Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 37.
The light of the lantern.

The Fool awoke with a jolt, the crumbling stones of the tower digging into his back. Disoriented, he scanned the dim chamber, memory slowly trickling back.

Stranded. Tower. Desert.

His stomach grumbled, reminding him of the usual provisions left by the Hermit – but this time, the space beside his makeshift bed was bare. Only a rough robe and an empty lantern lay there.

"The Hermit…" the Fool muttered, a knot of worry tightening in his gut. Had the old wanderer finally met his end in the unforgiving desert? Poisonous fangs, perhaps, or the sting of a scorpion? Pulling on the robe, he found comfort in its worn warmth, a meager shield against the sun's merciless glare.

Emerging from the tower, he searched for tracks around the collapsed section where the Hermit had resided. The wind, however, had erased any trace, even his own fresh footprints vanishing behind him like fleeting memories. An unsettling wind picked up, whispering a sandstorm's approach in the distance. He scrambled back to the tower, seeking refuge as the sky turned the color of ochre dust.

Nightfall brought a fragile peace. The Fool, lantern clasped in hand, ventured out once more, driven by a gnawing concern for the Hermit. Moonlight bathed the dunes in an ethereal glow, but the lantern remained stubbornly dark. No oil, no wick – nothing to coax a flame into life.

"Hermit! Hermit!" his voice echoed into the vast emptiness, swallowed by the silence. Hope dwindled with each unanswered call.

The Fool stared at the lantern, frustration twisting his gut. "Cursed thing!" he muttered, "Why didn't the Hermit share its secrets?" In a fit of anger, he struck the lantern against the sand. Instead of shattering, a blinding light pulsed upwards.

As the light subsided, a breathtaking sight materialized: a large fairy with cascading hair and wings woven from moonlight. She gently placed two vases on the sand before him and asked, her voice melodic, "Have you found your friend?"

The Fool's hope deflated. "No," he croaked, his voice hoarse.

The fairy's eyes, soft pools of light, held understanding. "Perhaps I can help," she offered. Relief washed over him, and he readily agreed.

With a graceful sweep of her wings, she scooped him up, soaring into the star-dusted expanse. "Look!" she instructed, her voice carried by the wind, "Search for your friend from above."

He scanned the endless dunes, the vastness both awe-inspiring and disheartening. No sign of the Hermit. The fairy descended, her brow furrowed. "Did you find him?" she inquired.

With a heavy heart, the Fool shook his head. "No."

She ascended once more, climbing higher until the entire desert unfolded beneath them like a wrinkled tapestry. Still, no Hermit. "Do you see him?" the fairy's voice, though gentle, held a hint of urgency.

"No," the Fool whispered, despair creeping into his voice.

The fairy soared higher, piercing through the clouds, until the world stretched out beneath them like a vibrant globe. The Fool searched frantically, his eyes scanning every corner, but the Hermit remained elusive.

"Do you see him?" the fairy's voice echoed, laced with concern.

"No," the Fool admitted, his voice small.

Their ascent continued, reaching the realm of twinkling stars. Even amidst this cosmic spectacle, the Hermit was nowhere to be found.

"Have you found him?" the fairy inquired, her voice barely audible above the celestial silence.

But the vastness had shifted something within the Fool. The dazzling tapestry of the universe had captivated him, pushing the Hermit's image to the periphery of his mind. He gazed at the fairy, his eyes wide with awe.

"What...what was I looking for again?" he whispered, the question laced with newfound wonder.

In the blink of an eye, they returned to the desert. The fairy descended gracefully, picking up the two enigmatic vases – one shimmering gold, the other gleaming silver.

"I will help you find him," she declared, her voice resolute.

With a gentle movement, she poured water from one vase to the other, a quiet ripple echoing in the stillness. The sun, responding to the unseen command, rose majestically in the east, painting the sky with hues of orange and gold. But just as quickly, it dipped below the horizon, plunging the world into twilight.

The Fool watched, mesmerized, as the sun danced to the fairy's pouring rhythm, sunrise and sunset mirroring each other in a breathtaking display. He saw the crumbling stones of the tower rewind, defying gravity to rejoin their places, rebuilding the structure in a dazzling feat of reverse time. With a final crackle, the tower stood tall and whole once more, its former glory restored.

But the transformations didn't stop there. The barren landscape began to bloom. Sand receded, replaced by fertile soil. Lush greenery sprouted, painting the desert in vibrant shades. Trees unfurled their leaves, and the air pulsed with the symphony of life. All four seasons unfolded before his eyes in a breathtaking display – winter's frosted splendor, spring's vibrant awakening, summer's golden warmth, and autumn's fiery embrace, before returning to the icy grip of winter once more.

"Have you found him?" the Fairy's voice cut through the whirlwind of color and time.

"It's all too fast," the Fool gasped, the seasons blurring into a dizzying montage. Birth, life, death, repeated endlessly like the relentless beat of a drum. Villages rose and crumbled, cities grew and vanished, the moon tracing erratic loops across the sky.

The Fairy's voice, ever calm, echoed again, "Have you found him yet?"

But the question had lost its meaning. In the face of time's merciless dance, the search for the Hermit seemed insignificant. "What was I looking for again?" he whispered, lost in the swirling kaleidoscope of existence.

The Fairy smiled, a knowing glint in her eyes. She ceased pouring, and in an instant, they were back where they began, bathed in the desert's moonlight.

"Wait," she said, a gentle determination in her voice. "I'll help you."

Once again, she tipped the vases, their contents reaching equilibrium. Her gaze, kind and deep, held his. "Look carefully," she instructed, a single drop flowing from one vase to the other.

Entranced, the Fool fixated on the cascading water. Then, within its shimmering depths, his own reflection materialized. But this reflection aged with each passing moment. Wrinkles etched themselves onto his face, hair sprouted and turned silver, his eyes mirroring the wisdom of a lifetime. He saw himself, clad in the Hermit's familiar robe, wielding the well-worn cane.

"Did you find him?" the Fairy's voice was barely a murmur.

"Am I...?" the Fool began to think, but before he knew it, a hand emerged from the vase that grabbed his and pulled him in.