Everything I knew told me it shouldn't, couldn't, and didn't exist.
It was a thing that lived solely in the imaginations of dreamers; a mythic symbol decorating history, appearing on coats of arms, flitting across the pages of fiction and through the big and small screens of movie, television and video games.
Now, here it was, born in front of me, alive and present.
A dragon hatchling.
Stunned beyond further reaction, I slid downwards, my hoodie dragging over the rock, until I was sitting on the ground, back against the cave wall. For moments, it stood motionless in its initial pose, then it turned without any other consideration for the environment to look directly at me, knowing exactly where I was. The irises were gold, the pupils black and slitted like a cat's eyes, and the gaze seemed to penetrate right through me. There was an innate shrewdness in its attention that was weighing what I was worth. For a creature so new and young, the level of perception, how acute its senses were, and the obvious potential for what it could become, were in combination actually terrifying.
I stared right back, unnerved.
The head tilted and leaned forward a fraction, still observing as it made some kind of private internal judgement.
I blinked, swallowing uncomfortably, but I did not look away.
It leaned back slightly, curiosity unfinished, and then stepped out of the egg's remnants, dropped onto all fours and began to approach.
Stay still, I told myself, and don't do anything to alarm it.
The egg had been about the volume of an oversized American football, and the hatchling was no larger than a small housecat. The front limbs had the familiar three joints of shoulder-elbow-wrist, but the rear had a reversed fourth joint between the knee and ankle. The extra joint compacted the longer back legs so the body was basically even as it walked. It was nimble and quick, the basics of movement coming easily and naturally, with no extra practice needed.
Born ready to survive.
From a purely visual inspection, it was at an ideal midway point for physical proportions. I had seen all sorts of depictions of dragons; everything from long, thin, serpentine shapes with overextended necks and tails similar to those in Asian cultures, to shorter heavier shapes with squat and stubby extremities that were built like a tank. This one had a structural design that was a perfect balance of weight and shape. There was enough mass for it to use raw physical power if required, but not so much bulk to restrict its ability to move and react. The neck and and tail were counterbalancing evenly, and as a whole it gave off an aura of both elegance and strength, despite the fact that it was a newborn.
And then ... there was the head.
Narrowing, triangular, it was a focused predator's skull. My first image was of the dragons of Skyrim; tiny nostrils on the end, a modest upswept nose horn on the tip, with smaller mirroring downswept spurs on both sides underneath the jaw. Bony ridges surrounded the eyes, on the cheeks below and the bridge of the skull above, rising backward into a pair of immature curving horns.
Like the rest of its body, it was a vivid scarlet from top to tail, with the exception of dark dirty-charcoal claws and two shocks of bright gold, each running on either side of the head from ear to neck in a brilliant gilded seam that narrowed and vanished at the shoulder. Just above and behind, the wing joints and the wings themselves; four bony 'fingers' with a membrane like a bat's between them, coming off the main skeletal branch of the 'arm'. Each of those fingers ended in a spiked claw, the same grey as the other claws, with the arm itself possessing a hooked thumb spike at the junction where it split into the fingers, a practical tool for grappling with. Idle, the wings sat half closed, not required for balance while it walked.
In its entirety, it was sight to behold.
Beautiful, and with a future deadliness that would only grow.
Undaunted, it ambled directly to me and did not pause as it climbed onto my legs and up my torso. The claws went right through my clothing and my skin. It wasn't enough to properly hurt me, but it was kinda painful, like a mischievous cat digging in but much worse, and I suppressed the urge to cry out in pain and throw it off. Reaching my head, it raised itself so it was looking straight into my eyes, less than an inch away from the tip of my nose, the wings spreading to grip my shoulders so I really couldn't do anything much to get away.
"Hi," I whispered, trying not to show how intimidated I was by this little creature.
The moment was pivotal.
There was the very strong feeling that if I did the wrong thing, it would not hesitate to kill me.
