Kellen scrambled over the stony lip, sending a shower of pebbles tumbling back down the mountain. Having regained the safety of the path, he allowed himself a well-earned break. On hands and knees he tried in vain to get his breath back, panting in the rarefied atmosphere. The air was clean and crisp, but really too thin Kellen thought to himself. Climbing mountains was not something he made a habit of.
A jade ring hung on a string from the opening of his shirt. He usually wore it on his hand but not only was that a good way to lose a finger when climbing but jade was far too precious to risk a scrape. Not so the black iron pendant dangling from his belt. He might have strung that around his neck also but those two did not like being too close.
The iron pendant tugged at his belt as if caught by a breeze even though the air was still. It was as if the world held its breath in anticipation. Kellen stood up, rubbing knees sore from the hard path, and looked over the edge. A rockslide had torn the ancient path from the face of the mountain forcing him to climb the vertical face. It had not been difficult but it was dangerous nonetheless and the constant tension had drained him. The climb should have left him soaked in sweat but Kellen had never been one for perspiring much unless it was in a sauna. Oh what I would give for a sauna. And a massage. He snapped out of it. His search was not over yet.
His boots crunched on loose rock. The path had not seen many feet in recent times. In the predawn gloom Kellen could make out the prayer gate marking the entrance to the monastery. Two massive logs raised a third like a triumphant weightlifter, each at least three feet in diameter. The logs were painted vermillion, though at this early hour, the world was washed in shades of grey. He looked up to see folded paper strips hanging motionlessly from the gate; prayers waiting for a divine wind to take them to heaven.
He strode across a courtyard paved in white stone. Empty. Kellen suspected that it would normally be busy with disciples performing their morning patterns. Instead it was eerily quiet and Kellen was unable to shake the feeling of eyes on his back. The monks, knowing his purpose, did not delay him.
We’ll pay our respects on the way back.
And have some tea. Oolong or perhaps green tea.
His destination was close now. He could feel it drawing him on.
At the other end of the courtyard stood the smaller twin to the prayer gate, beyond which the path continued upwards. As Kellen passed through, the sun climbed around the peak, flooding the day with light. A rooster crowed a greeting from atop the tiled roof of the temple. Or perhaps it was announcing the arrival of a pilgrim come to pay homage to the gods of the mountain.
Kellen had never before climbed this mountain and yet he had been here before. It was a journey he had made twice previously. The last time had been along the rocky coast of the Javan Islands, skirting steamy rainforests. Now that had been a sauna. Locals had guided him to a grotto accessible only by sea, then having brought Kellen to the cave they refused to enter it themselves. The grotto was completely sealed from the outside except for an underwater tunnel. Fortunately Kellen had always been a strong swimmer. Surfacing inside the grotto, his strokes sent up splashes of water, where to his delight, every ripple sent flashes of emerald light dancing along the surface; some trick of the light coming through the underwater tunnel from the outside.
That journey a dozen years ago had led to the emerald grotto. This time the journey had brought him to a cave almost to the summit. Though each cave bore no geographical relation to the others, scattered across far flung corners of the world as they were, they were somehow linked. All the caves were one.
He had returned to the birthplace of dragons.
He removed his thick soled boots and woollen socks at the tunnel entrance; one came humbly to the sacred places of the world. The air was more substantial somehow, warmer and more vibrant. Pebbles underfoot sent jolts of sensation racing like lightning up the back of his legs, twisting around his spine and behind his ears, setting his scalp to tingling. Barefoot, he could feel every pebble, every grain of sand. It was energising.
Pyron rumbled blissfully at the sensation, his coal-black body radiating the warmth of his pleasure from where he clung to Kellen’s belly, tail encircling his waist.
“I prefer the pink sands of my grotto.” Nephriti’s voice was like the clear chiming of a bell, reverberating through Kellen’s mind and body, her green serpentine length draped artfully from Kellen’s shoulders. Her smooth body was cool against Kellen’s neck, the tiny jade scales shading to milky white towards her belly. Antlers the colour of coral delicately swept back from her brow. She was the image of a queen at her ease on a divan.
