Pinions outstretched, talons valiantly grasping a gleaming star-shaped crystal, the dragon launched from its rocky perch. Its rippling muscles were bunched beneath its smooth, white hide, its tail still twined protectively about the cliff summit. A pair of luminescent blue eyes, filled with serenity, conveyed its majesty, and stone was crushed underfoot as the dragon's magnificent claws pushed off from the mountaintop.
"It's beautiful, Jan," Sarah whispered under her breath, unable to take her eyes from the figurine. She reached out with a tentative finger, running the digit along the pristine dragon's eye ridges and down its long neck. "I can't thank you enough . . ."
"It is your birthday, Sarah," her aunt said staunchly. "And I couldn't think of anything else you'd like."
"Like? I love it! It has to be one of the best ones I've got!" Quickly embracing the woman, she lifted the heavy dragon figurine from the coffee table and carried it over to the door. "I'm going to find a home for it. I'll be back in a minute."
Sarah felt giddy as she mounted the stairs to the landing and pushed open the door of her room with her rear. She turned and looked around her.
Several dozen pairs of shining eyes stared back.
"Hey, guys and gals," she chirped brightly to her collection of dragon figurines. "Guess what! We've got a newbie!"
Sarah deposited her new dragon carefully on her already overcrowded desk, and turned to find a free space on a wall somewhere. It was difficult. All four walls of her large room were crammed with shelves, and those shelves all carried dragons of every size, shape, material and colour. Frowning, she glanced back at her new white dragon to look at it more carefully.
It was definitely one of the most beautiful she had so far. Probably the most beautiful. There was a quality to its deep blue eyes that took her breath away. Its snout was longer than she usually saw in dragons, more elegant and beatific. And the colour! She had a few other white dragons, but they were all ice-orientated in some way. This dragon didn't seem to have an affinity at all. White was just its colour, for no particular reason. Its? Sarah giggled. This dragon was male. Even before she had seen the traditional bump at the base of his tail that portrayed his gender, she had known he was masculine. Sarah was good at that sort of thing. She liked to think it was some sort of sixth sense. If there were ever an occupation that involved sexing dragons like a vet did with pets, she'd be at the top of her league.
Grinning at her own ridiculous thoughts and realising they were stemming from her infatuation with her latest figurine, she turned to her Dragon Shrine. This was where she kept the most deserving of her statuettes. And Mihal was certainly deserving enough!
Sarah paused mid-thought. Only with her favourite dragons did she think up names so fast. Pressing her lips into a thin line of apology for Gallinule, whom she shifted to second-best podium on her shrine after some desperate reshuffling of dragons, Sarah lifted Mihal. Touching this one made her fingers tingle with heat and cold simultaneously. She suppressed a shudder and lowered him gently into place, swivelling him this way and that to see which angle suited him best. Eventually settling on a side view, she surprised herself by kissing her finger and touching it to his snout. Sarah blushed, and ran back downstairs.
Her birthday went pretty much as it always did. Relatives came round, awkwardly chatted to her, left. Friends from school appeared, however briefly. Bursting with enthusiasm, Sarah took them upstairs immediately to show them Mihal. They didn't seem too impressed, which knocked Sarah's confidence. They left fifteen minutes later. When it was apparent no one else gave a damn about her birthday, she went back upstairs to stare at Mihal some more.
Sarah couldn't take her eyes off him. She filled eight pages of her sketchbook with pictures of him in various poses; different to the one he was locked in, perhaps to give him some freedom. Later, when she continued typing her latest creative writing scheme on the computer, her eyes kept drifting back to her Shrine, and Mihal. Frustrated with her own obsessive behaviour, Sarah grabbed Gallinule from the Shrine and marched downstairs. The house was empty except for her; her parents were both at work and she liked being alone with her dragons.
Gallinule always listened. Of course, a pewter figurine can't exactly listen, but she always felt like he was listening to what she said. Sometimes, she felt sure he put the answers to her everyday problems into her head discreetly.
"Mihal is special, I think," she said, sitting on the sofa. Gallinule watched her from the small table beside the leather suite. "Of course, you're all special to me. I wish, just this once, you could answer me with words, Gal."
