The vacuous space between our worlds clasped me in shadow. There was a strange feeling of static in the air, as if someone had rubbed a balloon across my skin. I couldn’t actually feel the ground, but as the Drukari representative floated through the blackness, a dirt track and crossroads materialised underneath her feet.
She looked the same as the other Drukari who had crossed the borders lately: heavy fustian tunic and pixie ears. Mousy hair draped across one shoulder in a loose plait. The long sword sheathed by her side hardened her graceful appearance. But she was still one of them.
“Maintain diplomacy,” I whispered to myself. Much hinged on my deployment to Drukari lands: a promotion, a pay-raise but most importantly a promise to see my little Caitlin again and enjoy six months without service.
The Drukari placed her hands on my shoulders and bowed so that our foreheads touched in what I assumed was a Drukari greeting. “You are the Earth representative?”
“Lieutenant Jackson McKenzie.” I extended my hand.
“And I am Narenda.” She clasped my hand inside both of hers. For some reason I was shocked at the warmth and solidity of her hands. Even though I’d fought with them on Earth, I still imagined the Drukari sightings were a figment of our imagination. But she was real, the only tangible thing here.
I tapped my foot on the dirt track and it rested perfectly on the illuminated crossroad even though I couldn’t feel it.
“This space doesn’t literally exist,” she said, obviously picking up on my discomfort. “What you see is merely a projection of your subconscious to help keep you oriented between worlds.”
How did she know so much when we’d been researching the portals since they first appeared? “What do you see?” I asked, self-conscious at my apparent lack of knowledge.
The corner of her lips turned up, but her eyes remained static. “The border between our worlds is fraying,” she said, changing topics abruptly.
“I’m well aware of that. Your … people are appearing more and more frequently on Earth and creating havoc in our cities,” I said. “But we’re at a loss how to fix it.”
“Our oracle believes he can sever the connection between our worlds. I have asked the Drukari, who are supportive in finding a solution, to guard the portal on our side. Follow me?” Narenda didn’t wait for me to respond and she walked towards the slit of silver light that perforated the blackness.
“Hang on. I came here to negotiate between worlds on neutral territory not in your world. You can’t dictate the terms—”
Narenda vanished before I finished. I rushed towards the shimmering portal to give her a piece of my mind, but the silver light clasped my hand with a tingling sensation. The prickliness crept along my arm and torso. A burst of daylight made the words poised on my lips melt away. I emerged through a waterfall onto a rocky ledge, but remained bone dry. Clambering down the rocks, I gazed out across a silver river; its surface appeared to crackle. Static filled the air and there was a sweet smell of ozone as if a storm were approaching. Yet the sky was clear.
She didn’t respond.
I followed the river around the first meander and stumbled over a Drukari guard sprawled on the rocky banks. I inspected his bloodstained chainmail. His pallid skin was already cold.
A green ball of light hit my stomach and sent me flying onto the stony ground. Winded, I craned my head up to see my assailant, but they’d vanished. Instead, hooves thundered in the distance. The pounding mimicked the pounding developing in my skull. And above me, dragons darted through the sky like Spitfire planes fleeing from the cacophony behind them. Fleeing in my direction.
I reached for my revolver and discharged four bullets at the charging horse riders. Two horses fell. Another bolt of green light hit my chest and sucked the energy from me. Lying on my side, I gazed down the river channel as it wound its way to a rocky plateau that spanned to the horizon. Large hooves danced in my line of view, danced towards me, and grew larger by the second. And then they grew darker.
I opened my eyes seemingly seconds later. Drukari bodies dotted the landscape. And human bodies too. In the distance, horses fled in a myriad of directions. Some bore riders; most didn’t.
Narenda stood before me, her tunic ripped, blood smeared across her cheek. She grabbed my upper arm and tried to pull me up.
“I’m okay.” I brushed her hand away and staggered to my feet.
“Come.” Narenda’s voice was as direct and as uncompromising as my old drill sergeant was.
“Hang on one moment. You want to explain why we were ambushed?”
“There is no time for explanations. The situation is worse than we imagined. The oracle was meant to meet us here. I only pray he has returned safely.”
I pulled my revolver and pointed it in her direction. “Make time.”
She shut her eyes, impervious to my threat. I had a good mind to pull the trigger, but as she stood there, she radiated warmth and a tingling sensation rippled up my spine, prickled the skin in my arm and sent pins and needles to my fingers. Before I could react, green static sprayed from my gun. My gun zapped and flew from my burning fingers into the air. She raised her hand and a bolt of green light hit the metal. It shone briefly and then deteriorated into dust.
“We will leave now.”
