Ruin picked his way along the top of the ridge, climbing carefully but steadily towards the high peak at the center of the island. He was well aware that this might be a suicide mission; the silver dragon had swept past overhead twice now, and was coming around for a third pass. It could stoop on him like a hawk any time it chose, or blast him off the ridge with its freezing breath.
He continued climbing, and the dragon continued circling. He slowed as he neared the flattened top of the peak, then slowed further when he realized that it wasn't a small plateau but actually a small depression, a shallow bowl that made a crown of the island's central peak. And there, at the center, was the golden egg that the cursed couatl had described before its death.
Is that truly what you came here for? asked his mother's voice, and Ruin stopped at the edge of the bowl. His mother wasn't here, of course. He'd come here with Azrael and Martini and the human cleric Marshall Mercy, while his mother had gone on to treat with the dwarves. This was probably something to do with the amulet she'd given him, though hearing her voice was new and disconcerting. Is this better left a secret? This time, he wasn't sure if the voice was hers or his.
A shadow passed overhead, and wide silver wings stirred a mighty wind as the dragon drew near. Ruin braced himself, standing on the edge of the bowl, and let the air rush past him. It tugged hard at his midnight blue cloak, casting it out behind him in a soft reflection of the wings overhead. Then the massive, gleaming shape of the dragon set claw to stone and gracefully settled its weight on the far side of the egg. It looked down at him for a long moment, then cocked its head.
"A true elf," it said, and its voice was soft and cold like the winter wind. "I did not expect to find one of your kind seeking the egg."
"I didn't come for the egg," Ruin answered, folding his arms and letting his shoulders relax. "I came to look upon you." Was that true? It felt true. Had it been true when he'd begun this ridiculous climb? He wasn't sure. I'm going to have to do something about this death wish of mine, he thought. Preferably something involving a large number of easily-slain humans, and a lot of blood and screaming. He'd grown fascinated with the dragon as he climbed, though how much of that was the creature's sleek, predatory beauty and how much was the prospect of an elegant, irresistible death he wasn't sure.
"Be that as it may," answered the dragon softly, its voice an icy caress, "you may not be here. This is a holy place, and you are..."
"Impure," suggested Ruin. "I know. I only hoped to touch your beauty for one brief moment first."
The dragon fell profoundly still. Then it slid forward, coiling its tail around the egg as it stopped in front of Ruin and lowered its head. "This I will permit, Feyborn child."
Ruin raised a hand and shifted his weight to reach out. His fingers caressed silver scales, finding them harder than any armor but strangely warm. "You are blindingly beautiful," he told the dragon.
It snorted and swept its head around, knocking him off the side of the ridge. For a moment he was sailing outward; then he was merely falling. He wasn't sure what lay below him, and it didn't matter. He would strike rock or water, and die or survive; if he survived, he would be crippled or not. There was nothing he could do to change it. Falling was all that remained to him.
A heartbeat later he glimpsed movement above him; a heartbeat after that the dragon was beside him, its form shrinking and softening into a pale-skinned, silver-haired elf woman. She wrapped arms and legs around him, and their descent slowed. After a moment they were drifting out over the lake. "You meant that? You came to seek me out? You think me beautiful?"
Ruin nodded. "It's a deadly sort of beauty," he said, "but all the more appealing for that."
"It has been," she told him, "six hundred and seventy-two years, three months, and fourteen days since anyone sought me out, and far longer since anyone called me beautiful. I hope you rested before you came here, Feyborn, because I intend to make the most of this."
For a moment, Ruin was troubled by the feel of his clothing falling away into the lake below. After that, he didn't care.
It was three days later when he woke back in the cavern that connected the mountain pass with the path to the peak. Or at least he thought it was. Had he dreamed the whole thing? If so, I'm as bad as Reverend Mercy, with his dreams of snakes. Though since she did turn into a elvish woman before nature took its course, perhaps not quite so bad. His equipment was there beside his bedroll, but then it had been placed there before he left to try the path. There was no point in carrying weapons to meet someone he couldn't possibly defeat.
Were his clothes still at the bottom of the lake? He certainly wasn't wearing much now. Had he gone to sleep in his underclothes? Here in a mountain pass, where anything might happen by and try to eat them? ...He couldn't remember. He might have. He could check his pack, and see if that particular outfit of silver and midnight blue was tucked away inside. Or he could let it be; after the chimera and the dark naga, he'd certainly been tired enough to fall into a full sleep instead of a traditional trance. It might be pleasant to wait, savor these memories, and only learn later if this had all been a dream.
Sitting up in his bedroll, he reached for his pack and pulled out the first outfit that came to hand. Across the small cave, Martini shifted her weight and turned to look at him. "You're back? About time."
He wondered how exactly she meant that, but for now he only nodded and started dressing.
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