The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 63
The Thief of Ashlon - Part 2 (chapter 21)

  Abruptly, a blaze of golden fire immolated the priests around her. Their bodies twisting into nothingness, the last thing Talana saw before she lost consciousness was the dragon’s egg spilling off the dais. Fighting her descent into darkness, she knew must reach the egg.  The blaze of gold abruptly cut off, plunging the room into darkness.  Talana seemed to pitch forward into nothingness, and for one dark instant she was lost to the world.

That’s it, I’m dead, Talana thought.  Blackness still surrounded her but she at least could feel the throbbing echo of sorcery reverberating through her bones.  Darrukin must have tried to save her, and not been in time.

No, you’re not.

The voice came from nowhere and she was not certain that she heard it with her ears.

What do you mean, I’m not dead? Talana queried. There was a buzzing in her head which she could not hear through, and she still could not see.  Was she alive? Something warm and heavy sat on her chest as she lay on the floor, and she could feel a seeping wetness on her body.

It must be blood. I’ve been squashed by that spell. My guts are all over the floor.  Then she realised she could feel the floor.

Stop it!  The voice was laughing but it still seemed to just enter her head of its own accord.

There was a shuffle in the darkness, and Talana could feel the heaviness move off her. There was a hissing noise, and a gentle light filled the rock-cut room. 

She lay there, unsure if she could move, looking around.  At once a little wet and scaly nose shove itself in her face and a rough tongue rasped over her cheek.  Abruptly Talana sat up.

“You’ve hatched!” she said, as the little creature beat its wet, downy wings in excitement.  “You’re beautiful!” Without hesitation she reached out to the dragonet and stroked the delicately patterned scales under her chin.  The jewel-bright eyes glowed with pleasure, blinking slowly for a second, a humming sound reverberating through her tiny throat.

“Talana!” Darrukin called out. He half-ran the few paces between them and crouched beside her, instantly offering to help her up.  “Are you alright? I thought they’d killed you!”  The worry was thick in his throat.

Talana accepted his help and together they stood.  Bending quickly, she picked up the dragonet, the warm little body instantly moulding into her arms as if she belonged there.

“I’m not dead yet.  Though I thought I was for a second.  I could hear a voice, I didn’t know where it came from.”

Me, silly.

Talana looked around for the voice, but could not see anyone.  “Did you hear that? I heard someone speak.”  Her puzzled gaze turned to Darrukin.  He shook his head.

“I heard nothing.”

The dragonet squirmed in her arms, darting her little head between them, butting at her chin.   It was me, I spoke!  Me! Me! Me!

“You?”  Talana looked at the creature, wide eyed with wonder.  “Your mother spoke to me…”

What is wrong here? Why are you so surprised? Weren’t you expecting me? Why is not your mother here to stop those of the Dark God?

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Dragon.” She said.

“The dragon’s talking to you?” Darrukin asked.  “How?”

“In my head.  Can you hear her, too?”

Only if I let him.

 Darrukin shook his head.

“What did you mean about my mother? My mother is, I don’t know where, dead, probably. Why would she have anything to do with Eshtan?” Talana asked, hefting the dragon to one side so she could include Darrukin in the conversation, even if he could not hear all of it.

Why is my mother dead? This is not right!  You don’t know who you are, yet you came for me and your Guardian is here. Why don’t you know who you are?

“Darrukin?” Talana spluttered.  “I came with Darrukin, and he is a Guardian, yes; I’ve got to find his princess – I promised your mother that – so that you, he and, er, she – can fight the evil in the Queen.  I’ve been helping the Guardian, that’s all.”  An aching pain at the thought of Darrukin and the princess began to burn in her chest, and she looked down, feeling embarrassed and guilty.

Astonishingly, the little dragon laughed.  She laughed aloud, a rattling hiss, but Talana understood her perfectly.

No, Talana, you are the princess.  I know this. I was born knowing this. What has happened to you, I don’t know, but you are she with whom I join to protect this land.  And that man there is your Guardian.  I know that.

