Story 1: Off the Scent
Pana ran through the darkness as fast as they could, not daring to look behind, their feet pushing through huge banks of snow. The standard yorback hide boots that most villagers wore weren’t enough to keep the wet chill from seeping into Pana’s toes and up through their legs. As if matters hadn’t already been bad enough, Pana had run out of the door before they were able to grab their warmest coat. There hadn’t been any time.
It began to snow. A few light flakes floated down around Pana’s head, gently falling to lay on top of the already massive snowbanks. Clouds as dense as ice fell lower towards the earth, smothering everything with their presence. After a few moments, a gust of wind nearly pushed Pana onto their back, tossing thick globs of snow and ice into their face. Pana threw their hands above their face, shielding their eyes, still trying to move forward. Were they moving? They really couldn’t tell. Pana was too distracted to notice that they could no longer feel their legs.
Vision was almost useless at this point. All that existed was the white of the snow and the black of the back of their eyelids as the gale forced them to blink. Even if they were moving, Pana couldn’t tell where they were moving to.
Pana fell over face first into the snow. Their foot had sunk deeper into the snow than they had realized, and they no longer had the energy to lift it out. Tugging to the left and then the right, Pana tried to dislodge their foot to no avail. They leaned forward and grabbed the snow with their hands as if to pull themself out, but their arms were just as useless as their snowbound legs. Instead of freeing themself, Pana lay face down on the snow, unable to muster the energy to continue trying, hoping that suffocation was a quicker process than they had been led to believe.
And then, suddenly, they were moving again. Not walking, but rolling, rolling down the hill of snow that they had climbed without noticing, picking up speed with every passing moment, spitting out snow as they went. Pana closed their eyes. There was no point wondering how their foot had come loose from the snow. Falling down the hill didn’t hurt. There were no trees to bounce into, no shrubs to avoid, no icicles that threatened to impale them. In fact, it felt good. As they fell, they let themself go limp, relinquishing whatever desire they had for control. Control was not something familiar to Pana, though they tried their best to retain some sense of it in their life, never admitting that they had none, never giving up the hope of…the hope of something better.
Pana hadn’t noticed at first, but they had stopped falling. How long had it been? Maybe a few seconds? Minutes perhaps?
The wind screamed nearby, but Pana couldn’t feel it brushing against their skin. Were they so cold, so utterly defeated, that they could no longer feel the sting of the wind?
Opening their eyes, Pana looked up at the ceiling of a cave. The cave may have been constructed of rock, but it had been so ensconced in ice that there was really no way of knowing what the original structure was made of. Even the walls and the floor seemed to be coated in ice, though there was a sprinkling of snow near the cave entrance.
There would be no climbing out of that entrance. It was above Pana. They had fallen through it. Vertically. A pile of snow descended from the entrance like a slide, but it was too steep to climb up. In Pana’s condition, it was impossible. This cave would be the last place Pana ever saw - of that, they were certain. And, somehow, someway, that was okay. Death had been a real possibility when Pana had set out, but now it was set in stone. Knowing how their story would end and knowing they had made it out of the fate that awaited them if they had remained in the village was wonderful. In a way, they were free.
The ice above appeared to sparkle. It was beautiful, really. Not unlike the waves of the ocean during the month in which it wasn’t frozen. They would rise and then fall near the shore, as if they were trying to scoop light out of the atmosphere. More light would just reflect off of the top of the waves. It took a moment for Pana to think about why the ice was sparkling. Without moving their head, they glanced to the side. The icy ceiling deeper in the cave was not just sparkling, but the blue light reflecting off of it seemed to be flowing over the ice, constantly moving.
With all the energy they had remaining, Pana managed to flop limply onto their side. Some sort of light was emanating from deeper in the cave, but Pana couldn’t see the source. They tried to crawl forward, tried to imagine moving their arms and dragging them across the ice in the hopes that something would happen, that they could will their cold and exhausted body into moving, into saving itself, but they couldn’t do it.
They tried to yell. Something came out of their mouth. Some sort of strangled rasp. Cold air scorched the inside of their throat.
A noise came from the back of the cave.
Even without knowing what was back there, Pana felt a drop of energy fall back into their being, just enough to speak in a loud whisper, “please.” With their head lying on the ice, they could only hope that something heard them. They could only hope that things would end quickly.
Something scraped against the floor like five knives sliding out of sheaths. The sound bounced throughout the cave, coming from every direction at the same time.
