Mistral opened her eyes. The blazing sunshine blinded her and she raised a hand for shade. Pain coursed through every part of her body, but seemed to radiate from her left shoulder. Both forearms and her left wrist ached horribly. They must have taken the impact of her fall. Her shoulder though felt as though it had been run through with a sword. A feeling she knew too well.
Shadows moved above her. She tried to focus, rattling off a spell to dissipate the pain and begin healing. Two men and a woman, each with skin darker than the leather of her jacket, watched her. The older man, grey haired and lined by the passing of time, offered her a bowl of water.
“Drink. You are safe now.”
“Safe?” Mistral considered the idea without humour. Unless her quest succeeded ‘safe’ as a concept might no longer exist, for any living being. “How can that be?”
“The men who shot you think you are dead. They have gone away.”
“Someone shot me?” Mistral sorted through the memory of falling from the bike. The explosion of pain. “Did you remove the arrow?”
“Arrow?” the old man shook his head and glanced to the woman. “Shot with a gun.” The woman approached, holding the weapon Mistral borrowed from the truck stop cook. “Gun, like this. Not arrow.”
“I heard, saw, no one. Daemons will try to stop me. I should have been more careful.” Mistral berated herself for allowing the thrill of speeding through the night to leave her vulnerable. She should have smelt the daemon taint, but the wind worked against her. “Beast sped too fast, wind too strong. Not safe mode of transport.”
“You are here now.” The younger man stood with his hands on narrow hips. White teeth flashed as he spoke. Where his shirt opened at the neck, a bone pendant glistened, white against dark skin. She squinted, looking into his eyes as he continued. “We are the guardians. We have waited for your arrival. Watched. Waited. Tonight we heard the dragon’s whispered warning. Found you.”
“Thank you. Do you have transport? We must reach the focus before time begins to loop.”
“My name is Gimbarra. My son, Yarra, my woman Morawi. Your name...”
“Mistral. I apologise, but time is speeding up. We do not have time to spare on healing, or exchanging names. Help me reach the focus.”
“You have been shot. You need treatment else you will not be going anywhere.” Morawi spoke for the first time. Both men nodded. “For now you must rest.”
“I will take care of healing my own wounds, if you can help me travel. Please. We have moved from where I fell. Did you bring the staff? I will need it when we reach the focus.”
“We have been watching and waiting for many generations. You speak of a need for hurry, but nothing has happened for so many years. Why is there a need to rush now? Nothing seems changed from the day before yesterday or the year before that. Out here, things take time. Nothing rushes.” Gimbarra sat cross legged on the red desert dirt as though willing to stay there all day. He held the walking stick in his hands though. Mistral almost forgave him his calm.
Mistral ground her teeth. The pain when she moved over powered her spells. With or without magic, she needed to travel to the focus. Blood no longer leaked from her injured shoulder. She would live. For now. If she failed in her quest, a bullet would be the least of her troubles.
“I will go alone if you are not prepared to help me.” She clutched her injured arm to her side and began the task of scrambling to her feet. “I will find the way.”
“Stubborn.” Morawi offered her hand for support. “We will take you where you want to go, and we will not allow you to be shot again.”
The rusty truck shook Mistral’s bones until she wanted to scream. Hot air burned her lungs with each drawn in breath. Dust choked every pore of skin that did not stream with sweat. Morawi offered her a clear cylinder of water. The soft outer casing buckled between Mistral’s fingers.
“Plastic.” Yarra’s eyes rolled. “Not good but very useful. Keep drinking. In this heat even without blood loss you will become dehydrated.”
“How do people survive living here? Is this normal weather or is this from being close to the border?” She slopped a handful of water over her face, before gulping a mouthful of the warm fluid. “It is too hot now, but last night it was so cold.”
“That’s the desert for you. We live here. Our people have done since the time of Dreaming.” Gimbarra lifted a hand from the steering wheel to indicate the vast expanse of wilderness stretching to the horizon. “This is our home. We love this land and know her moods. The border does not change the weather.”
“We are close now.” Mistral let the draw of the dragon focus flow through her. Closer to the focus, her healing spells began to take effect. She risked the energy drain and added a spell to ease the effect of the weather. “Stop here. We should walk the rest of the way.”
“This is not where we have maintained our watch.” Yarra’s brow furrowed over dark eyes. “The circle of stones is still a way off.”
“Here.” Mistral grabbed the steering wheel. “Stop here. Now.”
“All right missy. Settle down. We are here to help.” Gimbarra grated the gears and halted the truck beside a lonely gum tree. “If this is where you want to be... this is where we are.”
Mistral struggled to open the door. She scrambled clear of the truck, ignored the burning sand beneath the soles of her boots and let the power of the dragon focus guide her.
“I smell daemons.” She turned her head, sniffing the hot air. “How often do they escape through the border?”
“We have kept them contained as best we can. Without a constant source of magic we cannot prevent every escape. Occasionally a few make it past our circle. Some are trapped in the rocks and sand here. Others flee and meet their fate elsewhere.” Morawi stood beside Mistral, cocked her head and sniffed. “How do you smell them?”
“A daemon hunter is born able to sense daemon kind. It is part of my blood. Same as I can feel a dragon focus. We are bred for the skills we possess.” Mistral waited for the pain from her shoulder to settle before lifting the short staff. “Can you feel time speeding up? It is about to circle around and swing back on itself. Even the dragons don’t know what effect such an event will have on your world, but we know that the border is locked by a spell that is linked to time. I must reset the lock so it remains viable for the next millennium, or until time again reaches the end of its cycle.”
“Today, of course.” Yarra glanced at the sky, where the single sun hung high above, burning the air with its power. “November two thousand and twelve. We are about to enter a new time of Dreaming.”
“Without soul daemons.” Mistral ran her hands along the short walking stick, traced the design of the horse’s head and closed her eyes. “If I succeed in spinning magic.” She followed Gimbarra and sat cross legged on the burning sand. “This is my quest. To release magic back into your world. At least enough to keep the border closed. Thank you for your help. If I succeed, tonight you will celebrate. If I fail...”
“How can we help?”
“Leave me but keep watch, please. Use the gun if you need to. The daemons have tried once to stop me. They may again...” Mistral allowed her spirit to expand as she summoned aid from the elements. As Time raced to the end of its cycle, she ignored the pain of physical injury and struggled to weave magic.