Chapter 18
A Dragon in the Ice

Eagle Plateau, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"Have you ever had the feeling you were walking into a trap? Instead of trusting your gut, do you go forward in spite of a bad feeling? For those who read these words, your gut will only get you so far, but you will go farther with it than without."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

It seemed hard to believe, but more than a month had passed since Mark left home. He missed familiar surroundings and the old cottage on the plateau was a welcome sight. Things had changed little since he had left, except the fields were left untended without Ivan and his uncle to work them.
Leaving the pony Katia in the stable, the group went to the cottage. As Mark walked up to the door, Ignatiy spoke up.
"Do you know these people?" he asked.
"This is my house," Mark replied.
Mark looked at Catherine. He could tell she had already plucked that fact from his head, but she was polite enough not to answer for him. Over the course of their travels, she was becoming more and more considerate in the use of her powers. He absently wondered if the others noticed it. Catherine obviously knew if they did or not.
His mind was brought back into focus once he opened the door. The house had been thoroughly ransacked, furniture upturned and scattered all over. A shock ran up his spine as his eyes darted back and forth to assess the damage. By the look of it, the trapdoor leading to the hidden room was undisturbed, but he could not be certain.
Flinging it open, he scrambled down the stairs and was plunged into inky darkness. All the sconces were extinguished and not even the faintest light could be seen within the depths. Mark slowly drew his sword, making as little noise as possible. Closing his eyes, he focused his energy into the blade. The gem glowed as sparks coursed throughout the length of the sword to illuminate his path. Mark opened his eyes. With the pale light of the gem, Mark could see Ofeliya's silhouette.
"Mark?" she asked.
"Yes, it's me. How is my uncle?"
"My condition is improving," Tiberius replied from the shadows. "What brings you back here?"
Before Mark could reply, a voice interrupted.
"We have come to put an end to this threat to our kingdom."
The voice belonged to Catherine. She had already descended the stairwell without him noticing and was standing right next to him.
"We're going to take the tunnel to the castle," Mark said.
He could hear Tiberius stir. "That tunnel is dangerous, Mark," he warned. "It hasn't been traveled in hundreds of years."
"We'll be on our guard," Mark reassured him. "But more importantly, what happened upstairs?"
"The Dragon Guard returned for your uncle," Ofeliya said. "Fortunately, they did not find this chamber."
"All the more reason to make haste," Catherine said. "They will be more thorough next time."
As if by a silent command, the others filed down. Catherine looked at Arkady.
"Stay here," she said. "You are not equipped to face the danger ahead. We will escort you back to Sagia later if needs be, or if you wish, you can go back by yourself and take the pony with you. I thank you for your help."
Arkady nodded uncertainly. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but could not seem to find the right words.
"You'll be safer here," Mark said. "Besides, I'm sure you'd rather pore over those transcriptions than risk your neck in the sort of dangers we're bound to face."
His words seemed to enhearten the young scholar and Catherine smiled approvingly.
You really do have a good sense for people's feelings. I am surprised you are not an empath.
Mark did not know what an empath was, but he knew Catherine was paying him a compliment and accepted it as such. After relighting the sconces and saying their good-byes, the group moved out.
The ancient tunnel was well-built but unusually cold. The farther they went, the colder it became. Torchlight glittered off the ice crystals that formed on the walls. After a few more fathoms, the tunnel became solid ice on all sides. As they were slipping on the ice and struggling to walk without falling, Catherine turned to Ignatiy, who was carrying the torch.
"Keep that away from the walls," she warned, "or we will lose our only source of light."
Ignatiy defensively held the torch away from the nearest wall. "I'll never let this tunnel take my flame!" he declared zealously.
The least indulgent of Ignatiy's mania, Stefan simply rolled his eyes and kept moving. While the rest of the group continued to make their way through the tunnel, Olofer stopped abruptly. His tense pose resembled that of a deer which had just caught the scent of a predator. Catherine glanced back at him and then looked to the darkness up ahead.
"He says the air smells strange here," she said.
The break in Olofer's usual serene demeanor was enough to catch their attention, Catherine's in particular. She closed her eyes and turned her gaze inward, seeking out some foresight into what awaited them.
"Something is coming," she said in a detached voice. "Not human and not beast. It is under Kyrios' power. It hungers for flesh. It has our scent." Her eyes snapped open and she turned to the others, crying, "Defend yourselves!"
