Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 36.
Ring the bell.

The City of Lovers lay eerily silent. Flight or the battlefield had claimed every soul, leaving only the Countess navigating a desolate landscape punctuated by smoldering embers and the occasional rumble of distant battle. The temple, where flames had succumbed to a mournful drizzle, now served as a grim mausoleum. Amidst the blackened stones, she searched for the burgomaster.

There he lay, a charred testament to ambition's lethal price. A good man, she mused, one who loved food and duty in equal measure. A tragic irony that both led him to this end. His once fleshy hand, now blackened and lifeless, clutched the key to the city like a twisted prize. The Countess offered a silent farewell, leaving him to his eternal slumber.

An unsettling quiet enveloped the ruined city, broken only by the crunch of rubble underfoot. Seeking solace, she retreated into a shadowed alley, a momentary haven in the storm. But the peace was shattered by a blur of fur and fury – the Ferocious Watchdog, racing like the wind itself. Curiosity piqued, the Countess followed, arriving at the city belfry. The dark giants from afar were throwing colossal boulders at them, landing with a crash all about. 

At the door of the Belfry, the Watchdog circled frantically, desperately seeking entry. Beside him, a wizened cat in tattered robes clawed furiously at the unyielding door. "She can't get it open," the Countess announced, her voice echoing into the empty square.

The deserted city echoed with the desperate scrabbling of the Watchdog. "They'll need the key to get it open," the Countess muttered, her bare feet padding through the debris. Giant boulders rained down, each impact shuddering through the ground. With a grimace, she cracked the Burgomaster's blackened fingers, liberating the city's key.

Reaching the belfry, her voice raspy from disuse, she called out, "Wait! I have the key! Just hold on!" A bitter pang twisted in her gut. 

"The greatest pleasure was giving," she mused, recalling children nurtured, titles bestowed, desires fulfilled. "That was love, wasn't it? Then where did it all go wrong?" How had she ended up serving phantom queens and monstrous dragons, oblivious to their deceit?

The Watchdog's frantic barks intensified, urging haste. Yet, the Countess understood no canine tongue. Fumbling, she jammed the key in the wrong slot thrice, each error met with the Watchdog's frustrated roars. "Patience!" she snapped, finally managing to force the key in and wrench the door open.

The Watchdog, the High Priest clinging precariously to her back, bolted through the opening. "I don't care anymore," the Countess thought, following at a languid pace. Care had withered away long ago, replaced by a hollowness that gnawed at her core. How had it happened? Did it even matter when the ends justified the means, regardless of the source? Peculiar, how the cold stones against her numb feet didn’t make her shiver as it would before. Even more peculiar, how the fear that had haunted her for years, a growing, oppressive dread, had vanished entirely. Replaced by... emptiness. A strange serenity.

A monstrous boulder shattered a section of the belfry wall, the wind whipping through the gap. "Ah, what a delightful breeze!" she whispered, gazing down at the dizzying expanse below. The Countess continued her ascent, her steps echoing ominously in the echoing tower.

The Watchdog teetered on the edge of the belfry balcony, desperately pawing at the small bell nestled under its quaint roof. Its size proved an insurmountable obstacle, and even the Cat High Priest's extended claws couldn't reach the dangling rope.

"What a breathtaking view!" the Countess announced, bursting onto the balcony. The battlefield sprawled below, a chaotic tapestry of giants, knights, and weapons glinting in the fading light. "Merciful heavens! What's all this about?"

The frantic duo below were straining to grasp the rope dangling from the roof. "Ah, I see," the Countess mused, "you need me to pull that string. Though why that's so urgent, I doubt I'll ever understand. Unlike the Princess, I lack her talent for deciphering animal tongues. Perhaps I should have asked about that, living with the Enchanted Deer and all. Regardless, consider it done. Shall I give this little string a tug?"

The Watchdog's bark boomed: "Ring the bell, woman, and quickly!"

The Cat King, ever stoic, observed with folded paws.

Unfazed, the Countess perched on the railing, her bare feet surprisingly steady. "You know, without shoes and stockings, my grip is remarkable! Quite the sensation, really."