We both continued to stare. For close to a minute it was eye to eye. The discomfort from where I was bleeding in a dozen places from its climb was distracting and unpleasant, but I ignored it. At last it broke, rearing back a couple of inches, then suddenly, the jaw opened displaying a line of teeth, and it hissed, loud and threatening.
I didn't flinch.
Five more seconds of judgement followed, but it was satisfied, because it turned away, then pulled itself onto my left shoulder, then climbed around behind my neck to lay its head onto my right. The tail dangled lazily down over my chest and it got comfortable across the material of the hood, draping itself around me like a reptilian version of a fur stole.
What the fuck just happened?
I could feel the weight of it, the dragon who had just taken my shoulders as its own lair, and was quite happy staying there. It didn't shift at all as I very carefully and slowly stood, and tried to retrieve my scattered items. The box, book and MP3 player were stashed into the school bag and all the while I kept my body as even and flat as possible. Still, it didn't so much as stir. No more claws were digging in, as it had found its equilibrium and was simply resting, the motion of my movement too small to be a bother.
There is a baby dragon asleep on my shoulders. I repeated this to myself a few times, the bag in hand, making my way out of the cave and down the slope. There is a mythical creature that should not exist and it is lying on me, right now. It is a thing, and it is real.
Approaching our back fence had my nerves going crazy. Our back yard was well walled-off, as most of the neighbouring yards were, but the public council land was in the open. At a distance, there was no reason to think anything of my appearance, but if people got close?
I'd rather not be on national television any time soon. At least, not for something like this.
Slipping inside our section's boundary was a relief, but then another thought, one that was dogging me as I walked back: what was I going to do with my newly acquired visitor?
There was no way I could take it inside. 'Oh hi mom, glad to see you're home! Hey, I just found this wandering around on public land, can I keep it?' Yeah, there's no way that's going to work. There has to be another solution, and I think I know what it is.
In one corner of the yard, there was an old pre-fabricated equipment shed. It was mostly full of gardening tools and random items related to home DIY that my mother hadn't finished nor got round to doing. There was a workbench and a big wall-rack for the implements, plus the lawnmower in storage. Most importantly, it had a good floor space and area to set up bedding.
This will have to do.
It took a single trip into the house, my passenger still paying no notice, to gather what I needed. Then, back out to the yard with items in hand. A long time back, we owned a Jack Russell terrier, and though my mother loved animals, she had been too busy to look after a new dog after ours had died four years ago. The dog bed, however, was still stashed away, and with it I created a nest of blankets on the shed floor.
Hopefully this will be good enough.
Poking it gently with a finger, the creature stirred in response, emitting a soft rumble of complaint, the only sound I'd heard apart from the earlier threatening hiss. Abruptly it was moving around my neck, a warm scaly mass with a faint pinch of claws, a much less intrusive grip than originally. In a moment it plunged off my shoulder and to the floor, landing with the awkward half-managed balance of a kitten who has no idea how yet to properly fall from any height. It cast its attention over the room in a mere second, and then promptly went for the freshly-constructed bed, recognising it as the sole point of interest. Sitting dead centre, another lordly glance was given, simply to affirm the right of ownership over the newly acquired equipment-shed kingdom, and finally it turned to eye me intently, leaning back on the haunches.
So, what next? You have somewhere to sleep, you're inside and safe from anything that could be dangerous. All you should want now is, um ... oh. Right.
What was I going to feed it?
I didn't need to be a genius to know it would eat meat, but reheated ravioli and whatever else our fridge contained wasn't going to be suitable. Certainly not right now, and not in the coming future; there wasn't any easy way to explain food vanishing without saying where it went, especially since there were only the two of us at home. I needed another way and I didn't have one yet, but ... I did have an idea about where to try.
The location was an office building on private property within a walled lot, towards the edge of the city. It was quiet, out of the way and in a commercial district with dour disinterested neighbouring businesses. There was very little traffic, pedestrian or vehicle, and no distractions nor interruptions.
It was exactly how they preferred it
All the same, he still used street parking, and just like the instructions suggested, he went directly to the ancillary entrance, designated for the service staff. The uniform was in place, the look was styled just so, the knowledge and attitude required incumbent in mind.
