Today is my Day of Destiny.
“I am…” I take in a deep breath, and press my eyes shut. “I am child of the mists, first daughter of the keeper of time, blessed one of the goddess Himei, and I come to seek-”
I wheel around to the door of my tent. “SKAGGING SPAWN OF A SLIME SUCKING SALAMANDER- Oh, Takeshi, it’s you.” It’s what’s left of him anyway.
Thanks to my outburst, the whole front half of my tent is torn to bits, and my brother stands with trembling hands raised to shield his face. His Destiny Day outfit hangs in shreds on his lanky frame, his naked pink skin is marked with tiny red cuts from the cloud of sand my voice kicked up, and his hair is slicked back in a not entirely ugly triangle.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” I jump forward and snatch the blanket off my bed and shove it towards his chest, in the hopes of covering the rest of what’s down there before I can see it. “I was just practicing what I’m going to say to the Sage of Sages. You caught me off guard.”
Takeshi smiles and nods, placatingly, as he wraps my blanket around his midsection, and I realize his ears haven’t recovered yet – he can’t hear me. I try and give him a smile, one that doesn’t part my lips. (So many of these humans think I’m baring my teeth when I smile, and they run away screaming, so I’ve been practicing.)
Takeshi laughs. “You look like a fish.”
My real smile breaks through, showing all my fangs.
“And now you look like a demon cheetah. Still, it’s an improvement. Stick with that.”
Ah, Takeshi, I love you. “Can you hear me yet?”
He fiddles with his ear and gives me a curious look.
He puts up his hands. “No, don’t!”
It’s not easy growing up in this little human farming village, not when I’m, well, whatever I am. The humans tend to call me some kind of cat, and I suppose I have a cat’s nose and eyes and ears and claws and teeth and fur, but I have arms like them and legs like them and a chest and torso like them and even a thick, brown head of hair like them, running down my back. I braided it for today.
Takeshi continues to rub at his ears, and I steal a glance back at the statue which graces my tent. It’s not easy being the blessed one of the goddess Himei, either. She’s tall and cat-like and has her head raised towards the sky in a perpetual scream – she’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that is like me, and she’s the only one anyone has ever heard of that had a blessing like mine.
Sometimes, I half suspect these humans made her up.
“Gods,” Takeshi grimaces and massages the sides of his jaw. “I’m going to be deaf by the time I’m twenty.” He sighs and gives a pitiful look over his tattered sleeves. “You know, when Papa brought you home, I thought he’d finally found me a dog. Not a little sister, but a nice quiet, obedient dog.”
I grin, toothy and sheepish. “I’m sorry, I’m just jumpy today. The Sage of Sages will know…” what I am here to do, or maybe even what in the skagging jeik I am.
“I understand. I was going to ask you if you were ready to walk to the top of the mountain, but,” Takeshi glances down at my blanket, “now it seems I will need a change of clothes.”
The hair on my back bristles. “It’s, it’s our turn?” My breath comes in gasps, I clench my fists at my sides to keep from jumping up and down, and a scream of excitement rises in my chest.
“Ah!” Takeshi leaps forward – still gripping that blanket – and covers my mouth with his free hand. My tail sinks between my knees, but he gives me a grin. “Inside voice. We’re still technically inside.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Ayaka,” Takeshi comes huffing and puffing up the hill behind me, “wait up!”
I slow my pace to a springy walk. “Come on!”
I really do want to walk with him, but with all this excitement bubbling in me I can’t manage to make my long strides match his short ones. Even though he is at least a year my elder – no one knows my real birthdate – I’m already two heads taller than him, and everyone else in our village. That’s why they’re letting me Seek My Destiny on the same day as Takeshi. Normally I’d have to wait until I was sixteen, like him.
Adjusting the strap on my leather chest plate for maybe the hundredth time, I come to a stop at the gate of the great Hallowed House. My excitement sinks to my toes and anxiety rises in its place. What if they don’t have a prophecy for me? What if those other kids were right? I’m not human, I’m not from this village, so what if the Sage of Sages doesn’t know anything about me?
What if I don’t have a Quest – what if I can’t be a Hero?
“Hey,” Takeshi puts his hand on my shoulder and gives me a smile, and only when I try and return the gesture do I realize I was chewing on my claws. “You know that, no matter what happens, we’re family alright?”
My face twists into a big, lopsided grin. Gods Takeshi, sometimes I wish you were by blood brother. But I guess, fortunately for me, that wouldn’t change much, anyway.
The gates swing open, revealing a lush garden full of fruit trees and succulent flowers; the scent washes over me like a wave, and the beauty of it makes me stumble back. Takeshi presses forward – of course, his silly human nose can’t smell even half of this – and I break into a jog to catch up with him.
