Consider the cosmos: a void, a vast place filled with nothingness as an alternative to the absence of existence. And strewn across the nothingness is something, which is the absence of nothing. Conglomerates of universes, each universe a conglomerate of stars and planets. So much goes on in a place like this: meteors soar silently through the cold emptiness of space; suns expand to engulf planets; black holes patiently tear space and time apart.
There exist things, however, that are measured on a greater scale: on planet Earth one colony of ants wages fierce battle against another, on Eldara three treeks give birth to a healthy saughter, while on a yet unnamed world one single cell organism exchanges juices with another for the first time in local history and decides that evolution is worth it.
Nothing is really worth it unless there is life to appreciate it. If a tree falls in the woods, at least the tree notices.
On the island of Arcadia, situated on the world of Arcadia, a student packs his bag. Arcadia is what one might call a melting pot world. Many species from many different worlds have found their way there through Arcadium powered portals. It has a healthy population of dwarfs, trolls, humans, fay, gargoyles, naiads, draiads, oriads and, to a lesser extent, elves, centaurs, golems, dragons and all sorts of other species that enrich the universe. It is, in fact, not entirely clear anymore which species was indigenous to Arcadia to begin with. This is due to the tendency of the universe to use the same basic shapes for all life, particularly sapient life. There exist elephant-like beings on many worlds aside from Earth, dragons and dwarves are all over and dinosaurs may have stopped ruling the Earth, but they continue to rule plenty of others.
All space explorers will come across this phenomenon eventually. It keeps space travel predictable and science fiction shows within budget. The study of this is called 'anthromorphology', the study of the universal constant to life. It is what the student majors in, with straight B's and a few A's.
With the exam period over Arcadia University has seen fit to grant its students a week of vacation, and Jason O'Hare now prepares his trip back to Ward, the city of humans. This involves a lot of packing.
"You think this is okay?"
Jason's roommate holds up a plaid sweater and turns it over a few times with an expectant look.
"Dude, I can smell it all the way over here!" Jason exclaims, scrounging up his nose.
Terry McBride puts the sweater to his nose and breathes in deeply.
"Yeah, I could still use this."
Terry is an exponent of another universal constant, namely that of the student slob. His work ethic is such that it is a miracle, not to mention intensely frustrating, that he passes his tests at all. At this time he is meticulously sorting through his giant pile of laundry to decide which part to take back to his mother.
"That's disgusting," Jason says.
Jason works his way through his wardrobe. He did not used to have so many clothes, he remembers. Somehow they just amassed over time. He pulls out a beige buttoned shirt and examines it for wear and tear. He remembers buying this one. He bought it for their first date. The price had made him feel like he had just cut off a limb, but it had endured much better than the other shirts. She had said he looked handsome on it.
He stares past the shirt for a while.
"I saw Ana the other day."
Terry's voice forms an unwelcome intrusion into Jason's private little world.
"Mm," he says, with that fake kind of pitch that is meant to convey casual interest. "How was she?"
"Don't know. Didn't talk to her."
"Ah." Jason neatly folds the shirt and puts it back in the closet.
"Spoke to a friend of hers, though," Terry says. "Orrilia, remember her?"
She says she's been acting happy," he continues.
"Probably a bit too hard, she thinks."
Jason takes a deep breath through his nose, presses his lips together and looks distracted. This often sufficed, he finds.
"She thinks," Terry speaks in the tones of those carefully treading on unfamiliar psychological ground, "it'd probably help if you and her talk."
Jason shrugs and scrutinises his sock drawer as if picking out socks was a task that would require every shred of his attention.
"Probably would," Terry notes casually. "Can't hurt, I reckon."
Jason sighs, throws a pair of Extremely Important socks back in the drawer and treats Terry to an exasperated look.
"Don't you think I've tried!?" he asks.
Terry holds up his hands in the universal sign of peace.
"Just saying what I heard," he says. "Mind you," he adds, folding a pair of pants into a lump, "got a nice bod, that Orrilia."
He stuffs the wretched piece of clothing into his wretched bag, spending a moment of effort on pushing it down as far as it will go.
"Shame it's made of water, really..."
The city of Ward was only constructed as recently as mankind was invited on Arcadia, and it shows. To Jason's eyes it lacks the class that older cities have, with history and life seeped into every brick and column. Arcadia city had been lived in. Ward had simply been plumped down around an ancient castle and populated.
It strikes him as funny that as a human he barely considers Ward his home. He had left for university only weeks after they had arrived, and Ward had never been anything more than a place to visit. Still, it provides a change of pace, the clean streets, the abundance of humans and even the underwhelmingness of it all. And the fresh air. Especially the fresh air.
He had hoped that the difference in surroundings would at least take his mind off of things. Now that he is here, though, he finds that the difference only reminds him of the things back home that remind him of...
He wanders down Manchester Lane and turns into Kiwi Avenue. There is a subtle drop of temperature as he proceeds into the less reputable parts of Ward. They almost perpetually lie in the shade of the castle, particularly in autumn and winter when the sun is low and the shadows long, and they attract what some people would call 'a certain sort'.
Jason heads in deeper, running on automatic pilot, until he stops at a bar. The sign on the wall says:
Painted around the words are a few presumably Irish faces that were perhaps intended to be jolly, but rather look like they are in the midst of a death gurgle, or possibly an appendectomy. As Jason steps inside eight customer's heads turn in unison to regard him critically.
"Hey Jason," one of them says.
"Hey Jay," another voice mutters while the rest mumble a consensual approval on the part of the greeting.
"Hi," Jason mutters back. He drags his bag through the room, hoists it up to shoulder height and drops it on the bar. The slightly greasy bartender keeps his eye on a glass of beer he is filling under the tap, but acknowledges him with a thick-lipped smile and raised eye-brows.
"Hey son," he says.