He was ready.
This sequence of actions would presage what was to come, and it was a glory to shoulder the great esteem his part bore.
It was truly honourable.
"Who're you?" The duty guard was balding, heavy-set and slightly overweight, though an equal part muscle to fat. Sitting at a little security desk behind double glass doors, he was frowning, an explanation expected. "Ain't nobody on the schedule for tonight."
"Fresh blood." He smiled, and it was strained expression, though he forced it to be as genuine as he could manage; a difficulty given who these people were. "They assigned me here today. Can't have sent the paperwork through yet."
"Really?" The guard was a skeptic, and he rubbed his jowls, squinting in a combination of suspicion and uncertainty. "You tryin' ta tell me that Jody and Mr Quilten on the desk have screwed up the admin roster again this month? Because that's damn unlikely."
"Hey, it happens." His imitation was flawless, the intonation just right, the emotion pitch-perfect and layered in such a way that it was impossible to know how fake it was. "Only here to earn a buck and some pair of glasses screws it up and makes life tricky, am I right?" The superficiality of his charm was added leverage, and he saw the guard's will waver then cave.
The man chuckled. "Ain't that the truth. Well, I'll buzz ya in," he hit the release while they were talking, the door clicking as it unlocked, "but you gotta wait here 'til the upstairs gives the okay, alright?"
"Sure," Nero lied, entering the service lobby and rounding the security desk to greet the guard. "If we're going to work together, I should introduce myself. My name is ... John. John Smith."
"Vincent Romano, but you can call me Vinny. No mafia jokes, heard 'em all a hundred times." The man offered his hand.
Nero shook. "There will be none, I swear. Though, I have one last thing to say, Mr Romano."
There was a second of powerful confusion, followed by a momentary internal struggle, then Vinny's eyes rolled back, closing, and he slumped into his chair. It was so very easy and they were so malleable; what a small weak thing the human mind was. Nero unclipped the guard's security chain, with all the attached trinkets, to add it to his own belt. Briskly, he strode off along the corridor.
Weak as they were, he would not have long before there was an alarm sounded, an alert given.
Haste was important.
He only passed one other employee reaching the second floor room his instructions had described, and that employee dutifully ignored him, too engaged in business of their own. The door came open with only a swipe of Vinny's access card, and Nero stepped in. It was an archival storage office or something similar. Three filing cabinets lined the wall, along with an enormous metal safe and shelving packed with journals, folders and books, and a cataloguing desktop computer with an optical scanner.
This was the room, the location intended.
But ... where was it?
The safe was the obvious place, but Nero's instructions had not mentioned it, nor given a combination. There was no expectation he break into it. He sat at the desk, looking at the shelf with some curiosity. It was implied that his target would be easily accessible once this room was located.
Still, nothing yet.
A bump of the mouse caused the computer to stop idling and come out of hibernation. It activated, the screen growing brighter with the contrast adjusting to a regular level, and visible were a number of expanded digital images. To the untrained eye, they were a chain of hieroglyphs from some long dead language or culture. Nero, however, knew what he was seeing instantly. It was the liturgical tongue of his enemy; rare to see written at all, but even rarer carved in such a manner. The images contained a number of lines of runes rendered onto the flat surface of a stone tablet. Though he could not read the language so easily, he recognised the rudiments of it, the lines in a series of phrases that, in totality, formed the incantation.
The entire thing, left here by their benefactor, ready to take.
Steal it. Copy it. That was what he was told. It was clear the physical version was impossible to acquire, the tablet itself likely locked in the safe, but this? These images? They were a gift, and definitely ripe for copying. Whipping out a cellphone, he took duplicate photographs of each part of the tablet carvings, making sure to get the runic phrasing in full detail, until he had the whole thing.
Start to finish, just as required.
Nero was not a fan of modern technology, but admittedly, cellphones were rather useful.
