Unfamiliar Foe

Short Story by Eric Christopher Jackson

Children run around on shore as ships pull into dock. Their white sails cover the horizon as the heavy fog looms over the edge of the city. The sunlight is dim. Low mountains roll along, not too far from shore. The entire city is peaceful, though a buzz grows as the work day comes to an end.

“Papa, Papa, look!” Kyle skips and leaps as his father clasps his hand. “I think I can see it.”

Only giving a glance back, “Come now, Kyle. Your mother doesn’t like when we’re late for supper.”

“Yes, father,” the boy sighs.

“Plus, I’m famished.” They walk a little further making their way through the crowd of children, parents, blacksmiths, sailors, guardsmen, teachers, and the like. “Ah! Here we are.”

Kyle resumes his short hops as thoughts of the coming meal fill his mind…and almost his tummy. “Is mother cooking that bread?”

His father is half pre-occupied with not running into someone along the way, “I hope so. She prepared enough before sleep.”

He smiles as they finally reach the end of the port city and the beginning of the countryside.

“Whoa, whoa!” The rider calls out. His horses slow to a stop. “Mikel, Kyle. Would you like a ride the rest of the way?”

“Would I?! Can we, Papa?”

Mikel runs his hand slightly through black and grey beard. “Very kind of you, Cheser.”

Cheser nods, “Come along, I only have room for two,” as he eyes more people heading towards them on the old stony path. The three-horse transport is off down a long path between tall bushels.

Mikel moves towards Cheser as Kyle looks back at the people they leave behind. “The air is still today, old man.”

“Don’t dust your armor off, yet, Mikel,” Cheser insists. “Wait. Did you just call me old?”

I don’t have armor. Mikel laughs under his breath before returning to his point, “The haze covered the entire coast. It took everyone longer to find their way to port. It hasn’t been like this in…”

“I can let you off here, Mikel, if you’d like.”

Mikel shrugs it off.

“You can’t go around stirring up suspicions off of still air. Consider your son…”

He looks back to see Kyle basking in the calmness of the trip. Feet up on the seat, head tilted back, eyes closed. How unaware is he? Or…care-free? “I am. Which is why I’m watchful.”

“Or obsessed,” Cheser concludes. They slow to a halt at a path leading to a quaint home, smoke drifting from the chimney, dim lights glowing from behind sheer curtains. “Mmm. Her seasoned bread. How scrumptious!”

“You’d take it as a form of payment?” Mikel asks.

“Don’t I always?” Cheser snaps.

Kyle runs to the front, rubbing the horses just above their nose. “Thanks for the ride, guys!” before he dashes off also having noticed the smell of seasoned bread in the air.

His mother exits the home holding a wrapped loaf for their chauffer, “Here, Kyle, take this to Cheser,” as her son wraps his arms around her leg.

“Can I taste, first?” he asks.

“Go on. He’s waiting for you.”

Back down the path, Kyle is careful not to drop the gift as he runs. “Mom says you can have this,” as he extends the loaf up to Cheser.

Cheser takes in a whiff of the loaf while holding it to his nose. “Ahh. Delightful.” With a tip of his hat, he continues down the path to his own home.

Mikel meets his wife halfway to the door; they embrace.

“That face you make. Don’t tell me the air was still again today,” she says.

He frowns, “I didn’t say a word of it.”

“Right,” she concludes.

They go inside as Kyle is already making loops around the dining room table.

#

Several miles away, a storm is brewing outside of the city. Clouds gather every so swiftly as lightning bounces back and forth across the horizon. There is no wind in the air, yet, the weather seems to alter in an instant.

Whispers. They grow in number. An eerie feeling would be given to anyone nearby; this place has been deserted for years. Yes, they are speaking.

“Will you keep your word?” the voice echoes in mid-air.

“You dare question me?!” another voice returns.

A third interjects, “Silence! Your squabbling has cost us enough.”

“This is a bargain, not an alliance, Krestle. I answer to no one.”

“Yet, we will follow the plan…we agree to,” with the hum of a roar. “Correct?”

“Of course,” Namer answers. “Do I not always keep my word?”

A silence hangs in the air for a moment.

“We are in place,” four voices speak in unison. All other whispers cease. “On…my…mark.”

Without another word, the clouds scatter to reveal a clear sky and full moon. Lightning ceases. The wind blows again.

#

A few hours pass; Kyle is fast asleep as Mikel looks out the living room window into the night sky.

His wife is concerned as she steps into the moonlight, “Come to bed.”

Mikel holds his gaze on the horizon, eyeing the mountain range in the distance.

She doesn’t want to ask as she steps behind him, “What’s wrong?”

“Justine…” he begins.

She waits.

“I’ll be there, soon. I just need to…”

Justine shakes her head, “You can’t keep reliving the past. You’re missing right now.”

He turns towards her.

“And no matter what I try, you go right back there.”

“It is my duty to protect you, Love…and Kyle.”

