(This may be the last installment for a while, since I think this is as far as the story has gotten. As before, it’s a story. Taking it literally and leaving comments that I have to delete is just annoying.
You may want to read the First, Second, Third and Fourth segments before you read this one. It won’t make much more sense, but it should help.)
Much to Dagan’s surprise, they had set out on a very physical, normal road since their last stop in the tiny village. It was strange to be walking in light that changed according to predictable cycles and air that flowed over them, bringing smells other than damp loam. It was strange to hear so many animals and see songbirds and even sometimes other people.
Other people always walked to the other side of the track.
Once Dagan had mustered up the courage to ask about that. Loki had only shaken his head, red mane coming loose from its tail, and said “I am not as welcome as the other wanderer.” It had surprised Dagan, who had to admit that he hadn’t paid much attention to the stories around the fire when he was so much younger. He only knew the one who walked with him now, teaching him and guiding him through the strange places they wandered. It rarely occurred to him to think beyond what he had observed thus far but at that statement, Dagan had much to think about.
After a morning’s trudging through mud, over stones, and past at least one dank boggy patch of ground, Dagan was missing the Woods. He was trying to think of a way to ask- politely- why they were taking the harder road. As usual when he worried over one thought for long enough, his guide answered him. It was starting to get creepy.
“We take the harder road because right now it is the better road.” The music and woodsmoke voice said “It is good to travel in the world again, if only for a little way. And besides” He grinned in a way that seemed almost predatory- Dagan was unnerved, “Some things can only be learned in this world.”
Dagan asked no further questions for some time.
Night came swiftly.
Dagan had gotten used to simply stopping when they needed to along the path in the Wood but here it would be different. A stand of scrub was just visible from the path and they made for it.
“Tomorrow we enter a new land. Tonight we must camp here. This is not a welcoming place, so there can be no fire here. Watch the world. I must watch the stars.”
Saying nothing but wondering and troubled, Dagan set his pack under the cover provided by the tangled bushes. He wrapped himself in his cloak and settled in to wait and watch. He heard nothing but the call of night birds and, far away, the high wailing song of wolves. Not a welcoming place indeed. Dagan turned his attention to his teacher, standing a ways off in the faint starlight. He was indeed watching the stars. No, not the stars. Dagan thought. Just one. The other wanderer’s gaze was fixed on the North Star. His expression was unreadable yet as Dagan watched the tension in the traveler’s frame slowly… so slowly… faded away. Dagan averted his gaze, suddenly feeling like he was looking at something he shouldn’t be. He returned to the sheltered site.
“Sleep, Dagan. I’ll wake you when the night is half gone.”
The night had been uneventful. Now they were on the road again after a cold breakfast. Dagan was still working on a half formed idea from yesterday’s conversation- or at least what there had been of it. He wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. They were into hilly terrain now, and there were mountains in the near horizon. Dagan could see a smoky haze rising from one hillside just out of view. A town of some size, he guessed.
His companion kept his eyes on the smoke as they trod steadily onward. Then Dagan figured out what was bothering him.
His companion actually looked startled for half a moment but the look was gone so fast that Dagan wasn’t certain. “Yes?”
“Something you said yesterday is stuck in my head. Stuck like, it’s not quite right.”
“And that would be?” Dagan wasn’t sure, but he might actually sound a bit annoyed. Best tread lightly.
“It goes back to when you said you were ‘the other wanderer’ and that you weren’t as welcome. Thing is” And Dagan pushed the words out quickly, afraid of rousing the other’s annoyance to real anger as he prodded what was undoubtedly a sore subject “I think there’s a bigger difference than just being the other wanderer. You’re not wandering. You’re traveling. You’ve got a destination and a plan… that’s… not wandering.” He finished lamely.
It was true, what he meant, Dagan was sure. As he had gotten better at reading his guide’s words and mood he had begun to realize that they were not simply wandering around aimlessly. He had no idea what the plan was, but he was certain that Loki was following a specific trail, and had a specific goal. He waited nervously for his response.
For a while the other said nothing. He seemed to be mulling the idea over. Then he spoke and Dagan was relieved to hear that the irritation was gone from his voice.
