Monday, 26 June 2017

The Beginning

Dominic Matte
The dragons, to their great shock, had been defeated. Soundly. Overwhelmingly. The dragons had been nearly exterminated.

The vermin - the lesser races - had called it the Great Betrayal. None of the dragons thought of it that way - none who mattered. They were reclaiming their birthright, one they had long given up in the name of peace and prosperity. The dragons were reminded of the way things used to be, before they agreed to share with and protect the weaker races. Cooperation bringing prosperity? Nonsense! A dragon had its home and its hoard within the empire, but in the old days, a dragon was an empire. Dragons took what they wanted and cared not for the pathetic two-legged beasts who scurried around on the ground, save only for what the vermin could provide to the dragon. If a dragon protected a city, it was not out of generosity or fellowship, but as a means to an end. In the old days, dragons were power. Kings trembled at their wingbeat and armies shattered at their whim. That was as it should be - the dragons had suffered alliances with the three empires for far too long. Acting as one, they razed the capitals to craters of ash in a firestorm of draconic rage the likes of which had never been seen. After centuries, the dragon lords were vindicated, and all was as it should be.

Or so Hydrargea had been told. Perched on the tip of a rocky spire among the remainder of dragonkind, she flexed her shining wings, the light playing over the damaged membranes like liquid metal. She had her doubts about all this. The dragons were all here, perched on the highest peak on the continent, ignorant of the freezing cold and piercing wind. Some were the most powerful of dragonkind: ancient, powerful dragons with the knowledge and experience a thousand years or more, triumphant over legions of dragonslayers. Others were young, weaker, less experienced; having survived the purge with cunning, luck, or stealth (which some called cowardice).

One short year ago, there had been thousands of dragons. Here, now, in an assembly of the entire continent's dragons, there were only a few dozen.

It had been obvious that the vermin would be upset about the loss of their capital cities, leaders, and collected wealth. This was of no concern... but perhaps it should have been. The dragons had severely underestimated the ingenuity and rage of the lesser races. After the razing had come the great dragon hunt. A mature dragon was worth no less than a thousand average smallfolk, and often far more - but their armies and "heroes" learned from the small, weak dragons and applied their newfound knowledge and skill to the greater dragons. There were all kinds of new weapons and spells and tactics developed specifically to fight dragons that had grown vain and overconfident, and they suffered for it.

None of the dragons had spoken since they assembled on the mountain peak. Most appeared stunned, lost in thought, as Hydrargea had been. She saw that no dragon, regardless of their power, had escaped injury. Hydrargea's wing membranes were tattered by arrows and acid - she barely made the flight. Drathohto, formerly known as the Invulnerable thanks to his adamantine hide, had lost his eyes to the lances of a dragonslayer. Green dragon wizard Tyrogru's rear legs had been badly mangled in some kind of colossal steel trap and dangled uselessly off his ledge. Though some were worse off than others - Kluahkeht, the Sandstorm, the ever-hungry great desert lord who dwarfed all other dragons, held embedded in his hide hundreds of broken arrows, lances, and spears, but appeared to feel nothing at all. Gazes were fixed on empty stone, unsightly wounds, or unfocused at nothing.

Finally a voice spoke out, seething with the fire of rage and hate. "Whose idea was thissss?" hissed a smaller red dragon, the heat of his anger disrupting air currents and melting the stone his four clawed limbs gripped tight. Hydrargea struggled to recall his name - Kelnferx, she thought.

The question snapped the other dragons out of their reveries. Wings stretched, tails snapped, serpentine necks twisted to face the speaker, then craned for a response. Quizzical yet venomous gazes swept the mountaintop, alighting on each and every dragon.

It was a good question, thought Hydrargea, and judging by the reactions of those present, one that was being posed for the first time. Who was to blame for the slaughter of dragonkind? Was it someone now present? Hydrargea tilted her head toward the slender purple dragon Rheessutt, a powerful psychic. Perhaps she could -

"It matters not," rumbled Drathohto, wrapping himself in his impenetrable wings and covering his damaged eyes with his wing talons. "What's done is done."

Rhoadide's silver crest bristled in response. "Of course it matters. Someone must be held accountable."

"No." All eyes turned to the shining golden dragon Ruettak, his front limbs crossed elegantly. "No," he repeated, his voice smooth and haughty, "What matters is how we respond."

Misdirection? thought Hydrargea.

"This is not disaster. This is opportunity," grinned Ruettak, his fleshy whiskers twitching.

Not misdirection, Hydrargea corrected herself, greed and vanity. Regardless, all eyes were now on Ruettak.

