The Marvelous March To Completion: The End: Boxes, Letters, and Fireballs.

Dear Reader,

This will be the final post of my Marvelous March to Completion series.  With these two chapters I have linked the two halves of my original draft, which was the major content goal of the past 12 days.  From here on, I will be editing already written pieces for continuity, both of voice and plot.  I appreciate your support, and I hope you have enjoyed this preview of what I hope will be a very successful novel.  If you would like more information, or to keep updated on my journey from here, please be sure to follow my blog, or to like me on Facebook.  I welcome your feedback and suggestions, as I am able to edit my draft even after the submission to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest, which will happen at 6 AM tomorrow morning.

Enjoy the last preview!

eldanecklace1

 

CHAPTER 10

In which the light shine brightest in the dark

The fleeting revelation which the light prisming through the broken warehouse window revealed faded almost as soon as Sebastian saw the letters.  He found that the entire rainbow did not cause the letters to appear, but only a very small sliver, such that he had to wiggle the paper gently back and forth to see even a single word completely.  By the time that first multicolored marker faded he had only see two words: Consciousness and Linkstate.

He thought he recognized the first word.  The second he was sure he misread, but found he couldn’t slide the paper correctly to bring the beginning of the word back into focus, such that he saw a few more random letters, but nothing more.  When the light faded, he pressed off the wall a bit, and nodded down to Roland.

It was the work of several minutes, and several more opportunities for Roland to prevent Sebastian’s untimely falling death, before they stood on the ground again.  Roland cracked the knuckles on one hand and strode a few steps into the open warehouse floor, saying, “OK, so all we have to do is find another rainbow and you can start reading right?  There’ve got to be more!”

Finding another naturally occurring source of that most fragile and beautiful of illuminations had been Sebastian’s first thought as well.  He had even gone so far as to imagine, for only an instant, kicking over the legendary Leprechaun’s Pot of Gold and replacing it with the opened pages of Elda’s book at the end of a proper rainbow.  However, as Roland disappeared into the gloom, Sebastian knew that finding the rainbow had been enough to confirm his suspicions about the book, but actually revealing the secrets for study would require a different technique than chasing sunbeams.  He picked up the discarded tome and folded the torn blank page inside the cover.

He heard Roland, talking to the various patches of illumination he came across as he went, saying things like, “C’mon…don’t you think just one color is boring?” and “Ah…almost…just stretch out a little more…”

He smiled and shook his head, thinking about how ridiculous it was to beg a sunbeam to stretch.  And then, he looked up at the window he had thought was shooting the rainbow into the room itself.  He thought about sunbeams and stretching.  He thought about bending and twisting.  He thought about light, slowly at first and then with an avalanche of speed, in an entirely different way.  Before, light seemed like the ocean to him.  It was just there, and it washed over everything making it wet with its shine.  But a different thought emerged for Sebastian.  He imagined light like a river now, each beam a trickle that could swirl around, conforming to the twists and turns that rock and stone demanded of it.

And then he was moving, running towards the nearest wall, the solution spinning in his head, wild and dangerous and just a little bit insane.  He had to get out.  He hollered as loud as he could, “Roland!  Roland where is the door?  How do I get out?!”

He struck one of the walls and began to feel along quickly, and heard Roland running towards him.  When the older boy reached him, panting a bit, he said, “What’s the matter?  Don’t we have to find another rainbow?”

Sebastian slapped his palm against the wall, “No!  That won’t work.  It won’t ever be enough to read with.  I’ve got to get out of here.  I’ve got to get to Elda’s house!”

Roland who was already moving towards the small broken side door he used to come and go by, said, “C’mon, this way!” and then, as they ran, “Why do you have to go to Elda’s house?  What’s there?”

Sebastian followed along and soon enough found himself standing in the alley on the opposite side of the warehouse than he had fallen through.  He blinked in the open, bright afternoon air.  He felt a small relief that the sun wasn’t nearly as low and dim as the warehouse made it seem.  He realized Roland was still staring at him expectantly, and he said, “I-it’s…It’s complicated and crazy, but I just know it will work!  C’mon, I’ll explain on the way there!”

Roland nodded, and then frowned, “Start running.  No offense, but I’m pretty sure I’ll catch up with you.  I gotta go make sure the lantern is snuffed or else this old warehouse might go up like dry grass.”

Sebastian bobbed his head, and was already thudding down the alley.  By the time he was down the next winding street, his chest was already burning, and his legs felt like lead.  But Elda’s house was more than a mile away, and he couldn’t spare a second.  As he rounded the next corner, almost to the main thoroughfare, he ran headlong into an obstacle he hadn’t thought to account for.

“Well hey there Basty!  We was wondering when you’d come out to play”, Gregor tailor said as he casually extended his hand from the doorway he was lurking in and caught a handful of Sebastian’s hair, jerking the boy to an instant halt that brought him to his knees with a yelp.

It took Sebastian a second or two to register anything more than the sharp pain in his scalp.  And by the time he did, Gregor had used his tight grip on Sebastian’s hair to leverage the boy’s head back so he was staring up at him.  He smiled at Sebastian, and patted his cheek roughly with his free hand, “You’re pretty good at hide’n’find Basty.  Why don’t we go back over into the alleys and you can show me your secrets.  Nobody will ruin the game that way.”

Sebastian reached up and wrapped both hands around Gregor’s thick wrist.  Pulling at it, trying to dislodge his head.  Gregor popped his knee out, landing a glancing blow to Sebastian’s side.  Sebastian gasped and said, “Please Gregor, not now.  I’ve got to go!  There’s something important I have to do!”

Gregor shook Sebastian’s head viciously, “Now that hurts my feelings!  You’ve got something more important to do than teaching me hide’n’find?  I don’t think I wanna be so nice to you anymore, Basty.”

Gregor jerked Sebastian’s head to the left and began to walk down the alley, dragging the struggling boy behind him.  Sebastian flailed his fists against Gregor’s forearm in vain, watching the Elda’s tome grow smaller where it had fallen in the street.  He opened his mouth, knowing nothing else he could do, and screamed, “Help!  Help me!  Please!  Help!”

Sebastian was surprised for a moment when Gregor instantly released his hair, but his hope was just as quickly snuffed out when Roland’s hand closed tightly around his throat, cutting off his pleas into strangled grunts.  Gregor’s fingers dug into Sebastian’s adam’s apple, and the smaller boy kicked weakly as he was lifted into the air.  Gregor, who had almost reached the corner, and the turn into the warren of abandoned or little used warehouses, spun Sebastian roughly around the corner and pinned him to the wall of the alley.

It was then that Sebastian realized that Gregor was along.  Gone were his constant muscle-bound companions.  They must have gotten bored.  But not Gregor.  Gregor was staring into Sebastian’s eyes now with unadulterated hate.  Sebastian realized Gregor hadn’t just bumped into him at the docks.  Gregor was hunting him.  The realization that there was something deeper than teenage cruelty at work, caused Sebastian to struggle harder, shoulders jerking and feet trying to find anything soft he could kick or crush on the bigger youth.  Gregor pushed him up further with the hand on his throat.  Sebastian’s jaw ached and he saw black spots swimming in his vision.

Gregor leaned in close to Sebastian, face hard and cold, and opened his thick lips to whisper something to his captive, when he heard something he had no expected to hear.  A voice behind him called out, “Hey!  Wee-juice!  Put.  Sebastian. Down.”

Gregor turned to look over his shoulder, shocked by the second voice, and even more shocked when he saw Roland Baker, looking like he’d crawled out of a dumpster, but fists clenched and feet planted wide.  And then he felt a sickening pain erupt from that most tender of all areas, and released his grip on Sebastian involuntarily, as the younger boy’s foot finally found a target worth smashing.  Sebastian and Gregor both fell to the ground, one doubled over and moaning, the other coughing and trying to stand.