“You arrogant pixie-eared—” I bit my tongue. “Maintain diplomacy,” I muttered to myself. My brief was to close the portal without resorting to another conflict, but she wasn’t making it easy.
She turned from me without another word and screeched across the river in a guttural tone, kurukakaka kurukakaka.
A screech of unimaginable magnitude resonated across the plateau. I looked for the source but there were just fouled bodies and blood smothering the rocky banks.
She cried out again, kurukakaka kurukakaka.
“Cackling like some drunken kookaburra doesn’t explain anything to me. Give me an explanation.”
Cold air whooshed above and there was a mighty thud behind me. The rocky banks trembled, sending vibrations to my knees. Hesitantly, I turned to see a scaly dragon towering above me. Strapped around the beast’s chest was a harness attached and a rickety wooden carriage sat its back.
“You aren’t serious?”
Narenda didn’t respond. She walked towards the beast hands held above her face as if shielding herself from a gusty wind. She placed her foot in the stirrup strapped to the dragon’s flanks and mounted the beast.
“Come. We have no time.”
I approached with caution, feeling naked and vulnerable without my weapon by my side.
The dragon huffed.
I looked at Narenda perched on the carriage atop the dragon as if it were the most tenable position in the world.
A shot rang out behind me. “That was a revolver.”
“But I thought Drukari didn’t own fire arms.”
“Then what …” I turned. Men on horseback galloped towards us.
“But they shot at us.”
“Yes.” She reached out with her hand. “Now if you’ve finished with the questions we must go.”
I pushed through the air and reached for her outstretched hand. My skin tingled as she helped me climb onto the dragon. The carriage was little more than a carved wooden box with railing at the front and sides.
“But why did they—”
The dragon reacted to Narenda’s command instantly. It reared on his hind legs, sending me tumbling backwards.
“It might pay to hold on.”
I grasped the railing at the front of the carriage as the creature ascended. Soon we were high above the carnage. Horses steadied to a halt and the horsemen pointed their guns upwards.
“Black traders!” Narenda looked at the humans below and raised her hands. The green light flickered at her fingertips.
“No!” Instinctively my arm swung. It collided with Narenda’s cheek, sending her flying over the side of the carriage.
Her scream lasted seconds. A lump cloyed in my throat as I gazed over the side. Far below, the horsemen galloped after us as the dragon continued flying unperturbed by Narenda’s fall, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.
“Stop!” I slapped the dragon on its neck; the command seemed to infuriate the creature. “Whoa!” The dragon sped up. “Land you dumb beast.”
“Jackson,” a faint voice whispered.
“Back here.” She clung to the end of the dragon’s whipping tail.
“Hang on.” As I leaned over the back of the carriage and extended my hand, a shot fired from below and hit the dragon on its side. Its bellowing cry resonated throughout its body.
“Why are they shooting?”
“What? Jackson, help me.”
“They are black traders. They’ll do anything to get their prize no matter who gets hurt.”
Another bullet sailed past my head. I pulled her up. “Get this thing out of here.”
She let out another call and the dragon sped up. The landscape smeared by and the horses were soon pinpricks on the horizon.
I turned to face her. “Speak.”
“Your people are after the dragon’s scales.”
“You’re talking about the black market trade. Is that all? You were going to shoot innocent human beings to protect some overgrown reptile.”
“Innocent! They slaughter …” Narenda turned away from me and stared out across the plains.
The stony ground started to rise and sloped up towards a cliff face.
“You are a warrior in your world, no?” Narenda asked after a long pause.
“Would an Earth soldier do anything to protect their people?”
I thought of Caitlin with her pigtails and pink teddy permanently affixed to her hand.
Narenda must have seen a flicker in my eyes, as she smiled. “Our warriors would do anything for our world also. If threatened we retaliate.”
“Humans aren’t hurting you.” I snapped. “It’s just a scaly flying horse.”
“We’re all linked—dragons and land and us—tied together through the mana stream. The dragons are revered.”
“In our world the Drukari are hurting people. Not just animals. They are starting fights on the streets—”
“Only because your people have armed them, taught them about your illegal trading, seduced them with new weapons and peculiar clothing.”
“Well I guess things will be better once the portal shuts permanently.”
“I guess it will,” snapped Narenda. She straightened up and patted the side of the dragon’s neck.
A vertical stone tower, dozens of stories high, loomed in front of us. Huge steps led from the rocky slopes below to a huge arched door in the centre. From the highest rocky tiers water cascaded over the edge to the plateau below. As we neared the tower, the waterfall glistened in the sunlight.
“We’re a bit close, aren’t we,” I said.
Narenda whispered in the beast’s ear and it dived towards the waterfall even faster.
I grabbed her shoulder. “Pull up!”