The light also grew closer. It reflected off the wall, then the other side of the cave, and then the floor. Soon, Pana was enveloped in light. Their eyes burned. Pana closed them, but still the light hit them. All they could see was white. It was like being in the blizzard all over again.
And then the light dimmed. It no longer hurt. Pana opened their eyes. If they had the energy to smile, they would have done so. They knew that face.
It’s you, they thought.
A deep green eye stared at them. It blinked, and then rose out of sight. A new wind began to blow. This one was gentle, and warm. Rejuvinating.
Pana wouldn’t freeze here. They would be okay. They, and the dragon.
“Sab, dad is expecting us. It’s going to be dark soon.”
“Oh, come on, Ezra. There’s still plenty of light. We have all the time in the world.”
The two children jogged through the forest, avoiding the worst of the snow. Though the 400-foot-tall dawn trees kept most of the snow from settling beneath their branches, enough of it still managed to find its way to the ground to form giant piles almost as tall as Ezra. Luckily, there weren’t that many of them, and there was plenty of space between them and the massive tree trunks to walk through the forest unimpeded.
Sab, who was running ahead of Ezra, turned back. “Besides,” she said with the hint of a grin, “you love ginro nuts.”
Ezra grumbled something that sounded like, “Well maybe.” Sab laughed and turned to face forward again, leading them through the maze of snow piles.
Beneath the dawn trees, other plants grew, protected from the harshest of the elements by the trees’ towering trunks and extensive branch networks. There was only one area of the forest where the dawn tree branches were so thick that a wide swath of ground underneath them remained free of snow year-round. Sab and Ezra called this special place the Summer. Their father had told them that Summer once referred to a period of time in which things weren’t covered in snow. For a few months during this period, the temperatures were consistently above freezing. Nothing like that existed here where it snowed almost all year. There was a month where things were slightly warmer and the snow wasn’t quite as thick, but it was nothing like the mythical Summers their father had told them stories about. This patch of forest that was free from snow was the closest thing they had to imagining what an actual Summer might look like.
It was also the only place where ginro trees grew. Unlike the dawn trees, ginros grew close to the ground, hugging it with their scraggly branches. They rose up a few feet, then turned back towards the ground before twisting in various other directions, more like a rope lazily tossed on the floor than a majestic tree, but Sab and Ezra thought they were beautiful some of the most beautiful things they had even encountered.
Hidden in the middle of leaf clusters lay the ginro nuts. They were pale green, and hard as rocks. In fact, it took a rock (sometimes two) to crack them open. It was hard work, but worth it. The creamy liquid held inside was sweet and warm. The trees emanated heat, and the hard shell of the nut contained it, keeping the liquid warm.
Stepping into the heat of the ginro trees was like approaching a dying fire. As Ezra approached them, he held out his hands and gave a contented sigh.
“Good thing we listened to you and went home,” teased Sab, mussing Ezra’s hair.
“Good thing you have such a good little brother who is willing to sacrifice his own wants so that you can be happy.”
Sab laughed and gave Ezra a gentle shove.
After they warmed up a bit, they walked around the Summer collecting ginro nuts. Even the outsides of the shells were warm. Sab and Ezra stored them in various pockets, using them as a sort of makeshift shield of warmth.
Just as Sab was putting a ginro nut into the last empty pocket she had, she thought she heard something. It wasn’t a growl necessarily, but it was deep and unlike anything she had ever heard. There were only a few large predators in the forest, though she thought she could recognize all the sounds (and the smell of one unusually silent creature) that they made.
“Did you hear that?” she asked Ezra, keeping her voice low as she scanned the area.
“Hear what?” He asked.
She turned her head around, looking through the trees. The light was fading fast, but it was still bright enough to see. Only, there was nothing out of the ordinary to see.
Sab shook her head and stretched out her shoulders, standing up straight. “Nothing,” she said. “Just imagining things I guess. Come on, let’s go back home now.” As she turned to go, the sound came again.
This time it was Ezra who asked. “Did you hear that?”
They looked at each other, eyes wide. Ezra dropped a ginro nut.
The sound came again. This time it was almost like a cry. Sab had heard that noise before. She and Ezra had once found a small furry animal with wings five times the length of its body hidden in a bush. It had been injured and was crying out in the hopes that someone would hear it. Luckily, they had been in the area and were able to find it and brought it home.
The cry came again, louder and more desperate. It seemed to come from a particularly large mound of snow with a shallow slope to it a few feet outside of the Summer.
“Come on,” whispered Sab, motioning to her brother to follow her. When he refused to move, she grabbed his arm and dragged him forward with her.
