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Year of Stories – Week 22

This week marks the return of one of my favourite Year of Stories characters so far, Captain Blackbird the fearsome pirate!

Captain Blackbird returns, with an all-new crew ready to do his bidding in the quest for treasure and adventure. But the Captain has to whip these landlubbers into adventuring shape before adventuring finds them, first!

Read the story now!

Captain Blackbird and the Kraken

It was a beauty of a day at sea. The warm wind was rocking the ship gently side to side, the seagulls were crying their atonal arias, and Captain Blackbird was relaxing on the poop deck in a hot seawater bath. As is natural for a happy bathing pirate, he was singing.

I’m floatin’ in a tin can across the salty sea

As piratin’ a pirate as a pirater can be

My cutlass, it is stained with blood, my rum’s flavoured with glee

When other pirates hear my name they turn their tails and flee!

He splashed happily in the sudsy bathwater and called out orders to his fresh, inexperienced, but enthusiastic new crew. “Anchor the yardarm! Flop the mizzenmast! Haul clear the barnacle braces! Ah, ha ha ha!”

The First Mate, Davey Watchcomb, was sitting in a chair nearby, keeping a dutiful eye on the small fire that was heating the water in Captain Blackbird’s tub from atop a pile of stones. “Sir,” he said, “pardon my ignorance—as you know, I’m a farmer and not a sailor—but what, exactly, is a ‘barnacle brace’ and where are they meant to haul it clear from? Also, which one is the mizzenmast?”

Captain Blackbird held his ribs and howled with laughter. “Ha ha, hee hee! Aye, but that’s the fun of it, Davey boy! Watch ’em scramble! Watch ’em fuss! Who’s the one in the yellow cap?”

“That’s Soggy Samuel, sir.”

“Oi!” called Captain Blackbird. “Oi, Soggy! Get the jib slot fastened to the quarter-sail right away, lad, or I’ll cut my bath time short and have you pirouettin’ off the plank!”

Soggy Samuel snapped a hasty salute: “Aye aye, cap’n!” He whirled around twice in confusion, grabbed a length of rope at random, and began tying it to a hook set into the deck.

Captain Blackbird laughed so hard that he started sloshing water over the sides of his bathtub. “D’you see him?” he gasped. “Tyin’ the rope… AH HA HA! That rope isn’t even connected to anything, Davey boy! These lads don’t have a clue in the world. Bless my heart, they wanted to be pirates…” He wiped a tear from his cheek, and his eyelid twitched involuntarily. He rubbed his eye, but it twitched again.

He tried to ignore it. “Aye, well, Davey Boy, I’ll soon set ’em right. Gather ’em in, lad, and drop the anchor.”

“Aye, sir,” said Davey. “Er, and if you’d just remind me…”

“Arrr…” Captain Blackbird rolled his eyes. “The lever in the bow, lad. Nay, Davey, the bow’s the front o’ the ship.” His eyelid twitched again. Probably a reaction to so much time in the bath. He’d been in for nearly three hours now, judging by the sun, and glorious it had been. He inspected his wrinkled, pruny fingers. His eyelid twitched again. Maybe he was developing some form of nervous tic. A week at sea with these landlubbers had been amusing, aye, but also trying. They had to have every little thing explained to them….

His eyelid twitched again.

Then he heard the voice. It was a thin, bubbling, multi-toned voice, and it sounded like it was coming from inside the bathtub with him.

“Oooohh,” it said. “Ooohh, aaahh, ooohh.”

Captain Blackbird looked down, then up, then all around. There was no one else on the poop deck. Where was the voice coming from?

“Wooooe,” said the voice. “Woe is me in this sleepless sea…” The water in the bathtub rippled as it spoke.

“Who said that?” demanded Captain Blackbird. “Who’s there?”

The voice bubbled softly for a few seconds. Then it said, “You hear me, sir?”

“Aye,” said Captain Blackbird. “I can hear ye, wheedling stranger. Who be ye?”

“It is wonderful to have another intelligent soul to converse with,” said the voice. “I am a mere kraken, a lonely, sleepless kraken with nobody to love.”

Captain Blackbird sat up straighter in his bathtub. “K-k-kraken?”

The voice sighed. “Indeed, sir.”

“Oh, aye, I see now,” said Captain Blackbird. “You’re one o’ me crew, playin’ a joke. Aye, and a riotous tickler it be. Ha ha ha…” He laughed nervously. “Davey? Soggy Samuel? Fineas Bunker? Which of you…?”

Just then, Davey crested the stairs to the poop deck. “Your pardon, cap’n,” he said, “but I’ve got the crew all assembled below, awaitin’ your orders.”

“Aye, thank ye, Davey,” said Captain Blackbird. His eyelid twitched as he raised himself out of the bath and pulled his breeches over his soggy, waterlogged legs. He scooped a bucketful of bathwater onto the fire, dousing it. Then, taking up a bottle of rum, he swigged a mouthful, stepped to the edge of the poop deck, and glared down over his motley crew. “Now,” he said, “which one of ye be makin’ that voice? An excellent joke it be!”

The voice bubbled up again: “Why should I play a joke, sir?”

“Arrr!” said Captain Blackbird. “Who said it? Who?”

“Er, cap’n,” said Davey, “no one spoke, sir.”

“O’ course they did!” said Captain Blackbird.

“I said it,” said the voice. “I, the lonely, restless kraken. Can you still hear me, sir?”

“Aye, I hear you!” The captain waved his bottle of rum at the crew. “Certainly I hear you! And a bottle o’ rum to the man I’m hearin’, if he’ll only tell me who he is!”

The crew cast anxious glances at one another. Who was the captain talking to?

“Thank you, sir,” said the voice. “I would much appreciate a bottle of rum. It might help me to sleep. But I am no man. I am a kraken.”

“Aye, indeed,” scoffed Captain Blackbird. “A kraken, you say. A kraken that speaks in the voice of a man, and that swims but half a mile from the shore…”

Davey stepped closer to the captain. “Cap’n, did you say… k-kraken?” His knees were beginning to shake.

Captain Blackbird pushed his first mate away angrily. His eyelid was twitching incessantly now. He dug his fist into his eye socket, trying to stop the tic. “Aye, I did, but I didn’t say it first. You heard his voice: he claimed it himself! And I’m gettin’ right fed up with the buffoon. There’s such a thing as carryin’ a joke on too long…”

“Cap’n,” said Davey, “I didn’t hear anything. You’re the only one speaking, sir.”

Captain Blackbird glared at the first mate. “Now, Davey—”

“I swim so close to shore,” said the voice, “because I cannot sleep, though I try and try. But I am not speaking with the voice of a man, sir. I am speaking in the voice that only a creature of the sea can hear, only one whose flesh is steeped in saltwater, whose veins run with it… Are you not a fish of the sea, sir?”