The dragon’s suicidal path continued and we hurtled head first into the waterfall. I ducked, but we didn’t hit a rocky wall, nor water. After what I could only describe as a mild electric shock, the dragon skidded to a halt on the other side of the waterfall in a huge chamber.
“Orgunda!” Narenda disembarked the creature before it came to a complete standstill. “Orgunda.”
I jumped down and watched the dragon hobble off to a pile of straw on the far wall. Through the hazy static curtain of the waterfall, I could see the landscape spanning to the horizon. A crack resonated throughout the chamber. Instinctively, I reached for my gun but realised my holster was empty.
“She’s just hungry.” Narenda stood by the dragon who had a gnarled bone in its claw.
“I thought I heard voices.” An old man descended the stairs, leaning on a wonky wooden staff. “Ahh, I see you have found a human.”
“Orgunda!” Narenda raced at the man and flung her arms around him – her tough persona melting away. She did have a softer human-side after all.
The oracle smiled warmly at Narenda, his wrinkles deepening.
“You shall follow us.” The oracle turned to me without any kind of introduction or explanation and walked up the stone stairs.
“Hang about. You folks could learn to say please once in a while.” I stood my ground.
Neither Narenda nor the oracle seemed interested and proceeded up the stairs leaving the dragon resting in the chamber.
I took a deep breath. If there was a chance of closing the portal, I could bear their indignation a bit longer.
I thumped up the stairs behind them and we entered another stone chamber. Narenda looked tiny in the huge space. Six pillars held up a tall stone ceiling. The walls and pillars were carved with images of dragons and symbols.
“So,” I began, “can you fix the problems your people are creating on Earth?”
“Your problems!” Narenda may have looked small in this space but her voice was anything but. “The mana stream is leaking through the portals. The energy is draining from our skies and waterways. More and more Drukari have deserted the way of our people. And you are worried about a few Drukari causing a ruckus in the streets.”
“Ruckus? They’ve started riots!” I screamed.
Narenda stood with one hand on the hilt of her sword in a protective position I recognised intimately. Her ears were pointier than mine were, but she was exactly like me. Loyalty never wavered. Courage and confidence never faltered.
The oracle held up his hand dismissively. “It’s okay, Narenda,” he interrupted. “Go clean yourself up.”
She hesitated briefly then stormed down the stairs.
“Don’t mind her. Her soul is young. This is her first alternate world experience.” The oracle pointed to a pitcher of dark red liquid.
“No thanks,” I replied.
His hands trembled as he poured the liquid into an ornate goblet. “One day she will come to understand the political implications. The fantasy worlds are a necessary part of society. They keep one grounded. Remind one of the possibilities outside our known parameters.” He took a long sip and sat down.
“What? You mean there are more of you? Are the other worlds similar to this?”
The oracle stared down his nose into his drink and ran his finger around the rim of the goblet.
“Oh yes,” he said finally, “there are more. They come and go. Young souls need a place to escape and the mana stream sometimes taps into those desires. Makes it a … reality.”
My head spun. Where were the other gateways? The portals to the Drukari world had only been open a few months. How did the Drukari learn all this in such a short time?
“Well … makes them a reality for a time.” The oracle placed his goblet down on a table with a clank. “Anyway, back to business. We are agreed that something must be done?”
I nodded. “My government has tried everything.
The oracle walked over to a large stone chest on the far wall and placed his hand on the lid. A crack resonated in his chamber and the chest suddenly crumbled to a pile of rubble. From the remains, he extracted a smooth black box that fit snuggly in the palm of his hand. He handed it to me.
The glassy surface felt warm. I turned it over, inspecting each identical side: a perfect uniform cube.
“It’s a mana vacuum,” he replied before I had a chance to ask.
I looked at him blankly.
“It will remove surplus mana that has filtered into the fantasy world after it is activated.”
“The energy that allows the portal and fantasy world to exist will be drawn to the device.”
He nodded. “It will cease to exist.”
“Both the fantasy world and the portal?”
He nodded again.
I looked towards the stairs where Narenda had exited. “It’s a bit extreme. Surely, there’s another way?”
He shook his head.
“But your whole race … how could you, why would you suggest destroying this world?”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “I have my reasons. There are graver things at stake. The mana will continue to spill and open hundreds of fantasy worlds. The mana will be spread so thinly that it can no longer support life. It could lead to the end of all life in all worlds. We all have to make a choice at some stage, mine is between life on my world and all life.”
“But you would be sacrificing millions of Drukari.” I had my solution so why was I feeling so uneasy about this and why couldn’t I stop picturing Narenda disappearing from existence?
“The fantasy world doesn’t literally exist. It isn’t real. Just surplus mana. All it takes is the imagination of a child, and the mana stream will filter through the portal and make things seem real,” he said.