Catherine readied a bolt in her crossbow and the others assumed their fighting stances. A jet of fire shot through the tunnels. Everyone darted to the walls and avoided the worst of the flame. The light of the fire gave them their first good look at its source. It was a dragon with scales the same pale blue color as the ice, with wings tucked close to its body to avoid scraping against the cavern walls. The long claws of its forelegs dug into the ice as it dragged it heavy body along.
"It's a wyvern," Mark said quickly. "It controls both fire and ice."
"Mark," Catherine said, "the rest of us will distract it while you deal the deathblow."
A look of shock swept over the unwitting volunteers, but with a roar from the wyvern, instinct took over. With preternatural calm, Catherine stood her ground unfazed by the fearsome monster and loosed a bolt that landed squarely in the wyvern's eye. The stricken wyvern howled and lashed its head about violently as blood and vitreous humor spilled down its face.
It swiped at Catherine, but Olofer and Stefan jumped in front of her with their weapons crossed before its claws could reach her. Catherine reacted quickly, stretching out her arms to help them force the claws back. With the wyvern still disoriented from the pain and struggling with the other three, Mark sprang forward for his attack.
He grasped one of the scales of the chest plate with his free hand and thrust his sword under the protective cover. The blade wedged itself in a rib and the wyvern recoiled suddenly, the sharp movement causing Mark to lose his grip on the sword. He landed roughly on his back, but hastily scrambled to his feet. Catherine placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"You missed the heart," she said. "Try it again. This time strike more to the right. I will draw its attention."
Before Mark or anyone else could protest, Catherine threw herself at the wyvern. Standing less than a foot away from the fierce creature with an outstretched hand, she took hold of the wyvern's mind and brought its movements to a halt. Mark did not waste the opportunity she gave him. Sliding toward the wyvern, he took hold of the hilt of his sword and drew out the blade far enough to correct the thrust. He forced the point in as deep as it would go, his efforts rewarded with a spurt of steaming blue-black blood.
The new injury broke Catherine's hold on the wyvern. Its mind fixed on the mortal wound, the dragon thrashed wildly, screeching like a banshee. Mark was intent on standing fast this time and tightened his grip on his sword. Catherine, too, seemed to have no thought of falling back as she tried to restrain the creature once again. Though the deathblow had been struck, the wyvern could unintentionally kill them with its fangs, its claws or the massive weight of its convulsing body just as easily as it could do so on purpose. Stefan and Olofer had to pull the two of them away before they suffered such a fate.
From a relatively safe distance, they watched the wyvern continue to thrash about. The whole tunnel shook and bits of ice rained down on them as its body slammed against the walls. Everyone prepared for another attack, but Catherine held out her hand to stop them.
"It will not live much longer," she said coldly.
She had judged their opponent well, for the wyvern's movements steadily grew more sluggish. Its breathing became labored before it erupted into a severe fit of coughing. Blood gushed from its mouth as its remaining eye clouded over and its body stilled.
The group watched the corpse warily. After a few minutes, Mark gingerly wiped his blade clean of the hot dragon's blood and returned it to its sheath. Now that the coast was clear, Stefan turned his ire to Ignatiy. The firebug had not moved the entire time and now looked at the wyvern with tears in his eyes.
"What's wrong with you?" Stefan growled. "Why didn't you help us fight that thing?"
"Leave him be," Catherine said. "There is nothing we can do to control how his heart moves him. He cannot kill something he admires so."
"'Admires?'" Stefan looked at Catherine in disbelief, sentiment that multiplied when he turned back to Ignatiy. "What kind of sick freak are you!?"
"Easy, Stefan," Mark said, trying to calm Stefan's anger before it boiled over. "We survived. That's all that matters."
Stefan grumbled to himself and looked away from Ignatiy. After such an ordeal, they allowed themselves a brief period of rest before they continued down the tunnel. Though they did not lower their guard, it soon appeared that only one obstacle was set before them and it had already been cleared. However, the ice remained as thick as ever, despite the loss of the wyvern.
"I thought that monster had caused this ice," Catherine mused, "but it appears to be one of Kyrios' spells. Surely it served a greater purpose than simply accommodating the wyvern."