The dragon's beady black eyes seemed to gleam even more brightly. Sarah bit her lip, entertaining an image of the figurine suddenly moving and yawning, stretching and padding over to her. His claws would make a mess of the leather.
But he didn't move. She sighed. How could something that felt so alive be so . . . dead? Grumbling with frustration, she took Gallinule back upstairs and climbed into bed. It was Monday tomorrow. Another school day. Sarah didn't do well at school. It wasn't that she couldn't understand the things the teachers taught her. It was more that everything she was supposed to know seemed so . . . irrelevant, unimportant. Even the stuff she knew was important refused to have any significance in her mind. It was almost as if it didn't apply to her - just everyone else.
"They'll all ask me what I had for my birthday," she whispered to Gallinule. Sarah curled up into a tight ball, dreading it already. "I hope they go easy on the taunting this time. I wonder why no one seems to understand me?"
You're just different, was the answer that came to her just as she drifted into sleep.
Upon waking, Sarah took time to draw a quick sketch of the new dragon she had dreamt of. This one she called a mirror dragon. The details of its behaviour and why she called it so were still obscure yet. It looked like every other dragon in most respects, save for the brilliantly clear eyes and sense of mystery about it. Generally she got the appearance of a dragon one night, and a glimpse of character through emotions and feelings the next. One day she hoped to publish the dragons that came to her in her dreams as a book of words and artwork. At the rate she was going, she'd have to publish about twelve volumes.
Mihal hadn't made a physical appearance in last night's dream, but she had sensed him there, watching her with those bold blue eyes, as she had encountered the mirror dragon. But his presence had been more vigilant, more protective than intrusive. Could he really have been watching over her?
She tried to abandon all thoughts of dragons as she scrambled downstairs to get ready for school.
"Sarah, I don't have time to deal with your bad behaviour at school today!"
"But it wasn't bad behaviour -"
"Oh?" Her mum held up the workbooks, exercise books and assignments that Sarah's irate teachers had given her as incontrovertible evidence. Sketches of Mihal were scrawled in every available space. "Then what do you call this? An extended art session?"
"I couldn't concentrate . . ." Sarah mumbled. Her mother and father had never struck her as a couple that would want children. Half the time, it didn't even seem as if they liked her.
"Well, you'd better! This obsession with dragons is going to ruin your future, Sarah! Dragons aren't real and they aren't important. Getting through your final exams in the next three months is!" She lifted the paper and took a closer look. Her eyes widened. "They're all the same dragon! And this word, 'Mihal', what's that?"
"That's his name, mum."
"This is that new dragon you got yesterday, isn't it?" Sarah's mother's face flushed red with anger. "I'll kill Jan for encouraging you! I'm afraid there's only one possible answer to this." She turned and marched up the stairs. Sarah gasped when she heard her bedroom door open.
She ran like lightning up the stairs, bolted into her room, where her mother was lifting Mihal from his space on the Shrine. She turned to face Sarah with a stony expression.
"This is being confiscated until your exams are over."
"But he only came to me yesterday!" Sarah was nearly in tears.
"Came to you? Sarah, you need to wake up and be a normal girl for a change."
"I won't let you take him! I won't!"
Sarah threw herself at her mother, grabbing Mihal. The older woman was startled enough to let go, but Sarah hadn't yet got a strong grip on the heavy statuette. Mihal fell, and hit the polished floorboards of her room with such force that he shattered instantly.
"Oh, no . . ." Sarah was paralysed; the only sign of her continued life the trembling of her frozen body.
With great dignity, her mother brushed herself off. "Now look what you've done! You can apologise to Auntie Jan later."
She wasn't listening. She was bending slowly at the knees, extending a pair of tremulous hands towards the pieces of her broken figurine, releasing a muted moan of disbelief as her fingers came in contact with the ruined dragon.
"Honestly, Sarah, I don't know what's come over you. Now, I have to go to work. You can clean this . . . this mess up, and then you can phone Auntie Jan and apologise for destroying her gift. Is that understood?"
