"Why couldn't have Onus told us sooner to see the High Priest?" said a high-pitched and clear voice above the whistling winds.
Demitri lifted an arm to shield his face. For leading his group through the mountainous slopes that were formerly part of Baron Kallus's northern lands, he bore the brunt of the wind's power. The tips of his hands were numb as well as his face. In fact, Demitri had intended to go to the High Priest of Onus to look at the ancient texts, but between preparing his unit of hunters for kill the dragon and battling the said beast, he had forgotten his original intentions. Underneath his breath, Demitri said, "The gods remembered what I could not." His words carried with the wind, and he heard Yohan curse before shouting, "Hurry up, ladies! We're not strutting about in a damned parade!"
Every few minutes, everyone heard the lieutenant's voice above the winds, yelling at the five men behind him to keep up. Onus's sanctuary stood as an acropolis on the highest peak of the mountains, supposedly leveled by the god himself. Everyone felt a sense of longing to hurry there and of grudging the freezing journey. They had two carts in their possession, with two men pulling each cart. The first pair possessed the ballista. The second pair carried a cart full of their camping supplies. The last man trailed at the very back. While a scout in other terrains, since he wasn't needed as they climbed the icy slopes, his duty varied from giving a hand to either of the two carts or keeping a wary eye on the snows packed above their heads, watching for potential avalanches. Every man wore a thick cloak over their armor. Their hoods covered their heads, but unfortunately, not their faces. As well, their gloves had long ago been burned by the dragon because of a careless night when the watch fell asleep. Their hands and faces were bitten raw. Some places and digits had lost their feeling, but the soldiers couldn't ask any more from the gods. Before starting up the mountains, they had sacrificed a fox that they'd hunted. Their prayers of safety have been thus far heard.
At long last, after several miles up icy slopes and across rickety bridges, they came to the bottom of the winding staircase that would take them to the tallest peak. However, the staircase was met with groans. The four men carrying the two carts plopped their burdens down and listened to Demitri and his lieutenant speak over the winds.
"We could stay here while you go up," suggested Yohan, earning grimaces and shaking heads from the other soldiers.
"No," said Demitri. "Some of them need the shelter that only the sanctuary can provide. We haven't given Evander and Quentin the chance to entirely heal."
"Nonsense, they can bear with the elements," said Yohan. "Soldiers are trained to withstand any clime and any situation."
Demitri shook his head. "Not only will you freeze but you haven't considered that you'd be blocking the path for other visitors. I insist you come along—"
"What, and carry not only the supplies but the ballista up those slippery steps?"
"I prefer not to, in my honest opinion!" the scout at the very back shouted.
"Quiet, Evander!" said Yohan. "It's not your place to speak—"
"Excuse me," said a mild voice.
Every head snapped up to the staircase. Standing several steps above their heads was a hooded figure in white robes. Draped over his shoulders was a silver sash. The face that poked out of the hood belonged to a young man. "I am one of the attendants to the High Priest," said the newcomer. "Please divest yourself of all weapons. It is forbidden to step onto the sacred ground while armed."
Yohan was the only one who did not follow the attendant's request immediately. Over the shuffling and clinking of cloaks pulled aside to take daggers, swords, and pistols off of belts, he asked, "What will happen to our things? What about our supplies?"
Demitri and the others exchanged glances or shot looks at the lieutenant. Some even shook their heads.
"They will not be stolen, if that is your concern," said the attendant, not in the least perturbed by the open challenge to his authority. "If you are unarmed, please proceed up to the acropolis." He turned around and started up the stairs.
As the soldiers followed, their backs hunched against the wind, Demitri told Yohan, "This mountain belongs to Onus. If you steal anything from it, you bring His wrath upon your head. Our belongings will be fine, my friend."
