The beast Blerkafeld is one of the mightiest dragons, and even more conceited. After pilfering magics of time and space he has built his own little pocket world, pulling people from all over the Middle Ages to be his loyal worshipers. The only problem is, one of these groups is secretly a Renaissance fair…
(reading time: 1 hour, 36 minutes)
Brawny Blue Blerkafeld
The beast of Kidnapt Valley
Four waterfalls marked the center of the cavern’s many tunnels and chambers. The place was most curious, as the passageways looked naturally formed, the walls porous and uneven, but its layout was certainly the work of intelligence. Each fall was like a curtain separating four identical tunnels from each other.
By unknown force, one fall’s flow ceased just as a cluster of four people reached it, letting them view the rising column of the central shaft. They dared not step over the wet line in the dirt; their invitation had warned them not to do so.
They were led by Peter Iconius, lord of the red heath, equally red of hair and beard. He was a bear of a man, he insisted upon it in fact, wearing a bear tooth necklace whenever his bear tooth crown seemed too formal for the occasion. He’d brought with him the greatest warriors of the village he ruled, masters of sword, bow, and hammer.
“There’s nothing here,” the bowmaster whispered.
“Our host won’t show himself until all the falls are open,” Peter guessed, pointing at the other three. “We aren’t his only guests.” His voice was a growl, the kind of sound that would love crawling abrasively across cave walls, but only if it was of its own free will. It couldn’t stand to be summoned like this.
The second fall ceased, and stood there were four more souls, every bit as prepared for battle. At the head of their procession was Lady Arkady, a fearsome armored woman. Her family was born of Egypt, but gnawed its way along the land until it reached places of paler skin, their famous domineering will making subjects of those who would normally reject outsiders. Her head was shaved to the scalp and tattooed upon it in enthralling golden ink was the snout of a crocodile, its fangs jabbing down into the meat of her eyebrows.
Peter’s bowmaster took aim, as did the three fighters she brought with her, their spears happy to take on a single arrow in flight. The leaders steadied their parties and stared each other down.
“I do not know you,” Peter told the woman. He had made the mistake of mocking a woman warrior once before. Now he was famously bearded to hide the scar under his chin. “You look as if I should.”
“All will know my name in time,” Arkady answered him. “For now I am Lady Arkady, queen of rivers climbing north, queen of terror land.”
“Terror land?” Peter looked back at his soldiers, who shrugged in turn. “Where is terror land?”
“You know it,” Arkady insisted, eyes narrowing. “I’ve made sure the stories have reached far and wide and even deep. Those once barren stretches are now fed with red rivers. No longer can it be called Tellard’s Land.”
“Strange, because it is called that,” Peter countered. “Has been for a century.” Lady Arkady’s reaction made the golden crocodile on her head bare its fangs, but before she could unsheathe her own weapon the third waterfall opened. A pompous man in jangling finery almost stepped over the muddy line, but one of his three guards threw an arm across his chest to stop him.
“Don’t touch me!” he chastised the guard, bopping him on the head with a golden scepter. This man, marked a king by his crown, was rather tall and pale with a wiggling wisp of white beard like an albino serpent coiled for a strike. “I am King Daffodil.” He paused for applause, but there was none. He continued the pause to allow the extra moment kneeling would require, but there was even less of that.
“King of where?” Lady Arkady asked, practically licking her lips at this crystal of sugar atop a confection of a kingdom begging to be devoured.
“You should be asking king of when,” a new voice advised. They all turned to the fourth fall as its last drops fell. The man who had spoken was clearly another king, though he was accompanied by his queen in addition to two knights bearing strange flags depicting a dragon eating its own tail and a question written along the curves of its body: Dare ye ride the Dragon of Time?
The king and queen wore simple robes of blue and green, but the colors were so bright the other three bands winced at the sight of them. They appeared to have a strange texture, much too soft to hold up to even the safe relaxed routine of a royal’s court.
“What do you mean? Who are you?” Peter asked the late arrival.
“I am King Chadwick, and this is my queen, Muriel of Scott’s Dale. What I mean to say is that we have been… invited here not only from different lands, but from different years as well. Tell me, what year was it when you last walked the ground you intended to walk?”
“1356,” Peter Iconius stated.
“1410,” Lady Arkady corrected.
“1668,” King Daffodil declared after one of his more educated guards whispered it in his ear. He then giggled smugly when he realized he had said the highest number.
“It is impossible,” Peter claimed.
“Impossible for humans!” another new voice boomed, but it came from everywhere, rippling off the walls as if they were the vocal cords of a giant. It was a magnificently deep and rich sound like rain into an empty barrel. They searched for its source, finding a spot on the wall between Arkady and Daffodil that swelled like rising dough.
A force pushed through, fluidly reshaping the stone, squeezing the entrances on either side. The rock flowed right over their muddy lines, forcing them to shuffle backward. Their legs might have been entombed forever if they hadn’t followed their instructions properly. The lady and the vapid king barely had room to squeeze their heads out through the folds in the stone when the swelling ripped open and revealed their host.
None had seen the likes of this beast before. It stood upon four column-like legs and dragged a tail thicker around than Peter’s chest. Ten men could easily ride upon its back, though they would not do so comfortably thanks to a row of spines that shined like cuticles and two folded wings tipped in sickle claws. Its head like an anvil, supporting it seemed an incredible task that its horse-like neck was barely up to. Stocky shoulders jutted out with more spines like the devil’s parapets.
Most notable was the monster’s musculature, which was exaggerated enough to be comical, if anyone dared to laugh that is. Anywhere that wasn’t spine was bulge. They could practically hear the fibers of its flesh tense like rope every time it moved. These engines of raw bursting power were barely contained in a coat of strained blue scales, the most lustrous of armor. It opened its mouth full of sabers, a strange smell of overturned rock on its breath, and then the dragon spoke.
“Greetings mortal morsels. I am brawny blue Blerkafeld. It is I who have brought you here. I trust your journey was confusing but harmless.”
“Harmless?” Peter interrupted. It was prophesied he would one day be killed by a mighty animal that certainly wasn’t a bear, and he had long vowed not to fear the creatures of the Earth, regardless of the form they took. “You took the land out from under us. My people are surrounded by trees they’ve never seen. The very stars have moved!”
“Why have you done this?” Lady Arkady added. “If you mean to devour us just be done with it. We shall see who you choke on.”
“Temper, temper,” the dragon cooed. “Don’t be in such a hurry to get eaten; I am more than willing.” King Daffodil’s guards recoiled at the single drop of saliva that fell from his blue lips. “If you behave you can avoid that fate. Long have I yearned to have a kingdom of my own, and now that I have become unstoppably powerful, I will have it.”
“Then… we are to be your… subjects?” Queen Muriel asked.
“Some of you, yes,” Blerkafeld answered. “As you’ve seen, time, and distance, and rock are no barriers to me. I want only the best of you humans to worship me, so I have pulled each candidate village from a different time and place. You will compete in events of my choosing.”
“Compete!?” Daffodil squawked. “What happens to all of these losers then?”
“Snacks, if I’m hungry. A fate perhaps worse than death if I’m not. Let it serve as incentive to do your best. At the end what remains of your populations will blend, we will build a new village in my honor, and you will by my servants and companions for all eternity.”
“And should we refuse?” King Chadwick asked.
“You shouldn’t.” The dragon’s breath sighed from his gaping mouth as blue-gray mist, its curls moving through the cat-like hooks of flesh covering his tongue. All around them the stone began to deform and melt, sealing the connections. “Return to your people and tell them to prepare. I will be by to tell you about the first event. Good luck.”
The last misshapen hole closed, leaving King Chadwick, Queen Muriel, and their two guards alone in a tunnel with a ceiling now so low they had to crouch. They rushed back the way they came, the queen cursing as she struggled to keep her dress out from under her feet. After several minutes they made their way out of the gray flank of the oddly uniform mountain, like a fortification wall that had folded itself into a cone.
Again they stared up its sheer side into the unfamiliar sky. The very air felt different there. Chadwick’s kingdom held many travelers, but none of them claimed to feel at home with this breath in their lungs. It smelled of nothing and tasted like the dryness of fitful sleep.
The trees looked old, but were oddly spaced, none growing over each other or touching leaves. It was as if the craftsman of this place had taken one look at their tangled roots and decided it was not worth the time to fit them together, so they were instead planted just far apart enough to fit. That at least made them easier to navigate than the interior of the semi-liquid mountain Blerkafeld apparently nested in. The king and queen followed the markers they had placed on the trunks to lead them back to their people.
The entire population of the village, all three hundred and thirteen of them, were waiting at the welcoming gates for their return, hands wringing nervously. They all stood as one in anxious fear: blacksmiths, cooks, painters, servers, performers, animal trainers, jewelers, bakers, and even those that carted off the trash.
“Well!?” one of them couldn’t resist shouting when the king and queen stood before them in silent torment.
“A… magical dragon has brought us here,” Chadwick declared. Their confusion took the form of gaping quiet and rapid blinking. “He used… time travel I guess. He talks too… and he wants us to compete with kidnapped primitives for a chance to be his slaves for the rest of our lives. If we fail we’ll probably be killed or eaten.”
“And,” Muriel added, “he does not appear to know about us.”
“He doesn’t know we’re just a Renaissance fair!?”
The Contest of Splintering Speed
Blerkafeld had spoken. The first contest was to be a joust. Each of the four villages would send one competitor. It was just the introductory event, and he assured them the others that followed would involve far more of their number. Everyone at the Drumstick Castle Renaissance fair had a chance to confirm their captor’s existence for themselves, as he flew overhead frequently, his gusts ripping their pinwheels out of the ground and frightening all the goats in the petting zoo into endless bleating.
When he landed he informed them that he noticed their lovely arena, complete with crowd seating, so they would be the hosts of the joust, and in just five hours time. As soon as he had gone to inform the other factions the attendees burst into a flurry of activity, doing everything they could to hide their modern technology.
Tarps were thrown over generators, flatiron grills, and deep fryers. The portable toilets were thankfully already disguised as small striped tents. The king decreed that all smartphones, quite useless for communication without even a single bar of service in this medieval hellscape, were to be thrown into a barrel so none would be tempted to use them during the event.
Chadwick’s authority was dubious at best, but he was wearing a crown and he did know how to issue orders, both of which he did in their time of crisis. His thirty years of experience as a hot tub salesman weren’t relevant here, but he had served Drumstick Castle competently for almost half as long in the springs and autumns. He chose as their champion Carter Druckman, the most experienced jouster in the fair, over Druckman’s many objections.
“I told you,” the pretend knight whined at the foot of his king’s plywood throne. “They only taught me how to lose at jousting! I’m the crimson knight! The fiend drenched in his enemy’s blood? I talk big, I talk foul, and then I get knocked off my horse. The skill comes in not breaking my neck.”
“That’s a good start,” Chadwick told the young man. “Keep doing the part where you don’t die. Then just invert the rest.”
“Are you hearing yourself right now?” Carter’s voice cracked. He was barely out of college, and even younger than that suggested considering he dropped out to pursue his dual loves of horseback riding and disappointing his water filter CEO father. “That doesn’t make any sense. I’m just going to lose, and then I’m going to get eaten by an actual freaking dragon!”
