Dragons Eye II: Elsie's Fire



This is a continuation of the Dragon Eye series I first published on G+ a couple of years ago and which is being written here.

Copyright Dark Aelf, 2021-22


Touch the spinning thread of destiny
Rejoice the portion racing past your fingertips
Relish your life in fair wonder with others 
Until the great destroyer takes us back whence we came




Prequel

Day One

On the first day, as the Guardian washed fire from my wounds, I dreamed of hills.

When I was three, an older friend and I climbed a tall haystack and spent an afternoon trying to work out what a hill would be like. Neither of us had seen one, but she was four and had been to far-off Nyngan and thought we might be able to see one from the top of the stack.

I was a little bit worried about the adventure because she had unexpectedly kissed me the day before. But I wanted to find out about hills, so I threw caution to the wind. I need not have worried. When we could not see a hill, we lay on top of the stack, hand in hand, and imagined what being on a hill would be like. 


Day Two

On the second day, as the Guardian rebuilt my crushed body, I dreamed of walnuts and hollyhocks and being seventeen: such beautiful dreams. 

I have a childhood friend, but that would not be entirely true. 

Across the ages, every decade or so, she sends me a short note in a gentle tone.  We spent a year studying together, a lifetime ago: walking in each other's footsteps, exploring, surfing, running, driving fast cars. 

In drama, she played Caliban and persuaded me to Prospero.  But we have not met since graduation.  She tells me she is married and has children and has grown old and lives in a dusty, hot small town far to the north.  

But I know that she has not because I can see her sitting next to me, laughing and smiling, and still seventeen.


Day Three

On the third day, as the Guardian burnt away the remainder of my skin and covered me anew, I dreamed of water.

The boat shifted on the estuary, and, in starry darkness, a voice asked me for a story, "Have you always lived in the mountains?"

No, I come from the Australian deserts: beautiful but terrifying places.

In the heat of the midday sun on the edge of the western desert, my Great Aunt, Catherine Victoria Edmonstone, would draw the heavy curtains of the central room. 

Each morning she tried to cool the room and refresh the air against the killing heat. She caught moist breezes through the gardens of fern she kept watered and alive on either side of the house. When the room was finally pitch black, she would ruffle my hair and withdraw into her sanctuary.

Those caught unprepared in the blistering Australian heat die quickly. The sun can drain an outback lake in the afternoon. If you are unlucky enough to be outside, you will see the lake boil away before your eyes. The great rivers that flow on the edge of deserts are not exempt. Even the Macquarie River, the tremendous meandering river, will stop running and became still in the blinding heat.

Alone in the dark, I would take a pillow and navigate along the floor, between chair legs and serveries and petrified wood and past cabinets and umbrella holders (my grand aunt was an optimist and always prepared for the unlikely) and under the excellent dining table to the other side, until I came to my sleeping nest under a small writing table. 

The table had belonged to my great-grandfather, a superb bushman in his day, but someone who also knew accounts and writing and took pride in his letters. 

He bought the first Ford motor-driven sulky over the mountains and was a keen photographer, specializing in the art of taking pictures of himself designing a timer (using a bag of flour). I have his bullock rigs, the leather still padded firm in some of the rigs, reduced to bare pig-iron in others.

Under his table, I would wrap myself around the cool wooden legs and shut my eyes against the waves of heat that were to come.

I remember my Grand Aunt telling me about the table: where the wood was milled, who the carpenter was, how the French polish had been renewed in the '50s and how she had been assured the polish would last another fifty years. They cared about that sort of detail back then. 

I have that desk within my study. It has grown small and aged over the years. The polish did last 50 years, but it is now 70 years since the polish was applied. I never found another to shine it. 

When my eyes stray to the old desk, I remember those days, in the heat, when the land became a haze and nothing stirred under the sun. And how I snuggled next to the old leg and stayed cool.

We lay inside the boat. It gently rocked, and hands run through my hair. Above us, the stars shone brightly. I tried to think. 

I framed the questions I needed to ask. But instead of conversation, we lay together. Above us, the night deepened. Fireflies joined the navigation light and confused the stars. Water softly slapped against the hull of the boat as the tide swept in. 


Day Four

On the fourth day, as the Guardian replaced my eyes and ears, I dreamed of the little folk.

Onesti and Teathyme are riding side by side.

"Why don't you believe in human beings?"

Onesti smiles and says, "You would like me to believe in them, wouldn't you."

A frown crosses Teathyme's face. She sings, "I am not playing…."

Onesti says, "Ok. I will be serious. I cannot prove any of your human beings are real. They are not an objective reality, like the clans, gold, rainbows, dragon-kin, or spider-kin, which can all be perceived in the physical world. They cannot be proven to exist in the same way as the, for example, spider-kin can be proven to exist. Human beings are not an objective reality."

Teathyme stops singing, "Our cats believe in humans."

Onesti sighs, "I am prepared to accept that many of us want to believe in human beings. I know the cats believe in them."

She reaches down and pats the great white cat carrying her. Waylander turns and looks at her with deep eyes.

Onesti says, "Here. I am prepared to accept that they are a social reality. They are as real as the weight of smiles and songs. It is something enough of us believe in to change the way we behave. We tell stories, we weave dreams, and we dance songs about these supposed creatures. We make up stories of their exploits, and then we strive to invent their imaginary technologies and strategies for ourselves, but, in reality, they are just a reflection of ourselves."

Seeing Teathyme's face crease, she smiles a concession, "But, they have played a role in what we have become."

Teathyme starts to protest, "There is more to humans than mere storm magic; I can feel it. They can help us protect the clans."

Onesti continues, "You are too close to your feelings. You are letting a social reality become an objective reality."

Teathyme sings, "Spirit dust and star wraiths. That means nothing at all. Show me footprints and smelltrace."

More urgently, "Come with me. I know where there are humans."

Now it was Onesti's turn to hesitate.

Onesti says, "But, why would you be so quick to believe in humans? You tell stories of them being as prolific as spider-kin and as cruel as dragon-kin. Why would we add to our problems?"


Day Five

On the fifth day, as the Guardian replaced my sense of wonder, I dreamed of my life path.

In the beginning, there was just me. Quietly being me. Satisfied that I had left childhood behind and that I had survived the unexpected pitfalls of early adulthood. Confident that the world was out of control in its predictable way. Happy to let rogues and thieves beat up the rest of the world as long as my heart was not crossed.

Then I became aware of Kathy. Loudly being Kathy. Discordant and troublesome. Carrying the scars of childhood in her ears, lips, and cheeks. Angry with the world that failed to live up to her slightest expectations. Uncompromising with principle, at the front of every protest and barricade. A moth on fire.

We had nothing in common. It was an error that we met. It was to spite others that we danced. Our lovemaking was to prove earnest warnings wrong. Only in an argument could we agree.

When finally we quit the mistake we had become, we had both become different people. Now I held the flag of revolution against everything while she sought the company of wealth and power.

In that end, a new beginning. For a time, there was just me. Loudly being me. Angry with the world, determined to reshape it first one way and then another. Learning the lexicon of the rhetorician, believing in every new cause and none. Warning first of the approaching ice age and then irreparable global warming and then just catastrophic change. Winning every argument by the strength of voice and claims that my opponent was simply an adherent of reductionist reasoning. Ignoring the quiet critique that behind the case for change, there was no real agenda, no economic plan, no concluded curricula of education, no road map of infrastructure building, no understanding of how to get things done differently. Just a misplaced hope that when we got there, someone would be able to point to the chapter in those unrelenting political manifestos entitled "What happens next." But, the reality was, the writers never got there. "What happens next" has never been written, just dreamed.

A couple of years later, we met again. This time with a smile in each other's eyes. I told her that I blamed her for the sun rising. She blamed me for the rain in spring. I blamed her for the touch of the wind. She blamed me for world poverty and the erosion of political liberties, and to stop that awkward truth from being told, I kissed her. We spent a winter locked in captivity together, loving and arguing. But, when spring arrived, left in different directions, agreed that blame was placed correctly and that however much we might try, we could not be life mates.

So I began again. I left the revolution behind in the hands of another angry young woman who told me, as I left, that she had finally removed the last hurdle to the movement. I did not ask the young woman what came next because she looked like she knew.

I moved from job to job. After a decade, I ran far out into the countryside, into a farmhouse old and battered. Somewhere to retreat from view.

During this time, I got a job working for the state that I had tried so hard to overthrow years before. They put me in charge of working out what came next. Not the easy slurred futures dreamed in a bar after a couple of beers or a glass of vodka, but the continuous hard slog of finding scarce resources and shaping each into solid cold reality.

As responsibility grew, I became more stressed until I finally crashed. In the half haze of anti-depression drugs, I kept trying but starting to fail more often than succeed.


Day Six

On the sixth day, as the Guardian replaced my sense of joy, I dreamed of Anthem.

I place my cheek on yours, feeling a tear fall.

I whispered in your ear, "Do not cry. I am here."

You snuffled even more at that, and I heard you again try not to blame me for everything.

I interrupted that thought, "Why do the little ones call you the Weaver?"

You bite my shoulder gently, "Painter and Weaver. Those are the names they gave us. Maybe they think of me like a spider, and I have caught you in my web. Or maybe not. Why do you need to have answers for everything?"

I said, "Because if I do not know stuff, I will make it up to help complete the picture." 

I pull back from you a little, watching your eyes smiling at me. Bright eyes, without a hint of shadows. I said, "You have already made a plan."

You pause and whisper, "I have half an idea. If things start going desperately wrong, I think I can make the world right."

I tried, "Tell me."

You shake your head, "I cannot. If I told you, you would try to stop me."


Day Seven

On the seventh day, the Guardian restored my sense of fear.

In the swirl of dreams, a heartbeat out of synch and a moment of sharp blood-sugar clarity like a valid path suddenly blinked open.

We were sitting on the deck of an airship, watching the clouds pass far below us. 

The moment of certainty passed, and I felt lost.

You were telling me something. Something important.

You were telling me about an old lady you knew. Old but dangerous. You went to her farm in a valley of the South Island of New Zealand to be healed and... and something else. 

She warned you:

Walking among us are powerful creatures. 
From a distance, they look ordinary. 
They have friends, lovers, and children. 
But when you look, you can feel the air shimmer around them. 
Near them, reality starts to liquefy. 
Close up, reality changes to match their whim.
The more powerful, the larger the area they influence. 
To them, they draw the entire wealth of the world. 
These are the dragons, the princes of industry, and the queens of the state that impoverish the worldmind with empty imaginings and who are the cause of most suffering.
You cannot kill a dragon. 
You cannot resist the touch of a dragon's smile, eyes, or words. 
And you should resist it with every ounce of your being. 
But in the end, all you can do is not become one.