The captain raked his stare across the crew below, each in turn. They looked up at him, confused. Blackbird held his hands in front of his face, his thoroughly wrinkled, saltwater-soaked hands. “No, er, friend kraken,” he said. “I be no fish of the sea.”

“Are you, then, a man?” said the voice.

“Aye.”

“Wonderful!” said the voice. “And this hull above me, then, must be your ship?”

“Aye.”

“A kind whale told me that men sing the very best lullabies, sir, and I am so desperately in need of sleep… Will you not sing me a lullaby?”

Captain Blackbird furrowed his brow and tilted his head to the side. His eyelid twitched. “A lullaby? I am a pirate, and I sing only pirate songs. I know no lullabies.”

“Oh, but you must!” said the kraken. “You must, or I shall reach up and hug you tight until you remember one!”

First Mate Davey stepped in front of Captain Blackbird and addressed the crew. “Back to work, I think, lads,” he said. “Our captain, it seems, has spent too much time soaking in the sun for today, and is becoming delirious.”

“He said something about a kraken!” said Soggy Samuel, tremulously. “Are we to be dragged to the ocean depths by a sea monster?”

“No, no,” Davey assured them. “The captain is merely suffering sun stroke.”

Captain Blackbird sat down on the edge of his bathtub. Was that was happening to him? Was he suffering sunstroke?

The voice bubbled up once more. “Sing me a lullaby!” it demanded again.

“Hush,” said Captain Blackbird. “I will not sing a lullaby. A pirate does not coax babes to sleep; he kidnaps them and laughs as they cry, then either ransoms them for a king’s fortune or raises them to be a nasty, evil pirate all their days. No, I will not sing a lullaby to the voice inside my head.”

“So be it, sir!” said the voice. “If I cannot have a lullaby to help me sleep, perhaps some exercise will do the trick.”

Davey took Captain Blackbird’s coat and was wrapping it around the captain’s shoulders when suddenly a massive tentacle, at least three feet in diameter, shot up out of the sea in a cloud of mist and towered over the ship. Another tentacle burst from the water, and then another, and another. The crew shouted in alarm and began rushing to and fro across the deck, wailing in fear.

“Captain!” cried Davey Watchcomb. “A kraken! A kraken! What can we do?”

Captain Blackbird leapt to his feet, mouth hanging open wide. In all his years of pirating… Was he truly seeing this beast of the sea, or had he gone completely mad?

“Captain!” said Davey again. “Your orders, sir?”

“Arr…” said Captain Blackbird. “Axes up, lads! Axes and torches, me hearties!”

The crew broke open the tool chests in the cabins and began taking up axes, cutlasses, and torches. Before they could fully prepare, however, the attack was on. The tentacles came whistling down like whips, crashing across the ship and shattering the masts. More tentacles emerged from the depths, eight in total, and soon all eight were wrapped across the ship’s deck, squeezing the ship in an ever-tightening hug of crushing destruction.

“At it, then!” called Captain Blackbird, and the crew began to hack at the kraken’s rubbery flesh with their axes and cutlasses and singe it with their torches, to little effect.

The kraken’s voice bubbled up in Captain Blackbird’s ears. “Ooooh!” it cried. “You sting me, you burn me, foolish man! I will drag you to the depths, sir, and introduce you to my friends the sharks!”

“All at once, me hearties!” said Captain Blackbird. “Focus your energies, lads!” The crew followed his orders and all turned to direct their efforts towards a single tentacle. The kraken’s skin began to bruise, and slowly to break, under the focussed assault. It bled green, and writhed, and drew its crushing grasp tighter.

“Vicious man!” hissed the kraken to Captain Blackbird. “Spiteful man! I asked only for a lullaby, and you have brought it to this! Sink, now, sink and die!”

Captain Blackbird could see that all was lost. The ship would be crushed to bits at any moment, and despite his crew’s best efforts it would take far too long to cut through even one of the kraken’s tentacles. This was no time for pirate dignity… If only he knew a lullaby! Gripping his beard in his hands as his eyelid twitched and twitched, he wracked his memory, searching his long-forgotten childhood for any helpful tune, any soothing rhyme…

It came to him suddenly, with a flash of colour, a hint of texture, a whiff of scent, and a scrap of melody. He hummed the notes through gasping, terrified lips, and as he continued, more came to him, more melody, more memories, and, at last, those soothing words.

Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels

Treasures stol’n from kings and fools

The kraken’s tentacles loosened just a touch, and the churning of the water around the ship slowed. Captain Blackbird’s crew halted with axes in mid-swing and looked up at the fearsome bearded pirate as he faltered, then began again from the beginning, and sang.

Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels

Treasures stol’n from kings and fools

Rum and grog pour like a flood

Over plunder stained with blood

Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels

Pirates live by their own rules!

Everything was silent for several seconds. Captain Blackbird’s eyelid twitched, twitch, twitch, as he stared down at the kraken’s tentacles and his crew standing over them. A single tear dripped from the corner of Captain Blackbird’s eye.

Then the tentacles loosened their grasp and slid away back into the ocean, leaving the water roiling behind them with bubbles and froth.

The kraken’s voice whispered inside Captain Blackbird’s head: “Thank you, sir,” it yawned. “Thank… you…”

Captain Blackbird slumped down to the deck and took a long draught of rum. He reached for his hat, hanging on a peg at the foot of the bathtub, and settled it onto his head. His eyelid twitched once more, gently, and then fell still. Gathering himself, the captain tried to regain control of the situation. He was going to have to do some damage control for his reputation after this. “Now, then, lads,” he began—

—But the crew was piling into the lifeboats and lowering them down into the sea in a panic, fighting for the oars. The lifeboats splashed in the water and the crew began to row, frantically and with all their might. Their lifeboats turned haphazardly left and right, only gradually making progress towards land in crazy zigzags.

“Where are ye leavin’ to?” called Captain Blackbird. “Come back, lads, come back!”

Davey Watchcomb stood up in his lifeboat and yelled back, “No thank you, sir! We don’t sail with madmen who talk to krakens, sir, or with so-called ‘pirates’ who sing lullabies, either!” The lifeboat heaved as one of the crew gave a mighty pull on the oars, and Davey tumbled out into the sea.

Captain Blackbird sighed as his former first mate floundered in the water and tried to climb back into the lifeboat. He finished off his bottle of rum, hopped down to the deck, and nonchalantly loaded a cannon. They’d all been useless landlubbers, anyways…

Year of Stories – Week 21

Check out this week’s free short story, We Dragons.

