3. A whole new world
Uh, the sun is so bright today. Heavy showers of the last week changed to a sunny spell, and the air is clean and fresh. Looks like this August will pamper us with some pleasant days for a little more.
I live at the very edge of the city, so there is a perfect row of tiny houses on the one side of the road and a bunch of trees on the other. I think there’s that road curve on the hill that Red talked about behind those trees. Yeah, living on the outskirts of the dormitory town has its pros. Like, some wandering dragon can settle in your basement…
Due to all the stuff that has happened today, I feel like I wasn’t outside for, like, a week. But it’s only midday. So we have a lot of time to wander around. Will we find anything? This town is the sleepiest one of all cities that I’ve been to. Although we have a dragon girl right here already. I don’t know what else to expect…
The street is absolutely empty. I see a few cars moving on the bypass road around the town. It looks like Red can hear them too - she tries to hide behind my back almost immediately.
“Don’t worry, this town is not as scary as you imagine.”
“I’m not scared! I’m just …trying to be extra careful.” Heh, she looks pretty funny when she’s trying to hide her embarrassment. “By the way, where are we going?”
It’s a good question - I have no idea. “Anywhere where dragons can be. What kinds of places do dragons, or maybe mages, prefer?”
“Hmm. It actually depends on the kind of dragon. Some of them like deep dark caves, some prefer moisture… If I lived with humans, I would choose some high places to be sure I won’t miss anything important: like possible invasion or other bad things.”
“And what about mages?”
“Uhh. I’ve heard they like towers, but I’m not sure.” Red shrugs her shoulders. Sounds like typical fantasy mages, huh?
High places, eh? Then, we should go to Adverton. It’s such a big city with several skyscrapers - it can be a good place for a dragon. Hmm, if I remember right, a few buses go to Adverton at midday. It’s not a popular time - most people go there in the morning and evening. And that’s great for us - the fewer people, the better.
Suddenly, a car from nowhere rushes past us. Red gasps quietly and firmly cuddles up to me, frightened. Uhh, you promised you’d measure your strength! Oh, she’s shaking… It was naive to think that her fear of cars would disappear in a few days. Wait, are these scales on her arm? Geez, I need to soothe her fast!
“Don’t worry, it’s not so dangerous.” I try to make my voice as soft as possible, petting Red’s head. “I’m here. I promise they won’t hurt you. See, it’s gone already.”
She looks at me with doubts. Then, after a while, she releases me and scratches her head with a heavy sigh, looking guilty. The scales on her arm slowly disappear. I really hope no one has seen it.
“Don’t worry - it’s okay to be scared. But I want you to trust me a bit. I swear, there’s nothing dangerous. Here, you can take my hand when you’re frightened.”
Perhaps it’s a bad idea to go out while Red acts like this. How can we go to the city of cars if she can’t stand even a single one? Maybe we should wait for a few days…
“I’ll be fine. I trust you.” Red grips my hand firmly. “I can handle it. Please, keep helping me with my search. I can’t slack anymore - Sai can be in danger…”
What a determined dragon…
“Okay, let’s keep going. There will be a lot of cars. But we have rules that help us walk safely along with them…”
And while we are walking to the center of Wintara, I’m trying to teach Red what automobiles and traffic rules are.
It took way longer than I expected. Right when I’ve finished explaining, we reach the affluent area. More high-rise buildings, more randomly wandering people… I hope I’ve taught Red about the city well enough - it probably feels very questionable when someone explains the most basic stuff to an adult. We don’t want to look suspicious, right?
Red keeps gripping my hand. It looks like it helps her stay calm, but it makes me embarrassed. We are not on a date, are we?… At least Red doesn’t shudder at any car sounds anymore. Even more, it feels like she’s enjoying the city, constantly turning her head with visible curiosity. It’s incredible how fast Red adapts to the new environment. Though, she’s still trying to stay as far as possible from the road.
Suddenly, she starts sniffing the air and pulls me to the side. Oh, she already sensed a dragon nearby?