And in that, we have both failed.


Day Seven, later

After the seventh day, the Guardian left me lying on my bed, in my house. The sun was trying to rise. Indistinct sounds played all around. 

Far off, a group of shadows rose and fell in heavy sea mist. The smell of chamomile mixed with lavender and the soft clink of bone china.

The shadows spoke to each other.

"He was badly hurt."

"Time will heal."

"We do not have time."

"I have been watching the Painter. He had been running, his taint evident."

"He is unpredictable and dangerous. We are responsible for giving him the taint."

"So I have heard, blood sister."

She paused for a moment. The cold touch of uncertainty descended overall. 

Then she continued, "I stole ice cream from him while we stood for him to sketch. The ice cream was made with the juice of lemons and limes, with crushed mint. He drew quickly, following the curves of our bodies and the swirl of my hair. I could see he felt the warmth of our bodies and how perfectly we matched. After he had finished, I held him gently and soaked away some of the taint. He looked at us and tried to understand. Why so casual with your affection? I explained what it is to be a life partner. To commit to one alone and build a nest, a family, a life history. To learn to sing together and take chances against the dark: to slowly build wealth, power, and influence among the clans. But to not let that poison delight, but to accept the warmth of another's embrace and their songs without regret or condition. To dance with many, lose myself for a moment in the shoes of another, and look into new eyes with hunger and joy. But, just as I would never challenge another life partner, I would not place my life partnership at risk. The Painter shook his head and said he did not understand. So I asked him to tell me about his life partner. He hesitated. He told a confusing story about relationships that burnt bright and then cooled into unsustainable forms. Of how at the end of one partnership, another emerged. His life was defined by fractures rather than slow continuity. He told how he had bought the 'White Album' seven times, only to see it stolen away, snapped in half, burnt, or shredded in the cold rage of another failure."

"What is a 'White Album'?"

"I made the same inquiry. Not only do humans have personal relationships, but they have created forms of imaginary relationships to pursue enterprise. The Painter called on the 'White Album' image to represent the defining moment of one of those intellectual endeavors. But, just as personal relationships fail, these imaginary relationships also fail, creating chaos and lost opportunity. Instead of building on a rock, humans persevere in building their houses on sand."

Another interrupted, "Why bring him here?"

"Many creatures hunt him. Even as we spoke, dark eyes were searching for him. But then, the Painter and the Weaver took things into their own hands and created chaos. I had to place him in safety to recover, within the care of a guardian."

"He is unpredictable and dangerous, but not as dangerous as the Weaver. Here, take this ice cream, rich in whole milk, honey, and crushed macadamia nuts. Listen to his dreams." 

On Earth, Solstice again pressed those who remain.

"Where is the Weaver?"

"She returned here but disappeared. We gave chase without success. She stole a car, took passage on a trawler, and there her trace goes cold. She has disappeared into the confusion of war."

Solstice posed a half-question, "She is returning to the old lady in New Zealand."

"Perhaps. We have thrown up barriers. She has not triggered any of our wards yet."

"If not the old lady, where?"

"The barriers between the worlds grow thin. Portals have appeared in many places. We are stretched watching those that are active. We have no one to spare to pursue our second rescue attempt. They should have contacted us by now."

"For the moment, confusion and uncertainty  have placed all in stasis. We have accomplished the most important of our goals. Other problems demand our attention.  For now, I have arranged for the Guardian to release the Painter. Observe him. The Weaver may seek him in due course."

"And what of those who are missing?"

"Our blood sisters have proved themselves capable of getting us into difficult situations. This time, let us trust them to find their way out."

The voices rose and fell and gradually disappeared.


And then I woke.



Jon: In Tallaganda


Awakening

I woke just before dawn in a peal of laughter from the tribe of kookaburras camped in the gums outside.

Dream trace lay heavy on me: a scatter of heavy wings and high delighted laughter. I shut my eyes snuggling deep into the warm flannel, hoping to catch it before it disappeared.

Instead, something hit the flyscreen. I opened my eyes, suddenly awake. In the early dawn, a large furry cat sat on the sill, looking at me. It jumped away before I could ask its name, taking my dreams into oblivion.

Early morning light lit soft pink and apricot clouds beyond the gums. The window opened onto a view of the creek and, in the distance, a neighboring stone farmstead and stables. I could feel the sharp taste of frost in the early light. First light stirred a breeze and late leaves fell from the great ash. 

Unbidden, a hundred small doubts flooded my mind. On the bedroom walls, fantastical images painted years earlier started to take shape in the early light. I realized that I was waking in the guest bedroom, but I could not remember why I went to sleep here. I could remember bringing Storm, Kathy's daughter, cups of tea as she sat here, patiently painting each wall of the guest room before the last great drought, but last night was a mystery. 

In the distance, Kathy's stone house was unnaturally dark. She was usually up well before dawn. Kathy was off grid. She lit her kitchen fireplace, summer and winter, and morning smoke trailed high in the sky. There was a fey smell in the air, perhaps a sign that I needed to air the room. 

In the half-light, I caught one of Storm's images. I remembered it as a picture of eyes tucked to one side of the window onto the veranda. In the half-light, I noticed, for the first time, that she had underpainted the eyes with fluorescent colors that were still faintly glowing - a rain of tears. 

I started to lose track of time as more questions began to pile on me, and the need for coffee became more pressing.

Suddenly there was a clap of thunder, and the roar of jets passing low shook the farmhouse.

That was one bridge too far. I kicked off the sheets and attempted to stand unsteadily. I felt weak to the bone and almost fell. Outside, the morning light had lit my farm grounds in a shock of autumn colors. Sitting on the bonnet of my truck was the black and white cat that lifted her head as she saw me.

Something at the back of my mind asked when it had become Autumn?

I tried the light switches, but the power was out.  I threw on some clothes and walked carefully to the kitchen to light the old Stanley to boil water. On the way, I briefly opened the main bedroom door but shut it just as quickly. It was a mess, and there was the impression of webs and scuttling. 

In the kitchen, the nests of my two cats, Blanket and Waylander, were cold.

I made a thick brew, drank it black, and then went back for seconds.

As the sun started to shine, I went out onto the deck, noting, again, that Kathy's farm still showed no signs of waking.

Under the influence of caffeine, I started to weigh all the pieces. I seemed to be stiff, thinner than usual. Perhaps I was recovering from a bout of the flu. Apart from the loss of power, explainable, perhaps by a mountain storm, I tried to tell myself that everything seemed normal. I just needed not to overthink things. I had a ton of work to do:  mowing, piling leaves, cutting wood, catching up. I needed to get the power restored; perhaps a trip into town. Maybe, I should call in on my doctor. Perhaps, on the way, I could drive past Kathy's place and check she was ok.

I had started to settle down when the black and white cat jumped up next to me and almost gave me a heart attack. 

She made herself comfortable, batting leaves off the outside table, while she stared at me.

But I wasn't looking at her. In the grounds below me, my eyes had settled on a small patch of recently dug earth. Someone had placed a small wooden cross in it.


The Illusion of Order

By mid-morning, I was frustrated and exhausted. Nothing made any sense. The power was still off and my memory of the recent past had not improved. And, as much as I like Autumn, I don't like raking up leaves.

When my car wouldn't start, I found the battery sitting on the workbench in my shed, ready to be charged - but without mains electricity, I would not be going anywhere fast. Things were missing: my boat, a backpack, my phone, my wallet... a hundred small things that had a bad habit of occasionally getting lost, but never all together at the same time in a coordinated manner. A concerted focused search would probably find them all - I must have left the boat at the marina on Lake Burley Griffin. There was unexplained damage here and there: something had ripped the door off the work shed, but nothing inside was missing. Something had broken the main bedroom window, and the screen damaged, which offered a partial explanation for the spiders (I nuked the room without thinking through the consequences and then spent some time hand-washing the bedding and curtains).  There were smashed cutlery near the outside table, but elsewhere the house was neat, neater than I kept it.  

Perhaps it was just an illusion of order, created by the gentle fall of leaves, covering all those jobs that otherwise would call my eye.

The black and white cat kept me in sight throughout my wanderings, and occasionally, I gave it a scratch. My cats were nowhere to be seen. I did not disturb the small gravesite in the garden.

The farm is far from everything, but it usually is full of the sounds of birds and stock. Today it was silent, save for the occasional sound of fighter jets flying to the coast. At one stage, I had seen a truck pull up at Kathy's farm, and I half-ran, half-walked over there as fast as I could, but it had gone before I arrived. There was a note on the door addressed to Storm, telling how a couple of horses had been returned to the top paddock, and when I looked, they were grazing with plenty of pasture and water. I knocked on the door, but the house was empty, and Kathy's car was gone.

I arrived back at my driveway sore and tired, with my arm suddenly raw and tingling. Perhaps that is why I didn't see it, standing on the road looking at my farm. But the black and white cat saw and immediately arced. I reacted more slowly, catching only an impression of something black moving impossibly fast into cover before crashing through timber up the hill towards the mountains. I froze in place until the cat settled and looked at me. I broke a sturdy club of solid wood from a fallen tree nearby before following the cat as it guided us to where the beast had stood.  

We arrived at the creature's footfalls. In the sand, large paw prints and a fey smell - one that reminded me of the scent I had detected on waking.

We retreated into the farmhouse, securing it before resorting to the kitchen fireplace and opening tinned food for the two of us while I tried to catch my thoughts.

I decided it was probably a runaway or lost farm dog. A big one, unusual, but within the realms of possibility. Likely to be timid, but a danger to stock, both my animals (which I had not seen) and Kathy's horses. 

I had schooled myself in being a loner. Comfortable in my skin without the need for others to help or get underfoot. But, at times like this, I needed to talk to someone. On a whim, I named the new cat Breddi. She started to cop an earful.  She didn't seem to mind, and I was comforted in being able to watch the turn of her head and her watchful gaze.

We retired to the lounge room, and I set a fire there. I must have dozed off.

A loud knocking at my door woke me. The cat looked at me and put her head back down to sleep. I struggled to the door, hopeful of human company.

Outside were two soldiers. They had seen the smoke and came to check. They spent a moment confirming my identity from their records. Then, they explained that Government had evacuated the area because of "trouble over the coast." As it had dissipated, locals from this side of the mountains were returning home. My observations suddenly started to fall into place.

