Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:

No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure

by Maggie Gibbs

Illustrations by Emily Ruf

Chapter Two: Addie Meets a Lumberjack

When some people get high, they completely lose their minds. Some forget how to speak, some imagine demons out of shadows, some find themselves Velcroed to the couch, some just end up way too anxious about ridiculous shit to enjoy themselves. (It isn’t for everyone. Nothing is.)

For me, marijuana adds a gentle filter over my awareness, something like a caffeine buzz that enlivens my body and turns everything up to eleven: painting, design work, being outside, listening to music, sitting quietly and chasing my own thoughts. It’s all about tweaking my brain chemistry and putting myself in the best state to enjoy my day—much like my morning coffee.

Because this is the state I’m in when the closet door inside No Dragons Press unexpectedly opens, I am not thrown by the lumberjack standing there. I don’t bat an eye when the doorway reveals a set of ascending stairs, twisting up and deeper into the building, making this either not a closet or one with an entire upper level in it. And it startles me not in the slightest when the lumberjack points a reddish-blond beard in Tristan and Duc’s direction and says, of all things, “Don’t worry. They’re mostly harmless.”

What’s throwing me at the moment is that when he smiles, like he’s doing now, his full beard doesn’t quite hide his dimples. It’s like he has two tiny black holes on his face that make two small parts of him disappear.

“Douglas Adams?” offers the beard. “‘Mostly harmless’?”

“Yeah, I know Douglas Adams,” I say, after taking only a few extra beats to contemplate Schroedinger’s dimples. “No dragons there, either,” I add.

Because Philip K. Dick also didn’t write about dragons, is what I’m thinking, and I say it because of how Tristan had greeted me at the door.

Too late, I remember the lumberjack wasn’t actually here for that conversation—a fact that should have been obvious right away, seeing that he’s just walked in from a closet another level of the building—and anyway, Tristan isn’t even listening.

I stifle a cringe. There’s no helping it now; while I’ve done a decent job of navigating this new twist, I’m still pretty high right now, and at moments like this my policy is to not over-explain. Best to leave it there and keep looking confident.

It works. “No dragons,” the beard affirms. Then it laughs, and the man underneath it steps away from the doorway and into full sight. He holds out a hand. “Nathan Trowbridge. Nate.”

I take his hand. He’s not the kind of lumberjack to hang out with giant blue farm animals; more like the Michael Palin kind, but with whiskey. And also the kind that might serve waffles, an idea whose origins I am uncertain of but no less pleased with. I wonder briefly how he’d look on my couch.

“Hey, Tristan,” Nate says, at some point, nipping my waffley daydream in the syrupy bud. He releases my hand and takes a steps back. “Anything from Democritus?”

By this point, I realize how completely and utterly I have failed to play my role in this age-old human ritual of introduction. But with Nate out of my immediate space, I have a chance to organize my thoughts again. I may have gotten off to a few rocky starts, inner-headspace-wise, but now that there’s something more interesting to focus on than my own awkwardness, I’ve got my game face on again.

I cock my head at Nate. “Who’s Democritus?”

As Nate begins thumbing through a stack of manuscripts, adding to the disarray, I’m pretty sure I see Tristan and Duc exchange quick, covert glances, an unspoken conversation that I don’t understand. But then the looks are gone and Tristan is buried in his pages again, leaving Nate to explain.

“He’s a repeat author,” he begins. Then he stops, his face uncertain as he chooses how to proceed. Or is he trying to decide how much to tell me? Why is everyone being so weird about this?

“Pseudonym?” I prompt.

Tristan makes a noise somewhere in the back of his throat which I decide means yes.

“It’s the most we can get out of him,” Nate explains, sticking a finger into the beard and scratching, “and we don’t even get that anymore. He’s stopped signing his submissions.”

I frown, sensors now fully engaged. “Then how do you know it’s him?”

“The pattern,” Tristan says, but he’s not really listening to the conversation; his voice is distant. Then he shakes his head. “But he won’t write for us regularly. We’ve tried.”

There is something like awe in his voice, as if it takes a special kind of person to combat the charms of working at No Dragons Press. I suppress a smile.

He goes on. “He’s ignored everything we’ve ever sent him. But he isn’t writing anywhere else, not that I’ve been able to tell.”

