The Final Installment
He is running.
His sword is stained red.
Towards the castle. Weaving between houses and shops and servants’ quarters, seeing clearly every stone under his feet, his chest heaving deep inside him.
Up an outer staircase to two heavy wooden doors, locked with iron brackets and a thick iron lock.
Clambering up the wall, reaching for ivy and tree branches.
Inside a third-story window, sweat running down the small of his back and his forehead and his hands.
Then his vision dims, spirals away from him, and Calean is blind to the world again.
On his hands and knees inside the castle, the boy crawls up staircase after staircase. He creeps down a hall with his fingers running along the wall. His voice is too tired. He can’t reach out to the spirits of the stones and the rugs and the candles flickering to help him along.
He finds a doorknob and turns it. Inside it is cold but silent. Calean searches for a corner and pulls his fancy wool shirt tight around him.
Why don’t you thank me?
But Calean is already asleep.
“Have you reconsidered, then?”
The boy sleeping in the corner jerks at the sound of a familiar voice. He opens his eyes but they are crusty. He opens his mouth but his lips are dry. His hands are frozen like claws around himself.
His sword lies at his side, sunken deep into the scabbard, dried blood caked around the hilt. Kren kneels down beside him, a long velvet coat trailing on the stone floor. Calean looks up and for a moment it seems his ice-cold eyes have life behind them. Then they go blank and Calean drops his head to his chest.
The old king gently lifts the boy, hands under his arms, up to his feet. Together they hobble from the little stone storeroom and out into the sunlit hall.
The king spends the day in relative silence, but Calean never utters a word. No one attends to them save Jacobsen, who walks with short, quick footsteps as quiet as the palace itself.
First they clean Calean’s sword. Kren works the blade with a soapy sponge. His red velvet cloak is stained with something reddish brown, like dried blood or spilled red wine. Despite the walls of the castle that gleam flawless and white in the sun, inside it is empty and vacant. Dirt coagulates in the corners. Cobwebs string across the vaulted ceilings and around chandeliers that haven’t been lit in decades.
The stones are stoic. They tell Calean about the five heavy-set men that meet in the war room in the belly of the castle. The men eat roasted pig and drink red wine in the evening, and never once does anyone beside Jacobsen and a skinny redheaded maid enter the king’s wing of the palace.
After the sword is buffed and polished, Jacobsen serves a simple lunch. In the afternoon, the king calls on him to play a dice game. Jacobsen is not very good at it, and Kren wins six times in a row.
“I wish I could play dice with you,” Kren says to Calean. The boy sits at the end of the card table, watching but not watching them play. “You would be a fearsome opponent.”
Dinner is served promptly at six. It is roast beef with radishes.
“Shall I walk the young master back to his room?” asks Jacobsen after dinner.
Kren shakes his head.
“No. I will take him.”
Calean rises to his feet, more like the walking dead than ever before. They leave the dining room together, and slowly climb two staircases to a low room with a four-poster bed.
“Tomorrow I will show you to her,” the king says. When Calean struggles with the right sleeve of his shirt, Kren places a hand on his shoulder and helps him get changed. “Will you go?” he asks.
Calean opens his mouth.
“Yes,” he says.
It is the first word to fall from his lips since killing the constable and the two men on the street. It stings him as it comes out.
“She will help you,” says Kren. “I’m sure of it.”
“How can you be so sure of a creature you have never met?”
The king smiles.
“She gave her strength to King Herula once. She moved the city, and saved his kingdom by lending him her power. With your help, with your voice, she will do it again.”
It is still dark when the old man enters Calean’s room. The boy is already awake, sitting on the edge of the bed with a long hunch in his back, his head hanging low over his crossed arms. His hands are propped atop the upright hilt of his sword. The tip is wedged between his heels, in a crack in the stone floor.
Neither says a word as Calean rises to his feet. Though they tread lightly, the castle is more silent than ever before. The silence is loud and conspicuous. Deafening. Calean can hardly hear himself think, until a bird coos just outside a window, and shatters the thick heaviness that hangs on them.