He closed the images to see if there was anything else to bother with on this machine, before he left. The desktop was sparse, and there was a terminal usage log and system permissions chart open. It seemed there would be no random lucky extras today, and Nero was about to leave, but at last second, someone in the list of names caught his eye.
A name that seemed familiar.
Was one of them actually working here?
He had no chance to think further, the door opening behind him, privacy gone. A young woman in a business pantsuit with clipboard in hand stepped in, and she started in surprise, not expecting the room to be occupied.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't know you were ... " she petered out, her face shifting from surprise, to acceptance, then rapidly to suspicion, fear, and finally, recognition. She blanched, something within telling her exactly who he was, and in the same second he knew his cover was gone.
"I, uh, I'll, um, be going." Pretense vanished and she was fleeing; hurriedly the door handle was yanked, and she gave only a furtive glance back, but he stood in that same moment, lightning quick, and dived for her.
He managed to grab her wrist, and she gave a yelp of surprise, his strength hauling her back into the room with ease. "Stop! Please! I don't have anything for y- ... mmpph mmphmm. Mmmphrrmmm!"
"Don't worry," Nero whispered, hand clapped over her mouth, "I won't kill you. Not today. I have the incantation, and you are the witness. So, you will speak of this to your masters. Tell them to be afraid, for now there is only the last piece of the Fear separating them from total defeat."
"But for now, I must leave, and you," he finished, "must sleep."
I was almost back home from town when my phone vibrated again. There had been two texts and one missed call while I was out of the house, and there wasn't anyone else it could be. Setting the thought aside, I walked up the garden path to our neighbour's patio and knocked on the door.
As part of her job, my mother often used local businesses to supply the events she was expected to organise. Her preference was to support and promote nearby businesses before using any kind of chain stores. This included the butcher at the strip mall about three minutes walk from our house. Her loyalty to the community was appreciated by the owner, and the second he recognised me as her son, he was willing to listen to my request.
A story about two new dogs and a dislike of manufactured pet food were good enough to convince him. I had no idea what sort of meat a dragon would like, but he didn't ask too many following questions and his advice was still useful. Regardless, a package of offcuts at no charge was a good deal, and I gladly accepted it.
Now, I needed somewhere to put it that wasn't our freezer.
"Well, hello Torsten." Mrs Sterling opened the door. An elderly widow in her 70s, she was the textbook example of a little old lady. Straight silver hair was piled into a bun on top of the head, she was a bit hunched over, with slightly clouded rheumy eyes, a long nose, a lot of wrinkles and a pair of full-moon spectacles. Her voice had a sing-song quality and a slight quaver to it, and she could be a little addle-minded at times, but generally speaking she was pleasant company and generous to a fault. "What brings you over to visit?"
"Hi, Mrs Sterling. I'm sorry to bother you."
"It's quite okay, dear. I was just baking some cookies. They're cooling right now. Would you like one?"
"Uh, no, I'm fine but thank you for offering." I lifted the paper-wrapped bundle of offcuts. "I was wondering if I could ask a favour. Our freezer doesn't have much room and, well, we need somewhere to store this puppy food."
"Oh, of course, dear!" She ushered me through the lounge and kitchen to a pantry area with a big chest freezer in the corner. "No idea why I bought this thing -- silly me! -- I have so much space to spare."
She took the parcel and stowed it in one end of the unit. "Any time you need to come in here, just use the back door. The key is underneath the little statue; the base is hollow."
"Thanks, Mrs Sterling." We walked through to the front door. "I really do appreciate it."
"It's no problem, Torsten. Say hello to your mother for me." She smiled sweetly. "Don't forget, if you ever need anything, I'm right next door."
"Thanks!" I waved to her and trotted back up the path and out to the road.
Yeah, don't think I'm going to need much help unless she's a world expert on interacting with dragons.
I dumped the second smaller parcel on the kitchen bench, containing today's meal. First though, I needed to take care of something else; something that now seemed a lot more trivial given what was currently going on.
Flopping down on my bed, I opened my phone and read her last text. All it said was: have you got the sand out of yr panties yet??
