For Siri – hannad ten i yesta en i narn, Turwaithiel
Watching the altimeter, he pulled firmly on the joystick; nothing happened.
This was precisely what Koval had meant when he told Jak that creatures without wings did not belong in the sky. He’s never going to let me forget this, Jak thought, gravity straining his body and blue and green spinning around him as the strange flying machine plummeted to the ground, the drop reflected in the spinning dials in front of him.
No matter which buttons and knobs Jak tried, nothing stopped the free-fall. In frustration, he slammed his fist against the ancient console, and it flickered to life, reconnecting with the engine.
With a whoop of exhilaration, Jak yanked the joystick down and sent the machine skyward, narrowly missing the lithe form of the dragon shadowing him. A roar echoed his cry, and gave Jak a divine sense of invincibility. At almost twice the size of the flying machine they’d found, Koval would save Jak if he fell from the sky.
The dragon wouldn’t be pleased to know he was a safety net, but Jak wasn’t going to jeopardize one of the few perks of being the youngest prince: no one cared what you did or where you went, provided you didn’t cause an incident or get yourself killed.
Jak watched the orange-gold shape of Koval spin in graceful arcs in front of him, wings out and then tight against his side, then spread again as he danced through the ether.
“Show off,” Jak muttered, but he smiled.
Jak gave his companion a wave through the port window, then turned his attention to the controls of the machine to continue discovering what each did. It would have been prudent to have spent slightly more time familiarizing himself with what they all did before taking the machine into the sky, but Jak had been so excited when he’d finally gotten the engine to work, and what better way was there to learn than to do?
The various dials and markers were glowing with an odd light that almost looked like mage-fire, but it lacked the distinctive warmth. Jak reached for a set of three colored knobs just as the control panel and engines died. Pounding on the metal box did nothing to revive them this time.
At the edges of panic, what little Jak had learned about the machine fled his mind, and he pressed his palms against the console, casting out to gather the warmth around him and channel it into the metal. It still didn’t like it when he that, and the energy backflashed and burned through his hands up to his elbow, making Jak yelp and flinch back.
The nose of the craft dipped further down, black smoke trailing from twin propellers. One of the propellers gave a weak attempt to come back to life, but gave up after a the third spin. Toggling the ignition key was as useless as everything else, and Jack took precious seconds to clear his mind and focus his thoughts before he flipped it with a single, deliberate motion.
The odd light flickered in the console, and with a feeble cough the engine obeyed, though the stuttering rumble didn’t auger well for how long it would remain operational. I’ll be lucky to set eyes on this machine again, much less fly it, Jak thought, accepting that it wasn’t a good idea to stay in the air any longer, though he wasn’t happy about it. He glanced out the window to see where Koval was, and saw something that set his heart pounding more than the temperamental flying machine had.
He was flying dangerously close to the shimmering border between Maerland and Olderealm, and the nosedive had sent Jak even closer to the sparkling grey mists that would eat his soul, if the legends were true.
Jak pulled the joystick to turn the machine towards the forests of Maerland, but the machine shuddered and the stick would no longer move. A red light started flashing, and though it was nowhere near what Jak had learned to be the fuel gauge, and the engine continued to whir, something about the blinking dot made Jak’s skin crawl. What now? Jak’s heart sank when he felt the craft turn, and fly straight for Olderealm.
It took Koval a split second to see where Jak was heading, and a few more to overtake the machine. The dragon tried to grab it with his powerful limbs and claws, but the craft began to dodge and roll as if it had a mind of its own, and then it started shooting bursts of red energy at the dragon.
Jak held on with one hand, throwing random switches and levers as Koval swerved, plummeted out of sight, and then came after the flying machine again, evading the projectiles, but unable to reach the machine. The mists came closer, and Koval threw caution to the winds, diving closer and impaling the craft with formidable claws. The metal and seams protested, but resisted the dragon’s efforts.
As Jak was about to hit the shimmer, a flash enveloped him, making everything white, and then black. Jak woke up to a pounding head, his body tender like an overripe pulpfruit. At first he could see nothing, but blinking cleared the dark, fuzzy patches from his vision and the roof of the flying machine resolved above him. Through a tear in the metal, trees and pale bits of sky waved.
Jak sat up with a groan. He tasted blood, and felt for his face. A cut on his lip stung, and his jaw ached, but nothing worse than that. Inspecting the rest of his body for broken bones, Jak relaxed when he found none.
He slowly picked himself up, pushing through debris, and crawled out onto the forest floor. He looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. The flying machine had protected him from the greatest impact, though it was in several pieces littered around the forest floor, and Koval had managed to pull him away from Olderealm. The dragon was nowhere in sight.
“Koval?” Jak called out. “Koval?”
The forest was still, as if it were watching and waiting for something to happen. Shivers crawled up Jak’s spine, and he looked left and right and over his shoulder hoping he didn’t see anything other than his friend. When Jak found the dragon, he thought for one agonized instant that Koval was dead, but then the chest rose and fell in a labored breath. Jak ran over, and examined Koval’s still body. He could find nothing wrong, but the dragon could be injured inside.
Jak ran back towards the wreckage, tripping twice and not stopping to stand, scrambling through the autumn-painted leaves like a dog until he found traction and his feet again. He recovered his travel pack, and ran back to Koval. Dropping next to the massive head, Jak rummaged through the pack and withdrew the first-aid kit his mother made him carry. In the last pocket, was a vial of red liquid. The elixir cost a pretty penny, but it could bring anyone back from the brink of death, spellcast or otherwise.