“Impossible! I’m not! I’ve never even been in the palace until just recently, and I’ve lived all my life in the grottiest neighbourhood with my mother Bel and father Akel -” she broke off in confusion, shocked by the ring of truth in the dragon’s statement.  She felt the blood drain from her face as the realisation hit home.  Looking at Darrukin, she could not even speak. He was her Guardian. She was his princess.  The world froze for a moment, and in that little lapse in time, all she could do was smile.

“Talana!”

Darrukin cried out as Talana’s knees buckled and she went limp. He caught her, gently lowering her to the floor with the little dragon clinging to her with sharp claws and tail wrapped around her waist.  The dragonet dropped to the ground as soon as she could, unsteady on her little legs and still wet.  He could even see a little piece of shell stuck to the downy wings.

She’s alright.  He suddenly felt or heard the voice of the dragon in his head.  She is overwhelmed by what she knows now.  He looked at the dragonet, and reached out to touch her warm skin. 

“Come on, Talana, wake up, we’ve got to get out of here.” Supporting her so that she sat upright, he shook her gently, trying to wake her.  What else could he do? Wait for Seri to come for him? He was certain that the Queen’s advisor would be aware of what had gone on down in this chamber, perhaps even that the dragon had hatched.  Talana still had to find the princess, if she was even alive. They were all in extreme danger. 

You don’t know either, do you?

“Know what?” Darrukin replied, looking back at the dragonet as she nudged Talana in the ribs.  The baby dragon turned her bright eyes directly to him.

Talana is your princess.

Darrukin almost fainted himself.  Thoughts rushed through his head, one tumbling over the other. Talana, his princess? His Queen? Relief, hope and happiness flooded through him.  They had not been going against the Goddess’s will, they were meant to be together.  All his suppressed feelings of love for her welled up, making him feel as if he were about to burst with happiness.

“Talana, wake up!” he said, more urgently, but with new urgency.  This time, she began to rouse, groggy at first.  Looking at him, her vision cleared and he could see the happiness in her eyes.

“Did she tell you about me?” Talana asked, indicating the dragonet at her side.  Her smile was widening, reflecting his own feelings.

“Yes, she did,”

Without further words they embraced, a fierce hug that cemented them together, queen and guardian.  They were interrupted only by the small dragon’s head squeezing her way between them.

I’m hungry!

“Alright, let’s get out of here and find something for this little girl.” Talana said, pulling herself up with Darrukin’s help. 

Please! The words echoed through both their minds.

She was still flabbergasted by the knowledge that she had gained of herself, and of its implications.  Yet Talana managed to remain composed she scooped up the baby dragon and followed Darrukin from the chamber and into the tunnel.  The light was dim, but enough to keep her footing as they ran.  Priests, palace guards – perhaps even Seri himself might be around the next corner. Talana was comforted by Darrukin’s presence: suddenly his actions, and the things that had happened made far more sense.

As she followed, her mind raced far ahead of herself.  The dragon she cradled in her arms was a creature of immense magical power – and so was she.  It was something she was having trouble understanding. If she was the new queen, why could she not feel that power within  herself?  How could she not have known?  How was it that she did not know her own true self?  The dragon was sure of who she was. Why wasn’t she? What a waste of time! She shook her head and followed Darrukin’s shadowy form. Her guardian.  Her guardian!

All she had suffered, the guilt, the jealousy, the feelings of uselessness and inadequacy – were all past.  She knew he realised it too. They could be together. They were made to be together. The thought brought such happiness to her that she could do nothing else but hug the little dragon more closely.

“Thankyou, for bringing me such happiness, Dragon.” She said softly, still cuddling her.  Her little wings were drying out, and her warm body stayed close, her tail tight about her waist.

You must learn to use your power.  The Dragon told her as they bumped along the tunnel.  If all is as you say, then you must learn very quickly. The Eshtanis are not weak – they will do what they can to keep their power.

“How do you know these things? She asked, curious.

I am born knowing certain things, like who you are and who the Guardian is.  I know this to be the work of the Goddess.  She gives me the knowledge that I might help you and this land.  I am one of a kind in this world, there are no other dragons here.  You are not alone, you have help – and hindrance.  There must be choice else neither the Goddess nor God would survive. They depend on us all as without our faith they have no meaning.  Thus far, the Goddess has been weakened by all the God has done to destroy her, yet she exists still, kept from failing by the strength of belief that still remains.  She grows stronger now that you, your Guardian and myself are together, but Eshtan still has great power.  May I look into your mind, to see what has happened to my mother’s queen?  I would like to know all that I can.