Sebastian felt hands on his shoulders, and then he was standing and Roland was bent down to look him in the eye, “Whatever you have to do, just go.  You said it yourself.  I’m not afraid of Gregor.  I’d like to find out if he’s afraid of me though.”

Sebastian took one last long look at Roland.  His hair didn’t seem to catch the sunlight in just the same way.  And his shoulders looked bony, not lean.  But his eyes still sparkled, and when he smiled down to Sebastian, he felt a familiar warmth in his stomach.  Things were different, but it was ok.  As he rounded the corner back into the street at a dead run, the last thing he head was Gregor coughing, “C’mon Roland!  I was just joking with him!”

*******

                The metal shrieking of the tall iron gate of Elda’s manor home cut through the delicate melody of Thomas’ violin sonata like a jagged sword.  It was the first warning Elda had that an unexpected visitor had arrived.  The second was a croaking cry from the front yard, “Hi!  Hi-hello!”

Elda stood up quickly from her chair, squinting against the bright afternoon sunlight flooding through her window.  She motioned to Thomas, sitting on the edge of the coffee table with his violin perched expertly under his chin, and he set down his bow with a frown.  Elda moved directly towards the front door, but found even as she reached the hallway that the door slammed inward, and there stood Sebastian Smith, red-faced and puffing like a fish flopping on the deck of a ship.

Elda furrowed her brows and folder her hands primly in front of herself, “Sebastian, hi-hellos are for invited guests.  You can’t simply shout them as a shield for rudeness at your pleasure.”

Sebastian, clutching his book weakly in one arm, and bracing himself on the doorframe with the other, looked up at Elda with a hard look and almost spat the words, “I found the secret writing!”

Elda was still for a moment, and then smirked, a facial expression she rarely indulged in and said, “It’s clever of you to say so.  I imagine you’re hoping I’ll relent and reveal some further information, however…”

Sebastian, still panting, said, “Consciousness.  Linkstate.”

The smile faded from Elda’s face.  She lowered her chin slightly, which had the alarming effect of causing her figure to loom downward, as though she could will herself to become larger.  The first word could have been guessed.  The second word was proof.  She let her clasped hands drop to her side and said, “Sebastian.  Come inside now and close the door.  I do not know who helped you…what…means they used, but I assure you, whoever they are, they are a danger.  One I do not intend to give a dear friend over to so easily.”

Sebastian felt a strange flush in his cheeks at that last sentence.  He stumbled through the door and toed it closed, holding the book with both arms now.  He looked at the window and then back to Elda and shook his head, “Nobody helped me.  Not at all.  I swear.  I discovered the rainbow all on my own.  Well…I mean…with a little luck, but…”

Elda returned narrowed eyes to Sebastian, for she too had been scanning the window with an alert and frightening presence of focus.  She tilted her head, “Rainbow?  What are you talking about?  It isn’t…possible to cause the darklyte ink to appear here.”

Sebastian felt as confused as Elda.  He shook his head, “Darklyte…?  Is that what the hidden letters are written with?”

Elda sighed and simply nodded.

Sebastian stepped forward, voice again tinged with accusation, “So you do know about the hidden pieces of the book!  You were trying to keep them secret!”

Elda, seeming at least somewhat satisfied that Sebastian was not being followed by mysterious villains, gathered her composure once more, and gestured to her parlor, “Come.  Sit.  It seems I will have to exchange my answers for yours.”

Sebastian kept his eyes on Elda as he inched into the room.  He saw Thomas, sitting quietly as he had been when Elda left, the violent balanced lightly on one crossed knee.  Elda waited for Sebastian to take up a seat on the sofa, and then sat herself and said, “Thomas, would you mind letting Sebastian and I talk privately?  I do so hate to interrupt your recital, but…”

Sebastian spoke up loudly, “No!  Thomas has as much right as I do to know what’s really going on.  He helped me get this book anyway.  It’s as much his inheritance as mine.”

Thomas looked between Elda and Sebastian with a vaguely surprised look on his face, which, for the abnormally calm youth was quite an expression of shock.  Sebastian clenched his jaw, raising his head and said, “We don’t have much time.”

Elda shook her head, “Only you would count this late hour as any time left at all.  But…I guess I should know better.  Griot probably should have known better too.  So, tell me how you caused darklyte ink to appear?”

Sebastian set the book down and sat forward, “I told you, it appeared under the light of a rainbow.”

Thomas, who was secretly very happy to have been invited to stay, spoke up now, “Like…from the sky?”

Sebastian shook his head, “No, well, I mean, not exactly.  It was a little rainbow.  The kind that sometimes shines through windows.”

Elda sat forward as well, stroking her chin, “A prism you mean?”

Sebastian shrugged, “Yea, I guess.  But…if you know about the darklyte ink, you have to have some way of making it appear right?”

Elda shook her head, “No.  It…it requires very special conditions to reveal.  Tools that…are lost to me.  Long lost.  What you are saying…it isn’t possible, Sebastian.  Shouldn’t be possible.  You must understand…I never thought you might…”

Sebastian gripped the book again, “But then, you have to have read the book before!  You can just…tell us what it says right?  It could help us to be free.  Please Aunt Elda.  The Dragon was something scary and hard to live with before.  B-but now…now something made him dangerous.  You can’t just stand by and do nothing!”

Elda watched Sebastian again and puffed her cheeks out once and said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I haven’t read anything in darklyte ink in…in years.  Well…since I lost Able in fact, gods rest his soul.  And I never read much anyway.  Able and I…we are…were…collectors.  Not scholars.  I didn’t think I was keeping anything more from the other villagers than false hope.  And now…now it is a burden it pains me to watch you wrestle with.  What good are the darklyte secrets of that book, if you can only read them by chasing the ends of rainbows?  If that were so easy, every farmboy would have a fortune of fairy gold by the time he had hair on his chin.”

Sebastian was quiet for a moment, and he looked to Thomas, who was silently chewing on the exchange.  Sebastian cast his gaze down, to the green jeweled eyes on the cover of the book, which seemed now amused in some way.  Sebastian dreamed while he was running through Hilsbac, that he would arrive, and find Elda a vast wealth of knowledge, and that she would congratulate him on passing another strange barbarian test, and freely offer up the exact information he was seeking.  But that wasn’t ever his plan.

At last, he turned his gaze up to Elda once more, his chin set forward, and he asked, quietly, “If you could help me read the darklyte ink…would you?”

Elda gazed across the room at the small boy and the huge book, her eyes flashing thunderously, as if the intense and clear light Sebastian stared at her flashed lightning into the heart of those stormcloud grey orbs.  She drew in a long breath, and brought one hand to her right temple and said, “That look.  My god…it’s uncanny.  I suppose this may be the first time you’ve ever used it on anyone.”

Sebastian tightened his jaw, his question persisting in the steadiness of his gaze.  Elda leaned back in her chair, and let out a single quick laugh, “We always say it’s impossible till it isn’t I suppose.  And really…” she paused here and looked out the window, “I guess I wanted to see if it could happen again, myself.  That confounding hope.  It really is always the same.”  Elda looked back to Sebastian and smiled, with the warmth he had only so recently realized she was capable of showing, and said, “Alright, Sebastian.  What do you need from me?”

Sebastian felt like he was hovering in midair, his heart so light it might have carried him straight up through the ceiling were it not for the twin weights of time and uncertainty tied firmly around his ankles.  He climbed to his feet and nodded to Elda.  He looked to Thomas, “Will you help too?  This is gonna have to be fast…the light won’t last much longer.”