Nate frowns. “Nowhere else? How can you be sure?” He pulls up a hard plastic, its legs scraping and stuttering against the floor.

“Duc has been looking for links between—”

“Wait,” I interrupt, because it’s clear I’m the only one here who’s interested in the interesting part. “What’s the pattern? What are the submissions?”

“Anything and everything,” Tristan says. The awestruck expression is back, softening his perma-scowl into something gentler. “But there are these threads, this hint of something bigger.”

“Democritus is the reason we have a nonfiction section,” Duc tells me. He nods at the bookshelf above the dusty couch, where a battered Amazon Prime box overflows with lithographs of decapitated dragons. “We used to just throw them in a box, but he just kept sending them, until Tristan finally started connecting the pieces.”

“This guy sounds like quite a wizard,” I say, a little too offhandedly. I’ve decided I like Tristan very much, and I’m more than willing to humor him, generally speaking—but right now my coffee is wearing off, and I could really use a smoke, and I’m feeling just a bit less personable than normal.

But then Tristan hits me with that withering look again that tells me I’ve let him down in a deeply personal way, which he has apparently practiced to perfection, and I scold myself.

“I’m sorry you haven’t heard back,” I say, honestly. “Is there a return address? Email? Any way to contact this Democritus person directly?”

Tristan’s expression shifts again, and now he looks like a lost child. “We tried. We never got a response.”

“Can I see them?”

“The emails?”

“The submissions.”

Tristan gives me a sharp look. “Why?”

I gape at him. “Wha—what do you mean, why? You think you can lay the whole secret message thing out for me like that and I won’t want to see them?”

After a pause, Tristan shrugs, pushes himself out of his seat, and wanders over to the door marked Do Not Enter. He cracks it, revealing another staircase, this one descending into darkness. Then he pauses with his hand on the knob and shoots a furtive look over his shoulder at the rest of us. At me. Then, when there’s barely enough clearance for one human at a time—even a Tristan-sized human—he slips inside like an octopus and pulls the door quickly closed behind him.

I follow him with my eyes until he disappears, tracing his probable trajectory along the wall, not bothering to hide my open-mouthed curiosity. In the space of just a few minutes I’ve gone from hankering for a smoke to ravenous to know the truth. What’s going on down there?

And there’s something else, too. He hid his reaction quickly, but not before I saw the odd look that had rippled across his face before he could replace his mask of indifference.

Tristan had looked afraid.

When I notice Duc watching me, I nod in the direction of where Tristan had disappeared. “It almost seems personal,” I say, pitching my voice low.

Duc is silent for a long moment. And then: “It is personal, for him. He believes this Democritus is sending the messages to him. Personally.”

I think about that for a moment. This explains a good deal about Tristan’s obsession with these mysterious submissions . . . perhaps the look I’d caught hadn’t been one of fear, but of something else, something a little closer to home. Jealousy? I am suddenly very sorry I asked to see them.

“I’m sorry,” I tell Duc, since Tristan hasn’t returned yet and I feel like saying it to someone.

“Don’t be,” Duc says. “He’s happy you want to understand.” A pause, and then: “Just don’t be surprised if you don’t.”

“What do they say?” I ask, leaning forward. “The messages?”

Duc shakes his head slowly. “It isn’t like that. Remember, it was only after a handful of submissions that Tristan even picked up on the pattern. He believes there’s a code, something like a partially completed cypher, and he’s able to piece together more of it with every submission.”

I try leaning forward, but I’m already as forward as I’m going to get without standing and towering over him, so I settle for fixing him with an intense look. “A code to what?”

Duc shrugs, averting his eyes. He says nothing.

“And what do you believe?” I ask him, dialing back the intensity in case it’s a little too overpowering. I do that sometimes.

But before he can respond, our attention is drawn to a commotion at the doorway, where Tristan is back in frame. He’s got a box in his arms, which he places on the chair furthest from us and slowly opens with solemn reverence.

Now Duc’s dark eyes do meet mine, the black of his pupils blending with his irises in a way that somehow emphasizes his gaze. “I believe Tristan is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Duc says with utter seriousness.

Then he busies himself with his laptop, as if that’s his answer and the conversation is over.

But we both know he hasn’t answered my question at all.

Did you know?

No Dragons Press is available as a podcast!

LISTEN TO EPISODE TWO