“No one can protect us from life. There’s nothing we can do about it. I have to live with it. Can you?”

He shakes his head after a moment’s thought, “I haven’t been able to.”

They embrace; she drags him off to bed.

#

Dawn. Diffused light covers the city; the air is not as thick with haze. Roosters begin to sound the alarm before they abruptly cut their call short…and flee.

Mikel notices the rooster’s altered sound and turns over to see his wife out of bed and looking into the backyard. He stumbles over still getting the sleep out of his eyes.

“Don’t go out there,” Justine begins. “Stay with us.”

He looks out the window to see the commotion. Cows, horses, chickens, even the mules are unnerved, almost in a panic. Mikel looks to the sky. Crystal clear, yet, he hears the sound of thunder. He steps back.

Justine grabs his hand.

“I need to see…”

She lets him go, but follows him into the living room to look out the window opposite their room.

Brooding clouds are high in the atmosphere while lightning skips by, another crack of thunder.

Kyle yells for his mother.

She looks back at her husband as she retreats, “Don’t go out there.”

Mikel feels conflicted, “The city.”

“Look, mom, look! The clouds are moving!” as Kyle looks out of his window pointing towards the coast. He gasps, “Did you see that?!”

His mother looks on, part in astonishment, part in dread. “I never wanted to see it wake, again.”

Mikel enters his son’s room, “Get away from the windows!”

“Papa, look! It’s moving!” his son replies.

Do they ever listen to what I say? Mikel embraces his wife and son from behind as he sees a sight that never gets old. “He wakes.”

#

The thick haze along the coast of this great port city begins to dissipate. The form can be seen for miles, even beyond the countryside. Its teeth alone are sharper than any sword and larger than many hills on the mountain range. Its scales rise, lids peel back to reveal the fiery orange and black eyes beneath them. The clouds above its massive head swirl into place forming the wings of its back.

A dragon awakes.

Its home is the sky. The tail stretches across multiple villages on the other side of the sea. No one dared to challenge the great beast. And no one understood why it simply didn’t devour everything in its path. The head rises above the city showcasing its long neck and thick armor. The feet rest over the waters without touching them.

The brooding clouds begin to separate, each becoming some form of dragon. Still, the leader of this group holds its position in front of the giant beast. Four heads, long necks…like slippery serpents joined to one body. They howl in pride because of their own might.

City residents take shelter in basements that can only go so deep because of the water from the sea.

#

The family of three still peer out the window at what’s happening.

Kyle whirls around, “Does this mean I don’t have to go to school, today?”

His father rolls his eyes, “We have dragons looming above us and you’re worried about school?”

Kyle sighs, “We have a test, today.”

Justine thinks aloud, “It’s grown in size. The four-headed beast must be more powerful, now.”

Mikel nods in agreement, “Now, can we leave?” He heads for the door.

“I told you. They know where we hide. It’s nothing to something like them. The Protector is the only reason we survived.”

“And it never told us why! Why is it here, guarding us against those things?! It’s of the same kind as they are.”

“But…perhaps, its heart is different. It must be,” Justine answers.

“All the kids at school say it likes us. And since we can’t defend ourselves, it wants to help,” Kyle adds.

Mikel slams his back on the door frame. Helpless. He doesn’t like it. Does anyone ever want to see their death coming? Of course not. Only the insane. He drags his feet as wife and son pull him back to the window. Tears in his eyes, he keeps his hopes silent.

They group hug as Kyle concludes, “Let’s root for him, Papa. Let’s root for him.”

Their attention shifts towards the view on the horizon. The great dragon’s full form is on display.

#

The dragon’s chest protrudes, then retracts, as he eyes his challengers, “Disperse. Traitors.”

The four-headed monster scowls, “We have no allegiance! How dare you make yourself lord over us.”

“I am lord to no one.”

“You have made yourself lord over these…humans. They do our bidding. Trinkets. This world belongs to us! Yet, you allow them to settle here.”

“Their world was lost. They sought refuge as we did ions ago. There is enough land for us all. They ask nothing of us.”

“I tire of this age-old debate, Cauldron. Stand aside as we cleanse this land of its filth.”

Cauldron narrows his wings, primed to attack, “You are the only filth here. If you don’t value the lives of these, you don’t value your own, Serpent.”

The discussion is over. The four-headed beast envelops itself in an enormous cloud, “You will not survive, this time.”

Cauldron closes his eyes, sensing danger encircling him. In an instant, the air is thick with haze, yet again. The fight begins.

Whispers of before are terrifying roars as each dragon has to ability to phase in and out of one form to the other. Dragon heads emerge from clouds, teeth as their weapon, slashes at Cauldron, whom returns the act in kind.

Lightning ripples across the sky to the ground as residents scream while watching their homes and businesses be set ablaze.

The new plan is simple. Cauldron is the greatest of all dragons. Yet, he is only one. The four-headed beast can work together with the other great dragons to end him. No one will be left to stand in their way. Who gains control after his death remains to be seen.