Mel Yung is a hero of humanity, responsible for the discovery and exploration of three human-habitable planets. When a young, enthusiastic explorer gets a chance to go with Yung to explore planet Glyna, he sees it as the opportunity of a lifetime. But he has no idea what they’re really about to discover…

This story has previously been published by Ray Gun Revival.

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We Dragons

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Calvin inhaled deeply through his nose and held the air inside his lungs for a few seconds before slowly releasing it, trying to force his heartbeat to slow to a normal rhythm. Be calm, he instructed himself. Cool. Collected. Sure, you’re about to step onto the surface of a planet that has never before been visited by humanity, but hey, you’re an expert. You’ve got a wall full of diplomas that say so hanging in your office. Of course, that office is sixty light years away right now…

Be calm.

“Everything okay, Calvin?”

“Everything’s fine, sir. Just, uh, giving my equipment a final check.” Calvin tightened the straps of his backpack, adjusted the attached oxygen tank, and lifted the mouthpiece to cover his lips and nose. He sucked in a quick breath. “Good to go, sir.”

Mel Yung smiled, and a network of wrinkles spread out from behind his pale brown eyes, drawing a roadmap of experiences across his leathery face. Yung only really looked his age when he was smiling. Calvin wished he wouldn’t do it quite so often.

“We aren’t in the office today, kid,” said Yung. “Out here in the field, you can call me Mel.”

“Okay. Mel.”

“Is this your first field deployment, Calvin?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Mel. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid, watching you do it on TV.”

Mel smiled again, and Calvin cringed inwardly. “Hey, relax,” said the older man. “It’s just a job.”

“I don’t think that’s how the millions of settlers on the three habitable planets you’ve identified feel about it.”

“Three? Oh, you’re including that oversized moon in the Delna system, aren’t you? I don’t really deserve top billing for that one. Herman Nerole did most of the work. I was just the one who made it back alive.”

“Still,” said Calvin, not willing to let his idol off the hook so easily, “you’re living history!”

“The funny thing about history,” said Mel, hoisting his own oxygen tank backpack, “is that it’s all old news.” He flashed another wry smile and palmed a large, flat button beside the airlock. The hatch swung open, revealing a mountainous, rust-colored landscape that fell away from the narrow plateau they had landed on by leaps and bounds, descending to a series of rocky plains that extended for miles until they curved away into a fading horizon. Above it all was a dimly monotonous grey sky.

“Now, before we head out there,” Yung continued, “a couple of reminders. Don’t waste your oxygen until it starts getting tougher to catch your breath. The oxygen from the geyser up here should provide us with plenty of breathable air until we’re about halfway down the mountain. After that, we go to our tanks. The atmosphere on Glyna isn’t poisonous, so you can drop your mask whenever you need to talk, but try not to inhale too much of the local air all at once.”

Calvin nodded. He’d read the briefings and gone over all of the data from the probes. In fact, he was the one who had sent out the probe that found the oxygen geysers on planet Glyna in the first place, and it was that discovery that had earned him a place on this exploration alongside his childhood hero.

“This is your baby,” said Mel. “Why don’t you go first?”

Show him you deserve this, Calvin encouraged himself. Be calm. Cool. Collected. He wiped his sweaty palms on the rubbery fabric of his thermasuit, set his teeth, stepped out onto the powdered, burgundy dust of planet Glyna, and sucked in a lungful of alien air.

Yung followed him out and closed the hatch of their shuttle behind him. Written on the hatch in bold, friendly letters was the shuttle’s name, Peace III, a reminder that wherever they went, the Explorer Corps “came in peace”.

“Well,” said Mel, “let’s go scout an alien landscape!”

#

Calvin let Yung lead the way as they began their descent of what they’d come to call New Faithful. The mountainous oxygen geyser was the key feature that had brought them to Glyna: it was the clue that had revealed the immense stores of oxygen beneath the planet’s surface that were gradually escaping all over the planet, slowly transforming the atmosphere into a human-breathable environment. New Faithful was the largest, and probably the oldest, of these geysers, and probes had identified the accelerated growth of certain species of local organisms and plant life around its basin, suggesting that parts of Glyna’s ecosystem were already prepared to respond favorably to the planet’s evolution. At the current rate of release, Calvin and his research team had estimated, it would be a thousand years before enough oxygen would be released to make Glyna broadly habitable by humans, assuming the other elements of the ecosystem evolved appropriately.

Humanity didn’t have the luxury of quite so much patience, however, so Calvin had been trying to gather support for a proposal to artificially widen some of the largest oxygen geysers, drastically speeding Glyna’s transformation. Part of what he was here to discover was whether there were any sentient locals who would be negatively affected by Glyna’s oxygenation. Humanity might be desperate for living space, but thanks to the work of Mel Yung and others like him, it wasn’t xenocidally desperate. Not anymore.

Glyna’s gravity was about half that of Earth’s, and Calvin found himself enjoying the freedom of movement as he leapt and bounced down the mountainside. For the first hour, he and Mel kept up a light banter, pointing out interesting formations in the rocks or stopping to cut samples of the various oxygen-friendly brown grasses they came across. The further they went, however, the thinner the air seemed, the sparser the vegetation grew, and the less breath they had to spare for conversation.

Eventually they paused, panting, under an outcropping, and Mel signaled to put the oxygen masks on. Fresh, cool, breathable air flooded into Calvin’s lungs, and he gave a thumbs-up. After swallowing a bit of water, they continued on, sucking on their mouthpieces and surveying the red landscape around them in silent wonder.

#

Soon the explorers arrived at the foot of the mountain. Calvin stopped to take a scraping of a delicate brownish mold growing on the underside of a boulder. At this distance from the geyser, oxygen levels were low enough that only the most basic oxygen-friendly molds and fungi could grow.

Within a few miles of the base of New Faithful, plant life almost entirely ceased to exist, replaced by dry rocks and dust. The explorers spent half an hour traversing the dead terrain before Calvin spotted more vegetation, in the form of scraggly bits of bluish grass and moss growing in cracks and crevices. “Non-oxygen-dependent species,” Calvin explained. “The dead zone we’ve just passed through suggests that too much atmospheric oxygen may be poisonous to these plants. That’s one strike against my proposal.”

“Only if we find sentient species that are the same way,” Mel pointed out, “and we haven’t seen any sign of that.”

“Not yet,” Calvin added.

#

As they continued on, Calvin watched as the moss and grass gave way to scrub brush and small trees, all tinged with the same shades of blue amid the browns and reds of the soil. He had stopped to pull a branch from a twisted, shoulder-high tree with a wrist-width trunk and thin, veiny blue leaves when Mel said, “Look!”

