"So you've met the new girl," my friend Pike smirked, patting my back. "She's a real firecracker, that one. She has more rumors around her than anyone I've ever heard about, and all of them scream 'stay away!' You should listen to that advice, Damon. That girl isn't good for you."
"But there's just something about her...," I murmured, moving towards the library. Pike grabbed my shoulders, turning me to face him. "I'm my own person, Pike. You can't stop me from at least greeting her."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. The girl's had it rough. People keep messing with her, introducing themselves kindly to get closer before going in for the kill. She's dangerous, untrusting. She's an animal, Damon, and not the good kind. You need to give her space. Stay away," he said sternly. I shook my head, pulling away from him and heading inside.
The furthest corner was the hottest, burning through my light sweater and making my skin ooze from the humidity. She was alone, sitting at the back table, her eyes glued to a book. Her binder was wide open, her left hand taking eager notes as she flipped through the pages. Was she a genius, I thought, or was the book just something familiar? I inched closer, taking a seat at the table beside her.
The spine of the book came into view during one of her more violent flips. I caught the title, Jewels of the Ancient World, as she did. I smiled, wondering if she was a geology major like Pike. Wouldn't he love to know the girl he told me to stay away from had something in common with him?
The sound of flipping broke my thoughts. I looked up from the table to see her emerald eyes burning a hole through me while her left hand scribbled notes. I stared too long, causing her to clear her throat.
"Oh, sorry," I smiled. "Am I bothering you?"
"Slightly," she responded, flipping again. "I'm in the middle of something important. You should leave me to it," she said sternly, her eyes flickering. I wondered if the lights flashed or if she did that herself, but I did so silently. I nodded to her, standing and moving towards the main aisle of the library. Shelves of books lined either side, and I moved into the closest row to her, eying her through the books. "Farther away, please?" she called to me, closing the book on jewels and moving to another.
"Are you sure I can't help you with your research?" I asked, watching her flip through pages some more, scribbling furiously as she did. I moved closer, causing her to stop. "Is that a no?"
"I cannot be bothered with your petty affairs. What exactly do you want to do to me? Flick ice cubes at me? Try to spray water up my skirt? What?!" she exclaimed, standing quickly and sending her chair backwards. The already silent library filled with a quiet tension as I shook my head sternly, disagreeing with her. She scoffed, sitting up her chair and plopping onto it. "I won't be here much longer. They won't have a chance to hurt me anymore."
"You aren't planning something, are you?" I asked, concerned. I took a seat across from her, which got a glance and a low growl but nothing more. She continued her notes before looking up to me again, her hand still writing.
"I'm not like you, okay? I don't 'plan' to leave here; it just happens," she said quickly, flipping another page. "You wouldn't understand. There's nothing abnormal about you, with your sporty looks and obvious tan. Spring just started but you look like summer came early," she spat, flipping the pages again.
"I work landscaping on the weekends to make ends meet," I murmured. "The tan comes with the job."
"So you're not one of the rich kids sent here on daddy's money? Well I apologize. I'm not either, but after everything you see around here, you just assume that everyone will live off a trust fund when they leave here, if they decide to go somewhere else and stop tormenting you."
"I assume the same things. Even my best friend has a trust fund waiting for him. He thinks I go off on the weekend to party with girls, since I always come back tired with headaches from the sun. I've never corrected him. I didn't want to feel like an outsider," I whispered. She nodded sympathetically as she flipped another page.
"I shouldn't judge people so harshly, but if you knew what my family and I have been through over the years, you'd understand completely. We'd retreat from this world entirely, if we could. We try hiding, but it doesn't work," she murmured, flipping another page and another right after. Her hand still hadn't quit writing. "You don't hide from society, just the place you have in it, correct?" she asked. I nodded. "I want to hide from every part of it. I'm too trusting though. I keep talking to people, hoping at least one of them won't do what the last ones did. I'm doing that right now though, aren't I? I'm trusting you to not hurt me, to not see if the rumors and lies and possible truths are real," she said quickly, eying me darkly as she turned another page. "I just can't step back, can I? I just have to keep running my big mouth."
