What is that?
Even with his keen eyesight, he couldn’t make out what it was from this height. He circled lower, lower, riding the wind until his talons started skimming the tops of the tallest trees.
He swooped low over the clearing. It was large and in the centre was a slight rise, not quite what you’d call a hill, carpeted in shaggy green grass. Twelve upright stones, twice the height of an average man, weather-worn and covered in moss and lichen, ringed the rise. They were so evenly spaced, it was clear they’d been deliberately placed like that, the reason for which was long lost to time. The white shawl sprawled on the top of the rise was what had caught his eye from so far up.
He came around again and that was when he saw the child. It stood next to one of the stones, holding on to the edge of it, staring up at him as his shadow flickered across the ground. The child’s gaze followed him until it tipped its head too far back, wobbled on unsteady legs, and plopped down with a squeak and a chuckle.
He circled a few more times, looking for any other signs of life but there were none. Why is a child on its own, this deep in the forest, this late in the day? This forest was massive, dense, and dangerous. Many travellers had disappeared in it over the years. Very few made it this far in. Those that survived the bandits didn’t survive the monsters that hunted here at night.
The sun moved lower, lengthening the shadows across the clearing, and he almost didn’t see the dirty grey wolf slink out from behind the trunk of an old oak. The wolf was skeletal; its ribs moving rhythmically in and out with each breath. Its head was low, body close to the ground, its gaze fixed on the oblivious child. The wolf glanced up at him, wrinkling its muzzle and baring its teeth before it looked back at the child. The muscles bunched in the wolf’s hind legs and it sprang.
“I don’t think so,” Carl said, landing between the wolf and the child.
The wolf bounced off him and scrabbled back to its feet, snarling. Carl stood up to his full height and stretched his wings wide before lowering his head and returning the wolf’s glare. A wisp of light grey smoke puffed out of Carl’s nostrils as he said, “Come on, then.”
The wolf took a hesitant step forward, before reluctantly turning away. Few beasts would take on a full-grown dragon on their own. The wolf slunk away, looking resentfully back over its shoulder, before melting back into the dark of the forest.
Carl watched to make sure the wolf was completely gone. Something touched his tail and he turned his head. The child had crawled over to him and was pulling itself to its feet, using his tail as leverage.
He studied the child as it pulled itself along, gripping the spikes on his tail and gurgling to itself as it took shaky step after shaky step. Boy or girl? he wondered. Its wispy light brown hair was cropped short and pale grey eyes peeped out of a rounded face that could have been either gender. There was no hint in its clothing either: loose brown trousers with a long-sleeved cream-coloured tunic over the top, belted with a plaited leather cord that circled the chubby body several times.
When the child reached the base of Carl’s tail, it stopped. Holding onto a spike, it rubbed its other hand over his scales, looked at him, smiled, and said, “Funny.”
“Where are your parents?” Carl asked.
The child giggled, continuing to feel his scales, and said, “Scratchy.”
There was no sign of anyone else. The only sound was the cool breeze riffling through the leaves and grass and whistling softly around the circle of standing stones. The edges of the white shawl fluttered as the breeze lifted it and carried it to the base of the stone the child had been near earlier.
A drawn-out howl from the forest brought an end to the silence. The child shivered and pressed closer to Carl. It patted his scales again and chuckled. “Big doggy.”
“Dragon,” he said, shifting his bulk slightly, trying not to knock the child over.
The child pushed itself away and Carl turned around to watch it toddle back to the standing stone. The child reached for something, but overbalanced, banging its head on the stone. It didn’t cry, just blinked as it sat down and picked up a small, square, intricately carved metal box and held it up.
“Ka,” the child told him solemnly as it stroked the box, before banging it roughly on the stone.
Carl reached out, but the child frowned and pulled the box away, clutching it close to its chest. “Ka ma.”
The sun had dropped well below the tops of the trees and snuffling, shuffling noises were starting to become noticeable in the nearby undergrowth. Another howl rent the air.
“Where did you come from?” Carl mused, looking around again, not expecting an answer and not getting one. He sighed. “I can’t leave you here on your own. You’ll have to come home with me.”
Carl pulled the shawl up around the child. He wrapped his paw around the bundle, stretched out his wings, took a couple of steps, and rose into the sky.
Carl landed in the field behind the farmhouse. The sheep cowered near the gate as he gently placed the sleeping child on the ground. The child grumbled but didn’t wake.
He pulled his wings in close, took a deep breath, contracted all his muscles, and shifted into his human form. He picked up the child and headed to the house.
