by Amanda Cast
Nothing hurt when Pandora awoke in the large cavernous room. All seven of the surface dwellers were living in the same room, but it was hardly crowded. Serene shared the bed with Pandora and Pandora could hear her quiet, deep breathing. It was comforting.
Pandora touched her belly right where the pain in her ribs had been. She could not remember anyone healing her. They must have done it while she was asleep. She closed her eyes to doze back to sleep, but she hear someone moving in the room. A shadow was cast over her in the dim, purple light.
“You are awake,” a strange draconic voice said. “It would please me to know that your pain is gone.”
“It is,” Pandora agreed and looked into the face of the dragon. He was beautiful with purple and blue eyes, high cheekbones, and flowing white hair. His pointed ears stuck out in a strangely attractive manner. Pandora smiled sheepishly at him.
“That is wonderful new for my ears to hear,” he said with a simple, shallow bow. His right hand was on his chest, over his heart. “Your ribs were popped out of place and some were cracked from the fall. You are a resilient creature of the surface.”
“Thank you,” Pandora said, but she was uncertain if he meant it as a compliment or not.
They stared at one another expectantly for a brief eternity before he finally offered Pandora his hand. She folded the sheets back and took it before sliding out of the bed. His skin felt like treated leather more than actual skin. It was cool, but she could feel the blood pulsing beneath it.
“You were tired from your journey. We woke you up at a difficult time in your sleep cycle. It is always difficult to wake up in the middle of a dream—especially when you are pushed out of one of ours. I understand also that you had quite an adventure when you went back through. The hatchlings were in despair. They thought you dead.”
“Serene and I are hard to kill. Several attempts have been made on our lives and here we stand.” She gave the dragon-elf-thing a sly smile. “I have never seen a dragon in their secondary form.”
“We typically take the form of the people we are closest to. Many dragons take the form of an elf of some sort. However, some dragons are enamored with humanity and their mortality.”
“There are more to humans than mortality,” Pandora said. “We live our lives because we know death is always just around the next bend waiting to collect.”
“For thousands of years elf and dragon kind thought your people as intelligent beasts,” he told her. “It was not until they drove the surface dwellers, elf and dragon alike, into exile did humanity gain any respect.”
“What do you mean?”
He smiled patiently at her. “You were doing so well,” he said gently. “We do not ask questions. It is rude. Should we decide to give you the answer to a subtle inquiry we may answer and may not. One does not badger an immortal for answers.”
“Mortals do not have time for such games and play on words,” Pandora said.
“Yet, when mortals are our guests a certain amount of decorum is expected. I hope that it is understood,” he said with sideways glance at her. His eyes only had to slant down slightly. She was almost as tall as he was.
“I appreciate what you did for us, but we cannot be expected to entirely change the way we speak and act within only a few hours of arrival. It is a hard time for all of us. Between being kidnapped and then being rescued into a strange new place…” Pandora trailed off. She was babbling just like Serene.
“We understand,” he assured her. “We will all do our best to be patient. You are correct in saying that mortals have such a short time so they speak quickly and are direct. However, one does not rush the natives of this world.”
“Human’s aren’t native.”
He gave her another patient smile.
Pandora sighed. “I was not aware that humans were not native to the world.”
“Better,” he admonished. “Indeed, many have forgotten, but I am old and have seen many things in this world. The uprising of the human slaves was hard on both elf and dragon.”
“I was also unaware that humans were ever slaves,” Pandora said after some thought.
“When humans first arrived on the world the elves and dragons made slaves of them. They were capable of talking, but many kept their own language and they created the seeds of an uprising. Humans were not meant to be slaves. They chaff at the very concept, but they were mortals as the beasts of the land are mortal. How were we to know when we could not speak their language or us theirs?” He shrugged helplessly.
“Yet you still have human slaves,” Pandora said.
“Yes, but unlike the slaves of old they can earn their freedom and many do. Some go to the surface. Others stay and make use of themselves here. We prefer not to have humans here though as they are expensive and have extensive dietary needs. Humans need fruits, vegetables, and sun light. Through magic and potions we keep your kind as healthy as possible, but it takes more work than they are often willing to do.”
“I suppose then that Serene and I cannot stay here long. We are made for the sun and bright, yellow places.”
He agreed with a silent nod. “We can keep you healthy enough for now and assist in arranging passage to Everdin. While you wait it would be my humble opinion that you observe the hatchling’s level of happiness while they live here. Some dragons are not made for bright, yellow places.”
Pandora did not like where this was going. “If any of the hatchlings desire to stay it is their decision to do so. I will never force them to do something the do not want to do.”
“That is a bold thing to say.”
