And they worshipped the beast, saying “Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?” The Book of Revelation.
Alfroz sat with his elder by the warm glow of a fire on the island of the Dragon beast. He continually fed the flames with driftwood, gladly taking the chance to rest and clear his head. Waybrook was dancing around the fire, much to the amusement of the Dragon warriors. They talked excitedly amongst themselves, pointing and gazing on the elder with reverent adoration. The dead Dragon beast floated in the shallows, its bloodied, open jaws already a home for crabs and small fishes.
“Life is indeed full of ironies,” murmured Alfroz. The largest, most ferocious beast in all of creation had now become a home for the smallest.
For some time now he had felt the long ordeal on the island catching up with him, so he smoothed out a bed in the pebbly ground and lay in it. Immediately he began to drift off to sleep. He was looking forward to escaping to his favourite place in the whole world; the place where dreams await. It was the first time he had looked forward to dreaming in- he couldn’t quite remember. Dreaming was not quite the same when it was expected of him. Not that the ancient would be needing his dreams any more; or so he thought.
Alfroz was awoken suddenly by a commotion down by the water. He quickly sat up and looked to the place where he had last seen his elder; but he was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Waybrook. His heart began to race as he searched the Dragon warriors’ firesight with desperate eyes; but there was no sign of either of them.
“Down here, Alfroz, down beside Behemoth.”
Alfroz’s heart was in his mouth as he followed the urgent beckoning of his elder, stumbling in the poor light over tufts of sea grass that were growing on the sandy hills closest to the beach. At first he thought he was staring at an outcrop of great stones in the shallows, but his memory soon jolted him back from his imaginings to the horrible reality of it all. He felt as though he was in a bizarre dream as he stood there before the enormous beast floating lifeless in the sea. Its powerful presence filled him with an indescribable awe, even in death. He was astonished to see how many warriors there were standing on top of it, their flaming torches lighting up the enormous primeval carcass as it lay in the shallows. Every time a large wave washed over it, the whole carcass moved, giving it the illusion of being alive. This made Alfroz very nervous. He still could not believe the Dragon beast was dead. He would not have been surprised to see it rise triumphantly from the sea at any moment; throwing its puny cargo of warriors into the sea with just a flick of its powerful tail. Several of the warriors were busy hacking away at its jaws with their sharp knives, eagerly seeking out a prize for their belts.
“Soon the poor beastie won’t have a tooth left!” joked the elder, appearing from the darkness with all the stealth of a cat.
“Why would they do that to their god, my elder?” Alfroz replied, feeling more than a little bewildered.
“He’s no longer their god, Alfroz. He’s well and truly dead. They can’t bow down before a dead beast- not nearly as frightening.” The ancient smiled cynically. “Look how brave they are- though I’d like to see a really big wave roll the beast over! They’d be running for cover quicker than you can blink!”
The elder’s mocking laughter changed to solemnity in the blink of an eye. “They don’t fear him any more. And for these people, where there is no fear, there is no power. The beast had much power over them when he was alive.”
Alfroz’s mind was now filled with intrepidation.
“So- so what will they do now, my elder? Where shall they find another god?” By the way some of the warriors were staring and pointing at the ancient, Alfroz was afraid he might already know the answer to that question.
“Why- the one who appeared from the mouth of the beast, of course!” laughed the elder. “That is why we may not be able to take Waybrook home- just yet. I don’t think they will want to let me go in a hurry. Not unless they can find themselves another god.”
The elder ceased talking and turned his steely gaze on his young friend again. “Be sure not to tell Waybrook. The thought of not returning home to her people could send her- you know- off again.”
It was just the sort of thing Alfroz did not want to hear. But at least they were all still alive. His elder would know what to do. If he could escape the jaws of the Dragon beast, he could do anything.
“What shall we do now, my elder?” He bit is lip. Another stupid question, he thought. Sometimes it seemed as if his mouth had a mind of its own.
“Why, go back to the fire, of course! I don’t like our chances of swimming back to the mainland tonight, do you?” But the ancient’s attempt at humour had fallen on deaf ears.
When at last they got back to the warm fire Waybrook was already there. She saw them coming, and quickly turned her back on them.
“That horrible beast! I keep imagining I can see it moving. Are you sure it’s dead?”
“Quite sure, Waybrook, quite sure,” said the elder reassuringly.
“I’ve never seen so much blood. I will never forget it for as long as I live,” she moaned.
The elder smiled.
“I don’t think there’s a chance of that. It has been many generations since there were Dragon beasts down by your river.”
Waybrook was mortified.