Thomas set his violin aside and smiled, “You always make things interesting Sebastian.  I’ll put in some hard work if it’ll help you stir up whatever trouble you’ve got planned.”

Sebastian grinned at Thomas and then pushed the tome towards him, “OK, then will you start carefully taking the blank pages out of the back of the book?  Try to get as close to the binding as you can, and don’t tear them.”

Thomas produced a small blade from somewhere on his person, which glittered as he flipped open the book and said, “Whoever thought making a book this heavy was a good idea anyway?”

Elda sat forward with a pained look when she heard Sebastian’s first instruction but restrained herself, instead asking, “And what should I do, Sebastian?”

Sebastian, who was already walking towards the hallway, said, “Do you remember when you had your cousin staying with you for a year?  The one with the two boys my Da liked?”

Elda remembered that it was not the two boys Sebastian’s father liked at all, but rather their scandalously unwed mother.  She simply nodded.  Sebastian caught the edge of the doorway, and paused, leaning back into the room, “Well…remember how my Da made them a miniature house frame, and made them those tiny carpenter’s tools to work on it with?”

Elda’s eyes rolled up towards the ceiling as she thought back, and then said, “Oh, yes.  How could I forget?  One of the boys nearly took a toe off when he stepped on one of those tools one night.  Had to restain all the wood floors upstairs a darker color just to hide the stain.”

Sebastian suddenly regretted all the time he’d spent barefoot on the floors upstairs.  He shook his head to refocus himself and then said, “Well, if you can find me as many of those tools as possible, I’ve got to get something from Theresa.”

Elda nodded, thinking of three places she might have put the tiny weapons away.  As she was moving out the opposite exit, towards the back rooms of the first floor, she heard Sebastian’s voice again call to her, and she turned to find his head once more poking around the corner as he said, “Umm…S-sugar isn’t…out?  Is she?”

Elda frowned, “Who?  Oh…Sugar.  Ha, no dear.  You’re in no danger of running into Sugar again.”

Sebastian looked relieved, and both he and Elda disappeared to be about their jobs as Thomas’ pile of neatly removed darklyte pages steadily grew.

Theresa, who had heard the squeal of the gate, but not felt energetic enough for curiosity, was again laying with her feet propped high on the upstairs sofa.  When Sebastian came banging up the stairs, she tilted her head back, so she watched him pop into the room in reverse, as though he were marching down from the ceiling.  She struggled to sit upright when she recognized him, “Oh!  Sebastian!  You’re back again.  What’re you doing here twice in two days?  Planning of nicking Elda’s hairbrush today?”

Sebastian didn’t even smile at Theresa.  He made his way quickly across the room, and pushed the half-closed door of Theresa’s own bedroom open quickly, saying as he went, “Sorry Theresa, I’m in a hurry.  Do you still have all those letter charts I brought over from my house?”

Theresa raised herself up on her elbows and craned her neck to see Sebastian as he disappeared into her bedroom, “Yes, and hey!  Who told you you had permission to go in my room?”

From her open bedroom door she heard the rustling of objects and Sebastian’s voice, “Where do you keep them?”

Theresa felt a sudden surge of guilt.  The truth was she didn’t much care for the study of letters, she found, and really only kept it up because it meant Sebastian would visit more often, and he was kind and felt safe to her in a way she didn’t quite understand.  As a result, the charts Sebastian had so proudly presented her with were probably exactly where she set them down the first day, untouched until that very moment.  She bit her lip and ventured cautiously, “Umm…try under the bed?”

There were a few more minutes of rustlings, one rather loud thump, and then Sebastian emerged with the charts stacked haphazardly in his arms, pages bent and torn from several months of random debris gathering ontop of them.  As he walked briskly back towards the stairs, Sebastian said, “Gee, it was nice of you to put them back in exactly the same order I told you to read them in…”

Theresa winced a little and mumbled something like an apology, then called out quickly, “Hey!  Sebastian wait!  You forgot that shirt you brought over the other day when you left.  I tried it on but it doesn’t fit well at all.  Plus, it smells like it hasn’t been washed in a month.  Where did you even get this thing?”

Sebastian turned and saw Theresa brandishing Roland’s light blue shirt in one hand, holding it away from her like she would a sack of garbage.  He looked at it dangling there, looking rumpled and soiled.  He could just barely recall what it looked like when he had first come across it in the dust of the back room of the Baker’s Shop.  He smiled, “Hang onto it for a little while ok?  I don’t have time to take care of it right now.”

Theresa sighed and pointedly let the garment drop in a heap on the floor beside the sofa.  She shook her head, feeling a sudden wave of nausea set in along with a particularly rowdy kick from inside her stomach.  She laid back down and said, “Well, don’t get into too much trouble, ok?”

Sebastian nodded and tripped his way down the stairs with the bulky charts in hand.  When he reached the parlor again he saw that Thomas had nearly finished removing the blank pages from the tome, and that Elda had laid out a variety of miniature tools on the coffee table nearby.

He dumped the charts unceremoniously on the floor and knelt among them.  Elda winced again, though no one noticed.  Thomas looked over from his work and asked, “Those charts you gave Theresa a few months back?  They didn’t seem to do her any good.  She reads terribly.  You think they’ll help us decode mystery language on dragons?”

Sebastian shook his head vigorously and picked up one chart.  He quickly unhinged a bent metal strip at the top of the chart, causing the pages to fall free of a thin wooden board below.  He held up the board and said, “My Da made these for my…er…his wife when she first got here, to keep the pages blowing away.  We’ll use these to make the box with.”

Thomas looked at the boards and frowned, “Box?”

Sebastian looked over to Elda and said, “Also, can I have a teacup and a black cloth if you have it?”

Elda snorted and shrugged, “Anything you need.”

Sebastian began to liberate his father’s rectangular boards from their contents one by one.  When he had six boards free, he began to bend the metal strips on each one into specific angles.  He laid them out on the floor in a row as Elda returned with the teacup and a shawl that was a deep red.  She offered both to Sebastian and said, “I didn’t have anything black on hand.  Will dark cloth suffice?”

Sebastian nodded, not speaking now as he knelt by the coffee table with teacup in hand and picked up a miniature version of a two handled lumberjack saw.  Quickly, and with only a little difficulty he popped the two wooden handles on either side off, so that only the jagged, flexible metal remained.  He looked at the bottom of the teacup and nodded, then carefully picked up the tiny saw blade and laid it on one of the boards, teeth down, bending it quickly into a small hoop.  He then quickly pressed the teacup onto the hoop before it could unwind, and pressed down on the cup with both hands and the weight of his shoulders as well.

With a small grunt, Sebastian began to twist his entire torso back and forth, pressing down and concentrating.  Elda felt irritation turn into clawing anxiety as Sebastian hefted himself time and again onto a delicate teacup, which was sitting on sharp metal, that was pointed at her heavy wood floors.  She couldn’t imagine a way this effort ended well for her, and just as she was about to stop Sebastian, he leaned back and held up the board.  She watched a small round circle pop suddenly free of the board, and Sebastian’s eye peered through.  He laughed, “It did work!”

Elda, who had seen more of the world that Sebastian and his friends knew existed, was flummoxed.  She watched Sebastian snag a sheet of the darklyte paper and put it against the newly punctured board.  He adjusted it several times, then repositioned that cup on a new space and set about replicating the entire grisly process.  When he finished, he had a board with two holes punched neatly in it.

Elda and Thomas sat back now, watching as over the next half hour Sebastian worked with a singular clarity of vision that nevertheless remained a complete mystery to them both.  At one point, as Sebastian stacked the boards together, Thomas leaned over to Elda and said quietly, “Oh, I see, it’s a box!”

