Xao’s tongue formed first. It dripped wet with saliva as it lapped up
shadows. A skull, pointed and sharp, took shape around the tongue, forming
teeth and eyes and horns. Deep indentations cracked along its body,
bleeding red light in the shape of the all-seeing eye. With it, Xao
reached across the catacombs for the children’s’ minds. Their memories.
He touched Sara’s first.
Earlier that night. At the Midnight Festival. A man with a high widow’s peak and a deck of cards. He shuffled the cards with one hand, curling half the deck between his thumb and index finger, tucking it underneath. “Do you want to play a game?”
“The rules are simple,” he said. “I will pick a card. You will guess what it is.”
He flipped the top card over. Sara gasped. Etched onto the card was the most realistic painting of a growling bear she’d ever seen. It was almost as if she could hear the card roar.
“The cards have animals on them,” he said, flipping the card back and cutting the deck again. “But you are not going for an animal. You want the card with the dragon Botan on it. This festival is in her honor, after all, is it not? If you can pull the Botan card at random from the deck, you will have brought her good luck on the village, just as the festival brings good fortune to the harvest. And you will win a prize.”
“What kind of prize?” Sara asked, mesmerized by the way the man shuffled the cards mid-air, the cards a blur.
The man leaned over and whispered, “A dragon egg.”
“No uh,” Sara said. “That’s impossible.”
“You think so?” said the man. “Then perhaps this isn’t the game for you.” He stopped shuffling and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Sara said. “I want to play.”
He turned back to her and winked. “Very good, then.” He threw the deck at her head.
She winced and shut her eyes but the cards never hit her. The cards hovered in front of her, floating freely in the air in ten rows of six. “How did you…”
“That is my little secret,” the man said. “Go on, then. Pick. And let Botan bless you, if it is the great dragon’s will.”