Emerald lightning flashed across the blood-red sky, seeming to Ember’s eyes like the Grim Reaper’s skeletal fingers grasping at some luckless mortal on the ground below. The air tingled with energy, creating a static buzz in Ember’s magical senses.
“Ash, what have you done? Where are we?” She turned to her grinning sister. Ash’s crimson-dyed tresses flew about in the gusty breeze, obscuring her eyes. She swept a hand over her face to clear her gaze.
“I’ve brought us to the dimension where Aetrix hid Cedric’s memories, that’s what I’ve done. You’re welcome.”
Ember’s eyes widened. “Ash, dimensional travel is dangerous. Like less than half the Witches who try it ever return home. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Don’t you want to get your husband’s memories back?” Ash’s pleading, glazed eyes spurred Ember to action.
“Okay, I can’t discuss this with you if you’re high,” Ember grumbled. “Hold still.”
Ember brought to mind a cleansing spell, one which would clear her sister’s body of toxins. She extracted a pinch of sulfur from her purse and spoke a single, harsh syllable. Ember threw the sulfur at Ash. It ignited midair, causing Ash to yelp and recoil. The resulting smoke wormed its way into Ash’s nostrils.
“What—” Ash bent over in a coughing fit. The smoke returned, but with a sickly purple tint—the remaining Faerie Death’s Head toxins in Ash’s system being expunged along with the sulfur cloud.
Ash ceased coughing, raising up and staring at Ember with lucid eyes. “What was that?”
“I need you sober, Ash,” Ember said, casting a fearful eye skyward. “I cleansed your blood of the remaining Faerie mushrooms. You’re lucky that you just got exposed to it instead of being a long-time abuser, or it wouldn’t have worked.”
“Damn Krebs,” Ash grumbled. “Still, even if I hadn’t been on mushrooms, I’d have brought us here straight away.”
“Would you? You’re lucky I have my purse, so I’ve got spell components.”
Ash sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I wasn’t thinking. Look, sis…”
Ash dug around inside her shirt and produced a green crystal pendant. “We’ve got our way back home, guaranteed. I break this, say the appropriate command word, and bam—instant portal back to our dimension.”
Ember grimaced, her eyes staring at the red skies above. “Ash, you haven’t asked why I want you sober yet.”
“I’ve got a divining rod that will lead us straight to Cedric’s memories, Ember,” Ash shook her head. “And what are you going on about?”
“Is it just me, or are those dragon-things getting closer?” Ember asked, pointing at the skies.
Ash stared up, her eyes wide with dawning realization. “It’s not just you. There’s more of them, too.”
Ember pursed her lips in worry. Whatever dimension Ash had deposited them in seemed hostile. The blasted, craggy landscape consisted of sundered, cracked plains and sheer jagged cliffs rearing up hundreds, maybe thousands of feet in the air. If there were any water or vegetation to be found, Ember saw no evidence of it as yet.
The bleak landscape offered no place to hide, no strategic advantage against a flying adversary. Ember didn’t like their chances. The reptiles in the sky bore a saurian aspect, like the medieval concept of dragons, but their humming wings appeared more insect-like. Their wings created a dull roar in the air, which grew louder all the time as the creatures circled in.
Worst of all, each dragon was the same size as a Greyhound bus.
“How’s your weather magic these days, sis?” Ash asked.
“So-so,” Ember replied. “If you’re thinking we can blow these things out of the sky, I’m not sure we have the power, even working together.”
Ash glanced over at Ember. “Have you looked at this place? I mean, with your witchy eyes?”
Ember frowned. “No, it was too intense. I turned it off.”
“Turn it back in and look for ley lines.”
Ember closed her eyes for a moment and coaxed her magical senses back into awareness. Her jaw gaped open. Jagged lines of silent, ivory energy ran through the ground, the sky, everywhere.
“There must not be any magic users on this world,” Ember stammered.
“Or not very many.” Ash grinned. “What about it? You want to send these dragons on an all expenses paid trip to the Land of Oz?”
Ember nodded. She held Ash’s hand and they began a chant. The winds picked up in tempo, swirling into a circle around them. Gritty dust twisted up from the land and obscured the winged creatures from view.
They chanted louder, stronger, Ash’s grip on her hand threatening to break it. Power surged into them from the abundant ley lines. The cyclone grew larger, widening until they stood in the center of a maelstrom more than a hundred feet in diameter.
Ember stared upward, seeing numerous green blobs caught up in the tornado’s hungry embrace. They tumbled about; gossamer wings torn into mutilated shreds. “Ash, we have to let it go.”
“We haven’t got them all yet,” Ash gasped.