However, as Elda shot him a sidelong glance, they both realized how simple and insightless there observations were, and they came to the silent agreement to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Finally, Sebastian sat back, having built a small box, with two holes on one long side.  He looked over and said, “Sorry that took so long…”

Elda and Thomas both nodded in what they thought was either an understanding or impressed way.  Sebastian brushed his hands on his knees and then got up and walked over to Elda.  He looked a little squeamish for a moment and then said, “Sorry but…I have to ask you for one more favor.”

Elda inclined her head, and Sebastian blurted out, “I need your necklace.”

Elda reached up to clasp the enormous faceted jewel that was a constant accent to her attire.  She looked down at the stone.  It was a simple thing really, unadorned save for a small metal clamp that allowed the heavy rock to be suspended by a thin silver chain.  She smiled, “I suppose so, but I must warn you, no matter what you might think about me and my intentions, I promise that this necklace has no hidden magical properties.”

Sebastian smiled, “Well, I wasn’t counting on magic.  It’s just that…well…I think it’s right that a prism rainbow gets created when light hits glass or something clear like glass at just the right angle.  When I realized that the only way to read the hidden words was in a rainbow, I knew I couldn’t spend time running around Hilsbac looking for glass at just the right angle.  And then I thought about finding a piece of glass that bent or curved, and might have more than one angle, which would stand more of a chance of making a rainbow appear.  That’s when I thought of your necklace.  It’s got the most angles out of anything I know about.  I’m just hoping it works…”

Elda slipped the necklace from around her neck and handed it to Sebastian, saying without thinking, “Well, you know, my dear husband Able, gods rest his soul, brought me this necklace from…”

But Sebastian had turned immediately from her once she passed him the necklace and quickly began fitting the large gem against one of the holes, wedging it in with a slight crackling of wood.  He stretched the long hoop of the chain around the box, then wound it tight and knotted it so the gem held itself in place.  Thomas looked at the box with dawning understanding at last and said, “So you’ll shine the sun through the gem, and use the other hole to look inside, and hopefully a rainbow appears inside.”

Sebastian nodded, picking up the red cloth and winding it around the four sides, leaving the front with the hole and the back panel exposed.  He patted the box, “And this is to keep too much regular light from getting in the cracks.”

Sebastian picked up the first blank page, which Thomas has kept neatly in order, and worked it gently through a crack he had left in the seams of the back panel.  Soon enough the page was in place, and he bent down and looked through the hole, seeing the crisp white paper plainly.  He stood up and motioned to Thomas, “Help me carry this outside so we can get the best sun.”

Thomas moved quickly, every bit as gentle as Sebastian was.  They took the delicate box out the front steps, and decided ultimately to head outside the manor wall, for the sun was low enough that it was beginning to cast a long shadow on the yard side.  Thomas held the box in both hands, as Sebastian knelt down so that his shadow wouldn’t fall on the gem.  He leaned forward and pressed his eye to the open hole.  Without a word, he began to press Thomas’ hands back and forth and up and down.  Suddenly, he shouted, “Right there!”

Thomas and Elda held their breath.

Slowly, with a faltering voice, Sebastian read aloud, “Articles…o-of Information as set down by the…First R..R…R….umm…Rai..l-leean?  Raileean Council for the ses…kes…Cessation of Velkyn Hostilities”

Sebastian leaned back from the hole and cried, “It works!  It’s there!  It’s even better than I thought!  T-the rainbow light kinda…bounces around and makes a glow so it shines almost a whole page!”

Elda walked over and nodded, “May I?”

Sebastian nodded, helping Elda to kneel as he had.  She too adjusted Thomas until she gasped all at once and then sat backwards, flat on her skirt in the dirt.  She looked up at Sebastian, “You really did it.  Just like that.  In a single day.”

Sebastian frowned, “I haven’t done anything yet!  I still have to find something useful to bring up before the council tonight!”

Elda sighed, picking herself off the ground, and noticed only briefly how alien that motion felt to her now.  Sebastian was already back at the hole, adjusting Thomas, who of course had no interest in looking himself because he hadn’t seen fit to learn letters.  Elda reached out a hand to Sebastian but paused as he read aloud once more, “This document serves as a legal record of all relevant information available to the primary member states of the Raileean Accords.  It details both the naturally occurring elements of Dragons and the alterations made through the Compacts of Arn, as implemented by The Wizard’s Intervention of 497.”

Sebastian paused to readjust the box, bringing the prismatic light into sharper focus on the next section of darklyte text.  Elda placed her hand on his shoulder quickly and said, “Sebastian…what you did…it’s incredible.  But…there is so much information to go through…and even if you happened to find something relevant, how on Earth will you convince anyone at the Choosing to act on your information?  The sun will have long set, and you’ll have nothing but a blank page to wave at them.  I…just don’t want you to give up if you can’t save the next maiden that is chosen.  Or the next ten.  What you achieved…”

Sebastian straightened up and looked back at Elda, finishing her thought, “…was impossible?”

Elda drew her hand back and nodded.  Sebastian looked into the descending sunlight, shielding his face from the glare for a minute.  He spoke, still staring at the horizon, “No offense, but I think I’m gonna keep reading for a while anyway, and decide what to do about the Choosing when I don’t have any more light to read by.  I made a deal with somebody earlier that I’d keep trying no matter what, because if I stop now, things will turn out the same as if I try and fail anyhow.  I guess if one of my sisters is chosen…and I have to go to the feast they throw in her honor, and say goodbye for the last time, I’d like it to be because it was the only thing left to do, not because it was the only thing I tried to do at all.”

Elda turned, without a word, and walked back past her iron gate and into her house then.  Sebastian was already back at the box by the time she was gone.  However, a few moments later, he looked up when he heard the squeak of the gate once more, and saw Elda, the blank pages cradled in her arms, walking back across the yard.  She handed them to Sebastian and said, as she turned again to go, “Thank you, Sebastian.”

Sebastian looked up from the armful of blank pages, “For what?”

Elda smiled at him, “Not listening.”

 

CHAPTER 11

In which Fireballs prove far less effective than expected

As the careful reader may have already gleaned, over the course of his recent adventures, Sebastian had made several intuitive and brilliant discoveries, which though he did not fully understand, he still used to great effect.  For instance, you and I can quite readily identify the secret which caused the darklyte ink to glow under the light of a prism.  In our world we have words such as “ultraviolet radiation” and we understand that light is a wave, whose lengths stretch much farther that our eyes can see.  However, Sebastian would be considered very clever whether or not he believed the ink glowed because of the rainbow or because of invisible light shining beside the rainbow.  The result was, after all the same.

I wanted go to the trouble of mentioning Sebastian’s clever deeds so far, even though I am sure you remember them quite well, because in a moment, dear reader, honesty will demand that I report to you an outcome to Sebastian’s noble endeavors to learn the secrets of the Dragon which may be quite disappointing if you are not remembering as best you can how smart Sebastian has already proven himself to be.

What Sebastian discovered as he slowly made his way through the Articles of Information was that he was very lucky to be able to pronounce every word in a sentence, much less understand them.  There were lots of little words he knew quite well.  But all they seemed to do was string together bigger unfamiliar words like ‘Fae-Transitive Quadrarunes’ and ‘Free Radiative Thought Genesis Matrix’.

There were diagrams as well, but they were of complex symbols set into complex interwoven circles, or what seemed to be specific dragon internal organs, all of which were labeled with a type of angular lettering that Sebastian had never seen anything like before.  To the credit of Sebastian’s eyes and Thomas’ posture, the pair made it through a remarkable fifty-four and one-half pages before the light of the sun was so low that even with the box resting directly on the ground only the bloody red glow of the sunset would shine through the jewel.

