‘Why is a fish judging a crab?’
Bauble’s whispered telepathy resonated through Haila’s head again almost instantly after her second question was complete. Then the following statement became distorted and broken as the telepathic words began to be replaced by an audible voice: ‘None of us should be so quick to point a talon. These humans may not be so very terrible as you think.’ While the message was being delivered, Haila would have seen the air beside her move, first like a mirage coming into view, the moist waves of which then filled with colour and solidified into a person… but not a dragon. The end of the statement was only audible, spoken in the tone of a young human male. Just a teenage boy. He was sitting on a branch of the neighbouring tree.
He was maybe in his late teens to be generous, legs dangling, feet swinging back and forth. His feet were bare, but he wore knee-length tattered green shorts, a dull and collarless buttoned shirt, and a typically mischievous teenage grin. It was incredible, really, the detail of this round-faced lad, right down to the youthful twinkle in his sky-blue eye, the two small pimples on his chin, a few fading freckles on his cheek, and his short, unkempt auburn hair.
He clicked with his tongue and gave Haila a wink, then in one swift movement he was up on his feet. Now standing on the limb he faltered for a moment and swayed, his arms flailed, expression of exaggerated fear; a believable impression of a reckless teen showing off to his crush. Done with his act, he corrected his balance with a second, playful wink and proceeded to walk the length of the limb - heel to toe as if daring a tightrope – and then leaned in on the trunk of the tree, head angling around to peer with sarcastic suspicion at the people gathered in town.
‘And you would know better, all of you would, if you spent more time with them. Like I have…’ Said the teenage human Bauble, turning a shifty, narrow stare to Haila, “…I’m the orphan stable hand.”
Before Haila could reply, Bauble lifted his hands, palms up, and sighed despairingly like a boy who had broken a toy, and then squatting low on the branch he popped his eyes as though he just very well had to tell her a secret he’d been holding onto for years.
He whispered low, ‘Let me show you something….’
Though Bauble did not move or reach out, the following event would have felt invasive to Haila, like a physical hand reaching into her head to place a tangible item in her mind. The item was a memory - a memory suddenly coming back to her, but a memory not her own. In the memory she would have seen a war-torn area of land. The land was mostly ash, houses were burning in the distance, the nearby forest afire. In the middle of this land was a group of powerful human mages. These mages had in the grip of their power three arist dragons, two adults and one infant, pinned to the charred ground by some type of red forcefield. All around and looking on were humans and various breeds of dragon, all of them battered, dirty and bloodied as though they had all been through a battle, and all of them now looking on at what the mages were doing.
It would have soon become clear to Haila that these wicked, powerful mages were torturing the three arist dragons, taking turns as they laughed and enjoyed every second of it. The arist's wailed in agony, calling for help, struggling to break free from the magic field that not only held them there, but prevented them from using magic of their own to defend themselves. Yet, no dragon came forward to try and help. No, not one. Neither did any human step forward - well, there was one. Just one. A human female. Just a hatchling, no older than twelve. The girl's clothes were tattered and stained as she pulled free from her mother’s hand. The dirt on her face – a face that very much resembled that of the human hatchling Haila had been referring to now in town - was cracked with tears. Her sweet, broken voice pleaded and begged for mercy on behalf of the arist's. But the mages did not yield and the child came running and screaming, her tiny fists beating at the arm of the nearest mage who turned to her with a mocking smile. He placed one hand on her head, muttered a curse, and the child fell dead where she stood. Her mother screamed and came running, only to be stopped by a bolt of lightning from the heavens.
Now was when Haila’s implanted memory faded to black. Bauble was still a teen boy, seated on the branch once again, feet no longer swinging. Sorrow was his portrait. He asked her in a solemn, cracking voice:
“Did you see any dragons trying to help me? Did they try and help my mother? My Father? No. They did not….’ A tear welled in Bauble's human eye. ‘Despite the danger. The threat. Only a human girl came. A hatchling.’ He turned his head towards the town. ‘Just like that one.’
With a blink the welled tear vanished. He composed himself. His feet began to swing again.
‘All three dragons, the last of my kind, were said to have died that day. But no…. I survived. So please if you will, Haila, be careful whom your judgements fall upon. I have been living as one of them for quite some time – and I tell you now, dragon, they are not so bad as most would say. They, just like us, fear what they don’t understand.’
𝕭𝖔𝖗𝖎𝖘 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝕳𝖆𝖓𝖓𝖆𝖍
Hannah didn’t know what to think. She didn’t know how to feel. She was so very traumatised – not just by the events over the last day, but also by her own behaviour – that her emotions were taking a rollercoaster ride. For the moment she was on a low, and she did not want to holler or scream as this very strange girl had implied she might. In fact, by the way she was currently feeling, she didn’t even know where those previous outbursts had come from, as she also had no idea about the power she’d apparently been wielding.
