For Annie Bourland, playing warrior started before she got her sword. She had always been the kid no one messed with, not even the bullies. If she saw an injustice on the playground she would strike out, without warning, to save the helpless and downtrodden. One day she struck out too hard and got suspended. Her mom bypassed medication for her “overactive nature” in favor of sports. Karate, to be exact since Annie said it “called to her.”
So, in spite of her father’s lack of a steady income, every week Annie would learn how to defend herself and others on the condition that she never actually use it.
This lasted until the biggest of the local bullies had a “talk” with a meek, timid girl and Annie stepped in to let the bully know she couldn’t push everyone around, that someone at some point would stand up to her. Which is to say, about a month.
After that, her mom pushed her into track and field, still hoping this was all she needed. It didn’t have the same pull as karate, but, no matter how faint, it did have something in it that called to her, and she found she really did enjoy the feel of the wind in her hair. It was like flying. Between that, and the fact that her family moved to a better part of town with kids less inclined to use force, she managed to graduate. Barely.
In her last couple of years in high school, she began to feel a gnawing deep inside. She tried to ignore it. After all, it could be explained by her shiftless dad’s final trip, leaving his family with nothing but debt. He didn’t even bother with a good-bye. When things calmed down from that crisis and she couldn’t use it as an excuse anymore for the hunger in her soul, she decided she was bored.
This resulted in a string of classes, some from the local college for credit, some in the form of private lessons; some she finished, some not. Grades didn’t matter. Praise didn’t matter. All that mattered was if it satisfied the gnawing.
She even tried her hand at spellcasting once, just for the heck of it, and found the one thing that called out most to her so far. Her friend was showing her all the equipment she used.“And this,” she’d said, “is the sword we use to focus—”
Before Annie had realized what she had done, she reached out and gripped the sword, holding it up so the light danced along its blade, the rest of what her friend said drowning in the feel of the cold metal in Annie’s hands and the light that came with it.
The casting itself struck her as nothing more than silly words and dubious theories. At times, it felt like there was something to it, but it felt…off. Unrefined. Like someone who was tone-deaf trying to learn to play the violin by ear.
But feeling that sword was worth it. She bought one, learned how to use it and practiced daily, even after she took a full-time job as a personal trainer. The sword didn’t entirely get rid of the gnawing, though. At a local medieval swordplay workshop, she met Gerry who invited her to be part of their live role-playing session at a nearby park. She agreed, and, for the first time since her days of vanquishing schoolyard demons, felt herself looking forward to something with keen anticipation.
It didn’t last long.
It wasn’t the park that did it. The city she currently lived in—Blackland, TX—made a point of combining more traditional parks with hiking/bike trails so the wooded area hidden next to the more suburban landscape was perfect.
No, it was the game itself.
Annie tried not to fidget while the “soldiers” discussed strategy. Even though it was March, the Texas summer had begun to show itself in the afternoon’s heat, making everyone a little irritable. Thank goodness I chose a linen costume instead of wool, she thought.
“Okay,” Gerry, the leader of their team, said, “how do you guys want to do this?”
Several answers popped up but the one everyone decided on was to send a scout first, so they would at least know the other team’s location.
“We can do that,” he said. “The drawback is that we need someone who won’t be seen. I think we can all agree that the last thing we want is for the other team to have a good idea of where we are.” Everyone nodded. “So, who should we send?”
“You,” some guy yelled from the back. “The volcano gods will be appeased.”
Gerry glared at the wisecracker.
“Why not?” Annie said. “Out of all of us, you have the most experience tracking, right?”
“I vote for Annie,” one of the guys said. And before long, everyone had voted for her.
Because of my sword, she thought. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ll probably end up smacking branches and getting caught in the brush.” And if the string comes off that keeps me from drawing my sword, she thought, I’m out of the group. Safety first, they had all decided, since she couldn’t bring herself to use the dowel rods covered in foam and duct tape she was offered as a substitute.
Should have gone with the make-believe sword, she thought when Gerry said, “Looks like it’s final.”
Annie shook her head. Swordplay was one thing, scouting was another and the little bit of strategy she’d learned from books was nothing when faced with the real thing. She considered arguing this, until she realized that if she fought this issue as well she might remain in the group but she would always be the “difficult one”…if she wasn’t already. And so, trying to appear agreeable, she said, “All right. I’ll probably get captured, but all right.”