The acropolis was shaped roughly into an oval, about a hundred-fifty feet at length and half that size in width. Several white ash trees sacred to Onus grew out of the flat and rocky ground. Though wind blew hardest at the peaks of mountains, Onus's sanctuary almost seemed to have an invisible shield protecting its buildings and trees. Amid the trees and the buildings that actually belonged to the god were small shrines dedicated to various minor Tarymian deities. It was a common practice to honor another god with Onus, as if the supplicant needed an interceder on his behalf. Of the phoenix god's actual holdings, the first building a supplicant came upon at the top of the staircase was the great bath house, which stood next to the entrance of the acropolis. No one could enter the sanctuary without washing at least their hands first. A little ways from the bath house stood the sleeping quarters, a chamber set aside for people on pilgrimages and other supplicants staying overnight. A silver altar stood at the very center of the acropolis, in plain sight of every building and shrine. To the east of it was a columned building of medium size where Onus's statue was kept. Behind that building was the aviary. To the west of the altar was the largest of the buildings, built with two wings and three stories that were topped with a glass dome that glowed blue.
After Demitri and his men washed off, the assistant motioned toward the largest building. "This way to the library, Baron Phoenicus. You may send your men on to the sleeping quarters."
"Hold a moment, if you may." When the assistant nodded, Demitri turned around to his men. He addressed Yohan first. "Write to Baron Leonce Odina. Tell him of the men we lost and of our location." When he received a nod, Demitri addressed the others. "Eat and rest well." With that dismissal, his soldiers and lieutenant headed to the sleep quarters or the aviary, respectively.
Demitri and the High Priest's assistant weaved through the small shrines and ash trees. Each shrine was decorated with offerings left by past supplicants. The greater a god's importance, the more offerings the shrine carried. The healing god Esculapius was among the few brimming with offerings. Demitri wasn't very familiar with ash trees since they tended to grow only in places that were tied significantly to Onus, like His sanctuary or the Temple of the Gods in Peralta where He and Helena were married. The wood was very rough and rigid, indicating the trees' old age. Only the bark was a grayish-white color, giving the tree its name, but despite its deathly pallor, the ash trees grew healthy with bright green leaves that never went out with the changing seasons.
The High Priest waited for Demitri on the steps of the main building. The old man wore blue robes with silver trimmings. A symbol of a phoenix in flames was sewn onto the front. The old man did not wear his hood up against the raging wind. He held together his gnarled hands in front of him and stared at Demitri down a hooked nose with pale eyes. His face was expressionless, but his tone, while as passive as his demeanor, did not sound unwelcoming. "If you would follow me, Baron Phoenicus."
Demitri nodded to the assistant before hurrying after the High Priest's retreating back. He caught up easily to the old man, who seemed in no hurry to get to the library, setting a very leisurely pace. Demitri fought the urge to ask for directions to the library and stared at the main building's interior as they moved at a snail's pace. From the flat floors to the high vaulted ceilings, every surface was built with granite stone. Only the multitude of doors that they passed was made of the same wood from the ash trees outside. Thick pillars held up the ceiling, and carved into the base of each pillar were statues of phoenixes in tribute to the god they honored. Demitri lost count of how many twisting hallways and stairs they encountered as they climbed higher and higher to the third story. Braziers burning with white light threw dancing shadows in Demitri's and the High Priest's wake. Eventually, they came upon a narrow corridor with murals painted on every inch of surface. The murals depicted the story of Onus, how he was born in the form of a phoenix, how his half brother was born in the form of a dragon, how they fought over the right to marry the goddess Helena, and every other story with which Demitri and thousands of Tarymian children had grown up.
Demitri felt as if he had stepped back in his dream as they came upon the Sacred Fire of Onus at the end of the corridor. Legend said that should the flame ever go out, that meant Onus no longer protected Tarym. The eternal flame floated half a foot above the stone floor in its sunken pit. It was as tall as Demitri but twice as wide. He felt no heat coming from the blue flames. Its blue light was what made the glass dome above it glow. If he hadn't been with the man tasked with watching the flame, Demitri was tempted to step down and put a hand in it, just to see if it would burn him like a regular fire. The High Priest walked around it toward the other side, where double doors that would lead into the library stood. He took both handles and flung the double doors open. When Demitri stopped behind the old man, the latter stepped aside and gestured with a sweep of a hand to the entrance.
