Slowly, unwillingly, I made my way back to the fire, slumped down, and leaned against the wall. The snow was really coming down now. I poured more coffee and sighed. The hell with it. I’ve endured a lot throughout my life. I could stand a little more. Jack wanted to come here. I had to bring him. There really wasn’t any choice.
The fire was fully involved now, burning cheerily in defiance of the feelings in this place. I stared into the flames. The dragons were free of the box lid now, the thinner wood burning away before the heavy carving. I watched them, my eyes half-lidded. Soon, they began to move within the flames.
The dragons roared in rage and disbelief. What was this thing? What was it doing? Why was it here?
I cried out at what I’d seen. There was an echoing, strangled exclamation beside me.
I turned my head; saw Jack for the first time.
The man totally ignored us, moved toward the next person, an injured man, scrambling, crawling to get away.
Jack looked at me. Our eyes met. Fear, understanding, the beginnings of comprehension, an unspoken agreement.
The instinct is to run. It is not a minor thing. A man will not.
We weren’t men, at least according to society, but we were on the verge. Teenagers shouldn’t have to try to understand things like this.
We didn’t understand, but we had to act. Nodding in unison, we rushed the scene. The fight was on!
A man with a knife is not so big a threat...not really a problem to deal with, as long as you’re not afraid of the knife. To focus on it gives it power. Always watch the man, not the weapon. The weapon’s not doing the killing. That was our first lesson. We learned it quickly.
Two dragons move as one. Sinuous, fast, and powerful, they charge the dark light. The old power calmly watches them come and repels them easily, casually. They aren’t the only things that are fast. They aren’t the most powerful. Stunned, they gather themselves and charge again.
The man was unnaturally strong. He’d thrown us clear and recovered before we realized what had happened. His back was to me as he charged Jack with the knife. As I got to my feet, almost magically my hands held a head-sized rock. I had no idea where it came from.
He had to be stopped. There was no question. But even then I hadn’t really acknowledged the peril of the situation. Even then I didn’t comprehend.
We’ve been indoctrinated all our lives to be civil, not to lash out, to suppress the rage, the fight, the strength. Taught to hold back the dark side of the man. Schooled to be sensitive, understanding, calm. Taught that violence is never necessary--it’s always wrong. I stepped in; he was exposed. I could have brought the rock down on his head. Despite what I’d seen, I hesitated, made a choice. I brought it down on his arm instead.
With an audible crack his arm broke. The knife went flying. The rock tumbled out of my grip. Scarcely hesitating the man turned and swept me off my feet, landing a kick to my stomach. The breath swooshed out of me and colors swam before my vision.
Trying to get to my feet, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. The man was already reaching for me. I rolled away, tried again, but he was fast, pressing his advantage.
Behind him, Jack had a bat sized stick, raised it to swing. Somehow the man knew he was there, turned. I didn’t expect it to matter. He wasn’t going to make it, I was sure Jack had he upper hand. Even then the stick was on its way toward the man’s head. We had him!
The man completed his turn and faced Jack.
Jack froze in mid-swing, a strange look on his face. I screamed, “Don’t stop! Get him!” but it was too late. The man made a move I didn’t quite follow and just like that, Jack was gone, swept over the edge of the rocks.
I had regained my feet and somehow found another rock in my hands. This time I would do what was needed. This time I wouldn’t hesitate. This time I...
He spun to face me, our eyes met...
The dragon finally has the advantage and presses in. He knows without a doubt that he can finish it. Muscles flex, sinews tense. A graceful move, a step, readying the final blow. The thing of darkness and light spins to face him. Their eyes meet. The dragon sees the seething chaos in the entity, and for the first time, beholds its soul...
Without so much as a sound, a rock falls slowly to the ground.
I was sliding down the steep slope with nary a clue as to how I got here. In reflex I spread arms and legs wide to stop the tumbling and slow down. Ignoring abrasions and pain, I grabbed for rocks and sticks and clawed at the dirt trying to stop the slide. I was too stunned to cry out.
