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Ouroboros

by Kaitlin Oster about a month ago in Young Adult / Short Story / Series / Mystery / Fantasy / Fable / Adventure
Runner-Up in Christopher Paolini's Fantasy Fiction ChallengeRunner-Up in Christopher Paolini's Fantasy Fiction Challenge
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The keeper of life and death

1.

The last thing Leander could have possibly anticipated was the burden of a human — and a human child, no less. When he left the Old Gates in search of the priestess in the valley, he only meant to bring her magic back into the Otherworld, not find a child at his feet. The deities were becoming restless and hungry, and if magic wasn’t readily available the only option would be to harvest souls. For centuries, Leander was successful in maintaining peace at the Old Gates, and he had no interest in a child imprinting on him. Especially during such a turbulent time.

“You take it,” he suggested. The toddler clung to Leander’s claw, giggling and bubbling over with joy. He peered down at it, disgusted.

It is a she,” Niamh said. The priestess stood from her chair — a simple creation of birch with the stretched hide of a púca for the seat. Leander observed the tufted bits of hair left for decoration where Niamh normally rested her arms.

“Terribly difficult things to kill, those púca,” Leander remarked. “How did you do it?”

“I think the why is a more interesting tale.” Niamh bent her powerful frame and the waist and scooped the toddler off the floor. She looked up to her friend and her left eye glinted gold. The shine of Niamh’s magic eye attracted the attention of the little one, who grabbed for the witch’s face with enthusiasm. Niamh revealed a rare smile.

“You should name it.” Leander could no longer stand his own small talk and began to circle the great room. His tail, heavy and spined, scraped across the wooden floor.

“Why have you come to me, Leander? Surely not to nanny, although I feel this one may be special already. You just… found her in the woods?”

“Their hunger is growing. I need more magic.”

“You know my price, dragon.” Niamh placed the toddler onto the púca chair, where she was happy to play with the tufts of fur.

Leander stopped his circles. With one giant foreclaw, he reached around the opposite shoulder. A low, pained groan erupted from the belly of the great dragon as he dug underneath one of his scales. Niamh watched expectantly, almost hungry, ready to receive such a valuable prize. The toddler stopped her play and turned as well, just as Leander ripped a scale from his back. He handed it bloodied to Niamh who was swallowed by its size. She showed no modesty over such a willful surrender.

“This will be fine material for armor and spears.” Niamh laid the scale against her chair.

“Cora,” Leander huffed.

“What?”

“The little one. She is Cora.” Leander flattened himself on the floor, taking up most of the space in the witch’s room. He sighed heavily into the wood.

“I’ll bring you your magic. And something for your wounds.” Niamh departed with her dragon scale. A priceless treasure.

Leander closed his eyes to rest a while, aware of the small child that crawled from the chair over his back, but too tired from his sacrifice to pay any mind. There was a deep ache where his scale once lay proud; Only a dragon can penetrate a dragon’s scale. With a second inhale Leander opened his eyes to realize the pain was no longer present. He turned his head to his shoulder and saw a gentle glow come from little Cora’s hands. Niamh stood in the doorway, magic for the dragon and a tincture for his wound.

It had grown dark. Niamh sat on the floor beside a fire while Cora slept curled up on the púca chair. Leander still marveled at the healed mark on his back.

“Where did you say you found her again?”

“I lied,” Leander said. He sat up and ducked his head. “I found her at the Old Gates.”

“Someone left her there?”

“She opened them, just as I prepared to exit them and come to you. I thought if I brought her here, you’d have a better answer.”

Opened? That’s impossible. She’s human.” Niamh stared deeply at the sleeping toddler as if trying to see through her. “She’s not even from the village in the valley.”

“She can open the gates to the Otherworld, and she can heal the wounded.” Leander touched his scar.

“Ouroboros,” Niamh whispered. The demi-god shook her head. Leander saw fear in her eyes.

“I can’t bring her with me.”

“I agree. There’s no telling what will happen if the deities take notice of that kind of magic. My magic certainly won’t satiate them.”

“They’ll use her to escape the Old Gates.”

“She has to stay.”

Leander departed back through the Old Gates with Niamh’s magic. He knew he would not return for a century or more.The toddler clung sleepily to her new keeper, unaware of her power. As the Old Gates sealed, Cora shut her eyes. Niamh was entirely unprepared for such an undertaking, but she knew she would have to keep Cora safe in order to keep the dead out of the valley.

2.

Cora grew under the guidance of her mentor in the valley. She knew of the Old Gates, and how they should not be opened. For years, Niamh told tales to the orphan in her home, and the valley remained protected and lush. Until one day, something let the dragons out.

“Someone.” Niamh fingered marks on the ground in front of the Old Gates. Cora looked over Niamh’s shoulder and tried to discern for herself exactly what she understood from the stray this-and-that etchings in the dirt. Niamh put a hand on her knee and stood to face Cora — Her figure towering and strong, and her left eye now entirely replaced with gold. Cora’s head craned back and upwards at the keeper of the Old Gates.

