Illustratia brought them to a windy landing in a small clearing just in time to see this classic, tall-dark-and-handsome kinda guy doing something that looked like kung fu. Best of all he wasn’t wearing a shirt and his nut-brown skin was shiny with sweat. The thick black cord of a braid caressed his spine to well below his belt, barely moving as he worked his way meticulously through each movement. Ember firmly wished he wasn’t Jerome; he had become increasingly disturbing with each incarnation, or whatever it was, he went through.
Their landing didn’t go unnoticed though - it really couldn’t after all. Illustratia was really quite large. The man watched them land and as soon as Illustratia had come to rest, he bowed his head. “I am honored, Eldest. What can I do for you?”
Illustratia melted down into a human female, causing Ember to step to the side in surprise, but Illustratia paid the move no mind. Standing over six feet, Illustratia’s features were very angular, very exotic, and her hair was, of all things, blue. It was cut straight around just short of her shoulders, and her bangs were cut straight across her forehead at her eyebrows. She smiled. “Oh Derrick; you are always so formal.” She wrapped an arm around Ember. “I brought you a friend. Everyone knows you’ve been very lonely lately.”
Ember stepped forward, extending her hand. “Hello, I’m Ember. I take it you’re Derrick.”
He accepted her hand. His gaze was very intense, as if she occupied all of his attention at that moment, though there was no change in his expression. It was impossible to tell if he was happy to see her or if he hated her.
“I am.” He glanced at the grinning Illustratia. “How is it you met up with one of the . . . with a dragon?”
“Oh good, you’re getting to know each other,” said Illustratia. “I knew you would like her, Derrick.”
Derrick looked at her in confusion.
“So you didn’t send for me?” said Ember. Now she too was looking at the blue-haired ex-dragon.
“How could I send for you? I don’t know you.”
Illustratia just grinned, and with a very dragon-like chuckle, she turned back in to a dragon and flew off, buffeting them both with the wind from her wings.
“Now what do I do?” said Ember, feeling quite stranded.
“I have no idea,” said Derrick, then he smiled. He had a very nice smile. It softened his brown eyes. “You could come into my house, if you like. You can tell me how you met up with a dragon. They keep themselves in hiding most of the time.”
With a gentle hand in the center of her back, Derrick started them toward the house. It was a log house, and part of it was two stories. He snagged up a flannel shirt from a small table in passing.
Ember paused at the little table. “This is beautiful. Do you make furniture?” She caressed the smooth surface; every inch of it was sanded to a fine finish, leaving no edge or corner untouched - none she could see anyway.
“Uhm . . . I do, sometimes. Would you like to sit here? I could bring out a little something to snack on, or perhaps something to drink.”
Forgetting all about any manners, Ember said, “Food? I’m starved. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a decent meal.” When as she heard her own words, she cringed. What would Aunt Elspeth say? “Oh - well, if it’s not an imposition.”
With a warm chuckle, he said, “No imposition at all.” He then disappeared into the house.
While she waited for him to return, Ember looked around the clearing. It looked very wild and yet cared for. No dead trees were visible and several flowers could be seen, having grown in wild abandon along with everything else in sight. The wild grass wasn’t mowed, but it did look grazed somewhat.
She saw something move in the trees and decided to investigate. If it was a deer, she would have stayed put, but it looked like a person or perhaps a child. Did he have kids? Would he produce a wife when he came out of the house?
“Hello? Honey?” she called out quietly so as not to frighten the kid. “It’s alright. I just want to talk.”
A few minutes later, she found a tiny clearing with a picturesque pond in the middle. Just a bit to the right was a large block of stone. It was partially buried in the soil, but it still looked like it might have been shaped, though why someone would go to the trouble of shaping a rock into a square, she couldn’t fathom.
She went on to the pond. It was a tiny thing. A trickle of fresh water fed it from one side and another trickle led off down hill. Not quite half way between the two and only a step from the edge was a small flat stone, perfect for sitting if it wasn’t surrounded by water.
‘This place is so peaceful,’ thought Ember with a sigh. She was just turning, intending to go back to that big block of stone and sit for a little while, when she saw Derrick. If his expression was stone when he first saw him, it was thunder now.
“What are you doing here?” Without waiting for her to answer, he grabbed her arm and propelled her from the clearing. Though his grip didn’t hurt, and though the pace he insisted on wasn’t enough to make her stumble, there was no resisting and no escaping his hold.
