My story, On Dragon’s Wings, will leave you sympathetic with one of the most feared characters in literature. No, it isn’t “Clippy” the former Microsoft Word mascot. On Dragon’s Wings is about Death – and the little girl who bends Death to her will. This anthology has it all – sci-fi, military, fantasy, love, humor, sadness, and most of all, a clan of dragons (historically, what a group of dragons traveling together is called).
Featuring cover art by Dragon Conjurer Extraordinaire, James Artimus Owen and edited by the Wizard of Scissors, Lisa Mangum. Including stories from incredible authors: Brandon Sanderson, Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, David Farland, John David Payne, Frank Morin, Joy Dawn Johnson, Robert J. McCarter, Aaron Michael Ritchey, Mike Jack S, Peter E Sartucci, Jace Killian, Greg Little, Nancy Greene, Tristan Brand, Adric Mayall, Peter Jones, Josh Vogt, LJ Hachmeister, Michael Angel, and Mel Koons.
Best part – all profits go to The Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship for aspiring authors.
On Dragon’s Wings
by M.J. Carlson
The first time I saw her…
It was a Tuesday, I think. In the morning. Definitely in the morning. Sometimes things get a little muddled, but that’s only to be expected. I’ve seen a lot of Tuesdays, after all. I’m Death. I don’t say this to be pompous. Nothing could be further from who I am. I merely tell you this fact to establish the validity of the story. After all, if you can’t believe in Death, what are you left with—taxes?
That was a joke.
I digress. Most humans spend their entire lives denying my very existence until I arrive to carry them off to. . . Oops, almost gave it away. Can’t let that out of the bag. Mystery and all.
Most humans think I wear a black hood and carry that silly scythe. I don’t carry a scythe, nor do I dress in a black cape. What I look like to you depends entirely on how you view the end of your mortality, which is, of course, a function of how you judge your life. If, say, your life was full of missed opportunities to forgive your fellows, or devoid of love given freely, or empty of friends and family, you’ll see me as something fearful.
If, however, your life was one of passions embraced, family and community enjoyed, and life really lived, a loved one will appear to your eyes.
A well-earned rest at the end of a long day.
I’m a mirror of sorts. I reflect your soul.
But this story isn’t about me. It’s about Molly. An altogether endearing eight-year-old with hair the color of fawn’s fur in the spring and emerald eyes that cut right to the heart of the matter. Her room smelled like. . . antiseptic. Harsh, astringent, all alcohol and medicine. The smell of hospitals in winter only grieving parents understand. I try not to form attachments to scents or sounds, because… well…
I mostly concentrate on emotions, which is what brought me up short at Molly’s bedside. She looked right up at me with laser-sharp eyes and smiled.
“Hello,” she said.
“My mommy says you aren’t real, so you can’t be here.”
This was a new one on me. I glanced down. I was covered in scales. They started out a deep sapphire along my spine, fading to a light sea-foam green on my underside. A glance at Molly’s bedside table explained my appearance. A book with a dragon on the cover lay there.
I stretched out my leathered wings and it felt good. I’m nothing if not flexible. I pulled my dragon’s mouth into my most charming smile, teeth and all.
“I’ve come for you, Molly. To take you away from the pain and the fear and the tears so if you’ll just jump on my back—”
“No? You don’t understand. I have a schedule. So if you’ll just—”
It wasn’t said in fear. I’m used to that. There was no quaver in her voice, no smell of adrenaline on the air. I dropped onto my haunches. “But you have to.”
And here was my undoing.
It stopped me. “Why?”
“Because I have too much to do.” A missing front tooth lent her a lisp.
“You’re a child.”
“I won’t be a kid forever.”
“What do you mean you have too much to do?” I’d heard this argument before. Usually from workaholic CEOs, or athletes on a winning streak, their celebrations cut short by a bridge abutment or a jealous spouse, but never from an eight-year-old child.
She pulled her pale lips into a line and set her jaw at a stern angle.
“I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to tell stories and make people laugh and cry and forget how ’fraid they are of the scary things.”
I folded my wings against my flanks. “But you’re supposed to come with me. Now.”
With her eyes never leaving mine, she reached over to her bedside table, pulled her book to her chest, and crossed her arms over it like a shield. “I tol’ you, I can’t. Besides, Mommy says you aren’t real, so you have to go.”
“Don’t be sad.” She smiled at me then, and time stopped around us.
This… little girl—anemic skin, hands shaking in a subtle tremor only I could see, and a sick, weak, heart racing like a greyhound’s after a race—was determined. Man, was she determined. But there was more.
Steel between a hammer and an anvil—hard and sharp. And so hot it hurt to look at it.
And she was comforting me. Me.