“Carter,” Muriel said. She stepped down from her throne and crouched down next to his kneel, though it was terror rather than respect that had brought him that low. With a hand on his shoulder she stared into his wide eyes. “You’re strong enough to hold the lance up, right?”
“Well yeah,” he admitted.
“Then you’re already stronger than most of us. Plus, you know your horse. What’s its name?”
“His name is Granola.”
“See? You know Granola. You are our best hope. Whatever you face… I think we’re all going to face it in some form. Wouldn’t you rather it be the task where you’re with Granola? Who knows what else the dragon will come up with. The next one might be a dung-eating contest just to humiliate us.”
“I didn’t think of that.” Carter’s armor clanked as he clapped his fist against his breastplate. “My king, my queen. I will ride under our banner.”
“Good!” the king declared. “Go get ready.” The knight did so as the queen returned to her throne and rubbed her forehead. She slid deep into the chair.
“Don’t slouch when Blerkafeld gets here,” Chadwick warned. “Real queens don’t slouch.”
“Shut up Chad,” Muriel moaned. “I don’t know how you’re enjoying this.”
“I think we’ve been training to enjoy it for years. Most people come and go, content with one day of smelling horse shit and getting chased by wasps. Not us. We revel in it. It would be cowardly to suddenly pretend, now that it’s real, that we don’t like it.”
“Still, take it seriously. I mean, Scott’s Dale?”
“Did you want me to tell that blue Schwarzenegger gecko you’re from Scottsdale, Arizona?”
“What do you think will happen if he finds out our year is 2017?” the queen asked. The king started buffing his scepter with an abrasive pad; he had to get the manufacturer’s sticker off.
“I don’t think he’ll be happy. You heard him. He wants to be a god. I’m not going to be the first one to tell him he made a mistake. He wanted pea-brained villagers awed by his speech when most of them can’t even read. We’re from a time where nobody even thinks dragons are real. He’d probably just dump us all at once and pretend we didn’t happen.”
“Would that be good? He might just put us back where we came from.”
“No… No. He doesn’t like work. That surprises me since he looks like he hits the dragon equivalent of a gym every half hour for a few wing squats. It’s probably just his genes. There’s a breed of cattle… I think they’re called Belgian blue. They’re all muscle like him but they still just lay around and act like cows all day. Blerkafeld will just do what’s easiest. Bury us with a breath like he was about to in the mountain.”
“I wish Jamie was here. She only went out to the car to get the camera… and that had to be the moment everyone inside the fairgrounds was… whatever that was.”
“It felt like being flushed down a toilet made of clouds,” Chadwick recalled, almost wistfully, despite it being less than a day behind them, if a day meant anything in the Kidnapt Valley. “I’m sure your wife is fine. Besides, if you’d gotten your way she’d be stuck in the dragon’s teeth too.”
“Don’t start Chad.”
“You started it!” the king blurted. “Took it all the way to the owners last year. You thought Jamie should have my crown and it should be the queen and queen of Drumstick Castle. Because that would be so authentic.”
“It wasn’t about being authentic,” she snapped. “She’s prettier than you. People would like looking at her more. It would be good for the fair’s aesthetic.”
“I am the rightful king, and I am plenty pretty thank you very much.”
“You’re the king because the owners are bigots. I don’t mind being the queen though. It’s not my crown everyone will come after if we lose this joust.” The king didn’t respond, and eventually they had to make their way to the arena and prepare for their guests.
Blerkafeld required every human soul to be in attendance, and even Drumstick Castle’s bleachers couldn’t contain them all. Peter, Arkady, and Daffodil all arrived with their processions well before the dragon, leaving the mortals to squabble over seats and places in the dust to stand.
Peter’s band were mostly fur clad barbarians. Arkady had sleek assassins in leather armor or little but tattoos. Daffodil’s troupe was full of jesters and citizens forced to dress in a similar fashion to amuse their ruler. Different as they looked, they all shared a sense of smell that was very suspicious of the aroma lingering in Drumstick Castle.
“Do you not intend to serve us any food?” King Daffodil was the first to protest when his portable throne was carried to the side of King Chadwick’s and Queen Muriel’s viewing booth. Peter and Arkady chose to stand on the opposite side, but they seconded the thought.
“That would be very rude,” Arkady growled with narrowed eyes.
“Is that smell food?” Peter asked the king. “I’ve never smelled its like. It’s like… meat… but it bleeds oils instead of red.”
“It is food,” Chad admitted, “but I fear the sustenance of our time is too different from that of yours. It’s really quite bad for the health, but it’s all we have. Our stomachs have adjusted, but it could cause yours great pain.” Peter took a deep breath through his nose that could’ve inflated a woolly mammoth pool toy.
“I’ll take my chances,” he said. With no recourse obvious, Chadwick quietly ordered that several of the deep fryers be fired up again. They needed only enough to feed the leaders and their servants. Despite the size of the order only requiring the stand called Sizzling Serfs to be brought into action, it alone increased the scent on the wind dramatically.
Peasants from all ages moved their heads about like probing storks, sniffing the air, whispering to each other. Some attempted to wander away in search of its source, and were held at bay with plastic spears. One miscalculated poke and they could’ve realize how toothless Drumstick Castle was.
Only one soul in the arena was not intrigued or enticed by the smell, a chubby girl, barely a teenager, in seat C34. There were no costumes that fit her diminutive size, so she’d been forced to keep a pony blanket wrapped around her shoulders as a cloak to hide the cartoon characters on her shirt. A mean man from the blacksmith stall where they hammered out necklaces made her rub mud all over her sparkly red shoes so they wouldn’t glitter.
She was Gemma, and she hated history the way only a child could. It was over, so what was the point in giving it the attention it had already had? Other ages had their chance. Drumstick Castle was the most mixed of bags for her, for while the costumes and all the thees and thous in the performers’ speech irritated her to no end, she was just as passionate about the snacks.
There was one stall that sold ice cream in waffle cones shaped like parapets, and they had strange flavors catering to adult tastes like clove and rosewater. Gemma came every year to be adventurous with one of those flavors, and once her curiosity was sated she would cleanse her palate with all the usual staples: funnel cake, turkey legs, hot dogs, little fruit pies, and haystacks of french fries with buckets of ketchup. It was a binge that lasted all day, but only one day, as that was all she could stand both in terms of medieval showmanship and saturated fats.
Now the smell was making her sick, forcing her head down between her knees on the uncomfortable wooden bleachers. She never knew how important a part her father’s grilled vegetables played in getting her back to her usual routine until she lacked them the night after the festivities.
Barfing felt inevitable. Perhaps getting her mind on something else, like a game on her phone, would’ve kept it from happening, but it was sitting at the bottom of a barrel somewhere. She knew she couldn’t watch the joust, because the dumb horses always pooped right in the middle of the show, even though they knew how dramatic it was supposed to be. Seeing that would open the floodgates as well.
The master of the land arrived, touching down in the sand of the arena with a gritty splash. He folded his wings and pranced back and forth like a show pony, his voice booming. There would be just two matches, Chadwick’s champion against Peter’s and Arkady’s against Daffodil’s. Horse and rider would continue to loop around the raised bar at the center of the arena until a rider was tossed. Then the two losers would finally be helpful, demonstrating the consequences of disappointing their new god.
With the stands full the dragon decided to watch from the sidelines, sitting on his haunches like a massive hound, tail swishing back and forth in the dirt and sand. It was time to begin. King Chad stood to make a speech of his own, but Muriel pulled him back into his seat.
“Don’t draw attention to us,” she warned him in a whisper.
“Kings open ceremonies,” he countered, “it’s more suspicious if I don’t.” Before he could rise again the riders beat him to the punch, appearing from under the wooden archway that held up their thrones. Lady Arkady’s rider and King Daffodil’s circled the arena waving flags, their respective peoples cheering for them and taunting the other.
The horse and woman representing Arkady bore little decoration, save for beaded chains of silver and gold on the saddle and veil. The lance she had was covered in long spines, the sort of thing that could keep a man in the air even after knocking him from his horse.
Opposite her rode a knight in full armor, helmet absurdly shaped like the head of a duck. Each plate was painted in a hideous pastel shade, no rhyme or reason to the placement of each color. His horse was burdened with a woven blanket every bit as gaudy, and a full mask for its face. Bells were tied into its mane and tail, making a terrible racket with each step.
“Let me apologize for having to beat you so severely,” King Daffodil told the tattooed woman smugly. “Normally I’m a very peaceful man.”
“We could use some peace,” was the lady’s only reply as she shoved her fingers in her ears to silence the bells. She didn’t have to put up with them for long however. Both horses stood at opposites ends and sides of the bar for but a moment before the dragon roared at them to charge. The animals galloped through Blerkafeld’s own footprints with enough power to erase them.
The woman rider let loose a war cry, her pastel opponent a typical tearful cry in response. He cowered at the last moment, dropping his lance and scrunching up into a ball that very quickly fell from the saddle. The only impressive aspect of his performance was the distance he rolled before unfurling.
“You imbecile!” Daffodil howled, red in the face. He stood, two servants alongside to fan his face with fronds. Lady Arkady said nothing and eyed the exit, only the prospect of the strange new food keeping her there. Blerkafeld was licking his lips as well.
The dragon took briefly to the wing, swooping down before anyone could declare an official victor. The cowardly knight was still resting in the sand, limbs splayed, when the buff shadow came over him. He had only time to retract into his defensive ball once more before the beast scooped him up in his maw like a pelican skimming a fish from the surface of the sea.
The knight didn’t even have time to stop crying and start screaming. Blerkafeld flew back to his patch on the sidelines and landed. There was no lump moving down his throat, no blood on his teeth. The silenced spectators did see a sparkle, something like orange-gold sand pouring from between his teeth, but only briefly. It didn’t really look like Daffodil’s man had been devoured, but he had vanished into the monster’s mouth all the same, so they doubted the specifics made it a much better fate.
Lady Arkady’s champion turned her horse around as quickly as she could and disappeared into the archway while two attendants entered to wrangle the other horse. While that happened the food, fresh from the fryer, arrived. The two young cooks, both wondering if they would be compensated for this egregious overtime if they made it back over time itself to their own year, carried it on platters up the wooden steps to the hungry leaders.
The unfamiliar breading and its rich smell drove all thoughts of the dragon out of the medieval peasants’ minds. They got up from their seats and crowded as close to the archway as possible, some even grabbing at the server’s feet as they ascended. The rabble was blocked by one of Drumstick Castle’s security personnel, who usually worked as a bouncer. Apparently his particular stern expression must have been invented some time after the Renaissance, for it terrified the hungry more than any face should have and kept them at bay.
The trays passed under the noses of kings and queens. They didn’t recognize any of it for what it was, not the dark red Buffalo chicken tenders, not the greasy crown of the onion blossom, not the snowy knot of the funnel cake, and not the cream filled doughnut holes.
“The red ones are spicy,” Queen Muriel warned them.
“What even are the red ones?” Daffodil asked, scrunching his nose even as he leaned in and took one, holding it the way he might a dead lizard by the tail. “Not even my court magician Glamting has ever brought me such an oddity.” King Chad told him it was chicken, but the shape of the tender was more like a peninsula on a map than any cut he was familiar with.