Catherine would soon find the answer. As they reached the end of the tunnel, they came upon the stairwell to the next level. Unsure of what to expect, Catherine motioned for them to be cautious. Even taxing her powers in such a suppressive environment, there was no telling what awaited them.
Though they had adjusted to the ice after spending so much time in the tunnel, the stairs presented a new challenge and their ascent came with considerable difficulty. When they reached the top, they found it was blocked. Catherine extended her arm toward the obstruction, causing it to shake off flakes of ice. It slowly tipped over and crashed on the floor, the noise slightly muted by Catherine's power.
Catherine gestured for Ignatiy to come forward. She was already on the next level when Ignatiy offered some illumination. They found themselves in a rather expansive storage room with all the various barrels and crates glazed over with a layer of ice. As they made their way to the door, Catherine stepped to the side and looked to Stefan.
"Be my guest," she said.
Stefan kicked the door with a loud shout, knocking it off its hinges. It crashed to the ground and shattered into hundreds of pieces. While the others looked somewhat mortified at all the noise, Catherine chuckled softly.
"Not to worry," she said. "Miraculous though it may be, the element of surprise is not yet lost. No guards are within earshot, so we should have no problem following our plan."
They entered a corridor and surveyed their surroundings. Like the store room and the tunnel before it, the corridor was lined with a layer of ice, obscuring the many doors along the walls. To the far left was a stairwell leading up to the ground level.
Catherine pointed to the door directly across from them. "If you would, please."
Stefan complied, breaking the door the same way he had done the previous one. Catherine then stepped in and looked around. The broad chamber before her was clearly the dungeon. The ice crept up the walls in there as well, clinging to the iron bars and covering a handful of prisoners in their cells. Seeing no reason to subject the others to such a sight, Catherine quickly turned away and motioned for them to stay back.
"There is nothing for us here," she said. "Let us try the other door."
The door on the far right lead to the castle's graveyard. Unlike the usual catacombs built underneath major buildings, the graveyard beneath Castle Byrn was designed to imitate its aboveground counterparts, one of the many eccentricities of the first King of Byrn. By the royal mausoleum, an imposing marble structure, they saw it. King Abdiy himself stood in full armor, trapped in the ice. Catherine placed her hand on the ice covering the King.
"He is still alive," she said. "Kyrios must have cast the spell to bind him and to prevent anyone from using the tunnel. I would imagine the only way to break the spell is to kill Kyrios."
"He must enjoy the irony," Mark said dryly.
"What do you mean?" Ignatiy asked.
"The King is the Dragonslayer," Mark replied, "the Elemental Knight who commands the power of water and ice. To defeat him with his own element..."
"We cannot dwell on that now," Catherine said. "To save the King and this kingdom, we need to find Gaia's mouth and these so-called tears of the Elementals. There should be a drainage pipe around here. The designers of the castle would not have wanted this graveyard to flood."
"But the water level is above us," Stefan argued. "A drainage pipe here would do the exact opposite. They would have to have a pump or something."
"And they would need people to work it, right?" Mark asked.
Stefan gave him an irritated look. "Have you ever heard of a pump that works itself?"
"Well then," Catherine said, "we go to the ground level. The ice spell may have frozen over the entire moat. That would make it a lot easier to cross. Give me a moment to find the best way for us to get out of here."
Catherine closed her eyes in concentration. None of the others knew exactly what she was doing, but by now they understood at least that her powers worked. Unlike the time in the desert, it did not take her very long to reach a conclusion.
"Odd..." she said in a halting voice. "The ice is plugging the drainage pipes on the ground level as well. It is almost like it was... planned..." Catherine covered her face as the realization hit her. "I am such a fool..."
"What is it?" Mark asked curiously.
"I cannot believe I was so easily deceived..."
"What are you talking about?" Stefan demanded. "What's going on?"
"We did not come here by our own will," Catherine said. "We were led here."
"I don't understand," Mark said.
Much quicker to jump to conclusions than Mark, Stefan growled bitterly, "Don't tell me that fat weakling tricked us!"
"No," Catherine replied gloomily, "it was not Arkady at all. Kyrios used us, used me. So far, he has been unable to control our minds with his power, but he is still clever enough to trick us. He must have gone to the ruins and made the interpretations for himself. He knew the possibilities and he knew how my powers work. I can feel it now. He is exulting in his triumph. Before, he feigned unease to lure us here. He purposely led us astray." She paused. "But I am not ready to give up yet. There is still a chance for us."