“It’s getting too big. We can’t control it.” Already the tornado screamed at them for more power, more energy. It existed to devour, that is why they birthed it. It didn’t understand why they didn’t just fuel it to hurricane size.
“You’re right, sorry,” Ash said. They released hands, cut off the flow of power to the tornado. It screamed as it died, a wrenching sound that echoed off the jagged cliffs and filled the sisters with a deep sense of despair.
Ember and Ash stood panting in the center of a series of concentric circles. The winds had been so fierce they’d scoured the very rock beneath their feet. Ember glanced up in the air and shouted.
“Ash, look out.”
She tackled Ash, driving them both to the hard, unforgiving rocky ground. A split second later, the mangled corpse of one of the dragon-things thudded to the ground where Ash had stood.
“Thanks, Ash said. They looked around as more bits of dragons rained down. Ember’s heart sank when she saw more than a dozen of the things remained. The sudden windstorm had killed many, and driven away the rest, but not for long. Already they amassed for another try.
Ember panted, going down to one knee. Ash barely kept her footing, bending over to rest her palms on her knees.
“Been a long time since I channeled that much power,” Ember gasped.
“More of them are coming,” Ash said, offering her hand to Ember. “We have to do something.”
“Like what? If we try to use more magic now, we’ll burn out. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a Lich.”
“Then we’re going to die,” Ash said as the dragon-things swooped ever lower in the blood skies above.
Ember shoved Ash forward as the pair broke into a gallop. She caught glimpses over her shoulder of a dragon-beast swooping in low, its fanged maw spread wide enough to swallow them both. The insect like wings droned into a painfully loud cacophony.
Ash saw it too. She skidded to a halt on the hard, rugged terrain, pivoting to face the dragon.
“Ash, don’t!” Ember gasped. “You can’t channel more magic now, it’ll kill you!”
“I’ve got no choice but to try,” Ash said grimly. A crackling blue barrier appeared in the air, forming a half bubble around the sisters. Not a moment too soon, Ember saw, as forked green lightning spewed from the dragon’s cavernous maw.
Ash’s shield lit up like the midday sun. Ember threw her arm up to protect her eyes. When she looked again, the barrier had fallen but she and Ash were unhurt. The dragon flashed past overhead less than ten feet above them. Ember and Ash flew back under the brunt of the sudden wind gust left in the creature’s wake.
“Get up, there’s another one about to strafe us,” Ember shouted. She grabbed Ash’s hand and tried to tug her sister up. Ash mumbled something, her eyes fluttering closed. She fell limp and boneless back to the rocky terrain. “Ash? I told you not to channel magic again so soon…”
Ember thought of the pendant. If she broke it, then they could return to their own dimension. Only Ember didn’t know the command word, and Ash was in no shape to tell her.
She drew magic from the ley lines and added it to her own reserve, preparing to cast a final, protective spell which would keep Ash safe for a little bit longer, at least. Maybe long enough to wake up and break the talisman and gate them home herself.
Before she could utter one word of the spell which might very well kill her, a rapid, coughing rattle reached her ears above the incoming dragon’s droning wings. The dragon’s eyes squeezed shut, a roar of agony escaped its maw as blood erupted in gouts all along its right flank. The wing on that side exploded into gossamer shreds.
The dragon dipped down and crashed hard, sliding along the craggy stone and leaving blood and scales in its wake. Ember shrieked as its massive maw slid along the ground, growing closer and closer, until it seemed it would still devour them even in death.
It ceased the slide at last, and Ember nearly fainted with relief. She looked about, hearing the repeated coughing coming from all around now.
Men in green uniforms appeared in organized ranks, setting up defensive lines and fending off the dragons with machine gun fire. Ember’s mouth gaped open.
“Where did these guys come from?” she gasped.
“Is the military here?”
Ember deflated in relief. “Ash, you’re okay!”
“I think so. My head hurts like nobody’s business, though. Is the military here or what?”
Ash held a hand over her eyes, face contorted in an agonized grimace.
“I don’t think so. These guys are speaking another language. Chinese, I think. And look at their uniforms, and their rifles. These guys aren’t from our time, even if they are from Earth.”
The soldiers only managed to fell one more of the dragon things. It spiraled to the ground and crashed out of sight beyond a craggy ridgeline. The others fled, seeking easier prey.
“They won,” Ember said.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they’re friendly,” Ash’s voice bore a drum skin-tight anxiety.
One of the soldiers moved in, his eyes glancing between them with—to Ember’s mind—more concern than suspicion. His hands were spread out, palms open wide, as if to show he bore them no malice.
