Fantasy

Ungentle Fire

By Sean Williams
8,451 words · 31-minute reading time
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"Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it enkindles the great."

Roger de Rabutin

 

 

On the twenty-third day of his quest, the young man detected crabbler spoor.  Swinging the reins of his mechanical steed sharply to the left, he parked in the shade of the yellow canyon wall and lightly hopped to the ground.  Dust puffed under his heels, leaving deep indentations in his wake.  The marks he had spied weren't footprints.  They were long and thin, as though someone had scratched the ground with a bone needle.  His were the only human signs that he had seen in over a week of westward travel.

He squatted as though to examine the trail, but was in reality listening more closely than he was seeing.  Above the unnamed wind that blew constantly along this section of the Divide he heard a dry rattling, as of dice in a cup.  Straightening, he looked up and to his right.

Four body-lengths above him, a giant, sand-coloured spider crouched on an outcrop of ancient rock, watching him with too-numerous, pebbly eyes.  He froze, watching it right back.   The crabbler wasn't the biggest he had ever seen, but it was still wider across than his arms could reach.  If it jumped, he would have only an instant to draw the knife at his side or to raise a flame through the Change.  And if there were more of them...

A sharp tattoo came from the other side of the canyon.  A second and third crabbler were splayed across the stone like scars in the world.  The brisk clatter came from the mouth parts of a fourth that was so perfectly camouflaged against the stone that he could barely see it.

That crabbler spoke slowly, intending its words for his ears.

"We know you," it said, "Roslin of Geheb."

Moving slowly, Ros bent down and picked up a pair of flinty stones.  Holding one in each hand, and feeling somewhat foolish, he clacked out a brief reply.  Master Pukje had taught him the crabbler tongue in the early days of his apprenticeship, but he had had little recourse to "speak" it before.

"I am he," he told the crabblers.  "What of it?"

"You took something from us."

That was true.  A long time ago, when he had been little more than a boy, he had rescued a girl called Adi from a crabbler coven one month's travel from here.  Word had obviously spread.

He raised himself to his full height. 

Years of training and exercise had made him strong, since then, and broad with it.  Dark hair hung in a thick pony-tail halfway down his back.  Stray curls stirred as the Change woke at his command, making the steady breeze skittish.

"You will let me pass," he said firmly through the stones.

"You cannot," the crabbler told him.  "The way ahead is blocked."

"Then I will unblock it."

"You cannot," it said again.  "Turn back now."

"Is that a threat or a warning?"

"Take it how you will, Roslin of Geheb."

Turning lightly on its eight legs, the crabbler crawled into a crack in the stone, closely followed by its two companions.

"Wait."  Ros regretted taking such a confrontational stance.  Crabblers or not, these were the first living creatures he had seen on his quest.  They knew the Divide much better than he did, and could help him, perhaps, if he talked fast.

The first crabbler he had seen was heading for a similar retreat in the wall behind him.

"I'm looking for something," he said, clacking as quickly as he could.  "A dragon, of sorts.  Have you...?"

 But the creature scuttled away without reply, leaving him standing alone, frowning, in the canyon's still-restless breeze.  The vanes of his strand beast flapped back and forth, gathering the energy of the wind and storing it in two rows of ceramic flasks around the machine's wooden flank.  Its one hundred and twelve tiny feet were poised in attitudes of readiness, waiting for him to climb aboard and continue his journey.  Not the hardiest of steeds, it barely managed his weight plus that of the pack he carried, but it was at least as quick as a camel and much less vulnerable. 

You cannot.  Turn back now.

He didn't entirely trust his translation of the crabbler language.  It might have been trying to tell him You cannot turn back now.

He had no doubts on that score, but how had the crabblers guessed?

Tugging on the silver locket that hung from a leather thong around his neck, he kicked up three more small clouds of dust and leapt into the saddle.  Jerking the reins--actually a wooden handle connected by two strips of leather to the machine's complicated gearbox--he spurred the strand beast back into motion.  Chuffing and hissing, his wooden steed lunged forward, and the echoes of its clockwork engine bounced back at him from the rugged canyon walls.

Westward, ever westward.  Although the Divide snaked north and south as it sliced through the red earth of the world, it unerringly returned to face the sunset.  Ros had taken to camping so the sun's direct light would strike him of a morning, lessening the feeling of oppression that came from travelling so long in the shadow of two parallel cliffs.  The canyon floor was utterly lifeless, and his eyes had grown tired of seeing nothing but yellows and browns.  Even the sky above looked washed out and faded.

Not long after his encounter with the crabblers, his attention was caught by a single cloud drifting on the forward horizon.  It was perfectly white, tapering from a fat centre to nothingness at its extremities, and provided a welcome break from the monotony.  Ten days earlier, he had passed the ruined city of Laure, where people his age flew to and from the Hanging Mountains, trading and exchanging information.  He imagined what it would be like to swoop around the wispy fringes of the cloud in one of their flimsy-looking kites.  He doubted the air up there was as still as it seemed.

He wondered what Adi would think of something so whimsical and dangerous.

