Spring 2022: The Inaugural Issue
The Last Gemstone
A high fantasy short story by Solomon Robert
For how poisonous it was, the Mediterranean Sea was as predictable as a mother rocking a baby to rest. If only sleep were possible. The utter darkness in the hull of the ship made a man’s nightmares more vivid than the present. The scent of salt had long faded. Days had passed since the dragoness had locked me in this cell, since she decimated my entire village. The rocking of the waves kept the time like the ticking of a clock.
Dragons were the only ones able to survive in the oceans. They crafted boats out of their shedded skin, and thus, they controlled the seas. My village had been completely exposed. Though, the dragons hadn’t made the waters toxic. The humans had seen to that. They spent centuries polluting the oceans. When the water levels rose, landlocked cities became coastal. My community moved from Barcelona to Sallent to Cercs as our homes submerged. Dismembered jewels clinked together somewhere in the darkness. It was up to me now to remember our history, our traditions.
The hatch above opened releasing a blinding light. My crystal form heightened the burning glow. Instead of skin, muscle, and bone, my body appeared to be cut from precious stones. I made no motion to conceal myself. Malys might have destroyed my home, my family, and my robes, but she could never take my pride as a man.
The wooden stairs creaked with the weight of the dragoness. Even in her human form, black horns hid amongst her flowing, black hair. Light from her lantern flickered in her purple eyes. Matching colored scales covered the skin of her chest. Dragons didn’t have hearts, only scales. She stepped down in front of the rusted bars of my cell. Holes in her blush, chiffon gown revealed hints of skin. Each sway of her hips revealed a hint of the spikes along her spine. Her beauty stunned the spiders crouched upon their webs, yet I knew better. I had seen her as the monster she was.
“Tombeur.” She called my name. Malys’ voice sounded more like a growl — low and raspy. “I do hate seeing you down here.”
“Is that why you keep me locked up?” I asked.
After placing the lantern on the floorboards, Malys turned. Her face darkened, while her black spikes illuminated further. Carefully, she jangled the rusted lock and chain barring me in this cell.
“Would you behave if I let you help me with something?” she asked.
“Whose life do you plan on ruining today?”
“Tombeur,” she said. “Normally, I don’t need to ask twice.”
“What do you require, dragoness? Someone to steal for you? Kill for you?”
“Do you think me a petty criminal?” Malys harrumphed. “Don’t answer that. No, there’s a bounty on a woman in Lyon. Not as highly paid as the one on your head.” Malys flashed her teeth. “Or should I say heart?” She gnawed at her bottom lip like she was fighting the urge to bite it out of my flesh. “Don’t look at me like that. You know that I only keep you down here to keep other bounty hunters from catching you. They wouldn’t be as generous as me.”
“I can defend myself,” I said. “Thank you.”
“You surely know how to wield an axe.”
On her left arm, Malys rolled up the sleeve of her gown. I had chopped it clean off when she attacked my home, yet it grew back instantly. Slender and soft-skinned, her arm didn’t even have a mark on it now. She seemed unkillable, but the beasts could slay each other with ease. Perhaps it has to do with their magic. A blue scaled dragon had once attacked Paris. He swam through the poisonous waters and projected ice from his snout. The Parisian Empire almost fell until the emperor enlisted the help of a red scaled dragon. The red dragon emitted fire from her snout incinerating the blue dragon. However, I’d never heard of a purple dragon or its counterpart. If I ever walked out of this cell, I would devise a way to end Malys’ life. I owed it to my mother, my sister, and everyone I watched her rip apart.
“Why do you need my help?” I asked. “I have yet to see you use your true powers. I’ve seen red dragons emit fire, blue project ice. What of a purple dragon? Do you erect fields of lilacs? Lavender?”
“I could say the same to you,” Malys said. “You, gemstones, must have more magic than resisting my charm.”
If I couldn’t discern a way to defeat her, I could, at least, escape. Scholars must know of these monsters’ weaknesses. I only needed to secure my freedom.