“You mean there have been beasts like that- in my river?” The ancient nodded enthusiastically, his impish grin giving away his motive immediately. “I’m afraid so, Waybrook of the waterfalls. There are legends and stories about Dragon beasts from all the peoples in our world.” The elder only just managed to hold back a smile as he turned and winked at Alfroz. “Surely you have heard some of them before?” For once Waybrook was slow to answer. She turned her attention to Alfroz
“And what do you know? Have you heard of these- legends?”
Alfroz wisely decided not to say anything.
Alfroz looked on in awe as the dark, sinister shape in the shallows was transformed by the sun’s first rays into the incredible form of a dead Dragon beast floating in the rising tide. A large flock of sea birds flew down onto the dead behemoth, only to be sent back into the sky again when a noisy mob of warriors rushed down to the shallows. They laughed and jostled one another as they clambered for the best positions on top of their dethroned god. The head warriors waded into the sea to work on the beast’s ragged jaws again, determined to extract the last few sabre like teeth for themselves. They fought amongst themselves for the best positions, even threatening one another with their long knives.
After a while Araphaxad appeared on the shore beside the dead Dragon beast and began barking out orders. The dead Dragon beast was immediately abandoned to the rising tide, the excited warriors swarming off it like a colony of retreating ants.
“It appears Araphaxad is none too pleased with the way his dead god is being treated,” said his elder. “It’s a pity he doesn’t feel the same way about his own.” The ancient turned his back on the dead monster lying prostrate in the sea and began warming his hands by the fire. Waybrook rose from her seat in the sand to join him. Alfroz rose from his bed of pebbles and stared out to sea.
“And what do you think, Alfroz the Dreamer?” continued the elder.
Alfroz stretched his stiff legs and yawned.
“I’m afraid these people are all a bit strange for me, my elder.” Alfroz’s mind was already racing. He had a thousand questions he had thought up during the night; mostly about Dragon beasts and legends, but he resisted the urge to pursue them- for now. Now was not the time to be asking about such things. He picked up one of the last remaining pieces of driftwood and threw it onto the fire. He was about to set off in search of some more, when he saw a group of Dragon warriors approaching. Not far behind them was Araphaxad, holding what appeared to be an ugly wooden mask.
“Someone should tell him about that mask,” quipped the elder.
Two of the Dragon warriors strode up to Elder Rebo, took him firmly by the arm and led him to Araphaxad. The Dragon king looked him up and down; then smiled. Then he did something unexpected. He handed the ugly wooden mask to him. Alfroz stayed close by his elder’s side, preferring to keep his eyes fixed safely on his feet. He was too afraid to look the Dragon king in the eye.
The warrior guards led the elder and his young friend down to the water. Araphaxad barked something at them both, gesticulating wildly at the dead beast in the shallows. Alfroz was totally perplexed. The ancient sat down on the wet sand, cradling the mask in his hands, his eyes never straying from the dead behemoth. There was a heavy silence for a time. Finally Alfroz could stand the silence no more.
“What was that all about, Elder Rebo?” He bit his lip and waited for the answer.
His elder stroked his precious, bedraggled beard for a time, then suddenly got up and threw a stone in the direction of the dead monster.
“It’s incredible, really. And after risking my life to kill that terrible beast!”
Alfroz was becoming impatient.
“What is it, my elder?” he said. The elder pointed in the direction of the Dragon king.
“He thinks I can bring his god back to life. He’s in a quandary really. He’s so accustomed to having the beast alive- he has never had to deal with him being dead before.” The mystified elder scratched behind one of his ears. “It’s quite sad, really.” Alfroz was now completely at a loss. He had a look of innocent bewilderment; like a small child that has become lost for the very first time.
The elder continued.
“Another paradox Alfroz- another paradox.” The elder started drawing in the sand, trying to gather his thoughts. “When someone has been doing something harmful to themselves for a long time- it becomes part of their life. So much so that when they are finally freed from the thing that is destroying them, they feel lost.” The elder looked up at the dead monster in the shallows. “Sometimes to the point where they want it back.”
Alfroz thought long and hard about what the ancient had just said. To say that he was perplexed was an understatement. He scratched his head and tried to think of an example.
“Do you mean like someone who keeps running away?”
The elder sighed.
“I tried to tell him again last night that I am not a god, but I don’t think he believes me. He thinks I have the power to bring back the wretched beast; the same beast that has slaughtered so many of his people.” Alfroz remained silent. It was all becoming too much to fathom. As soon as she felt safe, Waybrook came and sat beside Alfroz on the wet sand.
“So- when are they taking us back?” The ancient pretended not to hear her. Alfroz stared at her incredulously. He clenched his teeth and shook his head.
“We don’t know yet!”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” she demanded. The ancient sighed deeply, then smiled at her.
“It’s good to have you back with us, Waybrook of the waterfalls.”
She frowned at the elder, then turned to face Alfroz again.
“And just what did he mean by that?” Alfroz winced, then took in a deep breath.
