There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Not until that fateful night…
The full moon had risen high above the trees. Three figures stood in its pale glow, deep within the forest. They did not move; they hadn’t for hours. Covered in long black cloaks, hoods over their heads, they looked like shadows turned to stone. Crickets chirruped, echoing in the darkened wood, but the figures stood as silent as the trees, waiting.
As the night crept onward and the moon reached its apex, its silver tendrils snaking through the darkness around the three, one of them finally broke the silence.
“She’s late,” said the shortest shadow, standing between the two others. Her voice was youthful, her body slight beneath her voluminous cloak.
“You must learn patience,” said the figure to her right. A head taller than the woman in the middle, he had a calm, pleasant voice, veering into flirtatious.
The woman let out a soft cackle.
“I’m older than you,” she said, her voice still verdant as spring.
“Age has nothing to do with wisdom or patience,” said the man on the right. His flirtatious tone had shifted to a mixture of condescending and smug.
The woman, in her maiden’s voice, muttered a phrase in a language no one who lived near the forest would have understood but the man beside her did. He scoffed yet inched away nonetheless.
The third figure, standing to the woman’s left, towered three feet above her. Like the other two, he wore a long cloak over his huge frame, but unlike the others he seemed intent on not allowing a single flash of skin to show, keeping even his hands hidden and adjusting the cloth with every slight breeze.
Despite the woman’s complaint, the three of them did not move from where they stood. Moments passed, the moon began its slow descent, and the three people continued to stand as shadowy statues in the forest. Except every now and then the shorter man raised his head to the sky, watching the moon’s progress, while the woman cackled softly at him. The third, towering figure made no noise and only moved to rearrange his cloak.
As the moon dipped toward the horizon, the leaves rustled but not from a breeze. The shorter man’s shoulders tensed beneath his cloak, the woman gripped the handle of something tucked in her belt, and the third figure, tall and silent, simply turned toward the sound as if nothing in this forest could pose a threat to him.
Out of the darkness strode a wolf. It walked quietly and slowly toward them, its eerie emerald eyes watching them.
The woman relaxed, releasing her grip on her weapon. She lowered her hood, all rosy cheeks and fiery red hair. “Lady Vervain, well met.”
The wolf stood up on its hind legs. In the blink of an eye a woman stood in its place, her brown hair shot through with silver shining in the moonlight, a black cloak wrapped around her shoulders, a heavy satchel resting upon her hip. Her eyes were the same unnerving green as the wolf’s.
Vervain smiled, her teeth long and white. “My dear Morgan, it has been too long. I see you finally worked out the kinks of that rejuvenation potion. But be warned, eternal youth might not be all the legends promise.”
Morgan snorted inelegantly. “I like it just fine.”
“She likes it a little too fine, if you ask me,” muttered the man on her left.
“No one did,” Morgan muttered back.
“Cormac,” Vervain said, her smile turning wry. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”
The man on Morgan’s left lowered his hood, his blond hair white in the moonlight, his chiseled features stark in the shadows. “I always come when a lady requests.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Morgan said under her breath.
Cormac turned to snap at her, but Vervain held up a hand.
“Please, put aside your squabbles for tonight,” Vervain said. “This is far too important.”
“And what precisely is so important about tonight?” Cormac asked. “Why did you call us here? Why not the entire coven? And why”—he glanced over at the towering figure beside Morgan—“why the three of us in particular?”
“All in good time, Cormac. For now, I can say that I asked the three of you to join me because of your outstanding talents. Morgan, your potion-making skills are superior to any others. Cormac, you have a way with necromancy rarely seen since the art began. As for you, Cernunnos…” Vervain turned to the tallest figure. “You are here for your strength.”
Morgan rolled her eyes. “No surprise there. He is a troll.”
“He is more than his species,” Vervain said. “He is a valuable and trustworthy student, and I am glad he is here.”
Cernunnos bowed his head, his cloak still carefully covering his entire form. “You humble me teacher,” he grunted. “I’m but an apprentice of magic, and as a mage I am useless in your service. But I will lend my strength in whatever way you need.”
“And I thank you for it, I thank all of you…” Vervain clutched the strap of her satchel with one hand, placing her other hand on top of the flap. “But I apologize for not coming sooner. It took longer to retrieve what I needed than I had anticipated. We must make haste. For this must be done tonight.”
