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Red Hours

Zodiac Dragons: Scorpio

By Matthew DanielsPublished 2 months ago 23 min read
Red Hours
Photo by Hikersbay Hikersbay on Unsplash

Iker was lying on his back, resting his head on his hands. He was on the body of a worn-out scorpion statue, watching Naia as she tried to climb the remains of its tail. “If anyone can climb it, you can,” he said to her.

Most of the other children were sulking indoors. There wasn’t much to do.

“I know,” she said. “Still, I should’ve tried when it was new. Can’t believe this one survived a whole year!” Naia tried to work her hands and feet into the divisions between segments of the tail, but there wasn’t much left of them.

Their village, Buthida, was known for its red clay. They mostly traded pottery and other earthenware crafts at the merchant fairs twice a year, plus minor shipments when waggoners came by with the village’s water supplies.

“You like it when things last, huh?” Iker asked. He was eleven and did not realise that his words could be taken differently.

Near the village was a now-collapsed canyon. No one went that way now. No one could say what changed. Clearly, some spirits were unhappy. With that canyon gone, the rivers below blocked off or rerouted, and some taint in what water they could find, they had to rely on shipments of water from elsewhere now. Paying for water that wasn’t even the best was bad enough, but it forced the community into hard decisions Iker didn’t understand. Market pricing, something about trade and changing partners, having to move.

Naia didn’t look at her friend. She was focused on her efforts to shimmy up the vaguely tail-shaped structure. “Only when they shouldn’t.” She grunted. “Like, mountains always last. But one of those trees sticking out of a cliff? You know, what used to be in the canyon.”

What had been the old canyon was in sight to the west. The collapse had turned it into a long, uneven, and dishevelled pit of tumbled rock mounds. Around the village proper sat the remains of clay scorpion statues, like the one the children were now loitering on. It had stone huts, some dead wells that were now blocked up to keep the children out, and many spaces with small stone walls for penned animals or outdoor craft work.

“I remember them,” Iker said. “They were like wooden snakes sticking out of the rock. Nowhere for the trees to grow. They did it anyway.” There was a lull in their conversation as Iker admired Naia. She made him care about poetry. He was growing an eye for good climbing spots. “You know,” he said, “I think it’s time to try the canyon.”

Naia was perched awkwardly at the top of the ruined scorpion statue. The tail didn’t have enough left to curve, so she sat with her legs hugging the pillar and a hand front and back to help balance her weight when the worn clay got uncomfortable. “Try…the canyon? It’s not a canyon now. And what’ll you do if there’s spirits?”

“The same as in the stories. Make deals, hide, go around, get them to fight. The big thing is bringing water with me.”

“Your mom won’t give you that much water. That sounds like grown-up work…” Naia looked around from her perch as she thought about his idea. The statue was no taller than an adult, but that was big enough in the eyes of children. Vestiges of other clay scorpion statues looked like they were wading through solid rock and forming a circle of protection around Buthida.

This, Iker saw, was his chance. “They talk too much. Too scared, don’t like change, gotta make things all complicated. People think we should be scared of spirits now. ‘Cause of the canyon. And all the drying out. People need to see that the canyon’s not dangerous anymore. What if the spirits need help?”

“Why didn’t the grown-ups think of all that?” Naia asked. She hugged the pillar and slid down. The pair giggled with her ungraceful landing. Iker climbed down from the statue just as she was standing up on its body.

“Grown-ups are boring. And they have a bunch of weird ideas in their heads. I’m going.”

“Now?” Naia called with surprise. Iker had already finished his waterskin and run off to his house to refill it from the jug.

She brushed herself down as she walked so that she wouldn’t look too unkempt if any adults should stop her short. She looked up to see Iker dashing away again, a small sack over his back and a plump waterskin bouncing on his belt. “Iker!” she called. He can’t have gotten permission. He’ll get in trouble.

He glanced back at Naia as he ran. Iker felt high on life, excited to be impressing a girl who gave him enough attention to watch his departure. Like a hero setting out in the stories. The romance of that was short-lived once Buthida was behind him. It took some zig-zagging to pick and crawl his way to the surface of the rattled earth that now bridged the old chasm. Now he was too far away to make out much of Buthida when he looked back. His eyes were good, but the land was like a blanket that had been distractedly tossed to the floor.