Standing several yards away were a dozen knee-height, hairless, two-legged creatures with wide, terrified eyes, bulbous noses, tiny mouths, and six-fingered, two-thumbed hands. They were wearing clothing made out of some type of fabric that was similarly colored to their pale, reddish-brown skin. Some had brown, crusty paint smeared on their broad faces. One of the aliens, a relatively tall one with a swirling pattern painted on its chin, was holding a thin wooden staff with a pointed tip. The same swirling pattern was painted onto the garment that covered its chest.

Most of the aliens were holding rocks that they had picked up from the ground. Several had their arms cocked, apparently ready to throw at the first sign of danger.

“Try to appear non-threatening,” Mel whispered.

The two men knelt, making themselves small.

The creatures came a little closer, and a few began to speak back and forth. Their speech was a high chittering noise, a cross between the sounds made by a squirrel and a chimpanzee.

The loudest conversation seemed to be between the alien with the spear and a short, squat one with a diamond shape on its forehead and a loud, gruff voice. The squat alien was gesturing excitedly with its hands, speaking very quickly and beating its thin torso with a rock.

Finally the tall alien–Calvin thought of it as the chief–stomped its foot on the ground and the rest of the creatures, including the loud, squat one, all fell silent.

The chief turned to the explorers, raised its arms towards them, and launched into a speech that lasted for several minutes. Yung seemed bemused by the situation, but Calvin couldn’t help sneaking glances at the rocks held in the rest of the tribe’s hands. He had no interest in finding out how strong their arms were…

At length, the chief concluded its speech and stood expectantly, awaiting a response.

“These little guys seem pretty primitive,” Mel said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to learn anything from them through direct communication.”

“So what do we do?”

“How about a little experiment? You think the oxygen levels of the planet have been steadily increasing over hundreds of thousands of years, right?”

Calvin nodded.

“So what if these guys, and whatever animals they make those clothes out of, have evolved to function on whatever trace amounts of oxygen their lungs can filter out of the air?”

“Why wouldn’t they live closer to the geyser, then?”

“Superstition, maybe. Mountains are highly symbolic to the tribal mindset. Or there might be another, smaller geyser nearby.”

“They might also breathe something else entirely,” Calvin said, “like nitrogen, maybe, or CO2. Oxygen could even be harmful to them.”

The aliens were beginning to whisper to each other as they watched the humans talk. Calvin saw a few of them mime the way the humans removed their oxygen masks whenever they spoke.

“I’ve been to a lot of planets,” said Yung. “I haven’t yet come across anything that breathes nitrogen.”

“Maybe not, but…”

“Listen, kid. One thing I’ve learned is that in the field, you’ve got to rely on your instincts. I’ve got a hunch.” Yung took a deep breath from his mouthpiece, then gently, carefully held it out in front of him, offering it to the chief.

The chief took a few cautious steps towards them, and the squat alien chittered at it ferociously. Turning to the squat one, the chief barked a few short, angry words, then strode determinedly up to Mel, lifted its face to the mouthpiece, and applied its tiny mouth to the valve. Mel thumbed the manual discharge.

The chief’s eyes widened, and its swollen nose wrinkled.

“I think he likes it!” said Mel.

Then the chief choked, retched, and collapsed.

The aliens burst into a cacophony of chittering and the squat one leapt towards the humans, its gruff voice raised above all the others.

“Is it dead?” asked Calvin.

Yung shrugged. “So much for that hunch.”

“Sir, did we just murder an alien? That’s against all kinds of regulations!”

“Relax,” said Yung.

The aliens were getting louder, and coming closer.

Calvin was livid. “We could lose our jobs for this!”

Yung was staring intently at the approaching aliens. “Hey, it’s just a job.”

Suddenly Yung pulled his mask from his face, thumb on the manual discharge, and sprayed a long burst of oxygen towards the nearest creatures. They recoiled in panic, and a few dropped to their hands and knees, retching.

A stone whizzed past Yung’s ear. The explorers leapt to their feet, and Yung shouted, “Run!”

The humans bounded away across the plain, setting their sights on the distant peak of New Faithful. The aliens raced after them. Despite their short legs, the aliens were better adapted to Glyna’s gravity, and they easily outpaced the explorers. As they ran, they hurled rocks, bruising the humans’ legs and backs and pinging shots off the oxygen tanks. Some of the braver aliens grabbed at their feet or hammered at their knees.

Between breaths, Yung sprayed oxygen in the faces of any aliens that got close enough. The aliens retched and gagged, and a few that swallowed direct bursts collapsed and didn’t get up again. Calvin kept his mask on his face, but fought back with his feet and hands, kicking the aliens away and dodging their missiles, doing his best not to hurt them too badly.

After several minutes of running, the aliens fell back and chittered angrily after them. Looking over his shoulder, Calvin saw a few of them kneeling beside one of their fallen friends who had taken a blast of oxygen from Yung’s tank.

The humans slowed their escape, but continued to jog towards their ship at the fastest speed they could maintain.

“Can’t stop,” said Yung between gasps at his mouthpiece. “They’ll follow,” gasp, “they always follow.”

“How do you know that?”

“Experience.”

Calvin tried to put himself in the aliens’ place. “Sir,” he said, “they must think we’re dragons.”

Yung looked at him quizzically, and kept on running.

But Calvin couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. To these aliens, the oxygen geysers probably symbolize supernatural dangers. To us, hell is a place of fire, like a volcano. What if their version of hell is a lake of poison instead of brimstone? We came to them from the poison mountain, breathing poison. That would make us dragons, or worse… Demons.

“The geysers are accelerating, Mel.” Gasp. “These aliens are going to get wiped out, and soon.” Gasp. “We can save them!”

“Forget them,” retorted Yung. “How about saving us?”

Calvin ran on, newly motivated. We can’t seal the oxygen geysers permanently, but maybe we can buy them time to build their civilization and technology to the point where they can save themselves.

Of course, before they could do that, they had to make it back to the Peace III and off the planet.

#

The explorers’ pace had slowed almost to a walk by the time they finally reached the feet of New Faithful. Even in the lower gravity, they couldn’t run forever.

Calvin collapsed in fatigue. Yung’s chest was heaving, and the redness in his face highlighted his wrinkles. In this state, he did indeed look dragon-like. “Can’t afford to stop,” he rasped, but he, too, allowed himself to sit and rest on a moss-covered rock.

A minute passed while they sat, gulping oxygen through their mouthpieces and staring at the ground, heads between their legs.

There was an eruption of chittering.

Calvin whipped around to look behind him. Less than half a mile away, the ground was teeming with what looked like hundreds of the beige aliens, approaching fast. Where did they come from? Calvin thought. Why didn’t we see them coming?

“Camouflaged!” growled Yung. “Run! Run!”