“Ever the jealous one aren’t you Neph?”
“Just because I am beautiful,” she said archly, pointedly looking down on Pyron’s stumpy black body and his blunt snout. The only elegant thing about him, in Nephriti’s opinion, was his long tail that, in the right light, would shine with a silvery black lustre.
“Stuck up queen too,” Pyron grumbled to himself.
“I heard that,” Nephriti’s voice rising in pitch, claws squeezing Kellen’s collar causing him to wince.
The dragons’ personalities were polar opposites but while their constant bickering might cause Kellen headaches, their influences on him were rather complementary to one another. Sometimes he wondered to himself whether the bargain was worth it.
“Youngsters should remember their place,” said Pyron.
“I do. It is you who needs to recall where you are from.”
Of the two, it was Pyron who had come to him first, on a night more than two decades ago. The sky over the red plains was a spray of stars, as if a heavenly artist had flicked his silver paintbrush across a midnight canvas. Across the sky had streaked a star falling from heaven. Kellen had discovered the crater and as he crept down to its centre the earth grew warmer beneath the bare soles of his feet. There in the middle was a piece of a star, still glowing with life, too hot to approach. The heat drove him back but his sharp eyes were drawn by the cool metallic glint of a needle-sized sliver; a shard of the star. He picked up the raw iron needle. When he left had the crater he came away with Pyron.
Since discovering the star needle Pyron had been his constant companion, a warm, comfortable presence burning steadily like embers in Kellen’s mind. Pyron was like a rock at the bottom of a deep pool on which Kellen could anchor himself. Though winds might cause ripples upon the surface, the depths remained undisturbed. Calm.
That is not to say those waters could not be churned up into a whirlpool. If Pyron was his rock, then Nephriti was a squalling monsoon wind, whipping the water to white froth. Kellen’s mood often mimicked hers, as if her emotions leaked through to him, though she seemed to be unconscious of her effect on him. She’s like an elemental force. Tempestuous, Kellen reflected. He worried that she was having a greater influence on him of late. She was quick to anger when things did not go the way she desired. Imperious. That was definitely Pyron’s thought.
On the night that the star fell a fire was kindled within Kellen. He left the red plains of his birth behind, drawn ever onwards to explore the next hill, to cross the next bridge. With eyes now opened, his horizons expanded and with it his mind. He learned that, ironically, the more of the world he saw the more he had yet to discover. Pyron was his trusty compass, unerringly pointing the way. Even, to the black dragon’s own disgruntlement, to the emerald grotto where they had discovered Nephriti. Or as she referred to it, where she had graciously deigned to accept their company. The domineering little queen demanded their worship as part of her due and had no qualms with commandeering Pyron and Kellen’s skills for her own ends.
Kellen was not sure if it was his passion for health that led him to Nephriti or if it was the other way around but for the last dozen years Nephriti had directed their energies towards the pursuit of her ideals. Simply put, this was that beauty was power. It was prestige and influence. People admired it and were attracted to it. Nephriti, however, was by no means no superficial. Artificial beauty, that was cheap and superficial. The body expressed its health in a healthy glow, lustrous hair, the blush of youth, vigour. Life. A sick body was imbalanced and this manifested for the world to see. A body in healthy balance was strong, robust. Beautiful. This dynamic balance requires careful fuel and nutrition. Kellen spent his time and resources learning relaxation and meditation techniques from masters in the arts, travelling east and west in search of restorative teas and curative tinctures. One who was healthy was beautiful and all could see that. This was worth attaining.
Pyron’s long tail unwrapped itself from around Kellen’s waist and then the black dragon stepped smoothly into the air as if it was solid earth. The way the dragon moved through the air put Kellen in mind of an eel swimming in the sea, the spines along its back and tail waving in unseen currents. Whenever the dragons manifested they possessed no wings with which to fly but seemed to swim through the air in defiance of gravity. Kellen supposed that this was not so amazing if one had already accepted the appearance of dragons that spoke directly into one’s mind.