" . . . you've killed him . . ."
"You killed him!" Sarah's voice was high-pitched, her sudden movement hysterical. "How could you do that to him? How could you do this to me?"
Her mother's hand caught her sharply on the cheek. Sarah gasped at the stinging pain and fell to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably.
"That's quite enough," the woman said coldly. "You wait until your father returns on Wednesday. He'll probably decide to throw every single one of them out to get rid of this childish infatuation!"
She slammed the door behind her. Sarah waited until her heavy footsteps receded into the background and quickly scrabbled at the lock, turning it to prevent any more outside intervention against the little world she had created for herself. Then she turned back to the shattered mess that was her beloved Mihal.
Never had she felt this way before. Her mind was a frantic mess of tumultuous emotions, her burning cheek nothing to the incredible agony she felt in her heart. It was like . . . a gut-wrenching emptiness. Her soul had become nothing more than a heavy cluster of sorrow. Sarah just managed to grab her wastebasket before she emptied her stomach into it, violently and forcefully. When she finally finished, she collapsed, exhausted, onto her bed, her chest heaving with painful sobs.
Sarah glanced up at the Shrine beside her bed, at the empty space between her second- and third-favourites. Gallinule and Elliya seemed to have moved, and were staring directly at her. Still wobbly on her feet, she moved closer and stroked the gleaming silver hide of Elliya, scratched Gallinule's eye ridges.
"Do you think . . . I could fix him?" she whispered.
She received no answer, but immediately dove into the drawers of her desk, dragging out the bottle of superglue she kept for some of the heavier models she sometimes created. Then, very carefully, she scooped up the pieces of Mihal and set them out on the desk surface.
Sarah struggled for several hours to get the pieces to fit, lingering in particular on the beautiful head, still attached to a ragged section of neck, but there were chips out of his gorgeously deep blue eyes, and one nostril had also broken away. She'd never be able to glue such tiny pieces back on!
"Oh, Mihal, I'm sorry, but it's not working!" she whimpered, crying again. She cradled the head in the palm of her hand, dropped her head to the desk and cried so hard that she had to throw up again.
It was a long time before exhaustion overcame her and she floated in and out of an uneasy sleep.
Sarah was dreaming again.
But this one was different. This one held a clarity so sharp that it frightened her. Dreams were never this clear! She was floating in a deep nothingness. The emptiness of the place made her sad, reminded her of her heart. In only two days time, she would be bereft of all her dragon friends; not just Mihal, whose absence was painful enough!
Sarah heard something, an echo of a word. It was too faint to make out at first, very soft and very weak. The tone of the voice that spoke it gave her a glimmer of hope.
" . . . Tallinn . . ."
There was a rush of sound, and something flew overhead, sending her spinning wildly through the void. The shape of its character told her it was the mirror dragon again. She sensed an air of excited anticipation about this one.
"You have found her!"
Sarah felt fear begin to rise from the depths of her stomach, chilling her to the core. "What's going on?"
" . . . Tallinn . . . I have . . . found you . . ." There was an exhausted sigh that filled Sarah with pity. "At last . . ."
"What do you mean?"
The mirror dragon swooped down, back-winging and hovering just before her. Its appearance was even more dazzling before, her scaly hide shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow. The dragon's crystal clear eyes were focused intently on her.
"His link with you is nearly lost."
"Mihal? That was Mihal!" Sarah laughed brightly. "He is still alive?"
"Of course. He waits for you . . . at Home."
"He's fixed? You've fixed him for me?"
She felt that the mirror dragon was smiling inside, and realised that this female was actually very elderly.
"Oh . . ."
"Firstly . . . you wanted to know what it is a mirror dragon does," she said softly. "I will show you."
The void seemed to speed up, whirling frenetically, and suddenly Sarah was sucked up into the transparent eyes of the mirror dragon.
Sarah shrieked, terrified, but she was abruptly assaulted by another image that filled her mind and body.
It was another dragon. Her smooth hide was white, but rippled with an icy purple in the soft light. She had a neck as long as Mihal's, though her snout was shorter, more shapely than his, connected to a face with a pair of eyes so brilliantly opalescent that she gasped.