“Certainly, if it will help.” Talana replied.

“Shhh, I hear something up ahead.” Darrukin whispered, warning her.  Talana shut up immediately and made sure the invisibility spell was around them all, while the baby dragon probed her mind. It was an odd sensation, almost like a double-vision as she saw and remembered things long past; but she could still see and hear what was going on around her, and she was ready when they encountered the first few priests in their path.

She flattened herself against the wall, protecting the dragonet, as Darrukin stood poised to react to a physical or magical attack. The priests, however, were revealed to be fairly junior ones; their sorcery was not very strong.  Three white robes were like beacons in the low light; easily seen and easily attacked.  He wrapped them up with an immobilising spell before they had even registered that they were there.

“Would you heal them, Talana?” he asked, turning to her.  The priests visibly shook at the sight of Darrukin, the filthy clothes he wore no disguise. They knew who and what he was.  Talana couldn’t help but smile as she emerged from the gloom and saw them all jump – it seemed that they knew who she was, too. 

“I’d be only too glad.” she replied, placing a hand on Darrukin’s shoulder as she stepped forward.  The dragonet clung to her, supported by her other arm, looking curiously at the faces of the three priests.  The priests twisted uselessly, struggling against the spell that held them, frightened and panicking.  “It’s alright, I can help you.” she said softly, as she let her power flow, the healing sight clearly revealing the compulsions and spells at work in their hearts.  With an upwelling of sorcery she broke the spells, disintegrating them in moments, dissolving all the tendrils of evil enchantments that had grown and strengthened around the three.  She smiled as the faces of the priests showed open wonder; then felt the little dragon nudge her.

Let them choose, they must live with their choices.

“I was going to, dearie.” she said, stepping back from the men.  She could see that they still had the imprint of evil on their hearts and in their minds; it was something they would remember. But how would they react now?  If they attacked her, Darrukin would kill them in an instant – but she had to offer them the choice.  “You are free now. Do what you must.”

Their faces looked confused and dazed. Darrukin released the spell that held them, giving them freedom of movement again.  All three suddenly looked uncertain and very, very frightened.

“There is no need to be frightened of me.” he said. “Tell us what lies ahead – how many priests, and who, if you know.”  The shivering priests complied at once, so used to instant obedience were they.  Their voices clamoured until Darrukin held up a hand and motioned for silence. He then pointed to one priest, indicating that he should speak.

“The High One waits for you in the Queen’s chamber. He has sent his most powerful priests throughout the palace to find you. He ordered us to smash the egg.” The priest spoke in a quavering tone. 

“The High One – Seri?” Darrukin asked, eyes narrowing as the priest nodded. “And how many more of you coming down this tunnel?”

“Twenty. We were sent ahead to clear the way for the higher priests, if we could.”  The man’s voice grew in confidence and in outrage as he regained his sense of self. Talana could see that he fully realised that he and his fellows had been sent down the tunnel sacrificially, that they were not considered worthy of more serious protection, even though the High One knew Darrukin’s abilities as Guardian. 

“Thankyou for your help.  I trust you won’t interfere?” he asked tersely, waiting only for the man’s nod before moving on.  Talana could tell he was already thinking of how to handle the battle ahead – and she knew that the priests they left behind would not cause them any more problems.

As she followed, she could still feel the dragon’s gentle probing, delicately looking into her mind once more.  She relived her life, back and back, retracing her steps through the quest, with Wolf in the mountains, back in Darr, the desert, the city.  The dragon probed deeper, making memories of Asikei surface; his head on the pike, the little room where he taught her, her life in the brothel. Feeling the dragon going deeper, she remembered coming to the brothel, as a young girl, not much more than a baby, not yet able to talk properly. The faces she saw were familiar – Bel, much younger, cooing over her as they met. Akel present mosly in the background, his first words to her being kind, almost gentle, in a gruff sort of way.  She felt Bel’s hands grabbing for her, felt the panic rise within her and remembered her frantic look back at the non-descript carriage that had brought her to the brothel.  In it she saw the high priest that Darrukin had killed, the evil light in his eyes unmistakeable.  Turning back to Akel, she saw the same light grow in his dark eyes, crushing the little charity he had in his spirit to begin with.  She understood then that the priest had entered his body, and had been able to do so at will.  The memory continued, with her screaming hysterically as she was carried up the stairs, not with the loss of all that she had known or fear of the unknown, but with the knowledge that she was going into the control of evil.