“What’s happening?” I try to spot something unusual, but I don’t see anything strange around. “Do you find anything?”
“What is that thing? It smells so delicious!” Red points at a hotdog stand at the entrance to the park. I can hear a quiet rumbling of her stomach… She covers her belly with her hand and looks away, embarrassed. Huh, she just wants to eat. I was worrying too much.
A broad-shouldered seller with a big mustache has noticed our attention. He widely smiles at us and starts waving, calling us to come closer.
“Welcome! We have hotdogs of all sizes, either with or without extras. Also, we have a discount for couples.” He winks and points at the menu at the side of the stand. Uh, the prices look as if we’re already in a big city. But in fact, there’s a small discount for buying two pieces. ‘For couples,’ huh?
“Okay, we’ll have two big hotdogs, one spicy and one not.” I suppose Red will enjoy spicy food. But if not, I’m okay with swapping and eating the other.
“How spicy do you want it?”
“A lot!” Red responds before I manage to answer. Whatever… Excitedly, she looks at how hotdogs are being cooked.
“Got it, extra spicy. You’re a brave one! I hope you won’t regret it when you’ll breathe fire like a dragon.” The seller laughs loudly. I hope she won’t! Please…
Finally, our hotdogs are ready, and we go to the park to find a place to eat. Only a few people are still wandering around, so we can rest and talk here without much caution. Many benches in the shadow of the green trees combined with the excellent weather promise good rest. Mmm, so relaxing…
Surprisingly, the hotdogs are actually tasty. I expected way lower quality from our city center.
Oh, but what about Red? How will the dragon handle spicy food? When I look at her, she’s already eaten most of the meal. Despite my concerns, she eats it without any problem, definitely enjoying every bite.
Now I’m curious about what kind of food she usually eats. Do dragons cook or not? Or maybe she just needs to recover from her injuries, which requires a lot of energy. If it’s true…
I offer her half of my hotdog.
“Thanks…” She glances at me with surprise but takes and consumes it in a few seconds. Wow, that’s fast.
“If you want more…”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. In this form, almost the same amount of food as humans is enough for me. But I still need to recover enough magic before I can fight mages without risks.”
“Emm, magic from food? That simple?” That sounds a bit bizarre.
“Uhh, how to explain… Basically, we turn extra food into magic power, so the more I eat, the faster I recover.” Red smiles and leans back on the bench. Honestly, that’s impressive. I bet everyone wants to get stronger just by eating more…
“Is it the only one way?” All stories I’ve read depict mages gaining power from some element or nature. Gaining it from food makes some sense, but it’s a bit of a disappointment.
“Normally, we recover our power from the mana stored in the environment, but your world doesn’t really have any strong magic streams. Actually, I don’t see any streams at all! I start believing you about no magic in your world. So, it turns out that here the only way to recover for a dragon like me is just eating more…” Red releases a slow breath.
I expected tons of problems going to Adverton, but Red was okay with moving in a crowd of people. Right, she said that she’d visited the village before, so people are not frightening her. The biggest problem now is getting her on a bus. It takes quite a while to explain that sitting inside the “scary metal creature” is absolutely safe. Thankfully, her curiosity takes over her fear, and now she is just excited to see a big modern city.
Adverton… It’s such a big city nowadays. But from what I’ve heard, it started as a tiny village near a small plastic factory. But it grew into a massive city in just a few decades, especially after the factory owner had been mysterious changed. If the old one was focused only on growing the factory itself, the new one started spending a lot of money on urban beautification.
Obviously, it wasn’t just for being good. They also opened more small factories to find more workers. And they started to promote the city as an excellent place for a new life. It was risky, but it worked. So now there are plenty of people. Several universities. And that’s why I’d moved here - to study in one of them.
After getting off the bus, Red suddenly stands still. Her mood drastically changes from what it had been minutes ago. She’s so tense now… Something is definitely wrong. Ugh, where can we talk far from without unwanted ears?