"Brought yer laundry?"
"I can do my own."
"Ya don't have ta."
Shrug. Another glass of beer.
"Ya get here okay?"
"How'd yer exams go?"
"Fine, I think."
"Tha's ma boy."
The bartender places the two glasses of beer on the bar, routinely grabs another glass, filthies it up with a faintly grey towel and starts filling it.
"Didn't hear much of ya lately," he notes conversationally.
"Sorry. Been busy."
"How's that girl yer seeing?"
"Ana. We don't... See each other anymore."
Jason't father looks up at him for the first time, his face a mask of bafflement.
"Eh?" he utters. "But ye--"
Beer streams over the edge of the glass and onto his fingers.
"Son of a b--!" he exclaims, waving his fingers up in the air, sprinkling the bar with alcoholic drops.
"'ey Duka, I'm only paying fer what's in the glass, ya know!" one of the customers cries out hilariously. A few patrons chuckle, proving that the universe only contains so much sense of humour.
"The way ye been talkin' 'bout'er ya'd think she were the next coming or somewhat!" he says, whipping his hand dry with the towel.
"Look, you're busy, " Jason says. "I'll go put my bag away."
"Hang on!" Duke interjects, snatching the bag from the bar. He carries it to a door behind it. "Gotta talk to ya 'bout something' anyway."
"What, you're gonna leave the bar unattended?" Jason asks.
"Just be a few minutes," his father beams. He pushes open the door. "Come on."
"Is that safe?" Jason asks as he paces around the bar.
"Not fer their kneecaps if they try anything ," Duke says nonchalantly. Making sure to cast a glance at every single person in the room. "Now come on."
Jason's room never changes between visits. This might have something to do with a romantic notion lodged in his father's brain. However, since it only contains a bed, a lamp and a closet it is not such a big deal as it may seem. Jason occasionally toyed with the idea of buying more furniture and maybe some things like a night light and an alarm clock, but he really did not come home often enough for that. Besides, he strongly suspects his father of renting the room out to lodgers in his absence, the sort that will take any souvenir that is not nailed down or wired to an alarm system.
His father hoists his bag up with a dramatic grunt and drops it on the bed.
"Well," he says as his face contorts into a beaming grin. "Welcome home!"
Jason walks around him, pushes the bag to the far wall and sits down on the bed.
"What did you want to talk about?" he asks.
"How would ya..." his father begins. He sits down beside him and rams a fatherly hand on his shoulder. "... Like to make a buck?"
Jason stares at him.
"What? You're giving me a newspaper round?"
"Better!" his father exclaims. "Just a little courier job this evening."
"Hear me out," his father says reasonably, "It's easy money. Trust me."
"It's not about the easy money!" Jason exclaims. "It's what I have to do for it!"
"It's just a courier job."
"Dad! I don't want to get involved in your kind of jobs!"
Duke gives him a look of sheer incomprehension.
"You know what I mean, dad," Jason says.
"Ya thinkin' this is not legit?" Hurt practically drips off Duke's face.
"Has it ever been?" Jason asks.
"I'm tellin' ya, this is legit," Duke says.
"How do I know that?" Jason asks.
"Jason," Duke says warningly, "I'm tellin' ya, your dad, that this is legit."
Jason looks in his father's eyes. His balding eye brows wiggle nervously over a pair of eyes that try hard to look sincere. He looks away again.
"I'm on vacation," he sighs.
"One evenin', is all," Duke says encouragingly.
"Ya did it before!"
"Look." Duke's tone hardens. "I built this here place with me own hands, din't I? Did all the plumming meself, painted, grouted, hell, I even did the sign outside, din't I?"
Jason says nothing.
"And all so's ya could have a home with me, ye better believe that."
"Look," Duke sighs, "I made a promise, 'kay? I thought it'd be a good thing fer ya, y'know. Easy job, easy buck."
Jason runs his hand through his hair and begins to hate himself again.
"I promise ya it's legit," his father urges. "An' yer perfect fer the job."
"Alright, fine," Jason sighs. "What do you want me to do?"
The beaming grin reappears on his father's face.
"That's the spirit!" he exclaims optimistically. "Now, all ya have to do is pick up a package at the portal an' bring it to an address. I've written it down, here, wait..."
Duke produces a bar bill from his back pocket. With an address written down between the item for three pints of beer and a total amount that does not match the itemized list.
"Ya gotta be there at half past seven PM an' wait fer a courier from Anrana. Ya know what they look like?"
"Right," Duke says, "what with ya bein' an antromorpologist."
"Soon as he shows up, tell'im yer there fer the dragon's scales. Take'em to the address and yer set!"
Jason looks at his father with a mixture of disbelief and horror.
"Dragon's scales!?" he exclaims.
"I'm tellin' ya, it's legit," Duke says reassuringly. "Here's the address, I gotta get back to the bar, 'right?"
Jason looks at the address for a moment. He does not recognise it, but that would got for most addresses in Ward. He would have to look it up. He folds the paper, puts it in his pocket and lies back against the back wall.
"Right," he says.
"Ya need somethin'? Duke asks, standing in the doorway.
"No," Jason says, "Just gonna rest for a while."
"Just holler," his father says, as he closes the door behind him.
There are several portal hubs on Arcadia, granting access to the home worlds of its inhabitants. The one at the edge of Ward is the most recent addition. It services the western parts of the island. Most of the time it is used for travel to and from Earth, due to the human and gargoyle immigrant population. It links to other worlds too, though. The building constructed around it is not unlike an airport, albeit considerably more circular and definitely smaller.
At 7:40 PM Jason is sitting quietly in the waiting hall. As it turned out, he had not rested that much after all. He just lay on his bed and seethed. First he seethed at his father, then he seethed at himself, and finally at Ana. He even tried to seethe at Terry for a little while, but that didn't really work.
