continuous with the floors of the buildings, with patches of grass and the occasional gnarled tree growing in random places. “What do you suppose happened here?” Marcus asked. “The Plague of Holgar happened,” replied a gruff voice from the shadows. “I’m Murtz, seeing as the old man probably never told you.” Murtz was everything one would expect a tour guide not to be: he looked like he belonged in the wild, with a messy black beard and grizzled hair. His wrinkled face and twisted nose had probably survived more winters than most, and he certainly spoke as such. “We’ll stay here tonight. Not many buildings in this town offer decent shelter, but it’s better than being out in the open, and no way in hell are we moving through the Blackwood at night.” “Werewolves?” Lannes gasped, hoping for a scary story. “Nay, but worse things than werewolves live in those trees, lad. You can be sure of that.” The group followed Murtz to the ruins of what was probably an inn back in the day. Though all the timbers had rotted out, enough remained that Murtz was able to fashion a roof on the first story from tents. The stonework had been badly weathered, and the walls were little more than stacks of stones. The mortar had even worn through in many places, with small holes in the stone walls allowing everything in, including the wind, bats, and every spooky sound the night had to offer.
Marcus had never spent a single night of his life in the pitch-black wilderness, only a few nights in the snow-covered isolation of Drachania, where one’s eyes adjusted easily, and few animals interrupted the total silence. This was different. There was no snow to reflect the moonlight, and many a spine-chilling sound was to be heard. It seemed that Murtz was half-awake the whole time, naming every sound to calm Marcus. Either that, or naming animal calls was just something that Murtz did in his sleep. Raaagh! Raaagh! Raaagh! “Fox,” he muttered. Roooowr! Mmmmm-rowr! “Cat,” he muttered again. “Fox, c-c-c-cat?” Marcus, the city-slicker, seemed like he’d keep everyone else awake with his pounding heart. “H-h-h-how loud is a wolf?” AAAROOOOO! Marcus flew back into the wall, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Does that answer your question?” Idrailu answered this time. “Nothing is going to wander into town and drag you off into the woods, now get some sleep.”
Halfway through the night, Rubina awoke to a faint, distant-sounding cry. More precisely, though, it was Murtz who woke her up. That faint, distant chrrr-aaagh seemed to make him jump as much as the wolf did with Marcus. Murtz could tell someone else in the room was awake. “Night’s dragon,” he whispered, “gets me every time. If you ever get closer than this to that blasted critter, you’d know why.” And with that, Murtz rolled over and went back to sleep.
When morning arrived, the group pulled down the tents in the old inn and packed up everything they would need to for an excursion into dangerous woods. “Here’s the deal,” Murtz told them, “we keep moving until we find an optimal spot for shelter. Not acceptable, optimal. We stop and make camp as soon as night falls, understand? It won’t be as dark as it was when you came to Somnask. The Blackwood is a dangerous place, make no mistake, but stick together and you just might make it through.”
Once out of Somnask, it took a few hours to cross into the dense forest of the Blackwood. Already, it seemed to get darker. Though there were few leaves on the gnarled, haunted-looking trees, a perpetual cloud seemed to hang over the forest. The locals stayed well away from the area. Murtz reminded the group that Somnask was in real no-man’s land, that is, no country claimed the town, much less any of the Blackwood itself. Whatever hung over this place, no-one wanted any part of it. Death was the rule here, and yet animals still populated the Blackwood. Creatures of the night they may have been, but there was nothing biologically wrong with them. After all, wolves may be dangerous, but that didn’t make them evil. Yet, as Murtz said several times, wolves were the least of their concerns.
It was about three in the afternoon when the group came across an old castle. “May as well make camp here,” Murtz told them, “we won’t do better than this, all these castles are at least two day’s walk apart.” According to his map, this was Castle Renkefin, home of the Votok family, a minor noble family of Skhara. It wasn’t Holgar, but perhaps there might be some answers within. Rubina seemed less and less certain to find something the more she looked. Skharan castles were built of concrete, and built to last, but the concrete was all that lasted. Eight centuries had passed since the fall of Skhara, and the great plague had devastated its lands, so it seemed unlikely that anything else from the period was simply lying around, waiting out in the open to be discovered. While Rubina and Idrailu searched through Castle Renkefin, Murtz told Marcus, Bedalia, and Lannes about the strange creature that seemed to frighten even him.