The villagers never approached the canyon. This was the most alone he’d ever been.

Four times Iker tripped or bumped into dead trees or standing rocks. He looked back so often, the road before him became twisted and punishing. The moonlight was strong after the sun went down. Water was thin under his skin, but his veins hulked and basked in his reckless youth. Thinking of Naia, he pushed on.

He reached the ruins of a by-gone civilisation in the blue hours before the dawn and after the moon. Buthida’s storytellers spun many tales of places that could be reached from outside the village that had belonged to a larger people in the mists of ancient times. He’d thought they were talking about giants for a full month before someone realised what he was saying and explained that the number of the people was larger, not the people themselves.

There was a spirit. She was dressed in strange garb that was clearly rugged, yet it was more adorned than the stuff of his village. Her voice carried an accent like his people, but older. From far-off times.

“There might have been people or animals, running the gamut from wild to domestic. There might have been foodstuffs, jewels, all manner of stores. You ought to have sought shelter. Look about. Reflect.”

To see a spirit was a great marvel, to hear her words moreso. But Iker was thirsty and there was a well.

“Hold, you will find little…” the spirit continued. She was urgently sad and spoke with a warmth like the gold of the evening sun.

The lad was standing on the well. He couldn’t see into its depths and the only scent was of stone, sand, old winds, and the sky that was its usual newness of blue. Already a buzz in the back of his mind, the spirit’s voice held less interest than the bucket hoist. Time for a drink! But the rope would not move.

In the village, it was known that old ropes rot away. That turning mechanisms needed oiling or, at minimum, a cleaning. Youth kept his feet in better shape and gave them better grip than any shoe fashioned in any corner of the world. He twisted and he clambered. He even hopped as he struggled to get the bucket free.


He thought that’s what the spirit had cried out. It seemed a keening, but it all happened so fast. Iker was airborne. He was sure he’d been floating or flying. Or even falling, though he couldn’t figure out how he was on his knees on the half-crumbled stone roof of one of the ruins.

He stood, confused, looking at the well from here. What a sight!

Everything was different. There were things where before there had been only quiet earth. Slithering, wafting, gliding, growing. Some glowed. Some were absences. Not hostile, hungry voids, but visible only in that light could not touch them. All about Iker was a sepia world. The well was still there, but from it gusted a slow heat like the desert horizon.

Over the side of the ruin on which he stood rose a clear golden figure. She wore a tunic and trousers in the style of olden time stoneworkers. Well crafted and ornamented, yet woven to survive long labour. He’d seen images in tapestries brought by the caravans. Images of the histories of classical constructions in a higher time from a deeper past.

“Why are you dressed like a man?” Iker asked.

She smiled. “My name is Fusca. My passion and my most blessed skill is in stonework, murals, and architecture. But builders in my time could only be men. And so I laboured upon hard things through soft veils.”

Iker gave her a funny look. “...okay. Why did the well put me up here?”

It was Fusca’s turn to give a funny look.

Before she could speak, a groan shook the air. Iker turned to stare into the distance from which he’d come. Stare, because a phalanx of earth spirits boomed their malcontent.

“Buthida!” Iker cried in dismay.

“Their quarrel is not with your earthly home, but with the forces of deeper waters,” Fusca said. “Still…”

It took Iker a moment to realise he was flying. “Whoa!” He cried out, facing the ground below. His hands had been at his sides, as though he were still standing upon the old edifice, but now he clambered at nothing and fell.

“Child!” the builder called.

He managed to get some kind of dish of light in front of him that took the brunt of the fall. The ground still knocked the wind out of him. The wind felt different to him now. It was a music and he, a string.

The phalanx collected and, in a dusty mass, wrathfully oozed in his direction.

“What do I do now!?” he turned to her in distress.

“Flee! But not too fast. Keep the spirits following us,” Fusca called. She levitated a foot or two above the ground, floating gradually away even as she replied.

Iker ran to her.

Other magical creatures, like floating squids and glittering bugs that left trails of pixie dust, came and went as he ran. He ignored them. Despite the calm and ancient stillness of the ruins around him, Iker sprinted until it felt like his legs were jelly. Earth spirits gained on him, appearing as a sandstorm carrying rocks whenever he looked back.