At the table again, he spun her around and plopped her into her chair. “You are a guest here so long as you . . . .” He clamped his jaws closed on whatever he was going to say. Pointing back to where they had just come from. “Do not go there again.”
“Why?” asked Ember.
“I will not be so nice next time.”
She studied his face. Gone was the warm smile. The furious thundercloud was mostly gone now too, leaving the stone. But the contents of the table smelled so good and her stomach didn’t care what his expression was.
On the table was a wooden tray holding two steaming bowls, also made of wood, full of what looked like oatmeal only it also had chunks of meat stirred in and a couple boiled eggs on top. Also on the tray was a round loaf of bread, two wooden cups and a wooden pitcher of water.
“Eat. I didn’t know if you wanted breakfast or lunch but this pretty much covers both. It’s simple.” He took his bowl and strode off to come to a halt several paces away.
“I’m sorry,” Ember called after him. She was more than sorry; she was devastated. Whatever caused her to go nosing around this kind stranger’s property? Maybe she was just tired. She ate numbly, but she’d only eaten a few bites when her host returned to sit at the table.
“You never did tell me how you met up with a dragon,” he said as he set his bowl down and sank into the other chair.
“I’m really sorry. I won’t go there again.”
He lifted his bowl again and leaned back in his chair, waiting for her tale while he ate.
“Oh it’s really crazy.” She sighed. “I think I’m having this horrible nightmare. You see, until now, the last normal thing I remember was falling asleep at my computer. Suddenly I was in some side remnant of the movie Gattaca and Jude Law and Uma Thurman, only they insisted they were Jerome and Irene, were running away from security.” She stopped. Why was she pouring out a dream to this stranger?
He was looking at her and there was a small quirk to one corner of his mouth. “Please continue.”
“Oh it’s so stupid, and it gets worse.”
“Is the dragon in your nightmare somewhere?”
“Well, yeah. She saved me from becoming lost in cyberspace.”
“In what?” His words came out with a chuckle and the quirk was more pronounced.
Now he was going to laugh at her. She hoped he didn’t laugh at her. She washed her meal down with a mouthful of water and then broke off a chunk of the bread - there was no knife. “Well, that’s what she told me it was. Anyway we were supposed to go to the Kormosny village where we could hide, and from there we were supposed to go to the Mystic Falls. Well, I thought that, if I had fallen asleep at my computer, I could wake up if I thought of myself hitting the right keys and exiting the program.”
“I thought this was a dream.”
“Oh it’s such a bad dream. Anyway, it didn’t work and I got lost. I went from King Arthur’s castle in the winter to being baked into a watery tart. And then I woke up in a river and Jack Sparrow was helping me out, only he wasn’t Jack Sparrow or even King Arthur, he was Jerome again. I don’t know what happened to Irene.” She tore into the bread, certain she was blushing furiously. “He took me to the Empress. Um . . . there were others there . . . um . . . they were all naked or mostly so. The Empress made me give up my brother’s email so I could leave.” She dropped the bread to her bowl and felt a tear slide down her cheek. She knew he was in no danger, but it sounded so selfish now that she was explaining it to someone else.
“Why do you cry?” asked Derrick. “Is your brother now dead?”
He had leaned forward to look at her lowered face.
“No, he’s not dead, but he’s her love slave now, until she tires of him.” She sniffed and he was holding a hanky for her to take. She blew her nose and wiped her tears away. With an exaggerated sigh, she continued. “I got away alright but the next place made no sense at all. It was all about Zs and NZs and zippers and zigzags, and then there was this anorexic green . . . um . . . person who was serving cheese. Next I knew I was falling through this black whirl, lit only by twisted letters and numbers. That’s where Illustratia found me. She took me to the Misty World, telling me to look for Arial Hollyberry. I rescued this girl from a falling . . . something. It looked like a giant bat - sort of. I don’t know what it was, but it would have crushed her if it had hit her.
“It was dark and she was afraid of wandering around in the dark so we sat there and talked. She told me her name was Tami and that her best friend was Princess Arial, daughter of Queen Orlaith, the High Queen of the Frost Faeries and ruler of the Winter Realm.”
“Did you say Orlaith?” asked Derrick, leaning forward again.
“Yes. Do you know that name?”
“Maybe. Keep going; this is interesting.”