I told them that I had been ill and missed the evacuation. When I pressed them about the trouble, they became vague. Storm damage, one said. Looting and problems with New Zealand bikies followed, the other added. I didn't ask why the Government needed fighter jets for storms and bikies - and I parked the whole reference to New Zealand for further consideration, possibly with alcohol of some sort. I wondered aloud when the power might be returned and explained I had no transport. They promised to come by and help me get started in the morning. As they turned to leave, the older woman turned back and asked, "Have you seen anything unusual?"

I told them about the dog and led them to the paw prints. As the soldier radioed through the siting, a savage cry from the high ridges was followed moments later by a more distant response. 

The soldier looked at the prints carefully, and said thoughtfully, "It was here for a while, watching your farm." 

I nodded, "The smell here, I catch whiffs in my shed and around the house. I guessed it was a lost dog, honing in on a farmhouse in the hope of food."

The soldier looked at me and shook her head, "No. Whatever happened over the other side - and we have not been told all the details - we think a bunch of big animals got released in the chaos, maybe from one of the zoos along the coast. We need to track these things down before they do damage. Stay indoors - we will be back."


Promises

Lieutenant Casey held her position and watched Jon turn and walk back to his farm and shut the door behind him. Then she bent down and looked closely at the tracks in the sand. Her eye traveled from the scuffs in the sand to the disturbance in the bushes next to the road. She stood and pointed, "Blood on the branch. Collect it, fast."

She turned down the track and, at double pace, strode out to her staff truck and spread a map out on the vehicle hood.  She motioned to her comms officer, "Tell the platoon to stand by. Ready air support." 

A glance at the map told her what she needed to know, "We have to stop them here." 

*

From the kitchen window, I could see movement and barked orders coming from further down the road. Then I heard trucks starting up, and three-light army vehicles drove up into the high ridges, from where we had heard the howls earlier. 

As those sounds receded, I saw a new army vehicle pull in beside Kathy's farm, and I heard another one pull up a little way from my place.  Three more traveled, at speed, and bumper to bumper along the coast road. Within minutes, a helicopter was flying up over the high ridges.

Breddi had feigned sleep throughout the excitement, one eye casually keeping track of which window I was spying.  When the sound died away, she gave up the pretense and tapped on the back door. 

I told her that the officer had asked us to stay indoors, but Breddi was insistent.  When I let her out, she called me to follow her out onto the back deck. Wind was playing with the leaves gathering on the outside table. I hesitated, but then followed her with a heavy metal pipe. 

From the back deck, I could see movement on the road near Kathy's place. The troops there were gathering a bonfire and putting up a couple of tents. I felt a fleeting sense of dislocation - perhaps I should offer accommodation but, why were they here anyway?

Breddi called and led the way down onto the leaf-strewn lawn, glowing gold and russet silver in the late afternoon sun. I told her again, "We should not be out here." 

There was a muted cheer from across the creek as the bonfire near Kathy's farm caught.

Breddi ignored me and instead jumped to the small earthen grave. When she arrived, she turned to me and called again.

Suddenly there was the thump of muffled explosions from the coast. Shortly afterward, there was a long howl from the high ridges, followed by distant responses along the mountain. Another high scream from much closer followed these.

I was beset by doubt. What made such sounds? I suddenly remembered the damage to my shed door. What ripped doors off hinges? For a moment, I went into myself, into a place full of magic and dreams. There was a confusion of doubts and warnings. What was I doing following a cat? What had happened to the world since I woke up? How could the escape of a couple of circus animals unleash this type of chaos?

Breddi waited for me to move, but I was frozen. The late afternoon sun had caught the hint of a great spider web leading up into one of the nearby trees. I suddenly imagined ravers of every kind hidden around me.

Then Breddi sighed and started to paw at the grave. I told her to stop, frightened by what we might find. She looked at me with disdain and started to dig. 

I tripped down the steps shouting at her, as the sun started to set and shadows crept across the grass.

Breddi reached into the hole she had dug and went deep. She dragged something out of the grave. Then she spat the dirt out of her mouth and turned to wait for me.

With tears running from my face, I raced towards her. 


Sleep

I dropped to the small grave. I expected the worse, part of one of my cats or something worse. I was looking at a dirty plastic bag. I poked it gingerly, and the contents gradually revealed themselves to be wallets and a couple of other household items. I looked at the cat, "You could have told me." She yawned and looked over in the direction of the bonfire.

I retrieved the cross, it seemed to have some writing on it, but the light was fading fast. As a last act of bravery, I dug the iron pipe into the soil a little deeper, without any result. 

I picked up the plastic bag and turned to call Breddi inside but froze again. She was half-crouching turned towards the creek, her ear open wide. I turned and looked in the same direction. I felt a cold thrill running up my spine. I heard the crack of dry willow, and I gripped the iron pipe tight, scooped the cat up, and headed for the landing. I skidded on the deck, my heart racing, as a long dark growl issued from the creek. As I slammed the door shut, I thought I heard the sound of high laughter.

The house was dark. I locked the doors, threw the bag onto the sink for cleaning, and stirred up the fire. 

Without electric lights, there is usually no incentive to stay awake much longer than sunset. I lit a dozen candles and packed the fireplace fall of dry wood. I busied myself making some dinner for myself and Breddi, who sat next to the bag on the sink watching through the dark window. I told her to take a rest from the bag, but when she didn't move, I opened it. Two wallets, a cigarette lighter, and a couple of unopened letters fell out. I put the bag on the sink and backed away.

Silence gradually fell. Kicking myself that I had not thought of it earlier, I dragged out an old transistor radio, but all I got was static. While the kettle simmered on the fire stove, I found the emergency UHF two-way radios and tried all stations before switching it to scan traffic. 

Gradually, apart from a couple of mice in the ceiling, silence prevailed. 

Breddi paused to eat the best dinner I could rustle her up. She then found a place next to my head on a lounge seat where she could watch the mice ceiling. I was looking at the sink, trying to remember why there were two wallets buried in my garden. My heart rate started to fall. 

A candle was on an old oak servery next to my seat, close enough to pick up my slightest vibration. 

At night, when I am falling to sleep, the world descends into silence. Beyond silence, I start to hear the small waterfalls in the creek. Boobook Owls hunt along the stream and nest above it, calling the success and failure of each patrol. 

Each place we nest has its sounds. The great cities that never sleep hum with power and the occasional cry of police cars gaming a hunt. Small inland cities sleep in fields of cattle and sheep, vibrating with each new train. Small fishing settlements curl in the wash of waves and curlews. 

My mind started to drift. It is hard to leave a place we know behind, the familiar patterns of sounds that rock us to sleep and patrol our dreams.

I became transfixed by the flame. Small flames are very sensitive – the shape and momentary intensity of the flame can be interrupted and changed by the slightest motion of an observer. Combined with lack of sleep, many night firefighters start to personalize fire, imagining it dancing or playing with them. Deep in the old forests of the Duea,  a forester once warned me how a captive flame could take a dangerous hold on the mind. He told stories about the flame drawing a firefighter into the conflagration or causing them to scatter embers on the unburnt ground. Then, late in the evening, as the sea breezes damped the fire ground, we would resort to fire and boil the billy. Sometimes, around us, the wild dogs, dingos, would surround the fire at a safe distance and sing.

I started to imagine that the flame was beginning to mimic my heartbeat, which slowed. Suddenly, a shard of ice in my mind cried out in pain, "Breathe!" 

I jumped. The candle fell. Outside, there was a sudden scramble of claws on the deck as something scrambled to get away.


Just Add Water

It took a while to get to sleep, and I woke before the kookaburras. I set the fire and boiled the water, intending to bring hot coffee or tea to those stationed outside my farm gate. I felt guilty that I had not offered even basic hospitality.

Before I could pour the coffee, there was a sharp knock on my front door.  I looked at Breddi, who was pretending to be asleep.

I opened the door to a young military officer in a uniform I could not recognize. He introduced himself as Letnan Dua Sijabat, an Indonesian airforce officer working with our army. I invited him in and asked whether I could offer other members of the group breakfast or some further assistance. He told me that Command had called the others further into the mountains. Command had asked him to stand watch and collect as much intelligence as might be had.

We sat and shared tea. He introduced himself less formally as Gunadi, explaining that several Indonesians had been involved in joint exercises with his Australian colleagues when the troubles started. He warned me that his English was not a strong point, but I could fault neither his understanding nor the fast quick smiles in his eyes. Before long, he had confided that his family came from a highland farm in Java and that he was interested in anything I could tell him about this part of the country. 

For my part, I was frank. I told him that I thought I was recovering from some fever that had left me without much memory of the past couple of days. As I spoke, my eyes strayed to the wallets sitting unexamined on the sink, and I added that some of the pieces didn't add up.

With a smile, he watched my confusion and then gently pressed me to have a closer look at them. He saw momentary hesitation and gave a sympathetic nod, "Perhaps you can show me your orchards and pastures first?" His smile was infectious. 

Gunadi had a thousand questions as we walked around, with Breddi in the lead, until we got to the damaged shed. He held his hand out and brought us to a stop. Breddi screwed her nose up. He asked, "Can you smell that?" It was faint, almost imperceptible: a fey smell of decay. I nodded, "I smelled it a couple of places yesterday."

He looked at the door lying askew, ripped from its hinges. Then his eyes search the ground around. He pointed to a depression in the background and an abandoned spade nearby. Finally, he said softly, "Can you remember what happened here?" 

I was confused. I should have known. 

He said, "Let me tell you what I see here." He looked at me directly. "I have been watching you very closely all morning. You are showing all the signs of a serious concussion: memory loss, red eyes, shaking teacups, the way you are holding your head and shoulders, the way you speak, and your confusion." He said more gently, with his hands spread, "And here is where it might have happened. I think you came here, with that spade, to investigate noises in your shed.  I think you were hurt here." 

I felt the energy in my body start to spiral away, and Gunadi stepped over and took some of my weight. "Let's get you back inside; you need to see a doctor."

I wouldn't say I like going to see doctors, and I sometimes think that the feeling is mutual. But this time, I felt that Gunadi might have knocked the nail on the head. 

As I limped back, I asked, "What was in my shed?"

He looked grim, "I was hoping you would tell me."

I shook my head, feeling miserable.

He continued, "I think you caught a glimpse of one of them yesterday."

"The dog?"