“I lack the strength to force four dragons to do what they do not desire to do. They desire to make me happy. They desire my pleasure and to have favor in my eyes. I did nothing to force them to have those desires. If they act to make me happy that is one thing. I cannot make them stay no matter how happy I may think they are here. Chances are they will want to come with me anyway and I would not be able to make them stay. I would not want to either. I love them and would miss them greatly.”
“I am sure they would miss you too,” he said with an odd note to his voice. Pandora did not lookup at him. She could not bear to do so. Something was squeezing her heart and dampening her mood. “They are young, however, and impetuous. Should you and your cousin make a decision we will always be here to assist you.”
“Thank you, but hopefully your help will not be needed.” She finally managed to cut a look at him out of the corner of her eye. “Do you not have a mirror to Everdin?”
“We did, at one point,” he said, ignoring that it was actually a question. “But there was war between our peoples and we destroyed our mirrors so that they could not be put to use. That ended the war rather quickly, if you can imagine. It takes too long and involves too much peril for us to march armies to either location.”
Pandora nodded. “It does seem difficult to have a long standing war.”
“There are still bitter feelings, I’m sure. Dragons are a war like people though. It is the way of immortals that breed far too quickly. The elves of these lands also breed quickly since life is harsher down here. Resources are limited and wars often break out.”
“It is a wonder that the surface elves are so peaceful then,” she said.
“They realized that they grow too quickly with their abundant resources and then those resources are not so abundant anymore. They were created to be stewards of this world, but they were over populating it. It was decided that something must change. Immortals, they decided, should not breed so quickly, but quickly enough to keep their population stable when people died of illnesses or accidents. Surely that would stop the wars.
“Their greatest magical minds conversed with the Septerate and a spell was cast that made the cycle of an elf woman one hundred years long and in that century she is only fertile for four days.” He smiled faintly at Pandora. “It was a great sacrifice for the sake of peace, do you not think? The underdark refused and were marked with white hair. Once the elves of the Underdark were formed from the black stones of the earth because the dragons of stone, dreams, and shadows desired it to be so. Their hair was as black as the stone as well, but the punishment has since changed that. Many of the dragons decide to have white hair in support. Some do not. The surface elves swore to kill any underdark elf that entered their domain.”
“That is a cruel thing to do.”
“They could not allow us to endanger the peace of their world. They were banished here and the dragons took pity on them and helped them learn how to survive the dark reaches of the Underdark. Now elf and dragon live side by side. We breed quickly and die of unnatural causes. We do not grow old and fade as mortals do, but we can be snuffed out quicker than a candle. Here you cannot ever make out the smoke.”
“That is a sad tale.”
“It depends on how you tell it,” he said. “I am biased. I was amongst the first to welcome the elves into the Underdark. I have since fallen out of favor, but all is well in the end.”
“You just have outlived the very rocks,” Pandora said after much deliberation and thought.
He chuckled. “I have seen the rocks change all my life. It is a subtle thing, but one day you notice it and are amazed.” He looked around. “Stone dragons shaped the cities here for the most part. They are temperamental beings—very artistic.”
“I don’t know about artistic,” Pandora said with a glance over her shoulder meant for Topaz.
“Well, I suppose I am being a generalist. Not all dragons are the same. Many would see us as evil because we reside in the dark. They have no real memory of us except for our disagreements and an immortal grudge can go on for ages.” He gave her a pleased smile. “It is not to be said that all dragons are evil and all dragons are good anymore than you can say that some types of dragons are evil while others are good. Magic in and of itself is neither good nor evil. It is all how you use it.”
“That is true,” Pandora agreed. “I wonder though why the dragons would craft elves.”
He chuckled softly. “With all the wars over territories and such we had little time to tend to our actual duties so we created the elves to help us tend to the world. They were to clean up after us. I suppose they are imperfect, but I do believe that they try their best.”
“So the elves were intended to be the slaves of the dragons,” Pandora stated.
“Yes and no,” the dragon said, “They were never intended to be personal servants. They had a purpose, much as we have a purpose. We give magic to the world, but what is the point of having it if you’re the only ones that can use it? We created the elves so that they could tend to our magic and make it stronger. It was not a perfectly thought out idea. We created them, but they have their own minds and their own hearts. They are what they are and we are what we are. We are two breeds of immortals existing on a single plain of mortal things. It causes problems.”
“And so they limited their own reproduction to live in peace.”
He nodded. “Yes, all except for the ones here. They would die out if it were not for the birth rate. Besides, the rites of passage here are just as brutal as the place we live.” They stopped walking and Pandora realized that she was walking along a railed path over looking a chasm of which she could not see the bottom. “I hope that you understand the importance of what I have told you,” he said and then left her there in the strange world.
She stared after him. Her mind was numb and aching for something. It was the knowledge. She wanted—no, needed—to learn more about her hosts if she ever hoped to survive their short time in the world.
Pandora wished she had paid more attention to where she was going.