It stared hard, right into my eyes. Its snout hovered just in front of my chest. I could not tear my eyes away from the dragon’s, which was all right, considering that I would have probably been looking down at the long, vicious claws or the twenty-foot, spiny tail that snaked along the ground behind it.
“Worm,” he barked at me, “I will slay you, and make a name for myself!”
“Hold, Dragon,” Jerak moved forward into the dragon’s face, “Ye shall not slay a harmless worm, lest ye become a Worm likewise.”
The dragon picked up his head and sat back on his haunches. “What then? Shall the worm take up arms, that the battle may be justified?”
I moved to speak, but Jerak beat me to it, working his way between the dragon and me. “Nay, but thou shalt find another deed than killing, for this is not thine to kill.”
“Oh rot!” The dragon dropped his decorum and blasted a nearby tree with a fireball. “The ritual is tonight, and I have yet to find one more suitable deed to earn a name!” He flopped onto the ground and covered his snout with his claws. “I am doomed; I shall remain Dragon for the rest of my days!”
I leaned close to Jerak, “What is he talking about?”
“Here in Phantasm,” the unicorn explained, “Dragons must earn their names by doing noble deeds. Depending on how many or how important a deed the dragon does, he receives a name that will shape his destiny for the rest of his life.”
Thinking quickly, I called out, “Dragon, I canst help thee!”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jerak hissed, but Dragon had already turned toward me. He prodded me in the stomach with his snout. I could not keep my balance, and fell onto my rear. He chuckled.
“You?” he mocked derisively, “What could you do to help me? A Dragon asks help from no one.”
“That may be so,” I persisted, getting to my feet again, “But I know of a deed that may not require any killing, but will be recognized among your kind as a most noble deed.”
He peered down at me, “Speak, worm; I shall listen.”
“All right,” I began, irritated at the way he kept calling me “worm,” “First, my name is Laura. You must call me that; my plan is this: there is a band of trolls headed for the dark towns; they have trapped a gryphon for their entertainment. Your task will be to rescue this gryphon from them.”
Dragon nosed along his scales with his snout, thinking over my proposition. At least, that’s what I hoped he was doing. Finally, he turned back to me. “Very well, Laura; I shall take your proposal. Where shall I find this trapped gryphon?”
Jerak snickered loudly; of course Dragon would find the one flaw in our plan! “Er, I don’t know where it is,” I admitted.
Dragon strode toward the middle of the field, and slyly whipped the end of his tail around to knock me over again as he passed. “It is unwise, not knowing where your enemy is.”
That word “enemy” reminded me of something. Suddenly I had a plan. “I do not know, myself—but I know one being who would know where the trolls are keeping the gryphon!”
“Really?” this time Jerak spoke; I could tell this was getting his interest, as well.
“Yes,” I nodded, “Galen; he knew where the trolls would be, remember?”
“Who is this Galen? It is not a trollish name,” Dragon asserted himself once more.
“He is a dwarf, and it was he who betrayed us to the trolls,” I told him.
“Ah-ha! A confederate of the Base Ones!” Dragon seethed. “Very well; where can he be found?”
“Perhaps we should check the dwarf-town first,” I proposed.
“That’s still a day’s journey away,” Jerak began, but Dragon got to his feet.
“Not for a Dragon!” he bragged. Without even asking permission, he grabbed Jerak and me in his fore-claws and lifted off.
The ride (and his grip) took my breath away. Dragon soared high in the air above the ground, but I noticed that as high as we went, the clouds still hung above us. I pointed this out to Jerak, nearly shouting at him to make myself heard over the rushing wind.
“Of course they’re still above us!” he shouted back, “The sky is a membrane, and the clouds are behind the membrane. So is the sun, rotating around the world.”
I looked up at the sky, “Well then why is it blue?” I asked, but at that moment, Dragon went into a steep dive, and neither Jerak nor I could speak for several minutes after he leveled out and went on at a calmer pace.
Now we were flying over the mountains. I could see that some of the mountains were truly purple in color, instead of it being a result of refraction like it is on our world. Purple peaks interspersed among the grey rocky valleys made for a spectacular sight.
