Tag Archives: dragon

A Dragon-shaped Hole in Reality

There are no such things as dragons, which is why it was so puzzling when one suddenly appeared and landed on the Statue of Liberty. It let out a long burst of flame, making the great copper lady droop a bit on her left side. Then it flew away and disappeared, leaving the world quite distraught.

Flabbergasted even.

It wasn’t the damage, it was the sudden, dragon-shaped hole in our understanding of the world. There wasn’t enough coffee in the world for the late nights it would take to fit a dragon into modern scientific theory.

“What if it comes back?” the news networks screamed. Their fingers were on the panic button, eyes on the ratings chart.

“What if it doesn’t?” the scientists inquired. Biologists warmed up their DNA sequencers, physicists tried out new formulas (E=mc2+Dr?).

And then the world waited.

Hollywood made movies. Fantasy enthusiasts wrote slashfic of Draco and the Statue of Liberty. Survivalists bought even larger caliber weapons and nodded to each other smugly (“I knew it was dragons all along”). Conspiracy theorists quickly shoehorned a dragon into their schematics, somewhere between the Illuminati and the Reptilian Elite.

It never came back.

Eventually, the world collectively gave a cough of embarrassment, repaired the Statue, and got on with life. People shrugged.

“It must have been a fluke.”

 

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You Never Forget Your First

I feel like I should apologize. I feel very out of things, blog-wise, at least compared with what I used to be. Both my reading and writing dropped off before the summer when I moved and haven’t really recovered. Part of it is that I’m much busier at work, so everything has to be done when I get home, including all the other details of life. Part of it is that I’m working (hard) on larger projects that I can’t post here. In any case, I am very appreciative to you for reading. Thank you.

This story is dedicated to my friend Susannah Bianchi.

You Never Forget Your First

The kettle is screeching, sending out puffs of steam just like Yarr when he went out to play on a cold, winter day. There’s nothing like seeing a great red frolicking in the frosty air to make you feel like there’s still beauty left in the world.

I bring the cup to the stove and watch the teabag bleed rust as the boiling water hits it, coloring the water with that deep, hardwood hue that would have matched Yarr’s hide like a chameleon.

Gorgo, my new little one is scratching at the door, trying to get out. He was a gift from my sister. She got me a green, even though they’re supposed to be friskier (read: wilder). I open the door and Gorgo bounds off into the night. He’ll probably go hunting and I’ll go out for the morning paper to find a burglar or hobo lying on the doorstep. Then I’ll have to call the coroner and try to explain again. I couldn’t stay mad at him though, not with that open, innocent look of his. What an old softie I am.

I sit by the kitchen window and as I take a sip, the tea slips down my throat like a burst of invigorating fire. I hear Gorgo roaring out there in the velvet invisible, already on the prowl.

I miss Yarr but life goes on. Still, as they say, you never forget your first dragon.


I Woke up on Monday as a Dog

I woke up on Monday as a dog—a sloppy, tangle-furred St. Bernard who had grown up on the streets. Everyone in the neighborhood knew me and as the sun peeked between the brownstone houses that lined the east side of the street, I set out to discover breakfast. A few people called out to me, but I just barked and kept going. People around here might know me, but no one ever fed me.

No one except Mae, my adopted mother. She was blind—poor thing—but loved me no matter what. She fed me the same fare regardless of my form, sometimes with terrible results. There was a freezing day in February where I came to her as a goat only to find she had saved a steak just for me, cooked to medium-rare perfection. It repulsed me and as much as it hurt me to reject it, I could not touch it.

Mae was sitting on the porch steps when I bounded up. She could always tell when it was me. “Good morning, Harry. Come sit and talk to me for a while.” I barked at her and she nodded. “Maybe another day then.”

I wolfed down the bacon and eggs she had set out on the steps and lapped at the water next to it. The rest of the day was spent running around the streets and tearing into the garbage bags behind the McDonalds, searching for abandoned scraps and running away from the shouts and threats of the workers. It was a glorious existence.

On Tuesday, I woke up as a man and the grimmer reality that came with it. I ran a hand through my greasy hair, tried to straighten my clothes, and shuffled over to Mae’s where I ate with fork and knife and we talked about the weather and the arthritis she was getting in her knees. I brought my dishes in, washed them and the rest of the pile there, then took out her garbage. I was walking over to the park to sleep when I heard a shout.

