In The Cave of Stars
“Behold! The Cavern of Dancing Lights! Made by the wicked king Vludeath in ages long past, as the site of his secret nympharium! His principal queen Gelecheledesea discovered it, and disguised herself as the next concubine to gain entrance. She struck him with an oar, knocking him into the lake, and there he died,” said Osoth. “Or at least, so run the legends. If it amuses you — either of you, of course I mean — we can learn the truth.”
The Cavern of Dancing Lights wasn’t that much to look at from the outside. A snaky dirt road with heavy wagon-tracks slithered up the side of Mt. Ghrasco. A barren stony field dripped off the side of the road, with a battered sign covered with cryptic glyphs and a few dusty cars parked haphazardly around. A small house nestled by the mountainside. A few hovens looked around and spoke to each other in an unfamiliar tongue. They could not see us, the Esrret-Sky-Painted took care of that badly and in a bit the Pyerthu’s Spare Hallucination took care of it better, but they surely could hear the sound of our wings and our speech.
“Jyothky, Osoth! I suggest that we take the shapes of aquatic birds for this expedition.”
“Undignified!” squawked Osoth. “I do not object for the sake of making you look the worse, Nrararn. But could you really imagine that a elegant and proper dragoness such as Jyothky could take for even one moment the shape of a goose or …”
I was, by that time, already a pitch-black duck. “I’m only elegant and proper in the sense of ‘not as promiscuous as Arilash.’ I’m not even sure that’s a good kind of elegant and proper as an adult.”
Nrararn turned into a brilliant white duck with a gaudy rainbow crest down his back.
“Am I the only one with … ” Osoth struggled to find words that didn’t insult me. ”… … a sufficiently refined sense of self-esteem, or, nay, even vanity, which forbids so casually taking the shape of such a lesser creature?”
“Csirnis wouldn’t like it either, I don’t think,” I said.
“Perhaps you could turn into a bat? That’s a bit dignified, especially in the grand necromantic tradition. You’ll be fine in the cave that way. Though if there’s any playing in the water, you’ll have to shift again to join,” said Nrararn.
So two ducks and a bat dived onto the nervous hovens sitting in the house. They yelped and swatted at us with hats and folding chairs, but it was too late for that; we had already cast the The Spilling of the Speech and learned the Queltzin language. The signs just read “Cavern of Dancing Lights” plus hours and prices of admission, and the hovens were discussing how strange it was that peculiarly-colored ducks and bats should be assaulting them. Nrararn scattered the hovens away with a flick of his hukuchô, anyways.
“Now, will you show me these underground stars?” I asked my fiancés.
“Over there are postcards of them… I think the actual stars themselves are through that door,” said Nrararn. Beyond that door was a cave in clay and stone, a lazy dark stream, a small dock for three small boats. Spikes were set in the walls, and ropes on them. A big sign in Queltzin read “No Candles Here!”.
We followed the ropes upstream, candlelessly. Hoven laughter and squeals guided our way, as the stream got slower and deeper, and curved left and right and left again, and broadened.
Then it opened into a modest underground lake. Not a huge one — Csirnis would have been a bit cramped in there, unless he hid his dignity and turned into a duck. Two little boats of delighted hovens were in the center of the lake, staring at the ceiling.
And the ceiling was impressive and beautiful. Hovens had set it with grands upon grands of bits of mirror. Each boat had one guide holding two candles, waving them in slow circles. A myriad reflections sparkled in the ceiling, and a myriad myriad answered from the boat-shattered surface of the lake.
“Behold the stars of Hove!” said Osoth in sepulchural tones.
“You’re right, Osoth. This isn’t a duck sort of place.” I turned into a black watersnake, so I could swim with just my head above the surface. Tiny sparks swirled on the surface. Nrararn followed suit after one of the hoven children said, “A duck! A duck! Look, a duck!” His parents teased him a bit and told him to look at the lights in the ceiling since they’d driven all that way and paid for it.
Nrararn breathed a delicate thread of lightning at a stalactite. The sudden transient brilliance shattered into a myriad fragments of light, splashing all around the wet cave for an instant. Osoth and I hissed appreciatively.
The hovens yelped, some in amazement and some in fear. “Oh, cousin Nifferat didn’t say anything about that when she was here!” said a visitor.
“We didn’t…” said a guide.
I laughed, and tried blowing a firebubble. That’s harder than it sounds. Firebreath — any breath really — wants to rush out and spread and destroy things. If you’re persuasive and slow and careful, you can usually get it to hold together in a ball and hover near your mouth, for a little while at least. (On rereading — you can only do that if you’re a dragon, in which case you already know about it. I meant ‘I’ not ‘you’.) It’s harder when you’re not using your own mouth, too.
Which is just an excuse for why it came out wobbly and pointy, not a tight-wrapped flaming globe that I had intended. It drooped and bobbled in the middle air, waving its tongues in all directions, and filling the room with bright reflected sparks and a more intense glory than the candles had provided.
The tourists — hoven and dragon — ooh!ed with much appreciation. “A fireworks! A fireworks like the Floret sun!” chirped the child.
“Drukah and Bmern save us,” mumbled the guide.