Frost Bite part 2
The realization that I might actually prefer to stay here rather than continue training was... unsettling. I had worked for years for the opportunity to get behind the controls of a jet! The entire goal of my life had been flying. Was I going to give up that dream? So I could sit in a cave with a creature who I still wasn't sure was not a hallucination?
I thought about it for a long time, but the feeling persisted, the feeling that I should do just that.
The second night I spent in the cave produced some odd dreams. In one of them I flew between the trees of a pine forest. I was chasing the bobbing white tail of a deer, wind rustling the feathers on my wings and head. I flapped harder, anticipating the joy of a clean kill and the sweet taste of fresh meat. I banked left and-
Stars filled my vision. Even though it was a dream I still felt like someone had hit me in the face with a shovel. I had the impression that I'd ran into a lamp-post inexplicably placed in the middle of the woods.
All my dreams that night followed a similar theme. All involved flying without an actual plane involved. I was enjoying them a lot, and I would have slept for a lot longer if something hadn't started poking my face.
I ignored it at first, but it only became more insistent. Finally, it stopped. I relaxed, intent on more sleep, until a deep, loud voice spoke from close by. I sat up so fast that I smacked heads with a certain someone who’d been leaning over me.
For a moment the cave was full of noise- both from me and the bird, who was squawking indignantly. Someone, a third person, made a staccato rumbling noise that I guessed might be laughter. I turned to look at the newcomer, and forgot all about the new bruise on my forehead.
Dragons, I decided, looked a lot smaller when they were on TV.
This dragon had a definite Asian look to it, less reptilian than the "Saint George and the-" type. He( -she?-it?) couldn't have been less than twelve feet tall, with a long serpentine body covered in burnt orange colored scales. The head was shaped like a wolf's, with long whiskery things on both sides of the muzzle, short backswept horns and what looked like a mane of black fur. Its eyes were green and seemed to glow, though that might have been reflected firelight.
"Alar, are you certain this is the human you were talking about?" it rumbled. He (I hoped it was a he since I was guessing from the deep voice) smirked. "Did it break its jaw before you found it?"
I realized that my mouth was dangling open. Scrambling to my feet I remembered something I had read about customs in Asia. To show respect, you needed to...bow.
I pivoted so I was square to the dragon and bent at the waist in a sloppy imitation of the Oriental custom. I wished that I hadn't bent over quite so far; my nose was aimed almost at my boots, and I had no idea what to do with my hands. The cave was very quiet. The bird had even stopped complaining about his aching head. It suddenly occurred to me that it could be doing anything, right down to getting ready to chomp my head off.
I eased my head up, one inch at a time, expecting to see a sudden, final flash of sharp teeth. Instead I saw the bird, who the dragon had called Alar, looking at me with interest. "See?" he said to the dragon, "When was the last time you saw a human react like that?"
For a long moment the dragon looked at me, expression unreadable. " About five or six hundred years ago, if you want to know the truth," the dragon rumbled finally. He dipped his long neck and, to my relief and surprise, returned the bow. "Very interesting. What's your name?" he said. "And you can get up now," he added, seeing that I was still bent over.
"Oh. Sorry. Uh, I'm Second Lieutenant Michael Grale, of the United States..." I stammered. The dragon's luminous gaze was making it hard to focus.
"I wondered about that," Alar commented, oblivious to my discomfort.
"You didn't think to ask his name yourself?" the dragon questioned.
"Ahh, sure I did.” Alar said lamely. “Well, I was planning to, but-"
"I swear, that is one of the defining traits of your kind. 'Wings, tail, eats meat, and never EVER thinks to ask someone their name'.”
I decided not to mention the fact that I’d been thinking of Alar as 'the bird' until about thirty seconds ago.
"I suppose that Alar neglected to tell you why I am here?" the dragon said. "My name is Pan Long. It's a traditional name for my family, which as you seem to have guessed, originated in China. I was born there, in fact. Exactly how I ended up in North America is a story for another time. It involves a revolution and large quantities of porcelain.
"Anyway, Alar asked me to come down here to help him figure out a- what did you describe him as? A ‘weird human’, I believe he said. Now that I've seen you, I'm inclined to agree with him. So then," Pan Long said, arranging his body into a neat coil on the cave floor, "Why don't you start from the beginning?"
Alar hadn't been sure that asking the human (Make that 'Grale') to share his entire life story was a good idea. Pan Long, however, had been adamant about it. Alar supposed that it made sense. After all, the more information the better.
There were things about Grale's story that surprised him, like how he'd been found when an infant. And placed in something called an "orphanage", and then “foster homes”. No parents?! Alar thought. Barbaric!
One thing Alar found no fault in was Grale relating his desire to fly. Only natural, poor defenseless ground plodder that he was. What really intrigued him were the descriptions of human constructs, called 'aircraft'. Grale had been learning how to operate these devices- which somehow explained how he'd ended up lost in the woods.
"You expect us to believe that a human walked on the moon?" Alar asked.
"Not one," Grale answered. "Twelve in all, and that was thirty or forty years ago."
"What was it like?" Pan Long asked. “There on the moon?” Alar was no longer paying attention. He was busy imagining himself riding one of those 'rockets'.
"Well, the astronauts- the humans who went there, I mean- called it 'magnificent desolation'. Since it was both beautiful and potentially deadly. If one of them had gotten even a slight rip in their space suit, their blood would have boiled. One of the most important things that they learned though, was how small the world is. We're a tiny, fragile speck in the universe that we all live on, a speck that we all need to share." Grale said.
"A wise sentiment," Pan Long said.
"What was that about boiling blood?" Alar said. " And what's a space suit?"
