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Nothing but a Wyrm

Tuesday night.
Adelaide is quiet at the best of times, but on Tuesday nights most cabbies, if
you ask them, will give you an emphatic but accurate post-mortem.
Dead! This is the pits! You call this life? Sitting out here all night for
what? One job every two hours if youre lucky!
Yet chances are you will find them still there Tuesday week, Tuesday year, still
waiting, still complaining about the lack of work.
Seems to come with the job description.
On this particular Tuesday night the row of taxis outside the Adelaide Casino
had moved very slowly indeed. By 1:30 a.m. it had ossified completely and
only a few determined or desperate characters persisted: cursing, smoking and
braving a fruitless vigil.
It was a cold night so most had their engines idling and their heaters pumping
dry hot air into their cabins. Short pillars of exhaust steam separated each
vehicle so that the row of cars looked like a surreal procession queuing up for
some arcane ritual, waiting on some otherworldly sign of favour or direction.
Most of the drivers slouched over the morning paper either looking for
alternative employment or hunting through the used car columns for upgrades
they probably could not afford. One was unashamedly asleep, waiting to be
prodded into abrupt wakefulness by the horn of the car behind him.
Another, the seventh from the front, sat quite still, face buried in a book.
The book looked like an old bible, a thick and decrepit volume that seriously
considered collapsing into a pile of dust each time he turned a page. He did this
carefully therefore, with reverence, with love even.
War and Peace? asked a restless comrade who, for the sake of fuel economy,
kept warm by pacing up and down along the deserted pavement.
The driver of the seventh car looked up from his book briefly, smiled absently,
and slowly wound his window up. He seemed only distantly aware of the other
muttering insults against him as he moved on to the next car, undoubtedly to
launch into a diatribe about bad manners. The reader of ancient books paid no
heed. With religious care, he turned another page and studied the writing with a
frown.
Outside a mist had risen to form ghostly halos around the lamp-posts and
streetlights. A pair of mounted police rode past on magnificent grey stallions.
The sound of their hooves struck down onto the pavement echoed hollow a
midst the cloister-like vaults of the old Railway Station.
He looked up and watched them intently as they went by, a wistful expression
seeping from his eyes, from the corners of his mouth.
He followed the cops with his gaze until they disappeared beyond the grey
walls, the sound of their passing fading into the distance like a reminder of
another place, of a time long gone.
He looked down at the book now closed on his lap: another disappointment.
He sighed resignedly, opened the door, and walked to the rear of the vehicle.
Opening the boot, he placed the book carefully in a cardboard box and from the
same he retrieved another volume, even more dilapidated than the first.
Back in the warmth of the cabin, he peered avidly at what was left of the cover
of his new prize. Etched faintly on the old leather were the remains of a large
seven-pointed star enclosed within a pentagram, which in turn was enclosed by
a circle. Each of the seven points drew the eye away from the centre, towards
seven letters or symbols.
Above the pattern, the title of the work was quite illegible, while at the bottom
of the cover the name, Cornelius Agrippa, could still be made out.
This should be good, he thought, and just as he opened the front cover, tongue
moistening his lips with anticipation, the back door of the taxi opened.
He closed the book, put it down on the passenger seat, and glared in the rear-
vision.
Iridescent red hair lifted to reveal the features of a tired young woman.
Strong nose, stubborn, petulant lips. Intelligent, wild, eyes.
Good morning, he offered, feeling suddenly accommodating despite himself,
and where would you like to go on this fine Wednesday morning?
Spare me, she countered, the huskiness in her voice more suggestive of
laryngitis than flirtatiousness. Until I get some sleep this is still Tuesday.
She smiled with a hint of effort. Strathalbyn. Please.
He turned around to look at her directly.
Strathalbyn? he enunciated. Youre not pulling my leg, are you? That would
be very cruel on a night like tonight.
Another smile played on her lips, brief, ghost-like.
Im not. Actually Id much rather go to Melbourne or even Sydney but just
for tonight Strathalbyn it will have to be.
There was a tap at her window. War and Peace himself was standing there
trying to smile at her and frown at him, both at once. She wound the window
down a fraction and fixed him with a questioning look.
Lady, he intoned, unctuous, priest-like, There are drivers further up that have
been waiting hours for a fare; do you mind going up to the first cab on the?
Actually, I do mind, she cut him off and gave him a smile that was
completely at odds with the coolness of her tone. I like this car, I like this
driver, and Im sitting down. Its late, Im tired, and Im not getting out for
anybody.