“What?”

“Someone led the dragons into the valley.” The Druid stepped past Cora. “You need to stay away from here. Dragons are gatekeepers to the Otherworld. They’re looking for someone.”

Niamh shouldered past Cora in a way that was casual to her and an act of war to outsiders. Cora stepped aside in time only to be grazed by Niamh’s knuckles that held her staff — solid wood as tall as Cora and carved from a fallen branch of the Old Gates the last time magic tried to destroy the valley, after a healer was almost taken to the Otherworld. Fastened to the top of the staff was a stone, gifted from the deities of the Otherworld, for Niamh’s bravery. Niamh saved the Clan then — and ever since that day she has been the keeper of the Old Gates to the Otherworld.

The Old Gates weren’t actually gates, rather, a large curved space of missing bark in the valley’s oldest tree. It sat, almost hidden among various other trees, but if you lived in the valley, you knew. There was a vibration it gave, a magical breath that both reminded the villagers of their fortune in the valley and threatened them with its fragility. The Old Gates didn’t open like gates, either. It opened with magic, incantations that Cora prayed to learn.

Cora didn’t remember the exact occurrence. She was young — maybe a toddler — when she wandered into the woods in the valley one afternoon. Cora plodded along by herself until she reached the Old Gates.

And opened the portal.

On accident, of course. Niamh said she swooped in just in time to close the door herself and take Cora away before the deities, dragons, and dead could make their way back.

“There are no accidents,” Niamh told Cora.

It was always thought that the Otherworld was a place of pure bliss and joy, but if humans could touch it, it wouldn’t stay like that for long. Fables and legends that only the drunken old men of the Clan would tell once a year before the great harvest, when the worst of their kind opened the Old Gates and soiled the magic that existed inside. Cora wanted to see for herself, and snuck back several more times as a child but couldn’t make the door open again no matter how hard she tried. Also, the countless times Niamh intercepted her in the process of quenching her curiosity stifled the young girl’s attempts. Since the day Cora opened the Old Gates, Cora had a towering shadow of a half-god with a golden eye following her around. Niamh hadn’t let her out of her sight in years. Except for this day, of course, since there were dragons in the valley.

“Whaddya mean, ‘someone?’” Cora caught up to Niamh, two and a half of her steps for every one of the half-god’s. “You don’t think it was me, do you? Do you think I did it sleepwalking?”

“You don’t sleepwalk,” she said over her shoulder. “They aren’t from the valley.”

Cora stopped her pursuit of her guardian. Outsiders didn’t come to the valley. They had sentries, a wall, guards, and the Clan. They were a protected civilization of magic-keepers and traders. Outsiders didn’t come to the valley; humans didn’t come to the valley. Cora picked up after Niamh again.

“Were they human?”

“Maybe.”

Maybe?” Cora caught up alongside Niamh. She was never unsure. Cora looked up at the back of Niamh’s head, and then to the orb, which glowed.

“Come.” Niamh darted off down the rolling valley in huge strides and Cora chased hopelessly behind. Cora knew where they were headed, though — to the piercing shrieks of dragons and the horrified cries of the village.

Cora’s heart pounded in her ears like the old drums her ancestors played before they left on the ships with other members of the Clan. She had a cold ache deep inside of her body, as if there was a portal to the darkest parts of the sea buried in her spine. But Cora continued to chase after Niamh as she chased down the sounds of war. Something happened to her when the cries of innocents rang out. She seemed to grow taller, less human, certainly less like a demi-god and more like an animal. Her movements became predatory, and the aggressors didn’t know they were being hunted.

On a regular day, the valley sloped and swooped down as if the wind carved it in sweeping brush-like motions. The top of the valley was encircled with a wall, beyond that was the tree-line which led to the Old Gates. This was done intentionally, to keep the Gates separated from the village in case something got out. With dragons in the valley, though, the sloping lush hills resembled the aftermath of the earlier wars, things Cora only ever saw in paintings or heard around fires with no detail spared. Deep scars in the ground, grown over with grass and flowers, sat adjacent to new chunks of earth gouged from the claws of the Old Gate dragons. They were angry and ill-mannered when it came to reclaiming their own. Cora’s running turned into direct, downhill leaps as she closed in on the village as well as the charred memorial garden, dedicated to the fallen. Cora inhaled dirt and soot, but knew Niamh needed her. Flowers could be replanted, Niamh could not be brought back from the dead. Or maybe she could. Honestly, it never got that far before, and Cora never saw necromancy practiced on a demi-god.

Niamh made it to the middle of the valley. Scattered were both the injured and dead, blackened rooftops, and a hut still on fire. Niamh lifted her staff above her head; the orb began to glow a white-hot light that put the entire top of the staff out of vision. Cora was still too far away to help but the light was a beacon to the Clan, who were stowed away in the Valley’s last standing bunker.