They descend quickly because each flight of stairs is steeper than the one before. The staircases wind tighter, and the windows soon disappear.
“We’re underground now,” Kren says.
Calean narrows his eyes.
“I know. It smells like earth.”
As the steps grow more primitive, Kren slips on the stone. His cape flutters, and he tips sideways over the dark chasm. He grapples for the wall but his fingers find nothing.
Calean reaches toward him with one arm and catches him, flinging his sword and body weight behind him as a counterbalance. They sway over the dark depths of the spiral staircase below for a heartbeat: tip, sway, rock. When Calean manages to right himself, the king topples over onto him.
They sit, panting, on the stairs closest to the wall. Then the boy helps the old man to his feet and they continue downward, into the dark.
No more candles light their way. Calean leads because his vision does not depend on oil lamps or wax; Kren keeps a steady hand on his shoulder as they continue for seconds, minutes, and then what feels like hours.
Calean hears the steel gate before they reach it. Processed metal makes a sound like electricity, especially in the dark. Even without light to reflect upon them, the silver bars seem to glint.
The boy reaches out and runs his hands along the bars. They are covered in claw marks. Deep gouges decorate the steel, crisscrossing the gate from every corner to every other corner. Calean’s eyebrows draw together.
“The gate says that she comes here,” he says, voice scraping at a whisper. “Not as often anymore, but from time to time. She moans. She curses. She tears at the gate but it holds her back.” His eyes raise to meet Kren’s, and the old man feels his gaze, even without the light. “What happened here?” Calean asks.
Then a screech billows upwards from beyond the gate. It sounds ancient. The beast’s lungs must be each as large as a horse. It squalls like one of the great plains eagles, with something unidentifiable on the edges—something that reminds Calean of the sea monsters that call to one another under the ocean with a lulling song.
It is all of these things, with the long, croaking moan at the end of someone who has given up hope.
“You must enter here,” says Kren. He runs his hands along the gate, until he finds a mechanism. He plays with it until the latch opens, and the gate swings free.
“You’re not coming?” asks Calean. “I thought you needed to ask for her help.”
“No,” says the king. “She will see no one but you.”
A moment passes between them. Then Calean steps inside, and the gate swings closed behind him.
The mechanism locks with a clang.
It doesn’t take long for Calean to reach the end of the cavern floor. Instead, a chasm gapes wide before him. The rocks here were not shaped by human hands; they have always been here, they say, since time began. The caverns they form were born by the beast. She carved them with her flame and claws.
Feeling for the wall of the chasm, Calean begins descending. The stones guide his feet and his hands. As he travels the cold earth becomes warm—a gentle heat beneath his fingertips. Then his toes find purchase on flat ground and he has reached the bottom.
“Hello?” Calean says. Though he whispers, his voice carries, bell-like, in the shallow cavern.
He is greeted with silence, so he begins to walk.
The air is thick. There is little oxygen, and it is balmy. Sweat pools in his palms. The rock speaks a language so old he can barely understand it, but it tells him stories: how there was no time before the beast, no sense of when or where. How first the castle, then the city, grew up around the beast’s deep hole. How she gave it life, and her protection.
Then Calean hears a scraping, and he stops walking.
“Hello,” he repeats, his trembling voice echoing in the darkness.
You really think this will help you? A cackle floats between his ears. You really think that old man sent you down here for your own good? Humans are selfish. There is nothing here for you but death.
Calean squares his shoulders and calls into the darkness again.
“Please,” he says. “I need your help.”
The scraping grows louder. The rock groans. The air swells with heat, like a hearth has just been lit.
The cavern turns orange, and from a cloud of smoke bursts the beast.
She screams. Her mouth opens, revealing fangs like scimitars. Flame licks the addled roof of her mouth. Her eyes glow yellow, with long, black pupils.
