by Walter G. Esselman
“Hurry! Hurry!” cried Gideon and he tugged the wizard Al along. The wizard stopped and pulled the fifteen-year-old boy up short. Gideon looked back at Al wildly. “What?”
But Al was not just any wizard, for one thing, Al was a young woman disguised as an old frail man. The disguise helped her circumvent the Men-Are-Better-At-Magic superstition. The strong vibrant woman inside the disguise liked Gideon but there were limits. She pulled out of his grasp and started walking beside the boy who fluttered nervously.
“First, you almost dislocated my arm,” said Al.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Gideon quickly. “It’s just Brianna…”
“I know,” said Al gently. She liked Brianna too and was more than a little worried.
Suddenly, there was a sneeze from the room up ahead that sounded like a gunshot. Out of the door, a young dragon skidded out so fast he hit the opposite wall. The dragon saw Al and looked relieved.
“It’s about time,” growled Pavataro. “She sneezed out hail that time.” Pavataro held up a ball of ice almost as big as a baby’s fist. “Nearly took off my head.”
“Whew,” said Gideon. “At least it wouldn’t have hit a vital organ.”
Carefully, she looked in and saw Brianna looking very sad. She was sitting on her bed in a loose green nightshirt. Her nose was almost as bright as her disheveled red hair.
“I think I’m sick,” she smiled weakly.
“It’s okay dear,” said Al slipping into Mother mode. She came in and first gave Brianna a big hug. “You poor girl.”
“Is she going to be okay?” asked Gideon as he watched on nervously.
Al chuckled. “Give me a moment to examine her first.”
“Are those sneezes normal?” asked Pavataro as he poked his head in the room on his long neck.
“You can come back in now, oh brave kitten,” said Gideon.
“Not till I’m sure it’s safe,” said Pavataro.
“Weenie,” said Gideon.
“Idiot,” replied Pavataro.
“Boys,” warned Al without looking at them.
Suddenly, Brianna’s face twisted. Gideon grabbed Al and shoved her toward the door.
“RUN! She’s gonna blow!” cried Gideon. Pushing Al through the door, Gideon and Pavataro hit the door at the same time making the frame groan in protest. Gideon jumped on the dragon’s back.
“Hey!” cried Pavataro. Gideon slid over the dragon and tumbled into the hallway. Pavataro pushed himself through the door. Gideon leapt up and slammed the door shut just at the last minute.
The door shook violently from the sneeze as something almost punched through. The boy fell back on the floor as the young dragon ducked his head. Gideon and Pavataro looked at the chunk of ice in the door where their head’s had just been.
“Sorry about that,” moaned Brianna.
Gideon was about to reply when he noticed two people standing over him. He looked up at his teacher, Regent, who was scowling down at him. Regent was steadying Al who had almost fallen down.
“Your bravery impresses me,” said Regent sarcastically.
“Did you see her sneezes?” said Gideon defensively.
“She’s sneezing hail,” said Pavataro. “That’s not normal.”
“Sneezing hail usually isn’t,” replied Al as she straightened herself up. Regent let go of her. The wizard went over to the door and poked the chunk of ice in the door. It fell inside the door and shattered. “Unfortunately for our dear Brianna, when a magic user gets sick, it can produce odd side effects. And she’s a watermage so water is going to react differently around her.”
“Is it safe to go in?” asked Regent.
“For the moment,” said Al. The wizard tried the door but it would not give. “Regent, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, sure,” said Regent. He took the door and pushed on it. The door eventually just came off its hinges and pulled free in his hands. Regent walked inside with the door followed by Al.
Gideon got up to follow them when Regent appeared with the door. Regent pointedly leaned the door against the frame and left the boy and the young dragon in the hallway.
“Snail burgers,” said Gideon. He moved up to door and looked into the room. Pavataro’s head snaked under his to look inside.
“How’re you doing?” asked Al as the wizard put a hand against Brianna’s forehead.
“Broke a window,” moaned Brianna. “Didn’t mean to.”
“Of course not dear,” said Al softly. Regent was looking around Brianna’s bare room.
“Did the boys pack up all your stuff?” asked Regent.
“To keep it safe,” nodded Brianna.
“What do you think Al?” asked Regent.
“Usually I just let a sickness run its course,” mused Al.
“I’m not sure the castle can take much more damage,” smiled Regent.
“Ha-ha,” grumbled Brianna.
“Actually I’m more worried about her fever,” said Al. “She’s burning up. Dr. Sundl came in earlier with a device from her land called a ‘the-mom-meter’, I think. It measures your body temperature and if your temperature hits 108 degrees, it’s very bad.”
“Melting my brain bad,” supplied Brianna.
“And what is Brianna’s temperature?” asked Regent.
“105 and climbing,” said Brianna sadly. “But it feels like a million degrees more.”
“We have to break her fever and fast,” said Al.
“Do you or Dr. Sundl have a medicine for that?” asked Regent.
“Dr. Sundl did not and I am out of Keppamean,”said Al.