“A dream- anything for a dream!” he mumbled. By now the elder had left his drawings and was skipping some smooth pebbles over the waves as they washed up on the shore. Alfroz wished more than anything that he had more news for his elder.
“I’m sorry I’ve had no more dreams, Elder Rebo.” The elder made no reply. Alfroz was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. He clenched his teeth and dug his toes into the wet sand, but try as he might, he just could not sit still. So he got up and began throwing stones at the dead monster in the sea.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warned his elder. He spoke with such gravity that Alfroz immediately dropped the rest of the stones at his feet. The elder continued. “I only hope their loss does not turn to anger.” Alfroz managed to stay silent.
“What are you saying?” demanded Waybrook.
“I mean that we- I mean I- I’ve killed their god. For the moment they are happy to be rid of their tyrannical master. But their joy could quickly turn to wrath. Especially when they see how it has affected their king”
“This is all too much for me!” snapped Waybrook, turning to make her way back to the fire.
The ancient and his young friend stood on the shore as great clouds of sea birds began landing all over the massive carcass. Down towards the other end of the island the Dragon warriors’ two watercraft were still waiting. The Sea beasts were still captive to them, wallowing timidly in the shallows. Alfroz dropped limply down to the sand like a rag doll. A feeling of helplessness had overcome him again. He had lost count of the number of times it had haunted him on this strange and dangerous journey. He shook his head and sighed. He and his two friends were trapped on an island with a mob of warriors that could turn on them at any moment. He had to think of something to take his mind off things. As usual he said the first thing that came into his head.
“What are you going to do with that awful mask, my elder?”
“Hold on to it for dear life, my young friend. This ugly wooden mask may just be the thing that saves us.”
“What do you mean?”
“The mask is a gift from Araphaxad. None of the warriors would dare harm us while we are still in their king’s favour.” Alfroz was very glad of that.
After a while a group of warriors presented the elder with a gift of cooked fish. He accepted it gratefully and started to eat, along with his two hungry friends. Every so often a messenger of Araphaxad would come down to the beach and inspect the lifeless hulk of the Dragon beast, before returning to his waiting king. Every time this happened, the elder would smile knowingly and nod his head. This puzzled Alfroz greatly. He had no idea what was going on. After the fourth visit he could hold back his curiosity not a moment longer.
“What does that warrior want, my elder?”
The ancient laughed loudly.
“He’s been sent by Araphaxad to see if the beast’s resurrection has taken place. I’m afraid the birds will strip the beast to the bone long before I can bring the dead behemoth back to life.”
“How long would it take the birds to devour the flesh of the monster?” said Alfroz, realizing the silliness of his question as soon as it had left his mouth.
The ancient broke out in mock laughter.
“That is precisely my point! Walk over to the beast, Alfroz. See if you can wake him from his sleep.” Alfroz stared at his elder in disbelief. He could not believe what he was hearing.
“Well, that’s enough nonsense for now!” continued the ancient. “The sun will be burning down on our heads before long. Let’s go and find some shade to see out the heat of the afternoon. The last thing we want now is too much sun. We might start seeing things!” The elder turned towards the dead Dragon beast and pulled a face.
Alfroz still could see nothing funny about their predicament.
“Do you mean to say the view around here is not strange enough already?”
The ancient applauded Waybrook’s sarcasm.
“I always knew you had a sense of humour, Waybrook of the waterfalls!” Alfroz rolled his eyes and said nothing.
They took shelter in the shadows of the great stones, near where they had taken refuge from the Dragon beast the day before. As they rested in the shade they noticed that some of the warriors were carrying large leathery things that looked like torn wings. They were playing out mock battles with one another to amuse their king, who was still very agitated. It was clear to all that he longed to see his god again. He simply could not believe that the Dragon beast was dead.
“Where did they get those awful wings?” said Waybrook, clearly unimpressed with the warriors’ games.
The elder craned his head in the direction of the furthest of the great stones.
“I would only need one guess. Alfroz- where have you seen such wings before?” Alfroz already knew. He was the one who had originally discovered the Dragon beast’s last victim on the other side of the great stones. The stench of the dead Sea beast was still all around them.
The elder went on. “The Lizard birds that were feasting on the rotting Sea beast- the warriors must have slaughtered the revolting creatures. Not even those loathsome killers are a threat to these warriors.” Alfroz stared wide-eyed at the mock battles for a time before deciding to try and get some sleep.
They rested in the shadows of the great stones until late afternoon. A cool afternoon breeze was blowing in from the sea, bringing with it the sweet fragrance of fresh salt air. This was greatly appreciated by the three friends, who were at times being sickened by the stench of the decaying Sea beast. Alfroz left his place in the shade and began to wander along the beach, picking up suitably sized pieces of driftwood for the next fire.