“Come on,” Gerry smiled, “You know you want to.”
Annie only glared at him as playfully as she could without giving him the wrong idea, then walked off into the trees.
This had definitely been a mistake.
It was next to impossible to keep from making a racket as she tried to find her way through the woods. At least she knew the terrain well enough. This park had been a favorite place for her mother and her to visit. Long bike trails wound their way through a forest that had always seemed to Annie to go on forever when she was a child, full of pine, cottonwood, and other trees she had never learned to name. And just under the surface, she had always imagined there was some great power slumbering, waiting to be unleashed.
She grew up, left home, and those fantasies had withered like grass under a summer sun. And yet, the feel of the wind blowing tendrils of dark, brown hair from her braid made her wish, even for a moment, that there really was power under her feet as she searched for the enemy’s flag. A day beautiful as this should contain something important, something primal.
She had only gotten halfway to the point she expected the flag to be when she heard a noise. Crouching down, hands against her shins, she promised herself, if she kept going to these meetings, that she would ask Gerry to help her learn tracking before the next one. She had no clue what she was doing.
Voices. Low. And it sounded like someone had just told someone else to shut up.
Feeling like an imposter of a scout, Annie hid behind a tree on a rise surrounded by some saplings. There were enough leaves, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be seen. Eventually, the group approached through the trees. She counted four, including Ricky, still wearing his chainmail armor and rattling as loudly as before (“But I’m a knight,” he had protested when everyone complained…and thank goodness for that because that’s how she managed to keep her sword).
Ah, Ricky, Annie thought, I heard you long before I saw you.
She held her breath until they had passed. Once they had, she eased herself down the rise. A root snapped under her foot causing her to slip with a small “oof!”
Annie froze, listening for the sound of Ricky’s armor heading her way. For a few seconds, nothing. Then, the familiar rustle of chains and a shout of “Over here. There’s a spy!” and she scrambled to escape, crashing through the trees like she had warned the group she would.
Epic tales never mention how many branches a heroine gets in the face while she’s running, she thought as she tried to put the “enemy” off her trail. The heat of the day didn’t make things any easier. It burned her skin, penetrating deep. Need a place to hide, she thought. She skidded to a stop. What looked like a cave had appeared at her left. The opening was fairly small and looked more like the White Rabbit’s hole than cave openings she’d seen in books, but still big enough to fit through.
Even though the cave looked fairly ordinary, she felt herself relax in it the moment she entered. She sat, stretched out her legs, and leaned her head against the smooth, cool wall, glad for the relief from the heat that lingered in her.
It felt so comfortable, in fact, that it didn’t occur to her that a cave this big might have something already living in it. I’ll stay near the entrance, she decided, hearing Reggie’s armor come closer. In case that didn’t work, she undid the strap on her sword.
The sound of the armor grew near, then faded, only to grow near again. Annie turned away from the noise outside and closed her eyes, focusing only on the sound. Apparently they were having a hard time finding her. Tempting as it was to stick a foot or arm out of the cave, she didn’t feel like making it easy for them. No missile weapons, her sword tied up…something about this had to feel like a real battle. She sighed. Yet another dead end.
I should have never said “yes.”
It took her a moment to hear the breathing. At first, she thought it was the echo of her own. Then, she realized it was too deep, too animal, and with bigger lungs than her. It almost sounded like a horse sniffing the air.
Annie’s eyes flew open, though the rest of her seemed frozen. Did horses like caves. The few horses she had been around seemed to prefer the outdoors. And it didn’t really sound like a horse anyway. No matter what it was, it sounded as big as a human. No. At least as big as a human.
Annie turned her head toward the sound, not realizing until after the fact that she had gripped her sword, ready to pull it out. If there had been any menace to them, she might have drawn it. Her eyes narrowed, trying to see the creature she knew watched her in the darkness. The air shimmered in front of her, like the air above an idling car’s hood on a summer’s day. A form began to coalesce within the shimmering darkness, though when the image became clear, Annie could hardly believe what she saw.
Two green eyes floated in the air in front of her, independent of a body: cat’s eyes, with thick strands of gold, black and blue running through the green irises. They look tired, she thought.
Annie and the eyes stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Then, the eyes turned away. The darkness shimmered briefly, then only darkness remained.