“Harry, come here for a second.” It was a cop. I don’t know which one: I’m not good with faces, or names. He waited until I had approached the car, then kept looking at me until I was thoroughly unnerved.

“Some people complained about you urinating on the street yesterday.”

“Aw, Officer, I wasn’t myself yesterday,” I said. “You don’t arrest other dogs for marking their territory.”

The officer sighed and looked down. “I gotta take you in again, Harry. You know I hate to do it.”

“For what? What did I do?”

“You want the list?”

I went quietly. Violence is not what I’m about. I sat in the corner of the public cell but the other prisoners seemed to know me and left me alone. Luckily, the next day I woke up briefly to find that I was a sloth and then slept most of the day. When I did wake, it took half an hour to get over to the can and back to the bunk. At the end of the day, an official came in and talked to me privately but I was too sleepy to hear much. I caught the words “psychiatric” and “trial” but it didn’t concern me.

The next day, I woke up as a dragon.

The shock of sudden strength after a day as a sloth was electrifying. I had only been a dragon once before and that was when I had a horde to protect and I had spent the whole day sleeping on it. But not this time. I sat hunched on my bunk, eyes closed but flexing the muscles in my limbs and wings, feeling the deadly power in my claws.

“Harry, it’s time to go,” I heard someone call. I didn’t move. “Just go get him,” someone else said. “Cuffs but no shackles. He’s not a high risk.” The tip of my tail flicked back and forth in anticipation.

The cell door open and I sprang with a roar. I caught one look at the shocked expression on the guard’s face before I was on him, raking my talons across his face. My tail slammed him against the bars and I was free, my huge bulk crashing through the next room. It was pure exhilaration and I reveled in the power that I suddenly possessed.

I smashed through one room after another until suddenly, I was outside and then I was airborne and flying over the city. But where to go now? I couldn’t visit Mae—the weight of this new form would crush her house. I could not retreat to the subway system like I often did, not with my huge frame.

In the end, the form that gave me freedom caused my downfall. A dragon cannot hide well and they found me and netted me and brought me to another facility. A man came and talked to me, but all I could do was roar at him. It was his own fault for trying to talk to a dragon.

Today I woke up as a cat but they still guarded me as if I were a dragon. It’s a shame and I suppose I’ll never get out of here unless I turn into something stronger than a dragon, something strong enough to bend steel and smash concrete. I look out my window and see the beautiful blue sky. A perfect day for a cat to go exploring—a beautiful tabby cat with golden eyes who’s never hurt a person in his life.


4 (un)necessary evils in The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

I watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night and for the most part, I really liked it. Maybe not as much as the first one, but it was a good movie. I say that up front because you may have assumed from the title that I didn’t like the movie and that this post is going to hate on it, but that’s not the case.

Just so you know, I will not give any specific spoilers of the movie (“there was fighting” should not be considered a spoiler). I will make references to the book, which was written about 80 years ago and is a little past the spoiler range.

You know it's an epic movie, when the poster for the Hobbit doesn't even have the hobbit on it.

You know it’s an epic movie when the poster for the Hobbit doesn’t even have the hobbit on it.

4. It rushed things

This is understandable, I know. Although I’ve heard many people say that this relatively short book should be easily made into one movie, there are a lot of long, drawn out scenes that would take quite a long time to show onscreen if everything was done strictly by the book. A sentence like, “They wandered for days” could make for a long, boring couple of minutes/hours. The editors have to pick and choose what they want to put in the movie and some things they need to pass over quickly. Still, there was some scenes that I was really looking forward to that got about five minutes of screen time. Which leads to the next point.

Beorn? Big guy, turns into a bear, yada yada, next scene!

Beorn? Big guy, turns into a bear, troubled past, yada yada, next scene!

3. They added whole sub-plots

This one is a bit harder for me as a big fan of the book. I can understand cutting things to save time but then why add whole scenes and characters that are not in the book at all? It rankles me.

I understand, to a point, and ironically, the reason they need to add material is because they’ve cut or rushed parts of the story (not because the movies are too short by any means, although I think that when it comes to Tolkien-based movies, the longer, the better). The book has its own rhythm and if you were just to cut or rush parts, some of it would just seem like a frantic rushing from scene to scene with no development. So, they inject development into places the movie needs it because it has a slightly different flow from the book.

But still . . . holy cow, there are a lot of intertwining sub-plots. Almost every character gets their own little tangent.

This chick gets about as much screen time as Bilbo.