Statues, the garden is filled with statues of the gods. Some tall, some short, all gorgeous and captivating – wait, except I don’t see Himei…
“Children!” A deep voice echoes through the garden and then an old, grey-bearded man, dressed in a flowing indigo robe and pointed indigo hat, floats down the long stairs which lead to his stone tower. “What do you seek?”
I draw in a breath. It’s the Sage of Sages. IT’S THE SAGE OF SAGES. I can’t move or hardly even think, but Takeshi steps forward and sinks down onto one knee.
“Sage, I am child of the sunrise, first son of the time keeper, blessed one of the god Himitsu, and I come to seek my destiny.”
“Ah, Takeshi,” the Sage smiles, and his violet eyes twinkle. “Welcome. The whispers of fate told me of your coming, and to you I say this:
Secret, but not forgotten
Hidden, but not lost
Once by chance begotten
Now by choice uncrossed.”
Takeshi gasps. “The caves of Aka’nish! It was there that our village’s historian fled with the long lost key to the Historical Vault, when we were under the rein of the Dark Lord of Yamek!” He rises to his feet. “Sage, do you mean that I am destined to find the key to the great lost tomes of our people?”
“Yes, my boy,” the Sage smiles, and glances in my direction. “Now, you must choose only one to go with you on this quest…”
Takeshi turns back to me with a grin, but suddenly his eyes widen. “Wait, my great great grandmother was guard of the historian, and she left this, passed down through the generations…”
The Sage frowns. “No, I don’t think-”
Takeshi reaches into his shirt and pulls out that strange, metal cross necklace he’s always worn. I don’t even notice it on him anymore, it’s just something he’s always had.
“This…” Takeshi’s smile widens, and he folds the horizontal beam of the cross towards the vertical one. The metal creaks softly, then clicks into place, making the shape of…
“It’s a key!” Takeshi exclaims. “Sage! I’ve had the key with me all along!”
“Yes,” the Sage grumbles, his bushy grey eyebrows accenting his frown. “That was supposed to be the third act twist… What is your blessing again, boy?”
The Sage sends a sour glance in the direction of one of his statues – the tall one, with the demur smile who’s got his hands filled with a thick ledger. “You don’t make things easy on me, do you?”
Takeshi takes a step back and discretely motions for me to come forward. My heart pounds in my ears but somehow I manage to move anyway and sink down on one knee.
“Sage, I…” I can’t manage more than a whisper. “I am child of…” I clear my throat to try and speak louder.
“Enough,” the Sage interjects, throwing his hands out before him. I look up to meet his gaze and his grimace twists back into a smile. “For I of course already know who you are, Ayaka. The, erm, thunderclaps of fate told me of your coming, and to you I say this:
The Screamer will join with the hands of fate
When the sun shines brightest on the brightest day
The path stretches far beyond
Where the end lies, there is the journey.”
I draw in a deep breath and let the Sage’s words echo again in my mind. My prophecy, my very own prophecy! The Screamer… well, I guess that is me. When the sun shines brightest… Summer, that has to mean summer – and this is summer! Brightest day… the summer solstice is in two weeks, what luck! So, on the summer solstice I have to… my smile fades.
My prophecy says that in two weeks I have to leave? And just… leave?
Those skagging kids were right, the Sage of Sages has no prophecy for me – not a good one, anyway. I don’t know whether I want to scream or cry or disappear or what. Frustration churns inside me, and I’m about to decide on screaming.
“Um, Sage of Sages, sir?” Takeshi steps forward to stand at my side; he’s frowning. No doubt he figured it out faster than I did. “That… really isn’t a prophecy.”
The Sage’s violet eyes flare in anger, but Takeshi continues.
“It’s, it’s just a basic outline of what you want her to do, done up in ambiguous prose. I doesn’t even rhyme.”
The Sage studies my brother with a frown. “No one ever said that prophecy has to rhyme.”
“Yeah, but you could at least try to-”
The Sage raises his hands; the winds whip through the garden and lightning strikes the distant, golden mountain top just visible over his head. “You dare question me, the Sage of Sages?”
Takeshi steps back, but I’ve heard enough – no one gets to talk to my brother that way, especially not when he’s risking it all to defend me. I’m about to give that Sage a piece of my mind when, in the wind, I catch the scent of something that was not there before.
It’s a smelly man, one who reeks of road dust and freshly-bound arrows. I turn back, and there is a dark, masked figure perched on the garden wall. He has a bow in his hand, and he’s aiming it at Takeshi.
