It was Water's call that summoned the dragon Earth and his human guide, the girl called Erde, on a flight through time, transporting them from the war-torn German principalities in the year 913 to the African coast in 2013. And though the land from which they came was beset by the perils of war and religious fanaticism, this future offered them no safe haven.
For the passing centuries had seen the world plunged into a downward spiral of environmental devastation from which there would soon be no possibility of recovery.
Earth's sister, the shape-shifting dragon Water, waited to greet them in this strange new land, offering the travelers the momentary belief that they had found the answer to their quest. But Water and her guide, the streetwise boy known as N'Doch, had as many questions and fears as Earth and Erde.
Pursued by enemies in both eras, they soon realized their mission was only beginning and their only hope lay in finding the remaining dragons—Fire and Air—before it was too late....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THE DRAGON QUARTET:
THE BOOK OF WATER
Marjorie B. Kellogg
Also by Marjorie B. Kellogg:
The Dragon Quartet
THE BOOK OF EARTH
THE BOOK OF WATER
THE BOOK OF FIRE
THE BOOK OF AIR
By Marjorie B. Kellogg with William Rossow:
(The Wave and the Flame | Reign of Fire)
editor, friend, soul of patience
. . . and the one who got me into all this in the first place.
And many thanks to the usual suspects and a few new ones, all of them more generous with their time, advice, and encouragement than any author has the right to hope for:
Lynne Kemen and Bill Rossow
Barbara Newman and Stephen Morris
Charlotte Zoe Walker
and the dedicated organizers and supporters of Oneonta Outloud, where portions of this book were first read.
Table of Contents
IN THE BEGINNING,
AND A LITTLE AFTER . . .
In the Beginning, four mighty dragons raised of elemental energies were put to work creating the World. They were called Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. No one of them had power greater than another, and no one of them was mighty alone.
When the work was completed and the World set in motion, the four went to ground, expecting to sleep out this World’s particular history and not rise again until World’s End.
The first to awaken was Earth.
* * *
He woke in darkness, as innocent as a babe, with only the fleeting shadows of dreams to hint at his former magnificence. But one bright flame of knowledge drove him forth: He was Called to Work again, if only he could remember what the Work was.
He found the World grown damp and chill, overrun by the puniest of creatures, Creation’s afterthought, the ones called Men. Earth soon learned that Men, too, had forgotten their Origin. They had abandoned their own intended Work in the World and thrived instead on superstition, violence, and self-righteous oppression of their fellows. They had forgotten as well their primordial relationship with dragons—all, that is, but a few.
One in particular awaited Earth’s coming, though she had no awareness of the secret duty carried down through the countless generations of her blood. But this young girl knew her destiny, when she faced a living dragon and was not afraid.
Thereafter, Earth’s Quest became her own, and together they searched her World for answers to his questions. Some they found and slowly, with his memory, Earth’s powers reawakened. But the girl’s World was dark and dangerous and ignorant, and the mysterious Caller who summed Earth could not be found within it. One day, blindly following the Call, Earth took them Somewhere Else.
That Somewhere Else would prove stranger than either of them could have imagined . . . except in their dreams.
The Summoning of the Hero
He thinks he’s safely away, then he hears the rubble shift behind him, and again, to the right. He shrinks into the hot shadow of the shuttered doorway, thinking fast. His hands are wet, his breath too loud for comfort. He has not expected pursuit.
N’Doch quiets his breathing and awaits their next move. He considers his alternatives. Deeper into town would provide the most cover, but no strategic advantage. His pursuers—her brothers, no doubt—know the maze of alleys and junk lots as well as he does, maybe better, and though he thinks he has the advantage of speed, they’re sure to have the advantage of numbers. He tries to recall how many brothers the silly girl has still living. He stops counting at four and wonders instead how likely it is that all of them are out of work at the same time and therefore at home, too bored and idle to sleep soundly through the midday heat like everyone else in town. He can’t remember if she’d said. He was too busy being charming.
Now he also wonders if it was a setup. Too easy, maybe, those five plump globes glowing in the sun on the girl’s unguarded windowsill, their green-orange ripening toward red, their warm tart juice almost a sure thing in his parched mouth. N’Doch cannot remember the last time he’s eaten a ripe tomato. Especially a safe one. He feels them now, inside his T-shirt, bunched up against the waistband of his shorts, as smooth against his skin as the girl’s firm brown breasts. N’Doch grins, feeling her again in his hands. Silly, but pretty. She’d almost distracted him from his purpose. Maybe he should have taken her first and then the tomatoes. Maybe she wouldn’t have set her brothers after him so fast.
Around him, the quiet is unnatural. Even the flies and crawlies are waiting to see who’ll break the stalemate first. N’Doch squints into the hazed white glare at the end of the street. The market square wavers and dips, intoxicated with the heat, reminding him of his mama’s old video in a brown-out. He decides that if he actually escapes with the tomatoes, he’ll bring her one. Maybe the promise will bring him luck. For now, he’ll head for the market and hope for the best. Lately, the stalls are shutting down during the day, to open again in the faint cool of dusk. Still, some shelter might be found among the thicket of carts and canopies, enough at least for him to double back and lose his tail.
Across the hot street, a skintight alley cuts between two crumbling stucco facades. The windows are high and barred, boarded with corrugated plastic, pairs of faded green squares in a bleached flamingo wall that’s shedding old campaign posters like dying skin. No entry there, but the alley is shaded and promising. A few sharp bars of sunlight drop through the dust to spotlight piles of litter scattered along the left-hand wall. Briefly, N’Doch is speared with envy. It should be him in that hard bright spot, singing his songs for the eager multitude. He catches himself surrendering to the familiar reverie and hauls his attention back to the alley. Halfway down its length, some squared-off bulk makes the narrow darkness darker. But N’Doch counts no obstacle as impassable. He is younger than most of Malimba’s brothers—taller, but thinner and lighter. He’s got no one at home raising safe food to fatten him up, no walled and locked courtyard in which to grow it. For once, he’ll consider that an advantage. He’ll go around that darkness, or over it.
He shifts his weight soundlessly. Wedged into the shallow doorway, he has no view of the street behind him. He leans forward, his head cocked sideways like a wary bird. His bare arm scrapes the peeling shutters, and chips of dry blue paint tickle his toes. He’s sure it’s a rat, probably a sick one if it’s out in broad daylight. He doesn’t flinch, but his reflex gasp sounds to him like a vast sigh across the white-hot silence. Up the street, the rubble stirs again. N’Doch readies himself. He’d gladly wait forever in the safety of this doorway, eating his tomatoes in peace like he’d planned. But he can’t risk a rat bite. Besides, his pursuers won’t wait out there in the rubble forever. He must gain that crucial survivor’s one step ahead.
He coils his muscles, then springs across the street into the alley. The sun is a breath of flame across his back as he sprints sideways into the shadow. The brothers erupt from hiding, but they lose a step or two, blocking each other’s way, so eager to be after him down the narrow passage.