“You may be right, at that. I have not led you aimlessly. Neither is our… traveling… today aimless. Yes perhaps that is the better word. How easy it is to forget the way language shifts…” The last bit made no sense to Dagan and didn’t seem to be directed at him in any case.
After a time Dagan ventured further. “So, where are we going?”
“To slay a dragon.”
Blink. “Come again?”
“You heard me.”
“Yes, that’s the problem.”
Loki laughed aloud, earlier gloom forgotten. “Now that’s more like it! About time you learned to talk back.” Still chuckling he continued “Yes, we are going to slay a dragon. At least, that’s what the story will say.”
“Ah. Now that makes a bit more sense. Sort of. Not really.”
“Never fear my young pupil. All will be made sufficiently muddy in time and clarified in the most ridiculous ways possible by ignorant dreamers many generations from now.”
Dagan had no idea how to respond to that, so he just kept walking. This seemed to be the appropriate answer.
Dagan had to admit himself utterly confused.
First a herder, then a farmer come to sell, then a woman with washing, then finally a young child told them different things. There was a dragon in the hills. There were raiders across the mountains. Wolves had been seen. No, wolves had been captured and eaten too. The earl’s son had vanished, that seemed to be the only thing that was certain.
It took the entire day, chasing rumors and corroborating stories. Dagan kept track of as much as he could in his own mind and was pleased with himself. At the end of the day he was able to sum up what they had discovered. “Most agree that there is something up in the hills, some say further up the mountains. Most blame lost livestock on this something though opinions were divided as to whether the something was human raiders or something more legendary in nature. The earl’s son took a party up to discover the nature of the threat from the hills and none returned. And, perhaps most importantly for my own part, you yourself said that there would be a dragon involved.”
Loki laughed again. “Clever. I like it. Now, that’s it for the human information sources. What do you know from your own senses?”
“There is something up in the hills- not all the way into the mountains- that feels out of place. Like a rock in a stream, interrupting the current. That’s all I can feel. I don’t recognize it at all.”
“Excellent.” He seemed genuinely pleased. “Tell me what you remember about mountains.”
Dagan rallied his thoughts. “They are naturally between-ish places, being as they are earth that sits so high into the air. They are physically quite dangerous in all seasons- not just winter- and should not be traveled alone by anyone who wishes to survive.”
“I think that last bit came from your mother, not me, but it’s still true. Yes, they are between places. Or at least, they can be. Now… do you think there are dragons left in the world?”
Dagan hesitated. He had been thinking about the same question ever since the word had first been spoken. “I think that the world is very large. I think that there are many worlds. I am certain that dragons exist somewhere- maybe even here. And that scares me. Are they like stories?” He couldn’t help it. He had to get that question out.
“Some are. Some are not. There are many stories and there are dragons for every story. But that is neither here nor there. This is a special case. We ascend.”
Dagan knew that tone. It was the one that would not answer any more questions. Whatever had caused the openness and lightness of earlier was fading away. Dagan was sad to see it go.
The climb was not an easy one but Dagan was strong and fit from months and months of steady travel. He was well on his way to being a lean, graceful youth though he cared little enough for that fact. He only cared that he was better able to keep up. The slopes quickly became steep and the path wound through rock instead of mounded earth. They were getting close.
They reached a tall, narrow fissure in the rock, many man-heights above the settlement but far from the mountain’s peak. It was quiet but for the wind. Dagan hung back, suddenly remembering every story about vicious dragons on burning rampages he’d ever heard. There was a faint smoky smell in the air, or was that just his imagination? Loki walked right to the threshold and stopped. He spoke to Dagan.
“What do you feel?”
With that he walked into the cave.
Dagan took a deep breath and followed.
Inside was cool and smelled of moss and wet stone. There was no sign of human life, or any other life that Dagan could see. Knowing what the other had meant, Dagan tried to sense in that way he could while in the Wood. What was out there? After a long moment he realized with a growing horror that they were not the only things in the cave. There was another creature in there. It felt… very small, actually.
Then it moved.
The words came directly into his mind. They weren’t really words, at all, his brain realized a moment later. It was just meaning. It was probably the strangest communication he’d heard. And that’s saying something.
“Hello, dragon.” The other said out loud.