Abruptly, the dragonet took her even further back, with memories of times before the brothel surfacing.  A mother, with golden hair streaming down her back – her real mother, she knew.  A father, his light-brown hair the colour of her own; green eyed and happy.  He would play with her, eat with her at meal times and make sure she had everything she needed. The golden-haired woman who smelled so nice would be with them when she could, and they all seemed happy.  Yet even at that young age, Talana remembered there being problems, of her mother not being quite right all the time. Of the huge dragon, fretting and worrying, trusting herself-the-child with the knowledge that there was wrong in the palace and that one day, she would have to fight it.

The memories stopped there, jolting Talana back to the reality of the tunnel and Darrukin.  She looked at the dragon, the creature’s eyes staring at her mournfully.

My mother knew what would happen and could not stop it.

“She tried to. She did not have a proper Guardian to protect her Queen. She must have known that Ishayla would fight back and restore her guardian. Oh, dragon!  All this time has been wasted!”  Talana said, feeling a desperate rush of frustration at all that had happened, her past life, her journeys to aid Darrukin’s quest, and her own role within it.  “Thankyou for opening those memories to me, I understand so much more now.”  She had regained herself; no longer was she with a past, a violent and savage history that made no real sense to her.  She understood now that she had been given over to the brothel in an attempt to keep her from the knowledge of herself that she needed, to keep her under control, in a place where she could not prosper easily, and with no knowledge of the Goddess.  Despite their best efforts, she had come to know all, and was ready to fight – for Ashlon.

The tunnel was broadening out, and they were rising fast. They would hit the smooth corridors of the Palace’s lower levels soon, Darrukin knew.  He was cautious, but moving quickly; they needed to find food for the dragonet.  Not only that, but there was a battle ahead. There would have to be a reckoning with Seri soon. 

They slowed as they heard voices ahead.

“I’ll fix them.” Talana said, before he could do anything. He felt her use her healing power, felt it flow ahead of them. He took the lead, certain that it was priests ahead and not palace guards, but wanting to be there just in case.

“Out of my way, priests!” he thundered, as they approached.  They instantly drew back against the tunnel sides, eyes wide and staring.  Not one of them moved or spoke as he, Talana and the dragonet passed.

It was a relief to finally make it to the lower levels of the palace as they exploded through to the dirty corridor at its end.  Surprisingly, no one was there to meet them – Darrukin had expected palace guards if not priests.   Was there something else going on?

Racing away down the corridor, they knew they had to first find something for the baby dragon. She was so hungry that she had started keening in distress, making Talana wild with worry.  Talana took the lead, quickly making their way to the kitchens where they found total confusion.  Food was scattered everywhere and a few of the staff were cowering in hiding places; the head chef was bleeding from a vicious wound to his forearm. 

“What has happened here?” Talana demanded from one of the cowering servants. The girl’s eyes boggled at her sudden appearance, accompanied by an armed man and a dragon – but she mustered a reply to the effect that palace guards had ripped through the place searching for someone.

“Where is Fujila?” Talana asked, referring to Maani’s spy. The older woman would know what was going on.  “Can you find her for me?” Mutely, the girl agreed and shuffled off quickly.

Talana could not delay any longer. Her dragon’s distress was too great.  She went to the cold room, where large slabs of meat hung ready, and grabbed the nearest.

“Will this do?” she asked the dragon, who answered by falling upon the meat with fervour.  Soon the little dragon was contentedly burping on the floor of the kitchen, belly distended with food.

Much better, thankyou. I can think again!

“Have you had enough?” Talana asked, nodding when the dragon replied in the affirmative. She looked at Darrukin. “Well, what do you think we should do now? We need to get to the Queen.”

Maani’s spy, the woman Talana had come to know as Fujila, approached them.  Talana waved down Darrukin’s initial alarm.