The sound of metal hammering on stone came to Kellen’s ears as he made his way down the tunnel. Pyron swam ahead to investigate, his black body undulating more quickly through the air. Nephriti merely raised one elegant eyebrow, its wispy length waving as if in her own personal wind. Kellen wasn’t sure if it was simple vanity but the effect was rather becoming. It made him think of nothing so much as living on a tropical island with the sun and the sea and the breeze in your hair.
The tunnel opened out into a hall, the curious scene of two purple-haired monkeys chiselling away at a granite plinth. Polished to a glistening sheen were two statues; Hear No Evil and See No Evil. The two monkeys were busily sculpting the rough form of a third monkey with its hand over its mouth. Pyron weaved in and out between the statues’ heads, circling around the unfinished one in appreciation.
“They’re coming along nicely,” remarked Pyron.
“We should have a statue. Something in jade,” said Nephriti.
“Don’t be so silly.”
She ignored Pyron. “Why are we even here Kellen?”
“To find something,” said Kellen, evading the question.
“What more could we need? You have me to look after you and we have old Pyron to point the way as always. Let us go find a relaxing mud bath to soak in. I hear that they have these salts that do wonders for the skin.”
Pyron snorted, yellow fire flickering from his nostrils.
“Don’t be such a grouch. We are beautiful thanks to me. With my help even your scales are glossier and do not you pretend you do not like it. Why, you almost look a real dragon. Where you two would be without me the gods only know.”
Why are we here? Kellen asked himself. It was a good question and he had his suspicions. Nephriti was too young to remember their journey to the emerald grotto, a full cycle ago. Kellen was not sure if even Pyron knew what drew them on; he was perhaps too close to see. Sometimes one had to step back to see the bigger picture, the true shape of things.
All Kellen knew was that it was time. He felt drawn, as inexorably as iron to a magnet. He was like a fish being reeled in, with as much choice in the matter.
“People always need more right? Who knows, we might find some treasure for you Neph, some jewellery perhaps? A golden circlet to set off the colour of your eyes?”
“Don’t be absurd. I do not need jewellery to make me pretty.” The gleam of greed in her eyes, however, gave the lie to her apparent indifference.
“At the very least we can sell it for cash,” said Kellen.
“We could sure use it,” said Pyron.
“There’s never enough,” Kellen said with a sigh. People were always asking for more from Kellen. “The more you give, the more they take.”
“You should worry about Number One first, Young One,” Pyron put in.
“Yes,” agreed Nephriti. “Me.”
“I think he was referring to me Neph.”
“Oh you’re both delusional. But it is okay, I will still take care of you.”
Kellen sighed. “And who are you calling ‘Young One’? I am older than you.”
“Is that what you think?” said Pyron.
“I was there when you were born as I recall it.”
“Hmmm that is so. That is so. Still, you should know that we dragons don’t age the same as you humans.”
And what does one make of that?
“In any case, we’ve been tracking down this cave for too long to give up now. And even if I did want to I couldn’t ignore this.”
“The pull,” agreed Pyron. “Come. This way. This way.”
Nephriti soon stirred restlessly on Kellen’s shoulders. “I still don’t understand. What could possibly be so important that we had to come all this way?” Nephriti said.
“A fabulous treasure I hope. Maybe some exotic herbal remedy with wondrous properties.”
“In a cave? At the top of a mountain?” Nephriti’s scepticism was acid.
“Isn’t that where all the best treasures are found?” Kellen smiled his most winning smile.
The cave was one of the truly sacred places of the world, or so Kellen believed. It felt connected in his mind with his past journeys to the other caves; the presence of the purple monkeys seemed proof of that, having seen them once before on his quest for the emerald grotto. Only, at that time there had been just the one monkey, still at work on the second statue. Kellen guessed that they too were totem spirits, inhabiting the dream realm that existed behind this one. The caves seemed to be places of magic, where the dragons manifested with their strongest presence. Perhaps what Kellen saw was only a product of his own mind. There surely was a cavern in the mountain top but its dimensions and composition were shaped by the individual seeking it. Perhaps what the monks kept safe was not simply a remote cave in the inhospitable Shin Alps but a portal. Where that portal might lead, what another man might see, Kellen could only imagine. What lies in a man’s heart is his own secret to keep.