It was Peter who took the first bite, into a wedge of fried onion, crunching through so many layers of breading that he paused halfway through to breathe. He chewed and swallowed. He grabbed more, and did mostly swallowing after that. Lady Arkady popped a doughnut hole in her mouth. When the cream exploded she reacted as if a bomb had gone off behind her teeth, reeling back and covering her mouth with her hands.
“You live… mmf… in a truly blessed land,” Peter told the lord and lady of Drumstick Castle. “Never have I had something so rich. Mmf. Never.” He was handed a wooden flagon of light beer with a twist of lime to wash it down. Instead he chose to keep the beverage in his mouth, cheeks puffed out, for the next few minutes while he contemplated every last bubble.
Gemma was left alone, head still between her knees, her section emptied by the crowding. A swollen shadow appeared over her as the wood groaned in agony. A curl of it landed on her knee, causing her to glance over and see the claw that had cut it trying to balance. The dragon finally managed to sit next to her, though he seemed almost as uncomfortable as the bleachers themselves.
“What’s the matter child? Are you not impressed by the spectacle?” he crooned.
“Jousts stink,” she said, too nauseous to even consider fear or fleeing. The dragon’s eyes narrowed.
“Horse poop,” she offered. “Plus they’re boring.”
“Boring! I’ve never heard a youth say such a thing. They are battles in miniature! Contests of bravery, skill, and showmanship! If this is dull, are you even capable of being entertained?”
“Yes,” she spat grumpily. “Jousting is over in like a second. It would be way better if you could watch it in slow-mo.”
“Slow-mo?” The dragon searched his memory, shaking his head after a moment as if catching a whiff of something foul. “That’s not a word.”
“Yes it is.”
“No, it isn’t. I should know. Do you know how hard it was to find a magic spell that let all of us understand each other here? Its incantation practically had all of the words that have ever been within in it, and there was no hyphen allowing me to stop and breathe either.”
“Slow-mo is…” Gemma trailed off. She remembered they weren’t supposed to tell Blerkafeld about anything from the modern day. “It means slow motion. It’s a magic that makes things go slower so you can see it better. We have it where I’m from.”
“Intriguing,” the monster muttered, but the next contest kept him from querying further. Peter’s champion and Carter of Drumstick Castle appeared from under the archway, taking a lap around the arena. Peter’s man wore no helmet, his face so covered in various overlapping scars that they looked like cushion enough should he fall. Tusks, horns, and bones were tied all around his fur lined saddle. He shouted and beat his chest with his free hand, all of those visiting from his village whooping in response.
Carter at least knew how to match the bravado in his crimson knight costume. He tugged his horse’s head this way and that with the reins, making it look like a coiled rattlesnake deciding where to strike. His scaled armor only added to the illusion. Both men went to their starting positions, waiting for the dragon’s order, but the beast was looking at the girl, at her bowed head, growing frustrated.
“You’re going to miss it,” he said through gritted fangs.
“I don’t care. There’s nothing to miss. I’m probably about to puke.”
“Because the food here sucks, and the horses suck, and all the dirt in the air sucks.”
“The Kidnapt Valley will be paradise. Everything will be provided for you, as long as you earn it with reverence. The lengths I went to-”
“To make me puke? Gee thanks.”
“Now you listen runt. I’d rather not spill child blood in the middle of the show, but you will watch. You will watch because…” His head whipped toward the riders. “Charge!” he roared, people clustering even tighter, horses almost scared from their positions. The riders obeyed as soon as their mounts were back under their control, barreling headlong toward each other, lances held high.
They kept their focus, even as the great shadow passed over them. Brawny blue Blerkafeld opened his maw once more, but he was too high to take them. Instead a stream of sand spewed forth from his tongue, raining down on the contestants. The hazy cloud it created dissipated quickly.
Pools of it caught in the chinks of Carter’s armor, and everyone could see them give way as he moved, could see every beautiful trickle of smooth gold-orange, like a liquid sunset. The detail was exquisite, and only possible because it took the man’s horse several seconds to get fresh hooves on the ground.
“We will enjoy this one in slow motion!” the dragon declared as he circled above. The people returned to their seats slowly, but not as slowly as their champions. None knew if it was appropriate to keep cheering, perhaps drawing it out as long as they could with a single breath. Instead they were silent.
The champions were twenty feet, and yet three full minutes, apart. The dragon now had plenty of time to crane his thick neck and see if Gemma was watching. She was. The sight suppressed her nausea, froze the emesis river solid with fear. It turned out there was a reason slow motion was safely contained within screens.
The knowledge that Carter was living it filled her with guilt and dread. Did he know it was happening, or was he still fully focused on his opponent? Did he feel it? Were simple physical acts like squeezing the reins turned into agony by their slowness? She couldn’t bear to watch continuously, not with their collision still two minutes away, so she looked at the sapphire mound of muscle soaring above on wings of black leather.
She didn’t know how he could do that to them. Obviously the sand was the cause, but she couldn’t think of any reason a dragon would be full of it. They were supposed to breathe fire. Blerkafeld’s dense body and taut hide even made him look like a vessel of fire, like a thick vase of colored glass Prometheus might have used to transport the flame he gave to man. Gemma didn’t know that story, but she thought something similar all the same. Perhaps, if he could hold fire, he was strong enough to hold anything else.
The lances touched, having the longest conversation between such a pair in history. The points slid past each other. Gemma whispered to the crimson knight, ordered him to get away from his foe’s lance, but there were so many ways in which he couldn’t hear her. Twenty seconds later the results became clear. Both lances struck true, but Carter’s attack was just a glancing blow. Peter’s man was already twisting on his saddle, letting the weapon slide across his furs.
Carter took it squarely on the sternum. He leaned, leaned, leaned, and then fell, fell, fell. His horse Granola left him behind, peeling off to the side. The man hung there in the air, limbs up, like a flower falling from its tree, petals dragged by rushing air. It took so long that King Chadwick grew frustrated, getting up from his throne and leaving. The queen stayed, shedding tears, enough time to relive the entire conversation where she convinced him to participate.
Blerkafeld cut the defeat short. He landed next to the falling body, but didn’t immediately snatch it in his mouth as he did before. Instead he circled, smirking, watching the faces of all his captives like a child waiting for jarred fireflies to flash. When he was satisfied with their awe he opened wide.
Another stream of sand, much thinner and lighter than before, curled off his tongue like the wind whipping up dust. The particles encircled Carter, and then they took him. He slowly swirled away, out of Kidnapt Valley, fading like something sinking. He made not a sound, and he never touched the ground.
The onlookers were too stunned to break the silence. It was Peter’s champion who did so, as the slowing finally ceased and his war cry returned to an audible frequency. He was very confused, but still rode away swiftly to escape Blerkafeld’s presence. It wasn’t necessary, as his attention was on Gemma. Without a word to his many other subjects, he walked over to the bleachers and ascended them, up to her little face drained of color.
“You’re right. That was much less dull.” Then she saw a dragon smile, and learned it was the worst thing to see.
The Contest of Heavy Footfalls
The Dragon of Time was not the dragon of time that swept them away to the valley. The name and theme of the roller coaster was an odd coincidence to be sure, but now that they knew they were no longer in their own year they saw it as a sign. They would survive, and leave their mark on the past, and somehow their story would eventually lead to the owners of Drumstick Castle taking it as inspiration for their biggest, funnest, rustiest ride.
Little Luke Battence stood under its metal web of supports, as he often did once there was nobody to tell him to get away. He sighed, reaching up and touching the tips of its resin claws. The train of carts was molded to look like a dragon, much greener and slimmer than Blerkafeld. He doubted the blue menace could perform such graceful loop-de-loops, of which the Dragon of Time did three on a single lap around its course.
The boy sighed again. It had stopped in the middle of a run, its occupants forced to clamber down. It was too high for him to sit in, although he wasn’t sure if that would make it better or worse. For three years now, every time his mother took him to Drumstick Castle, he had tried to board the Dragon of Time and journey into two full minutes of eternity with it.
It was supposedly quite the thrilling experience, one for the ages, but those ages were thirteen and up. He was only ten, and remarkably short for his age. The ride’s entrance was guarded by a plywood sign, Father Time with his arms out like clock hands, and if you couldn’t rise above the left hour arm you weren’t tall enough to ride.
He didn’t make it at eight, or nine, or that year either. Perhaps time wasn’t passing for him. That was why the wait felt so long. Why his new braces felt like they had been squeezing his teeth for a century already.
Blerkafeld provided an opportunity. There were other concerns now, so nobody was guarding the dragon’s back. Unfortunately, the beast had no power. All the generators had been moved and reassigned to the things that kept them alive. The dragon was forced into slumber. So all he could do was stand under it, look at its scaly belly between the tracks, and keep dreaming.
His mother had left him there for the moment, something about an important meeting. He didn’t know enough about adults to question what an important meeting was to a face painter, but he didn’t mind as long as he was in the shadow of his ultimate goal. His mother’s name was Lilandra, and she was nearly as much of a staple at the fair as King Chadwick himself, making the guests look like dragons, or cats, or wolves, or fairies, or the undead, whatever they desired, with just a few deft brushstrokes.
She was so efficient that she was able to paint the face of everyone in the coup in under an hour so they could tell their allies from their foes. She had a good plan, but it still got messy, spilling into the ride section and around the Dragon of Time. Luke’s meditation on the unattainable was interrupted by someone bumping into his back, forcing him deeper under the tracks and beams.
Someone fell into the grass next to him, their face smearing. He still recognized his mother’s work: owl eyes and beaky nose. More such faces surrounded him, but they were too busy to pay any attention. Fists were flying. Boots attacked shins. Some were swinging metal replicas of medieval weaponry, not sharp, but still more than heavy enough to deal serious damage. A sword clanged against one of the coaster’s many legs.
“Don’t break it!” the boy screamed at the swordsman, but there was too much commotion for anyone to care. They disrespected the ride further, climbing up into its structure either to avoid attacks or jump down onto enemy shoulders. The owl-faces were all in it together, forming tight clusters to push back those unadorned. They’d had more than enough of King Chadwick’s incompetence. It had gotten poor Carter killed, or sent to the Dark Ages, or twisted in the passages of time. Whatever it was it was almost certainly bad, and certainly an impeachable offense.
Lilandra Battence nominated herself as his replacement, and she had the support of the embittered but beloved Queen Muriel. None of them wanted it to be a fight, but they were correct in assuming Chad would not abdicate. He reasoned that he had done a perfectly good job up to that point with no fatalities, and one mistake did not warrant stepping down. He would not listen to the notion that there had never been something quite so fatal hanging about until that year’s festivities.
“Guards!” he had squawked as soon as the owl-faces encroached. There were people who were technically paid to stand around him dressed as armored guards, but they didn’t exactly jump to his defense. They got there eventually, confused, but still capable of putting themselves between the throne and the attackers.
They too shouted when the owl-faces got pushy, drawing in those loyal to the king. Many of them were of the oldest generation of regulars, but that still included blacksmiths, glassblowers, tanners, smokers, and leather workers. Their strong ropy physiques made an intimidating force. The first punch was thrown, and Drumstick Castle fell into chaos.
Luke was caught in waves of it, cornered under the Dragon of Time, forced to dive into the grass repeatedly to avoid several smaller scuffles. Eventually he was pushed up against a wooden fence that bordered the ride, with nowhere to go but up. With shaking hands he climbed the metal struts until he stood atop the dragon’s track.