He kept a neutral face, "The damage to your door and the prints suggest something bigger than a dog. But, in the face of the unexpected, we reach for those things we can understand and explain: things that make sense. And sometimes, that helps to contain fear and allow us to deal with the situation."

I said and immediately regretted it, "I sometimes see strange things up in the forest."

He laughed, "The world is a big place. I see strange things every day. If it helps, we found a note near one of the farms nearby. It looked like it was fairly recent. It talked about one of the farmers seeing something, maybe a dog, on the edges of the forest."

I started to thank him for his help, but he held up his hand again and said, "Let me radio my report. We need to get you mobile and off to see a doctor. But if you were able to make a little more tea, I  would much appreciate that.

I stirred the coals and filled the kettle. Gunadi went out onto the deck, and I heard him talking to several people. While the kettle started to simmer, I scooped up the wallets and other bits and sat down to look at the haul. 

My wallet was unexceptional. I paused at the second wallet and turned instead to the cigarette lighter. It had a cactus on it with the words "Grand Canyon Diner." I turned it in my hands, trying to remember it. Then, a cold icy pain started in my head, and I gasped.

When I looked up, Gunadi was looking at me, "You ok?"

"I can't remember why these were buried in my garden."

He smiled, "It will come back to you." He sat down and sipped his tea with relish.

He looked at the wallets, "Can I look?"

For a moment I hesitated, but then nodded. He looked at me and then pushed them back to me, smiling, "Talk to your doctor about these. If you need to tell me anything, tell me then."

He had another long sip, hardly able to contain his news.

"I have some good news. I am coming with you. We have found your boat, and we have arranged a top-notch doctor for you to come to see when we are down there."

"My boat?"

"You told me your boat was missing. You told me its name was "Just Add Water."  Marine Rescue has reported your boat is at Bateman's Bay."

I just stared at him, "How..."

 

Sea Change

With an admission of frailty, my strength faded. Gunadi helped me pack an overnight bag. At some stage, a mechanic arrived and borrowed my keys to get my truck started and change a tire that had been losing air. 

Early afternoon, the soldier who had spoken to me yesterday returned from the high ridges. I saw Gunadi snap to attention as she entered the kitchen and relax just as quickly as she waved away formality. 

She placed a semi-automatic weapon on the kitchen table within reach. I managed to stand as she extended a firm hand to introduce herself formally as Lieutenant Casey and give an unspoken apology for the weapon. The two soldiers briefly conferred before she turned to me. Her eyes were sharp. She didn't waste any words, "We gave your intruder chase, but, whatever it is, it is resilient, has companions, and they are inclined to fight back. I don't understand, but I am not getting any answers about what we face. The civilian authorities over the other side of the mountain are still in disarray, and I have been told to hold here and ensure the area is clean as civilians return."

She came a bit closer, and I could see traces of exhaustion sitting at the edges of her words, "I know you are unwell, but you need to help me. I think your illness and the retrieval of your boat are bits of the problem we need to solve, and quickly."

She motioned to Gunadi, "With your agreement, Letnan Dua Sijabat will accompany you to the coast. I need every scrap of information you both can provide."

All I could manage was a brief, "How can I help?" and, as the gravity of the situation hit me, "How bad is the situation?"

She relaxed, "Uncertainty is a mind-killer. Bring me back the missing pieces so that I can do my job."

Trying to make amends for our first meeting, I continued, "I appreciate your help and am happy to work with Letnan Dua Sijabat. If it is of any use, feel free to use my property."

The two exchanged a quick smile before she nodded and stepped back. 

As she stood to leave the room, the farmhouse vibrated to the sound of a couple of loud explosions. She took a quick call and thought for a moment. "Change of plan. The road over the mountain is not worth the risk. Go South, and go fast."

We traveled southward over empty roads with an escort. The small towns we passed through were deserted. We found fuel at Bombala before turning back to cross the Great Dividing Range at Brown Mountain. 

I drove on dirt roads, but as the day drew on, Gunadi offered to take the wheel. As we went, he had a hundred questions about the wilderness and farmlands we traveled through. After Bombala, we settled into a quiet companionship. He told me that our first destination would be the doctor at the Port of Eden. He had arranged accommodation there.

We crested the mountains and, in the distance, the ocean.

While Gunadi drove down the pass, I took out the wallets I had found the previous days. I searched through mine, finding a faint receipt in a scatter of notes. But, unfortunately, I could not make out the writing. 

Then I turned to the second wallet, a stylish leather affair with a gold clasp. I took a deep breath and unclipped the clasp. The wallet opened to a passport photo on one side and a New York driver's license. 


You.


A shard of ice passed through my mind, blinding me, and I screamed. I felt Gunadi step on the brake and the truck hit the side of the road, and in pain, your voice:


In my eye your fire;
Moon rider gifting life hue;
Tear-fall, free you fly




Kathy: Moon at Farsigh

Interlude - Footprints and Smelltrace (1)

They told stories as they slipped through wisps of cloud.

The old New Zealander Bob started, “I was with the Horse Lords when we were battling the forces of evil.”



The sails of the sky-yacht were taut against the wind. Around them came the sound of ropes straining in the darkness.

The night was falling. The giant gas Farsigh was slipping from the sky. The pale light of their sun was only faintly visible, just another star.

The crew of the sky-yacht, human and wraith were around the cooking brazier enjoying an evening meal of fish stew and seaweed.

Bob paused for a moment. A fifth sense had already cut in, warning him that those around him would not understand his involvement with the orcs.

“There was a big hill. They had built a big fort and...”

Growl wanted to hear this story. Growl had heard bits before and begged Bob to tell more. She could not help herself, “The Horse Lords stopped the force of darkness from getting in. And they won the battle! Your scars are from that fight?”

Growl looked at Bob, his face lit by the flames. “What a life, to have been there.” She sighed and stretched back into her mate Wander’s warmth.

Wander batted her shoulder, grumbling, “This is not your adventure.” He smiled, and mock threatened, “The Horse Lords would have eaten you and used your pelt for their litters. Live your life.”

Kathy caught Bob’s attention as the wraiths descended into play and argument. She picked up her plate of soup and moved closer. She demanded, “Why keep bringing this make-believe story up? It is a lie. The wraiths are not like us. They will not understand.”

Bob muttered, “But I was there.”

“No! You imagine it. It is just a book. Or a film. Or something.”

“Yes, but I was there. I was part of it.”

“How were you part of it?” Kathy softened, “You have been through a lot. I know you got lost for a bit.”

“A drifter. Yeah bro, a drifter. A good for nothing. A drunk on one long bender. Hard bro, hard. Eh.”

He squinted his eyes and looked away. “But I was still there. Eh.”

Bob lost focus, drifting back to the Canterbury Plains. Born and bred there. His parents were dirt poor. As a child, he had learned to ride on the plain before he left to work on the trawlers.

He had come back when things got bad and had tried many jobs. He tried out for the part of a Horse Lord, but he missed out. Instead, the filmmakers moved him around a bit. Mainly he was an orc, but sometimes they cast him as a town person, and sometimes just a dead body. He grimaced, remembering one of them remarking about how convincing he was at playing dead.

Most of all he had enjoyed watching the Horse Lords gallop together all dressed in green and brown tunics. He watched them race across the river flats in tight groups with a big smile on his face. He had never seen so many people all together at a time.

But he could not find the words to explain it to Kathy. Lost in memory.

Kathy saw him drifting, “Come back. You rescued us. You do not have to be a part of a made up story. There is only you and me now. We have to rely on each other.”

She reached out and held his hand. She felt the tremors in it and looked at his face. Just below the surface of a couple of months of decent food, no alcohol and renewed purpose was frailty.

She paused, trying not to think of the others, “I need you to be real. Tell them of your fights with the spiders, or how you gave up the bottle or when you fished on the sea. Our friends do not understand dreams.”

Behind them, the wraiths continued to tease Growl with laughter and nips. Bob lifted his head and looked at Kathy. They all kept their hair fairly short, except for Kathy. The wind was playing with her hair, tossing it against her face in the twilight. In the light of the fire, there was a tear in her eye.

She was quiet for a moment, “I just want to go home. Back to my life. Back to my daughter, and the others. To start again.”

Bob shook his head. “This is my home now. I do not want to give any of this up. I have nothing to go back for.”

The captain of the sky-yacht, Belle, disengaged herself from the others. She turned to Kathy and Bob. The dim light accentuated her large eyes and sharp cheekbones.

She spoke directly to Bob, “I hear you my life partner. But we agreed to help Kathy get home. If that means we leave this place briefly, so be it. I hope this adventure ends well and fast. But I promise that you and I will stay together regardless.”

She turned to Kathy, reaching to both of them, “You will be home soon. Just ten cycles of Farsigh.”

Wander joined in, “But first, we have to deal with the spiders.”

Growl said, “Enough of spiders! Let us hear of the Horse Lords from the human male first. Maybe there is a lesson there for us all.”

Kathy shook her head and shot Bob a warning glance.

Bob cleared his throat. He was suddenly between two rocks.

“The Horse Lords built a great wooden fortress, up back of the Canterbury Plains. On a funny shaped hill, bit like a big loaf of bread. Before the Horse Lords we called it Mount Sunday, but now...” he shrugged his arms, giving Kathy’s hand a squeeze. “The tourists call it something else. I do not know what it is named anymore.”

Kathy’s eyes narrowed, staring at him.

“The enemy was coming at them from the lowlands, and the Horse Lords just hung around for a while. Talking. Guess they did not know what to do eh?”

He looked at Kathy, his tongue twisting, “Filming, they were filming it.”

Growl asked, “Did they have many sky-yachts?”

“No bro. Just horses. But when things were looking grim they got up and left. They did not try to fight. They just went somewhere they could lay low. A place they could defend.”

Wander stood with extended claws and swiped the air, “I would have stayed and fought. What form did the evil ones take? Were they spiders or scorpions?”

Belle interrupted, “We do not need to invoke the names of evil here. We have enough problems without attracting any of that brood.” She paused for a moment and asked Bob, “Did the Horse Lords dispatch your evil altogether?”

Bob shuffled his feet a little and looked at Kathy. She was smiling at him, “So you were there.”

“I told you, eh.”

Kathy looked at Belle and said, “The evil is gone. We need not worry about it anymore. Bob has been explaining a human custom. It is like storytelling, something all of us enjoy. But it is slightly different. Humans sometimes relive their stories: sometimes deliberately; sometimes accidentally. To those who are reliving the story, it is real.”