Calvin scrambled back to his feet and took off up the mountainside. The veteran explorer was right: even now, Calvin could only see the aliens because of their movement. Their skin and their clothing blended in to the colors of the landscape. They must have been following at a distance, waiting for their quarry to slow so they could catch them by surprise.

The humans dove uphill, putting every ounce of remaining energy into their legs. Behind them, their pursuers were gaining, gaining. The explorers’ only hope, Calvin realized, was to climb high enough that the atmosphere became too poisonous for the aliens. Even now, it must be having an effect on them… Was it enough?

A stone thunked into the ground ahead of Yung, followed closely by another. One caught Calvin on the hand, and he cried out in pain from behind his oxygen mask.

“Gotta fight it out!” roared Yung.

Calvin spun around just in time as the first wave of attackers reached them. Leading the pack was the squat alien with the diamond on its forehead. It was brandishing the chief’s painted wooden spear in its many-fingered hand. With a blood-curdling screech, it leapt towards Calvin and thrust the spear out in front of it.

Desperately, Calvin pulled the mask from his face and fired off a long burst of oxygen from his tank. The stream of oxygen caught the creature in its open, snarling mouth, and it dropped, gagging and wheezing, to the ground. A dozen more took its place, flinging rocks and jabbing with spears.

Five or six of the aliens gripped Calvin by the knees and held their breath as Calvin doused them with oxygen. Closing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks, they struggled to topple him. Two others dove at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Some of the aliens turned from their assault on Yung and piled on top of Calvin, beating and pounding and piercing.

Calvin fought for his life, lashing out with all his limbs, adrenaline surging, blood flowing from the many places he had been stabbed. “Let me go,” he howled, “or you’ll all be dead in 500 years!” Only as he heard the words pass through his lips did he realize that they sounded like a threat.

Suddenly Yung emerged from a press of bodies, spraying a broad swath of oxygen over Calvin and driving the attackers back for a few seconds. Yung grabbed Calvin under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Together, they ran again.

“Almost,” gasp, “there,” said Yung. His mask was dangling from his face now. The air was oxygenated enough to breathe.

Calvin limped and stumbled. The pain in his legs was too much. He could feel blood oozing out into his suit from dozens of different wounds. He collapsed.

Mel stood over Calvin, taking stock of the younger man’s injuries. “I can’t carry you, kid,” he said. He looked up, and started to back away.

“Mel, please!” Calvin choked. He saw the aliens a few hundred meters down the hill, panting and gasping in the poisonous air as they tried to come up with some way to reach the humans and finish them off.

“You’re a hero, son,” said Mel. “Fifty years from now they’re gonna name this rock’s first human city after you, I promise.” Then he turned and jogged towards the ship.

“Mel, no!” Calvin cried. He tried to stand, fought with every scrap of strength he had left, but the damage was too great. He could only lie on his face and wait to bleed out, as the man he had once called his idol abandoned him and condemned an entire fledgling civilization to death.

END

Leon the Hero

The evil Thar! Plush figures by Tally Heilke.

Leon and his mother were on their way to Emma the ice dragon’s house, walking along the path through the forest, and Leon was as excited as can be. He hadn’t seen his friend in almost a month, and he had lots of stories to tell her about what had been going on in the fire-breathing dragons’ village. Last week there had been a big meeting of all the dragons in the village square, and yesterday all of the biggest dragons had put on helmets and marched down the street like they were in a parade! Leon loved parades.

“Don’t get too far ahead!” called Mom from behind Leon. “Stay on the path, and make sure you can see me.”

“Okay, Mom,” said Leon. Mom was acting strange and extra careful lately, and Leon didn’t know why. This forest wasn’t dangerous!

While Leon waited for Mom to catch up, he decided to practice his fire breath on a bush. He stood up straight, took a deep breath, and WHOOSH, breathed out a mouthful of green fire. The bush burned right up.

“Hey!” shouted a little voice. “What’s the big idea?” There was a little hole underneath the bush, and an angry hopp was sticking out its head.

“Oh!” said Leon. “Are you all right?”

“You burned down my front door!” said the hopp. “I needed that bush to hide my house from all the biter beasts! Now I have to go dig a new burrow somewhere else.”

“What’s going on, Leon?” asked Mom.

“He burned up my bush!” yelled the hopp.

“Leon, you can’t just go around burning things whenever you want to,” said Mom. “Your fire breath should only be used to do good.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Leon.

“Saying ‘sorry’ doesn’t fix my house,” mumbled the hopp.

Leon looked around and saw an old stump that had fallen over. “I have an idea,” he said. “What if we put that stump over top of your hole instead of the bush? Then it will be hidden again, and you can go in and out between the tree roots!”

“Well now, well now!” said the hopp. “That just might work! But it looks like a pretty heavy stump.”

“It’s okay,” said Leon. “We’re dragons, after all, and dragons are strong.”

So Leon and his mom grabbed the stump and dragged it over top of the hopp’s hole. The hopp was able to squeeze comfortably in and out between the old roots, but the gaps were much too small for any biter beast to get through.

“This is great!” said the hopp. “Thank you for your help, little Leon.”

“You’re welcome,” said Leon. “I’m really sorry that I burned your bush down.”

“That’s all right,” said the hopp. “All’s well that ends well! By the way, my name is Harvey Hopp, so if you ever need help from a hopp, just tell them that Harvey said you’re okay!”

“Thank you,” said Leon.

“We have to be on our way now,” said Mom. “Say goodbye, Leon.”

“Goodbye, Harvey!”

“Goodbye, Leon.”

Mom and Leon continued on down the path towards the ice dragon village.

Soon they entered a clearing near the village, and Leon could see the roofs of some of the ice dragon houses through the trees.

“Wait here, Leon,” said Mom. “I’m going to go ahead and make sure it’s safe.”

“What do you mean?” asked Leon. “Why wouldn’t it be safe?”

“Because there’s been an evil beast around lately,” said Mom, “an enormous monster named Thar, and he’s been kidnapping dragons from all of the different villages. That’s why so many of the fire-breathing dragons marched off to war yesterday.”

“To war?” said Leon. “Oh dear! I thought it was just a parade… Has he kidnapped anyone from our village?”

“Not yet,” said Mom, “but he’ll probably try. That’s why we have to be very careful. Wait here until I come back, okay?”

“Okay,” said Leon.

Mom flew up into the sky, and Leon watched as she flew a couple of circles over the trees, checking for danger in the forest or the village. She was just about to fly back down to Leon when a giant black shape swooped around behind her.

“Mom!” yelled Leon. “Look out!”

But it was too late. The monster threw a net around Mom and grabbed the net in its mouth. The ropes wrapped around Mom’s mouth and nose, so she couldn’t breathe any fire, and off the monster flew, dragging Mom behind it.

