Once upon a time, long ago and far away, there was a witch.
She was a young witch, still unsure of herself and learning her way. Like all young witches, she spent her time trying out various spells, and variations of those spells, and sometimes they worked. Mostly they didn’t. And sometimes, once in a long while, they worked, but in completely unexpected ways.
Late one night – she did all her witching at night, because that was the time when magic has power, and besides everyone else is asleep – the witch was working at a new spell, with which she intended to summon a demon familiar from the nether world. The spells which do such things are closely guarded secrets, and each witch has to discover them for herself, unless of course she comes from a family of witches and has a mother to teach her. But this witch had no family at all, and she had to try and do it all by herself.
So she bent over a steaming cauldron, peering through the vapour at a tattered of parchment on which she had scribbled her incantations. Her eyes smarted from the vapours, and she wasn’t by any means certain anything would happen, but she was young enough to be willing to start all over again if she failed.
Before her, in a cleared space on the earthen floor of her little hut, she had drawn a complicated design, whorls like the petals of a flower interspersed with angles and circles. In the very centre of that design was a bare spot, directly underneath an oil lamp which hung from the ceiling. It was the only illumination in the hut.
Finishing her chanting, the witch dropped some red powder from a vial into the cauldron. It began to bubble ominously and the vapour turned thick and purple. Scooping up a little of the liquid with a ladle, she tossed it into the centre of the design and stood back, already knowing nothing would happen.
She was wrong. Something did happen. There was a huge flash and a blinding flash of light, and for a moment she feared she’d gone blind. When she could see again, something was in the middle of the circle.
It wasn’t a demon familiar. It was something tiny, which moved slowly and mewled piteously, like a kitten.
At first she thought it was a kitten, or perhaps a puppy, and because she was a kind-hearted girl, she rushed to pick it up, and cuddle it, and see if it were hurt.
It was not a puppy, nor was it a kitten. But it was tiny, and very far from home, so she kept it anyway.
“Konika,” her aunt said, ”you’re not to go to the old ruin on the hill.”
Konika frowned, but not too much, because her aunt didn’t like her frowning. “Why not?”
“Because I said so.” Her aunt’s face softened a little. “There are snakes and scorpions up in that old ruin. And it’s all crumbling away. You might fall and break a leg.”
“OK,” Konika said unhappily. “I won’t go up there, then.”
Her aunt smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find plenty to do while we’re gone,” she said. “It’s just for today, after all. You could get your things ready for packing tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning?” Konika said numbly.
“Yes,” her aunt said brightly. “Your uncle and I. we’ve got your ticket for tomorrow on the afternoon train. It must be boring for a young girl like you here. By dinnertime you’ll be in the city.”
“But,” Konika said, feeling the tightness in her throat. “But I don’t want to go.”
“Well, you can’t stay here,” her aunt said bluntly. “I thought we’d explained clearly when you came that it would only be for a while.” She smiled, the corners of her lips just lifting. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ve found a good place for you in the city. It’s not a bad job, for someone who’s not finished school.”
“What...?” Konika began.
Her aunt looked at her watch. “We’ve got to go. I’ll explain everything when we get back. Your lunch and dinner are in the fridge. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”
Konika didn’t say anything. Her aunt looked at her a minute before going away, shaking her head. Konika heard her muttering something about the girl being ungrateful. The car’s engine started up and the sound disappeared into the distance.
Left to herself, Konika wiped away an angry tear. She hadn’t cried in a long time, and didn’t want to start blubbering, even though nobody was there to see. But the anger that rose in her was so great that it needed a release.
“Damn them,” she muttered. “Damn them.”
She decided to go up to the old ruin anyway. It topped the low hill behind the house, a formless mass picked out with a few half-standing walls. What it had once been, Konika had no idea. Perhaps it had been a fortress, or a monastery, or a castle or something. She’d never heard her aunt and uncle talk of it, not that she’d ever asked them, though she’d been drawn to it the first time she’d seen it, weeks ago. It was only when she’d mentioned it after breakfast that her aunt had ordered her not to go.
Without waiting any longer, lest she get second thoughts – she was always getting second thoughts – she set out at once. The hill, though low, was a very broad one, and the slope was dotted with scrub forest that grew over what passed for a path. Also, the day was hot, and getting hotter. She began to wish she’d brought along some water, and probably an umbrella for the sun.