Suddenly my outstretched hand met flesh. He caught my arm, first try, a solid wrist-to-wrist grip. I was jerked up short, white-hot pain seizing my shoulder. The pull flipped me over. We both slid a few feet more but Jack had braced himself well. I rolled to my knees but still he held on. I looked up, our eyes met. I could read it there. Behind you...
Turning my head I gasped. Mere inches past my feet the steep slope ended abruptly. There was at least a 40-foot sheer drop to the rugged landscape below. I braced myself firmly and nodded. He carefully released his grip when he was sure I was steady. Our eyes met again. The job wasn’t done and we both knew it. I had failed, even as Jack had before me. No words were needed.
Adrenalin is a powerful thing. It only took us a moment to scramble up the steep slope, but that was about a half-a-moment too long. Even as we crested the slope another one died. We both heard the strangled cry of pain and terror. With a sinking heart we knew we’d failed him too.
Two dragons, moving as one. Steely resolve. They’d failed before. There would not be a next time...there were more winds about. More lives. The stakes were high. The cost of failure was much too great.
The fight was on again. Motions too fast to follow. The knife was back, then gone again. I took another solid hit but kept on my feet. Jack went flying but landed on his. I ducked to the back, Jack crossed to the front. We somehow knew what the other was going to do, where the other was going to move. It gave us an edge.
It almost wasn’t enough.
Power converged, strength combined. The dragons surround and engulf the entity. Bodies writhe. Fight. Light streams into the darkness. The darkness soaks it up, unfazed.
Even with the broken arm, the man was still horribly strong. Jack and I were tiring fast but the man kept fighting. We didn’t realize it, but he was guiding the fight. Very slowly, we drew closer and closer to the slope. Had we been older...more experienced, we might have caught on.
I was surprised when I stepped off the edge. Jack was too. Too late, we saw the ploy.
Dismayed, the dragons merge once more. A last attempt, a desperate try, a futile motion. We must not fail again! The light strengthens, flashes. Success!
Falling, I made a last frantic grab. My hand connected, gripped. I barely had him by the cuff of his jeans. Jack had him by the back pocket.
Apart we couldn’t have done it. Neither grip was enough alone but together they spun him around and off his feet. All three of us tumbled over the edge and slid down the steep slope. Grappling, entangled, there was no reaching out to slow the fall, no stopping the slide. Rapidly we approached the cliff.
Falling, tumbling, tossed by the currents and the winds, the dragons plummet. They push apart, release the enemy. One grabs the other, the other grabs the one. One goes over the cliff, the other screams in defiance and tightens his grip. Muscles bulge, joints pop, sinew tears. Flesh ripped on the rocks. Pain flashes through their souls.
But they don’t fall.
One saved the other. Neither was ever sure which.
The enemy flies into the abyss, smashes on the rocks below. The dark light explodes and fades away, its passing leaving an ugly color to the winds. Just like that, it is done. The fight is over. The threat is ended.
The dragons have no strength to celebrate though. It’s all they can do simply to breathe.
My eyes wide open now, I stared into the remains of the fire. A small pile of ash and embers smoldered, occasionally emitting a spark, while a thin streak of smoke rises a few feet before vanishing in the winds.
I grimly recalled the statistics. Eight people died on the mountain that day. Seven of the names were on the monument at the trailhead. The eighth had been rightfully obliterated. There were five survivors, not including Jack and me. There were six other witnesses of various parts of the event, including the woman and her kids that had gone for help. The police asked questions, never quite understanding what happened. We didn’t lie, we just weren’t exactly sure to begin with, and they never asked quite the right questions.
They tabulated all the statements and information, and when the story came out in the paper, it was of a tragic accident. The official story was that the driver hit the gas instead of the brake, bearing the two in the car and four other victims off the upper sidewalk to the crash site some sixty feet below. Two hikers on the trail at the crash site were also killed.
