Where Have All The Dragons Gone?

10/26//2014: The following five parts total 3744 words to date, and are based on "flash scenes" I've written for image prompts from MJ Bush. Do check back now and again as I'll be making edits and posting additional scenes until I'm fully done with this story (or rather, it's done with me), which may or may not be related to any further image prompts (thanks for the kickstart MJB!)

This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons or dragons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Part I

A young boy and girl, twins, clung to their mother’s legs as they stood waiting in the forest. This was their first foray into the woods, and the sounds and smells were fresh and new and frightening.

Branches bent in the wind, rustling red leaves against rosy cheeks. Matching colors, their mother thought, a good omen. But she felt the trembling of their bodies as their hands wove tighter and tighter around her thighs. She touched each of their heads and softly cooed.

“Pray the Keeper to see your bravery now and when you are at Temple. Watch him, obey him, and learn well my children, for you have been gifted a destiny that I could not have dreamed.”

The children’s eyes grew wide even though she had said these very same words every day of the past year, because to say them meant food on their plates, milk in their cups, and candles for their nightly vigils.

There was no snap of twig underfoot to forewarn of his arrival. He simply appeared before them and held out his arms. The boy was first to leave his mother’s side, to finger the green and pearl jewels woven into the man's golden robe, and then awkwardly grasp an offered hand.

The girl, timid and hesitant, clutched her mother’s dress even as the woman pressed her forward. The Keeper smiled when the girl's hand touched his, and he turned and led them away, the children’s feet shuffling amongst the leaves of the forest floor.


The Keeper stood in the center of the Temple and bowed low in supplication. From his lips a silent prayer was lifted to the heavens. When he was done he raised himself and began his nightly rounds. The young boy and girl followed quietly behind him.

"The tongue that tastes," he said as he made his way slowly around the Temple and hung each lamp.

"The oil that feeds," he said on his second round and filled each reservoir.

"The fire that breathes," he said on his third round, careful to light the wick of each lamp from the last of the lamps that had burned the night before.

On his fourth round of the Temple he gently reached out to caress the likeness of his gods, and appealed to them. "May this be the night of your glorious return."

When the ritual was complete he led the children into the courtyard and bade them sit before him. He corrected their position with his feet, so that they sat with their backs to the Temple and facing the mountains.

He stood in front of them and held up the lamp.

"This is the original fire that now burns in the Temple, and shall remain forever lighting their way. Given to me by my tutor, who in turn had been given the holy fire by his tutor, and so on and so forth. For generation after generation unto the time when the ancients had graced the air with their presence. This is your first lesson."

He set the lamp before them, and turned and walked away.


The boy and girl, much older than when they had first come to the Temple, sat facing the mountains.

The boy nodded off during the night and now lay sleeping with his head on his arm. But the girl was still wide eyed and waiting. Something was different about this watch.

The stars seemed to wink out for a time and then return. The air felt thick and wet, yet accompanied a burning in her throat. She wanted to call for the Keeper but had obeyed the law of silence. As lamp light began to sputter and a pale light was just beginning to show behind the mountains, she heard a gasp of breath behind her.

She turned to see the Keeper, his eyes moist with tears. She furrowed her brow, not understanding his countenance. Had he been there behind them all night? Like many a nights' lesson before, but this one night he had chosen not to shake the boy awake, nor correct her posture, her breathing, her focus on the mountains.

She wondered if she should console him, but he had taught her well. She knew better than to speak before the fire of the lamp gave way to the sun.

She watched him raise his arms to the heavens, the golden sleeves of his robe sweeping low to the ground. His eyes scolded her to turn and continue the watch.

And when she did so, she saw what is was that made him cry.


The Attendant, barely aged into a man, sat halfway up a cliff as the sun spun its path across the sky and down into the clouds. While he watched, the day darkened to night though night had not yet fallen. He looked off into the distance and was comforted by the pale glow of the Temple lamps.

At last the sun peaked its gaze from out of the clouds, and the Attendant turned his ear to the wind. Feather soft at first, the air swirled in and around him as masses of black wings flew past his station. The cawing calls of the crows echoed against the cliff wall.

He, anxious to run to his master and speak of what he had seen, remembered the words of the Keeper.