They reached the snow mound, but saw no sign of whatever was in distress, though the sound kept ringing out again and again at more frequent intervals. Walking around the snow, they found no sign of footprints.
“I don’t get it,” said Ezra, his body now visibly shaking. “Are we going crazy?”
“I don’t think so,” said Sab as they heard yet another cry. “There’s something out there, somewhere. I just wish we knew where it was. We could help it if we did.”
But she was beginning to lose hope. If the creature didn’t want to be found, then there was nothing they could do. What had started as a fun trip to one of their favorite places for one of their favorite foods had now become a sad moment of despair. Sab felt a tear falling down her cheek, freezing to ice just before it reached her mouth. Ezra grabbed her hand, and they stood together for a moment, staring at the snow pile as if imagining the poor crying creature lying hidden beneath the snow.
It took them a moment to realize that what they thought had been snow now appeared to have large green eyes, and was actually staring right back at them.
“Dad! Daaad! Come quick!”
Nnaka put down the log he had been carrying with his right arm and gripped the ax in his left hand a little tighter. He ran from behind the house to the front.
“Sab!” He called out. “Is everything alright? What’s…”
His jaw dropped. Sab and Ezra were leading what could only be a dragon down the front path between fields of frozen vegetables. The dragon’s white scales sparkled like snow in the moonlight, and its claws gouged thin trenches in the hard earth.
Sab and Ezra ran forward. Nnaka went to hug them, but they jumped out of his grasp. “Dad,” Sab said, “you have to help them!”
“Them?” he asked. “This creature? The dragon? But what…I don’t understand….”
“Not the dragon,” said Ezra, almost hopping up and down in anticipation. “Them!” He pointed at something on the dragon’s back. A limp person whose brown skin had taken on a blue tinge. Their limp body swayed with every heavy step the dragon took.
One look at the cold, unconscious person told Nnaka that he didn’t need to understand. He just needed to help. “Let’s get the human inside the barn,” he told his kids.
The dragon let out what could only be described as a sigh of relief. It lowered itself to the ground so that Nnaka could grab the human and lift them over his shoulder. He stopped for a moment and looked at the dragon, gazing into one of its green eyes. “The human will be alright,” he said. “Don’t you worry.”
To his astonishment, the dragon’s scales turned a light green. It breathed once on Nnaka, warming his very bones. Nnaka nodded, and he walked inside.
Pana woke up. At least, they thought they woke up. They had been continuously waking up for what seemed like days. Stars shone through the dark sky, dancing around the moon before blinking out of existence and being replaced by cascades of leaves. In between those sights, Pana roamed their village even though they were sure that they had left. Sometimes they went fishing, while other times they explored the nearby snow caves. Pana was surprised when they discovered the dragon, but then remembered that they had already discovered the dragon. He was their good friend.
When the sight of the log ceiling didn’t change, Pana rubbed their eyes and blinked. The ceiling remained the same. Pana was lying in a mass of woolen blankets on the floor of a single-room wooden building. Leaves swirled around the room as gusts of air found their way through cracks in the walls, along with the occasional snowflake. Wooden barrels were piled onto their sides throughout the room, along with long bales of wheat. Dried meats hung from the ceiling. Though still cold, Pana much preferred their current location to the frozen cave they had rolled into. It would, however, be nice to know where exactly they had ended up. Until they found the dragon and determined that they were both safe, Pana wouldn’t be comfortable.
As they tried to get up from the floor, a man walked into the room. His face was smooth without any signs of facial hair. The top of his head was similarly shaved clean. The frayed, woolen vest he wore had no sleeves, and his muscular, scarred arms were crossed in front of his wide chest. A chunk of his nose was missing. He didn’t quite scowl at Pana, but he made no obvious sign of relief at seeing them awake.
“You’re awake,” was all he said.
Pana started to nod before a wave of nausea rolled over them. They lay back down. The man seemed to understand and brought over a water skin. He watched as Pana sipped tentatively, the inflow of water simultaneously refreshing and painful in their empty stomach. Again, the man seemed to know what Pana needed, holding out a plate of warm food. Pana grabbed a cracked nut and sucked the liquid sloshing inside the shell. Almost instantaneously, they felt the cold pushed out from their body.
After half an hour of picking at the food and taking an occasional sip of warm water, Pana put the plate down and looked up at the man, who had been busy moving things about the barn as Pana ate.
