Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 29.
The serpent's smile.

The Fool awoke with a blissful sigh, the magic chain with seven gems dangling from his bedside a testament to his successful foray into the ethereal elven realm. A light rapping at the window jolted him fully awake.

"Elves?" he called out, hope painting his voice.

Instead, two sets of gleaming yellow eyes stared back at him from the darkness. The Cat High Priest and the Cat King perched on the windowsill, their regal air contrasting with the disheveled state of the room.

"The Fool!" exclaimed the Cat King, his voice dripping with surprise. "Returned from the elven lands, I presume?"

"Indeed," the Fool confirmed, still slightly dazed.

"Yes, yes, most certainly," chimed in the Cat High Priest, scrutinizing the Fool's face. "The human visage from your visit to our feline metropolis... unmistakable. Though, I must say, you appear... less foolish."

The Fool chuckled, a hint of his trademark self-deprecating humor returning. "That might be true."

"Sadly, our beautiful Cat Capital is no more," interjected the Cat King, his voice heavy with sorrow.

"What do you mean?" The Fool's curiosity was piqued.

"A dark chasm now occupies its place," explained the Cat High Priest, his words measured and grave. "A colossal well, swallowing everything in its path."

"A well?" The Fool echoed, concern etching his brow.

"And the people..." the Cat King began, his voice trailing off. "Their minds have unraveled, consumed by madness. They hurl each other into the abyss."

"A descent into utter crazyness, I'm afraid," added the Cat High Priest, shaking his head sadly. "Remember that urgent task you undertook last visit? The lid for the well? Our pleas were ignored, and now the darkness within has spilled outwards."

The Fool felt a knot form in his stomach. "And the monster you spoke of..."

"Released," the Cat King finished grimly. "The serpent's smile widens, and its hunger threatens to engulf the entire land."

"The most fearsome creature ever imprisoned," revealed the Cat High Priest. "Once, an elven being, a majestic three-headed dog. Yet, it was corrupted, used for cruel ends... even serving an evil emperor as a guard."

"All the creatures of the animal and fairy realms agreed," added the Cat King. "This entity had to be contained, sealed away. So, we created a jar, an unbreakable prison. And for generations, we guarded it, building our beautiful Cat Capital around it."

"Now, thanks to you, the monster roams free again," the Cat High Priest accused.

The Fool gasped. "Me? But I never knew..."

"Yet, your actions set loose a chain of events," the Priest explained, before being interrupted.

The Cat King leaned out the window. "Clear!" he announced.

Moments later, a black fox and a large dog bounded into the room, joining the cats.

"Ah, warm!" purred the Fox.

"Guard duty commences," growled the Dog, drool dripping from its fangs.

"Who are you all?" the bewildered Fool demanded.

"Essential companions for our upcoming journey!" squeaked the Priest, conjuring a throne for the Cat King. "And we need you too. A new catastrophe looms."

"What must I do?" the Fool asked nervously.

"Knowledge is your weapon," declared the Priest. "Knowledge... and our new Cat Capital. We propose building it with you in mind."

"Don't feel pressured," soothed the King. "There's time."

As they settled in, the Fool noticed the Fox basking by the fire.

"More comfortable than a witch's tower, wouldn't you say?" the Fox remarked.

"Wait!" exclaimed the Fool. "I recognize you... from the waterfall! Didn't you warn me about the chaos I'd unleash?"

"Indeed," sighed the Fox. "And so it unfolds..."

"Forgive me," the Fool pleaded. "For bringing you into this mess."

The Black Fox's words hung heavy in the air. "There's nothing to regret," he said, his eyes meeting the Fool's in a long, searching gaze. In their depths, the Fool glimpsed a flicker of recognition, a spark of belonging that seemed to settle the Fox's restless spirit. But the silence that followed felt heavy, laden with unspoken memories.

The Ferocious Watchdog, perched silently by the door, remained an imposing sentinel, his dark form bathed in the dancing shadows cast by the guards patrolling outside. His gaze, focused on the sliver of light creeping beneath the door, spoke volumes of loyalty and quiet vigilance.

"You wirklich lived there?" The Fool finally broke the silence, his voice laced with curiosity and a hint of disbelief.

The Black Fox chuckled, a dry rasp that echoed in the quiet room. "Of course! Shared it with a dwarven friend of mine. But that blasted snake..." His voice trailed off, taking on a distant, haunted tone. "Can't quite remember where he is now. Haven't seen him in ages."

"A snake?" The Fool echoed, his brow furrowing. "A snake took him?"

The Black Fox's lips curled into a sardonic smile. "That's what I said, isn't it? A snake."