A large screen on the wall indicates in large orange letters that the portal is currently set to Earth. Next to the word 'Earth' is a representation of the planet itself, centred on New Zealand, where a bright green dot indicates the exact position of the portal exit. The hall is mostly empty, though every once in a while a human walks by, either entering or leaving the portal room. Jason realises once again how dull Ward really is: even the extraordinary turns mundane the moment it enters city limits.
He sits back, insofar as the uncomfortable seats allow, and gazes at the clock. 7:42... 7:43. Why was he even here? To please his father, Jason supposes, who was so wrapped up in arranging all his little arrangements he couldn't even bother to try and understand what he wanted. But then, what else was new? Same with Ana...
He tries to push the thought from his mind. It never leads to anything but further agitation. He is thankfully distracted by a friendly female voice booming from the ceiling at an unnatural volume:
"NOW CONNECTING TO: ANRANA."
The screen goes black and Jason becomes aware that there had been a low buzzing noise on the edge of his hearing the moment it vanishes. A few seconds later there is a quickly rising hum culminating in what can best be described as a 'zap'. The screen comes back to life to display the word 'Anrana' in big orange letter. The image of Earth has been replaced by a completely unfamiliar planet, the green dot hovering over a landmass. A polite 'ding' from the speaker system indicates that the miracle has been completed.
Jason stands up and leans against the wall with his shoulder, keeping an eye on the portal room door. He wonders if there is any kind of customs behind those doors. He wonders if they would cause any kind of trouble.
Finally, at 7:51, an anranad emerges from the doors. Jason knows this because he recognises the creature from class: bipedal template, lupine configuration. It had an official anthropomorphological classification that he has trouble remembering, but he remembers the unofficial one: 'anthrowolf'. The locals of Ward would likely just call it a wolfman.
On sight Jason determines it is male and both younger and smaller than he is. The young anthrowolf looks around in wonder and awe, the unwelcoming stares from the locals (local economy: sheep farming) seemingly lost on him. He carries a package under his arm, wrapped in brown paper and tied with a piece of rope.
Jason waits for a few moments to see if anyone in the hall had been expecting him. When no one presents himself he steps forward into the anranad's line of sight.
"Hi," he says, waving gently.
The anthrowolf gawks at him.
"Oh," he says. A big nervous grin appears on his snout. "Hi."
"Are those the, er, dragon's scales?"
For a moment Jason wonders what he would do if the answer is 'no'.
"Yeah!" the young wolf exclaims, seemingly relieved. He holds the package up in front of him. "This is for you?" he asks.
"Apparently," Jason says.
The anthrowolf's nervous grin turns to an enthusiastic smile.
"Here you go," he says, placing the package in Jason's waiting hands. The moment he lets go the weight seems to quadruple. Gravity nearly yanks it out of Jason's hands altogether.
"Wow," Jason says embarrassedly as he wraps his arms around it. "'s heavy, isn't it?"
The anthrowolf gives him a look of polite incomprehension. Jason tries to remember if he ever learned anything about anthrowolf strength that he may have forgotten.
"Well, erm," Jason says conversationally as he struggles to keep the package under control, "how was the transport?"
The anthrowolf's eyes grow wide.
"It's amazing!" he breathes. "Would you believe it's morning where I come from? You need a hand with that?"
"No thanks, I've got it," Jason lies. He hoists the package up against his chest and manages to hold on to it this time. "Er, how do you know it's not morning here?"
"... You can smell it?" the young wolf says, sounding rather non-plussed. He begins to stare at Jason's nose. "Can't you?"
"Nnnnot as such, no," Jason replies, trying to think of things humans would actually be better at than anthrowolves.
"Oh," the wolf says. And then, politely: "Can I ask a question?"
"... What are you exactly?" Honest curiosity drips off of every word.
"I'm a human," Jason says. "From Earth." He follows this up with a little smile.
"Gosh," says the anthrowolf.
"Can I ask you another question?" the young wolf asks hopefully.
"Ask away," Jason says jovially, the package weighing about a quarter of a ton.
"I was just wondering, see," the anthrowolf asks slowly. "Aren't you... Well... Cold?"
Jason leaves the hub building with the vaguely unpleasant feeling that he met a nice person and made a poor impression. He also realises that he is walking in a wide legged gait under the weight of the package for everyone to see.
Why would his father even think that he was perfect for the job? He can barely hold the package!
"Sure dad!" he says to himself. "You just make your schemes with me in it. I don't have any problems of my own after all. Thank you for giving me some..."
The weight seems to lessen somewhat as his anger mounts. He picks up his step and heads for the nearest bus stop, powered by internal fuming.
Jason had grown used to the diversity of Arcadia University and Arcadia City. That is probably the main reason why he did not even notice the anranad and the troll that passed him while he was seething.
With a grunt of relief Jason drops the package on the bus stop bench. He breathes out slowly through pursed lips, sits down beside it, and eyes the package suspiciously. There is no way the scales of any dragon could weigh this much, is there? He squeezes it gently. It appears to be wrapped in something soft on all sides.
The upside of things at least seem to be that he does not need to keep much of an eye on the thing: you would need superhuman strength to run of with it, like a... Like a...
Trolls always loom. Trolls are too big not to loom, and their stone faces have all the inherent friendliness of a sheer cliff face. Jason has always had trouble 'reading' trolls because of this. But when they corner you on a bus stop in Ward, he realises, the odds do not look good.
"Hello," he says back, trying to be casual about it. There still might be nothing to it.
"Mister Kamari, he wants to know what's in the package," the troll rumbles.
"Er..." Jason says. His mind races past possible answers, one worse than the other.
"Manners, Slag..." another voice warns. Walking slowly around the bulk of the troll is another anranad. "'scuse us, boy," it says, "we're looking for something that belongs to us?"