“Keppawhat?” asked Regent.
“Keppamean will break the fever quickly,” said Al.
“But…,” prompted Regent.
“There isn’t any safe supply nearby.” said Al. “It would take days to get it and she needs it within hours.”
“And the unsafe one?” asked Regent.
“That bad eh?” asked Regent.
“Shadewood forest,” said Al. “You can only find them at night when their flowers bloom and glow. A pretty sight actually.”
“If you’re not in Shadewood where even the trees are carnivorous,” said Regent.
“Oh no!” said Brianna. “No one is going there. I’ll be all right.”
“We might want to use the ice from her sneezes to cool her down in the meantime,” suggested Regent. “Disgusting I know.”
Brianna got a wide-eyed look.
Regent just got Al safely into the hallway as Brianna sneezed. A chunk of ice flew out of the door narrowly missing Regent’s ear and shattered on the opposite wall.
“Whew, that was close,” said Al.
“Sorry,” moaned Brianna from inside.
“It’s okay,” called Al into her room. The wizard turned to Regent and then stopped. “Where’re the boys?”
Pavataro floated gently over the North gate of the city of Bon Su Pear. Beyond the unused gate lay Shadewood like an algaegator lurking in the water waiting for dinner to come too close. Gideon jumped on the wall that stood over the North gate. The boy had been accidently weaned on dragon’s milk by his adoptive mother, Miravalla. The dragon’s milk had made some changes to the boy allowing him to alter his personal gravity.
Gideon jumped off the North Gate, twenty feet off the ground. But he changed his gravity and so drifted down to land next to Pavataro near the edge of the woods.
“You sure took your time,” huffed Pavataro.
“I was about to say the same thing,” said a voice from the woods. They jumped. Gideon held up his staff, Pigsticker, in front of him.
“Who’s there?” asked Gideon.
Regent slowly walked out of the shadows.
“Oh,” said Gideon guiltily. The boys had not asked anyone about coming here. In fact, it was strictly prohibited for people to go into Shadewood, mostly for their own protection. “Um, we were just out on…um, patrol.”
Pavataro turned and glared at Gideon.
“Patrol? That’s the best you can come up with Lunchmeat?” hissed Pavataro using Gideon’s old school yard nickname.
“Come on,” said Regent as he turned into the woods. “We better make this quick.”
“Wait,” said Gideon. “You’re not going to take us back?”
“I should ground you two for life,” said Regent. “But we have someone to take care of, so come on, we’re burning midnight.”
They walked toward the woods. Regent drew his sword. It was not a fancy sword like the lords wore but rather a serviceable tool that had spilt its fair share of blood. He stopped and Gideon and Pavataro almost ran into him.
“What?” hissed Gideon.
“Just thought I heard something,” said Regent. He started moving again toward the edge of the wood. “I remember when I was in Bon Su Pear a long time ago some kids went in here on a dare.”
“What happened?” asked Pavataro.
“Their parents panicked and demanded that a patrol be sent in to find them, which they did send out,” said Regent. “Twenty strong men went into the woods after those four kids.”
“And what happened?” asked Gideon in almost a whisper.
“We don’t know,” said Regent.
“Why?” asked Pavataro.
“None of them was heard from again,” said Regent. “Until…”
“Until what?” asked Gideon as they stopped at the edge of the wood.
Regent just looked into the woods as he spoke. “One day, one of the kids walked out of the jungle. He looked like he’d been rolling through rose bushes.”
“What did he say?” asked Gideon. “Where were his friends? The soldiers?”
Regent laughed mirthlessly. “He didn’t say. He would only talk about the forest with the glowing green eyes…and then he died.”
“This is all a set-up,” said Pavataro. “You’re just trying to scare us.”
Regent turned and looked at them.
“I was at the North Gate when they found him. I saw him,” said Regent. “There is a reason we don’t go into Shadewood.”
Regent stepped into shadewood and there was a sudden hush in the air.
“Like someone walking over my grave,” said Regent and he moved into the wood. “Let’s go quickly boys.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” said Pavataro.
The forest was oddly quiet, except for an occasional noise like the cry of a dying animal. The shadows on the trees seemed to move with them and there was an odd smell in the air, like copper.
In the distance, they saw a gentle blue glow. Moving through the sparse undergrowth, they stopped as they came upon a large tree whose thin branches drooped like hair almost touching the ground. Spread over the tree was large blue flowers that glowed blue. Gideon took a step forward when Regent grabbed him, pulling him behind a tree.
“What?” asked Gideon.
The drooping tree rustled and something big moved behind the veil of branches. After a moment, the branches parted and a monster boar came out sniffing the air. The giant boar was even larger than Pavataro with huge tusks flaked with dried blood.
“That’s a problem,” said Regent.
“What is it?” asked Pavataro. “Other than really big.”
“It’s a Verethraghna,” said Regent. “Really mean, really grouchy. Al told me this sometimes happens. Keppamean is like catnip to them so when they find a tree they set up house.”
“Are we in trouble?” asked Gideon.