“Why do you not fly?” Fusca asked.

“I don’t know how!”

The two were lining up. It was hard to tell if she lingered for his benefit or she simply couldn’t float as quickly. “Get closer to me,” she suggested after a pause. The sandy swirl and rocky wrath of the earth spirits swallowed all the pair could see behind them. At least the spirits hadn’t split up; Buthida was safe.

“Help…me…” came Iker’s haggard voice.

But as the two drew near, Iker lost something. A grip. Determination. Strength to go on. At first, he let the exhaustion swirl in his body like oil sloshing in a half-full jar. Then it dawned on him: “I’m floating!”

“I can carry weights with me as long as I am near an anchoring structure,” Fusca said. Now that they floated together, she increased her speed, but it was like a wagon being pulled by a horse – not the speed of a bird. It was enough to keep them ahead of the earth spirits. While Iker recovered, she added, “I cannot fly as you just did, independent of what’s around you. The earth is not known for its speed, but it can be sudden. The spirits wait for us to tire.”

“I feel…your…it’s like a breath. But from all that you are.”

“My aura, yes. Focus on that. Use it to find yourself, where you and I are pressed against each other.” She meant a feeling of pressure, which he now began to notice. The pair were not touching. They never separated any more than they were now, though, so they had to go over or around rocks and the occasional, scraggly tree.

The crumbly, reddened dust and soil became a more yellow-beige as the terrain shifted into a steppe. Fusca’s jaw was tightening, her hands blanching with effort. Iker awakened in a part he hadn’t known was sleeping. Blinking, the flight began to happen under his own power. Relief flooded the builder’s face as she now only needed to labour for her own floating movement. They’d since reached a speed no human could run. Still, the earth spirits darkened their sight behind them.

“I can’t add to your aura. How do I pick you up?” Iker had to shout over the magic of the ground that pursued them.

“I don’t think your power works that way,” she answered. “You’d have to lift me with your muscles.”

She was an adult. He was a boy, and not a stout one. Iker said nothing.

Iker glanced at the back of his hand. It had a birthmark in the shape of the Scorpius constellation. It tingled as he flew. Then he looked over his shoulder in alarm. “They’re pulling back!” Part of him was glad not to have them looming so close.

“They’re connected to their region. They’ll only go so f- stop!”

Iker had arced his path to the side and back, and he was already forming a spear of light in his hand before he realised what he was doing. “They’ll go to the village!”

“Not anymore. They’re too far away, and their anger was for you. Well, for the deep water spirits, I think, but you were the first thing they saw when they burst out.”

Iker stood in midair with a sliver of gleam in his hand. He watched as the spirits, looking now as clay people in cloaks of dust, began a backward stride. They eyed him still, as a suspicious old man eyes a trespasser, but they softened as they left.

“How do you know all this?” Iker asked as he shook the spear in his hand. He was gently lowering to the ground, but he was having trouble making the weapon go away.

“I am a builder,” Fusca replied. “I have concourse with the earth. But mine are skills of shaping, combining, and acts of creation. I don’t have that starlight, or way of the holy warrior, howsoever you think of yourself.”

There was grass beneath his feet. “That was a good well. I’m strong now!”

Fusca shuffled awkwardly. “About that, you should know…”

“There’s grass!”

The builder blinked.

“You said about water spirits. They must be close if there’s grass. Why were the earth spirits mad at them?”

“The water plays. It moves, explodes, warps, dives, and shapes. There was an earthquake because of their movements a while back. You came from that way. I didn’t see the happenings from my place in the ruins.”

Iker nodded many times as he walked about, looking for bubbling geysers or streams or even stretches of mud. “So Buthida’s safe?”

“From the earth spirits? Yes, I should think so. I can teach you to use your new power. The basics, at least. But you should really know…”

“Great! Don’t want to wait too long, though. Need to get home. You said you’re not a warrior. But if I get better at this,” and he waved his hands about to express himself as though he were a clumsy stage magician, “could I…hurt the spirits? Discourage them?” The thought of slaying them was heresy. Even putting himself on their level in combat was appalling. He could barely believe his own ears. But Naia…the village…

Fusca had begun sculpting daylight. She wasn’t even looking as she worked; it was like idleness couldn’t get into her hands. “You’d be taking a great risk, which I see you’re already ignoring, but you’d also be making things worse. Even if you were so infused as to be capable of fighting the spirits themselves, you’d sicken the land. Harming them would weaken the harvest, spread disease, make sinkholes, or force eruptions.”