I shouldn’t tell you this, but I have the option to postpone the inevitable. You’ve heard the stories. The light, the floating, the family members, yada, yada. It’s interpretation. Sometimes, once in a million, give or take, I can wait. Something to do with the greater good.
Don’t try it.
You can’t bargain with Death. You can’t cajole, or out-maneuver, or tempt me. I can’t be hornswoggled or bamboozled. I can’t be corrupted by guilt or shame. whatever scheme you can think up, I’ve heard it, trust me. This was different. Molly believed. In a way most TV preachers would empty their accounts just to glimpse. Trust me. I know.
“You can’t stay forever.”
“I don’t need forever.”
“There’ll be pain.”
She nodded. Not agreement or resignation, but simple acknowledgement.
“You’ll have failures. You’ll have to live through the betrayal of false friends, the grief of lost loves, the pain and suffering, and in the end, I’ll be back.”
“I’ll be ready.”
“You’ll be sick for a long time.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. “That silver liquid you found in the garage, the one you’ve been playing with, is poison.”
“Yes. I should go. I have other pickups to make tonight.”
“What’s your name?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“It’s a secret?”
“I like secrets.”
“Good. Then we understand each other.”
She nodded. “Life is gonna suck, and you’ll come back someday.”
“’Bout sums it up.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Dragon.”
I spread my wings and moved away. I’d allowed myself to get behind, and Death must be prompt.
The second time I saw her…
Different hospital. Different smells. Dimly lit room this time. Electronic machines beeped and hummed all around. Humanity’s obsession with electricity escapes me. Things worked fine for a long time before all that. I know hospitals, though. I do some of my best work in them. A single sniff usually tells me where I am. Every hospital’s scent is unique. It took a moment, though. Obstetrics. I hadn’t spent much time on this floor, but I’d had a pickup down the hall earlier that evening. I stopped.
She was still waif-thin, probably from a diet of writing and ramen noodles. She turned her head to me when I approached. Her smile hadn’t changed in eighteen years. Same pointed chin and pixie face, and the same fawn’s fur-colored hair, now reaching half way down her back. This time, though, the hair was streaked with electric blue.
Those same emerald eyes looked up at me from a young woman’s face.
This took me aback. People rarely see me more than once, and when they do, they almost never recall our other encounter, as Molly obviously did. I looked down and found I wore the same iridescent scales from our previous meeting and smiled.
“Hello, again. I’ve come for you.”
“No? You can’t just tell me no. Now, if you’ll—”
“I’m sorry, Dragon, but I can’t. Not yet.”
“Listen, if it’s the excuse about your family or—”
She laughed. It was a full, rich laugh that rang truer than bells in a five-hundred-year-old cathedral. It seemed to take all her strength, because she closed her eyes for a moment.
“Don’t be silly. They’ll be fine, no matter what. I’ve only started what I set out to do. There’s so much suffering.”
“Hey,” I said, a little hurt. “Don’t start. I’m all about easing suffering. I relieve unbearable agony. I rescue the tortured, comfort the ill, soothe the injured, and restore peace, so don’t—”
“Then surely you see why it’s more important I stay. We’re working toward the same goals.”
I confess I’m not a lover of literature or art. The odd poem, sure, and some paintings and sculptures practically glow with the emotion their creators put into them. You humans take a great deal of comfort from your art. It feeds you and sustains you in ways I don’t fully comprehend. And books. Always book. You people and your words. But I digress.
“What about your pain? You’ve just lost a child. Most people would welcome. . .” There it was again, that iron-hard resolve and I knew there was nothing for it. See, here’s the thing. I can’t just grab you and rip your inner being, your soul, if you will, away. The individual has to accept on a conscious or unconscious level that they’re ready. Either because their current shell is too badly broken to continue, or they’ve completed their assigned task, or the healing would be too long and painful, or whatever. They have to come to me.
“Dragon.” She said it as if I were a petulant child with a short attention span. “There’s nothing I would like more than to oblige you, but I can’t right now.”
I settled onto my haunches and stared at her. “You can’t stay forever.”
“I don’t need forever.”
“There’ll be pain.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I believe we’ve had this conversation before.”
I chewed my lower lip. She had me. Again. “All right. But I’ll be back.”
The corners of her mouth turned up. “I know.”
I sighed. Some things in life you can’t fight. No use trying. I turned to leave, empty-handed.
I looked over my shoulder at her.
“What’s your name?”
“I can’t tell you that.” Where I come from, if a being with enough power knows your name, they can influence you, and I can’t have that. Not in my position.
And this frail human girl had power. More than she could understand.
“It’s a secret?” Her eyes twinkled.
It was like a private intimacy between old friends. An inside joke, I think you call it. I smiled, despite myself.