They weren’t stupid. They just wanted to believe. We weren’t stupid either. We let them. It was, after all, the sane explanation.
Sane can be good.
I stood slowly and brushed the snow off myself. I had some thinking to do. Reliving this event now, when I had so much more life experience, had given me a slightly different outlook on it. I’d always felt that we had failed, and people had died. Maybe that wasn’t true. We had done what we could, and people had lived.
For years I’d tried to make sense of things. Even now I still wonder...why? But standing by the fire I finally realized something. The truth of it is, there is no answer. There can be no answer. There is no situation, no reason, no excuse that could drive somebody to do...to become what we saw. It cannot be justified or understood. It simply will not fit in the human framework.
I’d never forget, but maybe now it would be okay for me to remember. Maybe now I could heal.
I pulled Jack’s note out of my pocket. His personal requests to me.
Item one was the delivery. It was done.
Item two concerned the will and dispensation of the funds. I had taken care of that as soon as I read his intentions. His note said, “Daniel, I love my wife, and believe she should have it all. It’s your call. Speak a word and it will be arranged as I wish. You might have a choice. I doubt it, but I had to be sure.”
I hadn’t even thought about it. “Arrange it.”
Standing here, I finally understood why Jack had done it that way. The smell of sex in the room. The redhead that had been mine. Jack and Karen together in my bed. He had found his happiness, and somewhere deep down he wondered if he had betrayed me in doing so...questioned if he had taken mine. He wondered if he owed me, and had given me the way to exact payment. I think he knew the answer, but still felt bound to ask the question. If I regret anything of this, it’s that we had been apart so long that he felt the need to wonder. Life. It’s complicated that way.
The third request was cryptic. Only I would have understood it. “It holds more than it contains. Set us free.” He was talking about the box. “As for me, well, I want the same thing you do. I want to soar where I fell. I want to fly where I failed.”
I dropped the note in the fire, watched it catch and burn to ash.
I closed my eyes, deeply inhaled the cold air.
“What spirits haunt you here, Dragon?” It was Jack’s voice.
I opened my eyes, smiled. Now I knew the answer.
I spoke it aloud, “Only those I carry with me.”
Already the oppression of the valley had lifted. The darkness shadowing my every move vanished as if it never was.
In a smooth motion I stepped forward and with the side of my boot, swept the small pile of ash and embers off the stone and over the drop.
They caught in a rushing updraft and the embers burst into life. Small flames mixed with the snowflakes, tossed and swirled into the night sky in a dazzling display of light and motion; an unfettered dance of transition, joy, and ecstasy.
A spirit released. A dragon born.
I watched for a moment, and then, my spirit soaring and tears clouding my eyes, turned my back on the overwhelming display of power and emotion.
I quietly whispered, “Goodbye Jack,” and without looking back I walked briskly up the trail.
It took six hours to get off the mountain alone. Deep snow is easier to ride in than slush and ice, but I still had to keep the speeds way down. By the time I came off the mountain the bike and I were covered in ice. The heat from the engine would melt the snow a bit and it would refreeze anywhere it stuck. My jeans were frozen to my boots, and I’d had to stop several times to kick accumulations off the wheels and suspension.
It was still a bit early for breakfast as I rolled past the diner, but they were getting ready. The lights were on and people were moving around inside. I turned around. Half frozen and covered in ice I banged on the front door.
My waitress from the day before unlocked the door and peeked out, “Wha...?”
I held up the thermos. “You said anytime...” My hands were shaking.
“God honey, you look horrible.”
“Thank you,” I smiled.
“Where’ve you been?”
I smiled even more; a small town waitress ought to know better than asking that question; there’d be no telling what she’d hear . I laughed a bit, “Oh, you know...cops, mountains, blizzards, ghosts, dragons...the usual stuff,” I shook the thermos a bit, “Can I con you out of some coffee?”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. “Not unless I fix you some breakfast,” she paused, halfway to seating me at a table, “You WILL be heading south now?”
