Flint & Steele
Kaven Steele squinted against the lashing wind, searching below for the temple. Flint soared across the treetops so fast he feared they would miss it. Flying at this elevation was something he both loved and hated-but today it was more hate. The primordial forest below concealed a secret he must find for the king. Kaven spotted a clearing below with a red domed building at its center. He tugged Flint’s reins twice to signal landing.
Flint nosedived, never braking velocity. Kaven braced for impact, screaming out a stream of curse words as they plummeted. Flint swiftly leveled off before they touched ground with merciless speed. Touched was a rather soft word for colliding with the earth at such a force your bones rattled.
Kaven prayed he would not be hurled to his death as Flint skidded across the forest loam, hooves rending up chunks of grass and soil, until finally they came to a blessed full stop.
“Was that really necessary?” Kaven shouted. He dismounted and walked the stiffness out of his legs after a long flight.Flint shook his antlers and folded in his wings with regal calm. “You try maneuvering with that air current. Better yet, try flying without me next time.”
Kaven pulled down his face scarf and removed his helmet.
“You’re just trying to pick another fight.” Flint’s dour mood matched his blue-grey feathers and his temper was sharper than usual. Perytons, the winged-deer of the northern realms, were choosy about which humans they permitted on their backs, but Flint and Kaven were old fighting comrades.
Kaven took a long drink from his canteen and poured water into a tin bowl for Flint, hoping it would be a peace offering. Flint lapped the water with amazing delicacy, scarcely spilling a drop.
Kaven studied the bleak woods. The vines and moss around the temple were a rotted and dead, giving the area a grim and sickly look.
Flint sniffed the air. “This place reeks of trouble.”
Kaven shrugged. “It smells more of forest than of gods here. Relax. It’s just an old temple obscured by creeping vines.”
“I think you mean creepy.”
“Flint!” Kaven crossed his arms across his chest. “The king commanded us to come. That’s what we do.”
Flint snorted with disdain. “We use to help people-not just your king.” He shook his antlers and gazed around. “This place makes my feathers twitch. I smell magic too. Bad magic.”
Kaven adjusted the leather strap of his sword sheath. “King Gregor’s daughter is very sick. He chose me to save her. It’s my duty.”
“Did his highness explain this illness of magical origin?”
“No. He told me the royal seer had a vision and proclaimed only the dragon jewel could cure the princess. The seer drew the map from what he saw during his trance. I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask for more.”
“People who don’t ask questions can end up dead. A little curiosity adds to your life span. If Jenna were here-”
“I told you not to say her name.”
“She’s your wife, Kaven.”
“She left me! I don’t want to talk about.”
“Your pig-headed decisions broke up your marriage and-”
“Enough! I serve the King and I’m here to save his daughter. Let’s focus on the mission! She’s his only child. He’s your king too.”
Flint glared at Kaven. “Don’t count on that unless he stops eating venison. Do you at least have enough weapons?”
Kaven checked the nine daggers secreted on his body and adjusted his sword. “I hope so. Let’s check out the entrance.”
Side by side, they approached what resembled a door, but upon closer inspection there was no door, just a shadowy archway they could not see beyond.
Flint folded his ears back and even Kaven hesitated, apprehensive about the shimmering black barrier.
“We must find a way in somehow.”
“Preferably without dying,” Flint added.
The enchanted doorway unsettled Kaven, but he would rather chew on his sword right now than admit to Flint he had doubts.“Try throwing a rock through the dark arch first and see what happens,” Flint suggested.
Kaven picked up a rock and tossed it through the black filmy essence. It went cleanly through the shadow, but they heard nothing on the other side. An ominous chill suddenly danced on Kaven’s spine. His gut churned. He tried to step back, but was rooted to the spot. Black tendrils extended and roped around Kaven, dragging his body through the shadowy archway.
“Flint!” he shouted, fighting the shadows with all his might.
“Hold on!” Flint tried to pry him from the shadowy force with his antlers.
Kaven pressed his hands against the walls on either side, groaning with the effort, his muscles burning with the resistance until his grip was finally ripped away.
The raging curses of an angry peryton were the last thing Kaven heard before he blacked out.
Kaven woke up in darkness, sprawled on the cold, stone floor. Stale air did little to clear his mind or shake off the residue of unsolicited sorcery. He staggered to his feet.
“Flint! Where are you?” Nothing. “Damn it. Flint is never going to let me live this down.”