“Give me an axe and some robes, and I’ll help you find this woman,” I said.
“What magic does this woman possess?” I asked. “You can command any human you need to. Why not go to her and ask her to follow you?”
“If I asked nicely, then there wouldn’t be any need for a battle.” Her lips stretched into a jubilant smile. Slowly, the dragoness peeled her bodice down to where her scales stopped. The purple formed a diamond-shape where her heart should be. Out from her corset, Malys revealed an old key from where her human curves began. “You must heed my orders. Slay if I say so. Seize what catches my fancy.”
I understood why dragons found each other unbearable to be around. They preferred to prowl the seas alone, as would I. Dragons possessed all this magic, yet they only used it for crime. Humans and dragons alike always abused power.
“I told you I’d help you,” I said.
She lowered the key down to the chains holding me captive. Like a snake before it strikes, Malys watched me carefully. There was a click as she inserted the key into the lock. I had thought that I would die in here. Once she grew bored of trying to cajole me, she would hand me over to the Parisians for a bounty.
Without turning the key, the dragoness retrieved her lantern. Her spikes pierced through her blush chiffon like the spears of a rival army. She chuckled. Her laugh was high-pitched and haughty. Even now after offering to help her, she chose to torture me.
I clenched my fist. Now, freedom was in reach, but I would not show weakness. I could not leap for her like one of her mesmerized humans.
“Garçons!” Malys shouted from the base of the stairs. “Get the gemstone an axe.” Lifting her skirt, she trudged upward.
The light from her lantern dwindled. Spiders on their webs began scuttering about freely just as they faded from view. My own two legs — the lock and key — dulled into darkness, but I would wait for her to disappear before opening my cell.
“And some clothes,” Malys added begrudgingly.
All light vanished. I lunged forward onto my knees. My hands felt around the wooden boards until my knuckles hit the cold, metal bars. One hand at a time, I gripped the cell bars upwards. I longed to rip this door open and to sprint up to the decks. If she gave me an axe, I would chop her torso in half this time. Though, if she could heal herself from that, it wouldn’t be worth it. I would never escape her while still at sea. I would have to play along until we were ashore. At last, I felt the chain. I grabbed the coarse lock. The key was still inside. I turned it. I ripped off the lock and chain.
The cell door opened. I stood a free man once again.
One of the bewitched humans brought me an axe, a tunic, and a pair of shorts. I donned the ensemble. The axe was not my own, but it was sharp enough and the appropriate weight. It would make a fine weapon.
I stumbled up the stairs. I could already taste the salt air before I emerged onto the main deck. Cringing, I covered my eyes, but I had never felt happier. My body began to recharge from the sun. The breeze flowed through my mess of short, black hair. Raising my axe above my head, I screamed as loud as I could. I savored the feeling of freedom.
My tunic billowed like sails. It was cut too low in the neck. The reflection of the sunlight shimmered across the deck in front of me. I pulled the fabric over my chest, but the wind exposed it immediately.
My twentieth birthday had set all of this into motion. My body had transformed into this statuesque form of not one gemstone but a blend of multiple. Only those in my family had this concoction of diamond, sapphire, ruby, and others, each with its own magical properties. I cursed the flesh of my pecs and shoulders, which had transitioned into a swirl of sapphire and diamond, my stomach, which had converted into amethyst and diamond, and my pelvis, which had hardened into a mix of ruby, citrine, and diamond. I was the reason the dragoness attacked my home. Rumors of my composition had reached the Parisian Emperor. He wanted to craft an engagement ring for his son using my heart. It was my fault that my family and the rest of my people were gone. Malys had seized the diamond and ruby form of my mother’s forearm and hand like it was treasure, not my mother’s own body. She bit my mother’s arm clean off. Blood splattered across her wicked grin. My mother wailed. Malys had clawed the other gemstones apart for their precious stones.