She taught him.

Every time she tried to tell him the “important thing,” he cut her off. He didn’t actually realise she had something important to talk about. Between his enthusiasm for exploring magic powers, his eleven years of life, and the holes in the sky, he could hardly be blamed for losing focus sometimes.

“What are those?” he asked of the holes.

“Portals,” Fusca replied. “They take you to other worlds. Places of wonder, horror, and all the rest. Unless you’re captured by something, you could probably go through thousands of worlds to find whichever you pleased. You could be anything, maybe gain whole new powers, see miracles until they’re commonplace.”

“Then why are you still here?” Iker asked in shock.

“I’ve never known anyone who entered them to return.”

“How do you know where they go if no one’s come back?”

“Because people from other worlds have come here. They say not that they can’t leave, but that they’ve left many worlds – yet cannot choose their way.”

Iker’s heart sank. “I’d never see Buthida again?”

“For all I know,” the builder replied, “you might never again see a world with people as you know them. Limbs and toes and two eyes and so on.”

“Show me what my aura can tell me, not just what it does! Like, can I see in the dark? Oo! Or see the future?”

“We really must-”

“Please please please…”

Fusca sighed. “All right, but after this, we have to talk.”

It didn’t occur to Iker to ask how long it’s been, because time just didn’t feel like it used to. Sometimes the earth spirits roamed near. They were patrolling. Sometimes they laboured on projects that Iker could not detect or failed to comprehend. At other times, the spirits lined up along some unknown border and watched eerily as Iker trained and Fusca taught or built. They could find no water that would be of use to the village. It rained once or twice.

“My power is enough,” Iker said. “Will I find you here?”

“What?” Fusca said, flustered by the boy’s sudden change.

He was already flying. Instead of putting his aura into a force for attack, he merely made himself a shining human arrow. He passed harmlessly through the sandstorm cloaks of the spirits, who groaned distantly as he was already most of the way through their terrain. He went around the ruins where he’d met the builder, just in case there were spirits in wait, and saw a new delight: a shimmering, pearlescent blue dragon.

Iker landed some distance off and approached at a walk. He studied the new creatures, things he’d never seen before falling in the well. He realised he’d forgotten to ask the builder why she was alone in those ruins. How he got power from the well. If the earth spirits came up because of his fall or if he was just in the right place at the wrong time.

“Most know better than to approach a dragon uninvited,” said the magnificent creature. It was somewhere between living liquid and stained glass, made up mostly of oceanic blues and greens with coral-inspired accents. Unlike the dragons Iker had heard of in stories, this one was not shaped like a four-legged lizard with wings. It had segments in its body, six scraggly legs on its sides that had a patagium built into them, an arched tail like a scorpion, and a neckless, long head.

“I’m not a dragonslayer, though,” Iker replied. Part of him quailed before the majestic beast like a boy before an ocean god with a taste for humans. Part of him secretly wondered what his new powers might do here.

“You are lucky you would provide little nourishment.”

“Are you calling me tiny?” Iker said, doing his best knight-with-bravado impression.

The dragon’s mouth wasn’t built for smiling. It had an amused exposure of teeth. Like a dog, but less trainable, the boy thought. “In fairness, before my frame, you are as a candy in the hand of a boy.”

Iker couldn’t argue that. “Right. So. Um. What’s your name?”

Its laughter was a chittering bark. “Cospiro. And yours?”

“Iker. I’m from Buthida. Would you please bring water there?”

Cospiro’s amusement faded. “You forget yourself.”

Iker was confused. “But I said my name. And we’re desperate for water. Please.”

It regarded him a long while. Iker began to shuffle and bounce. “Cospiro, there’s no…”

“You are not aware, are you? That you have passed on.”

It was the boy’s turn to stare. “I’m right here!”

“Magic in this world is the place of dream, imagination, remembrance, and spirit. Ghosts can touch upon it, which is why they may interact with the living world as you know it. But the world where Cospiro stands with hopeful Iker is a world beyond.”