“The mountains at Alexandria’s eastern border separate it from both Kantossa and the Blackwood, so most Alexandrians have no knowledge of the Blackwood, as Kantossi and Drachanians do. They will all tell you that wolves are the least of your worries in the Blackwood, as a creature called the Night’s Dragon prowls the skies above. Now, they call it a dragon, but I say it’s a giant owl, since it supposedly has feathered wings and small horns on its head. Either way, it’s bad news. This thing can see in near total darkness, and can hear a pin drop from a mile away. I’ve seen it a few times, and every time I have, it’s not long before or after it’s just torn some poor creature to shreds. That thing will eat anything that moves, and you’re best off just finding a hole in the ground to hide in until it moves on.” “I’ve heard like stories,” Bedalia told him, “they say that the Skharnovs unleashed something terrible on the land, but I always thought that was the plague.” “Aye,” Murtz began another story, “It was believed that the Skharnovs made biological warfare into a science in the days when others bumbled around like amateurs. It’s no secret that the Skharnovs were undone by their own weapons once the rebellion was inside their own castle. It’s possible that the rebels unleashed the plague when they burned down Holgar with the stores of incendiary weapons. Now, the stories of the Night’s Dragon go back even further. I think the Skharnovs themselves perpetuated this story in order to keep people in line, but I doubt they had any real connection to the creature. Supposedly, they used black magic to summon a creature from the depths of hell to do their bidding, and when they died, the creature was still in our world, so no-one could send it back. The problem is that this creature is no dragon. A dragon that old would be enormous by now. Besides, there have been way too many sightings of this thing for there to be only one. No way. This thing is some giant, predatory bird that feeds and breeds and dies like any other animal. But, just because it’s no hell-spawn doesn’t make it any less dangerous.”
There was the connection between Skhara and the chuyinka, Rubina thought to herself, as she overheard Murtz’s story when she was getting back from exploring the castle. If the Night’s Dragon resembles those old engravings, then it will all fit. Then the real question will be “what is the true link between the Skharnovs and the chuyinka?” “What is it that that Night’s Dragon is said to have done for the Skharnovs,” Rubina asked. “Ah,” Murtz began yet another story, “as you know, rulers are far more wary of those who speak against them than they are of those who break into their palaces. The Skharnovs were no exception, and supposedly used the Night’s Dragon to snatch people from their homes and carry them off to Castle Holgar. These people would never be seen again, leading many people to believe that simply speaking ill of the Skharnovs would lead to disappearing in the middle of the night. The more savvy people saw some winged creature come and go, and that’s where the stories come from… or so I’m told. As I was saying earlier, the Skharnovs themselves probably spread a lot of these rumours themselves.” “How does one tame a Night’s Dragon,” Idrailu inquired. “How does anyone tame any bird of prey?” was Murtz’s response.
The group had made camp inside one of the bastions of the castle, surrounded by thick concrete walls on three sides, with a narrow opening from the bastion into the main yard. They had hung the tents from rusty hooks and eyes in the walls to make a crude roof, just as Murtz had done for them in Somnask. Once again, even with no doors to speak of, they felt fairly safe… aside from the ever-present threat of the Night’s Dragon. In the middle of the night, one seemed to come quite close, as its characteristic chrrr-aaagh could be heard, seemingly just outside the castle walls, just before the thud of a large animal hitting the ground. “That would be the creature coming down and breaking its neck,” Murtz whispered, still shaking, “I’ve seen it happen.” Murtz was a tough man, and very little frightened him. He seemed truly afraid of the Night’s Dragon, however. If he thought this was a dangerous creature, and wolves were nothing, then it’s little wonder the others prayed to whatever gods they still held never to cross paths with this beast.
The following morning, they came across a wild dog dragging a mutilated carcass away from the castle. The dog became frightened and ran off as soon as it saw them, leaving its prize behind. It was a deer. Much of the meat had been torn off the bones, the heart, lungs, and liver were gone, and the skull was split open and empty. “This is fresh,” Murtz told them, “from last night. Definitely work of the Night’s Dragon. They’ve been unusually active on this trip. More than half my trips into the Blackwood,” he paused and looked at everyone individually, “I never even hear one.”
As they bid farewell to Castle Renkefin, knowing that they wouldn’t see another castle in at least two days, they noticed that the trees seemed even more evil-looking than before. More and more, they saw trees that were broken and dead, trees that looked to have been broken again and again, but held on to life until only a few cycles ago, leaving little more that great wooden spikes sticking out of the ground at odd angles. There were trees twisted into bizarre knots, some of them around stone pillars, some around the stone remains of old houses and mills. “This was big farm country back in the day,” Murtz told them, “of course, it was still a forest, even back then, but there was still enough open land to farm. The people had to supply their lords’ castles with food. Castle Holgar’s the biggest, so there are more mills around there. We should be able to find a decent mill to take shelter in tonight.”
