The Dawn of Magic:
Here be Dragons, Goblins, and Unicorns (Oh My!)
By: Shawn Klimek

His hair and beard were flame red, and her eyes were blue. The lovers called themselves Cardinal and Bluebird. Both were strong, fleet-footed, good climbers, and resourceful. In due time, they produced four children who they named North, East, West, and South.

Spoiler alert: When the four siblings, East, West, North, and South, were fully grown, each would journey to an opposite horizon, never to be seen again, which is how we came to forever associate their names with directions on a map.

But this is not that story. This is an earlier story, one that begins when the siblings were still young, and centuries before human civilization existed, much less maps.

It is the story of how magic first entered into our world.

The Cardinal-Bluebird family were hunters and gatherers but were also hunted themselves. They were preyed on by saber-toothed cats, giant bears, crocodiles, and wolves as tall as men. Because during this primitive age, there were no city walls yet to hide within, the family survived winters by taking refuge in a deep cave, guarded at night by a fire. Because each spring, the cave would flood, they routinely had to leave it for months at a time. To ward off interlopers, they painted the walls, intending to convey their permanent ownership. During the warm seasons, they routinely journeyed downriver, foraging along the banks, and spending their nights high up in the trees.

To prepare for sleep in the forest, Cardinal would first select a thick-trunked tree, unmarked by claws, and far from predator tracks and scat. He would climb up at least fifteen feet, and then secure the top end of a dangling rope. Bluebird would then hand him his spears, which he would arrange across sturdy limbs for further stability before suspending netted hammocks to sleep in. Finally, he would descend to help his family climb the tree, before bringing up water gourds and other supplies.

Cardinal slept in the lowest hammock. Three stone-tipped spears, cinched at the base and fanned at the top, were aimed downwards just below him to thwart a fast-climbing foe. He slept with his best spear always beside him, at the ready. He had learned this necessity after a small band of drooling, Neanderthal warriors had rushed him once, determined to steal his food and females. Appalling! Although East stood roughly their height, she was barely four years old, at the time, and West little more than an infant. Although the savages outnumbered him and had the element of surprise on their side, Cardinal and Bluebird's joint defense had eventually discouraged them. Whenever she pelted them in the face with a pinecone, he would lunge downwards, stabbing them repeatedly with his spear. Fortunately for him, the same inbreeding which had given the Neanderthals their handsome, trademark unibrows seemed also to have made them slowwitted and clumsy. Afterwards, Cardinal told Bluebird that had he been a gambler, he would have bet on their eventual extinction.

As each of the Cardinal-Bluebird children became old enough, having proved sufficient agility and courage, they would begin taking turns keeping watch. Being the eldest child, North learned to do this first. The watch person sat near the top of the tree, secured by ropes, and shielded by enough branches to protect them from eagles. An alert watcher could sometimes give the family advance warning about roving Neanderthals, large beasts, eagles or even snakes.

North happened to enjoy night watch duty. When it came to heights, he was fearless and sometimes even exhilarated. He also liked to meditate. He was also fascinated by the stars and liked to imagine himself one day climbing a tree high enough to touch them. He learned that the brightest stars had names. His favorite was Polaris—the stationary star, which would one day be nicknamed North Star, in his honor. Bluebird had taught him that imaginary pictures drawn among the brightest stars were called constellations. Constellations had names, too, such as the Owl or the Wolf.

On the night that magic would arrive, North had been watching with wonder as a new star appeared like a third eye in the Wolf constellation's forehead. Because it happened to be a moonless night, every star seemed brighter than usual, and yet this new star, strangely hypnotic, grew ever brighter until it outshone Venus. North imagined it was as if the wolf's third eye were staring deep into his soul. Meanwhile, strong winds began to pick up, causing his leafy perch to sway. This was a sign that the warm seasons were ending, and it was time to migrate home. Clouds passing swiftly overhead obscured wide patches of the sky for minutes at a time, yet this new star seemed to penetrate the clouds.

From below, North's sister East, her face in deep shadow, whispered to him that it was her turn to take watch, but he refused to come down. Strange images had begun dancing in his thoughts, and he was enjoying them.

"Go back to sleep."

Reaching for his foot, she tapped it insistently. "Can you see anything down river?" she nagged. "I woke up because I thought I heard something moving. Something really large."

"What? Oh!" At this warning, North shook off his reverie and shifted his gaze to the treetops, to see whether his sister might not have been dreaming. The winds were sending ripples through the treetops, causing them to creak and rustle, complicating his attempts at both hearing anything and discerning irregular movement. After a few moments, however, he confirmed not only that large swaths of foliage were shaking out of synch with the wind, but some large moving thing was leaving a detectable trail.

"Ah, there is something coming!" he acknowledged with concern.

East vanished below to wake their mother, who woke her mate. "Cardinal!" she hissed. "Something's coming!"

Cardinal grabbed his spear and looked around. "What! Where?"

North whispered down to them, "Mastodons! I think it's mastodons!"

Soon, North's assessment was confirmed by the telltale, distant thunder of twigs being crushed under the heavy feet and the unmistakable trumpeting of impatient mastodons, complaining about being bumped by the herd or crowded into obstacles.