It was exactly what I expected from her, and there was only one way to respond -- in kind.
Me: yes but only if youve got the stick out of your butt
It took about twenty seconds for her to see the new message and reply.
Her: you should try it, you might like it Brt in 5 mins.
I rolled my eyes. Should have known better than to try that line out.
Her house was close enough that I could usually guess, to within about ten or twenty seconds, when she would arrive. She was also the only person that never knocked, being loved by my mother and treated like family. I heard the front door open and the sound of her moving through the house, then her dramatic entrance into my room. The door flew open, bouncing off the wall with a low thud, and she flounced across and plopped onto the bed next to me.
"Um, sure, have a seat I guess?" The mockery was thick, with a gesturing wave of the arms to her and the bed. "Make yourself at home."
"Thanks," she beamed, her immunity to the deployment of tactical sarcasm on full display, "but we aren't here to discuss the ridiculous softness of your comforter." She leaned forward, like she was about to accuse me of murder, tone a mixture of demanding and thoughtful. "So tell me, what in the hell is your problem exactly? Was it the movie thing? Or bookstore-boy? Or did someone just shit in your cereal this morning?"
"What? Bookstore-boy? Uh, his name is Theo, and-"
"Theo." She switched to a faux snobby English accent. "How delightful."
Ugh! "This. This is what I'm tired of, Lu!" I frowned, folding my arms as she waited for elaboration. "Look, I'm sorry if I snapped at you earlier, but you need to slow this shit down sometimes. You know it takes a lot to get me to react, but this is not helping."
"You're probably right. I wasn't trying to piss you off. Sorry if I was an annoying bitch, it gets played up from time to time." She slid her arms around me from the side, drawing me into a hug. "You're about the only person I don't like arguing with, but ... you gotta remember that I won't leave this alone. Until you can look me in the eye with a straight face and say: 'Lucy, I am in no way attracted to boys', I will continue as I have."
"Right," I grumbled. "Why would I expect anything else?"
"Seriously though," She let go and sat back a bit, "is something going on with you? You know you can tell me if there is."
"Well, um, would you be angry if there sorta, kinda, was?"
"No." She was sincere and surprisingly not-talkative. "If there's anything to say though, you should."
There, I stopped.
I wasn't sure what to say to her.
Tell her the truth? Show her what I've found?
I wanted to share my experience with someone I trusted, but at the same time I wanted to learn more first. The thought also occurred to me that the more people knew, the harder it would be to keep information from getting out. While it was still just me, the secret was safest. Maybe I had to keep it that way, for the start at least.
"-I don't really know how to tell you. I mean, I had this really fucking weird dream," I began to talk quickly, almost babbling, but had to express it somehow. "There was this voice and it was dark, and today at the bookstore, there was this moment with the word, and then later I went on this walk and- ... and I- ... fuck. I know this makes no sense, because what I've just said sounds like crazy talk, but ... can you trust me that I'm okay? Please?"
"Crazy talk, huh." Her expression was calculating and she certainly didn't seem to be arguing with the 'crazy' part. "So, you want to keep it to yourself and not share with me, your bestest of friends, this information about your life that I should rightfully know. Mhmmm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this definitely is a favour, and what does the law of equivalent exchange have to say about that?"
"Oh god," I groaned, clenching a fistful of bedsheet. "What do you want from me?"
Lucy had the most syrupy goofy smile I could imagine. "You," she cooed, candy-sweet, "have to text Theo."
"Really?" I squeaked. "That- ... that's it?"
"Nope. Nuh-uh." She went on, nailing me with a look that was simultaneously saccharine and extortive. "You have to be nice, you have to try to make friends, and you can only stop when you come clean about what's going on, or ... if you can tell me, truthfully, that you liiiike him."
"Okay, okay! I'll text him. You're still too hopeful. I've never said anything about boys."
"You've never said anything about girls either." Smug as ever. "Until that day comes ... "
"Go home, bitch."
"Ouch! That one hurts!" I stuck my tongue out. "I'm definitely not a jock."