"Don't you think we've gotten a little bit off topic here, Alar?" Pan Long commented.
"That's more or less the end, anyway." Grale said. "Other than when I've been in here."
"I think not," Pan Long said. "For example, why does your memory start when you first were found abandoned? That's five years you have no recollection of, a long time for humans if I'm not mistaken. Do you have even the slightest hint of memory?"
Grale shook his head. "No. I mean, sometimes I have a moment where it feels like I'd been there before, but no memories ."
Pan Long scratched his head with a claw. "If you were one of our kind, I would say that someone blocked those memories. Just why someone would do this to an infant human , however..."
"Do you think that a gryphon helped care for him when he was young? That might explain where he learned those symbols," Alar said. He hoped that he was wrong, since he would probably be the one selected to track down any errant gryphon.
"Possible." Pan Long said."I wonder," he said to Grale. "Would you allow me to examine your mind directly?"
"Uh, sorry. Did you just ask me if you could-?"
"Yes. Don't worry, you won't be in any danger at all." Pan Long assured.
As if my day had not been going weird enough. If I was understanding what he was asking me, he wanted to somehow look right inside my head. I wondered what he might find in there. All my worst moments, all the things I still felt guilty about. All my most private moments, like the times I picked the lock to the orphanage roof to watch the stars for a little while. The time I broke that guy's arm. How I sometimes felt alone no matter how many people were around me.
Actually, I decided, if these were the deepest darkest secrets that I could come up with, what was I worried about?
"What do I do?" I asked Pan Long.
The dragon told me to take what remained of my parka and arrange it into a lumpy pillow, and then lie down on it. He also told Alar to wait outside. The gryphon started to protest, then silently walked out after a stern look. Finally Pan Long carefully laid a set of talons on my head. They felt cool against my head, the points as sharp as needles. The dragon’s breath puffed over me, moist and smelling strongly of tea.
"Just relax," he advised. This was easier said than done, but I gave it my best shot. A few minutes passed, and I almost asked when it would start.
Then suddenly, it was if the top of my skull had wrenched open. I felt a foreign presence among my thoughts, like a trickle of lukewarm water. It moved across my mind, a trailing finger of consciousness. Instinctively I tried to pull away from Pan Long's claw, but he held me fast. The panic that began to mount in me was tugged out of my mind like an errant thread.
The tendril wormed deeper, down past my surface thoughts. It didn't hurt, but it wasn't exactly pleasant. It reminded me of sitting still while the dentist was poking around inside your mouth. Every so often I felt something shift in response to whatever was going on down there. After a few minutes the sensation settled- I could only assume that Pan Long had found what he was looking for.
Then pressure started to build, turning into a genuinely painful headache. I tried to distract myself from the sudden pounding behind my eyes. This seemed a lot easier on TV, where people could ignore massive amounts of pain with the ease of a scene change.
Fictional characters notwithstanding, it felt like someone was shoving a screwdriver through my head. But I had my pride, and no amount of pain would make me start screaming like a little girl. I maintained this sentiment for about five seconds.
"AAAAUUUUGH!" I screamed.
After all, who was I trying to impress? I reasoned with myself. It was that exact moment of course that I saw Alar poke his beak into the cave out of the corner of my eye.
A short time later, though it felt like an eternity, the pain lessened and I felt Pan Long remove his talons from my head. "That was interesting," the dragon declared.
"Mmmmffff?" I replied.
"That was not any kind of mental block," Pan Long said as he casually set me back on my feet. "Actually, I'm not sure what that was. I couldn't find any structure down there at all. Nothing but muddled echoes of old memories and emotions. We'll have to try something else to solve this little conundrum."
Alar came back into the cave and the two of them talked for a while. I was happy to let them, at least until the throbbing in my head faded from apocalyptic to merely agonizing. And also, aside from the headache I felt... odd. Confined. Claustrophobic, even though the cave was plenty large.
After a few minutes Pan Long told me that they would be back. I just nodded, headache flaring at the movement. "Um, do you want something to read?" Alar asked. The gryphon ducked into an alcove and rummaged around, disturbing a swarm of insects and small animals in the process. He finally emerged with feathers dusty and with a cobweb dangling from one ear. "I knew I still had this somewhere!" Alar said triumphantly.
"You mean that book you borrowed from me last winter?" Pan Long grumbled.
"No, this is some OTHER book." Alar said. "Besides, if we leave him in here with nothing but the walls and the fire to stare at, he'll start to go nuts. Believe me, I know."
"Alright, but in all likelihood we will be back before he's in any condition to do any reading. The last time that I..."
Their voices faded as the two of them went off down the same tunnel that Alar gone down before. My head was still hurting, so I chose to simply try to sleep off the effects of Pan Long sifting through my gray matter. Sleep refused to come. After an hour spent staring at the smoke blackened rock of the ceiling I gave up and grabbed the book Alar left me. It was a weighty thing, wrapped tightly in a leather cover. I had only seen a book like this once before, and it’d been behind thick glass in a museum. I opened it, the binding creaking.
Every page of the book was filled with symbols that were somehow both simple and complex at the same time. Familiar symbols, not unlike those I had drawn on myself a short time ago.
I’d seen these before. Somehow, I recognized this language even if I did not understand it. As I flipped through the pages I sometimes came across illustrations. Carefully drawn sketches of gryphons in flight. Vast landscapes of bare rock and grass and sky, ships preparing to sail. I wanted to know what this language meant, to know what this book was about.
Talons scraped against the rock behind me. Were they back already?
Something hit me, a blur of white that lifted me clear off the floor where I had been sitting. My head smacked hard into the floor. Then blackness.