“Help! Help!” cried Leon. He ran towards the village to find some ice dragons, but there was no one in the streets, and every house he ran to was empty!

“Oh no!” said Leon. “Thar must have kidnapped all of the ice dragons. And now he has Mom, too!”

Leon had to make a decision: should he run back to the fire-breathing dragon village and get help, or should he go after Thar on his own? “Hmm,” he said to himself. “All of our fighting dragons are already out searching for Thar, so there aren’t many people left at home to help. And besides, maybe they don’t know where Thar’s hideout is, so if I follow him I can find it and tell someone where all of the kidnapped dragons are.”

So Leon decided to chase after Thar. He stretched his wings and took off into the sky, flapping as hard as he could. He wished he had spent more time practicing his flying!

When he got above the trees, Leon looked in the direction that he had seen Thar go. Thar was already so far away that he was just a little speck in the sky.

Leon flew after the monster as fast as he could go. He flew over the forest, and over the fire-breathing dragon village, and over some hills, and over the lightning-breathing dragon village, and finally, when he thought he couldn’t fly any farther, he saw Thar land at the base of a mountain.

Leon was very, very tired when he made it to the mountain, and Thar had already disappeared. Leon landed behind a bush and sat down to rest. He was breathing so hard he thought Thar was going to hear him and catch him for sure!

After a little while, Leon poked his head through the bush and looked around to see where Thar might have gone. There was a dusty path, and Leon could see some gigantic footprints leading towards a cave. “That must be where he’s hiding all the dragons he’s kidnapped!” said Leon. “What am I going to do? Should I wait and make sure that this actually is Thar’s hideout, or should I fly back to the lightning-breathing dragon village to see if anyone is there to help?”

Before Leon could make up his mind, he saw a terrifying black-and-purple beast stomp out of the cave. It was Thar!

“Be quiet in there!” Thar shouted back into the cave. “Stop yelling for your friends and family to save you! You’ll get to see them all soon enough, when I’ve kidnapped all of them, too!” With that, Thar laughed an evil laugh and flew off into the sky.

Leon waited until he was sure Thar was gone, then scrambled out from behind the bush and ran into the cave. The cave was huge, and it was filled with all kinds of cages, with dozens of dragons locked inside them. The locks on the cages were gigantic!

“Is that you, Leon?” said a little voice. It was Emma! She was standing at the bars of one of the big cages, which held lots of blue and white ice dragons.

“Emma, are you okay?” said Leon.

“Yes,” said Emma, “but some of us are hurt, and Thar has tied lots of dragons’ mouths shut so they can’t breathe ice or fire or lightning at him! We can’t get the ropes off, either. He tied the knots too tight, and our fingers are too big to undo them!”

“Have you seen my mom?” asked Leon.

“Thar just brought her in. I think she’s in that cage over there.”

Leon looked into the cage Emma had pointed at, and saw Mom lying on the ground with her mouth tied closed. “Mom!” said Leon. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you out. I’m going to go to the lightning-breathing dragon village and get help.”

“There’s no one there anymore,” said one little yellow dragon. “We are all here in these cages!”

“Oh no,” said Leon. “Maybe I can let you out myself. Is there a key anywhere that would open the cages?”

“Thar keeps the only key with him wherever he goes,” said Emma.

“Hmm,” said Leon. “Wait, I have an idea!”

Leon ran outside and started looking around in the bushes until he found a hopp hole. “Hello?” he called into the hole. “Are there any hopps in there? I need your help!”

A little brown hopp popped up out of the hole. “Hello!” it said. “I’m Horace Hopp. Who are you?”

“I’m Leon the dragon,” said Leon. “I need your help!”

“Oh ho, a dragon needs help from a hopp, eh?” said Horace Hopp. “What can a little hopp do for a dragon? You aren’t going to eat me, are you?”

“No,” promised Leon, “I like hopps! As friends, I mean.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” said the hopp. “Why should I believe you?”

“Because I’m friends with Harvey Hopp,” said Leon.

“Oh, you know Harvey? Well then, that’s a different story!” said the hopp. “If Harvey says you’re okay, then you’re okay! What can I do for you?”

“There are dozens of dragons locked in cages inside that cave,” said Leon. “An evil beast named Thar has kidnapped them, and I need to get them out!”

Horace Hopp looked towards the cave. “We’ve seen him dragging dragons in there for a few days,” he said, “but he’s much too big for us to do anything, so we just hide and hope he doesn’t come after us next.”

“Yes, he is big, and scary, too,” said Leon, “but what I really need is someone little to help me.”

“If little’s what you need, then I’m your hopp,” said Horace. “And my family will help, too!” He stomped quickly on the ground with his foot, and in a few seconds ten more hopps had poked out of their holes and gathered around Leon.

“Follow me!” said Leon. He led the hopps into the cave.

“Leon’s back!” said Emma.

“Why did you bring all those hopps with you?” said the little yellow dragon. “How can they possibly help us?”

“You’ll see,” said Leon. “Okay, hopps, If I lift you up and put you inside these gigantic locks, do you think you could open them?”

“Sure!” said Horace. “Piece of cake!”

So Leon started picking up hopps and placing them inside the locks, which were so big that the hopps could crawl right up into them and push all the levers with their feet, as if they were furry little keys.

Soon all of the locks had been opened, and the dragons were free!

“What are we going to do now?” asked Emma, when she was out of her cage. “All of the big dragons still have their mouths tied shut!”

“The hopps can untie those knots, if we help them,” said Leon. “Hopps have strong little feet, so they can reach into the knots with their toes and make them loose, and then we can use our dragon strength to pull the ropes the rest of the way off.”

A few minutes later, the hopps and the little dragons had all worked together to do exactly that, and all of the dragons could open their mouths again.

Mom said, “I’m proud of you, Leon. That was very brave. Now we have to escape, before Thar comes back!”

“Wait,” said Leon. “There’s one more thing to do. All of the dragons should go into the bushes and hide. Horace, gather all of the hopps here. I have another plan.”

The dragons all did what Leon said and did their best to hide in the trees and bushes outside. After Leon had told the hopps his plan, he hid just outside the cave and waited.

A few minutes later Thar returned, carrying two big red dragons tied up in nets. He landed and started to drag the fire-breathers into the cave. “Ha ha ha!” Thar laughed. “My collection keeps getting bigger! Soon I will have captured all of the dragons!”

When Thar got inside the cave he found all of the cages empty, with their doors open, and a bunch of little hopps sitting inside one of the cages. “What’s going on?” roared Thar. “Where are all my prisoners?”

“They escaped!” said Horace Hopp. “We let them out! Ha ha!”