"I hope this letter finds you well," she had written shortly before he had set off on his quest.  The formal tone disheartened him, made him feel that he did not know her.  "I hope also that it finds you unchanged in your feelings, for I remain committed to the promise we made to each other, five years ago.  If this letter should find you certain in the knowledge of that, I would be pleased.  Be assured that it will never be otherwise.

"Most of all, I hope that this letter just finds you.  It's been so long since I last had word, and I suppose it's only natural to worry.  I keep that strange little galah you sent as a pet, even though the charm must surely have faded by now.  Maybe one day it'll tell me something new--perhaps that you've received this letter and am on your way back to me now, with a glad heart.

"I can dream, can't I?"  That flash of her own voice, poking through the letter's stilted reserve, offered him the barest reassurance that he wasn't being addressed by a complete stranger.  "Do what you have to do, Ros, then come find me in return.  The charm I have enclosed will show you the way.  Trust it as I have trusted our hearts all these years.  Don't be led astray now, when we are closer than ever."

The letter had been folded tightly around the silver pendant he now wore about his neck.  He could tell that it was hollow but not empty, and guessed that it contained a small piece of Adi's skin, or perhaps a chip of tooth.  The letter itself had been stained brown with her blood and bound up in several plaited strands of her black hair.  Unwinding the hair carefully, he had re-tied it in a cuff around his left wrist.

The leather thong chafed his neck sometimes.  From his worrying at the pendant, he supposed, at the weight of what it symbolised.

"Don't forget your promise to me," Master Pukje had warned him on learning of the contents of the letter.  "I said I'd teach you only if in return you perform one task for me, no matter what."

"I won't ever forget that," Ros had said, inclining his head even though his master couldn't see the gesture.  They had been flying low past the shallow bowl of the Nine Stars, exercising the least-human of Master Pukje's two forms.  Ros had untied his hair and let the thick mane whip behind him in the wind, imagining that he was the one whose wings propelled them mightily through the air.  "You remind me every day," he had added.

"There's an ocean of difference between remembering an agreement and honouring it."

"I'll honour it just as soon as you tell me what my task is."

"I'll tell you only when I'm absolutely certain you're ready for it."

How his master had finally concluded that he was ready, Ros didn't know, but he was on the way now.

The pendant tugged insistently on its thong, urging him north, to where Adi was learning to manage her Clan's caravan under her father's tutelage.  She had meant the gift to reach him, no matter what; that was why she had bound it with flesh, hair and blood.  When the time came, when his obligation to Master Pukje was fulfilled, her charm would lead him unerringly to her, whether he wanted to go or not.

There could be, as the crabblers said, no turning back

Distracted by both cloud and memories, he had long put the rest of the crabblers' words out of his mind when he took a bend and saw exactly what they had meant.

A single, vast web stretched from one side of the Divide to the other, sparkling and gleaming where the sun struck it directly, barely visible at all where it did not.  Ripples moved along silken strands, struck by the wind's insubstantial fingers.  It was too large to have been built by ordinary spiders and couldn't have been the work of crabblers, either, since they produced no natural silk.  Something else had built it, or grown it, or caused it to come into being, somehow, and he could proceed no further without breaking it.

Ros hove the strand beast to but didn't immediately dismount.  The web was an obstacle, indeed, but unlike any he had encountered before.  If he tried to walk through it, it might stretch and snap like an ordinary web.  Or its apparent fragility might be a disguise for something more sinister--poison, perhaps, soaked into razor-sharp threads; or a net that would fall on him the moment he entered it.

One thing Ros had learned about the Divide was to trust appearances not at all.  Better to stop and think for a moment before barging into a trap.

From his elevated vantage point, he searched for signs of malevolence.  The web crossed the canyon at the waist of a slight hourglass.  On his side of the hourglass was a pool of water, brackish and dark.  A patch of orange rock marred the ubiquitous yellow expanse of the far cliff.  There was as always no sign of other human travellers, but none of crabblers or insects, either.  Just the wind, bowing the web towards him like a sail.

The sun vanished behind the cloud.  It was getting late in the day.  Rather than acting precipitously, Ros urged the strand beast into motion again and parked it beneath a bouldery outcrop, then climbed free.  He had no tent, just a bedroll and simple cooking utensils.  Fire had always been his preferred medium, summoned raw and dangerous in his youth and mastered in stages through his training, but he didn't light one now for fear of attracting undue attention.  Dipping his can into the pool and cautiously tasting the water within, he found it to be too oily and bitter to drink.  No matter.  He had enough in watertight pouches to survive until he reached the next source, as well as the store of dried meat that sustained him on lean days.

Settling back on his bedroll, with his feet pointing downhill towards the web, he drew a series of charms in the sand around him, to sound the alarm if anything sneaked too close during the night.  Then he folded his hands behind his head and lay back to watch the sunset.  Reds and yellows painted the sky from side to side, with a hint of green just before the day properly ended.  Ros nodded off as the first stars came into view, and dreamed of Adi calling his name with a soft, questioning voice.  He was reluctant to answer for reasons he could not fathom.  Hadn't he been waiting for this moment all his apprenticeship?  Although he had done nothing specific to earn her disapproval, the shame and guilt were knife-sharp.  Inaction could be as hurtful as action.