Belle asked Bob sharply, “Why invite evil back to your land? Just to relive the experience.”

Bob said, “Yeah bro, Nah. I keep making the same mistakes. One day I will get it right. When I was with the Horse Lords, I learned different things. Things I would not have learned any other way.”

Growl asked, “How many Horse Lords were there?”

Bob thought for a moment. In his imagination there were hundreds. But when he thought hard about the Canterbury Plains, the number started to dwindle. He murmured “No” as he tried to remember. “Wait.” He reached into his pocket with a shaky hand, fumbled for an old dog-eared wallet, “I might have something here.”

Belle’s eyes widened, suddenly worried for him. Bob’s wallet was the total of his earthly possessions. There, behind a letter from the Public Guardian’s Office, was a small collection of faded photographs. Bob paused, passing over a black and white picture of his mother, and one of the old farmhouse. His face was set grim. He had not looked deeply into his wallet for a while.

Next was a promotional picture for the film. A photo of the Horse Lords with the Horse Lord fortress in the distance. Bob leafed it out, careful not to disclose the one below of his head sticking out of an orc costume. With a firm hand, he passed it to Growl.

Bob said, “Thought so. There were hundreds.” 

Farsigh’s ring finally fell into the world sea, and the sky-yacht sped into the darkness. 

Slipping through wisps of cloud, the sails taut against the wind. High above, the pale light of their distant sun in the dark sky, just bright enough to cast the sky-yacht’s shadow onto the world sea far below.




Teathyme: Cathy's Stead

Dragons Eye II: Interlude - Footprints and Smelltrace (2)

Each morning one of the little folk, the aelf Teathyme, left the safety of her sanctuary garden, and went searching for any backpacks, shopping bags or wallets that she could find around the stone farm house, boosting any small items of interest: keys, shiny coins, teaspoons, drugs. Occasionally she would go too far, and drag a phone back to the stash.

Then, amidst harsh words and muttered recriminations, the big folk would come looking and, when they found the stash, they would dismantle it piece by piece with sounds of surprise and wonderment.

And the whole deadly process would have to start again.

Teathyme was particularly fond of eggs and ice-cream. But, in the end, it was an egg that brought the whole scheme undone.

One morning, Storm (who lived in the old stone farm house) went down to her mother's chook run, to collect an egg to bake biscuits.

She waited for the chicken to flap down from the egg box and walked to it, peering in to check for rats and lizards.

Her initial thought was that her mother had played a trick on her. Standing inside the egg box was a tiny, slim woman. She was dressed in a soft green tunic with a buckskin jacket, soft shoes, and elegant gloves. And she was holding Storm’s egg with both hands. On second thoughts, she could not be more than 8 inches high. Storm remembered the old stories, and knew without a second doubt that she was looking at an aelf.

They looked at each other with surprise and open mouths.

The aelf shut her eyes tight and said to herself,

“I do not believe my eyes
What creature have I now fantasized? 
Next, it will be butterflies!”

Storm shook her head, searching the aelf’s face. Storm noticed a tattoo on her left cheek and heavy earrings.

Storm said, a little unsure, “You have my egg. Are you for real?”

The aelf opened her eyes and glared,

“I am a landwight,
Guardian of this site
Take care! I bite!”

Storm smiled and changed tact, “I like your tattoo, landwight. Is that a sun? Is landwight your real name?”

The aelf said,

“This is my egg
Taken from chicken leg
For milk and nutmeg.”

Storm considered the situation and started, “I believe in you, landwight but I do not think you can drink that egg all by yourself. How were your thinking of getting the egg out of here? How long have you been stealing my eggs?”

The aelf’s eyes narrowed,

“Teathyme does not steal
Stand clear! Move out of the way!
Or I will make you squeal!”

Storm laughed, “Why do you sing everything?”

Teathyme thought about putting the egg down and fleeing, but the giant was blocking the entrance. A giant that looked a little like her, left solid footprints and had the smelltrace of the land. For a moment she was tongue-tied.

Storm said, “Tell you what. I have never met a landwight. Come to the farmhouse and I will share the egg with you, make you cookies and cream and we can come to a longer-term arrangement about eggs. Then I will show you my tattoo and we can dance. And I will tell you about the most horrible man in the world.”

Teathyme said, “Dance?”


Anthem: Conclave

Sirens

Ten years try to pass.

A speaker stands in the dim light. Anthem cleared her throat.

Her image flickered and then stabilized. Listeners on the benches around her in the great lecture hall ceased their murmurs. For a moment there was a shuffle of pencils and tablets, shoes and claws.

She started to speak, softly. Her eyes adjusting to the darkness.

The listeners bent forward, straining to hear her voice.

Anthem opened her eyes, touching every mind in the hall with a shard of wonder.

“Chaos and order in recent time and time to come.” Behind her, the view screen lit up.

“In the history of our worlds, other stars have almost collided. In relatively recent time there have been eight such near misses. Eight encounters between nine stars.”

The view screen displayed a simulation of near space zoning into each of the nine stars in turn. For a moment, Sol, the Centauri, Gliese 370 and the others burnt in the hall.

Anthem became a dark silhouette, filling the breach with her deep rich voice.

“These encounters were not catastrophic events for the stars themselves. The stars did not collide, although all around us are remembrances of earlier collisions. The neural networks within your minds depend on elements formed in long forgotten stellar collisions. The gold band you value above all else can only be forged in the collision of two neutron stars.”

Anthem stopped for a moment and remembered. She felt the weight of the gold band circling her finger. The screen was simulating an encounter between the G6 giant gamma Microsopii and the Sun 4 million years ago. The simulation paused as the stars almost met and then zoomed in showing how this affected local planets, moon, and meteors.

“For the systems of planets and moons around each of the stars, it is a different matter. Approaching stars disrupt ice chunks from distant belts. Some of the chunks settle into new orbits; some become erratic while others exchange one star for another. Others accelerate into inner systems, where they rain destruction on worlds capable of supporting life.”

“As the stars come closer, planetary orbits are disrupted. This disruption leaves some planets and moons reduced to rubble. At their closest points, solar ejecta whips between the passing giants, destroying atmospheres and life.”

The screen faded into darkness and Anthem reappeared.

“Neither my sun nor any of those with which she dances will be captured by another star. For now, she remains single. But each encounter has left chaos as a new order reasserts itself.”

“Like the breath of a lover, it echoes through time. It leaves its distinctive scars.”

“In Newtonian space, our day to day reality, on the surface of geologically inactive planets and moons, we can still trace and date the coterminous destruction wrought by the disruption. In our rock layers, the fossil record records mass extinction events.” 

“These close encounters do not just create physical change. At a quantum level, the close encounters ripped small holes in the fabric of our day to day reality. The human scientist Einstein first postulated the existence of quantum entanglement (although he called it ‘spooky action at a distance’)."

“Simply put, while the stars pulled apart, the nine star systems remain entangled. This entanglement has left us with a legacy of similar genetic material. Life forms have converged. This process continues.”

“Nine worlds, far and yet perilously close.”

She paused.

“But you know all these things because the close encounters did not just establish points of similarity. They also created the points of weakness which are now being leveraged to destroy our worlds.”

“We must find new ways to protect our peoples.”

“I will tell you how this was once attempted and failed.”

“How I failed.”

She bent forward, suddenly timeworn. Her eyes dimmed, touching every mind in the vast hall with a shard of fear.

She paused. For a moment she was in a different place. On a yacht, moored at night on a perfect mirror river, with stars glistening on the water surface. She was lying next to her lover. She was explaining to him she was pregnant and watching his eyes widen. In that one day confident of her strength and power. Just for one day.

Her voice caught, and she continued.

“I will start by exploring one of the nine worlds, the homeworld of the Crest. The Crest call it Terrorfar.”

The image of the speaker flickered.

Thousands of bodies bent forward, listening.

Far from the speaker, in the dim recesses of the darkness, ancient eyes opened and wept for her. The old Dragon Lady searched the minds of the other dragons watching and acted, sending a message into the past.

The present freezes, and then starts to unravel, back to the past. Back to the moment Jon and Gunadi arrive in the port of Eden. Back to the moment Anthem wakes, once more in the park across from the Christchurch Hospital. A place of weakness.


Anthem: New Zealand

Christchurch Park

Anthem disappeared.

By the time she disappeared, many hunted her. They all hunted for her without success.

At the first opportunity, she stole a car abandoned on a nearby farm. And then she drove through the night along empty roads, her mind set against the raging voice inside her head. Finally, grim determination set her mouth.

The car ran out of petrol just outside the Port of Eden, so she rolled it over the edge of a rainforest. Then, just before dawn, she walked into the commercial wharves. She found a New Zealand trawler being hounded out of the area by rumors from the North and cadged passage to their home port on the South Island of New Zealand.

Arriving in Christchurch, she stole another car but abandoned it when it started to attract attention. She walked the rest of the way to the Hospital.

She drank coffee at a street-walk cafe, ignoring all the talk of war and destruction around her.

Then she disappeared once more, this time into the park to sit on a bench, wait for nightfall, and rest. Not to think of the past. Not to talk to anyone about anything. She had just one aim in mind.

After nightfall, she had to fight for the bench, but she had found an iron bar and was more terrifying and more desperate than the others sleeping rough.

She let herself remember only one nightmare. Being a small girl, lying in bed, listening to her mother telling stories in the half-light. Stories about flying. Of feeling the wind in her hair. Of lifting into the air with her arms held out. And her mother's voice, telling a story:

"You cannot kill the dragon. You cannot resist the touch of the dragon's smile, eyes, or words. In the end, all you can do is not become one."

Finally, she fell into a deep sleep.

She dreamed of the road to the West, out of the Canterbury Plains, which finished near an old wooden barn. In her mind she followed the track which continued to a small brook, across a stone bridge and an old stone house. She wanted to breathe in the smoke from the chimney and see the glint of early sun off the windows. But most of all, she wanted to sit in the comfort of the old lady's soft accent and her smile.

Anthem knew a bargain would need to be struck with the old lady. She knew what the old lady would demand.

Anthem could already see her turning to show her; around her leg, one scaly leg, a shimmering band. Around the band a slight, insubstantial rope, as fine as spider's thread. And then the old lady would look at her and say, "Cut this thread." But for now, she put that out of her mind. Instead, she concentrated on what the old dragon lady had once promised:

"We can fly to the end of time and back. We can go to any point in the past and force a new path, with the slightest breath, one sweet kiss, a single drop of blood."

