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The Drifter and the Dragon

By mm2537 All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy


On a desolate world in a universe adjacent to ours, street urchin Theodore Matthias awakens chained beside an amnesiac girl named Amelia Carter, both taken by a sorcerer in a nameless city. Theo and the puzzling girl flee the madman and his brethren in desperation, seeking refuge in the city's hidden regions. But the sorcerers are mere servants of an ominous, ancient deity named Paradox, who skulks beneath the metropolis and demands the capture of Amelia. On Earth, young Salvador Selerani must build a new home for himself in a small Massachusetts town after his parents are murdered under inexplicable circumstances. Sal is wracked by grief, rage, and a mounting list of unanswerable questions as strange events continue to surround him. But the barrier between universes wears thin, and Sal must come to terms with his own bizarre link to Theo and Paradox. Soon Sal and his childhood friend Mariko Hideki stumble upon a war between a deluded cult, a callous dragon intent on vengeance, and a mystical organization called Starcross. In order to save those he cares for and find the answers he seeks, Sal must confront not only his enemies but also the darkness lurking within his own psyche.

The Whispering City

Dark is the City, and black is the night.

Around these fires you have gathered,

To hear our tales in warmth and light.

Shall I unchain my tomes and share their words?

Shall I speak of eons past and realms forgotten?

We stand before you to enthrall and entertain,

Amass around the hearth and attend us.

Let us be filled now with peace and mirth

And let our performance soothe your pain

Then judge for yourselves our stories’ worth.

                      --Prelude of Echoes, Hearth’s Eve Celebration

A single beam of sunlight lit upon my filthy, tangled blond hair as I wandered through the winding streets of the Whispering City. The light soon faded behind the clouds, and I hugged my shirt to my chest against the damp, chill air. I looked up to the horizon, where lavish towers squatted around the decaying Nexus, the central administration complex at the heart of the city. The City Council convened and the Covenant-Keepers carried out their judgments there, but I knew from experience that the complex served less savory functions as well. The titanic, obsidian spires at the center of the city glistened coldly beneath the overcast skies, while in the streets below the populace celebrated the festival of Transference Day. Little else existed outside the borders of the city other than an oasis dotted wasteland that stretched in all directions toward an unnavigable ocean. Tales were told of other civilizations that had existed in the past, but now this one self-sufficient city was all that remained.

Narrow windows peered furtively out from the smooth, sleek contours that twisted their way up and down the gleaming jet-black towers. Patches of newly renovated apartments and townhouses sat amongst the ragged shacks and slums built for those populations the Mayor and the City Council deemed inferior. As I strolled through the cobbled streets towards the bazaar at the city’s center, I glanced every so often up at the buildings above me, wondering if a single soul noted my passing with anything other than contempt.

I paused beneath a window to watch a family observing Transference Day, when all children prepared to enter their apprenticeships. Through the window I watched an adolescent boy receive an elaborate set of ink pens, and assumed he would become a scribe. His mother embraced him while his father clapped him on the shoulder. Tomorrow his apprenticeship would begin.

A little girl that could only be the boy’s younger sister looked on from the corner of the dining room table with envy, and I knew her feelings. The difference between us was that she would have her day of celebration when she came of age. Today would have been my Transference Day, if only I had been born into an established family and thus eligible for a role in what the City Council called “civilized society”. I moved on towards the marketplace before the family could notice me staring into their home and call the City Watch.

A whirlwind of mixed aromas assaulted my nostrils as I stood near the edge of the massive marketplace at the heart of the Whispering City. Many of the fragrances came from food, but not all. The scents of fire, filth, the acrid stench of sorcery, and the strange, sharp-spicy scent of Azure wafted up from merchandise and people alike.

I noticed more Azurian machinery in the marketplace than ever before. Many cycles ago an expedition team had brought back a strange, glowing blue substance from the outer wastelands. When refined it could generate considerable energy, and the engineers developed new machines every cycle to utilize the substance called Azure.