Many an animal in black crossed their path as they tried to follow the road, a road which Murtz insisted was there, but no-one else could see. Ravens perched in the gnarled trees, cawing to warn them. Cats walked out in front of them and arched their backs, not wanting them to pass. Murtz simply kicked them out of the way. Buzzards circled above left and right, no doubt waiting their turn on the meagre remains that the Night’s Dragon had left. Rubina wanted answers, and she was not about to let silly peasant superstitions keep her away. Thankfully, she was in good company.
The mill that they came too was a good bit cosier than Castle Renkefin. They had a real roof this time, once they managed to clean out the cellar. The mill was half underground. The steps leading down to the cellar door were crumbled to the point one could be forgiven for not knowing they were steps. The door itself was long gone, but the way was overgrown. Inside, many a cobweb made the inside impossible to move through, but once cleaned out, the old mill was quite comfortable. They laid out the tents on the floor, and hung one behind the door to keep the wind out. That night was strangely quiet, save for the distant screeches of the Night’s Dragon. Though not enough to wake up Marcus, they still had Murtz jumping. What manner of encounter has he had with this creature? After a bit of pondering, Rubina realised that perhaps it wasn’t the creature’s savage nature, but its appearance that had him so shaken up. Those answers couldn’t come fast enough.
The group kept moving a bit longer the next day, as Murtz knew Castle Holgar was only one more day away. They should arrive by evening, assuming they did not get held back. As they drew ever closer to the castle, the road inexplicably cleared, and the trees became both larger and farther apart. Perhaps in the castle’s heyday, the trees were part of the defences, but now all that remained were splintered stumps, sticking up like giant spikes. They were all rotted, but Rubina imagined they hadn’t changed much, having been left undisturbed for the better part of eight centuries. Smaller trees wrapped themselves around the stumps of the larger ones, and twisted into bizarre knots. These trees were also long dead, but far from rotten. How could anything live in this forest with nothing but dead trees? After miles and miles of walking through this twisted orchard, the group could finally see their destination poking up from the horizon: the battered ruins of Castle Holgar.
Holgar was massive, easily the largest castle any of them had ever seen. Its pointed bastions extended farther than the corners of even the White Keep. On the inner structure could be clearly seen the remains of four large turrets, each almost as large as Castle Renkefin. There wasn’t much left of them now, just broken walls. The merlons had worn away to the point that they were spikes of differing lengths lining the tops of the walls. Some huge sections of the upper walls were lying a great distance from the castle, resting on long-dead trees. It looked as if the castle had been blown up from the inside – which would certainly fit Murtz’s story, especially since the Skharans were rumoured to have used explosives in war, and where else would they store them? Castle Holgar was in terrible shape, to be sure, but if anything worthwhile survived, it was worth looking here for it.
As before, Idrailu and Rubina explored the castle while the others set up camp. With the gates and portcullises long rotted away, the gatehouse seemed like a city’s triumphal arch in comparison, with the top a good twenty metres above their heads. “That was one big door back in the day,” Marcus remarked. The hall just behind the gate was equally massive, with all the regular-size doors looking like mouse-holes by comparison. Which one to go in? Murtz peeked in each one quickly before deciding on one. The lantern glow would make it easy to find in the dark. Idrailu and Rubina came to the castle’s centre, where the halls from each of the castle’s four gates joined. There was no hall like this anywhere, not the White Keep or anywhere else. Yet, try as she might, Rubina could not imagine what the castle was like in its younger days, for it had been devoid of life for far too long. The concrete was worn and cracking, the iron fixtures had rusted into barely recognisable lumps, not a speck of colour was to be seen, and strangest of all, not one animal seemed to have made the castle its home. Rubina had never believed in ghost stories, but now she was starting to wonder if she was in one.
After climbing several flights of stairs, Idrailu and Rubina came to one of the ruined turrets. Most of the floor was missing, as were the walls. They could clearly see the patchy, crumbling roof and the remains of the other three turrets where they stood. They went back down, and tried their best to follow the devastation to its source. Rubina rubbed her gloved hand over a large crack in the wall and looked at her fingers. “Charcoal,” she said, “how exactly does one burn down a concrete fortress?” “Dark fire,” Murtz had snuck up behind them, “it was a Skharan weapon. Everyone fool enough to fight them got their taste of it. When the people finally had enough, they stormed castles all over the country and set the magazines on fire. They didn’t burn down Holgar so much as blow it up.”