I grab her hand and lead her to hide between buildings. I hope no one can hear us here.
“What’s wrong? You don’t look like yourself.” She shudders slightly and looks at me.
“Remember I’ve said that your world didn’t have any strong magic sources? However, this city is overflowing with mana.”
“So, there are a lot of mages here?” I understand that she’s scared of mages, but at the same time, we are willing to find them. So, it is good, right?
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of mana, but I can’t see any magic streams around. It feels so wrong… Like mana just appears here out of nowhere.”
“Is it dangerous?” I don’t know how magic works. I hope it’s not like radiation.
“No, mana in itself is totally safe. I just don’t know what to expect. And the more mana is in the air, the more difficult it is to spot the magic user. Like a fog, but for mental vision.” Red shakes her head and forces a weak smile. “Don’t worry, we can go on now. I just need to be extra cautious.”
Well, that’s already something. Anyway, where should we go? There are many different districts, each one with its own city legends. What do dragons and mages like? High places, treasures… Okay, let’s check the most affluent area first. There are many antique stores, maybe there will be some magic items, who knows.
However, I don’t really want to show Red the subway. It’s scary even for ordinary people… Red is already so nervous, and we’ve just started our investigation here. Is the amount of magic still increasing? I know that I shouldn’t distract her, but being that concentrated is also harmful. Maybe some small talk could help?
But what can we talk about? I can’t ask Red about the magic world right now, as so many people are around. And I still barely understand anything. It all happened out of the blue. A few days ago, I knew nothing and was just wondering who she was. But now I’m helping her find mages and return to her world. It’s all exciting and fascinating, it sounds almost like some video game plot, but it’s not. I might take Red’s story seriously - someone definitely wanted to kill her and almost managed to do it. It’s not a joke. And I’m just an average human. Can I help her for real?..
“You’re worrying about me again, aren’t you?” Red touches my shoulder.
“Oh, sorry…” Wait, why am I apologizing?
“Heh, do you remember that I can clearly feel your mood?” Red giggles. “I’m happy you look after me, but you shouldn’t overthink it.”
“You’ve already done a lot for me, let me take care of what I know, okay?”
Well, she’s right. Maybe I’m really trying too much. Uhh, I want to be a hero in this situation, but it certainly won’t happen… Now I see that Red relaxed a bit now. Apparently, I’m really just overthinking it.
“Have you discovered anything?”
“Oh, it’s not a discovery. I’ve just come up with an idea about the nature of the magic source. I’m not sure… But if I’m right, it will be great.”
Oh, well. I hope Red will tell me later what came to her mind. I have so many questions!
Suddenly, she freezes in her tracks again. Huh? Red? What is it now?
Oh my gosh, I’ve almost forgotten that she’s a dragon. Obviously, she can’t just pass by a collection of old jewelry.
“Red, it’s not the right time to do it. You need to focus, okay?”
She’s just motionlessly staring through the glass. Ugh, I wonder why hunters haven’t captured all dragons using just a big pile of gold in the middle of the city…
Okay, how can I return her to this reality? Yeah, her goal. “Red, you remember about Sai, right? About your hurry?”
“Why do they have all that stuff almost in the street? There are no knights or guards around. What are they thinking about?” Oh man, it will be hard…
“Think about it as a …trap, yeah. And please, stop acting suspiciously. People start giving you a side-eye! We need to move.”
“But maybe I can try to grab at least something? I can run fast, there are many people on the streets…”
“Red, please, stop.”
A hard piercing stare. Ugh, the chills run up my back. Is it an enemy? A mage? I abruptly turn around, but all I can see are a lot of cars on the road. Who?! Where?!
“We must go, now!” I grab her hand and, with all my strength, try to move her. Surprisingly, she stops peering into the store window and allows me to pull her away. The sinking feeling ends as quickly as it started, leaving me confused. What was that?
We walk swiftly for a few street blocks before Red stops me.