Malys was perched on a throne. Sitting sideways, she overlooked the main deck from an upper level. A long, curved dagger rested upon her legs that dangled over the side of an armrest. Her spikes forced her into a position befit an acrobat in training. Her charmed humans operated the ropes, the crow’s nest, and the ship’s wheel. There was no “Land Ho!” as the coast of Lyon came into view. They were bodies with no thoughts or emotions. It was no wonder Malys found herself drawn to someone she couldn’t control — someone with a personality. Though, only a dragon could think it possible to slaughter someone’s entire family and then spark a romance. No hearts, only scales.
I only needed to play along until we were ashore. Once I had a clear opening, I would run. I would not rest until I found a way to destroy the dragoness.
A castle presided over the hilltop of Lyon. Tower upon tower stretched up to the sky far higher than any of the palaces built up on the hillside surrounding. Like my home, Lyonhad once been landlocked. A raised boardwalk was raised to repel the corrosive Mediterranean Sea. Lining the boardwalk were stalls of wares for sale. Humans bickered and stole like bees in a cluttered, immoral hive. Behind the walkway were further palaces. Perfectly symmetrical columns and pointed archways stood erect like the status quo. The display of wealth was garish. I had never been this close to the capital, but I’d heard that Paris’ coastline was even grander than any other city in the empire. I could not even begin to imagine what eyesores the emperor had constructed there.
“Drop the anchor.” Malys stomped down to the main deck. In the wind, her dark hair veiled her face like strands of yarn across a loom. Her guise of beauty vanished, and her black horns reared out of her sweeping hair. They were pillars of her inhumanity.
Her hypnotized crew scurried up to the front of the ship. Covered in shedded dragon scales, a large anchor rested on a line. The men teamed up to heave it off the ship. One of the crew toppled overboard along with the anchor. He made no yelp, only a splash. Malys and the men showed no acknowledgement of the loss. Gradually, the ship was moored.
“You and you.” The dragoness called two of her men. “Watch the gemstone. Make sure he follows my orders. The rest of you, guard this vessel with your lives.”
Malys’ hair began shrinking in length. The strands whipped across her face and shoulders. It was like a flag waving, but with each flap, the fabric shortened. Her hair receded until Malys stood bald. Only her horns bored through her temples. Her nose collapsed into her cheeks as her jawline extended. Her teeth grew larger, sharper. Purple scales blemished her skin one by one until merely the shape of her resembled a woman. Her ears pointed like a fox. Claws burst from her hands and feet as they grew to the size of her head. A horned, black tail pierced out of her broadening back. The chiffon dress tore as her body began to extend. Malys’ true form surpassed the height of the palaces beyond. More spikes arose from her elongated spine. She was a monster.
Her back foot stretched in my direction. The sharp claw surrounded my waist. Her scales itched against my stone flesh. I wrapped my arms around one of her toes, while she secured her chosen of the bewitched crew. This was the only way to shore. I needed her to fly me there if I were ever to escape.
The safety of the wooden deck peeled away from the soles of my feet. Gusts of air swarmed me from every angle like rapids in the Llobregat river of my home. Malys breached the sky. My scream caught in my throat. I clamped my eyes shut, whilst she flipped us upside down and up. The sound of waves crashed too close for comfort. Nausea saturated where the fear left space. If she unclasped her foot, I’d be dead. Though, she’d never receive payment for marred gems. She needed me untouched by the Mediterranean, even if she’d tired of me.
Shrieks greeted us as Malys landed on the boardwalk in the middle of the crowd. Footsteps scattered. She freed us from her claws. My nose slammed against solid ground. My knees scraped against the cobblestones, but I was ashore. The wretched seas would soon be a distant memory. Malys would return to being my enemy and not my captor. I only needed a clear moment to run.
A dust cloud surmounted a half-naked Malys. She had already transitioned back into her human form. Her torn dress and hair flowed in the breeze. Clambering away from Malys, the people knocked over tables of product. Delicately crafted baked goods plunged onto the boardwalk. Jams squished out of the pastries as the humans trampled them. I was the only individual on the boardwalk without shoes. Standing, I readjusted my tunic to cover as much of the diamond and sapphire as I could. Onlookers glowered from the overlooking palaces. Beyond, the dust engulfed the castle atop the hill.