Some places in our world are thin, weak areas. Places where you can go to sleep in one world and wake in another.


High Command

Anthem's face drank the sun. She tried to ignore the sound of ambulances coming and going and of children playing on the edge of the park. Finally, she shut her eyes harder, and the sun went away.

As it faded, she wondered why she had come back to Christchurch Park. Another voice disagreed, but she quieted it savagely. She told herself that she had no other options: this was the path she had to follow. 

She woke again as a small hand gently touched her shoulder and shook it. A young girl whispered, "Please wake up."

Anthem told the voice to go away. However, the voice was insistent, "Please wake up! Before they come back."

Anthem opened an eye. 

She was on the park bench, but the park was gone. For a moment, she thought fog was responsible, but as she swung onto her feet, she saw a web-bound tower in the distance. Her eyes followed webs in every direction. There were things on the web.

The little hand felt for her hand. Then, Anthem saw a young girl next to her. Anthem guessed she was about six, her hair a mass of tight dark curls, and dressed in a pair of warm overalls. Anthem asked her, "What are you doing here?"

The girl whispered, "I was playing, but now I am lost."

Anthem said to herself, "This was not supposed to happen."

"Shhhhh. Please, we must stay very quiet. Help me get home?"

Anthem looked at her tear-streaked face, "You are very brave. We will figure out a way. Have you seen anyone else here?" 

The little girl shook her head and said, "No. I am Elsie. Who are you, and why do you speak so funny?"

"My name is Anthem. I come from a long way away, New York." And for a moment, Anthem let herself remember her apartment, bagels, the diner along the road, and her life, before... Then, a touch of anger appeared.

Elsie saw her face darken and said, "How will we get home?"

"I have been here before. I am trying to think of the safest way we can do this."

"We can't fight the spiders. They came looking for me. They are huge and fast."

"And you must have been fearless. How did you escape being caught?"

Elsie said, "I made myself very small and hid in a crack."

"Crack?"

"My mother says that Christchurch has lots of cracks. So she will be worried about me getting lost."

"Are there any cracks near here?"

Elsie said, "No. I was following footprints when I saw you."

"Where did you come from?"

Elsie started to point but then jolted with fear. In the distance, a colossal spider slowly rose into the air.

They both froze.

The spider rose and started to pivot in place. Then, it suddenly stopped and started to move, away from them.

For a long moment, both remained still, frightened of any movement. 

Anthem said quietly, "I hate spiders."

Elsie said, "It isn't a spider. It is Tipua."

"Tipua?"

"My mother says spirits live in the world: Tipua. They can surprise you if you come into their special places. Sometimes they sing, and sometimes they spin, and sometimes they give you presents."

Anthem said grimly, "These Tipua don't sing. They are more like spiders."

Elsie edged closer to Anthem.

In the distance, the spider stopped and, once again, started to rise into the sky.

Anthem said urgently, "I need you to be very brave."

Elsie looked like she could burst into tears.

Anthem tried another tack, "Have you ever wanted to fly?"

The little girl nodded, "More than anything in the world. But, now is not the time for fairy tales. The spider could eat us."

Anthem said, "Tipua, remember."

The little girl shook her head, "No, it's a spider. And it has lots of little spiders under it."

Anthem said, "Do you believe in magic?"

Elsie said, "No."

Anthem asked, "What about dragons?"

Elsie said, less confident, "None live near here."

Anthem said, "I have a plan. But it depends on you. With a little bit of dragon magic, we will become the High Command. Some of your mother's special Tipua."

Elsie said, "Tipua is not going to help us here. I wish I had a gun."

She stamped her foot. Ripples of the sound traveled in a thousand directions. Finally, the spider turned to face them. Elsie let out a short scream as other spiders start to rise into the sky, all around them.


Barbarians at the Gates

Storm clouds were gathering above them. Flashes of lightning lit a chaotic scene of spiders and webs.

Anthem held Elsie close as they crouched low. Anthem whispered urgently, "Don't move."

Anthem went deep into her mind and shouted for Fire.

He swam into her eye, "You have not spoken to me since my father and sister died. You rejected me."

"My life is broken. I need time."

"You intend to get the old dragon lady to restart the timeline. If you do, I will never have existed. Therefore, I will not help you."

Anthem paused, "Yes. That is what I intended. But, we have a greater threat right now."

"Yes, I have been watching you talk to the little human girl. You didn't think about talking to me until you decided you needed my help. Why should I listen?"

Anthem bit her lip, tasting blood, "I cannot let the spiders kill the little girl or you or me."

"I do not accept that you have changed your mind. You have proved that you do not care about me. What you propose is dangerous."

"You can yell at me later when we are safe. Will you help now?"

"I have no choice but to help, or I will perish. This once I will help you, but I will not forget nor forgive you."

Anthem asked herself, "How has it come to this?" before turning to Elsie and refocussed her eyes. 

Elsie sounded calm but held Anthem tightly; Elsie whispered, "They are almost here."

Anthem said, "I can save us. Trust me."

Anthem touched Elsie's nose with her own, and Elsie's eye opened wide. A shadow appeared in Elsie's eye.

Anthem said to herself, "I can't do this. I need more time". So she thought and then asked Elsie, "Do you remember your mother letting you ride on her shoulders? I need you to jump on mine now."

Anthem bent down as Elsie jumped onto the park bench and onto Anthem's back. Anthem felt small hands twine around her hair and legs encircle her neck.

Elsie looked at the first of the tiny spiders scuttling towards them and wishing she had wiped the shadow out of her eye. Then she felt another strengthening her grip on Anthem.

Suddenly, she became aware of the other, a young boy, inside her mind. He said voicelessly, "I am Fire, Anthem's unborn child. If we survive this day, we will become the most powerful beings in the universe."

Elsie said, "Whatever. I am Elsie and I am lost. Help me get home, and then we can talk about what happens next."

Fire said, "Shout with me, as loud as you can - 'Salve will give you wings!'"

For a moment, there was just the sound of scuttling as thousands of tiny spiders poured over the ground towards them and the thump of the larger spider legs striding. 

Then Anthem's body exploded into a tangle of sinew and bone. Her back flashed in pain as massive wings unfurled. Elsie was lifted into the air and Fire struggled to get her back into position. Elsie became aware of Fire concentrating, shaping purchase places and bonds to tie Anthem and Elsie together.

Anthem staggered as her flesh expanded, her body twisting in pain as scales and talons appeared. Elsie wiped her hair from her eyes as Anthem sprang high, wings beating the air hard as she rose.

Wild exultation rose in Anthem's body, and anger ran through her blood. Finally, Anthem screamed her frustration into the sky. 

Fire asked, a little uncertainly, "Have you ever ridden a horse?"

Elsie gritted her teeth against the turbulence, "Of course. Why?"

Fire said, "My sister, Ice, told me that riding a dragon is like riding a horse." He added, quietly, "My sister died."

Elsie smiled uncertainly, "I love flying."

Fire said, "When do you fly?"

Elsie said, "I play video games, when my mother lets me."

Fire was lost, "What is a video game?"

Anthem was rising steadily into the air, leaving the spider-strewn surface way below. From this vantage, the land down took shape. Instead of a formless land, they could see the ocean and a network of ten towers with associated platforms that extended from the depths. The spiderkin had colonized the platforms, throwing webs between the structures. 

Their upward passage had them start to pass through wisps of clouds. Fire said, "Stop Anthem from going up into the air because if we go too high, we will die of cold and lack of air."

Elsie said, "You do it. Why did your sister die?"

Fire said, "I don't think I am strong enough to control Anthem. She is far more dangerous than any of the other dragons.  Besides, you are the rider."

Elsie asked, "Did your sister control her dragon?"

Fire remembered, "She was riding my father, Jon, but she was too little. Besides, when I get born and become a dragon, I will need a rider. So you need to learn."

Elsie gently nudged Anthem to slow and then hover in the storm clouds. 

Anthem's head snaked, looking for detail below her. Smoke issued from her nostrils.

Fire said, "My mother doesn't like spiders."

Elsie turned Anthem into a long gentle glide, "I don't like spiders either. The spiders do not belong here. From where did they come? What are we going to do now?"

They passed through the bottom of the cloud, dripping with cold moisture.

Fire said, "I don't know any of those things. I only know the memories my sister and I have found in our parents, Anthem and Jon. Now my sister and father are dead. So let's practice burning spiders."

Elsie asked, "Should we do that? I never met my father"

Fire said, "Of course. My function is to burn and destroy. When I grow up, I will burn many cities."

Elsie protested, "I don't know if my mother would approve. Whenyou meet her, please don't tell her that. I am not sure she would approve of burning spiders either, they appear to be sentient."

Fire said, "What is sentient? I do not know what your mother would do, but I know that my mother has burnt spiders here before. She made a safe place to land. Let us make the place safe for us. Because we might come back here, we should destroy them all."

As the children discussed the meaning of sentient and other options, a fierce electric storm grew around them, so Elsie nudged the dragon towards the clear sky. Their path took them close to a large sky tower with four giant platforms. A large spider had coated the structure with webs. They watched the spider climb down the tower. Then it scuttled towards the edge of one of the platforms. Moments later, they saw a rainbow hit the platform. There was an explosion of light and a faint rainbow trail extended high into the sky. 

Sea mist started to rise and coat the world in uncertainty.


Rainbow

Anthem spread her wings, and following Elsie's lead, approached the tower just above the white-tipped waves of the ocean.  From this vantage, Anthem felt her speed and strength as they scanned the platforms high above them. 

Elsie and Anthem worked as one, pulling back and rising to circle the isolated tower, tentatively burning more minor web connections and looking for the enormous spider on the isolated structure. 

The platform's giant spider had ducked out of sight beneath one of the platforms, leaving thousands of tiny spiders milling aimlessly where she had been. One firey breath from Anthem was sufficient to turn them all into dust, and for a moment, Elsie forgot about Sentience and wonder if there was a counter somewhere that kept track of spiders burnt. Then Anthem turned her mind to egg sacs, igniting them on each platform into a fiery conflagration that defined waves of rain. 

Fire spotted the danger before the others, and they turned to burn away the thick interconnecting webs that other giant spiders were even now mounting to help defend the attacked tower. As Anthem torched the large nets, the advancing spiders fell helplessly into the ocean far below.

She rejoiced in the carnage and her son's frenzied praise.

As she fought, she vaguely heard Elsie's referring to the rainbow. "I have not seen a rainbow-like that before. It doesn't move." 