Below, the Huntress, dispatched by the Princess, arrived to find the Countess dangling precariously, reaching for the bell. "Careful! The tower's crumbling!" she shouted, but the Countess only offered a cheerful wave, completely oblivious to the danger.

"Lovely weather, wouldn't you say?" the Countess chirped to the Huntress, oblivious to the imminent danger.

"Come down! We'll have someone shoot an arrow at the bell, it's far too risky!" the Huntress pleaded, her voice rising with urgency.

But the Countess remained blissfully unaware, turning instead to the Watchdog with a playful lilt. "Look, doggy, dinnertime!" she declared, before pulling on the bell rope with a cheerful chime.

The sound resonated across the battlefield, a piercing cry that sent the giant dwarfs reeling, clutching their ears in agony.

"They did it! The bell!" the Princess exclaimed, relief washing over her features.

From atop the belfry, the Cat High Priest let out a guttural meow unlike any heard before. "Come, my furry kin! Fight! Defend your domain!"

His call unleashed a frenzy. The giants, maddened by the bell's melody, rained down boulders the size of houses, transforming the once elegant belfry into a crumbling target.

Hanging precariously from the bell rope, the Countess watched the rocks plummet with wide-eyed wonder. "How marvelous!" she gushed, a childlike excitement tinging her voice. "Such a spectacle I've never witnessed before!"

As the tower swayed under the bombardment of stones, the Countess fell, tumbling amidst the debris. Yet, even as she fell, laughter bubbled up from her chest. "Just like my dear husband!" she cried, the humor laced with a hint of madness. 

But her mirth was short-lived. With a deafening roar, the belfry collapsed, engulfing her in a cloud of dust and shattered stones.

Silence descended, thick and heavy. Then, a gentle breeze whispered through the ruins, carrying a melancholic note that spoke of both loss and acceptance.

The Huntress dismounted, tears welling in her eyes as she dug through the rubble, desperately searching for any sign of the Countess. But it was in vain.

"You deserved better," she murmured, a soft lament.

Meanwhile, on the battlefield, a tide of fur and fury surged forth. Tens of thousands of cats, mounted by nimble elves, streamed out of the city, transforming the scene into a living patchwork quilt. Their emerald eyes blazed with righteous fury, claws sharp and ready to defend their home.

The cats scaled the giants with effortless grace, claws digging into bark-like skin as cheers erupted from below. Soon, they swarmed the giants' heads, unleashing a flurry of scratches that blinded and enraged the colossal beings. Down below, soldiers had dug deep ditches, and as the giants stumbled, the crowd roared with delight. "They're floored! They're floored!" the cheers of victory echoed, a testament to the combined might of humans and felines.

But victory's song was short-lived. From the distant City of Stars, a bone-chilling screech pierced the air, sending shivers down every spine. It was the Sorceress' call, an inhuman shriek that resonated deep within, driving the cats into a panicked retreat. "Our mistress!" the giants bellowed, blindly following the call on all fours, drawn back to the catacombs like puppets on strings.

Empress, eyes blazing with determination, issued a command: "Follow the giants! I will end this sorceress' reign of terror, even if it takes my last breath!" Her gaze flickered towards the Princess, who remained fixated on the battle between the dragon and the Enchanted Deer. Her eyes narrowed at the enigmatic figure wielding the flaming sword atop the antlers - a figure strangely familiar.

Meanwhile, the dragon clashed with the Five Giants, a whirlwind of scales, fire, and fury. Just as the beast seemed ready to overpower them, the Enchanted Deer descended in a thunderous leap, pinning the dragon to the ground with its antlers. From its back, the Hermit materialized, flaming sword held high. With swift, precise strikes, he tore through the dragon's scales, revealing its true form - a tiny, hissing serpent worm.

The Four Giants, fueled by a newfound understanding, ripped away the remaining scales, casting them far and wide. The Hermit, with a grim satisfaction, trapped the writhing serpent within his lantern's glass jar. "No more will your whispers deceive," he declared, sealing the serpent's fate with a twist of the lid.