This chick gets about as much screen time as Bilbo.

2. Fighting . . . and more fighting

The book, The Hobbit, had a fair number of action scenes, although not a high body count beyond the fight with the spiders and the Battle of the Five Armies. The movies, however, have a higher body count than some war movies.

I get it. It’s a movie and it’s a lot more exciting seeing cinematic fighting and insane elf moves than just watching Bilbo trudge through Mirkwood thinking about how he wished he was back in his own house by the fire (not for the last time!). And I honestly enjoyed the fight scenes, for the most part. The fighting outlasted my interest by about five minutes, which in a 3-hour movie, is not that bad, I guess.

Watching it 3D, you're guaranteed at least a dozen arrows right through the heart.

Watching it 3D, you’re guaranteed at least a dozen arrows right through the heart.

1. Characters know way more than they should

This is something that bugs me in other movies too, but especially so in this one, since it happens several times. A character will look at someone and say something like, “Ah, I see by your expression that you are planning on going to the Lonely Mountain to regain your lost kingdom” or “You’re wearing a belt. You must be in the party of Thorin Oakenshield.” What? Characters display almost preternatural levels of intuition and knowledge. This especially bugs me because it occurs in places where the plot of the book revolves around those characters not knowing some very key information. And in the movie, they know it in a second.

(Deep breath) Fine, it’s a movie. They don’t have time to . . . well, for character development, it . . .

No, forget it. This is not a necessary evil. This is something that I really didn’t like about the movie.

I know all: I have a paperback copy of The Hobbit under my throne.

I am all-knowing: I have a paperback copy of the book under my throne.

I realize that this post has been incredibly vague with specifics in some parts. So, go watch the movie (if you haven’t already) and let me know if you agree with me. If you disagree, we’ll fight it out with bow and arrows while riding down a river in barrels.

(BONUS TIP: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, but are planning to, watch for a quick, walk-through cameo by Peter Jackson in the very first shot.)


The Battle of the Stone Circle Room – Fantastic Travelogue #18

Sometimes you have some amazing adventures you just have to tell everyone about. Read the rest of this account here.

Synopsis: I was hiking in the mountains of Korea when I found myself in another world. I met a young woman there named Ain-Mai. We eventually got captured, along with her brother Sing-ga, by a sorceress named Hengfel, who took us to her world. We got away from her and hid in the air tunnels of her fortress. Sing-ga died after being attacked by small spider-like creatures. Ain-Mai and I found our way to the outside of the huge fortress where we sheltered in a small hollow. I woke up to find a small winged creature looking at me. He brought us up the mountain and through a portal into a beautiful area where we were taken care of. A woman named Klista explained to us that she was part of the royal family of a race that used to own the tower where Hengfel was now living, but had been driven into exile by the invaders. She agreed, with the help of her assistant, Bruce Riansson, and someone named Chirik, to help us get home. Soon after that, Klista transported us back to Hengfel’s fortress.

18 Battle of the Stone Circle Room

The Battle of the Stone Circle Room

When I could see again, I saw that we were in the huge stone circle room in Hengfel’s fortress. Klista was already striding towards the far wall with Bruce Riansson by her side. Chirik was to one side, his warhammer poised and ready.

Ain-Mai was tugging at my hand. “Come on, we have to keep up with them.”

Klista evidently knew where she was going. She was heading straight for a narrow stairway along the side of the room. We were about halfway there when the first dragon noticed us. It flew up from one of the trenches that bordered the room, just to our left, and was about to keep going when it saw us. It curved in midair, coming at Ain-Mai and me with open jaws. Chirik was fifty feet away on the other side of us.

At that moment, I would never have believed that I had even punched one of these in the face if I hadn’t remembered it, and the experience didn’t make me any less afraid. I was about to run when Chirik leapt in front of us and swung the warhammer up and into the head of the dragon. The dragon seemed to evaporate in front of the hammer and a moment later, the headless body fell twitching to the ground.

Stay near me,” Chirik said and jogged to catch up with Klista and Bruce. We did not need any encouragement.

Up here is where the medallions used to be kept,” Klista said. “Let’s hope that they have not changed things.” She began to climb the long, curving stair and Bruce followed her. Chirik climbed next, so Ain-Mai and I followed him.

Do you remember the pattern on the medallion that Hengfel had?” I asked Ain-Mai.

I have never gotten a good look at it,” she replied. “Do you?”