Fire shouted, in reply, "There might be gold there! We must get to the rainbow." Something deep within Anthem sent a thrill of ecstasy racing through her blood.

This time, Anthem did not respond to Elsie's nudge. Instead, the giant spider was once more visible, retreating to the tower and a remaining web pathway back to the other towers. Anthem dove low and fast and then slowed her momentum with a vast sweep of wings to flame the spider's legs and body in one solid sheet of fire.

Just as the spider started to catch alight and squirm in pain, Anthem's mind was touched by another. She did not have time to consider all the possibilities. Then it struck her hard a second time: the essence of her daughter Ice. While it disappeared, as fast as it came, it was enough for fierce emotions to ignite within her, for a moment throwing her off balance.

Too close, as she passed, the stricken spider made one final lunge high into the air. The talon struck Anthem a glancing blow, sticky green venom oozing from the smallest of cuts.

Anthem slowed, and her wings beat slowly as she hovered above to smoking ruins screaming her victory as the ruins of the flaming spider crashed down onto the lowest platform, and burning shreds of web fell into the ocean.

Then, she felt the poison, and before she could respond to the dragon's cry, she felt confusion overtaking her.

This time, when Elsie nudged Anthem in the direction of the rainbow, she complied. 

It was an awkward landing next to the rainbow. Almost immediately, the dragon form started to collapse into Anthem's body. In turn, her body folded onto the platform, with tiny burning filaments of web falling from the sky around them.

Fire said, uncertainly, "You did it!"

Elsie asked, "Is Anthem alright?"

Fire said, "Her human form is weak."

Elsie cried, "No, she is injured. Look!"

Her leg had a green, sickly scar, pulsing dangerously. Anthem opened her eyes and said, "Must find... Your sister..." and then she fought for breath, "Only one can help me, and you must not..."

Anthem's eyes closed.

The air was thick of water vapor steaming off the platforms and the feel of static electricity in the air. Silence closed in around them as the rain-drenched platform was clothed in blackened silken strands. 

Elsie asked, "What do we do now?" But no one replied.

Elsie slowly turned around. The platforms were misty, dull, and lifeless. The storm had moved further out to sea, and as the clouds blew away, the rings of a great gas giant floated in the sky above them. She paused and watched as it came into view, its storm clouds crackling across the surface. 

Then she kept turning. Elsie gasped as she came in view of the rainbow. She had never seen one so bright and so close. She could almost reach out and touch it.

Fire shouted a warning, "No! Not yet, get the gold!" Then, as an afterthought, he said, "And my mother."

"What gold?"

Fire looked keenly out of Elsie's eyes, blocking her vision. Then, finally, he said, "There! My Gold!"

"I can't see."

Fire moved to one side, and Elsie saw a small bag. It was the sort gold should be in, and it looked full. So Elsie said meaningfully to Fire, "Our Gold."

She waited while Fire ran through the options. He eventually said, "Our." But Elsie detected a little reluctance and stood her ground. Her mother had told her about such occasions and could not let the moment go past without straightening any possibility of future misunderstanding. As a show of willpower, she turned to Anthem and used her shoe to scrape off the venom burning Anthem's skin. Elsie reached into a pocket, and found her last emergency piece of chocolate, and put it carefully into Anthem's mouth, under her tongue, trying not to remember how that mouth had recently been a furnace and the tongue a scary forked instrument of terror.

Elsie said to Fire, in a reasonable voice, "Well?"

Fire said, "It is my nature to seek and hold gold from all, save the forever one I will share my life force with."

Elsie said, "I am nearly seven. I am prepared to share the gold with you."

Fire said, "It is a deal."

Elsie picked up the heavy bag of gold and tugged Anthem into the rainbow under Fire's instruction. At that moment, the rainbow let go of the ground. They started moving upwards, slowly at first but rapidly accelerating. Fire caught sight of a fabulous airship traveling towards the platform from the corner of Elsie's eye.

And then, everything went black.


Old Dragon Lady

Anthem woke in a small bedroom, the curtains drawn, and a Sinead O'Connor song playing quietly in the background.

An unfamiliar voice said, "You will be fine, eh? Try to rest a little more."

Anthem gasped for air, trying to fill her lungs, but feeling the numbness returning. She felt a warm cloth pressed against her cheeks and brow.

In the air, above her, she saw dragons and strange birds. And she fell back asleep. 

She drifted in and out of sleep chasing a song about lonely tears falling. Sometimes when she woke, she felt a searing pain in her leg. Sometimes she heard people talking in the distance. Sometimes daylight crept into the room, illuminating a shelf of toys and an old mobile of fanciful creatures. Sometimes it was night, with a soft bedside light gently illuminating part of the room, with a seat and a closed door. Sometimes the chair was occupied, with a woman her age, sitting with glasses reading. Sometimes, it was the girl Elsie she saw.  Each time they turned to her as they saw her stir and helped her slip back into sleep.

Finally, she woke; the pain just a dull throbbing memory. Anthem turned and saw the little girl smile. 

Elsie said softly, "There you are. You are amazing. I told my mum we found you hurt in the park. She has been looking after you." She held her finger to her mouth, "Don't tell her about the spider or..."

An older woman appeared behind Elsie. Anthem tried to move but found her body still numb. "And what should your park friend not tell me, Miss? Eh?"

Anthem tried to speak, but her voice was full of bits that didn't come out right and ended in a cough. 

The older woman asked Elsie to fetch a cup of tea and took Elsie's place at the bedside. She helped Anthem take a sip of water, "My daughter thinks very highly of you."

Anthem thanked her with her eyes and then introduced herself in halting tones, trying to breathe between the words, "I am Anthem. I am lost."

"I am Hana. You know my daughter Elsie. We have a couple of cats who have been keeping watch over you." Hana smiled, "You found my daughter, and for that you are welcome in my home."

There was a touch of pain here; the pain of separation. To fill the space, Hana explained how Elsie arrived home, and to her great happiness, they were able to call off the search for her daughter and defer questions long enough to retrieve Anthem quietly. 

Hana said, "You understand, I am worried about Elsie. Since she returned, she has spent a lot of time alone, talking to herself. I want to understand. I have lots of questions."

Elsie brought the tea in, and Hana tested it. Elsie's eyes were bright as she sat at the bottom of the bed. She chirped, "Did you know, you are sleeping in my bedroom." She pointed to the mobile, "I have my own dragons."

Anthem took a sip and felt life returning to her body, and let her eyes wander around the room, trying to ignore a small web in a far corner, "Thank you, I hope I have not been too much trouble."

Hana teased, "It’s been seven hours and fifteen days..." and when Anthem's eye widened laughed and said, "Just a couple of days; No trouble at all."

Anthem looked at Hana, wondering how much Hana would believe. Hana started, "My daughter told me one heck of a story..."

Elsie blurted out, "It was all true. Anthem found me in the park when I got lost. Then she was bitten, and I could not leave her until..."

Hana smiled, "I am sure that some of that happened. Miss, but I also told you not to play in the park. Now I need to know all the details. We have lived here long enough to see the strange and weird things that go on over there. If I could get another job, away from the hospital, by Joseph Banks's spit, we would move in a heart-beat."

Anthem said tentatively, "So, you know about the spiders, in the park?"

"Elsie and I provide healthy food and warm blankets to the homeless. I have cared for enough of them to hear their stories: their alcohol and drug and plant fueled stories of the missing ones and spiders. I didn't believe any of them."

Anthem was momentarily distracted, "Plant?"

"Some of the plants in the park are naturally hallucinogenic. But the alcohol is the real villain."

Anthem continued, "The spider that poisoned me by was a big spider. How did you save me?"

"I have seen those bites before; some of the homeless get them. The toxin numbs but does not kill nor injure. It wears off after a couple of days. The real risk is that the wound gets infected. I have washed and kept your injury clean and sterile." She paused for a moment and added, "My daughter told me you would be distressed if you ended up in the hospital."

"Do you mind me asking, do you work at the hospital? Are you a doctor or nurse?"

"No, just general administrative jobs: glorified cleaning. I earn enough to pay the rent on this place and make sure Elsie goes to school."

Hana shot Elsie a sharp look. Elsie wriggled at the bottom of the bed. She continued, "Elsie and I help out with the homeless mission when we are not off saving the world from coal or politicians.

Anthem shivered, and pushed her body higher onto a pillow, so she could see Elsie, "I was once told that the poison would kill if not treated."

"I have heard those stories. A faith healer in the mountains spreads them for her own purposes."

"The faith healer: does she have a name? Something like the old dragon lady?"

"The homeless give her many names, and perhaps there are more than one of them. Maybe the homeless are referring to different people. But yes, I have heard that name."

Hana caught Anthem's eye, "Stay away from her. People who seek help from the old dragon lady come back changed, if they come back at all."

Anthem shook her head, "I have been bitten once before."

"I saw. You have a scar on your side."

"An old man, Bob, took me to see her. The old... faith healer nursed me back to health. But I escaped."

"Bob lived in the park for years. We used to leave him food. He has been missing for a long time now."

"He is alive."

"I hope so but will only believe it when I see him again. He was in terrible shape."

Silence filled the room. The sounds of the song drifted into the room. Anthem finished the tea, "That song, what is it?"

Hana shrugged the question away, "There are always people in the park, and the song is coming from there."

Then Hana bent over and gave Elsie a hug and brought her closer. "Are you strong enough to tell me your story? I don't care if it is alcohol-fueled or not. I just want it to be true, eh? Somehow, you have brought my child back to me, and I owe you that."

Anthem looked at Elsie, "I think I have slept long enough. Before I tell my story, your daughter has something of mine." Anthem smiled at Elsie, "I would like it back, now. I need Fire to help find my daughter, please..."

Elsie said levelly, "No. He is mine now. Fire does not wish to return to you. He told me your plan to kill him."

There was a moment of silence as tension crackled between Anthem and Elsie.

Hana looked confused and half stood, "What!"

Elsie slid off the bed, suddenly appearing taller than her years, "Fire and I..." She liked the sound of that, so said it again, slowly with deliberation, "Fire and I... We have made a pact, guaranteed by gold, never to part."

Anthem gasped. Hana shook her head, and pleaded with Anthem, "Help me understand this insanity!"

Elsie reached into her overalls and drew out a small bag that shimmered with aelven thread. She undid a gold flecked cord and spilled a small trove of gold onto the bed.

Elsie said, "Not insanity, not imagination: solid gold. By this horde, Fire and I are one. Forever."