“Hold still your post through the first and unto the last.” And so the Attendant waited, and was eventually rewarded.

Again the beat of wings sounded and the wind whipped around him. So much so that he felt he should fall, and he gripped tightly the ropes in fear and in pain.

The sun’s last kiss died against a darker sky, and he looked up to see the stars twinkling above him. But as he looked, the stars gleamed green and gold, and moved too swiftly in the opposite direction.

Part II

"You want smoke?" the voice called from a darkened doorway. A young man in a leather jacket stood with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, another burning in his outstretched hand.

The woman peered up at the address painted on a banner that hung over his head, and then back down at the thin rice paper she held in her hand. The traditional hanzi characters in bold black ink were similar but didn't exactly match those on the storefront.

She shook her head and was relieved to move past him, leaving behind the disgusting odor that billowed from his doorway. She didn't guess why he had adopted the outlaw habit, but rather imagined many other frightful habits occurring behind those blackened windows.

It felt like miles as she moved away from his gaze and made her way up the wet cobblestone path. She stopped now and again to check an address, and feel her disappointment grow with each one. More than once she tried to ask for help from passersby or a shopkeeper who beckoned to sell their wares. Yet every single one would violently shake their heads and quickly push her away.

She shifted the strap of her bag from one shoulder to the other, hoping for respite from the ever increasing weight of the lockbox inside. She didn't know what was in the box, only that her boss had told her to not let it from her grasp until her other hand held tight to a very special gift she was to receive in exchange.

He made it very clear that she must not fail to make this particular purchase, his countenance as harsh as the deserted path she now walked. When he had dropped her off at the airport he had grasped her arm, causing her to wince in pain as he pressed the rice paper into her hand.

"Don't break anything," he had said slowly, the birthmark on his cheek turning a dark purple, his words as mysterious as the last storefront before her.

There was no banner or bright red lantern, only cobwebs spread across the doorway as if it hadn't been opened in years. She could barely make out the etching on the window, but breathed a sigh when the dusty outline of each character matched exactly those on the note.

龍 氣

She knocked impatiently on the door several times, until it finally creaked opened. An old woman stood before her, a thin and toothless grin appeared as if but one of many lines on the old woman's face, and whose ancient hands reached out and gently pulled the younger woman inside.

"You have something for me," the old woman said, her voice cackling as she said it.

"You have something for me," the young woman replied, grateful to let the heavy bag drop from her shoulder and fall to the table with a loud thud.

"No break," the old woman screeched, "no break!" She lifted the bag and cradled it in her arms, clucking softly.

The young woman held tight to the strap and tried to pull the bag away, but the strength of the other woman was nothing like she expected. The old woman turned with such force that the young woman fell forward and desperately tried to halt her fall while still holding onto the strap. She landed face-first on the floor, her arm awkwardly stretching upwards and her hand twisting in pain. Then she heard as much as felt her fingers snapping.

The awful sound caused the old woman to stop and turn. She blinked and then knelt down to carefully inspect the young woman's hand, whose eyes were now closed and unable to see the bloody mess it had become.

"Shǎ yātou," the old woman growled, "no want now, you must keep." She stood and shook her head at the young woman for several seconds, then turned and hurried out of the room, mewling incomprehensibly even after she had disappeared.

The young woman lay there unable to open her eyes for the pain, and unwilling to see the damage that had been done. She carefully curled her body around her hand, letting it rest on top of the bag that was now nestled next to her stomach. She didn't notice much else for a time, until she felt the bag moving.

She opened one eye and saw an old man using a large pair of tongs to pull the bag away from her. As soon as he saw her watching him, he bobbed his head and pushed a small porcelain bowl forward and began to wash the blood from her hand. She remained awake long enough to see him use a sharp knife to cut the strap away from her fingers.

When she awoke she was lying on a small cot. Her hand was numb and she lifted it to see bright silk wrappings, stained with blood. She wanted to scream in agony. Shaking, she laid her hand back down to rest on something, and when she did her hand was numb again. The pain was completely gone.

She lifted her head from the pillow to see what her hand was resting upon, but the candlelight was too weak. The pale glow seemed to bend around and was swallowed by an ebony, oval shape, noticeable only by the contrast of the silk bandages on her hand.