N’Doch risks a lightning backward glance. Four of them, no, five—yes, indeed there are, one for each tomato. They are thick and muscled. They wear only the light briefs they sprang out of bed in when roused by their sister’s outraged squeals. The dark obstacle midway down the alley is a pile of discarded plastic crates. N’Doch leaps, grabs, and climbs like a cat. The crates sway, threatening to buckle, and a voice squawks vague curses at him from inside. He slaps the tops and sides as he scrambles over. Maybe he can roust out the denizen of the boxes to slow down his pursuers. With luck, there’s a whole family in there. He doesn’t wait to find out. He leaps to the ground on the other side and pounds away down the alley. No point in stealth now. Almost more than fear, hunger propels him. He bursts into the glare of the market square, scattering a flock of scrawny hens that rise up around him in a flurry of grit and feathers. Heat and sun engulf him. He cuts sideways down an aisle of bread stalls into the gauzy shade of the canopies. The smells make his mouth water, but every stall has its razor-edged grillwork locked down tight. Halfway to the end, he swerves left, hoping his pursuers won’t see him turn. Next, it’s a hard right past the software carts. The vendors doze behind tinted plexiglass shields, only their bright arrays of solar collectors left open to the air. Normally, N’Doch would linger here, longingly, trying to bargain for what he cannot afford. But not today. He makes a few more sharp zigs and zags, and then he’s across the square, free of the stalls and racing down the wide main boulevard toward the town gates. The black tar is soft and steaming. The heat is like a weight. It doesn’t occur to him until he’s well out into the open to wonder if the brothers took the time to grab their guns. He’s seen no flash of sun on metal in his quick looks backward, but a big enough hand can conceal all the firepower necessary to blow a grown man away. The thought makes him shiver. The drab blighted trees that line the boulevard are his only possible cover.
But no spray of bullets comes after him, only the steady rhythm of multiple bare feet slapping against pavement, still a ways behind him but gaining. N’Doch speeds past the tall steel mesh gates. He wishes they still worked, so he could slam them in the brothers’ faces. But no one bothers to fix anything anymore, especially something in public use. Now the scorched peanut fields spread white and brown to either side of him. Ahead, the red laterite road snakes through the palm grove toward the port. Tall trunks are down everywhere, uprooted or snapped off by the last big storm. There’ve been a lot of those coming through lately. The TV guys blame it on global warming and try to tell you what to do about it, but N’Doch zaps the channel when the weather comes on. He doesn’t see how you could fix anything that big, and he’s got more important things to worry about, like right now, saving his skin. He stretches his rangy legs like a thoroughbred and runs for all he’s worth. But he notices the pressure inside his ribs, the merest hint of a cramp in his side. He begins to think maybe he won’t get to eat any of these tomatoes after all. But that can’t be, all this risk and effort for nothing. Still, if he drops them now, the brothers might let him go. He wonders if they’ve counted them, decides to take the chance. He yanks his shirt out of his shorts, lets the round red fruit roll free but catches the reddest, the ripest one as they fall. The soft thud of tomatoes hitting the dust behind him is the saddest sound he’s ever heard.
The road through the grove is as dry and slick as flour, and danger hides in the ankle-deep red silt—shards of metal, rigid scraps of plastic waiting to slice up the unwary foot. N’Doch follows the track of a dune buggy, wishing such a vehicle would come along right this moment and spirit him off to safety. But he’s managed to pick the only time of day or night when the road is empty, another in what seems to be a series of miscalculations. The bidonville under the palms is mute and motionless, everyone napping out the worst of the heat except a mangy young dog who bounds from the shade of an oil drum, sure that N’Doch has come to play with her. She springs up noisily, tangling in his legs. N’Doch does not kick her away. He had a puppy he loved, back when he was a kid in the City, and he knows it won’t be long before this one, too, is somebody’s dinner.
But her leaping and yapping gets in his way, so he snatches up a twig from the road and tosses it behind him. With luck, she’ll chase after it and tangle in the brothers’ legs instead of his own. Through the scythe-curves of the palm trunks, he sees the smoky glare of the water, drawn up against the yellow sky in a fuzzed line of haze. He thinks if he can make it to the beach, he’s safe. Malimba’s brothers don’t hang out at the beach. They won’t know their way around the wrecks like he does. He can lose them there.
But he is slowing, and the cramp in his side is harder to ignore. He risks another backward glance. The brothers are slowing, too. One has dropped back to rescue the lost tomatoes from the dust. The other four pound after N’Doch, fists clenched, blinking sweat and grit from their eyes, and snarling. The brother in the lead trips over the panting eager dog as she scrambles to retrieve the stick. He lashes out, kicks her sideways. She tumbles, yelping, into the red gravel along the verge and lies there, stunned.
N’Doch feels his soul rebel, the way his stomach would against rotten food. He’d pull up short to help the pup, could he do so and live. He’s had nothing against Malimba’s brothers so far, except their understandable urge to chase down the thief who stole their supper. But the pup’s only crime is being innocent enough to think that humans are her friends. N’Doch’s nostrils flare. He surrenders up his luscious vision of eating the remaining tomato slowly and with great ceremony once he’s gone to ground. Instead, he’ll eat it now, while the brothers watch, while the sweat pours salt into their angry eyes, and their bodies strain to match his stride. And then, his final act of revenge, when he’s safe and alone again: he’ll make up a funny song about it and sing it all around the neighborhood, about the pup and the tomatoes and the stupid mindless viciousness of Malimba’s brothers.
Anticipation makes him grin, and the notes are already stringing themselves together in his head. Sure, his friends will think he’s weird, singing about dogs and tomatoes, but hell, they already do. N’Doch wipes the tomato on his shirt as he runs, then takes a bite. The skin is taut and hot but the juice is cooler than his tongue and so tart-sweet that he groans with pleasure and forgets to savor it. Between gasps for breath, he devours it in great gnashing gulps. His mouth and throat vibrate with sensation, and then the precious fruit is gone and all he can do is taste the sour regret that he dropped the other four along the road.
He’s past the last shanties and lean-tos of the bidonville. The palm grove is thinning. Ahead, he sees the gray stretch of water and the long bright arc of sand, littered with the black hulks of the wrecks. N’Doch is glad he’s eaten the tomato, though it sits like a cold acidic lump in his empty belly. He can afford no distractions now, for the beach is even more treacherous than the road. Shoals, entire reefs of debris lie submerged in its deeper sands, ready to cut off a toe or slice through a tendon, leaving you hamstrung. N’Doch thinks the beach is like life, full of hazard. He negotiates it very carefully. He’s written a bunch of songs about it, like the fact that there’s less of it each time he comes here, as the sea level rises. As he breaks out onto open sand, he hears one of the brothers curse and fall behind, hopping on one foot, stopping short. N’Doch crows silently. Score one for the mangy pup. He dodges right and left, his eyes fixed on the pocked ground. The first wreck southward is a burned-out sea tug. N’Doch knows the family living in the aft section above the high water mark. He’s sung at their hearth on more than one occasion. It’s low tide now, so he chooses the farthest-away path through the pieces of the wreck, right along the water’s edge. The old man is just up from his siesta, taking a piss from the rusted rail of the mess deck. He waves.