"Where's the Princess?" The Fool stormed into the Burgomaster's office, his voice laced with urgency. The Cat King's revelation about the serpent's true nature and their forced return from Elven Paradise gnawed at him.

"The Princess? Well, she's..." The Burgomaster stammered, a bead of sweat trickling down his forehead. "Working diligently at the Count-in-Stone's castle with the Countess, of course. Didn't you know?"

"I must see her now!" The Fool's voice boomed, echoing through the room.

"But sire," the Burgomaster's voice trembled, "wedding protocol forbids contact before the ceremony!"

"There's no wedding! I don't crave a crown or a kingdom! Only her presence!" The Fool's desperation hung heavy in the air.

Panic flooded the Burgomaster's face, turning it crimson as usual. He was about to stammer another excuse when a frantic rapping at the door interrupted him.

"Wait!" the Fool roared, but the Burgomaster, desperate for any distraction, yelled, "Come in!"

A surge of angry townsfolk flooded the room, their faces mirroring the Fool's frustration. The Huntress pushed her way forward, her voice firm.

"We apologize for the intrusion, Burgomaster, but the situation demands immediate attention. The current arrangements are unsustainable!"

"Indeed!" the others chimed in, their voices rising in a clamor. "The bird trade has devastated our city! Resources are dwindling, leaving us barely enough to survive the harsh winter!"

"The City Guards from the Capital contribute nothing!" the Fool interjected, his anger mounting. "They occupy entire houses while we rebuild ours, and consume our meager rations!"

"Why can't they help with the harvest, the butchering, the cheesemaking?" he demanded, his voice echoing their unspoken resentment.

"It's your fault," the Huntress accused, her gaze unwavering. "You signed the decree ensuring their comfort."

The Burgomaster, pale and flustered, added weakly, "The soldiers do protect us, sire. Without them..."

Silence descended as the Fool grappled with this revelation. He recalled the Cat King's veiled warnings, the weight of his actions settling in his gut.

"But winter will leave us starving!" the villagers cried, their anxiety palpable.

"Why not hunt in the forest?" the Fool suggested, grasping for a solution. "Gather nuts, berries, mushrooms..."

A chilling silence met his suggestion. The villagers exchanged nervous glances, the Burgomaster avoiding his gaze. Even the Hunter's Wife, known for her courage, hesitated.

Finally, she stepped forward, her voice trembling. "What forest, sire? To build the soldiers' homes, all trees were cleared far beyond the city walls."

The truth, harsh and undeniable, hung in the air. The consequences of the Fool's actions, fueled by deception and blind trust, threatened to engulf them all.

The Fool's stomach churned with dread. "No forest?" he stammered, unable to comprehend the implications.

"No, sire," a villager confirmed, their voice heavy with regret. "We followed the Countess's and the Princess's orders. Every last tree fell."

Panic clawed at the Fool's throat. An old, simmering anger, long suppressed, roared back to life, coursing through him like wildfire.

"And the well? The old castle?" His voice trembled with a desperate hope.

A collective shrug met his words. "What old castle, sire?" someone asked, bewildered.

"The ruins, abandoned on the hill! What's become of them?"

This time, the Burgomaster spoke, his voice laced with nervous pride. "Ah, those dilapidated stones, sire? They found a new purpose, contributing to the magnificence of the Countess's castle."

The Fool felt the world tilt, nausea rising in his throat. He stumbled back, trembling uncontrollably. With a desperate cry, he fled the room, leaving behind a stunned silence and a creeping sense of unease.

Despair spurred the Fool's horse onwards, leaving the village far behind. His heart sank as the truth unfolded: endless fields of barren stumps replaced the once vibrant forest. Reaching the location of the abandoned castle and well, he was greeted by a vast, empty expanse where a dense woods thrived just days ago. The small, winding path was lost, devoured by the open space.

Disbelief contorted his face as he dismounted. The castle, once a crumbling monument to the past, had vanished, its stones repurposed. A cold knot tightened in his stomach. As if drawn by an invisible force, he stumbled towards the well's gaping maw. He peered into its depths, a hollow ache resonating within him.

"Elves?" his voice cracked, echoing into the void. "Fairies? Anyone?"

Silence swallowed his pleas. No familiar ripples, no gurgling whispers, no life sparkled in the well's emptiness. It had run dry.

The Fool galloped back to the village, fury fueling his haste. He dismounted, his hands shaking as he grabbed villagers, demanding answers. "Why? Why did you destroy the fairy castle?"

Confusion met his question. "Fairy castle?" they stammered, bewildered.

