It all started here...
Andrew didn't know how much longer he could keep his breath held. He had no idea how much further they had to go to get to the Dragon's Den. Was there really anything down here in the lake?
A grinning face interrupted his worries. His dragon only paused for a moment before he swam past, darting all over. The little fellow hadn't been nearly that quick on land, but he supposed he didn't look mostly like a fish for nothing. He could see little gills flaring in and out excitedly. Andrew swallowed his last bit of air, still watching Aunt Jenna kick forward. She swam like a frog, arms and legs wide then straight again. He couldn't swim like that, it tired him out too quickly.
When Aunt Jenna swam into a dark hole, he nearly bolted upwards for the surface, looking up briefly. From down here it looked so far away, a blurry patch of yellow light in the murky lake water. Even now he was tired, and very suddenly his throat burned for air. Every part of him screamed at him to leave.
But he had come this far. More than his lungs burning for air, his mind flared with curiosity. He knew if he didn't get there now, he wouldn't be able to later. He pressed forward into the tunnel, hitting a patch of warm water. In the back of his mind, he wondered if someone hadn't just peed there. The sudden warmth gave him enough strength to keep going. Instinctively, he craned his head back. He kicked for everything he was worth as he saw a faint light indicating another surface inside here. The invisible vice crushed his forehead again as his lungs gave out. He swallowed water but continued reaching, blindly flailing for the surface. Who could tell how far it was? All he knew was grasping for life, for air, thoughts gone. All panic.
Hands grasped him as he mercifully broke free and his hand waved in the air, water dripping down his arms. As soon as his mouth was out, he coughed and choked, throwing up water. Strong hands held onto him, pulling him away from the water's heavy grip, water sloshing out of his shorts and sandals as Aunt Jenna pulled him onto a smooth rocky surface. The texture reminded him of the caves he had visited with his parents. She gently laid him onto his side, letting his cheeks rest against the cool surface. The dragon laid down in front of him, watching him carefully, seeming like he was unsure how to help. Andrew shuddered and sighed as she rubbed his back, assuring him he was okay. He could hear the worry in her voice though. Maybe she deserved to feel that way for making me come in here, he thought. But he also knew she hadn't dragged him here. He had come on his own.
When a fluffy yellow towel wrapped around him, he looked up in surprise. Aunt Jenna seemed to sense his question. "I keep a lot of supplies down here."
She pointed to an open cabinet, that attached directly to the wall from a wood frame. Among the contents were some clothes on hangers, nets and spears and even a first aid kit. The walls here also reminded him of a cave. There were wet and slick, save for areas where spherical lanterns hung from chains. That explained the light he had seen coming in. It was warm here, but not uncomfortably so, the air filled with a humid mist, coating everything with condensation.
When Andrew's breathing returned to normal and he stopped shaking from the experience, he carefully stood up and hung the towel up on a rack as Aunt Jenna indicated. The dragon was at his heels again and he had to be careful not to step on him.
The cavern was small but there was a hallway leading out of it. He headed that way.
"Wait Andrew! Leave your sandals here."
"It's a sign of respect." More rules. They were still pretty waterlogged, squishing and squeaking as he walked, so it didn't bother him too much to leave them. The ground didn't look very rough either.
At least not at first. As soon as they rounded the corner, the slick cave-like floor gave way to a pebbled path. Andrew wasn't used to walking barefoot like Jenna so he lagged behind, stepping carefully.
"Hurry up, Andrew. It's not that rough." Said the lady who walks barefoot in gravel, he thought, but didn't say. He kept his eyes to the ground to make sure he didn't step on anything sharp.
"Essie?" Aunt Jenna called. "Essie!"
When passed the threshold of the hallway into a bigger room, he did allow himself to look up and stopped half a step in, caught in awe.
Shells. Everything in here was crafted from seashells, in complex mosaics. He stepped further in and turned. Even the archway of the hallway was lovingly crafted with them. He put a hand to it, touching the rough scallops here, rounded puyas there. He had never been fascinated with art before, but here he felt like he had just walked into an under-sea palace. The soft-lighting of the swinging lanterns bathed all of it in an amber glow. Rocks ahead rose up, carved into seats, lined with more and more shells, so many -- no, too many to count. Every inch was covered in their colorful, intricate patterns.
He stepped forward, not minding his feet so much, and knelt on a bench, peering down and seeing his face reflected in the shimmering water, white lights coming from down there. Was there electricity down here? But how? Who made all of this? A shadow of shape passed underneath the well and he realized he was looking down into another part of the lake. He could hear rushing water too, the sound of a waterfall. He slipped off the bench, noticing that Aunt Jenna wasn't here any longer. Where was she?