“HEY!” My voice ripples out from me, toppling the nearest gods’ statues, and it shreds the assassin’s loosed arrow into pieces.
“Don’t-!” the Sage starts, but I’ve already sprinted for the wall and I catch hold of the assassin’s cloak. I throw him to the ground.
“Please!” The assassin squirms as I tear off his mask. “It was supposed to be your quest! A mysterious masked man would kill your adoptive brother – your only friend – and you’d have to travel the world, seeking revenge! It would be dramatic, and heart breaking, possibly even grimdar-”
“WHY WOULD I WANT TO GO ON A QUEST LIKE THAT!?”
But the man can’t answer me. I’m holding him too close, and the force of my voice has torn the skin off his face and just about crushed his skull. I grimace and let go of his shirt; his limp body plops to the ground.
“Well,” the Sage floats down to stand beside me and the dead assassin. “That was my backup plan for you, and now you’ve gone and ruined that, too.”
I meet his gaze in utter disbelief. “You… you would kill Takeshi, just to give me a quest?”
The Sage sighs and folds arms into his sleeves. “If that’s what it took.”
I can’t help but keep staring at him in disgust.
“Look,” he scowls at me, “I’m just whatever your life story needs me to be, alright? I much rather prefer to be your long lost grandfather or something, but I’ve already used that one four times this year and you’re, well…” He looks me over as he mutters something under his breath, then his gaze settles on that dead assassin. “Skagging jeik!” He waves his hands in frustration. “Now I have to clean this up!”
“But…” I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. “Don’t you know anything about me? Something about my birth mother or father? Something about my blessing, my destiny?”
The Sage scoffs. “What you have is no blessing.”
“Isn’t there some quest you could-”
The Sage shakes his head.
“Look,” Takeshi comes to my side again. “Ayaka could clearly be a great Hero. What about the Dragon of the West?”
“Nope. I’ve already sent the blacksmith’s daughter after that one.”
“The Dragon of the East?”
“The tailor’s son.”
“The Dragon of the North?”
“Oh, you monster!” the Sage gasps. “How dare you? The northern dragons are quite friendly!”
“The Dragon of the South?”
The Sage chortles. “I’ve sent three individuals after that dragon – including a Chosen One – over the past hundred and fifty years and not a one has come back alive. I myself rather like the change of pace, but it’s rarely well received when the prophesized hero doesn’t survive.”
I ball my hands into fists. “Can I still take that quest?”
The Sage eyes me, curiously. “You know, I was about to say no, but what the jeik? Go for it.”
I take a step back; I want to feel happy, but I’m not entirely sure I should, not when that Sage suddenly looks so skagging pleased with himself.
“Will,” Takeshi starts, nervously, “will she survive?”
The Sage laughs, bitterly. “How should I know?”
“…because you’re the Sage of Sages?”
“Well, if you skagging farm kids would just be content in your mediocrity, maybe none of this would have happened.” He turns away and stomps up the stairs and into his tower. “Sure, you’d have no story worth telling but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with all you nagging teenagers pounding on my gate, going on and on about destiny.” He looks back at us with a face that is quite unbecoming of the Sage of Sages, and he flops his hands dramatically at his sides. “Oh, destiny! Oh, fate! I’m so special, aren’t I? Please, do tell me!”
He slams the tower door shut.
I let out a slow breath, but Takeshi manages a laugh.
“Well, you got a quest!”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“And,” I finish, “that’s what the Sage of Sages said.”
Papa grunts, glancing up from is book. “You’re right, that isn’t much of a prophecy.”
“Oh, but sweetie,” Mama looks away from the pot of stew she’s stirring, “you’re not supposed to want to go on a quest.”
I groan and sink forward against our kitchen table to rest my head in my hands. “Then what am I supposed to skagging-”
“Ah!” Papa leers at me over his spectacles. “Watch your language young lady.”
I nod, biting back another curse. “What am I supposed to want out of a little town like this?”
Mama gives me a warm smile. “Why, a simple life of course. Which may or may not be clearly defined, depending on if our nation’s economy is specified within the narrative. Oh, and if we’re especially lucky, some tragedy may befall us which a Hero will witness. We may even be named, before ultimately dying a gruesome death.”
“Mama, do you hear yourself?”
She laughs, then joins us at the table. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll probably just remain background characters.” She flinches, and looks towards the ceiling. “Wait, is this village named or unnamed?”
I let out a deep sigh and glance out our front window. Papa’s shop sits across the street from the market – which is unfortunate, because it seems no matter the time or season the place is packed with people, both shopping and shouting out their wares. See, shouting – at one point I thought I’d found what my blessing is for, found where I truly belong.