The man noticed Pana looking at him but said nothing. His mouth opened as if he were about to speak, and then it closed again. His hand rose a few inches, made an awkward twirl in the air, and dropped back down to his side. If he had any plans to speak, they were interrupted by a loud squeal from the door. Pana rose suddenly before falling back to the floor, their body not yet able to hold itself up.
“You’re awake!” two children yelled as they ran into the room.
“Cut it out you two,” the man said in a stern voice. “They’ve been through a lot, and don’t want to hear you yelling.”
“Where did you come from? Who are you? Are you cold? Does the dragon fly? Did you fly here on the dragon? Why hasn’t it eaten you yet? Is it going to eat us?”
Pana looked to the man as if to ask if they were his kids. His mouth twitched.
“Ezra, Sab, calm down. You’re exhausting me and I didn’t just wake up after being out for four days.”
Had it really been four days? No wonder Pana felt so exhausted. They did their best to sit up a little straighter, only mildly succeeding by the lowest of standards. The kids had stopped running around, but they looked as if they were about to levitate off the ground they were bouncing so much.
“Where…is…Waveskimmer?” Pana asked, forcing the words out of their throat like stones. Their voice was raspy and weak. Under all the wool blankets Pana felt warm, but speaking made them realize just how frozen their body still was.
Confused for only a moment, the man responded, “the dragon is safe. It’s been sleeping outside. Hasn’t moved a foot since it brought you here. I didn’t know what to feed it, so…”
Pana smiled. “He’s…vege…vegetarian.”
“Oh, I see. I’ll stop offering him steaks then.”
The children’s faces glowed with excitement. Sab reached into her pocket and grabbed a ginro nut before she and Ezra ran out of the room so fast that they left the door open behind them. After a few moments, the deep green eye of Waveskimmer appeared in the doorframe. It blinked rapidly as it caught sight of Pana. Pana’s voice hurt too much to speak, but they tried to communicate to Waveskimmer just how comforting it was to see him through their eyes. A wave of warmth even more powerful than that induced by the ginro nut washed over Pana as they looked at their friend.
They had forgotten the man standing nearby. He coughed, breaking the moment between Pana and Waveskimmer, and said, “well, I’ll come back and check on you in a few hours. Sab and Ezra are right outside if you need anything. I doubt they’ll stray far from your friend out there. If you’re feeling up to moving, we’ll have you join us for dinner.” He took a few steps toward the door, and then added, “my name’s Nnaka. And you better not have brought anything with you that will harm my kids.”
Sab and Ezra helped Pana walk from the barn to the main house, propping Pana between them. When they made it to the house, they lowered Pana into a rickety wooden chair and made sure that their guest could sit without help before sitting down themselves. Nnaka had already set the table, having cooked a meal of tubers and meats, and a limited amount of what he called “bread.” Little was able to survive this far north, so there wasn’t much in the way of variety. Most of what they ate back in the village was meat along with the few plants that grew beneath the ice.
Waveskimmer couldn’t exactly fit inside the house, so he remained outside. Nnaka had brought the dragon some tubers and cheese from the Yorbacks and a hot cauldron of stew. In between tentative nibbles, Waveskimmer looked through the window to make sure the humans were still at the table. Pana felt reassured by the sight of his large green eyes and his calm blue scales. If anything happened, or even if nothing of note happened, he was right there.
Nnaka remained quiet for most of the meal, letting Sab and Ezra ask their guest questions and then tell stories of their own. They explained that the tall things sticking out of the snow that weren’t ice were called trees, and that despite their sedentary nature, they were actually living beings. Pana listened with interest when they explained how they put plants into the ground and took care of them as they grew. After one particularly imaginative story in which Ezra claimed that he once spotted what he believed was a giant flying wolf that ran to the top of a dawn tree before leaping into the air and gliding away on thin wings, Nnaka finally interrupted.
“So, Pana,” he said, “I didn’t realize that dragons were real until you arrived. Remarkable seeing a legend in person.”
Pana knew that Nnaka would begin to try to figure out the chain of events that had led Pana and Waveskimmer to his doorstep. They didn’t know if that was a story that they could or should tell in its entirety, but they did owe the man something. He did save their life and take them in, after all. “He…well, I didn’t realize dragons were real either, to be honest.” They glanced outside and looked at Waveskimmer’s eye. “Waveskimmer and I met about a year ago.”
“How did you meet? Are there other dragons? Are they as cool as Waveskimmer? I bet they’re not. Waveskimmer is the coolest dragon ever.” added Sab, affectionately gazing outside.