It was not quite a question. You gotta love small towns.
I parked the bike in front of the small office building and stumbled inside. The secretary ushered me right in to the inner, private office.
The lawyer was there. He had a talent for always appearing to have been waiting, just for me. That’s a good thing. “Yes?”
He smiled, “Thank you. But I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. By the way, Karen would like to see you.”
I narrowed my eyes, “Briefly I hope?”
He had her there inside of ten minutes. The secretary ushered Karen into the office and then the lawyer left us alone.
Karen stood there like an embarrassed schoolgirl, hands clasped and rocking on her feet a bit.
I prompted her, “Yes?”
“He told me,” she waved her hands toward the outer office, “what you did...that you signed over the estate to me.”
“Jack asked me to.”
“But after what...well...” she wrung her hands and stomped a little in frustration, “Why? You could have kept it. You must have been tempted?”
I said nothing. She still didn’t understand and I expected, never would.
Finally she smiled a bit. She was so much prettier when she smiled. “Well, thank you Daniel.” She smiled even prettier, straightened up a bit.
I could have her now if I wanted to. She could be mine again. Her body language was clear. Despite her new riches, she needed someone in her life. Someone to hold, someone to make her feel needed, someone she held power over. She thought she knew where she stood with me.
I stood and walked to the door.
She stepped forward, extending her arm, “It must have been a tough choice.”
Ignoring the arm I opened the door, I looked over my shoulder at her pretty figure. Tough choice? No. There had never been any choice at all.
I arrived home just barely in time to greet the wife, returning from her own trip. I had managed to shower and change clothes, but hadn’t had any food or sleep yet. I’d been out of the ice and snow for many hundreds of miles now, but ice was still melting and shluffing off the bike in the garage.
She got her first good look at me, “God honey, you look horrible.”
This time I laughed, “Thank you.”
“What happened? Where’ve you been?”
I laughed even more; my wife ought to know better than asking me that. Grinning I said, “Oh, you know...cops, mountains, blizzards, ghosts, dragons...the usual stuff,”
She looked at me sternly, her eyes betraying the laughter behind them, “Really...”
She gets the truth from me, always, but sometimes there is no simple answer.
I started to talk, stopped, thought a moment, sighed. “There was something I had to do...”
She stopped me with a hug and kiss. When she was done she said, laughing, “I know, I know...sometimes you’ve just gotta ride.” She spun me towards the bed. “Get some sleep. I’ll have dinner ready in a while.”
Sometimes you’ve just gotta ride.
Yeah...yeah I do.
I turned to the bed, but never remembered getting in it. As I lay there something occurred to me.
I’ve been asked of my nickname, “Do you dream you’re a dragon?”
I thought about Jack, about the experience of riding, about my life, about the magic in the world, and about that night on the mountain.
The room faded away, mists and stars surrounding me.
Maybe I am a man, only dreaming that I’m a dragon.
But perhaps I am a dragon, only dreaming that I’m a man.
Drifting high on the swirling currents, I felt the chest muscles rippling as sweeping wings carried me aloft. Blood pumping through massive arteries bore oxygen gleaned from the rarified air by powerful lungs. A furnace...an engine of infinite power and complexity, a man, a mount, and strangely something much more than all, the Dragon soared effortlessly through the night.
Minor alterations, muscles tensed, sinews relaxed. A glance, subtle movements...and the flight changed. Almost randomly or at a whim, entire worlds slide by. Realities distort as the beast plummets nearly to its destruction, only to scream in joyous ecstasy and climb back to the heights—simply to do it all over again. It is chaos unleashed to any observing, but actually tightly, precisely controlled—a dance of intricate design, influenced only by the dancers, the flowing passion, and the stars above.
And then there’s the music...
I'll see you on the road.
Index Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6