Well, it was too late to go back for them now. She was too far away, and if she went back she’d take too long to come back up all this way again. Maybe she’d get sunstroke, or faint from dehydration, she thought. And she remembered her aunt’s warnings.
“I don’t care,” she muttered fiercely. “I don’t care if I go fall and break a leg. Or even bitten by a snake. Maybe they’ll be sorry.”
But they wouldn’t, she knew. They wouldn’t be sorry at all.
She must have said something of this aloud, because something happened that made her jump.
“Who won’t be sorry?” a voice asked at her elbow.
She turned. Someone was sitting on a rock next to her, staring up with watery eyes. It was a man, an old man with a straggling beard, wearing clothes which so closely matched the dusty earth and scrub that it wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t noticed him.
“Who won’t be sorry?” he repeated. Despite his age, his voice was quite firm.
“Nobody,” Konika said, and made to continue up the slope.
“Wait.” The man’s tone was imperious. “Wait and listen to me a minute.”
Konika turned back to him. “What?”
“You’re going up there,” the old man said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Konika nodded. “Shouldn’t I?”
“Do you want to?” The old man’s eyes were no longer watery. They bored into her like knives.
“Yes,” Konika repeated. “I do.”
The old man nodded. He patted a rock next to him with a surprisingly large hand. Konika realised that he was probably a very big man, or at least had been. “Sit down here so I don’t have to strain my neck looking up at you.”
Gingerly, Konika sat. “You have come a long way,” the old man told her. “A very long way.”
“From the house down there,” Konika said. “Only from there.”
“And before that?”
Konika said nothing. Words trembled on her lips and fell away, to wherever unspoken words go.
The old man looked at her. “Why are you going up there?” he asked at last.
“I just wanted to visit the ruins,” Konika said.
“But,” the old man told her, “someone asked you not to. Who was it?”
“My aunt.” Konika said. And then the words began spilling out, faster and faster, but she could no longer control them. “Only she’s not my aunt, not really, and her husband, he’s not really my uncle, either. She’s just my mother’s sister. But then my mother wasn’t my mother either, was she?”
Konika shook her head so hard that her hair whipped round her shoulders. “I didn’t find out till after they died,” she said. “My mother and...father. Only they weren’t, not really, though they never told me. Maybe they might have, I don’t know. But they’re dead, in a car accident.”
“You were adopted?”
“I can’t even say that – not really. I was found, they told me, my...aunt and uncle. Right there at the funeral. They said nobody knew where I came from, and of course they couldn’t give me a home. But I could stay with them, for a while.
“So I came here. I thought I would hate it. But when I saw this hill, those ruins, I felt that this place at least might give me peace. For a while. But tomorrow they’re sending me away.”
The old man didn’t ask where. He stared at her so long that she began to fidget uncomfortably. “And they asked you not to go up there. Why?”
“She said there were snakes and scorpions, and the place was crumbling, so I might fall and break a leg.”
“But you’re still going up there. Is it to spite them, or because you want to?”
Konika opened her mouth, but the easy answer, the one that she’d automatically begun making, died on her lips. “I’m not sure,” she said at last. “A little of both, I think.”
The old man nodded slowly. “There are no snakes in the ruins,” he said.
“No scorpions either. There are lots of both on the hill, and in the countryside, but none in the ruins.”
“The ruins are crumbling, sure enough,” the old man continued, as though she hadn’t spoken. “But they’ve held together for a long time. They’ve seen more centuries than you imagine.” He peered at Konika. “They have a story. One you need to hear.”
Konika had wanted to start up the mountain again, but the tone of his voice, and the look in his eyes, fixed her to the spot, She couldn’t move or speak.
“Once,” said the old man, “long, long ago, and far from here, there was a young witch who wanted to cast a spell to summon a demon familiar...”
The witch crouched down and rubbed the huge horned head. “They’re coming,” she said.
The vast beast sprawling on the stone floor peered up at her. “Are you going to flee?” it rumbled.
“Flee where?” the witch asked. Her young voice was filled with despair. “We’ve been fleeing for years now, and there’s nowhere left to run. At least I thought we’d be safe here, far away from anywhere. But even here we aren’t safe.”
The dragon raised its head with difficulty. It had been regenerating its energies, and that always takes a very long time for a dragon. “I can feel them,” it agreed.