Up above the high tide mark three sets of footprints marked out the path they had taken the previous day when they had fled the Dragon beast. Alfroz followed them with his eyes all the way along the beach, until they vanished beneath the great stones. The colossal beast’s footprints were still deeply embedded in the soft sand. He wondered how long they would last before the island’s constant winds eventually erased them. He looked up to see the dreaded beast lying prostrate in the waves, now covered by hundreds of sea birds. They were resting after gorging themselves on the nearby Sea beast. Their time to feed on the Dragon beast had not yet come, since its thick armoury of scales had not yet given in to decay.
Alfroz was deep in thought; the whole scene spoke to him of the mortality and uncertainty of life. The beast’s enormous footprints had outlasted their maker. Even the dreaded Dragon beast was not immune to death; though the beast’s bleached skeleton would probably impress visitors to the beach for many years to come. The stark remains of the terrible beast might even become the source of a legend or two.
With his arms stacked high with driftwood, he turned and made his way back to the firesight. The other two were already there. The ancient had managed to start another fire, and was busily cooking something on it. Waybrook was dancing again, but no longer like the mad she who had only yesterday set foot on the island. He was very glad she was her old self again. He hated the way the warriors had painted her to look like one of those awful frogs. Alfroz sat with his face in his hands, fascinated by her every move. He did his best to pretend not to notice her slender form as she danced and sang her way around the firesight. Why was it that he felt self-conscious whenever she danced? Perhaps he was afraid that his elder might be watching him as intently as he was watching her. He got up and moved closer to the ancient, who was cooking some large mussels.
“I hope you’re still hungry, Alfroz the Dreamer,” said Elder Rebo. “As you can see, our friend Waybrook has been working up an appetite with her dancing.” Alfroz pretended not to notice, and kept his eyes fixed safely on the mussels cooking in the coals on the edge of the fire.
“The elder pointed at their meal in the hot coals.
“See how the shells are starting to open? That means that they’re ready. Sit down you two, and help yourselves.”
Very soon they were all sitting around the fire, poking and prodding at the open shells with pointed sticks. This time no one complained, nor even said a word about what they were eating. They were all too hungry.
“So, you two- what do you think of our meal tonight?” Waybrook prised out a large mussel from its shell with a stick, then spoke.
“To tell you the truth, these are very similar to the shellfish we dive for on my river back home.”
Alfroz was very hungry, and already had a small pile of empty shells by his side.
“They taste just like the sea,” he said. “Where did you find them, my elder?”
“Down in the shallows, not far from our dead monster,” the elder replied. The other two glanced nervously at the ancient, who was grinning from ear to ear. They hesitated only for a moment, before continuing to eat in earnest.
Very soon they had devoured all the mussels. After he had eaten his fill, Alfroz moved away from the fire’s warm light to a quiet place. He felt the need to spend some time by himself; and he had it in his heart to do some stargazing. The constant, eerie commotion of the Dragon warriors had been getting on his nerves for some time. As Alfroz sat staring at the velvety night sky he began to pine for his home back in the woodlands. It was there that he had spent many hours watching the stars from the safety of the family house-tree. Every now and then a falling star would flash from one side of the world to the other, leaving a trail of gold and silver in its wake. It would not have been hard for Alfroz to imagine that he was back at home, if it hadn’t been for Waybrook. She had decided that right now was a good time to demand of the elder that he take her home. And she meant now. As usual the elder was very patient with her, continually assuring her that he would get her home as soon as possible. But for the stubborn and headstrong Waybrook, that was simply not good enough. The final straw for her was when the elder implored her to “be content with the now.” She jumped to her feet and stormed off to the nearby beach. Alfroz sighed deeply and contented himself with searching the night sky for another falling star. At least there was a peace now, if only for a short time. Even the warrior mob had gone quiet now. Occasionally he overheard Araphaxad shouting at his guards, but that was all. He gazed up to the myriad of constellations in the heavens, and took a deep breath.
Sometimes when he was alone stargazing he felt very distant from the world and day-to-day life. And, as happened most times when he was staring up into the heavens, he began to ponder the big things in life. Was this Awakening journey real, or was it the most fantastic, dream he had ever had? He was about to pinch himself to find out, when something bit him on the leg. No, he was not dreaming- the mosquitoes could testify to that.
From the direction of the firesight came the sound of the ancient’s singing. It was an ancient ballad; strangely mournful and beautiful at the same time. It spoke of times long gone, of feasts and harvests, and seasons of plenty.
