"Chasing The Dragon"
Stella ran, dragon-like, through the endless inferno. All around her was flame, but she didn’t feel it. Henrik ran next to her, and she could see his body covered in the dark, shifting scales. Would they find his father before they, too, became dragons?
At last, Henrik cried out, “I see them!”
Stella followed his gesture and saw two dark blots among the flames—Sigmund the Dragon and his prisoner. Agatha crouched in a patch of blackened soot, her face curled into her lap. Stella noticed that the dress didn’t seem damaged at all; was it some sort of special material Nadia had discovered, resistant to flame? The young woman did not make a sound—probably she had worn herself out screaming as the dragon carried her away. Sigmund waited defensively by, watching the two of them approach, spewing fire wherever his protective circle broke away.
Henrik approached just ahead. “Father!” He cried. “It’s me—Henrik! See, I’ve brought the girl, Nadia’s descendant!”
Sigmund swung his head around and regarded the two of them. Angrily, he sent a blast of fire over their heads, but Henrik and Stella stood their ground.
Stella stepped forward. “My name is Stella; I am the Bride you seek,” she said. “Let me have the Ring, and I can lift this terrible curse.”
Standing there in the heat, Stella could feel all her exposed skin thickening and hardening. It was hard enough to breathe, harder still to see in the blinding light. The dragon snarled at them as it angrily stalked the perimeter of the clearing. Stella wondered if Sigmund was too far gone, if he understood human speech at all by this point. Abruptly, at the far side of the circle, the dragon’s head jerked up, and he took off into the sky with a screech, lost amid the smoke.
Henrik stared helplessly after his father. “Where has he gone? What are we going to do?”
Stella, on the other hand, focused on the terrified figure huddled on the ground. “Agatha!” she called, running toward her.
The tousled dark head came up, revealing the tear-stained, scratched, terrified face underneath. After the fear came anger, and Agatha glared at the scarred young woman before her. “You!” she grunted. “This is all your fault! If you hadn’t gone to the stupid party, Mother wouldn’t have known you had the Ring, and I wouldn’t have had to stand in the Governor’s Court wearing borrowed clothes!” She thrust an arm out, gesturing toward the flames surrounding them. “And now look where we are! I’m going to die out here, and it’s all your fault!”
Stella ignored Agatha’s complaining, as she had so many times before. “Agatha, listen to me! I think I have a way to put an end to this, but I’ll need the Ring—“
Agatha wasn’t listening. She stared over Stella’s shoulder and gasped. “Is that… Henrik?” She clapped grubby hands to her cheeks. “Ugh! What have you done to him? He looks… He’s like you! How awful!” Her mouth curled in a horrified grimace.
The former serving girl saw the red gem still on her finger. “Agatha!” She begged. “Give me the Ring! It was meant for me!”
“Meant for you?” Agatha shrieked over the roar of the fire. “You think just because everything was wonderful when you wore it, but when I put it on everything went terribly wrong, that it means you somehow deserve it, that I’d just hand the ring back to you? Why should I believe you are anything more than a servant?” She plucked the Ring off her finger and held it up between them. “You want this cursed thing?” With a flick of her wrist, Agatha sent it flying into the ring of fire. “Go and get it then, Toad-face!”
Desperately, Stella leaped after the Ring, searching frantically for where it might have landed. The flames nibbled at her eyes and her hair as she dug her fingers into the ashen earth until she felt its familiar shape.
Behind her, Agatha screamed—and so did the dragon. Stella whirled around.
Sigmund had returned, and was tracing trails of fire dangerously close to Agatha. She crawled backward to get away from the flames, but in the process, she moved closer to the ring of fire surrounding her. Henrik fought to stand between the girl and the flames, but his father merely dodged around him, bombarding his victim from the air.
With trembling hands, Stella fumbled the Ring until she could slip it onto her finger. Unlike before, her skin didn’t change this time, but she held up her hand in the air anyway and called out, “Dragon! The Bride of Drakistos summons thee!”
A powerful gust of wind rolled over the fire, and much of the flame extinguished, plunging them all into star-studded darkness. The sudden shadows danced before their eyes, making it hard for anyone to distinguish their surroundings. In her blindness, Stella felt a hard, knobby hand slip over hers and hold it tight.
