Awoken from ancient slumber, two aging dragons face approaching death with impartiality and stoic remembrance. Venturing from the asylum of their lair, they search out an old mentor, hoping to fill their dying days with aggression and fury.
In the mountain over Wilding Forest lied a stone acropolis. Its terra-cotta walls and spires were carved from time, enslaved hands, and fire. The single entrance to this towering monstrosity sat thousands of feet above the canopy, resting within a jagged cliff face. And its tall, impassable doors were sealed.
Nothing of great intelligence stirred in this inhospitable region. A few feathered scavengers haunted the arid mountain’s surface, waiting in the darkness of carved windows for the expiration of an unfortunate woodland wanderer upon the baked stone. To the outside eye, the castle was dead; a remnant to some age forgotten. But deep inside, past miles of complex and maddening halls, and even more miles deep into the dark chasms of the mountain, slumbered something giant.
Reptilian eyes opened to the dark. Snorts of ember cast its shadow over the cavern walls. A looming, unfurling shape flashed for an instant against the stone; a mountain within a mountain, made to move. That which awakened gazed into its ebony confinement and saw beyond it, quite literally through it, to the forest. Past it was the sun-swept valley of Nok, the snow-capped mountains of Range Alanda, the Perker Ocean, the continent of Gast, and within that land sat the kingdoms, watched from this vantage since the beginning. The antiquated glowing eyes viewed the little goings on of these settlements, of the kings and queens, dukes and ladies, of the peasants and beggars, and they were satisfied with all this.
They then looked farther, into dark, nameless lands, where creatures and cities hid, unknown to the world and unaware of the world. And past even this was the giants’ kingdom of gold, that last place to be conquered. But not today. Perhaps, not even in this lifetime.
Finally, the eyes rested again on the cavern walls, until the tiny things approached.
Aggredon paced his movement. It had been 10,000 years since last standing? More like 15, actually. His antediluvian muscles quivered and tore, making an audible snap echo within the rounded chasm. They, capital T, as there was no proper word for these Things, meaning the reptiles’ generic determiners had to be emphasized to make conversing about them simple, had made it up the mountain. They had made it across the Wilding Forests. If They were Northmen, past the Ice Trials. And standing before him, silver long swords drawn, staffs crackling, and scepters twirling, They had bested the mountain tunnels. Men went mad in the tunnels. Most men. But not Them. They were special.
The one at the groups’ vanguard wore shimmering white metal and tried to speak. IT tried to speak, and this delighted Aggredon. Breathe your last breath, beast! Atone for your crimes over the ages! Aggredon, the old miser, pushed through those last boney creaks and growled, his eyes all alight, like his red-skinned breed was known for.
“Oooh, criiiiiiiiiiimes. That is a peculiar waaaaay to put it.” Even his speech expelled winds of molten air towards Them. A bearded one shielded with trickery of the soul. Effervescent blue disks formed before his dancing hands, halting the noxious air. He was also the one casting that pitiful light orb. The reptile watched him the closest.
“Millenniums will pass. Leaders will rise and fall, civilizations will crumble, and we will remain.” Aggredon’s cackle was dry, naturally. “Does one know what it is like to watch even dust fade away?”
A mass from the cavern’s still blackened corners rose, stirred from its deep slumber. Stafanir’s back killed him. His wings feltlike stone. For a terrified moment that disturbed him to the core, he thought they had calcified; that finality was taking him. His screech annoyed Aggredon, awoke bedfellow Nerel, and split Their ears.
“What is it? What is in the castle?” said Stafanir, scampering, in the way such a massive thing does, to its feet (there was terrible destruction to some lower chambers – Their next batch would die blasting through it). His long neck whipped around until he found Aggredon and Those things below him. “Aggredon, what is all this? Why are you talking? You’ve woken Nerel and me.” He joined his scaled brother and peered at the minuscule intruders. The bearded one had closed his eyes and was murmuring, hands clasped.
“Look at this one,” said Stafanir. “He’s waxing soul trickery.”
A third voice bellowed from the back. “What? What? Soul trickery?”