He jerked awake at midnight, disturbed by something he couldn't immediately identify.

The moon rode high and bright directly above him, casting a silver patina over the forbidding realm of the Divide.  His charms were undisturbed.  Ros sat and peered around him, taking in details that now looked strikingly different than before.  The strand beast was a clash of angular shadows nearby, all pleasing symmetry lost.  The pool of brackish water gaped like a bottomless hole in the earth, and he wondered of its depths hid something living: a fish that had improbably splashed, or a hardy frog, perhaps.  Pockmarks in the cliff walls now resembled eyes or mouths, gaping madly at him.  The web--

His sharp intake of breath was followed by the scuffling of his feet.  Upright, he took a dozen steps forward to see better, shading his eyes from the moon's glare in order to make certain he was not dreaming.

The web glowed in the bright moonlight.  He could see all of it now, stretching up and away from him like the world's most insubstantial banner.  And on that banner was no natural pattern, no radiating bull's-eye as most spiders fashioned between trees and rock faces.  Nor was it a random striation of lines and shapes, without meaning or language.  Depicted in the gleaming threads was a creature so vast that its wingtips touched either side of the canyon.

A dragon, Ros marvelled.  A dragon caught in a web.

Never trust appearances, he reminded himself as he came closer to the base of the web.  Foreshortened, the dragon seemed even more preternatural.  It had four clawed feet and a beaked nose and mouth, like a bird.  Captured in mid-flight, its lines were so perfect, so convincingly realised, that Ros was surprised to see stars twinkling where flesh and skin should have been.  Those long, outstretched wings would have blocked out half the sky.

Ros came within touching distance of the web.  The dragon was sufficiently foreshortened now that it could barely be discerned as such.  One flattened foot, as broad as he was long, reached out as though to grasp and crush him, magically, into stardust.  He watched that foot closely, but it showed no sign of self-direction.

The threads were so fine they had a tendency to disappear no matter how determinedly he stared at them.  Hardly daring to breathe, he knelt to examine one in particular, noting how the thread touched the ground as lightly as a real spider's web.  There was no weight, no visible glue, no stake holding it in place.  Perhaps, he thought, the strand was thicker higher up, where the heft of the entire web pulled most insistently.  Perhaps the strands at the bottom only prevented the base from drifting free.

Still Ros didn't touch it.  Instead he stood up and checked four more threads and the ground nearby.  The bottom of the Divide might be effectively sterile, but birds did occasionally fly along it.  If the web had killed any, by whatever means, it had left no bones or feathers in the sand at its base.  There wasn't so much as a dead moth.

To all appearances bar one, then, it was just a web.  That one crucial appearance, of a dragon in flight, made him hesitate, but he couldn't hesitate all night.  Come morning, the dragon might be invisible again, and he couldn't take a chance on that.  He had learned to mistrust disappearances, too.

Some kind of action, immediate and decisive, was required.

Taking two steps back, he picked up a flat stone.  With its blunt edge, he drew a new set of symbols into the sand at his feet and encircled them with a double line.  The night adopted a sharper tone as the charm took effect, and he warned himself not to become complacent.  Protection drew attention, his master had taught him.  Perhaps that was why the web showed no signs at all of the Change.  The thing it contained--if such it was, and not an illusion--must only be visible by particular light at particular angles, otherwise someone would surely have seen it before him.  It didn't need charms to defend itself.

Until now.

Aiming carefully, every muscle ready to flee, Ros tossed the stone one-handed at the nearest thread.

It bounced off with a twang and sent a series of tiny shockwaves shimmering across the face of the web.  The dragon's claw seemed to clench, and then the whole thing was shaking.  Ros stared and listened with growing surprise.  Instead of fading into silence, the twang became a hum, sustained by the ongoing vibration of the web's individual strands.  And out of the vibrations, out of the hum, a voice spoke.

"Why," it asked him, "are you here?"

"There's a dragon," Master Pukje had told him on the day Ros began the quest that would release him from his apprenticeship.  "There's a dragon living in the Divide.  I want you to find it for me."

Ros had thought he was getting off lightly.  "Is that all?"

"Don't be so sure of yourself, boy.  It'll be hidden as I am, but by different means, and cunning with it.  Your task is threefold: first you have to find it; then you have to kill it; finally, you must prove to me that you have done as I instructed."

"You want me to bring its head?"

Master Pukje's smile had been slyly amused.  "If it has one, yes.  That would definitely do the trick."

Thinking back to that smile, Ros now wondered if his master had known all along what he would find.

"Why shouldn't I be here?" he replied, but the hum had faded and the dragon was silent again.

There were several stones within reach from the inside of his protective circle.  Ros grabbed the largest and tossed it with greater force at the web.

"I am harming no one," came the breath-less whisper, proving that he hadn't imagined it.  "Why don't you leave well enough alone?"