As she wound her window shut, the driver moved the gearshift into reverse,
flicked a wave at War and Peace, and as soon as he had enough clearance,
pulled out onto the deserted street.
He had stopped at an intersection and was waiting for the lights to change in his
favour.
Can I take a look at your book? she asked, reaching over from the back,
resting her hand lightly on the cover.
He hesitated, and then shrugged.
Sure, he said. Just be careful, its old.
Oh, I can see that!
She leafed through the aged, brittle pages while he kept a nervous eye trained
on her.
What is it? she asked after a while.
Oh, its just a hobby of mine, he tried to sound blas, almost bored. I collect
old books. I found this one at a swap-mart in Stepney. Good find too.
She wouldnt know what it is anyway.
Is it worth much?
Not a huge amount, but definitely more than I paid for it.
So, was it a good night? he asked casually, some bitumen later.
Hmm, hmm, she answered distractedly.
What can possibly interest her so much about the book?
Do you go there often?
Hmm?
To the casino, he elaborated. Do you go there often?
He was starting to get a queasy feeling in his belly. Unease, apprehension.
I work there, came her reply.
His ploy had not worked at all. Maybe he should try a more direct approach.
Do you find that book interesting?
Fascinating, she answered.
So you read Latin, do you?
De imaginibus Capitis et Caudae Draconis Lunae., she read the chapter
heading impeccably. Then returning to the vernacular she answered, Yeah, as a
matter of fact I do. I studied it at uni.
He felt an involuntary shiver lance his spine. He had to swallow before he could
speak again.
And did you understand what you just read?
Of the images of the head and tail of the dragon of the moon, she recited,
without missing a beat.
Wow, so you read Latin and you work at the casino. What exactly do you do
there? Translate Roman numerals at the roulette table?
She raised her gaze towards him, but her eyes looked distant, lost in some
unfathomable inner reaches.
I clean.
He stared at her reflection in the rear-view mirror.
Youre a cleaner? A cleaner that reads Latin?
It helps me remember who I really am, she elaborated, an edge of irony
creeping into her tone.
Which bit helps? he returned. The cleaning or the Latin?
She didnt bother to answer.
He glanced at her with new interest now. He had underestimated her. In this day
and age it was easy enough to do: one assumed the worst until proven
otherwise. That was his formula anyway, anything else simply led to too much
disappointment. He liked her smile. It was like a remembrance of light, faint
and unreal.
So when you remember your self, who do you remember being? he asked,
They had reached the Devils Elbow and the road meandered treacherously up
into the hills.
Im not sure you qualify for that answer.
Her eyes were laughing now: at him. He nodded.
Fine. I can play this game.
What must I do to qualify? he asked, daring her.
Nothing at all, she told him, quick as lightening. It must already be done, or
else it would be just a game.
He felt pleased with this encounter and yet his discomfort grew hand in hand
with his pleasure. He felt the faintest trace of dj-vu.
They drove in silence until Eagle on the Hill, where she asked him to stop at the
service station. The meter read $18.20 by the time she returned. The cab lunged
happily back onto the freeway. He kept on casting occasional glances at her as
he drove: she had resumed reading his book with the inside light on.
They were about level with Bridgewater before she spoke again.
Fascinating book! she said, and placed it carefully back on the seat next to
him.
When he made no comment she lit a cigarette and opened her window a
fraction.
Why do you drive a taxi? Her voice was soft, almost intimate, pretending she
wasnt really prying. Payback time.
Its the only thing I know how to do, he lied.
Youre lying, she countered, not looking at him, gaze fixed outside.
Shes looking at the moon, he thought, and grinned to himself.
Okay, he laughed. You win. I drive cabs to get away from women.
This time he was rewarded by instant, delighted laughter.
Any woman in particular or is it a non-specific phobia? she giggled.
Oh, its all-encompassing, Id say, he answered. Never met a woman that
didnt get me into trouble.
Where are you from then? she asked when she stopped laughing. I cant
place your accent. Is it Polish or something?
He slid the taxi into the right lane to overtake a convoy of trucks fleeing east.
Finnish, he lied. Im from Finland.
The lying was a habitual thing. Whenever someone asked him anything
personal he gave them whatever they would accept, whatever they found
credible. He was doing the same thing now. It was just a routine thing. Nothing
personal.
He stole a look at her in the mirror.
Her eyes were open but unfocused, glazed, lost in thought.
Quite suddenly, without warning, he felt lonely.
He felt a wave of sadness rise up in his chest like surf, drenching him, sapping
his will. Without really consciously doing so he made a decision.