Ezra nudged her with his elbow. He said, “hey, let them breathe why don’t you.”
Pana stifled a laugh, and Nnaka nodded at them to continue their story. “He…I was…yes there are other dragons.” Pana grabbed their cup and downed a mouthful of water. “My village…or…the village I grew up in, I mean…no one knew about the dragons…but there’s quite a few of them out there in the caves a few days walk from the village.”
“I’m sure the villagers and the dragons get along well, am I right?” said Nnaka
“Well…” started Pana, but they were interrupted by Ezra.
“You came from the village? The village? I’ve always wanted to learn more about it! Are there a lot of people there? What are they like? Are they nice?”
Sab glanced over at Pana and rolled her eyes. “See what I have to deal with? He tells me to ease up on the questions and then asks them all himself. So unfair.”
“Enough,” said Nnaka. His kids quickly quieted down, though Pana could see the glint of more questions building behind their eyes. “The village you come from, it’s just above the frozen harbor, on a hill, yes? About two miles from the crystal cliffs?”
Pana nodded, amazed that this man whom they had never met knew of the village. Everyone knew that no one could survive outside of the village. There was simply nowhere else to go. Or at least, that was what Pana had believed as they ran away. Everyone in the village knew that those who wandered out into the frost alone never returned. Even as Pana took their first step out of their door, they fully believed they would freeze to death. But contrary to everything they had ever learned, they hadn’t perished. Instead, they had woken up here, in the warmth of Nnaka’s barn, a barn that shouldn’t be able to exist this far from the last remaining settlement in the world.
“How do you know about the village?” Pana asked. “We were always told…I thought…”
“No one can last more than a few days beyond the usual hunting grounds? I did.” Nnaka gazed out of the window for a moment, his eyes seemed to be slightly out of focus, as if he were looking through a blizzard, trying to pick out the shapes standing between the snowflakes.
Pana waited for a moment before asking, “How?”
Another moment passed before Nnaka responded. “Life in the village was hard. Life anywhere is hard. Since The Cataclysm, the world has turned so cold, and it’s hard enough to feed yourself, let alone a family.” He turned his gaze towards his kids, and he almost smiled. “I grew up in the village and heard the same stories that you did: the village was the last remaining pocket of humanity in the world, and that there were no other humans anywhere, that there couldn’t be anyone else. But they were all wrong. A stranger appeared one day. No one knew who he was or where he had come from. He would sit in the great hall and tell tales of an entirely different world to the villagers. I was fascinated by him. I always dreamed of exploring beyond the village, of escaping the ice and living somewhere warm, and here was a man who told me that there were other villages out there, things called trees, snow that would flow between your fingers and onto the ground if you held it for too long, other people. He described a whole new world that I had been raised to believe couldn’t exist. You can imagine how fascinated I was of him.
“Of course, not everyone was enamored by his stories. The village leaders thought he was threatening their way of life and wanted him to leave. In order to survive in the cold, people need to work together, and they believed, correctly, that he was inspiring some villagers to think about the outside world, to think about abandoning their society and their duties to their neighbors. They dragged him to the edge of the village and told him not to come back. As I watched him disappear into the snow, I ran after him.
“We traveled for a few weeks. I can’t tell you exactly how we survived. I remember it like a dream. It was cold, and I was hungry. We huddled in igloos at night to hide from the wind and dug ourselves out of them each morning. I lost three toes and part of my nose. And then we arrived here. Imagine my fascination at seeing what lay beneath the snow for the first time, though, you probably don’t need to imagine it. He taught me how to grow my own food and take care of plants. We built this farm, sowed these fields. We built a life here. And then after a while I became pregnant, and we started our family. We didn’t die.
“And then…” for the briefest of moments Pana thought Nnaka may have been about to cry but disregarded that idea almost immediately. “He left. I woke up and my husband was gone. Maybe he’s dead. Maybe he continued to travel. I don’t know.”
Sab stood up from the table and walked over to him. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders. “He was brave, wasn’t he, dad?”
Pana wasn’t sure what Nnaka would say next. This was the most he had spoken since they had woken up in the barn. Maybe this was all he had to say. Whether or not it was, all possible avenues of conversation were shut down when the table began to shake. Pana placed their hand on the wood and felt it vibrating beneath their touch. Even the walls began to tremble. Dust fell from the ceiling. Outside, the farm animals began to call out in alarm.