She returned the gesture at our shared memory. Her adult teeth had come in, white and straight. “I still like secrets.”
“Good. Then we still understand each other.”
She nodded. “Life’s still gonna suck, and you’ll be back.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Dragon. I’m sorry, but I’m really tired and if I’m to go on, I need to rest. It’s nice to see you again.”
I’m pretty sure no one’s ever said that to me, before or since.
Molly closed her eyes and settled into her pillow. Her body barely dented the sheets where she lay surrounded by starched white. I had other pickups to make in other places, but I hesitated a moment and watched her. Hey, it’s my prerogative. Molly opened her emerald eyes, looked in my direction, and winked.
I cleared my throat and left.
The third time I saw her…
Winter is my favorite season. It suites my personality best. The crisp, sharp scent of frosted air, the calm, restful state of the world, the quiet of the snow-clad hills—I find it all very peaceful. Not like spring, with its explosion of green and growth, flowers scenting all over the place, attracting bees and hummingbirds. Too bustling for me.
Give me a quiet, frosty evening, wind-tossed ice crystals like diamonds on a window, warm fire crackling in the hearth, blankets and books and mulled wine, and I’m good.
Traditionally, winter is my busiest season, what with the freezing cold, the thin ice on ponds, the slippery, snow-covered roads, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. But winter—middle-aged men shoveling snow, the elderly who can’t afford heat, the lost hikers facing down avalanches. It’s always pick up and go, pick up and go. Holidays are second only to battles and plagues. Never a minute’s rest.
Emergency departments are my stomping grounds in winter. I even have my own room in most of them, though you call them chapels. It’s where I go and sit for a spell and wait for my next pickup. You’ve felt me there. I’ve seen it on your faces. You just didn’t put the twos together and get four.
I love ERs. The drama, the excitement of a gang, forming a human stockade to try to block my coming, surrounding a body already gray as granite and just as dead. The people I come for step right through your efforts and take my hand. They know when it’s time, even if you don’t.
One frigid January evening, I strolled through the familiar smells of fear and disinfectant into just such a scene at an ER and heard the sound of talons clicking on the polished concrete floor. I knew in an instant who the center of attention was. Molly, older, now and filled out some with age and experience, sat up on the gurney and lobbed her pixie smile at me. Almost knocked me to the floor with it, actually.
“You’re looking well.”
“I—” I. I’m never at a loss for words, yet I stood speechless.
“We really have to stop meeting like this.” Her smile became a dazzling grin. Little lines fanned out from the corners of her emerald eyes. She’d grown into a beautiful, middle-aged woman. The stray silver strands in her fawn-colored hair added elegance. I’m allowed to notice. There’s no law against it or anything.
“If you’ll step away from the table—”
“Sorry, but no.”
I started to pace. I never get agitated, never grow impatient. I’m the soul of forbearance and tolerance. Perseverance personified. I can afford to be. But this was working itself under my scales, and I had to get control of the situation.
“Molly. Look at yourself.” I gestured with a fore claw at her shell lying on the gurney and the group working feverishly to keep her heart beating long enough to get her to surgery. “The broken bones, the internal bleeding, the—”
“It wasn’t his fault. The road was icy.”
“That’s not the issue. It’s never anyone’s fault. Not really. It’s time.”
“I can’t, my friend. Too much left to do.”
That stopped me. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve met kings and queens, the philosophers and the clueless. I’ve picked up saints in shelters and sinners in cathedrals. I’ve gathered scoundrels in sheep’s clothing and the pure of heart in their brothel-best, but no one’s ever called me friend before. It’s funny, how sometimes we never know something’s missing until it’s pointed out to us. I brushed the thought aside. Winter’s my busy season.
“Molly, please. Be reasonable.”
“Why does everyone always say ‘be reasonable’ when what they really mean is ‘see it my way?’ I’d love to go with you, but my work’s not quite done here.”
She gripped the edge of the gurney on which she also lay and swung her legs like a little girl, one I’d seen before.
I rolled my eyes. “There’ll be pain.”
“You say that all the time.”
“Because it’s true. You’re no longer young by human standards. You’ll take forever to heal.”
“There’s nerve damage. You may never regain full use of your left arm.”
“I’ll work around it.”
“If you’ll just step over here to me, I can make all the pain go away.”
“That’s so kind of you. I’m not through yet.
Sometimes you people make me want to groan. You really do. Blah blah this and blah blah that, and blah blah I left my coat, or I can’t have my daughter find the adult items in the bedside table. She’ll be embarrassed. Or some other affect of the living, which you no longer are. Those petty concerns all dissipate before you reach the other side, like a dream you want to remember, but you can’t. This was different. Like bumping into a wall in the dark with your eyes closed. It stops you so suddenly you think it’s pushed you away. That’s how talking to Molly felt.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I turned to leave once more, empty-handed as always with Molly. Her shuddering moan as she returned to agony and frustration tore at me.