The dogs started barking as he was walking up the path and the front door flew open. Jen stood silhouetted in the doorway.
“Where have you been?” she scolded, stepping out onto the veranda.
The child woke and looked at her with bleary eyes. Jen took a step back and looked between Carl and the child in confusion.
Carl smiled and held the child out to her. “I found it in the forest. All alone. I couldn’t leave it there.”
Jen came forward and carefully took the child from him. “Of course, you couldn’t. Who are you, darling,” Jen said softly to the child, fussing over the cut on the child’s forehead as she carried it inside. “Where’s your ma and pa?”
The child reached up and stroked Jen’s long blonde hair. “Soft,” it said quietly.
Jen sat the child near the fireplace and gently unwrapped the dirty shawl. “Oh my,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Carl, can you please fetch me some hot water?”
Over the next few hours, Carl watched Jen mother the child. She cleaned her up—it was a girl—then held her on her lap while she fed her warm vegetable broth that had been simmering in a pot over the fire. Jen crooned and cuddled the girl in front of the fire until the girl finally fell asleep, still clutching her small box.
“You make such a good mother,” Carl said. Jen looked at him and smiled.
Carl and Jen had been married for eight years and lived on an isolated farm many miles out of town. No one else knew he wasn’t human. At times, Carl felt guilty because he knew Jen desperately wanted children. She was the oldest of five siblings and had been a stand-in mother to her sisters. She’d always expected to have her own children one day.
But dragons and humans couldn’t have children together. Even when he was in his human form, his genetics were still that of a dragon and the two just didn’t mix.
Carl worried that Jen was lonely. She didn’t go into town much these days. She hated the other women gossiping and badgering her with remedies their grandmothers had sworn by when children weren’t forthcoming in a marriage.
Instead, she spent hours training her horses. She seemed happy and she shushed him on the occasions when he brought it up. She said she knew what he was when she married him, and she had no regrets.
Now, they sat together and watched the girl sleep as they murmured to each other, wondering about her. They decided that Carl had to go back to the forest clearing tomorrow. There might be someone looking for her or something to tell them who she was and why she was there alone.
After breakfast, the three headed out to the field. It was another beautiful spring day, with a perfect blue sky spotted with puffy white clouds, and a blazing yellow sun.
Carl relaxed all his muscles and shifted back into his dragon form. It felt so good to let go of the tension and let his body be what it really was. Even though he was used to it, it was exhausting holding another form for too long.
The girl clapped and laughed when he changed. “Big doggy,” she said, reaching out to him and Jen smiled and laughed with her.
Carl puffed smoke at them both and the girl giggled, waving her hands, trying to catch the grey wisps as they dispersed into the air around her. Then he unfurled his wings and took off. He circled above them a couple of times, watching them wave, before heading back to the forest.
As he flew, thoughts and images tumbled and jumbled through his mind. He thought of Jen and the girl together. They could easily be mother and daughter. He pictured the girl, a bit older, running through the sheep as Jen tried to herd them into the barn. Jen wouldn’t get mad; she’d laugh and encourage her. The girl, older still, working next to Jen in the kitchen, pummelling the bread dough on the old wooden table, flour on both their faces as they talked and laughed together. Both of them greeting him with hugs when he came in from the fields after a long day.
In Carl’s mind, as the girl aged, she looked more and more like Jen, with her long blonde hair streaming down her back, framing her delicate face. They could tell people she was theirs. No one would ever know they weren’t related.
I’ve never seen Jen this happy. But finding a child’s not like finding a dog. Someone’s got to be looking for her.
He swooped low over the clearing, scaring a family of tiny brown rabbits who bolted out from the long grass and disappeared down a hole near the base of a standing stone. A rustle of leaves marked the departure of a flock of black crows who cawed mournfully as they left.
Carl landed. Nothing moved. It was deathly quiet, as if the forest was holding its breath—the presence of a dragon tended to have that effect. He went over to the standing stone the girl had been near yesterday and looked around. A cloud passed in front of the sun and after it had gone, he saw something glint in the grass near the top of the rise where the shawl had been.
He couldn’t fit between the stones in dragon form, so he took a deep breath, tensed, and shifted back into human form. He walked up the rise and saw a silver pendant lying in the grass. It had similar etchings to the metal box the girl had been carrying. He looked around again then knelt and picked the pendant up.
At least that’s what he tried to do. As soon as he touched the pendant, there was a blinding flash, and everything went black.