A sense of calm came over him as he carefully walked along it, looking down at the people clashing in the gaps. He was on a different plane, like being outside of time and being able to check any moment he wanted, the whole world a film strip. This was just a taste too. If he rode the dragon at full speed it would surely be transcendent.
He bumped into its tail, crawled into its back cart, ran his hands along the safety bar. What a magnificent creature. Benevolent. Nothing like Blerkafeld. That dragon liked to slow time, chop it up, shuffle it around. He was making a time salad and they were just the croutons. It was so selfish, so disrespectful, so built on egotistical instinct. Luke made his way to the head cart and leaned over the side to whisper into its red mane, where ears might have been hidden.
“You’re the real dragon. They can’t keep me from you forever. You’re the forever.”
“Luke Maxwell Battence!” an owl screeched from directly beneath him. He leaned further and saw his mother’s face underneath orange round eyes and a sharp silvery beak. The other owls had eyes the color of moonlight, but something had to distinguish their leader, fearless except when her youngest delicate son was perched on the fanged lip of a roller coaster that should have been decommissioned, taken out back, and shot a decade ago. “Get down from there right now!”
The woman she was battling didn’t care about her parenting moment, continuing to throw punches that were dodged by just a feather. Lilandra grabbed her hair and pulled, both of them forced to the grass in a ball.
“It’s not even on Mom!” Luke shouted back. “I’m just sitting in it!”
“Now Luke! You’re not old enough! Let go of me you stupid bitch!” Two more owls appeared at her side and pulled the other woman away. They were gaining the upper hand, as reinforcements from the costume rentals had arrived with plenty of rope belts to bind the Chad loyalists. It was over before Luke hit the grass, his mother yanking him off the final beam and to her side.
“I can’t leave you anywhere,” she muttered, dragging him by the hand out from under the groaning beast. He certainly thought it irrational, especially given that she took him from his peaceful tête-à-tête to a gathering that looked like it could veer headlong into an execution at any moment.
King Chad was stripped of his cape and crown, made to kneel outside the fake dungeon cells. Normally they were a photo opportunity, the bars wide enough for people to slip their heads through and smile. The gap was large enough that children could slip through entirely, but not someone Chad’s size.
“This will not go unpunished!” the man shouted, head swinging in a wide arc so he could include nearly the whole population of the fair in his threats. “I have a divine right to rule! That’s why I was elevated into the position those years ago! That’s why Blerkafeld pulled me from all of time!”
“Just shut up Chad,” Muriel urged. “He’s gone a little nuts everybody, I’m sorry. Lilandra will take his place. She has seniority among the employees who aren’t Chad or me.” There were few objections, given that the role would require interfacing with the blue beast himself. Even those who had fought on Chad’s side were immediately released and told they could just go back to their business if they didn’t start anything. None of them insisted on kneeling with their ruler.
“You cowards!” he excoriated them as they walked away. “I’ll tell Blerkafeld you’re the tastiest of all! I’ll have him throw you bit by bit into the fryers!”
“Chad,” Muriel scolded him like a toddler, “if you don’t calm down we’re going to put you in the dungeon.”
“I don’t care where you put me you traitor!” he snarled. “You were my queen, you were supposed to support me!”
“I think you’ve had a little too much support,” she groaned, looking around for anyone willing to follow an actual order. “Alright… whoever puts him in the dungeon gets immunity from the next challenge, if we can grant it.” Plenty of volunteers stepped forward. When he was safely locked away, with a padlock meant for a trailer, the crowd disbanded. For hours he sat in the straw, head pushed through the bars, screaming at them until he was too hoarse to form words.
“There is only one King Chadwick! The once and future king!”
Gemma was dragged to the foot of Molded Mountain by a filthy hand on her shoulder. That was what people had taken to calling the rising stone cone the dragon dwelt in, on account of the way it sometimes changed shape when the beast was making modifications. The young girl had never approached it herself until now, but she guessed the strange barrier in front of her was a new addition.
Something magical, that was the only way she could describe it, blocked her and her captor from proceeding onto the actual rock. It was the same orange-gold as the sands that had swept away Carter. It moved like the trails of smoke you only see from a distance, the lingering threats of a fire with no flames left to its name.
“What’s this then?” the smelly man holding her grumbled. The odor was fish, acceptable given that he was a fisherman, unacceptable given that the Kidnapt Valley didn’t seem to have any bodies of water containing live fish.
The fellow normally wasn’t brave enough to willingly approach such a place, but when his son was being tempted into witchcraft by a trollop from another land he felt forced to act. As a subject of the ruthless Peter Iconius, he didn’t think he’d ever have to deal with intruders, yet he had found his poor boy wrapped in Gemma’s clutches as she mesmerized him with a hexed box of some sort, full of evil light.
In reality she had just been looking for food, and had wandered into Peter’s territory hoping they had vegetables that weren’t coated in oil. She met the boy as he was playing with sticks and decided to show him her phone. He was incredulous, enthralled by the games and sounds and pictures.
“Excuse me!” the fisherman shouted at the mountain. “I don’t mean to disturb you, lord dragon, but I’ve got something here that might concern you!” They waited. Suddenly the magic barrier dissipated, but only along one small section. The stone side of the peak swirled and opened, somewhere between whirlpool and door. Out walked Blerkafeld, his thick claws scraping across the rock with each tree trunk step.
“Why do you disturb your master?” the creature demanded. “The race is not for hours yet.”
“I’m aware your lordship,” the fisherman said, casting his eyes down so he didn’t have to see the sparkle on the dragon’s saber teeth. “I caught this girl sneaking around. Says she’s from the Chadwick kingdom.”
“Now it’s the Lilandra queendom,” she corrected.
“Shush witch! You see she was vexing my son with witchcraft, and I thought it best you know about anyone else trying to use magic around here. I assumed it was your domain alone.”
“You assumed correctly,” Blerkafeld said. His pupils narrowed to daggers. “How fortunate for you. I will handle this. Leave her with me and return home.” The man bowed and thanked him, relinquishing his grip and scurrying back into the forest as fast as he could. “I remember you. Slow motion girl. Come.”
Gemma had no choice but to follow, occasionally ducking under or hopping over his great tail as it swished. The tunnel they entered was circular, and only wide enough to accommodate him. She heard his heavy breath echoing, and each time he exhaled the stone flowed shut behind them, like waves of honey from a jar being tipped back and forth.
Eventually they reached a chamber much larger than the one where the kidnapped kings and rulers had first met. Stalactites hung in clusters, big enough to impale elephants were they to fall. She expected to hear dripping as she looked up at them, but the cave was very dry. She bent down and felt the rippling rock floor, amazed by its smoothness.
“Come and sit,” Blerkafeld urged when she fell behind. He dropped onto his stomach in an alcove of particularly fluid looking rock, the stalagmites merging with its back wall and forming something like a banister. Gemma spied something sticking out from between the spires, the tops of two somethings to be exact. Something flat made of dark wood. Something round made of white glass. Both much larger than her.
“What are those?” she asked, pointing as she walked to the dragon’s side.
“None of your business,” he told her, tapping her with the tip of his tail to knock her onto her bottom. “Now, show me your witchcraft.” She pulled out her smartphone and showed it to him. Blerkafeld couldn’t make out the details on its screen, so he crawled forward like a stalking cat for a better look. There was a glowing picture of a person mid-leap, loosing some kind of leathery ball. He also saw the time displayed in the corner, saw a minute tick over.
“What is that?” he asked.
“That’s number thirty-five. She’s my favorite player in the WNBA.”
“How does this item know the time? And how does it change it?”
“I don’t know; it’s just a clock.”
“It is not magical then?”
“No. Like, clocks used to be made out of little cogs and springs and stuff, but now they’re made out of… electrified metal… and stuff.” She remembered her vague instructions not to tell Blerkafeld they were from a distant future. “That’s just how they do it where I live. We’re pretty ahead of everybody else.” The dragon didn’t appear to believe her, so he sniffed at the phone with such force it nearly lodged in a nostril.
“It doesn’t smell of magic,” he noted. “Show me how it works.” Gemma did as asked, using her index finger to open and close various applications. It received no signals from the regular world, so its functionality was limited. Still, the calculator and photo editing functions drew his interest, at least until he spied an icon of a golden coin. “What is that one there?”
“Oh that just makes it rain.”
“Rain? In here?” He looked around for any black cloud vermin hiding in his stalactites.
“That’s just an expression. It makes it rain money. It’s so you can pretend you’re rich.” She tapped it; the screen was quickly overtaken by a waterfall of shiny yellow coins. The dragon waited for the flow to end, the bucket to run dry, but it didn’t stop.
“How many are there?”
“Yeah they don’t run out as long as my ph- clock thing stays electrified. If it stops you can refill it.” In order to confirm what she said he watched the coins fall, for two hours. Gemma was holding the phone up to his eyes the whole time and her arm quickly grew tired, but each time it slumped he breathed hot air under it to convince her to bring it back up, lest it drop into a maw full of swords.
“I’ve always sought the infinite,” he whispered after a feature length show of the glittering tinkling falls. “My kind doesn’t accept death, or any of the simpler limits. We fight against them, tooth, claw, and tail, for the riches of life to go on and on. I plundered the sky and the veil separating each second from the last to make this place, yet you humans have come nearly as close with simple clock-making.”
“I mean, you have to be pretty smart to make one of these things.”
“That means very little coming from a larvae like you,” Blerkafeld spat, but his eyes rounded when he noticed her pouting expression. “People fear dragons because they see our anger at the limits as anger aimed at them, which it is, but only to a degree, only because so few of you die in clawing screaming desperation, which is the way of those who truly value life.”
“I promise I’ll scream at somebody when I die,” Gemma offered. Her stomach grumbled audibly.
“You’ve reached one of your limits already,” the dragon sighed. “Leave me, and get yourself a meal. I will be keeping your clock.” She knew better than to argue, so she set it down just under his chin and turned around. A hole opened in the rock. “You can find your way back yes?”
“I don’t know.”
“I have faith in you lar-”
“Very well, Gemma. Be gone.” She only shuffled a short distance before her curiosity got the better of her. Over her shoulder she saw Blerkafeld’s head was down, eyes as close to the little screen as he could manage with such a prominent snout. As long as she headed toward the hole in the wall she was leaving, it wouldn’t matter if it was at a wider angle to peek behind the stone columns.
The giant item in the front was a sphere of glass sitting on a pedestal formed straight out of the rock that looked like a stump. Inside swirled a luminous blue and white dust, slow and flat, in an image she recognized: a galaxy. Stars twinkled. Staring at its glowing center made her feel as if she was hovering.
Past that, through the clear parts of it, she saw an hourglass comparable in size. Its contents flowed as expected, but the color struck her, identical to what issued forth from Blerkafeld’s mouth at the joust. Looking at the steady descent of its grains made her feel shriveled. Several of her joints popped. These sensations combined left her in a husk-like state, her self-image reduced to an empty yellow cicada skin still clinging to a leaf as it drifted down a stream.
“Are you still here?” the dragon growled.
“No,” she squeaked, running to the exit.
The next contest came, but the dragon was sparse with the details. All the four settlements knew was when and where to arrive, and that it would be a race of some sort. Peter, Arkady, Daffodil, and the new team of Lilandra and Muriel all obeyed the instructions, bringing the vast majority of their people into the deepest and densest part of the woods.