Part III

“You understand,” the man said to his son. It was not a question, but the boy nodded anyway as he looked down into the dark abyss. Steam rose from the opening of the cross, and he could swear he saw a spark ignite far below and then flicker out. In the blink of an eye.

He felt his father’s hand squeeze his shoulder and none too gently turn him away. They walked silently together up the marbled stairs and towards the dock. The old Boatman urged them into the sam-pán and quickly shoved off, his pole digging deep into the dark mud below and causing the boat to lunge with a pop.

Time and again the sound of the pole slopped out of the mud and the boat jerked forward. At first, the paired actions were frantic and unsteadying, as if the Boatman was racing against something unseen. Eventually they settled into a rhythm and the boy was lulled to sleep. All well and good as far as the Boatman was concerned, but the father slapped the boy on the cheek, causing the birthmark to turn a dark purple.

“Yà miáo zhù zhǎng,” the old Boatman said, pulling up his pole and swatting at the man.

The boy rubbed his cheek and looked at his father. “What did he say?”

The old Boatman scowled and nearly pushed the boy out of the boat, but his father held up a hand and stayed the pole. The old man scowled again and dropped the pole back into the water, shoving against the mud with such force that all nearly toppled.

“He said, ‘Young plants cannot be forced to grow by stretching them thin.’ ” The father shook his head to shush his son's unspoken question.

“Please do not sleep,” he said softly, as if atoning for the offenses. “You must learn all the waypoints, know every characteristic of the land and the sea, and every motion of the stars. When your grandfather passes, and when I am no longer able to do so, you must be the one to navigate back to the island. You must care for the family’s fortune, which shall be your son’s fortune.”

The boy almost asked why, but remembered his father’s words when he had stood staring into the darkness of the pit. “This is your duty now, as it is mine, as it is my father’s. You must care for the beast below, and for the egg she protects. She is old now and can no longer fend for herself, and the egg will not hatch for many years yet.”

His father had paused to unfurl a black banner with the image of two dragons embroidered in golden silk and winding their way around a giant, flaming pearl. A real pearl.

The man bowed and touched his forehead to that of each dragon, and kissed the pearl. He waited to speak until after his son did the same.

“This is your destiny. You are a Son of Heaven, and Heaven awaits our return.”

Part IV

Something cool and wet touched her lips. The young woman opened her mouth and greedily swallowed the liquid. When she opened her eyes she recognized the old man from the shop.

He smiled and helped her sit up, careful not to jostle her broken hand. He positioned the blankets around her so that she could rest her arm on their softness. He refilled a porcelain cup and set a similarly designed teapot on the wooden box next to her cot. He bowed several times as he backed away through a curtain.

Moments passed as she took in her surroundings. An oil lamp hung from the ceiling and revealed a “room” made of heavy waxed canvas. The paintings on the tea cup and pot looked like writhing snakes. When she exhaled she could see her breath hanging in the air, but she felt almost too warm and pushed the blankets away. She inspected her injury and saw that the silk bandage was also wrapped around the egg so that it fit perfectly in the palm of her hand. The egg seemed to pulse in time to her own heartbeat.

The tent flap opened and the young woman caught a glimpse of blinding white before the flap closed, and the old woman from the shop stood before her. She held a large black box tied with a golden ribbon, and her scowl was barely discernible from the myriad wrinkles of her face.

“You feel better, Anna,” the old woman said.

“I’m okay, I think,” the younger woman replied, wondering how the shopkeeper knew her name even as she realized her purse was nowhere to be found. The old woman inched forward and carefully placed the box on the bed.

“Qinglóng heal you, keep you healthy. But is heavy burden. Must not get warm, or be born too soon.”

“What?” The egg began to tingle with Anna’s bewilderment, and she rose from the bed as quickly as she dared.

“Be still” the old woman screeched. The younger woman skirted the ancient hands and pushed through the tent flap. She gasped as her bare feet landed in snow, which turned to slush as she stood there.

The egg began to vibrate as the old woman tried to pull Anna back into the tent, but Anna stood firm. She stared across the miles of snow-covered and barren landscape. In the distance, ice-blue spires reached up towards the clouds.

“Where are we?”

“Yushan,” the old woman said hotly, and gave up trying to move the younger woman.