At last we reached the dwarf-town. Dragon landed in the glade nearest the town.
“All right,” I said, “Dragon, you wait here, and Jerak and I will go into town and see if we can find Galen.”
Dragon lifted his head and sniffed, “No need,” he murmured, “I smell dwarf nearby.”
“In the glade?” I asked, glancing through the trees as if I could see his patchwork bulk cowering between them. “But where?”
“Laura,” Jerak called, “I’ve found him!”
Dragon and I came to where the unicorn stood. He was looking upwards toward the treetops. There Galen dangled, like an overripe fruit, with a discolored edkidna wedged in his mouth. Dragon reached up and removed it.
“Ah, my friends!” Galen gasped.
I shook my head, “Save it, Galen; we know you’re only friends with your money.”
“Oh, that, haha,” Galen tried to dismiss it, “Well, as it turns out, the imps took all my gold, and besides troll’s gold isn’t worth much anyway. Just a harmless joke. I was the one who called the Unicorn Patrol to rescue you anyway.”
“Some rescue!” I shouted back at him, “I nearly drowned in the Lake! I would have, if it weren’t for the mermaids!”
“Yeah, them; that’s about all they’re good for, saving folks from drowning. Say, speaking of saving folks, would you mind letting me down from here?”
Jerak and I glanced at each other. Jerak called, “We will show you that we are not worthless turncoats like yourself; we will let you down—just as soon as you tell us what we want to know.”
Galen considered this for some time. “Well, what would you want to know?” he asked.
“Where are the trolls keeping the gryphon they have trapped? We know they won’t put on the show until tonight. Where is it now?”
“Ah well,” Galen still played hard-to-get, “you know, trolls are tricky folk; just because I helped them once doesn’t mean I know all their secrets!”
I raised an eyebrow. “I also know that they’re stupid,” I muttered, and nodded to Dragon.
“Good Dragon, if you would do the honors,” I prompted him.
Dragon reached up and deftly snapped one cord of the two holding Galen to the branch. The entire weight of the dwarf hung by only one vine; he knew it was only a matter of time before the vine snapped and he plummeted the remaining thirty feet to the ground.
“Wait! Wait!” He hollered, “I know a place they would bring such a treasure! I can lead you there! Please don’t let me drop!”
“That’s more like it!” cried Jerak, and Dragon plucked Galen from the branches and landed him safely on the ground.
“All right, Galen,” I said as we peeled the disgusting vines off him, “Start walking!” I reserved a length of rope and tied Galen’s hands behind his back, leaving myself a long tail for a leash behind him.
The dwarf grumbled at this little arrangement, but there was little he could do about it. He led us out of the glade and northeastward, toward the mountains. Dragon took off on his wings, flying far ahead of us as we trudged onward.
“How far is it?” I asked Galen.
“Should be there in an hour or so,” he answered. And we were.
We rejoined Dragon at the edge of a large pond.
“Trollish enchantment!” he cried, “I can fly no further! The gryphon must be here!”
I scanned the area. There was the pond; there were mountains a few miles off, and nothing else. “But where could it be?” I wondered aloud.
I saw Galen shaking with laughter. “Oh-ho!” he cried, “Human thinks she’s so smart, does she? Wouldn’t know a troll-cubby if she walked right into it!”
Only then did I realize I must have done something foolish. I stared at the pond. I could see nothing, but when I reached forward, I could feel a smooth, roundish sort of surface, like a dome.
“They’ve hidden it behind magic,” Jerak explained.
“How then will it be possible for me to achieve my task?” Dragon complained.
“You could ask the trolls for help,” Galen needled, “That’s the only way you’re getting into that troll-cubby.”
I looked at the pond, and the ripples in the water reminded me of the conversation with Shirill.
“What about asking a mermaid for help?”
“A mermaid?” Galen scoffed, “What good would that do?”
“The Lake is a long ways from here, Laura,” Jerak noted, “How could we get a mermaid into this pond?”
“All water on Phantasm is connected,” I said, and drew the meir out of my pocket. Placing it in the water at the edge of the pond, I opened it and waited. For several moments, nothing happened. I sighed and reached to close the meir again—and a webbed hand closed over mine.