I traced my finger around an etched dragon on the stone walls. There weren’t just tangible objects here; there was history, a whole culture.
“Mana is powerful,” he said as if reading my mind. “It can create memories, dreams, histories. No one in the fantasy world realises their world is just a snapshot in one tiny point in time.”
I touched the table. It was solid. The oracle was there. He wasn’t a figment of my imagination. It was all real.
“I see you are at a loss. Mana is powerful. It can make you believe; make you see, feel and smell. Can make one believe in a world including its history and cultures.” The oracle looked around. “It can make us believe in anything.”
I looked at the cube again. Who would have thought that the solution to the Drukari invasions of Earth would be so simple? Could I really do this?
“Only a person from your world can activate it. You just need to take it to your world,” said the oracle.
“I don’t know if I can—”
Narenda burst into the room. “The opposing Drukari have breached the perimeter.”
“Why are Drukari attacking you?” I asked, hiding the cube behind my back.
“They know we intend to close the portal.”
“Go,” said the oracle. “Head for the portal by the Evergreen Plains. I’ll hold them off.” The oracle picked up a sword from a mount on the wall. “I’ll leave the decision with you.” The oracle touched the box in my hand.
Already at the stairs, Narenda looked at us intently.
The oracle whispered in my ear. “Don’t tell her. She won’t understand. She would put her world above everything. She is very …”
“Loyal,” I offered, as I hid the cube in my pocket.
He nodded. “She would do anything for her people. Now go. Do what you have to do.”
Narenda looked at me as I fled down the stairs. “What was all that about?”
“It was nothing.” My stomach churned as I lied to her.
“Did he find a solution?” she asked, leading me down a steep staircase through lower and darker sections of the tower. “Jackson?” she asked when I didn’t respond. Her eyes flickered with hidden emotion under the lanterns on either side of the walls. “Can you close the portal? Did the oracle find a way?”
I grabbed her hand. “Let’s just go.”
We ran down a corridor for ages before it opened up onto a grassy field.
“There’s the portal,” said Narenda.
In front of us, a sliver of light shimmered. Narenda’s hand was still in mine. Her hand was warm. It was real. Just take the mana vacuum to Earth that was all I had to do.
All I had to do was let go of her hand.
“Stop!” Behind us, a Drukari charged.
“Go!” yelled Narenda.
“I’m not leaving you alone to fend them off. Follow me.”
“You know a ‘please’ wouldn’t go astray.” Narenda smiled wryly and followed me through the portal.
As the static of the portal enveloped me this time, I emerged to a much different scene. Amid the black, tiered rocky ledges spanned like steps to another portal above—the portal leading back home and back to reality.
“You never told me,” I said to Narenda, as we floated towards the rocky stairs, “what you see here?”
“We don’t have time for this.”
“You’re avoiding my question.” I squeezed her hand.
Narenda straightened her tunic and stared towards the portal leading back to Earth. “Nothing.”
“What?” The word caught in my throat.
“Nothing. I can’t see anything here.”
If the space between worlds was a projection of her subconscious did that mean she couldn’t see anything because I was about to destroy it all. It dawned on me the severity of what I was considering.
Armed Drukari stormed through the portal. Narenda let go of my hand and drew her sword. I dodged a ball of green light and swung my fist. It collided with a Drukari’s jaw. His limp body didn’t fall; it just floated away.
Bodies floated in the void and light blazed in both directions, but it was the silver light that drew my attention.
It should be such a simple choice: I could save our way of life but sacrifice hers.
What would she do in my position? Would she be loyal to her world and do her duty?
She glanced at me as she thrust her sword into the fray and mouthed, “It’s okay.” Her smile shone with energy. “Go.”
At least that is what I told myself that she said as I stepped back through the portal for the last time.
I awoke to a dry mouth. Guilt hung in the air and scorched my insides.
I knew the oracle was right, that the portal had to close, but I couldn’t shake the choking feeling of culpability. I felt sorry for their whole race. Such promise and potential gone forever.
The oracle ambled down the stony stairs without a trace of guilt.
“Were we too deceptive?” I asked.
“You did your duty, Narenda” he said. “And I did mine.”
“I know. But it feels wrong. Despite his quirks, he wasn’t a bad individual. A little naive but … he had such belief in their world. How could he not know?”
The oracle placed his hands on my shoulders and bowed his head in recognition of my sorrow. “The imprinting was strong in their race, but the fantasy world needed to cease. Earth was nothing but trouble.” He turned and walked back up the steps to the tower without another word.
I wandered across the cool stone floor and looked out the waterfall of mana. The air seemed less static this morning and the dragons seemed to swerve sluggishly through the sky.