"You're a dragon."

"And you're a human."

"Neither of us can help what we are."

"But are we slaves to our nature?  That's the question."

"I have no doubt that you would harm me if you could."

"You should doubt, a little.  I have no such desire in me at the moment.  If I did, you would know about it."

Ros was running low on stones.  "So you claim not to be a captive, and that this isn't a trap?"

"Why do you ask when it's clear you won't believe the answer?"

"To test my theory that all dragons are liars."

"Whether I am lying or not, it would be unwise to judge from my example alone."

"Ah, you see, you're not the only dragon I know."

In reply he received an empty hum, as though the dragon was thinking.  When that faded, Ros had no more stones left to toss.

A gust of wind sprang up, tugging at the threads and sending sand skittering around him.  For the first time Ros noticed the deep, desert cold biting at his skin.  Do something, he told himself.  You can't stay hidden in the circle all night.

Do what you have to do, Ros, then come find me in return.

Lifting his left foot, he swept the sole of his shoe over the symbols he had drawn.  The world instantly returned to its usual flavour: he could smell the stagnant water of the pool and detected a faraway rattle of crabblers moving about their nocturnal affairs.  Distantly he noted that the moon wasn't as bright as it had been.  It had drifted behind a cloud, and came and went uneasily above him.

Ros stepped from the remains of his circle.  Nothing attacked him, physically or through the Change.  His was the only will making itself felt at the moment.

With great care, Ros reached out and plucked the nearest strand of the web.

"See?" said the dragon.  "I mean you no harm."

"This proves nothing."

"What proof do you require?"

Ros thought of the third of Master Pukje's conditions.

"Tell me why you're hiding here, and maybe I'll believe you."

"Then will you leave?"

"I can't promise you anything."

"Without making a liar of yourself, I suppose."

"Something like that."

"Exactly that, I think.  We haven't said a true word to each other since you woke me.  We have danced around the truth, guarding our secrets as though they were jewels.  You talk about proof and lies and promises as though they somehow stand between you and what you want, but I tell you this: no amount of talk will satisfy you.  What do you desire so badly that you have come to me in the dead of night and woken me from my slumber?"

Ros thought this time of Adi, and of freedom, and of his promise to Master Pukje.  "If you're trapped," he said, "then maybe I am too."

"Trapped in a web of words," the dragon scoffed, "as I am trapped in this web of spider's silk."

"Yours is easier to break, I think."

"You might indeed think so.  Try it and find out."

Ros's index finger tensed to put the dragon's suggestion into practice, but stayed on the verge of doing so.  The wind bowed the silent dragon over him, as though urging him on.

He couldn't do it.  Not without knowing more--and that, he intuitively understood, meant giving more.

"I've been sent here," he told the dragon, "to kill you.  What do you say to that?"

"I say this: who sent you?"

"What difference does that make?"

"All the difference in the world.  You are not my enemy; you are just the instrument of my enemy.  That's the person I need to talk to, and I can only do it through you."

"He didn't send me to have a conversation."

"Yet here we are.  Why not do the deed and be done with it?  Commit your murder; get on with your life.  You still haven't told me what it is you desire."

"I want to know why you deserve to die."

"Did the one who sent you not tell you?  That was remiss of him."

"He tells me what I need to know."

"Do you trust him?"

"He is--was--my teacher, my master."

"Then you should certainly trust him."

"That's what I tell myself."

"But...?"

But I know Master Pukje never does anything without a reason, Ros said to himself, and when reason is hidden, that's usually for a reason too.  What if this dragon didn't deserve to die?  What if I'm being tricked into committing a terrible crime?

"Once upon a time," his master had told him, "the world was full of creatures like me. We are rare now, and for the most part we avoid your kind.  We see the fear in your eyes when you gaze upon us.  It's unpleasant, for we belong in this world as firmly as you do.  It was ours before it was yours.  We understand it a little better.

"So we hide ourselves in a variety of different ways.  Some live in the sky as clouds or mysterious lights.  Some live underground, feasting on molten rock.  Some spread their wings in the canopies of forests, where vines will hide them and they can sleep out the rest of eternity.  Some find ways to walk among you as I do, as one of you."

And one, Ros now understood, took the form of a giant web and sailed gently through the days.  He had offered the information of its imminent demise on impulse in order to see what it might provoke, but the news had raised barely a twitch of alarm.

"There are different kinds of deaths," he said.

"Indeed," the dragon agreed.  "Hope can die, for one.  The body lives on, but the inside turns to dust.  Love, too, is another thing that doesn't last forever."

Ros looked up sharply.  What had the dragon guessed about his motivations?  What did it think it knew?  Ros was plucking the threads like a harpist, but maybe the dragon was playing him instead.

He crooked his index finger again, and this time he did pull on the thread until it snapped.

The web shuddered and the image of the dragon recoiled.

"See?" the dragon whispered before the vibrations died down.  "I am helpless before you."

That didn't seem plausible.  "So anyone could've come along and done this, at any time?"