All manner of people gathered at the bazaar, from scrawny vagabonds and street urchins like myself to high-ranking city officials. Sorcerers, the servants of the enigmatic, ominous being known as Paradox, the Spiral Drifter offered their dubious services. The elegant engineers, architects, and alchemists employed by the city perused the tables, their strange googles and tools clattering within their long, crimson coats.

A pair of Echoes, custodians and orators of the lore told in the taverns and cafes of the City, talked in quiet voices on a bench, their books of collected myths and legends clattering quietly on their belt-chains when they moved. On Hearth’s Eve, the nocturnal celebration that occurred every quarter cycle, the Echoes took center stage at every tavern and both narrated and performed their tales in various ways. Artists and dancers plied their trade on the sidelines, occasionally drawing consumers away from the main market that sat at the foot of the crumbling Nexus. In addition, an Acolyte of the Four Branches preached on every street corner. I stopped to listen to one.

“Keep at bay the odious forces of Paradox and his plague of sorcerers! Look not to servants of the false god and give unto the Caretaker, for she will heal our city of its disease! Remember Ayomide the Unyielding and his sacrifice, as well as Karawan of the Onyx Halo who called forth the Ruin!” The Acolyte cried in a hoarse, fervent voice.

His white robes were stained with soot and mud, and several days’ worth of beard grew on his face. A carved wooden icon of the Caretaker hung around his neck, and its heart contained the dead, preserved seed that every Acolyte received during initiation into the Order of the Four Branches. His sermon sounded passionate yet also muted, as if the air itself denied the priest his voice.

But all noise seemed quieter out in the open than it did behind doors. The calls of the vendors fell flat upon the pavement, and the bustle of the city was hushed and private. For that reason I had always thought of it as the Whispering City, although no one but me called it by that name. To everyone else it was simply the City. No other cities existed outside of the tales told by the Echoes in the taverns, at least not since the age of Ayomide the Unyielding and cursed Karawan of the Onyx Halo. Keeping an eye out for the City Watch, I skulked toward one of the food vendors as he gossiped with a tailor at the next stall.

“Have you heard about Damon Farlocke?” The heavyset vendor asked his companion as I crept closer. He held a ledger book in one hand and entered figures into it with the other as he spoke to the second merchant.

“Crasten’s pet architect? The fool who signed his life away to a Contract he has no chance of fulfilling? I know all about it, one of Damon’s colleagues on the Design Committee told me yesterday.” The man’s thinner, bespectacled colleague replied. Nothing was more sacred than a Contract. Many wealthy administrators such as Crasten Cedaro, the chief of the City Council, used Contracts to bind novice engineers, architects, and other craftsmen to their service. When they recognized talent, they bullied, enticed, or tricked the novice into signing unfair Contracts in return for the resources to raise a family and live in relative comfort.

“You know little, my friend.” The fat merchant retorted as I lurked nearby, waiting for my chance. “He signed that Contract to save his daughter from Crasten’s clutches. Within the document is a clause that prevents him from interfering in any way with Farlocke’s family. So long as Damon designs and constructs a new Nexus within five cycles, Cedaro cannot force her into a marriage. Had he not signed that Contract, Daria Farlocke would be marrying Crasten this very day.” The vendor crossed his flabby arms over his chest. I crept closer and waited for my moment.

I cared little about the conversation, although everyone knew of Damon Farlocke. He had redesigned many of the inner city housing complexes and administration buildings as a novice under temporary Contracts. But five cycles was hardly enough time to build a compound of apartments, much less a colossal, complex structure like the Nexus.

“But the Contract he signed…he should have known better. With talent like his, he could have gotten generous terms from anyone in the city,” the merchant in the spectacles returned, but he sounded less sure of himself.