"I know, your brain actually works." She glanced down at her phone, checking the time. "You're right though, I do need to go home. The old man is making ribs and he was yelling at me not to be long when I left." She pocketed it into her cutoff jeans and stood. "You can come over, if you want. He always makes too much anyways."
"I'm fine, mom left something for me, and I need to take a shower and do school stuff."
"Whatever you want, though if you change your mind, you better be quick." She turned and waltzed out the bedroom door, her voice floating down the hall. "See you on Monday. Don't forget to text! You promised!"
"Yeah, yeah. Bye!"
I listened to her depart, the front door slamming and footsteps fading away. That was actually less painful than I was expecting. Sitting up, I grabbed a bath towel from off the top of my dresser and stripped off my hoodie. Underneath it, the t-shirt was ruined. The hoodie was thick enough to not really notice the damage, but the shirt? It was littered with slits in the fabric and I could feel the air moving through the perforations. Stripping off the t-shirt too, I took a good look at myself.
Scattered from groin to collarbone were a score of little curved triangular punctures. There was a rough pattern to them that showed where the hands and feet had been, and though none were bleeding, some had light bruising around them and were still oozing red. Seeing myself shirtless in the mirror was more than a bit creepy; it looked like someone had stabbed me in the front a bunch of times with a really little knife.
"Dragon claws," I whispered to myself. It did this without even meaning to. It wasn't trying to hurt me, it just happened. Collateral damage. Then it occurred to me, the latent concern and apprehension and buried sense of foreboding coming right to the front. If this is what it does unintentionally, what might it do when it gets larger? What might it do if it gets ... angry?
"Fuck." A disheartened mumble and I sighed, dabbing at a cut that had narrowly missed my left nipple. A droplet of blood ran down my index finger, and across my palm, leaving a trail over the number written in red biro.
Shit! Theo's number. Need to get this down while I can still read it. Opening up the address book on my phone, I punched it in and saved it for later. Grabbing the towel once more, I stood, took a step and ...
... looked back at my nightstand, where my cellphone was sitting.
Then to the door.
Then my phone.
I ... did promise her. I should keep that promise.
Ah, to hell with it.
I sat down again, created a new text message, addressed it to Theo, put in one word and hit send.
"I was going to email this, but the old-fashioned way is the surest." Nero handed his device to the man in the suit, parking lot's street light glinting off the lapel pins, the night warm and breezy. "These marvels of invention are all well and good, but machinery is limited."
"We will use their tools for our purposes, for as long as they may serve." The man hit a button on his own cellphone and in seconds, the images were transferred across and stored. With another tap, he opened them to see for himself. Nero was accustomed to the poker-face expression of someone playing a very long unfathomable game. There and then, just for those moments, a tiny spark and a lusting thirst was visible, not quite hidden behind the ambition and manipulation. "You have done well. This strengthens us immeasurably."
Nero dipped his head, respectful, the satisfaction being enough reward on its own. "There is little privilege greater than a task so critical. There is another thing to tell you." The man handed Nero's phone back, querying, and so he went on. "One of their elders is working directly with the Order. I saw a name, one I have not come across in years."
"An elder, you say? Are you certain?"
"Yes. Without doubt, it is an alias, as is the custom in these times, but I have no second thoughts that it is one of them." He nodded at the image of the runic text still on the phone's display. "What will happen next?"
"I will seek out the counsel of the rest of the Conclave. This elder must be dealt with accordingly, and the incantation translated. They can provide the resources to achieve this. After, we will find the Fear and do what we must, to seek our justice."
"What we must," echoed Nero, "to bring back fire to this world."
If any of you are curious and want to Google it, the new arrival's facial structure does somewhat resemble a (very little and youthful) version of Alduin from Skyrim, and also the other dragons from the same game. The design appeals to me a great deal, and I couldn't not incorporate some of those features.
In other news, Lucy is an irrepressible yaoi fangirl and Nero does like to knock people out. What a strange fellow he is
Comments, reviews, likes and discussion are all welcome!