I think so; at least I remember a snaky pattern on it. I didn’t say anything, since I don’t know how similar they all are.

We reached the top of the stair and entered a room. It seemed small after the huge emptiness of the stone circle room, but it was still as big as a large classroom. The walls were covered with medallions, hundreds of them, and while this was rather distressing, what caught my attention immediately was the large lizard-like creature crouched it in the middle of the room. It was bent over and glowed red and spoke with a hissing, sibilant voice.

What are you doing here?” it asked. “Who are you?

You should know who I am, ghilzhi, or at least whom I represent. This is our fortress and our medallions and I am taking back what is mine.

The creature seemed suddenly nervous. “I see that you have returned, my lady, but it is no good. Hengfel owns this fortress now and there is no resistance against her.

We will see,” Klista said. “Right now, in recognition of the ancient harmony between our races, please do not hinder us in finding what we need.”

She will kill me,” the creature, which was apparently called a ghilzhi, said.

Then come with us,” Klista said. “You can be an ambassador to your people, to join in the resistance.

The ghilzhi did not say anything, but stood aside. Klista moved over to the wall and surveyed the medallions.

“I think I remember a little of what the design looked like,” I said, out loud. “It had a snake-like design on it.”

Klista nodded. “Okay, come stand by me and tell me if you see one that looks familiar.”

Although there were probably a thousand medallions on the walls, not all of them looked recently used. Most of them were covered with dust and only several rows near the door looked clean and bright. We started to go through these one by one.

My lady, I hate to tell you that Hengfel has been alerted of your presence,” the ghilzhi said. “She is on her way to the room below.” Klista only nodded and continued to go through the medallions.

When we had gone through them all, there were only two that Klista had not been to before that looked like the pattern I remembered.

This is going to be interesting,” Chirik said, looking out the door. “There is more than one dragon outside.

Klista walked through the door and onto the stairs. I went through and looked down, bracing myself for the sight of five or ten dragons flying around. I almost gasped out loud when I saw that the room was filled with hundreds of dragons; not flying, but standing on the floor or hanging off the walls. In the middle of the floor was Hengfel, sitting on her huge, red dragon.

Should we flee?” Bruce asked.

Not yet,” Klista said. “I will give Chirik a chance to prove himself.” She started to walk down the stair.

How dare you return here?” Hengfel called out. I first thought she was talking to me, but then I realized she was talking to Klista. “You have lost and now you come back with a handful of nothings, including a few of my slaves? Even with an army you could do nothing but die.

She called us slaves,” I said to Ain-Mai. She was radiating hatred towards Hengfel and did not reply.

I don’t need an army; I have him,” Klista said, gesturing to Chirik.

A dragon launched itself off the wall above and plummeted straight towards us. Just before it reached us, Chirik leapt and grabbed it by the neck. He flipped it like a hammer and used its momentum to propel himself far out into the room. The dragons all leaped to the attack. Soon he had disappeared beneath the bodies, but I saw him kill five of them before he hit the floor.

Klista grabbed my hand and in a flash, Klista, Bruce, Ain-Mai, the ghilzhi and I were all standing in the center of the room, with dragons all around us. Klista held up one of the medallions and I felt a power growing around us. It worked faster than when Hengfel had done it, which was good. A nearby dragon had just started to charge us when we disappeared.

*

I almost choked as hot air seared my lungs. We were standing on a stone circle on top of a high peak. In the distance, volcanoes erupted constantly and lava rivers flowed in the valley below us. The air was thick with ash.

Klista concluded fairly quickly that this was not the right world and a moment I felt a vibration of energy go through me and the world went black.

*

We were back in the huge stone circle room, but even though it seemed as only a few seconds had passed, there were much fewer dragons. Then I saw Chirik. The warhammer was spinning so fast I could barely see it. The whole room was a scene of carnage and now most of the dragons that were left alive were up in the air, flying around in confusion or fleeing to the walls. Hengfel’s dragon was high in the air.

Chirik stopped when he saw us and walked over. He was a mess of blood and bits of dragon scales but he was grinning. He barely looked tired. Klista merely nodded and gave him a small smile.

We will go now,” Klista shouted, “but we will return, you can depend on it. In the meantime, here is one world you will never be able to reach again.” Klista held up the medallion to Ain-Mai’s world. The last thing I heard before we disappeared was Hengfel’s scream of rage.

(to be concluded…)


Cage Jumping and Dragon Punching – Fantastic Travelogue #11

Sometimes you have some amazing adventures you just have to tell everyone about. Read the rest of this account here.

