The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 8

"A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." (John Steinbeck)

The corridor was long, twisting and turning at random, and dimly lit with an odd greenish cast over everything. Doors of every imaginable shape and size lined either side, each one adorned with the UNEC crest. The floor tiles were done in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern which became dizzying if stared at for more than a few seconds.

A voice suddenly boomed and echoed through the seemingly endless hallway. "RANGER SHAY, REPORT!"

Sam gulped, and started running. Or rather, he told his body to start running, and his point of view moved swiftly along, but there was no sound other than the fading echoes of Lieutenant Dashiell's all-too-familiar bellow.

The corridor ended in a huge archway. The edges of the opening were pewter toned, flickering here and there with twisting curls of bright blue energy like a Jacob's Ladder gone mad. In the center swirled a vortex of blue-gray mist, lit from within by more random lightning-like flashes.

Sam stopped, frozen by a bizarre mixture of fascination and utter terror. There was something familiar about the entire scene...

As if conjured by the thought, bright silvery lines started crawling across the perimeter of the arch, resolving into symbols as they went. Along with the characters came multiple whispers, each speaking a different language. Sam experienced a bizarre stereo effect, as two different voices sang the same words in languages he knew.

"When Dark and Light embrace,

And the Three dance as One,

The Traveler may offer Fire.

Then shall the Door open,

And the Path become clear."

The last phrase echoed like thunder in the Grand Canyon, the symbols filling his entire field of vision...

He sat bolt upright, gasping for breath, pulse racing. The night's chill gripped him as the upper part of his sleeping bag fell away. Other than Skye's steady breathing, soft snores from Toothless, and a pair of louder snores from upstairs, the house was as quiet as it was dark. Faint smells of roasted fish and wood smoke still lingered, reminiscent of the previous night's dinner.

Dark though it was, the image of the symbols he had seen in his dream burned bright in his line of vision, suspended in midair in a neat inverted 'U' as if they still retained their connection to the archway.

Before Sam was fully aware of what he was doing, his hands had scooped up notepad and pen from his duffel bag, copying the symbols into permanent form. He worked feverishly as the bright lines slowly faded, driven by adrenaline and the sense of having grasped something terribly important.

The spell broke. He shivered slightly, glanced down at the near-invisible notepad, then swore and reached for his penlight. Revealed in the deep red glow was a near-perfect drawing of the arch from his dreams, all seven symbols around its perimeter as neat and sharp as if laser printed. Wow he mused. Not bad for blind sketching. Now, what in blazes does it mean?!

It had been two weeks since his improvised cure had saved several of Berk's dragons from brevetoxin poisoning. Two weeks, and he had gotten no closer to figuring out how he'd slipped back 1200 years in time, let alone how to reverse the process. He'd spent hours each day – when he wasn't flying with Skye, learning the ins and outs of being a dragon rider – going over his ship's flight recorder logs, trying to piece together the exact sequence of events.

Unfortunately, whatever effect had stranded him here had also scrambled part of those logs. They were perfectly clear, right up to the point where he'd dodged the smuggler's plasma charge. The recording had chosen that moment to dissolve into a sea of video static and a sound like two angry cats fighting with steel drums.

It remained that way for exactly five minutes, then picked up with a view of a quiet ocean, a night sky just starting to go pale, and his craft's approach to what he now knew was Berk's eastern beach. EMERGENCY AUTOLAND ENGAGED flashed in red characters across the bottom of the screen from the moment the ocean came into view.

His memory had been no help either. He could clearly remember one of the smugglers firing at him, missing his ship but striking... something... Gerry yelling over the radio, then – nothing, until he'd woken up with the sun beating down on him.

Then, three nights back, the dreams had started. It was the same, every time. A long corridor, Lieutenant Dashiell's voice yelling at him to report, running...

And waking up, gasping for breath, unable to remember anything more.

Until now he thought, as a sudden call of Nature prompted him to put the pad down and seek out the facilities. Until now.

Skye intercepted him just outside the house as he was coming back, her opaline eyes shining with excitement and his notepad clamped in her mouth. He winced at the sight. "Don't get it wet!" he said, reaching for it.

She snorted, and dropped it into his hand. It was bone dry. The way it smells? I would not touch my tongue to it if I were starving! Where did you get this?!

There was an urgency to her mental voice which startled Sam. "It's just paper" he stammered. "Something my people use to wrOWW!"

He flinched, rubbing at his arm where Skye's ear-flap had impacted. What you have drawn on the paper, silly fledgling! She all but snapped, her eyes blazing. Do you have any idea what these writings mean?!

"Oh! Right, sorry." He explained about the dream, and his sudden sense of needing to put it on paper before it faded. "Can we talk about this inside?" he added, rubbing briskly at his arms.

