Don't Call the Wolf - Aleksandra Ross
A WHITE CASTLE ONCE STOOD in the forest, with spires that soared to the lower floors of heaven and dungeons that stretched ever downward, or so the legend went, to brush the very chimney stacks of hell. To the villagers who prospered in its shadow, the castle encompassed the entire expanse of earthly life. Its mausoleums housed the bones of ancient lords, its throne bore up their beloved queen, and its crib cradled their tiny, treasured princess.
But then, the world grew dark.
Slowly at first. With small things, things that scuttled and slithered. In the treetops, nocnica danced on their spider legs and looked for humans to strangle. In the rivers, rusalki circled unsuspecting swimmers, whispering in their ears before they dragged them under. In the castle grounds, three hundred nawia glided across the lawn and left the smell of frost and rotting flesh. And within the castle itself, psotniki stumped across the marble floors, chuckling softly as they plucked the eyes out of sleeping nobles.
And then, gliding over the treetops, came a Golden Dragon.
They said, afterward, that its wings blocked out the sun. Formed of gold, it was like nothing they had ever seen. Some said it was the most beautiful, the most heavenly of monsters. Its claws were glass. Its teeth were crystals. Its eyes were so dark that in them, they said, was held the ruin of worlds.
With sunlight glancing off wings of gold, the Dragon took the castle spire in its claws. It ripped. It tore. The villagers came out from under their doorways and shielded their eyes. They watched as gold and fire blazed on the threshold of heaven. They watched, realizing too late what they saw, as in that topmost chamber, the Dragon devoured the young queen and her daughter. Too late the knights drew their swords. Too late they charged up the spiraled stairs. Too late they paused in the dim stone hallways and heard, far above them, the echo of glass claws on stone as the Dragon launched itself from the white walls. It flew east across the forest. And there, in the Moving Mountains, it made its roost and awaited the onslaught of knights.
And they came.
Heartbroken and furious, the king gathered his knights. Banners flying and swords chiming, they galloped down the drawbridge and through the dark woods.
One by one, they were picked off among the twisted trees. Many survived, only to be lost among the unforgiving Mountains. And of those who remained—those who conquered the Mountains, who eked out the hidden trails, who scaled its peaks, who outwitted its monsters—those who were battle-hardened, or brave, or talented—those last, doomed souls were crushed in golden jaws.
Below, the trees grew thicker. The villagers mourned. In a bid for the vacant throne, the more ambitious nobles put on old-fashioned armor and rode out to face the dragon and prove their worth. Not a single one of them returned.
The kings of other lands arrived. Some brought gold and silver. Some wielded chipped blades and rode scarred warhorses. Some employed magicians and soothsayers and made offerings to the saints of dragon slayers and kings. And when those kings were dead the armies came. Led by drummers and trumpeters, black-coated soldiers rode in military formation, sabers rattling and rifles primed. In all, within ten years of the Golden Dragon’s attack, ten thousand warriors crossed the borders into the forest. They were professionals, they were aristocrats, they were the civilized and the elite and they were men and women already living legends of their own.
They were not enough.
Ten thousand souls went into that forest, and ten thousand souls were lost.
In the end, the cleverest and the bravest were the people who fled. The ones who took what they could carry and ran and never looked back. The ones who abandoned fortune and birth and everything familiar and left the kingdom to the Dragon.
Of course, some stayed behind, and the dark things found them. For in the wake of the Dragon, these things grew braver.
Evil wrapped itself around the little village. Evil walked the crumbling streets, evil lurked between stuccoed buildings. It looked down from the rafters with glowing eyes. It rattled its claws in the corners. It strangled the villagers in their beds. It dragged them to the depths of rivers. It snatched them up on quiet roads. It beckoned from shadowed eaves. Evil sang to them in the dark, candles burning, nights eternal.
In time, the forest darkened. Its borders closed. For a long time, there was no hope.