“Tombeur, it’s time to return the favor and find me some clothes,” Malys said.
She could beguile any human, yet she wanted me to rob someone instead. The fall from the boardwalk was too great. I would not survive. Malys’ henchmen secured my sides. Now was not the time to flee.
Oversized hats crowned the mob attempting to evade us. The humans shoved one other to advance more quickly. In shock, a young woman cowered next to the overturned table of baked goods. Malys pointed at her.
“Her dress will do, Tombeur,” Malys said.
I refused to humiliate the girl. I surveyed the crowd. A woman pummeled the man next to her with an elaborately beaded basket. I snagged the woman’s overcoat by the collar. She turned and raised her basket to strike me, but she froze when she noticed my chest. I handed the overcoat to the dragoness. She chuckled as she buttoned it up. Her spikes punctured through the back of the coat. Dragons and humans destroyed everything they touched.
“This way,” she said.
We followed Malys’ horns behind the stall fronts. Makeshift homes were constructed behind each stall. Malys inspected the humans inside and led us on. Her men maintained their guard on either side of me. There was a sharp drop down from the boardwalk that I wouldn’t survive. Hopefully an opportunity to run would come shortly. I wanted to be rid of the dragoness.
“What exactly are we looking for?” I asked.
“A woman marked by the sea,” Malys said.
Whatever that means.
Once I escaped, I couldn’t bear to return to Cercs and live only with memories. North would lead me straight to the capitol. There, the emperor still hoped to separate my heart from my body. In the east, I could hide until Malys was off my trail. Then, I could begin to study the dragons and how to defeat her once and for all. Perhaps that could distract me from not having a home to return to anymore.
Over one of the dwellings, empty sacks of flour were poorly sewn together like curtains. Inside, a middle-aged woman knelt next to a pot of water over a fire. Her dress was beige with some mild stains, but her calves and arms appeared to be splattered and dunked in burgundy paint. A bonnet covered the back of her neck and head. She stirred the water in front of her lackadaisically. Two beds of straw laid next to her.
Malys elbowed through the sacks of flour. “Your skin!”
The woman turned slightly. Her face wore the same splattered, burgundy swirls. Instead of eyelashes and eyebrows, flaking skin indicated her annoyed expression. “Excuse me, this is a private residence.”
Swords in hand, Malys’ hypnotized men continued to guard both sides of me. I could use my axe to disarm one, but that would give the other an opening to stab me. I needed a distraction. Hopefully this woman would provide one.
“What hideous marks you wear,” Malys continued. “You look like you’ve been licked by the waves of the sea. Spat on by its toxic foam.”
“Go insult someone else!” the woman barked.
“You should be proud,” Malys said. “Most humans wouldn’t survive a tumble in the waters. You must be Dejanè Dupont.”
“No, no.” The woman rose. Turning to face us, she revealed more scars resembling bubbles where her hairline should be. Fixed on Malys’ horns and scales, the woman raised her wooden ladle. The woman’s eyes widened to reveal flecks of purple in the white. “No one here by that name.” Her chapped, blue stained lips puckered after each syllable. Instead of teeth, she had a whirling, black pattern on the inside of her mouth.
“Tell me your name, woman.” Malys’ tone was lower and harsher, making her speaking voice seem almost pleasant. The infernal growl allowed her the ability to mesmerize and coerce the humans.
“I am Dejanè Dupont.”
Malys snickered. “I thought you might be.”
If Malys gave me an order, I would have my window to bolt.
“Maman! What—” A young man my age charged in from the store front. The swoop of his dark brown hair, the start of his eyebrows, and the tops of his ears were all naturally pointed, but these features sharpened further upon encountering a dragoness and a gemstone. His wide eyes and fluid stance stiffened. His lower lip trembled, yet he stomped forward with his fists clenched. “My mother doesn’t take visitors. You all need to go!” When he squinted at the lot of us, he revealed how thick his eyelashes were. They were like the ends of brooms above his brown eyes.