When he came to, he was a dragon again. Loss of consciousness meant loss of control and his body always reverted to its true form when that happened.
He lifted his aching head and blinked, taking in his surroundings. The ground wasn’t dirt and grass anymore; it was silvery, cold, and felt unnatural. The standing stones were still there but they were different too. Now they were polished silver like the floor, smooth and shiny, metal not rock.
He lumbered to his feet and his talons clacked as one hind foot slipped on the slick surface. As he regained his balance, his tail knocked one of the stones out of alignment, raising a shower of sparks as it leant drunkenly towards its neighbour.
He was no longer in a forest; he was in a room. The wall behind the stones followed the curvature of the stone circle, but he couldn’t see a doorway. Daylight streamed in from a glass roof well over his head
He spun as he heard a whoosh and part of the wall vanished. A woman staggered through the opening, blood pouring profusely from a gash on her forehead. One of her eyes was black and puffy and half-closed, and her odd-looking shirt was dirty and had one sleeve hanging off.
She lunged to one side and slapped her hand on another section of the wall, which brought back the part that had vanished. She slumped and turned her back to the wall. When she saw Carl, her good eye widened, and she tried to step backwards. She slid to the floor and ended up sitting with her back against the wall, staring at him.
In the short time that the door had been open, Carl had heard screams and shouting, sounds of a battle. But the moment the door closed, everything was silent again.
Carl moved towards the woman. He was too big to get between the stones, so he pushed his head and neck through and stared at her.
“Y…Y… A dragon?” she whispered, shrinking back as far as she could.
“I won’t hurt you,” Carl said.
“We theorised about dragons, but I never believed,” she said to herself. “How? How can dragons exist? The science doesn’t work.”
“I won’t hurt you,” repeated Carl as the woman continued to babble about the impossibility of dragons. “How did I get here? Was it the pendant? Is it magic?”
At the mention of the pendant, the woman stopped blathering and stared at him. “The pendant? Did she make it? Is she alive?”
“The girl?” Carl asked.
The woman sobbed and reached out but stopped before she touched him. “Yes. Merinda. Merinda. Did she make it? Please, tell me she’s alright.”
“She’s fine,” said Carl. “Why was she there on her own? In the middle of that forest? Are you her mother?”
The woman shook her head and blood mixed with tears as they ran down her face. “No. She’s my niece. Her mother, my sister, died in the first wave. It was the only way I could think to save her. By sending her through the portal.”
Carl looked around the room again, at the strange stones, at the pendant lying in the middle of the circle. His head was aching, he was confused, and he just wanted to go home.
He looked back at the woman. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why am I here and why is she there? How do I get back?”
The woman leaned forward and spoke rapidly. “You have to close the portal. Lock it. Once and for all. If They get through, your world will be destroyed, just like this one. Just like thousands of other worlds they’ve got to. It’s not too late for your world. We thought we were so clever when we worked out how to open portals between worlds. We didn’t know. We didn’t know we were opening Pandora’s box.”
“I don’t understand you,” Carl said, a small yellow flame erupting from his mouth in his agitation. “What do I need to do?”
Suddenly part of the wall disappeared again and a black cloud oozed through the gap. The battle sounds returned bringing with them the smell of smoke and burning flesh.
The cloud buzzed like a swarm of insects before coalescing into the shape of a man. A huge warrior, carrying a sword almost as big as himself. Shaggy black hair hung limply around stumpy horns growing from the sides of his head. His face and muscular torso were covered in black and blue tattoos and rivers of blood.
Short boar tusks stuck out from the man’s face and his mouth stretched into a maniacal grin as he spotted the woman. He sprang towards her, screaming wildly, and began to stab her repeatedly.
Carl roared and a gush of white-hot flame washed over the warrior, incinerating him, leaving a pile of ash on the floor. Moments later, the ash started to lift and swirl like a whirlwind before it swept out of the room.
Carl shifted into human form and slapped his hand on the wall where the woman had done so earlier. The wall returned, blocking out the sounds and stench of the massacre.
He knelt by the woman. She took shallow breaths as she lay in an expanding pool of blood.
“What was that?” he asked.
Her eyes were closed, and he thought for a moment she was dead, but then she opened them.
“The key,” the woman gurgled through the blood bubbling out of her mouth. She gripped Carl’s forearm. “Merinda…she had the key. Fuse the key into the lock. Don’t let Them in. Don’t let Them…”
Her face relaxed into death and her hand slipped to the floor.