“Yeah,” said Stafanir, twisting his neck to Nerel. “Get over here.”
“Alright, I’m coming.”
The trio erected together, their three squirming heads dancing around one another in a battle for space. United in grim glory, the triplet bore the same cardinal plastron as the first. Aggredon was silent in the middle, staring at Them. The one with daggers fell to her knees and began weeping. She moaned a number of lamentations. It was too late. It was foolish. Curse the king. Curse the queen and the peasents. Curse she who follows a knight, curse she. Aggredon narrowed his eye slits. If she only knew how mortified he was, just then, she might have fled and survived, as much as the mood was in ruins, now. The beard kept chanting. A round one, with a sledge of metal too big for even his rotund figure, was creeping around Stafanir’s side, as if the reptiles didn’t know. The white one was stalwart. And delusional, naturally. He raised that sword and shouted. “Stare into the face of your demise, bastards! For King and Country!” He charged, fueled by that knight’s swagger, and smacked his sword against Aggredon’s foot. Painless, naturally.
“Well,” said Nerel. “Are you going to singe them?”
Aggredon did not answer. Stafanir joined in. “Yeah, what’s keeping you? This is the best part, isn’t it - the big finale that boils our blood and makes the thousands of down years worthwhile? Come on.”
Aggredon grumbled. Some scorching red bile dripped between his teeth. He looked up toward Stafanir. “Why don’t you do it?”
“Me? Meeeeeeeeee? I don’t want to do it. Hey, Nerel, want to”-
“NO.” Nerel slinked back to his stone bed.
“Well, look at this,” said Stafanir. “You should have just ignored them. What would they do?”
Aggredon had lowered his head almost to ground level. His red eyes began to lose light and close. He ignored his brother, and he ignored the knight, still slashing and almost out of breath.
“Not so fast!” Stafanir blew embers from his nostrils. “You WOKE us up! Clean this up!” A talon pointed to the tiny ones. Aggredon did not answer. Something smashed against Stafanir’s hind foot. There was no pain, naturally. Glancing down, the reptile saw that round one pounding away at his toe. “Oh, just charming!” A single flex of his talon-bearing digit ended the problem. Bereft of patience, Stafanir gagged and heaved. His maw quivered, and with what was certainly a little bit of pain, a nasty torrent of liquid death vomited to the floor. The knight slowly roasted into goo, while the other pests were enveloped. The ebony cavern turned red and the air sweltered. As the magma eruption settled away, rolling in bubbling waves that blanketed the ground, Stafanir hacked and gagged out a few more clumps of boiling magma. To his disgust, a bubble of orange and black had formed below. His fire bile slipped off, revealing a blue sphere. Inside was the bearded one, holding his hands against the translucent barrier.
“They blocked it!” said Stafanir. “With soul trickery!” Now his eyes were aglow. Burning yellow, they were reflective of the smoldering magma at his feet. He sucked in a vortex of air. His chest puffed, he rose to full height. The light of his disastrous churning fire began in the throat and shined out his mouth. Reptiles did not need to breathe, nor could they burn, so when the jet stream hissed out, and the cavern was suffocated of all oxygen, Stafanir’s brothers took no notice. The last thing They heard was a final whistle, and then the crushing roar of death howling around them.
Stafanir did not let the disturbance go. He kept the others awake, adamant to deride Aggredon through the following hour. “When you said we would have unimaginable riches and control over Their domains, it sounded tempting. But now it's just a nuisance.”
“Yes,” said Nerel. “And I can’t go back to sleep, now. Do you know what’s coming next? Calcification.”
“That’s right,” said Stafanir. “Our last slumber cycle is over.” The ‘over’ was emphasized with a sing-song bounce. It caused Aggredon a tiny spasm. He curled his neck toward his chest a bit farther.
“How many years do you suppose it will be?” said Nerel.
“Oh, a good 10,000, definitely,” said Stafanir.
“And now we get to feel it coming. I was going to sleep through it.”
“Well, what now?”
The question hung, unanswered Neither reptile dared proffer a suggestion. There happened a long silence. The only sound was the occasional crackling sniffle, or the very distant echo of a falling stalagmite. After many minutes, Nerel spoke.