"I'm sorry if that makes you feel less important."

"This is supposed to be a quest, a challenge, a test--"

"And so I'm sure it is, for both of us.  If anyone could have done this, why you?  Why now?"

"I don't know."

"Do you have no understanding at all?"

Ros shook his head, full of conflicting emotion.  If all he had to do to achieve his freedom was to snap a few threads and end the life of a feeble old dragon, what was stopping him from doing it?

Perhaps this was the test, he thought.  Perhaps this indecision was the challenge he had to overcome in order to be truly free.

This led to a far more discomfiting thought.  What if Master Pukje wanted Ros to earn his independence by disobeying his master's orders, by doing what he thought was right rather than blindly following instructions?

Threefold.  He had found the dragon; that was something.  But how could he leave the other two tasks unfinished and expect to earn the life he had dreamed of for so long?

"Tell me why you're hiding."

"The world has changed," the dragon said, "and it's changing still.  All things reflect the world as it is, just as the world reflects those things inside it.  We don't stand apart.  Our function alters with time."

"What function do you perform now?"

"To dream."

"Not all dragons are sleeping."

"Don't misunderstand me.  Sleeping and dreaming aren't the same thing."

"Not all dragons are dreaming, then."

"Ah, yes.  You said you knew another.  You believe it to be a liar.  Is it lying to itself or to you?  The former is, after all, one definition of a dream."

"Perhaps both."

"Then that makes it a very dangerous dragon indeed.  Did you attempt to kill it, too?"

"No.  He's the one who sent me."

"Did he, now?"

"Yes."

The dragon didn't react with surprise or anger, or any of the human emotions he might have expected.

"Let me be sure I understand you: the other dragon you know, the one you believe to be a liar, is the one who sent you to kill me, the one you obey because you consider him your teacher and master."

"Yes."

"No, that's not what you said.  You corrected yourself.  You said he was your teacher and master."

"My apprenticeship ends with the completion of this task."

"Killing me."

"And returning with proof."

"Naturally.  I would demand no less, myself."

"Doesn't that bother you--one of your own kind trying to murder you?"

"Oh, he's not the one doing the murdering.  That's you, of your own free will.  What concerns me more is that a dragon took a human apprentice.  What's your name, boy?  Let us talk as equals, since that is what your master thinks we are."

"Roslin," he said, keeping his heart-name to himself.  "Roslin of Geheb.  What's yours?"

"I've had many names," the dragon told him.  "You can call me Zilant, if you like.  What name does your master go by?"

Ros felt a need to prevaricate on that point.  "Why do you want to know?"

"I would like to know, Roslin of Geheb, how he passes among your kind.  Does he have a form like mine, or some other disguise?"

"He looks much like a human," Ros said.  "When he wants to."

"Yes, and keeps his true form for when he doesn't.  We have such power, we dragons, when we choose to use it."

"My master says that choices are the most difficult thing to learn.  Becoming powerful is easy compared to knowing when to be powerful."

"Are you powerful, Roslin of Geheb?"

"I am told that I can be."

"It won't take much to kill me, I'm afraid.  Don't be disappointed."

Ros reached out and snapped another thread.  "Don't think to arouse my sympathy, dragon.  If you want to live, give me a reason to spare you, nothing else."

Zilant writhed, but his tooth-filled mouth seemed to gape in a smile.  "Of course.  I know I cannot win your allegiance.  One dragon at a time, eh?"

"I will never turn on my master, if that's what you're suggesting."

"You're the one with all the suggestions.  But remember: a thought voiced is a deed in waiting."

"Stop it."

"What do you believe will happen if you disobey this lying master of yours?  Do you think he'll descend from the sky and rend you with his beak?  If you're looking for reason, ask yourself why your master trained you.  Not to die in his own claws, certainly.  He has invested too much in you for that.  You make your own decisions now.  You are already your own master.

"Or has your master no intention of setting you free?  Is this monstrous task the first of many he has planned for you?  By your guilt and shame you will bind yourself to him.  He will trade an apprentice for a servant, and you will be trapped forever."

"Stop it!"

Furious, Ros grabbed an armful of the strands and snapped them all.  Severed silken threads fell on him and clung to his face.  The dragon roiled and roared above him.  The hum became a scream.

"Who is master, Roslin of Geheb," it shouted, "and who the slave?"

Ros tore another armful, even as part of him asked why he was so angry.  Wasn't the dragon telling him what he had already suspected: that this was a fool's mission designed either to humiliate or to ensnare him?  Wouldn't breaking his word release him from both threat and obligation?

He couldn't take that risk.  Zilant had been in his life a matter of minutes.  Master Pukje had raised him for five years.  Ros owed one more than the other, and neither more than he owed himself.  He would stick to the deal he had made.  Zilant may deserve only to sleep and dream, but the dragon stood between Ros and the freedom Pukje had promised him, the future he and Adi had dreamed of.

But did he deserve it, now?  He doubted his feelings for her and fantasised that his master was entangling him in a web of deception.  His thoughts betrayed all of them.  He was worthy of neither trust nor love.