The larger man set his ledger on the counter of his stall and glanced around for eavesdroppers, but he didn’t notice me skulking in the shadows nearby. Then he continued in a low voice. “Crasten would have bought the Contract and found a way to alter it. Once he sets his sights on a girl, he won’t rest until she’s in his bed or in the ground. Crasten Cedaro happened to want Damon’s skills more than his daughter, so he should consider himself lucky. Farlocke may be shackled by Cedaro’s Contract, but his wife and daughter are safe. You can’t blame him for wanting to protect them.” The sweets merchant answered. While they argued with each other, I approached the stall in silence and eyed the pastries.

Stealing civilized food was a rare treat, and one I seldom had the pleasure to enjoy due to the ever-present City Watch that surrounded the daily bazaars. But during the festivals of Transference Day the guards had more to watch over. I found my moment when I believed no one was looking, and snatched a sticky cheese pastry from the stand. Despite the care I took the pastry peddler noticed and broke from his hushed conversation.

“Thief! Catch that vagrant!” The man shouted as he lurched up from his stool, and then overbalanced to fall hard in the dirt beside his stall. I ran from the bazaar, dodging several of the new Azurian carriages parked on the uneven cobblestone street. Then I found myself back in the winding, squalid alleys I called home.

The guards gave chase, and I risked taunting them a little by letting them catch up and then accelerating out of their reach. I ducked through alleys and shoved past crowds of murmuring celebrants, pausing every now and then to hurl an insult at my pursuers. Then I tired of the game and swerved to the side as the guards clattered past, huddling under the cloak of a massive marble statue. The figure looked as if it had been frozen in the middle of some impressive speech, with its arms stretched out in zealous supplication on its platform.

There I crouched against the enormous sculpture’s legs and tore into the pastry, the cheese filling sweet on my tongue. My stomach gurgled, and icing caked my filthy hands as I devoured the first real food I had eaten in two days. As I sank my teeth into my spoils, I failed to notice the light diminishing around me. I glanced up and saw that the statue’s sculpted cloak had crept around the front of the pedestal to trap me against the figure’s ankles. Then I fainted upon the enormous stone feet.

I awoke flat on my back in a dingy room, with a rope cinched tight around my throat. Other ropes encircled my feet and hands, but they looked loose enough for me to stand and move around. A girl lay unconscious next to me, and I noticed the same bindings on her. I blinked the fatigue from my eyes and realized that the ropes that held us were tied together in an array of trusses, fixed to a thick metal pipe at the center of the room. For a moment I hoped I could untie myself, but the knots were too tight and complex. Whoever had tied them had been skilled. Four flickering candles in a chandelier overhead provided the only illumination, and I looked over at the other captive.

The girl didn’t look like a fellow vagrant. She was too clean and well dressed, and she wore the uniform white blouse and knee-length blue skirt of a female civilian. Long blond hair fell over a delicate, pale face and cascaded down her back. Her face still held hints of childhood roundness, but like me she appeared to be on the cusp of adulthood. That was where the similarities ended, though. My clothes were ragged and filthy, and my unkempt hair was caked with mud.

On the wall behind her I saw the interlocking spirals of Paradox’s sigil, and I knew who had captured us. Only the sorcerers trafficked with that strange being, and only a sorcerer would be mad enough to abduct a civilian child as a ceremonial sacrifice for the Spiral Drifter.

“Hey.” I tried to speak, but it came out as a croak. I cleared my throat and tried again.

“Hey! Wake up!” I shook her shoulder, but she only mumbled something unintelligible and turned her head. Our captor could return at any moment, and I cast a glance at the gloomy entrance.

I rose to my knees and examined the apparatus that held me, recalling what was known about the sorcerers’ rites. If we couldn’t find a way out, the girl and I would be brought to Paradox’s hidden lair in the caverns deep beneath the city, called the Attic Below. We would be sacrificed there so that the sorcerer could gain power from his deity and perhaps stave off his impending madness. Terror began to flutter in my stomach.