“I’m here,” Henrik croaked, his throat parched and likely scaled over.
A massive claw almost as big as Stella’s whole body landed in the dirt right in front of them.
“You have summoned me?” rumbled a deep, rolling voice overhead.
Stella blinked until her eyes adjusted, and she could see the Dragon standing before her, its scales dark as the midnight sky, and sparkling like stars in the small firelight that remained. Its terrible size dwarfed Sigmund, who crouched defensively before it. She saw that its tail reached around the entire clearing. She stepped forward, tilting her head back to look into the Dragon’s face.
“I have come, bearing the Ring of Drakistos,” she held it up for the Dragon to see, “to ask you to lift the curse upon this family.”
The Dragon crouched lower, bringing his enormous head nearer to the pair standing in front of him.
“Only a descendant of Despina, wife of General Drakistos—the first woman to summon me through the portal—can bear the Ring and reopen the portal to send me back to my own realm. Only a descendant of Nadia Drakistos, the Bride and last true heir of the Drakistos lineage, would receive the curse of the Dragon’s Mark I placed upon her and upon the son of the Barbarian Chieftain who threatened both of us—Sigmund Gabbaldursson.” He paused as Henrik ventured a glance at the small dragon burying its head in shame behind them.
Stella nodded. “I am Stella Drakistos, descendant of Nadia Drakistos.”
A rumble resounded in the Dragon’s chest. “In fact, you are her daughter, and the true heir of the Drakistos holdings. Which means,” he swung his head to look upon Henrik, “that this must be the son and heir of Sigmund, since he has suffered a similar fate.”
Henrik stood firm and nodded. “I am,” he announced in a rasping voice.
The Dragon lifted its head. “And these two!” Its tail shifted, knocking the smaller dragon and the petrified young woman closer to him. “Sigmund Gabbaldursson, it would appear that you did not seek out the Bride yourself, or you would not have been fooled by this impersonator who laid false claim upon the title of Bride, and suffer a greater transformation from the Mark I laid upon you!”
Sigmund bellowed loudly, accompanied by the sound of Agatha’s pitiful whimpering.
“Dragon!” Stella called his attention back to her. “I believe we have suffered enough the consequences of our own choices. If you would lift this curse upon us all, I will consent to open the portal and send you back to your own realm.”
The Dragon blinked once, very slowly. “Indeed,” it said. “It is time for me to return, and all things are in order. The Ring carries the power because of your lineage, Stella Drakistos. Release it into the ground.”
Henrik took a step back as Stella crouched down and pressed her hand into the ground, just as the mysterious Greek woman from her dream had done. Tiny tendrils of light slithered along the soil, gathering up in the center of the clearing until a sharp spike like a brilliant firework raced up into the sky. Where it exploded, a hole seemed to open in the clouds, but instead of the clear night sky, a different sky showed. The wind raced around them like a whirlwind, extinguishing what little fire there was left. The Dragon lifted off with a roar, headed through the portal in the sky. When he passed through the barrier, it slammed shut behind him with a clap of thunder.
Everything lay still. Stella shivered as the cold of the night reached her, and she gripped her arms to conserve body heat. Her hands met smooth skin. Surprised, she looked down at herself. The Ring had disappeared, but she no longer had scales over her body! Stella rubbed her palms against each other, marveling at the way it felt.
“Stella!” Henrik’s voice recalled her to the present. She looked up to see him at the far side of the clearing, cradling the body of a very, very old man.
Henrik’s voice sounded hoarse as he hugged the man. “Father…” he whispered.
Sigmund—all the centuries he had lived finally catching up to him—reached a trembling, bone-thin hand to grasp his son’s wrist. “Henrik,” he croaked hoarsely. “I’m sorry.”
Tears slid down Henrik’s face. “Sorry for what?” he asked.