In our story so far, Sebastian and his friends have always, in the end, come to surprising and remarkable conclusions which defy the laws of the probable and stretch the limits of the plausible.  However, in this story, as in the real world which you and I share, there are times when even the most incredible efforts, undertaken with courage and selflessness, cannot stop terrible things from happening.  Sebastian and Thomas sat side by side in the grass outside Elda’s iron gate, Sebastian’s impossible box resting between them, and watched the sky overhead slowly darkening, as though the setting sun were pulling a shade over the sky as it went to sleep.  Both of them knew something terrible would happen soon, and the comfort of having tried to do something to stop it was a bitter substitute for having stopped it afterall.

Sebastian dug a finger into the dirt, forming a crude copy of one of the most used of the foreign letters in the yard.  He sighed, “I feel like…there’s something there.  Something important.  If I could just fit it together better.”

Thomas sighed, resting back on his hands and staring up at the center of the sky, eyes searching for the first faint stars, “It sounded like one of my father’s trade table talks.  All those…different organizations.  Accords, and unions, and states.  I hadn’t ever heard of any of them.  And all of them getting together to talk about dragons.”

Sebastian looked out at the red glow fading slowly to pink as the sun finally slipped out of view entirely.  The Choosing would begin very soon.  He would have to leave, and Thomas too, if they wanted to be there for the ceremony.  And of course, who would want to be at the ceremony?  But they both knew they would go.  Sebastian punched his dirt symbol, “It was weird.  It was like…they weren’t talking about how to get rid of dragons, or how to…to…kill them or anything.  It almost sounds like they were trying to change them.”

Thomas nodded, “Or control them.”

Sebastian sighed, “But nothing else made sense.  Half the stuff sounded made up, and the other half sounded like stuff out of a fairy tale.”

Thomas leaned his head back further, “I did hear the word Fae a lot…now that you mention it.  What do fairies have to do with dragons?  I mean, fairies aren’t real.”

Sebastian shrugged, “I guess I can’t believe that for sure anymore.  I mean…maybe in the countries where this book came from there are fairies all over the place?”

Thomas laughed, “And unicorns and vampires too.”

Sebastian almost laughed himself, but the foul feeling of failure leeched the joy from him.  He glowered at the ground, “The word exchange showed up a lot.  But…we already know about exchanges with dragons.”

Thomas snorted, “More like tributes.  Or taxes.  An exchange is something where both sides give something up to get something they didn’t have before.  Goes both ways.  What does the Dragon give to Hilsbac?”

Sebastian shook his head, “I don’t know.  Safety I guess.  He doesn’t kill us?”

Thomas rolled his eyes, “That sounds a lot like how exchanges work with my father.”

Sebastian looked up and realized full darkness was coming on fast now.  He stood up, brushing dirt and grass from his pants, and said, “C’mon.  We better start walking if we want to get there by the time the Council is over and the Choosing begins.”

Thomas looked miserable when he stood up.  He looked at Sebastian, “What do you think Lydia is thinking right now?”

Sebastian was embarrassed to admit that in all of his worrying he had almost completely neglected to spare any strife for Lydia.  He realized why when his response was, “Probably figuring out which kind of punch is most likely to knock out a dragon.”

A grin split Thomas’ face and he nodded, “Yeah.”  He turned back towards Elda’s house and suddenly took off at a trot towards the gate.

Sebastian called out, “Hey, where are you going?”

Thomas turned back halfway, his eyes lowered to the ground.  He spoke even more quietly than usual when he said, “L-Lydia and I have…this promise.  That’s all.”

Sebastian immediately asked, “What promise?”

Thomas inched towards the gate and rubbed one finger under his nose and sniffed, then said, “Nothing.  It’s pretty stupid I guess.  If Lydia ever gets chosen, I’m supposed to bring my violin and play her the knight’s ballad…you know?  It’ll make it seem like she’s going to face the Dragon not getting sacrificed.  At least she says so.  And…I guess tonight it feels important.  OK?  Just wait a minute.”

Without another word Thomas disappeared into the house and Sebastian was left thinking about what final fond farewell he could possibly give to anyone he knew.  He felt suddenly guilty that he’d never asked Lily or Gretchen if they wanted anything…if the worst should happen.  He dug the toe of one shoe into the gravel path below, staring at the little swirls in the pebbles.

“Sebastian.”

Elda’s voice came from so close he startled, almost striking her with his head as he whipped it upward.  She was standing almost on top of him, dressed now in a simple evening dress, with a white shawl wrapped around her shoulders.  It clung to her frame, and as nearly as he could see, had no hoops or ruffles or enormous bows at all.  It was the most plain he had ever seen Elda look.  She looked almost young in the twilight.  He realized he was staring and said, “Oh…uh…Thomas and I were just about to leave, don’t worry.”

Elda shook her head, “That’s not why I’m here.  I wanted to give you something, and send you on an errand, if I can.”

Sebastian frowned, “The Choosing will begin very soon.  I know they have the Council beforehand…to discuss that changes I guess.  But I don’t think I have time.”

Elda held out her hand, and in it Sebastian saw a small, plain white envelope, sealed with a wax seal.  Eventually, as Elda continued to extend her hand to him, Sebastian reached out and accepted the letter.  Elda smiled, “This letter is addressed to Griot Graybeard.  I know you overheard what he said about you, and about the book.  But I’m afraid that he is the only hope you have now of understanding the information you’ve discovered, and of convincing the other villagers to act on that knowledge.”

Sebastian scowled, “I heard Griot talking.  He didn’t want me to have the book, because he was afraid I’d try to save people!  He doesn’t want to stop the Dragon at all.  I think he wants us to keep right on sending girls out until all of them are dragon snacks.”

Elda shook her head, “I don’t think that’s his plan.  Or, even if it is, I think it would distress him every bit as much as it would you.  I do know that he has read that book he wanted me to keep from you, darklyte secrets and all.  Or else he has come by the same information from a different source.  He can at least tell you the truth.”

Sebastian looked down at the letter in his hands and said, “But how can I convince him to help me when he already said he wanted to stop me doing exactly what I’m doing?”

Elda put a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder, “You know, I’ve had that dragon book longer than you’ve been alive.  It’s had darklyte ink in it every day.  And every day I was absolutely convinced that making it appear was impossible.  Until today.”

Sebastian snorted and Elda patted his shoulder, stepping back, “Take my letter, it will help.  And take your…contraption.  That should at least catch his attention.  The rest…?”

Elda shrugged as she turned to go.  Sebastian looked at the letter, and the box on the ground.  The unfamiliar words from the secret pages swam in his mind, and he imagined trying to get Griot Graybeard to explain them more clearly.  And then he thought about never figuring them out at all, which is why when Thomas emerged from the house again, bow freshly rosined and violin tuned, he found Sebastian cramming all of the blank pages into the box via a removed back panel.  Thomas jogged over and asked, “What’re you doing?”

Sebastian looked up at Thomas, now quickly reaffixing the back panel to the paper-stuffed reading box, and said, “Elda gave me a letter for Griot.  She thinks he might help me understand what all those made-up sounding words in the book mean, especially if he sees my box!”

Thomas pursed his lips, “Don’t you think it’s a little late for that now?”

Sebastian stood up, balancing the box precariously, “I’ll see you at the Choosing!”

Thomas watched Sebastian half-run, half-stagger away down the darkened path into the city, and began a slower walk himself, softly plucking out the notes to A Knight’s Ballad with his fingers as he went.