People think of Death as heartless, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m the great leveler of playing fields. Inborn talents and inabilities all come to nothing in my arms. I bring debts and fortunes back to a zero balance. And more. I remind people that their time on Earth was merely a play, each person with their part, reciting their lines, until I bring the final curtain down, and it doesn’t even cost the two pennies on your eyelids.
But I feel for you. All of you. I do. That day, I heard Molly’s cry and shared pain as I rarely have in my long existence. I left, wishing it was in me to share her tears.
The last time I saw her…
Let’s clear up a misunderstanding. I don’t come like a thief in the night. I stroll in when it’s your time. I don’t take anything, at least anything that belongs to you. You all think your life is yours.
It’s a loaner. You get to take it out and play with it, have fun, crash into things, and generally run amok. I’m the guy behind the rental counter you hand the keys back to after you entered the demolition derby.
Some of you act like your life will last longer if you hide inside it, afraid to experience everything it can bring you. You’re the ones I feel sorry for in the end, because when I come—and trust me, I will come—and I tap you on the shoulder like a ticket taker on the merry-go-round, memories are more satisfying than dreams.
I enjoy visiting humans in their homes. Hospitals are too sterile. Nursing homes are too depressing. Hotels, and the imaginative ways you choose to die in them, are preferable to either of those, and the source of some of my most amusing stories, but homes are my best visits. Sometimes I’ll linger, examining the curious artifacts people attach emotion to. Bits of flotsam on the current of time. Photos of family and loved ones, treasured childhood toys, and bow-bound snippets of hair. A home reveals the heart.
When I entered that home on that day, I knew in half a heartbeat where I was. Sapphire scales covered me, my talons padded softly on the thick carpet, and I knew the story was ending.
She dozed in a comfortable chair in a corner of a tidy room in a spacious home. The sunlight that filtered through the sheer curtain dappled her once-fawn-colored locks. The scent this time was a combination of sandalwood and lilac. Not at all unpleasant. Silver-framed photos of children and young men and women graced table, dresser, and a headboard made from a bookcase. Each image practically glowed with emotion.
And the books. Many she’d written, the rest she’d read. And she loved each one.
She stirred at my approach, and turned those familiar emerald eyes onto me.
“Hello, old Dragon.
“Hello, Molly. It’s been a long time.”
She let me have that pixie smile again, grown a little tired of fighting gravity, but still beautiful as the first time I saw it. “Seems like yesterday to me. Must be a trick of the mind.”
“How’ve you been?”
“Old, and sick, and a bit tired. I only have one last thing to do, old friend.”
“We’re not friends. I don’t—”
“If not me, then who, Dragon?”
Who, indeed? I’d seen her grow from dying child to deathly ill young girl to grievously injured woman to the serene octogenarian in front of me. Our existences had brushed against each other in ways lovers only dream of. I’d seen her at her weakest moments, and each time she’d been strong enough to bend Death to her will. She stood and started in my direction, and with each sure step the years peeled back until an eight-year-old girl stood arm’s-length from me. Her shell remained in the chair, a loving smile on her still-warm lips.
“I only have one last thing to do.”
She raised her hand and stroked her fingertips over my cheek. The gentleness of her touch was the answer. Understanding fell on me. As I said before, I’ve seen it all and I can’t be tricked or bargained with, but this came at me from a blind side. In all my time, in all my travels, no one has ever offered me surcease.
“You knew who I was, even then, and you offered me comfort. Each time.”
“I couldn’t go. You had so much pain.”
“I’m Death. I don’t—”
“Shh. Mommy says you don’t exist, but I know better. I’m ready now, Dragon.”
As I said, I carry souls away at the end. You may have a statue in a harbor, but I’m the one who takes your tired, your weak, the ones yearning to be free. I’m never harsh or impatient, because in the end it’s you and me, and of the two of us, I’m the one with all the time in the world. So I never jostle or grunt or shift you when I take you for that last ride.
Molly moved in close, settled herself in the cradle of my blue-scaled arms, and laid her head on my shoulder. I’ve never held a lighter soul, and never wanted so desperately to return one to the land of the living. I’ve seen you cry at bedsides and never understood why. As I cuddled Molly’s tiny form against my chest and folded around her, I finally understood wanting the one thing you can’t have—more time—another chance. For the first time, my tears fell, raindrops on a hot summer road caught in an afternoon shower, as I prepared to fly her away on dragon’s wings.
If you enjoyed this excerpt and absolutely can’t live another day without reading the rest, you can get a copy of your very own right here. Thanks.