“I knew it. You lost her.” It sounded like Ricky was just outside the cave’s entrance.
Someone replied, “I didn’t lose her, okay. She’s got to be around here somewhere. I’ll find her.”
Annie breathed deep, not sure what had just happened. She couldn’t seem to take her eyes off the depths of the cave in front of her.
“I knew those tracking lessons were a waste of time,” Ricky muttered, his armor moving around a bit more.
“Sure,” a member of Ricky’s team said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “That’s got to be the problem.”
“Can we focus here, for just a minute, please?” Sell it, Ricky, a distant part of her said, though the rest kept looking for those cat-eyes in the darkness.
She could hear the argument going back and forth and yet she couldn’t seem to move. She kept waiting for those eyes to return.
It’s like holding the sword, she thought, and blinked. She couldn’t hear the others anymore.
Part of her wanted to move forward into the darkness, even though she knew it was reckless. But whatever was inside there pulled her with more strength than anything else she’d found so far. And this wasn’t a sword in the darkness. This was something else entirely. Just the fact that the pull was so strong this time made her wary of it.
Still unsure, she turned to look at the entrance. It was gone. The light she had assumed was sunlight came from a cluster of glowing spheres set into the ground above where the entrance should have been.
Being pulled into the darkness was one thing, getting trapped underground was another. Getting trapped at all, in fact, terrified her.
Annie swallowed hard. Her hands felt along the wall for any sign of a hidden door, patting, then slamming her palms against the cold rock in a desperate attempt to get out.
Annie whipped around, pulling her sword out of its scabbard. The eyes had returned, staring at her with a mixture of curiosity and wariness.
“Let me out,” Annie said, hating how her voice trembled with fear.
“Let you out?” The creature who owned the eyes sounded confused. “I didn’t let you in.”
“This place belongs to you, right?” Sweat gathered under her palms, making her terrified she’d lose her grip. “I want out.”
The eyes narrowed. Alarmed, she charged forward, slashing in a way that she hoped seemed intimidating. She had practiced enough that it should.
The eyes moved quickly out of the way. “Assuming I truly did want to make you my prisoner, do you think attacking me is going to make me want to release you?”
Annie paused. “I’m not usually like this,” she said, trying not to sound breathless from her earlier attack. Rational. Must look rational.
“What are you usually like then?”
Its sincerity made her blink. She almost answered the question. “Please,” she said, trying to sound calm, “let me go.”
This time she waited while the eyes watched her. “If you can get in, surely you can get out.”
It wants to see me try, she thought. “I saw the entrance to a cave and I walked through it. That’s all.”
Judging from the way the eyes moved, Annie got the sense that whatever the eyes belonged to had sat down. “No keywords? Not even a wave of the hand?”
“I saw the entrance. That’s all.”
“Fascinating,” it murmured, and sniffed the air. “Must be turbulence.” The eyes disappeared, leaving only the shimmering darkness.
Turbulence? “What are you talking about?” she said, raising her voice a little in case the creature had walked away. Turbulence. Wasn’t that what a plane went through when the wind hit it. Not even a breeze stirred within.
The creature didn’t answer.
Annie paused to regain at least some control of herself. “Look, I don’t know what you are—” she began but the creature who owned the eyes interrupted.
“I doubt you’ll stay calm if I tell you. I haven’t seen garb like that in quite some time. Is that the current style?”
She hesitated. “Um, no. This is a costume. What does this have to do with letting me out?”
“Nothing. Perhaps. Perhaps everything.” The eyes opened again, looking less tired than before. In fact, they almost seemed to sparkle in the darkness.
“If you let me out, maybe I can get you a book on human fashion?” Which is more unbelievable, she couldn’t help thinking: that I’m talking to a magical creature or that one of its first questions is on haute couture?
It paused. When the creature answered, she realized its thoughts had been far away, and still, to a large degree, were. “Oh, no. That’s not my interest.”
Then what are you talking about. She knew it was a risk but still said, “If you don’t let me out soon, I’ll have to hurt you.”
The voice chuckled, louder this time, a deep sound that made her think of boulders crashing down the side of a mountain, though not nearly as loud. “I’d like to see you try.” From the way the eyes rose and moved forward, she knew the creature had stood.
She hesitated, then swung forward at what she hoped was a body. The shimmering darkness gathered. Her sword hit it with a clang.
