Short Story: The Wyrm’s Footprint

The following is one of many short stories that I have written in the epic fantasy genre. This one is set in my Chronicles of Evyntyde.

Each step was carefully placed as the cave floor was eternally damp and the slimy stones were polished by thousands of years of water running over them. One slip and he would tumble hundreds of feet to a shattering end. Cimiar grimaced, imagining his end in a fall – the underground stream would eventually carry his rotting corpse to the Eralyn Plains.

The young alchemist had a blazing torch in one hand, but had the other free: he more often than not needed it to keep balance or hold onto stone formations or stalagmites to keep himself from slipping. He guessed he had descended at least half a mile beneath the mountain and had no idea how much of his climb was left. The wyrm’s lair was deep indeed.

Cimiar started to wonder why he had chosen such a difficult task, why he was willing to risk his life for a single wyrm’s scale. He then reminded himself that it was worth it: that rendering the scale to powder would give him the final ingredient needed to enchant the blade he had forged. The scale’s sympathy toward fire resistance would be used to bestow the same to the wielder of the sword. He smiled at the thought of achieving this magic. His fame would spread throughout Kul-ra, and he would be invited to the Court of the God Emperor Kul himself. After pondering this his fears dissipated into the hollow darkness of the colossal cave network and into the sounds of trickling streams that joined the rushing river far below.

It seemed an eternity, but eventually the steep descent turned into a gentle grade. The river was near; its cataracts already roared in his ears and fine mist caressed his face. In minutes he was saturated.

He raised his torch and muttered an invocation to the god Aquyla in the old Kulric tongue, and for a few seconds the sputtering flame erupted ten feet in height, lighting his surrounds completely. He quickly scanned the area. Yes, the cave is still gigantic in size! A wyrm would have no problems getting down to this level. A wyrm would nest here.

He dared not enhance his torch’s flame again for fear of being noticed by the ancient creature. Assuming the alarm has not already been sounded, he soberly thought. His plan was not to see the wyrm at all. All he wanted was a scale. For hours his eyes had scanned the rocks and crevices, hoping to spot a scale that was shed or scraped off on the rocks. To no avail – so far.

Cimiar rounded a turn in the cave and encountered a narrow path, lined with stacked boulders on each side. This was the first sign of anything other than natural formations in the cave network. He wondered what purpose it could serve, having rocks the size of cows stacked up twenty feet on each side of a five foot wide path, and extending for two dozen yards. There was no easy way to get around them; it had to be a trap. Crude but… he remembered reading that Wyrms often had magical abilities.

Cimiar closed his eyes, thanking the gods that Olander, the largest of the six moons – and which held sway over the element of earth – was in the ascendant this day. It added considerably to the power of his earth based spell casting. In seconds the walls of rocks came into his mind-view – and they became known to him in every facet – the boulders were understood completely: weight, dimensions, makeup – down to the finest grain, and also their smallest weaknesses. It was costly, but he opened his eyes. Maintaining his concentration on the walls, he slowly walked down the path.

When he was exactly halfway down the rocky corridor a rumbling suddenly emanated from beneath his feet, and then the walls started to collapse in on him. This was expected and now that he fully understood the nature of the rocks, he countered their sympathy to fall – with all his might. The entire length of both walls were leaning over the path, ready to crush the alchemist like an insect under foot; but they no longer moved. They were suspended in mid air. Cimiar continued to walk but his pace was agonizingly slow as he had to spend the lion’s share of his concentration on his spell. As he approached the final yards he could sense that his strength was waning and that some other magic was trying to counter his effort. Gods! he thought, this is not going to work! Then an idea entered his head – another way to save his life. He forced his remaining strength to rapidly separate every grain that constituted the boulders; and he pushed.

Instantly, in a mighty cacophony, all the toppling rocks within a three yard radius exploded into fine dust, and Cimiar leapt forward in an attempt to avoid the tons of material. The torch snuffed out as he was engulfed by the waves of sand. Holding his breath for as long as he could, he scrambled in slow motion, trying with what little strength he had left to move toward the edge of his improvised grave. He moved his hands and arms as if he was swimming, furiously trying to edge his body forward. Suddenly he felt the freshness of the cave air caress his face, and the powdery remains of the rocks run off his body. He climbed to his feet. He was very weary but he was still alive. A simple mental gesture set his torch alight again.

“Impressive indeed,” came a hoarse, venerable voice from Cimiar’s right. He turned and saw a man so old it was difficult to grasp he was still alive. The wizened figure’s back was bowed to the point he could barely lift his head to look at Cimiar. He wore grey robes and had nothing on his dirty feet. A gnarled hand firmly grasped a crooked walking stick. “No man has ever succeeded in getting this far. You must be a powerful sorcerer indeed.”

Cimiar dusted himself but kept his eyes firmly focused on the old man. “I am an alchemist, sir, and traps that are constructed from base elements are a trifling matter to me.” He hoped his lie was convincing and did his best to disguise his exhaustion. “Now tell me, old man, who are you? I expected a famed wyrm to reside deep in this cavern.”

The figure laughed. “You could perhaps call me the Gatekeeper. I am as old as the caves and I am charged to protect those who live here.”

“Including the wyrm?”

“I am charged to protect those who live here,” the old man repeated.

Cimiar sighed. “Does the wyrm live here?”

The Gatekeeper laughed again. “No, no, no. He passed on scores of years ago! I am afraid that I now protect the bats, the crickets, lizards and fishes.” The old man’s face turned quickly solemn.

Cimiar was now concerned that he may have risked his life for nothing. “What do you intend to do now, since I am still alive?”

“It depends,” the Gatekeeper replied. “What are you planning to do?”

“With no wyrm, to return to the upper world. All I wanted was a single scale of its hide.”

The old man looked surprised. “Is that all? A mere scale?”

Cimiar nodded.

The Gatekeeper held his hand up, indicating for Cimiar to stay put, and he wandered past a small outcrop of rock and disappeared. Ten minutes later he returned, carrying a shiny red scale, the size of a small shield. “Would this do?”

Cimiar nearly choked. “Why, yes. It is exactly what I want.”

The Gatekeeper handed the glistening scale to Cimiar. “You must make a promise to me, in exchange for this boon.”

Cimiar nodded again.

“Never return to this cave. It is a sacred place and it deserves to be undisturbed.”

“I swear Gatekeeper,” Cimiar responded, genuinely.

The old man acknowledged the oath and started to walk away. “Then I bid you farewell, alchemist. We shall not see each other again.”

When the old man disappeared behind the outcrop, Cimiar turned to the path he had nearly died in, and to his surprise it was clear and lined with the same stone walls. He was weary but he chose to climb some of the way before resting, in order to honour the Gatekeeper’s request for privacy.

The return journey was difficult as Cimiar’s spell had taxed him nearly to his limit, and despite the short rest, it would take days to fully recover. When he finally exited the cave mouth overlooking a small clearing on the side of the mountain, into the freshness of the Western Waymoor Ranges, he was barely able to find a spot to collapse and fall asleep. It was night, and it seemed so easy to close his eyes. He cared little for his safety…

***

The sun had already risen an hour before when Cimiar awoke. He stretched and scratched his chin, slowly getting up, trying to shed the last vestiges of his sleep. He was lying on a small patch of grass on the side of the cliff face where the cave mouth yawned, and as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the valley below, he tripped into a shallow hole in the ground. He was sure it wasn’t there before.

Cimiar stepped out of the hole and studied it. He then fell over laughing. “Old man, or should I say old dragon! You sly devil!”

He had fallen into a fresh wyrm’s footprint.

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