"You're talking to someone who doesn't even know the rumors, likes, and possible truths," I smiled. "I'm too trusting myself. That's why I have to go away on the weekends. I didn't start out here. I had to move here because I trusted my money-hungry roommate to be okay with knowing a working-class citizen. He called me some harsh names and got his frat boy friends to join in. I was tormented everywhere I went. It was so bad that my professors noticed. They told me to go into hiding, to turn in any assignments that I could on the spot, then finish the term with research papers. As soon as grades were posted, I left and went home to find answers. This was my last hope, so I got an application. I'm here on scholarship, but I work to save up money for later. No one understands that. No one who knew the truth would even attempt to understand that. You might, but I could be running my big mouth too much as well," I smiled. She turned a page before grinning back.
"I don't tell anyone my secrets anymore, but I thank you for sharing yours. Now please, I have two days to study whatever I can, then I'll be gone. You'll never see me again, okay? You can't!" she said sternly, turning another page of her book and yet another in her notebook.
"I just...maybe somewhere private? I think you need some help," I whispered. She shook her head sternly, her eyes flickering wildly again. "I have a number. I have limited time to use it, but I'd be willing to listen to anything you had to say. Please, give me a chance, okay? I want to help you see that all of us aren't that bad; it just looks that way sometimes. Can you give me that chance?" I asked, sliding the scrap paper with the number towards her. She eyed it as she turned the page again.
"I make no promises," she whispered, eyeing the main aisle of the library. "You should leave now. Someone is watching from over there and I don't want any trouble."
"I understand," I replied, nodding to her before heading to main aisle. Pike was there, meeting me in the aisle and walking with me towards the exit. She watched the whole way, wondering what I would say about her. I winked at her, zipping my lips before leaving the building. She nodded in understanding, but her piercing gaze hit me as we walked towards the lecture hall, wondering if I would keep to my word.
Later in the day, a line formed outside the cafeteria. It was more of a mob than a line, a group of angry, shouting people all begging to get inside. There were two staff members there who remained quiet, though they would force people away from the door if they got too close. Soon the begging turned to outrage at the stoic staff members, who stood without a word as the group got larger. Instead of begging to get in, we started begging for answers, chanting loudly until a third staff member appeared from inside the building. He stood on top of a nearby stump, silencing the group almost instantly.
"There's been an incident inside. There's damage, so we'll serve from the kitchen window. You are to eat here in the courtyard, then deposit the dishes back inside. No exceptions, and if anyone disobeys, you will be punished," he said sternly. He signaled for us to form two lines before returning inside. The other staff members put his plan into motion, putting us into two neat lines. Pike was in the first line; I was in the second one. Far behind us, the line ended. Everyone remained silent.
As we passed one of the windows that looked into the usual seating areas, I noticed small fires burning. I instantly grew red, causing Pike to tap my arm. I turned to him, shaking my head before he could ask his question. He glanced at me a few times before looking back to his line, careful to keep pace so no one grew unhappy.
When we finally had our food, we took a spot in an empty corner of the courtyard. This was one of the highest points of the campus, allowing us to see over some of the buildings and to the woods behind them. A fire-like light flickered through the trees, following the trails. Flashlights followed behind shortly after, catching Pike's gaze.
"So that's what you were staring at," he whispered. "What do you think is going on?"
"I don't want to answer that," I replied softly, taking a bite of food. "It gives me chills, whatever's going on."
"Same here," he grunted, biting into his sandwich as a blast of fire came from the woods. No one else saw it, but Pike and I certainly did. He finished chewing quickly and knocked my arm. "What do you think they'd do to us if we joined the hunt?"
"I was just wondering the same thing," I grinned. "They don't have to know," I said, standing. He followed me, shoving a few bites of food into his mouth as we went down the hill and back to the kitchen window. Our dishes were accepted, and we quickly bolted towards the dorms, which were located just next to the woods. No one even attempted to stop us as we began running up the path, following the lights ahead of us.
"How far away was that blast?" Pike asked after a few minutes, panting heavily. I shrugged, following another blast that shot up into the sky.
"They're headed towards the mountains," I said, noticing the path becoming rockier as we climbed gently upwards.
"Shadowmark Cave?" Pike asked. I gave no response, but I was thinking of his question.