“Who are you?” she cries, eyeballs bulging from her scaly skull. “Why are you here?”
She steps forward, and Calean sees her with the eyes of the rocks and stones. She lies low to the ground, six legs like tree trunks sprawled to either side of her. Wings hang from her body, the flaps of skin torn into scraps. The ends of each bone has been severed.
Her tail is little more than a stump. The stones remember when it bled, and the tip wriggled until it fell dead.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” says the boy. He pushes his sword behind him and falls to his knees. The air that shoots from her huge, flared nostrils is so hot it burns the hairs on his skin. “But I need your help.”
There is a long silence. The beast breathes slowly, her jaw flexing as if she is trying to decide whether the boy is worth the effort to eat.
“The last time a human came here and asked for my help,” she growls, her voice filling the cavern, “he used me, and then destroyed me.” She steps closer. Calean closes his eyes, but does not move. “That wicked little creature brought me gold and silver. He told me enemies had come for our city, and I was the only one who could protect them. So I did.”
Her claws click thoughtfully on the rock. A whip-like tongue flicks from her mouth and cleans each of her eyes, then disappears.
“I did as he asked. Very charming little man-creature. With my power I hid his castle and his city in this desolate place, and my flame turned his enemies into dust. And what was my reward?” Her mouth opens and fire boils in her throat. “This! He took my wings so I could not fly away! He took my tail so I could not retaliate!” Her stump thrashes behind her, shattering rock. “The only thing he could not take was my fire, because it burns inside me, in a secret place. Then he made me a prisoner, so he could control the city himself!”
“I am not here for such trivial things,” says Calean, his tone placating, trying not to condescend. “I have no enemies. I am no king.”
A scream erupts from her.
“Then why are you bothering me?” She smashes the stone with her feet, her claws tearing the rock asunder. The cavern growls, and for a moment Calean wonders if this conversation will be his last.
A thought settles deep in the back of his throat. Perhaps this is how the great beast was supposed to help him.
“Leave me in peace!” screeches the dragon.
“Please!” Calean’s desperation surprises him. “Please, help me. I am a prisoner, like you!”
“A prisoner?” Her laugh singes his hair. “A man-creature, a prisoner?”
“I heard that you are the greatest mage our world has ever seen,” he whispers, his lungs burning from the boiling air. “The king told me you could help me.”
There were only two places Calean had left to look for a way to sever the shadow: the end of the world, and death.
He hadn’t thought to look to death for his answer.
The dragon’s body recoils, rings of fat bunching up like a snake and a worm blended together. “The king?” she demands, falcion claws reaching toward him. “The king?!”
It’s about time to run.
Calean shakes his head.
The beast slams her feet on the floor of the cavern again and loose rock falls from the ceiling. Something barrels into his shoulder, and claws of electric pain crawl across his side. But Calean remains motionless, watching the dragon’s fury unfold.
The boy in the mirror shudders.
Don’t be an idiot, the voice says. Trying to soothe him, but nervous. Come on, don’t be silly now.
“This is my city!” the beast shrieks. Her mouth opens and the flame bursts from her jaws.
Though he cannot see it, Calean feels the burning ball of ember coming. His hand drops to his sword and he rips it from the scabbard, holding the blade in front of him as if it will protect him.
Flames wrap around him.
The boy in the mirror shrieks. Calean shrieks. He is not sure which one of them is in pain. Perhaps they are in pain together.
This isn’t the only way, the mirror says. The voice of the other boy is twisted in agony. Or is it his own voice? It really isn’t. We don’t need to die.
“This is my city!” The cavern shakes. Streaks of burning red light arc across Calean’s blind eyes. “This is my castle!” The monster moans, each word ripped from her gullet. “This is my home! I will not help you or your king! I will destroy you!”
Not if we destroy her first, comes the voice. Let me help you, brother. Let us live.
Calean shrinks back. Why invite in evil? Why leave the door open to the demon?