She turned without another word, and pushed through the door. Green-yellow orbs met Skye's, followed by a querying rumble. Her reply was much longer than normal, a series of soft grunts and growls, accompanied by nods towards Sam and his notepad. Toothless was silent for nearly a minute after she'd finished, his eyes focused on something only he could see.

Finally, he huffed, got up, grunted something at Skye, and streamed upstairs as silently and quickly as an oversize cat.

Before Sam could do more than marvel at how something as big as a Night Fury could move so quietly, Skye nudged him firmly in the side. Put on your outer skins she sent. We must fly. Bring your drawing. There is something you and Hiccup need to see.

Sam complied, still confused but eager. He pulled on a clean jumpsuit, secured his boots, then started on Skye's harness and saddle. Muffled sounds of indignant protest suddenly issued from upstairs, accompanied by occasional draconic grunts. "...Ow! Enough already, you overgrown lizard! What's so important..."

Sam couldn't hold back a chuckle as he checked the straps, followed Skye outside and settled himself on her back. Doing so now seemed easy, nearly automatic, and he smiled as his memory replayed their second flight together. He'd been worried his fear might resurface in daylight, when he could see the ground.

Neither Skye nor Hiccup had given him the slightest chance to dwell on the idea. A spare saddle and riding straps had appeared as if conjured, and Sam had found himself being put through an intense lecture on dragon tack, harnessing, and how to handle himself in the air, all while gulping down a hasty breakfast.

His concentration was not helped by occasional Murphy-driven thoughts of the whole thing being a 'crash' course in dragon riding.

Fortunately, the reality left Murphy solidly on the ground. Sam had barely settled himself on Skye's back when she had powered into the air. Before he could catch his breath, they were over a kilometer high and climbing like an arrow.

By the time she leveled into a smooth glide, he had been so caught up in the view of a sunrise which would have made the most jaded artist weep with joy, the ground just didn't seem all that important.

Her heart-stopping takeoffs were now a normal habit, and he never tired of the rush of cold air, the whoosh of powerful wings, or the silent peace of her glide as she leveled out at her preferred altitude. He found, if he stared at the sky and the sun-dappled sheet of the ocean long enough, it felt like they were holding completely still, floating suspended in time and space with nowhere more important to be than right where they were.

The only thing he still had problems with was aerobatics, though he loved watching the other dragons perform them. Skye had repeatedly assured him his tolerance would improve with time.

You have been living in fear of simple height for most of your life she would remind him, as she practiced corkscrews, loops and spins, and he practiced hanging on for dear life. Do not expect to be able to fly the Pillars with me in just a few suns.

The reference puzzled him, and he had asked Hiccup about it over lunch. For answer, the teen had taken him for a walk to a cliff overlooking the island's west side. The array of jagged rock spires and formations was unmistakable, and Sam felt a chill run up his spine. "You flew through that?" he gasped. "At speed?!"

Hiccup nodded. "Toothless and I had no choice the first time around, but now we do it every so often just to keep in practice. Once you and Skye can make it through, you will truly be a dragon rider. Trust her. She'll know when the time is right."

Sam gulped, hard, and reached hastily for a flask of mead he'd taken to carrying with him. "She'll know?! Don't I get any say?"

You can say anything you like Skye had chimed in, gliding low overhead, her tone utterly confident. It is my choice to listen, or not.

That was the first time Hiccup had ever seen mead spew from someone's nose.

By now, Sam was well used to Skye's mad rush for height. He concentrated on balancing his weight against her motion as she climbed rapidly, longer than normal, before heading due south. The dawn wind was cold on his face, a thick deck of stratus clouds adding their mist to the flight. A faint shout from behind and below drew his attention, and he turned to see a second black shape climbing rapidly in their wake.

Even at this distance, there was something about the pattern of Toothless's flight which told him, in no uncertain terms, how Hiccup felt about their impromptu excursion. The indignant expression on the teen's face, as they caught up, confirmed it. "What in Odin's name is going on, Sam?!" He yelled, as the two dragons matched positions and, as one, picked up speed. "You don't need us along for every flight!"

For answer, the vet pointed to Skye. "Ask her!" He called back. "All she told me is there was something we both needed to see–"

He broke off abruptly, realizing what he'd just said. Skye's telepathic abilities were something he hadn't intended to let slip, figuring he'd already presented Berk's residents with enough new ideas to last them several generations. The idea of dragons who could put words right into someone's head was, he felt, pushing things.

At first, Hiccup's reaction seemed to confirm the wisdom of such a choice. He blinked, shook his head, and called back "I must not have heard you right... She told you?"