“There was no key,” Carl said to the lifeless body.
He moved back into the circle of stones and picked up the pendant. Nothing happened.
He relaxed back into dragon form, spread his wings, and flew up to the roof. He hovered for a second, then smashed the glass with his tail. The jagged edges of the glass screeched across his scales as he flew through it.
The city he found himself flying over was like none he’d ever seen. The sky seemed to be on fire as a red haze hung in a pall of smoke. Flames reached up from buildings tall enough to almost touch the sky.
Although the building he’d emerged from was high, it was only a single storey. The surrounding buildings were many storeys, made of glass and smooth stone. Many were broken, shattered, their insides lit with orange flames, black smoke roiling outwards and upwards. People were throwing themselves out of the damaged buildings even though there was no way they could survive a fall from that height. Shiny box-like things lay crushed under the debris that littered the black tracks that meandered between the buildings.
He swooped lower and saw more of the black clouds that turned into horned warriors who hacked and slashed their way through the crowds of people as they stampeded, crushing others as they tried desperately to escape. A fireball smacked into the middle of a nearby building and glass and stone rained down across Carl’s back.
He plunged downwards, trying to help a group of people under attack. He burned the demon warriors but the ash just swirled and reformed and the demon warriors laughed and slashed at him with their swords. The people also ran from him screaming.
He flew high above the city, dismayed that he could do nothing but watch. There was just too much death and destruction for one dragon to make any difference.
I have to get back and lock that portal.
He headed back to the building and flew back through the broken roof. He landed in the circle of stones and looked over at the woman…Merinda’s aunt. In the short time he’d been gone, her body had melted and become a pool of viscous black liquid.
As he watched, the liquid started to bubble as if it was boiling, and he jumped as it erupted into a mass of buzzing black ash. He saw the vague shape of the woman he’d spoken to, but the ash coalesced into a larger version of her. She had horns growing from the sides of her head and tusks beside her mouth.
She shrieked and raked at her arms with long dirty yellow fingernails, opening long gashes that bled black blood. She ran at him.
Carl roared a blue flame, and she dissolved moments before she reached him. A sweep of his wings blew the ash back out of the circle.
He grabbed the pendant and was about to take off when he noticed the stone that he’d knocked over earlier. He reached out with his tail and pushed the stone back into place. Sparks spat with a fizz and crackle as the stone rocked once, twice, then settled.
There was a blinding flash, and everything went black.
When Carl regained consciousness, he was back in the clearing in the stone circle. It was late and the shadows of the trees loomed large in the twilight gloom.
He leapt up, took a couple of wobbly steps, and fell over as dizziness spun his head and nausea spun his stomach. He hunted around in the grass, careful not to touch the pendant where it lay on the grass. There was nothing that looked remotely like a key.
Maybe it was in her clothes? Maybe it’s in the box?
He stretched his wings and took off.
A sliver of moon was visible on the horizon when he landed in the field behind the farmhouse. He changed into human form as he ran for the house. The dogs barked and snapped at his ankles as he ran past them.
He wrenched the front door open, and it bounced off the wall as he shouted, “The key. I need the key! Did you find a key?”
Jen and the girl were sitting at the table eating dinner and they both stared at him. He stood still, running his fingers through his hair. Where to look? Where would it be?
Jen stood up and came over and hugged him tightly. She stepped back to look at him and asked, “What did you find?”
“She had a key, some sort of key. I need the key.” He was babbling but he couldn’t help it. The urgency slowed his mouth but sped up his brain and he couldn’t get the words out fast enough.
The girl dropped down from her chair and toddled over to the chair near the fire. She pulled herself into it and rummaged around at the back of it.
She held up the metal box. “Ka.”
Carl grabbed the box and tried to open it as the girl’s bottom lip trembled.
“Ka ma,” she whispered as a tear squeezed out and trickled down her cheek.
“Carl, slow down and tell me what’s going on,” Jen said, standing in front of him and putting her hands on his chest. He tried to step around her, still trying to open the box, but she moved with him, not letting him pass.
Carl tried to explain. Tears ran down his cheeks and Jen reached up, wiping them away.
“The pendant took me somewhere. I don’t know where. I think it was another world. It was awful, the pain, the destruction. But the circle, no, portal, that’s what she called it, the portal has to be locked. If They get through, the same thing will happen here. We’ll become just like Them. You’ll die, she’ll die, you’ll become one of Them. I can’t…”
“Alright, so we need to lock something,” said Jen. “We’ll come with you. We’ll do it together.”