Even though the group was huddled in a tiny room off one of dozens of narrow corridors concealed within the vastness of Holgar, they felt no safer here than the ruins of Somnask. Every shrill animal cry echoed throughout the halls. Wolves were in the great halls, it seemed to greet them… or alert the Night’s Dragon of trespassers. Bedalia imagined the latter, since it was not long after that those terrible screeches could be heard echoing through the halls, replacing every other haunting sound. “They’re flying right through,” Murtz whispered, “I told you, they’re not very big, they can fly right through those open gates. Everyone stay put, and maybe they won’t find us.” They could tell which direction the Night’s Dragon was flying, in through the south gate, out through the north, and back in through the west. Sometimes, it would turn in the middle, coming in the north gate and going out the east. “It knows where we are,” Murtz whispered. He was right, the creature knew exactly where the group was huddled, and kept getting closer and closer. Once, peering through a crack in the wall, Idrailu swore he could see the creature staring back at him several rooms over.
“Where’s Lannes?” The first thing on everyone’s mind in the morning was find the mischievous boy. “If there’s anything left of him,” Murtz lamented, “I told that stupid kid to stay put, but if he was wandering about last night, then he’s probably been ripped to shreds.” They could hear faint cries coming from above them, and figured he’d fallen while exploring. As they could clearly hear “help me,” upon climbing higher into the castle, there was hope. He hadn’t been eaten by the Night’s Dragon, after all. He’d fallen through one of the many holes in the floors, and into a room filled with odds and ends. A wooden chest had broken his fall and crumbled into dust. Rubina decided to open the chest, which proved difficult get into, despite being rotten and squished. Of course, eight centuries of rust made the lock and hinges simply fall apart after a few minutes of fiddling, and the chest yielded it secrets. It was mostly old documents, all of which were written in Skharan, which no-one there could read, but was not a particularly exotic language, certainly not like the glyphs that ancient chuyinka-worshippers wrote with. Strangest of all in the chest was a map of the Blackwood, with the names of all the castles on it. Rubina asked to compare it to Murtz’s map. When she did, she noticed one castle that Murtz didn’t have. “And I bet I know which one,” Murtz remarked. “Derekáz,” they said in unison.
While the others sought out a safer room in a different part of the castle, Murtz told Rubina the legend of Castle Derekáz. “This map is exceedingly valuable,” he told her, “because even other maps of the period don’t have Derekáz on it. The Skharnovs kept the place a secret. No-one’s sure why, but legend has it that’s where they kept the keys to their power. The alchemists who developed concrete and dark fire supposedly worked out of that castle. Whoever controlled Derekáz controlled Skhara. Then again, there are other versions of the story. Most people at the time believed Derekáz to be abandoned, or even haunted. Nowadays, ask anyone about the place and they’ll tell you it never existed. At least now, we have some evidence to the contrary.” “Evidence? You wouldn’t call this ‘proof?'” “Nay, proof would be seeing the castle with my own eyes, and that’s not happening any time soon. It’s built into the mountains at the northern edge of the forest, according to this map. That means it’s going to be damn near impossible to get to. Besides, the Night’s Dragon has been unusually persistent this time. The sooner we get out of here, the better.”
Derekáz existed. The castle wasn’t just a Skharan ghost story that hadn’t been told in eight centuries. It burned in Rubina’s mind. Perhaps the secrets she sought were in Castle Derekáz. The problem was getting there. It was clear that Murtz would never take her. Then again, she had a map, and she had an airship. Frehr was probably crazy enough to fly right over Derekáz. What’s the worst that could happen. She pondered over and over as she searched for more clues throughout Holgar’s ruined halls.
Night fell, and no wolves howled. They had heard foxes during the day, and cats in the evening, but with the only light coming from the moon and stars now, the Night’s Dragon was the only creature they heard now. The screeches were slightly different, at different distances and different directions. Murtz was right, there was more than one. One had found them last night, and tonight it brought friends. No-one spoke, but all agreed, this would be the last night they spent in this damned castle. One creature flew through the halls, first north to south, then west to east. It landed above them, crawling quietly through the crumbling ruins of the turret above their room. No doubt it could hear them breathing, if not their hearts pounding in unison. The creature was quiet, but they knew it was still there. Worse, they knew the creature was aware of their presence. They heard a deep growl, not like that of any wolf, from the corridor. The Night’s Dragon was coming their way! Idrailu put his head to the wall, and could hear soft footsteps outside. There were too many. There was more than one slinking through the castle! “Ikh brězmai dhurunéss!” one of them hissed. “Kormísh enghalad… dyornai!” the other replied. The two then left the castle, screeching as they flew off into the night. This did not leave anyone comforted. The Night’s Dragon spoke a language? Murtz decided that once the creatures were no longer audible, they would start packing. “We leave at first light,” he snapped, “I’ve had enough of these… things!”