Interlude: Into Your Dreams (3)

[Anthem had met the old Dragon Lady a while back. But let her tell the story of that time, in the past.]

I spent the next few days falling in love with New Zealand, the farm, the animals and the dragon lady’s soft voice. I felt safe. As I recovered, she started to show me things. But, as the time came for me to leave, I could not work out what to do.

The old dragon lady was very kind. She said that I could stay forever. I began to help with some of the heavier jobs around the farm. When the sun came out, we took our tea out in the back of the farmhouse.

I told her I did not know what to do.

She tried to help me; she explained: “Anthem dear, we all use one of two ways of dealing with uncertainty.”

Pausing, she held out one hand with a single finger outstretched, “We can make a list, identify all the risks, assess possible impacts and likelihoods, and then try to deal with them one by one.”

Then she smiled and continued, “Or, we can attempt to come to terms with the whole system, all at once, trying to track through the most likely course of events, and work out a strategy for dealing with the whole world.”

I looked at her and said, “But those sound the same, surely?”

She said, “There are important differences. The second way forces you to consider everything together. If you look at everything together instead of separately, you may see new paths.”

She could see me pondering, “You can try both ways. In fact, this can be useful. Follow me.”

Just beyond her garden was a clay-pan where the geese sunned themselves. She had brought a broom and swept the area.

She said, “Draw your problems in the dust for me.”

She handed me a twig. I had not drawn in sand or dust for years. It was a struggle. In the end, we both laughed at my efforts as I told her what they were instead, “A man asleep, my boss, a gun, spiders, my life back home, my mobile, New Zealand.”

She smiled at me, “I don’t need to know the details. Now we have to sort these a bit by impact and the likelihood of them happening.”

She saw me look confused; I said: “But they have all happened.”

She persevered, “Just for now, circle the one that is the most important for you, the one that will have the greatest impact on you.”

Caught in indecision, I gritted my teeth “My life. I want my life back.”

I went in circles. Uncertainty at every point. If I can wake the guy in a coma, maybe everything would improve. But I am not a doctor. If I recharge the mobile, I can check on things, but I will be thrown back to the spiders. And it is most probably used to track me.

Frustrated, I cried out “I cannot believe that my life has completely been turned upside down because of a stupid Aussie that talked to me about dragons. I don’t believe any of it!”

I scuffed away my useless dust scribbles, hugging myself and feeling that I was spinning out of control. I will not cry... I will not cry. But a single drop fell onto the clay.

She let me crouch there for a while.

Softly she said, “Things change. Even if you could go back to your old life now, how could you live knowing that the worlds intersect and that at any time, the barriers keeping them apart might break?”

She waited a moment, “Sometimes making a list works. It helps for doing chores and shopping. But when things get complicated, lists just make things worse. You might be looking good on paper but going to hell in a hand-basket.”

The dragon lady drew in the dust absent-mindedly. Almost to herself, she said “Looks like a list is not going to work. One by one, none of the things you are interested in are achievable. They seem to all be outside your control.”

Then her face lit up, and she smiled broadly, “A different approach might help. Sometimes it still comes out wrong. The process to resolve uncertainty is itself susceptible to risk.”

She looked up at me, “But sometimes you get something new out of it.”

I asked, “What?”

“Insight,” She said.

Gently, she wiped the picture of a knife she had drawn in the dust, “Well, this is not about making lists. It is about relaxing, exploring your issues calmly, and analyzing your options. Working out how everything fits together. How can I explain this simply? Let me try. Imagine two people. One has an empty house. The other has no house. Considered separately, you have two disasters. If you consider them together, there is a solution for both.”

She suddenly looked very old, “I do not know what your future holds, or what you need to do. I can help a little, but I am old and tied to this place - by bonds of sentiment.”

She continued, “There are many ways to proceed with the second approach. Some use supercomputers or teams of analysts. Some people daydream. Others just dream.”

She smiled.

It was hard to resist the touch of her smile.

Her eyes sparkled.

It was hard to resist the touch of her eyes.

She was mesmerizing. For now, it didn’t matter if they made sense or not.

I smiled, caught in the moment “Ok, what should I do?”

She said, “Well, let us have a meal and come evening, we will come back here. I will light a fire, we will watch the stars rise, and I will give you something to help you dream.”

I replied, “This does not sound very corporate; it sounds more like something out of Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

Her laughter echoed off the hills.

We spent the day working on small chores around the farmhouse.

In the late afternoon, she went into her garden and collected some thyme and rosemary to make an elixir.

In the evening time, we went out to light a fire. She smiled as she gave me the potion. She had handwritten instructions on the label: “Inhale. Ask for what you want. Wait for the answer.”

I laughed and kissed her on her cheek. Her skin was rough, old and dry. I murmured, “An original elixir from Egypt! Thank you.”

The fire sent showers of sparks into the sky, as shadows rushed over the land. The noise of the farm and the surrounding woodlands faded. Mist rose to the east, back towards Christchurch, as the stars began to come out.

The cold of the night on my back with the warmth of the fire on my cheeks lulled me into a sleepy state.

The dragon lady threw a rug over my back and nodded to the elixir. She gave me some last instructions, “Remember, nothing can hurt you in the dream. You are not leaving your chair, and I will be here.”

I read the label again, looking serious but feeling a little silly. Then I shut my eyes and brought the bottle up to my nose and inhaled.

The scent was rich and sweet, and then intoxicating and dizzying. When it hit my lungs, I started to cough.

I opened my eyes; the fire was still burning. She was still there. I saw her eyes first, they were locked on mine. They were large, golden rich, with a deep black pupil. In her eyes, I could see the reflection of the fire. She smiled a big smile of a thousand teeth, scales and wings tucked into her ancient blue body. She repeated, “Nothing can hurt you. I am here.”

She broke eye contact and looked away from me, into the fire.

I asked, “Is this a dream?”

She said, “Yes, and a little more. It is a pathway to the future. One for us to explore together. Look around you.”

We were in an open field next to her farmhouse. The stars were fully ablaze.

The blue dragon asked, “Where would you like to go first?”

I was watching the stars, “I did not know you would be here, in my dream.”

She responded, “I was not sure I would be. I did not want to give you false hope. Wait!”

Climbing to her feet, she flew a couple of feet into the air, old and bent. She turned her face eastward and concentrated.

“I sense something wrong. We need to go back to your city.” She came to earth and with a bashful smile asked, “Would you like to fly?”

Suddenly I was a small girl, lying in bed listening to my mother telling me stories in half-light. Stories about flying. Stories of feeling the wind in my hair, of lifting into the air with my arms held out open. I heard my mother say: “You cannot kill the dragon. You cannot resist the touch of the dragon’s smile, eyes or words. In the end, all you can do is not become one.”

I forced myself to smile. I nodded, avoiding eyes and holding my teddy bear tight, “I want to fly.”

The blue dragon said, “There is just one thing.”

I asked her, “How far can we fly?”

The blue dragon shut her eyes, “We can fly to the end of time and back. We can go to any point in the past and force a new path, with the slightest breath, one sweet kiss, and a single drop of blood. There is just one thing.”

She turned to show me: Around one scaly leg, a shimmering band. Around the band, there was a slight, insubstantial rope as fine as a spider’s thread.

She looked at me, “Can you cut this thread? Then I can fly away from here. I can take you to save your friend and restore your life.”

A shard of fear cut through my body. I forced myself to look at her. Then I looked at the ground, remembering our talk here, earlier in the day. I remembered the knife she had drawn in the dust. I murmured, “I believe in dreams!”

Jumping up, I danced in the shadows, away from her talons and tail, “I know just the thing. I saw an axe this morning.”

The dragon lady protested, but I was already at the farmhouse.

She called out to me, “Wait! There is a knife just here!”

I ran past the house, shouting, “I want to fly!”

I ran down the hill, past the old barn and as far away as I could. 


[in preparation]



Endnotes

What you are reading is not the completed novel. Instead, you are looking over my work-desk, with fragments laid out in rough order as i write them.

Most people I know, and perhaps you, do not believe in dragons. The further they live away from the dragons, the less they believe. But when you live up the road and across the valley from one, it is a different matter. When I draw a little picture of one on the maps I give people to show them how to get to my farm without getting eaten, it is best to stay clear of the areas with the dragons.  

Given our druthers, we might all prefer to live at a distance from dragons. Tolkien once spelled out his own preferences: "I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood... But the world that contained even the imagination of F√°fnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”

Just exercise a little care: not all dragons have wings and scaly legs. Some look just like you or me. Some still like sitting on gold, but others have changed habits. These days some seek their gold hordes by stalking the halls of power.

I write books for fun, eh. In a language you should understand, but which is neither English nor American nor Australian or New Zealandish (yeah, nah... ok?). If you are interested in watching a book being written and will not be offended by the spelling conventions, read on. I will publish new pieces of the story every couple of days. 

Personae

  • Jon: A farmer living near the Tallaganda Wilderness. 
  • Kathy: A horse trainer living in an old stone house near Jon, with her daughter Storm.
  • Anthem: A security analyst who used to live in New York.
  • Breddi: a big black and white fluffy cat. Not quite a Maine Coon Cat, but close.
  • Waylander and Blanket: rough and tumble cats from Jon's farm (missing).
  • Storm: A young horse trainer, who grew up in the region, and knows stuff.
  • Lieutenant Casey (Janice ): One tour in Afghanistan with experience providing domestic support during bushfires, she is leading a platoon on the Western side of the Tallaganda.
  • Letnan Dua Sijabat (Gunadi): A young officer from the Indonesian Airforce assigned to assist Lieutenant Casey. From a highland farm in Java, his parents are both doctors.
  • Solstice: an aelf
  • Growl, Wander and Belle: Wraiths from a water-world of Farsigh
  • Bob: New Zealand drifter, partner of Belle
  • Teathyme: An aelf, and friend of Storm.
  • Fire and Ice: the unborn children of Jon and Anthem
  • Elsie: a Maroi girl who finds Anthem
  • Hana: Elsie's mother, living near the hospital park in Christchurch

Maps







Acknowledgements

Thanks to all those of you who are quietly logging in and reading this sequel. Please feel free to comment (please be aware that comments are delayed here a day or so to prevent us all from being exposed to spam). 
I learned a great deal from my friend Terry Patchett - who would go out of his way to sit and talk about his writing, encouraging all those who thought to take up the lonely art, but also engaging and building a story through the laughter and thoughts of many.



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