The cave had been there for centuries, but it had rarely been explored. Legend said various veins of precious metals and gems lay deep inside, but anyone who tried to enter was found dead just outside the cave, burnt to a crisp. The few books on the cave described other similar caves in other mountains of the region, but none could say exactly what was inside.
"Whoa, look at this!" Pike gasped, stopping suddenly. I moved back to his place on the path, looking down. Large tracks marked the rocky earth with four toes and obviously long nails. "It reminds me of my brother's lizard, but those tracks are way smaller. We don't have any large reptiles around here though. It gets too cold."
"You're right," I panted, looking up the mountain. "That sign there says point-five miles to the cave. The lights are in another mountain, but that last blast of fire came from here. I'm going in."
"We don't have the right equipment. Oh! The cabin on the cross-country trail!" he exclaimed. "It's just a little ways back. I could be back in five minutes."
"I'll go in alone then," I whispered, looking back up the trail. Pike pulled at my shoulder, turning me back towards him.
"You're being reckless again, Damon. First you talk to that girl, despite what I told you, and now you want to go into a dangerous cave by yourself? You've almost lost it, kid. Come back with me and get the right equipment. If the legends are true, then I doubt it'll really matter, but we've come this far," he shrugged, turning back. After taking a few steps, he looked back up to me. I hadn't moved. "Come on, man, you can't be serious."
"I am serious," I said calmly. "I'm going in. If you aren't okay with that, so be it. I'll see you later then."
"I'll have to tell them you're in there. I won't follow you because I'm not okay with this. You need to be prepared, and if you aren't going to do that, I'll tell them," he murmured. I thought for a moment, knowing any disciplinary actions would always lead to the removal of my scholarships. This journey felt more important than any scholarships, so I made my decision. I turned up the path and disappeared into the trees. I felt Pike watch me as I disappeared, then he moved towards the flashlights, trying to flag someone down. I didn't care; I was going into the cave whether anyone liked it or not.
The heat was intense. As soon as I entered the cave's opening, I removed my sweater, leaving it on a rock a few feet from the entrance. I took one last look at it for good measure before moving past the opening room.
Despite my going into a room inside a mountain, it wasn't dark. Fires burned in the next room, lighting the tiny corridor. I followed it, careful not to touch the hot walls. My arm brushed against the rock, making me hiss in pain. I wondered how it could be doing that as I entered the second room.
Scales lined the floor, scattering across the room. A bookshelf made of stone sat next to the largest pile. I recognized the Jewels of the Ancient World book from earlier, as well as a few more from the girl's stack. I wondered how they managed to get here as I heard a noise nearby. I looked up to see a small path leading downwards. I followed it slowly, careful to avoid the burning walls, and I eventually came into a small room that was slightly dark. I peered around, looking for any light sources that I could use, before seeing movement in the corner.
"Who's there?" I called quietly, my voice echoing through the room. The shadow jumped, turning towards me. The light from the path leading into the room reflected off something. Two green glimmers caught my gaze and I moved towards them, inching ever closer. "Who's there?" I asked again. The shadow backed further into the corner, a low growl coming from it.
As I moved closer, the shadow bolted to the other side of the room. The green glimmers flashed me again. The light was stronger on that side of the room, and the shadow's features came into view. Brown-looking scales reflected the orange light, and yellow claws grabbed at the dirt floor, taking in light and giving them a golden appearance. The green glimmers were eyes, and as I realized who the creature resembled, I stopped in place.
"It's you, isn't it?" I asked, kneeling down. "This cave is guarded by dragons. That's why no one is allowed inside. And you? You are a dragon. But you're human too, or you were. Can you tell me what happened?" I asked. The creature growled before inching towards the wall. The dragon disappeared onto a path, and I cautiously followed it to the next room.
Pictures littered the floor, all of them peeling from the walls, which were dripping with water. A bed sat on a rock slab, another rock serving as a side table. On top was a notebook, soaked from the water. The dragon was curled up next to it, its emerald eyes looking onto the damage with sadness.
"How did this happen?" I asked, inching closer. She pulled away, moving to the side wall of the room. It had no other corridors, trapping her inside with me. I eyed her carefully before moving to the notebook. A low growl came from the dragon, but otherwise there was no protesting.