Along the way they brushed up against what they believed to be the boundaries of the Kidnapt Valley. The trees grew over each other, and their bark was harder than stone, so the thorns growing on them were entirely unnecessary. None from any era had a clue what existed just beyond them, but they could sense that it wasn’t more land. Perhaps a void. Perhaps the underworld. Perhaps the end of the rainbow.
They expected their master to descend from the sky, blasting the canopy away with beats of his mighty wings, but he emerged from underground, a tunnel opening without requiring any digging of him.
“Good to see everyone again,” he crooned as he walked among the four factions, making sure everything was in order. He paused at Lilandra. “I heard there was a usurper. You speak for Drumstick Castle now?”
“I do,” she declared. “We come as we are as a sign of good faith.” Her face was painted in blue scales, with orange upon the lips. “Present eyes!” she ordered the modern folk, almost all of whom were wearing the same mask. They closed their eyes, showing the dragon that their lids were painted with colors and pupils to resemble his.
“A lovely tribute,” he coo-growled, “and it shows initiative somewhat lacking in you others,” he warned the more primitive peoples, “but it cannot affect the contests. Today, we will have a footrace.” He turned around, aiming his head at Lady Arkady’s people. Without warning he took a breath deep enough to fill a submarine.
It was the lady who had to shout for people to dive out of the way of his breath. The beast roared, a sound most deafening thanks to the way it combined with the cracking of the ground itself. The trees and ground alike were upended in a straight path that disappeared into the distance, growing wider and wider until it was as big as three of Blerkafeld’s wingspans. When the roar finally ended spires of stone settled on the sides at various angles, marking the boundaries of their racetrack.
“You’ll have to trust that there’s a marked finish line,” the dragon told them as the dust settled. “When I say, ten from each herd will start running. The last team to have five of their ten cross the finish will be… removed from the valley, and the herd they come from will fall in my estimations.”
“Bring me the scouts!” Peter Iconius shouted to his crowd.
“You didn’t let me finish little Peter,” Blerkafeld said with a sneer. “In the joust I saw all of you choose your best, but you are being judged on your overall quality. Today your worst will compete, and in a race that means the slowest.”
The dragon would choose the competitors that day, and he did so by wading through them, jabbing each one in the chest with the blunt end of his tail. Ten from Peter. Ten from the lady. It was three picks into King Daffodil’s team of ten where even the densest people realized what the monster was doing.
From each group he was selecting those that looked the heaviest, judging them to be the slowest. There were a few round stomachs from the relatively spoiled court of Daffodil, but the heaviest from Peter and Arkady were merely warriors built like barns that storms would break against. Several from the trans-fat sauna that was Drumstick Castle shuffled nervously. They knew that here the bounties of the twenty-first century would count against them.
Blerkafeld showed no mercy in his selection. A three hundred pound woman who worked the costume rentals. A four hundred pound man who tended the cages for the birds of prey show. The ten from the festival were much rounder and squishier than the rest, already embarrassed enough to avoid eye contact, but this just pleased the muscular blue dragon all the more.
“He’s the evil equivalent of a gym rat,” Queen Muriel whispered to Queen Lilandra. “Of course he’d pull a stunt like this. He’s laughing at us.”
“It is his party,” Lilandra said back through the side of her mouth. “What are we supposed to do about it?” Their selected subjects looked at them pitifully, like dogs begging to be let back inside, but they had no answer for them.
“Now everybody line up!” Blerkafeld ordered, swishing his tail across the dirt to make the starting line. All forty participants did so, those of Drumstick Castle clearly the most dejected. “I will observe from alongside. The rest of you remain here; I will escort the winners back.” He positioned himself alongside the track, posing like a greyhound pushing against his starting gate. “On your marks. Ready your pluck. And go!”
The people shouted encouragement as their runners took off, but it was drowned out by the dragon’s own enthusiasm. He was practically participating as he bounded along over the rocky railings. Every time his weight hit the ground it shook, making a few runners trip in the early stages.
“Come now. Is that really the best humans can do?” he mocked, laughing throatily. The dragon chased his own tail for a moment, turning around, running backward so he could see their miserable, sweaty, red faces. Springing like a startled cat, he leapt over the path in front of them and landed on the other side, surprising some Daffodil runners and forcing everyone into a cluster of shoving.
That didn’t last long, as Peter’s and Arkady’s competitors quickly pulled ahead of the other two. Even their slower members had much better endurance, and showed no signs of flagging. Blerkafeld stayed with those in the back; their suffering was much more savory than any victory would be.
“It’s sad to see how you’ve limited yourselves,” the beast teased the bird of prey handler. “Lugging that cow stomach around on such a tiny body. How will you ever get anywhere?” He didn’t respond to the insults, just as he never had when countless insufferable people asked if anybody in the real Middle Ages was his size.
Blerkafeld didn’t appreciate the cold shoulder, especially when every other part of him looked overheated, but he wasn’t so petty as to interrupt the race. He looked elsewhere for more vulnerable targets, but spotted Queen Lilandra at his side outside the track, keeping pace.
“You can do it!” she encouraged her runners.
“I told you to wait at the start,” the dragon grumbled.
“I will see my people to the finish,” she panted as she pumped her arms. “That’s what a leader does.” With immense courage she sped up, blowing right through the dragon’s bounding legs and leaving him behind. Her attitude only stoked his frustration, but his head was always full of ideas, the kind that went off with quite a bang.
“I think Peter and Arkady are nearly done already, so let’s make this lazy crawl a little more interesting!” the dragon shouted at his contestants. He entered the track, keeping just ahead of them, and took another one of his threatening deep breaths. Some stopped and cowered, covering their heads with their arms, but others kept going. It was perhaps Drumstick Castle’s only chance to catch up to Daffodil’s people.
If the dragon’s breath hadn’t gotten in the way they might have succeeded. From between his teeth came flowing streams, but not of orange-gold sand this time, now it was a ghostly blue. Its substance was more like silt suspended in water than before. It succumbed to gravity much more quickly, flowing across and affecting the ground under their feet.
The earth rumbled once more as a ramp of rock rose right in front of the raptor handler. He cursed his luck and did his best to chug up the incline as it steepened. The man made it, wheezing, but his only reward was a sharp downhill tumble that left him on his side.
“Hah! Look at them roll!” the dragon mocked. “How about this!” He breathed on the side of the track, causing it it to rise and curve. Several people had to take it in stride and run at an angle. A few more fell. “Now this is a race.” His creations grew only more intricate and difficult as they neared the finish line: sudden dead ends, unnecessary circles, crumbling bridges that rejoined the path violently, sometimes with one person collapsing onto another.
“You’re almost there!” Queen Lilandra shouted, but that was all she had to offer those lost in what quickly became a labyrinth. They all sensed the worst already. Too many of King Daffodil’s were ahead. There had to be something else their queen could do, especially after convincing them to don the dragon’s face only to sweat it off in humiliation. She searched for anything helpful, spotting something on the handler’s wrist as he stopped to squeeze through a gap Blerkafeld had raised just for him.
“It’s no use,” he huffed when Lilandra stopped alongside and peered through the railing separating them.
“Darryl, what’s that on your wrist?”
“What? It’s a step counter.”
“I have an idea. We can still do this, but you have to keep going! As fast as you can!”
“No! This is your life though, so maybe take my word for it! Go! Pretend you’re an eagle or something! You’re flying!”
“Falcons are faster.”
“A falcon then, just go!” She slapped the rock several times to urge him on. He took a deep breath of his own, calling on a second wind. He tore his shirt and skin squeezing through the rock fissure, but once he was clear he was moving faster than ever. The queen found every one of her people in earshot and told them the same things. Push. Run. There’s a chance. I promise.
The dragon pulled no punches near the end. A breath into the finish line, just in front of all of Peter and Arkady’s people who had already finished, caused spikes of rock to shoot out from random spots like geysers. The dodging slowed them all further, but one by one they crossed the finishing line. Nine of Drumstick Castle’s ten collapsed onto the ground while the beast laughed.
“The results are as expected,” he boomed. “Peter, Lady Arkady, and King Daffodil have proven themselves to be the least pathetically slow. Drumstick Castle’s waddling hogs did not. Now, for your punishment.” Magical blue drool fell from the side of his lip, making the ground ripple where it struck dirt.
“Wait!” the queen called out. “You’ve judged incorrectly!” She stepped between her people like they were landmines, finding Darryl. She quietly thanked him while he was catching his breath, taking the step counter from his wrist. She held it up to show the monstrous referee.
“And what is that?” he asked, walking to her, showing no regard for those collapsed that had to roll out of the way of his gargantuan claws. “Another one of your fancy clocks?”
“Uhh… yes. Except this does not measure time. It measures the steps you take. Do you know how long the course was?”
“Of course,” Blerkafeld growled. “One hundred and forty tails.”
“Okay then, hang on. I can… I have a thing…” The queen dug out her own phone, causing the dragon to audibly scoff. These devices were getting very tiring. Lilandra used an application to take a picture of Blerkafeld’s tail and estimate its length versus background objects. “That makes the length of the track 2100 feet.”
“And you made it longer for my people.” She turned and pointed behind them, at the various ramps and paths and obstacles the dragon had put up with his magic breath. “This,” she pointed at the step counter, “says that my bird handler went almost 400 feet further, and he crossed the finish line at the same time as that woman from King Daffodil’s village.”
“Get to your point.”
“All it takes is some simple math,” the queen claimed, hiding her own lack of advancement beyond high school algebra. “My man went further in the same amount of time, so if you divide properly, he was going faster than the person who finished at the same moment. And if he didn’t lose, maybe my others didn’t either. I just need you to provide the exact timing of all the finish line crosses and the exact length of all the obstacles you added.” The dragon did not appear amused, but he did appear to be quite a few other things. “You do have those… right?”
“I knew you did, because what kind of lord would put his subjects into a contest and then not keep track of every aspect of their performance? After all, if two people finish simultaneously you must know the times, down to the microsecond, to determine the winner. So, what about it?”
Blerkafeld sighed, blue fog leaking out of him like a Halloween cauldron. The various obstacles cracked and collapsed all around them. The track itself dissolved, the finish line disappearing into the dirt.
“Having technically avoided defeat, there will be no punishments for Drumstick Castle today,” the dragon announced. A few runners started crying, but even out of air they kept their gasping to themselves. “Such arguments will not carry sway the next time however.” He leaned his snout down, close enough for his breath to flatten Lilandra’s clothes against her chest. “And pretty faces won’t get you any further either.”
The Contest of Wobbling Futures
The Renaissance fair was alive with speculation. It had become clear that they could not win some of these competitions. Blerkafeld seemed suspicious of their nature, and interested in targeting them for removal specifically. Modern or not, they were human, and thus fully capable of targeting him just as much.
The runners offered the strange details to the rest of them. They’d all noticed how the dragon’s god-like powers seemed to come from his breath, and how, whatever he discharged, it certainly wasn’t fire.
At the joust his breath had manipulated the force of time, but at the race it altered the ground itself instead. They of course noticed the change in the substance’s color, orange to blue. It was Gemma who could offer the final clues, for Blerkafeld paid her an unannounced visit days before the next contest.
