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Celeste lay on the ground staring at the dirt inches from her face her ragged breathing stirring up the dirt. I wonder how a simple race to the pond turned into me falling on my face, I bet Alex is already there by now Celeste thought as pain laced through her as she moved to get up. Celeste gingerly rolled onto her back. Her breath caught in her throat as the as the bright blue sky came into view. It seemed surreal. The blue coupled with towering pines completely absorbed her and the pain faded like smoke from her mind until only a trace was left.
I could stay here forever too bad summer is so short, and vacations even shorter she thought sighing with relief, and all the stress that built up over the school year rushed out. Celeste stretched her hands above her head. Her palms began to sting, waking her up from her day dreaming. Raw scrapes with blood seeping between bits of gravel and dirt covered the fleshy part of her palms. Her left knee was the same. More scars she sighed I thought I was out of that clumsy stage by now she thought. Ignoring the throbbing of her knee in sync with the beat of her heart Celeste sat up and looked around trying to remember what she was supposed to be doing.
Celeste someone whispered with a voice like sunlight.
I must have hit my head, she thought.
Celeste, find me the voice whispered tinged with sadness. The back of her neck prickled, suddenly cold she shivered. She quickly twisted around her hair whipping into her face, and she impatiently ran tucked it behind her ears.
Sunlight reflected off a milky white stone partially submerged in the path behind her. Her eyes blurred as the sun reflected into her eyes, so she could she what shape it was but the color stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the small irregular shaped dirt colored stones scattered around the region of boreal forest. She gently lifted the sun warmed white stone out of its dirt prison, and placed it on her palm.
Reaching out with a tentative finger she stroked the top of the dragon’s head. The stone was unexpectedly rough not coarse, and her eyes widened to see tiny scales. She looked closer at the dragon, her face millimeters from the dragon’s face. Its eyes blinked open and deep golden eyes stared into her green ones. The dragon to emit a warm golden light that grew stronger and stronger until Celeste blinked away tears, and closed her eyes. The light pressed against her eyelids, and gave her a warm feeling like sunlight in the beginning of summer. It soaked into her and started to spill out, and slowly faded. She cautiously opened her eyes and her eyes opened wide when she took in her surroundings. The worn dirt path she knew so well was gone and in its place was a dense forest out of a fairy tale.
“Hello,” it said and stretched like a cat on her palm. Its wings made a rustling sound as it unfolded them from its back.
“Hi,” Celeste whispered her mouth suddenly dry. I must have hit my head harder than I thought, she thought staring at the creature.
“My name is Sora,” she said twitching her tail.
“Nice to meet you Sora, my name is Celeste,” she said automatically, from the politeness her mother pounded into her.
“I already knew that,” Sora yawned sharp teeth flashing in the sunlight, and Celeste flinched back.
“Sorry, I am still tired,” Sora said her wings lifting up slightly, almost like a shrug. Celeste’s arms and hand started to tremble, and she squeezed her other hand into a fist.
“Where are we?” Celeste asked looking out at dense trees that were covered in a filmy glow.
“This is what the area looked like when I was young here. We are in my memory,” Sora said looking off into the distance. Celeste looked at the expanse of trees trying to find something familiar. A flash of blue like water reflecting the sun on the forest floor, and she opened her mouth to ask what it was when a flash of white caught her eye.
A family of dragons made their way through the towering pines into the slight clearing that Celeste and Sora were standing in. Two dragons, one the green of high noon on a summers day, and the other the pale blue of ice caps, were looking at small white dragon walking in between them.
“Sora is that…” Celeste started to ask but stopped when Sora’s tears pattered on her shirt. A branch snapped when the family reached the middle of the clearing, and all of them froze. The forest floor started to glow blue, and the dragons tried to run away. They started to shrink before her eyes, and a cry of extreme sadness came from Sora. Soon all that was left was three perfect stone dragons. A big scared man crunched his way into the clearing with a young man walking close behind. The other was young, but his brown eyes looked old beyond his years.
“Creature hunters,” Sora said her voice hoarse.
“Not dragon hunters?” Celeste asked.
“No, they hunt all magic creatures, not just dragons. The spell the older one used was supposed to turn them to stone. Once he got the most powerful of each type of creature in turn used their power to turn every magic creature into stone. But what he didn’t count on was that younger man. He changed to spell so that we could have a chance to change back, but only with the help of a human,” she said still starring at the unfolding scene her golden eyes brimming with tears. Celeste’s vision went blurry and tears slipped down her cheeks. I don’t want to watch this anymore; Celeste thought and squeezed her eyes shut. Tears pattered on her shoulder, and Sora curled around her neck hiding her face in the Celeste’s hair. It must be ten times as difficult for Sora, just like it was for me back then she thought remembering her own lost parents. Celeste opened her eyes. She gently lifted Sora off her shoulder, and gave her a hug trying to comfort her the best way she knew how.