"Ahh... I'll explain later!" Sam called back, turning abruptly away. He felt Hiccup's gaze linger a few moments longer, then turn away. The vet cursed himself for speaking before thinking – again!

He will not forget Skye sent, amusement coloring her tone. You must keep your promise to explain, no matter what, or you will never have any peace.

Now it was Sam's turn to blink in surprise. "He'll think I've gone half mad!"

Will he? Before you came, he also didn't think flying was possible without a dragon's help. Hiccup's Gift is going to emerge very soon. If he knows something of what to expect, and why it is happening, it will make things easier.

She turned her head to look back at him with one eye, and winked. As close as those two are, do you not also think he would welcome the ability to Hear Toothless?

Sam mulled this over for the rest of the flight. Which, as it turned out, wasn't very long. In a little under ten minutes, they were descending towards a tiny island which Sam estimated couldn't be more than a kilometer across at its widest point. Rocky and nearly bare of vegetation, surf crashing heavily against its sides, it looked as inhospitable and boring as anything Sam had seen in his travels.

His opinion abruptly changed as they dropped lower, and passed over the top of a huge granite cliff. At its base, set squarely in the middle of the island, was a perfectly circular plateau which looked, to the vet's eyes, as neatly graded and flat as the airfield at any UNEC base.

Set exactly in the middle of the plateau, one side facing the cliff and the other facing due south, was the pewter-toned arch from his dream, seven glyphs around its perimeter.

Barely able to believe his own eyes, he dropped from Skye's back before she'd settled fully on the ground. He started walking towards the arch, pulling out his sketch as he went and checking the symbols and their positions against the drawing. Everything matched.

What he hadn't seen, though, was the sheer size of the artifact. Its opening was large enough to accommodate two UNEC aircars side-by-side, with room to spare, though the gap between the cliff and the portal's edge was little more than nine meters. Don't try to fly through it at speed he thought, as he reached out a hand to touch the archway's surface.

Contrary to his expectations, it was slightly warm, glass-smooth and hard as diamond. At that moment, the clouds, which had been thinning steadily, broke apart. Sunlight gleamed off the arch, warming it further.

He snatched his hand back, startled. The thing had shocked him! Tentatively, he touched it again, discovering the same electrical tingle one would get from a nine-volt battery held against their tongue.

A voice at his side jarred him out of his thoughts. "You got me up early for this?!" Hiccup said, eyeing the arch with a sour expression. "What's so important about a weird rock formation on a speck of an island?! Toothless and I have flown over this thing a bunch of times, and so have others! No one's ever been able to figure out what it is, or why it's here, so it makes a good landmark for traveling south and that's about it."

Both Skye and Toothless cut loose with pulsing grunts of draconic laughter. Hiccup sent them a disgusted look. "And what do you two find so funny about it? I could have slept another couple of hours instead of freezing–ow!"

He broke off, one hand going to his temple. "Great" he muttered, rubbing at the spot. "Just the time for my head to start feeling like an overturned beehive! Sam, got anything for a headache?"

The vet glanced at Skye. She nodded. "Actually" Sam said, reaching into his pocket for an aspirin patch and peeling open the wrapper, "I do, but there's something you need to know."

Both dragons settled close by, Toothless gazing intently at Hiccup, Skye taking a position where she could watch them all. "Let me guess" Sam began. "You've been hearing noise in your head every time you've been close to a dragon? And the noise comes with a headache?"

Hiccup's jaw dropped as Sam stuck the patch to his neck. "How did you–?"

"Well, lad, it's a bit complicated..." Sam took a deep breath and launched into a detailed explanation, starting from when he'd first 'heard' a Zippleback speak, though he'd had no clue at the time where the voices were coming from.

Hiccup listened attentively, his expression shifting from disbelief to worry and, finally, confusion. He turned to stare at Toothless, who gazed calmly back. "So let me see if I've got this straight" he said, turning back to Sam. "Skye understands you. And she can talk to you. In your head. Without making a sound."

He nodded. "OK" Hiccup continued, with another glance at Toothless. "And the noise in my head, along with the headaches, is happening because I also have this... Skill? Talent?"

Toothless had ambled closer and stuck his head under Hiccup's left arm. Before Sam could reply, and much to his surprise, a new voice sounded in both their heads. Strong, a bit playful, patient – and most definitely male. It reminded Sam of a long-dead film actor, Peter Strauss. The word is 'Gift.'

Hiccup's eyes bugged. He stared at Toothless, who nodded once and huffed. Not bad for an 'overgrown lizard,' hmm?

All the teen could manage in response was a whispered "Oh, man..." as he sagged against his friend's neck.

The next few minutes flew by in a four-way hurricane of questions, answers and stunned expressions, frequently interspersed with "How am I going to explain any of this?!" and "Nobody's going to believe it!"