For now, and perhaps it was a convenient distraction from the real issues at hand, Hannah was intrigued by this new possible friend of hers - Eri, as the dragon had called her. She leaned with curiosity, hanging on Eri’s every word. She watched carefully as the spikes of some sort of magic appeared in the air between them and the crowd, and then while Eri shifted her attention to Boris she considered - with what appeared to be great concentration - the request that Eri had made. After a moment of careful deliberation, and proceeding a moment wherein her face screwed up like she had bitten into something sour, Hannah called out to the crowd somewhat less aggressively than Eri had probably hoped:
‘You should all go home now.’
She then gave Eri an apologetic look, shrugged one shoulder, and referred to the hovering magical spikes with an apprehensive glance. ‘What are those things?’
Meanwhile, Boris had paid no mind to the look Eri had given him. He was too involved with his drawing to care about anything else, his tongue still protruding and writhing with concentration as he vigorously scribbled away.
There was barely enough time for Eri to respond to Hannah’s enquiry when one of the townsfolk felt daring enough to speak up. It was a man, perhaps 30, dressed like a common farmer, and probably a stall holder to one of the food stands that had just been destroyed in the market. ‘What is it you want with us?’ He called out, pretending not be intimidated by the looming spikes of magic before him. ‘We are just a simple folk! We only want that you leave us alone – you and your… your…’ he glanced at Boris, Hannah again, then glared at the girl he had formerly seen flying around. ‘…you and your brutes and your ungodly wings and your magic! We just want to be left alone. And if you happen upon that flaming king, well you go ahead and tell him I said so too! Just leave us alone! You might think you're tough with… with y-y-y-your - those WINGS and fancy magics – but this wouldn’t be the first time we had to fight off a WITCH like you!’
In response to a brave little spat, many other of the townsfolk were encouraged to step forward, yet while many of them called out in support of the farmer in various ways, the terror in their voices couldn’t be ignored. Some other townsfolk broke off into groups, conspiring in heating whispers, while a few souls took off in search of weapons. It was simple, though; their town had recently been ravaged by the king's dragons, it was likely that many of them had lost a good chunk of their livelihood, and they couldn’t in good conscience just stand by mute while any further threat literally hung in the air.
Boris lifted his head, giving the farmer a sideways glance, then noticing the hovering blades of magic as if to question their existence for a fleeting moment, but still, again, returning to his drawing.
Hannah sighed a certain sigh as she observed the townsfolk's reaction, the sound she sometimes made when realising she’d been mistaken. She pushed some hair back behind her ears and looked around at the encroaching crowd. ‘Stop!’ Her voice was loud again, even louder with the following words, ‘Don’t be stupid, you will die!’ It was like the words themselves were pulling to the surface another burst of heightened emotion, dredging with it an energy that once again frightened her as much as it made her feel like her body was about to explode.
It was hard to ignore the arrays of dark colours fluctuating down the length of Hannah’s arms and into her hands, resulting in sparks and smoke from her finger tips like she was some sort of malfunctioning cyborg. A glow of emerald light shone from her eyes. She levitated several feet above the ground. A dark shadow enveloped her person. The ground started to convulse and shift like the planets seismic plates were suddenly undergoing maintenance.
Boris looked up from his notepad. He finally put it away. He spread his feet to keep balance against the rising tremor. The dragonbone on his back began to glow a deep turquoise hue. Yet he did nothing, for the moment at least - more delighted than anything else, as though he were watching a butterfly break free of its cocoon.
This was more than the townsfolk could bear. What courage they had was swiftly removed. They started scattering like a group of ants suddenly alarmed by a drop of water.
But it was also right then that an old man was present. Whether he had strolled up, or somehow just appeared, could not have been clear to anyone, since nobody knew he was there, yet. But there he was, standing on the road between the misfits and the bridge out of town. The man had a mule. The mule, as traveling merchant mules often were, was laden with all manner of luggage. The old man himself, however, was hunched with what appeared to be pain induced by the burden of too long a life, and leaned most of his meager weight on a cane that wobbled under the strain. The cane had the look of something hewn from the twisted and knotted branch of perhaps the first tree to ever exist. His clothing appeared almost as old; a faded brown cloak that touched the ground, tied about the waist by a fraying rope that was obviously defying the laws of physics by being able to secure anything any longer. His face was sunken, cheek bones almost perforating his dusty, wrinkled skin, while his jaw was jutting forward, chin raised, thick bottom lip pulled up over the top of his mouth and nearly touching the hairy curls extending from the flared nostrils of his long and lumpy nose. His eyes, however, were without doubt the creepiest aspect of the old man. One of them were nearly shut, not on account of squinting, more like it was just being lazy, deciding that it didn’t really care what there was left to see in the world, and wanting no part whatsoever in the shenanigans of his second eye that was rather popped and wily, darting about in a crazed sort of fashion to assess the situation.