The anthrowolf looks very different from the friendly face at the portal hub. He looks older; his fur is dark brown, with a near-black patch of fur around the right eye. His hands are hidden in the pockets of a long, wide, dark grey trench coat. There is a smile around his snout, but it seems more menacing than it was probably intended.
"'s in a package that sorta looks like that," he says with a nod to the package. "And it was stolen by someone might have looked a bit like you. Don't you think so, Slag?"
"Dunno, mister Kamari," the troll says. "Them humans look all the same to me."
"I'm sure it's nothing," the mister Kamari says to Jason. "But you don't mind us asking, do you?"
Jason looks up at the anthrowolf, glances at the troll and then looks back at the wolf.
"... Er..." he says, after a while. In the front of his mind is the anthromorphology class that divulged, as a point of interest, the sheer pounding strength of a troll. In the back of his mind are Little Red Ridinghood, three pigs and seven little goats.
"It's..." Jason says. His mind draws a blank.
"Could you maybe open it up for us?" The anthrowolf suggests.
The corner of Jason's eye catches an approaching light. He turns his head to look into a familiar pair of headlights.
"Ah!" he exclaims. He grabs the package off the bench and jumps up at the same time, nearly rupturing something. It seems even heavier than before. "There, that's my bus!" he stammers, rushing past the anthrowolf and into the liberating exposure of the headlights. He gestures wildly at the bus until it comes to a stop beside him. The back door opens invitingly.
Pretending to pay no mind to mister Makari and Slag he rushes inside, lugging the package with him at around knee level. When inside he works his way up to the front of the buss, trying to disappear amidst the passengers. His heart races.
Suddenly the floor tilts and creaks. Amidst exclamations of surprise and disgrace Jason only just manages to grab a bar to keep his balance, the rope of the package now cutting into his remaining hand. He looks back to see Slag lumber into the bus in tow of mister Kamari.
Hoisting the package back against his chest Jason rushes further forward towards the driver's end. Already he hears the hiss of the closing doors.
"Excuse me," he pants at the driver, "I got into the wrong bus..."
The front door opens with a hiss.
"Terribly sorry!" Jason pants as he leaps out. He lands heavily under the weight of the package. By the time he regains his balance he already hears the bus engine revving up. As he looks back over his shoulder he looks straight into the glaring gaze of mister Kamari, driving off into the distance with Slag.
He remains frozen on the spot even as the little red tail lights of the bus disappear around the corner. A few seconds later he snaps out of it.
"DAMNIT!" he screams out. Half running, half stomping he rushes off into Ward.
First it was a dash. The dash turned into a limping run, which eventually degraded into an ill-coordinated stagger. Now Jason finds himself on the gravel path of a small park, lit by globe shaped lanterns.
He puts the package down on the floor, kneels down before it and slowly rests the top of his head on top of it, trying to slow his breathing. He lies like this for about a minute, waiting for the pain in his lungs to die away.
Finally he stands up. He has no idea where he is, but fortunately, no one is ever really lost in Ward, the one saving grace of this whole situation. Before him both the immense castle and the Ward clock tower stand out above the skyline of Ward. He can find his way back to the bar from either of these places. Let his father sort it out.
He picks up the package and hoists it back up against his chest. It only seems to grow heavier by the minute.
Slag gives the bus stop a disappointed look.
"He's gone," he observes.
"Sh!" mister Kamari hisses. He puts his nose up in the air and concentrates. Then he puts his nose to the bench, and finally to the ground. Slag looks on in sheer befuddlement.
"Come on," mister Kamari orders as he heads towards of Cook Park.
Step by step Jason drags himself through the streets of Ward. His arms hurt, as do his lungs, still. Ahead of him, across the street, is the merciful sight of the Ward clock tower. It is getting to be near a quarter to nine, though it feels like he has been lugging this thing for a whole night.
As he crosses the street the tempting thought enters his mind to just leave the package in a bush or something. Just then, as if yanked down by gravity, it slips out from under his arms and hits the road with a sizeable thud and a slight metal tinkle.
Jason curses to himself. His arms were bound to give way. What did his father suspect? He drags the package across the street and onto the sidewalk.
"This is ridiculous," he says to himself. He gives the package an angry stare. Whatever is in there...
... Well, it tinkles like metal for one thing.
"Right," he says resolutely. He looks around for a sheltered spot. He tries the clock tower door. Much to his surprise it opens without so much as a creak. Jason runs back to the package, grabs it by the string and quickly drags it inside.
As he closes the door he kneels down beside it. Probably no one had seen him, or cared. He looks around him. Wooden platforms line the four walls all the way to the top. A wooden stairway winds itself from platform to platform, nearly a full twist per platform. All the way at the top huge gears grind invisibly. They are only faintly audible in the silence around him. There is no one to be seen or heard.
Jason picks at the knots with which the rope is held into place with impatient determination. Once the knots have given way he unwraps the paper to reveal a rolled up blanket. He gently unrolls the blanket, accompanied by the occasional metal tink.
Finally he gazes at the contents.
Lying on the rolled out blanket is a set of scales. Two little metal plates, hanging from the tips of a metal arm that in turn is balanced on a standard.
Gold, by the look of it. The may or may not have belonged to a dragon, though. Who knows?
Out of curiosity he sets the scales upright. One plate immediately dips to the floor with an audible clunk, sending the other plate up as high as it will go.
Poorly calibrated scales at that.
Jason sits and watches the scales thoughtfully. Then he gently wraps the scales in the blanket, wraps the blanket in the paper and the rope around the paper. He ties a few quick knots to keep it in place. At least he knows what it is now. Or rather, he knows what it is not. The rest is still as clear as mud to him.
With considerable reluctance he hoists the package back in the familiar position. The weight is ridiculous; not even golden scales should weigh that much. Even his legs hurt!
