JJ and the Wizard's Quest

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In JJ and the Wizard's Quest, when the injured wizard Devlin tells JJ that only he can stop the evil Annika from sucking all the joy out of the world; JJ must rely on his wits, his courage, and his new friend Bernie to outsmart the wicked Annika!

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Chapter Four

JJ and Bernie stared in absolute terror at the beast. Even though they were standing a great distance from the dragon, they could feel the warmth of his breath.

Bernie was so shocked he stumbled backwards, tripping over several fallen branches, crashing with a tremendous racket into a pile of crunchy fallen leaves. The dragon sat up suddenly and looked around. Thinking fast, JJ grabbed Bernie off the pile of leaves and shoved him into the hollow of a nearby tree.

The tree was not anywhere near as spacious as the ones chosen to shelter the wise monkeys. It was just an ordinary tree, rotted out from the inside, with bugs and spiders crawling all about. There was barely room for both Bernie and JJ inside, and it was all JJ could do to keep Bernie calm. The poor bear was nearly hyperventilating, completely overcome by the sight of the dragon.

"Bernie! Bernie, please." JJ struggled in the cramped space to pull his canteen from his pack. "Take a drink. It's all right. If it had seen us, it would have gotten us by now." JJ wasn't exactly thrilled to see the dragon, either, but he felt reasonably sure they were safe inside the tree.

When Bernie had finally gotten a hold of himself, he said to JJ, "You don't have dragons in your world, do you?"

JJ shook his head. "Only in stories."

"Well, this isn't a story. This is real. And I've come face to face with a dragon before. It's nothing to mess with."

"But you lived to tell the tale! It must have been all right."

"I lived." Bernie was quiet for a moment. "Look, maybe we should wait until it's asleep and turn back. Devlin doesn't want us to get killed."

"Devlin also doesn't want all the joy sucked out of this world he loves so much. Let's look at the map. Maybe there's another way to the Wise Monkey of the East."

Unfolding the map inside the tiny tree hollow was quite a task. JJ stared at it until his eyes started to blur, but he couldn't find any other way around the dragon. "Does it seem odd to you that the entrance to the wise monkey's tree would be blocked by a big scary creature?"

"Oh, it's no accident. Annika must have planted it there. The dragons are all on the side of the witch, no question. They always have been. Giants, trolls, and griffins, too. Not ogres, though. If we meet an ogre, he's likely to be friendly."

JJ was not too comforted by the news that an ogre would be friendly. He was too busy considering the fact that apparently they might run into giants, trolls, or griffins along the way. That is, if they ever found a way around the dragon lurking outside.

"All right, look. There's no other way in. And now we know Annika is not just on the trail of the amulet. She knows we're looking for it and she's trying to stop us. That makes things rather tricky."

"I'd say."

JJ and Bernie sat in silence. Bernie was clearly not going to be much help as far as the dragon was concerned, and JJ was beginning to despair. He was also growing hungrier by the minute. He was fairly certain Bernie had finished off the bread and cheese, but he rummaged through his pack, anyway. He would settle for crumbs.

Instead of crumbs, he found the other two pieces of brightly colored paper. "That's it!" he cried, causing Bernie to jump and hit his head on to the top of the hollow. Dirt and bugs rained down around them, but JJ didn't notice.

"The paper yesterday, it got us across the river!"

"Because you made it into a frog. What are you going to make now, an even bigger dragon?"

"No..." JJ began folding the paper. "I didn't even know what I was doing last time. I just started folding. The next thing I knew, I folded a frog. It wasn't conscious at all. I'm guessing this will turn into whatever we need it to be."

Bernie looked dubious, but JJ kept folding. When he was done, he examined it. "It's a bird!"

"It's not a bird," Bernie scoffed. "It's a crane. Cranes stand for peace. There's no way that thing will fight the dragon, no matter how big we make it. We might as well send a bunny rabbit out there."

"Bigger," JJ whispered to the paper.

"What are you doing?"

"Bigger," he said again. Like the frog, the crane doubled and doubled again.

"There's not room in here for that thing."

It didn't matter if there was room or not, because the next time JJ said bigger, the crane flapped its wings and swooped out of the hollow, soaring high into the sky. JJ's heart sunk. The crane would do them no good if it flew away. He had been so sure it would be the key to defeating the dragon.

JJ started to step out of the tree and Bernie jerked him back. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I want to see which way it went. Maybe it's trying to tell us something. Let me go." JJ shook Bernie off and stepped out of the hollow. The dragon was still down the hill, a good distance off, facing away from their hiding spot. The grove of trees would make it very difficult for the dragon to spot JJ, even if the beast should turn his head. As long as JJ didn't make any loud noises, he should be fine.

