Oubliette: A Tale of Draco The Dragon
By Neil Beynon
We, a pair of apes, are sitting on a shell of rock, heated by molten metal, spinning round a flaming ball of gas, being flung through the universe at four hundred and ninety thousand miles an hour. If you lie on the ground and stare at the sky you may just about think you can feel the rotation of the planet at a mere thousand miles an hour. Our universe is absurd. You will not be surprised, then, when I tell you that this is not the only universe, there are more realities than there are stars in the sky.
“Where are we?” asked Draco.
The dragon eyed the salt plains. The crystalline tundra seemed to stretch to the end of the world. He was far-sighted but he could not see where the plains turned towards grass once more and they had not seen another soul in a week. The dragon scraped his right foot over the salt as you or I might kick the ground when nervous.
“The plain of tears,” said his mother, the witch, Caerwen. She had not dared imagine that this place was real. In her long travels, she had confined herself to the lands ruled by Arawn and only occasionally passed into Hades.
“Mammy,” asked Draco. “What lies beyond that?”
Caerwen looked at her son: “You cannot see?”
Draco shook his head.
Caerwen looked back at the salt flats. This was troubling given the distance the desert must stretch on for and the need to eat. She bent down to touch the crystalline ground. “I have not been this far. I only knew the legend.”
“And that is…?”
Caerwen let the salt in her hand blow away in the wind and stood.
“This marks the edge of Hades, we have flown over that dried and barren land now to the edge of Valhalla, they say when Odin arrived there and realised where he was…what that meant for him…he wept for a thousand years. The plains are all that remains of those tears.”
“What do we do?”
“Well, we can stay in Hades or we can see if Valhalla is really on the far side of these plains.”
Draco looked back at the land of Hades behind them, from where they had flow, but he could no longer see the rainbow he was looking for. There had been no bridge of colour for some time now.
“What about the spark?”
Caerwen leant her head on the dragon’s shoulder to comfort him. Though a year had passed since Draco and Caerwen had rescued a spark, the earliest form of a dragon, from where a nightmare had trapped the filament of light, it did not seem so much time to either of them. The dragon and the witch had eventually found a storm, deep in Hades, suitable to release the spark into. Caerwen had told Draco at the time that the most they could hope to see of the spark’s future was a rainbow. True enough, the arc of colour had lit the sky behind them for days afterwards.
“You know the answer,” she replied, using his true name. Safe in the knowledge that no one could hear. “But we must hope the egg formed.”
Draco let out a small jet of fiery smoke. “I’m not sure.”
Caerwen could feel her own unease in her stomach. She felt a tight knot across her chest at the thought of becoming lost in the desert. There was something about this place, a low-level buzz in the back of her mind, where she felt her magic, that was gnawing at her. She wanted to run away and hide under a rock.
“Will there be fresh nightmares?” asked Draco, thinking of the creature they had freed the spark from.
Caerwen sighed. She did not sense any. “Who can say? But I will be there. We could go back…”
The dragon shifted. He did not like talk of going back. “No, we cannot do much more here in this land where dragons seldom walk,” said Draco.
“Forwards?” asked Caerwen, with a gentle smile.
Draco nodded, as if he were a much older dragon: “Always.”
The dragon and the witch flew for a week and a day before they saw the jet-black maze in the heart of the pale salt plains. The smooth obsidian labyrinth had no roads leading to it. The puzzle might have just fallen from a god’s pocket. Draco swooped low over the structure, admiring his own image reflected back in the dark mirror of the walls. As the dragon peeled away and up towards the sky, Draco found that he could not recall the pattern of the walls. No matter how hard he tried he could not hold the path through the maze within his mind’s eye.
“The maze is magical!” he shouted to his mother.
Caerwen nodded. The witch, in turn, took a low pass on her broom over the maze of smooth walls. Draco looked on, circling high above. The witch flew slower than the dragon, taking her time, looking for some sign of what and where this place might have come from. Draco saw Caerwen’s head snap up at him in shock just before the broom beneath her was lashed by a tendril of purple light. The witch did not scream as she fell into the inky black. Draco screamed fire.