Sigmund’s breathing came thick and rattling. “Sorry… that I let… my pride… and vanity… keep me from telling you… the truth. I could have told you… about Nadia… about the Ring… about… the true Heir of Drakistos… but I… chose to hide… rather than tell you… what a drunk fool… I was… and how my own father… Gabbaldur… almost killed… an innocent woman… doomed our family…”
Henrik held his father close, nodding fiercely. “It’s all right, father,” he said. “I forgive you!”
Stella herself tried to keep silent as tears streamed down her face. Sigmund raised his gaze and reached a gnarled hand toward her.
“Stella…” he rasped. “To you I… owe… the greatest debt… Everything… I have… should have been yours… I should have found you… sooner… Should have taken… you in… I am… sorry… so sorry… that I did not… find you…”
Stella smiled and cradled his hand in hers. “You didn’t find me,” she whispered, “But Henrik did.” The young man looked up at her, and they smiled.
The rattling in Sigmund’s breath increased. Henrik gently crossed his father’s arms in front of Sigmund’s chest.
“Go in peace, Father,” whispered the son.
Silence reigned, as Sigmund at last slipped away into death.
The next morning, the whole village of Kadros turned out in the Grand Piazza for the second day of festival celebrations—but instead, they bore witness as Henrik Sigmundson stood atop the wall around the Drakistos estate, on a platform, and announced that his father had passed away in the night, and that he had found a suitable bride in none other than Stella Drakistos—the last true heir of that name. The festival turned into a celebration of their betrothal, and nearly everyone wished the happy couple a long and prosperous life.
Meanwhile, back at the Villa di Farfalle…
Jacintha sat rigid in her armchair as she listened to the cheers and happy music from the Piazza. She had stood there long enough to see the radiant woman presented as the true heir of Drakistos and the impending bride of Henrik, and she had left as soon as social etiquette dictated she could. Minutes later, Agatha returned to her alone, covered in soot, dirt, and streaked with blood from wounds on her cheeks. In her hands, she bore a letter with the Drakistos seal. Jacintha had sent her to bathe immediately, and now waited for her daughter to return, freshly beautified.
While she waited, Jacintha opened the letter and read—
Dear Jacintha Farfalle—
I am writing to inform you that you are no longer connected in any way to the House of Drakistos. As such, you may not use the name as credit, you may not avail yourself of the House coffers, and you are hereby stripped of your title.
In recognition of the fact that you did provide the last surviving member of the Drakistos family with a place to live, I will allow you and your daughter to remain in the villa and remain in possession of everything that you currently own, but the maintenance of the house and grounds, the food that you eat, and the clothes that you wear must be provided from your own pocket. I hope that as you learn to survive on your own, you will cultivate a more generous heart toward those less fortunate than you—because you never know when you might become one of them.
That being said, if you ever have need of anything, you may ask for it at the Drakistos Gate. Lady Drakistos gives freely to all.
Lady Stella Drakistos
Jacintha read the name at the end, and all the blood seemed to drain from her face. A wave of dizziness spread over her as she looked around at the enormous house and the half-scrubbed floor that was hers to finish and maintain, without any dependence on others. To the woman who had enjoyed such luxury for most of her life, the mere thought of lifting a finger seemed a cruel punishment, as just as it may have been.
“Mother…” Agatha’s voice trembled as she entered the room.
Jacintha looked over at her daughter, the last bit of her normal life she could cling to… but—
“Good heavens!” She wailed as Agatha turned to face her. “What is that?”
Over half of Agatha’s cheek, the scars of Sigmund’s dragon claws stood out: shallow, pale furrows forever marring her skin.
Agatha burst into tears. “I tried to cover it! I used every kind of plaster and makeup there is, but nothing worked!” She cast herself petulantly upon the couch. “I’m ruined! I’ll be ugly for the rest of my life!”
Ugly… Jacintha thought about Stella’s old scars, the fact that she looked like an entirely new person, while her own Agatha had taken on the ghastly appearance. Justice indeed! Jacintha could only pat her daughter’s head in consolation, as they resigned themselves to their new lives as average citizens.
Henrik and Stella lived generously and governed Kadros fairly, and passed these habits and practices down to their children, and on down through the generations of the Drakistos family. The Drakistos Curse became the Drakistos Blessing, and the Dragon’s Mark continued to impact the city long into the hereafter.