He checked his weapons. He still had them. Good. He drew his sword and circled around, disappointed there was nothing to slash at. The only illumination was the shimmering shadow in the doorway. He fumbled toward it, hesitant. Maybe he could go back the way he came in? He touched the shadowy essence and it burned his hands. He jumped back, swearing with ferocity.
A raspy intemperate voice chastised him from the shadows. “Such crude language.”
“Who are you?” Kaven demanded. He looked around. “Where the hell are you?”
“I will guide you,” the voice commanded.
An invisible force lifted Kaven a few inches off the floor and he floated across the temple. It was not comforting. He kept his grip firmly on his sword and wished dearly for his friend and all his sarcasm to keep him focused. He longed for Jenna to be at his side too, just like the old days. By the gods, she could fight! Regret shadowed his focus and he pushed her image out of his mind.
Finally, the ghostly powers released him. He was set upon solid ground. A vibrant red glow brightened the hall and washed away the concealing gloom. The crimson walls shimmered and pulsated with strange runic script he could not decipher.
Red light illuminated the heart of this wicked hallow. There a frail shell of a man swathed in shabby scarlet robes who sat upon a throne of black marble. He held a staff of twisted sable wood top with a red crystal. On the floor before the hooded man was a small circular pool, swirling with fiery colors and smelling of magic. An enormous silver casket, big enough for a full grown man, every inch carved with mysterious runes, was to his right on the dais.
Kaven could not move, his feet frozen to the floor. He spoke to the mage, trying to keep his temper on check. “Mage, you pulled me inside this place. I’m happy to leave if you don’t want me here, you know.” He refused to show this arrogant old mage any fear. “Who are you?”
“I am the Keeper of the Red Temple,” the robed man answered. “I‘m no mage boy, but a necromancer.”
Kaven winced. As a child, the local storyteller narrated terrifying tales of the old necromancers. He wished for Flint’s mockery to keep him clear-headed.
The Keeper laughed, his skeletal body shaking beneath his robes. “You amuse me. Who are you, young man?” The Keeper’s face peered through the voluminous, tattered hood. Black eyes glittered, and Kaven suspected this aged man was neither weak nor feeble.
“I am Kaven, Champion of King Gregor. He has sent me to retrieve the dragon jewel, but for good, not selfish reasons.” He glanced at the enormous chest of silver. Was the jewel in there? How big was it? The sizzle of magic prickled Kaven’s skin.
The Keeper pointed to the casket and his gnarled hand reminded him of a corpse, the flesh discolored and stony. “Is this what you seek? My dragon jewel? Do you want to see it?”
“Is there a price?”
The Keeper chuckled. “A wise warrior to ask.”
“Flint would disagree with you. Where is he? If you hurt him, I swear-”
“Your peryton is safe, trapped outside my temple. He’s not very happy about it. Perytons are very elemental creatures. Personally, I think magic is wasted on them, but I don’t decide these things.”
“Let’s get to the business at hand. Please consider it’s to save the life of an innocent girl. I will happily return it when she is cured. What is your question?”
“Such impatience, Champion Kaven.”
“Keeper, his daughter is dying. Only the dragon jewel can save her.”
“Is that what your king told you?”
Kaven’s suspicions shifted to thoughts of King Gregor. He had saved his life from an assassin. His reward was being the King’s Champion, but since that day his life became unhappy and complicated.
“I trust he would not lie to me, not when my quest is so important.”
The Keeper leaned forward. “Then I ask you this-would you sacrifice all for your duty to your king?”
“Of course I would.”
Kaven intuition screamed for a fight. This shriveled man was trouble. The last fight he had with Jenna returned to haunt him. She wanted to go back to being independent, a free sword. Kaven thought he was giving her security by serving the king.
The Keeper grinned and he flicked a finger. The casket lid opened. “Then behold the dragon jewel. Take it noble champion, if you can.”
No glittering gem resided within the silver chest. Inside its runic cradle beat a massive heart. The incredible size stunned Kaven. The rhythmic thumping echoed throughout the chamber.
Kaven gripped on his sword. “What the hell is that thing?”“The dragon jewel. A living jewel of rare origin. A dragon heart.”
Kaven’s head pounded with each vibrating beat. “Dragons have been extinct for over three hundred years.”