Metal. Was the creature armed. She swung again, and again, focusing now on the swift, barely visible appendages blocking her attacks.
“You’re going to get tired soon,” the creature warned.
“You’re just saying that because I’ve made some progress.” She panted. The sword felt too heavy in her hands.
“If you had made any progress you would have known it by now.”
She watched an appendage take form in the darkness, looking less like a shimmer and more like a silver-green arm. It moved forward to block her swing but at the last moment she turned her sword, aiming instead towards what she hoped was a soft underbelly. The creature leaped back.
Triumphant, Annie was about to say, “Didn’t expect that, did you?” when a stream of white fire rushed toward her. Her chest expanded rapidly from a breath she couldn’t stop herself from taking. She felt a vague burning under her skin though the white flame didn’t touch her. The fire within and without her disappeared, leaving her feeling vaguely light-headed.
Once more, Annie and the eyes stared at each other. “What are you?” she whispered.
“Definitely turbulence,” the creature mumbled, as amazed, it seemed, as Annie. And thrilled. “Do you still want out?”
“I’ll make a deal with you, human. In the past, I interacted with your species on a daily basis. I’d like to do so again, but I would like a ‘bridge’ of sorts: a human who can help me integrate in a more seamless fashion.”
“Well, the disembodied eyes look is certainly in,” Annie said before she could stop herself. Shouldn’t get snarky with an unknown creature, she thought.
From the way the eyes narrowed, the creature seemed to be smiling. “Is that all you see. Interesting. I thought you could see more. Back to the point, I’ll let you out of my ‘lair’ if you let me stay with you for a while. I promise not to interfere with your life: you can live wherever you want, see whomever you want, do whatever you want. I would simply need your assistance now and then as a connection to the local community. Until I get on my feet.”
Annie stared hard at the eyes. “Why do you want to be around humans?”
“Because it’s part of—” The creature sighed in what sounded like resignation. “Because I enjoy it,” it said with a sincerity she couldn’t deny. “I enjoy hearing their laughter, watching them adapt to their environment, and vice versa. I enjoy watching their history march past with its cyclical nature. I’ve been in this cave far too long.” The eyes hesitated, and Annie could see some of that exhaustion coming back into them before the creature shook its head. “Dying,” the voice said, then with more strength, “I want to start living again. Among humans.”
Annie stuck her sword, point down in the ground, and rested one hand on the pommel, putting the other in her pocket. This was too much like when she got this weapon, except far more powerful. Like she had no choice. And that frightened her. “Very touching. How do I know you’re not lying to me?”
The creature studied her. “How do I know you’re telling me the truth. I set up my ‘lair’ so that the only one who can get in is myself and yet you walk in as if the warding belonged to you. Very few creatures can do that, especially among humans, and the ones who do are often aware of what they’re doing. Yet, you stare at me as if I’m the one who’s trapped you here.”
“No deal until I know what you are.”
The eyes glowed for just an instant, causing her heart to race. “Come closer.”
“And get eaten?”
The creature chuckled. “If I had wanted to eat you, it would already be done.”
Annie walked forward. “That’s a pretty arrogant statement to make considering we came to a draw earlier.” Okay, she admitted to herself, we didn’t, but what else do I have? And yet, she wasn’t afraid. Not now.
The creature chuckled again, louder.
She should want to run. Any sane person would be waiting for a chance to go back on their word the moment they got out. But she knew she would make this promise for the same reason she was willing to pay anything for this sword in her hand.
Annie approached slowly, trying to keep watch on both the eyes above her and hopefully catch a glimpse of whatever body might hold those eyes within it. Yet, even standing just below the eyes, she saw no more than the familiar shimmer.
“You still can’t see me,” the creature said, dumbfounded. “You can get past wardings but you can’t even see what’s in front of your face. Amazing. Reach out and tell me what you feel.”
“I won’t bite you. It’s against the rules.”
“There are certain things I can and can’t do to humans.” When she still hadn’t moved forward, he said, “Please. Just trust me on this.”
Annie lifted her hand and tentatively reached forward. She touched a smooth, hard surface that gently moved away then toward her in a relaxed rhythm. It’s breathing, she thought, though the moment she thought it she realized how silly it was to think that perhaps the creature didn’t need air. As the surface moved, she realized that there was texture to it after all, small scales that undulated with the rhythm of the creature’s breathing. A faint glimmer of tarnished silver appeared under her hand spreading like water until she stood in amazement in front of the creature, the dragon she had tried to fight.