“Shirill?” I called.
The hand tapped twice. Yes.
I looked over the surface of the water, but I did not see her. “Are you inside the troll-cubby?”
“Are you trapped?”
One tap. No.
I blinked. “Hey guys!” I called to the others, who were arguing over the ability to break troll enchantment, “Shirill is inside the troll-cubby, but she’s not stuck!”
Jerak saw my hands over the mier in the water. “That must mean the barrier does not extend into the water.” He stamped a silver hoof. “Perhaps the mermaid will be the means of saving the gryphon after all!”
“Shirill,” I called again, “are there any trolls standing guard in there?”
The hands disappeared, and returned in a few minutes to tap once. No.
My stomach flipped with excitement, “Can you see the gryphon?”
“There is a Dragon with me who has chosen rescuing the gryphon as the deed to earn his name,” I explained, “will you help us by releasing the gryphon?”
Shirill hesitated for several moments.
Her hands moved away, and I backed up. “Here it comes,” I told everyone.
Minutes later, the gryphon appeared on the opposite bank, materializing out of thin air. It was badly wounded and still tightly bound. Dragon gently gripped the bonds in his claws and prepared to depart.
“I shall return this gryphon to the Eyrie,” he announced. “I have earned my name.” He turned to me. “Would you care to join me, human, since you have been so instrumental in helping me achieve this deed?”
I glanced at Jerak, who nodded me onward. I turned back to Dragon, “I would be honored, sir,” I bowed my head respectfully. Dragon bent his head down so that I could climb astride his neck.
“Hold on tightly, Laura!” he warned, and shot straight up in the air.
After setting the gryphon on a ledge in front of a cave, Dragon proceeded deeper into the mountains, coming to rest in a much larger valley, one with an enormous waterfall pouring into it.
I had thought Dragon to be quite large, but now, among the other dragons, I suddenly realized as never before just how young he really must be. His whole body was only the size of the largest dragon’s head. One of the smaller dragons (still three times Dragon’s size) came forward. Dragon quickly snatched me off his back and let me scurry to watch from beneath a rock.
“I, the Dragon-Namer,” the larger dragon roared, “Traavalla, Daughter of Geronill, give thee, Dragon, in honor of the deed thou hast done today, in addition to the numerous other deeds thou hast done to this point, the name of Maarkiss! Go forth and achieve thy destiny, for thou art hereafter Maarkiss!”
Something nudged my shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. “What—“
I stopped; a full-grown unicorn stood beside me. His horn was not white but clear, glistening silver. He blinked at me. I could only stare at him. He was so noble I could only sit and watch him.
The silver-horned unicorn tossed his head, “I came to thank you,” he said abruptly.
I blinked, “Thank me for what? Who are you?”
The unicorn made an impatient noise, “Oh, come now, Laura! Surely you haven’t forgotten me so soon!”
I reached out slowly and placed a hand on his nose. “Jerak?” I whispered incredulously.
“Come with me, Laura,” Jerak instructed, “You have helped Maarkiss get a name, you helped me grow enough to lose the velvet on my horn and take my place among the Mountain Guardians—and now it is my turn to do something for you.”
I stood, still trying to be as unobtrusive to the dragons as possible. “What is it?” I asked.
Jerak bent his horn to me. “Hold on tight,” he said.
I grabbed it; the horn felt cool and hard to my touch. It began to glow with a white light so bright I had to close my eyes. I heard the thundering roar of the dragon-clan, I felt a rushing wind as if we were flying at a great speed, and then—
Absolute silence. I still gripped that icy, metallic horn with my eyes shut, but it occurred to me that we were no longer moving. I opened my eyes. I was now sitting on a catwalk of some sort, holding onto the handrail for dear life. A small box on wheels parked at my feet. I saw a red laser emerge from its top, and travel over my whole body. Suddenly the whole box flashed red, and a message scrolled across its sides like a screen.
“UNAUTHORIZED LIFE FORM ALERT! ALERT! STOWAWAY APPREHENDED! UNAUTHORIZED LIFE FORM ALERT!”