Actually, no, thats not true, he found himself saying without turning, without
even looking at her any longer. Im not Finnish. In fact I come from a place
thats not even on the maps. I dont talk about this because well, nobody
really cares. And anyway, no one would believe a word of it so, why bother?
You seem different, but if youre not does it really matter?
She was silent for a while.
So where are you from? she repeated.
Aragn, he answered, and sighed.
The Kingdom of Aragn, to be precise. And it is important to be precise
because theres still a remnant of Aragn on your maps, but its not really
representative of what the kingdom was like in my time. It is now a part of
Spain, just to the south of the Pyrenees.
Your time? she asked. You cant be that old.
Thank you, he replied. No, Im not that old, although I do look younger than
my true years. Nevertheless my time goes back much further than my
years
He glanced at her in the mirror to see how she was doing with the story so far.
Her expression was quite blank.
Go on, she urged.
Okay, he obliged. My name, my true name, is Valfior and I am a hunter of
Wyrms.
You hunt worms? she asked, her tone predictably incredulous. Oh! You
must mean dragons, dont you? Wyrms with a y! Well, thats different!
Yes, he confirmed, surprised and taken aback by her knowledge. It is
different. But you know, hunting Wyrms rubs off really badly. Wyrms are
deceitful, dishonest and dangerous creatures. I think Ive spent so much time
chasing them and later being chased by them that Ive become a little like
them: living a life of deceit and lies. I tricked a Wyrm once, you know. And Im
still paying the price. Do you want to hear a story?
I wouldnt miss it for the earth, she replied promptly.
Ill spare you the details of how I came to be who I am, he started. Suffice it
to say that my skills were very much sought after back then, and the rewards
ah, they were vast. But eventually I took on a task that was beyond me. The
wyrm I was asked to hunt was no hatchling. She was old and wise. She had
seen the world with eyes that were far older than humankind; she had witnessed
the demise of the great beasts of the past, when the world had turned to black,
and the ice had gripped the land in a bitter winter that endured and endured
Like many of her kind she had descended deep into her subterranean crevice
and had slept while the trees and the lakes froze, and life dwindled and lay
subdued for eons and eons before finally changing and growing once more into
something transformed and renewed. She had seen things that had walked this
earth before humans had laid their claims. Her dreams smouldered with a fire as
ancient as the sun.
He was enjoying this.
He paused to give her a chance to respond to his words, but when he looked he
saw that her eyes were glazed, lost in his storytellers weave: caught.
He smiled to himself and continued.
I entered her lair like a fool, thinking that I had all the skills I needed to outwit
her. By employing the powers I had mastered during my long apprenticeship I
was capable of uncommon feats: I could walk in utter darkness and yet still see.
I could sense living beings with my eyes closed and see their energy as an
enveloping halo of light. So, I could sense her presence as I neared her; it was as
if our very souls were linked. I laboured my way through the labyrinth of
tunnels and caves until I chanced upon the Great Chamber, the very heart of her
lair.
She had been waiting for me. I dont know how long shed been aware of my
presence, but when I looked at her the vertical slit in her left eye opened slightly
and the green fire of her iris fixed me like a pinned insect. I froze of course. I
immediately quenched my life force. I cloaked my mind with all the devices I
had learnt during my years in the trade, but to no avail. It was too late for tricks:
shed seen me and was just waiting for my next move to consume me with her
breath.
I couldnt move. To move meant to die. So I waited and bought myself some
time in that way. She was quite happy to give me that much. For her it was just
as effortless simply to wait until I died of thirst perhaps she would have found
that even more amusing. Wyrms never rush unless they choose to and then their
speed can be such as to make them invisible to the untrained eye.
I didnt even dare move my eyes. I let them de-focus instead and used my
peripheral vision to take in the lay of the Great Chamber. This was her roost;
this was where the male would come when summoned and where they would
mate in the way of Wyrms, slowly, over long months of intense proximity. The
nearest egg, if in fact it was an egg, was only a dozen yards away to my left. I
probed its ethereal structure and soon sensed the unmistakable pulse of life that
throbbed within the shell.
I conceived a simple plan, then. I gradually harnessed a portion of my life
force into physical form and projected this phantasm to the far side of the
chamber. I released it gradually, to deceive her into thinking that someone else
was coming from that direction as well.