"What did you just show me?" Sarah panted when the mirror dragon was before her yet again.
"I show only the truth, Tallinn. That is my function."
The dream broke away, shattered by the ringing of the alarm clock she'd forgotten to switch off. Sarah pulled her sticky cheek from the desk with a yelp and quickly slapped the clock against a nearby wall. No way was she going to school today.
Tuesday. Tomorrow, dad would be home. And he'd take all her friends from her.
Maybe she should run away! But how would she carry all her dragons with her? No, she'd just keep the door locked. Mum was used to her getting ready for school and making her own way there, so she probably wouldn't interfere until she found the door to her daughter's bedroom still locked from the inside.
Ignoring the smell of vomit that dominated the air of the room, she pushed a window open and reached under her bed for the snacks she kept there. Sarah spent a lot of time in her room and her mother hadn't disagreed when she'd asked to keep a few things up there. Throwing herself onto the bed and munching away on some crisps, she desperately tried to figure out a way to save her dragons, as well as herself.
The mirror dragon had said she'd shown her the truth. She'd shown her a dragon. Did that mean that dragons really existed? She couldn't think straight . . . her mind seemed to be out of whack, disorientated.
"Gally, I need help," she said softly.
Elliya's working on it.
It was several seconds before she realised what had happened and leapt from her bed with shock and disbelief. "Gallinule?"
Keep your voice down!
Sarah lowered herself to the dragon's face, tilting her head to the side as she regarded the beady black eyes. They didn't look any different.
You'll see, soon, he said in a tone that she interpreted as smug.
She could get no more from them, though she begged every dragon in the room to respond to her as Gallinule had.
At around midday, her mother yelled through the door: "Sit in there and sulk! It'll only make your father angrier when he comes home tomorrow!"
That her mother seemed to be deriving pleasure from Sarah's pain made her sick with disgust.
When her mother left for work, she started to creep downstairs for something to eat and heard the television. A discreet glance into the living room told her that one of her mum's friends had been asked to baby-sit. Damn that woman! Sarah charged back upstairs and relocked the door. Damned if she'd let her parents win this one!
This time Sarah couldn't sleep no matter how hard she tried to fall back into last night's dream. How would she get more answers if she couldn't dream? Panic was making her even more restless. It was a massive relief when Gallinule finally spoke to her again.
Open your windows, Tallinn.
"What's with this Tallinn thing?"
Just open them! Gallinule had a voice like every comical sidekick you've ever seen . . . perpetually sarcastic and slightly nasal.
Sarah glanced at her watch. Midnight, or very nearly. Sighing, she stepped up to her wide window and opened it to full capacity. "Okay, now what?"
Give me a chance! Elliya said in a surprisingly deep voice. Sarah saw that the moon was full, glowing like the eye of a vigilant dragon. And silver dragons were . . .
Sarah shrieked as something silver shot through the window. She dove onto her bed.
Don't be silly! Gallinule said with a chuckle. Hurry up, too. Elliya can't hold it all night, you know.
Sarah looked up from her foetal position and saw that the silver thing that had flown in through her window was actually a beam of light, shed from the moon. Curious, she walked over to it, placing a hand on the silvery trail. It was solid.
Suddenly realising what was expected of her, she shook her head wildly. "No way am I climbing that! Not all the way to the moon!"
It's not all the way to the moon, Tallinn. Just a short, high walk and we can bring you Home.
"But I am home!"
You really think this is your home? Elliya whispered with some surprise. You belong here, do you?
Sarah thought hard. True, this was her house. But never, not once, had she loved it enough for it to be her home. She'd never felt loved here, and she didn't feel as though she belonged. Several logical conclusions to what these events were suggesting stunned her enough to make her purposely forget them. She couldn't dare hope . . . could she?
Cautiously, she mounted the light path. It was like walking on glass or ice. Ducking under the window, she gasped as she realised she was leaving all her friends behind them.
You'll see them again soon, Gallinule said with the mental equivalent of a grin, and Sarah felt more reassured. She ascended the trail of moonlight.