“I almost fell asleep only Perhluna starts throwing berries at me.”
“Oh he’s supposed to be my guide; he’s not a very good guide. He’s a Kormosny - from the first.”
“A Kormosny? Oh - the village where you were supposed to hide. I remember. Go on.”
“We ate the berries and thank goodness, cause then we could hear each other’s thoughts, and the trees too. Then the trees snatched us up off the ground. They said they were saving us from the Shahinian. They had come looking for Tami. We had to be very quiet.”
“Shahinian - what did they look like?”
“Do you know them too?”
“They’re really ugly. They look like they just crawled out of a mucky swamp, and not the kind with a lot of water either, all covered with sticky mud and dead leaves and things, and they had really big eyes.”
Derrick groaned. “Where is this Misty World?”
I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Illustratia. I certainly don’t want to go back there. Anyway, we were just reuniting with the faeries when she came and got me again. She said it was real urgent that I come here, that you had asked for me. And here I am.” She started to cry again.
“Now what?” asked Derrick as he reached over and brushed away a new tear with a gentle thumb.
“I just realized - I can’t tell if this is still the nightmare or not. I don’t know if I’m sleeping or awake.”
“Well, I do know that you are very tired. I can see it. Why don’t you go upstairs and sleep in my bed for a while. I have a few things I need to do. When I get back, we can discuss how to get you home.”
“Really? You will do that?”
“I can make no promises. This place is a long ways from most anywhere. I like it that way. Go on upstairs and take a nap. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Ember rose, and Derrick followed suite, showing her to the door and opening it for her.
“The stairs are on through there.” He pointed as if there might have been some kind of choice.
She took a few steps and then turned to tell him thank you, only he already had the door closed. But then she was this gorgeous bow hanging above the door, and beside the door, on one of the three pegs there, was a quiver full of arrows. She pulled one out and looked at it. It was two, many three times as heavy as any arrow she had ever seen. It was nearly as thick as her thumb, and had a tiny chip of black flint for a tip, and the feathers - as she was fingering the grayish brown feathers, she realized that the arrow had to be hand-made. Standing on tip-toes, she lifted down the bow. It too was quite heavy. It was also quite exotic. She couldn’t even tell what it was made out of since it didn’t look like wood, but it didn’t look like metal either. She gave a tip an experimental flex and instantly knew that, if it was strung, she likely wouldn’t have been able to move the string, let alone launch one of the heavy arrows from it. As she stretched to replace it, she wondered what mountain of a man had used it. Though Derrick was well built, he didn’t look strong enough to draw that heavy bow.
Turning back to the rest of the room, she saw a fireplace and could tell that it was open into the next room. Despite the heat, a tiny fire burned on the hearth, fed by a tiny pile of woodchips.
Curious, she ventured on through. As promised, there was the stairs but the novelty of this room took some time to figure out. There was a wide assortment of pots and pans and utensils, and yet she saw no stove for cooking. As soon as that realization settled in, she realized that there was no refrigerator or even a sink.
She looked at the tiny fire again. Hanging there to the side of the fireplace, was an iron pot, but when she looked in it, it was spotless. He had only been in here for a few minutes, and he had produced a hot meal. When had he cleaned up? There was no obvious answer so she turned for the stairs.
As soon as her head cleared the upper floor, she spotted something she never expected to see. Standing in the corner of the room was a suit of armor complete with a sword. It wasn’t the standard knight’s armor either. On a six-foot T was a chain mail shirt, and over that a green enameled breastplate was buckled. On a small shelf under that were other pieces of green enameled metal. Next to that was the bed; it looked totally inviting.
Looking around as she ascended - there was no short wall around the stairwell - the first thing she saw was another fireplace, also with a tiny fire. But the most welcome sight of all was the small table sitting in the next corner. On it - of all things - was a satellite phone. She couldn’t get up the stairs fast enough. Rushing the rest of the way up the stairs, she slid to her knees in front of the small table. She snatched it up and found the power button. The sound of the dial tone caused her heart to swell choking her ability to speak but just as she was going to start punching numbers, she realized that she didn’t know anyone’s phone number. She never called anyone on the phone, though she took calls all the time. Sobbing, she turned the phone off again and stumbled to the bed. The thought that she just might be tired didn’t help much, but it didn’t stop her from falling asleep. She really was so tired.