As the verbal and mental storm dissipated, Hiccup remembered his initial complaint. "Don't get me wrong" he said to Toothless, after a lengthy and silent stare out over the ocean. "It's great to actually talk with you, but I get the feeling we're here for a different reason."

The dragon nodded towards his mate, who was sitting on her haunches next to Sam. That is for Skye and Sam to tell us he replied, his tail tip switching back and forth.

And Sam can start by showing you his drawing Skye added, with a nudge at the vet's shoulder.

He unfolded the sheet and held it up. Hiccup looked it over. "Nice job" he said, still puzzled. "I didn't know you were a Scribe as well as a Healer."

Sam coughed. "I'm not, actually" he said. "I think what you're missing is when I drew this." He went on, explaining his recurring dream. "I've never seen this island, or this... artifact... until this morning."

Hiccup took the sketch, then stepped back and compared it to the arch for several minutes. When he handed it back, his eyes held a new respect for the vet. "You're a Seer" he said, softly.

Sam snorted. "Hardly! If I were, I would have foreseen coming here, and I would have..."

He broke off abruptly, realizing where he'd been about to take the thought, then met Skye's gaze. It held a mix of understanding and sadness. Would you? She sent, to him alone. Would you truly have stopped yourself, if you knew what was coming?

"Would have what, Sam?" Hiccup asked, his tone completely normal.

He coughed. "Been able to understand these glyphs" he finished, pushing the original thought as far down his mental black hole as it would go. "Apparently, Skye recognized them."

He nodded at his draconic companion, who huffed in agreement. There are stories told among our people she sent, her gaze taking them both in. They tell of others who knew the secret of riding the High Winds between the worlds.

Some Toothless added, believe our people – all dragons – came to this world by way of the High Winds, and their Doorways. This – He nodded at the archway – is one of those Doorways, and the writing is that of the Builders.

Skye picked up the tale. Now you know why we brought you here. No matter what you may believe of yourself, Hiccup is right: You have a Seer's Eye. There is no other way you could have known this Door was here.

Sam felt his pulse start to pick up as a line from an old collection of stories he'd read in his teen years came to him. "'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth'" he quoted, softly, in English, then pointed squarely at the arch. "This has to be how I came here" he said, switching back to Norse. "It barely took us ten minutes to get here by dragon, which means my ship could have covered the same distance in less than half that."

He grinned broadly. "This could be my way home!" he said, excitedly, turning to the two dragons. "So what does the writing mean?"

They both looked startled. You do not know? Toothless replied, his eyes going nearly all-pupil.

We were waiting for you to tell us! Skye added, her gaze flicking between the arch and the two humans. Knowledge of the Builders, and their language, has been lost for more sun-cycles than any can remember. When I saw your drawing, I thought it meant you already knew of them. To recover even a fragment of their knowledge could have answered many questions!

For nearly a minute, the only sounds were the gurgle of the waves, faint calls from seabirds, and the wind gusting across the plateau. Sam felt like a giant hand was gripping his chest, squeezing every trace of breath from it.

The hand opened. A tremor started in his guts, bubbled upwards, and burst out in a giggle. The giggle turned into laughter, gentle at first, but rapidly growing in strength.

After a few moments, Sam's legs collapsed. He dropped to his knees, then the ground, howling with mirth until his entire body shook with the force of it.

Hiccup, who had been uncertain whether to join in whatever the joke was or make a hasty escape with help from Toothless, suddenly realized what was happening. He crouched down and grabbed the vet's shoulders, shaking him hard. "Sam! Stop it! Get hold of yourself! Odin's Beard, you'll go mad if you don't! STOP LAUGHING!"

If anything, the laughter got stronger. Suddenly, a large black head pushed Hiccup firmly away.

I will deal with this! Skye sent, as she leaped on top of Sam, grabbed him in her front legs, and sprang into the air in the same motion. She disappeared over one side of the island. Toothless's ears twitched at the sound of a faint splash, and Hiccup's eyes bugged. "Did she just–"

His friend rumbled softly. Never annoy a female, especially when they expect something of you! He replied, soberly.

Hiccup gulped, remembering all too clearly what Astrid's reaction had been when she'd first discovered him and Toothless at the hollow. "No argument there" he muttered.

Sounds of a struggle floated up on the breeze, along with an indignant bellow of "–trying to drown me, you oversized black bat?! What in blazes–!"

The sound was cut off abruptly by more splashing. A heartbeat later, Skye swooped back over the plateau and dropped off one very wet and thoroughly chastened UNEC field vet.

He landed with a none-too-gentle splat, got to his knees, and started coughing. Skye landed barely three meters away, and shook herself from nose to tail fins. Cold seawater and particles of kelp sprayed everywhere.

