Every corner of the winding trail brought with it a new set of exhausted hikers. The greed and wind had been knocked out of them by the trail, but with every step I found myself walking faster until I was almost at a brisk jog.
I reached another bend with a tall standing rock that I knew from maps was the three-quarter marker of the trail. A pair of angry voices stabbed my ears, and I didn’t need to see their faces to know who they were.
Victoria and Doug sat in the middle of the path with Victoria a little farther up the hill than her boyfriend. He lay on his back sprawled on the dirt with his chest heaving and his angry eyes looking up at the starry sky.
“I said get up and help me!” Victoria wheezed as she tried to stand, but her shaky legs dropped her back down to reality, and earth. “What’s wrong with you? We’re almost there!”
He turned his head and glared at her. “Yeah, and I’m almost dead. This hill has me beat.”
She picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at him. He ducked and the dirt flew harmlessly past him. “Don’t be such a quitter!”
He armed himself with the same ammo, and tossed it up and down in the air. “You want to see a quitter?” He threw the clod. Victoria wasn’t as good a dodger with his better throw, and the clod hit her squarely in the chest. “Now we’ll see you run down the hill to your washing machine because you can’t take a little dirt.”
Victoria’s mouth fell open and her face turned beet-red. “Y-you-you monster!” She slammed her fists against the ground and kicked up her legs. “You filthy son-of-a-bitch! How could you do this to your own girlfriend?”
He snorted. “Why don’t you ask that Luca guy you were flirting with to come help you up?”
Victoria was just building herself up for another tantrum when she noticed me standing on the sidelines. Her eyes narrowed at me and she armed herself with a couple of clods. “What are you doing here?”
Doug twisted around and his eyes widened as they fell on me. “How’d you make it this far?”
I shrugged. “One foot in front of the other?”
Victoria glared at me. “You know that’s not what he’s asking. There’s a bunch of other people behind us that are in better shape than your sorry ass, so how’d you make it up here?” She paused and narrowed her eyes. “Did you take a shortcut? That’s against the rules.”
“I didn’t cheat, and I still don’t expect to win,” I admitted as I strolled past them.
I came a little too close to Victoria. She lunged at my leg and managed to grab hold of my ankle. I lost my balance and fell onto my side with a hard crunch. My heart skipped a beat and the familiar pain returned.
Victoria’s wild, fiery eyes glowed as they stared at me in horror mixed with rage. “I’m going to make sure you don’t win!”
“Let go!” I insisted as I tried to wiggle out of her grip. The longer she held on to me the worse my heart felt. The whole world around me seemed to pulse with a single heartbeat and I became light-headed. “Let go. . .”
Her face contorted with such fury that it appeared to shift into some gruesome mask of a monster. Her nose lengthened to a point, as did her ears, and her eyes became mere slits in a mess of wrinkles.
A dirt clod struck her face and the horrifying transformation vanished. She was Victoria once again, and still angry. Victoria whipped her head to Doug who now had only one clod in his possession. “What was that for?”
“Let her go, Victoria,” he demanded as he tossed the clod up and down in his hand. “If she deserves the crown then she deserves it.”
Victoria sneered at him. “Like hell I’m-” Doug threw his other clod and her unfinished sentence brought the opportunity for the dirt to land in her open mouth.
Victoria choked on God’s green earth and dropped my ankle. The pain in my heart and the throbbing in my head stopped immediately. I scampered to my feet and stumbled backward a few feet up the hill facing the pair who faced off against each other.
Victoria failed in her efforts to get the dirt off her tongue. She slammed her fists in the dirt on either side of her and loosed a terrible, high-pitched scream. “You’ll pay for that, Doug! You fucking monster!”
Doug was all smiles as he looked up at me. “Go on or you won’t have a chance of winning!”
I smiled and nodded. “Thank you.”
He gave me a lazy two-finger salute. “No problem.”
I turned and raced up the hill with my ears full of Victoria’s screeches, but they were soon deafened by the many bends and trees. Only a few more corners were between me and victory. My pulse quickened when I heard voices ahead of me.
“It’s a nice view, isn’t it?”
A crystalline laughter rang out through the forest as I rounded the corner and stopped. The path leveled off and widened into the plateau that held the Dragon Ascending statue. A wall of impenetrable stone rose up before me, but to my right the trees cleared enough to make one final trail that led to the small clearing. The branches of the trees and bushes had been worn away by animals and people, and through their unconscious efforts they had created a tunnel of greenery with a light at the far end.