Murtz had said several times that the Night’s Dragon was unusually active on this trip. Rubina couldn’t help but think it had something to do with her. She told no-one her hunch, she knew that they would chalk it up as a peasant superstition, and scold her for holding such ideas. This hunch was beneath her, but now she wasn’t so sure it was just a hunch. A mysterious ancient language, a secret society, legends of ancient shape-shifters, and now hunters in the dark – that could talk, and an ancient castle that had passed out of all knowledge. This trip raised even more questions than it was supposed to have answered.
A fell wind blew through the trees as the group made their way out of Castle Holgar, toward the edge of the Blackwood. The ravens fled before them, as if knowing they were all marked for death… or worse. No-one spoke, they all just kept moving. When it was time to stop, they had passed beyond the remains of farm country, and not a mill or hut was in sight. Fortunately, there was many an uprooted tree in the forest, and shelter was easy to come by. Some animal would have to go without it tonight, but out here, it was either steal some poor animal’s den, or get eaten by the Night’s Dragon. Then again, perhaps, they should have picked a tree that fell the other way.
The tent concealed them well, but it still would have looked out of place to a discerning eye in the sky. Marcus and Bedalia huddled together beneath the tree roots, Murtz stood watch over the tent while Idrailu looked out for Rubina, who relieved herself some distance away. She was just finishing when they heard the screech off in the distance. Then came the thunder. Animals were stampeding away, running past all the little holes that sheltered the separated party. Murtz hid underneath the fallen tree, in a depression underneath the trunk that some animal had dug, and both Rubina and Idrailu jumped down into holes dug between the roots of the standing tree she had just peed on. They both pulled branches over their borrowed burrows and watched the animals bounding through. The screeching got louder as the Night’s Dragon approached. Rubina could see it. On great feathered wings it soared, in hot pursuit of a stag. Carefully dodging the tree branches, the winged creature came ever lower, closing the distance. Quick as lightning, it swoop down, using its momentum and massive talons to snap the stag’s neck. A few metres beyond their hovel, the lifeless body of the stag came to a halt, its killer’s talons still wrapped firmly around its neck. The creature bent down, intending to feed, but something stopped it. It looked up and around, growling like a wolf and hissing like a cat. Rubina could not stop watching it. It stood straight up, and turned in place. Then it grabbed an antler, and started to drag the stag’s carcass. It grabbed the antler with its… hand? This creature appeared to have arms, as well as wings. Slowly, it moved in circles, dragging its kill. Its eyes shone bright when the moonlight hit them, and although its face was still obscured in darkness, it appeared to have neither snout nor beak. Its nose was small and well-shaped, rather like Idrailu’s. This creature had the feathered “horns” that most owls had, but its head appeared also to be draped with long, shimmering, silvery hair. That same shimmering hair that Kveta had… loathe of Rubina’s life, for she would not even be on this trip were it not for Kveta Vamaruchenko and her tantalising mysteries. The creature turned to Rubina, and stared squarely at her, then began to walk… straight toward her, dead stag in tow. Rubina could not stop watching, she was frozen in place with fright. Every time the creature took another step, Rubina felt her heart try to jump up her throat and out her mouth. Was it possible to be frightened to death? She was certain that someone in the group would know by morning, if anyone survived. Before she knew it, the creature was right on top of her, with one foot firmly grasping the root just above her head. Four toes forward, one toe back, and each tipped with a talon the size of a meat-hook. The creature’s lower legs were bare, but black feathers covered the knees and its thighs… were covered by a sleek, black skirt fastened with square buttons. Those buttons were turned so their corners lined up, and they were large enough that Rubina could see the markings on them. It couldn’t be! Kveta’s sigil on every one of them! As Rubina’s eyes made their way up the creature’s body, she saw bizarre black markings on one side of its pale grey torso, and black markings over its eyes. Though the night was dark, and the creature’s eyes glowing, there was no hiding that obnoxious dark blue hue that every woman wanted but none had, save for Kveta. Rubina closed her eyes, for how long she did not know, but by the time she opened them again, morning had come, and that strange creature was gone.
There was no sign of the Night’s Dragon for the rest of the journey back to Somnask. It didn’t matter. Rubina was now convinced that Kveta Vamaruchenko, that dark, mysterious, beautiful merchant of death was a shape-shifting bird of prey from a bygone age. “Chuyinka,” she repeated, “Kveta Vamaruchenko is chuyinka, I’m sure of it, the true name of the Night’s Dragon. She could have killed me, what purpose could she have had for leaving me alive?”