“Yes, because a dragon plague extinguished the whole species. This heart was from the last dragon, and the most powerful of their race, a fire dragon! Even in death, you can feel its former glory. A necromancer of my sect carved out its heart after it died and preserved it with magic. It has been beating for centuries. My necromancer kin did this because they feared with the death of the last dragon; magic too would go extinct; so we used our necromancy to keep a piece of the dragon’s soul with the heart so we could preserve magic. My order has guarded it since that sad day, but even the noblest tradition becomes a weary chore.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mystical mathematics, boy. A resurrection ritual is a complex puzzle and it demands certain elements. I have been preparing for weeks. I have the source of the dragon with its heart and a piece of its soul. Now I have you.”
“Me? Why do you need me?”
“I need a living soul of a pure-hearted warrior to help complete the spell of resurrection. One willing to sacrifice all for honor.”
Scarlet mist rose from the beating heart, the tendrils entangling Kaven’s body.
The Keeper rose and hobbled over to the chest. He knelt and stroked the heart with gnarled hands. “Necromancy is so fragile and requires such patience. My needs required a warrior, vowed to obedience and without stain. Such a man is not easy to find. You would never understand.”
“Enlighten me,” Kaven muttered through gritted teeth.
“Necromancers live for a long time, thanks to our magic. I have not had an enjoyable life. My obligation became a cruel burden. My power wasted. Your king wants a dragon to expand his power. I want a new life.”
Even as the Keeper babbled his selfish woes, Kaven searched for escape. The dragon mist cloaked him now like a shroud. The thudding of the heart was so loud.
“Your soul is the final piece of my mystical equation. After your soul is taken to resurrect the dragon, your body will be an empty vessel, ready for a new soul. Mine! I’ll take over your body and shed this rotted shell. Waste not, want not,” he chuckled, abused by his own grave humor. “I’ll be young and strong with your youthful brown skin and wavy black hair. I’d shave that beard though.”
“You’re no one to criticize,” Kaven remarked.
“I am the last necromancer now. My order is gone. Now I want to be compensated with fresh life.”
“Your fate was your choice,” Kaven shouted. “Your duty, not mine.” The word duty twisted his gut now. The transparent image of a fire dragon formed in the air. It was breathtaking, even in this filmy mirage, to see a dragon. The creature had not become flesh yet. Kaven knew he was fading fast.
The Keeper chanted strange words of a language long dead. The air crisped with sorcery. Kaven knew once his soul was taken, the dragon would become flesh and live again. Worse, his body, his life, would be stolen by an insane necromancer.
The pounding was louder now, but it sounded different, like stones being broken and shattered. Flint? That stubborn old peryton would never abandon him. He had to keep the old man occupied, and hope Flint could break through.
“I can’t believe King Gregor would do this to me? Why would he sacrifice me when I have been so loyal to him? Prove to me he is behind this!”
The Keeper cackled, and deftly touched the end of his staff to the pool of shimmering magic before him. The garnet-hued water glowed and the face of his king appeared. King Gregor!
Gregor looked anxious. “Well? Necromancer, do I have my dragon? Will Kaven suffice as a sacrifice?”
Gregor’s eager words stung to the core. Kaven cursed his own ambitions for prestige. He believed in false words and flattery and ignored the advice of those he loved. The confirmation of betrayal was strangely calming, as though any fragment of doubt was vanquished by this cruel truth.
The Keeper’s body swayed like a skeleton dance. “It’s happening now. Kaven’s soul will feed its rebirth. With my magic controlling the dragon, you will conquer nations. Once more a red dragon will thunder across the skies on vast leathern wings, breathing fire.”
The Keeper’s staff touched the pool, dispelling King Gregor’s image. “Now you have your answer. Just relax and give in to the magic. It will be easier for you if you submit.”
“Like HELL!” Kaven shouted. He fought with every fiber of his being but the sorcery enthralled his body. He could not move, not even raise his arm to smite the Keeper or the living heart.
Flint, please hurry!
Kaven felt strange foreign emotions wash over him. Memories of flights across ancient seas, the sun’s warmth on leathery wings until a sickness consumed him and he fell from the skies, followed by brief darkness, then sorrow and loneliness centuries old. He realized the dragon’s soul touched his mind, communicating through memories rather than words.
Pain. The dragon’s spirit was in agony and desperate for release. The existence in this disembodied shell was agony for the poor creature. It did not want resurrection. It wanted to die and be reunited with the rest of its soul in the Otherworld.
“You’re a monster,” Kaven croaked, his life ebbing. “The dragon’s spirit wants to be free of this world. You kept it prisoner. Let it go! Now!”