I’m banned from the market for life.
“Baskets!” One of the vendor’s voices echoes in through our open window. “Baskets for sale!”
A growl escapes my throat; Midori… There was a time when all the village kids thought Midori’s blessing was even more ridiculous than mine, but it turns out basket weaving is a marketable skill in little farming villages like this one.
The blessing of destroying things with your voice, not so much.
I lift my gaze above the market and towards the great mountains which, in the setting sun, are lit gold like fire. The mountains always seem to glow gold, especially at the top when the sunlight strikes it just right. They’re the Fire Mountains.
Now, if I had the blessing of Kasai – power above all power, blessing above all blessings, strength above all strength – I could truly be a Hero. But of course no one has received his blessing for a thousand years.
“I got it!” Takeshi exclaims, looking up from the large chest which he’s just unlocked. He wasted no time in retrieving the boxes of tomes from the historical vault. Mama and Papa jump up from their chairs to join Takeshi as he hauls the chest onto the table, and I follow them more slowly. Takeshi gasps as he picks up one of the scrolls.
“My word…” Papa murmurs. “I never thought I’d see these…”
Takeshi gently unrolls the scroll, then begins to read. “Fourteenth of Goshen, under the cycle of Ikari, in the year sixteen eighty-nine since the fall of Doragon-”
I grunt. “What does that even mean?”
“Shh,” Mama interjects. “You’re not supposed to know, it just feels cultural. Go ahead Takeshi.”
Takeshi clears his throat. “The destruction came from the south, like the roar of a thousand lions. Many are dead. I do not think I will live to see my home again.”
Silence lingers in the room, and Papa nods appreciatively.
“Is…” I start. “Is that it?”
Takeshi unrolls the rest of the scroll – until it’s as long as his arm – then shrugs. “I guess so.”
“Ah,” Papa grins, “that is how all the historical masters did it. I’ve tried for years to learn the art, but I can’t seem to manage to hold myself back and I end up dumping at least a page of information. So many readers get bored and don’t finish…”
I take the scroll out of Takeshi’s hand to look it over for myself. Yep, the rest of it is blank. “But, it hardly told us anything. And that opening date was so specific.”
Papa sniffles and dabs a tear from the corner of his eyes. “Yes, it’s perfect. The readers must piece the information together for themselves, all while attempting to remember every one of those little names and dates…”
Takeshi rummages through the chest. “Shall I put the rest together then, father?”
“No!” He jumps forward. “No, we must study these, you and I.” He smiles and places a hand on Takeshi’s shoulder. “And, one day, I’m sure you will be an even better time keeper than I.”
Takeshi beams. Mama laughs and pulls all three of us into a hug.
“Takeshi, you’ve done it! Although, your hero’s journey might have been more poetic had you come back here – where it all began – after you went on the adventure the Sage of Sages outlined for you, but I’m so proud of you either way!”
They all, excitedly, continue to read the rest of the scrolls, but my mind is stuck on the first one. The destruction came from the south… the Dragon of the South? I set my jaw.
“Mama, Papa?” They both look up from Takeshi’s scrolls to meet my gaze. “The Sage of Sages did sort-of give me a quest…”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I shoulder my heavy pack again and squint through the pounding rain at the only lighted window in the whole of these dark, narrow streets. It’s been three days of walking but I finally made it to Nimari, the little town all Heroes in our village have stopped at before embarking on their true Quest.
At least, that’s what I hear.
Takeshi offered to come with me but I told him to stay home. I don’t want him to have to face another assassin – just in case the Sage of Sages isn’t done with that whole mess – and besides, my brother’s already a Hero, even without his Quest.
The door creaks open, and from the tavern the sound of music and laughter leaks out into the dreary night. One burly man, with his arm slung over a voluptuous woman’s shoulders, stumbles out into the darkness, babbling on about something that must be funny because the woman laughs. Why a Hero would have to come to a squiby town like this is beyond me, but I’m not about to give up on my Quest.
Even if the Sage of Sages really didn’t mean give it to me in the first place.
I press on towards the door and catch it before it falls shut, but the man also catches sight of me.
“Well now…” A crooked smile spreads across his face, showing his few, yellow teeth. “What’s a pretty little, um, thing like you doing in a place like this?” He brushes a hand gently against my cheek. “I’ve always wanted to try a thr-”
I snarl and sink my fangs into his hand
“Ahhh!” He pulls back into his lady’s arms and presses his bleeding hand against his chest. “What the jeik, you skagging piece of squib? Mother skagging-!”