N’Doch grins breathlessly and returns the wave as he passes. He doesn’t mind the nickname. Water seems to him a fine and precious thing to be named after. Had he been named “safe water” or “pure water” or even “cold water” instead of merely “water,” he’d have liked it even better. But his mama preferred names that could be yelled quickly and easily, so “N’Doch” it is, or “Waterboy” to the old geezer who lives in the tug wreck.
Now, Malimba’s brothers haven’t heard this nickname before, and when they pick up on it, it doesn’t sound so fond or playful. It’s mockery pure and simple.
“Water boy!” they screech in coarse falsetto. “Waaa-ter boyh! Come heah, boyuh! Yah, boy, yah, yah, yah!”
N’Doch knows what they’re up to, trying to rile him, slow him down with a little extra burden of rage, maybe even goad him into turning and standing for a fight. But N’Doch has learned to be slow to anger. He’s never been much of a fighter. His speed is his strength. As for Malimba’s brothers, let them ask their silly sister if he’s a boy or not.
Already he thinks of the girl with the same regret as the lost tomatoes. Silly, perhaps, but pretty enough, clean and healthy and a virgin, he’s sure of it. Not so many of those around, though at almost twenty, N’Doch has had his share. It would have been nicer to lie down with her a while instead of just snatching the fruit and bolting. Then she might have given him one, if he’d pleased her well enough, and there’d be no need for all this sweating and racing about. N’Doch knows he has a gift for pleasing women, even those he doesn’t take to bed. It’s one reason he hasn’t had to fight so much. Whatever trouble he gets into, he can always find a woman or two to take his side. In groups, he has found, women can be very powerful allies. This is maybe his worst miscalculation this time—to attempt such a serious snatch when the aunties and grandmothers and the satisfied widows who might have hidden and protected him are all shut up in the shade of their houses, fast asleep.
He clears the last chunk of the sea tug and cuts shoreward to skirt the sand-filled hulks of two landing craft left un-claimed after the most recent failed coup. Together, they form a solid wall of rust and bullet holes and peeling camo paint, half in, half out of the water at low tide. N’Doch considers whipping around the hind end and climbing the far side to drop down onto the wash of wet sand inside. But the brothers are too close behind to fall for this ruse. They’re sure to see him fling himself over the top, and then he’ll be trapped and done for. But he can use the great bulk of the landing craft to cover his sprint to the next wreck down, one of the really big ones, a storm-grounded supertanker whose half-submerged stern juts into the water for the length of several soccer fields. N’Doch has a long run over open sand, but if he can reach the tanker before the brothers pass the landing craft, he’ll be home free. He can hide himself forever in the dark and complex bowels of that derelict giant.
But as he rounds the end of the landing craft, his next disastrous miscalculation is revealed. This time, N’Doch curses himself out loud. The fishing fleet is in, as he’d have known it would be, if he’d given it a moment’s clear thought. Hauled up on the sand between him and his refuge are thirty high-sided, high-prowed, brightly painted boats shaped like hollowed-out melon slices, heavy old wooden boats with galley-sized oars pulled by four men each. They’re as tightly packed as a school of tuna. N’Doch can see no alley through them. A path around will take too long. Over the top, then, it has to be, though even at mid-ships, they’re half again his height. He races at the nearest, leaping to grab for the gunwales. He misses, catches a strand of fishnet instead, then flails and falls back, pulling the load of netting and floaters over on top of himself. By the time he’s struggled free of the web of slimy, stinking rope, the brothers have made it around the landing craft. They slow and walk toward him, with nasty grins on their faces.
“Hey, water boy . . .”
“D’ja eat good, water boy?”
“Time to pay up now . . .”
They fan out in a semicircle as they approach, cutting off his chance of a last minute end run. The shortest and lightest-skinned of them has picked up a ragged scrap of metal. He swings it casually, like a baseball bat, but there is nothing casual in his eyes. N’Doch shakes off the last of the netting and backs toward the water. Maybe he can outswim them. He knows this is folly. He has hardly a full breath left in his body. His chest is heaving like a bellows, but then, so are theirs.
The surf pounds. A long wave foams up around his ankles. He hopes there’s nothing too lethal hiding in the sand behind him, or in the water. The beach slants sharply. It drops off fast here, so the waves crest and break close to shore. The undertow is already pulling at his calves, sucking the gravel from beneath his heels, tipping his balance. He feels not so much driven backward into the water by the brothers’ approach, as drawn inexorably into its depths, like he’s being inhaled by the ocean, as if the water itself was alive. It’s a peculiar sensation. It makes him light-headed, and now he’s thinking he hears music in the crashing roar of the surf. He thinks maybe this is how you feel when you know you’re about to die. He doesn’t understand why he isn’t terrified.
A particularly big wave breaks loudly behind him. The spray flings needles at his back. He braces himself against the hard swirl of water, the boil of foam around his knees. Another big wave coils and crashes, then throws itself at his thighs. And another. N’Doch backs deeper into the water, wondering if there’s a new storm offshore that he hasn’t heard about. Two of the brothers are wading in after him now. The short one is in the lead, brandishing his metal club. He lashes out suddenly. N’Doch ducks. It’s a near miss. The short guy has very long arms. Another monster wave breaks. N’Doch knows he’ll have to swim for it soon. He can’t back out much farther in this high rough surf and keep his footing. The very next wave knocks him off-balance, and the club-wielder lunges after him with such a splashing and buffeting of metal and limbs and water that it isn’t until the swell is pulling back and N’Doch has his feet under him again that he feels the sear along his upper arm. A thin trail of blood slips out with the wave like a coil of brown kelp. He claps his hand to his bicep. The bastard’s cut him!
Finally N’Doch begins to feel afraid. An open wound in this water? Any number of nasty things he could pick up. And then there are the sharks that cruise the beaches, for lack of prey farther out. The merest whiff of blood will bring them in, and a starving shark is more fearsome than any number of Malimba’s brothers.
The biggest wave so far thunders into its curl behind him. N’Doch waits to be engulfed. No, he’ll dunk fast just before it hits and let it pummel them into the gravel. He scans the brothers’ faces for a measure of the wave’s size and sees instead a stark and uncomprehending terror. The short one has dropped his club. Suddenly, all three of them are back-stepping through the surging water as fast as they can, heading for shore. N’Doch is sure the sharks have come in with the wave, but he cannot bear to look. He throws himself after the brothers, paddling frantically with his hands. Briefly he worries that it might be a ruse to draw him within range, but he doesn’t believe they’re that gifted as actors. Their terror is pretty convincing. The minute they’re out of the water, they’re pounding away up the beach. They seem to have forgotten him entirely.
