Mistral took her first breath of Earth air and stifled a cough. Her lungs threatened to spasm. Darkness, thicker than the dragon’s cavern embraced her. In the distance the loom of light from the truck stop spread like a stain into the night. Stars crowded a single moon, watching her brace against the cold. The noises of the night took a few moments to sort, but nothing close threatened her progress.
Tightening her jacket against the chilled air, Mistral walked toward the light. Walking gave her time to get used to the fetid air and the unusual gravity. Exercise helped warm her limbs. Walking also gave her time to work on the languages and lessons the dragon said she would need. Stars moved above her, following her journey in awed silence.
The two women from the dragon’s vision sat at their narrow table clutching steaming mugs. They now stared out the window of the café, watching her as if she were a ghost rising from a grave. Their expression of amazement didn’t concern her. She needed the staff they carried. She swung open a fragile door, moving into the light and stifling warmth.
The smell of boiling oil, burnt sugar, coffee and human body odour made her gag. Intense light played havoc with her night vision. The sound of raucous music pounded her eardrums and for a moment she fought the urge to flee. No one else seemed to find the assault on their senses abnormal. Struggling to retain a shred of calm, she approached the woman with the ancient wood.
“Give me the staff. Please.” She found speaking the language aloud more difficult than running the words through her head. The woman’s expression of incredulity changed to one of confusion. The other woman leaned forward across the table, pushing aside a plate of half eaten food.
“She means your walking stick, love. I think she’s from one of those Fantasy convention things. What she’s doing out here is beyond me, but she looks serious.”
“If I succeed in my quest, I will return it to you. If I fail, you will not need it.” Mistral lifted her hand. “Please.”
“This belonged to my father.” The woman gripped the walking stick, caressing the engraved horse-head. White knuckles showed the ravages of age and failing health. On another world, Mistral could have offered to help the woman fight the disease running through her blood. Tonight time ran too fast. “Not only is it useful.” The old woman’s eyes twinkled as she looked at her companion and winked. “It is precious to me.”
“Ancient wood handled with love. The staff has attributes I need to save this world. Please, time is speeding up. Haven’t you noticed? So soon it will begin to cycle and then it will be too late.” Mistral considered removing the staff by force. Empowering the wood if stolen would take longer and the risk of her magic backfiring from an unfriendly conduit increased dramatically. “Please. I can give you nothing in return, except a promise to do my utmost to prevent the catastrophe that is developing.”
“Catastrophe?” Both women spoke. Mistral reached for the staff.
“Here, love. If it means so much to you. I hope it brings you luck.” The woman smiled and handed Mistral the walking stick. “If possible I would like it back when you have completed your quest.”
Mistral chose to ignore the woman’s patronising tone.
“Here...” Grey hair flicked as the woman searched in a pouch slung across her shoulder. She removed a think transparent tube and scribbled words on a folded paper. Within the confines of a circular stain from the base of the steaming mug, Mistral saw but could not read a series of neat runes. The woman glanced to her companion, meeting her eyes, before nodding as if she needed the other woman’s assurance. “There, that’s my home address. We’re travelling. Won’t be back for a while so there is no hurry. Still. I would appreciate getting the walking stick back.”
“Thank you many times.” Mistral folded the soft paper and tucked it inside her vest. If she survived, if she succeeded, she would find someone to decipher the writing. Following the rank smell of hot oil, Mistral left the women as they began to chatter. She needed to hurry. A quickening of her blood heralded the approach of dawn. Within the harsh light of the cafe, she almost lost sense of her enemy, Time.
The cook’s weapon, secreted in a niche in the kitchen, took a moment to retrieve. The man’s ample girth rippled as he lunged toward her. She sidestepped, easily avoiding contact with his oil stained apron and grasping paws. His face reddened and his eyes bulged. The cook spluttered and spat but he did not shout as he scrambled after her.
Light as a summer breeze Mistral moved out of his reach. She shoved the heavy metal ieapon into her belt and pushed past the hot stove. Rather than trying to explain her need to the blustering cook, Mistral smiled. “Thanks. I will return this, if I succeed.” She slammed the kitchen door and wedged an empty drum against the lock.
Before the cook managed to escape from his kitchen, or alert the others, Mistral threaded her way through a collection of parked vehicles till she found a neglected bike. It took a moment to locate the two wheeled contraption she had seen in the dragon’s vision.
No longer shining, but full of fuel, the bike needed a spark of energy to bring it to life. Using a mix of science and magic Mistral brought the beast to life. Another of the dragon’s lessons came into use as she turned the throttle and selected a gear. Once astride the metal monster, she tucked the staff beneath her and turned the bike toward the darkness of the empty desert.
Behind her all sound and light from the truck stop faded. Alone on a strange world, she marvelled at the speed she travelled. She heard nothing apart from the wind rushing past her ears. Moving faster than a dragon descending to a kill, Mistral experimented with switches until the machine’s lights came on. Years of travel on horseback seemed like wasted time compared to the black beast racing tirelessly toward the dawn. Its narrow beam of light helped her negotiate the rough terrain and although others might follow, the urgency of her quest drove her onward.
The pull of the dragon focus, buried for forty thousand years, guided Mistral across the barren landscape. Populated by stunted shrubs and boulders, the empty horizon illuminated by a blood red dawn reminded her of how far from her own world she had travelled.
The explosion of pain knocked her from the saddle before she heard the crack of sudden thunder. Mistral screamed. Her body hit the dirt. Tumbled and twisted, her world turned black.