It existed where things seemed nonexistent, where the fantastical breached the physical. There stood a cove of tremendous height, the entire mountain shrouded in a powerful shield of magic. Without a proper system to counteract it, the mountain would not have been able to be seen nor felt; it was wholly possible to walk straight through it without even knowing it was there, but that was clearly the intention in the first place. Bells jingled softly in the wind and rain, each attached to a separate hovering crystal orb. Together, they formed a great circle in the empty air, revealing the mountainous cavern mouth but no more. Within the ring of orbs was a transparent vortex, like a film of gyrating water, that blurred the shadowy crags inside. Only able to see what the orbs provided, it appeared as if the cave and the mountain it resided in were on a different plane altogether.

The sight of the swirling chasm only made Marciel ride faster, the messenger falling even further behind. They had really done it. Nearly a month it had taken them, but now their mission was almost complete. She could almost taste their success. When she came within a foot of the large cavity, she slowed, dismounted, and took her white horse by the reins. With a bit of coaxing, they traveled through the supernaturally created opening, easily passing through with only a minor pressure and a gust of wind.

The cove was dank and musty, even more than usual as a result of the month's worth of unremitting rain. Small streams flowed down from crevices while other places simply dripped water from the cavern's ceiling. The cave floor was completely submerged, and the humidity made it uncomfortable to remain in any one location for very long. Marciel took a look behind her in search of the soldier that had been sent as messenger. From inside, there was no translucent vortex, no blurring of the other side. The magical barrier they had attempted to neutralize did not affect the interior; it made sense that the outside could be seen unmarred from inside the cove. As soon as she sighted the envoy on his brown steed, she gave a curt nod as explanation and continued onward.

Her blue hair was drenched, and the band that held it back in her ponytail was beginning to sag due to the additional weight. The rain had run past her armor and soaked into her clothes, and the puddles she now stepped in engulfed her combat boots. Ahead was a corner with a sharp turn to the right; from it came a tall, well-built man, heavy armor covering most of his body. "Captain," he greeted, proceeding excitedly toward her. Marciel gave a nod in turn.

"Lieutenant Harleigh, is this what I believe it is?"

"Yes, Captain," he replied enthusiastically, falling in line with her steady steps. "This place was difficult to find, but we finally did it. I told you it couldn't hide from us for very long. Alongside our mages, we managed to mostly negate the beast's protective magic – the new technology the empire gave us to test worked wonderfully."

"I saw, Lieutenant Harleigh," Marciel returned with a smile. "It was hard to miss and a marvel to observe. Excellent work." The man beamed.

"Captain, wait until you see how we tied the beast down." They turned the corner, and the sight left Marciel breathless. The rugged passageway became a wide expanse of at least four hundred feet wide and equally as tall. No apparent gap gave light from outside, though the month's dark days would have plunged the cave into shadows regardless and the heavy precipitation would have turned the cave into a pool if such an opening existed. To compensate for the lack of sunlight, torches – their torches – had been placed on the walls and enhanced with magic so that every important area of the large cave chamber could be seen.

In the center of it all was a colossal creature with a red so rich rulers would pay an infinite amount in order to obtain its color. Large, beautiful scales covered its skin, leaving only the underside of its body and its two wide, leathery wings exposed. Elongated talons extended from its five digits on each of its four main limbs, and spikes protruded in uniform increments from its powerful tail. It gave a snarl, opening its great mouth to reveal pointed, sharp teeth, and laid its relatively small ears flat in irritation. Moving forward only slightly, it leered at them with large, serpent-like eyes.

"A dragon," Marciel exhaled, realizing she had been holding her breath. A flush had run to her cheeks in her stunned excitement. It advanced with a greater force, but magical wires stopped it in its tracks. From its arms, legs, wings, and tail were resilient, lustrous, mystical blue ropes. Each cord of magic came from an individual crystal orb, and on each orb was a bell that seemed to ring independently of outside forces – they were the same as the ones which had revealed the cave's entrance. The empire's advancements in magical technology were proving worthwhile; she would have to report the success of their prototypes as soon as they returned to the mainland.

Her soldiers were stationed at the edge of the chamber farthest from where she stood and had split into two sections. To the right, the mages scoured over their tomes and discussed amongst themselves the results of the magic orbs. To the left, the physical soldiers stood in admiration of the beast's majesty and debated the necessity of building a provisional apparatus to move it back to the base. The couple of healers ran between the two groups, attending to those who had become wounded in the process of securing the creature as well as relaying any messages from one group to the other.

Together, there were about forty soldiers inside the cave – her company totaled to roughly two-hundred people – and each was as dedicated to the empire as Marciel herself, if not more. In doing so, they also esteemed the captain they served under; their loyalty, no doubt, could withstand any obstacle.

One of the mages noticed Marciel's arrival and quickly made his way toward her with a grin plastered on his face. His matted dark purple hair contrasted greatly against his pale skin. In the crook of his arm rested a black tome, green runes inscribed methodically on its cover. As he strode toward her with deliberate and confident steps, his dark green cape fluttered behind him, revealing the black garments he wore underneath. Light and unarmored, his clothing reflected the necessity for mages to be quick on their feet – or, at least, as quick as possible with their required tomes and items. It was well-known that they had no room for heavy protection.