To Kellen, at least, it was not much farther past the monkey hall. Goodness knows the trekking and climbing had been long enough. The tunnel ended in a round chamber carved out of the rock, like a scoop taken out of a melon, smooth except for a large circular platform rising from the centre of the floor. Lying atop the platform was a golden scaled creature.
“I have been waiting for you. My name is Tong.”
Shadows and shimmering light, like the scales of a goldfish, danced across the cave walls. Light emanated from the centre, reflecting off the dragon’s scales but its shifting coils made it impossible to get a clear view of the source. Its body was an undulating mass, knotting and unknotting itself, fluidly looping back on itself like the sign for infinity with no tail in sight. It would be easy to lose oneself in the mesmerising sight. In contrast to the constant writhing, its great golden head was motionless except for the long whiskers trailing from its reddish gold snout. There was not a breath of wind in the chamber to stir its whiskers but that didn’t stop them.
It seems that every dragon keeps his own personal wind, Kellen thought. Something to do with existing partially in another world, he reasoned. Or was that Pyron’s thought? No time for that now.
The dragon’s black eyes were like awls, riveting Kellen to the spot.
“My name is Tong.”
All three cried out in a quick succession of surprise.
“It is gold,” said Nephriti.
“A dragon,” from Pyron.
“But an adult,” said Kellen.
“Of course. What did you expect?” Tong intoned, though no one was sure to whom his response was directed.
“You’re what we came to find,” said Pyron.
“It is about time. I have waited long for you.”
“When Pyr and Neph came to me they were…small,” Kellen said, remembering what Pyron had said about dragons aging differently. Kellen had half expected to find another infant dragon and instead they were confronted by this magnificent creature that dominated the chamber. “You were expecting me? Then you know why I’ve come.”
“I know that you should like the use of my services.”
“Yes. It is a dragon’s nature to influence a kindred spirit, imbuing it with capabilities according to their nature. My ferrous kin there is attuned to iron, sensitive to the flow of the unseen currents that permeate this world. Iron is a base metal, for making tools to shape the world; a handy fellow to have around, if a little drab.” Turning back to face Kellen and Nephriti the gold dragon continued. “Jade is more fitting, however. Jade dragons are known for their benevolence and good fortune. Increasing energy and longevity and relieving stress. Iron and jade. An unusual combination.” Tong mused. “Your aura… green swirling light, vibrating with life force. At its core a vane of light, bright as a star… Beautiful magnetism… Beautiful but unbalanced. Fascinating… the iron fuels the most intense green. It needs tempering before it burns out of control.”
All of which meant little to Kellen. But he understood the reference to iron and jade.
“And you are… gold. Let me guess. Gold is money?”
“Not merely money. Gold is wealth, prized for beauty untarnishing. Since ancient times gold has been the symbol for prosperity, the mark of success. It is the metal of kings.” Tong raised his head up and flared his orange and gold mane proudly. He certainly looked the part of a king.
Nephriti was all eyes for the shining figure before them, her own mane, translucent sea green with veins of turquoise, unconsciously flaring in response to Tong’s impressive display. The avaricious gleam was back in her eyes.
“You may have heard the expression ’gold begets gold’. To build wealth one must not only spend money but spend it wisely. One must acquire treasures that will appreciate in value or capture further income such as land. How does a king remain wealthy? He owns the land and has peasants work the fields while he sits on his throne; a most suitable arrangement.” The dragon’s bright tongue, an obscene red to Kellen’s mind, licked out at this. “Gold begets gold. This is its nature and mine.”
Kellen imagined Nephriti too licking her lips. More money meant buying more things; more ways to get what she wanted. “Excellent. That is precisely what we need.”
“Of course it is. Who does not desire gold? I have yet to see, however, why I should help you. What makes you believe you are worthy of me?”