"Ooookay," he groans. Wriggling his way back down he rolls the package back onto the floor. "Know what? Screw this."
Jason grabs the rope around the package by one of the knots and drags it across the floor to the corner on the right side of the door. Then he steps back and regards it angrily. With any luck no one will notice it until someone else comes to pick it up. Someone not him. After a deep breath that does not calm him one bit he heads back to the door. Yanks it open and, free from his burden, steps out onto the street.
"I don't smell anything," Slag notes as he meekly follows mister Kamari's. With his hands in his pockets the anthrowolf leads the way, sauntering at a slow but sure pace.
"That's because your nose is underdeveloped, Slag," he says.
Slag puts a massive hand on his nose, thereby covering most of his face with an audible rock-on-rock clump.
"It is not!" he says defiantly.
"Yes it is, Slag," mister Kamari explains patiently. "If you had a proper nose you'd see all the trails I'm seeing. But you don't, do you?"
"No, mister Kamari."
"Don't worry about it," mister Kamari says. "You got other talents that'll come in handy."
"Gee, thanks mister Kamari!"
"You'll get to use them very soon," mister Kamari adds. "Our quarry is in that clock tower."
"Slag is in awe."
"Gosh, mister Kamari, you can smell him all the way from here?"
"No Slag," mister Kamari says, "I could see him open that door. Come on!"
Jason slams the door shut and throws his weight against it. He considers, for a moment, the likelihood of him holding back a troll in this manner, and runs back to the centre of the room. He looks up at the wooden platforms above him. Probably they would conceal him.
He casts an agonised look at the package in the corner. Part of him says that they are welcome to it. Still, if they saw him, and if they come in...
He runs back to the package, hoists it back against his chest and stumbles quickly towards the staircase. They might think they were mistaken, even if they saw him...
Every one of his muscles hurts as he climbs the stairs, counting swiftly under his breath to keep up the pace.
Thirty-seven, thirty-eight... The scales don't seem to weigh quite so much as before.
Just before Jason reaches the first platform the door opens. Directly under his feet Slag the troll squeezes into the tower.
"I don't see him, mister Kamari," he rumbles.
Mister Kamari enters, hands in pockets.
Fifty-one, fifty-two. Jason steps onto the platform as quietly as he can and presses himself into the corner.
"You can smell him, mister Kamari?"
"You think he can smell us, mister Kamari?"
"I shouldn't worry about that, Slag. Let's check the stairs, shall we?"
Jason listens for the heavy footsteps below. Heavy rock-on-flagstone clumps lumber towards the stairs. After a brief pause he hears the creak of the first step under the troll's massive weight. He closes his eyes and prays for the crack of wood. Instead there is a second creak, and then a third...
Jason hobbles back to the stairs, putting his feet down as gently as the weight in his arms will allow him. The creaks below him advance slowly but surely.
"We don't seem to be making much progress, Slag," mister Kamari's voices echoes through the tower.
"No mister Kamari. I don';t want to fall through the wood."
"Our brother once fell through a human bridge," Slag's deep, rumbling voice adds.
"Did he? Was he alright?"
Sixty-siz, sixty-seven... Fear and adrenaline spurs Jason on.
"Broke his arm, mister Kamari," Slag echoes.
"Took us all day to find all the pieces."
Seventy-three, seventy-four... The creaks and the voices from below begin to sound further away now.
"I take it then that trolls don't build many things from wood?"
Mister Kamari's calm and vaguely interested voice only heightens Jason's fear. As if any problem he may cause is not even worth worrying about. He tries to pick up his pace further.
"There's no trees growing in the Mountains," Slag rumbles. "Just rocks."
"So everything is made of just rocks then?"
"That and sometimes holes too, mister Kamari," Slag answers.
Jason has lost track of the number of steps he has climb. He is climbing them as fast as he ccan, his eyes focussed on the top hatch.
"That's fascinating," mister Kamari notes. "Say, you wouldn't mind letting me go first now, would you?"
Jason drags himself into the top room of the clock tower. He has, for obvious reasons, never been in one before. Exciting movies had led him to believe that the room would be filled with giant gears grinding away noisomly, ready to crush damsels and heroes and villains at a moment's notice. The actual design turns out to be sadly more sensible. Four thick rods attach to a relatively small bit of gear work behind each clock face. The spin slowly, propelled by a central mechanism, suspended from the ceiling, that consists of gears, belts and a small Arcadium powered engine. It hums quietly amidst the rotating gears. The gears are made of iron, Jason remembers. It is said that this is to prevent the fay from tampering with the device and making everyone late for their appointments.
He puts the scales down and swiftly but quietly closes the hatch. Then he looks around. The room seems to leave him no viable hiding place. He looks up for one; the bright central light that illuminates all four clock faces nearly blinds him.
Trying to see past the spots in his vision he examines the clock faces themselves. One of them has a door...
Mister Kamari pushes open the hatch and allows it to fall flat onto the floor beside it. The slam momentarily drowns out the hum of the engine and the mild grinding of the gears. He steps onto the solid stone floor and puts his hand back into his pocket as he takes in his surroundings.
"You know," he says loudly, "you're making this much harder than it needs to be on all of us, boy."
He looks around. There seems to be no possible hiding place in a room like this. Then his eyes catch sight of the door in the clock face. Mister Kamari concentrates on the scents around him. He takes a few slow steps towards the door.
"... Oh hell," he says. He paces back to the hatch and hunches down beside it. "Slag, can you pick up pace a bit!?" he yells down. "I think I'm gonna need a hand here!"
For the first time in his life Jason wonders if being mad is somewhat like being like him.
The door had not opened out on a balcony, as he had expected. Instead it had opened out straight onto a narrow ledge. Had he not been held back by the weight of the scales he might have run straight into oblivion, the kind that only lasts for a few seconds before turning into sidewalk.