Still Alfroz watched the stars, overcome with wonderment at their splendour and incredible multitude. He had never seen anything to match them; not even in his dreams. The night sky had him completely spellbound when another falling star flashed across the sky, before disappearing in the blink of an eye over the end of the world. He sighed and scratched behind his ear. This creation was all too much for a simple Tree person to comprehend. And yet, as he gazed in child-like wonderment at the stars, the sense of helplessness and insignificance that had been pestering him all day was gradually overshadowed by a familiar stirring, and a deep longing in his heart. He knew in an instant what it was. He was filled with awe for the one who his elder said had made this world; the same one who held the destiny of he and everybody else in the palm of his hand. Just like this enormous velvety night sky held all the stars. He knew what he must do, and when he listened hard enough, his inner voice was telling him the same thing. He must call out to The Great Creator. He had to know what to do next. As he sat with his head tilted upwards at the stars he began to mouth some simple words. The words came slowly to him, like a small child trying to explain something to a parent for the first time.
He did not notice his elder standing beside him.
“Talking to yourself again, Alfroz the Dreamer? Usually the habit of those more advanced in years than you.” Alfroz breathed a sigh of relief. The elder had not suspected what he was doing.
“Well now Alfroz, I suppose I should get you back. The young she- I can’t seem to recall her name- anyway- she has asked me to take her home to the river Wandering. Come on now, you don’t want to be out near the forest by yourself for too long.” Alfroz was speechless. He could not believe what he was hearing.
“What do you mean, Elder Rebo? How can we leave this island tonight?” He was beginning to feel sick in the stomach. Something was very wrong.
“What are you talking about, Alfroz? Come now, follow me. This way!” And with that the elder took his young friend’s arm and began to lead him in the direction of the great stones.
The ancient looked very small and frail as he stopped on the pebbly beach, confounded and confused by the sea before him. He stood listening to the waves for a time, then turned to his young friend.
“However did we get here? Is this some kind of a bad dream? Have I lost my mind- or have I been poisoned by those loathsome Dragon warriors again?”
Alfroz slowly drew close to his elder and took him by the arm. All he could think of was how to get him back to the fire. If his elder was losing his will to live again…
“Whatever you say, my elder. But please, come and sit with me by the warm fire for a time.” The elder stared into his young friend’s eyes with a look of total bewilderment. His regal demeanour had suddenly changed to that of a small lost child.
“Yes, yes- perhaps- perhaps you’re right. I can’t seem to recall what I was doing before anyhow. Did you light this fire? Your parents will be very pleased.” Alfroz gently led the confused ancient to the fire and sat him down beside it.
Alfroz did not feel well. The ball of butterflies had come to life in his stomach again. He did not like to admit it, but he was frightened. He had never seen his elder like this before. He had suddenly become old and forgetful, like the ancients who wandered off and got lost in the woodlands back home.
Shortly afterwards Waybrook appeared from the shadows on the beach and knelt beside the fire. It was obvious to Alfroz that she was still not happy, as she sulked and fidgeted in her moody silence.
All at once the elder jumped to his feet.
“Come now, young Waybrook of the waterfalls. Let me take you home. Come along, follow me!” And with that the ancient set off in the direction of the outcrop of great stones. Alfroz jumped to his feet and followed. Waybrook stood her ground defiantly, her hands on her hips.
“If this is your idea of a joke, then it has only made me feel worse!” Eventually she calmed down and made herself comfortable on the other side of the fire, deliberately sitting with her back to the others.
After a few steps the elder stopped and turned to face the fire. He had a look of total devastation.
“You ungrateful little wretch!” he growled. “Whatever have I done to deserve this kind of a thank you?” Alfroz cowered beside his elder and grimaced. It took all his willpower not to go and crawl under the nearest rock. He had never heard his elder talk to anyone this way before. Waybrook jumped to her feet and glared defiantly back at the ancient. Eventually she went and sat in the shadows outside the firesight.
But the elder was not finished yet.
“Come now, Waybrook of the waterfalls, I shall not offer again. Take up your spear and let’s be off.”
Alfroz jumped in front of his elder in a desperate attempt to try and stop him walking any further. He was beginning to panic. What could he do to stop this madness?
“Please, Elder Rebo- please wait until the morning. It is far too late now to be travelling through the forest. Waybrook and I are very tired. Let us rest until the dawn, and then we’ll be on our way.”
The ancient stared out into the thick darkness enshrouding the island.
“I- I suppose you’re right. It is very dark tonight. I can’t see the forest for the trees.” He laughed nervously, then started whistling.
“That’s because you’re looking at the sea!” said Waybrook from behind him.
“The sea, the sea - whatever is she talking about now?” The ancient made himself comfortable by the fire and contented himself with singing in archaic rhymes again. Soon he was in a half-sleep, leaving his two astonished friends to talk amongst themselves.
“Whatever is he talking about?” continued Waybrook. She was still very upset. The long awaited return to her river was not something to joke about. “When I said I wanted to go home now, well, I didn’t mean now. I meant- I’m just so tired of waiting.”