“No,” he said. He put his hand on Jen’s cheek. “It’s too dangerous. You don’t understand. If They come through, I can’t stop Them. I tried but they just resurrect. There’s no stopping Them. I can’t put you in that sort of danger.”
“Do you know what to do?” asked Jen, standing her ground. “Do you know how to get the key out of the box and what to do with it?”
“Well, no,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
“We can help. What if she knows what to do?” Jen pointed at the girl.
He hated arguing with Jen. She was always so rational, whereas he was always emotional. She thought before she acted and often stopped him from doing something he’d later regret.
“She’s a child. She can barely talk or walk. How’s she going to know what to do?” he tried, but Jen plucked the box from his hand.
She went over to the girl and picked her up, giving her the box. The girl smiled through her tears and rested her face on Jen’s chest.
“It’s dark out, so we’re going to need some light,” Jen said. “Grab a couple of those torches by the front door.”
She grabbed a thin blanket and tied the girl to her front, then grabbed her cloak and walked out, expecting Carl to follow.
He hurried after her and, as they walked, Jen wrapped her cloak around herself and the girl. Carl was still trying to talk her out of it, but Jen kept walking.
It was cool and the grass was damp with dew when he shifted back into his dragon form. He lay his head close to the ground, snaking his neck along the ground. Jen climbed on and settled between two spikes on his back, between his wings. The girl peeked out from the neck of Jen’s cloak.
They’d done this before. The first time Jen had ridden on his back was when he’d told her what he was and showed her his true form. He’d expected her to be shocked and scared but instead, her eyes lit up with excitement. She’d asked if he could take her up into the sky so she could see what he saw.
That first ride was exhilarating for both of them. Revealing his secret had felt like he’d finally put down a boulder he’d been carrying for so long. After she’d dismounted and he changed back to human, Jen had hugged him and thanked him. At that moment, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, with her flushed wind-swept cheeks and the pleasure in her stunning blue eyes. That was when he’d asked her to marry him, and she’d said yes.
Tonight, he pushed himself hard, hoping that Jen had a good grip as they tore through the cold, dark air, back to the forest. A wolf howled from the depths of the forest and another answered as Carl skimmed the tops of the trees.
He landed as gently as he could on the top of the rise in the middle of the stone circle, trying not to break the torches he clutched in his front paw. Jen climbed down and the girl struggled against the binding, so Jen released her and put her down.
Jen picked up the torches and held them up while Carl breathed a small flame onto each one. She then held them as Carl shifted back to human form and took one of the torches.
“OK, where is it?” Jen asked, looking curiously at the stones standing solemnly like guardians. “What does the lock look like?”
“I don’t know but do not touch the pendant,” Carl warned as he held his torch low, pointing it out to her.
The girl took two steps and tripped, giggling as she rolled down the rise toward the stone she’d been standing at when he’d first seen her. They both hurried after her as she crawled out of the circle, around the base of the stone.
The wind started to pick up and a shimmering light appeared in the centre of the circle, where they’d just been. As the light grew brighter, the wind spun faster and faster, lashing the limbs of the closest trees, ripping off leaves and twigs, and extinguishing the torches. It didn’t matter now because the whole clearing was lit up like it was midday.
Carl felt sick when he saw a buzzing black mass in the middle of the light. “We need to find it now,” he yelled.
The girl was playing with something at the base of the stone. Carl leaned down and saw her trying to fit the box into an indent at the base of the stone, but her coordination was off, and she couldn’t get it at the right angle. It dawned on him that the box was the key and he grabbed it and shoved it in as hard as he could.
“Grab her and get back,” he shouted to Jen as he relaxed back into dragon form. Once they were clear, he roared white flame, hot enough to melt the box and fuse it to the stone.
As soon as it was done, the light and the black cloud vanished from the circle, the wind dropped, and it went silent.
Carl went around the circle, knocking down the stones, leaving them lying askew on the ground. He broke several of them in half, just in case.
After he finished, he, Jen, and the girl sat on the top of the rise, listening as the forest sounds started to return. An owl hooted overhead. A wild boar grunted and rooted through the leaves.
Jen leaned against him, and the girl became fascinated with his talons.
“My hero,” Jen said. “Now, I want to hear the whole story. And don’t you leave out a single detail.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” he murmured, puffing white smoke at the girl. “Oh, and her name is Merinda.”
“Merinda,” said Jen as the girl turned to look at her. “I like that.”