I took several deep breaths and assessed the situation. The ropes looked thick but old and decaying in places, and there was a chance that they would break under pressure. I recognized the knots, loops, and trusses that connected us to the pipe, and they were designed to strangle us if we struggled. The more we moved around, the tighter the bonds would close around our necks. But if we could break it, then the structure would loosen and fall apart. At the children’s shelter wing in the Nexus, they had used similar methods to restrain and punish us when we misbehaved.

The girl moaned, and I turned to her. Her eyes fluttered but didn’t open, and I fought the frustration and panic rising in my gut. If I couldn’t escape from the trusses I’d soon find myself before Paradox, the dreaded Spiral Drifter. I might need the girl’s help, and if she wanted to escape then she sure needed me. “Wake up,” I whispered to the girl. She murmured something incomprehensible. “Hurry, it’s only a matter of time before the sorcerer returns!”

She opened her eyes and gazed up at me, confused. Her eyes were a shimmering gold I had never seen before, and for a moment I felt mesmerized by them. She sat up and looked around.

“Who’re you? Where am I?” She looked around, and then raised her hand to her neck to clutch the rope. “Wh-why am I tied up?” Her eyes darted back and forth in panic as the realization sunk in, and she clawed at her bonds. She spoke with an odd inflection, as if the language was awkward on her tongue. I wondered if she had been raised speaking one of the older and less common City dialects. Some of the older aristocratic families liked to stay fluent in the traditional tongues.

“There’s no time for that now,” I snapped. “This rope is old and rotting. We may be able to break it.” I paused and studied the arrangement once more. The intertwined knots connected the loops around our necks, arms, and feet to the pipe in the center of the room, and though we couldn’t untie our bonds we might snap the decaying, worn rope by hurling ourselves backwards. Of course our necks could snap instead, but we would have to take that chance or face death at our captors hands. I glanced down the dark hallway from which the sorcerer might enter at any moment.

“Why should I trust you? Where am I? I- I don’t know this land, or this strange city.” I shot a quick look at her. How could she not know the Whispering City?

“You can trust me because I’m tied up right next to you. We don’t have time for questions.” Although now I had a few of my own for her if we managed to escape.

I paused and softened my tone, still bewildered by the girl’s strange words. Could she be from...somewhere else? But no other civilizations existed, not since the first sorcerer, Karawan of the Onyx Halo, had called forth the Sweeping Ruin and reduced civilizations across the lands to dust in moments. Or so the Echoes told the story in the taverns, anyway. Karawan had lived and died in the distant past, slain by his nemesis Ayomide the Unyielding. All that remained of either were stories and the desolate wastelands surrounding the city, all that was left of the world after the Ruin. “You can call me Theo if you want, short for Theodore Matthias.” I stood, and held a hand out to her. She took it and pulled herself up.

The girl brushed a strand of flaxen hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself. “Okay, Theo. Tell me how we’re going to get out of here.” Despite her frail appearance, I sensed a new strength in her voice.

“Fill your chest with as much air as you can, and then pull backward. It will hurt, but don’t stop. If we don’t break free we’ll suffer much worse.” She gulped and nodded. I had spoken brave words to her and now I had to live up to them myself. Both of us breathed deep and then heaved backward.

The pressure around my throat tightened, and I saw lights flicker before my eyes. The soiled room and the girl struggling next to me spun and twisted in my vision as we pulled the ropes taut. The bonds around my hands and feet tightened, and the noose bit into my neck. I gestured in the girl’s direction with my hand for us to try again. She swayed with unsteadiness, agony etched into her features. Then we both prepared for another attempt.

We hurled ourselves backward with as much force as we could muster but neither of the twin nooses would break. I tried to stand but stumbled to my knees. I shook my head, realizing just how dizzy I felt. The lights before my eyes were brighter and the nape of my neck had gone numb. The girl’s eyes were half closed and her hair hung in a frazzled mess down her back. She wobbled, and I worried that she might lose consciousness soon. Without her I was lost.