“Or what?” Malys inquired.
Dejanè scrunched up the flaking skin above her eyes. “Rouen, don’t be stupid.”
The slenderness of this Rouen’s jawline and the curve of his hips made me reconsider what his mother must have looked like before encountering the sea. If this was her biological son, she must have been breathtaking. From between his belt and tattered tank, he drew a dagger. Shaking, Rouen pointed it at the dragoness’ throat.
“Go now while you have the chance,” he said.
Was he mad?
“Aren’t you a brazen little thing.” Malys pushed his dagger away with her pointer finger. “Garçons! Tie her up. Tombeur, dispose of the brat.”
Her bewitched humans charged towards Dejanè and away from my sides.
This was my distraction. This was my moment to escape!
I squeezed my axe. Taking a step back, I slammed the belly of the haft against my other hand. I let out a battle cry. I would not be slaying an innocent person, but I would fool Malys into thinking that I would.
Dejanè kicked the pot over the fire. The boiling water sizzled as it flowed down the cobblestones. The men’s boots plodded forward all the same. Who knows what this woman could have done to warrant a bounty on her head? Her son might have been involved as well. Humans could be just as heartless as dragons. I had no ties to them, and I needed to save myself first and foremost. If I could escape and discover a way to defeat Malys once and for all, she would never be able to terrorize anyone like this again.
From the shoulders, Malys’ charmed men shoved Dejanè back onto her knees. The hot water singed against her skin, but she seemed unaffected. Rouen’s dagger fell to his side. His bottom lip bulged. Blinking back tears, he stared at the henchmen holding his mother down. He raised his dagger, though stabbing someone seemed outside of his abilities. Hopeless, he peered towards me. When his eyes fully opened, there was a sweetness in how round they were.
I backed up ready to run. I would head due east.
“Please!” Rouen cried. “Don’t hurt my maman.”
This young man would be all alone in the world. He would be lost without her. Grief would corrupt his heart until all his innocence turned into vengeance. I couldn’t let Malys take someone else’s mother without trying to stop it. Unlike Rouen, I could strike with my weapon.
With the pain the dragoness had caused me, my throat tremored with a reinvigorated battle cry. I swung the axe over my head. I aimed right between her horns. If I could break her in two, perhaps she couldn’t regenerate herself.
Time seemed to slow as the blade sliced through the air.
Bracing for impact, I clutched hard around the handle.
Rouen’s brow furrowed. Determination returned to his face, and Malys noticed the change. She turned at the last moment, and my axe clanged against one of her horns.
Malys’ teeth began to elongate and sharpen. I pulled my weapon back. There wasn’t even a scratch on her.
“Oh, Tombeur,” Malys snarled. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Once again, Malys’ hair started receding into her skull. Her nose melted away. Dejanè grabbed her bonnet with both hands. She tugged it over her forehead. Without revulsion, the hypnotized humans watched the horrifying transformation. They blinked from Malys’ changing form to Dejanè’s shoulders still transfixed by her orders. Scales consumed Malys’ skin. Her body expanding, her overcoat ripped apart. Rouen’s attention darted around the dwelling to anywhere but at Malys. His hand slouched from ear level to resting the dagger’s hilt on his heart. He and his mother had never seen a dragon before today. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, no matter their possible crimes. If we ran now, Malys could fly after us. She would burn Lyon down until she found us. Malys didn’t care about the bounty or the reward. She had no need for money when she could command any human she needed to. No, Malys wanted power and sovereignty.
Raising his dagger, Rouen bit his lip. He leaped towards Malys. His upper body trembled. He crossed his other arm over his torso and kicked his legs. The daredevil impaled her where her heart should have been. Unfortunately, he didn’t know that dragons didn’t have hearts.
Malys roared. Her chest spit out the dagger. She healed immediately.
She extended her talon out towards the man.
