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The girl’s presence sent a pulse through the narrow, arching hall. Curses perched on the rafters, eyeing the trespassing human. They found something disdainful in the arrogant angle of her chin and the determined set of her face. The blackness, coiled in the crannies below, silently clawed at the hem of her dress. Unaware, she walked on. The only magic visible to her were the shrines lining both sides of the hall. Each shrine displayed an enchanted object with powers even she could interpret with a glance. Love, Riches, Pleasure, Appearance. She gave each a generous, unimpressed look as she passed.
At the Shrine of Power, she stopped. Its magnetism wafted out and landed like cold air at her feet. The Curses jostled each other, shocked that the arrogant girl would succumb so quickly. They watched the magnetism stack, beginning to bind her foolishly still feet…
The girl smirked. Then, slowly, she turned and continued her leisurely stroll down the hall. She didn’t glance back. As she passed more shrines, she noticed that they began to display objects with very different powers. One would bring justice; another, peace. Another would grant her the perfect husband and children, if she would only take it out of the Temple.
Her pace began to increase, her eyes barely glancing at each object. She murmured, “You promised, and you will keep your promise. So it’s harder than you thought. Big deal. But it will be a big deal if you don’t. It’s not worth it, it’s really not, so just follow the instructions and—”
The girl whirled around. She could feel rapid pulsing in her throat. She should probably just— Splash! Splash! Splash! Then she heard, or, perhaps, thought she heard, a muted gurgling sound. She suddenly pictured someone drowning, his frantic cries lost in the water. This thought, though, only increased her apprehension. Someone calling for help was exactly the sort of trick those foolish girls always fell for in the folktales. “Don’t be stupid,” she whispered. She drew closer.
Squinting into the darkness, she made out a doorframe, carved with strange markings. Past it, short steps lead into a small, rectangular pool. Her eyes saw the water just as the last waves died out. Now perfectly still, the water appeared nearly black in the dimness of the Temple. Suddenly, she grabbed the side of the doorframe, as if to stay her feet. She closed her eyes, fingering the carvings. Her suspicion that she should avoid the pool wrestled with her desire, her almost need, to investigate. She realized how stifling it had become and imagined wading into the cool water…
Her eyes flew open. Waves frolicked over the surface. “Who’s there?!” she hissed. She waited, watching the waves die out. Her fear mounted, expanding against her chest and sending an uncanny hollowness through her limbs. She crossed her arms. “I’m not getting any closer to that water until you tell me who and what you are…and maybe not even then!” She waited.
“You know what? I don’t like this. I’m leaving.”
“Wait!” A column of water spouted into the air. The bottom of the column seemed to hover a few inches above the surface of the pool. When the column disappeared, the invisible voice rasped, “Step in…see me.”
“No thanks.” She backed away, prepared to run at any instant. “You’re evil. Admit it.”
“Noooo! This place is evil, not me! I’m trapped…want to get out…” The words faded in and out, as if an invisible barrier existed between her and the pool. The girl walked away—
“…I’m a water dragon, I…”
She stopped. After creeping back, she peered around the doorframe. The invisible voice kept begging her to come back, even as she approached the pool. Somehow, the realization that he couldn’t see her either gave her confidence. Quietly, she waded down the steps into the pool. Up to her waist in the water, she still couldn’t see any water dragon. She’d give it a few more seconds. Her eyes feverously scanned the surface.
Suddenly, something latched onto her hand, her arm. Flailing backwards, she yanked her hand out of the water as a shriek escaped her lips. Then, she saw it. The smallest dragon she had ever seen had coiled itself around her arm. His smooth, reptilian body was a vibrant blue. Instead of wings, like most dragons had, he had fins and a long, slender tail. His beady eyes sparkled with the stereotypical dragon sass and vanity, yet he lowered his head submissively. “Master,” he rasped.
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. Her eyes were intense as they swept over the dripping creature, embracing him with their gaze. His expression of admiration and loyalty cut straight to her heart. As one of the keepers of the royal dragons, she had longed to have a dragon treat her with the respect which they reserved exclusively for their masters. And now this beautiful, majestic creature wanted to be hers. Her heart thrilled! Then duty writhed in her gut, churning until she said it. I’m not your master. I can’t be. I’m on a mission for the king himself, and I can’t bring you out. The words lined up on her tongue, waiting for her to release them. It wouldn’t take much. Deep breath, open mouth…
“How did you get here?” Instantly, she imagined smacking herself on the forehead.