The dragon’s mouth opens, a burning chasm. “The same way I ended that wriggling maggot Herula’s life,” her lips peel back, “I will end yours.”
I’ll give it all to you. The other boy crumples to his knees. His eyes are wide. Calean watches him, and he is watching himself. All the power I have, your sight, if you just let me live.
For a moment he can hear the dragon’s heart beating, and it bangs against her ribs as hard and fast as his own.
Then Calean’s eyes open. From nothing, something emerges. Shapes. Colors.
He sees the beast. He sees the scales that are scarred and spotted from age. He sees her black claws, buried in the rock, tearing it apart like picks in the earth.
“Yes,” he whispers. “Let’s live.”
She lunges at him, and together, Calean and his shadow swing his sword.
There is no sand here. Not this time. Just grass and weeds and mole mounds masquerading as hills.
Calean is alone here. He has two memories: one as a young boy, blind and helpless. Below it, through muck and cobwebs, there is the separate memory. It is the memory of a warrior.
He feels power in the warrior’s memory. It begins at his heart, trickling through his veins. The warmth tickles as it spreads. His hands flex. His toes tingle.
This power had to be earned.
Calean opens his eyes and the grass and hills are gone. His body weighs nothing. Everything moves slowly. The dragon is bearing down on him, mouth agape, cracked, yellow teeth longing to puncture him.
In one smooth motion, he ducks and rolls. Flames lick his shoulders, but nothing sticks. The dragon’s eyeballs bulge in fury and she lunges again.
She’s so slow. Calean stumbles back. She lands and smashes a stalagmite, too empty of mind and utterly mad to change her course. The spire of rock punctures her skin and she winds back in a seething rage.
Calean dips his head and turns his back, pretending to run. That would be the logical thing to do, by most standards. Seeing her food escaping, the beast arches her back and throws herself into an attack again.
The boy spins. Mr. Joss’s sword feels good in his hands. Steady, alive. The monster’s great body soars towards him, unguided, livid. The sword, held out in front of him, slides without resistance through the beast’s thick scales.
Hot blood runs down Calean’s arms. It burns.
The dragon screeches. The screeches turn to gurgles, and then she stops making sound completely, and Calean cannot breathe. He drops the sword and stumbles away.
The beast inches backward, drawn by her great, unbalanced weight, the sword buried deep in her chest. Then her body drops like a stone to the floor.
Calean rips his shirt and wipes away the boiling-hot dragon’s blood. Something sizzles. He glances up and her fallen body is on fire.
The skin goes first. The bones turn to sand, then dust, and finally smoke. The cavern lights up, stoked by the bonfire, and when everything finishes burning it goes dark.
Calean breathes again, and again. He reaches for his sword in the dark and resheathes it, when a tiny white dot appears on the floor.
He looks up. Somehow, sunlight has penetrated this deep, dark place. The white light is a glimmer—a reflection of some kind. He crouches and with his hands finds something sharp, metal.
A crown. He lifts it. Something drops from the crown and shatters on the ground. When he feels along with his hands, he finds the remains of a skull wrapped in a chainmail coif.
The remains of King Herula.
The king is waiting at the gate when Calean returns.
“What happened to you?” Kren rushes towards the boy and lifts his arms. Calean’s hands are burned up to his elbows. Kren’s features grow cold. “It’s not bad.” He gulps. “Well, no, it’s bad, but you’ll be okay. But we have to get you to a doctor right away.”
The king looks up. Calean’s eyes watch him.
For the first time, Calean sees his friend. Then he holds up the crown.
“She wasn’t going to help you,” Calean says. “She was utterly and completely mad. So I had to kill her.” He extends the crown towards the king. “But I found this in her belly. This is all that is left from when she bit off King Herula’s head.”
Kren holds out his hands to Calean, to the crown. His lips are parted, his eyes unfocused. The smooth metal settles in his palms. The crown is thin and frail, encasing only a single, black stone.
Kren takes it slowly, as if confused. Then he lifts the crown and sets it atop his own head. Somehow it looks natural, riding atop his wild tufts of striking white hair.