JJ took a few steps and could hear Bernie hyperventilating inside the tree. JJ shot Bernie a look, warning him to keep quiet. Here he was, risking his life, and he would not have Bernie attracting attention from the safety of the tree hollow.

Once JJ stepped out of the grove of trees and into the clearing, the dragon would have a clear view of him if he turned his gaze. But JJ also had a clear view of the origami crane, who was circling around and around the clearing. It seemed to be waiting for JJ.

As soon as it spotted JJ, it headed off toward the south. JJ wanted to call out, to beg it not to go, to ask it what was next. But with the dragon so nearby, he didn't dare make a sound. He returned to the tree hollow.

"Well?" Bernie demanded.

"Well, thanks for not killing us both! I've never heard someone breathe so loud!"

"It's just how bears breathe. Did you see the crane?"

"Yes, it went south."

"South! That's where Devlin's den is. It must mean we should turn back." Bernie looked triumphant.

"But that doesn't make any sense. Why would Devlin send me out on this mission, only to have me turn back at the first sign of danger? No, he said I have everything I need to complete the quest. I was chosen for a reason."

JJ was starting to feel the adventure. He didn't relish the thought of battling a dragon, but things had been going his way so far. There had to be a way around the dragon.

"We wait here," he finally said, settling down in the very cozy space on the ground.

"I wasn't planning to make a break for it." Bernie glared at JJ. "Is that your whole plan? For us to wait here, while a dragon waits out there? Some chosen one you are!"

"I'm patient," JJ explained. "I've always been willing to wait for the important things, even as a pup. Maybe it's one of the reasons Devlin's spell chose me. I don't know. But my instincts say we should wait. I believe Devlin sent me out with everything I need, including that paper which turned into a crane."

"You made it into a crane!"

"No, I didn't. Like I said before, I just started folding, not knowing what it would be. If it ended up as a crane and flew away, then it must be for a reason. That crane will come back, you wait and see. Or it will scare away the dragon. I don't know. But for now, we wait."

Bernie huffed, but as he had pointed out, he had no plans to run into the clearing. The two exhausted animals waited so long they eventually fell asleep, piled together in the hollow like brothers.

JJ awoke several hours later, his sleep interrupted by Bernie's loud, terrified breaths. "What is it?" JJ asked. "Did you see something?"

"Listen," Bernie said, trembling.

JJ listened. It was hard to hear anything over Bernie's terror. But finally he made out a slight scratching. "What is that?"

"The dragon!" Bernie hissed.

"Bernie, don't you think that if the dragon knew we were here, he would have simply burned down the tree? Or dragged us out with his claws. Or..." JJ stopped. He could see he wasn't making Bernie feel better. "Just stay here. I'm going to investigate."

JJ moved quickly so Bernie couldn't jerk him back in. As soon as he stepped out of the hollow, he saw what the noise was. The origami crane had indeed returned, and was repeatedly knocking itself against the side of the tree.

As soon as it spotted JJ, it stopped, as though it had been trying to awaken him all along. The crane then swooped down and flew so close, JJ felt its paper wing brush his face. Then it swooped back up and circled the clearing. When it returned, it swooped down in front of JJ again, only to return to the sky. This was very puzzling.

On the third swoop, JJ grabbed the crane as it passed by. He could immediately see markings on its wings that hadn't been there before. He tried to drag the giant bird into the hollow, but quickly saw there was no way it would fit. He couldn't risk unfolding the bird in the clearing, where at any moment the dragon could turn and see him. But he had to see what those markings were.

JJ heard Bernie hissing something from inside the tree, and at first he ignored him. He did not have time for Bernie's hysteria. "Smaller!" Bernie was whispering.

"Smaller," JJ muttered scornfully. Yes, of course it needed to be smaller. Anyone could see that. But then he realized the crane had suddenly become smaller.

Of course! It worked the same as when the frog grew bigger. "Smaller," JJ said again, and the crane grew smaller. "Smaller, smaller, smaller," he said in delight, and the crane shrunk down to fit perfectly into his paw.

JJ ducked back into the hollow. "Thanks Bernie," he said, unfolding the crane.

"What is it?"

A smile spread over JJ's face. "It's a note from Devlin."

"What does it say?"

JJ smoothed the wrinkles in the origami paper and read aloud.

"The one to cross the dragon's line of sight

Must be ready for quite a fright.