“Aw. You’re no fun.” This time it was a voice, deep yet feminine, tinged with pain. Dagan was trying to match up sound and image and having no luck whatsoever. There was something there, in the back of the cave. It seemed at once to be no more than a shadow on the wall and yet it had immense bulk that seemed to sink into the stone. He kept trying to decipher its features and found that no matter how he focused, it was out of focus.
It’s Between. Yet still here. This is a Between place.
The other thought had to belong to Loki. Dagan didn’t think with that sharp edge. He was getting confused again.
“But my dear creature, most tell me I’m a whole barrel of laughs.” Loki spoke to the dragon, creature, thing, not missing a beat. His head cocked slightly as if in question and a grin quirked one side of his mouth.
“Ah. There you are, Trickster. I had been wondering.” It was the dragon-thing’s turn to laugh and the stones trembled. Dagan heard rock fall outside and wondered briefly how much more difficult their return trip was going to be. If they had one.
“Yes but why am I here?”
“You don’t know? Pity, your mind must be going. Too many slips and trips along the way.”
Loki’s face darkened and for a moment- and a moment was all it took- Dagan got a glimpse of something that shook him to his core. He was shivering, still trying to feel solid ground under him when he realized that he had missed part of the conversation.
“So you say, fluid one, but I do not know why.”
“Because dragon, even though you anger me, your existence is a kind of comfort to me. I wish to help you because I wish to know that you exist.”
“Me specifically or dragons in general.” It was a flat, unhappy statement. Can dragons suffer from low self esteem?
Loki’s voice then was gentle and almost pleading “You, child of Chaos. I will need you.”
“You offered me safety in return for my strength. I wish to accept your offer but I can not. I have taken a great wound and can not leave this place.”
The sound was out of Dagan’s mouth before he could stop it. “Wound?” He clamped his rebellious mouth shut, lest it draw further attention.
The shadow drew itself up, gaining mass and presence for a moment. The walls shook alarmingly. “Yes, child of dusk. A wound. A great one. There was a battle in a far off realm. I was… broken. Pieces of me wander other realms, knowing that they are incomplete and that they came from somewhere else. I am like a thundercloud who has rained itself out. Soon I will fade away like wisps of fog.”
“I.. ” the youth stammered “I had no idea. I am sorry, truly, I am.”
“It is not your doing, child of dawn. Trickster, what is it you need? Know that my strength is limited.”
“A monster lies imprisoned in a distant cave. It is not alone. There is one who watches over and guards the monster.” He stopped.
“But the one who watches has no guard and forces gather who threaten them both. The monster would protect that one with its life if it was free.” The dragon shadow whispered. “Both the monster and the one who endures know much of grief. They do not always remember that others who knew them before also grieve for them. And would aid them.”
“Dragon.” Loki spoke again. His voice seemed thin as he addressed the massive shadow “I intend to help you regain your pieces, if you will allow the interference. I meant what I said. I have need of you.”
The shadow rippled and writhed across the walls of the cave. No sound came but Dagan could feel the surprise and upwelling of emotion from the dragon. If she had been human, Dagan suspected she would have burst into tears. Finally she spoke. “You need? You know that I would have died for you, Chaos-bringer. But you are not asking for your own sake, are you.”
It was not a question.
“Then yes. I will live. For Her.”
“Dagan, please wait outside.”
The youth turned and left. He had long ago surpassed his threshold of oddness and was, despite the hornet’s nest of questions buzzing inside his skull, perfectly willing to back up and catch his breath, as it were.
Night had fallen. From the narrow mouth of the cave he could see the stars. The wheel spun around the unmoving North Star. It was the one constant in the sky, never straying. It was guidance and succor and anchor amidst the dancing stars. It seemed so dim and quiet compared to the others, yet it was the one that Loki sought to watch unceasingly, as though by its very stillness it could bring him to every answer.
And then Dagan understood.
The night was more than half gone when Loki emerged from the narrow fissure, looking more drained and tired than Dagan had ever seen. He did not speak, just helped himself to the meal Dagan had prepared. After he had eaten and begun to look more tired than pained, Dagan asked “So what was stealing the livestock, anyway?”
“Hmph. Probably those wolves.”