That Dragon Story
So… last year I said that if I were ever fool enough to write an epic fantasy, it would be all about Dragons who are spies, whores, and assassins in the city of Marvelous Under Fuckwad–yes, I was joking. But people kept poking me about it and saying “Oh, you should kickstart this.” But I’m horrible at that sort of organization–just look at the state of my website–and I doubt I could sustain the concept. Jim Butcher also unwittingly got in on the act when he made a suggestion about crows and ravens. Thus do I come up with this bit of weirdness (about one-third of the material to date) which is extracted from the beginning–before the raven shows up and things get both more gruesome and funnier. It’s nowhere near as bleak and horrible as what I had in mind–because in spite of the comments at FB, comedy is really hard. Nor is it as horrific as some of the bits in the outline, but I’m still pretty sure this is not going to work out. I’d ask for feedback, but I still haven’t been able to figure out how to turn on the stupid comments, here. (Yes, my website skills are desperately borked–I enable the things and they still don’t become available. I may be missing a module or something.)
Blood & Thorn (rough excerpt)
It was the smell of magic: cold fire burned on cold stone, blood clotted to foreign bone, things unnatural that should have been dead. Thorn’s neck muscles tensed, raising the layered black spikes along the ridge from his shoulders to his crest. He entered the speaker’s domain on edge, his ruff and crest half-spread.
Sudden firelight dazzled him after the darkness of the passage and he saw only a blur of bright scales before a much larger dragon lashed its tail at his head.
Thorn ducked and rolled aside, hissing. He leapt upward, cracking his wings out to cup air and counterattack with his breath and claws. There was insufficient room to spread his wings properly in the cavern and his leap only softened the blow of the golden dragon’s forelimb against Thorn’s side. Talons scored sparks from Thorn’s scales.
“To the ground, whelp!” the other roared. “Lay back your quills! How dare you come before the Speaker in such aggressive display?”
Thorn flopped to the cavern floor and closed his eyes in shame. “Mercy, Spellcaster. I meant no offense. I was afraid….” That word seemed paltry now. The gold dragon was not only much larger than Thorn, but much older, wiser, and far more dangerous. His name was long and sonorous, but it meant “pin feather of a molting duck” and no one dared call him by it. He was the Enclave Council’s Spellcaster and by that title was he known.
There was silence and Thorn braved opening his eyes and casting his gaze around the chamber.
It was strange that Caster stood guard in the Speaker’s Cavern. The terrifying old pearl dragon usually had her own guards around her at all times. But there was only the spellcaster today, and the stink of magic. The speaker, ghost-pale, slithered from a shadow, the firelight rippling interrupted iridescence from her sparse and fading scales.
“Stand away, Feather,” she whispered in her cracked old voice. “That he fears this place speaks of wisdom beyond his years. To your feet, Thorn, and face me.”
Thorn rose slowly to his powerful rear legs and coiled his tail so he could sit upright without resting on his forelimbs like a dog. He kept his gaze on the floor and waited.
Silence stretched and writhed with shadows on the cave wall. The speaker dragged herself around Thorn in a circle, studying him, though how she did, the young dragon didn’t know, for her eyes were as dull as stones. Some said speakers were born blind, but Thorn could see the deep marks of talons across her dead eyes.
“You come to your power,” she muttered.
Thorn had no reply to that—it wasn’t a question. Everyone knew black dragons did not begin the bonding until they had come into their powers to shift. He had thirty years, but among dragons, that was few. Thorn had been able to adjust some of the details of his body for years, but his alternate reversion had only manifested recently. His natural form was like his beloved Shrae’s—long and slender, vitreous black from crest to tail tip. His alternate resting form, however… was one he did not like to assume.
“You are fascinated with them,” the Speaker said.
Thorn started and turned his head to watch her circling him. Could she read his thoughts? The idea turned his blood cold.
“Humans,” she hissed. “You watch them.”
Thorn continued mute, but this time Caster flicked a wing tip at his head. Thorn flinched.
“Answer!” Caster spat.
Thorn sat up, rigid with fear. “I… do.”
“When they come into our woods, you watch them. You creep to the edge of the Enclave’s protections to watch them. You cross into the danger of the outside to watch them.”
Was the Speaker going to punish him for spying on humans? They’d never seen him—Thorn had made sure of that, carefully crafting his appearance into innocuous shapes and colors among the trees and rocks. He was not limited to one or two unchanging alternate forms as some shapeshifters were. Thorn had been blessed with the ability to make himself whatever he willed—even strange imaginative things he’d never seen—and manipulate his body and appearance in all details from the grossest to the finest, though all but his resting forms required concentration to maintain. He’d been told this breadth of power was rare, but so were black dragons, so it hardly signified.