“And ‘this’ is…?” Cormac asked, but Vervain walked past him without acknowledging his words, moving deeper into the forest.
Morgan and Cormac exchanged a look.
“I don’t like not knowing what’s going on,” Cormac said. “Why does she require the service of a necromancer, a potion-maker, and a troll?”
Morgan quirked an eyebrow. “You must learn patience, young one.”
Cormac made an inappropriate gesture, and Morgan cackled once more. Then, without another word, they followed Vervain, Cernunnos trailing behind them.
An hour or more passed as they made their way through the woods. Clouds scudded across the moon, throwing them further into darkness only for the moon to light their path again. They entered a clearing at the base of a hill. A mossy cliff stood before them, its face sheer, but erosion had begun its gentle rounding of what had once been sharp stone.
Vervain stopped in front of the cliff, staring up at it, a wariness in her emerald eyes.
“This,” she whispered, “this is where it happened.”
Cormac glanced at the cliff and exchanged another look with Morgan. “Where what happened, Lady Vervain?”
Vervain stared a moment longer then lifted the satchel from her shoulder. She placed it on the ground and removed an ancient tome. The leather cover was worn, the edges of the pages rough and torn. She clutched the tome to her chest and looked up at Morgan, Cormac, and Cernunnos.
“Centuries ago,” she began, “a being of unimaginable power was brought into this world. It is believed it was conjured from the elements by a mage who did not know their own strength. This creature terrorized distant villages before coming to the mountains, scorching the earth as it went. Soon, it would descend upon the Valley, where our ancestors were born, where our school of magic is housed. The strongest mages of the Valley fought to protect their people. Many were lost, but the survivors eventually triumphed. They trapped this terrible being inside a cavern and enchanted a wall of stone to block the entrance. But this creature could not die. Every now and then we feel tremors in the Valley—you know them well—as this beast tries to break free from its prison. The Council and I have known for some time that the enchantments that held this monster back are failing. It is only a matter of time…”
Vervain glanced down at the tome in her arms, caressing the cover. “The Council, however, refuses to act for fear that any attempts at reinforcing the creature’s prison may risk releasing it. I have pleaded with them, told them I know how to stop it, but they refuse to listen… One of the creature’s captors was a man named Wolf’s Bane, a lycanthrope—my distant relative. He had helped tie the creature’s life to the moon, same as his, except its power would wax and wane in reverse—it would be most powerful in the total darkness of the new moon but weakest during the full moon, when lycanthropes are at their peak. This was how they captured it, when its power had waned. Wolf’s Bane hoped this could be the key to defeating it for good, and he spent his days discovering how to end its immortal life. He wrote his findings in this book, which has been passed down through his descendants. Now, it has reached me. I have studied it for years, carefully testing the theories it contains, and tonight I shall prove what I have learned. Tonight, I shall do what our ancestors never could…”
As she finished speaking, the ground beneath their feet trembled, something rumbling beneath.
Morgan eyed the rockface behind Vervain. “Is the creature’s prison behind that cliff?”
Vervain nodded. “Yes, and I think it knows I’m here. It knows what I intend to do.”
Cormac’s gaze darted from Vervain to the cliff, his pale skin somehow even paler. “You brought us here to fight some legendary monster? Us? I have no combat skills—”
“I hear you’re quite good at fending off furious fathers,” Morgan said.
“This is serious,” he hissed at her. “We don’t even know what this creature can do, what it looks like—”
“I have some drawings my ancestor made,” Vervain offered, gesturing at the tome. “But I don’t think that will help you much. As for what powers it holds, the creature has a hide hard as stone and nearly impervious to magic—nearly. A well-placed spell allowed Wolf’s Bane to tie it to the moon. The creature can fly, it can swim without needing to surface for air, but most importantly, it can breathe fire, the flames raining down like a storm. This is its most destructive power, and this will be the hardest thing to fight. And that is why I have brought you here.”
She turned to Morgan. “We shall need something that will protect us from flame. Morgan, your fire protection potion is the best I have ever seen. It should keep us safe for the night.”
Vervain shifted toward Cormac next. “The creature kills life, decimates all living things around it. But the creatures of the dead can survive against it. Even as fire consumes them, I have seen your necromantic creations continue fighting. Cormac, I don’t expect you to fight, but I do ask that you lend us a few skeletons to take up the task.