Alfroz nodded sympathetically, then slowly moved closer to her, being careful not to let the elder hear what he was about to say.
“I’ve never seen him like this before. He reminds me of some of the old ones who wander off and get lost in the forest.”
Waybrook nodded as she suddenly recalled a long-forgotten memory.
“Yes- my grandmother was like that just before she died. She started forgetting everyone’s names. One day my father found her crying down by the river. He took her back home. Soon after that she disappeared again. They found her floating in the river. Some think she drowned herself. She was always a happy, lively thing. Perhaps in the end, being that way was too much for her.” Waybrook went very quiet as she continued staring into the flames. Alfroz thought he saw a small tear run down her cheek. He pretended not to notice. Eventually he took the initiative and interrupted the painful memories that had overwhelmed their conversation.
“Perhaps the ordeal with the beast has been too much for him. We must try and get him home.” Waybrook suddenly burst into tears. She shook her head and kicked at the pebbly ground, then got up and slowly began wandering around the firesight.
“We’ll never get out of here! And I’ll never get home again! You don’t know the way back to my river, do you? And even if you did, I doubt that we would make it all the way back to the river safely. We’re trapped. Trapped on this horrid island like- like the Dragon beast was. Even if the warriors do take us with them, they will probably…”
Alfroz was suddenly filled with anger.
“That’s enough Waybrook! Enough of that kind of talking!” He could feel the blood rushing through his head. It had been a long time since he had felt this angry with anybody. Waybrook glared at him, then threw her hands in the air.
“And just what are you going to do?” she demanded. She went and sat on a rock away from the firesight.
Alfroz went and joined the sleeping elder.
“Well done, Alfroz. You told her!” The ancient had been awake through it all. Alfroz was mortified.
“I’m sorry, Elder Rebo. I’m sorry if I said anything that offended you.”
“Sorry- sorry for what? Telling the truth? I’m afraid you and Waybrook are probably right. You need me to take you both home, though when that will be, I’m not too sure.” Alfroz nodded in agreement.
“You probably just need a rest, my elder. I’m sure the journey back to her river can wait another day or two.” No sooner had the words left his mouth, then he wished they had not been said. Waybrook had by now moved closer to them and was hanging on to their every word like her life depended on it.
The elder shook his dishevelled grey head.
“No Alfroz, that is not what I meant at all. What I meant was that I can’t take you home- at least not now.” The ancient stroked his dirty, bedraggled beard. “You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve had a dream. For the first time in my life, I’ve had a prophetic dream. Just like you.” Alfroz was astonished.
“Whatever do you mean my elder?” The elder’s eyes were alive with wonderment.
“I have seen The Messenger for myself! He has told me what to do. I am to stay with the Dragon warriors.”
All night long Alfroz was tormented by dark, unsettling dreams. When he awoke between each dream he cringed by the fire, his heart racing and his mind frozen with fear. He could not decide what was worse; the bad dreams, or the What If monster terrorising the long and lonely hours of his sleeplessness. He went over and over the last words of the ancient in his head, but still he could make no sense of it. Was this the same elder as the one who had shouted at the heavens at the mere mention of rescuing these wretched people?
The ancient’s strange words were ringing in his ears all through the night.
“I have seen The Messenger for myself! He has told me what to do. I am to stay with the Dragon warriors.” Alfroz found those words very unnerving. It was not just that his elder had said them, but it was the way he had said them. There was no way his elder would abandon his people to stay with this vile race of people. Was there?
Alfroz shook his head in disbelief. He could hardly believe what was happening to him. Not so long ago he had begun to abhor his visitations from The Messenger, and the pressure they were putting him under. Now he found he needed those frightening, yet precious dreams more than ever. How he wished The Messenger would speak to him again! More than anything else in the whole world.
“Sleep well, did you, Alfroz the Dreamer?”
Alfroz was startled by the ancient’s voice. Waybrook stirred for a moment, then drifted off into another dream.
“No, not really my elder.”
“You look troubled Alfroz. Is something bothering you?”
Alfroz opened his mouth to speak, but Waybrook beat him to it.
“When are you taking me back to my river?” she demanded.
The elder glared at Waybrook as she hovered in between him and the warm fire.
“I’m afraid there has been a change of plan, young Waybrook.” Alfroz felt his heart miss a beat. Surely this was all a bad dream.
The elder continued. “I must stay with these people for a time. In order for them to be saved, they must stop bowing down to the Dragon beasts. And they have to stop the killing. The two go hand in hand, really. As I told Alfroz some time ago, the punishment fits the crime. I cannot return to save my people from my stupid mistakes until I rescue my enemies from theirs. In a kind of way it makes me feel like that prophet in the ancient’s holy book. Now what was his name again? John- no- Jonah, that’s right.”