“How did we get here?”

The older woman guffawed, as if Anna were an imbecile. “We fly,” she said.

Anna blinked in confusion. She knew she should go back inside the tent where it was warm. But she didn’t feel the cold. She simply wanted to watch the snow melting away from her like the vibrations of the egg receding to a tingle in the palm of her hand.

Part V

The boy shifted the parcel on his back as he arrived at the river’s edge, just before dawn and too long before the appointed time. Not realizing his childish mistake, he simply wanted to find a place where he could observe and not be observed. He knew too well the dangers of being found outside during curfew, but he wanted to confirm what the Officer had promised.

He spent a good hour marking the distance from the bridge to the various spots he was considering, making sure each one was far enough away that he could easily see if government spies were nearby, but close enough that he could quickly run to the middle of the bridge where the Officer had said to meet.

He finally selected his spot, crouched low in a thick bush near the river and listened as a warbler announced the rising sun. He set the parcel next to him and arranged the leaves so that no one could tell he was there.

In the first hour of hiding he worried that his mother would not believe the note he had left near her pillow. He had never lied to her before but he did not want her to worry. More than anything he wanted to see her smile when his father finally returned home.

The hours passed and he felt his disappointment rise even as the few passersby confirmed the Officer’s promise. As the day wore on, the sun climbed higher and its warmth shone through the yellowing leaves of the Koelreuteria, conspiring with the gentle lap-lap of the water to make his eyelids droop and his chin fall to his chest.

He awoke with a start, the shadows of a frightful dream fading even as those of the evening grew dark. He saw lamplight slowly float from the middle of the bridge towards the opposite end from where he was hidden. He scrambled up and broke into a run before he realized he had left behind the one thing he needed most.

He almost tripped on his way back to the bush but steadied himself before grabbing the parcel and angrily throwing it across his shoulder. He turned and ran back towards the bridge entryway, leaping over old logs and rocks and finally hearing his footsteps pounding out his heartbeat on the wooden slats, the sounds echoing across the river.

The lamplight was receding into the forest when the boy came to a lumbering halt in the middle of the bridge. He started to cry as he bent over, and massaged his aching sides while his lungs inhaled as deeply as they were able. He stood up and wiped the tears from his eyes as he searched for the light.

“It is good to see you, Master Ling,” came a voice from the dark. “I thought perhaps you had a change of heart, but I waited for you nonetheless.”

The boy whirled around and saw a man stepping out of the shadows, his dark eyes gleaming in the moonlight like the medals on his chest.

“My apologies, Běnjiāngjun,” the boy said, bowing low and pulling the parcel from his back and offering it to the man. The Officer held it gently, as if it were an injured bird. He slowly untied the twine from each end and pulled off the rice paper to reveal the dark cloth underneath. He hesitated several seconds before unfurling the scroll. The pearl glowed as bright as if the moon itself was sewn into the fabric.

The man inhaled sharply.

“Here is the truth of what you have written,” he said. He stared at the scroll, tracing his eyes over every inch of the silk threads that became the twin dragons spiraling around the moon pearl. He carefully rolled up the scroll and wrapped it in the rice paper before gently tucking it under his arm.

The boy could hold his impatience no longer.

“And did you write the truth to me?” He regretted how harsh his voice sounded as the man looked down at him and raised an eyebrow.

“Of course Master Ling. Your father will be released tomorrow. I regret that he must bring you your grandfather’s ashes.”

The boy stood in silence, unsure of what next to say. Thank you was farthest from his mind because it was this Officer’s army who had taken his father and grandfather to prison.

“And the money?”

The man cocked his head.

“Of course," he said, pulling a leather wallet from inside his uniform, "and the letters explaining your family’s most elevated position in our government.” He held out the wallet just far enough so that the boy needed to step forward to take it.

“Will you destroy the scroll?" the boy blurted out as he snatched the wallet from the Officer’s hand.

The man let out a low chuckle, then reached out and grabbed the boy’s chin, turning it towards the moonlight. Slowly he traced the birthmark on the boy's cheek before releasing him.

“I will guard it with my life, Tiānzǐ,” the man said quietly. Then, raising his hand to his forehead as if in salute, the Officer turned and walked away.

<word count: 3744>

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