Somehow though, the old man was unaffected by the earthquake, his mule too, as he also found the strength to lean back a little, raise his cane, then drive its tip down hard against the crusty surface of the road – a small act of itself that nobody would have noticed, but caused everything to change. And it would have only been then, after the earth stopped shaking, after every townsfolk had vanished, after Hannah dropped to the ground in an unconscious heap, after the glow from Boris’s bone turned off, after the spikes of desire exploded into quickly fading particles of dust, and after the day was snatched away by night and two large moons hung low together in the heavens, that Boris or Erised may have noticed the old man there. If not (which would likely be due to everything else that had just taken place), he cleared his throat to make sure.
Boris didn’t hear the old man clear his throat, neither did he seem to care that the town was quiet, or even that it was night time all of a sudden. He had rushed to Hannah when she fell to the ground. It was only once he had swooped her up, Hannah looking like a tiny doll cradled in his arms, that his pouty expression happened upon the old man.
Due to the land being lit by Azul and Terrariell (the two largest moons of Nihilo hanging close together and symbolising the night after Beckon Season), and the immediate area lit up more so by two street lamps - one beside the stable entrance, the other across the road closer to Boris and Erised - there would have been no problem seeing the old man shuffle very slowly in Erised’s direction, sparing a moment on his tiresome journey to shake his head wearily at Boris, almost as if he were embarrassed by the massive brute. An uncomfortable amount of time later, with the mule keeping pace close behind, the old man came to a halt a few feet from where he had previously been standing, his good eye jittering hard in an effort to keep a glaring focus on Erised as he spat out the words –
‘What are you daft, you hyped up little self-indulgent abomination? After all this time you’ve spent existing and bitching about everything and achieving absolutely nothing, you let the universe get in the way of seeing the stars? Sure, yeah, I wouldn’t expect dumb-dumb over here to figure it out,’ He said with a glance to Boris, ‘but it’s pretty damn obvious that Hannah is going through a quickening.’ He mumbles something in some other language, and added, ‘You haven’t even figured it out, have ya, Erised? After all this time… it still hasn’t registered in that Dodo brain of yours that you are where you are because that’s where you’re meant to be. That’s life, stupid!’ He said the last part in a somewhat aggravated tone, but quickly relaxed while his good eyes spun in circles a few times and his mule made some stressful forlorn groans.
The sound of a cow was also heard close by, mooing loud and startling the night. But there was no cow to be seen. Boris looked around utterly confused. He also regarded Erised, and then Hannah passed out in his arms, suspicious that it may have been one of them that mooed.
‘The girl needs your help.’ Concluded the old man, and spared one more glance to include Boris in that statement. ‘She’s in your care. For now.’
There were no monsters. No transforming beasts. No six headed dragon. Just a couple of old farts suddenly pleading for mercy. Jack’s specific line of work made him well tuned to many things about human nature, and fear was one of those things. He’d been around, he’d witnessed it, he’d been the cause of it, he'd seen it so many, many times to know that the fear of this old couple was real. He lowered the sword to his side, tip of the blade rested on the mouldy floorboard as he stared into the eyes of the old woman while she pleaded with him.
Remorse took hold of Jack. He regretted his actions. Not for what he was doing right at that moment, but for something he had done over a decade ago. It was a memory, among a surprising few, that would forever haunt him.
It was one of the first jobs he did for Johnny Big after being released from Juvenile detention, and an order that came directly from Johnny Big himself. A home invasion: “Go to their house. Kill the guy. Collect the goods. Clean before leaving.” But Johnny, somehow, had the address wrong. The numbers had been mixed up. Jack burst in through the door of the house next door instead, subsequently scaring the living daylights out of the old couple watch TV from the comfort of their sofa. Jack was armed with a semi-automatic pistol, the cold hollow point of its silencer aimed at the old man’s head while a look of confusion crippled Jack’s face. He’d been expecting someone younger. Mid-thirties. Not this old decrepit fool and his wife.