Caerwen woke in a long black corridor. There was no roof to the passage but the walls were tall enough to reduce the light to perpetual dusk despite the blue sky. Caerwen’s broom was gone. The walls of the corridor were as smooth as a polished mirror, offering no purchase for climbing. Caerwen’s own reflection stared back at her in a never-ending line of mocking.
How did I get here? She asked herself. And: I’ve lost something, what?
The absence of memory told Caerwen something about this maze, this was important, though she could not think what. That the place was sick with magic was obvious but Caerwen couldn’t make use of the power. Whatever kind of spell had made this place, the magic was alien to the witch and she did not like this. The witch looked down at the salt covered ground and saw footprints stretched out before her. If she stayed in here, eventually, she would forget her own name. The witch examined the footprints, they could be someone else’s or they could be her own. She seemed unable to get a sense of scale to the tracks. Thinking was hard here. Had she woken here earlier and already wandered around lost? There was no way to tell.
Wrapping her cloak around her, against the cold, Caerwen set off after the tracks.
Draco made several passes, flying over the maze but found he couldn’t remember why he was searching when he was over the labyrinth and that he couldn’t recall what he had seen within the walls when he was far enough to remember his mother. The magic in the maze was vile.
Seeing no alternative, the young dragon landed outside the exterior wall of the maze. At ground level, not yet in the maze, the dragon could still recall his mother but he could neither see nor recall the layout of the labyrinth. Draco walked round the structure, which took some time, and found two entry points, one in the eastern wall and one in the northern walls. The dragon would need to play the maze to find his mother. Draco took one last look at the wide open sunny sky and stepped into the northern gate. The dragon felt something in his mind.
“Mammy?” asked Draco, thinking his mother might be trying to reach him by magic.
There was no verbal response. However, the dragon felt the presence return to his mind. The presence seemed to have a stronger interest in the dragon this time. The sensation eased as Draco moved deeper into the labyrinth.
Draco couldn’t worry about who or what the presence was. He wanted his mother back. Although he was big, Draco was still quite young and they had spent little time apart since she had found and rescued him years ago. The dragon set off down the obsidian corridor, using everyone of his senses to find his mother’s tracks. The dragon did not notice a face appear out of the murky reflections of the dark glassy walls. The person wore a hooded robe that prevented their features being clearly seen but the eyes in shadow were glowing like hot coals.
Caerwen followed the footprints until she could see the stars in the distant sky above. She had decided they were too small to be hers, in fact, she suspected they belonged to a child. The witch was confused as to the direction she had been walking in but the ground had a faint incline, giving her a sense of being led in and down. Once, weary and fearing she would never emerge from the labyrinth, Caerwen had fancied she saw a tiger reflected on one of the walls. The sight should have scared her but instead the creature had made her smile. She didn’t know why.
The footprints led her into a dead end where the corridor widened out into more of a room. The space was bare save for a trapdoor, dead centre and open though the witch could not see what lay below. Behind the trapdoor, pacing, was a she-wolf with fur as silver as the moon. Caerwen froze. Somewhere behind her, deep in the maze, something roared and the sky flashed fire. The wolf looked up at the flames before looking back at the witch. Only then did Caerwen notice the footprints led straight to where the wolf was pacing.
Draco chased the tiger down one corridor and up another, never quite able to catch him. Stars shining down through the torn cape of night, an endless arc of dragons glared at an endless line of tigers. Draco couldn’t remember why he had been chasing the over-sized cat but the dark mirrors of the walls were making his eyes hurt.
The tiger gestured with his head. Draco looked in that direction but saw only more corridor. He was supposed to be doing something, looking for someone, but he couldn’t remember who. The dragon looked back at the tiger in time to see a large forepaw swipe across the dragon’s face. The tiger bounded away as Draco roared fire, narrowly missing the agile cat.
Angry, the dragon gave chase. The tiger led Draco through corridor after corridor until they struck a dead end that widened out so that the space seemed almost like a room. A woman dressed in black with eyes the colour of the sea stared at the dragon. She seemed to know Draco.
The tiger ignored the woman and padded round a small trap door and lay down next to a she-wolf. The wolf looked on the dragon with careful interest. Draco let steam smoke from his nostrils before returning his gaze to the woman, she smelt of magic.