The Verethraghna suddenly howled and charged toward the tree that they were peering from behind.
“Oh yea,” said Regent. “Scatter!”
The boar hit the tree, which instantly shattered pelting them with pieces of wood. The boar made a b-line for Gideon. Pavataro took to the air easily avoiding the boar, but the moment he passed the treeline, the young dragon heard the rush of leather wings. Something shot at him. It had big teeth. Pavataro pulled in his wings and dropped toward the trees. The monster snatched at him but narrowly missed.
Pavataro crashed down through the trees and hit hard. Regent ran up to the young dragon.
“You okay?” asked Regent.
“Something up there,” said Pavataro.
“By the way, don’t go above the tree line,” said Regent as he took off.
“Now he tells me,” said Pavataro. Regent turned quickly.
“And get the flowers while it’s trying to eat Gideon,” ordered Regent.
Regent followed the sound of trees being pulverized. Gideon was barely a step ahead of the boar. The boy dropped his gravity and shot up into the trees. The boar hit the trunk making the tree vibrate madly. Gideon grabbed a branch and barely held on. Making a cracking noise that resonated right through Gideon’s sternum, the branch he was holding on to began to break. The boar looked up gleefully.
“What ho!” cried Regent as he swiped his sword across the boar’s butt. The Verethraghna shot around suddenly turned toward Regent. It snorted and Regent felt its hot breath on his face. “Oh oh.”
Regent dived aside as the boar lunged at him. The Verethraghna was fast and skidded around. It was almost on Regent when Gideon jumped on to its back. The boy grabbed a handful of coarse bristles on its back and held on for dear life. The boar jumped up and down trying to shake off the boy.
“I got it!” cried Pavataro as he run into sight waving a handful of the bright blue flowers. “I got it!”
The Verethraghna stopped and focused all its attention on Pavataro. For a moment, the forest seemed to stop breathing.
“Run,” said Regent.
“Um,” started Pavataro.
“Run damn you!” shouted Regent.
Pavataro turned and scrambled back toward the city as the boar howled in indignation. It took off quickly toward the young dragon. Gideon, holding on with one hand, began to beat the boar over the head with his staff. This sufficiently distracted the boar giving Pavataro precious seconds.
Bursting out of the woods, the young dragon headed for the North gate. Pavataro looked behind him toward the sky. He didn’t see any monsters up there, but that did not mean they were not there. Cursing, he knew he did not have a choice. Spreading his wings, the young dragon took to the air. Soaring easily over the North Gate, Pavataro landed safely on the other side of the gate with a triumphant yelp.
“We did it!” he cried and then he looked around. A dawning horror came over him. Gideon and Regent were still back there. He took back to the air and flew onto the battlements. He looked over just as Gideon steered the Verethraghna right into the city wall. There was a tremendous crash that Pavataro felt through the wall. Gideon was thrown forward and bounced off the wall. He rolled off to one side. The boar, momentarily stunned, shook its head and tried to stand as well.
“Snail burgers,” said Pavataro as he dropped the glowing flowers on to the battlements. He checked the sky for more for the flying monsters. Finding it clear, Pavataro dropped down to Gideon who was trying to use his staff to stand up. Grabbing Gideon by the scruff of the neck like a kitten, Pavataro carried him back up to the battlements. He dropped the boy unceremoniously on the wall and sat nearby wishing he had something to get the taste of dirty boy clothes out of his mouth.
“Blah,” said Pavataro.
“Ow,” said Gideon. “Boar didn’t want to stop.”
“Maybe you hit it too hard,” suggested Pavataro.
“You think?” asked Regent sarcastically. He stood on the battlements with them.
“I was just…,” started Pavataro when he stopped. “Wait, how did you get up here?”
“No time for chit-chat,” said Regent. He picked up the flowers and walked away. “We have to get this to Brianna.”
“But…,” started Pavataro.
Gideon pulled himself together and stood up.
“You heard the man,” said the boy as he walked by the dragon, a trifle unsteady.
Brianna slowly opened her eyes. She felt better. Not dancing better, but she-was-going-to-live better. She first noticed Pavataro sleeping in the middle of the floor. The young dragon was lying on his back as usual with all his legs in the air and his tongue lolled out snoring gently. Brianna slid one of her delicate hands out from under the covers and held it into the air between her and Pavataro. She could feel the dragon’s heat rolling off him and it felt lovely in the cold castle. Fire breathing dragons make the best space heaters, she thought.
Then she noticed the mess of tousled brown hair sitting against her bed like an old watchdog. Gideon was sitting hunched on the floor, sleeping against her bed. Brianna dimly remembered him bringing her a cup of hot tea last night. It couldn’t have been the medicine because it tasted so good like cinnamon and berries but she felt so much better. She leaned forward and kissed the back of his head. He made a ‘snerk’ noise but kept sleeping. Brianna smiled and went back to bed herself.
Walter G. Esselman spends too much time playing Fallout 4, and would not say ‘No’ to a banana daiquiri.