The thought of another confrontation with Waybrook was more than Alfroz could stomach, so he wandered away from the firesight, leaving his elder to explain to her why it was that she was not going home yet. By the look on her face though, he may as well have been talking to the wind. There was something at the back of Alfroz’s mind- something that needed to be dealt with. He sat on the beach and counted the waves as they washed up on the shore. And then it came to him. He sighed and grimaced with the pain. He listened to the waves for a time, overcome with the disappointment of it all. Why was it that he found it so hard to talk to The Great Creator, especially after all The Messenger had already told him on this journey? Why was it so hard to look beyond this world? In a strange way he began to empathise with his elder. Perhaps we all pretend to be gods, he mused. He had seen The Messenger; seen the awesome creature’s power. And still he found it hard to ask for help. “We are all just stupid fools, trying to control our selfish little worlds,” he muttered to the sea. He could not condemn his elder for the mistakes he had made in the past. He was not even sure he wouldn’t have done the same himself. He slowly picked himself up and returned to the firesight.
Waybrook was now standing in front of the ancient, shouting and stamping her foot.
“Are you really going to try to help these people? After what they’ve done to us?” she hissed. Alfroz glared at her in disgust. He was sick of her rude outbursts and her disrespect for his elder. She saw the anger in his eyes and stormed off again in the direction of the empty beach.
The sun was now rising, and the sea birds were landing on the dead Dragon beast in shrieking clouds of orange beaks and flapping wings.
The elder approached his bewildered young apprentice.
“Do not be too hard on her, Alfroz. She hasn’t a clue what we’re talking about. Every time she thinks we are about to take her home, another monster rears its ugly head. But how, how can I take her home when I have seen The Messenger with my own eyes, and heard the words from the Foreverrealm myself?” Once again Alfroz was perplexed. Not just by the elder‘s words, but even more so by the way he was feeling. He did not like the elder’s sudden ability to dream prophetic dreams, though he tried his best not to show it. A gnawing jealousy had already crept into his heart and overtaken it.
The ancient continued to feed the fire with small pieces of driftwood. He disappeared for a time, before eventually returning with some more mussel shells, which he carefully placed around the hot coals.
Alfroz waited patiently for them to cook. He needed to speak to his elder alone. This would be a good opportunity, since Waybrook was still nowhere in sight.
“How do you feel today, my elder?” Alfroz kept his eyes safely fixed on the fire’s dancing flames.
“I’m fine,” said the elder. “In fact I’ve never felt better. And how are you?”
“I’m fine too. I was just wondering- do you remember what you said last night, about taking us home?” “I don’t think I understand what you mean,” said the elder. “Why- what did I say?”
Alfroz swallowed hard.
“You wanted to walk us home. It was as if you thought we were back in the woodlands.” Alfroz paused, then took a deep breath to try and slow his racing heart. “You were having trouble remembering things.” The ancient shifted his gaze from the mussels cooking in their shells. He was clearly not impressed.
“I feel the best I have in an age. Do not spoil my new found enthusiasm, Alfroz the Dreamer! You don’t know how much it means to me to hear from the Foreverrealm.” Alfroz felt the blood drain from his face.
The elder went on.
“For too long now I have considered myself unworthy to do so. And as for your previous accusations, I am quite unaware of what you are talking about. In fact- I can’t remember any of it.”
Alfroz quickly decided he had said enough. Perhaps what had happened last night would not happen again. At least his elder seemed his old self again. And if The Messenger had really visited Elder Rebo, then…
Soon afterwards Waybrook reappeared and joined them by the fire. They shared their meal of mussels in the uncomfortable silence. Alfroz’s jealousy was growing stronger with every mouthful he took. As time went by he was becoming more uncomfortable with the thought that his elder had spoken to The Messenger; if in fact he had. He was sure something was wrong. After the ancient’s strange loss of memory last night, there just had to be. He frowned, biting hard into his bottom lip. He had not realised just how important his prophetic dreams had made him feel up until now. He began feeling angry with himself for feeling the way he did, though deep in his heart he knew he wanted The Messenger’s visitations all to himself; even though the terrifying creature’s words had sometimes been very hard to swallow.
It was while they were sitting together in the morning sun that Araphaxad and one of the king’s guards appeared from the other side of the sandy ridge. Alfroz immediately felt sick in the stomach. He knew intuitively that their quiet time on the island was about to end. The elder stood up to greet the approaching warrior king. Araphaxad spoke a few unintelligible words, and then his guard sat down in the sand and began to draw. The elder watched on eagerly, then he too began to draw.