The Huntress, sharper and more perceptive, wrenched him away. "Don't play dumb!" she spat, her voice laced with accusation. "You gave them permission! Your signature graced the plans, and the Burgomaster carried them out!"

"But I never agreed to that!" The Fool protested, his voice cracking. "I don't remember..."

The Huntress stared at him, searching for deceit. But his eyes held a genuine bewilderment that mirrored their own. "Truly?" she finally asked, a flicker of doubt entering her voice.

The Hunter's Wife, known for her wisdom, stepped forward. Her gaze met the Fool's, and she saw the truth reflected there. "That's why they want you as king," the Huntress mused, her tone softening.

Suddenly, the Princess and the Countess arrived in a carriage, drawn by the commotion. The Princess, eager and impulsive, leaped out before the Countess could stop her. "What's wrong?" she demanded, rushing to the Fool, who had collapsed onto the cobblestones, tears streaming down his face.

"The forest," he choked out, his voice thick with despair. "Gone. All gone. The well is sealed, and the castle, the home of the elves and fairies... destroyed."

The Princess, consumed by her duties and obligations with the Countess, struggled to comprehend his words. "Elves? But there are no elves in the human realm..."

"There were," the Fool insisted, his voice ragged. "In that castle. I couldn't tell you about them. We weren't allowed to see each other."

"And that remains the rule!" the Countess interjected sharply, but neither the Fool nor the Princess heeded her.

Grief wracked the Fool's body, his sobs echoing through the square. "We left the Elven Paradise, and now the last vestige of it... lost."

A flicker of sympathy softened the Princess's gaze. "I'm so sorry," she murmured.

The Fool's anger ignited once more. "All for your precious castle!" he spat, his voice laced with bitterness.

The Princess recoiled from the Fool's sudden outburst. His anger, raw and unfamiliar, sent a tremor through her. It wasn't just the anger; it was the pain woven within it, a grief she hadn't witnessed before.

The Countess, however, remained unfazed. With a dismissive pat on the Fool's back, she offered a chillingly insincere explanation. "He simply misses his fairy paradise, wouldn't you agree, Princess?" she purred, her voice laced with veiled doubt. It sent a shiver down the Princess's spine, a prickling suspicion that the Countess cared little for the Fool's truth, or even their supposed journey to Elven Paradise.

Ignoring the Huntress's concerned glare, the Countess steered the Fool back to his room. "A calming tea," she promised, ushering him inside.

The brew she concocted sent the Fool into a deep, dreamless sleep. As he lay still, his mind grappled with the loss of the forest, the well, and the ephemeral elven castle.

The Princess stayed by his side, listening to his feverish ramblings: "The horn... the fisherman's king... fairies from in between..." Her own memories flickered, hazy glimpses of their time together in the Enchanted Deer's realm. A yearning for that lost peace, that forgotten paradise, bloomed within her.

As the Fool slipped deeper into slumber, the Countess nudged the Princess towards the door. "He needs rest," she murmured, her voice devoid of warmth. With a practiced twist of her wrist, she locked him in.

Alone in the darkened room, the Fool drifted between consciousness and the depths of sleep. From hidden corners, his animal companions emerged: the watchful Cat King, the loyal Watchdog, the enigmatic Black Fox.

"What did she give him?" the King hissed, concern etching his furry brow.

"Serpent," the Fool muttered, his words slurred and feverish.

"Seems to worsen his state," growled the Watchdog, his amber eyes narrowed.

"Worse than anything he's faced here," the Black Fox sighed, his voice heavy with regret.

"Serpent," the Fool echoed, his voice fading.

Yet, no response came.

Suddenly, a flicker of movement caught their attention – the mirror reflecting the bed. Something emerged, its form both chilling and alluring: a serpent with newly formed wings, its smile wider than ever. It slithered onto the bed, settling on the Fool's chest, its reptilian gaze fixed on the muttering figure. A sense of twisted pleasure emanated from the creature, as if the Fool's suffering nourished it.

"Do you remember what you asked me?” the serpent whispered.

The Fool mumbled a barely coherent response, lost in the throes of sleep. The Black Fox and the Cat King recoiled in disgust as the serpent, a grotesque parody of nature, slithered around the Fool's head, its thin tongue exploring every crevice.

"Remember asking what a King must do?" the serpent pressed, its voice laced with malicious amusement.

Through gritted teeth, the Fool muttered, "Your advice was poison. You are evil."

Undeterred, the serpent slithered closer. "But your desires manifested! Though a foolish king, they bend to your will!"

The Fool groaned, his sleep riddled with anxieties. "I desire nothing from them. Now... they destroyed the forest... everything... because of me..."