Her eyes fairly blazed as she went nose-to-nose with Sam, and her mind-speech carried a note of not-so-distant thunder. I had not planned on another swim so soon. Do you have control of yourself, or must I–

Sam sat up quickly enough to throw off some of his own soaking, and raised both hands in surrender. "No! No, no, not at all! I'm fine! Perfectly all right..." He coughed again, several times. "Completely normal to go for a swim in a cold ocean in early spring! Builds character, it does!"

He looked around, wiping his eyes and blinking furiously. As his gaze settled on Hiccup and Toothless, they both started looking more than a bit nervous. "Ahh" Hiccup said, gesturing towards the opposite end of the island. "We'll just go see about some firewood..."

The two took off running. Skye chuffed in satisfaction, then locked eyes with Sam once again. He looked away, flushing bright red with shame. I am glad to hear such things build character she sent, completely ignoring the sarcasm. You seem to need quite a lot of it. Do you understand why I did this?

He just nodded, miserably. "I... lost it" he whispered.

This drew another snort. That is an excellent understatement. I had no idea it was so easy for humans to descend into madness! Are your minds truly so fragile?

Sam's eyes snapped up to meet hers. He flushed red again, this time with anger. "Fragile?! Was it 'fragile' minds which built an empire out of Rome? Was it 'fragile' minds which built the Egyptian pyramids? Was it 'fragile' minds which sent us to the moon, and Mars?!"

I have no idea she snapped back. Since I see, from your thoughts, all of those things happening in times to come, there is no way either of us can know if they will still happen. Does not the future change, from one heartbeat to the next? Does not your presence, here and now, spark change, just as fire starts from the smallest of embers?

A chill went down Sam's back, and it had nothing to do with his still-wet condition. His anger cooled, replaced by a flood of panic. "Sweet Saint Blaise" he muttered, cradling his face in his hands. "Lord only knows what will happen because of me..."

Skye rumbled again, this time with amusement. If, by 'Lord,' you refer to the Great Spirit, Lady of all Winds, you are right. She alone knows what the future holds. She gives to all Her children the Gift of free choice, but no Gift comes without a price.

She causes us to live with whatever changes our choices may bring. The knowledge of what we choose to do, and how our choices affect others and the world we all share, stays with us through all our lives.

Sam gulped. Hard. "But what if I completely ruined my own future through what I've already done? What if everything I left, everything I've known – damn, everyone I've known – is gone because of what I've done here and now? I'm not part of this time, this place. Hell, I won't even be born for a thousand years yet! What if I've already destroyed my own time?!"

And what if you have not? came the cool reply. What other choice could you have possibly made, given who and what you are? Would you rather have done nothing, out of fear for what might have been?

Her gaze held his, and he was unable to look away. I would have died she continued, softly, as would others. None of our kind fear death as such – it is merely part of a greater cycle – but death without purpose is a terrible thing. Were it not for you, our human friends would never have known what took us from them. They may never have known what the signs of danger were.

He shivered again, this time from real cold. Skye extended a wing, and he gratefully accepted the warm covering. If you follow your own reasoning she continued, turning her head far enough to keep an eye on him, the time you return to may be completely different – or no different at all. You cannot know until you return.

Now it was Sam's turn to snort. "If I can" he said, gazing out at the sea and sky. "I may have found the door, thanks to you, but I still don't know how to open it!"

Her wings raised briefly in a draconic shrug. You will discover how. If you truly wish to return, you will find a way.

Sam looked sharply up at her. The emotion behind her last few words had not escaped him. "If you're so hopeful I'll not find a way home" he said, "why are you helping me? You could have just ignored the drawing. I would never have known."

She sighed gustily, and her wing tightened around him. All Life moves in patterns–

"Oh, no you don't!" Sam snapped, shrugging off the wing and turning to face her, head-on. The wind bit into his still-wet jumpsuit, sending icy fingers up his backside. He barely felt it.

"No more philosophy, no more mystic speeches! You don't want me to go anywhere other than back to Berk!"

Much to Sam's surprise, she managed to look pained. Do I hide it so poorly? And is it truly such a terrible thing to want? As Toothless is my mate, you are my human companion of choice. No other has seemed... right... to me.

She looked away, up into the sky, for a long moment. Finally, her gaze turned back to Sam. I help you because it is the right thing to do. The choice to go or stay must be yours alone, even if it is not truly what I desire.

She extended her wing once again. At this moment, you have a choice of remaining cold, or allowing me to share my warmth. You know what is best for yourself, and I will support whichever path you choose.

Sam was still simmering with enough annoyance to consider staying right where he was. A particularly strong gust of wind changed his mind. Wrapping both arms around his chest, he ducked back under the shelter of Skye's wing. "You can be damned annoying when you're right" he muttered.