Marciel stepped forward to greet him. "Captain Torhild," he called merrily, "I am pleased you could make it." Despite his obvious delight, his speech remained as decorous as ever. Marciel returned his enthusiasm with an amiable smile.

"Iyar, it is my pleasure to be here." He gave a small bow upon being addressed; Marciel gave little notice, her gaze moving subtly to the soldiers behind him. "How are my men?"

"That is always your first question," Iyar remarked offhandedly, shaking his head in humor. The entire company knew of Marciel's compassion for her troops. "Everyone is well enough. Even through taking the dragon by surprise, we were caught off-guard by its brute force. Regardless, we managed to bring it under our control. Casualties are minimal." Marciel didn't respond, but her relief was evident even through her equanimity. Iyar allowed a brief moment of silence before attempting to move onto the topic he had originally wanted to speak with her about – he was certain that Marciel would wish to hear his input on the orbs, especially since he was the chief mage within the company.

His words were drowned out by a deafening roar. The dragon lunged forward in its last attempt to break free but found the effort futile as the ropes continued to hold it back. The magic cords forced it onto the cavern floor with a loud crash, and the entire island seemed to shake under the beast's massive weight.

Reality held its breath. Time slowed. Sound muted. The dragon had gained everyone's individual attention, and many of the soldiers had grown pale in its display of power. Its two large eyes moved across the semicircle from the troops to the three that stood at the entrance to its hiding place. A low, ferocious growl escaped from its throat as it sneered, showing blatant fury and defiance against the army's leader. The ground trembled and the air shuddered and collapsed under its mighty breath. For a transient second, all was still. Then, suddenly, it reared its head and sat back on its haunches, taking a monstrous gulp of air.

Marciel didn't have time to understand its intentions. Immediately, a frantic incantation was uttered and the space around the dragon's head warped and twisted as if it had a spirit of its own. Quickly, it wound itself across the beast's snout, forming a strong tunnel of wind to latch its mouth shut. At first, the spell worked, effectively forcing the dragon's jaws to close, but the beast only had to put a small amount of resistance against it to weaken the human magic. A series of incantations followed at once. Spirals of light materialized out of nowhere; shadows stretched from the crevices; fire blazed from the torches; water gathered from the puddles; the ground beneath rumbled as a tower of rock, stone, and dirt was brought forth – they drew forward from their various locations to meet the beast's challenge, fusing themselves with the wind magic to strengthen the binding.

Flames erupted from its mouth but were unable to escape far past its now restricted opening, tendrils of fire licking high into the air through its teeth. The thick magical rope around the dragon's large jaws continuously changed colors from the combined magic, no part holding a certain color for very long before transitioning to another. It lowered its head once more, the flames diminishing in size. Its fire breath had extinguished, its energy expended. Again, it glared at Marciel, its gaze more malicious than ever before. Its feral growl gained intensity.

Despite its hostility, something about the beast was mesmerizing. Marciel couldn't determine whether it was its legendary magic or the look in its eyes, but the dragon held a sense of allure stronger than the attraction she had experienced earlier. She found herself wrapped in its passion, tangled in its beastly expression. For a moment, she even lost grip on her company's purpose and location, focusing only on the dragon's distinct breathing. All other noise felt greatly subdued.

"Captain Torhild, perhaps we should put some distance between us and that beast," the lieutenant suggested anxiously, edging backwards. Marciel heard him but couldn't register his meaning; she stepped forward instead. The chief mage took a few stumbling steps toward her and put a hand on her shoulder in concern.

"Captain," he muttered in hushed tones, "the dragon is dangerous right now. Please do not approach it any further." Marciel shook her head at him, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze before removing it from her shoulder. Her voice came out soft and distracted.

"Iyar, I'll be fine. Stay behind. I think it wishes for my attention." The mage gave a hesitating glance and then stepped back respectfully, his head bowed. Marciel continued forward, taking deliberate steps in approaching the mighty beast. The dragon crouched so that its head hovered only inches above the ground, and its growl softened to a dull rumble. Its two large eyes followed her movements carefully, bearing down on her, but the creature took no other action. Marciel stopped when she could feel the gentle breeze created by its nostrils, determining that any farther would be too close to danger. The dragon exhaled, blowing a strong gust of wind in the captain's direction.

"Filthy human," it muttered disgracefully, its upper lip raised in a snarl to reveal its long, sharp teeth. "What materialistic foolishness do you hope to obtain from my capture?" Even through the binding, its deep voice resonated throughout the chamber, heightening its image of enormous power. Marciel remained calm, her blue eyes carefully examining the captured creature. She couldn't afford to outwardly show her excitement in attaining the rare opportunity to speak to a dragon.

"Emperor Mithren has his own agenda," she replied placidly. "It is not my place to question his intentions." The dragon reacted with a series of grunts that steadily increased in volume. It took a moment for Marciel realized that it was laughing. Mild confusion crossed her face.