N’Doch struggles against the pull of the undertow. He expects jaws lined with razors to clamp onto his thigh and haul him back again. As he stumbles into ankle-deep water and regains his balance, two of the brothers halt, high up on the beach. The short one is yanking on the taller one’s arm. The tall one shrugs him off. He’s yelling, and pointing toward the water. With his feet safely under him, N’Doch can resist no longer. He turns, and he sees a thing beyond his wildest imaginings.
It’s not a shark. At first he thinks, Damn, that’s a really big porpoise. Then he thinks, No, it has legs. It’s a giant crocodile. No, the head’s too small, neck’s too long, it’s . . . like something he’s seen in the movies. The only word he can come up with is dinosaur. Right. Okay. A dinosaur. It can’t be, but there is it. And now he’s sure he’s hearing music. Very strange music, like, inside his head. Maybe that tomato wasn’t so safe after all. It’s poisoned me, he thinks. I’m hallucinating.
And then, for a moment, he stops thinking anything at all.
With a flash of wet blue-gray and silver, the creature rises out of the waves in front of him. It has four mammalian legs and a sleek, close-eared head set on a sinuous muscular neck. It stands motionless in waist-deep water but he can feel its liquid grace. He thinks of a big cat inside the skin of a seal. He’s never seen anything so beautiful. Though it seems to tower over him, it’s actually no bigger than a large horse. Its eyes are dark and round, almost level with his own, and they are staring straight at him.
N’Doch takes the obvious step backward but that odd absence of fear has taken hold of him again. He feels no need to run. The music fills his inner ears and mostly he’s thinking how absolutely fucking weird this whole thing is, and could the brothers have poisoned the tomato on purpose? Were they only chasing him to be there watching and laughing when he freaked out? Well, he isn’t going to give them the satisfaction. Besides, they’re the ones who’re freaking out. Which means either they’re pretending to see something terrifying, or they really are seeing something terrifying, which means . . .
N’Doch notices his legs have given up supporting him. He sits down hard on the sand and stares dumbfounded into a pair of round, dark eyes that are beginning to show signs of impatience.
Behind him, he hears someone coughing.
At first she was sure he’d landed them in the middle of a fire. The hot light was so hazed and the air so thick with soot and fetid odor. She shrank against him, pressing her shoulder to the dragon’s side to take comfort from his girth and solidity, from the hard geometry of his leathery hide, retreating into his shadow from the glare of this sun, this searing angry red-faced sun so unlike the sun she knew. Even in the dragon’s shade, she felt heat radiating upward from the scorched sand. Her nose tickled and her lungs hurt. She coughed, tried not breathing, then realized why that couldn’t work, so drew a breath and coughed again.
—Dragon? Where are we?
—I have no idea. But . . . look!
Abandoning the language of words that he’d only recently learned, he poured into her head a quick reminder, images culled from the dark and noisome dreams they’d shared of late. Erde had to agree this could be the very place, the landscape of their recurrent nightmares, a place of horror. There was the same burnt yellow sky striated with gray, the same acid smells, the constant roll of thunder. Despite the heat, Erde shivered. It had been night when they’d left Deep Moor, mere seconds before. Here, everything was suddenly too bright. Her eyes burned. She squeezed them shut. She didn’t want to see this place anyway.
—I don’t want to look! It’s ugly! Why have you brought us here?
She hoped her voice in his head did not sound as querulous as it did in her own. Yet maybe he would reconsider, and spirit her back to the meadows of Deep Moor where she could breathe again.
—Here am I Called. Here the Quest will truly begin.
He sounded very sure, but Erde could detect in his formality just the faintest hint of false bravado. This place they’d come to wasn’t exactly what the dragon had hoped for either.
Which meant he would need her to be strong. No time for girlish hearts or a lady’s refined sensibilities. Not that she was ever very refined. Erde thought of Hal, who had yearned so to be a part of the dragon’s Quest. He hadn’t even minded that the dragon could not identify the object of that Quest. She wished the elder knight was with them now, to apply his skills and discipline to this unfamiliar situation, and all the equally unforeseen ones likely to come out of it. But he was back at Deep Moor with Rose and the others, up to his elbows once more in the game of king-making. Of course, he didn’t consider it a game, and Erde knew she shouldn’t either. No more a game than the dragon’s Quest, which she’d taken seriously from the moment she’d been faced with it. Therefore, she must follow Sir Hal’s example. If he was not there to tell her what to do, she must imagine his advice and be guided by it. The child in her complained that she was too young to shoulder such a burden, too exhausted from the upheaval of the past two months of fear and constant flight to face an even greater uncertainty. The adult, so recently come to consciousness, reminded her she had no choice.
—So, Dragon. What shall we do?
The dragon eased himself down on his great haunches, claws and head forward like an alert guard dog, and evidently just as willing to sit still forever until what he waited for came to him.
Watch. Erde remembered Hal’s habit of observation. Wherever they’d camped on their long journey from Tor Alte, his first task before any was to take careful stock of the area, not only to search out ambush or pursuit, but to learn which local resources were available and which were not. Water, firewood, food perhaps. Shelter from the weather, cover from their enemies. There were always enemies.
At least, Erde thought, we’ve escaped from them this time. To this dry landscape, alien yet familiar, not just from the dragon’s dreams but her own as well, she realized. The dreams where her father and Rainer fought, and their swords clashed and sparked in a harsh and smoky place was more like this place than the one she’d left behind.
Rainer. Ah, Rainer. But it did not do to think of Rainer, not in any way except as lost, as she’d thought he was until mere hours ago, hours that now seemed like years. He was lost again anyhow, even before she’d left Deep Moor. Erde raised her head from her crouch at the dragon’s side and turned her mind to her surroundings.
She’d felt the hot sand underfoot but had not realized there was so much of it, more than she’d ever seen in one place. It stretched behind her like a dry riverbed toward a long line of trees, impossible trees with tall, curving trunks as slim as needles and a pincushion of leafy branches sticking out on top. There was lots of stuff in the sand, broken stuff. Some of it was wood, sun-bleached and weatherworn, but most of it was shiny or glittery, materials she couldn’t identify. Erde pushed off the dragon’s shoulder for a better look, teetering along his forearm and grasping one long ivory horn for support. Balanced on his right paw, her eyes were level with his own golden orbs, each one as big as her head. She peered over his stubby snout.
First she saw a mass of huge bright boats crowding the sand off to the left. They were nothing like the flat-bottomed scows that plied the rivers of the lowlands back home but they were surely boats, none the less. She’d seen such boats sewn into the tapestries that softened the stone walls of Tor Alte. But she could put no label to the square dark hulks looming to the right like a range of hills. They could be buildings, she supposed, but she saw no doors or windows, only seams and slits in the rusted metal. Fortifications of some sort, she decided. And then, between that grim and faceless wall and the rainbowed hulls of the boats, there was the water. So much water! Now Erde understood the source of the continuous rolling sound of thunder. She knew without being told that she was looking at the sea.