“You too?” The witch’s face was a mask of misery. “If you can feel it too, they must be closer than I thought.”
The dragon turned one eye up at the high window on a wall. Through it, the night sky held a single star. “They will be here before the star moves away from that window,” it said. “But there is still time for you to escape.”
“But not for you.” The witch’s hand stroked one huge horn. “You won’t be able to get away.”
“I can barely move,” the dragon agreed. “But then I’m not important. I can’t help you in any way. If I were a demon familiar, the one you’d wanted to summon, I could have saved you. But I’m useless. It’s time for you to go.”
The witch shook her head. “I won’t leave you.” Now she could feel the threat, oozing up the stone of the outer walls, a tide of living darkness. “I won’t give you to them.”
“They don’t want me,” the dragon said. “They want only you.”
“We’re talking in circles,” the witch said. Her hand kept rubbing the dragon’s brow plates. “I haven’t had much to show for all my spells, have I?” she asked. “All I’ve ever managed to do is drag you away from your family, and bring you here. And I didn’t even intend to do that.”
The dragon heaved with its head, pushing her hand away. “Go on,” it urged. “Leave while you can.”
“I won’t,” said the witch. “So don’t talk about it anymore.” She put her hand back on the dragon’s head and continued stroking its brow.
Slowly, her head drooped on her chest and her eyes closed. Her lips moved, murmuring words nobody could hear. Perhaps she, too, was unaware of what she said.
And that is how the things of darkness found her, when they oozed over the tall window and down into the chamber, her head drooping, unresisting. And they carried her away, back to where they came from, to those who had sent them.
Lying on the stone floor, helpless to intervene, the dragon watched them go.
And then, at last, it moved again. Its head rose, slow and ponderous. It had made up its mind.
What it was going to do would hurt it terribly, beyond the point of all agony, but it had no alternative.
Its beak opened, and it began uttering words and phrases in a language unknown to anyone but its own folk. At first it was hesitant, unsure. But in a little while the words came faster and faster, until they merged into a stream.
And time passed, and passed, and the dragon was silent once more.
“That’s a sad story,” Konika said. “What happened to the witch?”
The old man looked away across the slope. “That isn’t the question you should be asking,” he said softly.
“What question should I ask?” Konika said, confused. “Is it about the ruins? But it’s just a story, isn’t it?”
“That’s not the question either,” the old man said. “But you will know the question when you come across it. And when you know the question, you will know the answer too.”
Konika frowned. “Why should I find this question anyway?”
But the old man did not say a word in reply. Konika waited and waited, but he seemed to have forgotten her presence. At last, she got up from the rock and continued up the hill. After a little bit, she turned back to look, but she couldn’t see the old man anywhere.
It was probably just that his clothes merged into the background so well, she thought, and continued up the hill.
It was still a startlingly long way. Long before she reached the ruin, she knew she could never get back down before dark. But now she was filled with a mutinous resolve. She would get up there and see what there was to see, and take her own time about going down again, and if the people who were not her aunt and uncle didn’t like it, that was just too bad.
The sun was hammering down, but her thirst and tiredness seemed to have vanished. She hadn’t realised just how much she’d resented her “aunt” and “uncle” until she’d spilled it out to the old man. And instead of making her feel relieved, she felt the anger shiver through her all the way down to her toes.
When she finally reached the ruin the sun was beginning to sink down to the west. In its light the remnants of the walls were a rich buttery yellow, the shadows deepening to amber. It might have been beautiful if only there had been some more form left to the structure.
It had been huge once. Even now, though it was collapsed on itself and much of it had merged back into the hillside, she could tell that it had once been spectacular. Statues, so eroded that it was impossible to tell what they had once been like, still clung to the remnants of columns. Broad staircases disappeared into mounds of earth and masonry. Each turning seemed to bring her to new things of wonder; carvings that seemed once to have spelt out intricate messages, now all but effaced; windows in pieces of standing wall which seemed as though they would have opened on to worlds so different from the one she knew that she would never be able to find their way back again.
It felt so good to her, so right, that she didn’t wonder that she’d wanted to come up here since the first time she had seen it.
She never realised just when the sun set. The walls had turned from butter yellow to orange, and then to a deep blushing rose, before a tide of shadow blotted out everything around her. The sky was still light, but the night had already come.