“Hey, do you recall the Old Red Bastard?”
Stafanir raised his head. “Old Red Bastard? Oh, my. Do you suppose he’s still alive?”
“There’s no way to say- we’d have to search him out.”
“Oooh, leaving the castle; sounds preposterous.”
“Indeed. What would the giants say?”
“They’d probably announce war in the golden kingdom.” Tee hee.
“Oh, ho, they wouldn’t like that.”
“No, they wouldn’t.”
“Old Red Bastard…”
“Old Red Bastard…”
“Remember when he fought that nexus beast?”
“Yessss. That was a bloody hunting trip.”
“Absolutely. I thought we were dead. My, were we young.”
“And when the nexus crawler tore himself from the nether place, a few of us turned tail and flew. Not the Red Bastard. He flew right into the gaping maw of that abomination.”
“And the sticky blackness closed around him! I remember!”
“What must it have been like to spiral through that dark gullet, the only light your own frantic breaths?”
“When do we leave?”
Leathery wings opened over the countryside, stretching out centuries of atrophy. The titanic flapping sent gusts of thunderous wind to the ground. Only two took up the expedition – Aggredon remained in the mountain, to die alone and in the quiet. Since closing his eyes before the intruders, he never spoke again.
There were thousands of miles to traverse. They passed an alarming number of Them making pilgrimage to the castle. These adventurers had traveled so far, faced so many hardships, and had bonded as brothers. Now their great bounties flew in the opposite direction, gliding with leisure over the unforgiving frontiers recently suffered.
The reptiles flew over the Wilding Forests until night, when the Tarpagatic Light Show began in the sky - a panoramic odyssey of constellations that spanned all of Their culture. And even a few reptile legends spiraled in the boundless dark. There was Rocksten the Green, who, despite his handicap, had traversed the Frozen Ice Shields of Goth and burned the Warmaiden’s Kingdoms to the ground. And Cerner, another bearing the red scales, who, together with his brothers, Tad and Harbor, smelted the first reptile kingdom. Their stories faded when night cycled back to day.
They were now over the ruins of Galestar, a failed endeavor on the reptiles’ part, where some old entropy had crawled out of the deep places and engulfed the kingdom. No, they didn’t do a good job guarding that one, even after the destruction. Someone slipped in. At least they cleared out the mazznlteeker. Nasty thing. They sailed on the East winds and rested their wings, but another barrier, memory, stood to challenge them.
The Old Red Bastard presided over a small kingdom, considering usual reptile standards. Neither searcher recalled the name - it was one of Their words; unpleasant for the tongue. The reptiles felt out the old traveling paths by muscle memories, and even then, there were sporadic conflicts between them over direction. Months were lost in the search, with the most ferocious bickering happening over sea. When they were forced to turn back from an entirely incorrect continent, and then fly headfirst into a miserably large lightning storm, Nerel had the idea to ask directions. A laughable proposal, but Stafanir was equally desperate to be done this trip, with the novelty worn thin.
At this junction came a problem. The Old Red Bastard, for all his glorious conquests, was not the most renowned name amongst the younger dragons. A few thought the name familiar, but only whispered by decrepit old fellows, who were either lost to slumber, or in the ground. Red Bastard? they would say. That’s an odd name, old timers. Isn’t that something They use? Are you two good to be…flying around?
Stafanir would snarl and warn the soft fleshers of his authority. In control, he would make a lot of noise and hiss sparks at them, and they would cower and beg forgiveness. This yielded no further results, and Nerel was forced to drag them to the next nest, where something similar would happen, give or take the death threats.
Using the Bastard’s true name produced even less. And the ultimate insult came when these two roaming behemoths were forced to perch their massive bodies in the rolling hills by a cracked country path, inquiring with a hunched pair of Those. The old male lifted his hat. “Stand back, Martha! I think these guys need some space.” He and the female crossed to the other side, to be safe.
“Oh, they’re really something,” said the old female. Stafanir leveled his head with the road, taking care to rest it parallel, so They were not obliterated by his breath. His eye still sat high over Them.