The sight of it lifted her spirits. She had always dreamed of visiting the sea. But the dragon regarded the roaring, tumbling water with evident trepidation. Erde patted his bony nose reassuringly. Moving water was not his favorite thing. She thought this odd, since in the bard tales, it was the uncharted seas from which the dragons of legend arose to swallow unfortunate sailing ships and their crews. But Erde had learned to think differently about dragons since meeting this one. Her dragon was definitely earthbound, and unlikely to swallow up anything without first asking its permission.
Then, over the din of the waves, she heard shouting. Male voices, several of them. She couldn’t make out the words, but there was no mistaking the high-pitched tone of derision. Around the end of the dark unknown hulk, a man came running. At least, she thought it was a man. It was shaped like one, though he ran with the rangy sure grace of a young colt. But there was something wrong with his skin. It was unnaturally dark, darker than a farmer’s after a summer in the fields, darker even than the gypsies who sometimes pulled their wagons up to Tor Alte’s gates to barter for food and shelter with their exotic trinkets.
The dark man pulled up short when he spotted the bright fleet hauled up in front of him on the sand. Even from a distance, his dismay was obvious. Beside Erde, the dragon tensed. She could feel him stilling, preparing to make himself invisible. He sent her an image of hiding behind the nearest boat. But it wasn’t the running man who was shouting. It was the three others behind him, as dark as he but shorter and thicker. When they spotted the first man, one stooped to snatch up a club. Erde thought they looked terrifying.
—Now, Dragon! Before they see us!
Erde prepared to dash for cover among the boats. But the dragon was no longer watching the events unfolding on the beach. He sat up very tall, intent on the churning water. A sort of thrumming sang through his body, like the vibrations of lute strings after the music has ended.
—Dragon, what is it?
—There! She comes!
—The one who Calls me!
Erde squinted at the line of dirty froth. Was there someone else approaching along this crowded shore? Then she saw it, the snakelike neck and narrow head, lifting above the cresting waves. The body was slim and streamlined and surprisingly small, but Erde had grown up with legends. She had no trouble recognizing one when she saw it.
Another dragon was rising out of the waves.
N’Doch decides he can’t be hallucinating. Instead of the usual speed buzz, there’s music in his head. And it’s pretty interesting music, too. He’s tempted just to give in and listen, when suddenly, he figures it out. He laughs with relief, and right away starts looking around for the hidden lights and camera crews.
A dinosaur on the beach. Yeah, sure.
He knows what’s going on. This is no poisoned-tomato vision, it’s a special effect, got to be.
Of course the vid people won’t know they’ve stumbled on a veteran. Usually they want amateurs for these “true-life” guerrilla shoots, so N’Doch won’t tell them about playing background last year in War Zone. He’ll let them see him do his stuff first.
Meanwhile, the special effect continues to stare at him like it wants something important. He’s impressed. It’s very realistic. Not your ordinary robot, then, but some new kind of cybercritter, maybe, or even . . . a cleverly engineered mutant! That means the vid company must have money, lots of it. N’Doch sees this might be his big break. If they’re rolling tape now and he plays his part well, they’ll keep it in and he could be famous. He’ll have to guess what he’s supposed to do. They never tell you in advance, or it wouldn’t be a “true-life” pic. And if he can figure out a way to work in a song, he’ll really have it made.
He springs to his feet, but his legs are still shaky. They don’t really want to carry him the several steps it would take to come within arm’s length of the critter. It, no, she—somehow he knows this—shifts her feet restlessly but does not approach. N’Doch wonders idly, if she isn’t a robot, how the wranglers give the creature her cues.
A deep wave recedes across a stretch of wet sand, revealing the critter’s long flat tail: a blade of muscular flesh, which she coils neatly around her webbed feet as she eases onto her haunches in front of him. N’Doch looks her over, calmer now that he’s settled on a logical explanation for her presence. His legs decided to hold him up, and once again, he is taken by the creature’s beauty.
What seemed from a distance to be shiny fish scales is actually a fine silvery fur as silky as the richest velvet. N’Doch has never touched real velvet, but he’s seen it on TV. Immediately, he longs to touch it. What he covets most are its strange electric-blue highlights. He wonders if it grew this way, or if they’ve somehow wired her for it. And probably she’s bred small so they can fit her into the frame with human actors. Otherwise, they’d need a long shot to see all of her.
Her head, which he’d taken for naked but for her large dark eyes and little seallike ears, is set with a ruff and crest of gauzy iridescent flesh. It lifts lightly as it dries in the sun, softening her sleek profile with curls and complications. The crest trails down her slim neck and along her spine. N’Doch thinks of the gossamer-finned carp he saw once in a rich woman’s backyard pool—the first (and last) time he’s ever been confronted with food just too beautiful to eat.
He can’t settle on any one of the current vid series to connect with this particular situation. It’s been a few days since he’s caught up on his TV-watching. It could be a new story line in an old show, or a pilot for a whole new program. Maybe they don’t even know the story yet, and they’re waiting for it to develop naturally out of the Precipitating Event—how ’bout it?—a man meets a dinosaur on the beach. N’Doch wishes he’d been at that story conference. But this must be why the creature looks so impatient. She’s waiting for him to get on with the action.
Since the ball’s apparently in his court, he tries imagining the song he’d write about such a meeting. He decides the first thing he should do is touch the creature. They’re sure to love that, him looking like he’s totally amazed and trying to prove what he’s seeing is real. No problem playing it, either, since it’s exactly where he’s at. But it’s a hard thing, he discovers, to make himself cross the narrow but infinite space of sand between him and the critter, and lay a palm to that blue-lit silver velvet.
Still, his career’s at stake. He manages it. The first impossible step is all it takes to draw him swiftly the next three or four. He reaches out, trying not to look too tentative. The critter’s fur is the softest thing he has ever felt. As he smooths his hand from shoulder to ribcage, he feels a rush of heat and embarrassment because the touch is so oddly intimate. Bemused, N’Doch retreats a step. Again he hears coughing behind him, but now he cannot look away. The creature fixes him once more with her liquid gaze, then opens her wide mouth and sings to him.
It is the music N’Doch has waited for all his life. He doesn’t realize he’s been waiting until he hears it, but there it is, and his first response is tragic: the only right music has already been written, and by someone else. His next is relief that it has no lyric. At least it has waited for him to put words to it. He begins to hum along. The melody comes into his head just as it is leaving her throat. He knows already the words he will write, words of awakening and discovery and of a great task to be accomplished, notions he’s never concerned himself with in his music so far, but N’Doch knows better than to argue with inspiration. He slips into harmony. They are a perfect duet. They build a crescendo together, append a short coda and finish on the same drawn-out high note. They stare at each other in silence. Even the surf has quieted to a rolling caress.
N’Doch thinks: Wow. This is even better than sex.
Then the creature lifts her gaze above his head and sings again. The bulged reply is so harsh and unmusical that N’Doch whips around, offended.
