Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Eighteen: Bliss and Ignorance
After a surprisingly delicious late dinner of oyster mushrooms, wilted greens, and a few other odds and ends, all wrapped in large leaves and folded into packets and set in the glowing coals until the flavors had blended and the scent was somehow irresistible, I find myself back in my little clearing away from the main one, cross-legged and sideways on a giant fallen log.
Bradley finds me, too, as I suppose I always knew he would eventually. He approaches from the direction of the fire and enters the tiny clearing, where the orange glow is blocked from view and the stars are allowed to light the space between the trees above me, stars which I’d been considering ever since coming out here after an unusually silent fireside joint with Nate.
Am I surprised to see Bradley here? No. True to his word, he’d left me alone so far—but I’d known this conversation was coming eventually.
Were the stars my only reason for retreating to this secluded spot in the forest?
Rustling in the darkness.
Yes. Just the stars.
“Hey, Addie,” Bradley says, his voice little more than a whisper. A tone I used to know well. “It’s me.”
A moment, and then, “I know.”
Even if the stars had not illuminated the clearing enough for my night-adjusted eyes to see his features clearly, I would have known the silhouette of his body in the darkness. Something I also, come to think of it, used to know rather well.
“How are you?” he says, remaining in place.
“I’m okay,” I say. Finally turning to face him, I lower first one leg to the ground, then the other, and perch. As I watch him, I consider how satisfying it would be to tell him to fuck off, watch him slink back to the campsite, and I open my mouth to do so.
“Would you like to sit down?” I say.
Stupid, stupid. Stupid.
He smiles in the starlight and sits, not next to me, but near me. In the silvery light his features are dark and glossy, all sleek curves and hard angles, like a Weimaraner’s. The low flutter is back. I decide not to look at him, settling instead for gazing at the faint orange cast projected low on a distant tree.
He clears his throat. “So, what do you think about the plan?”
I almost laugh. I seriously doubt he came all the way out here to talk about Tristan’s strange pull.
“I think it’s a good idea,” I tell him, and not just to be combative. “It isn’t like we have a bunch of better ones—we either follow Tristan’s initial idea or we head some other arbitrary direction. With no other clues, northeast is our best option.”
“I think you’re right,” Bradley says. I feel the log quiver as he shifts his position, or perhaps moves closer. “And you knew just where to go, too.”
I hear something odd in his voice, and I turn to look at him. He is focused on me with a starlit expression of wonder—and he is, indeed, closer. His eyes, round and serious, look into mine.
“Do you feel it too, Addie?”
I draw in a stuttering breath. I’m lost, floundering. “Feel what,” I manage.
My heart thuds rapidly as I realize how wildly I’ve misinterpreted his question. Being alone with only a handful of people can apparently make you forget how to think. I swallow and try to organize my jumbled thoughts. “No. Of course not. Feel the portal? That’s Tristan’s thing.”
He tilts his head down and looks up at me through shadowed lashes, giving me a secretive, monochromatic smile. “But Addie—you knew the exact angle, to the degree. How could you be so certain if you don’t feel anything at all?”
He’s wrong: I am definitely feeling more than a few things at the moment. But as I finally realize what he’s saying, I blow out my breath in amusement. “Oh my goodness, Bradley, I have a compass. In my bag.”
The look of surprise on his face almost makes me want to laugh, but it also kind of breaks my heart. Had he thought I had Tristan’s special talent too? Is he disappointed that I don’t?
“You’ve even seen it,” I continue. Am I really getting weird and defensive about not being a genius mad scientist? “The little blue plastic one I use when I’m hiking? It’s always in my bag. I looked, when Tristan first pointed. I was right behind him. I just . . . looked at my compass.”
I look down at my hands, somehow ashamed of such a mundane solution. Stupid Bradley, for how easily he makes me feel inadequate. Stupid me for letting my mind slip into another old habit.
“The mastermind genius stuff—that’s all Tristan.” I shrug. “I don’t have any magic powers.”
Bradley moves even closer, eyes glinting in the darkness. Inches away now, he studies my face as if he’s just learned something profound about its owner, as if he’s never seen it before. A small smile curves his lips.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he murmurs. “I’d say you have a few powers.”
When he gently slides his arms around me, my body melts into his, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. And when his lips touch mine, I’m absolutely, completely unable to stop them.
There’s a dragon. It’s big, and its talons scraping along the marble floor are slow and ponderous, echoing in the cavernous space. Then it stops.
It sees me.
YOU’RE A LONG WAY FROM HOME.
Then it lurches into a run, and the scrape of its talons become the clacking of a laptop. It reaches for me, snags me with razor-tipped claws, disembowels me, devours me, but even as it’s finishing me off, the action slowly recedes until I realize I’ve been there all along, outside of it and just out of frame, watching the entire grisly scene. This observer-me almost slumps to the floor in relief—but the dragon turns and steps out of the frame and into mine and is devouring that me, too, and then the next me standing out of frame, and on and on in an endless trail of slimy gore and me-parts.
“Addie . . .”
IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE CALLING YOURSELF NOW?
My name reverberates through a vast empty space, paper walls closing me off from the rest of the room even as the writing appears, words and diagrams I can’t read and don’t understand, coiling around me in an echo chamber of script and accusations and stains spreading like blobs of ink from a sputtering pen, or maybe the point of a blade.
Now the entire manuscript has become a gallery bloodspatters. Red feathers and bleeds into itself in an unending ocean around me, a giant bloody flourish scrawled around me in a blaze of passion, constraining me, cocooning me . . .
YOU’RE A LONG WAY FROM HOME . . .
My first thought, when I wake to Nate’s voice, is that I’ve somehow gone crazy, hallucinated the entire evening. Hadn’t Bradley . . .
But the sharp look on Nate’s face in my lean-to, striped silver by a lightening dawn, jolts me awake. Something is very, very wrong.
“What? What is it?”
“Have you seen Bradley?”
I don’t have to look to know there’s no one in my shelter but me and Nate’s head, but my eyes betray me before I can stop them, darting around the makeshift tent as more memories of the previous evening flood my mind.
I see this betrayal reflected in Nate’s eyes, or I imagine I see it. I’m not sure which, or even if it’s a betrayal at all; this early in the morning, I’m not sure about much, and with no prospects of coffee, I don’t imagine that’s going to change any time soon. I clutch for my sweatshirt, which is over me but definitely not on me, and check that all the important bits are covered. “Uh . . . yes?”
“When,” he says sharply.
I’m not sure I like being grilled about this so early in the day, and I’m very sure I don’t like Nate doing the grilling. I push a knot of sleep-tangled hair out of my face. “Isn’t that none of your—”
“Addie, he’s gone.”
I blink. Twice. “What—”
“When did you last see him?” Nate says again, his voice insistent but not unkind. He looks at me with what I now see is worry.
“Please, Addie, it’s important.”
I’m fully awake now, even without the coffee, and although having to think about this in front of Nate has me more than a little flustered, I’m starting to understand that he’s upset for reasons having nothing to do with me.
“Uh, last night. Late last night. Well . . . morning, I guess. Early morning?”
Not awesome. I’ve had exactly zero time to process what had happened between Bradley and me—but it doesn’t take a lot of processing to conclude that it was exactly what I’d promised myself would not happen—and it’s not fair that I have to examine how I feel about rekindling my relationship with Bradley with Nate practically in my bed.
But if this information hurts him, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He simply nods, ducks his head, and makes as if to back out of the shelter.
“Nate—what’s going on? Is he lost? Has he”—I shudder at a sudden thought—“been kidnapped?”
Nate pauses, then looks me full in the face. The only emotion I find there is worry—pure worry. “We don’t know,” he tells me.
Then he drops the second bomb.
“Tristan is gone, too.”
In the time it takes for me to process this terrible new piece of information, Nate has backed out of my tent and is shouting to Duc as he moves across the meadow, gesturing toward the woods. I pull myself together quickly, locating the necessary articles of clothing, cursing Nate and his early-morning intrusion and Tristan and his machine and Bradley and Duc and the whole stupid universe.
“OK, what’s going on?” I say as I stumble across the lawn, tugging my hair free of my sweatshirt. “Tristan and Bradley are what now?”
Nate and Duc, talking in low voices near the dull embers of last night’s fire, turn to regard me with sad faces. Behind his glasses, Duc’s face is as pale as Tristan’s would be, if he were here.
“They’re gone,” Duc says, looking forlorn. I want to give him a hug. I also want Nate to stop looking at me, maybe forever. I smooth my hair back from my face in a futile gesture. “I couldn’t find Tristan anywhere, then Nate found Bradley’s shelter empty. They’re gone.”
His face falls so far that now I do move over to him and give him a hug. He stiffens beneath my arms, then pulls me in tight for a quick, fierce embrace. But when we separate, he still looks just as worried as I feel.
“Did Bradley say anything?” Nate asks. Out of the corner of my eye, I can tell he’s looking at me. “When you spoke?”
“He said . . . he said a lot of things.” I want to crawl in a hole and die. “Nothing about Tristan, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Nate frowns, as if considering trying to mine me for more, but thankfully he lets it go for now. He looks around the clearing, as if he’ll find the two of them standing there, as if we’ve just misplaced them and there they are, just hanging out together, refining their rabbit-gathering techniques and collecting wood.
“So what do we do now?” I ask, my voice shaky and thick. “Should we just start shouting their names?”
Since we have no idea how long ago Tristan and Bradley left our camp, we have no way of knowing whether or not they’re in earshot, nor do we have any idea which way they might have headed. Regardless, I don’t think shouting is an unreasonable suggestion, considering no one has come up with a better plan than barging into my private space and firing off the world’s most humiliating game of twenty questions.
“That would not be advisable.”
The voice that cuts across the darkness of the clearing, husky and sharp, doesn’t belong to either of my remaining companions. It isn’t Tristan’s, and it isn’t Bradley’s. It belongs to someone new, and it comes from my right.
From inside the forest.