Iker’s face reddened. His throat was hard, his voice soft. “NO! No. I feel it! I am strong, there is life in me. See how I move, how fast I can step, how my voice is breath!”

“But is it breath? When did you last feel your chest lift? When did you last feel the air in your hair or upon your skin? Have you eaten since you learned to see new creatures?”

Iker’s mouth moved. His voice did not.

“A water dragon follows the water. Protects, lives upon it.”

“I’m not dead! And if you won’t help me, I’ll take the water from you!”

There were blasts and slivers of light. Iker was a beam of violence. And then he was still. Blinking in befuddlement, he swam about, and it took him a second to realise it was swimming. Though he could not leave. Six limbs took to the air with thin wings, and he saw that he was contained within Cospiro’s body like a fish in a barrel.

The trek that he remembered taking several hours slid beneath him like water poured from a jug. Iker knew this direction. Cospiro took no detours. The disturbed ground of the old canyon was different now. Softer, somehow, though that might have just been the flowing inner space of the dragon causing some disturbance of the eye. Harder for Iker to dismiss was the sight of Buthida itself. It was bigger now and its people and layout were strange to him.

“Naia…” he thought he whispered. He knew Cospiro heard him as surely as a speaker hears their own voice, but there was no air, and no sound here. Not the way that he was used to the idea of sound.

The girl he’d meant to impress was a woman now. She sat upon a stage stone in the village, a half-circle of children before her. She was storytelling. Like an elder. And Iker knew it was her as surely as he’d have known the village after a hundred years, though he’d never seen it from the sky before.

Iker wept.

When grief released him and he recovered some sense of himself, he was on the ground. The canyon was before him. Daylight danced oddly upon the ground all around him and he needed a moment to realise that it was splattering through the body of the dragon. He turned. “My village survived.”

“After a fashion. I rarely mind the ways of mortals, but the ones you call yours are tied up in maps of power. They get little price for materials and works of great worth, and they pay too much for water. I cannot give them water, and their lives mean nothing to me. Yet your birthmark ties you to me in some way. You belong to the same stars I do.”

The dragon’s tail was curled up harmlessly. Its great pincers were folded before it, and upon them it rested its head of frightful kindness and soothing might.

Iker stared in the distance, in the direction of Buthida. You know how I can get there?

“No. But if you give of your magic, I can act as a go-between, drawing up the waters and their spirits.”

Determination hardened Iker’s eyes. “Do it.”

It was done. A great geyser shot up high into the air. High enough that it would have been noticed by the villagers. Then the water stabilised.

As the dragon flew off, Iker looked at his hands and he knew – in his aura, he supposed – that Cospiro had taken more of his power than had been needed for this, even if the dragon had added no strength of its own for the task. He looked upon the river that had once been a buried canyon and found that he did not care.

Villagers approached. Slowly and with care. Iker watched them come, thinking about what it would take to make himself known to them. Some faces were familiar, even at a long distance. Even if he could find the how of it, and even in light of his desire to be with them again, the boy knew a reunion would be no kindness. With little of his power remaining, he swam back across the water before they reached its near bank.

He returned to the ruins. He met a small group of Buthidans he remembered, and they were as he remembered them. They walked with him and they explained. Iker learned that they were his rescue party. They’d drunk of the well without knowing he’d fallen in. They’d taken ill, and hadn’t made it back to the village. His guilt was heavy, but they shared in it; they’d left loved ones behind who waited without hope. They’d failed to find him, or so they saw it.

Fusca awaited them all. The ruins were different now. The well was calm and no longer jettisoned an unseen and fearsome force. Instead, there were braces and additions to the escarpments, standing stones, and buildings. These, as well as some whole new structures, were in various states of construction.

Evening was coming on. The sun’s rays were reddened by the edges of the world, and Iker saw that these constructions were veined with that light. Moonlight and the shine of the stars was in them as well. It was a city, he saw. One being built by souls in the red hours when light could most be harnessed.

Iker joined the labour.


About the Creator

Matthew Daniels

Merry meet!

I'm here to explore the natures of stories and the people who tell them.

My latest book is Interstitches: Worlds Sewn Together. Check it out:

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Comments (3)

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  • Dana Crandell2 months ago

    Really enjoyed this one, Matthew! You spun an amazing tale!

  • Alex H Mittelman 2 months ago

    Great work!

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