Pyron snorted. I’m not sure which one is more arrogant .He could give Nephriti a run for her money, he thought to Kellen. A vain pretty boy. He’s got money and is no doubt a narcissist.
Then he’s the perfect match for Neph, Kellen thought back.
But can we live with another one? Pyron replied.
You know we don’t have a choice. Kellen took a breath.
“I’ve worked hard to make my way from an early age,” said Kellen. “I’ve had to forge the way for others to follow, others who depend on me.”
“And what do you have to show for all your many years of work? What wealth have you amassed?” Kellen was at a loss for how to respond. “The truth is you have nothing,” the dragon sneered. “You are like a long, narrow corridor with doors at either end. The money flows in and flows right out again. And you,” to Pyron. “You give him the means but not the required discipline.” The dragon’s head swung back to Kellen. “Where is the self control? Decades squandered. For naught.”
Pyron’s silence was telling.
“We have worked and come all this way,” said Kellen. “It’s been a long road.”
“And so you have come to this sacred place, not even knowing what you truly seek.” He heaped scorn into his voice. “How can you know what you seek if you do not comprehend what you lack?”
“We seek power to lead,” Nephriti’s voice rang out like crystal around the chamber. “The strong survive but the beautiful thrive.”
“That is all to the good but beauty does not last forever,” Tong said. “Humans are so youthfully arrogant but youth is fleeting and beauty fades. Where is your power then? Wealth also is power but you have none.” He directed his black glare at Nephriti. “You give him focus but it is short-sighted. You are meant to embody the highest virtues but instead you are a selfish child,” he said, biting the last words off. Nephriti reared up from Kellen’s shoulder, hissing like a wet cat, fangs bared.
“Beauty. Health. Wealth. Prosperity. It is all power. But you are like the rabbit chasing the moon’s reflection in the lake, never looking up to see the truth, doomed to failure. Frankly, I am disappointed.” He made to turn away.”You are not worthy.”
Kellen was stunned. He had not come here expecting this, had not even considered that rejection might be an outcome. Numbness threatened to overwhelm him.
Nephriti lashed her tail through the air behind her, not even noticing when she struck Kellen’s back. The jade dragon’s fury beat against the numbness, driving it back. The pain shocked him. Galvanised him. Kellen let some of his own anger be taken up with Nephriti’s.
“Not worthy? What do you know about me? You’ve been wrapped up in this cave your whole life. If you have any wealth of your own you probably just hoard it like an old miser. I’ve earned what I have and it is mine to do with as I wish. If I spend it on my friends or myself then that is my prerogative. What right do you have to criticise, to insult my dragons and me? What do you know about my life?
“What do I know of you? I have watched you for decades. What don’t I know about you? It is true you have worked hard but anyone can do that. It is time for you to be smart.”
Decades? This was not what Kellen had expected. How? Is he lying? He had never known the dragons to lie though. Bend the truth maybe but never an outright lie.
“I have watched you from this cave. This cave, it is part of you, part of your mind, as I suspect you know. So I do know you.”
Kellen was shocked. But he also felt that Tong was right, that he had known this. That there was something beyond the mundane physical world that he saw every day, something that linked it all together. All was one.
He began slowly. He needed to convince Tong to come with him.
“You say I am lacking. Well I have the means and we still have time. Perhaps all we need is your vision to guide us. You yourself said it. Gold is built on gold.”
“Why should I help you? My services do not come cheap.”
“Pyron and Nephriti came to me willingly. They demanded no payment.”
“No payment? Now you insult me. My services come with a price. Only a fool would think otherwise.”
Pyron and Nephriti were silent at this, though they did not appear to take any offense. Well, I thought Neph at least would explode at that. Were they fools to lend Kellen their aid for nothing? Or had there been a price, one he had unknowingly paid?
Kellen thought back to when he had come across Pyron all those years ago and later to when he’d discovered Neph; how she had leapt to him, skinny legs clinging to him. Kellen had been with the two dragons since they were small. But looking at Tong’s shining golden body and the intelligence in his hard black eyes it was clear that this dragon could take care of itself.