The Serpent begins to laugh as its clouded form circles above Cauldron. “Even you can grow weak, great dragon. You are, but one. Together…we will end your reign.” His hideous laugh echoes across the city as lightning spreads to the countryside.

#

Mikel is worried, “This isn’t a fair fight. They’re ignoring all protocol of their kind.”

“The Serpent wants to win, Love. Even at the cost of his pride,” Justine finishes.

“It’s coming this way!” Kyle yells as bolts of lightning rain down.

The family runs to the basement, locking the latched door behind them. They can hear the crackle of the roof as their home is set on fire. Screams trickle in as residents on the countryside face the same danger. Trees catch fire, which begins to spread quickly. Animals run for cover as some are struck by the bolts of electricity.

#

The aerial battle has quieted. The great dragon, Cauldron, has reached exhaustion. No longer being able to phase into cloud form, the great beast flies across the atmosphere sinking its teeth into the assaulters. Another sharp pain in his back; another jab into his ribs; another tear at his wings; the great dragon begins to fall.

Using his last bit of strength, he stops short of hitting the sea below and making a crater out of the surrounding villages. He lets out a shallow roar as all of his enemies concentrate bursts of lightning on his weakening body.

He, the great dragon, Cauldron, rest his head a few miles above the sea, just beyond the shore of the city that burns. Eyes closing, a final shallow roar dissipates into silence.

Suddenly, the sun’s light is blocked out as the clan of dragons revel in victory. The sky is covered in black clouds as residents continue to help each other escape the city. Thunder erupts followed by screams of dread from what’s to come. Heads of the dragons emerge from the clouds taking chunks out of buildings. No one can stop them this time.

#

Mikel, Justine, and Kyle huddle together, waiting for their basement to crumble beneath the weight of debris above them. Whispers of “I love you” until the end. Part of the basement’s ceiling caves in. Ambient light pours through.

Mikel pulls his family towards the opening, “We have to get out of here!”

Onto a seared lawn, they escape their collapsing home to meet a blackened sky and bolts of lightning about the area. They stay huddled together on their knees, again, waiting for the end.

A strong force of wind kicks up; a screech fills the air. Kyle has to see, “It looks like an eagle!”

His parents look inland towards the mountain range to spot a bright set of clouds forming the shape of an eagle’s head. Its wings stretch out across the horizon as it flies towards the countryside, the city, the shore.

#

The dragons converge, then, blitz the on-coming bird to overpower it. No success. Without a blink, it covers the atmosphere above them and rain begins to fall. The four-headed beast lurches at the giant bird, teeth at the ready to crush it. The pain inflicted by the rain prevents it from touching the Eagle. The dragons try to escape.

#

The family of three stands in the glimmer of rain drops as trees, houses, and supplies cease to burn. They watch the long train of the Eagle stretch across the entire sky, the black clouds beneath burning away.

“Where did it come from?” Mikel asks.

Justine shakes her head, “I’m just glad it’s here.” She points ahead, “The trees. Do you see…?”

Kyle leaps, “They’re growing back!”

They all stand in awe as the burnt wood disintegrates and new trees emerge. The plains of tall grass do the same. The land is being restored.

#

Aching, the dragons slow their pace as the rain pours from above them. Wails, vapor flittering off until it disappears. They’re gone. The rain ends.

#

The Eagle takes another form as she hovers in mid-air over Cauldron’s resting body. “Wake, my friend.”

A large inhale, exhale, the great dragon struggles to open its eyes. A beautiful woman stands above him; the head of an eagle like a crown on her head. Feathers extending behind her white gown like a long cloak. Despite the healing capabilities of the rain, it pains him to speak, “Who are you, madam?”

“Chelsea. This is my home.”

“You allowed us to stay.”

She nods, “I am alone. My kind destroyed itself in occasions such as this long ago.”

“War.”

“And…I…am afraid to die…like the others.”

“Why show yourself, now?”

She considers the question for a few moments, “You showed me something, great dragon. Many things. Restraint. Compassion. Love. Not only for your kind, but for all kinds of life. You kept the land intact when you could have easily trampled it beneath your feet. I didn’t understand why until today.”

Cauldron’s chest aches; it hurts to breathe.

“I have never tried to heal a being before, especially of your size. I may be able to ease the pain, yet, I cannot extinguish it like the rest of my world.”

“Still…you have my thanks,” Cauldron’s thoughts fade as his breathing slows to a crawl.

Applause erupts from the shore as residents have gathered to show appreciation for their Protector.

A last inhale, “Thank you…all.” His eyes close.

The crowd is silent, again.

Chelsea places her hand on his scaly forehead, careful not to touch his sharp horns, “You taught me to value everyone’s life, not only my own. Thank you.”

Cheser signals for his three horses to stop as he and the family of three join the residents on the shore. Everyone bows their head.

Chelsea turns towards them, “Let us honor his life…by honoring each other.” She begins to ascend and disappears.

END

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