Two large dragons took turns torching the stone bunker, as if trying to roast the Clan alive. The men desperately screamed from within the hot walls. Niamh raised her staff and the orb became a blade of the blackest dragon scale. She turned her head to yell at Cora either to, “Get down,” or, “Get out of the way,” but the roar of a dragon charging her blocked Cora’s ears. Just to be safe, Cora both got down and out of the way to watch Niamh grapple the teeth of the massive beast.

Cora rolled haphazardly down the hill towards the stone bunker, head over foot, as the sounds of battle echoed around her. She landed on her back and glared into the bright spinning blue, unsure if she was safe, and too nauseous and out of breath to rightfully care. The primal grrrah of Niamh as she killed the dragon caused Cora to stir, and she sat up as the dragon let out gurgles and grunts before falling over to the wayside. Niamh stood over it and placed her heel beside where the dragon scale blade was planted and yanked it out, pleased with herself. Niamh looked at Cora, and her face turned sour. She hiked up her blade and threw it, presumably square at Cora’s head. Cora ducked, unaware of the open mouth behind her, ready to pluck her from the valley. The blade landed in between the dragon’s eyes and it didn’t break eye contact with Cora as it lay dying on the grass. The dragon whispered to the girl, “Leander.”

Niamh walked over silent, stoic, past Cora and to her blade which she retrieved and returned to the form of her magic orb before she scooped Cora off the ground. The men of the Clan filed out, charred and sweaty and damaged. They were quiet, most stared at Cora.

“They came ‘fer ‘yew.” Gregor Sorenson, a not-yet elder, pointed at Cora and looked to Niamh for confirmation.

“Huh?” Cora looked up at Niamh as well, to make sure she told Gregor the dragons baked his brain a little too long.

“Aye, ‘yew. That draco was right prepared to pick ‘yew up in ‘er teeth an’ eat ‘yew.”

“If they wanted to eat her they would have charred her like they were tryin’ to do to you lot of ingrates.” Niamh shouldered past Gregor and the rest of the Clan parted like leaves in the wind to avoid her; She was still very clearly in the fighting mood.

“What’re we ‘sposed to go wit these dracos?” A clansman called out.

“Make a stew,” she replied. "And armor."

Cora obediently followed Niamh. Something was off. After battle or a kill like the dragons, she would retire to the feasting halls for grog and meat. Everyone would wait for her to tell them just how she made it out of the fight, and she’d happily regale the crowds. Instead, they made it to the darkened front door of Niamh’s home. The candles lit on their own and Cora was soon surrounded by a warm, glowing light. Except for Niamh, who looked like a shallow, grayer version of herself. She put an already-filled pot of water over the fireplace and gently rested her staff beside the brick. Cora watched her sit, waiting to be commanded.

“There,” she said. Cora followed Niamh's finger to the empty stool and promptly took a seat. For some reason, Cora felt like she was in trouble.

“That was… something. I wonder who let them out.” Cora stared at Niamh expectantly. She must have known, that’s why she was so upset, Cora thought.

“Gregor was right.”

“The dragon wanted to eat me?”

“No,” she said. Niamh rubbed her face with her hands, only smearing the dirt around. “No. If a dragon is going to eat you they will roast you alive beforehand. Those dragons were here to take you.”

“To where?” Cora sat up straight. Niamh wasn’t making sense. The valley was her home. The Clan was her clan, even if they were rough and rude most of the time.

“Through the Old Gates.” She stood. “More dragons will come. We’ll have to leave the valley.”

“What?!” Cora jumped to her feet. “Me? I live here. This is where I belong.”

“I was wrong. The dragons weren’t let out by someone in the valley. They were sent here from the Otherworld.”

“I thought only deities could send them places.”

“Well someone wants you back.” Niamh paced the wooden floor, creaking and clicking her heels with each step. She was thinking. She stopped and grabbed her staff off the wall. Cora looked down at her feet.

“You’re never wrong, Niamh, but I belong here.”

“You don’t know where you belong.” She sat again. Her tone was flat. “There’s a lot you do not know, Cora, and if we don’t leave the valley I fear you may not have enough time to learn.”

“Niamh,” Cora started, “who is Leander?”

“Where did you hear that name?” Niamh stood up so fast and tall it appeared as if her head would hit the ceiling.

“The dragon—”

“You understood it?” Niamh started for the door. Cora stood to follow.

Young AdultShort StorySeriesMysteryFantasyFableAdventure

About the author

Kaitlin Oster

Professional writer.

Owner - Shadow Work Consulting, LLC

David Lynch MFA Program for Screenwriting with MIU, graduation 2023

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  • Raymond G. Taylor14 days ago

    Congratulations on winner a runner-up prize. Well done!

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