It was definitely bigger than a horse, with a tail as long as she was tall, or about five and a half feet. That made its body, she estimated, about eight feet, not including the tail. The smooth scales she had felt looked like tarnished silver, with a faint greenish hue to them. Two horns, a swirling mix of matte bronze and copper, spiraled out of the back of its head, curling around like the horns of a ram. Yet somehow it fit with his reptilian snout. Against that dull metallic background, its brilliant, mostly green, eyes stood out.
The cave felt colder somehow than before, and just under her skin was that same tingle she’d felt earlier.
“You can’t exist,” she said.
“Reality states otherwise. Now that you know what I am, do we have a deal?”
“No,” Annie said emphatically and turned away, running the fingers of one hand through her hair, the other clutching her sword. What did she remember about dragons? They were untrustworthy, right? Maybe that depended on where they came from. “Wait. Are you from China or Europe?”
The dragon seemed surprised. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, in China, dragons help humans but in Europe, dragons are…not so nice.”
“And you don’t think this is largely a matter of perception? One dragon visits a culture going through a halfway refined period and the other visits one ready to kill any creature they don’t understand. Are you sure that wouldn’t have something to do with those stories as well?” The dragon sighed and lay down on the cave floor, its head resting on its folded front claws. “You’ll have to take the fact that I haven’t eaten you as evidence that I intend you no harm.” She swore she could hear laughter in his voice when he said that, though what he said next was more serious. “And I specifically promise not to interfere in your life. It might be good to remember that as well.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What’s your name?”
She gave in to the pull. “Okay. So long as you don’t change the terms, I agree. Now will you let me out of your lair?”
“I call it my retreat. Let me change, and I’ll return in a moment.”
“Wait!” She couldn’t let anyone else suffer just because she needed this. “Promise me you aren’t going to hurt anyone once we leave this cave.”
Nicholas’s eyes went wide with horror and incredulity. “It’s against the rules,” he said, as if that answered everything, then turned and walked back into the darkness.
The light behind her changed. Annie looked and saw that sunlight now poured through the small opening she had seen earlier. “Thank God,” she whispered, sliding her sword back into its scabbard before she rushed toward the exit.
The minute she stepped outside, she took a deep breath and stared at the forest around her. “Ricky? Gerry?” she called out. Nothing. They had already left, she thought, looking at how low the sun was in the sky. Or were they waiting by her car, hoping she would show up before the sun set? Not likely.
She opened a small bag attached to her belt and pulled out her cell phone. Good. There was still some charge left. She flipped it open and called Gerry.
“Hello, Annie? Where are you?” He actually sounded worried.
“I’m fine. I just,” she frantically grabbed the first lie that appeared, “got a little lost.” Annie winced, thinking of the teasing she’d get next time, no matter how concerned he was now. Between that and having to keep her sword tied up, she was starting to think these mock battles weren’t for her. Better to move on to something else, she decided.
Besides, she’d found something that was closer to what she was looking for.
“Do you need any help?” he asked.
“No, no. I’ve got things figured out. I’m fine.”
No, I’m not. I’ve sold my soul to a dragon. Do you think you can help with that? “Yeah, I’m sure. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay. If you’re sure.”
“I am. Bye, Gerry.”
She put her phone back in the bag. Behind her a man said, “I’m ready.” When she turned to look, she paused.
The man, not dragon, stood behind her. He was few inches taller than her, wearing a loose peasant shirt and dirty trousers. “I’m sorry about the clothes,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “I’m afraid it’s all I had left.” His sheepish grin quickly turned into a genuine smile, lighting up green eyes. Annie looked closer, knowing due to the pull that this was Nicholas. Sure enough when she looked closer, thin rays of blue, black and gold could be seen in his green irises.
He’s handsome, Annie thought, immediately following this with a reminder that he wasn’t her type. She liked darker hair; his hair was a very light blond, almost white. She liked a little more muscle; Nicholas looked strong but not overly so. Average.
And yet she found it wasn’t too hard to smile back. “All right, then.” She breathed in deep, holding it just a moment to settle her nerves. “Follow me.”