Thar was so mad that he let go of his nets and charged after the hopps, right into the cage. The hopps all scampered out of the way. “Now!” shouted Horace.

Leon leapt into the cave, slammed the door of the cage shut, and clicked the lock onto the door. The hopps scurried out of the cage, right between the bars, and Thar was trapped!

“No!” yelled Thar. “I can’t be your prisoner! You dragons are supposed to be my prisoners!” But he couldn’t escape. He had made his cages too strong.

“We did it!” said Leon, and all the hopps and all the dragons cheered.

“That was a great plan, Leon!” said Emma.

“Thanks,” said Leon, smiling a big dragony smile.

“We should have a party,” said the little yellow dragon, “a party to celebrate Leon!”

“Maybe we can have a party tomorrow,” said Leon. “I think we should all go home first… It’s been a long and tiring day.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” said Mom.

“Well, next time you come to the lightning-breathing dragon village,” said the little yellow dragon, “I’m sure my mom and dad will give you a party. Just come looking for Charlie: that’s me!”

“Thanks, Charlie!” said Leon.

Horace Hopp bounced up to Leon. “I have an idea, Leon,” he said. “Since we hopps already live here by the cave, we can be the guards to make sure Thar doesn’t escape. And if he does escape, then we’ll tell the dragons right away, so you can put him back in jail where he belongs!”

“Good idea, Horace,” said Leon. “Thank you for all your help. You’re a great friend.”

“You’re welcome,” said Horace.

So all the dragons flew home, and all of the warriors who had gone searching for Thar came home, too, and there were big parties all night in honour of Leon.

But Leon was so tired that as soon as he got home, he just went to sleep.


Plush figures by Tally Heilke, available through her Etsy store.

Leon Makes a Friend

Leon and Emma, as captured in felt by Tally Heilke.

One afternoon Leon the dragon was wandering around in the forest looking at the trees and the flowers and singing a happy tune to himself. It went something like this:

 

I’m a dragon, big and strong

My wings are wide, my tail is long

Yes I’m a dragon, strong and proud

And when I roar it’s very LOUD!

 

Leon jumped up in the air and shouted the last word at the top of his lungs. A little puff of flame shot out of his mouth and lit a branch on fire. “Whoops!” he said, covering his mouth. “I’d better put that fire out!”

Flapping his wings as hard as he could, Leon rose into the air and grabbed onto the branch. He bounced up and down, and finally the branch broke off the tree and he fell to the ground. Then he stomped on the fire until it went out.

“Phew!” said Leon, sitting down against the tree trunk. “That was a close one. I should be more careful with my fire breath!”

Just then, Leon heard someone sneeze: “Ah-choo clink clink.”

“Who is that?” wondered Leon. “And why did their sneeze go ‘clink clink’?” He got up and walked around the tree.

There, on the other side of the tree, was a big, icy igloo.

Leon scratched his head. “What is an igloo doing in the middle of the forest?”

“Ah-choo clink clink clink,” said someone from inside the igloo.

“Hello?” called Leon. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me,” replied the person inside the igloo. “I’m Emma the dragon! Who are you?”

“I’m Leon. I’m a dragon, too,” said Leon. “What are you doing inside an igloo?”

“I don’t know!” said Emma. “My mother was taking me to the doctor who lives in the woods, because I have a cold and I can’t stop sneezing.” She sneezed again: “Ah-choo clink clink. I saw a butterfly and I wanted to try to catch it, but I got lost and couldn’t find my way back to the path. I looked all over trying to find my mother back, and I was so tired, so I decided to take a nap. The next thing I knew, I woke up inside this igloo. Can you help me get out?”

“Hmm,” said Leon. “Why don’t you just breathe fire and melt all the ice?”

“But I can’t breathe fire!”

“Maybe you just have to learn,” said Leon. “A mudge helped me learn. All you have to do is take a deep breath, swallow a tickle in your throat, and blow out as hard as you can.”

“No, no, no,” said Emma. “I mean I can’t breathe fire because I’m not a fire-breathing dragon.”

“What kind of dragon are you?” asked Leon, confused.

“I am an ice-breathing dragon!” said Emma proudly.

“Oh,” said Leon. “I’ve never actually met an ice-breathing dragon before. All of the dragons in my village breathe fire.”

“My whole village breathes ice. I met a fire-breathing dragon once. He was very old and grey, but his fire was purple. Is your fire purple?”

“No,” said Leon. “My fire is green. You must have met Grandfather Joseph. My dad says Grandfather Joseph is the only good dragon who can breathe purple fire. He told me Grandfather Joseph’s parents were bad dragons, but Grandfather Joseph ran away from home when he was little and was raised by a family of hopps.”

“How could a hopp raise a dragon?” wondered Emma. “That would look pretty funny!”

“Sometimes Grandfather Joseph even acts like a hopp,” said Leon. “One time I saw him bouncing up and down on his legs, like hopps do, and he wiggles his nose around like a hopp, too!” Thinking about it, Leon laughed.

Emma laughed, too. Then she sneezed. “Ah-CHOO! Clink clink clink.”

“Why do your sneezes go ‘clink clink’?” asked Leon.

“I think I’m sneezing out ice cubes. Maybe that’s how I got stuck in this igloo. Maybe I was sneezing in my sleep, and all of the ice cubes made an igloo around me!”

“Is it cold in there?”

“Yes, but ice-breathing dragons like the cold,” said Emma. “We don’t like to be trapped, though.”

“Well I’m going to get you out of there!” promised Leon. He tapped on the igloo with one hand. “I’m going to melt the igloo right here. You’d better get to the other side.”

Leon stood back, stretched out his wings, took a deep breath, swallowed the tickle in the back of his throat, and blew out as hard as he could. A big ball of green fire burst out of his mouth and melted a hole right into the side of the igloo. A puddle of water soaked into the grass.

“Thank you, Leon!” said Emma. She crawled out through the hole and shook the drips of water from the igloo off of her wings. She was blue and white and a little bit smaller than Leon.

“You’re welcome,” said Leon.

“Ah-choo!” sneezed Emma. Two little ice cubes shot out of her nose and hit Leon on the chest.

“Ha ha!” laughed Leon. “I guess you really do need to go to the doctor.”

Emma looked sad. “I need to find my mother, first!”

“Let’s fly up and look for her,” suggested Leon.

“I can’t fly,” said Emma.

“That’s okay,” said Leon. “I can fly, but only a little bit. Here, I’ll go look.” He flapped his wings as hard as he could and flew up to a high tree branch, where he perched to let his wings rest. Holding on tight, he looked all around.

“Can you see my mother?” called Emma. “She is dark blue with some white spots, like me!”