“It’s alright, it’s Fujila.  She should know what’s going on.” Talana turned to the woman. “Why is this place in such confusion? We didn’t see any palace guards – is there something we should know about?”

Fujila grinned.  “Maani said that I should make the most of unrest outside the palace. There’s a riot going on outside the palace walls and all the palace guards have been called to deal with it – they are storming the palace gates!  I’m trying to spread the hysteria so that you can get on and do whatever it is you need to. Maani has made that much very clear.’

“Good.” Darrukin replied.  “Will you be alright?”

The woman nodded.  Darrukin nodded in agreement and extended a hand to Talana. “We’d better get going, then, seeing as this is for our benefit.” he said. 

Talana accepted his help and picked up the dragonet.  “You are much heavier now!” she said affectionately to the little creature.  The dragon’s tail wrapped around her waist once more and she brought up the invisibility spell around them all once more, letting Darrukin take the lead again.  Going against the flow of people she noticed that the spy went straight back into the kitchens and that screaming could be heard.  Fujila was certainly making sure that hysteria followed her. 

There was a definite sense of panic in the palace as they hurried through passageways and vast rooms. Palace guards raced around, not noticing them in their hurry, and the distant sounds of shouting and mob violence could be heard filtering through the palace grounds.  Making their way upwards, they paused at a window that overlooked the front of the palace grounds to see what the situation was themselves.

What met their eyes was a massive riot.  Palace guards were out in force on the wall surrounding the palace, and while they could not see past the wall they could see the smoke rising from around the front and the missiles being hurled into the palace grounds. Booming thuds could be heard and the great gates shook – it was a siege.  If Maani had ordered this then both she and Darrukin were grateful for it – palace guards were certainly not bothering them.

The Queen’s private apartments were not far away.  Still they had not encountered any palace guards who had seen them, much less barred their way.  Racing, they turned the corner into grand corridor that led to the apartments, and ran straight into a squad of the Queen’s special palace guards. The squad were there to protect the Queen; specially trained and well armed; these guards did not defer from their task.

Darrukin did not have time for this.  “Be still!” he commanded, and immobilised the lot of them.  The frustration on their faces was evident as he, Talana and the dragon strode past them and through the door of the Queen’s suite – but he dismissed them easily from his mind. He had more important things to worry about.  Talana followed him closely, more than a little uncertain as she walked past the frozen palace guards.

Seri could be waiting for them in the Queen’s apartments, waiting to kill them.  But they had to get to the Queen; only with Talana’s healing power could she be saved and the evil defeated. Of that he was sure.

Instead of a room full of palace guards or priests, they found no one.  Running through the rooms searching frantically, the apartments appeared to be completely deserted. They both stopped at the threshold of the room Darrukin had been summoned to previously. The Queen’s private rooms.  Pushing open the grand doors, they both shuddered with the expectation of meeting more guards, or priests. There was nothing.  The place looked deserted.  What had happened?

“Where else can we look? Talana said out loud, sounding confused and almost disappointed. Darrukin could not even begin to understand how complex her emotions must be right now.  The Queen – her mother, her real mother – was a madwoman, and the source of evil and fear throughout their lives.

They strode around the private rooms, searching for some indication of where the Queen might be. Talana turned to one of the many rooms running off the suite.

“Look no further.” A voice came from behind them. It was a broken voice, one that sounded distinctly weak.  A woman’s voice.  They had found the Queen.

A pathetic figure shuffled out from behind a hidden panel, and seemed to wince as she looked at the three of them.  Talana saw her for the first time close up – a woman smaller than herself, with her own oval face. But the features within that face were not hers, except the nose.  What had she expected?  She did not know. All her life the Queen had meant death and distrust to her – a person whose evil was so fundamental that it almost seemed impossible that she was standing here in front of her.  Talana thought that the Queen might start raving, might confront her screaming, or attack her in some way physically.  Instead, she stood quietly opposite her as if she had been expecting them to come.  Perhaps she had.  The two women regarded each other or a long moment, Talana clinging to the dragonet and the Queen swaying slightly on her feet.

“Sit down, mother.” Talana said, breaking the silence.  The unfamiliar word suddenly came naturally to her. There was no denying it – this woman was her mother, and she recognised her in a visceral way that could not be ignored.  Something inside her leaped, with happiness or terror she could not tell – but her heart lurched and went out to the woman who stood before her.  She was so obviously hurt.