Then Calean tilts back, unsteady, and crumples to the ground.
Light is such a peculiar thing.
Calean lies on his back, wrapped in silk and fine linen, pondering the light that streams in his bedroom window. It seems to have a life of its own as it penetrates the thin curtains and dances across the floor. He especially likes the way the light treats his old sword, painting the hilt a brilliant gold where it stands on the mantelpiece.
Clothes wait for him on the wooden chest by his door. They are the finest Calean has ever seen. The collar is embroidered with real silver, the seams cabled with emeralds. They compliment Calean’s pale yellow hair and gray eyes.
He finishes with pointed leather shoes and a plain steel pendant. He hears a knock on the door.
It is not Jacobsen. Calean smiles. The girl standing there smiles back, her arms tucked behind her.
“Hi, Senna,” he says.
“Hi, Prince Calean,” she says, then covers her cheeks and laughs. “Sorry, Calean. Not prince just yet. But I still can’t believe I’m a prince’s handmaiden.”
“Do you have it?”
Her hazel eyes narrow with mischief, and they seem to glow. “Of course I have it,” she says. Her arms unfurl from behind her and hold out a silver scabbard. It is empty. “Are you ready?”
Senna, squirming in a crimson dress that brings out the amber in her hair, places the scabbard in Calean’s hands. She is beginning to look less like a slip of a girl and more like a woman that belongs in a castle.
Calean imagines he is looking about the same these days.
“I’m ready,” he says, and offers her his arm. Together they descend the stairs.
An entourage awaits them in the great hall. His chestnut horse waits for him, her granite hooves shining with fresh buff and polish, her hair braided with silk. A stable hand helps him onto the mare and leads them out of the castle into the fresh air.
Thousands have gathered, faces from all parts of the kingdom. Calean and his horse are greeted by a thunderous roar of approval. Hands are raised as far as he can see, waving wildly. Women shout. Men cheer. Only a slip of cobblestone is visible in the mass of bodies, a pathway maintained by armored guards in long rows. They hold their swords high over their heads as Calean passes beneath them.
On the other end of the royal walkway, the king waits for him, dressed in red velvet and sparkling gold. The five generals stand opposite of him. They try to look proud, but they have been defeated.
Today is the day the childless old king names an heir; the rule of the kingdom will not fall into aristocracy.
“Dragon-slayer!” The crowd surges with a new cheer. “Dragon-slayer! Prince Calean the dragon-slayer!”
He frowns. He does not feel pleasure at murdering the ancient beast. The great Capitol will never walk again, as it once did.
He has changed the world irrevocably, forever. But it has given the people a reason to cheer, to anticipate their new leader. A reason to make their king more than just a figurehead.
The mare stops a stone’s throw from the end of the path, and Calean dismounts. The roar of the crowd fills him, encompasses him. Kren smiles as the boy approaches.
“Calean Joss.” As the king speaks, the crowd goes silent. “I hereby name you my heir, and heir to the throne of this great kingdom.”
Calean carefully lowers himself to a kneel. Kren nods to Jacobsen. The frail old man approaches them, a bare sword in his hands. The hilt is crusted with ivory and peridot.
“I had no children,” says the king. “I had no hope, no future. But then you came and conquered the beast that murdered my grandfather, the great King Herula. You brought me his crown as a token of your goodwill.
“In return,” Kren says, taking the sword from Jacobsen, “I give you a token of my goodwill.” Calean holds out the empty silver scabbard.
“To Prince Calean!” cries the king.
“Long live Prince Calean!” shouts the crowd, and they are engulfed by applause.
Calean takes the sword and sheaths it. Then the king and the prince stand side-by-side, flanked by guards in silver armor.
“Thank you,” Kren whispers. “Thank you for saving me.”
Senna, in her crimson dress, grins at him from her seat at the front of the crowd.
A voice somewhere deep down chuckles.
It’s time to live.