“Shh,” the woman coos. She places her slender hand on his cheek and guides him away from the door. “This is YA, darlin’. You went too far, this is YA…”
I watch them stumble off into the rain, my teeth barred. Skagging idiots, this is Nimari, not ‘why-ahe’. One more step carries me into the tavern and I let the door fall shut as I shake the rain from by cloak.
The tavern is packed.
I mean, I’m not sure I even saw enough buildings in this little town to house all these people, but there are so many patrons I hardly have any space to move. There’s a dwarfish bar tender selling ale, the tables in the center of the room are packed with simply dressed travelers and peasants, and there’s a lute player seated in the corner, strumming chords that barely manage to carry over the din of voices.
Still, what I can hear of the song is captivating and I press forward through the crowd – brushing against shoulders and stepping on toes – until I’m standing near the wall, beside the lute player. He’s fair skinned and fair haired, and has the long, pointed ears of an elf sticking out of his green hat along with an elaborate feather. He notices me watching him and winks.
“Come now!” he strums a chord. “I shall tell you a tale of great peril, and mystery… the tale of the Dragon of the South!”
Excitement surges through me. What luck! This lowly bard must know all about the Dragon of the South!
The elf plucks at his lute, slow and steady, and then matches his words to the beat. “The Dragon of the South is a fearsome beast as you all know, but did you realize the south was once covered in snow? It was at a time lush and green, a true natural wonder, but of these winter forests you dumb foolish stupid humans took plunder! It is said that the Dragon of the South causes much dread – so many of you are dead – but I wonder, why you care so little for that forest’s bloodshed?” He strums one last dramatic chord. “Recycle!”
The rest of the room claps and cheers, but my mouth drops open. “That…that is your song?”
The elf flashes me a shockingly handsome smile. “What, you expect to waltz in here and just happen to find me singing the one song that has critical relevance to your current interests?”
“…well, no, I guess but maybe…”
He laughs, then waves his hand at me, dismissively. “Go find your own quest, and then come back here when you’re more than a side character.”
“I’m, I’m not a…” I stomp my foot. “AND I DO TO HAVE MY OWN QUEST!”
I cringe as my outburst topples loose barstools, blows out torches, and peels the wood paneling off the walls, but the elf just sits there, as smug and handsome as ever. My blessing doesn’t do anything more than ruffle his perfectly braided hair.
“Sorry honey, plot’s about the only thing that will do me in.”
Anger bubbles up inside me and I clench my fist at my sides, but that skagging elf has already turned away and is starting into another song.
“Hey.” A deep, gravelly voice carries over the noise of the crowd and I turn back.
It’s a man, shrouded in a dark cloak that covers all but his grizzled chin in shadow. He’s seated by himself at the table beside me – even though the tavern is (as I said) packed – and the crowd even seems to be making an unconscious decision to avoid him.
He takes a long drag on his pipe, the embers flaring red in his pale blue eyes. “I hear you want to know about the Dragon of the South.”
“Yes!” I jump towards him, maybe a bit too eager. “Yes, I do!”
He nods to the empty chair in front of him and I take a seat, slipping my pack off my shoulders to set it by my feet.
“That dragon,” he takes another puff of his pipe and lets the smoke blow out his nostrils, “his name is Rithisak…ringer of bones…”
I scoot forward in my chair. “Do you know where he is? Have you seen him?”
“Seen him?” The man pulls away from me and I catch a glimpse of the long sword and several knives hanging at his side – wait, maybe I should have been afraid of him from the start? He knocks his pipe against the table, stoking the embers. “Do I look like I’ve seen him?”
I gasp. The light from the tavern torches reaches beneath his hood now and I can see that the whole left half of his face is scarred and burned; his is lip is twisted in a continuous snarl, and his one eyelid and brow is marked with a clean, dramatic scar.
“What,” I start, then swallow as I again remember I should probably find his demeanor unnerving and not so skagging cool. “What happened?”
The man gives a rumbling sigh. “I can’t tell you. Not now. It… isn’t time.”
“I can only say so much and stay,” he takes another slow drag on his pipe, “mysterious.”
He is SO SKAGGING COOL! “Can you still tell me where the dragon is?”
The man lets out a grunt and I can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be a means of communication or simply an indication that he’s thinking about my request. “How about I show yo-”
A grimy little figure, dressed in rags, darts past me and snatches away my pack; I leap to my feet. “STOP!”
Nearby tavern patrons topple over like trees in a hurricane. The little street urchin yipes and falls to the ground as my pack explodes in her hands. The other patrons gasp and jump back, but I run to the thief’s side.