Synopsis: I was hiking in the mountains of Korea when I got lost at night and came out in a strange valley. I couldn’t understand anyone, but I found out they knew Chinese characters. I met a young woman name Ain-Mai, and later, her brother Sing-ga. While I was there, a creepy woman appeared. Ain-Mai and her brother told me that the creepy woman was named Hengfel and came from another world. Hengfel eventually captured all three of us and brought us back to her world. They took Ain-Mai away and put Sing-ga and I in a room with a bunch of other men who all looked drugged. It looked a bit like a harem. They gave us something to drink, which made Sing-ga very sleepy but had the opposite effect on me. We got out and found Ain-Mai in a cage, hundreds of feet above the floor, in a room with thousands of cages.

Cage Jumping Dragon Punching

I leaped, straight out over two hundred feet of empty space and landed on the top of the nearest cage. It was a crazy thing to do, but luckily my confidence in that accelerated state was equally matched by my ability. The cage started to swing as it reached its apex, I leapt again, bounding from cage to cage, towards the cage where Ain-Mai was trapped.

As I was jumping from cage to cage, I began to notice details about the room and cages. The ones I had landed on were empty and the bottoms were open on all of them, as if the bottom had split into four parts and fallen open. There was a wide lever on top of the cage that I could see was connected to the cage floor. The floor of the room far below was stained and splashed with red and tiny white bones were scattered wantonly around. It didn’t take long to put all these implications together.

This was the dragons’ feeding ground. People were kept in the cages until a dragon pushed the cage’s lever and the prey fell and died on the hard floor, far below. Then the dragon went down and ate them.

They’re like vending machines, I thought with horrified fascination. I am still glad that I never saw one in operation.

empty cage

I was getting closer to Ain-Mai’s cage. It had stopped descending about ten feet above my current level, just five cages away from her. I couldn’t tell if I had been spotted or not, but I couldn’t turn back now.

Ain-Mai saw me just before I leapt onto her cage. The look of hope and amazement on her face was clear. I jumped and landed on the side of the cage, my fingers clinging to the bars. I tugged at them, but even as strong as I felt, I couldn’t tear steel bars away.

“Hold on!” I said, miming for her to hold onto the bars with her hands and feet. When I saw that she had, I climbed up to the top and stomped on the iron lever. The floor of the cage collapsed and Ain-Mai gave a little scream.

I was still just working off adrenaline and drug-induced bravado, which was probably good, since otherwise I would never have had the nerve to do what I did next. I climbed down the side of the cage until I was hanging from the very bottom. Then I reached inside, through the pieces of the collapsed floor, and grabbed onto the bars on the inside. I swung down and started climbing up the inside of the cage, next to where Ain-Mai was clinging on for her life. She was crying and holding onto the bars with a death-grip. It took me a lot of coaxing to get her to take her hands off the bars and scramble onto my back. Then she was on and death-gripping me around the neck instead.

She was pretty light, thankfully, but going back was much slower. There was a very tricky moment at the bottom of the cage. I was hanging on by one hand on the inside and reached out to grab the outside of the cage. However, with Ain-Mai on my back, we couldn’t fit through the triangular pieces of the floor that were now hanging straight down. I yanked and jerked us back and forth, scraping her back and my front pretty badly against the metal floor plates. Finally, what I had to do was relax and let myself hang down as far as I could go, all our weight on four of my fingers. Then, finally, we slipped through and I could start to climb up the outside again.

I had been too busy to notice before, but we had definitely been spotted now. People were shouting above us and I could feel the cage start to rise. I leapt off, just making it to the side of the next cage. My hands didn’t hurt, but I could see that they were pretty badly scraped and both were bleeding.

Then as if that wasn’t enough, here came the dragons. I guess they didn’t like me running off with their food. The first few just flew nearby, but then one came straight it us and I kicked it in the snout. I couldn’t jump as far now with Ain-Mai on my back so I had to get the cages swinging and wait until they were close to each other to jump across. It was slow going.

They were a bit like this, except with no ridge on the back and their legs were shorter. Source.

They were a bit like this, except with no ridge on the back and their legs were shorter. Source.

