Gone. The Fire-breather is gone.
Seconds afterward, the Librarian senses a change. A difference inside. Like the twitching of muscles he’d not even known were paralyzed.
Smoke still hangs in the heated air, the Fire-breather’s sulphurous trace. It’s the same dry dawn on the same dry mountaintop. The Librarian is alive when he didn’t expect to be, but he is not the same as he was a moment ago.
His dragon has touched him, he’s sure of it. A feather-light glancing contact, almost too brief to be noticed, yet inside him now, this entire…what? A reordering, an enlarging – of thought, of perception, of understanding. A more outward focus.
And the connection felt deliberate this time. Not like it’s always been for him before, at the mercy of his peculiar inner circuitry, picked out by random roving beams that stun and blind, then swing away through the fog. This was…almost directed. Behind the walls of the dragon’s enigmatic prison, something has changed for her, too.
She knows where to find me.
The others must hear of this, immediately. But as the Librarian tries for words, none will come, aloud or otherwise. This has not changed. Besides, the others are not ready for another dose of revelation. Not yet. Though the terrifying confrontation passed within mere moments of real time, they’re as stunned and spent as if it had been hours. Distracted. Sluggish with terror and awe. Struggling with watery knees and weakened bowels. And wondering, as he is, how they managed to come through the conflagration alive. Though urgency thrills through the Librarian’s nervous system like a drug, he knows he must allow them space for recovery.
The smoke is persistent and sullen. Unnatural, like the creature that made it. Acid, like his tongue. The Librarian coughs, waving his arms uselessly. The Fire-breather’s stench is not so easily dispelled. And it’s a long time since he’s been outside in the unconditioned air. His pampered lungs have forgotten the acrid stink of combustion and the punishment of daylight. The constant dry weight of the heat, even at dawn. The arid mountain ledges still radiate yesterday’s baking. Already they’re being baked all over again. Heat upon heat. Even stone has a life that can be burned away. The Librarian sways, overcome by a moment of synchronicity with the rock.
…deep-anchored to slow-time, swelling sun seared, shattered, wind-battered, groaning with the revolutions of the dying planet…
Motion recalls him to the mountain top, to the dawn, to the rocky plateau that was once a landing pad. Once. When men still ruled. The Librarian sees the soldier is stirring. Has it been hours or seconds since? He mustn’t let himself drift like that, not now. He must remember how to act. He must recall decisiveness, now that his eternal waiting has ended, and time suddenly matters. Events matter. The Fire-breather has come and gone. The dragon Air has touched him. Six hundred men, women and children wait in the caverns below, anxious about the outcome of the confrontation above. His people, who have faith in him, who believe he has the knowledge to hold off the Last Days. Does he? Of course not. It’s her knowledge, the dragon’s, that he believes in, that he preaches about. Which is why he must…must…her touch…there is little time left…she is searching too.
The Librarian struggles to get hold of himself. He wishes for the animal body of his former days, when the ability to shake one’s self vigorously was all that was needed to feel put back in order. Every hair in place. He longs for the cool darkness of his den beneath the mountain, for the remote comforts of his screens and sensors and console. When his dragon finds him there, he can almost concentrate. Reflect rather than absorb. Deflect to the machines the bright roar of her energies. Keep the explosion in his senses within the limits of sanity…most of the time. With the expansion of her power over the years, the danger to him has grown also. This last century or so, without the buffer of the machines, his brain would have been burnt to the proverbial cinder. The Librarian shudders. Though there is power to spare in her sendings, there is little coherency. Sometimes he fears that his dragon is not entirely sane.
But this time, this time…there was something different. Along with the usual kaleidoscope of images, there was an hint of meaning. More than a hint. As if a new circuit had opened, to run a message on an infinite loop: Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! No, it’s not so articulate as that. The Librarian supplies the words, which barely describe the imperative within. It sighs like wind. It tumbles like water. It groans like the earth. He is eager to get back down below, to see if the machines can detect it, deflect it, interpret it.