“THAT’S MY STU-”
“Ack!” She covers her face with her dirty hands. “Please ma’am, I di’int mean’a nothin’ by it! I’s a thief, am I – plucky, and resilient! Hardened by t’streets but I promise me gots a heart’o gold! I could’a went on yo’ole quest and become a good person but now I think…”
I step back and my tail sinks between my knees as I realize the whole tavern has gone quiet, and everyone is staring at me like I’m some kind of monster.
The urchin sits up and brushes what’s left of my pack off her patchwork clothes. “Yo’can keep yo’scraps ma’am. I’s a be gitten me o’real job I think. Become a good citizen, all propers like. I think I’s a had enough of thieven’, after ol’this.” She scrambles to her feet and bolts out the door before I can find any words to say.
“Nope.” The mysterious man’s voice breaks the silence, and I turn to find him slapping two silver coins down on his table. “Nope, I’m done. I know how my story arc ends and – I thought I was fine with it – but I’m not going out like that. Nope, no way.”
“But…” I step towards him as he brushes past me to reach the door. “Without you, how will I find the dragon?”
He jumps out of my reach, pulling his hands away. “Girl, it’s the Dragon of the South. Just go south. It’s not that hard.”
“But…” And he’s out the door before I can say anything else.
Tears sting my eyes, but I’m not ready to give up this quest. I turn to the rest of the tavern. “I am Ayaka, child of the mists, first daughter of the time keeper, blessed one of the goddess Himei, and I have been given a quest by the Sage of Sages to slay the Dragon of the South! Who will join me?”
The crowd shares a few awkward glances.
“Himei?” a woman’s voice echoes out from the rest. “Did you make that up?”
Skagging jeik. “What about you?” I meet the dwarven bartender’s gaze, and he does a spit-take into his mug of ale.
“Lass, who ever heard of a questing party made up of only a dwarf and a, and a… Lass, what are you?”
I let out a deep sigh, my shoulders slumping, and I can’t hold back the tears this time.
The dwarf waves his hands. “Hey now, hey now – it’s not you, lass. It’s just, well, I ain’t got enough to carry the party, see? I ain’t got much more I can do than drink, and slice things with my ax, or maybe give the occasional bit of engineering genius or bout of slapstick humor.” He pulls a large, engraved ax out from under the bar and smashes it down into the oak counter. “See?”
A low growl rumbles in my throat and my sorrow shifts into rage. I feel like screaming, but I suppose I’ve done enough of that here already. “Fine.” I speak slowly, emphasizing every syllable, in the fight to keep my voice low. “I’ll finish this quest all on my own.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My foot catches on the dusty path and I stumble.
Skagging stones. Skagging sun.
I’m four days out from Nimari, and a day and half away from the stream where I got my last drink of water. The south is so skagging hot. I’ve discarded everything except my baggy trousers and my strappy, sleeveless leather chest plate.
But the dragon is close. I can smell it.
Or, maybe I can just smell myself. Either way, the scent is rather foul and – I like to think – sulfuric. For the past two days the land has become quite flat, stretching out to the horizon beyond me, but just this morning I caught sight of a lone, jagged mountain rage, its dark shadow looming against the rising sun.
Now I stand five steps from these mountains.
Perhaps they aren’t mountains, perhaps they’re really the edge of a plateau, but nonetheless the path runs through the narrow valley which splits the earthen structure in two. Twisted, dry-bone skeletons litter the ground beside the path, and a sign sits on a stake among them, the wood looking about as sun-withered as a feel. But the message remains clear, written in large block letters:
I draw in a deep breath, settling in my resolve. My blessing may not be useful for very many things, but it seems no one has ever had it before – and, just maybe, with it I might be able to slay a dragon no one has been able to slay. I step past the sign and follow the path through the shadows in the valley and out into the bright sun on the other side. The jagged, red-rock mountains surround me, hedging me in like I’ve stepped into an arena.
A strange breeze – one hot, which smells like smoke – whistles through the rocks but I stand my ground.
My voice ripples out from me, sending shock waves through the dust on the ground and rattling the stones on the distant mountains.
“DRAGON OF THE SOUTH! I AM AYAKA, CHILD OF THE MIST, FIRST DAUGHTER OF THE TIME KEEPER, BLESSED ONE OF THE GODDESS HIMEI, AND I HAVE COME TO SLAY YOU!”
Red dust rises in a thick cloud and stones tumble from the mountains. A shadow shifts somewhere in the distance, but I can’t be sure whether or not it’s a part of the rockslide or the dragon.