“Do not be afraid. We are friendly.”
“Oh, ho,” said the old male. “We’re pretty friendly, too, around here.”
Stafanir danced his barbed tongue around his razor teeth and swallowed hard a bubble of bile. “We’re looking for a kingdom. One of us rules it openly. He is red and larger than either of us. Can you help?”
“You’re not far,” said the male. “That’s Stackingwood.”
Stackingwood! Blast it! That repugnant name reminded Stafanir of the Bastard’s pension for appeasing Them, using Their own ugly culture to lure them in; to make them think living under a reptile’s rule was…pleasant. They did not need pleasantries. Nothing was beyond their control, however covert it may be. The old treaties of Those were signed in pen, but forged, planned, and wanted in fire. Some, like these two travelers, used brutal force in their formative years, igniting the proxy wars between themselves and the giants for control. The Bastard belayed everything he taught his students during the hunting parties. All this anger and fury was neglected and replaced with cunning, and in many reptiles’ opinions, foolery. No one admitted it produced the same results, in the end.
There were no farewells - not on the reptile’s end, at least. The hunched couple waved as the behemoths crawled into the hills. And this was a great kindness on the reptiles’ part, for to lift off there would mean crushing Those old two into piles of mush.
Impressive walls stood to defend Stackingwood. The reptiles climbed atop these and lowered their necks into the city, sending terrified citizens fleeing in uproarious carnage.
“The home of the bloody Bastard,” said Stafanir as his head trembled and searched. “Not very exciting, is it?”
“The Bastard’s home doesn’t need to be,” said Nerel, equally manic.
“No, it doesn’t.”
Their hunt was not long, as they could see clearly over the small buildings, all the way to the castle, where a crimson form presented itself. Stafanir dug into the defensive partition for purchase and craned his neck. His eyes filled with a wonderment that had always preceded inescapable wrath. “There he is, presiding over his castle!”
“I see him!”
“On with it, then!”
The Old Red Bastard lied in a sprawled heap about the city courtyard. One hole-ridden wing crumpled against the castle face, and the other draped over his side, rising and falling by his shallow inhalations. He clung to the world by very little, now, and if the travelers meant to speak with him, this was to be the final day. By the time of their arrival, the Bastard’s bones had begun to harden, and the unimpeded calcium spread to infect his muscles and scales. As the awestruck citizens told them, the reptiles’ mentor had flown from his chamber in the nearby Tind Mountains, and during the flight had collapsed toward the rocky plains bordering Stackingwood. Dragging himself the rest of the way, he climbed into the city. Demented by pain and confusion, he dragged through the streets, exploding and grinding to sticky red entrails any of Them caught strolling. Where he lied, coiled in euthanasia, was where he had lost his strength.
“I don’t think we’ll be having any more adventures with him,” said Nerel.
“I should think not.” Stafanir nudged the Bastard’s stomach. It was enough to rouse him from his stupor. His dull eyes fluttered and rolled. He retracted his tongue, which had ejected out in an unceremonious heap.
“Ahhh. Who’s there? Wha-who are you?”
“You don’t remember, do you?” said Stafanir, showing his face so the Bastard could see.
The Bastard struggled, his glossed red eye lingering, and then closing. “No. Your face is not familiar. Are you from the Carmanana lineage?”
“Certainly not.” Stafanir sighed. “Noooo, your bloodline is far-traveled and extensive, but not here. We were together in the hunts.”
“Ah. Now those I recall. Good times.”
“Yes, they were.”
“Oh, then…” The Bastard fell silent. The twitching of his eye was apparent under the lid. After some thought, he said, “You’re time is coming soon, as well.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Another 10,000 years, perhaps?”
“It’s time to let the young reptiles take over this world.”
Stafanir looked up to Nerel, who watched the conversation with blank acceptance. Afar from him was a sapphire stretch of sky, buzzing with the bees of summer. He knew there were hundreds of them out there, breeding in their nests and bellowing the conflagration of new conspiracies. Swallowing a bile clump, he returned to his mentor.
“I hate them.”