Nnaka jumped to his feet and drew a long knife from his belt. He was outside before the kids could follow. They ran outside, leaving Pana behind. Pana lifted themself up and had to grab onto the back of the chair to keep themself from falling over. The vibrating continued to grow worse. Clutching at the wall, Pana made their way outside.
Nnaka stood in the dark front path, looking out over the fields. Sab and Ezra had grabbed a hold of him and were peering around. Waveskimmer bounded over from his position outside of the window and Pana grabbed onto him to keep themself from being thrown to the ground from all the shaking. Waveskimmer, meanwhile, mumbled anxiously, scanning the surrounding area for any signs of a threat.
“Dad, what is it?” asked Sab. But Nnaka didn’t respond. His grip on his kids tightened.
There was a small explosion of dirt and rock, and a shadow climbed out of the earth next to the yorback pen. The large leathery animals cried out in alarm and clambered towards the fence as the shadow continued to rise. It was difficult to make out, but Pana thought they could see three long tails swirling through the air, and broad claws protruding from its front three feet. As powerful as the front legs appeared, there were no back legs. It pulled itself forward, dragging the latter half of its body along the dirt.
It moved around the enclosure, periodically pausing, and throwing its head into the air. It approached an older yorback that had remained curled up on the ground. Noticing its fellows moving away, it began to stand, but the other creature was too fast. It raised its middle leg and brought it down on the yorback, ripping it in half.
At this point the other yorbacks began to run. One of them lowered its horned head and crashed through the fence, leading others along with it. Meanwhile, the creature carefully dragged its prey back into the earth, collapsing the tunnel behind it.
In the morning, Pana, Waveskimmer and Sab went to search for the missing yorbacks in the west while Ezra and Nnaka went east. After walking for a few miles without encountering any of the creatures, Sab took them south along a tall rocky ridge that cut through the otherwise flat forest. Waveskimmer lifted them both onto the rocks and then walked below them.
“Let’s take a break,” suggested Pana. They were still not fully healed, and after hours of struggling to keep up with Sab, they could use a rest. They whistled to Waveskimmer, and he paused, sitting at the base of the rocks.
Sab sat next to them and pulled out some food from the bag she was carrying. The two ate together. With her mouth full, Sab was unusually quiet. But she ate fast, and when she was done, she asked, “do you know any songs?”
“Songs?” asked Pana. “I mean, no, not off the top of my head. I was never really any good at remembering lyrics or singing.”
“There’s this really nice one that dad taught us when we were really young. He used to sing us to sleep. He still does if we ask him. I can sing it for you if you want.”
“That’s not nece-“
“Here I go!
Here I am
In the snow
There really isn’t much room to grow
I’m safe at home
I’m fed and warm
I can’t help but think there must be more
There he was
In the sun
Together we decided to run
We found the earth
We found the trees
Finally we can live as we please
Then you came
Small and new
This place is where our family grew
Wherever you go
Whatever you see
The proudest dad will always be me"
The song was light and soft, and it reminded Pana of…nothing important. Some tears had begun to form in their eyes, but they shook their head and stood up, preventing Sab from noticing them. “We should get going,” they said, staring along the ridge. “Who knows how far the yorbacks have gone while we’ve been sitting here. Maybe we should try climbing to the top of the ridge. We can see more from there. If they aren’t up there themselves, we may spot them.”
“I can’t imagine our yorbacks climbing up onto these rocks,” admitted Sab as Pana made their suggestion. “They’ve so big, and they’ve always stayed within the fenced area, and that’s about as flat as you can get. Not a single rock in the field…”
“Same with the yorbacks in our village. But there is a mountain nearby that I…um…well I visited it- “
“I thought you said no one was supposed to leave the village!?” Sab gasped, holding her hand over her mouth.
“- and when I would visit the mountain, I noticed that a bunch of yorbacks liked to congregate there. Have you ever looked at their feet?” asked Pana. Sab shrugged, and Pana continued. “If you do, you’ll notice that they have three long claws, two in the front and one in the back. Not like Waveskimmer’s claws. They don’t slice through things. But they do help the yorbacks grab onto the rocks and climb over them. So, I’m betting that we’ll find the ones that ran off from the farm somewhere up here.”
Sab gave Pana an appraising look. “I’m impressed. I’ve lived with these animals my whole life and I couldn’t tell you any of this. You really know them. And I named most of them!”