"Your kind entertains me," it remarked after its laughter mostly subsided. "You are of a high rank in your country, and yet they do not even inform you the reasons behind your missions – nor do you question them." Its golden eyes stared at her mockingly and its sneer quickly returned. "Tell me: where does your loyalty come from?"

"I hold my country above my own life," Marciel retorted crossly. She was cut off before she could say anything more.

"And still, you stand here, risking your life, for a mission that may not even benefit what you value so highly," it taunted, a cruel smile finding its way across its beastly lips. Against her better judgment, Marciel became defensive.

"Our emperor looks out for our country's best interest. His orders are in direct correlation of our country's needs and wants." The dragon burst into laughter again, louder this time.

"You assume that humans are not dishonest or self-serving. Power corrupts your people more easily than any other race I have ever encountered." Marciel refused to listen; she would not be fooled by this fiend's tongue.

"The emperor—" she began loudly, attempting to speak over its rumbling laughter. "—is a great man—" Irritated, she clenched her right hand into a fist and tightened her jaw. "—who intends to do great things for our country. Why would I—" The roaring laughter just wouldn't stop. "—doubt his objectives?" There was so much noise. She couldn't concentrate.

"Are all of you this stubbornly loyal, or is it just your people?" Slowly, it quieted itself to a low grumble, but its booming voice soon took over.

"Surely, Captain, you must understand what has happened by now. There was no explanation for why the mission must be done, no mention of your country's advantages for its achievement, and the emperor's council, most probably, was not even present during its assignment. It resulted as a direct order from your emperor, and you might even have been met with an incentive to ensure the mission's completion, an intimidation, perhaps, for your success." The dragon flashed its yellow teeth at her in a pretentious smirk. "Do you not see that you have been deceived?" Something inside of her quavered at the thought. She felt her resolution bending precariously.

"This mission has nothing to do with your country." The sickening crunch of her bones echoed in her head. The threat had been an obvious show of power. While she was not forced into the mission itself, she had been forced into guaranteeing its completion.

"Your emperor is now working for himself." A dead weight dropped in her stomach. She had been blind. Her loyalty to the mission had been based on a nonexistent purpose. Nothing benefited from the dragon's capture except for the emperor's own greed. Suddenly the air around her felt like lead on her shoulders.

Marciel stared at the creature, paralyzed. Her eyes traced its powerful frame and lingered for an extended period on its open wings that were bound to the cavern floor. Her heart beat faster and her breath shortened as she was distinctly reminded of her scarf. In her mind's eye, she could see the intricate stitches, the rich colors, and the beautiful patterning on the piece of cloth. Dragon wings and phoenix feathers was their symbol, meant to represent their goals and dreams, their beliefs and values – their freedom to strive toward their passions.

For the emperor, she could give up her time, her energy, and even her life, but the very symbol which held all her hopes and aspirations was something she could not let the emperor take away.

"Captain Torhild," Lieutenant Harleigh barked from behind her, clearly angered from the dragon's taunts. "That beast knows not what it speaks. We will bring it back to the empire on your orders. Please, instruct us."

"Wait," Marciel muttered frantically, her mind racing. Things were moving too quickly. She couldn't allow the emperor to get his hands on the dragon, but she couldn't release it when her troops had been so dedicated to her and their mission.

"Captain? What do you wish for us to do?" Iyar prompted. She looked around to her soldiers. Everyone was watching her, waiting for her command. The dragon stared at her haughtily, certain that it had already won. Marciel pursed her lips in indecision – there was only a particular piece of the dragon she would not allow the emperor and his greed to obtain.

"Its wings," she stated firmly, looking at the soldiers in charge of the orbs. "Break them." The soldiers hesitated.

"But Captain Torhild," Lieutenant Harleigh protested, "the emperor wants—"

"The emperor never explicitly stated the necessity for the dragon's condition. For all of his knowledge, we could have very well damaged the wings in battle," Marciel shot back curtly, her mouth hardened into a line. She stared forward at the two soldiers – their hands brought to their waistlines, pausing for her word. The lieutenant didn't respond; Marciel assumed everyone was in agreement, even if they disliked the idea.

"Break its wings," she commanded again. The two soldiers nodded and shaped an invisible ball in their hands. There was a temporary stillness before the ropes that were latched onto the dragon's wings pulled closer to the orb, forcing the magnificent structures downward. The dragon roared loudly in objection, struggling fervidly against all its restraints, but to no avail. The magical ropes held with a tenacious grip, and the one around its mouth tightened even further.

The orbs continued retracting the glowing blue rope, pulling the wings closer and closer to the ground. Marciel turned away, unable to watch. A series of loud cracks quickly ensued as the bones split and shattered inside the leathery frame – and the mighty roar that resulted covered the island like a blanket of raging fury.


Author's Note: I had a lot of difficulty with explaining how I saw the negation of the dragon's invisibility power over the mountain. I found myself repeatedly going back to that paragraph and editing it again and again, and I still don't think I entirely explained what it looks like. ):

The ending also annoyed me because I couldn't get the feel that I wanted to get out of it, but it seems all endings do that to me. In the end, though, I think it worked out mostly okay.

Again, comments, critiques, input, etc. are greatly appreciated. I'd love to know what you think.

I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. :)