Ros ran headlong across the Divide floor, snatching at threads and pulling them apart.  The fabric of the dragon, rent and torn, flailed in ribbons.  Starlight gleamed like tears from the truncated ends and from his hand where web tenaciously clung.  Reaching the far side of the canyon, he climbed up the rough cliff face, leaping from handhold to handhold like a crabbler, ripping at the thickening strands, biting them, finally reaching for his knife and slashing when they became too strong for him to break with strength alone.

How much time passed, he couldn't tell.  The moon had vanished entirely behind a cloud so he couldn't follow its passage across the sky, and nor, in the depths of his determination, would he have cared to know.  Ignoring the aches in his muscles and the layers of web thickening around him, he laboured on, climbing and swinging from thread to thread, slashing indiscriminately as he went.

At the top he paused only to survey the best way to administer the killing stroke.  A single, thick rope sagged from one side of the canyon to the other.  From that hung all that remained of the dragon.  Shimmying hand-over-hand along it with the knife between his teeth, Ros reached the middle and prepared to do what had to be done.

"This is your last chance, Zilant," he said.  "Tell me something, anything, to change my mind."

"No," hissed the dragon.  "You cannot turn back now."

At hearing the same words that the crabblers had told him, Ros almost stayed his hand.  He was too tired to be angry any more; only stubbornness kept him going.  What did it mean that he couldn't turn back, anyway?  He no more believed in destiny than he did the Goddess of which some people spoke.  The course of his life was mapped out by obligations, promises, and debts.  They were what trapped him, not some absurd cosmic cartographer.

Hanging from one hand, he raised the knife and brought it down hard.

The rope snapped.  The dragon rent in two, sagging like a curtain and taking him with it.  The two of them fell with majestic delicacy to the canyon floor.  He braced himself for the impact, rolled, and came up angling the knife safely away from him.  The breath had been knocked out of him, and he was covered in dead web, but apart from that he was unharmed.

To the east the sky was pale.  By the growing light, Ros surveyed what he had done.

The dragon was unrecognisable.  Where once had hung the image of a beast in full flight were now just ephemeral rags.  All magnificence had fled.  No voice remained, no hum.  Just the nameless wind, sighing endlessly across stone.

A shaft of light caught Ros as the sun breached the far horizon.  His hands shook in the golden radiance.  He barely had strength to pull the thick mat of threads from his face.

But it was done.  He had killed the dragon.  All he had to do now was prove it to Master Pukje.  The proof he required lay in the remains of the web.  His master had known what awaited him here, he was sure.  Just the sight of Ros would be enough.  He was practically encased in the stuff.  It would take days to get all the threads out of his hair.

He laughed hoarsely.  The sound echoed back from the canyon walls like a sob.  A cocooned caterpillar, what would he become when his chrysalis opened?  Would Adi still want him, this killer of defenceless dragons?

In that crystalline moment, he felt his reluctance to honour his promise to Adi become fear, and knew that the course of his quest led him to pitfalls that, until now, he had never needed to navigate.

A rattling of crabblers brought him out of his desperate introspection.  Six of them had crawled over the lip of the canyon, and more followed behind them.  Their clattering was wild and incoherent.  He had never heard them like this before.  They swarmed down the cliff wall and over the remains of the web.  Were they shocked at what they saw?  Ros couldn't tell.  More and more poured into the Divide, and he retreated from their thickening tide.

The sound of stirring water disturbed the silence behind him.  He spun, raising the knife.  The brackish pool was quiet no longer.  Waves crossed its black surface as though something large was moving back and forth beneath.

The wind whipped around him with increasing strength, raising a whirlwind of dust.

Stones rained from the canyon walls.

Clouds undulated in the sky. 

No, he realised through growing alarm.  Not clouds.  The very same cloud that he had seen yesterday while approaching the web.  The one that had blocked the moon.  It hadn't moved in a day and a night, but did so now in defiance of wind and weather, its own kind of being.

Some live in the sky...

White, feathery wings unfurled.  A long neck uncoiled.  At the same time, a tower of water shot up out of the pool and spread wings of its own.  Crabblers climbed acrobatically over each other, manoeuvring with eerie precision to become eyes, beak, talons and tail, while boulders tumbling from the Divide wall landed to form legs, arms, a hunched back.  The whirlwind of dust took a similar form, towering over him and flexing its muscles.  Ros barely heard the strand beast explode as every bottle strapped to its side burst asunder, releasing the air trapped within.

Dragon of air.

Dragon of dust.

Dragon of stone.

Dragon of water.

Dragon of cloud.

He reeled back as the full import of what he had unleashed sank in.  Even the crabblers, now gripped together in a grotesque tangle of legs and fat bodies, had been co-opted by the dragons into their bizarre masquerade. 

"Why don't you leave well enough alone?" Zilant had asked.

Ros should have listened to him.  Now he had killed one dragon and disturbed a whole nest of them.  That was the price he would have to pay for freedom.