“I meant no harm,” Thorn said.
“You are only curious,” the Speaker said, as if she had plucked the words from his mind.
“Yes,” he replied, lowering his head again. Caster had begun to prowl restlessly around the cavern behind and to Thorn’s sides. Thorn chose to save himself the discomfort of craning to watch Caster pace.
“They’re our enemies,” Caster growled. “They kill our kind on sight.”
They try, Thorn thought.
“Yes,” said the Speaker. Thorn’s heart lurched with shock. “They try. And they succeed, though they should not. Dragons are the greatest predators on the earth, wiser and more subtle than any human. And yet we dwindle. How do you suppose this has happened, young Thorn?”
“I… don’t know, Speaker.”
“By magic. The spellcaster and I have searched for the answer for many years—a generation of our own kind, a score and more of theirs. Now we know that the humans have caused this by magic. That they have worked some curse upon us—for lack of better term.”
“A curse? But—”
Caster snarled at Thorn. The young dragon fell silent, forcing his crest and ruff flat, though the spellcaster’s pacing and the odor of magic disturbed him.
“We know from whence the malady reaches out to us,” the Speaker continued, returning to her original place just outside the fire’s light. “It comes from the city that is called Marvelous. We have sent spies, but they have vanished, died, or been lost to us in other ways. Now we must send one of our own.”
Thorn scowled. He didn’t like the direction of the Speaker’s comments. “You can’t mean me.”
“Who else would I send?” she asked. “You have studied them, you can look like them… you shall go and find the source of this magic and bring that knowledge back to me.”
Thorn braced himself and spoke, but hesitantly. “When— How long would you wish me to go?”
The Speaker replied with an edge to her voice. “Immediately and for so long as it takes.”
A most horrible feeling swelled through Thorn and the quills of his ruff stiffened. “But—but I have only just begun to bond with– with my eggling,” he objected. “If we don’t complete the bonding cycle within two years… she’ll die!”
“The life of a single eggling is nothing to the greater need of us all,” Caster sneered and turned to continue stalking back and forth behind Thorn.
Thorn snorted an angry puff of smoke as his fear of both Speaker and Caster dissolved in indignation. He let the long spikes of his crest rise as he replied, “No. If we are so few—especially my kind—then the life of one eggling is not nothing. You ask a great favor of me and my only payment is the death of my mate-to-be? No. I won’t do it.”
“I ask no favor,” the Speaker said from her shadows. “I Speak, and it is so.”
Thorn snarled and started up in protest. Some force slammed his limbs and wings tight to his body and wreathed him in the stench of magic. He tumbled to the floor, roaring and thrashing as the spellcaster spoke behind him. “Take form and cleave unto this alone.”
Thorn was bound tight in coils of stinking magic that burned and tore his body. His shifting was always painful, slow, and tiring. This was swift, and he shrieked in agony as he was wrenched from one form to the next. It seemed that he should die or faint from the pain, but he didn’t. Instead he writhed and screamed until his voice was nearly gone and Caster’s spell slithered off him like a rush of maggots, only a single, chilly strand of it remaining around his heart.
Thorn struggled to crouch small against the ground that was smeared all around him with his own blood. He shivered and cried with the lingering ache and exhaustion. Small and cold, he pulled his limbs close and buried his face in his hands.
“No,” he whispered. He bent his mind to reverting to his normal form, but the thread of Caster’s magic held him to his current shape. “No. Please.” His voice came out all wrong, the burrs, hisses, and clicks of the Draconic tongue too soft and wet and small. Even if he hadn’t just screamed himself hoarse, he doubted he could roar anymore.
His long digits were tipped not with sharp, black talons, but with thin, blunt scales. He rubbed the soft palms of his hands against his horribly shortened face. Gone were his snout and magnificent fangs; gone the flaring nostrils and whiskery tendrils beside them. Now he had no ruff at all and his eyes were pushed back above a short beak of flesh—even his tongue was short and blunt. Where his crest had risen along the top of his skull from forehead to nape, there was now nothing but thick, soft hair. Human hair that had the one redeeming quality of hiding the stiff flaps of skin that curved around his ear holes. This was his alternate resting form—the fragile and inadequate human form—that he need exert no will to maintain.
Thorn knew how he must look, huddled on the floor like a frightened, nearly-hairless cat. Still obsidian-black from crown to toe, but now a weak and attenuated thing with four gangly limbs, tailless and wingless. “What have you done to me?”