But the one to disturb the dragon with sound

Is truly the bravest one around."

As soon as JJ had read the rhyme aloud, the paper crane gave a soft pop and dissolved into dust. JJ brushed the powder from his fingers. "I guess we'll just have to remember that."

"How does it help us?" Bernie could not hide his despair as he realized Devlin indeed intended them to confront the dragon.

"Well, let's see. The one to cross the dragon's line of sight must be ready for quite a fright. That's obvious. One of us has to be brave enough to walk right in front of the dragon, and trust Devlin that it will be okay. But I think the really important part is what's next. The one to disturb the dragon with sound is truly the bravest one around."

"Disturb the dragon with sound. What does that mean? And why would someone need to be brave just to make a noise?"

JJ shrugged. "I have no idea. Maybe dragons respond more ferociously to what they hear than what they see? I guess we'll find out soon enough."

"How does Devlin even know there are two of us?"

"Bernie, Devlin is the greatest wizard in the world, or so I'm told. Did you really think he hadn't already figured out where you disappeared to?"

Bernie scowled. It hadn't occurred to him that if he lived through this ordeal, he would have to face Devlin and admit he'd left against the wizard's wishes.

JJ knew Bernie well enough by now to understand the stricken look on his face. "Bernie, look. If we return to Devlin with the wand and the amulet, he's not going to be mad that you left against his wishes. And if we don't, well..." This wasn't helping. "All right, so one of us crosses the dragon's line of sight, and the other one disturbs him with a sound. I think that last one is supposed to be you."

"Why? It sounds like that's the more dangerous job!"

"Do you want to cross his line of sight?"

Bernie was quiet.

"Look, Bernie, I heard Devlin tell you he would trust the fate of the world to your hands if it was only about courage. And here he's giving a job for the bravest one around. I think he means you. I think you're supposed to distract the dragon, so I can get in to see the wise monkey. I have to do that job, since the spell chose me to solve the riddles, after all."

"Yeah." Bernie sat for a long moment. "All right. I guess I can do it. It'll be worth whatever happens if I save the world from Annika's evil plans."

"You're going to be fine! Look, this is what we're going to do. The way the dragon is sitting right now, facing the door to the wise monkey's tree, there's no way I can get in unless he's distracted. But if there's a great ruckus in the forest behind the monkey's tree..." It took some time for JJ to explain his plan and even more time for Bernie to gather the courage to attempt it.

Finally, they both emerged from the tree hollow. Bernie started to breathe quickly and JJ firmly pressed a paw on his shoulder.

With JJ's encouragement and few other options, Bernie began making his way down the hill as silently as he could. With every step, he drew closer to the dragon. Don't turn around, don't turn around, don't turn around, he kept repeating to himself. Finally Bernie reached the bottom of the hill. With one more step, he could have reached out and touched the dragon's tail.

Instead, he carefully climbed a nearby tree, knowing that with one wrong move, the dragon could instantly turn and burn him up with one breath. JJ watched from the top of the hill, marveling at Bernie's courage. He didn't know what had happened the last time Bernie had come face to face with a dragon, and he felt fairly certain he didn't want to know until this ordeal was over. But that small bear was certainly proving himself to be as brave as Devlin said he was.

As Bernie began climbing the tree, JJ began descending the hill. He stepped into the footprints Bernie had left, being careful not to step on a single twig or fallen leaf. He kept his eyes focused on the dragon, reminding himself just as Bernie had, Don't turn around, don't turn around, don't turn around.

When JJ reached the bottom of the hill, he stood only steps away from the dragon. He stood silently, trying not to make the slightest sound, and waited for Bernie's signal.

Bernie reached the top of the tree in impressive time for such a portly little bear, JJ thought. Then JJ watched Bernie carefully reach out and pull several acorns off the tree, wincing each time the branch snapped away from him. But the dragon didn't move a muscle.

When Bernie waved, JJ took a deep breath. There was no turning back now. Bernie took one of the acorns in his paw, wound up, and threw it as far as he could into the thick forest behind the wise monkey's tree. The sound the acorn made when it hit the ground was tiny; JJ barely heard it.

But Devlin had been right. The dragon's hearing was razor sharp. The enormous beast immediately sat up, alert. Bernie threw another acorn in the same direction, and then another and another.

The dragon was on all fours now. He looked ready for battle. The dragon gave a tremendous roar. But instead of bounding off toward the sound of the acorns, as JJ had hoped, the dragon turned suddenly and looked directly at JJ!

- End of Chapter Four -