"I leave you here," he said. "You must find the answers you seek for yourself."
Eyebrows rising, Demitri asked, "Why can't you assist me?" Quickly, he added, "Your Grace."
A complacent smile flitted across the High Priest's mouth as he walked around the bewildered nobleman. "What you know for yourself, you will know forever."
Demitri turned to stare at the old man's retreating back. Before the latter disappeared behind the Sacred Fire, he burst out, "Isn't there anything you can give me? A hint?"
The High Priest paused long enough to say, "I suggest you read under better lights."
Demitri ran a hand through his hair, tearing a few strands in the process. He couldn't yell at Onus's highest servant without divine repercussion. He spun on his heel and stalked through the double doors.
Just like in his dream, bookshelves lined every wall of the library. Several bookcases stood by themselves like pillars to hold up the cream-colored ceiling. Some stood next to each other in a way that gave the library a sense of being in a maze. The scent of ink and musky pages filled Demitri's nostrils, reminding him of his father's old library. The air was stagnant and warm, making him feel burning hot underneath the layers of his cloak and armor. Demitri walked over to a bookcase whose old tomes were placed safely behind glass panels. Lamps stood on tables and desks, and lanterns hung from the ceiling. He understood immediately the High Priest's vague advice when he saw the lights, some of which were brighter than the others. Thankfully, the library was one story, however large it was. Demitri walked to the nearest shelf illuminated by bright light and began his search.
He waded through so many useless books. Books about agriculture. Books about metaphysics. Almanacs. Memoirs. For every six books, he found one about dragons which mentioned information he already knew. The tough, scaly skin. The never-quenched hunger for ashes. Even the weakness of their eyes during sunset was speculated by some who'd fought and lived to tell about the dragons. The passages about dragons were rarely longer than two pages, unless they were part of a broader memoir. What were possible solutions to killing these beasts? Most of them came from the predictable tales of knights and adventurers. Magic swords. Enchanted bow and arrows. Wizards or witches with their wands. Unless Demitri had any of these weapons, or the means to have their weapons enchanted to fight a dragon properly, he and his men were out of luck.
On the thirteenth bookcase which he stepped toward, he saw in front of it a round table and several chairs. His back screamed fire, his feet burned agony, and his arms ached something fierce. The room in which the thirteenth bookcase was situated was circular with a lantern that hung from the center of the ceiling, shining its light on every other bookcase. At the top of the bookcases were windows with minimal stained glass decorations so that Demitri could see the orange rays of the setting sun. He rubbed his bleary eyes before sliding aside the glass that covered his thirteenth bookcase. He grabbed a stack of books and ushered them onto the table. He went for another and another until the entire surface of the table looked similar to the mountains that surrounded the acropolis.
As soon as Demitri sat down, his head sunk against the closest stack of books. He woke up with a start to the loud growl of his stomach. Cursing his fatigue, and the pounding headache that accompanied it, Demitri stood up. He'd leave the books there and start again tomorrow. His legs were worse off than before the nap. He took a step and his foot caved in on him. He caught hold of the table but knocked aside two of the book stacks. "Helena's skirts!" Demitri burst out before his entire body froze. He looked around, and when he didn't see anyone to reprimand him, he unfroze his body. Dropping wearily onto his knees, he started throwing the fallen books back onto the table. He winced when the light caught the gilded sides of an old tome that had fallen open. Cursing once more, Demitri picked that book up.