At that moment it had seemed sensible: he only had to edge a few feet away from the door. At the time mister Kamari and Slag had seemed like the most frightening thing in the universe.
The wind blows through Jason's hair, pushing it to the side. About a kilometre or ten below him little cars with little headlights move through the street, stopping for little pedestrians that cross from one little sidewalk to the other. His fingertips are squeezed tightly around the thin V behind his back. The package is propped up precariously between his legs. Sounds from all over Ward seem to drift into his ears. His heart is a swiftly pulsating lump trying to leap out through his chest bone.
Jason had never faced real danger to his life before this night. Agaist all reason he finds himself wishing his father were here.
The door opens, gently and quietly. Moments later mister Kamari's head peers out at him. Jason can only barely turn his head to look. Mister Kamari's face displays some alarm. He holds up an unpocketed hand, very slowly, and uncurls his fingers in a calming gesture.
"Boy," he says slowly, "this is a situation none of us want to be in..."
Mister Kamari leans further out the door and reaches his visible hand out towards Jason.
"Come inside," he says, holding out his hand invitingly.
Jason looks longingly but distrustfully at the hand.
"Boy!" Mister Kamari urges him.
"And... What happens when I do?" Jason asks, careful not to raise his voice from fear of losing his balance.
"You give us the scales... Nothing."
Jason looks away again, pressing himself into the V and considering his options. Mister Kamari grabs the side of the doorframe and leans closer towards him.
"Look!" he says urgently, "You feel that wind sheer around this building!? One good gust'll pick you up and throw you on the sidewalk! Now get in here!"
"... Leave," Jason says.
"Then leave!" Jason snaps. His breath nearly sticks in his throat at the thought of his own audacity. "... You leave and I'll come inside."
Mister Kamari stares at him.
"Leave!" Jason demands more forcefully, trying to hold back tears that would cloud his vision and endanger his precarious balance.
The anthrowolf seems to consider the offer.
"... Can't do that," he decides.
"Then I don't trust you," Jason says. A particularly strong gust of wind plays with his hair.
A loud gong splits the world apart. On top of the clock tower, above the clock faces in a small chapel of its own, a bronze bell strikes nine. Mister Kamari grabs his ears and disappears inside while Jason holds on to the V with all his might as the vibration of each gong travels through his very bones, pounding his ear drums.
Seven... Eight... Nince...
The last gong seems to take forever to die out. Slowly the sounds of Ward come back into focus.
"You're not good at this, are you?"
Mister Kamari's head is back. He speaks gently. Jason pretends to ignore him.
"This isn't your thing at all, is it?" the anthrowolf asks. He sits down in the door opening and makes himself confortable.
"Package is heavy, isn't it?" he asks. "Saw you lugging with it at the bus stop. Plus you could'a run halfway 'cross the city with it otherwise. But do you know what's in it?"
Jason says nothing.
"They call'em the dragon's scales," mister Kamari says. "'s a set of scales. Golden scales."
Jason breathed in deeply. His fingers are growing tired.
"And they measure sin, boy."
Jason dares look at the anthrowolf. It gives him a piercing, serious gaze in return.
"Sin on one scale," Mister Kamari explains, "weights on the other. 'cept there's no weights. You've been carrying around the weight of your sins, boy."
Jason's mind briefly wanders to the set of golden scales on the blanket, the way one scale slammed to the ground, the sheer weight of it all.
"You're no thief, though, are you?" mister Kamari poses. "But you know what you're doing is wrong."
Jason looks down at the hated package wedged between his legs.
He notices that a crowd has gathered below. It is in the process of being herded behind a cordon of Arcadian soldiers, acting lawmen of Ward. One figure stands in front of the whole circus.
Jason stops looking for fear of falling.
"Soldier Perry, front and center!"
The words bellowed out below easily reach Jason's ears.
"Soldier Perry, you will on my mark talk down the jumperrrr... Mark!"
For a few seconds it seems that the sounds from below die away into nothingness, and all of Ward is holding its breath. Then a hesitant voice, warped by the synthetic sound of a megaphone, emerges from below.
Jason and mister Kamari look at one another and share one brief moment of understanding about the people below.
"Whatever it is, we can talk about it," the megaphone blears. "We're here to help you, all of us."
"The police is here," Jason says, ignoring the rest of the crackling messages.
Mister Kamari nods.
"They're right, you know," he says. "You better get off there."
"The police are here!" Jason grins triumphantly.
"And you got nothing to worry 'bout?" Mister Kamari asks.
Jason's grin wavers. He glances down. No one seems to have gone in to get him yet. The soldier with the megaphone is still yelling encouraging things at him.
"I'd rather take the police," he says defiantly. "You?"
Mister Kamari looks back into the clock tower, and then glares at him.
"I'd rather take one problem at a time." He stands up and steps out of view. "He's on the ledge, Slag," he says. "Think you can get him off?"
"Yes mister Kamari," Slag's voice rumbles.
Jason's heart begins to race faster. He considers shuffling further away from the door, but his legs lack the will.
The back of Slag's head pops out of the doorway. It pauses for a moment, then turns around to look at him with an enlightened expression.
"Mind the package," mister Kamari warns from inside.
"Yes mister Kamari."
Slag's enormous hand reaches for Jason's legs. Jason holds on tight, a fearful scream stuck in his throat.
Then there is a primal scream. With a blunt conk Slag is propelled forward by a baseballbat shoved into his back. Slag spins around, grabs at his attacker and falls, managing to grab the ledge to the sound of an audible gasp below. Inside there is swearing and the sound of a brief scuffle that ends to the sound of another conk.
Jason watches in a daze how Slag pulls himself back up just as his father appears in the doorway.
"Ye better keep hanging or ten little piggies are takin'a fall!" he warns furiously, shaking his baseball bat dangerously. Slag meekly lowers himself again; why piggies would be falling is beyond him, but even a troll speaks the universal language of the shaken baseball bat.