“COME ON YOU SKAGGING SPAWN OF A SLIME SUCKING SALAMANDER! I’VE HAD TO WALK A VERY LONG TIME TO GET HERE, THE LEAST YOU COULD DO IS COME OU-”
A great shape leaps from the mountain far across from me and I take a startled, excited step back. At first the beast is nothing more than a shadow in the dust, a dark wigged shape with glowing yellow eyes, but he soars towards me and bursts into the sunlight. His scales are a deep red – deeper than the stones around us – and he has a pointed face, like a beak, and several sharp horns protruding from his head.
The dragon locks eyes with me, opens his mouth – revealing his pointed tongue and fangs – and lets out a scream. “AAAAAAHHH!”
The sound hits me like a gust of wind – it rushes through my fur – and I fall back against the ground, tumbling over myself. For just one split second I am terrified, but as that voice rings in my deafened ears I have to smile.
This… this dragon has my blessing?
I scramble to my feet and turn to the sky, where the dragon circles over me, and I let out a scream of my own. “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”
Rithisak wheels back, clearly surprised by my attack, but he swoops around and dives towards me with anther yell. “AAAAAHH!!”
This time, I’m ready for him and I run forward. “AAAAAAHH!”
Maybe it’s because my ears are ringing, but now that the dragon and I are shouting at the same time it seems like I can’t really hear either one of us. The dragon lands with a thump before me; his mouth is still opened wide in a scream so I keep screaming, too.
Rithisakleans down to put his head his level with mine. I press my forehead against his nose, my voice melding with his.
The sound rings in the austere red cloud that hovers in the arena. The dragon doesn’t back away and neither do I. In fact, I don’t even feel the effect of his voice. And I don’t think he can feel mine, either.
Our eyes meet.
We both fall silent and pull back to study one another in confusion. Rithisak manages to talk first.
“You,” he starts, his voice deep and rumbling compared to his scream, “you aren’t affected by me?”
“I don’t think…and you don’t seem to be affected by me, either?”
Rithisak pulls his wings in close and gives me an unnerving smile. Squib, now I know what I look like. “You’re cursed by Xorori, like me! My voice must cancel yours out, and vice versa!”
I frown. “Cursed? I’m blessed, by Himei.”
Rithisak tilts his head, curious. “You’ve been told you’re blessed? All my life I’ve been told I was cursed… All the other dragons have a true roar, or can breathe fire, or do neat things like that. I can only, well, scream. That’s why they sent me here, to keep me away from the others.” He hung his head. “It’s not always easy to…”
“…to not scream?”
He meets my gaze with another smile. “You understand. In fact…” He shifts from foot to foot. “In fact, I think you more than understand. To have this same trait, we must share blood. You must be dragon born!”
I raise an eyebrow. “Dragon born?”
“Yes!” Rithisak flaps his wings, excitedly, then leans back to study me with one of his yellow eyes. “Half dragon, half lion I think.”
“…half dragon, half lion.” What the jeik? I suppose I look rather like a lion, but I’ve got a body like a human. I don’t have wings, or scales, or… “How would a dragon and a lion, um, you know, when…” I motion to his enormous height. “And a lion’s…”
Rithisak laughs. “You’re thinking about this way too hard. You’re dragon born. Does that not just sound awesome?”
I manage a full grin this time. “Well, yeah, I guess it does.”
The dragon laughs again, then settles back on his rear legs. “Well, this is amazing! We have to catch up. We could be siblings. Or cousins. Or star-crossed lovers, any of those three are possible at this point. Oh wait.” He frowns. “Are you still intent on slaying me? I mean, that thing doesn’t really happen so much anymore, taming dragons is more of the trend these days, but if it really is your quest…”
I shrug. “I mean, I’m cool with just talking if you are.”
“Great!” Rithisak heaves a sigh and lies down atop the settling dust, and I take a seat cross-legged before him. “You know,” he continues, “if you were a human I’d probably have to pledge a life-debt to you or something to keep my head but since you’re dragon born-” He flinches and pulls away from me. “This is fantasy fiction, right? Not a video game? I might feel safe in a D and D campaign…”
He laughs. “Who am I kidding? That fight was way too short to be anything but written fiction. No worries, we’re good.”
I give another shrug. All dragon-speak, I guess. “I, um, I don’t really want a life-debt,” what the jeik would I do with a dragon following me around everywhere? “but, I mean, if you maybe want to come over for dinner some time…”
“Do you serve virgins?”
I grimace, and start to back away.
Rithisak laughs again. “I’m joking! I’m joking! Just a little dragon humor for you. Seriously, if we still had to survive on virgins my kind would have been dead ages ago.”
I manage a bit of a smile. “What about those skeletons by the path back there?”
“Eh, those are just for ambiance.” He nods at me. “How far did you really travel? It sounds like you’re on a true quest.”
