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Shadow of the Mountain

A young hunter grew up believing that dragons were all wiped out hundreds of years ago until she stumbled upon something unexpected.

By Elizabeth Kaye DaughertyPublished 2 years ago 5 min read

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. 200 years ago the fireside stories about the beasts were testimony and warning, not tales of a bygone time used to frighten children who disobeyed their parents.

Parents like mine. They taught me how to hunt, and they learned from my grandparents, who learned from theirs, who learned from the dragon hunters. Our village grew around the graveyard of the honored fallen, our revered hunters in the shadow of the Gonobai mountain. When I looked down from its ridges, I saw the only place I’d ever known and when I held up my thumb, all but its monumental grave disappeared.

Wind dusted icy snow across my shoulder and loosened my braid. I tucked it back under my goatskin and fur-lined hood, forcing me to draw my hand back and focus on the tracks woven between snow-laden tree branches before me.

The arrows on my back had seen many mountain goats, deer, and rabbit, but these tracks, blown over as they were, didn’t remind me of them. They pressed close near tree trunks and spread wide in the open. Was it hunting as well? Stalking a prey I couldn’t discern?

A wolf’s howl sang across the barbed spine of the mountain, and possibilities tingled in my fingers... along with a chill that grew from within.

I traipsed the sheer edges of the cliff that only goats scaled - more times than I could count, I’d picked them off this way. Yet the deep ruts in the snow veered away from what I considered prime hunting ground and led deeper into the thick brush stretching upward from the base, from the Valley. Roots spread along stony outcroppings and pushed away from the dirt. Ice chunks fluttered from the top of a distant waterfall and crashed into the thawing river below.

I wedged myself between the spring painted sky and the sludge coating the mountain. An upward thrust arrow piercing the air, preparing to soar once the bow releases.

And my target?

Evening light settled as I lost and caught the trail yet again. It lured me through the rippling steppes of Gonobai beyond any place I’d hunted before. I didn’t see a hint of the usual goats I picked off. In fact, the deeper I went, the less I saw of tracks and scat from other creatures. Even the wolves had gone silent.

A crown of stars sat atop the peak of Gonobai, towering above me. A lone hunter becomes prey, my mother once told me. The village and its graveyard waited over my shoulder and my bow sat cold against my back. Even though I knew the comfort of my bed at home, still I slung a rope over a sturdy branch and pressed my boots along the tree’s bark. I hung more rope and blankets for a tent and secured them with knots I’d all but done in my sleep.

Against the darkness, with chewy bark between my teeth - my reward for a failed hunt - stars descended along the jagged horizon. Clouds slipped along jetstreams. Breezes stirred them up and brought along the scent of sulfur into my hanging tent.

I plucked a splinter from between my teeth and flicked it to the snowy ground. A flap of the blanket rustled and sent shivers from my neck to the base of my spine. Sulfur?

As I wrangled the blanket back in place, I looked closer at the mountain’s silhouette and the fog rolling along it. Not descending from the sky.

Rumors said that Gonobai’s hot springs were as rejuvenating as they were hard to find. Had the creature I’d tracked all this way unknowingly brought me to one?

Even without the sunlight, I had little trouble finding the closest source; my nose held the advantage over my eyes. Steam circled the roof of the cave, and where it met the mouth, half-solid icicles dripped like drool-coated teeth. The sticky heat made its way through the wrinkles of my leathers and between the furs that wrapped me. I let out a grateful sigh and the slightest breath of an echo responded.

I crept forward with the sounds of dripping water masking my shuffling feet and delved into the warm pocket of earth and stone. My layers shed gradually as I recognized the rhythm of the inside of the cave and my own body thrummed along with it. Slumber eased upon me as I set my bow across my lap and leaned my head against the cave wall.

Drip... drip...


I jolted from sleep and reached for my quiver of arrows as it tilted from my leg and slapped against the ground. The arrows scattered with woody, clattering thunder that rippled through the air. I startled and scraped them up, gathering them haphazardly in my arms as though that could stop the wave of sounds that reached ever further into the darkness within the cave...

... Deep enough to rouse the throaty cries of something else that slumbered within.

My booming heart crowded the sounds in my ears as I rose to my feet and peered into a darkness not as complete as I thought. A flickering light in the distance beckoned me. The tracks had shown me the way here, and now I could feel their source. No longer was I the lone hunter at risk of becoming hunted; I was the apex.

More creaky noises of a creature snuffling, grinding its teeth, whispering to the shadows traipsed closer as I followed a path that illuminated below my feet - a bioluminescent moss that responded to my pressure in a display of vibrant light and cast figures of its shapes along my vision.

As well as the sight of spreading wings, of a beast that leaned backward and upward, uncurling its body against the might of the cave.

Silently, I notched my arrow and drew the bow with the swelling of my lungs.

The two of us hunters spread wide as the sky.

I released. In the snap second after I loosed the arrow, the identity of my target surfaced in my sight like the glow of the cave enhanced in perfect spotlight to show me the fate I sought: My arrow sailed through the beating heart of a dragon.

It screeched as its narrow body reacted to being speared, writhing and flapping wings so powerful they kicked up a whirlwind inside the space. I covered my face as the sound of water dripping became a flowing stream of blood. The caverns projected its dying gurgles. The dragon collapsed. Lifeless.

My shaking breaths encompassed all my senses as I tiptoed forward. As the mystic forces of the Gonobai mountain brought me to see what I had done.

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Generations ago, they flew and vied against the sun before they died out. That was what my elders told me.

Now, the bloodless corpse of what may have been the last dragon of Gonobai lay sprawled across its clutch of eggs.


About the Creator

Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty

Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty, or EKD for short, enjoys a good story, cats, and dragons.

Though she has always written fiction, she found a love of creative nonfiction while studying at Full Sail University.

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