There were a number of hallways branching off from this one. He knew where he had come from, but where should he go? He finally chose the one closest to him where the sound of the water seemed to be coming from, watching more of the wall than the path ahead, still amazed by the patterns laid out there in the shells. How long did it take someone to do this? Years? A lifetime? He couldn't help but run his fingers along it, feeling every groove he could. He entered a bigger cavern, craning his neck to take it all in.
When he hit the red barrier he nearly knocked himself out. He looked down to see that it wasn't some wall after all, but a sleeping dragon. The red behemoth raised its head, and shook it, whiskers flopping about as it popped open first one eye and then another. Andrew was caught in its sights. The creature snarled and snuffed as Andrew stumbled back, falling hard onto the floor.
"Excuse yourself, boy!" the dragon said. Andrew stared at it open-mouthed. It talked! To him! He had never seen anything so big before. It had to be at least as big as his Dad's pick-up truck, maybe half the size of Aunt Jenna's barn. It had been curled up, but it was standing now, stretching out sturdy fins, and looking like an angry carp, the big kind that would swarm at the zoo when you threw fish food into the pond.
He had barely started to sit up when the gruff face glared down at him, edging closer. He laid back down as he came closer. "I don't know who you are, but if you don't leave immediately, I'll have to eat you."
He opened his mouth wide, which, while it didn't have any teeth, the strangeness of the gaping maw was enough to terrify him. Maybe he was like those snakes that didn't chew, just swallowed you whole, and you wriggled in its stomach juices, slowly dissolving. Andrew couldn't move, he was backed up against the wall now.
"Leave!" The dragon roared, nearly rattling the walls with his ferocity. His hot breath smelled like tuna fish.
Andrew yelped, his brain finally rebooting into action, "Aunt Jenna!" he squealed.
"Aunt?" The dragon questioned, looming close again, sniffing deeply, "Oh, so you're the new blood?"
"N-new b-blood!?" Great, now he was dinner for a vampire fish.
"Duke? Oh my goodness! You're terrifying him!" Aunt Jenna came in from another hallway.
The dragon swung his head toward her, looking bewildered, "Terrifying him? I thought he was an intruder!"
"This is Andrew."
"Yes, I figured that out. And the egg?"
"Hatched just this morning," She replied and whistled a noise similar to the one the little dragon had made earlier, that sounded more like a gargling bird. The little dragon came bounding into the room, curiously looking around for the source of the sound as if it were a potential playmate. He bumped into Duke as well, and looked up with wide eyes, nearly falling over from having to look up so far.
"Like hatcher like hatchling I suppose," Duke said as he gave Andrew a harsh look, before turning on a cute face and leaning down to the little dragon, "Greetings little one. I'm your big brother!"
The little dragon nuzzled him, letting out a bubbly chirrup and Duke laughed deeply.
"Andrew, this is Duke. He's the leader of our Clan."
Duke straightened up again, holding himself up proudly. He was the most regal looking fish he had ever seen, as ridiculous as that sounded. "You would do to pay a king his proper respects," Duke said.
Andrew glared. It wasn't fair, why was he being so nice to his dragon, yet being so harsh with him?
"Andrew," Aunt Jenna whispered, indicating a bow.
He reluctantly did so. It was more of an awkward bob than anything.
"Passable," Duke replied, "He'll have to do. The Counting Ceremony will take place in six more days."
"Ceremony?" Andrew asked.
"You haven't told him?"
"I haven't gotten around to the formalities yet, Duke. He just learned about all of you today."
Duke harumphed and turned around, setting himself back down. "Might as well introduce him to the others then. I'll be watching you, boy," Duke said, keeping one eye open as the other closed.
"He's right, you should meet the others," Aunt Jenna said, and waved for him to follow, "I left Esmeralda waiting to come find you."
Andrew watched the large eye watching him. "Okay," he said and hurried off, eager to get out of Duke's way. He hoped the others weren't as grumpy as him.
Then the idea hit him that there actually were other dragons, probably each just as big as he was. Another question entered his mind that he had never even considered before. As they made their way into another chamber, he asked, "Aunt Jenna, are there other dragons? I mean, besides our clan?" Even though that word felt foreign to him, somehow he knew it was correct.
"Of course!" She replied with a laugh as if he had asked if the sky was often blue. "Did you think we had the only ones in the whole world?"
Just the mere thought of more dragons all over the world made him feel very small. He realized then the true scope of what he didn't know about them. Andrew was too embarrassed to tell her he hadn't thought any further than just his egg. He shook his head.
Continue to Part 8?