Now it was Pana’s turn to shrug. “You know a ton too. I had no idea what a tree was until I met you. I just spent a lot of time watching yorbacks back home. But I couldn’t have told you what a tree was before I met you all. This place is absolutely incredible,” they gestured to the dawn trees. Below them, Waveskimmer walked around the trunk of a particularly large tree. Try as he might, he could not reach around it. Extending his neck upwards, his head hit a branch, depositing snow all over him. Pana and Sab laughed and continued to leap over the rocks as they resumed the search.
Despite having spent time observing the yorbacks near the village, Pana had never seen anything quite like the creature that had attacked them the previous night. As they thought about it, they could see the creature in their mind rising out of its tunnel and lifting its head into the air. “Has that creature attacked the yorbacks before?” they asked Sab.
Sab grunted as she pulled herself up onto a higher ledge. “No. I thought I knew everything that lived in the forest, but I’ve never seen anything like that. Have you?”
Pana was about to say they had not when they noticed that Waveskimmer had stopped. He threw his head into the air and Pana saw his nostrils flare. His head swiveled, and then remained fixed on one direction. With an excited bark, Waveskimmer bounded forward along the ridge. Pana and Sab followed above. When they caught up to the dragon, they saw that he had vacated the ground and now sat in front of a group of three yorbacks. Wagging his tail, he lowered his head closer to the animals as if to make sure that they were the ones they had been looking for.
“Hey, we found some!” exclaimed Sab. She headed over to the creatures and began tying reins around their horns.
“Great job,” Pana said as they patted a proud Waveskimmer on the snout. They took a step closer to the nearest yorback, and as they approached it, the wind shifted, blowing from the yorback to Pana. It smells terrible, they thought. Then, of course!
Five hours later, Pana, Waveskimmer and Sab had managed to locate most of the herd and returned them to the farm. Nnaka and Ezra had found the rest of them. Earlier that day they had repaired the fence, and now they corralled all the yorbacks back inside their enclosure. Ezra pushed plants in barrels along the ground while Nnaka waved Sab and Pana over.
Nnaka said, “Good, that’s the last of them. They still seem a bit spooked. I’m thinking we might have to move them, though I’m not sure what good that will do if this creature can tunnel through the ground.” He placed his hand onto his forehead. “We don’t even know if it will come back. If it does...”
“Dad,” Sab said softly, “Pana has an idea. And I think it may work.”
Just as it had the night before, the ground began to tremble.
Pana stared at the yorback pen from their perch in a dawn tree about twenty feet off the ground. Even in the tree they could feel the shaking. Beside them, Ezra and Sab did their best to remain quiet, hugging the tree branch. Nnaka sat as still as a glacier.
“Do you think your plan will work?” asked Ezra, unable to refrain from talking any longer. He eyed the ground nervously and held onto the branch so hard that his knuckles were turning white.
Sab gently elbowed him in the side. “Shh! We don’t want to let it know we’re here. We’ll find out soon enough if it worked or not.”
“What if it doesn’t? What should we do then? We can’t fight something that big-“
“Shh! The both of you. I think it’s almost here.” Nnaka gave his kids a stern look, and the two of them quieted down once more.
The earth shook more and more, rising in magnitude with each passing moment. And then the shaking suddenly stopped. Pana no longer felt vibrations running up the tree trunk and into the branch. There was now an opening in the ground below them, and a giant shadow of a creature lifted itself out from it. It dragged itself forward with its three legs until it was completely free of its tunnel.
“Now we’ll see what happens. Oh, I can’t watch.” This time, no one shushed Ezra. He tucked his head into his arms, blocking his vision. Pana didn’t blame him. They hated seeing anything hurt, and last night when they all encountered the creature for the first time, they had been terrified to see what it did to that poor yorback. Hopefully their plan was successful and the rest of the herd would be saved.
Out in the middle of the animal enclosure, the creature stood on its three legs and raised its head into the air, sniffing with what Pana now saw were five enormous nostrils at the end of its snout. It continued smelling the air, slowly turning its head from side to side. Then, it stopped. It must have decided it found something, as it began dragging itself towards a pile of clipped fur at the opposite end of the enclosure from the yorbacks.
Just as it had last night, the creature lifted its middle leg and brought it down on its target. Fur flew all over when the creature slashed at the pile. It plunged its head forward to grab the beast it thought it had slain, but its jaws closed on nothing but small clumps of fur floating back to the ground. Once again, it lifted its snout into the air, smelling its surroundings, before slashing at the fur. Frustrated, it moved away and pulled itself to a different pile of fur.
Meanwhile, the freshly shorn and washed yorbacks watched the creature from their spot on the other side of the enclosure. One yorback sneezed. Another began chewing on some grass.