On the fifth cage, two came at me at once. I punched the one under its jaw and tried to kick the other one, but it bit into my hiking boot and ripped most of it off, tearing into the sides of my foot with its teeth. This was how things went for another five minutes or so. I fought them off as best I could and slowly, cage by cage, moved back towards the wall. I was mostly worried about Ain-Mai, that one of the monsters would come up from behind and snatch her off my back. I kept whirling from side to side, keeping them all in sight.

I looked ahead to the wall and saw that Sing-ga was climbing up the plates on the wall. Idiot, I thought. There was no way he could do anything except get himself killed. He was moving painfully slowly. The dragons were still intent on me, but if they saw him, it would be like a drunk geriatric fighting a tiger.

I made a leap to the last cage, only to see a dragon rushing at me from below with jaws open wide. I manage to twist in the air to avoid getting my legs bitten off, but then I was falling. I reached out blindly and grabbed the dragon’s body as it went by.

There wasn’t anything else I could do, but this was danger of an insane level. The dragon responded by snapping its body violently like a whip, trying to shake us off. Ain-Mai was gripping my neck so hard it was cutting off my air. I reached around the dragon as far as I could reach and started squeezing it with all my strength. I heard a few bones crack and the dragon gave a roar. It slammed us against the nearest cage and then headed to the wall to scrape us off there.

It turned towards the wall, and there was Sing-ga, clinging to the wall and swaying like a drunk. The dragon seemed to forget about us for a second and went straight for Sing-ga, jaws open. Just as he got there, Sing-ga stuck out his hand and I saw for the first time that he had a piece of broken spear in his hand.

When had he picked that up? I marveled at the presence of mind he had to pick a weapon on our way out of the room. His hand was shaking as he held it but the dragon did not have time to turn away. The spear went straight into the dragon’s mouth and out through the back of its skull. I managed to leap from its back and grab the wall plates as it crashed down.

I learned something about dragons that day: they are cannibals. As soon as the dragon we had been clinging to plummeted to the floor below, the rest of the dragons sped straight down, fighting each other to get at the body first. Apparently dragon meat tastes delicious.

Ain-Mai slid off my back and onto the plates on the wall, but she was shaking so hard I had to keep an eye on her, as well as Sing-ga. Somehow we all got back down to the corridor. I was bleeding from my foot, my hands and several other places and the other two were exhausted and Sing-ga was still not doing well. My dizzying self-confidence was starting to dim a little, but there was nothing to do but go back down the corridor. So that’s what we did.

(to be continued…)

 


The World of Darkness and Dragons – Fantastic Travelogue #9

Sometimes you have some amazing adventures you just have to tell everyone about. Read the rest of this account here.

Synopsis: I was hiking in the mountains of Korea when I got lost at night and came out in a strange valley. I couldn’t understand anyone, but I found out they knew Chinese characters. I met a young woman name Ain-Mai, and later, her brother Sing-ga. While I was there, a creepy woman appeared. Ain-Mai and her brother told me that the creepy woman was named Hengfel and came from another world. She came there to eat a certain fruit called gaan-shi and also kidnapped all the men she found, which was why the men hid when she came. The brother and sister tried to help me escape but Hengfel’s guards overtook us in the woods and captured us. I tried to escape, but the guards seemed to be insanely fast, and recaptured me. At night, Hengfel stood on the stone circle and when she held up a medallion, light gathered around her. Then she was gone. The guards pushed us onto the stone circle too, and the light surrounded us.

World of Darkness and Dragons

I think I’m dead, I thought.

The brilliant light coming from the stone circle had enveloped me and for a timeless moment, I felt suspended in a world of empty light that seemed to burn out the inside of my head. Then I found that there was something solid under my feet and the utter brilliance faded to a blackness filled with the kind of flashing colors you get if you look at the sun for too long.

I don’t know how long it took me to recover, but slowly I began to hear voices around me. They had an echoing quality, as if we were in a cathedral. I realized that I had fallen to my knees when someone grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet. I opened my eyes and looked around.

Even under the circumstances, I was blown away by what I saw. We were standing in a huge round room a few hundred feet in diameter and at least that tall. The floor was carved like the stone circle in the forest clearing, only much, much bigger. Around the outside was a trench or chasm, so that the only way to get to the outer wall was by three bridges that spanned. Strips of light around the walls and on the floor lit up the fantastic scene.

The strangest thing were the creatures that were moving around in the open air above us. They were about fifteen feet long and looked like thick, hairy snakes with clawed legs and horses’ heads. In fact, they looked a lot like the Chinese version of a dragon.