Relishing the attention, Ruettak stood and prowled around the assembly, gesticulating languidly with his forelimbs and whiskers. "Yes, our kind has been nearly wiped out - but so have those pathetic empires. The fewer of us there are, the less organized they are. Their 'heroes' have almost all fallen, been broken, or fled. Old rivalries -" he paused to glare at Drathohto, who remained oblivious - "are reemerging."

Kenferx looked ready to boil. "Get on with it!"

Ruettak paused to raise an eyebrow ridge at the interruption, but continued. "I think we can take advantage of this situation." He grinned wide, exposing a double row of wicked pointed teeth.

"I think we should play a game."

A shiver of dread swept over Hydrargea. Something wasn't right. Not Ruettak - now that she saw where he was going, this seemed completely like him: turn a disaster to his advantage and come out on top. No, it was something else. The question nagged at her. Whose idea was all of this? Could someone have wanted the dragons dead? Maybe out of the way? Out of the way of what? Or perhaps - as unlikely as this might be - perhaps it wasn't about the dragons. Did someone want to destroy the three empires? She shuddered with disgust at the thought of being used.

A light touch from a smooth, tufted pearlescent tail drew Hydrargea's attention back to the circle. The dragon next to her - her old friend Thoudsygg, the seer - gave her a look. She could sense his curiosity towards her thoughts, but at the moment he meant for her to refocus on her surroundings.

Ruettak had transfixed the crowd. He basked in the attention as the assembled dragons broke out into whispers of debate.

There was a heavy crunch as Drathohto slammed his tail into the mountain rock, leaving it in pieces. "What kind of game?"

His spell on the crowd broken, for a fraction of a second, Ruettak bristled - but quickly regained his composure. "Why," he purred, "a game for control. For wealth. For power. For eternal domination. I propose..." he paused dramatically - "that the last dragon standing wins the world."

That was it. Hydrargea felt as though a vital moment had just slipped away from her. With only a few words, Ruettak had completely dismissed any questions or doubts over the events of the last year. The dragons were fascinated. What kind of game? What were the rules? Kelnferx's volcanic temper had completely dissipated and he growled excitedly at the other two red dragons of his kind. Rhoadide, the last silver dragon in the world, set aside her precious honour and accountability to debate rules. Despite his ruined eyes, Drathohto focused directly on Ruettak, his attention consumed by their ancient rivalry - if Ruettak would propose a game, Drathohto would win it.

Of all present, only four dragons were not completely enraptured by Ruettak's idea. Hydrargea and 
Thoudsygg exchanged incredulous glances - both had the sense that they were missing something important and that it was in danger of being swept away. Rheessutt frowned at Ruettak, her pure purple eyes inscrutable and unfocused as they always were when she probed a mind. And Kluahkeht lay unperturbed, resting his thickly spined lower jaw near a small blue dragon as his stomach rumbled.

The dragons debated and argued for hours. Hydrargea and Thoudsygg spent the time quietly turning over their thoughts who had come up with the idea for the dragons to regain their independence, but came up with nothing. Neither could Thoudsygg's prescience determine the final outcome of the turn or the proposed game - dragons lived so long that there were far too many possible futures for any to be judged accurately. Kluahkeht only stared steadily at the young dragon that had caught his eye. He could probably swallow it whole.

Finally, Ruettak reared up on his hind legs to gesture for silence, his long slender body and neck raising his head high above the assembly and drawing all attention to himself. "The rules have been decided!" he bellowed. "But first, a bit of housekeeping."

Ruettak dropped and whirled, snapping his long tail like a whip at the head of the other gold dragon. The pair of frills that ran down his spine were sharp, and with a single motion, he beheaded the smaller dragon.

He roared over the immediate outcry: "There must only be one of each kind of dragon! Determine among your kind who will play the game and who will die!"

Again, excitement for the game and each dragon's innate sense of superiority overcame rational thought. The dragons turned on each other. Kelnferx's explosive anger served him well and he quickly dispatched the other two red dragons, bellowing victory with a jet of fire and smoke. The brutish white dragons erupted into a frenzy of claws and blood. Kluahkeht snapped up the blue dragon and swallowed, dropping a ragged forelimb in his haste.

Some dragons were already the last of their kind and leapt to perch atop stone pillars, isolating themselves from the carnage. Rhoadide had snapped out of her game focus and now gazed wide-eyed at the few remaining dragons killing each other merely for a chance to play a game. Hydrargea and Thoudsygg landed across from Ruettak, staring daggers at the smug ringleader. One by one, dragons emerged victorious, until twenty-four remained - one of each type and five copper dragons. Ruettak tilted his head at them questioningly, and one responded "We reserve the right to choose the copper player through our own process at a later date." Ruettak shrugged.