Despite the water, some of the ink remained. Some of it was too smudged to read, but other areas were perfectly clear. One of the first entries caught my eye:
The change happens when a young person comes into adulthood at approximately age twenty. They must acquire all the knowledge they can leading up to this point, as when they enter their new form, their abilities to interpret language diminish. They can hear and understand language, but they cannot use it properly. Writing is impossible, and speaking is even more so. No other forms of communication have been discovered.
I looked up to the dragon sympathetically before turning the page. The rest was completely ruined with only a few words appearing per page. I sighed before gently putting the notebook back on the table. I then looked upwards trying to see where the water was coming from. The dragon grunted, moving towards the bed. I noticed a small shelf behind it. The books on it remained somewhat dry, with only their bindings showing any moisture. I grabbed them, moving towards the path leading out of the room. She immediately moved into my way, growling darkly.
"I have a sweater towards the entrance I can wrap these up and hide them in another room," I explained. The dragon remained, so I kneeled again. "I want to help you, okay? I think I get it now. Somehow, you were born a human who would one day turn into a dragon. You came here for knowledge, but humans ruined that for you. Your change also came earlier than you expected, catching you off guard. You're what happened to the cafeteria, and you're the person the staff seems to be chasing. You don't want to defend yourself and cause harm. You merely want to be left alone, but you're willing to use fire to do so, correct?" I asked. The dragon cocked its head, making the emerald eyes catch the light and flicker gently. "I read about someone like that in a book, a fantasy novel. It wasn't real, they said, but it felt so real. The dragon was slain at the end, but so was the human trying to protect it. Others remain, the book said, carefully hidden by Dragon Masters who have given up their lives to protect them. I'll be your Master."
The dragon gently moved to the side, but her tail remained in my path. I tried to step over, but she flicked it at me. I looked towards her eyes, but a glint of metal caught my eye. I moved towards it, and she moved to allow me to. A sword was lying against the wall behind her.
"I've used a wooden sword before, and I've done fencing. Hopefully that's enough preparation if I have to use this," I smiled, attaching its sheave to my hip. "It's much heavier than those items, but I'll manage," I said, moving towards the path. This time she didn't stop me, but she did watch me as I moved into the second room. That's where she waited for me as I moved towards the entrance of the cave.
"He went in there," Pike said loudly. I moved into the path leading to the entrance cautiously. Everything was quiet until the moment I grabbed my sweater and began wrapping it around the books. I heard the voices approaching, but now they were just outside, their flashlights flickering into the first room.
"We can't go in without special permission from the rangers. We're looking for a destructive student right now, not an amateur spelunker. Go back to campus where you belong and we'll look for him when the ranger tells us we can, which'll be in the morning," the man explained.
"That's not good enough! Look, I know it's getting dark, but he's in there without equipment. We have to do something about it!" Pike said sternly.
"As an official responsible for the lives of others, I understand. But there's nothing I can do without other official and responsible people. I need the ranger's permission, and he'll gather the equipment we need to go inside. We're paper-pushers with flashlights, kid. We can't do anything about it," the man explained, moving with some others in the opposite direction.
"Fine! I've got equipment! I'll go in by myself!" he called to them, taking a defiant step inside.
"Like hell you will, Pike Sanders!" a gruff man shouted. I recognized him to be the dean of the physical science depart, which included Pike's department of geology. "I heard you guys were headed towards the caves. You can't go in there, even with the ranger's permission. It's at risk for a cave-in because of the winter thaw. The heat from the cave cracks the rocks that touch the outside, and with all that melting snow, it's too dangerous. Maybe this summer we'll head inside, but not now."
"There's someone already in there!" Pike exclaimed.
"Tough!" the dean bellowed, moving towards the entrance of the cave and pulling Pike towards the path. "We'll head back. The ranger can keep an eye on the place for any people or any cave-ins. Otherwise, we need to leave before we make the situation worse."
"Do you think our missing terrorist is in there?" another man called. The gruff man scoffed.