Thank you! That is the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a moon! She rumbled amusement.

Try as he might, Sam couldn't stay angry. He grinned, slowly, relaxing in the considerable warmth radiating from his friend. "Oversized bat" he grumbled.

Hairless ape she responded in kind, pulling him a bit closer. He didn't push away this time.

After a few minutes of blissful quiet, broken only by wind and wave, a scraping noise caught his attention. He turned to see Toothless dragging most of a tree in his jaws. Hiccup followed close behind with an armload of smaller twigs and branches. "The only tree we could find as far as either of us could see" Hiccup said, dropping his load on the plateau and jerking a thumb in Toothless's direction, "and he has to uproot it."

The way it tastes, it was more than half-dead the dragon countered, spitting out the growth with obvious relief. Try it yourself if you don't believe me.

Hiccup winced and backed up a couple of paces. "Just light it, please?"

Sam was caught completely off-guard by the small but brilliant blue fireball Toothless spat at the pile. It exploded into flames with barely a wisp of smoke. Good control Skye commented, opening her wings so both she and Sam could enjoy the heat.

Sam eyed the roaring fire uncertainly, even as he edged closer. His jumpsuit was now drying very quickly. "Ahh... just how big do those fireballs get?" He'd seen other dragons spit fire by now, to be sure, but never in so tightly controlled a form or with such concentrated power!

Hiccup and Toothless exchanged sly grins. Skye groaned and rolled her eyes. You had to ask, didn't you?

Toothless promptly spun around so he was facing away from the group. This is small he sent, making a barely-audible popping noise with his mouth.

An orange-yellow blob of fire, about the size of a golf ball, streaked into the wind and vanished against the cliff face in a puff of blue smoke. Middle-sized is what I used to light our camp fire he continued, turning to face offshore and nodding at a good-sized pillar of rock about sixty meters away. And this is what happens when I really mean it!

He took a huge breath, then spat sharply. The burning sphere was about the size of a small beach ball, nearly too bright a blue to look at. It whipped across the sea towards the pillar, struck it...

The flash blinded Sam for a few seconds. Before he could blink away the spots, the shock wave hit with a thunderous boom and a rush of summer-like heat. When he could finally see again the only thing left of the rock was an irregular square, barely visible above the waves, looking as clean as if it had been cut by a mining laser.

"Sweet Mother Machree" he breathed, his gaze flicking back and forth between a very smug-looking Night Fury, his proud rider, and the blast area. "If you wouldn't mind" he said, thoughtfully, "I'd like to examine your mouth and throat later on, then take some measurements to see how hot your fire really gets."

Toothless looked suspicious. It won't taste bad, will it?

Sam chuckled. "Not unless you think my hand will. I promise to wash up first."

Skye snorted in annoyance. Are we done, here? I think we all missed breakfast.

The flight back was uneventful, as was the rest of the day. Sam spent part of it asking questions of Gothi and Ingrid, trying to find out more about the Builders and seeing if either of the wise-women recognized the symbols.

His remaining store of hope drained away all too quickly when neither of them did. He went as far as showing the glyphs to Gobber and Stoick, but neither had any more knowledge on the subject than the elders (though both were fascinated by the concept of paper, and asked for a few sheets apiece).

"One possibility, Healer" Stoick rumbled, running thick fingers through his expansive beard. "Trading season is coming. If ye make me some copies of yer writing, I'll send them out with our ships an' see if we can find someone who knows what they mean."

Sam winced. "That'll take months!" he complained. "If you can just tell me where your trade spots are, I can get there in my own ship in less time than it takes to–"

"Get turned into a sword practice dummy?" Gobber commented. "Or would ye prefer testing the edge of an axe the hard way? Aye, yer ship seems strong enough, but how long would ye last once ye set foot outside it? As ye would have to, if ye wanted answers."

Sam looked startled. "Your trading partners attack on sight?"

"They do if they think a demon has come among them" Stoick rumbled. "Healer, think it through: The only thing which stopped me from takin' yer head when ye first landed was Hiccup's introduction, an' we're used to the unusual around here. Ye try to land that flying metal... thing... anywhere else, and ye'd be cut down before ye could climb down. As it is, I'll need ye ta' hide it when we have other tribes visitin'. Hiccup can show ye where."

Dejectedly, the vet thanked the two men, gathered his notebook and supplies into a day pack, and hiked off into the forest, heading for the hollow Hiccup had told him about a few days ago.

"It's where Toothless and I met" he'd said. "Very quiet, very peaceful, almost as good as flying. Great place to clear your head."