He pulled back Koval’s leathery lips, and poured the contents of the bottle between the dragon’s fangs, then waited impatiently for it to work. Koval’s breathing evened out, but the dragon did not come to, even after many minutes. Jak held open the outer lid of Koval’s eye, and saw the pupil contract through the second lid.
“Koval?” Jak whispered. “Please don’t die on me.”
The dragon took a breath, then opened both eyes and spoke in a faint voice. “Didn’t I tell you something bad would happen if you went up in that thing?”
“I’ll pay more attention next time,” Jak promised, his hands shaking with relief. “Do you remember what happened?”
“You turned for Olderealm, foolish boy. Why would you do that?”
“The machine flew itself. I didn’t touch it, I swear,” Jak told Koval.
“It’s infested with demons, just as I said,” Koval growled, but ire cost him, and he closed his eyes. “I tried to pull you away, but it was too strong. There was a flash of light, and I know not what happened after that.”
“At least we’re still in Maerland,” Jak said, looking up at the silent trees. “I’ll go get help.”
Koval head barely moved when he shook it, but the meaning was clear.
“We crossed the border?” Jak gazed at their surroundings with wide eyes. “How is…? What…? They told us Olderealm was dead.”
“Maybe they lied, maybe they didn’t know, but can’t you feel it?” the dragon asked, the words coming between labored breaths. “The nothingness?”
Jak cast out, and shrank back from the cold void that greeted him. No wonder the forest is so quiet.
“I still have to go for help,” Jak said. “Stay here.”
Koval wheezed a laugh, then fell still. “I’ll try not to run off.”
Jak put the travel-pack on his back, and looked up through the trees, trying to discern which direction to go, but a white film obscured the sky and sun. He picked a heading and set off, marking every second or third tree with his knife.
Jak wondered when night would come and what trials and devilry that would bring. The legends said that OldeRealm would leave an empty, lifeless husk, but they also said that it was a desolate wasteland devoid of all life. The second being demonstrably untrue, Jak was questioning the second, but hadn’t discounted it entirely. For as long as he could remember, he’d been fearless, surrounded by the known dangers of Maerland, and his new trepidation was uncomfortable.
Something rustled in the underbrush, and Jak froze. His imagination bombarded him with every creature from every horror story he’d ever been told, sending his heart racing. He held out the knife, feeling under-armed and at a severe disadvantage.
“Hello?” he called out, trying to make his voice as deep and formidable as possible.
Three small figures crept out of the bushes. They came up to Jak’s hip, their skin was mottled and brown, though not from the sun, and their eyes glowed yellow. Sharply pointed ears similar to Jak’s stuck up past their scalps. The word they brought to mind was gremlin.
They carried smooth-jointed metal implements, pointed at Jak. He had no idea what they were, but the gremlins clearly meant to look threatening. He held out his hands in a peaceful gesture, then realized he was still holding the knife.
“Sorry,” he apologized as he lowered the weapon, and thought fast what to say. “My name is Jak. My friend is injured. Can you help me?”
The creatures made some squeaking sounds, which Jak could only assume was a coherent response in a language he didn’t understand. They kept their implements pointed at him while they discussed something amongst themselves. Then Jak found himself being herded along, and he wriggled from their clutches, shaking his head.
“I can’t. I have to get help for my friend.” He pointed back the way he had come, gesturing at the mark he’d made on the nearest tree.
Some more discussion ensued, and the creatures motioned for him to lead the way. Jak wasn’t sure it was wise to bring them back to Koval, but what choice did he have?
The dragon lay where Jak had left him, eyes closed and breathing slowly but evenly. A high-pitched shriek brought Koval awake, and he reared up on reflex, then collapsed. A beam of red light – not dissimilar to the weapon the flying machine had fired at Koval – went wide over the dragon’s shoulder, into the trees.
Jak dove in front of Koval, arms spread wide, a motion insufficient to protect the dragon from the gremlins, but it would hopefully attract their attention. The creatures warbled and chattered, and amongst the sounds, Jak caught a word he knew.
“Dragon? Yes! Dragon!” Jak nodded. “No! Dragon good! Don’t hurt him!”
The creatures looked at Jak, then at each other, then lowered their weapons. One of them pulled out a different metal thing and fiddled with it directing it’s high-pitched warbling at it. Jak waited for it to respond, but the gremlins just stood there, no longer interested in it. After a short while, chattering announced the arrival of others. Jak wondered if they ate elf or dragon, then wished he hadn’t.
Half a dozen of the gremlins filed into the clearing. The one in front hobbled, hunched over a gnarled cane, squinting at the world with filmed eyes. Jak knew he was someone important, and not just from the entourage. Faint warmth sparked around creature, warmth Jak couldn’t feel anywhere else in Olderealm.
The old gremlin stopped in front of Jak, then said something brief. Again, the only word Jak understood was dragon. He shrugged helplessly, and pointed at Koval. The gremlin nodded, and waved at its companions.
They pulled metal rods from strange cases, and Jak tensed, preparing to fight. A four-fingered hand on his arm kept him from lunging at the gremlins as they gathered around his friend and assembled what looked like a litter under the unconscious dragon. Jak couldn’t see how they would lift the large creature, then familiar lights flared to life like glowing blue eyes at the ends of the rods, and the litter levitated at knee height.
Jak didn’t understand what magic they were using, and his curiosity was frustrated by the inability to communicate. He trekked through the forest at Koval’s side, keeping both eyes on the dragon as the gremlins maneuvered him through trees and over roots, wondering what fate the mysterious denizens of Olderealm had in store for them.
P.S. For the continuation but (knowing DragonBeck) probably not the conclusion, look out for the Ink Slingers Guild annual anthology, coming fall/winter 2018!