The lumbering beast could be heard through the rows of stalls, so false peasants scurried about throwing blankets and tarps over all the advanced machinery. One poor fellow, so poorly versed in actual history that he wasn’t sure if the Middle Ages included cash registers, waddled around with one in his arms, looking for a place to stash it. He settled the matter by throwing it into the mud near the potbellied pigs of the petting zoo.
Their vile lord found Gemma slapping a straw dummy with a wooden sword. She paid him no mind, for the dummy’s punishment wasn’t complete.
“What is he guilty of?” the monster crooned.
“Nothing. I just have an anger problem,” she answered honestly, twisting the tip in his gut as straw spilled out.
“It’s never been a problem for me,” Blerkafeld declared. His giant mouth enclosed the dummy, bit it from its post, and tossed it into the distant sky. Gemma watched it vanish like a driven golf ball.
“Now what am I supposed to do with all of it?” she asked, throwing the sword into the dirt.
“Channel it little larvae. Find what causes it, and end its existence. Anger is the friction of grinding against limits. They are evil, and the emotion that so drives action against them is proof. For now, you will channel it into helping me so I don’t destroy you.”
The dragon lowered one of his wing-wrists until it was close to her face. Balanced on its one large sickle claw was her phone, the screen dark. Gemma took it and pushed the button, getting no response.
“It ran out of power, like I said it would.”
“I know. Put more into it.”
“Alright… follow me.” She marched out of the squire-for-a-day training grounds and back into the huts with their decorative thatching. She only knew where one generator was for sure, because she had to sleep near it and it made a frustrating racket providing lighting for their night watch. It was just past the portable toilets, the smell of which was beginning to assert itself on the surrounding buildings. She held her nose as she went by, but the dragon reacted even more aggressively.
“Truly… horrendous!” he hacked, shaking his head and blowing droplets from his nose. He recoiled and walked on Gemma’s other side as if she were big enough to block the smell. “I can practically taste it. How can you vermin live like this?”
“You’re supposed to be the big strong dragon. What’s the matter? Got a widdle baby nose?” She’d lost count of the days since she’d had a truly nourishing meal, and all concern for her well-being was draining away.
“There’s a fire in your belly today it seems. I do like a spicy morsel every now and again,” he threatened, but refused to even open his mouth any wider until they were well clear of the latrines.
“Go ahead, I dare you.” She might have regretted the challenge if the subject of the generator hadn’t caught his interest first. With a snout nudge he pushed the tarp covering it to the ground. The machine’s smell concerned him as well, but didn’t trigger outright disgust.
“Yeah, but this one takes fuel.” She pointed at a pile of canisters sat in the grass beside it. One was open, the dragon turning his head to peer one eye inside.
“What sort of fuel?”
“Beats me. Diesel something.” Gemma took a guess and, with great physical effort that helpfully required some of her anger, managed to start the machine up. It was already attached to a variety of cords and converters, so she plugged the dead phone in.
When she turned she saw Blerkafeld with the canister in his mouth, tipping it so a splash of the fuel went down his throat. His eye went wide and he spat the container out. Muscles in his neck went tight enough to block a meteor impact as he expelled the fuel in a noxious wet jet like a fire hose. The spray was so powerful it blasted weeds out of the ground, and it didn’t stop. It was a fire hydrant’s worth, far more than he had initially consumed.
“Eughh! Must… get the taste… out of…” He looked around for something to devour, eyes settling on Gemma. His sparkling tongue lolled between two steak knife teeth. Thinking at lightning speed, she reached down and ripped a handful of grass from the earth, tossing it into his open maw. Blerkafeld’s neck coiled, but the plants seemed to do the trick.
“Why did you do that? I could’ve told you it wasn’t food.”
“You said it was fuel. Fuel is power. I sample all forms of power so I can see what I like best, but that was terrible.” He looked at her; she stared back. “Well?”
“How long will that take?”
“A couple hours.” Blue Blerkafeld demonstrated his brawn, knocking the phone from her hand with the flick of a wing-wrist. He stomped on it with the force of a falling tree, denting the very ground. When his foot came away the device was all but buried, its screen a dense web of cracks.
“Great! There goes your nonstop money! I thought you hated limits!” she shouted at him as he trudged away.
“Nothingness is also limitless.” With thrusts that sounded like a hurricane juggling crumpled balls of trampoline fabric, the dragon blasted into the sky, two more wing beats severing the tops from nearby trees. Gemma was left standing there. Diesel pooled around her feet as it flowed into the depression made by Blerkafeld’s rage. She got it now. Maybe if everyone else got it they could get out of there.
First she made her way to Queen Lilandra, who was sitting in her face painting booth like she always did before ascending to the throne. For a moment she looked happy to have a child with a bare face walk in, until she remembered their circumstances.
“Are you busy?” Gemma asked.
“Just thinking how nice the fair was on slow days. Sometimes there were so few people they’d let the animals out of the petting zoo and they’d just walk up and down our cramped little dirt streets like they were shoppers. This place is supposed to be fun, but everything stops being fun when it becomes your whole life.”
“I know the dragon’s secret,” the girl said, too hungry and morose to bother with tact. Lilandra perked up on her stool, set her crown aside with her piled paints and brushes.
“How he does all that stuff with his mouth… like what he did to Carter… and the stuff with the rocks.”
“What is it? How does he do it?” The queen stood up and wordlessly touched Gemma’s shoulders, maneuvering her to the stool and getting her to sit down. She grabbed a wooden palette and started adding dollops of paint: white, gold, silver, and peach.
“He took me into his cave and I saw these two big things,” the girl explained as the queen selected a brush. The first strokes moved across her cheeks, wet and warm, but Lilandra told her to continue. “One is full of orange sand and one is full of blue dust. Those are the colors he was breathing, but every time we see him he only uses one.”
The painter paused, then turned it into dabbing, making freckles of gold leaf across the bride of her nose. She turned away only for a moment, snagging the leather worker who made all the journals and spell books as he walked by, telling him to fetch Muriel and a few of the others. He nodded and left.
“Keep going,” the queen encouraged as she followed her own command, throwing her brush aside and grabbing a fresh one rather than take the time to wash the previous color off.
“And he was here a minute ago. I saw him eat some diesel from the generator and then barf a bunch of it up, but it was more than he ate. Then I thought about all those dragon stories where they breathe fire, and I thought, what if they don’t actually breathe fire? What if they’re magic and they can breathe anything they want? All they have to do is eat some of it, and then they can breathe it.”
“But they… can only house one thing at a time,” Lilandra speculated, her brush dancing along Gemma’s jawline, sharpening the baby fat right out of it.
“That’s what I thought. So, like, most dragons picked fire because it’s easy. You just point and burn. Blue Boy Butthead thinks he’s really smart though, so he tries a bunch of different stuff. The orange sand he has controls time, and the blue dust controls stuff. He used them to make this place and steal the fair.”
“And he has to keep supplies of them nearby so he can swap back and forth as need be. So if we could get our hands on that stuff-”
“We could use it to go home,” the girl finished, just as the queen did the same. Lilandra leaned very close, her breath warm and alive with plans and a fomenting speech. “What did you make me?”
“What you are Gemma: a lifesaver!” The queen vaulted over her wooden gate and ran off. There was a mirror behind Gemma, so she hopped off the stool and walked up to it. The work was so beautiful she could barely keep herself from smearing it with tears. The face of a precious angel.
A few hours later Queens Lilandra and Muriel were waiting, seated upon their thrones, which had been moved from the arena to the stage for the birds of prey show. They wanted to present an image of authority, and didn’t think they could do so with the scared, tired, and frustrated people on hand.
Instead they had the trained birds be the authority figures; several of them were out, sitting on special wooden posts. The humorless eyes of an owl. The stern glare of a vulture. The angry curve of the eagle’s beak. The animals waited stoically, for if they behaved well enough, didn’t take a claw from their perches without permission, Darryl would feed them half a mouse or a strip of red meat from his belt pouch.
One perch was empty, but that was because a task had been given. Darryl had assured the queens that the hawk was the best trained, and would deliver the written message wrapped around its ankle to the right place without fail. They had all agreed visiting King Daffodil’s settlement in person was too risky, too likely to draw Blerkafeld’s attention. They were supposed to be competing against each other after all.
The birds already knew the Kidnapt Valley, thanks to their handler taking them out and allowing them to hunt. They never caught anything, Blerkafeld had curated the valley down to just humans and plants, with not even a bug to its name, but the trained animals still learned the lay of the land.
“Here he comes,” Darryl said proudly, holding his thick leather falconry glove up to his eyes like a visor. The queens looked to the tree line beyond the stage, but couldn’t see anything yet. It took a few more seconds for the beautiful brown bird to clear the trees, but after that he swooped down and landed on the handler’s arm. The message was gone from around the bird’s ankle. Someone had certainly taken it, hopefully the man who lived in the stone spire they had the animal target.
“And here he comes,” Muriel said as she spotted someone emerging from the woods, someone in a long purple robe with ornate black trim. His sharp white beard and mustache gave his entire head the appearance of a manicured fingernail. Oddly enough he had his own bird sitting on his shoulder, a multicolored parrot, a species most likely extinct in the time of Drumstick Castle.
The man stepped up onto the stage, but refused to address them or remove his hands from his billowing sleeves. He observed each bird and person in equal measure, though most of the attention Darryl deserved went to the hawk on his arm.
“Are you the wizard Glamting?” Queen Muriel finally asked. “Your king spoke of you at the joust… bragged of your magical talent.”
“I am he,” the man answered with a voice even deeper than expected. “Weaver of magic words. Basket of of foraged power. Emissary of the enchanting spirit. Unwilling subject of a pompous fool.” The queens shared a glance.
“Do you mean the dragon or Daffodil?”
“Do you not fear what they might do to you if they heard you speak in such a manner?” Lilandra asked.
“A dragon can kill you on a whim, no matter how much respect or fear is shown,” Glamting explained. “As for Daffodil, much of his authority comes from his battalion of executioners, none of whom were brought to the Kidnapt Valley. He has no power over me now, but my home is within his borders, so that is where I reside.”
“We reached out to you in the hope you would counsel us. There is not much magic in our land,” Lilandra said. “Most of it is concentrated in a place called Florida.” Queen Muriel smacked her wrist and gave her a dagger stare.
“I do not give out hard won wisdom freely,” Glamting countered. “How would such counsel benefit me?”
“Our goal is to escape the valley, back to our proper homes and times. We presume you want this as well.”
“Yes… but there is something else I desire.”
“We anticipated that,” Muriel said. “Beastmaster Darryl, if you please.”
“Beastmaster,” Darryl repeated in an appreciative whisper before setting the hawk on its perch and disappearing backstage. He returned moments later with a platter of warm food: a beef and mushroom burrito beside a powdery funnel cake. Glamting’s composure faltered as he rushed forward, nearly tripping on his robe. Very ordinary and greedy hands emerged from his sleeves and attacked the platter.
“Marvelous,” he said through a full mouth. “Cursed are the times where this does not exist.”
“Actually that food is cursed,” Muriel warned him. He stopped mid-chew. “One meal will not harm you, but eating it too frequently will rob you of nourishment, no matter how full it makes you.” The wizard nodded, and went back to eating. The patient queens waited until he had cleaned the plate. His sugar-coated fingers disappeared into his sleeves and came back clean; they though it equally likely he’d used magic or just wiped them on the inside skillfully.