Across the circular pad, the soldier dusts soot from his bare forearms and scowls at the brightening skies, as if to assure himself that the Fire-breather is truly gone. He lays a hand on the bowed head of the Fire-breather’s guide. She who was lately so bold has slid weeping to the ground beside him. The soldier murmurs soundlessly without bending towards her, seeming to know that no mere word or gesture will console her. He is familiar with the aftershock of battles. The Librarian watches him as he quietly steps away across the tarmac to inspect the arc of scorched rock and heat-fused sand laid down around them by the Fire-breather’s wrath. He is not a big man, but sturdy, with a blunt, determined jaw and a restless glance. He moves quickly, economically, unmindful of the gathering heat. The rising sun glints off the carved and gilded hilt of the sword slung sheathed across his back. The sword. The Librarian remembers that sword and this man, in a more youthful version. But the memory is from a former life, and hazy. Most clearly he recalls the man this man once served, an elder knight. Battle-scarred, a weary idealist. One has grown much like the other, over time – not physically, for the soldier is shorter, blonder, more intent. But maturity and ill-fortune have blunted his youthful arrogance, so the Librarian’s memories of both men blend in a tightening fabric. He follows the weave for a while, interested in the complex patterning of human lives. Then he catches himself.
Drifting again, Gerrasch. Not now, not now!
He flexes his pink-palmed hands, his clever fingers, his only sure anchor to the world. He sighs. His life is about to get very complicated.
The Earth-mover’s guide stirs next. As if waking suddenly, she starts and staggers to her feet, then pivots in an aimless circle, running down like a spinning top until she ends up gazing numbly at the Librarian. Her dark curls are frizzed with singe. Tears streak the ash dusting her pale smooth cheeks. But though she is the youngest of them all, almost a child, she does not give in to sobs. She gathers herself again quickly. She looks away to the others, counting heads, assessing their welfare. Beside her, the Water-bearer’s tall guide swears softly and at length, grinding his fists into his eyes.
In the Librarian’s gut, the wordless signal steps up its urgent thrum: Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!
The Earth-mover and Water-bearer themselves are still hunkered down in a silent conference of dragon outrage. They most of all must hear of the change in him, but though he’s only just met them, the Librarian knows enough of dragons to understand that they’ll not be disturbed until they’re good and ready, no matter what. He forgives them. They are dragons, after all. No matter the urgency, impatience is a lesson the Librarian has yet to learn. Not so the soldier, who has finished his inspection tour and has already begun to pace, though he attempts to disguise it as patrolling and limbering up, that is, useful movement. While the rest pull themselves together, the Librarian welcomes the chance for a moment of dragon study, his first since the pair’s sudden arrival to save their humans from the Fire-breather’s vicious tantrum. The Librarian has lived with a dragon inside him for all his life, yet he’s never seen one in the flesh. Suddenly, he’s seen three in less than half an hour.
Earth is vast, bronze and plated. He crouches like a mountain of veined brown marble, rough-carved in the form of a beast. His neck is thickly muscled, his haunches massive. His tail is short and wide, and grounds him to the rock like an ancient tree root. His curved ivory horns and scimitar claws reflect the glow of the rising sun. In contrast to this unrelenting solidity, Water could be a swirl of a billion blue-green butterflies, ephemeral and phosphorescent, infinitely changeable. The Librarian understands this is only the shape she’s chosen for the moment. He wonders if there is a shape she calls her own, in which her own identity rests and is at home. Earth and Water are as different from each other as they are from their fire-breathing, golden-scaled, deadly-minded brother.
How will his own dragon look, the Air-bringer, once she’s set free to appear before him? The Librarian has no data to work with, only gut feeling and instinct. He’s built a picture in his imagination. When he thinks of his dragon, he sees the tall cloud towers of ancient summers, the white-topped, fair-weather spires that once brought soft air and warm breezes. Clouds. Only a memory from a time when the planet’s cycle of respiration was still normal. But the Librarian remembers them in passionate detail, as an icon in the landscape of Paradise. Of Arcadia. Of all that is lost.
Drifting, Gerrasch. Again, again. Focus on the dragon!
What else was new in this precious instant of contact? The Librarian replays it in his mind: reverse, fast forward, reverse, fast forward. The cloud image seems a bit more architectural than before, a sort of cloud city. An anomaly? The Librarian stores it for further analysis.
The pale girl and the tall young man have gathered themselves enough to turn to the older man behind them. Together, they ease him up from his knees and pat away his shudders of terror and outrage. For this man’s sake, the Librarian at last wills his big clumsy body toward an idea of motion. Stillness would be vastly easier, but this dark-skinned man is neither soldier nor dragon guide. Only his faith in the Librarian’s visions has brought him so near to death on a bleak and bitter mountain top. He deserves some soothing and support.
No wind among the rocks, wreathed in heat and stubborn smoke, pressed down by the yellow dome of sky. No sound. Only the brittle rattle of pebbles beneath the soldier’s boots as he paces out the blackened circle for a third or fourth time. No one has said a word, the Librarian notes, since the Fire-breather vanished.
Ah, good, he muses, when his feet more or less respond to his orders, and shuffle him forward. Perhaps now the words will follow.