“As for you, my brave Cernunnos.” Vervain turned to him, his towering, silent form standing further away from the cliff than the others, but he had raised his head enough to look at the stone that his hood had slid back the slightest bit, his gray nose revealed to the moonlight. “I shall need your strength to crack open this hill and give me access to the beast.”
She glanced at each of them again, one at a time. “It will be dangerous, I won’t deny it. We may not survive. I can’t be sure the spells I have practiced will work against the creature. But if we don’t do something soon, it will break free of its prison, and we will have no choice but to face it. Tonight at least we can be sure it is at its weakest point thanks to the full moon. That will give us an advantage. If we wait another lunar cycle, the beast may burst forth during the new moon when it is strongest. We can’t risk that. We must do this tonight. We must do this now. Are you willing?”
Cormac was still pale, his eyes darting back and forth from Vervain to the hill behind her, but he nodded. “I am at your service, of course.”
Morgan gave the hill a glance as well, but it was more resigned than terrified. “I didn’t have any other plans for the night. I can whip up a potion or two, whatever you need.”
Cernunnos bowed his head to Vervain and grunted, “I shall serve you, teacher.”
“Thank you,” Vervain said. “Thank you all. Now, we must prepare…”
Morgan conjured a cauldron and, with ingredients Vervain had brought along in her satchel, began to brew a fire protection potion. Cormac drew a sacred circle and began calling upon the dead, the first skeleton rising to its feet within minutes. Meanwhile, Cernunnos had stripped off his cloak to reveal rough gray skin, arms and legs as thick as tree trunks, and long, stringy strands of black hair.
Vervain sat on a tree trunk at the base of the hill, her tome open in her lap. Her gaze jittered across the page as she read and reread her ancestor’s instructions.
As she turned the page, revealing the spell intended to take the creature’s immortality, the earth shook.
Vervain jumped to her feet. “We can’t wait any longer. It is time.”
“But I’m not done yet!” Morgan said. “You’ll all be burned to a crisp!”
“We’ll have to hold him off,” Cormac said. “Arise!” Seven more skeletons jumped to attention within his sacred circle.
A crack appeared along the cliff face, a red glow spilling out from within.
“It’s escaping!” Vervain gasped. “Cernunnos! We can’t let it reach the Valley!”
Cernunnos charged the hill, dug his fingers into the crack, and tore open the cavern. He reached one enormous fist inside and something screeched. A burst of flame licked his skin, but as a troll his skin was made of stone, not flesh. The beast screeched again.
“I can’t hold it for much longer, teacher,” Cernunnos said. His skin glowed red with another burst of flame, threatening to turn molten.
“Morgan!” Vervain ran over to the cauldron. “I just need enough time to try my spells. I need your potion—”
“And I need five more minutes, or this potion will melt your eyeballs out of your head,” Morgan snapped. “I don’t think you’ll be able to do much against this beast without your eyeballs, now will you?”
“Worry not, Cernunnos,” Cormac said, “I have some reinforcements.” His skeletons marched to the crack in the hill and jumped down into the abyss. Another burst of flame and Cernunnos’s skin glowed brighter, but the skeletons kept marching down.
The ground shook again, a violent earthquake that threw Vervain and Morgan to the ground. The cauldron tipped over, spilling its contents into the trees.
“No!” Vervain tried to right the cauldron, but it was too late. The potion was gone.
Another screech turned into a roar. Cernunnos’s arm glowed so bright that it melted off. He stumbled back, only one arm left.
“Teacher,” he grunted sadly, “I have failed.”
Something dark, something massive burst out of the cavern, raining down a shower of broken bones. It flew high into the air, blocking the moon.
Cormac fell to the ground in horror. “What is that?”
Vervain stared at the beast in the sky, her heart pounding. “They called it a dragon.”
The beast roared again and flew away over the forest, toward the Valley and out of sight. Through the canopy of trees in the distance, they saw a flash of fire overhead.
“What do we do now?” Morgan asked, staring at where the beast had flown.
“We follow it,” Vervain said. “We try again.”
“But it was too powerful for us,” Cormac said.
“We can still try.” Vervain clutched her tome more tightly to her chest. “We must.”