"Whoever burned your precious cafeteria had good reason to. You should've replaced that furniture ten years ago when it died the first time. Take it as a good blessing and use the insurance money to buy more fashionable furniture. And as for the kitchen, I don't see why they didn't get that too. The food is deplorable; the cave bats eat better than we do and they eat bugs!" the dean ranted, his gruff voice fading as the group moved down the path.
I moved into the second room, carefully wrapping up the other books and putting them all on a middle shelf, careful to keep everything underneath the top one.
Suddenly, I heard some rocks move behind me. I turned to see Pike, flashlight drawn, his head shaking as he moved towards me.
"Stealing library books? You have to be kidding me, Damon. Let's go back before they expel us both, okay?" he asked, trying to reach for my arm. I drew my new sword, sending him backwards.
"I'm not going anywhere. I have important business here, and you can't make me leave," I said sternly.
"Where did you get that? Those are dangerous!"
"Don't worry about it," I said, moving towards him. "Go back the way you came, Pike. I'll leave when my duties are completed. I'm needed here."
"Just answer me one question then: Is the person who burned the cafeteria in here too?" Pike asked. I made no response. "Damon, they need to know, okay? The cops are at the school now and they'll want to file charges."
"They aren't here," I replied quietly, "and they won't ever find the person who did it. I'm sure of it."
"Damon, I don't like your tone. What do you know?"
"You asked your one question, Pike. You need to leave now, and you need to stay away," I said sternly but in a soft tone. Pike sighed before moving towards the entrance.
"I know your secrets, Damon. I know you work for a living and are only here on scholarship. It's okay to be like that, but I don't see why you're doing this. School is more important to someone like you, someone who actually needs the degree to get where we already are. I'm here to burn time until my fund matures, but you? You're here maturing yourself. Why you're throwing it away all of the sudden bothers me, and that sword? You've got to be kidding me. Are we living in some sort of game here? Swords aren't needed anymore, and hardly anyone knows how to use one," he said quickly, stopping just short of the entrance.
"I know how to use one. I know what I'm doing, okay? Schooling is important, but other things are as well. I can prioritize, can't I? And you don't have to cover for me. Your being kind despite knowing that is enough for me."
"Is that what this is about? People may've bullied you elsewhere for something like that, but I commend you. You're better than anyone here, but not like this. No one looks good wandering around a dangerous cave with a sword strapped to them, at least not anymore."
"Times intersect. I'll work things out, okay? Thanks for trying to help, but I've got everything under control," I said calmly, eying the cave's entrance. Pike nodded, moving towards it.
"I'll see you around, okay? And don't tell me I won't," he said sternly, quickly keeping me from saying otherwise. I watched him leave before heading back to the emerald-eyed dragon, careful to avoid the scorching walls as I did.
I learned more about her as we spent more time together. The vocal skills of a dragon are limited, but she could scratch the floor and make pictures to get her points across. We hunted at night to feed ourselves and used her flooded bedroom for water. We gradually used sturdy logs to strengthen the cave, keeping it from falling. No geology students ever came to search the place: From what I understood, Pike protested the idea, citing that legends and history would go against explorers entering such a sacred place. While he visited a few times, we never spoke of why I was there, why I had abandoned civilization to protect something with a sword strapped to my side.
One of the books in our collection mentioned others like us. It was another book by the author I'd read, another fiction piece. We agreed never to seek out the others. Like us, they had their own reasons to do whatever it is they did. In the modern world, dragons and their masters would be looked down on, and the dragons would be slain for scientific purposes. They could live to be hundreds of years old, she told me, so many masters dedicated their whole lives to protecting them. I vowed to be one of them, but I hope someone takes over after I'm gone. We work together, keeping people away from the Shadowmark Cave and away from our secrets. Loud roaring or suggestive grunts keep away a wide variety of people, so we've been alone so far, just as we want it to be.
As for the treasure, I never asked if there was any mysterious ore veins inside. The real treasure, protecting the dragon child, was enough for me. I would have plenty of time to explore the other paths of the cave if I wanted to, but I never did. The cave is a sacred place, not for the weak at heart or the greedy soul. If the legends are true, so be it. I'll let someone else find out. I'm happy as I am, accepting the call of the emerald-eyed dragon.