Ain-Mai and Sing-ga were both standing next to me, staring around them with a disbelieving expression that was probably very similar to what was on my face. Now that we were here, amazement temporarily drowned out our fear.

The world of darkness and dragons

Then I saw Hengfel, the old witch herself, and all my fear and apprehension came flooding back. She was on the back of a large red dragon and flew straight out one of the three large doors. That made me feel better, for the moment. The further away she was, the happier I was.

A procession of little creatures was moving slowly towards us from the opposite direction. They were dark gray and very short and broad—about a foot tall and about as wide—with flattened heads, four legs and two long arms. They each took one of the baskets of fruit and moved slowly back. It was a weird sight.

The guards herded me, Ain-Mai and Sing-ga towards the third door. As we went over the bridge, I looked down into utter blackness. The bridge was about twenty feet wide, but had no railing. Beyond the bridge were two doors that opened to each side as we approached.

Everything in that place seemed to be huge. As we walked through the towering gate, I saw we were on a stone path fifty feet wide and hundreds of feet high. Everything was lit by strips of pale-yellow light along the walls. Next to the path was another trench that went down out of sight. It was lit up and I tried to go to the edge to see how far down it went, but I was pushed back into place.

We probably walked half a mile along that path and then through smaller corridors until we came to a large door with windows on either side. Inside, I could see a well-lit room filled with men sitting around or standing. The guards opened the door and pushed me and Sing-ga inside. I heard Ain-Mai’s anguished cry just before the doors shut. We ran to the windows and watched as they led her away.

Even today the thought of that room makes me shudder a little. It was well lit and nicely decorated in green and gold. There were probably forty males in it, just sitting listlessly or wandering around slowly. I say they were all male, although they weren’t all human. You know how you can tell if someone is male or female in a glance, but you might not be able to articulate why you know that? It was like that. I could tell they were male, even though I wasn’t sure why I knew.

They were all dressed very nice, but the way they were moving reminded me of a movie scene of a mental institution, where everyone is drugged up or catatonic. Still, the overall effect of the room brought a very uncomfortable word to mind: harem. If the guys were all replaced with nubile women, I wouldn’t have doubted it at all.

Sing-ga started running through the room, looking at all the men and calling something out over and over again. None of the men said anything to him and very few even looked at him. They were almost like zombies, although less interested in the world around them.

He finally stopped and sat down on a bench by the wall. I went and sat by him.

“You are looking for someone?” I wrote—or tried to—with my finger on the cushion of the bench. Still, he understood.

“Father,” he wrote. “He was taken when I was small. I thought he was here.”

I wanted to say I was sorry, but I didn’t know how to write it, so I just nodded.

Then he pointed to himself, and then drew out the Chinese character for woman.

He’s a woman? I thought. However, he kept going, drawing earnestly with his finger again and again until I understood. He had a wife, back in Dwengshink. And two children. My heart sank more and more as he kept going. He had risked himself—both he and Ain-Mai—just to help me. Now we were all paying for it.

I told him I had a wife too and we silently commiserated with each other, drawing out characters with our fingers on the cushioned bench where we sat.

The guards interrupted us a few minutes later to hand us new clothes to wear: green satin overalls that belted around the chest, waist and legs. I was wearing jeans, an increasingly dirty T-shirt, and a hoodie, and I had no intention of changing into anything else. So I spit on the guard: a big loogie right in the chest. She didn’t do anything, except pull out two small metal vials and hand them to us, making motions to drink. I poured mine on the ground.

Yeah . . . that apparently wasn’t a good idea. A minute later, I had bruises forming all over me, a slight concussion, and I had two guards holding me down while another poured another vial of liquid down my throat. I tried to struggle but they held me like a vise. I saw two more doing something similar to Sing-ga.

The liquid they poured down my throat tasted slightly sweet, with a bitter aftertaste. As soon as I had drunk it, they let me up, pointed to the clothes, and then left.

Sing-ga started to get drowsy right away. I could see it in his face and the sudden unsteadiness of his movements. He looked at the clothes, gave a little shrug and started to put them on, until I stopped him. I didn’t feel any difference at first, but then I started to feel really good, as if I had all the energy in the world. I almost felt like I could fly. The ceiling of the room was about fifteen feet up and when I jumped, I almost touched it. I punched the bench where we were sitting and my fist smashed right through it. It didn’t hurt at all. Whatever they had given me, I loved it.

And now I couldn’t wait for the guards to come back.


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