*******

Night had fallen in earnest by the time Sebastian reached the farthest edges of the merchant camp in town.  Though no moon had yet risen, the black sky was already a sea of starlight.  Sebastian passed each small encampment quickly.  The field felt deserted, most of the tradesmen gone into town, to work, or drink, or gawk at the unusual spectacle afforded by the Choosing.  There were only a few murmurs of sound nearby as Sebastian finally brought Griot’s unmistakable red and gold painted cart into view.

It was well known that the peddler preferred his privacy, and parked his garish wagon at the highest, furthest point he could.  Of course, some people speculated that his choice of lodging had less to do with unwanted neighbors, and more to do with the way children in the village, from a fair number of streets and windows, could look out and see that wonderful wagon, tempting their mischievous hearts and their parents coinpurses night and day with its various wares.  Whatever the true reason was, by the time he reached the top of that hill, Sebastian was cursing Griot’s name.

As he approached the wagon, he called out loudly, “Graybeard!  Sere Graybeard!  It’s Sebastian Smith, I need to talk to you!”

There was a loud clattering noise from the back of the wagon, and Sebastian heard a hatch slam closed, or open.  He shifted the reading box in his hands and rolled his eyes impatiently, calling again, “Please Sere Graybeard!  It’s important.”

From the back of the cart, Sebastian heard a voice call, “Sebastian Smith?  Is that you?”

Sebastian thought Griot sounded a little different and hoped he hadn’t followed in his own father’s inebriated footsteps.  He shifted the reading box awkwardly into one arm, fishing Elda’s letter out of his pants pocket with the other, and tapping his foot as he waited.  Soon enough a figure appeared around the large rear wheel of the cart.  Sebastian realized immediately it wasn’t the peddler himself when the first thing he saw was the brightest, wildest mop of orange red hair he had ever seen.  There had been a dancing woman in a gypsy caravan that had stayed in Hilsbac for a month when he was young, and he remembered her red hair and how unusual it looked.  But this wasn’t the rusty color worn by the dancing girl.  This was the color of the ripest orange fruits in the marketplace.  It almost glowed in the starlight.  Sebastian found he was just staring as the man approached.

When he got closer, the man, who looked to Sebastian to be very young, shifted a bundle of sticks he had in one arm.  He was older perhaps than Roland, but not by more than a handful of winters.  He smiled broadly at Sebastian and sighed loudly, as if he were suddenly awash in contentment, “Sebastian Smith at last.”

Sebastian held Elda’s letter tighter, as he asked, “D-do I know you?”

The red-haired youth’s smile got wider, and he said, “Me?  Oh no, not at all.  You’re that dragon kid though right?”

Sebastian looked surprised, “I…I…ummm”

The youth shifted the bundle of sticks he had in his arm and put his free hand on his hip, “Sure you are.  Sebastian Smith, I was worried I wouldn’t recognize you.  But there you are, same skinny softie.  Still got the sweetest, dumbest eyes you ever did see.  Shame about your hair though.  That’s a disappointment.  I was wondering if it would give off colored smoke.”

Sebastian took a step backwards and shook his head, “I’m sorry?  What are you talking about?  Who are you?”

The red-haired youth snorted, then chuckled, and then broke down into a full on laugh, deep in his belly.  He wiped the corner of one eye and said, “You know, I didn’t know it would be the best part, but honestly nothing makes me happier than the thought that you will never know the answer to that question.”

Sebastian was about to call out for Griot again, a strange sensation tickling him at the base of his spine, making him feel anxious.  He looked away from the strange man to the cart behind him, and then back down the hill toward the other merchant camps, looking to see if perhaps Griot, or anyone really, was milling around below.  He saw no one.

He turned his head back to the red-haired youth, and didn’t quite understand what he saw.  The youth had raised his arm in Sebastian’s direction, and at first Sebastian thought he had somehow produced a lantern, for his hand was obscured by a flickering flame.  But the flame had no housing, and was much larger than Sebastian had seen a lantern flame be.  It was more like a torch, but blazing directly on the palm of the stranger, as if his arm had been set alight at the hand.  Without thinking, Sebastian hefted the reading box and stumbled forward, saying, “Sere!  Your arm!  Lemme help you!”

And then Sebastian found himself sitting, quite unexpectedly, on the ground, legs sprawled awkwardly around him, hands slack and resting in the dirt below.  He blinked twice, the world shaking back and forth at the edges on his vision in a way that made him feel queasy.  He didn’t know why he was sitting.  He didn’t remember sitting down.  In fact, he didn’t remember anything that came before sitting.  He slowly lowered his head, realizing it hurt badly, and that his ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton.  He tried to lift his hand to pull the cotton out of his ears, but found the limb felt like it was made of lead, so that he simply flailed it uselessly up and down a few time, before letting it fall again with a thud.

It was the sudden searing pain in that flopping hand that brought reason and memory back to Sebastian.  He yelped and quickly drew his hand backward, the heaviness in his limbs lightening now.  He looked down, to see what had burned him, and saw the he was sitting in what seemed to be a ring of charred wood, glowing embers, and fine gray ash.  For a moment that seemed to stretch on forever to him, but was actually the work of a single second’s time, Sebastian wrestled with why his heart felt so saddened by the ashes.  And then the truth flooded in like a rush of cold air.

He was sitting in all that remained of his reading box, and of the precious pages stored inside.

Sebastian felt a sob choke out of his lungs.  His mind bounced around in his skull, frantically trying to piece reality back together.  How could this happen?  He ran his fingers aimlessly through the fine powder which must have once been those precious darklyte pages, until at last the image of the stranger with his hand on fire came back to him.  He remembered rushing to help him, and then that fire seemed to move, all on its own.  It grew suddenly bigger, until it was bigger than Griot’s wagon, and rushed forward, away from the man, and directly into Sebastian.

Sebastian looked up at last, unsure what could have become of the strange man.  He saw immediately that the man was standing just where he had been, though he had a look of anger on his features now, not smug satisfaction.  The man had begun to gesture frantically with his hands, in a way that Sebastian thought would have made sense if his hand was still on fire, but the man was flameless now.  The youth paused and pointed at Sebastian, clearly shouting now, but to Sebastian the world was still moving slowly and the sound of the youth’s rage was like a distant thunder, barely rumbling around Sebastian.

In his shock-addled state, Sebastian’s mind was drawn back again to his despair at the fate of his reading box.  He pressed his hands into the ashes once more, and found he didn’t mind the pain the little embers still burning on the fragments of his father’s chartboards left on his fingers and palms.  And then the same searing pain ignited in one of his hands again, as if he’d touched liquid fire, and he when he looked down this time, he caught sight of a smudged but still glittering multi-faceted gem half buried in the debris.  It was Elda’s necklace, the key ingredient that had made his darklyte revelation possible.  He felt a sudden surge of hope, and immediately tried to pick the gem up, but discovered beyond doubt that the heavy rock was the source of the searing pain.  He glared at the necklace as if it had betrayed him, and only then noticed that the jewel seemed to flicker with a light it had not possessed before.  He looked closer, fascinated now, and saw that trapped inside the jewel, flickering from facet to facet, was what looked to be a tiny but impossibly bright firefly, which buzzed angrily from surface to surface.  Sebastian watched it until it began pressing ceaselessly against a pane of the gem’s surface pointed at the starry sky above.

The screaming of the man suddenly became clear to Sebastian once more, and drew his attention back to him.  He was laughing again, and Sebastian saw that his palm was once again on fire, and could make out his words, if only barely, screaming, “Even in a starving world, I can kill you!  I can!”

A moment came then of simple clarity, and with the casual ease he might flip over a seashell, Sebastian nudged Elda’s burning jewel so that the bulging star trying to escape was pointing not at the sky but straight ahead towards the strange youth.  He watched in absolute stillness as, with a sound like cracking glass, that tiny star tore free from the gem at last, erupting with bitter fury in a rush of wind and heat.  It blossomed up and forward, growing once again until Sebastian could see nothing but gleaming flames.  And then it rushed on, becoming dimmer as it flew upward into the night sky, until all was dark once more.