I hope so Sam thought, as he pushed his way through the undergrowth. The days were getting progressively warmer, a sign of the summer to come, and he soon found himself wiping sweat out of his eyes more often than he'd expected. Insects hummed, birds chirped and squawked, and the air was thick with the scent of pine, fir, and new flowers.

Despite the detailed directions Hiccup had given him, he nearly missed the entrance to the hollow. The sound of dripping water drew him through a concealing screen of fern fronds, then down a steep slope. He knew it was the right place because the upper ledge still bore signs of Toothless's original crash landing, including a few lengths of rotting rope scattered on the ground near a large boulder.

Five minutes of investigation and subsequent rock-climbing brought him into the hollow itself, and he gazed around in wonder. Though the forest had certainly been lush enough, with the approach of summer, the greenery before him made it seem like an arid desert by comparison.

A riot of ferns, moss, grass, trees and shrubs bordered a small lake which was so still and clear, Sam could see the entire landscape reflected in it as a perfect mirror image. Fish moved lazily beneath the surface, intent on their own affairs.

A soft splash from one side of the lake caught his attention. He turned to see a tall bird wading slowly through the shallows, its bright yellow eyes intent on the surface. Heron he thought, noting the sword-like beak and long flexible neck, but which one?

It was rare for a UNEC Ranger not to recognize any creature they saw. More so for Sam, as he had a near-encyclopedic memory for species and subspecies. It was one of the few things which made his coworkers envious.

This particular bird, though, had him stumped. Its wings sported an outer layer of fine gray-black feathers, with deep chestnut tones on the forward edges. The chestnut shading changed to reddish brown on the sides of the bird's neck, bisected with deep black stripes. The top of its head sported a neat black cap over white facial feathers and its beak, like its powerful legs, was yellow.

Frowning slightly, Sam fumbled in one of his jumpsuit's pockets and took out a device which looked like a cross between a fat pocket calculator and an early-2000's "smart" phone. He pressed his thumb firmly on a depression in the unit's side and it clicked open to half again its original length, revealing a camera lens built into the top section. Aiming the lens at the bird, and centering its image on the HD OLED screen, he touched a red button.

The image on the screen froze, and Sam touched a green key labeled SEARCH. The image split in two, original on the left. On the right, a blur of similar images flickered by, too fast for a human eye to follow. Green tracer lines flicked on and off across both images, highlighting characteristics of the original as the scanner tried to match it to the contents of its voluminous memory.

A little more than ten seconds later, the unit beeped affirmative. Sam gasped as the display scrolled out its results.

PURPLE HERON, Ardea purpurea purpurea. IUCN RED LIST STATUS: EW

Seconds later, the unit beeped again and produced another message in bright red: USER ALERT: REPORT THIS SIGHTING TO UNEC COMMAND IMMEDIATELY!'

Sam snorted in disgust, closed the scanner and returned it to his pocket. The heron, startled by the sound, eyed the two-legged intruder warily. "Relax" the vet muttered, as he backed slowly away, still admiring the bird. "Just don't see you fellows in my time..."

The heron watched a moment longer, then returned to its fishing. Sam settled down on a sun-warmed rock, pulled out his notebook, and started copying his original drawing. "'Report this sighting immediately'" he muttered, as he worked. "Aye, that'd be a good trick."

Despite not wanting to admit it, he knew Stoick and Gobber had been right. Even if he stood a chance of learning enough to get home, it wasn't enough to offset the risk of what the reaction to his aircar's appearance would be outside of Berk.

Capture, at best he mused, tracing the arch and its symbols. Not even a SmartLaser can hold off more than a half dozen or so. And what if I killed someone who happens to be one of my ancestors? Or managed to spark a war?

A splash made him glance up. The heron had speared a trout, and was quickly dispatching it. Sam grinned slightly as he watched the outline of the unlucky swimmer slip neatly down the bird's neck, then turned back to his work.

Minutes stretched into tens of minutes, then into hours. Somewhere in those hours, Sam had stretched his stiff muscles and taken a lunch break – only to drift off in the sun's warmth shortly afterward. A gentle breeze flapped his notebook's pages like errant butterfly wings, providing a counterpoint to the vet's snores.

He woke with a start to air which was much cooler, and to a sky which was rapidly darkening. "Bloody hell" he muttered, looking around dazedly. Then he remembered where he was, got up with a grunt, and started gathering his things.

A familiar whooshing noise heralded Skye's arrival. I thought I might find you here she sent, nudging him affectionately. What have you been doing with yourself?

"Copying my drawing" he said, as he stuffed the notebook into his pack and pulled out a light jacket. "Stoick says he'll send out the copies with the trading parties, see if anyone recognizes the symbols."