It worked. Suddenly she spun her head away from me and in the same
heartbeat I lunged for the egg. Her breath scorched the clothes on my back and
scalded my skin, but I had been spared the full brunt of her blast or else I
wouldnt be here now to tell this story. I seized her egg and held it between us
like a shield, like a sacred icon to be revered by all. She was silent for a long
time, only a long-drawn hiss signalled her deep displeasure at this turn of
events. Eventually my limbs stopped shaking and I began to back out of her
chamber, but even as I did so, she spoke to me. With her powers, powers that I
still dont fully understand, she took my name from me, and around my name
she wove a curse. Her sibilant tongue lashed out with each word of her curse.
So you see I cannot die. I am Wyrm-cursed and I cannot die until she finds
me and slays me. I am Valfior and I am doomed for I have dared to deceive
Helxe He caught himself just in time and truncated the name before he could
complete it.
dared to deceive a Wyrm, he finished instead.
The taxi left the freeway and sped up an exit ramp.
You were about to say her name then, werent you? she noted.
He blinked as he let himself come rapidly back into present time.
Why not just say it? she pressed.
Because there is power in names, he answered. To speak the name of a
Wyrm is to summon her and that is the last thing I would do, if youll excuse
the pun.
She thought for a while about what he had said, saying nothing herself.
He too was silent, he had said enough: far more than he had intended.
Instead he filled the silence with wild imaginings: in his minds eye he saw
talons like hooks of steel reach down from the sky, shatter the taxi windows
with their grip, and lift the vehicle up into the night. He saw the headlights
swaying crazily above the receding ground. Five hundred metres up the cab
would suddenly be released into a slow pirouetting descent.
It might end with the bizarre twisted wreckage of a cab in the middle of the
scrub, to be found by chance only weeks or months later. There would be no
tyre tracks leading to or from the wreck, no sign of how it might have got there.
Now THAT would take some explaining! he thought.
Thats quite a story, she conceded at last. So now youre driving a cab. Has
the dragon not found you in all these what is it? Years? Centuries? How long
has it been Valfior?
Good question, he thought to himself.
Its not like that, he said, shaking his head. I havent been running all this
time, as I said before, Im not that old. Seven years ago, your time, I found a
way of breaching the Forbidden Gate and crossed from my time into yours. I
had to bend a few rules in the process, which probably means Ill never be
able to get back. I also paid a heavy price since I lost most of my powers my
hard-earned abilities in the time-shift, but at least Im pretty sure that shell
not find me here.
Pretty sure but not sure enough to risk mentioning her name aloud, she said,
and she was clearly not asking.
She talks as if she believes every word Ive said, he mused.
So why is it that you drive a taxi? She resumed her questioning as if she fully
meant to draw an answer from him. With eternity in your grasp, surely you
could turn to something a little more ambitious.
Why is it that you clean at the Casino? he asked in response.
She smiled slightly, nodded, and left the question hanging.
Strathalbyn was coming up. The small town lay shrouded in a fine drizzle that
hung like a haze, obliterating details, blurring all forms.
She directed him to a small isolated cottage tucked away in a tangle of native
shrubs, no lawn, no picket fence, no paving.
She paid the fare.
Thank you, Valfior, she said as she opened the door and hesitated, lingering
between worlds. Of course Im not you, but if I were, sooner or later, I would
call that name. One cant live in fear forever. After all, how far would a Wyrm
go to get revenge?
She stepped out into the night.
Ill not forget you, she added.
Nor I, he answered wistfully.
She slammed the door, walked towards the house and was gone.
The taxi driver, the reader of ancient books, Valfior to some, sucked in a deep
breath and put the cab into reverse.
As he pulled out onto the highway he idly checked his screen then pressed the
query button to let the operator know he wanted audio.
Car two-twenty-two? said the operator on the voice channel.
The signal was weak but audible.
Im near Strathalbyn any chance of a job back in later?
A faint crackle of static.
Outside it started to rain with more conviction.
Two-twenty-two, if youre in Strathalbyn on a Tuesday night you dont
deserve any more luck, youve used it all up. Bring her back in.
He signed off.
Ive used it all up, all right!
The high beam pierced through the drizzle and lit up the dense scrub as he
glided on the wet, sinuous road.
One word a name was poised on the tip of his tongue.
He worked his lips around the complex syllables, savouring the name in silence.
The tyres hissed like snakes.
Elsewhere, in a cottage with no picket fence and surrounded by wild shrubs, a
young woman studied her face reflected in a long mirror. Her hair coiled around
her like flames.
The rain drummed heavily against the tin roof.
She closed her eyes to the world and strained her senses out, towards the
whispers of the night.
Ever so subtle, a knowing smile melted from her lips.

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