The older man picked up the two big dragons as Celeste looked on horrified as he nearly dropped one. The younger stood there for a moment, and then crouched down hiding Sora from view. When he got back up again was Sora gone.
“He put me to sleep, then he put me into the ground,” Sora said tears gathering at the corners of her golden eyes. They stood there for a moment of grief. “Will you help me?”
“Why did they do that? And where are your parents?” Celeste asked.
“I don’t know the reason. I only know what the younger man whispered to me before he left. My family and I lived far from everyone humans and magic creatures alike. I have no idea where they are or how they are doing” Sora said sadness mixed with anger making her voice soft but powerful.
“I’ll help you, whatever it takes. You have a chance to see your parents again, no matter how small that chance is we have to try,” Celeste said and the trees blurred before her eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut.
The ancient city’s stone roadways shimmered in the early morning sun. Stalls of merchandise lined the wall, all the vendors sitting in the shad waiting for the slightest breeze to ease the stuffiness under the colorful fabric. The streets were mostly empty except the people who dwell in the city and the occasional tourists. The vendors hawked their wares to the passing tourists, and most tourists were all too willing to buy.
“Celeste I know there aren’t many people out yet but you still need to watch where you are going,” Sora said as a man on a bike sped by almost hitting the two of them. Celeste nodded absently as she continued walking through the maze of stalls.
“I am worried about you. Ever since that postcard came last December you have been out of it,” Sora said looking out from Celeste’s shoulder. Eight months ago, so much has happened because of that little postcard.
“Celeste do you think the flour goes in before the sugar?” Sora asked from atop the counter measuring cups, and ingredients stacked around her.
“I could help,” Celeste said watching Sora from a bar stool near the counter Sora was working on.
“What is today?” Sora asked turning her attention to Celeste rather than the recipe card in front of her.
“December second,” Celeste said looking down at the floor.
“And it is?” Sora asked.
“My seventeenth birthday, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t help!” Celeste said loudly then added quietly “I think it’d be more fun that way.”
“Well, I guess it would be okay if you helped bake your cake,” Sora said.
The doorbell rang and Celeste hurried and wiped off her hands, and ran to the door.
“Hi Celeste. I grabbed your mail for you,” he said when Celeste opened the door.
“Thank you Jim,” Celeste said smiling.
“I have to go now. I’ll see you later,” Jim said.
“Who was that?” Sora asked from the kitchen.
“Just Jim bringing in the mail, and he rushed off like usual,” Celeste said laughing. She started to flip through the mail and stopped at a postcard. She flipped it over, and read Happy Birthday! Love Alex. The mail slipped out off her hand onto the floor.
“Celeste are you okay?” Sora asked as she flew over from the kitchen.
“Celeste? Are you here?” Sora asked snapping Celeste out of her memory.
“I am sorry. Thank you for that. I just don’t understand why he would send a postcard after three years have passed since he left,” she said sadly.
“Nobody understands everything,” Sora replied rubbing her cheek against Celeste’s cheek. Celeste reached into her pocket and brought out a ragged postcard. She carefully smoothed out the corners, and stared at the picture on the front. A lush tropical garden stood out from the picture like something from another world. It seemed too pretty to be real. After a few well placed questions to the geography teacher, she knew in fact it wasn’t, and a few searches in the local library and on the computer she found out something interesting. It is a picture of a painting, and that painting had been painted in the very city she was standing in.
“I think that is a real place,” Sora said looking down at the postcard in her hand.
“I am not so sure about that,” Celeste said and gently put the postcard back in her pocket. I can’t get that day out of my mind. It runs over and over. I realize now that he wasn’t himself. I should have done something she thought.
“There was nothing you could have done. He had made up his mind,” Sora said. Celeste just sighed, and trudged on. They turned the corner to a narrow part of the market, and walked among the stalls looking at merchandise from all over earth. Jewelry, stones, and metal dishes glittered in the sun. Cloth dye in a multitude of color was laid out neatly on top of tables older than she was.
A dark shape flitted in and out of the corner of her eye, and she turned to look, but couldn’t see anyone. Celeste’s hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She turned trying to find what it was. I must be imagining things she thought and shrugged it off.
A booth caught her eye, and she stopped to look at the semi-precious stones carved into shapes. Jade flowers and turtles, and other stones were laid out on black velvet. A black tiger with silver stripes stared up at her with a pride that rallied against its stone entrapment. Celeste brushed the tips of her fingers along its spin close to tears.