He paused in his packing, and met his friend's gaze. "You may get your wish after all" he said, reaching out to rub her lower jaw, his insides clenching and quivering in a mix of joy and resignation. "If no one has known about the Builders for as long as you say, I may never figure this out." He waved one of the copies, then shoved it into the pack.

You will never lack for friends she assured him, purring at the rub, her eyes glinting with mischief and anticipation. I can show you things you have never imagined!

He chuckled as he shrugged into the jacket and slung his pack, feeling more optimistic than he had in days. "For now, I'll settle for a ride back to the village. There'll be an extra salmon in it for you."

Moments later, he was admiring the stars from half a kilometer above the earth, Skye's lazy wingbeats showing she was in no hurry. A curious thought struck Sam, one he had to voice. "Skye, do dragons use the stars to navigate? To find your way?"

In part, yes she replied. We also use scent, the winds themselves, and another sense I do not know how to describe. Do you know your way by the stars?

Sam nodded. "Even with all the technology we have, we still have to learn at least the basics." He looked around, then pointed at an X-shaped constellation, with a brilliant blue-violet star in the upper left. "That one's called Cygnus, or the Swan... let's see... There! See that diamond-shaped one with a tail? That's Lyra, and the bright star on its tail is called Vega."

Though he couldn't see Skye's smile in the dim light, he could certainly feel it in her thoughts. Dragons call that one 'The Singer,' while the one you call the Swan we know as 'Defender of Winds.'

She banked left in a smooth turn, then leveled off again. What do you call the one just above my left wing?

Sam looked hard for a moment, counting the bright points of light, then laughed. "That's a trick question, right?"

Not at all she replied, her tone more serious than he expected. Please tell me what you know it as.

Now it was his turn to smile. "I know that one as 'Draco.' Latin for 'Dragon.' But you knew that already, didn't you?"

She turned back towards the village, and dropped lower. He felt a warm mental undercurrent on her reply, as well as a sense of... relief? I did, but it is not important. I am greatly pleased people of your time remember us, in whatever small way.

She touched down with barely a jar, right next to Stoick's house. Sam climbed down and simply stood there, quietly, gazing at what was left of the sunset.

Suddenly, he spun around. Skye grunted in surprise as he threw both arms around her broad neck and hugged, hard. "If I get home" he said, in a whisper, "everyone will know about you, and I don't care if they believe me or not."

Skye lowered her head to rest gently on his shoulder, purring thunderously.

Suddenly, a jolt went through Sam as if he'd touched a live power line and his eyes bugged. Pulling away, he fumbled for his penlight and his original drawing, dropping a flurry of aspirin patches, cotton swabs, Ricolas, and various other junk in the process. "It couldn't be that simple!" he muttered, as his hands flew over his various pockets and pouches.

Sam? What is wrong? Skye asked, clearly not happy about losing her human friend's attention. The expression in his eyes, when he looked back at her, was one she'd never seen before. She was surprised to feel a pulse of fear.

"The stars!" he cackled, unfolding his original drawing and turning his penlight on it. "The answer was right in front of me the whole time! I was a fool not to see it!"

More puzzled than ever, Skye watched in confusion – and more than a little concern – as Sam's gaze flickered frantically between the symbols on his drawing, and the constellations they'd been talking about only moments ago. "Yes, yes" he muttered, excitedly, "It checks... and this one has to be Altair...yes! WOOHOO!"

He embraced Skye once again, his eyes damp with joyful tears. "That's it, that's it! The stars! It's all stars!" He kept repeating.

WHAT is all stars, silly fledgling?! She snapped back, whopping him with an ear flap. Your thoughts are such a jumble, I don't think a Master Speaker could read them!

The impact brought him back to his senses long enough to explain. "The symbols on that arch... They're not letters or words, they're star maps! Each one represents a different constellation, visible in this part of the world during this time of year!"

His gaze flicked back and forth a few more times, then he frowned. "There's still one I'm not sure of... these three circles arranged in a column, each one larger than the one before it... but, Sweet Saint Blaise's Bloomers, it can't be any harder than this!"

He waved the paper, whooped again, then suddenly sagged. "Whoa." Skye's head was under him in a heartbeat, lending firm support as he shakily pulled himself upright.

Slowly, my fledgling! There will be time to figure out the rest tomorrow. You are hungry, as am I, and it is time to rest. She started towards the house, leaving him no choice but to walk along if he wanted her support. "But–" he started to protest.

Inside! She sent, reinforcing the command with a firm nudge. Share what you have learned with the others. Whatever secret of the Builders you have managed to uncover has been hidden for a very long time, and it will still be there for you to find TOMORROW!

Sam had no choice but to go along with the push. Hiccup and Stoick looked up as he came in, Skye right behind. "You look happy" Hiccup said. "What's up?"

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