“I was hatched here, in this pathetic little teardrop,” he explained. “For centuries, writhing around in the water was my entire existence. Then the visions came, beautiful visions, of the world outside. Of the ocean.” He brightened and grew more animated. “Imagine all the wonders in its vast space! There, I could grow into the tremendous Sea Monster I am! But I’ve always feared that I’d never get out. That I’d die alone, and no other living creature would ever know I existed. But now I’m free,” he bent his head and met her gaze, “because of you.”
The girl was vigorously shaking her head. She tried to speak, but he cut her off.
“Though I imagined this day a million different ways, I never thought that such a beautiful princess would come to rescue me.”
She had to look away as she spoke. “I wish I could be that princess! But I’m a peasant, bound to serve the king.” She risked one glance at the dragon, but was too distraught to read his expression. Her next words tumbled out in a rush. “His Majesty’s been cursed; he’s started to fade away. The magicians and wizards can’t cure him without the Stone of Solidity, hidden in this Temple.”
“Temple?! This is a prison,” the dragon spat.
“No wonder you feel that way,” the girl remarked, lightly stroking one of his fins. “The Temple’s been invisible for centuries, almost a forgotten legend.”
“Wh—? Invisible?!” He shuddered. “All this time, I didn’t even know how trapped I really was!” Then his head jerked up, his eyes bright. “Wait! But it’s visible now, so…”
“No, listen,” she stopped him. “I know that you’re hoping this means you’re free, but it’s just not that way. You have to understand—the Temple was invisible to hide the enchanted objects until one of them is needed. It became visible to make that object available, but the others are still protected. Removing one of them would trigger disaster. That’s why I can’t bring you out, don’t you see? I can’t. I promised the magicians and wizards that I’d only bring out the Stone of Solidity. I wish—”
“Wait, wait. Why didn’t they just come get it themselves?”
“Because there is strange magic at work here. They say the objects themselves yearn to get out, and they use their powers to tempt anyone who enters into bringing them out. The more magic a person knows, the more the temptation affects them. And,” her voice became very quiet, “I don’t know any magic at all.”
“Who needs magic when you have a dragon? I’ll protect you, Master. Always and forever.” He rested his head on her arm, closing his eyes. “And your promise can’t change that, because I’m not an object—I’m a living being. I don’t deserve to be trapped here. Please…”
His words sent a violent twisting through her heart. She blinked rapidly. “No. No, you don’t deserve it,” she whispered. She brought him close to her chest and held him there, resting her chin on his head. Her resistance cracked. For the first time, she indulged the idea that she could actually rescue him. Her heart swelled with dizzying liberation, but it was only an illusion. Envisioning the consequences, she gathered all her resolve and whispered, “No, you don’t deserve it, but neither do the innocent people who would suffer because of the disaster that would be caused. Because I wanted you. Because I wanted you more than I’ve ever wanted anything.”
The dragon was silent. When he did speak, his voice wavered. “Yet you’re going to leave me here?”
She gently set him down into the water. “Yes,” she breathed. Her hand rose to still her trembling lips, and she began to wade toward the steps.
“You don’t know what it’s like!” He yelled after her. “You’ll never know how much more I’ll suffer, because of you!”
“You’re right; I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things. It’s not my place to know. If I try to interfere, I’ll make things worse!” Having halted on the top step, she stood ankle-deep in the water. Even with her arms wrapped around her chest, she shivered. “All I can do is keep my word.”
“Your honor is truly inspiring,” he scoffed. “I’ll try to remember that when I think of how you abandoned me!”
She whirled around. “Wait. If what I know about the Temple is true…” Her eyes brightened just a little. “Eventually, you will get out. You must have been put here for a reason, to be kept until you’re needed. You’ll get to be a hero and do something important.” She looked down at the water lapping against her ankles. “I’m sure this means nothing to you right now, but I can at least give you a little hope. It’s not much, but it’s all I can give you.” She let out a ragged breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Master,” the dragon said. “Ocean is streaming out of your eyes.”
She let out a hysterical hiccup. “Goodbye. I’ll miss you.” With that, she stepped out of the pool and disappeared from the dragon’s sight.