I touched her arm and tried to pull her up for another try. I couldn’t lift her, but she staggered to her feet and grabbed my arm for support. We had enough strength for one final attempt, and we would either escape or die convulsing on the squalid floor. Within a day our bones would be picked clean by insects and wild animals in the streets. The only comfort I could draw was that it would be better than whatever the absent sorcerer had planned for us.

We fell as one. We couldn’t throw ourselves with the same energy as before, but we managed to do it in perfect synchronization. As we did, I glimpsed a strange flicker of illumination emanate from the girl, followed by a smell of burning. With a groan and a snap we landed hard on the floor, kicking up plumes of dust. I ripped off the bonds that had not already fallen away, and noticed the rope was singed in some areas. How had that happened? Or had it already been that way and I just didn’t notice? Or did it have to do with the golden aura that had surrounded the girl for less than a moment? I would have to figure it out later.

I gulped air into my lungs, and turned to see how the girl was doing. She was alive and free of the noose, but she looked as if she had suffered more than I had. Her breathing was shallow and caught in her chest every few moments. I watched as she tried to stand and crumpled to the floor. To my left stood an open door, and beyond that the dark hallway leading to freedom. I scurried over to it and glanced down the corridor, squinting in the dim light.

At the end of the hallway was another door and, beside it, a broken window that looked out onto a yellow, foggy night. I had been unconscious for the entire day, and I chuckled in bitter amusement. My Transference Day had finally come and I had slept through it. I began to move toward the door but stopped as I heard the girl moan and cough.

Why should I help some stranger? Whoever she was, I had no responsibility to protect or save her. I took another step forward and stopped, uncertain. If she had value to someone important, then that person could take care of her. I had already helped free the girl, and the rest was up to her. She helped you just as much, scolded a voice in the back of my mind. The bruised circle around my neck where the rope had choked me now burned as the flesh returned to life. I reached up and massaged the seething skin, reminding me of what she had just endured. I sighed and turned from the door.

As I went back I tried to convince myself that I was doing it for a reward. Perhaps if she were the relative of some aristocrat her family would offer me money. Or maybe I could lead the City Watch to this miserable little shack so that they could arrest the sorcerer who dared to capture a civilian child. Then again, I had never been on friendly terms with the City Watch.

I found the girl crouched on the floor in the midst of a wheezing fit. I put an arm underneath her shoulders and hauled her up. She retched a little on my tattered shirt and then fell limp against my chest. I dragged her to the entrance of the hallway when I noticed a tall, cloaked form standing in the doorway in front of me. I felt a blast of pain on the side of my face as the figure struck, sending me sprawling to the floor. The girl backed away.

The sorcerer stepped into the light, revealing a broad-shouldered frame and gleaming bald head. He wore a patch over his right eye from which a mass of ugly scar tissue peeked out. His arms and shoulders were muscular under his ratty black cloak, but his waist and stomach were shrunken with starvation. I sat up and glared at him. He stared back at me with a look of surprise and curiosity.

“Do you know what the penalty is for taking a civilian child?” I asked him, still crouched on the floor. No one punished sorcerers for preying upon street children, but the sentence for taking a civilian was enough to deter even the most desperate disciple of Paradox. The offender would be pilloried in the town square, lashed and then blinded with a pointed stick. There he would be left without food or water to die. But before his death every civilian had the chance to abuse him in whatever way he or she saw fit, free of judgment.

The sorcerer looked at me and laughed. It sounded deep and hard, as if his voice contained sharp edges. “I know the penalty, urchin. That girl isn’t the first civilian I’ve snatched.” He pointed at his eye patch. “I escaped before they could take the other one.”

“Escaped?” I choked on the word. The possibility was unthinkable. Once shackled, not even a sorcerer could break loose. I scurried backward on my hands, trying to put more distance between myself and the sorcerer. I had also positioned myself between the trembling, sobbing girl and the cloaked man without realizing it.