“The creature shouldn’t be able to find them,” whispered Pana, watching the scene unfold below them. It seemed liked their hunch had been correct, and they were glad knowing that they had given the yorbacks a better chance against the predator. “I don’t know if it is completely blind, but now we know for sure that it relies primarily on its sense of smell. At least, enough for it to be confused by our little trick.”
“How did you know?” asked Ezra, opening his eyes after realizing there were no casualties and weren’t likely to be any.
Pana glanced at Waveskimmer sitting below them and smiled. “A friend pointed it out to me.” They turned to Nnaka. “I can’t promise that it won’t find the yorbacks eventually. It could always stumble into them accidentally. Or it might figure out a way around our trick. But at least your herd stands a better chance against it now.”
“Thanks,” said Nnaka, stoic as ever. “Even if we throw that creature off a little bit, that’s a big help…” He stopped speaking and turned his head towards the path running to the house.
Sab tugged on his arm. “What is it, dad? Is everything alright?”
Nnaka raised his finger to his lips and hissed, “Everyone quiet!” He continued to look out below them, and raised his hand, pointing down the path. Pana noticed flickers of light piercing through the trees. A hint of smoke blew through the breeze.
The creature seemed to notice it too. In the middle of examining yet another pile of fur, it stopped and raised its head, facing the incoming wind. For a moment it stood completely still, then it dove into the ground, rocking the world around it.
From their position in the tree, Pana heard shouts. Their heart began to race.
“I need to go,” Pana whispered, staring down at the path.
Sab and Ezra stared at them. “The villagers followed you here?” asked Sab. “Why?”
“It’s…I wish I could tell you. It’s a long story, and…they think I…” Waveskimmer was looking up at them. He began to whine as the villagers drew nearer. They had reached the path and their torches were no longer hidden behind the massive dawn trees.
Sab reached for Pana’s hand. “But they’ll be happy to see you. You’re so helpful and nice. You saved our yorbacks! Anyone would want to have you around.”
Now Pana could hear footsteps. They tried to hold their tears. “No, they all…thank you for helping me and Waveskimmer. You took us in and helped me recover. You didn’t have to.”
Nnaka nodded. “I’ll try to draw them off your scent,” he said. He reached for the ropes they had used to climb the tree. “Ezra, Sab, stay up in this tree until it’s safe to come down. Don’t you dare follow me. You hear me?”
“Do you hear me?”
They nodded in assent. Nnaka grunted. He slid down to the ground. Pana wanted to watch, to make sure that the father would be okay, but the longer they stayed the more they endangered Ezra and Sab.
“Stay safe,” they told the kids. Before they could move, Ezra and Sab pulled them into a hug.
“If you see our other dad out there,” said Sab, “tell him that dad misses him, okay?”
Pana nodded. They grabbed the rope and made their way to the ground. Waveskimmer stood there, crouched so that Pana could clamber onto his back. With a final glance at Nnaka who stood in front of a group of people whose faces were indiscernible behind the glare of the fire light, Pana clutched onto Waveskimmer.
“Are you ready?” they asked.
Their friend let out a low warble that seemed unsure yet resolved. They knew how he felt. Everything had changed over the past year, and now, there was no going back. Maybe if they had told everyone the truth before they had been found out things could have been okay, but it was too late for that. Now, all they could do was continue onward and try to avoid the past.
Waveskimmer bounded through the forest and leaped into the sky. He dodged branches that reached out like nets, twirling his way through the canopy, and rose beyond the crowns of the trees, leaving the world behind them.
Down below, the light of the torches was hidden by the dawn trees’ leaves. The shouts of their fellow villagers were muffled. They were safe.
There was no use worrying about Nnaka, Sab and Ezra. Nnaka had survived before. He would lead his family to survive again. Anything else was unthinkable.
As they soared between the clouds and the tops of the trees, Pana hugged Waveskimmer’s warm and scaly neck, feeling the way his breathing and heartbeat relaxed as he flew. Though they cried, they felt hopeful for what felt like the first time in a year. They too, would, hopefully, survive. Once again, they and their friend would have to put distance between themselves and the villagers, but this time Pana was uninjured. This time, they believed they could indeed survive beyond the world that they had always known. Afterall, someone else had survived first.
And this time, Pana knew that an entirely new world lay before them. What kind of world it was, they didn’t exactly know yet. Everything was still so big and uncertain and frighteningly novel. But, together with Waveskimmer, they would find out. They would be okay.