“Can you explain? You suddenly became so scared. But why? I don’t feel any threats around. The only thing I’ve noticed is the sudden change in your mood.”
“I was feeling like someone was intently staring at us. But… Ugh, I have no idea why I assumed that, sorry…” Actually, why? I haven’t seen anything dangerous. Was it just my imagination? Well, at least we’ve moved away from the store.
“Oh, I see. It’s fine. It’s totally okay to trust your feelings.” Red looks at me with doubt in her eyes. “Though, maybe I was too focused on the treasures and missed something… I’m sorry, they caught me flat-footed. I haven’t expected to see a huge amount of wealth in one place.” Eh, dragons…
I’m slowly getting exhausted. We’ve been walking for two hours but still haven’t found anything. The same high presence of mana and no traces of any mages. Of course, we are not in a fantasy movie, so what have I even expected?
“Red, shall we have a snack or just return home and try again later? What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I remember you’ve said about no magic here at all, but I hoped to find at least something. I was too optimistic…”
“Okay, so what about a food break? I know a good place - we can eat there and then rest in the park nearby.” I’ve heard it’s a spot with prices surprisingly moderate for the city center and fantastic food quality. I’m not sure, but at least we can try.
I can hear some rumbling from Red’s tummy. “I count it as yes, do I?” She instantly turns away and blushes. Man, I love seeing her getting embarrassed. And, what is more important, her mood begins to lift. Don’t worry, little dragon, we’ll find something, apparently.
Eh, it takes us a half an hour to find a street with that cafe. It’s hidden surprisingly well - inside the “Wings of Dream” office complex. If I remember right, it’s a company that makes plastic toys and figurines. Is it just a subsidiary of the primary plastic factory? Anyway, I haven’t expected the local company to have a big complex with cafes and a whole garden. Oh, do they even have their shop there? Wait, isn’t it an anatomic model figurine?! I’ve been searching for this one, but all online stores always have it out of stock.
“Oh, now you seem to be excited?” Red looks at me with a grin on her face. Ugh… Everyone has their own weaknesses, okay? Anyway, let’s find the cafe and rest for a bit.
We walk through the security post. Oddly, an old lean gatekeeper asks me to show him my ID card. Ugh, I’ve expected just to pass inside, given that it is a public place. Weird… Oh, just checking random people, well. Then, why only me? Do I look extra suspicious? Or just naive and easy to handle… I’ll never understand their criteria. Though I’m glad they didn’t ask Red the same, I have no idea how we would get out of it.
Oh, there’s that cafe. Finally, we’ve found it! Looks like it’s not crowded, and we can find a place to quietly sit and discuss our plans…
Suddenly, Red grips my hand firmly. Too firmly. Erm, what’s up now?
“Do you want to eat so badly?” I try to pull a joke, but she just stands motionlessly and stares at a certain distant point. Her eyes have turned into the dragon’s ones, yellow, with vertical pupils. It’s definitely not a good sign…
Then I hear an explosion. Are you kidding me… A giant column of smoke rises from a building in the next block in exactly the same direction that Red is gazing at.
People around start standing up and leaving their places. Some just keep gazing, and some run away in panic. Ugh, I hope Red doesn’t want to go there. Red?
“You wanted to go home, right? Now it is the right time to do it.” She turns around and heads for the exit. No way it’s a manifestation of magic! But Red’s reaction is too straight.
“Wait. Stop!” I barely manage to catch her hand. “You’ve just started getting used to the city. What do you expect trying to go to a new place totally alone?”
“But I don’t want you to put yourself in danger. It’s way too risky. Let me go!” She’s trying to free her hand, but I hold it firmly.
“No. Listen to me, please. It’s just impossible. There will be a lot of police. And maybe even the military. They will catch you anyway. And I can’t imagine how dangerous it will be in the middle of a clash between the mages and the police.”
Red looks completely confused. It seems that she is close to agreeing that it’s too unsafe. But at the same time, she’s finally found something related to her world. I want to keep investigating, but I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Please, understand me… I firmly squeeze her hand and close my eyes, hoping for the best.