From exhaustion and fear strength arose.  He wasn't a dragon, but he was a dragon's apprentice.  Master Pukje had taught him well.  The Change poured through him like an ocean through a river mouth.  He wouldn't stop to talk this time.  He had killed one dragon already.  What were six more when his future was at stake?

The dragons roared at him, approaching on all sides.  The ground quaked under their mighty feet, but he stood firm.  They couldn't all attack at once.  Fire would boil water and turn sand to glass.  Crabblers would shy away and clouds would evaporate to nothing. 

Raising both hands, he summoned the flame that he knew so well.

A bright glow blossomed around him, and it seemed for a moment as though the sun had grown in strength.  Heat rippled across his skin and his eyes were dazzled.

But it wasn't the sun at all.  The light came from the web encasing his body.  The fire issuing from his hands had set it alight.  The glare grew brighter still and the heat more intense until suddenly, with a flash, his entire body was aflame.

He screamed, and the air from his lungs whipped the fire even higher.  Great sheets burst from him, rising up and out to either side, and behind him too, tasting the earth like a tongue.  He felt himself lifted up by the heat, even as his hair shrivelled and his clothes burned away.  The flames lapped at the air, flapped once, and he was aloft.

The dragon of fire surged forward, and Ros was carried with it, inside its belly.  Together they left a broad black scar wherever they passed.

"Breathe easy, boy.  This won't take long."

Ros recognised that voice.  It belonged to the dragon he had just killed.  That knowledge did little to quell his panic.

"What's happening to me?"

"Nothing," Zilant said.  "This has nothing to do with you.  It's all about the seven of us, of which your master is the last and youngest.  For sending a man to do a dragon's job he will pay dearly.  But this was what he wanted: to wake us for a while, to remind us that our blood still boils.  An insult will serve when entreaty has failed so many times before."

Ros could barely think through the pain.  Nothing, the dragon said, but it felt like everything.

"Fly with me," said Zilant from the fire all around him, "just this once, as we pay our brother a visit."

Ros blazed with the dragon until it seemed there was nothing left to burn.  His flesh went first, then his memories, then the person he had tried to be: the student, the adult, the lover...

The only thing that wouldn't burn was the silver pendant that Adi had given him.  Not even the heat in a fire dragon's belly could melt it.  He clung to it tightly, and prayed for release.

"I'd be dead if it wasn't for you," she had told him, once.  "I would've run off on my own and the crabblers would've got me."

It had all seemed so simple, five years earlier.  The currents of their lives had swept them together but would sweep them apart again forever, if given the chance.  The decision had been easy for him to make.

"I promise I'll come back to you."

"Well, I promise to wait," she had replied.  "Just don't die or anything and leave me waiting forever.  That could be a little annoying."

"I'll even try to write," he had said, and at times he had, albeit through Change-rich means like talking parrots and their ilk.

"You'd better," she had said, "but I guess I won't be able to write back, seeing Pukje wants to keep everything a secret."

Somehow she had found a way.  The pages were rolled up in his pack, a testament to her determination.  Too young to wed, Ros and Adi were not too young to make a vow that would bind them into adulthood.  Neither of them had made that vow lightly, but neither had they realised how heavy it would turn out to be.

"I promised I'd come back," he had told her, "and I will."

The chase didn't last long: six dragons against one, one they knew as well as they knew each other, one they would follow to the ends of the earth if needed.  Pukje--the dragon of flesh, crafty and wise in the ways of the earth, but so weighed down with its concerns that he taught humans the secrets of his kind--sprang into the sky the moment his siblings appeared on the horizon, boiling and burning and babbling in their animal tongues.  He sprinted as fast as his wings would carry him, and they set off right after him, dragons streaking across the firmament like shooting stars, six against one, and the earth shaking beneath them.

When Ros finally woke, he found himself flat on his back, spread-eagled and fully-clothed.  The leather of his breeches was stiff with dried water and his tunic full of sand, but no actual harm appeared to have been done to him.  He swept his matted hair out of sleep-crusted eyes and looked all around him.

The sun had risen, so he could see clearly that he was back in the Divide, back where it had all had started.  And more than that: the pool, the patch of discoloured rock, the cloud, the steady breeze--even the web, stretching lazily above him--they were back too, as though the whole thing had been a dream.

Could it have been?  Frowning, he relived the confused moments of the chase: wide jaws and clutching talons; tails whipping and wings slapping all around him.  He and Zilant--for an immeasurable time, there had been no distinction between them.

By daylight, though, the dragon was invisible.  The web was just a web, swaying in the breeze.

With a shaking hand, Ros reached out to pluck the nearest strand.

Seeing the scars on his skin--thousands of tiny lines, crossing and re-crossing like a road-map of the Haunted City--he thought, No, best not.

Instead Ros clambered to his feet and considered his options.

The nest of dragons, it seemed, was sleeping again.  Several crabblers clung unmoving on the parallel cliff faces, watching him come to his senses with no more than their own intelligence.  Not far away lay the wreckage of the strand beast, its legs intact but the bottles, the source of its motive power, completely destroyed.