“My patron in the Attic Below shattered the pillory with his divine will. I am Malachai, and to the servants of the Spiral Drifter that name is known for unwavering loyalty and devotion. I alone do not flinch before the retribution of mortals!” He stood over me, his silhouette menacing in the flickering candlelight. His one eye blazed with fervor.

“Why take a civilian? Sorcerers have been sacrificing urchins like me to stave off madness and increase their powers for generations now. That’s what your kind does, isn’t it?” Malachai scowled at my words. I had always thought of sorcerers as if they were all cut from the same infernal mold. A majority of them were male, they all wore black cloaks, and most of the time they possessed a dwindling sanity caused by the link they shared with their deity. But they also possessed strange powers from their bond with the Spiral Drifter that made them both useful and dangerous.

“You have no right to judge, boy. You know nothing of what brought me onto this path.” Malachai met my gaze, and I saw the ferocity in his single eye. Then he looked away.

“Vagrants like you make excellent sacrifices because no one cares when you disappear, and Paradox does not discriminate between civilians and undesirables. But my patron chose me to find a particular civilian girl, the visitor to a city no one can visit. The paradox.” He smiled cryptically, displaying rotting brown teeth.

“You’ve gone mad already,” I hissed at Malachai. “And watch who you’re calling an undesirable, sorcerer. People may disdain me but they despise you and your ilk, even if they make use of you every now and then.”

Malachai strode over to where the girl lay cowering on the floor behind me, ignoring my comment. I stumbled to my feet and tried to intervene, but he backhanded me to the ground and sent a hard kick to my gut. He grabbed her arm to pull her up, but gasped and let go. He looked at his hand in bewilderment as the smell of crisped flesh wafted through the room. “How did you do that?” he demanded, but she didn’t answer. I wondered if she had fallen unconscious again.

Malachai grabbed the front of my shirt and lifted me up to his eye level. “Who is she, boy? How did she burn my hand like that?”

My own shirt collar choked me as the madman shook my scrawny frame. “How should I know?” I asked him. “You kidnapped her, Malachai, just as you captured me with that statue trick.” He looked confused for a moment, and then dropped me to the floor.

“Statue trick? I didn’t take you! You followed me here to rescue her, didn’t you?” The man’s confusion turned to dark fury.

“What? I was tied to that pipe with her,” I gasped. Either the sorcerer possessed far less sanity than I had thought or something else was going on, something I didn’t understand.

He grabbed me by the throat and slammed my head into the wall. An explosion of throbbing anguish turned my vision scarlet. I pushed in vain at his arms as I felt the air leaving my lungs for the second time that evening.

“You lie! Why would I bother with a useless brat like you?” He grunted. “No, you came here to rescue her, didn’t you? Maybe you were hoping to get something for your troubles? Hoping she’d marry you out of gratitude, vagabond?”

Malachai shook me so hard I thought my neck would snap. “How did you get in here? I set wards, I would have known! How did you know where she was?” He roared.

My head hung heavy with exhaustion and pain, but I saw something behind the sorcerer’s looming body and scarred face, something that radiated an incredible golden hue.

“Don’t hurt him.” The words came from the light source behind the enraged and terrified sorcerer. “Let him go.” It was the girl that spoke, and it must have been her that emanated such light.

The sorcerer didn’t seem to hear her and continued strangling me. Then the smell of seared flesh hit my nostrils, and the sorcerer shrieked. It sounded high and bestial, like something that I might’ve heard from the alleys where the wild dogs lived. I felt a chill run down my spine, and a horror not of my assailant but of my savior. Then the man disintegrated into ash before my eyes. I fell to my knees, trying to regain my breath.

I looked up. The girl stared at her hands in puzzlement and fear. She no longer glowed. She looked up at me, and I saw a flicker of recognition in her eyes although I did not know her. A tear trickled down her cheek and spattered on the filthy tiles of the sorcerer’s lair. “Roger?” she asked as she stared at me in amazement. Then she crumpled to the floor unconscious.

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