I bashed her claw with my axe. It didn’t scathe her, but the dragoness recoiled. I shoved Rouen out to the store front. Headfirst, he slammed into the tableware for sale. The flatware clanked together. The ceramics tumbled and crashed, but he would be safe. The curtains swished closed behind him.
Screeching, Malys reached for me. I dove into the bewitched humans knocking them both to the ground. Dejanè was transfixed in prayer behind me. Malys snatched her up. The dragoness crashed into the top of the dwelling. Wood beams and canvas collapsed down. I drew my arms up to block my head. If Malys would only reveal her dragon power, I would have one more clue as to her weakness.
Malys hissed instead. “I’ll be back for you, gemstone. Wherever you hide, I’ll find you.”
The dragoness twisted down towards the boardwalk. Screams erupted from the humans. They cleared the cobblestones. Save for the sun and Malys’ ship, the horizon was untouched. Malys zigzagged through the sky. She deserted her charmed helpers. They lay idle in the rubble waiting for their next command.
I staggered up. I had secured my freedom. Malys would sail to Paris without me. I might not have saved the boy’s mother, but at least he was safe — albeit alone. Rouen stood in front of me. His shoulders squared on the dragoness’ vessel. His short, brown hair flowed in the wind. I knew what it felt like to suddenly lose a mother to the monster. Hopefully he would be alright.
“Rouen, was it?” I asked. “I’m sorry about your maman.”
He glanced left then right. He readjusted his belt before bending over. Frantically, Rouen dug through the rubble of ceramics from his shop. He threw a wooden beam out into the walkway just as the humans began strolling by. They ignored the destruction and the young man. They even disregarded the gems shining from my chest.
I sauntered up to Rouen and put a hand on his shoulder.
“The dragoness took my mother from me too,” I said. “Took me captive.”
Rouen shrugged my hand off him. He found a cleaver amidst the strewn cutlery. Blade in hand, Rouen dashed towards the Mediterranean Sea.
“Stop!” I yelled. "Wait!
I charged after him. He darted through the crowd. The humans paid no mind to the man running with a large knife. He reached the edge of the cobblestones. Bending his knees, he threw his arms back preparing to jump into the toxic waters. He was mad! He would die within minutes. His mother had been incredibly fortunate to come out discolored and scarred.
Weaving past a woman in braids and a puppy in her basket, I yanked Rouen to the ground by his collar.
The dragoness landed on the main deck of the ship with his mother. The violet of her scales disappeared until she could no more be distinguished from the possessed humans. They began drawing up the anchor.
“Why did you stop me?” Rouen yelled.
“You dying won’t help your mother,” I said.
“I would’ve been fine.”
“Malys will be taking her to the emperor in Paris. There’s a bounty out for her. Do you know why?”
Rouen chucked the cleaver out into the waves. It plopped into the water closer to us than the ship.
“I don’t know how to slay a dragon,” I said. “But I’m headed east to find out. You’re free to join me.”
Pulling his knees to his chest, he blinked away the salty air. “I have to save my maman.”
There was a bounty on my head. The emperor wanted to cut out my heart to use as a trinket. I couldn’t head to Paris. I’d be risking my freedom — my life.
Rouen rested his chin on his knee as his hair tousled in the wind. The start of his eyebrows and the tops of his ears seemed even more pointed this close. His eyelids crinkled over his eyes. It was a wonder how round they were moments ago. A tear dribbled down his cheek.
What kind of life could I have in hiding? Malys would come after me as she said. She was too proud to lose her favorite toy. Other bounty hunters would be searching for me as well. Safety wasn’t guaranteed in the east, and Rouen was all alone in the world.
He needed me.
“We’ll go together,” I said. “Someone must know about dragons in the capital.”
“Certainly. And yes, my name is Rouen.”
“I gathered that.”
Rouen wiped the tears from his cheeks. His forehead creased as he scanned me over. Jetting out his bottom lip, he slowly skimmed it with his index finger.
“Did the dragon curse you?” he asked. “You’re . . . part statue.”
I laughed for the first time in a long while.
To Be Continued . . .