Once again, the gold dragon raised himself up above the others. Ruettak spoke with a tone of absolute authority. "The rules of engagement are as follows.

"The first rule: a dragon's identity must not be known by more than five living non-dragons. If additional non-dragons learn of that dragon's identity, they must be eliminated until only five remain." In a more conversational tone of voice, Ruettak added, "This allows dragons without shapeshifting or psychic powers to have a few means of communication with the lesser races. Build an empire and whatnot." The dragons collectively nodded; this sounded sensible.

"The second rule: a dragon may not physically act unless its life is directly threatened. We are all of different ages, strengths, and abilities - to ensure a fair game, we will play with minions in a game of strategy rather than direct force. As stated in rule one, should your minions attack another dragon and survive, they must be purged so that only five know that dragon.

"The third rule: a dragon may have no more than one living heir. Your place in the game can continue through offspring... should you lose confidence in your own abilities." There were a few chuckles.
"The fourth rule: a dragon's heir may not produce offspring unless its parent is deceased. One player and one heir for each kind - no more.

"The fifth rule: a dragon must eliminate direct threats to the game as they arise." Ruettak grew stern. "We will not tolerate interference from the lesser races. Factors outside our control are undesirable and unpredictable. If your minion learns of the game and decides it should not proceed, you must eliminate them, no matter how useful.

"The sixth and final rule: a dragon found to be in violation of any of these rules forfeits its position in the game and must be executed as a threat to the game.

"Finally, I propose a five hundred year grace period for empire building and preparation before we begin in earnest." Ruettak relaxed, shedding his commanding aura and returning to a show of confident relaxation. "Any questions?"

Kluahkeht rose suddenly, his enormous mass of muscle displacing boulders and toppling a rocky spire. He spoke in a rasping dry voice that sounded as though it had not been used for decades. "I have no interest in your game. Leave me in peace." He raised his colossal wings and with a shower of sand and billowing clouds, Kluahkeht heaved his bulk off the mountainside and disappeared into the mist. The dragons, collectively, were relieved.

"Anyone else?" inquired Ruettak.

The dragons were silent for a time, mulling over the rules, considering how best to manipulate the game to their advantage. With some effort, Tyrogru lifted himself up by his undamaged forelimbs. "How do you propose to eliminate the influence of the gods?"

Ruettak was clearly prepared for this question. "I have in mind a powerful spell to shield our world from intrusion. If I may ask, I would appreciate some assistance in casting it after our meeting is concluded."

Ever the opposition, Drathohto's voice rose like oiled metal. "All well and good, but who will enforce these rules? It'll have to be someone outside the game." He grinned as he heard the beginnings of consternation in the circle - here was something Ruettak hadn't considered. A dark expression passed over the gold dragon's face.

Thoudsygg nudged Hydrargea with his shoulder. She turned to him, eyes wide, then paused to consider. In a position outside the game, she might learn more than any on the inside. And she knew that without enforcement of the rules, sooner or later, there would //be// no rules, and nothing left for anyone - as devastating as the last year had been, it would be nothing compared to all-out war between elder dragons.

Hydrargea reared up and unfurled her wings. "I will be your arbiter."

Ruettak froze for an uncharacteristic full second before replying. "Thank you, Hydrargea, but that won't be -"

"An excellent proposal!" interrupted Drathohto. "Hydrargea is among the strongest of us, and her shapeshifting ability will allow her to observe the game unseen by the players. She'll keep us all honest." He grinned from ear frill to ear frill. "As long as we play fair, we have nothing to hide - right, Ruettak?"

The gold dragon shifted, struggling to retain his air of confidence. "Yes... of course."

Rheessutt spoke for the first time, her voice deep and resonant, felt more than heard. "With only one player of each kind, we can be known simply by our colour, and our empires named for the same. We no longer need our names. Henceforth I will be known as Purple, and my domain known as Purpura." She gestured to Ruettak - "You will be Gold, and your domain Aurum -" then to Drathohto - "and you are Adamantine, and your domain Adamantina. And so forth for all of you." Ruettak's and Drathohto's faces both fell.

Purple pointed a talon to Hydrargea. "And our Arbiter," she finished, "will be called Mercury."

"Then it's agreed," grumbled Adamantine.

"Well then," Gold grinned, "Welcome, all... to the Long Game."

No comments:

Post a Comment