“Your note did not elucidate your desire,” he said. “What is it exactly that you want from me?”
“First we must have your word that you will not speak of this to Daffodil, or Blerkafeld, or anyone else for that matter,” Lilandra said, continuing only after he nodded firmly. “We have learned how the dragon controls this place, but we’re hoping you can give us the details. One of our spies has testified to the existence of two materials the dragon uses to manipulate matter and time.”
“Manipulation is done by the magic of the dragon’s breath,” Glamting explained. “They are creatures of desire, which is always expressed through the breath. A pant is a desire for more air, a yawn for sleep, a sigh for purpose. Their desires run into the material, so their breath is that as well. Whatever they partake they may expel in unlimited quantity.”
“Yes, we had gathered as much,” Lilandra said, “but we want to know what he’s using. Our spy described orange sand and blue dust, held in different glass vessels, behaving in odd ways, perpetually falling and spinning.” These details obviously disturbed the wizard. He paced back and forth, whispering to his parrot, the bird sometimes whispering back.
After the deliberation was complete he looked at them all again, deciding if they could be trusted. In the end his expression suggested he wasn’t sure about the humans, but that the raptors would keep their beaks sealed even under the worst torture. Glamting waved his hands, and from one hanging sleeve produced a massive tome with a jeweled cover. Tiny sparkles, glints in the facets, flew back and forth within the jewels like gulls made of glass.
The wizard refused to touch the book, instead directing its flight carefully, bringing it closer to the queens so they could see. It opened on its own and flipped to the pages in the exact middle, not marked with a number even though all the others were.
Two charcoal illustrations dominated the paper, loose black particles flowing in a sort of animation that brought them to life: a fall of sand and a spiral of dust. The queens told him that they matched the descriptions their spy had provided.
“Most concerning,” the wizard said, the book snapping shut. It shot back into his sleeve with the speed of a pitching machine and disappeared. “Blerkafeld is in possession of both the sands of time and the cosmic dust. These are primordial substances, used to build the Earth itself.”
“Who did the building?” Darryl couldn’t help but ask.
“Beings older than any of the false gods feared today. Those who have always gone nameless, as they do not value worship. Asleep they all are, and our conflicts provide their dreams. Wherever they rest is where the sand and dust should be doing the same. I know not how, but this dragon has stolen some.”
“Could we use it?” Queen Muriel asked. “That is the most vital question. If we got our hands on it, would we know what to do?”
“Will alone is enough to shape and direct both materials,” Glamting assured them. “They existed before the first tool, and in that age thoughts took their place. Once you have them it should take mere minutes to tame them, even with minds as lowly as yours.”
“It is settled then,” Lilandra said as she stood, approaching the wizard. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “We will enact our plan at the start of the next competition. Tell no one, as the dragon must not find out. Be there and follow us if you wish to return to the real world.” Their visitor bowed, and appeared to leave the way he came.
Disguising his entrances and exits turned out to be one of Glamting’s many talents. As he disappeared into the treeline beyond the birds of prey stage he reappeared deeper in Drumstick Castle. Naturally he would never be so foolish as to attend a meeting without surveilling the surrounding areas first.
His parrot had done that, and reported every detail. The good people of Drumstick Castle were not what they seemed. The queens claimed a deficit of magic, yet his bird had observed fires born from nothing, tiny slabs that could reproduce moving images and sound, and even a horn-shaped device that amplified the voice with incredible power.
Equally notable to the hermit conjurer was the one and only prisoner in his cell, whom he recognized as the former king. Before he decided to go along with the queen’s plan, he thought it prudent to discuss the situation with someone likely to hold several opposite opinions. There were no guards, so all the wizard had to do was slide stealthily into view and wait for Chadwick to notice.
“You’re that guy… Daffodil’s guy.” He snapped his fingers. “Magical guy.”
“I am a presence, nothing more,” Glamting insisted. “The air moving with your breath as you express your desires. Tell me what you want, and I may become it.” Chad stood up and came to the bars, wrapped his fingers around them. He looked into the parrot’s eye, striped sea foam and black.
“I want my kingdom back. Can you do that?” Glamting did not respond, and was unmoved. He tested Chad’s cleverness, his resolve. “That’s a no I guess. You’re here… so you want something too. You just need somebody else to start it right? Something big happens, everybody blames the guy who can do magic. I get it.”
No response from man or bird.
“You’re dissatisfied with your current king.”
The parrot shifted its feet.
“Of course you are. I happen to be a great king, and in need of a kingdom. You have my word that, if I take his place, you will have free reign to do whatever it is that you do. I’ll even schmooze the dragon, keep him out of your beard. All you have to do is let me out and show me the way.” Chad took a few steps back. That was all he had to offer.
The queens could easily fail, extending the wizard’s stay under the dragon’s heel indefinitely. If such a thing happened a more cooperative king could help. Glamting tilted his head, nodding to his bird slightly. With a wave of his hand the lock on the cell door clicked open and fell.
Another wave made Chad feel something. All his clothes, each individual item, shook and twisted. Piece by piece they slithered off and fell to the dirt floor, instantly replaced by freshly generated copies. The only side effect of the spell was some cold mist that tickled his skin before dissipating near the roof.
When his old outfit was a heap the parrot fluttered down to it, lifted a fold with its beak, and crawled inside. The clothes inflated, once again taking on the shape of a man, albeit a man huddled in the corner, head down, back to the rest of the world.
“That bitch Lilandra,” the parrot said, perfectly mimicking Chad’s voice, the muttering emitting from the neck hole of his old cloak. “Taking my crown. It’s mine. Mine.”
“A decoy,” Chad said appreciatively. “Smart move. Now let’s grab some french fries and head on over. I’ve got a date with Daffodil.” The lock picked itself up off the ground and clicked back into place.
The third contest was to be held at the foot of Molded Mountain. The stone portal was already open when the human factions arrived, but Blerkafeld was not the first thing to emerge. That honor went to a gigantic egg, nearly the size of a barrel, blue and speckled like a robin’s, that rolled out and wobbled to a stop.
It was followed by three more, the last of which was rolled along by their cruel lord’s giant snout. When they all settled into a clutch the dragon circled them, explaining the rules.
“Today’s challenge is egg balancing. I will select teams of two. With locked arms each team will cradle an egg and then complete every task I give, without dropping it. First egg to crack or hit the ground loses. Now don’t worry about any poor offspring, as these are unfertilized, but that doesn’t mean I want to see carel-” The dragon paused in his tracks. One was missing. “Where is King Daffodil and his herd?”
“Must be late,” Lady Arkady offered. “Which means they forfeit.”
“Clever as always my lady,” Blerkafeld complimented with a tilt of his massive jaws, “but we will give them a few more minutes… and we’ll let them think the eggs do contain my children for some added fun.” There was some scattered laughter, but not enough to appease him. He circled around to find the quietest group, which was undoubtedly Drumstick Castle.
They all looked very nervous, and with good reason. Lilandra and assistants had painted every last face in the festival once more: dragon scales, dragon eyes on their lids, dragon teeth on their lips. Only, it was the wrong color. The emerald green wasn’t even close to Blerkafeld’s beautiful sapphire.
“Did you run out of blue?” he asked the queens, who stood at the front of their procession. “I can get you some more.”
“My apologies Lord Blerkafeld,” Lilandra offered, not having to fake the lump in her throat. “We did not have time to wash this off before you summoned us. It is difficult dividing our time between the two of you.” Peter’s ears as well as Arkady’s perked up.
“What do you mean by that?” the beast demanded. “There is only one lord and master of the Kidnapt Valley.” He sat upright, stretching his wings out to their full, flapping with enough power to nearly bowl them over. The eggs went rolling.
“Yes, we know you are the true ruler here,” she said, bowing, but with a rising voice, “but we are powerless against any dragon. There is another, living in a metal nest in the heart of our village, and he demands tribute as well. That is why we wear his face now.”
“What!? That is impossible!”
“I’m sorry my lord, but we would not dare risk your wrath for anything less! He has killed three of my people already… though he does not devour the remains for some reason.”
“If this is a lie you will all burn,” the dragon snarled, before changing the threat slightly. “You will all age to dust.” All of Drumstick Castle bowed in response, saying nothing. The dragon stormed over to the mountain’s entrance.
It was incredibly lucky that their guess had been right. Blerkafeld had been switching which substance was on his breath each day, which, they correctly hoped, meant that day was the sands of time. He could not manipulate the rock to close it, so he improvised. A spray of orange-gold sand shot out of his throat, creating the eerie line that often encircled his home: a barrier of some sort.
“Nobody leave. The contest will resume once I return. It should be brief!” Brawny blue Blerkafeld blasted the dirt with wing beats. His body rose above the trees and he soared out of sight. There was no time to lose. If the inanimate Dragon of Time roller coaster bought them any of its namesake, it wouldn’t be much.
“We have a way out!” Muriel shouted to Peter and Arkady when she was sure the dragon was out of earshot. “Join us if you want to be free!” Drumstick Castle ran for the mountain door, trampling and breaking all of the eggs, the crimson yolks and silver whites squelching underfoot.
The two other groups joined without argument, but everything came to a stop at the fresh magical barrier. None of them had any idea what it would do, not exactly anyway, and Glamting was not there to take questions.
Its nature was certainly temporal, but horrible possibilities played out in Lilandra’s mind: a supple foot stepping over it and landing mummified, flesh stripped away to an instant skeleton, or everything going well until they reached his den as white-haired trembling geezers. She braced herself. She had taken the crown, and as their leader it was her duty to take the first step. She raised her foot.
The barrier broke open, scattering glittering flecks in all direction, snapped like a marathoner through the finish line. Lilandra was still frozen in place, foot raised. The small figure before her stopped, quivered. His body stretched, shirt tightening to reveal his navel. The shoes broke off his feet with blasts of powder.
Her son Luke turned around, a giant smile on his face. His chin was chiseled to a point. With arms far more muscular than before, her now seventeen year old son grabbed at himself, including his straightened teeth.
“I did it Mom! And I skipped braces too! This is so awesome, now I can finally ride the dragon.” Lilandra couldn’t believe it, but her maternal instincts moved her body for her, even grabbing her son, now quite a bit taller than her, by the ear and chastising him.
“How could you be reckless? Look at you! You just skipped some of the best years of your life not-so-young man!”
“Years of zits,” Luke muttered, but there was no chance for further argument. People from all ages were streaming around them now that the barrier was broken. The queen promised to deal with him later, moving her grip to his arm and dragging him along.
While the passage in the rock was wide enough for Blerkafeld, it couldn’t handle the massive influx of shoulders. People were squeezed in painfully, and their progress was impeded by a clog of bodies several times. There was no calming them however, as no individual group trusted the others enough to leave them alone with whatever great power was hidden away in the cave.
Somewhere in the shuffle Queen Muriel found herself close enough to both Peter and Arkady to quickly explain the situation. They had questions, but the clog holding them broke up, forcing them to crawl all over each other once more.
Blerkafeld’s den was just as it had been during Gemma’s visit, the repositories of both sand and dust barely visible behind the pillars of his alcove. It took the strength of fifteen people to move each one. Gemma, who had never done particularly well in English class, had not done the items justice with her descriptions. They would’ve been in awe of each light individually, let alone the combination.