Finally, after long seconds of thinking, she releases a sad breath. “Impossible, huh… Okay, let’s go home for now.”
Phew. Only after closing the front door I feel safe. Thankfully, our bus wasn’t canceled, though I can’t remember anything from our way home except that tormenting sense of hopelessness emanating from Red. Unfortunately, we haven’t had an opportunity to talk about the situation on the way, so I hope I can finally get an explanation now.
Red walks straight into the room and falls on the sofa. While closing the front door, I can hear a muffled ’thud’ and the rustle of her clothing.
When I turn back after locking the door, I find that she’s already changed to her old dragon dress and now rests on the sofa in her half-dragon form, swinging her tail left and right irritably. Her ‘modern’ clothes are now lying on the floor.
“Are you mad at me?” After all, it was my idea to return home and forfeit our chance. She looks at me with sorrow.
“No, I’m not… I’m just angry at myself. This feeling of despair and uselessness.” She turns on her back and exhales heavily, so I can see a small cloud of smoke coming out of her mouth. “You did everything right. I should thank you, I guess.”
I have no idea why you thank me, but I still want to confirm my suggestions: “So, that explosion was actual magic, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, it was. And if it was the work of a single mage, I can’t imagine how powerful they can be.” She sighs again. “Obviously, I’m not in the right condition to challenge such a powerful person. And if it was a group of them, it’s even worse.”
“But why have they done it?” I thought mages wanted to keep their existence a total secret.
“Who knows? I know that their groups conflict with each other. So maybe it was something like this.”
Hmm. If it’s a conflict, there are at least two sides in it. Maybe we can find one of them and somehow make a deal. Sounds good? Though, I still have no idea how to do it. We need more information. But where can we find it?
I catch myself pacing from corner to corner. Red is looking at me with a slight smile. “I’ve already asked you, please, don’t overwhelm yourself with my problems, okay?”
Hey! Red grabs my torso with her tail, forcing me to sit on the sofa next to her: “Calm down. You’re tired - it’s clear even to me.” Red makes a forced smile. “I don’t blame you at all. If you hadn’t stopped me, I would be dead now. So, please, don’t worry and rest a bit.”
I haven’t thought about it, but now I feel that I’m dead on my feet. Resting… Maybe it’s a good idea. But how can we relax? Watch some films? Oh, TV news! An explosion in the city center is a big event. Probably, journalists have started to search for clues about the situation. Also, the authority should publish at least some statement about the event, there are too many witnesses.
“You can’t rest even for a minute, huh?” Red is looking at me with visible concern.
“We can gather some information about what we saw today. It’s already time for daily news.” I immediately turn on my TV.
Today in Adverton, a massive explosion damaged the skyscraper and nearby buildings and homes, authorities said. The explosion occurred at about 4:30 p.m. inside the building at the apartment of the PetroTech CEO, located near its child company - Wings of Dreams. Authorities believe there were no other fatalities, but eight people were injured. According to unaudited reports, the CEO of PetroTech - Priscilla Duval - was in the building at the moment of the explosion happened. At this point, her whereabouts remain unknown. The representative of the сorporation refused to comment on the situation. The police are urging everyone to stay calm as they have already started the investigation.
Oooh… It’s way worse than I’ve imagined. I’ve believed that mages are wise, albeit strange people. But terrorism and hurting innocents are entirely beyond the bounds. I hadn’t imagined that my simple idea could be that unsafe.
Red’s tail is touching me again. What?
“Hey, don’t be so frightened. As I’ve said, mages are very dangerous, but you have me on your side. And, as long as we haven’t met, they don’t know where we are. We’re safe for now.”
“But what about the gaze that I’ve felt today?” I still can’t forget it. That feeling was so strong and real… And it was not friendly at all.
“It was just a single gaze! You’re overthinking it again, there’s no way…” But the doorbell cuts her short.