Leon looked left, and slowly looked around to his right. “Ah ha!” he said. “There she is!” He had spotted a big blue and white dragon hurrying down the path not far away. “I’ll get your mother’s attention with a signal.”

Taking a big, deep breath and stretching his wings back with all of his strength, Leon swallowed a mighty tickle and WHOOSH! He made a big, long line of green fire through the air. His flame was so big that it knocked him over backwards and he fell off of his branch and tumbled towards the ground.

Leon tried to flap his wings, but they were still tired from getting up into the tree, and he had lost his balance too much to catch himself.

“Oh no!” shouted Emma. “Leon!”

Just as Leon was about to hit the ground, a strong pair of wings swung underneath him and caught him. Emma’s mother lowered Leon gently to the forest floor.

“Phew!” said Leon. “You saved me!”

“You shouldn’t fly so high!” said Emma’s mother. “Your wings haven’t grown big enough yet.”

“I won’t,” promised Leon. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. And thank you for finding Emma and showing me where she was with your fire. That was a smart way to get my attention, even if it did make you fall!”

Leon beamed with pride.

“Now come along, Emma. We still have to get you to Doctor Gon’s clinic. Leon, can you find your way back home from here?”

Leon nodded.

“Mother,” said Emma, “can we go visit Leon’s village some time? I want to see more dragons that breathe fire!”

“Maybe,” said her mother, “but not until you’re well again.”

“Okay,” said Emma. “Goodbye, Leon. See you again soon, I hope!”

Leon waved goodbye and made his way back home, humming a happy tune and being careful not to yell the last word too loud.


Plush figures by Tally Heilke, available through her Etsy store.

Leon Meets a Mudge

A dragon and a mudge! Made by Tally Heilke.

Leon the dragon was sitting on the riverbank, dipping his toes in the water and sighing to himself, when he saw a little roly poly black mudge hop up beside him and lean over to take a drink.

“Hello, little mudge,” said Leon.

“Yikes!” said the mudge. “A dragon!” It turned around and starting hopping away as fast as it could.

“Wait!” said Leon. “I’m not going to hurt you! I’m a nice dragon.”

The mudge stopped hopping. “Are you sure?” it said.

“Very sure,” said Leon.

“But I hear dragons like to eat mudges like me for snacks!” said the mudge. It was so scared it was shivering.

“I have never eaten a mudge in my whole life,” said Leon, “and I don’t want to eat you. I promise.”

The mudge didn’t come any closer, but it didn’t keep hopping away, either.

Leon said, “I’m too sad to eat anything right now, anyways.”

“What are you sad about?” asked the mudge.

“It’s my first birthday tomorrow,” said Leon.

The mudge smiled. “That’s something to be happy about!”

“Not for me,” said Leon. “When dragons reach their first birthday, their family throws a big special party for them.”

“I love parties!” said the mudge. It hopped a tiny bit closer.

“I do, too,” said Leon, “but at a dragon’s first birthday party, they are supposed to show everyone what colour their fire breath is.”

“Fire breath!?” shouted the mudge. “Yikes!” It hopped a little bit further away.

“The problem is that I can’t breathe any fire yet!” said Leon. “I haven’t breathed fire even once.”

“I thought all dragons could breathe fire,” said the mudge.

“Well, not all dragons,” said Leon. “Some dragons breathe other things, like ice or fog or wind or mud, but all of the dragons in my town breathe different colours of fire.”

“So why can’t you?” asked the mudge. It hopped a little bit closer again.

“I don’t know,” said Leon. “That’s why I’m so sad. If I go to my party and everyone finds out that I can’t breathe fire, they will all laugh at me!”

“Have you practiced?” asked the mudge.

“Yes,” said Leon. “I’ve been practicing every day for months.”

“Why don’t you try for me?” said the mudge, and hopped all the way back to where Leon was so it could watch.

“Okay,” said Leon. “Here I go.”

Leon stood up straight and tall, put his shoulders back, stretched out his wings, squeezed his fists tight, took a deeeeeep breath, closed his eyes, and blew all of his breath out as hard as he could.

“See?” he said. “No fire.”

“Are you sure you’re doing it right?” asked the mudge.

“That’s exactly how my dad does it when he breathes fire,” said Leon.

“Are you swallowing a tickle in the back of your throat?”

“What do you mean?” asked Leon.

“Well, I am just a mudge,” said the mudge, “and we mudges can’t breathe fire, but we can breathe bubbles.” The mudge closed its eyes, wriggled its body, and blew three shiny little bubbles, which floated off on the wind. “When I breathe bubbles,” said the mudge, “I take a deep breath, and then I feel a little tickle at the back of my throat. If I swallow the tickle, then bubbles come out, but if I don’t swallow the tickle, all I get is air.”

Leon thought about this for a moment. He wasn’t sure if he had ever felt a tickle in his throat like that. “It’s worth a try,” he said, “but I sure hope I don’t start breathing bubbles! I’m a dragon, not a mudge.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a mudge,” said the mudge. “I like being a mudge!”

Leon said, “I guess I like mudges, too.” The mudge smiled at Leon, and Leon smiled back.

Then Leon stood up straight and tall, put his shoulders back, stretched out his wings, squeezed his fists tight, and took a deeeeeep breath. He felt a little tickle at the back of his throat that he had never noticed before, so he swallowed with a big gulp, closed his eyes, and blew all of his breath out as hard as he could.

“Yikes!” shouted the mudge.

“What happened?” said Leon, because his eyes were still closed.

“You did it!” said the mudge. “You breathed lots of fire!”

“I did?” said Leon. He slowly opened one eye, then slowly opened the other one. A wisp of smoke was hanging in the air, and the wind blew it away as he watched. “I did it!” he said to the mudge. “I breathed real fire, didn’t I?”

The mudge cheered and hopped up and down.

“What colour was my fire?” asked Leon.

“Why don’t you try again with your eyes open, and see for yourself?” said the mudge.

So Leon stood straight, stretched out his wings, took another deeeeeep breath, swallowed a tickle, and breathed out without closing his eyes. He saw lots of green fire go shooting out over the water. When he closed his mouth, the fire turned into smoke and blew away.

“Hooray!” said Leon. “Now I can go to my party tomorrow and everyone will see my green fire. Thank you for helping me, little mudge.”

“You’re welcome,” said the mudge. “You’re a very nice dragon. Maybe dragons aren’t so scary, after all.”

“My name is Leon,” said Leon. “What’s your name?”

“Silly dragon. Mudges don’t have names!” said the mudge. “We are all just called ‘mudge.'”

Then the mudge took Leon to meet some of the other mudges, and they all became good friends and had many adventures together.


Plush figures by Tally Heilke, available through her Etsy store.