A fallen log sat in front of the stone wall, and on it sat Sarah and Bill. They were held one another’s hand and were smiling at each other. Bill only had eyes for his pretty wife.
Sarah swatted Bill’s shoulder. “You’re supposed to be looking at the scenery, Bill.”
He grinned. “When the view beside me is so good?”
Sarah noticed me and her face lip up. “Diana! You made it!”
I grinned and shrugged. “I’m just as surprised as you.”
Bill leaned close to his mate and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Almost made it, my dear. There’s still a short walk through there.” He pointed at the tunnel of vines and branches. “I think it’s through there.”
Sarah smiled up at me. “Go on! You earned it!”
I blinked at her and pointed at myself. “You mean there’s nobody else in front of you?”
She shook her head. “Not a soul, and Bill and I couldn’t move an inch further even if we wanted to.”
Bill draped his arm over her shoulder and gave her a soft smile. “I’m comfortable.”
She rolled her eyes, but they twinkled with glee. “You’re such a flatterer. But you-” She returned her attention to me. “Go on now! Go claim your crown, Queen Diana!”
I snorted, but gave them a salute with two-fingers before I strolled down the path. I’d never felt so good as I did then, under the canopy of lush green and surrounded by the luxurious scents of the wilds. The tunnel stretched for almost a hundred feet before it opened to reveal the meadow of the dragon.
The narrow clearing stretched for some fifty feet and was surrounded on all sides by a thick mess of trees and brush. Not a soul could have seen this place from below or above, especially with the encroaching branches over the central focus of the area.
The Dragon Ascending statue stood regally in the center of the clearing. The said dragon sat atop a rough pillar overlooking a small fountain bowl. Its small wings were outstretched over itself like two strangely shaped umbrellas. Its neck stretched downward, allowing its long face to peer into the still waters of the bowl.
At one time the carving must have been beautiful, but time and weather had taken its toll. The wings were chipped and a long horn that once stretched backward atop its head was missing. Still, even time couldn’t diminish the beauty of its lithe figure and the majestic intricacies of its scaled body.
I walked up to the fountain and paused at the edge of the bowl. Something in the dragon’s face caught my eye. There was such a forlorn look of loss that I felt my heart twinge in a pain of kinship. Here was someone who was looking for someone to love it.
A clapping of hands made me jump. I spun around to find Luca standing in the opening to the tunnel. A smile graced his handsome features as he dropped his hands and strolled over to me.
Those beautiful eyes studied my face with pleasure mixed with a sultry desire I couldn’t miss. “Congratulations, Diana. You are the sole winner of the Dragon Run.”
I tamped down the heat that arose in my body from his desirous gaze and gave him a shaky smile. “I-I guess it was just my lucky night.”
“For both of us,” Luca mused as he reached into his coat and drew out the crown. He held it in the splayed fingers of his hands and raised the object above my head. “And with this crown do I dub you my bride, now and forever.”
My eyes widened, but my shock didn’t have time to enjoy its place on my face as he set the crown atop my head. A wind picked up and gusted past me. I was blown into Luca’s waiting arms, and a dark light from behind me made me look over my shoulder.
A swirling vortex of purple light appeared beside the fountain. The portal broadened from a tiny hole into a large entrance. The purple strands of light in the center parted to reveal a scene of an ancient rotunda of stone. Statues of dragons were seated in niches in the walls, and the roof rose up beyond the view of the strange portal.
My heart skipped a beat when I felt the winds pull inward. Luca wrapped his arms around me as our feet slid along the grassy ground, drawing us closer to the portal. I clung to him out of instinct and whipped my head up. His face was as serene as an angel.
“What are you doing?” I yelled as the wind picked up, as did our sliding speed. “We have to get out of here!”
He smiled. “We’ll be out of here soon.”
I felt the chill of the stone room on the back of my neck and turned in time to watch myself slide through the vortex. Grass became rock and trees were now columns. I tried to throw myself out of Luca’s grasp and onto the ground to grab at anything, but the portal took hold of me and sucked me in. The hard floor greeted me as I was thrown backward onto the stones.
Luca stepped through the portal and the opening closed behind him with a soft sigh. He bent down and held his hand out to me. “Welcome to my world.”
That’s when I fainted.