At first she wasn’t worried. She could find her way back down, easily enough. All she had to do was get out of the ruins and...
...and she couldn’t get out of the ruins. She set out confidently in one direction, only to find herself lost among the walls, each familiar-looking turn bringing her back to another. In the gathering darkness, she soon could not even see where to put her feet safely.
“It’s all right,” she muttered to herself. “I’ll sit here somewhere and in the morning I’ll go back. And if they don’t like it, that’s just too bad.”
She’d only just thought this when she saw a light among the ruins. It was coming steadily closer, and she heard voices.
Her first impulse was to rush towards the light, and she very nearly did. It was only at the last moment that she hesitated, and that was because she heard voices.
There was something very familiar about the voices.
Crouching behind a wall, she watched the light move closer. It was a powerful flashlight, but in these ruins its beam looked pale and washed out, like an eye grown watery with age. She was reminded of the old man’s eyes.
The voices came closer. Though she couldn’t hear the words, now she could tell clearly who they were: the man and woman she called her aunt and uncle. At first she thought they had come up to look for her, but that couldn’t be. They’d said they wouldn’t be back home till midnight, and it had only just gone dark.
A little distance from her, they stopped, their flashlight on a slab of stone.
Very cautiously, she raised her head over the edge of the wall. The two of them were looking at the stone, her aunt leaning forward to trace a carving with her fingertip. There was something peculiarly repellent about the pose. Konika leaned forward slightly, to get a better look.
And then she realised that her aunt’s features were blurring and shifting. One moment she looked like her aunt, and then like something else.
Her uncle put the flashlight down and bent too, for a better look. One moment he looked like her uncle, and then he looked like something else.
Konika must have made some involuntary noise then. The heads of both of them snapped up, looking in her direction. But the faces she saw were not those of people.
Seconds later Konika was running frantically through the ruins, stumbling and falling, trying her hardest not to scream with fear. She could hear them coming behind her, going faster than she was, faster than they ought to have been able to move. She could hear their excited panting, closer and closer, and at any moment expected to feel their fingers reaching out to grab her –
The ground opened beneath her feet, and she fell.
It was a long fall. It was a long and very painful fall, down a rocky shaft, being bounced from side to side, and then something struck her head hard and everything was dark and silent.
She could not have been unconscious long. When she opened her eyes something was looming over her. She would have shrunk back in fear, if she could have moved, but she couldn’t.
The gigantic horned head lowered, eyes glowing green in the darkness. The beak opened. “I have been waiting,” the dragon rumbled. “I knew you would come.”
Konika tried to open her mouth and say something. Her lips would not obey her.
“You’re hurt,” the dragon said. “Don’t try to move.” Its wing swept over her from her feet to her head, once, twice. Warmth and pain flowed back into her body.
“They’re coming,” the dragon said. “You will need your strength to fight them.”
“I don’t...” Konika whispered. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“But you do,” the dragon said. “I knew you would return someday, because I took them from you. It cost me thousands of years of life, but I did it. And I knew you would come back. And they will, too.” It cocked its huge head. “Can you feel them?”
And now she could feel them, slipping down the shaft behind her, no longer even remotely human, living tides of darkness. She could feel their excitement, their desire to get to her.
But why did they want her?
“Who am I?” she whispered. And, in that moment, she knew that it was the question – and she knew the answer.
“Rise up,” the dragon said, and she rose up from the floor, and turned as the living dark seeped into the ordinary dark of the chamber, and pooled on the floor.
And then the words came unbidden to her lips, words she did not know how to say, words she must have drawn from somewhere deep in the aeons that had passed between now and then, and the darkness on the floor twitched and turned and tried to crawl away. And she said more words, and flames rose from the floor, and the oily pools of dark on the floor were gone.
Then the memories came, so that she bent over, hugging herself with the anguish of them, the pain shaking her and the tears springing unbidden from her eyes. And there was the dragon’s great head, gently rubbing her side, and she howled with the memories, the time gone so long ago, the time that had gone and would never come again.
“It’s over,” the dragon said at last. “Come with me.”
“Where?” she asked, the girl who had once been called Konika.
“Anywhere,” it said. “There are a billion futures, and we can choose any of them that we want.”
She nodded, holding on to its horn, and together they walked through the wall of the chamber and away into the infinity of futures.
And, as she walked, at long, long last, she smiled.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015