Sebastian looked around Griot’s campsite but realized the man had disappeared entirely.  In the back of his mind, he could almost hear one pained scream echoing around the enormous ball of fire, but he pushed that thought down and away, and with it the night sky and the cold air and the feeling of hopelessness that was rising in his throat.  He closed his eyes, and thought only of his relief that it was over.

The next sensation Sebastian felt was an uncomfortable hardness underneath his head.  He winced, unwilling to open his eyes, though the persistent ache grew stronger.  He heard a voice, from far away, repeating a single word over and over, “No. No, no, no, no, no!”

He wished it would be silent.  He was so tired.  He might have asked them to be quiet, if he had the energy to move his mouth.

And then a weight was laid onto his chest, and it ached as well.  With a great effort he split the veil of his eyelids and shifted his head so that he could look down at his chest.  He was a tangled, matted mass of gray fur resting there.  Or, not fur, but hair.  Wiry gray hair.  He felt curiosity, followed by disgust, followed by a the cool night scene of Griot’s camp rushing back into his mind as his chest expanded sharply in a gasping cough, which cause the figure of Griot himself, who Sebastian realized was huddled close to him, to stumble back, and holler, “Alive!  Oh gods, alive!”

Sebastian struggled to sit up, the events of the past few minutes now quickly aligning in his mind, but the aching in his limbs still made sluggish frustration the only emotion he could feel.  With some effort he came up to his elbows, and looked at Griot, mumbling, “Griot?  W-what happened?”

Griot was looking up to the sky, and it was then that Sebastian noticed he had both his hands raised, palms open to the stars, and that his wrists were tied together by the thick rope used on ships to tie sails in place.  If anything, the peddler looked even more haggard than he usually did.  He then looked down at Sebastian with a sudden ferocity, his eyes burning like coals deep within the folds of skin and tufts of thick hair that covered his face.  He sighed and smiled, “Oh my dear boy.  I was certain I had lost you.”

Sebastian felt like there was something important he really should talk to Griot about, but instead he said, “There was a man.  He…his arm was on fire.  I…I wanted to help…”

Griot brandished his bound arms and frowned, “I have been that man’s prisoner since I returned from Elda’s tea yesterday.  He ambushed me as I was emptying my chamber pot.”  Griot paused and brought all ten of his fingers up to stroke at his beard absently and said, “Though I suppose thinking back on it, it might have been far worse had he imprisoned me with the unemptied pot instead.”

Sebastian, upon registering the reason behind Griot’s state, scrambled to his knees and immediately began to struggle with the heavy knots around the peddlers writs.  He found that similar rope was tied securely around Griot’s knees and ankles as well.  He realized that Griot must have rolled out of wherever he was being held and crawled over to him after he fainted.  As he worked, Griot looked down at him and said, “But whatever happened to the man, I wonder?”

Sebastian tugged viciously at one knots and said, “I…I don’t know.  The fire…I think he could control it.  And…and he knew who I was and said he wanted to kill me.  He tried to burn me up but Elda’s necklace…”

At the mention of the necklace, the memory of the box finally bobbed to the surface of Sebastian’s clouded memory and he Griot’s ankles unceremoniously and began to sift through the horrible ash they were both crawling around in.  He moaned as he lifted the two broken halves of Elda’s stone, no icy cold, and knew that the reading box was truly and utterly destroyed.  He tossed the halves at the ground and cried, “Now it’s hopeless!”

It was Griot’s turn to be confused, and he asked again, even as he began to work the rope free from his own ankles, “First things first.  What happened to the man?”

Sebastian picked up one of the cracked pieces of necklace and sighed miserably, “Elda’s necklace…it…it somehow made the fire he was using…go backwards at him.  Like…like a reflection.  The fire must have swallowed him up.  I didn’t see him again.”

Griot frowned, “But whatever were you doing with Elda’s necklace?  I can’t imagine she gave it to you willingly.”

Sebastian sniffed, “She gave it to me because I needed it for my Box…my reading box.  So that I could make the darklyte ink appear.”

Griot’s breath sucked in sharply and he gripped Sebastian’s shoulder, “Where did you hear that word?  What ink?!”

Sebastian looked up, staring steadily at Griot as he said, “You know what ink.  It was the ink in the book on dragons you asked Elda to hide from me in your letter.”

Griot narrowed his eyes, “And Elda gave you the book?  Told you of the darklyte ink?”

Sebastian shook his head, “No…I…I stole the book.  She caught me, but she said I earned it.  She didn’t tell me about the ink either, well…I mean…when I told her I found it she told me the name.  But I found it all by myself.  I worked hard to make it show up.”

Griot shook his head, “But how?  It isn’t possible without the light of an aetherstone.”

Sebastian shook the piece of Elda’s necklace at Griot and said, “Elda said it wasn’t possible anyway.  But I found out it was.  If you shine a rainbow on it…a prism, like sometimes comes through glass in the afternoon, the letters show up plain.”

Griot stared at Sebastian for a long moment, and then burst out laughing.  He continued for a long minute, and then clapped his hand on the boy’s shoulder, “In only a day!  Centuries of secrecy laid bare in a day!  Remarkable!”

Sebastian closed his eyes and dropped the sharp, saying quietly, “It doesn’t matter now.  The man’s fire…it…it destroyed the box, and Elda’s necklace…and…and all the darklyte pages from the book.  They were cut out and put inside.  Elda sent me here…to talk to you.  To ask you for help.”

Sebastian looked around suddenly, and caught sight of the edge of a white envelope just a few feet away.  It must have been blown out of his hand and escaped the flames.  He crawled over and retrieved the letter, wax seal still unbroken.  He handed it to Griot, “She wrote you a letter.  She said it would help.”

Griot was absently touched the ash below, aware now of its previous life as secret filled book pages.  When Sebastian handed him the letter, he nodded silently and broke open the seal, unfolding the paper held within.  He began to read and Sebastian stood up, brushing the tragic ash off of him as best he could and said, “Elda thought you could help me make sense of some of the words I read this afternoon, and that maybe we could come up with a way to stop the Dragon.”

Griot looked up from the letter, and asked, “Is that what you want to do Sebastian?  Stop the Dragon?  Kill it?”

Sebastian felt a flush in his cheeks at Griot’s question, and he clasped his hands behind his back and shook his head, “I…I don’t know if I could kill the Dragon.  I guess I just thought if we could understand it…him…then maybe we could find a way to protect everyone.”

Griot folded Elda’s letter back into the envelope and case as sidelong glance to Sebastian, “Everyone?  Even the Dragon?”

Sebastian looked up at Griot, surprised at his question.  He thought for a long moment and then said, “I guess I never thought the Dragon…might need protecting.”

Griot made a deep harum in his throat and nodded, “It would be easy to think that he doesn’t.”

Sebastian scooped up a handful of ashes and said, “In the book…the darklyte parts at least, I didn’t understand a lot.  But it didn’t sound like the people who wrote it wanted to kill dragons.  It sounded like they were trying to…change them…or communicate with them.  If the book had that kind of information in it, why would you try and keep it secret?  Especially if you think the Dragon needs protecting anyway.”

Griot smiled, “Let me ask you another question.  When I found you in the alley yesterday…what were Gregor and his gang doing?”

Sebastian scoffed, “Getting ready to beat me up.”

Griot shook his head, “Before that.”

Sebastian frowned, “They…they caught this woman.  The woman who helped the Professor that was supposed to save Milly.  They were going to kill her, or at least hurt her really bad I think.”