“Um, greetings?” Ember said as he approached. She stood up, squeezing Ash’s shoulder one last time.
“You speak English,” the man replied, seeming surprised.
“As do you, sir,” Ember replied. “I’m Ember McNair, and this is my sister Ash. Thanks for saving us.”
The man smiled. “It’s our job to defend Driftwood’s borders and its people. That includes Newcomers like yourselves. I’m Captain Yang. Nice to meet you.”
Ember gaped. “Newcomers? That implies this happens with some frequency. And what’s Driftwood?”
“You’ll be among the twenty thousandth people to appear here,” Yang said. “So I suppose it does happen with some frequency. Driftwood is the settlement made by people who wind up here, through no fault of their own.”
“And you guys pull together for the common good?” Ember asked.
“Yes.” She flinched as Yang stepped forward, but all he did was help her lift Ash into a standing position. “Can you walk? Driftwood’s a few miles north of here.”
“I think so,” Ash replied. Yang handed her a canteen. Ash took a long sip, her face contorting in disgust. Yang laughed.
“You’ll get used to the taste of the native water soon enough. I don’t even notice it any longer.”
Ember arched an eyebrow. “How long have you been here?”
Yang pursed his lips. “Just a moment.”
He turned about and barked out a series of orders to his men in Chinese. They picked up their machine guns and lined up for the march back to Driftwood like a well-oiled machine.
Yang turned back to them and sighed. “It’s hard to say. There’s no sun here, no seasons. It is hard to judge time. If I had to guess…fifty years?”
Ember scoffed. “Impossible. You’re thirty something or I’m an eight-legged toad.”
Yang cocked an eyebrow at her strange analogy. “No one ages in this dimension. Children reach adulthood, and then they stop growing.”
Ember and Ash exchanged glances. “I wonder how time passes back in our world?”
“No way to tell. The talisman should bring us back to the exact moment we left, though.”
Ember sighed. “All right. I guess for now we should go back with these guys.”
Ash shook her head. “But the divining rod is telling us to go in a different direction.”
“They know their way around here a lot better than we do,” Ember replied.
Ash sighed. “All right. You’ve convinced me.”
They followed the soldiers for a mile through a twisted landscape of rugged canyons, sheer cliffs, and sudden, plunging cliffs leading to terminal falls. Neither sun nor moon shone in the skies above. Lightning flashed, and the clouds billowed, but not a drop of rain fell upon them during the trek to Driftwood.
“Look,” Ash gasped, grabbing Ember’s shoulder. Ahead of them lay a strange city made of oddly shaped structures. As they trudged closer, it became apparent the buildings were slap dashed together out of various scavenged materials. In some cases, a building consisted of a ship hull turned on its end, doors and windows carved out of its metal chassis.
“Do you think you can make it the rest of the way on your own?” Yang asked. “My men and I need to find out why the dragons are swarming so close to Driftwood. If something’s riling them up, it could be trouble.”
“I think we’ll be fine,” Ember said. “Thanks for your help. Um, is there someone specific we should talk to?”
“Mayor Earhart will get you squared away. All Newcomers are entitled to basic housing. It may not be fancy, but it’ll keep the rain out.”
“It rains?” Ash asked.
“Sometimes. I wish you well.”
“Thank you, Captain. Thanks again for saving us.”
They parted ways. Ember and Ash walked toward the city.
“See there?” Ember pointed. “They’re growing some kind of crops in fields outside the city walls.”
“I see what looks like steam powered generators, too,” Ash said, gesturing in a different direction. “These people have managed to cobble together a decent existence for themselves, all things considered. I wonder how they keep ending up here?”
“The walls between dimensions can grow thin in places. Sometimes a particularly powerful spell cast on one dimension can warp two or more together, as well. In this dimension’s case, I’d say it’s been primarily plucking people from Earth. Like the soldiers.”
“And like this guy,” Ash said, pointing ahead. “Look.”
A trio of men broke away from a building made of a dismantled city bus and strode toward them with purpose. The man in the lead appeared clean cut, even dapper. He wore a nice, if dated, suit and a thin smile.
“Welcome, Newcomers,” he said. “Welcome to Driftwood. If you’ll just hand over your entry tax, we’ll let you go along on your way.”
“Entry tax?” Ember frowned. “Captain Yang didn’t mention an entry tax.”
“Well, his job is killing monsters, my job is collecting entrance tax. What can you do?” he shrugged. “So if you’ll just hand over everything you have on you, we’ll let you go on your way.”
Ember gripped her purse protectively. “We’re not going to do any such thing.”
The man sneered. His fellows cocked old-looking but functional rifles.
“Then you ain’t setting foot in Driftwood.”