Anticipating a family conference, North descended a few branches to where two other siblings had gathered on the thickest limbs just above their parents. By now, Cardinal had stood up so that his head was parallel to that of Bluebird, who was sitting up in her hammock, nursing South. The infant had awoken hungry and irritable, but his mother had managed to stuff a breast into his mouth before he could cry out. Quietly, Cardinal began passing his extra spears up to East and West, instructing them to arrange them safely across higher branches.

"I'm coming up," he explained. "I have seen a mastodon grab the end of a low branch before and bring down the whole limb."

As the noise made by the herd increased, young West became full of questions. "Do ma'dons eat people?" Whereupon East took it upon herself to clap a hand over her kid sister's mouth.

Once Cardinal was settled above, he reached down to accept South from Bluebird, just as the leading mastodons came into view. The infant squalled in protest but to human ears, his noise was swallowed by the rumble of stamping feet, and the crack and crash of trampled saplings and low-hanging limbs. A mid-sized mastodon, startled by the human cry, steered away from the noise but a much larger, bull mastodon, bound by instinct to defend the mastodon calves amid the herd, veered towards their tree, lifting his tusks, and bellowing threateningly

"Hold on tight!" Cardinal shouted to his family as the massive, hairy beast charged toward them.

As you may have guessed, the star which North had been watching was not really a star. Neither was it a comet, as one might suppose, nor anything else from outer space. To the contrary, the approaching light had originated from the magical, innermost layer of the onion-like multiverse; the central hub, where dreams are real, and reality a dream; it was a shard of pure, divine potential, squirted like milk through an instantaneous, interdimensional flaw. The flaw itself, while not planned, was not entirely accidental either. Nothing originating from that perpetually disintegrating furnace of anti-reality could ever be planned. Yet it was the result of ineffable yearning expressed by a fleeting, god-like intelligence, a single thought, expressed as pure power. A wish for permanence.

At the multiverse's core, where all realities are possible, instantaneity and eternity are one, and absolutes coexist. Every wish simultaneously comes true and self-annihilates into never was. Nothing should escape, and yet because this dream aberration somehow did, magic eventually reached the Earth. Vented like phantom steam, the magic passed through layer after layer of increasingly substantial dimensions, accumulating order and relevance as it traveled. As miraculous as this seems, it has happened before but almost always without much consequence. Eventually, the spilled magic should have sailed through every dimension without stopping, merging at last with the outermost, impenetrable layer of the multiverse—that dimension of ultimate permanence some call Hell.

And so, it would have, had North not chosen that moment to make a wish. By giving purpose to the pure magic before it had passed him by, he shaped and diverted it to merge with our dimension; with this cosmos, and Earth in particular—a place where dreams and reality coexist.

Unable to remember exactly how they had escaped or when, the family found themselves suddenly at home in their cave, weeks ahead of schedule, and strangely rested.

Reclining on a stack of furs, East sat beside South, alternately teasing the infant, and playing with his toes. Bluebird and Cardinal sat near each other beside the fire: he, rotating a thick wooden skewer onto which a skinned rabbit had been impaled; and she, mashing nuts, and seeds into a paste. West hovered near, holding a wooden stick she had retrieved from their store of firewood but was distractedly playing with it instead of handing it to Cardinal.

As each family member occasionally looked up, they watched in fascination as North drew pictures on the opposite cave wall, the driest and most upright surface. Using charcoal and red mud, he painted the mastodons, followed by a parade of all the other things they had seen on their unusual journey. These included a giant bear, a hornets' nest, and a family of scrawny Neanderthals—the same slow-learners Cardinal traditionally chased out of their cave before the first winter snows each year. Below the parade, North drew another giant bear, this one devouring the Neanderthal's best warrior, and above, a great eagle carrying away a Neanderthal baby. More amusing than these was an improbably large crocodile with wings, breathing fire and about to carry away the giant bear.

North turned to look toward a scratching sound at the back of the cave. The firelight cast flickering shadows across most of the space, but he knew there were small crevices back there, into which excess seasonal waters always drained. Fungi often spawned there, and sometimes insect nests but overall, the cracks kept the cave drier and thus, more comfortable. Seeing an unusual amount of loose dirt around them disturbed him, however. It was as if something had dug the crevices wider. Ants? Moles? Staring into the depths, for a moment North thought he saw a tiny pair of beady eyes looking back; humanoid eyes, and beneath a unibrow but miniature. He blinked, incredulously. And when he blinked, the vision vanished, convincing him that he had imagined it all. No Neanderthals could be so small.

As his stomach growled with the savory smells wafting to his rear, North turned to see how the meal was coming along. From the amount of pink meat still showing, he guessed there to be enough time to finish a little more painting.

Picking up a chalky white stone, he progressed to the crowning touches of his masterpiece. Above all, he painted the brilliant star, with a bright ray shining down. The ray landed on another strange new beast—one they had recently glimpsed grazing in the woods outside the cave entrance: an unusually large white goat, or deer perhaps, with a glorious, flowing mane, and a single horn protruding from the center of its forehead.

A chill breeze fluttered the flames, reminding everyone that winter was soon coming. Glancing up at the painting, Bluebird could not help but fantasize about wearing such beautiful white leather. Cardinal, seeing it too, and comparing the paltry portion of meat they would be sharing that night, naturally wondered, what would that one-horned beast taste like?

THE END

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