Before Draco could say anything, a hand emerged from the open trapdoor and a man pulled himself up through the opening. He flopped down on the ground, panting, his long dark hair fanning out around him like a headdress. The man’s beard was flaked with salt and sweat and he was dressed in dusty black clothes and boots.
The wrong exploded in Caerwen’s head like someone had run a knife through her eye. She gasped and fell to her knees. The ground rumbled. A terrible grinding noise came from everywhere and nowhere, as if the gears of the universe were moving and were all out of oil. Draco thought he might have heard this sound before though he could not recall where. The air seemed to be thick with moisture, breathing was becoming difficult in the humidity, and there was a hazy shade to everything. He looked up. He could no longer see the stars.
Caerwen looked across at the dragon. Her dragon. No. Her son. The pain was cutting through the fog and bringing back her memory. The universe moaned again. She could feel the threads of the fractures if she let her self reach out to the edges of the multiverse. How could she have missed this?
The witch lifted her hand and summoned her broom, this spell really was the quickest way to flush the creature out.
“What are you doing?” asked Draco.
The wolf and the tiger stared at the dragon and the witch with the curious interest of sated predators. The man did not move. He seemed oblivious to everyone.
“Flushing out our jailor, Draco,” said Caerwen.
Smoke rolled from the walls and foamed into a giant of a man. The being was stripped down to his waist and covered in swirling blue tattoos that gleamed as if just inked. The creature’s eyes were hot coals that burned with heat they could feel from where they stood and his hair was a wild tangle of curls that could have passed for horns in low light.
“Genie,” said Caerwen, as if naming despair.
The genie held the broom in his right hand.
“You called,” said the genie, amused.
“What is the meaning of this violation?” demanded Caerwen.
“What have you done?”
The genie kicked at the man on the ground. The human doubled over and moaned though he seemed as unaware of the genie as he was of the rest of them.
“Still alive,” said the genie. “See, I’ve found another now. I won’t need to run around trying to collect fragments of you.”
Caerwen felt the ground under foot crack. She had been aware that her own power had been leaking away ever since she woke up in the maze but now she felt like the magic taking flight like a frightened bird. She looked over at Draco.
The dragon seemed smaller, his colours less vibrant, and his face confused. So human. Caerwen looked over at the tiger and the wolf but they had gone and in their place there was a boy and a girl hugging in the murk.
No, she thought. This cannot be. The witch cast the dregs of her remaining power in an attempt to bind the genie and stop the fracture splintering the multiverse any further.
“What have you done?!” She uttered in the ancient language of everything.
The genie laughed. The laughter turned to frustration when he realised he could not break her binding spell. He looked down again at the fallen man.
“Your pet dragon retains his power, witch. Mine…mine is splintered like broken glass across reality leaving me with this pathetic prisoner and whatever other fragments I can scrape together.”
Caerwen looked more closely at the man. She wondered that she had not seen the resemblance before. He was taller here, thinner too, and looked to be carrying a few millennia but she could see the scar on his forehead, always there, and she was willing to bet she would find ink if she looked under his clothes. Caerwen felt sick.
The witch turned back to face the genie. The jinn had already uttered his own spell and the trap door opened like a dragon’s maw to engulf them all.
Caerwen opened her eyes.
The cell was lit in with an artificial light that she had not seen in this reality before and that gave her a faint headache. The walls were smooth as if they had been made using magic and painted in shades of blue and the rest of the cell’s contents made Caerwen’s heart stop. The chamber contained a single moment frozen like a fly in amber. Only Caerwen and the genie were able to move.
“Where is Draco?”
The genie smiled. “You know he cannot enter the moment, it is just you, me and the fragment.” The genie gestured at the door behind him.
Caerwen looked round at the moment, noting she had no reflection in the tubes and glass. Her gaze returned to the doorway the genie had gestured at. There was the sound of the ragged breathing of someone crying without trying to let a sound escape.
Caerwen followed the genie into the small room that appeared to be a water closet of some kind. The dark-haired man was sat on the floor with his head in his hands.
“Why have you done this?” asked Caerwen.
“I have done what my function is,” said the genie, confused. “I have granted his wish.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” replied Caerwen. She knelt down, placing her hands on either side of the man’s head. “I was talking him.”