The old man lost control fast, arms outstretched as he wailed and turned in circles in the middle of the lounge room, as if he’d just realised that everything in his life - his family and all his possessions - had suddenly been stripped away. Jack watched on, speechless, set aback by this spectacle, entirely unsure of how to proceed until the old man stopped: He gripping his chest with his right arm. His left arm hooked in on itself like it was having a cramp. He turned towards Jack. He dropped to his knees. His face paled. Physical pain screamed from his eyes as what were to be his last words whispered almost inaudibly from his trembling lips –
It was obvious the old man was having a heart attack, and his wife - who had up until that point been pleading for mercy from Jack - ran to embrace her husband. He collapsed fully into her arms, reaching for a final breath but got none. His face paled further. Life was fleeing his widened stare. His wife bellowed in a way Jack had never heard before. It was like as if a cow and hyena were screaming together in some sort of twisted opera. And then all became silent as she turned her face to Jack, eyes no longer full of fear. No sorrow. No despair. She was no longer a victim. She was now the embodiment of accusing hatred glaring up at Jack.
Then, right there, was the remorse Jack felt. That woeful feeling of regret. Swelling. Sickening. Ripping him open inside. What had he done? It wasn’t his fault! Surely? An obvious mistake – He wasn’t to blame! No, this couldn’t be happening! This couldn’t be happening at all. He couldn’t be responsible for this – no! Not now! Not EVER! All at once it hit him – in one overwhelming moment he knew he couldn’t bear it; a prophecy of eternal nightmares flooded his heart. There was no way out, no escape, no relief from the future life of torment he was to endure on account of this one singular act. It couldn’t be true - surely - But he could already feel it haunting him the rest of his days – that accusing look in the old woman’s eyes! He needed to go. He needed to escape. He needed to turn back time! He needed to end this NOW!
He urgently squeezed the trigger multiple times.
A procession of muffled gunshots danced about the room. The old woman’s brains, blood and fragment of skull now covered the TV screen where a new contestant was currently being introduced on The Wheel of Fortune.
Jack was jolted from his memory of the event when Cheryl pushed by him into the shack. He looked at her, saw her mouth moving.
The old man and woman, though now eased back on their bedroll due to Cheryl, were still watching Jack with lingering apprehension.
While Cheryl then claimed a section of floor and said something stupid about his daughter, he drew a small breath, steadied himself, and then raised his free hand as if he were a priest bestowing a blessing of calm upon the old folks. They gave him a curious look. He added a nod of his head and it appeared, at least a little, to help comfort them. Jack returned his attention to Cheryl.
He didn’t have one - a bedroll, that is. Cheryl’s looked like something a homeless man had been dragging around the gutters for the last 20 years. Didn’t matter, though, he was too tired to care about the condition of her bed. But ‘Tactful’, as it turned out, was obviously not a word she was familiar with, not in the slightest. Her attempt at empathy, followed by yet another ill-timed note of self-preservation, found Jack irritated more than ever at her apparent lack of humanity.
Without thinking about the correct way to react, but remembering the callous elbow she jabbed him with on the ride there, he hooked his foot under her buttocks as she squatted with a thoughtful frown beside her bedroll, then shoved her out of his way with a firm thrust of his leg.
The movement would have been strong enough to lift Cheryl and slam her firmly against the corner walls on top of her bedroll, while Jack simultaneously swung the same foot to the side and kicked the stool right out the door. It exited the premises quite dramatically and continued toppling into the night for what sounded like a good distance.
Before Cheryl could have recovered, he was on his back on the rotting floorboards, head without a pillow. He had one arm resting on the edge of her bedroll. His exposed sword lay by his other side. His feet occupied the spot where the stool had been. His hands, coupled, were rested on his stomach as he stared up into the night, focused partly on the broken timber of the roof and partly at the stars beyond.
‘Just give me an excuse….’ He muttered a warning at her, then clenched his jaws as he repeated the warning in his head.
It was so very dark now that the three moons had descended, and it must have been just a few minutes before the sun reared its bright and annoying head. The four people in the shack, or at least Fauve figured there was three or four, would have been asleep for hours.
She had been biding her time to ensure, with no certainty however, that all of them were fast asleep, and she had been keeping a good distance downwind to ensure that the annoying little pygmy would be less likely to catch a whiff of her presence, which meant crouching in the darker shadows of a Colossaquo tree at the edge of Dragon Grove across the road. It was finally time to make her move. The only issue was getting across the road quietly and undetected, which meant being unpursued by the unhappy Phantoman that was standing right beside her.
The tall and very creepy Phantoman had arrived just minutes earlier, but as much as she pretended not to notice it standing there, or the several times it had run its cold, pointed finger down her back in what was probably to it a failed attempt to gain her attention, she could no longer hold out from acknowledging its presence.