The adults had the most time under their belt, the most steps under their feet, and thus felt a greater natural reverence for the materials. As life went on they both became more familiar, more deserving of fearful respect.
“These are the sands of time,” Peter Iconius said, hand traveling across the hourglass.
“And this is the cosmic dust,” Lady Arkady added, eyes full of its deep blue majesty. Even without wizards in their employ they seemed to know something of them, leaving Drumstick Castle to collectively wonder what had gone wrong in their time to leave them with no notion of such things. It was, almost assuredly, the result of someone trying to make a quick buck somewhere, erasing the knowledge to put forth a lucrative false idol instead.
“We need to get these open,” Lilandra told them, “before Blerkafeld returns.” The other two leaders didn’t need to hear anything more, breaking out their weapons. With blades and clubs they bashed the glass, which was no more resilient than what might be found in the windows of any church.
Orange-gold and blue-white spilled out, the former like water and the latter like fog. Everyone from the fair had been told the plan: take up the materials, learn them as quickly as possible, and build portals to home. They moved in together, filling one palm with sand and the other with dust, clapping and rubbing to combine them.
The sound of the primordial energies contacting was a disorienting pop, like when pressure escaped the ears, but expressed throughout the soul. It was as impactful as thunder, but quiet as a soap bubble’s goodbye. When mixed together the wisps of dusty sand were lively, constantly trying to escape their grip and vanish in the air.
Gemma was off to the sides, knowing better than to wade into a group of adults. It didn’t take long for the stone floor near her to gain a coating of the combined substance. That was when she sat down at its edge, drawing in it with one finger, like it was just sand on the beach and the next wave could take her creations at any moment.
She drew a circle, and in it another place and time appeared. It was a jungle of a kind she had never seen, with a dragon wandering through the underbrush. No, she realized, not a dragon. It was a dinosaur with a tuft of blue feathers on its head. Its orange eye caught hers, so she quickly swiped with her palm and destroyed the circle.
“As I predicted, traitors all!” The voice echoed throughout the cave, but it wasn’t the deep rumble of Blerkafeld, just the obnoxious honk of Chad. They turned to see him standing in new finery, once the property of King Daffodil, who was nowhere to be seen, even though his entire kingdom was there.
“Chad?” someone from Drumstick Castle called out. “We forget to get him out of his cell!”
“That’s King Chadwick, once again!” he declared. “The promise of frying oil can make a man rich in the Kidnapt Valley. All of you have betrayed our generous god, beautiful blue Blerkafeld! We are here to apprehend you. He will determine your punishment.”
“Don’t be an idiot Chad,” Muriel seethed. “This stuff can make a way home, just help us.”
“We are home!” the man roared. “No taxes, no debts, no customer service. The dragon has given us paradise. The season of our fair can now stretch on for all time! Charge!” He drew a sword that was now very real and ran forward, his new army just behind.
The others didn’t dare reach for their weapons with their hands covered in the very suggestible materials, forcing them to fight by applauding and hoping the magic put some kind of hindrance between them. Some of the time it worked surprisingly well, filling the air with tiny bursts of fire, lightning, or a clump of snow ejected at high speed.
“To the back wall!” Lilandra ordered, hoping Peter and Arkady would join her. They formed two sections, with those pressed up against the stone using it as a canvas, working to fine tune the magic into viable doorways. The rest formed a shield around them to hold off the crazed daffodils.
Chad was flinging magic as well, striking piles of it on the ground with his sword, dousing the nearest targets with a sandy spray. He forced his way deeper, searching for the queen that dared replace a king.
“This isn’t supposed to be hard,” Muriel growled as she painted on the wall with magic. She tried the shape of an actual doorway. In it she saw a marble coliseum, but only for a moment before a man spilled out, wearing something like a bathrobe with clasps. “Carter? Is that you?”
“My queen!” the former crimson knight gushed, eyes dark and weary. “Where? Am I back?”
“We’re still trying to get home. The dragon will be here any minute!”
“Where is…” he whirled around. “I had a wife! Where is she?”
“She didn’t come through.” Muriel looked at the door. It was already melting, washing into other times and places. “Carter I’m so sorry, I didn’t know!”
“It’s- It’s fine. She wasn’t very nice to me.” He stared into the crowd, catching sight of King Chad as he pushed his way through two people. “You!” Carter barreled into the fray without another word. Things only deteriorated from there as more items and forces escaped the temporary gates of magic, like the universe was belching, failing to identify what it it had eaten that could produce such a smell.
A tropical breeze rolled through. A wheel from a Model T bounced in the middle of the battlefield. Something that could’ve been the eleventh commandment fell from the ceiling and shattered.
Luke, strapping enough to fight through almost anyone there, broke through the madness and found Gemma fiddling with the sand.
“I’m supposed to get the kids closer to the wall,” he said, grinning as he panted. “Since I’m totally not one anymore!” He took her hand and pulled. She didn’t resist, especially because she smelled something from another time in that direction, a spice garden perhaps. Her mind flooded with yellow squash flowers, tomatoes turning sunburnt on the vine.
A dozen people screamed, but those screams dropped in pitch, slowed to a crawl. A glittering orange wave crashed into the edges of the crowd, hitting mostly daffodils. They were flung into the air, and there they stayed, their bodies inflicted with slow motion. A muscular blue tail, strong as a brachiosaurus’s, but unfortunately belonging to Blerkafeld, swept them off to the side.
“How dare you enter my den!” the beast boomed. “How dare you defy me!” His pupils were the smallest slits, rage totally eclipsing his mind. He stalked forward, massive head low, mouth open, jaw muscles twitching. King Chad flung himself out of the horde and implored the dragon.
“Lord Blerkafeld! We were trying to stop them! I know that you know best! Show them what a-” Carter emerged behind him, with all the speed of his former steed, and shoved Chad in the back. The man pitched forward, stumbling, landing flat on Blerkafeld’s cushioning tongue and its many fleshy hooks. Reflexively the dragon clamped down. Chad’s limbs went rigid as Blerkafeld’s pupils returned to black gaps, ovals, circles. The monster reared up, swinging his neck back and forth as if choking.
A parrot flew by Lilandra, the bird familiar. She watched it circled the dragon’s whipping crown, fly over everyone else, and disappear into the wall. There was a sky where it shouldn’t have been, wrapped in undulating orange and blue.
“Excellent job,” Glamting congratulated Darryl, clapping the man’s shoulder. The wizard had emerged from the battle as if he’d been there all along, magically hidden. “I was wrong about you. Luckily the hawk vouched for you.” The bearded man stepped into the same doorway as his parrot, the one right in front of Darryl. All of the trained birds from the raptor show came next, following Darryl’s whistle, vanishing into an autumn that had to belong to Drumstick Castle.
“Just think about your sky!” the handler yelled at everyone. “That does it!” He jumped in after his feathered friends. Queen Muriel followed. Everyone pushed their way to the wall, smeared dust and sand, desperately wishing for familiar skies. More doors opened. Peter Iconius was gone. Lady Arkady was back on her warpath.
Blerkafeld saw what was happening through all the shoving and shouting. He forced his mouth open to blast them all. It would age them into oblivion, but that was better than them leaving without permission.
Instead of the sands of time, his breath issued forth as a tumbling babbling pile of Chads. Twenty identical men spilled out, getting to their feet, trying to make sense of their surroundings with their hands on their hips like typical middle-aged men.
“Who are you?” they asked each other. “Are we winning? Is that my crown?” the dragon tried to stop, but there were fingers stuck in his throat, ticking the most sensitive flesh of his body, so he continued coughing and retching, adding yet more Chads to the situation.
While Blerkafeld was incapacitated his victims slipped away. After the last heel was gone through the stone wall, the magic knew it was free of influence. The sands of time dissipated into yesterday and tomorrow. The cosmic dust vanished to the expanding edge of the universe. There was nothing left. The Kidnapt Valley was now stranded, adrift in a nodule of space and time like a benign tumor of the nameless gods.
And so the ordeal was ended, and almost immediately celebrated on the grounds of Drumstick Castle. They weren’t quite sure how, but all the buildings and structures had returned as well, suggesting it was the will of the people, interpreted by the magic, that did it. Perhaps the actual infrastructure had never left, and the sand and dust had merely formed a copy for them.
Queen Lilandra, once again simply Lilandra Battence, hoped for this kind of fluidity in the enchantments. If that was the case, it meant there was some hope for Luke. She would certainly have a lot of explaining to do at his school, but he might not have lost that time of his life after all. She hoped that he had a destiny, a set number of years he was always going to live, and it would be unaffected by his biological leap forward.
The young man couldn’t have cared less. Within minutes of their return he had gone to the only dragon worth trusting, and put his life in its hands, for better or worse, for upside and down. It was the most spectacular thrill, the revelation of adrenaline he’d always wanted. The Dragon of Time was his only destiny.
Gemma was reclaimed by her parents, taken home, treated to fresh fruit and carrot sticks. She too found her peace, more so in the gastrointestinal system than anywhere else.
The wizard Glamting had curiously chosen to pass through to their modern day, but had disappeared after that, though the employees of the castle occasionally found vibrant single feathers in places they should not have been, like inside suspiciously empty cash register drawers.
A few others, in the commotion, had wound up at the fair even though they were meant to be with Peter, Arkady, or Daffodil. Darryl took it upon himself to train them, much like his raptors, thinking it was best to employ them at the fair, where things were slightly more familiar.
There was no explanation to give to those stunned by the disappearance, lasting a week, of most of the staff and visitors of the Renaissance festival, so they were forced to feign ignorance, specifically mass amnesia. It was an odd choice, given that they could never forget, even beyond the grave, thanks to a mild contamination with the sands of time and cosmic dust that would forever linger, truly make them a physical part of history, no matter what they pretended.
There would always be a fear of dragons, even if they got themselves lost someplace very very else.
“You could catch a cold that way,” King Chadwick, number thirty-seven, warned Blerkafeld. He was the designated assistant Chad, all the others ordered to keep their distance so they didn’t irritate their master too much. The dragon had already killed twelve, not that they mattered, since he could always spit up more.
His monstrous head was pressed against the stone, in the deepest darkest part of Molded Mountain he could reach. It was cold enough down there that ice formed in sheets. Before he could’ve just licked some cosmic dust and produced as much as he desired, but there wasn’t a speck left, and all he had, for eternity, was what he brought with him.
“That’s the purpose you ingrate,” the dragon grumbled, rubbing his nose on a frigid sheet. He lamented the terrible stock he was left with. Just one man, and a subpar one at that. No real talent. No real charm. A salesman in a world with nothing to sell. Why did they have to leave? Didn’t they understand that he treasured them? Their diversity was beautiful, would make for limitless combinations in their offspring, and in their worship of his strength.
“I don’t get it,” Chad thirty-seven said, scratching his chin.
“If I make myself ill it might interfere with the normal function of my breath,” the dragon explained. “It might make me sneeze out a female Chadwick instead of a regular one. Then we can get started again. It will take much longer this way, but I will have my world.”
“I get it! A Chadeline! Get it, like Madeline. She will be beautiful!” He rubbed his hands together and snickered.
Blerkafeld sighed, nothing but cold air on his breath. He pressed his forehead into an icy crevice, hoping for brain freeze.
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