"Dad?" Jason calls out at his father.
"'s okay boy," his father says. He holds out a hand. "We'll get ya off'f there."
Jason bites his lip. He can feel warm tears running down his cheeks, growing cold in the wind.
"... Can't move, dad," he squeals, every last shred of his bravery now spent.
"'s okay," Duke says. He casts a warning glance at the dangling troll, looks behind him for a moment and then grabs the doorpost. He leans outside and holds his bat at towards Jason.
"Just hold on to this, son," he says calmly. "I'll do the rest."
Jason carefully releases his grip on the numeral V and grabs hold of the bat. He slowly reaches down for the package with his free hand.
"Both hands, Jayce," Duke says.
"But dad--" Jason hears himself say.
"Both hands, Jayce," his father says again. "Both hands, and don't let go 'till I got ya."
Jason grabs the baseball bat with both hands. Inch by inch, shuffling the package along, he edges towards the door until, to the sound of vaguely confused cheers below, he falls into his father's arms and stumbles inside.
"How did you find me?" Jason asks, sitting back against the wall beside the door. "The crowd?"
"Nah," says Duke, alternating his attention between the troll hanging from the ledge and the anthrowolf lying slumped on the floor. "I been following Laurel'n Hardy 'ere. Ta be on the safe side, y'know?"
Jason grits his teeth.
"And you didn't tell me about them why?"
"Cause ya wouldn't 'ave done it otherwise, would ya?" Duke says. "An' before ya get mad, which ya got every right to, I didn't think they'd be a problem, 's why I didn't tell ya."
"Not a problem?" Jason asks with suppressed back rage.
"Ya were supposed to be long gone by the time they got there. Wha' happened!?"
"What happened!?" Jason bursts out. He points an accusing finger at the hated package. "That thing weighs a ton!"
Duke looks down at the package.
"What, this?" he asks. He crouches down beside it, gives it an experimental prod with the bat and carefully picks it off the ground. Jason gawks as he stands back up and weighs it experimentally on one flat hand.
"No," Jason says uncertainly. "It... Weighed a ton..." He blinks incredulously. His father looks at him with concern.
"Jason..." he says.
"Mister Kamari said it weighed sin," Jason says, pressing his fingers into his forehead. "But that makes no sense. It weighed a ton, and you--..." He cuts himself off before finishing the sentence.
Duke crouches down before him and regards him with bafflement and concern.
"Tha's why ya were perfect fer the job, Jason," he says. "Cause... Ya had no sin."
They look at each other for a few seconds.
"Somethin' I need to know 'bout?" Duke tries.
"Maybe it's me stealing that thing, did you ever think of that!?" Jason snaps. "Do you ever think of that!?"
Duke jumps back up and looks offended.
"I didn't lie to ya, Jayce!" he exclaims. "It's legit. I'd never lie to ya!"
"You didn't tell me about Kamari and Slag!"
Duke holds his hand up in deference.
"Alright," he says. "Granted. Alright. But I don't lie to ya."
"And what'll you tell the police when they get up here?"
"The truth," Duke says matter-of-factly. He sighs and deflates. "Trust yer dad, Jason," he says. "Cuz' yer dad's never gonna let ya take a fall."
He points the baseball bat at Jason's chest.
"Ya better believe that."
The sky over Ward is painted red in the morning glow. The clocktower chimes once to indicate the time is now 7:15 AM. Jason and Duke walk slowly through the city streets. Duke carries the package under one arm and rubs his back with the other.
"Ergh," he groans. "Cell benches don't agree with me back any."
"Cell benches don't agree with my criminal record any," Jason says.
"Ya got non," Duke says. "Told ya, it's legit. They got nothing on ya."
"Then why all the secrecy?" Jason asks.
"Employer's request," Duke says. "No law people. Makes sense, don't it?"
"If ya were the law and ya got yer hand on a scale that measures sin, would ya give it back?"
"They did, though," Jason points out.
"I think maybe he's got some bad experiences in the past or something," Duke says. "'eck, don't know why they'd bother, since it's clearly broken."
Realisation dawns on Duke.
"Ya suppose that's why he wants ta keep it from law people?"
"I don't know, dad," Jason says wearily.
"Well, here's the place anyway."
They stand in front of a small warehouse, wedged between warehouses of similar size.
"So... Now what?" Jason asks.
"We'll wait," Duke says. "He'll be 'ere. He wants it bad."
"The employer," Jason says. Duke nods.
"The dragon," he says.
A voice speaks out, one like an amplified whisper. It says, from behind:
Jason turns around. Many people would simply not believe their eyes, but Jason, as an anthromorphologist-in-training, is in the unique position of knowing almost exactly what he now finds in front of him: wraith template, draconic configuration; a black mass of shadows that belong to no object, hovering legless several inches above the ground. The head that rests on its broad shoulders sports a long, thin snout pointing downwards and two long horns pointing in the opposite direction. Two luminous red eyes peer intelligently at him from the shadowy mass. Jason can barely believe his eyes.
"We got it for ya," he hears his father speak, in about the same tones as when he speaks to the grocer around the corner. Duke removes the package from under his arm and starts unwrapping it. "Mind ya," he adds, "I think it might be broken."
The Dragon looks at him with interest.
"... I could barely lift it," Jason admits.
Now the Dragon looks at him.
"Picked him fer the job cause he's 'bout as sinless as they come," Duke says. "'s ma own son, ya know," he adds with fatherly pride. He finishes unwrapping the scales and presents them to the Dragon. From within the mass of shadows two arms with long, sharp claws reach out. They tenderly take the scales from Duke's hands. Instantly the balance changes.
"The Scales do not measure sin," the dragon's whispery voice says. "The Scales measure guilt."
"Same thing, 'innit?" Duke asks.