A midnight black tiger with silver stripes stood beside her brother as she gaped up at him in surprise. Sora watched wide eyed from her vantage point in Celeste’s arms.
“Alex what’s going on?” Celeste asked as he stared down at her.
“It’s time for me to leave,” he said giving her smile that did not reach his hazel eyes, and turned to walk away.
“What are you talking about?” she asked silently pleading for this all to be a dream.
“I am leaving. Don’t worry about me, I have Ray, and you have Sora,” he said his back turned to her. Celeste sat there stunned as he walked way, and disappeared like a mirage in the desert.
I don’t want to remember that day! I couldn’t do anything as my only family walked away Celeste thought her hand jerking away from the tiger that looked so like her brother’s Ray. Male laughter reached her ears as it echoed through the nearly empty streets, her cheeks burned crimson. She spun, her face still beet red. A boy not much older than her leaned against the wall next to the stand. His sky blue eyes still laughed long after he stopped, and his black hair glinted in the sunlight.
“I hope it didn’t bite you,” he said mirth clouding his voice. Celeste had the sudden urge to slap him, but repressed it.
“Maybe he knows where that place is,” Sora whispered nodding to the postcard in Celeste’s hand.
“I told you I don’t believe that’s true,” she whispered back.
“Please just ask. It is the only clue we’ve got to find your brother,” Sora responded. Celeste sighed and walked over to him.
“Can you help me find a garden?” she asked taking the postcard out of her pocket.
“Sure, but I’ll warn you I have only been in the city for a few months,” he said lightly.
“Do you know where this place is at?” she asked. He looked down at the post card and whispered something. There was a flash of black and a black dragon landed on his shoulder.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“My name is Celeste, and her name is Sora,” she said taken back by the appearance of the black dragon, while Sora was practically jumping up and down in excitement.
“Follow me,” he said and started walking away.
“Wait, how do I know you aren’t some serial killer,” she said standing with her arms crossed.
“Ask Sora,” he said stopping.
“He’s telling the truth,” she said. Celeste just stood there. I believe what she says. Sora’s never been wrong before, and she’s helped me numerous times, she thought, but that doesn’t mean I have all the information I need.
“What now?” he demanded.
“What is your name?” she demanded.
“My name is Dan and his name is Draco,” he said motioned for her to hurry up and come. Celeste walked fast trying to keep up with him in the ever growing crowd until she was right behind him. They walked in silence, as Dan turned numerous corners and Celeste got thoroughly lost. He knows the streets really well for someone who has been in the city for a few months. Although I have to admit it doesn’t look like he’s from around here, Celeste thought studying him as he walked in front of her.
“We’re here,” he said stopping.
“But it’s a dead end,” Celeste said glaring at his back, and opened her mouth to say more but Dan motioned for her to be quiet. He said something in a language she didn’t recognize, and the wall started glowing. Dan and Draco both touched wall, and motioned her forward. She walked forward slowly, and he grabbed her hand and pulled her forward.
The temperature dropped to a balmy summer’s day, and Celeste’s mouth dropped open in surprise as she looked out from a hill covered in green grass down to an expansive plant covered valley below.
“This is the sanctuary for all magic creatures,” Dan said gesturing at the valley.
“Ah, Sora you were right,” Celeste said. Nobody answer, and Celeste looked around for Sora.
“Where’s Sora?” she asked Dan. He pointed up, and Celeste tipped her head up. Two dragons were flying about her.
“The magic doesn’t affect them here. They can be their true size,” Dan said giving her a smile.
“Sora, I am so happy for you,” Celeste yelled up waving wildly. Sora gave no sign of hearing, and Celeste’s heart plummeted into her stomach. Sora would be free, but I will be all alone, Celeste thought, and her heart squeezed painfully in her chest.
“Why don’t we go inside?” Dan said startling her.
“Of course,” she said.
“This way,” he said and walked away. Celeste followed close behind Dan as he picked his way down to the valley floor. Celeste smothered a yawn and stumbled and pitched forward. Dan turned and caught her before she fell the rest of the way down the slope. He helped her back onto her feet, and stood there his arms around her as if he was afraid that she’d fall as soon he let go. Celeste could feel her face heat up, and quickly pulled out from his arms.
“Thank you,” Celeste said stammering slightly. I am sure I am beet red Celeste thought.
“Are you going to be okay?” he asked looking concerned.
“I think I’ll be fine,” Celeste said while trying to figure out if her heart was beating fast from her near fall or the fact that he was so close only seconds before.
“You think?” Dan asked giving her an incredulous look that made her blush even more.
“I just need to sit down,” she said feeling a little dizzy, and tried not to sway drunkenly.