She glided on the ice, through the door and down the corridor. Turning to face the storage room, she stretched out both hands and a great crash reverberated through the castle. When the others caught up to her, Mark saw what she had done. Nearly everything in the room lay broken in a massive pile over the stairwell to the tunnel.
"What the hell are you doing!?" Stefan snapped.
"I had to block the entrance to the tunnel," she replied. "We do not want them to reach Mark's uncle so easily."
Stefan was not too appreciative of the act of sacrifice. "Didn't you say that Kyrios could trick you?" He slammed his fist into the wall. "You've cut off our only escape route! You've played right into his hands!"
"Perhaps," Catherine replied casually, "but we would not fare much better if we attempted to flee through the tunnel. At least now we might save the three lives on the other end."
"That's fine for them, but what're we gonna do!?" Ignatiy cried.
"We stay calm for starters," Catherine said. "We go through the main gate, then jump down to the moat. Whether it is frozen or not, we should not have to worry about any pursuers."
"It sounds dangerous," Mark said, "but it doesn't look like we have a whole lot of options." He stopped and looked at the others. "I'm willing to chance it. I hope everyone else is prepared to do the same."
"Before we do this, I want to apologize for what I have done until now," Catherine said. "Stefan is right about me playing into Kyrios' hands, but I will do everything I can to get us out of this. I swear to you, I will not let this happen again. I will not underestimate our enemy again."
Catherine looked around as if she had heard something.
"The enemy knows we are here," she said warily. "Their minds are being closed by Kyrios' power and I cannot touch them. We must be careful."
It was do or die, so the group moved to the staircase without hesitation or complaint. As they ascended, Mark looked at Catherine. She was trying to hide it, but even so, he could see how distraught she was. It was something he had never seen before. Kyrios' trickery had clearly shaken the confidence she had in her abilities.
When they reached the ground level, the ice finally subsided. Everyone was thankful to have decent footing again, but it was little comfort in the current situation. Without encountering any of the palace guards, they made their way through a side corridor until it joined with the main entryway. As they were running, Catherine pointed at a lever inside the gatehouse and it bent to the floor. The gate slowly lowered, clattering to the ground with considerable noise.
When the gate settled, everyone readied their weapons at the sight before them. Maksimov, Captain of the Dragon Guard, stood on the other side of the moat with at least three dozen of his men. A long cloak and a sash across his breastplate were the only marks of rank to distinguish him from his subordinates. Next to Maksimov stood the smaller figure of another person. Mark recoiled in shock the moment he recognized who that figure was.
"Brenok?"
"That's right, foreigner," the haughty youth sneered. "I'm not surprised you showed up on the wrong side. I am surprised you survived that little test the master left for you. Apparently you five are of some value to him. You can surrender now..." He gave them a savage grin and licked his lips. "...or we can take you by force."
They looked to the moat, intent to jump as Catherine had planned, but were sorely disappointed. Kyrios had planned this trap to the smallest detail. The ice spell that coated the underground levels of the castle had indeed frozen the moat as well, but that was not all. Kyrios had added an extra feature. The surface of the water bristled with icy spikes as long and sharp as spears. What would have been a risky prospect was now downright suicidal. They were out of options and the enemy was not intent on giving them time to think up an alternative.
Without saying a word, Maksimov raised his sword and his men charged with a deafening roar. As the group turned to fall back, more members of the Dragon Guard poured into the main hallway behind them. With no other choice, Catherine quickly looked to her companions on both sides before making a snap judgment.
"We have to go through the Captain's group," she said. "Our chances are not good, but it is better than being trapped in the castle or jumping to our deaths. Once we get past, we can lose them in the hedge maze."
She pointed to the lever in the gatehouse and restored it to the upright position. As the gate began rise, the group made a running jump to the other side. As soon as they landed, Maksimov's men were on them like a pack of wild dogs. Mark and the others fought ferociously to break through the enemy's formation, but there were just too many of them.
It would have been easy to kill the five youths, but the soldiers did not use their blades against them. Instead, they viciously beat them with the pommels of their swords, the stocks of their crossbows or their gauntleted fists. Clumsily aiming for vital points, Mark's head swam from the repeated blows and his vision blurred. Everything was fading into darkness when he heard Catherine scream. A brilliant flash of light blinded him. He neither heard nor saw anything after that.