She'd never been bothered by heights, which was why she felt no further fear as she walked higher and higher, until the houses and trees were far, far below her. Up ahead, she could see a strange sort of . . . rip in the sky, a hole even.
You have to go inside. Elliya's voice was very faint now, not through weakness but distance. Sarah approached it, feeling completely unreal and almost unattached from her body.
You'd best say goodbye to this place, Tallinn, Gallinule said gently. You won't be seeing it again.
Sarah turned and looked down the trail to her house. She narrowed her eyes.
"Good riddance," she said, with feeling.
And leapt inside the hole.
Sarah woke, completely disorientated. For a moment, her mind was a complete blank, and she was terrified. But it all came back to her, and she surveyed her surroundings.
Her first impressions were of a destroyed, futuristic building, from the inside. It was huge, it was smooth and white, but the walls were crumbling and the domed ceiling threatened to cave in over her. Through ragged cracks around the perimeter, she caught glimpses of great oceans of debris, and a harsh purple/red sky that occasionally flashed with lightning. Great rumbles of thunder echoed around her. Sarah felt incredibly alone, worse than where she'd been before. That place now seemed like a distant memory.
She rose, lifting her head slowly. The room looked huge, but she seemed to be in danger of crashing into walls. Calm down, Sarah, she thought to herself, but somehow the name didn't fit anymore.
There was a draconic shriek from her left, shrill and fierce. She turned her head swiftly, startled to see a black shape hovering behind a crack. It seemed to be trying to get in. All too abruptly, the crack widened and a hideous black head burst through it, foaming at the mouth, its jaws snapping. It bayed for her blood.
That was no dragon! She knew it to be a wyvern, a dragon twisted into a dark form by unknown evils. How did she know that? It didn't matter, for she was terribly frightened, backing up against the walls. Mihal! Where was Mihal? She wanted him with her; she missed him so much that it hurt.
"Mihal!" she screamed. "Help me!"
She swivelled her head around, aware that somehow her neck was too long, and saw a different, smaller and most of all friendly head poking through a wider crack in the ceiling.
"Gallinule!" she gasped, extending a strangely foreign hand to the dragon, who was so much smaller than she had anticipated. "Help me!"
"I can't get in from here, and I can't fight off a wyvern. That passage there - go down it. There's an entrance there, and that's where I'll meet you!"
His green head disappeared, and Sarah/Tallinn swung her lithe body down the passage, hands smashing the marble floor as she raced down the narrow tunnel. She heard the wyvern breaking down the wall behind her, and nearly cried with relief when she saw Gallinule's lizard-like dragon body in a wider part of the passage before her.
"There's a chute down here. Come on, it's the only way we can escape him." He turned, darting down the corridor. Sarah/Tallinn followed quickly, confused but too scared to do anything other than obey him. Abruptly, the passage widened vastly and she was faced with a great drop into blackness.
"I can't go down there! I'll fall!"
Gallinule's beady eyes seemed to intensify. "Don't tell me you're still disorientated! Look, Tallinn, you have your wings back. Use them!"
With that, Gallinule's sleek body launched down into the depths of the pit, his wings spreading when he had enough room. Firmly deciding on her future name, Tallinn drew back, then jumped. She plummeted down the hole, and spread her large wings instinctively, back-winging and hovering. Finally gaining some confidence, she dove downwards, surprised to see the 'pit' curve off into a huge tunnel. Gallinule was hovering by a faintly glowing sphere protruding from the ceiling. As she neared him, he nudged it with his muzzle.
There was a loud clank behind her that shook the tunnel, and the wyvern's cry of anger. She craned her head back to see the now sealed entrance of the chute.
"All righty," Gallinule said with a sigh of relief. "Let's go, Tallinn!"
Tallinn blinked at him, and rolled through the air, beating her wings with sudden revelation. "Gally, I'm a dragon!"
"I can't believe you ever doubted it!"