Griot nodded, “And why were they going to hurt or kill her?”

Sebastian thought for a moment, “I guess because they were angry that Milly was dead.”

Griot held up a finger, “Ah, but you made an excellent point to Gregor if I recall.  Why weren’t they trying to do something about the Dragon himself?  He was the real problem afterall.”

Sebastian furrowed his brow, “Well I guess because they knew they couldn’t do anything about the Dragon, but they could do something about the girl.”

Griot smiled, “Yes, precisely.  They had no idea how to hurt the Dragon, and so they decided to settle for hurting someone smaller and weaker.”

Sebastian pursed his lips, “But that’s my point!  You’ve been coming for years to the village!  If you could have just told everyone about the dragon book, then they might’ve known something to do about the Dragon!”

Griot continued to smile, “And what would they have done about the Dragon?”

Sebastian threw up his hands, “Stopped it from hurting anybody else, the same as I wanted to!”

Griot shook his head, “No, they wouldn’t have tried to stop the Dragon to protect anyone.  Were they protecting anyone by trying to hurt that girl in the alley?”

Sebastian stopped, and looked at the ground, a realization dawning, “No…no they wanted to get revenge for Millicent.”

Griot sighed, “Yes, they wanted revenge.  And if they had the knowledge and resource they would have used them for nothing but revenge.  Knowledge can be used to conquer fear Sebastian, but it can also be used to empower it.”

Sebastian looked down at his feet, “So you didn’t want the village to…just kill the Dragon?”

Griot nodded, “Or to control or enslave it.”

Sebastian thought a moment and then said, “But…you said you agree with Elda that it was impossible to make the darklyte ink appear.  So why wouldn’t you want us to find the book?  I read the regular pages.  They didn’t say anything really useful.”

Griot sighed, finally bringing himself to a stand, though Sebastian moved to steady him when his long unused legs wobbled, as he said, “Sebastian, if you had brought that book forward.  Or Elda herself, or anyone at all, the villagers probably would have been very grateful, at first.  Because, at first, it would seem like it was a perfect way to drive away their fear.  But when it failed to help.  When it proved useless, their fear would come back, stronger even than before.  And then, you or Elda, and very likely both, could very well have found yourselves in exactly the position that poor woman found herself in with Gregor.  You would become nothing more than the outlet for the anger and pain they couldn’t poor out on the real problem.”

Sebastian looked down, feeling suddenly very foolish for how suspicious he had been of Griot.  He also felt foolish for believing that he could change the history of his village with a few pages from a book, and he kicked at the ash pile with his toe and said, “I…I’m sorry Griot.  I guess I almost messed it all up again.”

Sebastian felt Griot’s hand on his shoulder, and looked up to find his bearded face very close to his own as he said, “There is nothing to apologize for Sebastian Smith.  What you did is…well…it’s absolutely incredible.  Darklyte ink revealed with nothing more than glass and wood.  Unthinkable.  And you were clever and courageous…and most importantly, you acted from a genuine desire to help and protect others, not only those you cared for, but everyone.”

Sebastian felt uncomfortable with Griot’s recounting of his deed, though the statements he made were true.  Griot knelt down to one knee, and looked Sebastian in the eyes, “It is I who should apologize to you.  I…I forgot that a heart could be like yours.  Or maybe I didn’t believe it could.  I thought that I knew you…so very well…when I hardly knew the first thing about you.”

Looking up at the sky, Sebastian was glad the expression on his face was hidden at least a little by the darkness.  He found he had no words to respond to Griot’s with, he instead said, “So…what can we do now to help?  I mean…we can’t just let the Dragon keep killing people.  I mean…that can’t be the only solution.”

Griot looked away, down into the streets of Hilsbac, which glowed softly with the light of light torches and lamps.  The buildings shimmered with smoke and haze, and he thought he could feel the anger flowing through the firelit streets like blood.  He closed his eyes and said, “There is a way Sebastian.  It is a way I have not wanted to walk.  A way that…frightens me, I suppose.”

Sebastian reached out to touch Griot’s arm, “What is it?”

Griot opened his eyes and looked down at Sebastian, “It is you, my boy.  You must face the Dragon.”

Sebastian blinked twice, letting Griot’s words sink into him.  He then furrowed his brow and stepped back, holding up his slender arms elbows pointed to the sky, gesturing at his tiny torso with his hanging hands.  He looked at Griot as if that should be answer enough, and then he threw open his hands and said, “What am I supposed to do against a Dragon?”

Griot nodded, “I’m afraid I share the same thought.”

Sebastian canted his head to the side, “Then why do you think I need to…face the Dragon?”

Griot smiled, “Well after the past ten minutes, I will happily point out the impossible trick you pulled with darklyte ink as an excellent indication that my estimations of you may be woefully inaccurate.”

Sebastian shook his head, “T-that was…books.  Reading.  Lights.  I’m good at those things!  Nobody thinks I’m good with a sword or at fighting.  Not even me.”

Griot shook his head, “If there is even a chance that I am correct, would you be willing to endure the challenge?”

Sebastian looked at his small hands, and then at the ruined reading box below.  He thought about all that had happened since the explosion of laundry the morning before.  He thought about standing up to Gregor, and stealing the book from Elda.  He thought about his afternoon with Roland, and of discovering the secret of darklyte ink.  He realized that he wouldn’t have believed he was capable of those things at all, if you’d ask him while he was fishing Mrs. Geldeblat’s oversize girdle off the Baker’s gutters.  He looked up at Griot and shook his head, “I…I’m scared.  But.  OK.  How do I face the Dragon?  Do you know where his lair is?  No one who has ever gone looking for it has found anything at all…they just come back cold and hungry…or not at all.”

Griot shook his head, “Ah…I’m afraid…if we were to wait that long, we might be in time to save the village, but from another perspective we would be far too late for the poor girl whose fate is about to be sealed.  No, we will have to make sure you are in that field tonight, for we know with certainty that is where the Dragon will appear next.”

Sebastian was actually a little bit relieved that he wouldn’t have to venture into the dank scary darkness of a cave on top of probably being roasted alive where he stood.  But he said quickly, “That’ll be hard to do!  The village gets locked down tight as soon as they send out the sacrifice.  It’s supposed to be in order to keep any of the girl’s family from trying to set her free.  Before…Millicent…I don’t know that they really took it seriously.  But now…I’m pretty sure there’s no way to get out of the city once the maiden goes out.”

Griot nodded, and then turned, his robes flaring like an enormous brown cloak in the speed of his movements.  He ambled quickly towards his cart and said, “The first step then is making sure we’re present at that Council meeting then!  We’ll get you into the field one way or another!”

Sebastian danced from toe to toe, his mind racing with questions and plans.  A part of him still believed that Griot was insane.  And that part was talking in his mind at the same time as another part tried to imagine how to build a catapult out of saplings and river rock.  With his mind spinning faster and faster, he hardly noticed they were down the hill, until they stepped onto the cobblestone streets and Griot paused and looked down at Sebastian.  He placed his hand again on his shoulder and said, “Sebastian.  Promise me something.  Don’t let anyone change that heart of yours.  No one.  Not even me.  Especially me.”

Sebastian came out of his daze for a few moments then, and he stared up at Griot quizzically.  He shrugged his shoulders, finding the request no less insane than the request that a skinny boy of just less than thirteen winters, whose feet were too small, and whose ears were too big go into a field to face a Dragon.  So he nodded, “OK, Griot.  I promise.  I’ll do my best.”

Griot sighed, and then turned without another word, the pair of them rushing toward the Meeting Hall, and the most important Choosing in the history of Hilsbac.

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