What should he do now?  He couldn't leave without understanding what had happened to him.  Dream or no dream?  Free or trapped forever?

Did the answer depend entirely on how one looked at the question?

A blackened, hunched thing that Ros had taken for a rock raised its head and looked at him.

"I release you," said Master Pukje, "from my service."

Ros ran to him.  The fallen dragon's skin was burned to a crisp, but the eye that inspected him shone with a familiar, incisive light.

"Are you all right?  Who did this to you?"

"You did, I think." 

"No, master, I wouldn't--"

Pukje croaked a laugh at the expression on Ros's face.  "All right, then.  It was Zilant."  His crisped wings twitched.  "Does that make you feel better?"

Ros recoiled, unsure if he was being mocked with affection or contempt, or both.  "I don't understand.  I did exactly as you told me--"

"You did."

"I found the dragon.  I destroyed the web."

"You killed him.  I know.  Then the others came, and you went to burn them.  The web caught fire and Zilant returned."

Ros nodded.  "How is that possible?"

"He burns and lives again.  Don't ask me how.  We're dragons.  We're different from you.  We find our own ways to survive the world.  You were caught up in all that for a while, but you're free now.  You'll have to find a way to survive on your own, and that flame is a harder master than I ever was."

Ros squatted down and rested on his haunches.  Pukje's breathing was laboured.  Raw pink patches were visible through the crisped skin.

"You expected this to happen," Ros said, meaning more than just their injuries.  "This was the proof you were waiting for."

"Proof; punishment.  Tell me the difference and you can be my teacher."

"You sent me to stir them up, to remind them of--what?  That they were still alive?  That you were?"

"Solitude is bad for the soul."  The hunched spine lifted, then fell.  "Perhaps I knew that I would be lonely when you were gone.  Perhaps I wanted to be with my family, for a little while."

Ros stared at the injured dragon, appalled for both of them--until a raspy, painful sound revealed that Pukje was laughing at him.  Again.

He supposed he deserved it.

"Change to your human form," Ros said.  "I'll carry you back to Laure, where you'll be looked after."

"No need."

"I can't just leave you here."

"Why not?  After a short nap, I'll wake refreshed.  Go live your life, as my siblings and I cannot."

"What do you mean?"

"You're ready to wake from the dream of your youth.  Be reborn and engage with the world.  Fighting fire with fire gets you nothing but ashes, no?  Most important of all--"  Here Pukje coughed, long and hacking, releasing clouds of soot from his lungs.  "Remember never to tangle with a dragon while it's dreaming."

Ros stood, remembering the colours of his wild flight across the land with Zilant.  It had been like diving into a living sunset.  The feeling had been liquid and furious, joyous and terrifying at the same time.  He had been fire, and would never use it the same way again.

But the scars on his hands and arms weren't burns.  They were left by the dragon's web, where it had touched and clung to him, leaving a stigmata that all could see.  Perhaps he wasn't quite the dragon-killer he had imagined himself to be the previous night, but there were worse things, such as being deformed by someone else's dream.

He squarely confronted that fear that Adi might be having her own doubts.  The letter she had sent wasn't just a testament to determination.  It exposed her own uncertainty, too.  Thinking of the words she had used, he could see all too clearly now that she was as nervous as he, and taking shelter in conventions alien to both of them.

That both dismayed and encouraged him.  He was aware now that the emotional pitfalls he had been skirting during his quest arose from feelings of love after all, not the absence of it.  He had refused to reveal his desire to Zilant because he was afraid of what it meant.  Fear, reluctance, uncertainty, dread--they were all part of the experience, along with joy, wonder, surprise, and delight.  He would need to get used to all of them now he was free to pursue an uncertain conclusion.

Pukje was indeed a dangerous dragon, but he knew better than Ros did who his master was, ultimately.  There was no use railing against the people he had chosen to play important roles in his life, not when he himself had invited them in.  It did them a disservice to imagine lies and treachery at every turn, just because he nursed doubts he barely acknowledged to himself.

Ros looked up at the crabblers.  You cannot turn back now, he had heard the monstrous denizens of the Divide telling him yesterday.  Take it how you will.  He had done exactly that, and very nearly tangled himself in a net from which he couldn't escape--because it wasn't escape he wanted at all, in the end.

We are closer than ever, Adi had said in her letter.

The mouth parts of one of the crabblers clattered the same brief message as before.

"We know you, Roslin of Geheb."

"Better than I do myself, it seems," he clacked back.

"All right, now, go," Pukje told him in an irritated voice.  "Live.  Be wise.  Stay out of trouble."

"I will," Ros said.  "If you're sure?"

"I am.  You know your road now."

Pukje's eyes closed, and he returned to looking more like a stone than any living thing.

Ros removed the pendant from around his neck.  Placing it on the sand next to the wounded dragon's beak, he said, "Thank you, master.  I believe I do."

Stooping to pick up his pack from the wreckage of the strand beast, Ros walked to the base of the cliff and began the long climb northwards.

 

This story originally appeared in The Dragon Book.


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Author: Sean Williams

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