Behind him, at the backside of the cave, a light flared to catch his attention. With a sigh, the dragon turned to watch the picture that had replaced the stone wall. It showed an old woman - crinkled face, grey bun and all - climbing a wooden fence. The dragon watched, intrigued, as she let herself sink slowly to the ground on this side of the fence, smoothed her green velvet dress and made her way around the fence to the entrance of the abandoned playground.
The gate was closed, but not locked, and she entered the compound of the old school, looking around. Her eyes travelled across the graffitied walls, the broken windows and rusty playground equipment. Her steps were weak and insecure as she walked towards a bench to sit down and bury her face in her hands.
Recognising her for what she must be, the dragon walked towards, and through, the picture to appear by her side.
The woman lifted her head and stared at him, first in shock, then with dawning comprehension.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
The guard nodded. “You know me, then.” The old woman nodded in return. “I am the guard of this world and all the gateways that lead into it. I can be where ever I need to be within the blink of an eye. It’s a very unusual way of travelling, and very useful.”
They sat in silence for some time. The old woman looked around the playground, trying to find words to express her thoughts. Finally, she succeeded:
“What has happened here?”
“I don’t know,” replied the guard. “I have been here for 53 years, and it has always looked like this.”
The woman looked at him in astonishment. “Are you serious?”
“But I know you have been here before. I know you.”
The dragon shook his head. “We have not met before.”
She contemplated him for a while, then shrugged. “Maybe I am mistaken. Would you mind if I checked?”
The guard snorted with amusement. “No. Go on.”
The old woman got up and took his head in her hands. As her fleshy brow touched his scaly forehead, she closed her eyes and started to hum.
Suddenly, pictures flashed before the dragon’s eyes, so fast they were incomprehensible. Then they stopped, showing the playground full of children and an undamaged school in the background. But something was wrong...
A buzzing filled the air, growing louder even than the hectic communications of the children. A red-haired, freckled and strangely familiar boy came running through the gate.
“Is she coming?” shouted the others.
“No!” he replied. “But they are.” He stopped amidst the children and turned.
Behind him, through the gates, came other kids. They were a bit older than those on the playground, wearing black clothes and menacing grins. They carried hockey sticks and stood on rollerblades. The children huddled closer together.
One of the boys in black rolled over to the hedge and took up a stone the size of his fist.
“What are you looking at, babies? Shoo!” he shouted, to the mirthless laughter of his companions.
“This is our school!” replied the red-haired boy. “We won’t go anywhere, right?!”
A low muttering behind him made him turn. He had expected a bit more vigour, but the other children merely shrugged, blushing and avoiding his eye.
“I see you are all very courageous, but... what good will it do you in the long run?” With that, the stone flew closely above the children’s heads and broke one of the school’s windows.
The children scattered and ran, leaving only the redhead and a handful of others behind.
“So, what is it with you and this place? Is it important enough to get hurt for?” The pack leader watched the remaining children through slitted eyes.
“It is indeed,” replied the redhead, but before anything else could happen, a huge shadow fell over the playground. A moment later, a dragon had settled down between the two parties.
He looked at the playground children and said: “Come on, let's get out of here.”
“But... why? We have to fight for this!” They stepped away from the beast.
“No, you don’t. This place is dead. There is nothing you can do.”
“There has to be a way!”
The dragon shook his head. “Once a dreamer stops dreaming, the dream dies. It is the way of this world, and you can do nothing about it. Come with me, or die with this dream, that’s all the choices you have.”
Hesitant, the boy turned towards his remaining companions and, to his disappointment, saw them back away slowly. With some last, apologetic glances, they turned and fled.
The redhead hung his head, defeated, turned back to the dragon and slowly climbed onto his back.
With a single jump, the beast catapulted them into the air, spread its wings and started moving away. The boy turned just in time to see the black-clad boys throw more stones at the school building and take out cans of spray paint. Then they were lost from view.
The old woman let go of the guard’s head and sank back down onto the bench.
“This is entirely my fault, isn’t it?” she asked, not expecting an answer. The dragon was staring at something only he could see.
“I was scared of a dream coming true, so I killed it.” She shook her head. “What silliness!”
The dragon did not reply.
Note: this is continued in Seven.