‘Look,’ She whispered firmly, turning her head to see the dim outline of its form looming over her, ‘I’m not here to rain on your parade or hurt your family or whatever it is you have a problem with right now. I’m just hiding for a minute, okay? So… can you go and loom over someone else? I promise I’ll be gone in a minute.’
She could see its head tilt curiously to one side. It didn’t appear to have any idea what she had said, but it might have. Its beady white eyes made an appearance with a glow that lasted an instant, just to let her know it heard her.
She sighed, then pointed at the shack across the street.
‘I’m going over there. You understand? There are some very rude people in that shack and I want to teach them a lesson in manners, okay? So if you just let me go without trying to follow or kill me, I’d appreciate that very much.’ She thought for a moment. ‘Can you let me know if you understand a damned word I’m telling ya?’
Now, Fauve wasn’t the easiest person to spook, but hearing the Phantoman’s reply to her comment made her skin crawl and her hair stand on end. Its voice sounded like some grated cross between that of a dying man and a very sick owl. But what was more was that it didn’t feel like the creature was just repeating what she had said, rather that it was using her own words to accuse her of the same thing.
She swallowed, trying hard not to let on how nervous she was suddenly becoming.
‘No, no, not me.’ She jerked her head in direction of the shack to try and shift its focus. ‘I totally respect you and your space. I really do. I just had nowhere else to hide. You get that, right? Hiding? You guys do it all the time. I promise…’ She said as she started to edge away, ‘…I was just leaving.’
It crept around the tree, silently following.
She paused, took a deep breath to ease her nerves, trying so very hard to once again ignore her pursuer, but she knew very well that at this point she had to admit facts. She was no longer out to teach anyone a lesson, her new goal was to save her own life. But... maybe she could do both.
There was no real way to tell how long it was going to take for the Phantoman to make its first attack on her. She had read in a book once that ignoring one might make it delay its attack, or even, in some cases, have it lose interest in its subject. She very much doubted at this point, considering the interaction that just took place, that it was going to lose interest in her, but she couldn’t be sure how long ignoring the creature would keep it from making its first attack. She had, however, quickly formulate a plan. It wasn’t the best plan in the world, there were just so many things that could go wrong, and if she timed it just right it might even involve the death of a pygmy dragon (not that that was a preference), but at least, at the very least, she might escape death and have a new horse to sell off. One can hope.
Avoiding any sudden movements, making it seem to the Phantoman that she was still only interested in the shack across the road, she kept her eyes on the shack and moved as quickly and silently as possible to remove the belt from her waist, roll it up tight, slip off her tunic, and then wrap the coiled belt up in the tunic like a makeshift sack. Then, reduced to nothing but underpants while holding the tunic bundle in her left hand, and not wanting to tempt fate for even one more second, Fauve launched her half-assed plan into action.
She sprung from the shadows and, almost clearing the width of the road with that one leap, landed with her legs already running, toes kicking up the dust in her wake as she bolted through the grass at an almost inhuman speed towards the pygmy and the horse.
As the pygmy, but thankfully not the horse just yet, would have then no doubt become aware of her fast approaching presence, Fauve was just as well aware of the monster chasing after her. While she figured it would have been left behind - if only momentarily in the wake of her sudden move - her intuition, which was always sharp as a blade, told her that the Phantoman would have already realised what was happening, that it would have already started to pursue, and that it would, right about now, be launching its first attack –
At the very instant she heard the sound, like the sharp, airy gasp someone might make after holding their breath for too long, she launched herself off the ground again as the dark, transparent mass, about the size of a basketball – endowed with enough power to knock down a man or remove any small animal clear off its perch – shot fast as a bullet under Fauve and directly at the pygmy. Airborne and still moving at the same speed as she was while running, but still a good distance from the horse, Fauve spread her limbs and formed sails between both legs and between her arms and body, similar to a gliding possum, and swiftly angled her trajectory towards the horse. Meanwhile - Fauve apparently having her timing and planning just right - the horse became alarmingly aware of the pending danger as well, and, just as importantly - whether the pygmy had managed to move out of the way or whether it was knocked right off the horse by the speeding Phantoman ball of energy - the horse's back was now clear. In one swift, graceful movement, Fauve de-formed her sails, kept her legs apart, and landed on the horse. Then, even though the horse wouldn't have needed any extra inspiration to start running like a bat out of hell in that instant, she promptly spurred it with a sharp kick of both heels and ordered it to go.
Moments later, with first light beginning to paint the sky, they had disappeared down the road; Guinea, Fauve, and a Phantoman in hot pursuit.