Where there were children, there are none now. The dragons have taken them. The mining town sits, humming, its endless machines boring into the hard, red earth. Imagine this town once overrun with children. Imagine a blue, cloudless sky. Imagine that sky gone pink, and think of that sky reddening, and picture that sky filled with a thickness of not-clouds. Imagine you are a miner, wiping away the hard-earned sweat and looking into this sky, and consider that what you see as strange clouds are not actually clouds but dragons. And imagine there are hundreds of them and imagine they are not at all like the dragons in picturebooks. There are dragons bulbous as if filled to near-bursting with water, and some like great flying worms, and one with perhaps fifty humanlike faces, and there is a swarm of miniatures, moving like birds, all one body, and they seem, you imagine, to spell out DOOM in the sky in their coordinated flight.
Now, our hero. Now, this woman whose child has gone. Now, this fallen hero, once a spy for her country. Now, this Esme Beestorm, emerging from the endless mine shafts, day after day, looking to the sky. Now, the sky without its romance. And, every day, for one hundred-eleven days now, Esme curses the names of the dragons and their plague of fire and pestilence. In her eyes, the other miners see the conflagration reflected and when they turn to the see what she sees, there is nothing. If you think of what is most precious to you and think of that stolen away, imagine how the world changes.
On this one-hundred-eleventh day, Esme Beestorm rises out of the mines, mud-covered and sore from toil. On this day, Esme Beestorm puts down her pickaxe and helmet and turns out her light. She wipes the grit and dirt from her face. Outside of the town, dragons rest on roads and in trees. These are the dragons who did not steal children, who did not flee in fire. Some have grown fat on the meat of travelers and traders. There they circle this town and there they rest and here Esme Beestorm feels the weight of their terror in her bones. On this one-hundred-eleventh day, Esme Beestorm walks out on the road to meet the first dragon resting in the dirt, snoring and wheezing a blue flame from its nostrils. Here, she needs wood, needs to cut down trees. Here, she needs fabric and wind and the greatest sails. Here, she will harness fire. But, first, the dragon. This great bulbous beast and its ghost-flame of blue.
On this road, Esme Beestorm awakens the dragon and though she does not understand the language it speaks to her, she understands confusion, anger. And, when this fat dragon raises its head, she says, though you have not sinned, yourself, you must pay for those of your brothers and sisters, and there Esme Beestorm plunges a blade she's fashioned in the fires of the mines for one-hundred-eleven days now, plunges it deep in the dragon's throat. She climbs the neck and ignores the blue flame spewing from the dragon's head. She slices, precision, each cut a prayer. Each gash a ritual. This is sacrifice, if only one kind.
Esme Beestorm, awash in green blood, continues on the road ahead.
Each day, on the one-hundred-twelfth and the one-hundred-thirteenth and for days after that, Esme goes out on the road to trade and gather and each day a new dragon upon the road and each day she sends them their salvation. Each day, she finishes what one has begun and she crawls inside the large ones and each days emerges with children, though none are her own. In one village, a great worming snake of a dragon, its body looping around the homes, its body stinking, its breath poisoning the water. There, she ends the dragon and takes its heart. And, there, the townspeople call her huntress, and she only replies with Mother.
Each day, Esme Beestorm returns to her mining town and her empty home and the waning memory of her child, the handprints once left in dust and dirt fading. Each day she returns with materials and builds. Each day, work and nothing else. Each day and for over one-hundred more days, this ritual. And, three-hundred-fifteen days since the dragons first descended, since they flew away with the children, Esme Beestorm ignites the machine of her airship, breathes its first fires into the great balloon to lift it into the sky.
At the farthest reach of the land, there is no lighthouse. There is no light, though Esme Beestorm's traveled all this way. There is only ocean and earth and there she sits in the sand and asks for guidance. Here, she came expecting a lighthouse and there is no lighthouse and here she has nothing. Here, there are no dragons. Here, there is nothing but the ruins of some once-thriving port. Here, only shells and ghosts. Here, she feels haunting and cold breezes in her skin though the wind is not blowing. The airship whispers, beckons. Here, she explores the once-town and turns on its water-powered machines and the town hums to life though there is no life within, save her and this memory of dragons, this keening for her child. Where one hopes for magic, there are only roads and ruins, oceans and mountains. Esme asks for signs and waits, but only jellyfish wash up on the shore by the hundreds at first moon, and none of this means anything. The machines hum without work to perform. The jellyfish mate in the sand. She turns back to the ship, back to the sky.