They emerged from the 'chute', as Gallinule called it, and Tallinn cried out in despair when she saw the ravaged land. Buildings lay shattered on the ground, a mess of marble debris with little coherence. She even saw the great, hollow skeletons of dragons scattered around. Tears rolled from her great opalescent eyes at the utter desolation. Even Gallinule looked sedated, his eyes shimmering with wetness. He nodded at her to land by what looked like a relatively secure lake. Sighing heavily, she obeyed.
"What is this place?" she asked, surveying her reflection in the lake water.
"This is Home." Gallinule's usually comical voice was heavy with sorrow. "The other dragons built the chutes and more buildings when the wyverns grew in number. But they soon overcame them, both in number and sheer aggression. They were forced to leave Home."
"So how did I end up in the body of a human girl?"
Gallinule shot her a feeling that told her he was smiling. "They lost you in the dimensional rift we took to New Home. You'll probably be happy to know you weren't the only one. They were being pursued and several of the younglings were accidentally dropped on their way to New Home. I was only young when it happened so I don't remember much, and Elliya was only recently recovered."
"Elliya, too?" A thought struck her. "What about the statuettes, the figurines?"
"We knew where abouts you were, but not your exact location. We couldn't exactly come down and find you, or we'd've terrified the people there. So we planted notions in sculptors' heads of our images, and knew that the statuettes they created would eventually home in on you. They provided a weak link between New Home and you. But we still couldn't find your exact location. Mihal was out of his mind with worry."
"Mihal!" Tallinn's head shot up from her reflection.
Gallinule looked surprised. "Yes, Mihal! You didn't realise, but the preferences you had in figurines represent the relationship you have with the dragon whose image it was made in. Elliya and myself would have . . . and probably still will be . . . your closest friends at New Home if you hadn't been lost. And Mihal . . ."
"I was so confused," Tallinn murmured. "I didn't understand how I could love a statue so much. How did you find me?"
Gallinule's head tilted to one side. "Poor Mihal. He was trying so hard to maintain a link between his eternity-mate and New Home that when his figurine shattered, he collapsed, exhausted. You were devastated, and let off a signal of sorrow so strong that even the weakest of dragons could have picked it up. Shelia - your mirror dragon - was able to help Mihal speak to you before he lost full contact. He is desperate to meet you in your dragon form, you know."
"Wait! What about my mum and dad? What will happen to Sarah?"
Gallinule crooned encouragingly. "Sarah was never meant to exist. That's why you caused so many disturbances. Now that you've left that place, things have reverted back to how they should have been: your parents never had children; your relatives never heard of you; your friends and teachers have forgotten you ever existed. I know you often wondered why the things you were taught seemed irrelevant. It's because you would never need to know them if you hadn't been lost!"
Tallinn lay down, exhausted by all the sudden knowledge being passed to her. She was startled when a flurry of silver landed deftly on the ground beside Gallinule, and brightened considerably when she realised whom it was.
"Elliya!" she cried, and twined necks with the larger female dragon. Surprised by her own intimacy, she mentally blushed.
"That's okay, Tallinn. It's called instinct, and you'd better get used to relying on it a lot," she said with a wink.
"Amen to that," Tallinn said, and launched into the air with her two companions.
"The nearest Rip is that way," Elliya informed them, and caught a wind current going in that direction. Tallinn could see it from here; a small black hole in the sky.
"Don't lose me this time!" Tallinn called, and Elliya and Gallinule rumbled with laughter.
As they entered the Rip and were absorbed into its nothingness, her two friends curled their tails around her foreclaws.
"You don't know the way," they said simultaneously. "We'll take you back to Mihal!"
Mihal . . . just the thought of him sent electric flutters through her being. She pictured him in her mind, wanting him more than ever. Could she love him as much in the flesh as she had done in stone?
And then they were there, and a vast sea of dragons greeted them, bugling wildly and chanting her name.
"Tallinn! Tallinn! Tallinn!"
And a much weaker version of it assaulted her senses.
" . . . Tallinn . . ."
She saw him there, lying on the ground, his head extended weakly towards her. He was still tired from linking up with her on Earth? It didn't matter; she was here now, with him!
"Mihal, I've missed you," she murmured, and touched her snout to his. He smiled.
"Welcome Home," he said.