But then did either the black or the green dragon truly need Kellen to take care of them? Neph was as spoiled as a princess but Pyr was right about their being older than human years would indicate. They were small but they were dragons. They had been with him so long, their lives so intertwined, that sometimes Kellen was unsure if some thoughts were his or theirs. Is there even a difference? Certainly their coming had brought gifts or perhaps merely quickened those abilities in him. In Pyron, Kellen recognised his own abilities to get things done, to survive. So why did they stay? He looked at them but there was no help forthcoming. Did he offer them anything? He feared the answer.
What does he want? Kellen wondered.
He wants what I want. He wants to be king, Nephriti answered.
Gold is noble but it is proud, offered Pyron.
Pyron’s motivations were a bit nebulous but Nephriti’s goals at least were clear. As she helped me I helped her. In fact they all lived and moved as one. A kind of spiritual symbiosis. The dragons were tied to the caves. The caves were linked in his mind. Kellen had brought Pyron away from the crater all those decades ago, and from there it all began. The dragons were part of him.
“I offer you the chance to leave this cave, to stop merely watching and to help us affect the world. It would be a shame to waste your obvious acumen, to hide such a shining example here in darkness. Join us. After all, what good is gold unused?”
“Gold is precious for its beauty,” Tong replied.
“And beauty is to be admired,” Nephriti put in.
“And if there is no one about to admire it?”
Tong was silent.
Kellen didn’t know what it would more he could do to persuade the dragon to their cause but he knew that it was never good to let the other party dictate all the terms. Kellen gambled. “Come Tong. Make your decision. You are running out of time. The path to the cave is seldom travelled and I for one will not be returning soon. Now is the time.”
Tong considered and finally gave his decision. “I shall come with you. On one condition. Come closer,” Tong beckoned with his head. “What do you see?”
In the middle of the platform was a bundle, glowing softly with a white light. As Kellen leaned closer, Tong uncoiled his length from around the bundle, sliding like a snake, down onto the ground and then circling up Kellen’s torso. Nephriti squawked like a bird disturbed from its perch and took to the other side of the cavern through the air.
Tong gripped Kellen’s shoulders and legs with his claws as his head came up beside Kellen’s own, looking down at the platform. The bundle uncurled revealing itself to be a baby dragon. Its small lizard-like form was much like Pyron’s in shape, lacking the serpentine grace of a mature dragon such as Nephriti or Tong. Its body was strangely insubstantial, like a phantom, not quite part of this world. When it opened its eyes they sparkled like brilliant diamonds. Rubbing its snout with its tiny paws the small thing looked with recognition in its eyes, first from Kellen’s eyes to Tong beside him. It opened its mouth to emit a silent cry and then stepped from the platform into solid air. As it turned to walk away it faded into misty translucence, then nothingness.
“What was that?” Kellen wondered aloud.
“Strength. Integrity. Harmony. Light. This is our future for which we live.”
“That sounds good to me. Then it is settled,” Kellen solemnly answered.
“Finally,” Nephriti said, “Someone that will not embarrass me. Someone befitting my beauty.”
“Thank the gods,” Pyron cried, “Someone else to talk to besides that self-centred dragonette.”
Kellen unstrung the jade ring from around his neck and replaced it on his finger. On the stone platform lay a coil of fine gold wire. Picking it up, he traced its curves before stringing it about his neck.
“Let’s go. There’s nothing else for us here.”For now. But we will return.
I know the way. The star needle gave a tug at his belt.
Kellen emerged from the tunnel into a brisk wind and the full light of a new day bright with promise. The sonorous chanting of monks at devotions came to him faintly on the wind.
I have to admit I was worried there for a moment Neph.
I told you I would take care of you, she replied, speaking only to Kellen
Tong certainly values himself highly.
Nephriti gave the mental equivalent of a sniff. Gold may be for kings, but jade is for empresses. I think we may find him quite useful. Come Kellen, let us return to the temple and have some tea. Tikuanyin I think.