Esme Beestorm travels south and finds a fishing village on the coast. There a fisherman tells her the dragons have come and gone. She asks where they've fled and the fisherman says he can't see so well. That maybe they weren't dragons at all, but the voice of God. She tells him her story, tells him of her lost child. He says the other fishermen have gone because the fish have left the ocean. He says surely this is the Gods' way of punishing them for sleeping too much, for taking and taking from the earth and for never giving back. She thanks the fisherman, the only one left here, and goes to the docks. Deep below, a mammoth green shape shudders beneath the blue of the water. She sings lullabies, the same she used to sing to her child. The green shape stirs and begins to rise from the depths. The leviathan opens its maw and fish bones are stuck in its teeth and its breath is putrid with the dead. She says a prayer and enters its mouth and lights a torch and wields her blade. She descends into the beast as the beast descends into the ocean. Inside, she finds no bones of children, only fish. Only pieces of ships and parts of sails and the bones of grown men. She asks the black heart how long until she finds him, how long until she is whole again, how long until the world is colorful and alive again. She slashes at heart when the beast gives no reply and the leviathan howls and shakes in great tremors and still she cuts away at its flesh. And the beast rises from the ocean floor and she cuts and is washed in the blood of the leviathan and she sings a song she'd forgotten. The leviathan reaches the surface and opens its mouth in one last death-howl and Esme emerges and above there is a moon and the starlit sky and though this brings solace, she remains alone. She swims to the dock and falls to sleep and dreams of the boy and his dirty-blonde hair and his missing teeth and she dreams of him playing at pirates on a ship he's built himself and she dreams of him sailing all the world looking for adventures and she dreams that though he encounters dangers in strange lands, the boy always returns and always she cries to him and always she embraces the boy as though she would never let go.
The fisherman awakes her. The ocean has filled again with fish, he tells her. He asks if he may feed her. He asks if she will stay. She tells him there is work to do and he tells her to rest. The ocean breathes with fish. She looks to the sky, waits for it to turn red again, waits for a reason to to stay.
A dragon in the catacombs of a castle, and still no boy.
A dragon nesting atop a snowy mountain, and still no boy.
Dragons burrowing in the sands of an endless desert and each one without her child within them.
Dragons ravaging this village and that, poisoning the air and in each town, no child of hers.
Dragons clotting the skies over great cities and Esme Beestorm aboard this powerful airship sending these dragons spiraling to the ground in great plumes of flame.
Here, in this city, there is no boy and there in that city there is no boy. There are ships and whales beyond in the waters and great towers in the woods and ever more dragons and always the endless sky, and other children she saves though none her own, and this loneliness, always this, and always the search, the watching across the endless waste, the dreams of home.
Here is what she finds: men at work in towns and women at work and children playing, travelers on roads once littered with dragons, grounds now swelling with the bones of the dead, towns on water and towns in hills and towns whirring with the living, mines back home when she returns to ask if her child has returned, a mining town made nameless without her boy, without what she seeks, this town and that, empty, a song in her heart for a boy who is lost and always the search. And a song in each town that carries her and this airship, ever higher and higher, over these lands. And never a lighthouse, never a sign of this lost one, and yet never rest. Always the hope to find again in this boy something of herself, to find her life in his. Always she takes the ship to the sky and always Esme Beestorm searches and always she returns to this home that is no longer home, and now and then she returns to the north land without a lighthouse and the village thrumming with water-powered machines and still no voices call there, and sometimes she returns to the fishing village and shares of fish and sometimes casts fish bones into the sea and sometimes she feasts and sometimes this fisherman helps her forget, only if for moments, and sometimes this airship sits idle on the ground, a brief respite before it takes to the sky, before its machinery groans and its metal stretches and before it is guided toward a red sky, always onward towards some new flame.