After a time he finished drawing, stood up and pointed at the dead behemoth being feasted on by the birds. Then, unexpectedly, Araphaxad stormed off again and disappeared over the sandy ridge, his guard scurrying along behind him. The ancient studied the drawings for some time, then shrugged and sat down in the sand.
Suddenly there was a splashing sound from the direction of the dead monster.
Alfroz ran down to the water’s edge to get a closer look. The others were not far behind.
“It can’t be,” he stammered. “It just can’t be. Surely the beast is not alive!”
The elder laughed until his belly ached.
“Were you really expecting to see their dead god come back to life- or perhaps another god come out of its mouth?” Alfroz was not amused.
The elder continued. “Don’t be bluffed by the beast. Just think of him like you would a bad dream. It terrorises you in the dead of night, only to be chased away by the first rays of the morning sun.” The elder snorted at the bloated carcass being tossed around by the waves.
“Not even the Dragon beast is immune to death. Take a closer look in the water around the beast’s head.” The others craned their necks to see what the elder was talking about. The elder was right. Something was swimming around the beast’s partly submerged head. Whatever it was, it had a large black body, and triangular fins. Within moments there was another, and another.
“Some sort of large carnivorous fish, I would say. See how they are tearing at the beast with those powerful jaws.” The three watched on in a sickened awe as the ravenous fish began tearing large chunks of flesh from the dead Dragon beast in a frenzy of blood, fins, and snapping jaws. Alfroz looked on in horror, his large, frightened eyes reminding the elder of a woodland owl’s.
“And to think we were swimming in that same water- just the other day.”
The elder laughed at his two mortified friends.
“Just like the Dragon warriors, are these huge fish.”
“Whatever do you mean?” mumbled Waybrook, her eyes still bewitched by the bloody, gory vision before her.
“Excited by blood,” quipped the elder. Alfroz did not find the elder’s wit very amusing, to say the least. In his imaginings he was floating in the sea again, while beneath him a school of the awful carnivorous fish circled in the murky depths. He shuddered and closed his eyes. Waybrook turned her face away from the carnage and started walking back towards the firesight.
Soon all three were standing around the fire, while the sea boiled red with the blood and gore of the Dragon beast. Alfroz studied the fresh drawings in the sand, his head tilted to one side in an effort to decipher them. He was beginning to suspect something was very wrong. Eventually he could stand the dark murmurings of the What If monster for not a moment longer. He clenched his teeth, took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak. Fortunately for him, the words were reluctant to leave his mouth.
The elder spoke first.
“What is it, Alfroz the Dreamer? You look like you have seen a ghost- no-worse than that! Another Dragon beast!” Waybrook frowned and giggled. Now she too was staring at him. He felt like crawling into the dark hollow under the great stones.
He took another deep breath, then clumsily wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Those drawings, my elder. Do they say what I think they say?”
The elder smiled. “That depends.” The ancient paused, then turned and winked at Waybrook. “Well- go on then, tell us what you think they mean.”
But by now Alfroz was too afraid to say what he thought they meant. In fact, he didn’t want to know.
“I don’t really know.” By now he could feel the sweat running down his forehead. He had to say something. He turned towards Waybrook. “What do you think they mean, Waybrook?” She shrugged and tried her best to look disinterested. The elder’s playful demeanour turned to anger in the blink of an eye.
“All right then, I shall tell you both,” he shouted, striding over to the drawings. “Araphaxad wants to know what he must do to please the gods, so that they will resurrect his dead god. He wanted to offer a sacrifice, but fortunately I convinced him that a sacrifice would not be enough. Then he asked me something else.”
Alfroz’s eyes implored his elder to continue.
“He asked me if I had the spirit of the Dragon beast living inside me.”
Alfroz could hardly believe what he was hearing. “And- and what did you say?” He instantly wondered where the courage had come from to ask such a thing.
“I said- I said yes.”
The others looked mortified.
The elder cleared his throat and continued. “I had no choice. I had to appease him. I had to stop the slaughter of you both.”
Alfroz could barely believe what he was hearing.
“But you lied! You told me it was never right to lie.” He put his hand over his mouth; shocked and surprised by his own sudden outburst. The elder was clearly stunned and indignant. He clenched his fists and glared at his two frightened friends.
“I had to think of something quickly. What does it matter if the Dragon warriors think I am a god, spewed forth into their dark world from the mouth of the Dragon beast?” Alfroz was now totally dumbfounded. Waybrook stared at the ancient in disbelief. Nothing more was said for some time. The ancient went for a walk along the beach, while Waybrook walked over to the shade beneath the great stones.
Alfroz remained by the fire, which had now almost gone out; his mind reeling. He had known all along that something was wrong! He had suspected it from the time the elder claimed to have spoken to The Messenger. Then there was his strange behaviour the previous night. One thing was certain. The elder had not been himself since killing the Dragon beast.