With a forked tongue, the serpent hissed, "Seek a solution, then! Ask me!"

"No," the Fool whispered, his voice weak but resolute. "Not from you."

The serpent's laughter echoed through the room, cold and reptilian. "Listen, dear Fool. You granted their wishes, now comes the next step. Their devotion is yours to exploit. Take everything!"

"Such darkness," the Fool rasped, his spirit faltering. "I need nothing. I have... the horn..."

The serpent's eyes narrowed. "The horn? That accursed relic! Where is it, so I can finally destroy it!"

Fueled by protectiveness, the Black Fox lunged, sinking his teeth into the winged serpent's flank, sending it tumbling to the floor.

"Leave him be!" the Fox snarled, his voice fierce. "And return my friend, the Dwarf! Where is he?"

"Silence, creature," the serpent hissed, its forked tongue flickering menacingly. "I have grand... plans for him."

It slithered across the smooth floorboards, leaving a trail of viscous slime.

"Begone!" the Black Fox roared, fangs bared. "Or face the flames!"

The serpent met his gaze, its monstrous smile widening until smoke curled from its nostrils and its tongue glowed, embers erupting from its maw.

"Fire holds no sway over me," it rasped, a chilling amusement in its voice. "Merely an admirer of humanity, I am."

"Leave him," the Black Fox growled, his resolve unwavering. "He has friends who cherish him."

As one, the Cat King, the High Priest, and the Watchdog emerged from their shadows, joining the Fox in their silent vigil. Unfazed, the serpent's smile remained fixed, a beacon of malevolent intent in the darkened room.

"A royal entourage indeed," hissed the snake, its forked tongue flickering like a flame. "Quite the spectacle. It seems our aspiring king hasn't abandoned his ambitions."

"Fortunately," it continued, its voice dripping with sarcasm, "I hold no prejudice against individuals. All people are equally fascinating subjects. I adore their… intricate social constructs. The delicious lies they weave. Such a delectable tapestry!"

The Black Fox watched, aghast, as the serpent swelled in size, its form rippling with dark magic. Meanwhile, the Fool, a tremor in his voice, sputtered, "Serpent, you played me! Your counsel led me astray!"

"Lies upon lies," chuckled the serpent. "Even now, the Fool spews them. Yet, I offered him the means to his desires. As I did for the Princess..."

"You are the embodiment of deceit," snarled the Black Fox. "You feigned benevolence, yet you serve only your own twisted ends."

The serpent's gaze, cold and reptilian, fixed on the Fox. "There's something… untamed about you, little one. Your presence betrays your recent arrival in this realm. But remember, my word reigns here. None dare dissent!"

"One does," came a defiant voice from the bed. It was the Cat King, his eyes blazing.

The serpent hissed, flames sputtering from its maw. "A pity you favor him so. I intended for the Countess to deliver him to me… for a little charring and pulverization."

"Touch him not!" the Black Fox roared.

"Step forth, Champion!" boomed the serpent. "Rise from the mirror and serve your true purpose, future king! End the life of the one you are destined to replace!"

"Replace?" The Cat King exchanged a startled glance with the Cat High Priest.

"They plot to murder the Fool," the Cat King declared, his voice trembling with anger. "This cannot stand! It will not stand!"

A young man materialized from the mirror, clad in gleaming armor, a jewel-encrusted sword clutched in his emotionless hands. The Knight of Coins, his eyes devoid of life, his grip on the blade betraying a barely contained frenzy.

The serpent spread its wings, launching itself towards the Fool with talons outstretched like an avian predator. But the Black Fox, with a feral snarl, leaped onto the monstrous serpent, his teeth sinking deep into its scaled hide.

The Ferocious Watchdog, a blur of fury, and the Cat King pounced on the Prince. Though wielding his jeweled sword, it offered little defense against a dog snapping at his face and two agile cats sinking their claws into his hands. Overwhelmed, Alaric stumbled back into the mirror, dragging the Watchdog and Cat King with him in a flash of distorted light.

The devilish serpent hissed, its forked tongue licking Alaric's discarded sword with malevolent glee. It coiled tightly around the Black Fox's neck, its scales digging into his flesh like icy talons. With a powerful heave, the serpent launched itself upward, the Fox clinging desperately to its writhing body. Higher and higher they soared, the palace shrinking beneath them, until the serpent, with a vicious twist, slammed the Fox onto the cold, hard floorboards as lackeys and guards came in to hear what commotion was going on inside.

They saw only a wounded Black Fox and the Fool lying delirious in his bed.