“Can you make it the rest of the way down the hill?” he asked. Celeste looked down the hill and her dizziness came back full force.
“No, I don’t think you can,” Dan said as he steadied her as she swayed. “Put your arm around my shoulder.” Celeste warily put her arm over his shoulder, and before she knew it she was being lifted up. He’s carrying me like a bride she thought and giggled then realized that she didn’t mind the thought of, at least, getting to know him. Maybe not as a boyfriend, but a friend then potentially something more she thought and closed her eyes.
Celeste opened her eyes when he stopped, and looked at a cottage door.
“You can set me down. I’ll be fine,” Celeste said.
“It’s fine. I carried you this far I think I can carry you the rest of the way,” he said looking at her and gave her the same infuriating smile that he did earlier. He shifted her weight and opened the door. They passed though what looked like a living room with older furniture, and into a kitchen and dining area that looked big enough for ten people to be comfortable in. Dan set her carefully in the chair nearest the kitchen area, and put his hand to her forehead.
“No wonder you were stumbling about, and I’ll get you an aspirin,” he said and walked into the kitchen. She put her own hand to her forehead and the icy cold of her fingers surprised her. Dan came back into the kitchen handing her an aspirin and a glass of water. She put the pill in her mouth and followed it with a drink of water, and she soon found she had drunk the entire glass.
“Do you think you’re well enough to eat?” Dan asked and Celeste nodded. Dan went back to the kitchen and soon she heard the pans clinking together as he searched through the cupboards. Celeste found herself looking around the room in effort to keep awake. The table was old and solid that usually only comes from being handcrafted. Her parents had one, though it was smaller than this by far. Tears blurred her vision and she blinked her eyes quickly.
Sepia, black and white, and color pictures lined the wall to her left. Each had its own frame, and was a variety of sizes. She couldn’t make out any distinct features, but they all had creatures of myth in them. Unicorns, dragons, griffins, and so many more stood beside a person, or in a group. Even her brother’s tiger was represented, in every color under the sun. Celeste’s breath caught. I must be seeing things she thought and before she realized what she was doing she got up out of the chair and had made her way to the wall.
A black tiger with sliver stripes sat proudly with a solemn standing boy that she knew so well.
“My brother was here?” Celeste asked, and Dan walked over from the kitchen.
“He’s your brother?” Dan asked looking at the photograph with her.
“No, that is some random boy who happens too look like my brother,” she said glaring at him.
“I never met him. I was telling the truth when I said I’d only been here for a few months,” Dan said.
“So he’s gone,” Celeste said her anger fading, and she walked back to the chair.
“He probably went on a mission,” he said sitting down across from her.
“A mission?” Celeste asked.
“To save others like your Sora, my Draco, and more rarely find the partners that they belong with,” Dan said.
“But why didn’t he tell me,” she said to herself.
“I suppose he didn’t want to involve you,” he said his blue eyes going dark.
“What is this place?” she asked trying to stay way from painful subjects that neither of them wanted to talk about.
“It is a preserve of sorts, and was created thousands of years ago to be a sanctuary for magic creatures and those who defended them. Today it remains one of the few places that magic is still accepted, and used. This house is our base of operations,” he said and paused. When Celeste didn’t say anything he continued. “Traditionally people worked on their own, and the creatures worked on their own, until their minds were changed for them. A magician came along changed it. Who he was and why he did those things are lost with time, but the fact that he brought the most powerful creatures on the planet on their knees is enough to know that he wasn’t trying for anything other than destruction. So humans and mythical creatures became partners, although a lot of them hate us because of what one person did. Those who can help us, and we became a team. Each person who works to save them has a partner, like I have Draco.”
Smoke and the smell of burned food filled the air. Celeste coughed, and Dan muttered a curse word as he jumped out of the chair and ran to the kitchen. I maybe the clumsiest person ever, and not good at much but if I can help them then I will. Or my fever is making my delusional, She coughed again, maybe not, she thought and smiled.
Dan soon got the flames under control, and came back to the table streaked with soot and smelling of smoke.
“I am sorry,” he said looking embarrassed.
“It is fine. I wasn’t very hungry anyway,” Celeste said smiling.
“I can try again,” Dan offered.
“How about I help this time?” Celeste asked.
“But your sick,” Dan said
“I am feeling well enough to help. I also want to help Sora, and Draco. One day I may even be able to help my brother,” she said getting up from the chair.
“But what about your parents?” Dan asked.
“Mom and Dad have been gone since I was really little. I don’t even remember them very well. All I have ever had was my brother and Sora, so if I can help them I will,” Celeste said.
“But…” Dan started but was interrupted by Celeste.
“Let’s just cook already,” she said and walked into the kitchen with Dan close behind.