His dark eyes stilled when he looked upon the word "green cloud" on the page. Slowly, he scanned the short paragraphs and saw "dragon" on the paragraph before the mention of the "green cloud." Quickly, Demitri turned to the start of the passage, his heart pounding as rapidly as his head while he read.
I, Lucien Valerus Appatow, on the twenty-first of Novierna, swear by my ancient name that this account is true and without guile.
Today, when I decided to travel off the oft-beaten path toward Baron Eleusis's land, I came upon two dragons fighting over a field of ashes that had once been a whole village. How did I know it had once been a village? I saw sticking out of the embers wooden beams that had supported homes upright and the terrifying figures on the ground that had been living people trying to flee from the monsters, now reduced to ash statues watching the fight over the right to feast on their dust.
Having heard their snarls and shrieks, as well as felt the ground shake underneath my feet, I hid amid the hills. I should have run the other way while their attentions were on each other, but I was frozen with curiosity and eventually, I peeked over the hilltops.
A yellow and green dragon wrestled amid the ashes, throwing sparks in the air for every burning beam they hit and reducing the ashen remains of the villagers into flattened dust. The yellow one was slightly larger than the green one, and its long neck gave it the advantage to dodge and bite at the other. Blood as black as oil oozed from the wounds sustained by the green dragon. Eventually, the yellow dragon managed to pin the green dragon down. It attempted to bite at the green dragon's head, but at the last moment, a green tail wrapped around the base of the head. The yellow dragon quickly shot a jet of fire at the green dragon, and the latter threw the former off. When the dragons got back on all fours, they slowly circled around each other, their fangs bared and their wings pointed high in the air not unlike two felines. Then, the beasts stopped, poised for their final stand. The yellow one opened its mouth wide, and I saw a green cloud erupt out of its throat. From within this cloud, I noticed a spark of light. The green dragon did the same. However, it was quicker and shot a burst of fire straight into the yellow dragon's mouth. The green cloud ignited, and in a burst of light, the yellow dragon's entire body blew up in flames.
"Dear gods," said Demitri. He didn't need to finish the account, which only mentioned how Lucien ran away when the light of the blown up yellow dragon revealed his location to the green one. What Lucien had failed to say, but what Demitri had guessed, was that the green dragon couldn't have blown up without having a soft inside. In addition, Lucien's account indicated that the green cloud was highly flammable. Like a circus fire breather who relied on highly purified lamp oil, the dragons must use some sort of fuel that turns into the green cloud before an inner mechanism set it alight. Demitri placed the tome on the table and hurried out of the library.
Outside, the assistant waited for him. "Just in time, Baron Phoenicus," he said. "Your men are all in the sleeping quarter, eating supper, and there is food waiting for you."
"My thanks." Demitri followed the assistant through the main building's twisting hallways. His mind whirled with all the possible scenarios that he could put the information revealed by Lucien Valerus Appatow to good use. The wind had died down since his time in the library. It caressed his burning face like a cool mother's hand, relieving his headache somewhat. When they passed the silver altar, Demitri roused himself long enough to ask the question that had been burning his skull since he entered the library. "Why hasn't this information ever been divulged to the public?"
In a patient voice, the assistant said, "The dragons have been gone for centuries, Baron Phoenicus. Why would people need to know this stuff?"
Demitri quickly turned his head to the other man at such worldly words, terms he wasn't used to hearing from holy servants. He saw a flicker in the attendant's dark eyes, so unlike the calm yet almost dull look in the High Priest's pale eyes, but the other man seemed only to wait for Demitri's response. He nodded warily before turning his head toward the sleeping quarter, where movement caught his eye. From inside the doorway, Yohan waved at him.
"Call on me if you need anything," said the assistant.
Demitri thanked him once more before walking to his lieutenant.
"So?" Yohan asked as soon as Demitri was near.
"I have it," said Demitri, although his voice sounded more weary than triumphant. "Although, let me eat or I shall perish."
Yohan nodded and allowed his leader to go inside first before he followed.