“Yeah, I…” I was. I glance over my shoulder and point – northwards – at the distant Fire Mountain which, true to its name, shines a glaring gold. “I’m from a little farming village, seven days that way.”
Rithisak draws in a sharp breath. “You live near Kasai’s Keep?”
“Sure. If by that you mean Kasai’s Mountain.”
“Wow.” Rithisak wriggles his tail. “That is quite a long way, and now you won’t even have anything to show for it.”
“Yeah…” I turn back towards that mountain, and an idea comes to mind. It’s probably a stupid one, but I did just try and slay a dragon, so… “What if I came home with Kasai’s blessing?”
“You want to climb Kasai’s Keep?” Rithisak shakes his head, violently, and sits up on his rear legs. “No no no no no no, that is a VERY BAD idea…”
I raise a hand to shield my face from his outburst. “Why’s that?”
“Because it’s Kasai’s Keep. He was a great dragon who lived thousands of years ago, and that mountain is where he stored away all his gold.”
“Yeah, why do you think it always shines like that in the sunlight?”
“No, I mean, dragons still horde gold?”
“Oh,” Rithisak laughs. “Not so much anymore. But it’s forbidden – or at least seriously taboo – for a dragon to steal from another dragon, dead or not. And, well,” he glances, sheepishly, at his front talons, “gold tends to still have an…odd effect on us pure dragons.”
I climb to my feet and flash him my most toothy – my most dragonish – grin. “Well, I’m not a pure dragon.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The wind whips by me – cold and fierce – and I can’t hold back a scream. “YAAHOO!”
My voice ricochets off the mountain side, shaking lose cascades of snow. The sunset is still warm on by back, however, and whatever part of the mountainside isn’t snow sparkles with gold.
“CAREFUL!” Rithisak shouts. He has to pump his wings to swoop away from the mountain as a second avalanche falls. I laugh, and he sputters something under his breath. “I mean, be careful.”
I close my eyes and suck in a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. I’m seated on Rithisak’s back, right at the base of his neck where it meets his shoulders, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more free.
Maybe I really am dragon born.
My stomach lurches as Rithisak drops and I fling my eyes open. “What is it?”
A low growl rumbles deep in his throat. “Do you see that?” He steers towards the mountain side and I have to shield my eyes with my hand as flashes of gold blind me.
He’s trying to dive towards the sparkling stones.
“STOP IT!” I smack him on the neck.
Rithisak shakes himself and pulls up. “Sorry. So sorry. I told you, dragons and gold…”
I point towards the top of the mountain, where the sunset shines brightest. “Then go for that!”
Rithisak gives another beat of his massive wings and we soar upwards. The wind draws tears from my eyes, but as hard as I try and I can’t chase this stupid grin from my face, even as my new dragon friend lands beside the forbidden treasure – the blessing of Kasai.
I slide off his back then step towards the golden glow, squinting. The whole shape is just a little taller than I am and is completely encased in ice. I give Rithisak a grin. “I think we’ll have to break this casing.”
He steps forward, I move to stand beside him, and – facing the glowing, frozen blessing – we both scream.
The ice shatters.
Rithisak jumps back, startled, and I draw in a breath. The golden glow is stronger now, but if I shade my eyes I can just through it see… myself. I see me, standing next to Rithisak, with a golden sunset sinking behind our shoulders.
Kasai’s blessing is a skagging mirror?
Rithisak leans forward. “There’s some tiny lettering here in the corner…The greatest blessing is contained within.”
I meet the gaze of my reflection. So, power above all power, blessing above all blessings, strength above all strength is… me. Or Rithisak. Or me and Rithisak, it’s a little ambiguous since there’s the two of us standing here. But I guess we’ve had the blessing within us all along.
I glance up at the dragon. “Kind of anti-climactic, isn’t it?”
I sigh, then turn around to face the sunset. I’m tired and hungry and sore – and about done with this quest.
Rithisak nudges me with his nose. “You alright? Now you really won’t have anything to bring home with you at the end of this journey.”
“Yeah…” I shrug. “I guess this has all been a journey of self-discovery.” I chuckle. “I think I’d much rather have found something cool. Like maybe a magical sword, or some other great and terrible weapon with the power to both save and destroy the world.”
Rithisak laughs. “Hey, you’ve got to save something for the sequel.” He spreads his wings. “Now come on, didn’t you invite me to dinner?”
This is my June entry into my writing group, the Masked Dragon Society. Comedy is something that I honestly was never sure I’d ever attempt to write, but then I got this picture as my prompt and I knew only a fantasy-comedy would do it justice. Turns out, this comedy was fun to write! This is my longest short story yet.
Although, it’s up to you to decide if it was funny or not…