Not that it was a physical hurt. More it was as though something had been torn away, ripped from her. For a moment, Talana thought that what was missing was her sanity – the woman’s mind was a jumble of conflicting, confused images, she saw as she dared to look into it –but that was not the problem.  Then she realised.  The Queen’s body had been taken over by evil, corrupted by it, for the power it contained – the power of the Goddess.

That power no longer existed in her in any meaningful way. Talana realised that power was now her own.

The resonance of power still echoed within the body of the Queen; much like that which existed within the bodies of the Queens and Guardians within the Valley of Shades.  But the loss of that power – usually only taken when the old Queen died – had a dramatic effect.

The Queen looked as if her life had been physically torn from her.  Talana could not be sure when she had taken that power, only that it was hers. Perhaps when the dragon hatched?  Straitening her back, she moved forward to assist the older woman to a divan along one wall, sitting down beside her. The Queen looked at her with something akin to horror on her face – whether it was directed at herself, Talana was not sure.

“You.” The Queen finally said, the syllable seeming to stick in her throat. Swallowing, she continued.  “You are my daughter.”

“Yes” Talana nodded, and took her hand.

“They told me you were dead.”

“They lied.”

“You look like your father.”

“I don’t really have many memories of him.  Not really.” she replied, not knowing what to say. Risking a look into the Queen’s heart, she saw that evil still existed, twisting its way around the fibre of her being. It was passive now, the shock of the Queen’s power being removed probably causing it to retreat, if that were possible.  Was that why her mother was not the screaming harridan that she had seen last, at Darrukin’s trial?  Talana released her dragon from her embrace; the creature immediately went to sit on the other side of her mother.  Distractedly the older woman looked at the jewel eyes, the green hide and fluffy wings.

“You have a beautiful dragon -” the Queens struggled for a moment with her own memory.

“Talana – my name is Talana.  Is that the name I was born with?”

“Yes!” the Queen cried out, suddenly bursting into tears.  “Yes, Talana!”  Her sobs wracked her thin body with alarming force.

“Mother, I am here to heal you. Make you well again.  I want to take away all the evil that is within your heart.  Will you let me do it?”

The Queen looked at her again with a look of horror.  “If you do that, you will take away my life. I am nothing more than the evil which existed within me.  My Guardian is gone. My Dragon is gone-”  Tears made trails down her slender face.

“That’s not true. You are something that cannot entirely be taken by Eshtan. He cannot – you belong to the Goddess, as I do, and Darrukin, and my Dragon.  That cannot be changed.”  Talana spoke the words with certainty even though she surprised herself.  “Let me heal you. I have the power now. It can be done and you can be at peace with yourself.”

“Look into my heart, Talana.” The Queen said with sudden savagery, making the younger woman jump back with alarm.  “Look in to my heart, and tell me that there is goodness left within me!  I killed my own Guardian – with these hands!” she almost shouted, staring at her upraised palms with loathing. 

Talana did as she was told, and looked into her mother’s heart. The evil was beginning to rouse, awakened by her presence, beginning to reassert itself after the shock of power being ripped away.

“I can see. I’m going to do something about it, too, whether you like it or not!” Talana replied, her own words as fierce as the Queen’s, though both women still sat together.  The Queen leaned back as if frightened, but the dragonet, her small body full of wiry muscle, twined her tail about the older woman’s waist and seemed to hold her there.

“Dragon, I need your help.” Talana asked, preparing herself.  She took a last glance at Darrukin, who had stood silently in support of her and smiled down at her, reassuring her that he would be there.

I am ready if you are.

“We shall try.”  She replied out loud.  She felt at once the strange mind-meld that was the Dragon meeting her own consciousness, and the flow of power that welled up between them. It came directly from the Goddess, she realised, a heady feeling – she could understand why the Eshtanis wanted to control it so badly.  But within her, within her Dragon, it was free and unpolluted, not tainted or corrupted by an evil heart.  Without waiting, she and her Dragon plunged themselves into the task, drawing themselves within the Queen’s mind, her conscious and unconscious self, searching, searching for the root of the evil within her.

 

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