What he sees first is a white girl standing beside a big rock. He’s perplexed by the white girl, who is very strangely dressed, but mostly by the rock, which is the size of a semi. He can’t remember a rock that big on this part of the beach and it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d miss. Just as he’s deciding the white girl is part of the production crew and the rock is a piece of scenery, the rock moves. In that instant, it is no longer a rock, but a bronze-and-green beast, also the size of a semi, and looking even more like a dinosaur than the one that came out of the water. This one even has horns, and claws each the length of a scimitar.
Two of them. Wow. N’Doch grins. Now he’s sure the producers have money. He smiles at the white girl, in case she’s one of them, even though she does seem kind of young. But he knows the media are run by young people. He’s been worried about being over the hill at twenty.
When she doesn’t smile back, only stares at him wide-eyed, he sees she must be an actress—she’s thin enough, maybe a little too tall—and the director has told her to be afraid of him. N’Doch thinks she’s doing a pretty good job. He gives her a brief nod which he hopes looks professional. He’s a bit jealous that she seems to know the script and he doesn’t. Her costume is weird, like something out of a gladiator epic. Well, maybe not gladiators, but something with swords, from a much colder part of the world than this one. He tries to figure what country she’s meant to be from. No place is that cold anymore, except maybe Antarctica in the winter. The dumb girl’s wearing leather and long sleeves and heavy woven trouser-things and boots, more clothes on her back than N’Doch’s ever owned in his life, and she looks like she hasn’t washed in months. Plus, her hair’s all choppy. N’Doch admits he doesn’t know much about white girl’s hair but he does know a bad ’do when he sees one. He likes the neatly sheathed dagger at her belt, but can’t help thinking how she must be dying of the heat under all that stuff. Right now she’s not doing much but staring at him, but he can see she’s beginning to sweat.
The two cybercritters are staring, too—at each other. N’Doch wonders if they’re supposed to fight. That would account for the strange tension he senses in the air between them. Some kind of communicating going on, he decides, so they must be machines, remote controlled by the technicians.
The big brownish one rises from his couch. He takes a few big steps down the beach. The smaller silvery one goes to meet him. She’s quicker, more lithe. Her greater grace makes N’Doch feel proud, though he can’t imagine why, particularly since she moves right past him like she’s never seen him before in her life. And after all that music and touching. He stands aside, miffed. He’s really hoped this part would be more than a walk-on. Then he notices the white girl is sticking right by her beast as he moves. N’Doch thinks, Hey, you can just accept what you’re given or you can try to make the most of it. He turns and follows the silver one up the beach.
The two creatures meet halfway. N’Doch waits, or rather, hopes for sparks to fly. Instead, they halt a few paces apart and bend their long necks in simultaneous bows. The brown one towers over the silver one. His curving ivory horns pass like scythe blades to either side of her blunt, sleek head. The formality of it raises the hair on the back of N’Doch’s neck. It seems so proper somehow, so . . . ancient, even if it is all for the camera.
The big brown one twists his golden gaze back at the white girl. She comes immediately to his side, her hand sliding familiarly up his rough cheek. She smiles shyly at the silver beast, then dips and rises in a gesture of greeting that looks awkward in leather and pants. N’Doch guesses it would look all right if she were wearing some kind of ball gown. He tries picturing her in fancy dress, lots of makeup and jewels, a little less hair or a whole lot more. The effect is not unpleasing. Maybe they’re planning something like that for the finale.
But next, all three of them are staring in his direction. To N’Doch, it feels like an assault. He just knows someone is expecting something of him. At a loss, he spreads his arms and grins, and again his head is full of music, sounds he’s sure he’s been on the point of imagining. It crowds his thoughts, drowns all awareness, of the beach around him, of the thick heat and the subdued crashing of the surf, all this fades before a rush of tone and rhythm and harmony. N’Doch struggles to keep his cool. He’s had his moments of mad musical inspiration, but it’s never come to him like this, fully orchestrated, damping his other senses as it demands his immediate and total attention. His body is actually vibrating like a drumhead. He thinks maybe they’re beaming the sound track directly into his brain. Last he’d checked, this wasn’t possible, but there it is inside him, this sound, this music that’s like someone else’s voice singing in his head. He is helpless to do anything but surrender and listen to it.
Then it becomes clear to him—he doesn’t know how—that the source of the music is the silver beast herself. It’s like the music she was singing aloud a moment ago, a further development of the same theme, only this time less of a declaration . . . more of a demand. N’Doch gazes at her in wonder.
“How are you doing that?” He’s just gotta ask. She’s probably not programmed to answer questions, but if she can sing, maybe she can also speak. He does not ask, “What do you want with me?” That would be like asking, “Um, what’s the next line?” It sounds wimpy, and it’d spoil the take.
So he moves in closer to join the group, trying to look like he knows what he’s doing. The girl retreats from him a bit, into the shadow of her beast like a child into its mother’s skirts. She’s definitely on the tall side, he sees now, and her eyes, studying him so carefully, are very dark for a white girl’s, almost black. Her skin is a fine pale olive roughened by sun or wind or maybe, though N’Doch cannot truly imagine it, by actual cold. And it looks real, now that he sees her close, like she’s not even wearing makeup. He guesses her to be about fourteen.
The brown beast shrugs gently, a slow earthquake that jostles the girl sideways off her perch on his forearm. She regains her balance easily on the sand. N’Doch can see she’s no stranger to exercise. She tosses the beast what N’Doch reads as a dirty look, the first sign of spirit he’s seen in her. Then she squares her shoulders as if preparing for some onerous task, and turns to face him.
“Mein Name ist Erde,” she announces. “Erde Katerina Meriah von Alte.”
“Ummm,” says N’Doch. He recognizes the harsh gutturals of one of those white northern European languages, but does not understand a word. He can’t recall the last time he saw a vid in anything but French. Even the American ones are mostly dubbed. Are they trying to trip him up? Okay, it’s gonna be a scene about communication. He smiles. “Comment ça va?”
Her dark eyes narrow. She doesn’t understand him either. N’Doch is surprised. Most Europeans speak French. Will the viewers buy that she can’t? Maybe she’s supposed to be from some boondock isolationist principality. He’s heard of such things. He’s sure now she won’t speak Wolof, so he switches to English, which he’s learned only from vids. “Hey there, how ya doin’, kid?”
She still doesn’t get it. N’Doch gets ready to try sign language. So far, he doesn’t think much of this script. He thumps his bare chest, like some guy in a bad jungle movie. “N’Doch,” he says, “N’Doch.”
The girl gives the big brown guy a quick sidelong glance, as if he’s said something she didn’t quite hear. But next she looks back at N’Doch with a gleam of understanding. She points at him and forms the sounds carefully.
He nods encouragingly. “N’Doch,” he repeats, correcting her pronunciation. He points back at her and cocks his head.
She taps her own leather-clad chest. “Erde. Mien Name ist Erde.”
N’Doch tries it out. “Airda?”
“Right. Airda.” They both nod, but N’Doch is thinking, God, this is stupid. He’s never met anyone he didn’t share at least one language with before.
Then he notices how the two beasts are regarding them with patient indulgence, like parents whose toddlers are meeting for the first time. He relaxes a little. Well then, he thinks, I guess it’s okay. Must be I’ve kept to the script so far.