"Sin is a concept," the Dragon says. "It cannot be measured." From within its shadowy depths it produces several small weights of various sizes and metals, which it places on the plate currently being pushed up. With a gentle dip and rise the scales move into perfect balance.
"Guilt," the Dragon says, "is one's perception of sin."
"Oh," Duke says stupidly.
"Many do not understand this," the Dragon says, possibly by way of comforting.
"It measures... Feelings of guilt?" Jason asks uncertainly.
"Yes," The Dragon says.
"But I... Don't feel guilty," Jason says.
The Dragon looks directly at him.
"Many do not wish to see their sins," it says. "Therefore, they do not wish to face their guilt. It angers them."
Jason tries to avoid the gaze of the Dragon. He does remember anger.
"Hold the Scales," the Dragon invites him, holding the scales out at him.
Jason takes the scales in his hands. One side instantly dips down again. The weight is enormous. The Dragon removes the weights that were already on it, returns them into his shadowy depths and produces others.
"The Scales were taken from me by three man that could not bare to see their own guilt before them," the Dragon explains while adding and removing weights experimentally. "They took them in anger, as anger lightens the weight of guilt."
Jason feels the weight of the scales diminish slightly as more weights are placed on the scale.
"But anger burns the body and soul," the Dragon says.
"They tried to smuggle them out by using this nice kid as a courier," Jason realises. "Cause he had little guilt!"
"Yes," the Dragon says.
"And them sell'em, I bet," Duke adds. "Bet it'd be great fer blackmail."
"Yes," the Dragon says gravely, still adding and removing weights.
"You couldn't stop them?" Jason suggests.
"Not without harming them," the Dragon says. Its shadowy claw deposits a silvery weight onto the plate. Suddenly the weight of the scales drops spectacularly as the two plates level into a near-balance.
"Ah," the Dragon says. It looks Jason straight in the eyes again. "I understand now."
Jason stares at the scales as the Dragon gingerly lifts them from his hands. Something dawns on him, surfacing from the murky depths of his subconscience.
The Dragon collects the weights off the scale and returns them to its depths.
"Now," the Dragon says, "there is the matter of payment."
"Er, yeah," Duke says, standing off to the side. "Yeah, we better get on with that."
"I believe," it says, "that the reward should go to the young man."
"'s okay by me," Duke says.
The Dragon hovers around Jason, positioning itself between him and his father.
"Your name," it says.
"Jason O'Hare," Jason says automatically.
"Do you know the number of weights I needed for the most evil man I have known, Jason O'Hare?" the Dragon asks.
The Dragon's claw presses something into Jason's hand.
"None," it says.
Then it dissipates, falling apart in wisps that are scattered and diluted in the wind.
Jason opens his hand. It contains a silvery weight, the one that that balanced out the scales for him.
"Silver, huh?" Duke says, examining it sceptically from a distance.
"Dunno," Jason says. He weighs it gingerly on his flat hand. There seems to be very little weight to it. "Doesn't feel like it."
"Next time," his father says, "hold out fer more. Come on, let's go."
The Bloody Irishman offers a desolate ambience that morning. Chairs are stacked on the table, the lights are off and the 'open sign' is turned. Jason and Duke sit opposite each other at a small cleared table in the early morning light. The shadow of the immense castle is already moving in on the other side of the room.
"It's about Ana," Jason says.
"Ye did somethin' ta her?" Duke asks.
"Well, no," Jason says. "At least, I..." He sighs. "I just said some things."
"Lies?" Duke tries.
"Just... Things I never wanted to say." Jason says. "She... She accused me of things that weren't true and weren't fair, and I couldn't defend myself without... Attacking her."
Jason rests his head with his hands in his hair.
"She thought I wasn't trying hard enough," he says. "And I tried so hard, and I kept trying harder to prove it..."
He breathes out slowly.
"She wasn't always easy to deal with," he says. "I worried a lot about her."
His father purses his lips and leans forward, folding his hands.
"I just," Jason continues, "I couldn't be the kind of guy she needed. And now I'm the guy that hurt her... Everything came out wrong."
Duke takes a deep breath.
"Ya know," he says, "when yer mom left, all me mates were tellin' me how I was me own man now and all the fun I could have without'er. An' all I could think of was how she were all alone takin' care of ya, an' I couldn't help'er..."
"Some people just don' know shit," he adds bitterly. "Couldn't even see why I was grievin' over her death. See, they don't get that when ya love someone, it don't just go away. Some of it sticks ferever. Ya wonder 'bout'em an' ya worry 'bout'em. Tha's how it is. Anyone who says different never loved anyone."
"But you don't feel guilty," Jason points out.
"Eh? With the scales, ya mean?" Duke says. "Eh, ye move on with yer life. Tha' mountain yer climbing now, ya look back years later and it looks like a molehill in the distance."
The shadow of the castle slowly begins to eclipse their table.
"So that's it then, you think?" Jason asks. "You wait till it passes?"
"Don't have any other answer for ya," he says. "But I know the question..."
A slow week passes before Jason finds himself back in his dorm room. The usual stench thankfully had almost had enough time to dissipate, though not quite. No doubt Terry would soon be strengthening the marks on their territory.
He holds the weight the dragon gave him in his hands and examines it closely. It presents quite a mystery. It looks to be made of silver, but it cannot possibly be, as it lacks the weight. In fact, he had weighed it a couple of days after he got it, and it seemed to weigh literally nothing.
For a while Jason had wondered if the dragon had tried to tell him something about the weight of conscience. It had substance, but no weight, whereas guilt seemed to have weight without substance. Then he slowly came to realise that holding the weight made him feel better. As if it balanced out some internal scale of his own.
He rolls the weight between his fingers and gazes at it a bit more before he places it on his nightstand, right beside his clock radio.
He switches off his night light.
And goes to sleep.