The man looked at her. This time he saw her. “You.”
“Me,” answered Caerwen, a sad smile on her lips.
The man looked round at the room. “Always here. No matter how fast or how far I climb the ladder out, no matter how far I fragment or how strong the spell.”
Caerwen shook her head.
“Fool,” she said, not unkindly. “You look and do not see.”
“What do you mean?” asked the man. Caerwen couldn’t help but notice the flecks of colour in the man’s eyes. That made her heart hurt again.
Caerwen pulled the man to his feet. “Look closer. You are not trapped in here and this creature is nothing but a parasite. Look at the tiger and the wolf, could they be here otherwise?”
The man glanced over to where Caerwen was pointing. The wolf and the tiger sat in the doorway looking on with the studied indifference of apex predators. Space was warping and distorting as the fracture became worse, Caerwen had just helped the thing along to make her point.
The witch looked back at the man. She felt she was starting to get through, the dark-haired man was bigger again now, his skin was growing darker, almost red.
The genie stepped forward. “You cannot escape the oubliette. I will not allow this.”
“How can this be a place of forgetting?” asked the man, drawing in again. “I would give anything to forget.”
Caerwen sighed: “Foolish dragon, the oubliette is making you forget everything but this.”
The man let out a gasp as if he had been punched and he began to weep again but without any attempt to hold back the sound. Large, uncontrollable sobs that sounded as if the multiverse was not just fracturing but shattering into infinite shards of reality.
The genie made a grab for the man but Caerwen pulled the human into a tight embrace as the walls of the room fell away. The jinn swore at her as the winds of the void screamed around them. As she watched, the creature scattered on the winds of the void like dandelion seeds in a storm. Caerwen could not say if the creature had been destroyed or escaped. Can you kill a Jinn?
“What have I done?” asked the dragon as he pulled back from the witch. He was as red scaled as Draco but his belly was silver, as was his beard. He was also beginning to fade.
“I do not know,” said Caerwen. Around them three other dragons moved uncertainly. “This is ragged and uncertain magic but the fracture is healing.”
“Stripe?” asked Draco.
Where a tiger had stood a moment ago, he could now see the shimmering image of his brother. Next to Stripe, where the wolf had been, a smaller silver dragon looked on with interest.
“Hello, brother,” said Stripe, laughing. “I thought you would not see me.”
“I..how are you…here?”
Stripe shook his head. “I am not here. I believe I am dreaming and a wonderful one at that. We miss you.”
“Who is this?”
Stripe looked at the silver dragon. “You know Spark, Draco. The magic worked.”
“Hello,” said Spark, using Draco’s true name.
Draco felt tension he had not known he was carrying in his wings relax. He looked over at his mother, standing by another dragon who as faint as the stars above in the approaching dawn.
“Who is that dragon?”
The dragon replied to Draco: “One day you will understand.”
“You cannot stay,” said Caerwen, to the older dragon.
“I know,” he replied, almost gone entirely.
“Remember,” replied the witch, in his ear. “The room is inside, not the other way round.”
“What is going on?” asked Draco, he felt sad, though he couldn’t say why. He could barely see the dragon at all now.
“What stars can you see?” asked the dragon, using Draco’s true name as he looked up at the sky.
Draco, compelled by the use of his name, looked up and saw the constellation of the great bear fading in the sunrise.
Draco looked back at the dragon to tell him and saw only his mother.
The young dragon turned to look at his brother and his sister but they had gone too and all around him was wide open space. There was no sign of the maze.
“Did I dream this, mother?”
Caerwen hugged her son. “No, cariad. You didn’t.”
“Good,” said Draco, trying to hold onto the memory. “That means the magic worked and Spark is with Stripe.”
Draco could have sworn there was something else he wanted to remember but whatever it was had gone like smoke on the wind.
“I think we should move on,” said Draco. “I’m not sure I like this desert.”
“Ie,” said Caerwen, in the tongue of the dragons.
As they took to the sky, Caerwen on the dragon’s back, Draco thought he saw two dragons – one purple, one red, -followed by two smaller dragons – one orange, one silver – heading over the horizon but when he looked again, all he could see were migrating birds. Draco did not stop flying until the plain of tears gave way to the rolling green of Valhalla.