In her eagerness to follow the dragon’s Quest, Erde had expected to travel a goodly distance, but she hadn’t counted on finding herself in a country that was so hot and where people didn’t speak German. Never mind that she’d only recently gotten her own voice back: Just what did you do if somebody couldn’t speak your language? But she was fairly sure language would be the least of her problems—the dragons would figure it out between them. Certainly the two of them were having no problem understanding one another. She felt Earth’s relief and excitement humming through his body like a murmur of gratitude. Not since he’d woken up in that deep cold cave above Tor Alte had he been able to communicate with another being so fast and so fully, too fast for Erde to keep up. But she had snagged one astonishing revelation as it flashed by her: This new dragon from the sea was apparently Earth’s relative. She’d actually heard him call her his sister.
Erde recalled how she’d felt when Rose of Deep Moor had proved able to sense and decipher Earth’s image signals in her head. Not as clearly or as easily as Erde, certainly—the dragon had to be gentle with his sending to avoid burning Rose out. But she’d been the first since Erde and Earth had found each other and learned that they could speak in a way that did not (at first) include language. It helped that Rose was Sir Hal’s longtime beloved, and a truly remarkably power in her own right. But mostly, instead of feeling the expected jealousy, Erde was glad to have someone to share the burden of communicating with the dragon’s ferociously curious and demanding intellect.
And, even better, another dragon to help answer Earth’s difficult questions. It wasn’t that Earth considered her ignorant or inadequate. His generous nature was not given to that sort of harsh judgment. She was still his boon companion, his Dragon Guide, and forever would be. But Erde sensed she had come to the end of her useful knowledge, at least as far as helping Earth discover the reasons for his recent reawakening. And just when she’d needed help, help had arrived. It occurred to Erde that she and the dragon had been lucky that way. Sir Hal, too, had appeared out of nowhere to aid their escape just as she was about to fall into the clutches of Fra Guill’s army of monks. It must mean that, like it or not, this hot, ugly, scary beach was exactly where they were meant to be to continue the dragon’s Quest.
Which also meant that this dark young man—he seemed younger now than he had from a distance—this “Endoch” was meant to be also. If he was here with this sea dragon, he must be her dragon guide. But what Earth seemed to take for granted, Erde had a harder time accepting. He just didn’t look like a dragon guide, running abut half-naked and grinning, so full of himself, yet at the same time a bit too eager to please, as if there was something he thought she might give him if only he was charming enough.
Well, thought Erde, I have nothing, and I wouldn’t give him anything even if I had. Besides, he must have done something wrong, to have people chasing him so furiously.
At the back of her mind, she felt the pressure of the dragon’s censure. He was not too involved with his newfound relative to remind her that people had been chasing her very recently. And what, after all, does a dragon guide look like? The image he showed her was like a mirror held up in her mind. Did a scrawny, wide-eyed, wind-roughened fourteen-year-old girl inspire any greater confidence?
Chastened, Erde reconsidered her inner tirade. The dragon was right. It wasn’t proper to take on so against an innocent stranger. It was just that, well, he was so strange. But judging from the men who’d been pursuing him, dark skin and no clothing was the way things went in this smelly, steamy country. Erde had a sudden sense of reversal, like being tossed head over heels in a torrent. The sense of it was so physical, she grabbed Earth’s neck crest for support. In this place, it could be her own pale skin and heavy clothing that seemed unnatural. As the thick heat wore on her, she was already prepared to shed a few inappropriate layers.
So she’d better give this young man a second chance. If the sea dragon was Earth’s sister, it then followed that this Endoch should be, in a way, her brother. Erde found she could warm to that idea. She’d always wanted a brother or a sister. Someone nearer her own age to talk to. Her life in her father’s castle had been filled with adults twice her age or older. Except for Rainer. Well, Rainer had been sort of her brother, until he grew up so tall and handsome and she was dumb enough to fall in love with him. She wasn’t going to do that again. Tentatively, she smiled at Endoch and he grinned back, revealing the whitest, evenest teeth she’d ever seen, set in a round mobile face as smooth and fine as polished walnut. His grin asked, Well, what’s next? Erde hoped Earth would have an answer.
She tapped at him mentally to get his attention.
—Has she said, Dragon, why she’s Called you?
A flood of images burst into her head, tumbling, crowding, flashing past too fast to be made sense of. Erde slammed up a barrier of protest and sent back an image of herself drowning. Earth relayed apologies and braked reluctantly to the snail-pace of language.
—Oh, wonder! Oh, devastation!
—What? Dragon, what is it?
—Wonder that I have found my sister again!
Again? Erde puzzled at that but there was first a more pressing concern.
—What could be bad about that?
—Devastation that it is not she who Called!
—Not? How do you know?
—She, too, has heard the Call, from the depths of the sea, and has waked to answer it.
Erde conjured images of comfort and reassurance.
—It is another who Calls. She thinks she knows who.
—Can she tell you your Purpose?
—She’s hardly sure of her own. But she remembers more than I.
—What is her name?
Erde hoped she did not offend by asking. She knew how sensitive dragons could be about their naming. But Earth seemed to find great joy in the announcement.
—Her name is Water.
Water. Earth and Water. A notion began in Erde’s brain that slid away forgotten as Endoch stilled suddenly, losing his grin. He turned to stare at the narrow space of sand between the dark rusting wall and the impossible pincushion trees. Erde listened as he was listening, hard with bated breath.
“Uh-oh,” he said, and she had no trouble understanding his meaning.
N’Doch hears it now, an approaching throng. He’d have heard it a lot sooner if he’d been paying less attention to his chances for stardom and more to his personal safety. He can even hear the clang of the weapons—hoes, rakes, tire irons. They’ve brought whatever was to hand, and probably a raggedly lethal assortment of firearms. This’ll really give the cameras something to focus on. He’s surprised the brothers didn’t recognize a vid-shoot when they saw it, but he knows they could never have roused the bidonville with a complaint about stolen tomatoes. The bunch of them must have charged in hollering about mutant monsters attacking the beach. It’s mostly fishermen who live in the shantytown, a hard life and getting harder. They’ll be worried about their boats, and these days, they’ll believe anything bad about the water.
N’Doch has to laugh at that. If they think his own little silver-blue critter could do damage to one of those old hard-built boats, wait till they see this big brown guy. Then he wonders if the fishermen are in on it, too. Maybe the whole town knew about the shoot except him.
Doesn’t matter. He’s deep into it now. For at least the fifth time that day, he ponders his routes of escape. He can see the white girl has the same idea. She’s casing the nearest fishing boat with obvious intent to board.
“Can’t hide there,” he cautions. “First place they’ll look.”
She gazes at him uncomprehendingly.