The rupture of stones behind Kaven sparked hope. He could not move his legs, but managed to glance back to see Flint crashing through the red temple’s wall several feet from the archway. The peryton then winged towards Kaven and landed next to him in war stance.
“How did you shatter my wards!” the Keeper screamed. “My spells protect me from intruders passing into my temple.”
“You only enchanted the entrance,” Flint shouted. “Not the temple walls around it. Idiot. My antlers and hooves did the rest. Shabby construction, by the way.”
The Keeper raged, extending his staff and hurling fireballs at Flint. The peryton evaded the flaming orbs and rammed the necromancer with his antlers, flinging him across the chamber. The Keeper’s staff dropped to the floor. Flint reared up and crushed it with his powerful hooves. Destroying the keeper’s staff broke the bondage on Kaven.
The fragment of the dragon’s soul departed from Kaven’s body. The heart still beat, trapped in a mortal world by ancient enchantments.
“Let’s get out of here!’ Flint advised.
The Keeper rose up from the ground, raging at his defeat. He floated toward Kaven and Flint, sizzling magic emanating from his fingertips. His hood fell back, exposing a ghoulish face with leathery white skin and tufts of frazzled grey hair.
“You will not leave so easily. Your pet will also pay for assaulting the last necromancer.”
The dragon’s spirit rose up over Kaven and Flint and assaulted the Keeper. They ducked as the essence of the dragon roared its anger, shattering the stone walls. The Keeper’s angry face melted into fear as the spectral dragon loomed over him. The Keeper’s death howls echoed throughout the temple. He collapsed to the floor, a corpse no necromancy could revive. The magic in the temple vanished. Rays of light penetrated the archway and broken walls no longer shielded by magic.
Only the dragon’s heart and its soul essence lingered, residue of an old misbegotten spell.
Kaven gazed into the eyes of the phantom dragon still hovering in the air before him. The dragon’s fury now transformed into sorrow. Kaven did not fear the dragon. He had only pity and great sadness at what the world lost when these majestic creatures went extinct.
“I will free you,” Kaven whispered. “And I’m sorry for your suffering.” He raised his sword and struck the dragon’s heart. The final remnants of the necromancy gone, the dragon vanished and its heart dissolved into iridescent ashes.
Outside the ruined temple, they relished the fresh clean air. The whole woodland seemed different too, like a curse had been lifted.
Exhausted and shaken by his experience, Kaven sat on the grass, watching the sun set. Flint stood next to him, patient.
“Are you going to tell Gregor what happened?”
“No. I no longer serve him. From this day I will serve my own conscience and people who truly need my help. Let him wonder about where his dragon went. The King can find a new champion to abuse.”
“I’m sorry, Kaven. I never liked him, but even I never thought he would stoop to anything this vile.”
“How did the spirit of the dragon kill the necromancer?” Flint asked.
Kaven shook his head. “I don’t think we want to know. Some things are better left to the mystics. Still, I’m still glad we came. We got to see something of what was once a real dragon.”
“More importantly, you did something very noble,” Flint added. “You freed the dragon’s soul. That was a good thing.”
“That we did,” Kaven smiled. “Do you think magic will vanish from the world?”
“I’m still talking to you, aren’t I? You know, if we fly off now, we might be able to find Jenna by morning.”
“I don’t even know where she went.”
“Try her sister’s farm.”
Kaven’s brow creased as he looked up at Flint. “Did you always know where she went?”
“Just an educated guess.”
“Fine. Let’s fly.” Kaven mounted Flint, who unfolded his majestic wings for flight.
“I would suggest groveling and flowers, however,” Flint suggested as he flew high above the trees.
“Whatever you say, Flint. Whatever you say.”
“If you remembered that Kaven, we wouldn’t find so much trouble. Oh, and I’m no one’s pet.”
“Never. I value my life too much,” Kaven laughed, feeling hope again as they soared across the sky.
Verna McKinnon is the author of Gate of Souls, A Familiar’s Tale Book 1, published by Sky Warrior Books. The second novel in the fantasy trilogy, Tree of Bones, will be released Fall 2016. She is the author of over thirty published short stories in various web and print magazines. Fantasy is her genre of choice. You can read some of her previously published short stories at her website, www.vernamckinnon.com. Follow Verna on Twitter & Facebook for the latest on her life as a poor, published, but proud indie fantasy author.