Deep in the forest, far from the lights of the civilized world, Lana creeps towards the mouth of a cave. The stones that litter the ground are marked with strange sigils; they ward off trespassers, but Lana has no worries: she is welcome here. She walks into the cave where her preternatural sight serves her well. The world of the cave, black to any other visitor, is alive with color to Lana. She scans the area, looking for the hermit called River. She looks upon his trappings; wilted flowers and drying herbs are scattered on the floor and hung from the ceilings, a table stained with blood and wine, and a mattress stuffed with leaves that crunch as the hermit turns to awaken.
“You failed, River, and I can’t have that.” she hisses, her serpentine features sharp and emotionless. She picks up a clay vessel from the table and sniffs it casually. It stinks of urine and blood.
“I said that the procedure was questionable, that it might fail, that she might die, but you insisted. You said that Bodon could send his power across the gulfs of the abyss, you said that he wouldn’t need to be summoned here.” He replies in a raspy voice. Draped in rotting animal skins and wearing a flannel night shirt, River stumbles to his feet, unable to gain his balance in a world that rocks like a boat. He puts a hand to his head, trying to keep his brain from floating away.
“He can. He is strong, It is your magic that is weak. With such meager tools, can you really expect to do his work?” Lana states as she paces impatiently, lecturing River on his faults and musing about his responsibility in the failure perpetrated a week ago. Lana had brought Francine Keene to the cave, allowed her to make her dreams come true. River had opened a gate, allowing King Bodon’s power to change Francine, but the power eventually failed, and Lana concluded that River was at fault. She glares at him disdainfully while he grabs an ancient glass decanter and relieves himself in it.
“I work with what I have. The gods, demons, angels, and spirits don’t care about the presentation, they only care about the opportunity. They’ll take any chance to influence our world.” Snorting and pulling phlegm up from his lungs, River spits a yellowy globule of phlegm into the green glass decanter.
“Are all of these things necessary? It all seems so theatrical and excessive; the lifestyle, the stench: it‘s like practicing Catholicism when Protestantism would do well enough.” A furtive smile passes her lips, ending as a smirk that nearly reveals a row of sharply pointed teeth. She stands contropasto, pushing the ropey tendrils of golden hair from her face and staring at River critically, wondering if he really is the best choice for the task at hand.
Moodily, feeling like Icarus after crashing to the earth, River strokes his tangled, bushy beard. He sniffs the air and contemplates the smell, thinks that it isn’t all that bad, and shakes his head. “I choose my life, you choose yours. It’s too hard for me to fit in the human world.” A laugh rattles in he throat, causing him to expectorate a thick, mucous blob. “That’s funny, you know. I’m a human, and I have no place amongst them. You are part dragon and you are loved by them, trusted by them.” A gapped-toothed, sardonic grin hides behind his beard but can be read easily in his eyes. Lana fails to see his amusement.
Unsettled by Lana’s emotionless reptilian stare, River fusses with the button on his nightshirt. He watches her eyes intently, but the slit pupils and orange irises reveal nothing. River begins to sense a malevolence in her silence; a primal part of him sees her serpentine features in a sinister light, and he feels his heart pump more swiftly. Unconsciously, his muscles tense, preparing to spring away.
“So what do you want? Just to tell me that F’rahl Bodon’s power has failed?” asks River, his eyes casually searching for a bone handled knife that he’s certain he had left on the table the night before last.
“Don’t use that name. You will call him King.” responds Lana coldly and with conviction. “Only those that worship him may call him by that name.” She sees the tension in River’s posture, draws an imaginary line from his eyes to the knife on the table. Understanding River’s apprehension and discomfort, she withdraws physically, not desiring a physical conflict. Her delicate hands slide along the curves of her hips as she exposes her palms, saying “I’m sorry for my zeal, but you must understand my position and feelings. I know of King Bodon’s power, and it can be a terrible thing. I know of its strength, and I believed that it could be trusted.
“He has never failed me, and in the fire of the moment, I threw an undue accusation. It is possible that it is your fault, but there are other explanations. However, you must understand, I have many more people interested in undergoing the procedure, and I have much depending on this being reliable. Do you understand?”
River listens to Lana and is slowly seduced by her words. Lana tells him how much she needs his help, and soon, after feeling her cool hand on his face, River is anxious to help her. He no longer feels wary of her, instead he craves her attention, unaware of the subtle manipulation she perpetrates. They stand at the cave’s entrance, a cool, night breeze chasing through the trees. Each knows how near they are to the city, yet it feels as though they are the only people in the world as they speak in the darkness.
“I need you to call him over. His strength is too diluted when it is pulled through a tiny hole. We need him here.” Says Lana. River feels himself saying “yes”, though he doesn’t remember saying it after Lana leaves. Instead, he only feels the precipitous decision weigh cripplingly on his shoulders. He ponders the steps he must take now that he has given his word; he ponders the lives he must take so that his promise could be fulfilled.