“Damn. Forgot.” He’d felt like they were communicating pretty well until he’d had to fall back on words. Then he gets excited all over again. This has got to be it, his big moment, where he gets to rescue the girl from the ravening horde and be the hero. He wishes he’d found more to eat today. One tomato is hardly an energy-builder. He’s not sure yet how the cybercritters fit in. The brown one, at least, is much too big for the hidey-hole N’Doch is contemplating. He thinks the blue one will just make it, but probably they’re meant to face down the crowd first as a diversion while he makes a run for it with the girl. He finds he’s not very happy about that. It means one or both of the critters will likely be torn apart by the mob, to rouse the viewer’s blood lust a little and create more sympathy for the hapless escapees. He hopes it’s not the little blue one, though her size and beauty make her the prime candidate. But he reminds himself she’s only a prop. He shouldn’t be thinking of her as his.
Anyhow, he knows what he should do. The only question is, whether he should wait until the crowd comes into view around the landing craft, to help build suspense and give the cameras a dramatic long shot. By now, the critters have their heads high and searching. The girl is looking this way and that, especially at him. Her eyes are very clearly demanding help. He remembers she knows at least some version of the story line—probably she’s trying to cue him that it’s time to make his move. Besides, he’s hearing that weird music in his head again.
“Okay, let’s go!” N’Doch beckons hugely, then recalls how, when he did his walk-on, the director singled him out of the whole crowd of extras and told him to stop acting so hard.
“Acting!” she’d said, as if it was some kind of dirty word.
So N’Doch backs off his mugging and gesturing and trots up the beach to cut around the end of the fishing fleet. He expects the girl to follow, but beside the last boat he looks back and she hasn’t, though the silver-blue critter is close behind, tailing him like a big long-necked dog. Her manner isn’t doglike, however. She seems to be urging him to hurry. The mob is so close, he can distinguish individual voices and words. Any moment, they’ll be in sight. N’Doch sprints back down the beach and grabs the girl’s hand to haul her into action. She resists only briefly. Now the brown guy is moving, too. They both get the idea and hurry after N’Doch. He gestures at them to watch where they step.
On the other side of the fishing fleet, the super-tanker awaits them, as long and high as a city block, its bow broken and sunk so deep into the sand that it looks like it grew there. Gaping holes smile darkly, scars of the harbor mines that took it out when it blundered into them during the storm. The girl stares at it horrified, as if she has no idea what she’s looking at. Even the critters seem to hesitate. N’Doch takes the girl’s hand again and races for the largest gap, but when they get there and he’s pulled her into its shadow, it’s plain the big guy will never fit.
The one from the water, his one, checks out the ragged opening. It’s close. She’s wider than he’s guessed and the metal edges are nasty. But she heads right in. N’Doch winces, worried for her fine silky fur or her delicate fleshy crest, then blinks as she seems to thin and elongate, and slip through easily. N’Doch is sure his eyes have given out for a moment, as if his vision blurred, just for an instant, then the moment passes and the sea critter is there inside the hold with him and the girl, looking very self-satisfied. He shakes his head, wondering, but he can’t spend time on it now. The big guy is still outside in the hot sun, nosing around the sharp edges of the gap. His curving horns clank against the rusted metal, then he withdraws. N’Doch goes to help him, in case he’s been wrong about this one’s size as well.
When he steps out into the sun, he can hear the mob just about to spill, foaming at the mouth, from behind the fishing fleet. He glances swiftly about. No sign of the big cybercritter. The wide stretch of sand is empty, but for scattered rubble and a big rock halfway toward the water. A big brown rock that wasn’t there before.
N’Doch squints at it, frowning. For the barest instant, he can see it as the cybercritter, settling in to wait out the battle. Then it’s a rock again, and he knows the mob will also see a rock, and ignore it.
Man, he marvels that is one amazing piece of equipment.
Then the girl is behind him, pulling him out of the sunlight.
“Gehen wir,” she whispers urgently.
N’Doch holds back, pointing to the new brown boulder, but she only nods and yanks on him some more.
“Ja, ha, gehen wir! Schnell!”
Finally he gets it. This miracle is nothing new to her at all. Probably she does lots of these high-tech vids. Feeling obscurely put down, N’Doch shrugs and brushes past her with a sharp gesture. “This way.”
The blue beast is waiting in the shadows. She chirps at him briskly as he nears. It sounds as much like an order as like encouragement, but for her sake, N’Doch chooses the widest passage into the bowels of the downed ship-giant. He leads them toward the stern, the seaward end, where the lowest holds are filled with water and hung with seaweed and barnacles and mutant starfish with too many arms. The fishermen don’t like the tanker. Not even the most destitute will live in it, though the upper decks are mostly intact and dry, above the high water mark. They claim that the rotting bodies of dead sailors wash about in the holds to rise at night and walk the shredded decks. N’Doch has found a bone or two, nothing more. After all, the fish visit the wrecks at high tide, and with food as scarce as it is, they’re not likely to leave much behind. As for any lurking ghosts, he’s grateful to them if they keep unwanted visitors from penetrating as deeply into the tanker’s wet gloom as he dares to go.
This girl, he guesses, would side with the fishermen. She looks near to panic in the close dim passages. At the raised sill of a door hatch, N’Doch puts on the charm to urge her forward. She returns him a look of offended bravado but takes his offered hand anyway, sticking close behind him as he negotiates a section of collapsed decking. The hole is filled with surging black water. N’Doch isn’t worried about his footing. He knows every nook and cranny. What’s bothering him is the cameras, now he’s disappeared inside the ship. Then he figures the girl must carry a camera with her, maybe one of those micro-implants that uses her eyes as the lens. He’s seen an infoshow about the r & d on that but he’s surprised to see it’s already in commercial use. Of course, the Media get all the good tech before anyone. They’re the ones with the real money in this world, after all.
Writing dialogue is sometimes like standing around in the middle of a party, madly eavesdropping. The first volume of The Dragon Quartet, called The Book of Earth, was written from one character's very personal point of view. But I want to accumulate protagonists as I move through the Quartet, without losing each one's strong personal voice. So the first challenge of The Book of Water was to add the voice of the new protagonist, a modern young African named N'Doch, and keep it just as intimate and personal as the continuing voice of Erde, a girl from 913 in the first volume. And then there were also the voices of the dragons to weave in, translated through the minds of their dragon guides. It's been quite a party.
Marjorie B. Kellogg
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
THis book was awesome! I can't wait until the Book of Air comes out. She really threw you into the book. I absolutley loved it!
I loved this book so much. I have read the first book The Book of Earth and as of now reading the book of fire. I am a little mad though that she has not written the Book of Air. So i guess when it comes out i will get it then. But i recomended first time novel readers read this and also if you love books on dragons. It is funny though how N'Doch dosen't know his destiny but is Grandfather Dja does. Well there is always that single person who helps them understand there destiny. The Baroness Von Alte, Papa Dja, and in the book of Fire, House (for those who have not read spoiler space. House is like the first two.) I enjoyed it and I can't wait till the last book to come out.
The second book in the dragon quartet depicts a ravaged future. Earth and Water are reunited, and they realize that things are only going to get more complicated. If only they could find Fire and Air. Excellent book.